CHICAGO – You don’t often see old men playing a little boy’s game.
You don’t often see old men running like kids and stealing bases. You don’t often see it, unless you watch the Seattle Mariners on a day-in, day-out basis.
If you were watching them Wednesday afternoon, you saw 41-year-old Rickey Henderson do things with his legs that 41-year-old men aren’t supposed to do.
You saw another elder statesman on this Mariner team, 36-year-old Mark McLemore, make a play with his glove that 20something Ray Durham would have been proud to call his own.
You saw Jay Buhner bust a pitch into the left-field seats at Comiskey Park. Buhner is 36. He has scars on his body from recent surgeries. His career was supposed to have ended two years ago. He will still be playing next year – somewhere.
Old, proud, ornery, gritty – there is a corps of these men on the Mariners. And on the first two days of the American League Division Series, they have showed their younger opponents how the game is played. And how games are won.
For the Mariners are two-up on the Chicago White Sox, one victory removed from the American League Championship Series.
Youth may have its day, but not in this series. Not with the Mariners playing as they are. Not with every facet of their game working as it has. Pitching, defense, hitting. It’s all been there in putting the M’s in position to wrap this thing up Friday afternoon at Safeco Field.
The White Sox look beaten. They look helpless. They look hopeless. Their last five batters struck out in the 5-2 loss to the M’s Wednesday afternoon. Three of them stood there with the bat on their shoulders. A meek way to end it all. Lambs led to slaughter.
Across the way, old men hugged and high-fived. They’ve done that quite a bit these last two days, these Seattle Mariners have.
On Tuesday night, they saluted Edgar Martinez, the 37-year-old designated hitter, after he beat the White Sox with a dramatic two-run homer in the 10th inning. Then they doffed their caps when 32-year-old John Olerud followed up with a solo home run on the next pitch.
Twenty-one hours later, it was more of the same: the veteran leadership stepping forward.
There was Martinez doubling to right to lead off the second inning and scoring moments later on a single by a relative youngster, 28-year-old David Bell. There was Olerud not getting a hit, but taking one, a pitch to the arm that led to the second Mariner run. There was Buhner bashing a homer that turned out to be the game-winner in the fourth.
And then there was Henderson. Shouldn’t this guy be playing in old-timer games? Limping up to the plate, taking three weak whacks and gimping back to the trainer’s room for an ice bath?
No, he shouldn’t. He should be doing what he was doing Wednesday. Singling in the first. Walking in the fifth. Taking second on a sacrifice. Stealing third with a head-first slide. And scoring on a chopper to the left side of the infield.
Henderson jammed the index finger on his left hand on the slide into third, but should be ready to go Friday. The M’s hope so, anyway.
“He gave us a little swagger when we needed it,” manager Lou Piniella said when asked about Henderson’s impact after he joined the M’s in mid-May. “He’s one of the veterans we count on here.”
Another is the cool and cerebral McLemore, who sometimes questions reporters’ questions. “Did you see the play?” he will ask. “Well, then … ” It’s as if he’s trying to make them figure out the answer for themselves.
McLemore had an answer for a line drive that hit off pitcher Jose Mesa’s glove and found its way behind second base and headed toward center field with runners at first and third and two out in the seventh. There was McLemore diving head-long to his right to get the ball, transferring it to his free hand and tossing to shortstop Alex Rodriguez for a force on Jose Valentin.
It was just one of many highlight-film plays McLemore has made this season, and it was every bit as sensational as one Chicago’s Durham made in Tuesday’s game. “I’ve always prided myself on my defense,” McLemore said.
Playing on an older team is nothing new to McLemore. “I’ve always been on veteran teams,” he said. “I never really played with guys my own age when I first came up. I was on teams with Reggie Jackson, Rod Carew and Doug Dicences. All of a sudden it was the other way around, I was the guy with seven or eight years in the majors.”
Now younger players like Mike Cameron look to the older guys for guidance. “Primarily, I’m just learning how to play winning baseball,” Cameron said. “We have so many guys who have played on winning teams and it rubs off in the right areas.”
“I look around when we’re a run down and it always seems like everyone is really calm and relaxed. That’s the way it’s been pretty much the last couple of weeks. Everybody’s been cool under pressure. I’ve kind of taken that into my game and just relaxed and had fun playing the game.”
He has learned from the old guys how to prepare for work. After Tuesday’s game, players were scurrying to take showers, get dressed and return to the hotel for a bite to eat so they could get a good night’s sleep.
“We’re a veteran ballclub, we’ve been around, we know what we need to do,” McLemore said. “Everybody knows their own body and how to take care of it and how not to take care of it. I mean, we had an early call this morning and guys went back and got their rest and were ready to go today.”
Really, no late-night carousing?
“Oh, trust me,” McLemore said, “we bee-lined from here back to the hotel last night.
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