Sports Nut

Game 6: Angels 6, Giants 5

My man Chone Figgins got another shot at immortality last night, a pinch-running gig. Even in this tiny sliver of an opportunity, it was my hope that Figgins would do something brilliant and establish himself as the new David Eckstein. I am just so tired of the endless Eckstein rhapsody. Now, I agree, the miniature Angels shortstop plays with guts and heart and all that. He looks like a cross between Linus from Peanuts and Lupus from The Bad News Bears, and how can you not root for that? But enough already. His range in the field is such that he makes the routine play seem spectacular, he has a weak arm, and though you’d never guess it from the way he has been canonized by the media, he is not hitting all that well either. He has been up 65 times in the postseason and has yet to produce an extra-base hit, yielding a slugging percentage under .300. There are, yes, pitchers who do better than this.

So that’s why I was pulling for Figgins. He wound up doing OK. If he had rounded third, instead of sliding, the 23-year-old rookie from Leary, Ga., could’ve possibly scored when Barry Bonds bobbled Garret Anderson’s blooper. But with nobody out, the premium was on not screwing up, and Figgins did not screw up. Then, when Troy Glaus crushed a double over Bonds’ head in left, Figgins scored easily.

One of the problems with this otherwise excellent World Series is that neither team relies much on their bench. This has two consequences: 1) It reduces the chances that a complete nobody is going to play the role of the Unlikely Hero; on these teams, the complete nobodies leave the pine for pinch running or an inning of defense, and that’s about it.

2) The lack of a bench limits the managers’ ability to make interesting intra-game moves. That, however, seems to suit Dusty Baker and Mike Scioscia just fine. They are completely content in their role as Minimalist Managers. This is what they do: They play the same lineup as often as possible. They do not platoon, they do not juggle who’s hot and who’s not, and they do not make weird maneuvers based on hunches. They change pitchers based on very predictable criteria. They have the respect of their players, which they seemed to have earned, in part, by never hassling them. Dusty, of course, is so laissez faire he lets his kids run around on the field.

I was thinking about this last night because I was watching the game at Bobby V’s, the sports bar owned by recently deposed Mets manager Bobby Valentine. He, of course, is the opposite of a laissez-faire minimalist. He is a talker, a tinkerer, a manipulator, a multipurpose pain in the ass. It is perhaps not a coincidence that he is out of a job, as athletes these days seem to perform better when their manager and/or coach isn’t constantly telling them what to do and how to do it.

Whatever his managerial prospects, however, Valentine definitely has a future in the hospitality business. His bar is a wonderful place to watch a baseball game. Though it’s on the ground floor of a bleak Ramada hotel (across the highway from Shea Stadium), it’s tastefully done, with lots of cool jerseys and yearbooks and baseball cards. The bartender told me that Valentine selected the stuff from his own collection and personally arranged the displays. Serious thinking went into it; under the laminated bar, I noticed, just to the left of my dinner plate, the Topps card of Yankee pitcher Mike Kekich, best remembered for swapping wives in the early 1970s with teammate … what was the other dude’s name? Oh yeah, Fritz Peterson, whose card just happened to be a few inches away. Nice, Bobby.

A delightfully random assortment of folks showed up to watch the game at Bobby V’s, and maybe because most of them weren’t from New York, they were deeply into it. There was a traveling tae kwon do team, a couple of planeloads of flight attendants, a local guy who was willing to bet every penny he had left in the world that the Jets still played at Shea, and two businessmen who had a drink, left for half an hour, and returned bearing stupid grins and a couple of local ladies whose meters were clearly running. It was the like the bar in Star Wars—there was one of everything.

The late Anaheim rally met with boisterous approval. I asked an especially overjoyed woman why she was rooting for the Angels. She confessed that she and the friend she was sitting with were “total Mets groupies” and that they were “just happy that someone besides the Yankees was going to win.”

But, I gently pointed out, the Giants aren’t the Yankees, either.

“Yes, it’s a win-win situation,” she said, and continued to let herself be caught up in the moment.

If tonight’s game is tight, it may be a test of which Minimal Manager is more adept at breaking habits. Game 7 is, after all, the one game of the year where improvisation can be rewarded, at least as far as the pitching staff goes. Neither manager can be all that confident about his starter. When it was clear the other night that Angels starter Jarrod Washburn just did not have it, I wondered if Scioscia was tempted to pull him after one or two innings, with the idea that he could bring him back for Game 7. Rookie John Lackey is not exactly the guy you want your whole season riding on.

Baker, though, may have the bigger problem. Rodriguez, Worrell, and Nen, his three crack relievers, got lit up last night, and unless Livan Hernandez summons some of that special Cuban mojo and becomes a radically different pitcher from the one we saw in Game 4, the Giants are likely to need big outs from all three of them. Who knows, maybe their confidence is intact and they’ll come through. Jason Schmidt might have enough gas left from Thursday’s start to go after a hitter or two. Certainly Kirk Rueter is available.

Me, I am rooting hard for the Angels. I remain hopeful that Chone Figgins will have his big moment and become the Unlikely Hero. But I will more than settle for David Eckstein coming through in the clutch with his first extra base hit. Lupus rocks!