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 clich.

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.

13 Comments

Yes, A-Rod is a lightning Rod. I have to wonder how any of these booing “fans” would have reacted to the antics of Mantle or Ruth when either of them failed in a crucial situation. Both were well known for their off-field behavior, but the media and the fans were more forgiving then.

The “spirits” Melky was referring to are the ghosts of Yankee Stadium. They have moved across the street to the new Stadium and seem to feel right at home.

Great blog Jerome. Melky’s homerun wasn’t the only thing that brought a smile to my face….it was seeing Arod pulling on Teix’s sleeves pulling for the ball to make it over the fence..Jumping up and down together and high five-ing. If that wasn’t enought…Jeter comes up from the stairs in the dugout…pats Melky on the head and Melky resting his head on Jeter’s chest as sign of respect to his captain. This team has something special brewing and if only I could skip to the end to see the finale. But like all I will follow the journey and see what’s over the rainbow…Go Yankees!!

Great blog, Jerome.

I viewed the pickup of Tiexiera as a luxury. But I think he’s showing himself to be a big piece of the Yankees puzzle.

Wang’s performance yesterday was maddening. But I think it’s going to take some more starts before we’re going to know whether or not he can get back to what he has been over the last two years.
I’m trying to be optimistic.

Hey Jerome! Great blog! You’ve hit the big time ~ they’ve even put your photo here. It’s good to see you & well as read you!
I love the spirit (&,perhaps, “spirits”) that has taken over this Yankees team. As I’ve written to you before, I have found their “businesslike” demeanor to be boring, to say the least. In spite of what a lot of sports people say, I do think chemistry between team players makes a difference in how they play, whether they win or lose.
My hopes: that Wang makes it back to his true pitching self & that fans cut A-Rod a break! Above all, my hope is that the Yankees make it to the World Series & win. As John Sterling says: “The Yankees win!! THE YANKEES WIN!!!

Excellent blog and you have captured my own feelings about the booing of A-Rod. It is interesting that as soon as he hit that RBI on Thursday that the cheers were back so fast one forgot there were boos at all. A-Rod is a very easy target and I agree, easy to take one’s frustrations out on. It is as if the folks who don’t like him were waiting for the first chance to get on him and the floodgates opened when that chance came this past Wednesday. What I have liked is the many people on the blogs I go to and on the radio who defend A-Rod and are angry at the fans at the stadium who boo him. That makes me ask, who are those people? If they are real Yankee fans, how can they boo someone who has done so much for the team? I also like the way A-rod and Tex are working together already.

is tonights game going to be a rainout?
i hope not..yankess are playin awesome right now..

to yankeeex..
that shot of cabrera hugging jeter..if you see the clip before that..jeter was comin out of the dugout..and he was mockin that he just got benched for good in that game..coz he was about to pinch hit for someone (pena?) before cabrera hit that homerun.
and we all know how jeter hates days off.
this team definitely is exciting to watch..though i would really like to see marte..veras..nady..come back and increase this lead in the al east race.
watchin wang is stressing..but somehow..we all know that sinker is going to be in effect at sometime this season..and any type of wang is better than no wang.
dont get me wrong..wang is a good pitcher..not a great pitcher..but a damn good one if anything.
lets jus give him credit..he hasnt pitched regularly in about a year..came back from a serious injury..so be patient.
i’d still like to see a hard throwing reliever addition..like huston street.
i hope they dont take experiments like eric gagne or keith foulke..both teammates in some independent league right now.
and please no major bats..but matt holiday would be good..though our offense is pretty good right now..another right handed bat would be nice.
if brett gardner could hit a lil better..though i think he’s batting a tad better than .270(which is amazing and fantastic)..this offense would be ridiculous for years to come.

i guess my point here is..
i agree with preisler.

if the yanks are in first place right now..with all their woes..without even being 100 percent..
imagine when they have all their soldiers healthy?

i still say now is the time to make their move..keep winning..keep increasing their lead..before the red sox make their blockbuster trades by august..
so by september..we should be 20 games over 500…have a 10 game lead in the east..and 2 weeks before the playoffs..we can give our pitching some days off..
and when those playoff games bein on tnt…all our pitchers should be hittin 95 on the radar..except pettitte of course.

if they win it all this year..im not only goin to the parade..
but im going to connecticut..where ESPN is based,,where everyone in ESPN are red sox fans..
and im gonna moon the hell outta everyone there.
and i wont even change my boxers for a week.

this was written due to boring rain weather.
bad weather has been known to affect behavior..

search:suicide causes in seattle and portland the last 20 years.

Love the part of Melky and the spirits…I could just see Mickey Mantle’s ghost adding just a little more power to that HR to get it out of the park…

JP, just a great blog! thanks, not to much to add because the previous posters have said it all for me. Thanks guys!
Can anyone give me the Yanks pitching rotation for tomorrow through the Rays, Boston and Mets games.

sabathia starts the series against the rays…
AJ starts series against red sox instead of pettitte..
joba starts series against mets.

I had been reading, basically, all article about Yankees on YesNetwork and Yankees.com, this is the first time I’m agree 100%. Good article Mr. Jerone, go article, Will print it for the record!

I absolutely love Melky’s comment about the spirits carrying his homerun ball. A novel hypothesis emerges regarding the new stadium: perhaps the ghosts of the old yankee stadium have been released with the building’s tearing, and the moving spirits are responsible for lifting all the homerun balls?

Thanks for all the comments, everybody. And welcome to the new blog format . . . I hope we can get some good community discussions going here. The old one-on-one email method is both encouraged and appreciated as well, for those who are interested–as longtime friends/readers of DIR know, I read and answer ’em all.

JP

FYI, I’m not sure if Melky meant the Stadium “ghosts” or some other spirits in which he believes and draws inspiration or strength. Hard to tell . . . his translator, Ray Negron, has been a clubhouse fixture for decades now as a batboy and then Yankee employee, so I think he might’ve used the word “ghosts” if that was what Melky meant.

Not that it’s important. What mattered was that Melky’s humility–and open humanity–in that moment really grabbed me. I couldn’t believe the reporter’s cynicism and clownishness afterward . . . although that shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

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