The old man and the young flychaser
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

Dear M,

It's Sunday night and I just watched Frankie Rodriguez's ERA jump to 12.00.

When he struck out Blalock, A-Rod and Gonzalez against Texas earlier in the week, he was so fierce. He had the blank stare of a man absolutely certain he can't lose.

But tonight against Oakland, he quickly walked two, and then a couple of pitches went wild on him, and just like that a one-run lead was a two-run deficit. He pouted a little during the worst of it, when one of the runs came in on a wild pitch. He came scuffing and loping to cover home, his mouth all hang-dog, and stomped on the plate like someone stole his cookies, with his glove hand at his hip.

Both looks -- the one in Texas and the one tonight -- were great. With the first, you're looking at him and you wish you could know just some small part of what his arm knows -- which is no bounds. And with the second, you remember how young he and that arm are, and you look at him and you know in some ways you know more than he does right now.

Awe and compassion -- that's all we ever want to feel, right?

David Cone
Fountain of Youth: Will David Cone discover it with the Mets after not pitching last season?

Can't wait till he pitches again.

* * * * *

You probably heard David Cone pitched for the Mets Friday night against Montreal. After a year out of baseball. And at 40 years old.

It was a cold, wet night -- steam coming off players' shoulders and caps, everybody in turtlenecks. You'd have loved it. It was one of those nights (like the ones we used to spend in Candlestick) when baseball seems like a wacky idea, like a stupid, brave slap in Mother Nature's face. A perfect fit for Coney's comeback.

And it was a comeback, M. Two hits, five K's and no runs over five. His stuff didn't bite the way it used to, with that mean dive it once had, but it was moving. There was a sweet swoon about the pitches. They lingered, and then tumbled easy into their arcs. One he threw to strike out Vlad Guerrero in the third -- I swear, it did a little backwards pike thing on its way by. No splash on the entry, either.

He kept the ball down, changed speeds (from slow to not-quite-so-slow, to much slower, and back again to just plain slow), and moved it in and out (and then further out, and then back in).

You know how Leonard Koppett says an AB is about thinking? You could actually see that Friday night. Everything was probabilities and tendencies, anticipation and misdirection.

But that wasn't the best of it. The best of it was watching and wondering whether Cone's body would hang in there and execute the plan his mind was devising and revising as the game went on. And getting a little jolt every time it did.

Man, you can have big swings and home-run highlights. You can even have diving stops, throws from the hole and poetic turns of two. Me? Give me the pitch-by-pitch drama of a guy flirting with danger. Give me the man chasing his muse on creaky legs and running the risk of falling on his face every time he lets fly. Give me another night like Friday night. Please. At least one more.

* * * * *
Earlier Friday, I saw Sammy hit his 500th home run. T was with me (she's walking now), and she was doing this peg-legged dance she does around the living room, holding a ball in her hand, making her daddy proud. But when he hit it, in that big splash of crowd and announcer-shout, she stood still and let out a "Whoa!" with her arms stretched, palms open and up. I'd have told her she was right to cheer, but she already knew, so I just laughed.

A couple of minutes later, in the car on the way to the store, we were listening to Armstrong's "Hot Fives" -- "Big Fat Ma and Skinny Pa," I think -- and she was in the back, sitting in the car seat, handing out "Whoas" like candy, and waving her arms and flutter-kicking with the music. I know Sammy must have enjoyed his big moment, but I don't know if he enjoyed it any more than I did.

* * * * *
I was watching the Red Sox and Rays on Tuesday. What can I say? The MLB Extra Innings package does strange things to a man. He's done for the night. He's ready to eat some dinner, spend time with his family. But then comes a tell-tale itch in his thumb. He knows the remote will deliver one last game tonight. So he presses its buttons and the next thing he knows, he's looking in on Tropicana Field and its almost-not-entirely-unappealing artificial turf and he says, Yes, this looks good. I'll watch this. So like I said, I was watching the Sox and Rays on Tuesday.


I'm telling you this not because the game went 16, and not because I needed two bowls of ice cream and a salami sandwich to survive it, though these things are true. I'm telling you this because I adopted a Devil Ray. I know. No one's more surprised than me, but it's true. His name's Rocco Baldelli (nice baseball name, ain't it ... something kind of Tony Conigliaro about it) and it turns out he's the hot-prospect center fielder for the worst team in baseball.

Why did I adopt him, you ask? Five simple reasons:

1. I like the "Tree Grows in Brooklyn" feel of rooting for a guy in desperate circumstances.

2. In the 15th, when I was well into my second bowl of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream, he hard-charged a Johnny Damon single and laid out a throw to the plate to nail Trot Nixon, thereby extending the game to the 16th and bringing about my salami sandwich.

3. When he made the throw, I actually said, out loud, to no one in particular, and entirely without forethought: "Atta boy!" That's a sign.

4. Did I mention his name is Rocco Baldelli?

And 5. Ain't nobody else in Florida rooting for him or any other Rays, so I felt it was my moral obligation to look out for him for the season.

So now, of course, I'm trying to get T to say, "Rocco Whoa!" But she's not biting. She's no pushover. She's looking at me like maybe Mr. Baldelli should check the big tote board and come see her when he gets close to 500 jacks. Whatever. In the meantime, he'll just have to scrape by on my "atta boys."

* * * * *
By the way, Ruben Sierra is still playing major league baseball. Just thought you should know.

And Erubiel Durazo is playing, too, playing like a man let loose, like a man on fire. His swing is a tribochet launch. It whips through the zone and zips balls all over the yard. He's a cartoon character right now. Everything is Blam and Pow with him. I'll give you three numbers that add up to "you should watch this guy": six games, 11 RBI, and 1.487 OPS.

Reggie Sanders
Reggie Sanders has been hitting like Dave Parker in his We Are Family Pirates jersey.

One more number, M. Call it reason 34,217 why I love baseball: In the real world, you do just enough to get by and someone says, if they notice it at all, that you did "fine" ... in baseball, Dave Roberts beats out a nubber for an infield single and Vin Scully says, "A modest thing and thine own, but he'll take it."

There's more to talk about. The Pirates broke out the We Are Family unis this week and Julian Tavarez had a nice Kent Tekulve thing working. Jeter's hurt, Griffey's hurt again, the Royals are undefeated so far, and Maddux has been hammered twice.

These last two bits could be very serious. They could suggest we're in the midst of some sort of severe and unforeseen polar reversal or tectonic shift. But it's early yet.

I won't panic. I'll just say it's been a good first week, and I wish you were here.


Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2. His Fan's Notes diary on the baseball season will appear each week on Page 2.



Eric Neel Archive

Neel: Going for 500

Neel: Baseball is not for the faint of heart fan

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