L.A.: Lots (of) Apathy
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

Editor's Note: From his home on the Northern California coast, Page 2's Eric Neel is keeping a diary of the 2002 pennant races involving the Giants, Dodgers, A's and Angels. This is the 15th installment of Neel's journal.

Last night's scoreboard: Giants clobber Padres 12-3; Dodgers lose to Rockies 1-0; A's fall to Mariners 8-7 and Angels lose to Rangers 2-1.

Denny Stark
Denny Stark stymied Los Angeles and half-filled Dodger Stadium.
Status: San Francisco is three games ahead of Los Angeles in the wild-card chase, and three games behind division leader Arizona, with five to play. Oakland is three games ahead of Anaheim for the AL West crown and Anaheim is five up on Seattle and Boston for the AL wild-card, with five games remaining.

Question: Where was everyone in Los Angeles last night? The announced attendance was 30,332, but there were maybe half that many living, breathing bodies in the stands. Actually, the living and breathing part isn't even certain. Dodger Stadium was a graveyard. Two games back, coming off a ninth-inning, pinch-hit, hanging-in-there, staying-alive, crowd-goes-wild victory Sunday, and the people don't bother to come out Tuesday. Sorry, sorry stuff. The kind of turnout that reinforces all the worst stereotypes about L.A. fans being too casual and cool. It should have been a wide-angle, pan the delirious, never-say-die crowd game. Instead, it was all TV close-ups and tight angles meant to hide the fact that nobody was there.

I'm not saying it would have made a difference if the stands were full. I'm not saying a frenzied crowd would have rattled Colorado's rookie pitcher Denny Stark (who gave up only one hit through seven), or willed a ball through a gap when Marquis Grissom was on third with two outs in the eighth. I'm just saying the team, which has been staying in this race with bailing wire, rubber bands and the sore-armed heroics of Eric Gagne, deserved a whole lot better last night.

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Both San Francisco and Los Angeles faced rookie pitchers last night. The Giants pounded Padres starter Oliver Perez for six runs in four innings. The Dodgers couldn't touch Denny Stark.

It was one of those nights when the outcome of this race looked obvious and inevitable. You couldn't imagine how anyone on the Giants was going to make an out and you couldn't figure out how anyone in the Dodgers' lineup would ever get a hit or drive in a run.

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Two dugout shots: In Los Angeles, just moments after Adrian Beltre struck out to end the game, Paul Lo Duca is leaning forward, elbows on his knees, and chin resting on his folded hands. He stares out at the scoreboard, at nothing at all. You can almost hear him wonder what to do with the hurt and frustration. You can see blood blisters underneath his finger nails -- eight years in the minors, another season's worth of caught balls and swung bats, evidence of the beating he has taken just to get to this place where he can see the postseason and know now that it's unlikely he'll get there.

In San Francisco, two Giants (pitcher Jason Schmidt and Marvin Benard) start cutting into baseballs using the trainer's scissors. They're up 12-3 in the eighth at the time. They're ripping the cover off, pulling at the twine, unraveling the innards. It's the kind of thing kids do -- investigative destruction, shreds and shards everywhere, a glorious, innocent, pointless mess. While the Dodgers pressed and pondered, and guessed at where to swing and what to do, the Giants had a ball.

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Benito Santiago
Ageless catcher Benito Santiago had four RBI Tuesday for the Giants.
We should not forget, Benito Santiago, who went 3-for-4 last night, including a wild, hell-bent-for-leather triple in the third, and drove in four runs, is approximately 137 years old.

I first saw Benito catch in 1974, I think, when he was with Boston, but I've seen tattered, grainy photographs of his days with the old Senators, playing catch in spring training with Walter Johnson.

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No one will remember this in a week, but Odalis Perez, who struck out seven and gave up only one run in eight innings last night, and Hideo Nomo, who has lost only once since May, have come up big for L.A. down the stretch.

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I'm watching the Giants spray hits all over the field against the Padres, I'm watching the Dodgers whispering to each other about this mysterious thing called a hit that their elders have told them about but which they are yet to see for themselves. I'm thinking tale of two cities -- best of times, worst of times and all that. I'm thinking raucous Pac Bell and a deserving crowd treated to a win that makes you believe you belong vs. pin-drop quiet Dodger Stadium and a handful of kids and die-hards who forgot to bring their friends along.

Meanwhile, on other channels, in other cities, the race that was supposed to be settled starts to unravel a little and get a bit interesting again. The Angels lose a one-run game to Texas, keeping Seattle and Boston in the wild-card chase. The A's, who at one point were up 7-2, get bum-rushed by a couple of Seattle rookies in the eighth and lose 8-7, keeping Anaheim in the division hunt. I probably should have been watching those games instead ... who knew?

Anyway, one of the best lines I've heard during this pennant push came from Seattle rookie Willie Bloomquist, who has had seven hits in two games, including a key ground-rule double last night. "I'm just trying to keep things simple and not think about the 40,000 people watching me,'' he said. Love that. It's at the heart of my fascination with and enduring respect for major-league ballplayers -- that they can find that happy, relaxed but focused, Zen-like place where their bodies do what they want them to do in the time and space they want them to do it -- with 40,000 people watching (unless of course you're in L.A. last night).

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Kevin Appier
Kevin Appier's and the Angels' tharn increases each day the Mariners remain in the chase.
Another note on the AL race: a die-hard Angels friend writes late last night to say he's rooting for Seattle and Boston, "just so the Angels have to win a damn game, rather than tharn their way into the playoffs!" Tharn isn't a word, as far as I know, and maybe this was a typo, but if so, it's a great typo. Tharn: To stumble and fall over the finish line; to survive but not triumph, to make your stalwart fans, the fans who only a week ago were singing your praises and considering and writing poems about your exploits, feel somewhat sheepish about their love for you.

Note: The term "tharn" comes from Richard Adams' "Watership Down." It is an adjective that means hypnotized with fear, stupefied, distraught. Eric Neel has a confession to make: he has never read "Watership Down." He bought it for his sister once, told her she should read it, told her it was a classic, but he never got around to reading it himself.

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Finally, a note on Barry Bonds: His home run in the seventh was his 45th of the year, and the 612th of his career, and it was the 349th time he has been on base this year, which is the second-highest total ever, behind Mr. Ruth. Them's some real good numbers. Them's some wake the kids up and make them watch even the late-game laugher at-bats kind of numbers.

Barry Bonds
Barry Bonds comes through again, hitting a two-run home run in the seventh inning Tuesday.
But as he hit the home run, I wasn't thinking about the numbers, I was thinking about how I was absolutely certain he was going to hit it. The pitch before was low, but it was called a strike. Bonds looked back at the umpire, gave him an all-right-now-I-know-it's-late-but-call-'em-straight smile, and then stepped back in and ripped the next pitch into the right-field seats, and I wasn't even a little surprised.

Two things: One, we're watching a wholly organic, perfectly calibrated, seemingly effortless swing from a truly great hitter at the height of his powers. We should be taping every at-bat, and we should be keeping a list now of words we think we might want to use to describe the swing to our kids. I'll start my list with lyrical, compact, and inevitable.

And that's point two -- inevitability. With a handful of notable exceptions -- Charlie Liebrandt in the '91 World Series, Mitch Williams to Joe Carter in '93, Anthony Young for one long, sad season, etc. -- I've always felt like the balance of an at-bat is slightly tipped in favor of the pitcher. He knows what he's throwing, where he wants it to go, and so forth. Batters are reacting to what pitchers do and for that reason, hits have always seemed like semi-miraculous, delightful and unexpected events to me.

But Bonds has tipped the balance these last couple of years. He appears in complete control of each at-bat (intentional walks excepted, of course). I fully expect him to get a hit, and not just a hit, but a rip. I remember feeling this way about Gary Sheffield a couple years back, and Daryl Strawberry at one point, but Bonds has seemed untouchable for two entire seasons. I know it's a perception thing. I know, as good as he is, that he can be beaten. Every once in a while. Maybe. Can't he?

Previous entries: Sept. 23 | Sept. 22 | Sept. 20 | Sept. 19 | Sept. 18 | Sept. 17 | Sept. 16 | Sept. 15 | Sept. 14 | Sept. 13 | Sept. 12 | Sept. 11 | Sept. 9-10

Eric Neel reviews sports culture in his "Critical Mass" column on Page 2. You can e-mail him at eneel@cox.net.



Eric Neel Archive

Giants move closer to clinching NL wild card

Dodgers' wild-card hopes take hit with 1-0 loss

Minor-leaguers make major contribution as M's top A's

Celebration on hold as one remains Angels' trickiest number

Eric Neel's California Diary, Sept. 23

Eric Neel's California Diary, Sept. 22

Eric Neel's California Diary, Sept. 20

Eric Neel's California Diary, Sept. 19

Eric Neel's California Diary, Sept. 18

Eric Neel's California Diary, Sept. 17

Eric Neel's California Diary, Sept. 16

Eric Neel's California Diary, Sept. 15

Eric Neel's California Diary, Sept. 14

Eric Neel's California Diary, Sept. 13

Eric Neel's California Diary, Sept. 12

Eric Neel's California Diary, Sept. 11

Eric Neel's California Diary, Sept. 9-10

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