The anticipation began Tuesday. Brett Baty, the Mets’ 2019 first-round pick and now a top-30-odd prospect in the sport, would be joining the team in Atlanta to help salvage what was left of a rivalry series. Let’s freaking go, said the Mets fans in your life, except it probably wasn’t freaking.
If you’re a Yankees fan, the hype picked up Wednesday morning. In addition to previous cup-of-coffee drinker Estevan Florial, infielder Oswaldo Cabrera — who had been tearing the cover off the ball at Triple-A — was getting called up to make his big league debut. Finally, exclaimed those fed up with watching a lifeless Yankees lineup. Let’s see what the kid’s got.
Then it was an afternoon spent waiting on lineup cards. He’s starting at third base? Where’s he batting in the order? What number is he wearing? It’s that special brand of excitement that attains to baseball prospects — you’ve spent years hearing their names, reading about their exploits, dreaming on their projections, but chances are you’ve never actually seen them play, outside of maybe some low-res social media highlights.
In Cabrera’s case, the real thing was altogether less exhilarating. The 23-year-old from Venezuela went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts, going down swinging at some Corey Kluber filth. (Florial went 0-for-2 before being lifted for a pinch-hitter.)
But the skidding Yankees dramatically absorbed the pixie dust, rallying against the Rays bullpen and then receiving a walkoff 10th inning grand slam from Josh Donaldson to nab a much-needed 8-7 win, just the third in their past 14 games.
Baty’s premiere exceeded all expectations, belonging instead to the brand of fantasy you concoct as a kid waving a stickball bat around the yard. In his first at-bat, on the very first pitch the 22-year-old Texas native swung at as a major leaguer, he cracked a home run. Baty wore No. 22 and a smile that stretched from Atlanta to Austin.
His parents were beside themselves in their seats at Truist Park. His mother, Leslie, signaled her love as Brett rounded the bases.
“It was goosebumps and tears and hugs,” Clint Baty said on the SNY broadcast. “You just couldn’t ask for a better first at-bat.”
“Pure joy. I mean, my family’s here, I get to celebrate with them,” Brett Baty said after the Mets had completed a 9-7 victory that pushed their NL East lead back to 4.5 games with Jacob deGrom taking his turn in the series finale Thursday. “I’m just glad I could help contribute and win a game for the New York Mets.”
Today’s back page
The WNBA’s next phase
The WNBA playoffs began Wednesday night on a fitting note. The defending champion Chicago Sky, led by veterans Candace Parker and Courtney Vandersloot, appeared to have the game in hand, leading by six with three and a half minutes left. Then the upstart New York Liberty closed on a highlight-filled 13-0 run and raced past the Sky for a 98-91 win in Game 1 of the best-of-three first round, led by by Sabrina Ionescu’s 22 points, seven rebounds and six assists.
The league is at an inflection point. Ratings are on the rise. The media rights are coming up for auction and should yield several multiples of the last deal (Sports Clicker will have the details soon, we’re sure). Expansion is on the way.
But many of the recognizable fixtures of the league are on the way out. Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles each have announced this is their final season — Bird’s Seattle Storm open their postseason Thursday night. It would surprise few if Diana Taurasi (sidelined due to a quad injury for the Phoenix Mercury’s Game 1) and especially Parker (who already has a job as an excellent NBA analyst for Turner Sports) followed suit. Brittney Griner’s future is gallingly unclear: She remains locked in a gulag plotline by way of Kafka, appealing her drug possession conviction to put off transfer to a Russian penal colony. Elena Delle Donne, another fantastic Player You Might Know, is one perilous step from having to shut it down due to a chronic back condition. Liz Cambage has left the chat.
So who will be the vanguard of the WNBA’s next era? Ionescu, 24, has made an emphatic case in 2022. For sure, A’ja Wilson, 26, and Breanna Stewart, 28 next week, the two best players in the world however you stack them — Stewie 1 and Wilson 1a, it says here, because sports are made for rankings (Stewart is also a pending unrestricted free agent, an Aaron Judge/LeBron’s Decision-level subplot if the WNBA rumor mill would churn a little faster). Do Skylar Diggins-Smith or Chelsea Gray ascend to the headliner status that their point-guard skills would recommend? Will Kelsey Plum or Kahleah Copper or Napheesa Collier, having improved from good to great, make another leap from great to household name? Or are we waiting on the college generation, replete with the likes of South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston (the presumptive No. 1 draft pick next spring) and UConn phenom Paige Bueckers?
The WNBA is evolving as a product, and the consensus is it’s on the cusp of leveling up. But the history of American pro sports tells us a league must have compelling players and personalities — think: Magic and Bird — to get there. And in New York, we’ll see if Ionescu takes up that torch.
Mark your calendar
The player empowerment era overshadows almost every aspect of the NBA — from free agency to lineups to coaching to travel to team valuations (the list goes on and on and on…). Yet there still exists one tight corner of NBA life that can’t wait for a Kevin Durant trade — the release of the schedule. Yes, NBA stars can demand a lot, but they can’t demand that time stops, which is why the league announced its full regular-season slate Wednesday afternoon without full knowledge of KD’s whereabouts this fall or how watchable his current team will be.
So, given the rosters as they stand now, let’s take a quick dive into a handful of games you’ll want to clear your schedule for this winter and next spring. Understandably, we’re leaning Knicks (schedule analysis here) and Nets (schedule analysis here), but have added a few that should appeal to even casual NBA watchers.
Hawks at Knicks, Nov. 2
New York’s newest basketball villain returns with a new teammate, Dejounte Murray, who would have looked awfully good alongside Jalen Brunson had the Knicks been willing to meet the Spurs’ draft-pick-heavy asking price. If things go right, Trae Young’s Hawks and the Knicks could be battling over the same piece of playoff real estate for some time. Both have promising, young cores that could improve. Both are probably a trade or big free-agent signing away from joining the conference’s elite. Throw in a little showmanship from Young and we have the making of a testy rivalry.
Nets at Lakers, Nov. 13
That this matchup is slated just weeks into the season tells you all you need to know about where the NBA schedule makers think Kevin Durant will be this season — elsewhere. Starry matchups between cross-conference contenders are often reserved for the post-Christmas months, when football is more in the background and the NBA takes over primetime. Burying this in mid-November suggests one of these two teams may be a lesser draw, and it likely won’t be the Lakers. On the bright side for Nets fans, Kyrie Irving could still be in black and white. Of course, NBA Kremlinologists will be dissecting every interaction between Irving and LeBron James to suss out whether the two could work well as teammates again in L.A. On second thought, this one may require a few pints for Nets fans.
Knicks at Jazz, Nov. 15/Jazz at Knicks, Feb. 11
This is an either/or date depending on whether or not Donovan Mitchell is a member of the Knicks. If the long-rumored deal happens, his first game back in Utah promises to generate a wide range of emotions. Do Jazz fans welcome him back with a sense of appreciation for how well he played for them or do they turn on someone who didn’t explicitly ask out but hasn’t exactly pledged his undying loyalty to the franchise? On the other hand, if the NBA’s biggest Mets fan is still in purple, gold, green and whatever other color scheme Utah is employing, imagine the red carpet the Knicks will roll out at the Garden to convince Mitchell to ramp up the pressure on the Jazz front office to get a deal done: celebrity row A-listers. Lindor and Scherzer giving thumbs-ups on the scoreboard. A full MSG chanting his name. James Dolan smiling from his baseline seat.
Nets at Sixers, Nov. 22
If a ridiculed player shows up at an arena and doesn’t play, does all that vitriol make a sound? Sort of. Ben Simmons did hear it from a Sixers crowd when he appeared on the Nets bench last season following his extended holdout and trade to Brooklyn, but he avoided the prolonged boos and colorful critiques of his game every time he touched a ball. Assuming he is healthy, he won’t be so lucky this time. And with little size to stop Joel Embiid, the Nets may be forced to match Simmons up against his former teammate on occasion, which doesn’t usually go well even for established big men. With a little typical Nets luck, they might even see KD on the court in a Sixers uniform if his summer vacationing with James Harden leads to another reunion.
Pelicans at Grizzlies, Nov. 25
Sometimes it’s worth thinking about the roads not traveled. For example, what if the Knicks’ lottery luck in 2019 landed them in one of the first two draft slots and not at No. 3, where they took RJ Barrett? Well, this showdown of those picks — Zion Williamson and Ja Morant — will offer two illustrations of what might have been. True, neither has zoomed their teams to a title — and Williamson’s already-voluminous injury history raises doubts about his ability to stay on the court for a full season — but, if healthy, both are the fulcrums for two of the most exciting teams in the league. Big men will be posterized. Words will be exchanged. And points will be scored.
Timberwolves at Clippers, Dec. 14
Allow us to introduce you to an early sleeper pick for the Western Conference Final. Hear us out. If, and we know it’s a big “if,” Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and John Wall suit up for most of the games, the Clippers could have the best perimeter rotation west of Boston. They’ve also got one of the most underrated playoff tacticians on a bench in Ty Lue. On the other side, new Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert should cover up a lot of the mistakes Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards make on defense, enough so that their multi-level scoring abilities produce more wins than 140-135 losses.
Knicks at Mavericks, Dec. 27
It’s not exactly LeBron’s return to Cleveland in 2010, but Brunson’s return to Dallas isn’t likely to be filled with warm fuzzies from a Mavericks organization that couldn’t have been happy with the Knicks’ unofficial recruitment of him during last year’s playoffs, nor from Luka Doncic, who doesn’t hide his emotions particularly well. In other words, things could get a little chippy.
Warriors at Celtics, Jan. 19
What the sport looks like played at the highest level. A rematch of an entertaining Finals between two teams that haven’t lost many key pieces qualifies. A Boston crowd is likely to be a bit more hyped for some potential revenge than a Bay Area arena filled with fans who have celebrated four titles in the last decade. And who knows? Maybe Durant is there to face his former team with his new Celtics teammates.
Knicks at Nets, Jan. 28
Let’s illustrate the rose-colored-glasses scenario for Brooklyn. Let’s say KD and the Nets reach a détente. Let’s say Kyrie Irving plays close to a full season, minus the usual head-scratching distractions. Let’s say the Knicks follow the typical life cycle of a Tom Thibodeau-coached team and start to tune him out? And let’s say Steve Nash shows a little more creativity as a coach. That could make this a pretty spicy game in the middle of the NBA’s new “Rivals Week.”
Bucks at Nuggets, March 25
Turn off your phones for this one. A duel between the past two MVPs, filled with unearthly athleticism and cagey decision-making. Watch as Giannis Antetokounmpo dunks three steps after crossing half court. Rewind the DVR to find the angle Nikola Jokic saw before anyone else to thread a pass through traffic. Appreciate the fact that well-coached teams with the right superstar can contend for a title without having to load up on a chemistry-killing amalgamation of stars.
— Paul Forrester
Around the horn…
• The Patriots are taking out fans with their practice fights. Somehow this ends with a six-figure fine, a forfeited draft pick and a four-game ban for Mac Jones.
• Dick Vitale, cancer-free. That’s awesome, baby.
• Tiger Woods the labor organizer. Did not see that one coming.
• The 11 college presidents and chancellors who make up the College Football Playoff’s Board of Managers have begun discussions about taking the management of the sport away from the NCAA’s oversight. Maybe they have an NIL deal with someone out of Miami, too?
• Giving a shortstop $341 million for a 126 OPS+ will get you fired. Oh, sorry, that’s Francisco Lindor. Meant giving a shortstop $325 million for a 127 OPS+. That’ll get you fired.
• Dellin Betances, happy trails.