Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Rainouts: 2023 Baseball Journal, Part 1

QUEENS, NY---Late September, in the final week of their disappointing season, the 2023 New York Mets were involved in some extremely unusual rainstorm-related shenanigans at Citi Field. First, after their grounds crew neglected to cover up the field during a tropical storm, the waterlogged playing surface didn't dry off in time for their next game and the grounds crew couldn't manage to get the field ready to play, thus forcing them to postpone their Sept 26th series opener against the Miami Marlins on a day when it didn't even rain. Two days later, in the final game of that series, with the Mets clinging to a 1-0 lead in the 9th inning, the Marlins knocked in 2 runs to take a 2-1 lead, but the umpires suddenly stopped the game in the top of the 9th because of heavy rainfall. The two teams waited out the storm deep into the night before giving up any chance of resuming play. Miami, fighting for a playoff spot, had to go play their final series in Pittsburgh unsure of whether or not they'd be required to go back to New York after the final day of the regular season to play out the final inning of their last game against the Mets. The Marlins ended up clinching a playoff spot (thanks to a collapse by the Cubs) and the suspended game against the Mets was deemed unnecessary to finish on the field. And so, by a weird quirk in the rulebook, the events of the top of the 9th inning were erased from the record books, and the score reverted back to 1-0 Mets where it stood at the end of the 8th inning. A truly bizarre way to wrap up the Mets season with their 75th win. 


QUEENS, NY--- Late in July, I am driving thru Brooklyn into Queens to pick up my brother at JFK airport on a rainy night. The sky is thunderous and heavy winds and flash flooding are making the drive on the Belt Parkway more hectic and chaotic than usual. The 2023 Mets' hopes for playoff contention have dwindled, they're once again playing from behind, battling back in a game against the Washington Nationals at nearby Citi Field. Trailing 1-0 in the 8th inning, the Mets scratch together a run to tie the game before storm clouds move in, flashes of lightning, strong winds, and torrential rain force the game to go into a delay. I'm maneuvering thru the overcrowded insanity of an under-construction JFK airport on a rainy night. The Mets game is on the radio, in the middle of an extended delay from the storm. And then, just up the road, at the ballpark over in Flushing, while the game was still in a rain delay, the Mets officially waved the white flag on their season. News came over the radio that the Mets had agreed to trade their top relief pitcher, David Robertson, to the Marlins for prospects. When the storm eventually lets up around midnight, the game resumes, the Mets grab the lead, closing out a 2-1 win without their closer who just got traded, and my brother made it thru the crowded JFK arrivals into the car. In the following few days leading up to the trade deadline, the Mets would gut their roster, selling off all their most in-demand pieces in trades in attempt to bulk up their farm system.


TOKYO, Japan---Back in April, it's the middle of the night and I'm in and out of sleep in a tiny bed in a hotel in east Tokyo, keeping an eye on the TV which is broadcasting a game at rain-soaked Fenway Park in Boston, the Red Sox facing Shohei Ohtani's Angels of Anaheim. Shohei is the starting pitcher on the mound for the Angels against the Red Sox who've got their new addition from Japan, outfielder Masataka Yoshida, in the lineup facing Ohtani for the first time in an MLB game. The game was set to start at 11 AM eastern time (midnight Tokyo time) but it's pouring rain in Boston so the game is delayed. The Japanese pregame show I'm watching is not in English, but based on the charts, graphics, and stats they're displaying, I can tell these commentators know ball. They are analyzing the much-anticipated Ohtani vs Yoshida matchup. One month prior, Ohtani and Yoshida were teammates on Team Japan, leading to a thrilling WBC championship victory against Team USA. Now, Yoshida would be in the batter's box facing off against Ohtani on the mound at cold, wet Fenway Park. The analysts break down Ohtani's arsenal of pitches and Yoshida's strengths and weaknesses as a hitter.

The rain hardly let up but they started the game anyway. Top of the 1st, Ohtani comes to the plate and crushes a base hit on the first pitch he sees from Brayan Bello. Standing on first base, Ohtani puts on a jacket, but the zipper breaks on him so he immediately takes it off. In the bottom of the 1st, it's raining again and I'm nervous for Shohei who was slipping off the mound in his delivery before the grounds crew desperately tried to dry off the mound mud. Ohtani strikes out Yoshida with a 98-mph fastball in their only matchup. He pitched 2 innings before another heavy downpour caused the game to stop for a long rain delay and Ohtani's day on the mound was over. He did stay in the game as a designated hitter and I drifted into deep sleep while the Angels held on for a 5-4 win, avoiding a sweep. 

During my stay in Tokyo, I notice there's a TV channel that specifically shows the daily highlights of Japanese MLB players, from Shohei Ohtani and Masataka Yoshida to Yusei Kikuchi and Shintaro Fujinami. I'm also struck by how much anime is on TV, it's on almost every channel. One night I've got anime on TV and there's a whole bizarre sequence featuring a baseball game in a rain storm where the field gets completely flooded. 


OSAKA, Japan---Late April, I've been in Japan for a couple weeks, the Nippon Professional Baseball season is well underway but I haven't been able to attend any games yet because of logistics. Games are either sold out or too far away. Now that I'm in Osaka, the Hanshin Tigers play in a historic ballpark a short train ride out of town. So my plan is to head out to Koshien Stadium to see the Hanshin Tigers host the rival Yomiuri Giants. Only problem is there's been a steady rain all day. I've been wearing a Hanshin Tigers hat around town, eliciting comments from the locals; a bunch of Tigers fans high-five me at an okonomiyaki restaurant, a tour guide yells out "nice hat!" while guiding people thru the streets. I take the train out west near the scenic hills of Kobe. The train is filled with Tigers fans, folks just getting out of work, a kid in a Tigers hat with his grandmother. Everyone is anxious to get to the ballpark and hoping the rain lets up. It's not until we all arrive at the park, walk underneath the highway overpass and pass all the merch vendors in ponchos, that we learn the game has been canceled due to inclement weather. 

My one opportunity to see a ballgame in Japan, a rivalry matchup no less (and the Tigers would go on to win the pennant for the first time in 18 years), and the game was rained out just as I arrived at the stadium. My only consolation was that at least I got to see the stadium. Koshien Stadium will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year. It's the oldest and most revered ballpark in Japan. One of the few stadiums in the country without a roof, it's also quirky because it features an all-dirt infield. I figured it was unlikely they'd be able to play the game with that infield all muddy. Rainouts are part of baseball, though, part of the experience of a baseball season. 

The outer facade of the outfield was covered in ivy which was a nice look:

Outside of Koshien Stadium, Nishinomiya, Japan.

Koshien Stadium was built in homage to the Polo Grounds in New York. The mythic status the Polo Grounds holds in the consciousness of an American baseball fan is partly due to the fact that the old ballpark no longer exists, there's no way to experience it except in grainy footage (or playing MLB: The Show). And yet in Japan there is a 100-year-old baseball mecca conceived in the same bowl-shape as the Polo Grounds. I'm committed to get back there one day to actually see a game. 

The bowl-shaped Koshien Stadium, built in 1924, inspired by the Polo Grounds.


QUEENS, NY---In the middle of May, I spent a few days in NYC hanging with family and I went to a Mets game. My first in-person baseball game of the season. Thankfully opted for the Friday game instead of the Saturday game because the latter got rained out. The Friday game ended up being the most exciting win of the Mets season and one of the best Mets games I've ever witnessed up close. Before getting to my seat, the Mets had fallen behind 3-0 to the Cleveland Guardians on a 3-run homer from Josh Naylor in the top of the 1st. Soon the Mets were down 7-0, but they chipped away. In the bottom of the 7th, Pete Alonso came to the plate with the bases loaded and the Mets trailing 7-3. He blasted a game-tying grand slam that sent the packed crowd into frenzied mayhem and Pete was so pumped he did a full celebratory twirl between the bases. The Mets fell behind again, down 9-7 going into the bottom of the 10th but once again fought back, battled through every at-bat, and won the game 10-9. Francisco Alvarez hit a homer and a game-tying RBI single. Brett Baty went deep in this game. Francisco Lindor had the walkoff hit in a huge game against his former team. It was the highest high point in a down year for the Mets. After the next day's rainout, the Mets swept a Sunday doubleheader to finish off their best week of the season. 


ARLINGTON, TX--- Mid-June, I was at the ballpark in Arlington watching Corey Seager crush line drives all over the park for the Texas Rangers in their fancy retractable roof warehouse stadium. The Rangers have a brand-new ballpark with a retractable roof yet it never rains there. The roof is to block the sun. The "old" ballpark for the Rangers remains standing right across the street, completely functional but lacking a roof to shield the field from the brutal solar rays blasting down each day for half the year.


HOUSTON, TX---Middle of June, I zip on down to Houston to watch the Mets play the Astros. Mets season falling apart. They stole a badly needed win against the Astros in the first game of the series. I was there to see Justin Verlander returning to Houston to pitch for the Mets against lefty Framber Valdez who carved his way thru the Mets lineup. Verlander was off to a shaky start on the season for Mets, lacking command, falling behind in the count nearly every at-bat. He battled but gave up a bomb to Alex Bregman and got beat by his old squad. Next afternoon, I was there at the ballpark again. The roof was once again closed, to keep it nice and cool indoors. The Mets looked sluggish as they dropped a winnable game to lose the series. After the game, perched across the street from the ballpark in a hotel room on an upper floor in a tall building, I watch as a massive storm system arrives over the city of Houston. The skies put on a cinematic lightning-and-thunder orchestra. As the torrential rains gush down, I notice Minute Maid Park has the roof open and the lights on. 

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