Following Jon Miller and Joe Morgan's crew to New York for ALDS Game 3, we arrived at La Guardia Airport with news of a terrorist threat, that by game day on Friday had parts of Penn Station closed at various times and a very visable police presence on the city's subway system. I followed the mayor's lead and took the subway to the game. Even with the talk of terrorist threats populating the local papers and national news reports, the subway was still the favored form of transportation to the Bronx.
The biggest threat Friday was rain, a soaking rain that drenched the East Coast, clinging to the fringes of Yankee Stadium. And even so, they remarkably got in the game -- without interruption -- despite four hours of nonstop rain, occasional downpours and wildly swirling winds that would have made the Army-Navy football game difficult. It's amazing the level of play that both teams managed in the midst of such unmanageable conditions. The day before, Randy Johnson had beseeched Yankee fans to make some noise; he didn't care whether they cheered him or booed him, he just needed to hear them. "I feed off of that," he said. Johnson got what he asked for, with a performance eliciting frequent and hearty "Bronx cheers," which fortunately he and the fans had to endure only briefly.
Major League Baseball allows our national radio and television broadcasters to have 15 exclusive minutes with each team's players and manager before each playoff game. It's a mixed blessing, especially with the Yankees, who are not only the best paid players in the game, but also the most adept at populating training rooms and player lounges that are off-limits to reporters.
In Anaheim, I managed to get a few minutes with Alex Rodriguez while he shaved and waxed his bats, to ask him about that night's starter, Chien-Ming Wang, and a conversation I saw him having with the Taiwanese native in the dugout at Fenway Park on the final day of the regular season.
"I was just talking to him about setting up hitters, and cluing him in on what hitters are looking for," Rodriguez told me. I asked if Wang understood enough English, and A-Rod said sure, especially when you're talking about baseball. Joe Torre said it's similar for pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre and himself when they have to talk to Wang, but Torre did say "he probably knows more Spanish than he needs to," inferring that some of his Latin players have taught the Taiwanese pitcher words which wouldn't be in a Spanish-language dictionary.
Back at Yankee Stadium, the home team has long since scoped out the best retreats when the clubhouse is open to reporters, and John Flaherty was the only accessible position player before Game 3. He told me his personal catcher association with Johnson started during a game in St. Louis in June, and became permanent some time in August, but that he still checks the lineup card to be sure every time Johnson pitches. Torre said it's as automatic as "Wakefield and Mirabelli," and that Johnson's comfort is more important than the offensive difference between Flaherty and Jorge Posada.
Johnson said he prefers a catcher who's more concerned with how he catches than how he hits, and I kiddingly asked Flaherty if that was by design or necessity? "You know it's funny, when I was coming up with the Red Sox I was known as a catch-and-throw guy. They told me, 'If you can just hit .250, just give us anything offensively, and we'll be happy.'" From then on, I knew my defense was what would get me to the big leagues, and that's what I worked at."
Flaherty acknowledged that Johnson is "a tough guy to get to know, and I don't think he wants to have a lot of guys get to know him. But as the season went on, and we spent time on the bench together, I got to know him better. He's really a very complicated and interesting guy, very intelligent. There's a lot going on there, but more than anything, he loves to talk about baseball. I think it took him a while to adjust to the whole New York thing, but by the second half I think he made the adjustment."
While the Yankee players play hide-and-seek, the Angels and most other teams are wrapped up watching the other playoff games and rooting for or against old teams, teammates or countrymen. In the Angels' clubhouse, nearly half the team was on the couch or the card table in front of the big screen, checking out potential next round opponents, and arguing over strategy and performance much the way an announcer would.
While Torre's luxurious Yankee Stadium office has signed photos of himself and Muhammad Ali, a painting of Frank Sinatra and figurines of all the Yankees all-time greats, in the cramped visiting manager's office, Mike Scioscia tried to cram in our group in the narrow confines. Torre had a healthy and beautifully arranged fresh fruit basket on his desk for pregame snacking; Scioscia had a tray that would have served well later this month for trick-or-treaters. Marveling at the abundance and variety of candy next to his desk, Scioscia was told about Torre's healthy assortment and quipped, "I guess they figure a chunky manager, we'll just fill him up with candy and try to get him sick."
When they're not fulfilling the voluminous media obligations before and after their most important games of the year, managers and their staffs are pouring over game plans and strategies, analyzing statistics and matchups, while players sit in front of computers watching video. For the Angels, that also involved when and how much to shift the defense for Gary Sheffield, and even more so, Jason Giambi.
In concert with Angels first base coach Alfredo Griffin's positioning of the fielders, pitching coach Bud Black goes over what the pitching pattern is for Giambi, and how the pitcher is game planning to maximize the chances Giambi will hit the ball to the right at the unorthodoxly positioned defenders. "The book hasn't changed on Giambi much," Black said. "You're gonna try and pitch him hard up and in, and soft down and away, and figure he's gonna try and pull the soft stuff."
Shortstop Orlando Cabrera moves to the other side of the second base bag, according to Griffin's instructions, and Adam Kennedy plays second base/right field when Giambi hits. "If no one's on, I'm basically going to play Giambi where Adam would normally be, and he's gonna be out on the grass between me and [Darin] Erstad. If there's someone on, especially someone who likes to run, like A-Rod, I've got to play closer to the bag in case of a throw, and Adam has to adjust accordingly."
For Sheffield, Cabrera goes into the hole between third base and his normal shortstop positioning, and Kennedy cheats closer to the bag at second."I have to play him to pull, but Gary's such a good hitter, with power to all fields, that you can't afford to cheat him too much."
A dizzying week of travel began in Houston, with the Astros once again waiting until the final day to clinch. They had a very loose clubhouse, especially considering how much was at stake. While Craig Biggio is as vital as ever, and how far they go in the postseason rests largely on Lance Berkman -- another of the "Killer B's" -- Jeff Bagwell is adjusting to life as a part-time player.
Much of this summer Bagwell wasn't sure if his troublesome and surgically repaired right shoulder would ever allow him to play again, much less this season. He beat the odds in returning for the final month, but the compromise is that he can't play the field, so he's reduced to just batting. Beyond that, the power provided by the fixture in the three hole for the Astros is all but sapped while his right shoulder continues to heal.
"I could hit a home run, but it isn't likely, and I'm not really looking to hit it that way right now anyway," said Bagwell. "I'm basically going to right field now." I asked Baggy if he at least hits some balls out during batting practice, and he said, "You know, I never did hit home runs in batting practice, even in the years when I hit a lot of home runs. I don't know what it is, even if I tried to hit home runs in BP, I couldn't. I don't put on much of a show, I'm kind of a wimp in BP."
Being "deep in the heart of Texas," the rousing sing-a-long that rocks Minute Maid Park during the seventh-inning stretch, the pre-game TVs in the Astros' clubhouse are often tuned to CMT, Country Music Television. Even though they've seen it a hundred times, many of the Astros players stop and sing-a-long or do a play-by-play of the video to Toby Keith's hit, "Good as I once was." For Bagwell, it's become his theme song, summarizing what figures to be a Hall of Fame career, now reduced to a fractional but vital pinch-hitting role, that often for him, as the chorus to the Keith song goes ... "I ain't as good as I once was, but I'm as good once as I ever was."
Gary Miller is a reporter for ESPN's major-league baseball coverage.