By Peter Richmond
I never said I was Nate Silver. I was also the guy who was sure that Lady Gaga's act would have the lifespan of a mayfly, because Madonna had already done it, and that Lebron would never have the heart of a champion. (Not to mention buying into that "New Coke" IPO.)
So sue me. All I said in this space a few weeks ago was that the Yankees' acquisition of 37-year-old Alfonso Soriano represented nothing more than a desperate and typical pinstripe move, getting a fading name-value guy to sell a few more tickets as the season dwindles into messy oblivion. He would only cost them less than $7 mill, and only $5 mill next year, and they'd be giving up ... Corey Black, a pitcher with a 4.25 ERA in Class A.
This week, all Alfonso did was go out and become the sixth player in history to drive in 18 runs in four games, joining Sammy Sosa, Joe DiMaggio, Tony Lazzeri, Lou Gehrig, and "Sunny Jim" Bottomley of the '29 Cardinals. (You could look it up.)
And these were not just any 18 runs. These were 18 runs that helped pull the Yankees closer to a wild card spot (within 5½, with 41 to go, 31 against division opponents). They included RBIs in a game in which the Yanks didn't just beat the first-place Red Sox in Fenway, they whomped them, 10-3. Earlier in the week, Soriano's RBIs spurred two wins over the Angels, by a collective score of 25-10. Scores like that tend to put a little wind under a team's wings.
For the record, Soriano's four-game numbers going into Saturday's Fenway game, are, well, insane: 13 hits in 20 at-bats. Five home runs, including two two-homer games. Nine runs scored. One seven-RBI game, and one paltry six-RBI game.
But the significance of the numbers goes way beyond four-game RBI record. It's what they represent: The possible catalyst to awaken a sleeping giant. B.A. (Before Alfonso), the Yankees' collective mindset was a tad frayed, and who could have been surprised? Distracted by the Biogenetical Greek tragedy of the A-Rod/alleged-A-Rat dude; bummed by the PED-plummet of fan-favorite catcher Francisco Cervelli; missing Captain Baseball. Girardi's gang seemed to have resigned itself to an off year.
Now, the Stadium's going to rock with rock-star cheers for the man who, yes, OK, is back where clearly he always belonged. And when the crowd jeers start to turn to cheers, teams tend to ramp up their collective karma. And you don't think the likes of, say, countryman Eduardo Nuñez might get a little empowered by Soriano, whose loss was decried by the Cubs' Latino players because he'd inspired and mentored them?
So how and/or why is he doing it? Well, for starters, he was on a pretty good streak in Chicago when the sorry Cubs gave him up, with 10 homers in his last 21 games. And you can't discount the idea that A.L. pitchers don't know how to pitch to him yet, haven't found the flaws. And there are flaws; he was hitting .254 when he left Wrigley, so he ain't Ted Williams. Let's see how teams pitch him in the final month of the season.
But my own guess? He's got the proverbial head on straight, and for all the right reasons. You can go home again, if it was a happy home. The game really is 90 percent mental. Consider, on the negative side, guys who wallow in slumps go the plate wondering if they'll ever get another hit. Chuck Knoblauch suddenly can't throw to first. Control pitchers pull Steve Blasses (and then sometimes become home run hitters).
But your brain can spin you the opposite way, too. Soriano said so last night, after his latest quartet of RBIs: "I think the motivation is going back to the Yankees." He was returning to a team that was teetering -- and, unlike the losers in the Big Shoulder city, he could make an immediate difference in the Bronx. So his focus is heightened, and now, each hit is making him think that he'll do it the next time, too. First home run in the game tonight, or Tuesday? He'll think, Hey, I've had two-homer games twice in the last week. I can do it again.
Now every pitch looks like a grapefruit, and every pitcher is thinking, "Oh, damn, not him again. Didn't he just double off me about ten minutes ago? I can't get this guy out."
This happy little bubble of sun in a drug-clouded summer isn't just good for New York. It's good for a sport that needs some heroes.
It's too early to tell, of course. Sunny Jim Bottomley in 1929? He finished with 137 RBIs, 29 home runs, a .314 batting average. His Cardinals? They were 78-74, 20 games behind Joe McCarthy's first-place Cubs.
Corey Black in Chicago? Watch him become Ferguson Jenkins (you could look it up).
But the Gehrig and DiMaggio thing turned out pretty good. So stay tuned.
And thanks for the mulligan.