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Datelines of the decade

I should probably have to pay a fine for tardiness. After all, this morning should officially mark the end of  the "look behind" stuff, shouldn't it?

But what the heck. I started this early on the morning of Dec. 30. It just took longer than I thought to complete it. Probably because it's so wordy.

This marked my first full calendar decade as a professional, and while our Neil Best has done a superb job compiling all sorts of "2000s in Review" lists, I figured I'd try one: My datelines of the decade. The 10 most memorable stories - some ballgames, some other events - that I covered.

Just for some perspective/pre-emptive defense: For the first five years of the decade that has concluded (assuming you think we're in the new decade, as opposed to a year from now), I covered the Yankees almost exclusively. In 2005, I became Newsday's national baseball writer. So there were some events _ for instance, Mike Piazza's memorable homer in the first Mets home game after 9/11 _ that I simply didn't cover.

And while I did cover Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, I wasn't fully there in mind. My son was born eight days prior, the morning of Game 1, and Game 7 marked my first day back at work. Those of you with children can perhaps appreciate the fog I was in that night. So that's why it didn't make my list.

Away we go:

10) Tampa, February 17, 2009. Alex Rodriguez's news conference, in the wake of a Sports Illustrated report, ten days prior, that he had tested positive for illegal performance-enhancing drugs in 2003.

L'Affair A-Rod was the most intense baseball story of the decade, in that it was just non-stop for a good month. And the news conference marked the high point. What a circus: The entire Yankees team sat to the side, expressing "support," and I haven't seen Derek Jeter look so unhappy to be somewhere since Chris Kattan jumped on his back during his "Saturday Night Live" hosting gig.

A-Rod, mentioning his teammates' support during his opening remark, paused for 37 seconds and, it appeared, tried to choke up. It didn't come off as very genuine. Instead, it was like he hadn't studied hard enough in acting class. Brian Cashman, seated to A-Rod's right, gave his third baseman a "You're on your own, dude" expression.

And then there were the actual questions and answers: The cousin. The "I knew we weren't taking Tic Tacs" line.

That A-Rod proceeded to put up the season he did, completely turning his past on its head, doesn't take away the memories from that crazy day, during that crazy period.

9) Tampa, February 23, 2000Darryl Strawberry's final day as a major leaguer. As a youngster growing up in the New York area, I recall, very well, the hype surrounding Strawberry as he rose through the Mets' minor-league system. And then his roller-coaster ride with the Mets.

By the time I got to know him, during his years with the Yankees, Strawberry had changed considerably for the better, according to the veteran reporters. He was friendly, a great quote and a great teammate. From 1996 through 1999, the only time he was uncooperative was during a stretch in 1999 spring training; still undergoing chemotherapy, he freaked out over not making the Opening Day roster.

In 2000, he was supposed to be the Yankees' every-day designated hitter. That plan blew up when Strawberry failed a drug test; he and his then-wife, Charisse, went to Milwaukee to meet personally with Bud Selig and discuss the situation.

He reported to Legends Field for the Yankees' first full-squad workout, answered a few questions from reporters and then went to the outfield, where George Steinbrenner put his arm around him in a display of support. But it turned out that Major League Baseball didn't want Strawberry out there while his case was being investigated.

So this giant, this truly "feared" hitter (Jim Rice alert), ended a topsy-turvy career in embarrassing, sadly appropriate fashion. He was pulled off the field by administrators.

Selig suspended him for the entire season, and between his problems with drugs and the law, Strawberry never even attempted a comeback.

8) Washington, February 13, 2008. Roger Clemens vs. Brian McNamee in Congress. Suffice it to say that, 10 years ago, I didn't envision that I'd become comfortable navigating Capitol Hill.

We all know the deal, by now, with the Mitchell Report. It was a delicious steak sandwich prepared by a beloved chef, delivered to Congress in the hopes that the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform would leave Bud Selig and friends alone, already.

Clemens played the role of the steak. Andy Pettitte played the role of the Velveeta.

After the report became public, the House Committee wanted to have one hearing with Mitchell, Selig and Don Fehr, congratulate all parties involved, congratulate itself for coming up with the idea of the Mitchell Report in the first place, pat its bellies and belch up some of that steak sandwich.

Clemens, however, didn't cooperate. The Committee found itself doing something it never envisioned: Hosting a hearing on the credibility of the very report it sanctioned.

And my goodness, that was some amazing theater. Seeing Clemens and McNamee sitting so close to each other, their hatred for one another evident - after watching them work out side by side for so many years - was surreal. So was the array of new, interesting evidence the Committee produced that hurt Clemens' case. So was the partisan split that emerged, with the Democrats supporting McNamee and the Republicans Clemens.

That was the last time (for now) that I saw Clemens in person, and I recall admiring that he stuck to his guns even when he was cornered (while at the same time not at all believing him). But most of all, I thought that was about as close to a baseball playoff atmosphere that I'd ever see in Washington, D.C. (insult intended).

7) Boston, October 18, 2004. ALCS Game 5. I could easily make a list, "Top 10 Yankees-Red Sox games of the decade." Shoot, I could easily make a list, "Top 10 Yankees-Red Sox games from 2003 through 2004." Those two years marked the peak, IMO, since 1978.

So why this game, as opposed to any others? Because I don't think I've ever been so exhausted from covering a game.

The second straight day of extra innings. The second straight Mariano Rivera blown save (although Rivera actually pitched very well to keep the game tied). The second straight David Ortiz walk-off hit.

Cold weather. Tony Clark's ninth-inning, ground-rule double that would've scored Ruben Sierra from first base had it not bounced into the stands. Jason Varitek's three passed balls, trying to catch Tim Wakefield, in the 13th; why weren't the Yankees running? Jeter's sixth-inning, bases-clearing double off Pedro Martinez. Trot Nixon's great catch on a Hideki Matsui line drive to end that same inning.

What a game. What a collapse, by the Yankees. It set forth the whole "A-Rod is a playoff choker!" talking point, as well as "The Red Sox's front office is smarter than the Yankees'." It wasn't until this past November that such conventional wisdoms took big hits.

6) New York, September 28, 2008. The Shea Stadium finale. Having covered the Mets' last game of 2007, and with the Mets facing a very similar situation - tied for a playoff spot, playing the Marlins at home - I figured, "The same thing can't possibly happen, can it?"

Well, I suppose it wasn't the exact same thing. At least the Mets made it a game this time. But Jerry Manuel's going to the awful (against righties) Scott Schoeneweis in this ultra-critical game provided a nice preview of Manuel's managing in 2009.

I'll never forget how Carlos Delgado ended the eighth inning, with Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes on first and second, by absolutely clobbering the ball - right at the leftfielder, Josh Willingham. And using that to argue to people that, had Delgado hit a broken-bat flare, and had the Mets gone onto win the game, the Mets would've been known as "clutch!" But since Delgado smoked the ball right at a fielder, he and his teammates were choking dogs.

Mets management, in yet another questionable decision, decided to have the Shea farewell ceremonies after the game, rather than before it. So some fans bolted, rather than enjoy what apparently was an enjoyable event (I still haven't seen that part). What a fitting way for the Mets to close their beloved, disgusting ballpark.

5) Cleveland, October 5, 2007. American League Division Series Game 2. The Yankees, with Joe Torre's job on the line, were going to tie the series at a game apiece. That seemed a fait accompli.

Andy Pettitte pitched a brilliant, gutty, grindy 6 1/3 innings, keeping the Indians scoreless, and Joba Chamberlain easily picked up the second and third outs in the seventh. Joba would put up a zero in the eighth, and then Mariano Rivera would close out the 1-0 victory. You could set your watch to it.

But then...what was going on with Joba Chamberlain? Why was Gene Monahan coming to the mound? 

Yes, the Lake Erie midges, in about as shocking a game-turning scenario as you could ever imagine. Chamberlain couldn't handle the distraction, and a walk, wild pitch, sacrifice and another wild pitch tied up the score. At that point, it seemed only a matter of time before the Indians won the game to take a commanding, 2-0 lead.

Torre's final chance blew up because of an insect attack. Just amazing. Some people ripped Torre for not taking his team off the field, but I never thought that was fair. It's not like that's a "by the book" call, as opposed to, say, a pitcher match-up. There is no book for how to handle an unanticipated swarm of bugs. There likely will never be another playoff game quite like this one.

4) Washington, March 17, 2005. The all-time Congressional hearing about baseball. The Clemens-McNamee hearing was better pure theater, but the impact from this day is still being felt.

From Mark McGwire's "I'm not here to talk about the past," to Rafael Palmeiro's finger wag, to Sammy Sosa's forgetting how to speak English, to Curt Schilling's, "Yeah, I was kind of talking out of my rear end when I referred to a steroid problem" shtick - they've got to make a movie about this someday, don't they? 

And I haven't even mentioned Jose Canseco, whose book sparked the whole thing.

McGwire won't be inducted into Coopestown, whiffing for the fourth straight year, when the results are announced shortly - largely because of his performance on this day. We're still waiting for McGwire's news conference upon the Cardinals' announcement, back in October, that he'll be St. Louis' new hitting coach.

Sosa's candidacy, too, is in jeopardy. Palmeiro escaped legal trouble when he tested positive and drew a susepnsion in August, just months after he denied illegal PED usage under oath, but he threw MIguel Tejada under the bus in the process. Tejada is still the only player to receive any sort of legal discipline for his involvement in illegal PEDs.

Oh, and by the way, Bud Selig and Donald Fehr both took beatings from Congress for letting baseball be so contaminated by illegal PEDs, and Selig responded, about a year later, by starting the Mitchell Report.

3) New York, October 22, 2000. World Series Game 2. I think you can argue, quite reasonably, that Clemens was one of baseball's most compelling figures for three straight decades, starting in the '80s and concluding in the aughts. If this past decade ended with him banished to oblivion (see #8), it began with a different kind of outrage.

Clemens, after a shaky debut season with the Yankees in 1999, rediscovered his old self in the middle of the 2000 campaign (very likely aided, as we know now, by illegal PEDs). On July 8, Clemens - having been hit hard by Mike Piazza in recent, regular-season Subway Series meetings - drilled Piazza. Interestingly, the ball didn't hit Piazza directly in the head; it hit Piazza in the arm and then ricocheted toward his head. The intent, in any case, was pretty clear, and Piazza called out Clemens the next day.

When the Mets and Yankees won their respective league pennants, everyone immediately anticipated the Clemens-Piazza rematch, set for Game 2. But no one could have predicted the bizarre result: Piazza fouled off the fourth pitch, breaking his bat, with the biggest piece going toward the mound _ at which point Clemens took the broken barrel head and threw it in Piazza's direction!

Clemens' camp, as well as Yankees people, tried to mock the critics, suggesting that the incident was overplayed. No shot. Watch the replays. Watch the deranged, furious look on Clemens' face. He either knew what he was doing, or he was so out of his mind that he shouldn't have been on the mound.

Of course, it's relatively forgotten that Clemens manged to regain his composure and dominate the Mets, starting with Piazza's grounder to second on the next pitch. The Mets were criticized somewhat for their loss in the game, and a great deal more for the fact that no one physically went after Clemens, although the benches did clear.

In all, it was about the oddest thing you'll ever see in a World Series game.

2) New York, November 1, 2001. World Series Game 5. First of all, you have to remember the mood of the New York area at the time. Many of us were reeling from the September 11th terrorist attacks, and while it certainly didn't apply to everyone, I do think some people found relief/solace/diversion in watching the Yankees' postseason run.

And what a run it was. This team was just spent. The Yankees had an old, tired club, and when they lost their first two playoff games -at home, to the young and strong A's - it appeared that we were seeing the end of an era.

But Jeter's flip play catapulted the Yankees to an amazing, ALDS comeback victory over Oakland, and in the ALCS, the Yankees easily handled the Mariners, who had won 116 regular-season games to break the record set by the 1998 Yankees.

Again, though...the Yankees didn't hit much. Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson shut them down in the first two games of the World Series, and even after Clemens led the Yankees to a tight, Game 3 victory, it appeared that the Yankees were playing on borrowed time.

And then came Game 4, when, down to their last out, the Yankees lived again when Tino Martinez hit a game-tying, two-run homer, setting up Jeter's walk-off shot in the 10th.

The next night, when the Yankees again began the ninth down two? Well, they couldn't possibly pull this off again.

With two outs, and with Jorge Posada on second base, Scott Brosius slammed a Byung-Hyun Kim offering into the leftfield stands. Brosius raised his arms as soon as the ball left the bat, and Kim, looking despondent, crouched on the mound.

You had to be at Yankee Stadium to know exactly what it felt like. There was absolute shock, reflecting the unlikelihood of what had gone down in the span of 24 hours. But also - maybe I was projecting - it sure felt like an extra swirl of emotion because of everything the city had been through since 9/11. It was the most amazing night I've spent, professionally, at a ballpark.

That the Yankees lost the World Series three nights later might have tortured fans, especially since the team waited eight more years before getting the title again. Yet I think most Yankees fans will savor Game 5 as a special memory. I do, and I didn't even have a rooting interest.

1) San Francisco, August 7, 2007. Barry Bonds passes Hank Aaron on the all-time home run chart. Did anything capture this baseball decade more than this moment? Not in my mind. Let's face it, while the game flourished financially, we talked about illegal PEDs more than any other issue.

Bonds, his legend goes, played his career clean until he saw Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa surpass him in production and popularity, at which point he joined the party. I tend to believe that narrative.

His party-crashing started in earnest when he blew past McGwire's single-season record in 2001, slamming 73 homers, and even a serious knee injury in 2005 proved to be a mere speed bump.

By the time he approached the record in 2007, most people seemed to be at peace with what went down. With baseball hurting after the 1994-95 strike, no one was diligent enough about stopping the increase of illegal PED usage. It wasn't horrible. We're all human.

And that was the vibe that carried into AT&T Park that night. When Bonds hit number 756,  putting him ahead of Aaron, it felt like unconditional joy, in the stands and on the field. If Bonds had reached his number thanks to illegal means, then many of the pitchers he victimized also had been involved. It was the time.

So it was a cool, historic moment all the same. And if Selig wasn't there in person - he was interviewing with Mitchell for the big report - then the moment received MLB's blessing when Aaron, in a previously taped message, appeared on the giant video board to congratulate Bonds.

It was a touching moment, and for a moment, the impersonal Bonds seemed quite human.

The game, of course, is full of interesting humans, which makes it so much fun to cover. Even when it's off the field. Especially, sometimes, when it's off the field.

--I'm off this week, but I'll pop in here and there with a few ideas. And a reaction to Wednesday's Hall of Fame announcement.




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