Saturday began with soccer, which is how absolutely none of my Saturdays have ever begun and perhaps will never begin again. I came downstairs to find the Brazil-Chile match on the living room television. Stephanie had it on with the sound off while she was reading. It remained on with the sound off for quite a while, neither of us exactly enraptured by America’s newest favorite spectator obsession.
Eventually, I turned the sound up and grew surprisingly absorbed into a contest gone into extra time. It’s sports — overtime is overtime, even if overtime doesn’t necessarily end a soccer match the way it ends most sports. I found myself rooting for Chile, partly because I almost always gravitate to the underdog, partly because I suddenly remembered writing a report about Chile in sixth grade (they have great sea bass, you know). Some Chilean guy I never heard of hit the crossbar in the waning seconds of OT (ET?) and I could feel my fan heart breaking for a country I hadn’t thought about in nearly four decades.
It was still 1-1 after 120-plus minutes of play. I’d gone from casually glancing at the screen and gently mocking the fuss raised worldwide over a game that is not my national pastime to wondering if maybe Brazil had some version of Keith Hernandez (Hernandinhosa, he would be known as) challenging a teammate to a fistfight should he call for anything but the soccer equivalent of a slider. This thing was surely going 16 innings…or to a shootout.
After five kicks apiece, to put it in terms I’m equipped to understand, the Brazilian Orosco struck out the Chilean Bass and the announcers were going on Astro-nomically about how the losing side could exit the tournament with its head held high. For someone who not 24 hours earlier was bonding with his dad over how freaking pointless all this World Cup nonsense was to our American sensibilities, I reveled a little in finally comprehending what all the fuss was about.
I’ve attended exactly one soccer match in my life. It was April 1982, the closing weeks of my freshman year of college, the Toronto Blizzard visiting the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Student tickets at the University of South Florida were severely discounted and a free orange-sleeved 98 ROCK baseball shirt sweetened the deal. I spent most of the game chatting with the two guys from my floor who convinced me to go. With no warning whatsoever, the conversation would get dropped because an unforeseen commotion overtook the sparsely filled stands. Something akin to action was actually happening down on the Tampa Stadium grass. I couldn’t discern anything that looked anything different from the moment before, but a GOOOOOOOAL! was developing right before our eyes.
It was? It was. The Blizzard or perhaps the Rowdies scored. I saw it but I couldn’t see it, you know? I just didn’t have the properly honed vision for it. It all just looked like guys endlessly kicking a ball back and forth when I should’ve been back at the dorm studying for finals.
Baseball, on the other hand, is something whose intricacies I came out of the womb recognizing. Right after my first words of “Metsie! Metsie!” the next thing I said was not mama, not papa, but “maybe Casey shouldn’t get too comfortable with Larry Burright in the leadoff slot.” And because I’m so sophisticated when it comes to baseball, I can see everything unfolding infallibly and project exactly what course any given game will take.
Yeah, sure I can.
The latest episode of the more I watch baseball, the more I know how little I really know took place Saturday in Pittsburgh, after Chile and I parted ways until the next World Cup/sixth-grade report. The Mets and Pirates dressed up as the Royal Giants and Crawfords — I always thought the most effective Negro League tribute would have been offering major league uniforms to black players prior to 1947 — and had me, like keeper Claudio Bravo on one too many Brazilian penalty kicks, guessing wrong.
I guessed the all-blue Mets were in trouble when I saw a lineup that had Ruben Tejada batting second and David Wright batting nowhere. But the Captainless Mets lineup was quite effective in the early going against Gerrit Cole, starting with Ruben singling, continuing with Lucas Duda doing the same and cresting when Wright’s replacement Eric Campbell doubled Tejada home and Duda to third, from whence Lucas would scamper home on a wild pitch. There were three Met and Royal Giant runs in the first plus two more in the second, thanks to Eric Young stealing twice and Daniel Murphy driving in two.
I guessed the Mets were going to build their 5-0 lead to one of blowout proportions in the fourth when Young was on again and stealing again and Tejada reached base and Murphy was coming up, but instead Cole squirmed out of trouble.
I guessed Jon Niese was going to cruise to an easy victory regardless, given how dependable he’s been for so long. Yet the Pirates started pecking away and Niese completely lost the strike zone and here came the Buccos and there went Niese’s command, and it was 5-1, then 5-2, then I braced for the PNC walls to come down around the Mets as they do with annual regularity.
I guessed Niese was screwed, but he got a strike three call from Toby Basner that was as generous to the Mets as the one the night before that said Josh Harrison was permitted to flop on the grass in a rundown was to the Pirates. Somehow Niese righted himself and went a solid six, giving up just three runs and maintaining the Met lead.
I guessed when Stolmy Pimentel — presumably no relation to any Primanti Brother — totally shut down the Mets for four innings (two hits, seven strikeouts) that the Pirates were destined to make them pay for never adding on to a run total that had stayed stuck at five since the second. But it turned out the Mets fought bullpen fire with bullpen fire very effectively. Jeurys Familia and Jenrry Mejia combined to retire the final nine Pirates on 20 pitches over the last three innings and the Mets monochromatically prevailed, 5-3, baffling me at every turn…which I was fine with, because I don’t have to understand everything about a sport to appreciate what an Amazin’ spectacle it can be.
Under the prevailing rules of MLB, both the Mets and Pirates advance to the Round of Sunday.
I’m proud to announce an edited version of my 2010 FAFIF essay on Comiskey Park is included in a new book paying tribute to my favorite ballpark ever. There’s a lot of great stuff in this volume. Please check it out here.