June 2009

Reggie uncut

Preisler@jeromepreisler.com

Not so long ago, his bat was the thunder at the heart of the Yankee lineup. In a major league career that spanned two decades, he played in ten postseasons, winning three World Series rings with the Oakland Athletics and two more with the New York Yankees. He was the American League and World Series MVP in 1973, and the 1977 World Series MVP when the Yankees defeated the Dodgers in six games. In the final game that series at Yankee Stadium, on October 18, 1977, he belted three homers on three pitches and three swings in three consecutive plate appearances to propel his team to the championship and earn the famous nickname Mr. October.

When Reginald Martinez Jackson hit those three homers, he became only the second a player in history to do that in a single Series game.  It’s probably no coincidence that the guy who preceded him holding that record also had a nickname that stuck: The Babe.

And, oh yes, Reggie Jackson was no stranger to controversy.

arod_235_062609.jpgIn Friday’s night 9-1 Yankee win over the Mets at Citi Field, Alex Rodriguez hit his 564th Major League homer to move past Reggie into 11th place on the all-time career home run list.  When Jackson retired in 1987 he’d ranked sixth behind Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson and Harmon Killebrew. Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro — and now Rodriguez — would later surpass his record.  But for Jackson A-Rod’s upcoming milestone had meant something special. A fellow member of the Yankee organization and friend of Rodriguez, Jackson had traveled cross-country from his West Coast home to hopefully be present when it was hit.

As the media crowded Rodriguez’s locker in the visiting clubhouse for his postgame comments, it was announced that Reggie would be taking questions in the corridor outside. A contingent of sportswriters broke off from the larger gathering to talk to him–and listen as Jackson stood in his trademark ballcap, fielding hugs from Andy Pettitte, waving to other players and clubhouse people, and reflecting on Rodriguez’s accomplishment and other subjects.

Gradually some of the writers filed off to listen to CC Sabathia’s press conference. I stuck around along with a couple of other guys. Though his voice was subdued, I found Reggie as brashly engaging, playful, and appreciative of an audience as ever.

Here’s some pure, unfiltered Reggie, with cuts only to eliminate repetition or because the hubbub in the corridor made some of his remarks unintelligible on playback.

On how A-Rod’s admission that he used performance enhancing drugs will impact his legacy: 

“The negativity that surrounds the steroids is certainly not something that I carry over to him. I do appreciate the fact that he admitted his mistakes. So from here we move forward. Judgment on him will be passed within the next seven and a half years. I don’t vote {on Rodriguez’s eventual candidacy for the Hall of Fame} If he doesn’t make it in the first fifteen years on the ballot, I get a chance.  But this guy’s probably gonna wind up with seven or eight hundred home runs.  I wanna enjoy the night tonight and watch my friend hit number five-sixty-four. And (grinning) maybe you’ll all drop my name in the paper when you’re all going by.”

On whether it is bittersweet watching someone pass his career home run record: 

“Not really.  You know, you get used to it, really. There’s been five or six {players} in the last four, five years.  I think when you see some of the great names fall, you get sad. Like I was watching the game the other night with Willie Mays.  I’m on the phone, Willie’s on the phone for about forty five minutes. We were talking about Alex. He was in a little slump there in Florida and Atlanta, and I was watching the game with Willie. And we talked about homer uns, we talked about steroids, and stuff like that. But today, I think, is a day for me to come and tip my cap, be a gentleman, be a fan. Really, I get a chance up close and personal to say ‘Nice going, congratulations to you and keep hitting home runs for the Yankees, and I’m here rooting for you.'”

On his own legacy:

“I think that I’ve been in such a wonderful position for the last few years, with the places I go . . . I was just at a Corvette show in Illinois, and people walk up to you — eight, ten, twelve, fourteen years old — a and ask for autographs, even though they weren’t born yet when I retired.  And so, I have a lot of friends in the game, and the game has been very good to me. And so thinking about it, re-experiencing it, sharing it . . . I enjoy it.  And I appreciate spending time with people and the fans.”

On why Derek Jeter (with whom Reggie watched last night’s game in the visiting clubhouse) is his favorite player:

“I’ve known him the longest. I’m kinda like a big brother to him . . .  He’s got all the ingredients, man. And he’s my friend.  So I’m certainly prejudiced.

arod_DIR_blog_235.jpgOn his relationship with A-Rod:

“Alex Rodriguez is my friend, so I’m prejudiced, and I don’t have a lot of negatives to say. If  I have negatives to say, I certainly can say them to Alex, I know him that well.  I certainly can get on his butt sometimes if I see some things going on on the field that I don’t approve of. But that’s man to man. That’s pro to pro. “

On Rodriguez as a player:

 “Alex Rodriguez plays as hard as any player I’ve ever seen.  He prepares as hard, and works as hard, as any player I’ve ever seen around the game.  You’ve got to tip your cap. I always say, they used to say about me, ‘Reggie Jackson, love him or hate him, you cannot ignore him.’ Alex Rodriguez goes to the post every day unless he’s in the hospital.  And that you’ve got to tip your cap to. You just have to, with all the adversity that he’s gone through, and all the tough times he’s had, he goes out there. And he’s had some days and some moments and some adversity that have been really tough.  So he’s vulnerable. A big target.  But you’ve got to tip your cap. . . . I look forward to the day that he has success to help this club win a championship.  Until then, we won’t let him up. We’ll keep the thumb on him, the spotlight’ll stay on him, and the critiques will be there till we win. So, as my friend, I would like to see him win . . . I’m a Yankee fan, and I’m proud of it. The places I go, and everywhere I go, I’m proud of it.”

On why he traveled to see Rodriguez top his career home run record:

“I’m more than just an ex-player and a Yankee. I’m part of this organization. I’m part of the franchise. From the Steinbrenner family down to the clubhouse people, I am part of it. So being a Yankee, the right thing to do is to be here. And I wanted to be here.  I’m not here because it’s the right thing to be here. I have a sister that’s very ill, I could be home. I have a child that’s deciding on college.  But I needed to be here.  I’m part of this ballclub. I talked to the owners, I’ve talked to the president of this team, and I’ve talked to the manager, so this is important to me. “

Addressing the press in the clubhouse even as Reggie spoke outside its doors, Rodriguez made it clear Jackson’s prese
nce was also important to him, calling Reggie “a close friend and mentor” and “an American icon.”

For this writer, having a chance to hear him share some thoughts was a gas, plain and simple.

Hope reading them been fun for all of you.

A Large, Unsettling Question


Cano-6-22-250.jpgPreisler@jeromepreisler.com

If you are a baseball fan, and you woke up feeling good about your team today, that team probably isn’t the New York Yankees.

Entering the twelve-game stretch that began when they were swept by the Boston Red Sox at Fenway on June 9-11, the Yankees were 34-24, ten games over .500 and  tied with the Sox for first place in the AL East. They had a game-and-a-half lead over Toronto, and a six game lead over the Tampa Bay Rays.

Today they are 38-31, seven games over .500, four games behind the first place Red Sox, hold a one game lead for second place over the Toronto Blue Jays, and are only two games ahead of the fourth place Tampa Bay Rays.

They have lost three out of the last four series, and would have lost all of them if it hadn’t been for Mets second baseman Luis Castillo dropping a pop flyball that would have closed out Game One of the Subway Series for his team had it landed in his glove. Two of those series losses have been against National League East teams with losing records, one of them the worst in baseball. They also come as the Red Sox and Tampa Bay are busy beating up on their NL counterparts.

Despite an elite roster bolstered in the offseason by the costly acquisitions of CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett,  Mark Teixeira and currently dormant reliever Damaso Marte, they are doing just slightly better than the 40-35 record they held last season at this time, remain only one game closer to the Red Sox in the standings, and are exactly the same number of games behind them in the loss column.

As of right now, this makes the 2009 New York Yankees a tremendous, expensive disappointment.

If you are a Yankee fan this morning, and you watched our team lose the rubber game of last weekend’s set against the Florida Marlins on Sunday, you might recall hearing former Yankee, and current YES broadcaster, Paul O’Neill, comment that this was an extremely important series for the Florida franchise. As young team, he said, they needed to prove they could play against the Yankees.

But it was arguably a far more important game for the Yankees, who suffered yet another series loss to a team that had no business beating them, and have gone south in more ways than one heading into Atlanta for an interleague series with the Braves.

If you are a Yankee fan this morning, it leaves you wondering a few things.

After stalwart long reliever Alfredo Aceves had thrown almost three innings in scoreless relief of CC Sabathia, who left the game in the second inning with a sore left bicep, manager Joe Girardi pulled him from the game at the bottom of the fifth, replacing him with the unreliable Brett Tomko. At the time, the Yanks held a 3-1 lead.

Aceves currently boasts a sparkling 2.32 ERA and had thrown 43 pitches before leaving the mound. His final, hitless inning of work was his most economical; he’d needed only 9 pitches to get through it. Prior to Sunday’s game, he had last seen action on June 18th in a scoreless nine-pitch outing against the Washington Nationals. The day before, June 17th,  he had pitched a scoreless 2/3 of an inning against the Nats, dispatching them with only five pitches.

Tomko’s ERA for the season stands at 7.20. With the Yanks leading the Nationals 5-1 in the series opener, he threw a scoreless ninth inning to preserve the victory, while Mariano Rivera tossed in the bullpen, ready to close out the game if he ran into trouble. His previous appearance–on June 12 against the Mets–didn’t go as smoothly, as he surrendered 4 runs on three hits and two walks in a horrific 2/3 of an inning. Before that, he’d given up a run  to the Red Sox on two hits and a couple of walks on June 9th, when he threw a total of 47 pitches in 2 1/3 innings of relief.

The Marlins scored 3 runs against him in 2 innings to tie the game. Two of their hits were homeruns.  Tomko would leave it to fellow relievers Phil Coke and David Robertson to give up the lead, with the assistance of a throwing error from Melky Cabrera.

But let’s get back to Aceves a moment. A converted starter, he threw a season-high 70 pitches against the Red Sox on May 4, 50 pitches against Baltimore on May 21, and has since had several outings when he threw over 30 pitches.

On Sunday, with the Yanks needing a series victory before an off day on which Aceves would be guaranteed rest, his manager’s decision to pull him is at the very least problematic. It appears that instead of considering how fluidly Aceves was throwing the ball, Girardi opted to be cautious with his pitch count. The result was a Yankee loss.

Recently, a reader of this column asked my assessment of Joe Girardi’s performance as the Yankees’ manager. I told him that I thought it would take a full 2009 season before I could fairly evaluate it.

I still believe that. But if Girardi has shown one serious and noticeably recurring managerial flaw, it is a seeming tendency to have his eyes in his notebook when keeping his head in the flow of the game would better serve the team’s cause. It is a negative that has proven costly on more than a single occasion.

The bad little things I detailed in a previous entry–errors, base running gaffes, and walks to opposing batters–have continued to hurt the Yanks since they lost their winning ways in Boston.  Their bats have been sluggish,  their pitching  spotty, and their overall play lackluster at best.

How much of this falls on Joe Girardi is still an open question, and will remain so for a while.

But on a grey Monday day in 2009 in which the Yankee record and position in the standings is uncomfortably similar to where they were last year–Girardi’s first season as manager, and the first in 13 years that did not see the team make the playoffs–there is no doubt that question has begun to take a very large, unsettling shape.

The Fix

nationals_275_061909.jpgPreisler@jeromepreisler.com
It would be tough to pin the Yankees’ home series loss to the Washington Nationals, who are mostly known for being MLB’s current answer to the Bad News Bears, on any particular member of the team. Basically they played lousy in general.
 
If you watched that series, though, and then consider that the Yanks really should have lost two out of three home games to a depleted Mets squad last weekend, and were swept by the Boston Red Sox at Fenway before that — a stretch of nine games during which they’ve stumbled from being one game up on the Sox to three behind them for the AL East division lead — it’s hard not to think that the team needs some fixing.

I’ve been trying to figure out what the fix or fixes might be. And the more I think about it, the more I keep coming back to the deficiencies in right field represented by Nick Swisher, and the spot in the starting rotation occupied by Joba Chamberlain.

Of course, Swisher isn’t responsible for the team’s collective offensive slump. I think that has more to do with Alex Rodriguez not hitting right now than anything. His bat is supposed to be the major noisemaker in the middle of their batting order. When it is silent, the aggregate thunder in Yankee bats goes from a loud roar to isolated rumbles.

Rodriguez has a long track record as one of the most prolific run producers in baseball. You can’t point to age or general physical condition as reasons for his struggles. But he is recovering from serious hip surgery and has played every game since his hurried return. Based on what we’ve seen of him, it’s reasonable to think that with some rest, and recovery time, he’ll round into form.

Or at any rate, he’d better for the sake of his team. He isn’t going anywhere.

Likewise based on track record, however, Swisher is a problem that won’t go away until he does, at least as an everyday player. In a sense it isn’t his fault. With the acquisition of Mark Teixeira, he was supposed to be half of a right field platoon that included Xavier Nady. But Nady got injured, and remains injured, and that has left Swisher a regular starting member of the lineup whose historical weaknesses have become increasingly apparent.

His career numbers aren’t the worst you’ll ever see, but they aren’t good. In 2004, his first year in the Majors, he hit .250. The next year he averaged .236. The next year he hit .254. His best BA was .262 in 2007. His worst was .219 in 2008. He’s now batting .244, a career average.

Yes, I know about the walks. The pitches taken. The slugging and on-base percentages. I’ve read all sorts of numbers.

In fact, I was reading this analysis of Swisher by a hardcore Sabermetrics guy named Peter Bendix. It was written in June 2008 when Swisher was with the Chicago White Sox. A year ago, Bendix wrote how Swisher’s failure to deliver was basically just bad luck. Bendix’s calculations indicated a sharp upturn in his performance was in the offing.

Wrote Bendix of last year’s Nick: “To begin with, Swisher has been very unlucky on balls in play. His 22.5% line-drive percentage produces an expected BABIP of .345. However, his actual BABIP is a miserable .244. If we adjust his batting line to account for the hits he should have, his line becomes .271/.371/.359.”

I looked up the meaning of BAPIP last night, not being familiar with the statistic. A stat-head website called the Hardball Times defines it as Batting Average on Balls in Play, “a measure of the number of batted balls that safely fall in for a hit (not including home runs). The exact formula we use is (H-HR)/(AB-K-HR+SF) This is similar to DER, but from the batter’s perspective.”

I didn’t look up DER. I haven’t checked Swisher’s VORP or PECOTA or any of that stuff. I don’t mean to sound disparaging of the numbers game. Bill James has certainly helped the Boston Red Sox find players who can hit the ball well at their park.
But I have to go with my observational and analytical strengths. For better or worse, I rely on what I see with my eyes and more basic statistics. And when I see Swisher play, I see a guy who plays with a lot of energy, but too often allows that energy to drive him when it his job to harness it. He runs the bases recklessly. He seems to be largely unaware of cutoff men. In clutch situations, he tends to swing for the fences when he simply needs to get on base.

And he’s hitting .244.

I like Swisher on the bench. I’ll take his hustle and energy in small doses and think there are situations when he can be useful to the team.

But the Yanks need to figure out what they are going to get out of Nady this season. My guess is that their expectations are minimal. If that’s the case, they need another solution to the right field problem.

That’s the Swisher part. Chamberlain is next.

I’m weary of the Joba fight. Those who lean toward numbers guys will point to his 3.89 ERA and argue that five innings of that every fifth day is preferable to one or two innings of relief several times a week.

joba_250_061909.jpgMy response is that watching Joba pitch as a starter has become excruciating. He gets into deep counts, he walks batters, he allows droves of them on base,and he depletes the bullpen by failing to give length. He puts his defense on its heels and gives teams like the Washington Nationals the sense that they have a fighting chance.

Opposing teams don’t fear Chamberlain right now, nor should they. Where is his power fastball? His slider? His velocity is now fairly average. It largely has been for a while. The lightning in his fingertips has become erratic, and it’s anyone’s guess whether it will return with any constancy.

Chamberlain has no proven track record as a starting pitcher. Chien-Ming Wang does. Yet Wang is given ultimatums while the Yankee hierarchy continues to disregard Chamberlain’s falling effectiveness and send him out to pitch as a member of the rotation.

Meanwhile, Wang continues to improve and make a case that he should remain in the rotation. And Phil Hughes continues to throw multiple innings of relief with snap and efficiency that suggest he warrants another shot at starting.

If Wang looks good after another start or two, Chamberlain should go to the bullpen. The time when innings restrictions will put him there is approaching anyway, so why wait? Maybe he’ll regain his lightning as a reliever. Maybe next season, with some work, he will become the winning starter the Yankees envision.

Right now the Yankees should be looking to win in 2009 and think about giving Hughes his shot.

We can go by the numbers (assuming they’re being interpreted without skew). Or we can use them wisely to inform what we see. I’d suggest the latter.
 
A lot of us can follow recipes, but that doesn’t make us master chefs.

Working class players

nationals_250_061709.jpgPreisler@jeromepreisler.com
During Tuesday night’s broadcast of the Washington Nationals-Yankees series opener at the Stadium, there was an illuminating conversation between Yankees play-by-play man Michael Kay and his on-air partner, John Flaherty.

Why, Kay wondered aloud, would a batter on a non-contending team like that Nats do something like sacrifice himself with a grounder to first base or a bunt to move a runner over? While Kay understood this is the right way to play the game, he was approaching the question from a practical and individualistic angle — if the team isn’t seriously in the race for a championship, what does the player have to gain in terms of his own career? In the final box score it would just look like he’s made an out and lower his batting average.

Flaherty’s response was interesting. The batter, he said, should be motivated to sacrifice in that situation because it’s his job. He might be playing for a contract. He might be playing just to stay in the big leagues. Maybe his manager will notice his effort on behalf of the team. If not, maybe some other manager. You do what you’re supposed to and hope for the best. For Flaherty, the hardnosed former catcher, it was that basic.

The exchange launched me into thinking about something, which in got me thinking about several other things.

The first thing was an e-mail I’d gotten from a longtime reader in reaction to my previous column. She’s a very private person, so I won’t name her, but I hope she won’t mind my sharing an excerpt here:

I love baseball. I love sports in general, but I really love baseball. I love how it seems to represent all of life’s struggles, where you fail more often than you succeed, and no matter what happens in one game, there’s another one tomorrow, where the fight is fresh and the struggle never ends. Through these players we get to live vicariously, given these rules between those lines and we get to laugh and cry for the duration of the game, escaping our real lives, where nothing is for certain and where it is never clear who is the winner or the loser. I truly appreciate those players who seem to see the bigger picture in all the little things they do and carry themselves with integrity and dignity, until the very end of the last game; because no matter who we are and what we do, we should carry ourselves with integrity and dignity.

After turning in for the night, I reflected on her beautifully eloquent words, and then began musing about some people I know, and the unsung dignity and integrity with which they I’ve lived, never knowing or considering what the net gain would be.

In our New England town, there’s a woman whose first marriage ended in a divorce she hadn’t sought. A mother of two, she has an autistic son, and the stresses of her marriage left her caring for her children alone. Entering a tough job market to support them, she found employment as a postal clerk. She would eventually remarry a good man, only to see him lose his life in an automobile accident. It is only a wrinkle of fate that prevented her from being in the car with him.

Her workday begins at four in the morning. She lives out on an island known for its lobstering, and the drive to work is long and treacherous in the frozen winter darkness. But she is a bright, smiling presence at the post office whose diligence, humor and optimism makes it a pleasure to walk in there.

Her son is now a highly functional teenager living in a group home that she and the families of other autistic children helped establish. It is a stone’s throw from her door and he loves it. She actively transitioned him into his new living situation and is constant with her time and love even as she continues working at the post office — and putting her other child, a daughter, through college.

No matter who we are and what we do, we should carry ourselves with integrity and dignity.

Last night, I thought about that woman in Maine. And then I thought about my father too.

In Rumania where he was born, his family was large and very poor. They lived in a rural area and grew most of their own food. After the Nazis invaded in 1940 they were carried by truck to the Jewish ghetto and then loaded into cattle cars bound for the concentration camps. My father always remembers his cat following him for miles over the mountain roads until one of the Nazi troopers shot it dead.

At Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany, my father’s family was almost entirely exterminated in the gas chambers. He was strong enough to be put to work as a slave, and survived eating gruel and whatever weeds and grass and insects he could pick from the ground. Eventually he was trucked off to Mittelbau-Dora in Nordhausen, Germany as part of the slave labor force in the nearby subterranean V-2 rocket complex. When the workers would die of weakness, disease and starvation, their bodies were carried into tunnels and left there. By the thousands.

Powerfully built but short, my father was considered the perfect size for installing components in the nosecones of the rockets. The Germans would boast to him at gunpoint that these weapons, the world’s first ballistic missiles, would be the downfall of England. Inside the nosecones, he would tear out wires by the handful. He must have done it hundreds of times. If he’d been caught once he would have been tortured and killed.

The V-2 rockets never worked the way they were supposed to. Their guidance systems didn’t allow them to hit their targets with accuracy. These guidance systems were in their nosecones.

After the liberation my father eventually came to America. He found a place to live, learned the language and worked for decades in a garment factory in Queens, New York. In the summer the factory was so hot the sweat would drench through people’s clothes as they toiled to do piecework at their industrial sewing machines. At night, when I was a boy, he would leave the factory at night and earn extra money selling whatever he could from the trunk of his car. He never complained.

While visiting my parents at their Brooklyn apartment last winter, I gave my mother a talking Donald Trump doll. My mother likes Donald Trump. Push a button in its back, and the doll, like the real-life Donald, has plenty to say. One of the things it says is, “Always love what you do.”

I was at the dinner table fiddling with the new Donald doll when I heard it make that statement.

Always love what you do.

I turned to my father, thinking of his years in the sweatshop.

“I can’t stand when people say that,” I told him. “Some people do what they have to whether they like it or not. Look at you  … working in that factory all those years.”

My father surprised me with his answer. “I loved my job,” he said simply. “It was an honest living.”

I’d never realized he felt that way. All these years, and I’d never known.

No matter who we are and what we do, we should carry ourselves with integrity and dignity.

Amazing, isn’t it, that so many deep thoughts should be prompted by a baseball game? No less one involving the Washington Nationals, the team with the worst record in the sport.

Or maybe it isn’t amazing at all. Maybe it’s because it was the Nats that all this came to mind.

That Washington batter Kay and Flaherty was discussing … he tried to move the runner over. Just hours later, I can’t remember which batter it was, or even if he succeeded. I fault myself for that. I wish I’d been paying closer attention.

There’
s always a lesson to be learned.

For Hye Sun Canning

Yahoo! This is your celebration!

krod_250_061509.jpgPreisler@jeromepreisler.com
Over this weekend’s Yankee Stadium half of the 2009 Subway Series, plenty of media grist was derived from the verbal — and at one point almost physical — scrap between Yankees’ reliever Brian Bruney, and Mets closer Frankie “K-Rod” Rodriguez. Most baseball fans are doubtless familiar with the whole thing, so I’ll just recap briefly.

A moment before the series opener ended with an improbable Yankees win when Mets second baseman Luis Castillo dropped an easy pop fly, Rodriguez, who’d induced the pop-up, was apparently primed to launch into his familiar mound celebration: shouting at the top of his lungs, jabbing his fingers at the sky, thumping his chest, and sometimes adding a little James Brown-ish flourish — a one-legged spin that finishes with him dramatically sinking down onto one knee. But when Castillo messed up the basic little league play, Rodriguez instead wound up holding his head with both hands in astonished dismay.

Asked about the game’s wild climax Friday night while completing a rehab stint with the Yankees’ Double-A Trenton Thunder, Bruney remarked that, “It couldn’t happen to a better guy on the mound, either. He’s got a tired act.”
 
“I just don’t like watching the guy (K-Rod) pitch,” he would go on to say. “I think it’s embarrassing.”

When Bruney’s comments were relayed to Rodriguez, he irately responded by saying that the Yankees’ righty “better keep his mouth shut and do his job, not worry about somebody else.” He also claimed, “I don’t even know who the guy is. I’m not going to waste my time with that guy.”

But during Sunday’s pregame warm-ups in the outfield, Rodriguez seemed to know exactly who Bruney was when he stormed up to him pointing his finger and shouting some heated words. The confrontation might have come to blows if not for Mets pitcher Mike Pelfrey, the Yankees’ Jose Veras, and a few other players and coaches who fortunately stepped in to separate the two.

That apparently ended the whole business except for a high volume of media noise about it, most of which hasn’t so much debated the merits of Bruney’s remarks, but questioned whether he should have publicly made them in the first place.

At his locker after Sunday’s game, Bruney in essence conceded it was a mistake. And it probably was. Once they’re relayed to the criticized party via the press (as they always are), shots of the sort Bruney aimed at a fellow player usually lead to nothing but fan and media rubbernecking. Nothing beats a good sideshow in this world.
 
Admittedly, though, my first reaction on hearing what Bruney said was a “Go Guy!” fist pump of my own at the TV screen. Like many players and fans, I find Rodriguez’s routine an annoyance. In fact, I wish the grandstanding that’s infected all of professional sports like a stubborn diaper rash would go away. If I want that kind of stuff, I can watch Wrestlemania.

A few years after it first showed up in the NFL via the Mark Gastineau dance, things got so bad I found watching the games tough. I couldn’t stand Gastineau.
 
When I met him in person much later on, my reaction was very different. I used to occasionally hang at a bar called Jimmy’s Corner on Times Square, which was owned by a fight trainer who also had a boxing gym in the area. Gastineau, who worked out at the gym during his boxing career in the ’90’s, was a fairly frequent visitor to Jimmy’s, as were many boxing personalities. Gastineau was always polite and low-key. I found him very likeable. Once, I recall him helping the barkeep’s wife mop a spill off the floor on a busy night. It was hard to connect that guy with the showboat I’d seen on the tube. I was always tempted to ask why he’d chosen to be a clown on the field — but he’s a lot bigger than I am.

owens_200_061509.jpgAnyway, the sack dances were small potatoes compared to what would follow. In 2002, as I recall, Terrell Owens, then with the San Francisco 49ers, pulled a Sharpie pen from his sock after scoring a touchdown, signed the ball, and handed it off to his financial planner in the stands. But the capper for me came the next year in a game between the New Orleans Saints and New York Giants, when New Orleans receiver Joe Horn pulled a cellphone he’d tucked under the padding of a goalpost and — he said — made a call to his mom on catching a touchdown pass.

I’m not big on so-called “excessive celebration” rules. I think they open the door to penalties based on very subjective interpretations of a player’s actions. But I was glad with the NFL installed just that kind of rule. It made it easier for me to watch pro football.

NBA basketball’s another story. For me, it’s become unviewable. I grew up a huge Knicks fan rooting for old school players like Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, and Dave DeBusschere. They played hard and never showed up their opponents.

I had no problem with Michael Jordan decades later. He was more demonstrative than the old guard players, sure. But when he’d jump up in the air and pump his fist, it was an honest display of emotion.

For a while I liked the New Jersey Nets. This was during the four or five years when Jason Kidd reenergized the team and took them to the finals in 2002 and 2003. Kidd and his teammates reminded me of the old Knicks. Kenyon Martin sometimes got a bit carried away but I felt his passion on the court was genuine.

I didn’t like it after Martin was traded away, and Vince Carter came along, and started doing his motorcycle-revving bit when he scored. The team never went to the finals with Carter. I don’t know what he was revving about.

Alonzo Mourning was another player whose premeditated outbursts got me. Alonzo’s stunt was to make a muscle like Popeye after a big basket or block. Spontaneous? Right.

And the beat goes on in the NBA. The latest irritant for me was the so-called Hannibal Lecter grimace that Kobe Bryant affected throughout this year’s playoffs. Kobe’s a great player, maybe the greatest active player in the league. He’s won multiple championships. But he never made that puss in his previous postseason runs. Why now all of a sudden?

Maybe I’m wrong, but I believe that people don’t start mugging like that out of the blue. I’ve been in many high pressure situations over the years. My facial expressions have stayed the same. Look at old Super Eight movies of me from when I was eight or nine years old, there’s a recognizable consistency. Even my happy dances are the same as when I was a kid. At no point in my life have I started making cannibal faces or anything.

In pro sports, it seems every other athlete has a shtick. I hate it most in baseball because I love baseball more than any other sport by leaps and bounds. The Barry Bonds school of styling is awful enough — note to Robinson Cano — but it really irked me when Manny Ramirez started wagging his fingers at pitchers off whom he’d hit homeruns.

After a tight save, the Red Sox’s Jonathan Papelbon usually gestures in a way that isn’t fit for family consumption. When it’s not so tight, he just throws out a “*%*$* yeah!” without bothering to cover his mouth with his glove. He knows the cameras are on him. He knows kids are watching him curse. Don’t think he doesn’t leave the glove down on purpose.

joba2_20
0_061509.jpgIn his first seasons with the Yankees, Joba Chamberlain’s fist pumping got over the top after a while. I believe the gesture to be authentic — heck, his dad does it — but he needed to rein it in some, and he did to his credit. Not so for all pitchers. There’s lot of dancing, yelling and posing to be seen on mounds throughout baseball nowadays.

Maybe these guys need to be taught their lessons. Say a pitcher’s sent to Dr. James Andrews out in Birmingham for an MRI on his shoulder, and Andrews starts jumping up and down, gyrating his hips, and fist-pumping when he locates the source of the guy’s pain on the scan: “A tear! A tear! I found it, yeeeeaiiiiiiioow Mama!!”

You ask me, Frankie Rodriguez wouldn’t be too appreciative of that.

I don’t want to make a big deal out of all this. But like Bruney, I find it all tiresome and unsportsmanlike. So how about managers and coaches ask players to please limit the contrived theatrics? Would it really hurt?

Of course, if that doesn’t happen, the best way to put an end to it is always to simply beat the showboats. As we saw with Frankie, that’s when their hands go from pointing at the sky to their caps. 

Bad Little Things

jeter_damon_250_061109.jpgIn the good old days, it was the Red Sox that did the bad little things to lose games.

There’s Buckner’s fumbled play at first base, of course. That’s the epitome. The Sox are one out away from winning the 1986 World Series, one out from beating the Mets at Shea, and Buckner lets Mookie Wilson’s easy grounder slip under his glove into the outfield to tie the game, and the rest is bitter history for Sox fans. Too much.

But we don’t need to go back that far. In the late nineties, and up till they finally celebrated on the field at Yankee Stadium in Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS on the way to winning it all, the Red Sox made all kinds of slip-ups that gave Yankees fans chuckles.

Some forget that the games would be close lots of the time. That was a big part of the fun, what made watching the Yankees beating the Red Sox such a delight. The Boston teams were tough, and scrappy, and talented, and they fought hard till the bitter end. But there would always be that one act of self-destruction, a bobble, base-running mistake or managerial gaffe that made you slap your knees till your hands were raw while you almost choked on your own hoots of laughter.

Nomar Garciaparra gave us plenty of great moments. An athletic shortstop, sure, but remember how he’d sling the ball into stands on overthrows to first base? And Todd Walker, what a pleasure it was watching him boot those balls at second. And let’s not forget Trot Nixon in the outfield. He kinda reminds me of a surly version of Nick Swisher. A hardnosed player who did loads of things right until he would do the one thing wrong at the worst possible time — like misjudging a fly ball to blow an easy catch, or getting caught napping off a base pad — that ultimately helped his team lose.

The Red Sox usually played with heart and effort. They threatened, and they got close. But in the final tally, in the box score, they always came out short.

It was like the Yankees were in their heads or something.

A game in 2002 comes to mind. Let me take you back. It’s late July in the wonderful Grady Little Era, and the Sox come into Yankee Stadium trailing the Yankees by a couple of games for first place. Jeff Weaver’s pitching for the Yankees, he’s got a four-run lead in the early innings, but the Sox come all the way back to tie the game, and then take the lead. But in the bottom of the ninth, Nixon lets a fly ball off Bernie Williams’ bat get by his glove out in right and the Yankees tie the game, Enrique Wilson scoring all the way from first. Even before that, though, in the top of the inning, Jose Offerman, who played a bunch of different positions, got nailed recklessly trying to steal third base with one out, maybe costing the Sox some tack-on runs.

But I don’t want to forget the best part. This, again, is at the bottom of the ninth inning, when Grady goes for his five-man infield deployment. With Williams on base, and one out, Little has his closer, Ugueth Urbina, intentionally load the bases with two walks, and pulls an outfielder out of position for that five-man infield configuration he loved so dearly, hoping to elicit a double play from the next Yankee batter up at the plate, Jorge Posada.

And, making a long story short, Posada walks in the winning run.

In those days, that kind of Red Sox loss was sweet and natural as the sugar in Pepsi Throwback.

And they kept on coming, through 2003, and then into the next year. In 2004, in fact, David Ortiz tried his best to reenact the Buckner error for young Sox fans who might have been unaware of their painful heritage.

What made it such a gas was that, at first, Ortiz was the hero. He drives in a run early, then homers in the sixth inning to make the score 2-0 Red Sox. And that’s how things stay until the bottom of the seventh, when Big Papi, who’s playing first base that day, muffs what should be a groundball out, and instead brings home two Yankee baserunners to tie the game. The very next inning, Gary Sheffield would double in the winning run for the Yankees.

“My glove was kind of soft. Maybe that’s why it went through,” Ortiz said afterward.

What a hoot. And things got even better the next day, in the 13-inning marathon that saw Derek Jeter’s fearless dive into the stands to catch a Nixon fly ball that would have dropped in for a potentially game-winning base hit, sacrificing his body to make one of the best plays you’ll ever see in what would also become one of the best Yankee victories over the Sox you’ll ever see.

With that win the Yankees swept the series, sending their archrivals back to Beantown to celebrate the July 4th holiday with their tails between their legs.

As I say, those were the days.

swisher_320_061109.jpgI couldn’t help but think of them watching the Yankees lose to the Sox Wednesday night. Take the top of the second, for instance. Matsui doubles and Swisher lays down a surprise bunt for a base hit, and then it’s first and third with nobody out. But then Melky Cabrera hits a hard shot to short, and Swisher’s strayed too far from the bag, and he gets easily doubled off. It would take a Jeter fly ball out to officially end the rally, but it really died with Swisher’s slipup. And he would further undermine the Yankees’ cause in the bottom of the inning misplaying what should have been a fly ball out to hand the Sox a run and compound Chien-Ming Wang’s struggles.

Give Swisher credit. He’d make a great catch later in the game. And he’d even hurl himself into the stands to try and make another. But in the end, it was the bad little things he did that hurt him.

We’ve seen lots of those things this series, and, so far, this whole season between the Yankees and Red Sox. It’s just like Sox players used to do, especially at Yankee Stadium. Except now the shoe — or maybe I should say the cleat — is on the other foot.
 
Now the point of all this isn’t to make everyone in Yankeeland feel more miserable than they already are. It’s to emphasize that baseball, more than any other sport, is one in which paying attention to details matter. The little things are what win or lose baseball games. Right now, when they play the Red Sox, the Yankees are doing all the bad little things, and that’s why they’re down 7-0 in the season series.

Here’s something to consider, though.

As I mentioned before, Ortiz’s Buckneresque play, and the Great Jeter Dive Game that capped the Yankee sweep of the Sox in July, all came in 2004.

That October, as nobody should have to be reminded, the Sox would turn the tables in historic fashion. Fortunes can change very quickly in baseball. And the players can make their own fortune.

Crestfallen Yankee fans might want to keep that mind as they drag through Thursday morning and afternoon, hoping for CC Sabathia to take the mound and prevent a sweep.

As might Red Sox fans amid their present good cheer.

Playing not to lose

burnett_250_061009.jpgA.J. Burnett isn’t the only one to blame. Some of it falls on the Yankees’ absent offense and defense, and some of it’s about giving credit to Josh Beckett and the Boston Red Sox.

But Tuesday night’s loss at Fenway was mostly about Burnett’s haplessness on the mound. He couldn’t throw a fastball for strikes, and he couldn’t throw a curveball for strikes, and since those are his two primary pitches, it follows that he couldn’t throw much of anything for strikes. Less than three innings and eighty-four pitches after taking the mound, Burnett had surrendered five runs, two of which came on a loud David Ortiz homer to deep center. Loud when it happened, loud when it drew a curtain call from the Fenway crowd.

It was only his third home run of the season. Nobody has to be told it wasn’t the Big Papi Yankees fans have come to fear standing there at the plate. This was an Ortiz who hasn’t been Big Papi all season. An Ortiz who’s been getting far more catcalls than curtain calls at his home ballpark. An Ortiz whose batting average has barely scratched .200, who’s hitting .188 against righties, who was dropped from third to sixth in the batting order,  who’s been benched in several series, and who Peter Gammons and others have reported has come close getting acquainted with the bench for a lot longer.

But there he went and did it, hitting one out against the Yankees for old times’ sake, laying into a four-seam fastball Burnett served right over the middle of the plate at 95 mph, right over, which only means that ball wanted to introduce itself to the sweet spot of his bat in a hurry.

Burnett wouldn’t be helped that inning by a fielding error committed by Alex Rodriguez, his fourth of the season. With one out, and outfielder Mark Kotsay having strolled to first after taking four consecutive fastballs that never came close hitting the plate, Red Sox shortstop Nick Green hit a hard grounder to third, and A-Rod seemed caught between going the easy out at first or a double play he wouldn’t have gotten anyway, and held onto the ball too long in his indecision. And then neither Green nor Kotsay were out, and couple of batters later both of them scored on a double.

Four-zip Sox. Second inning. You get them going at Fenway Park, you stake Beckett to that kind of early lead, and you are in serious trouble.

Again, the Yankees defense was complicit in the loss. There was Jorge Posada’s passed ball, and Robinson Cano missing a groundball to second that was ruled a hit but was a play he should have made.

The Yankees play eighteen errorless games, set a Major League record, and now all of a sudden they can’t go a single game without making one. Go figure. At Fenway, you can’t afford that. It helps lose games. Far less importantly, it forces out-of-market fans watching those games on NESN, the television home of the Red Sox, to hear their fill-in color commentator, resident baseball whiz and king of objectivity Dennis Eckersley, try to sell the argument that a record-breaking errorless streaks doesn’t mean a team’s played good defense during that streak.

Again, go figure.

But the big thing is the loss. This one, most of it, the sixth Yankees loss to their archrivals in as many games this season, falls on Burnett.  He began poorly and never got himself straightened out, which is a mystery. This is not some inexperienced rookie pitcher we’re talking about. This is a 10-year veteran. Somebody who never used to lose against the Red Sox and killed the Yankees on his way to winning 18 games with Toronto last season. This is someone the Yankees signed for five years at $82 million to be their No. 2 starting pitcher. And he couldn’t adjust.

Can we throw in one last “go figure?”

In his postgame comments, manager Joe Girardi attributed Burnett’s wildness to too much rest. He hadn’t pitched in seven days as a result of Girardi’s decision to reinsert Chien-Ming Wang into the Yankees’ rotation, and then a rainout last Friday.

“It was control, and I’ll take the blame for that. I mean, it’s hard to pitch on seven days,” Girardi said. “A guy’s used to a routine, and we tried to change our rotation a little bit to separate some people, and insert Chien-Ming Wang, and you can’t have too many expectations of a guy’s command.”

But Girardi was skirting around the widespread perception that he’d largely changed the rotation to avoid leading off the series with Wang, who’s still working back into form, on the mound. Putting it another way, he thought Burnett had a better chance of getting things off to a solid start for the Yanks.

His explanation for Burnett’s lack of command is also based on suspect logic. Monday night at Yankee Stadium, Phil Hughes had no trouble throwing quality strikes for a scoreless seventh-inning after cooling his heels in the bullpen for well over a week. Last Thursday, Wang managed to throw a decent ratio of strikes-to-balls in his first start since returning from rehab. If they weren’t too strong, why was Burnett?

After the game, YES studio analyst David Cone commented that the good pitchers, the really good ones, are supposed to be able to make the adjustments. He ought to know. He once ranked among the best.

beckett_250_061009.jpgAnd let’s add Beckett to the list. As Johnny Damon would point out, he’d also labored through the early innings, struggling with an inability to locate his off-speed pitches. But, said Damon, Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek noticed that Beckett’s four-seamer was working best for him and repeatedly called for it until he could spot it over the plate — and then build off it until he got a feel his curveball.

The Burnett-Posada tandem could accomplish no such thing. And when interviewed in the visiting clubhouse, even Burnett wouldn’t let Girardi’s too-much-rest, too-strong, explanation take him off hook.

“There’s no excuses,” he said. “I mean, I was out of whack, and I don’t think I repeated a delivery the whole two innings I was out there. So that’s just, you know, Skip being Skip.”

Translated: That’s just the manager expressing confidence in his player and casting his poor performance in the best possible light.

Girardi trying to take some of the heat off him is commendable — but it won’t erase Burnett’s ineffectiveness, or change the fact that he’s only won four out of his 11 starts for the Yankees and is carrying a 4.89 ERA into June.

Whatever the reason, Burnett has underperformed to this point. At Fenway Tuesday night, he appeared to be pitching not to lose rather than pitching to win — and to a point that’s how his team appeared to be playing behind him

Six games against the Red Sox, six losses.

If the Yankees are going to win the AL East in 2009, that will have to change.

Tonight would be good time to start.

Neighborhood Plays: Saturday In New York

redsoxnation_350.jpgSo it’s Saturday morning in New York, and we’re at the First Avenue Coffee Shop, this great little place where you can still grab breakfast for under five bucks, and that includes endless coffee refills and a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice. It’s been in the neighborhood as long as I have, which is a long time, and I never checked it out till maybe a month ago, shame on me.

Anyway, I’m forking scrambled eggs and home fries into my mouth when I overhear Suzy, the waitress of waitresses who seems to run the joint, talking to another customer over at the counter.

” … and all of a sudden, they don’t want to talk Yankees-Red Sox!” she says.

My writer-in-search-of-material receptors whipping up into the air like I’m some kind of bug, I look across my table at The Wife, who’s quietly snoopier than I am.

“You happen to hear who she means by ‘they’?” I ask.

“Red Sox fans,” she replies, chewing her muffin. There you go — didn’t I just say The Wife was a major snoop? “She was telling the guy that they don’t want to talk Yankees-Red Sox anymore now that the Yanks are in first place.”

I swivel around in my chair to look at Suzy.

“You a Yankee or Red Sox fan?” I ask, dutifully checking The Wife’s facts.

“A Yankee fan!” Suzy says, and eyes me suspiciously. She seems vaguely upset by the mere suggestion that she could be anything else. “You a Yankee fan?”

“I write a column for the YES Web site,” I say.

“Great,” she says. “What’s your name?”

I tell her. She promises that she’ll check me out online, brings the coffee pot over to our table, freshens up our cups, and formally introduces herself.

“We heard you talking … ” I begin.

“Red Sox fans come in here, they catch it from me,” Suzy says before I finish my sentence. “They think they can walk around New York with their caps, I let them have it.”

I look at her. It’s nine o’clock on a weekend morning, and the place is already jumping. People from every cultural background and financial status under the sun are mingling at the counter like they’ve known each other all their lives, like they’re best friends or family at some kind of reunion, with Suzy here being the queen of all things breakfast-wise and master of ceremonies rolled into one.

And then it hits me that the only people she won’t tolerate in this New York melting pot of a coffee shop are Red Sox fans. Perfect.

“Pleased to meet you,” I say, slyly shaking her hand.

Slyly because I know I’ll be doing a whole lot of hanging out at the coffee shop from now on. And that you’ll be hearing plenty about it.

_______________________

“Did you just say you were going to the Yankee game today?” asks the woman at the table across from us.

This is maybe 10 seconds after Suzy’s headed back around the front counter. We’ve seen the woman here before, reading the New York Times while eating cereal and cantaloupe and stuff between sips of coffee.

“No,” I answer. “I was just mentioning that I write this column about the Yankees … “

“Oh,” the woman says. “You know, my son and his friends bought Yankee tickets from a scalper a couple of weeks ago and they turned out to be counterfeit.”

“Ouch,” I say, shaking my head. “That stinks.”

“They were really looking forward to the game,” she says.

“I bet.”

“It was Bat Day.”

“Adding insult to injury,” I say. “Next time maybe he’d better go through StubHub if it’s at the last minute.”

She asks me what StubHub is and I explain.

“The kid grew up in the city,” she says after thanking me for the skinny. “You think he’d know better than to get ripped-off by a scalper.”

“Hey, no shame. I grew up in Brooklyn and got ripped-off lots of times,” I say.

I’m suddenly remembering when I got scammed out of a full week’s minimum-wage record-schlepper’s pay while trying to help some guy who claimed to be a lost Jamaican sailor. And remembering when I was walking toward the F-train subway entrance on 42nd Street at one or two in the morning, and a bunch muggers with knives swarmed me out of nowhere, and I made a break for it and bolted downs into the station with all of them on my heels, and got lucky enough to run smack dab into a cop with a German shepherd at the bottom of the stairs.

I’m remembering those misadventures, and a couple of others too, and secretly thinking that, for every time I got robbed or suckered, at least I never had a lousy ticket scalper make a fool out of me outside Yankee Stadium.

And then it occurs to me that only in New York City can one person feel he’s got something over another person because he was ripped-off in a way that’s less embarrassing, relatively speaking, at least in his own mind.

In Maine, when people talk about getting ripped off, they’re making price comparisons between the local supermarket and Wal-Mart.

_______________________

“Too bad our game was washout, huh?” says the guy with the corner fruit and vegetable stand.

Done with breakfast, The Wife and I have just passed his stand on the way back to our apartment when I hear that snipped of conversation.

I glance over my shoulder and notice the produce man’s talking to an older guy who’s stopped to check out his goods.

“Yeah,” says his customer. “Ruined my whole night.”

“Well, today’s sunny!” says the fruit man. “No more rain!”

The customer holds his palm out as if to confirm it, then nods his head.

“Yeah, you’re right,” he says. “It’s beautiful.”

“What are you going to do in this beautiful weather?”

The customer gives the fruit man a look that implies he has to be kidding.

“What else?” he says. “Stay home and watch the Yankees on TV.”

Which I’m thinking is about the closest many New Yorkers get to outdoor activity when the Yankees play a day game … and happens to be exactly what I plan on doing on that gorgeous June day.

Mo on the mend?

Rivera-6-7-250.jpgIn the wet, chilly first week of May, the Tampa Bay Rays swept a brief series at Yankee Stadium that had been shortened from three games to two due to rain. Both were tough losses for the Yanks, coming after they’d fought their way to late game-tying rallies.

On May 7, with the Yanks trailing 3-0 at the bottom of the eighth, Mark Teixeira hit a bases-clearing double to knot the score at 3-3 and force extra innings. But after pitching a scoreless ninth, Mariano Rivera was replaced in the tenth inning by lefty reliever Phil Coke, who surrendered what proved to be the game winning home run to Rays’ firstbaseman Carlos Pena.

At the time I’d written a column asking a question on the minds of many Yank fans: Why hadn’t Rivera, whose workload had been light that week, remained on the mound for a second inning of relief?

I would get my answer the next night following yet another bitter defeat for the Yanks — one that was especially shocking because of the future Hall of Fame closer’s role in giving Tampa a decisive lead.
 
For the second game in a row, the team had come back twice from an early four-run deficit to even things up at the bottom of the eighth. Called on to preserve the tie at the top of the ninth, however, Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria tagged Rivera for back-to-back home runs. It was the first time in his career that happened.
 
Crawford hit the first after Rivera shot him a steady stream of cutters with one four-seam fastball mixed in. All were in the 89-91 mph range. The ninth pitch, a 91 mph cutter, left the park in right field.
 
Longoria’s homer came after five pitches. The first four were 90-91 mph cutters. The fifth was an 89 mph four — seam fastball that Longoria smashed into the left field stands with a sound like a thunderclap.

Answering questions from the press hat day, manager Joe Girardi admitted that Rivera, who’d had offseason surgery to eliminate calcification — or a bone spur — in his right shoulder, had experienced some days “where he hasn’t felt the greatest.”

“The velocity is not there,” he’d said of Rivera’s cut fastball, which has in recent seasons typically registered at 93-94mph. “That’s part of it. I still think he’s coming back from the surgery he went through. That’s why we’ve been very careful with him.”

The cutter is of course Rivera’s trademark pitch, the key bullet in his arsenal, its velocity and movement running it sharply in on right-handed batters and away from lefties.

But what happens when some of that speed drops off?

The question remained in the background for almost a full month after Rivera was stunningly bested by the pair of Tampa hitters. Although he’d given up more hits than Yankee fans were accustomed to seeing in that period — and allowed home run in a rocky save against the Baltimore Orioles on May 20 — his strikeout rate was high and most innings thrown scoreless. Overall for the season, he was 12-for-13 in save opportunities going into Saturday’s game — the first in another rain-shortened series between the Yanks the Rays in the Bronx.

But, almost exactly a month after Rivera was stunningly beaten by Crawford and Longoria, bad history seemed to come around and bite him again. The game was uncannily similar to the May 7 loss. The Yanks had twice rallied from deficits, beginning the second with a dramatic Teixeira home run in the eighth. The Yanks went into the inning trailing 5-3. When it ended the game was tied at 5-5.

Rivera entered in the ninth to preserve the tie. When he was pulled from the game after inducing only two outs, the score was 7-5 Rays. He had faced six Tampa batters and left a pair of men on base for his replacement, Phil Coke. Before that inning ended, Tampa would tack on another pair runs to make the score 9-5 and withstand another Yank surge to hang onto a 9-7 victory.

This is how Rivera’s 2/3 of an inning vs. the Rays breaks down:

1) He threw five 90-92 mph cutters to shortstop Ben Zobrist. The fifth was hit out to left field for a triple.

2) He threw two four-seamers to Joe Dillon, one at 92 mph, the second at 93 mph. His third pitch, a 93 mph cutter was singled out to center.

3) He elicited a soft groundout from Dioner Navarro with three 91 mph pitches, a four-seam fastball followed by two cutters.

4) He threw Matt Joyce three cutters that ranged from 89-92 mph for what would appear on the box score as a flyball out — but that, in fact, might well have been an extra-base hit off the right field wall if not for an excellent running catch by Nick Swisher.

5) He issued an intentional walk to Evan Longoria to face outfielder B.J. Upton.

6) He threw three 92 mph cutters to Upton, the third of which was lined into centerfield for a single.

This brought Rivera’s disastrous outing to a close as he was removed from the game to watch the rest of the carnage — and as Yankee fans were left wondering whether this was just another rough spot along the way for the 39-year-old closer, or a sign that time was finally robbing him of his unparalleled effectiveness.
 
I think the answer probably falls somewhere in the middle. Rivera is the greatest reliever in the history of baseball. But he’s also human, vulnerable to the effects of aging — and recovering from shoulder surgery, as Girardi pointed out back in early May.

Yankee pitching coach Dave Eiland would likewise emphasize his return from surgery on Thursday, June 4, after Rivera notched his twelfth save of the season with a scoreless but dicey outing against the Texas Rangers in which he allowed a double to Michael Young and a single to Hank Blalock.

“The guy’s come off shoulder surgery,” he responded to a question about Rivera’s pitch speed, which that day had measured between 91-93 mph on the radar gun. “He’s never had to do that before. But if his velocity doesn’t ever go back up, he still has the command of his fastball — that late movement he has to both sides of the plate. He commands the baseball as good as anybody in the game, so for me his velocity is not a big deal. If it comes back, great. We think it will. But if it doesn’t, we’re still comfortable with what he can do where he’s at velocity-wise now.”

At his locker a few minutes later, I listened as Rivera himself assessed how he felt about the way he’s currently pitching with these words: “I’m okay. I’m okay?” he said. “I don’t have to ask for nothing better, you know what I mean? I’m gonna go there, I’m gonna give my best.”

When a reporter asked if he felt altogether back to himself after some rough early season outings, Rivera replied, “Well, I mean, I’m pitching, more, more. So, I have more opportunities. The longer you keep throwing on these occasions, everything is gonna be good.”

Never one to make excuses, Rivera was hardly unequivocal about his current physical condition.  He is obviously aware he isn’t in top form.
 
So what’s next for him?

Rivera has for years reportedly thrown a changeup in Spring Training bullpen sessions, and he may have to expand his repertoire to occasionally include it in game situations, throwing hitters off-balance, and stopping them from waiting on his fastball when it lacks bite.
  
It’s also important that we remember he is made of flesh and blood that is still in the process of healing–and that we acknowledge the signs that his arm is getting stronger as the season progresses. Though not entirely back up to speed, his fastball has gained a mile or two from earlier in the season and is getting close to its optimum velocity. Also, as Eiland stressed, his comma
nd has been mostly superb.
 
There is certainly reason for concern, nevertheless. Rivera cannot go on eternally pitching at the level to which we’ve been accustomed. We have seen him get hit harder, and more often, this year than ever before. And will likely see more bumps in the road.
 
But even at the latter stages of his career, Rivera remains the best and most consistent closer in baseball.
 
I’d rather have him on the mound closing games for the Yankees than anyone. Bumps and all.

Plots, subplots and spirit pie

yankeeswin_250_060509.jpgAs someone who earns his bread and butter writing novels, I’m always seeking narrative threads to play with: the plots and subplots that drive a story forward and create its textures and dramatic tension. I generally know where I’m starting out and have a rough idea where I’m heading. But writing a book takes anywhere between six months to a year. That’s a long time to live with characters on a daily basis. As they move within a set of circumstances I’ve thrust on them, they inevitably evolve and do things that surprise me … or do them in surprising ways.

It’s these twists and turns that make a story interesting for me — and hopefully for my readers — even as it moves toward the general resolution I’ve envisioned.

A baseball season’s a lot the same in my eyes. At one end there’s Opening Day, at the other the final pitch of the World Series. But between those fixed points lie constant, fascinating nuances and surprises. Which teams make it to the finish line? Which individual players? How do they get there? What happens to them along the way, and leaves some standing and others casualties of war?

There’s something about baseball that’s more richly textured than any other sport. Something about its pace — nine innings a game, 162 games played out over six long months, the give and tug within and between teams over that period — that heightens a season’s tension as it progresses and gives each one an epic quality. I think it’s no coincidence that most writers I know who are sports fans tend to love baseball above all others. The storylines always fascinating and unpredictable.

I started out for Yankee Stadium Thursday morning meaning to examine Chien-Ming Wang’s reinsertion into the Yankees’ starting rotation and its impact on Phil Hughes, the pitcher whose slot Wang was taking. But the three-hour match between the Yankees and Texas Rangers became a humming tapestry loaded with intriguing, interactive plot threads. Here are my thoughts on several of them, starting with the one I’d meant to write about in the first place.

WANG/HUGHES
The moment Joba Chamberlain took Adam Jones’ hard line drive to his knee on May 21, the seasons of Wang and Hughes irreversibly changed. Wang was headed for Pawtucket where he’d been scheduled to complete an extended rehab assignment when he was ordered to turn around and head back to New York. With Chamberlain’s ability to make his next start in question, the Yanks wanted an insurance policy — and Wang became just that.

It turned out that Chamberlain was able to take his normal turn on the mound. It also turned out that the Hughes, long the gem of the Yankees’ farm system, was pitching well with consistency for the first time in his brief Major League career. With Wang out of options, the Yankees could not send him down to the Minor Leagues without placing him on waivers and giving every team in baseball the chance to acquire him.

Wang consequently went into the bullpen with an indeterminate long-relief role that left his progress stalled. He would need repetitions — regular work, in other words — to sharpen his delivery and rebuild his stamina and confidence. But he wasn’t going to get that doing irregular mop-up duty.

The Yankees did not have a plan, or so it seemed for a while. But five increasingly strong innings of work from Wang out of the ‘pen apparently compelled them to formulate one.

And so the announcement was made less than 24 hours before Thursday’s game. Wang would start in place of the scheduled CC Sabathia and Hughes would be moved to the bullpen.

In his pregame press conference Thursday morning, manager Joe Girardi said this of their decision on Wang:

“He’s won 46 games in two-and-a-half years. I’m not sure how many guys in our clubhouse can boast that. So, I mean, this is not just a guy that we’re trying out. This is a guy we believe in, and {who} has been the ace of the staff here for the last three or four years. “

As has been previously discussed in this column, Wang is also a precious commodity in the new home run-friendly Yankee Stadium — a power sinkerballer who, at his best, can elicit groundballs and strikeouts to combine for a very high rate of efficiency. Besides racking up outs, that efficiency has a fringe benefit of getting him deep into games. In 2006, his first full season in the Majors, he ranked fifth overall in the number of innings pitched (218) in the American League, falling between Roy Halladay and John Lackey. The next year he fell to 21st (199 innings) but was still in the upper percentile of AL pitchers and only two spots behind Josh Beckett.

In fact, Wang’s 2007 drop off in ranking was due more to other pitchers having above-par years than Wang having a below average one. Before Wang’s 2008 season abruptly ended by a Lisfranc injury in mid-June, he was off to a tremendous start, having thrown 95 innings and racked up 54 strikeouts to go 8-2 in the win-loss columns.

As Girardi implied, Hughes, for all the growth he’s shown of late, has achieved nothing close to that success in his young career. Wang has not only earned his chance at a return to the starting rotation, but was in danger of losing arm strength and regressing in the bullpen. This is best for Wang and — in the short term — likely best for the ballclub. So, for now, the rotation is where he’ll be. And it is Hughes to the bullpen … and perhaps to the Minor Leagues upon reliever Brian Bruney’s eventual return from the disabled list.

But it’s an imperfect solution.

“I see using him in any role,” Girardi said of Hughes. “Some distance, maybe. Seventh and eighth, maybe. I could use him for one inning … He could be used at any time.”

Girardi also emphasized that the ballclub considers Hughes its “sixth starter” – a pitcher who can instantly be inserted into the starting rotation should one of its regulars become injured. The drawback of an extended bullpen stay for Hughes, however, is identical to the situation Wang was facing. It would diminish his stamina and make a quick jump back into a starter role difficult.

This is why Yankees GM Brian Cashman suggested on the ESPN radio Wednesday that Hughes might be sent down to Scranton if Bruney comes back to the club healthy. This reasoning is understandable and arguably sound. But while maintaining physical durability, will a return to Triple-A retard Hughes’s mental progress? There’s something that seems to have clicked with him besides more consistent command of his pitching arsenal — and that’s the ability to out-think veteran Major League hitters with his pitch selection. Hughes has advanced far beyond the level of skill need to get out Minor Leaguers. He has broken a barrier that impeded his success for the entire 2008 season. Will returning him to a setting where he’s faces inferior competition turn cause him to lose the edge he’s finally, and so recently, developed?

It remains to be seen. With six legitimate starting pitchers for five spots in their rotation, the Yankees are dealing with the “good problem” of baseball cliché.

Still a problem is a problem.

teixeira_arod_250.jpgTEIXEIRA/A-ROD
In the fifth inning, with the Yankees trailing by three runs, Mark Teixeira hit a double to clear the bases and tie the game at 5, sparking the team’s 19th comeback win of the season. The hit was hardly a blast off his bat, but looked more
like a shot off a pool cue as the ball bounced over third base, hugged the left field line and went rolling on into the outfield as three Yankees runners darted home to score.

“That’s for all the times you hit a ball to the warning track or a line drive right at somebody,” Teixeira said afterward with a grin.

Watching that game-changing play from the press box, it struck me that Teixeira has taken New York by storm with his glove and bat. He seems to do everything right when it counts the most. Two days before, after getting drilled by Rangers pitcher Vicente Padilla, he sparked a lethargic Yankee offense that was trailing 3-2 to a now-celebrated seven-run rally by breaking up a double play with a hard, clean slide into second base. Showing a grit and fire that’s perceived as having been lacking in recent Yankee teams, Teixeira drew well-deserved roars from the stands. He not only took a large step toward defining his identity in pinstripes, but also the spirit of the current group of Bronx Bombers.

It’s more than a slightly interesting footnote that the batter who started the potential double play with a groundout to second base was Alex Rodriguez, who’d been having a terrible series. Rodriguez had not only been striking out, flying out, and hitting into DPs left and right, but he’d been doing it at the worst of times, killing rallies by the bunch rather than starting them.

After Thursday’s game, a longtime clubhouse insider lamented that fans who’d jumped back on the Let’s-Boo-Alex bandwagon weren’t recognizing that his return to the lineup — and specifically his presence behind Teixeira in the lineup — following hip surgery and a hurried rehab are a large part of the reason Teixeira is getting better pitches to hit these days. And that the team’s streaking to the best record in the American League after a depressing start coincided with Rodriguez’s activation from the disabled list.

I disagree with that insider. I think the boo-birds are fully aware of Rodriguez’s importance to the team. I think they realize the Yanks were floundering before he returned, and I think they would gag and clutch their chests if he were to suddenly reinjure himself, opening up third base for the platoon of Angel Berroa, Ramiro Pena and perhaps eventually a healed Cody Ransom.

Because of his salary, and because of his occasional forays from the sports to the gossip pages, A-Rod is simply an easy target of frustrations when things go wrong for the team, and sometimes, maybe, when those anonymously jeering him have had a bad day at work.

I’m glad Teixeira has been welcomed to the Bronx for doing things right. Too bad people won’t get off Rodriguez’s back — and be as appreciative of him as Teixeira has vocally and visibly been in the Yankees dugout and clubhouse.

cabrera_250_060509.jpgMELKY AND THE SPIRITS
After his game winning two-run homer in the eighth inning, Melky Cabrera — who’s gotten more big late-game and walkoff hits than I can count this season and is hitting .483 in close and late game situations — managed to duck an A.J. Burnett pie while being interviewed for the Yankees radio postgame show by Suzyn Waldman.

I’d lingered in the press box to see whether or not a pie would be introduced to Melky’s face, having debated my colleague Jon Lane on whether eighth inning hits were pie-worthy as opposed to walk-offs exclusively. Jon didn’t think so. I did. I won, and hustled down to the Yank clubhouse to boast.

A while after the whipped cream flew, I was standing in front of Cabrera’s locker when a member of the press jokingly asked if he felt he’d become a home run hitter like A-Rod or Teixeira. Smiling, Cabrera modestly replied through his translator, Yankees team adviser Ray Negron, that he was a line drive hitter just looking to put the ball in play.

The reporter followed through by asking how the ball managed to get out of the park the way it did.

Cabrera simply shrugged.

“It’s the spirits,” he said in all earnestness.

Before heading into the elevator up to the press box, and then again inside it , one reporter found Cabrera’s remark amusing enough to launch into what he presumably thought was a derisive comedic routine about it.

“Did you hear what he said? The spirits! Why not the jet stream!” he mocked.

A few occupants of the crowded car chuckled with him. I didn’t. Nor did I bother reminding the reporter — whom I’ve never seen hit a home run — that the jet stream doesn’t blow out to deep left field, where the home run ball landed. Cabrera has been nothing less than magical for his team — a magic for which his commitment and hard work have opened the door.

If he says it’s the spirits, it’s the spirits.