July 2009

Carnival of Hope

I believe everything we dream
can come to pass through our union
we can turn the world around
we can turn the earth’s revolution
we have the power
People have the power…

–Patti Smith, People Have the Power

hope_clown_072409.jpgIt’s maybe one o’clock, two o’clock in the morning, and the carnival’s in full swing out in deep center field at Yankee Stadium for Camp Sundown’s young people and their families.

I’m looking around, overwhelmed, as music pumps from the sound system. There’s a Stilt Man in a crazy black suit and red vest cracking jokes from 10 feet up above me. A juggler and a clown. The Camp Sundown kids jumping around inside the Bouncing Castle with giddy, joyous abandon.

It seems like half the Yankee team is out with those kids, and the whole front office, all the execs we usually see in suits and ties at player signings, here tonight in blue jeans, out under the stadium lights long after the baseball game is over, long after midnight’s come and gone, here at this carnival of hope. Rain’s drizzling down on everyone, the grass wet and slick, and nobody cares about any of it.

This is about the kids. These courageous, beautiful kids and their families, who must endure so much that is incomprehensible to most of us.

Camp Sundown gets its name because the youngsters that attend cannot go outdoors during the daytime or even stand under fluorescent lights because ultraviolet radiation, any UV radiation, is their mortal enemy. It will give them severe burns, it will give them squamous cell skin cancer, it will cause malignant tumors to grow in their eyes and mouths, and make many of them blind as their condition reaches its late stages. The sun and blue skies we wish for in spring and summer will cruelly ravage their bodies.

The kids, these fragile, beautiful kids, who want nothing more than to be whatever we like to call ordinary in this world, are afflicted with a genetic condition called Xeroderma Pigmentosum that takes the lives of most people with the disorder before they reach the age of 20. It is rare, so rare there are only between 150 and 250 sufferers in this country, maybe two or three thousand around the world.

Camp Sundown was founded 13 years ago by Caren and Dan Mahar when their daughter, Katie, was diagnosed with XP, it is a year ’round retreat in Craryville, N.Y., two hours north of Manhattan by car, where as many of these children who can come are able to mingle like other children, where their days are like most of our nights and their nights are like our days, because daylight will kill them.

And here, after midnight, they are at Yankee Stadium, having arrived by bus around 8:30 to watch a game delayed for two-and-a-half hours because of rain. And whether that rain came through Providence or chance or magic, you have to believe it is a blessing and want to kiss the clouds that brought it, because if the game had started when it was supposed to, before dusk, the group would have been unable to see the early innings.

“It was perfect,” Caren says on the field. “I didn’t think these kids would ever be able to watch a game from start to finish like they did tonight.”

How this night all became a reality was through Jason Zillo, the Yankees’ head media relations guy, who seems almost uncomfortable taking credit for an event that is part of a whole week of events at the Stadium called HOPE Week, an idea that came straight from his heart.

hope_posada_072409.jpgAbout 14 years ago, soon after Katie Mahar (pictured with Jorge Posada) was diagnosed with XP and her parents had started an organization called the XP Society, Zillo was moved by a piece about the disorder on a televised news magazine, and after meeting Dan and Caren stayed in touch with them over the years, quietly helping out with benefit auctions. This is before he was a Yankees media honcho, this is when there were no reporters or cameras around. And maybe a month ago when he brainstormed HOPE Week, Zillo phoned Caren, and asked what she thought about bringing down the Camp Sundown kids to be part of it and she replied, “You make it happen and we’ll be there.”

And here they are, and around us everything seems to be happening at once. Yankees Alfredo Aceves and Brett Gardner kicking soccer balls around with some of the young people. Pitching coaches Dave Eiland and Mike Harkey getting a game of wiffle ball going with others.

Meanwhile, A.J. Burnett spots a wide-eyed girl noticing his tats, and patiently stops to tell her a little about them before moving on to pose for pictures and sign autographs for a bunch more wide-eyed kids. And there’s Mark Melancon and David Robertson and Cody Ransom just hanging out with them, and Jorge Posada posing for pictures with the families, and Jose Molina, who seems to be everywhere, and whose heart is the size of the Great Bear constellation, and who can sound wise making the simplest points. I’m naming all these players because none of them are out here at one o’clock, two o’clock in the morning to be named or interviewed or seen on camera. They are not here for publicity or accolades, they are not here for any reason other than wanting to be here.

“You don’t even care about the rain, you don’t even care about nothing, you just care about those kids … and that just for one night they’re just having fun like we do,” Molina tells me. “It’s one of those things that you put your heart in.” He motioned at the excited kids around us. “They’re happy. They’re really happy. A lot of times we have nothing going on, and we still complain a lot about life. And these kids they never complain about anything. And nothing is more impressive. “

He’s right, I told you he is a wise man. Nothing is more impressive than the kids, those incredible kids of Camp Sundown ….

One camper tells me the retreat is a home away from home, and that her wish is for “people with a condition to realize they’re no different from people without a condition.” Talking about her night, she spreads her arms to try encompass the field, the experience, and her emotions.

“Tonight was awesome, it was so great. The Yankees! It’s so amazing that they’d open their hearts just for Camp Sundown for one night. It’s pretty phenomenal.”

“I loved it,” says Yuxnier Ladron Gegubbara of the game. Yuxnier’s been a Camp Sundown kid for four or five years and is grateful to Dan and Caren for establishing it. “It’s a great place where kids with XP can meet each other, have fun, and enjoy themselves.” When asked what he wants people to know about XP, he says, “It’s a really hard life, especially because we can’t go out in the sun. I always go out after the sun goes down, after sunset, around eight or nine p.m. I do home instruction, and they only give me one or two hours in school, which is in my house. And it’s real hard.”

hope_damon_072409.jpgThe hope is that maybe someday in Yuxnier’s lifetime it won’t be. After a decade or more of being stalled by the politics of ignoran
ce, changes in stem cell research legislation has made genetic therapy for XP sufferers a real possibility. This research needs funding and popular support at a time when everyone’s strapped and understandably worried about their own difficulties. But you should know that over a million skin cancers are diagnosed annually in the United States alone, meaning one in five of us will likely be stricken with it, and that what helps the small number XP sufferers in the country can also help the people nearest and dearest to you.

Caren Mahar realizes it’s a tough time economically. “You hear of charities folding right and left,” she says. “It’s important to research the charities you want to do, but also to realize there are small groups out there that even a little bit makes a huge difference. We’re not looking for million dollar donors.”

Money is vital to keep Camp Sundown going. But for the Mahars, charity is also about individuals giving of their time. The retreat is run entirely by volunteers, so people can sign up and just be with the kids for a while.

“One of their greatest problems is that a lot of them go through a lot of disfigurement as they get older, through the hundreds of surgeries that they have,” Caren explains. “They’re ostracized in their own social areas, where people never talk to them. So just sitting down and treating people like people is very much necessary. “

For information on Camp Sundown and the XP Society visit its Web site.

I believe everything we dream can come to pass through our union.

HOPE Week photos copyright of the New York Yankees.

Swish … Redemption!

swisher_250_072309.jpgI’ve never seen the mid-1990s comedy flick “Dumb and Dumber,” and didn’t have a clue about what it’s about till after Wednesday’s 6-4 Yankees win over Baltimore at the Stadium.

And then Nick Swisher changed that by quoting from it. Leave it to him.

Here’s what I’d find out poking around online: In the story, two guys named Harry and Lloyd get involved in various hijinks while on a cross-country haul to return a valise full of money to a beautiful woman. They’ve got a van that looks like a dog, but then Lloyd sells the Dog Van for a dinky little moped in the middle of nowhere because it’s more fuel efficient, figuring it’ll ultimately get the two of them to their far-off destination. Dumb, get it?

So anyway, when Lloyd rides up to Harry on the scooter, and brags about it getting seventy miles per gallon — thanks, YouTube — Harry has a minor rant that goes: “You know Lloyd, just when I think you couldn’t possibly be any dumber, you go and do something like this…and totally redeem yourself!”

Dumb and dumber, see?

Now, back to where this education all started for me, namely the Yankee clubhouse following the game, which completed a series sweep for the Yanks, boosted them to a season-high twenty games over .500, and would, by day’s end, give them a two-game lead over the Red Sox for the top spot in the AL East.

There at his locker, Swisher, who’d gone from potential goat to hero all in the course of an eventful third inning, and then tacked on even more flashy heroics a little later, was paraphrasing Harry’s line about redemption. Well, actually, he was quoting A.J. Burnett, who’d just earned his fourth win in a row.

What happened was that at top of the third inning, with the Yankees up 4-0, Burnett got the Orioles’ leadoff hitter Brian Roberts to fly out to right field with a serious 95-mph fastball — except Swisher blew the easy catch. He was there, his glove was there, the ball was there … and then the ball was on the ground and Roberts was on second base. Bad, bad error.

Right around that point, I’m in the press box getting set to complain about Swisher right here in this spot, which regular readers know I’ve done in the past. In fact, to come totally clean, I even text my friend the Fellow Author down in the stands with his son, reminding him Swisher’s misplay is the very sort that makes me complain about him so often.

Things got tricky for Burnett from there. The second batter up, center fielder Adam Jones, singled off him to put runners on first and third with no outs. Then Nick Markakis, the third man at the plate for Baltimore, fouled one off to left, where it was caught by Johnny Damon, moving Jones to second base, and putting men on second and third. One out, but with power-hitting Aubrey Huff up next, Burnett was still in big, big trouble because of the bad, bad Swisher error.

When he got Huff to strike out swinging, off-balancing him with two 85-mph curveballs after firing off a couple of 95-97 mph heaters, it looked like Burnett might be on his way out of the big, bad woods.

And then to the plate comes super-utility guy Ty Wigginton, who can put together tough at-bats, and hit the ball hard and deep sometimes. Which is just what he did to Burnett’s sixth pitch to him, an upper-nineties fastball that was actually pretty well located, but got hammered out toward the right field wall nonetheless. Back, back, back, with Swisher racing back too.

And up in the box I’m thinking, no way he can catch that rocket. I’m thinking here it comes, a two-run double, the lead cut in half all because of Swisher’s big, bad error.

And Swisher shows what I know. He makes a spectacular, improbable running catch going all-out for that ball, and then hops up onto the wall for punctuation with the ball in his glove.

Inning over. Yankees heading off the field. Swisher jogging toward the dugout and Burnett with an ear-to-ear grin on his face.

And Burnett hollers, paraphrasing Harry from “Dumb and Dumber:” “You to-tally redeemed yourself!”

There it was. Baseball redemption, Nick Swisher style. He would add to it by making another leaping catch at the wall to save an extra-base hit in the sixth and contributing offensively with two walks, a hit and a pair of RBIs.

Later, Swisher wouldn’t make excuses for his second-inning error. Instead he emphasized that “today as A.J.’s day”, and laughed when I joked about whether he’d felt Ichiro making those two catches out there in right.

“I don’t know. I was pretty [ticked] off I missed the first one,” he said. “So getting the opportunity to redeem myself, to make the catch and end the inning, in the same inning, was definitely a good thing.” Then looking me right in the eye with a big, big smile, he added: “I couldn’t have been more happy about that one.”

Nor could Mariano Rivera when asked about having Swisher for a teammate. “Nick Swisher is crazy,” he said at his locker. “He’s wild, a great personality. You’ve got to have personalities like that when the team is maybe too tense.”

And, seriously, who can argue with Mo? He has been around that locker room a while, you know.

So after all my complaining here in this space, big mouth that I am, I’m ready to eat a dirt sandwich. Not to say I won’t get on his case if he does something boneheaded. But with Nick Swisher, you take the bad with the good, because in the final tally it’s worth it.

If you don’t believe me, just ask Rivera.

Cap Day

My wife and I see the guy a lot on our block in Manhattan. He has thick, curly hair, a heavy beard, always wears a suit and is homeless.
I figure the suit must get uncomfortable on hot summer days, but he never even takes off the jacket and somehow keeps the getup in decent condition. Maybe he wears the suit to preserve a measure of dignity for himself, to help him feel he isn’t some kind of living eyesore to the people who rush by him heading toward the subway station every morning. All the businessmen heading to work wearing suits. You wear a suit, I wear a suit, we’re pretty much in the same social sphere. The only difference is I’ve got no job to head off to, no bed to sleep in at night, no money, no food, nothing but nothing besides this nice suit I wear on my back here, just like you.

But maybe I’m projecting. Maybe it’s he keeps the jacket on because he just doesn’t like carrying it.

There is a charitable drop-in center on our block where the homeless can go for a meal, or basic medical care, or to get deloused, or clean themselves up. Further up the block there’s a fancy Italian café with a bench outside. These days I see more and more homeless people on the bench very early on the morning, before the place opens and its customers come in for their pastries and lattes. I figure the homeless are waiting there for the center to open so they can get something to eat too. The guy with the suit is sometimes on that bench.

A few weeks back we were heading to our place in Maine after a long stay in New York. It was early in the morning, and I passed the guy a few times while loading up the car. That day he wasn’t on the café bench up the block. He was sitting alone on a low stoop in front of an apartment building two houses down from us.

My wife had been waiting downstairs to keep an eye on the cats and my computer bag, and as I passed the guy for the last time before we took off, I saw that she’d gotten out of the car and was walking toward me on the sidewalk.

“Where you going?” I asked. That’s when I noticed she was carrying one of those clear plastic travel bags with slide zippers.

She showed me the travel bag. She’d gone to the corner fruit stand, bought an apple, orange and banana, and put it inside. She’d also stuffed in a bottle of water, a rain poncho and Yankee cap we kept in the car, the cap being one those Stadium giveaways that winds up in the back forever.

“I made this package for that man,” she said, nodding past me toward the homeless guy. “I can’t stand seeing him there anymore without doing something to help.” Her voice caught. “He’s wearing a suit for God’s sake.”

As if to say he was trying. We couldn’t be exactly sure for what, but trying for something. And maybe he could have used for at least one person to take notice. Never mind needing a little food and water.

I eyed the travel bag a second. I’d always had trouble opening the lousy slide zipper and wouldn’t miss complaining about it. I’d sort of miss the rain poncho, which was a good quality slicker, but figured I could buy another one. As for the freebie Yankee cap, well, I’m compulsive about hanging onto those things, never mind I’ve collected hundreds over the years. But I didn’t gripe about it either.

“Meet you back in the car,” I said.

My wife went over to give him the travel bag, returned to the car, got in the driver’s door. Watching the guy in the rear view mirror, I saw him stand up out of the doorway with the bag, inspect its contents through the clear plastic and start to open it.

“I hope he likes fruit more than I do,” I said, trying to lighten the moment. My wife is always trying to shove healthy food in my direction.

She ignored me and pulled away from the curb.


It was a couple of weeks later and we were back in New York. As usual, I was up in the apartment writing and trying to get the cat’s tail off my computer keyboard when my wife came through the door. She’d been out and about and looked a little upset.

“What’s the matter?” I said.

“Remember the guy I gave the travel bag to?” she asked.


“Well, the fruit man told me he just took out the banana and dumped the rest. Left it on the street, travel bag and all.”

I looked at her. “Is he sure about that?”

“He felt bad even telling me about it, but didn’t want me to give the homeless guy more stuff he’d just throw away,” she said. “You know the hot dog man?”

I nodded. The hot dog man sets up next to the fruit man most days.

“Well, he took the poncho out of the bag and kept it,” my wife said, her face full of disappointment. “Hated for it to go to waste. He told the fruit guy he feels kind of guilty about keeping it, but that he’ll give it back to me if I want.”

I looked at her. “You gonna let the hot dog man hang onto the poncho?”

“Might as well,” she said with a shrug. “He’s always out there on the street. With all the rain we’re getting this summer, at least somebody’ll put it to good use.”

A minute or so passed. She really seemed down about the homeless guy throwing away her package. I wanted to say something to make her feel better, but couldn’t think of anything.
“People are hard to figure,” I said finally

“Yeah,” she said, and was quiet for a long while afterward.


“Hey,” my wife said. “You’ll never guess what happened!”

It was a few days later. I was at the computer fending off the cat’s tail. She’d been out again. This time she’d come home looking cheerful.

I asked her what happened.

“Well, I’m walking past the sandwich joint across the street from the fancy café, and a kid who works there’s hosing down the sidewalk out front, and he sees me and asks if I’ll stop a minute,” she says.

“And then?”

“And then I stop, and he waves across the street, and the homeless guy with the suit comes hurrying over from the café’s bench,” she said. “And he’s wearing the Yankee cap!”
I scratched my head. “Wait a sec,” I said. “Didn’t the fruit guy tell you he ditched that cap with the travel bag?”

“Right,” she said. “That’s why the kid from the sandwich shop stopped me. He speaks Spanish, and the homeless guy with the suit only speaks Spanish, and asked him if he’d seen me around.”

I didn’t bother asking her how the homeless guy expected the sandwich shop kid to know who she was. There are hundreds of women living on our block, plus countless others who go walking up and down the street all throughout the day. But I’ve learned she’s one of those people everybody always recognizes, just like I’m one of those people who sort of blends into the crowd.

“Okay,” I said, getting everything straight in my head. “The homeless guy runs over to you…”

“Wearing the Yankee cap.”

“Right, he’s got the cap on…”

“And he starts speaking to me in Spanish, talking a mile a minute, while the sandwich shop kid’s trying to keep up with him and translate.”

I look at her. “So what’s his story?”

“The story’s that after I gave him the travel bag, he couldn’t figure out how to open the slide zipper all the way, but managed to open it enough to get out the banana and Yankee cap,” my wife said. “He got so frustrated with the bag, he put it down on the sidewalk, and went looking for something on the street that would help him cut it open so
he could get out the rest of the stuff.”

“And what? The hot dog man copped the bag while he was gone?”

She shook her head. “He’s got memory problems,” she said. “The homeless man, that is. And he forgot where he left it, and felt terrible, because he was afraid I might’ve seen him put it down, and thought he’d thrown it away. Which he didn’t after all.”

I looked at her. “And then, later on, the hot dog man finds it.”

“Right. He hears from the fruit man that I gave it to the homeless guy, and both of them figure the homeless guy didn’t want it.”

“And the hot dog man manages to get it open and takes the poncho.”

“Exactly. So it won’t wind up in the trash.”

I shake my head. Only in New York, I think. “Well, I’m glad it turns out he didn’t throw away your package.”
“You and me both,” my wife said. “Plus he said he really loves the Yankee cap and hasn’t taken it off since I gave it to him.”

I considered that and grinned.
“Told you that slide zipper was good for nothing,” I said.

Joba the bust?

Just one day before the Yankees flew out to the West Coast for a three-game set at Angels Stadium, YES Network broadcasters David Cone and Ken Singleton had a conversation about a somewhat undervalued pitching statistic while calling a Yankees-Twins game at the Metrodome.

Cone made the point that the earned run average commonly used to measure a pitcher’s effectiveness versus batters can be deceptive in assessing his overall performance unless his unearned average is also factored in over an extended period. If a pitcher shows a tendency  to give up unearned runs after a fielder commits errors behind him, it isn’t reflected in his ERA. But, those runs count nonetheless — as do the losses to which they may lead. Cone added that a high number of unearned runs over a season, or a career, may show a flaw in the pitcher’s makeup

Singleton agreed with Cone, adding that as a player with the Baltimore Orioles, he had a good idea which pitchers on his team’s staff would give up runs after a fielding error, and which ones would hang tough, pick up his team, and get out of the inning without letting the opposition score.

joba325_071109.jpgAs the Yankees veered toward a 10-6 loss to the Angels on Friday night after their starter Joba Chamberlain blew a four-run lead, Singleton recalled that conversation, mentioning that the 23-year-old righty had the highest unearned run average in the Yankees starting rotation.
Chamberlain’s problems began with a thorny 29-pitch second inning in which he issued a walk, wild pitch and allowed two hits to give up his first run of the game. He’d had trouble putting away batters from the beginning of that frame, when the first Angels hitter at the plate, outfielder Juan Rivera, singled to center after a five-pitch at-bat. Joba then managed to induce a flyball out to first baseman Kendry Morales in two pitches. But he would issue a five-pitch walk to the next batter while Rivera took second on the wild pitch. Gary Matthews would then single and score Rivera after an eight-pitch at-bat. Two batters and nine pitches later, Chamberlain would at last notch his third out of the inning and leave the mound relatively unscathed, having given up only the one earned run.

But, his remaining 3 1/3 innings were a struggle against an Angels lineup that was without its key offensive players, the injured Torii Hunter and Vladimir Guerrero. The box score shows Chamberlain went through a scoreless third inning in 14 pitches, allowing only a single to infield Maicer Itsuris. It does not show that his first recorded out came on a hard-hit liner by Chone Figgins that fortunately wound up in Robinson Cano’s glove. It does not show that his second out was a flyball off the bat of Bobby Abreu that nearly went into the stands for a two-run homer. It does not show that the score could easily have been 4-3, or even 4-4 before Chamberlain left the mound.

It also doesn’t reveal that only an exceptional inning-ending play by Cano saved two runs from scoring in the fourth inning.

Of course, box scores are often deceptive. All pitchers rely on solid fielding and a little luck to make their final lines look better than they otherwise might be. But the good ones capitalize on the defensive plays behind them, the line drives that rocket directly into a fielder’s glove. The good ones know how to win.

In the fourth inning of Friday night’s game, Chamberlain crumbled over the course of throwing 26 pitches. After he surrendered a run on a single to Figgins, who would then steal second,  there would be another stolen base behind him, and later a throwing error by Alex Rodriguez that put two men on base with one out.
As Kendry Morales prepared to take the mound, manager Joe Girardi left the dugout to encourage Chamberlain.
“Just get the hitter,” Girardi said. “Let’s make sure we concentrate on the hitter and not get caught up with anything else.”

Chamberlain’s next pitch was a hanging curveball that left the park to tie the score at 5-5. A volley of celebratory home-run fireworks later, Angels designated hitter Mike Napoli doubled off Chamberlain, who’d fallen behind him 2-0 in the count. That ended Chamberlain’s outing as he was replaced by Scranton call-up Mark Melancon and the Yankees’ night continued to unravel.
This is how Chamberlain evaluated his performance after the loss:  “I’ve come up against some good ballclubs. There’s really nothing else to say. I threw all four pitches for strikes. They just hit the mistakes. That’s what they’re supposed to do.”

Chamberlain would contend that he made “great” pitches throughout the game, including the one that Figgins hit for a leadoff single in the fifth. “It was my pitch that he hit, and you gotta tip your cap to him,” he said.

And the pitch Morales knocked out to center for his mammoth home run?

“Kendry swung the bat well. It was a curveball for a strike, a little up, but it was something we felt confident in throwing it, and he put a good swing on it.”

We felt confident? Chamberlain’s use of the first-person plural was presumably meant to refer to himself and his battery mate, catcher Jose Molina. But it wasn’t Molina who left that hanger over the plate.

Asked if he thought his pitching in that disastrous fifth was different than it had been in preceding innings, Chamberlain replied in the negative. “Not at all,” he said, noting only that the slider Abreu nearly hit for a homer in the third was also “a little up.” A moment later, he would insist to reporters that he’d pitched well overall. “Other than that we were in and out all day, up and down, so it was good,” he said.

Chamberlain would talk about putting the game behind him, learning from his mistakes, continuing to grow. It is a familiar run of baseball clichés that he has readily used when pressed about his struggles, even as he’s become visibly ruffled by suggestions that his performance this season has been disappointing.

And as to those mistakes — has he learned from them?

Chamberlain has only one win in April, one in May, and two in June. Chamberlain allowed 12 walks and 24 hits over the 22 1/2 innings he pitched in May, averaging four innings and change per game over his starts. Over his six June starts Chamberlain gave up 15 walks and 33 hits while averaging 5.8 innings per game. In July, as his ERA has climbed above 4.00, he’s not yet gotten past the fifth inning in either of his two starts.
More significantly, Chamberlain’s mound appearances have taken on an awful sameness characterized by his falling behind batters to rack up high pitch counts, failing to recover from errors committed behind him, and ultimately leaving games to be decided by the Yankee bullpen while contributing to its depletion.

“At the end of the day, we got the second half to get better,” he said near the conclusion of his post-game interview.

We, again.  The Yankees began Friday night tied with the Red Sox for first place in their division. They had gone 7-2 in the month of July for a .778 winning percentage, and were a season-high 17 games over .500.

That’s a team that’s collectively done pretty darned well of late.

Perhaps, then, Chamberlain ought to start using the singular “I” when speaking of his own failures. There is something insufferable about his inability to take responsibility for them.
“This is not a guy that’s been horrible. Going into tonight he had an ERA of around four,” manager Joe Girardi would say in Chamberlain’s defense after the game. Girardi will always take pains to avoid publicly embarrassing his players.

But Chamberlain’s ERA has bee
n a transparent mask for his deficiencies. Simply put, the numbers lie in his case. And lie dramatically.

The equity Chamberlain once gained as a reliever is long since spent with Yankee fans. Gone are the days of Chamberlain throwing at speeds in the high 90 mile-per-hour range. His velocity is now average, his fastballs lack movement, and the speed differential between his fastball and breaking pitches has leveled off to make the latter less effective. For fans, watching him pitch is a nerve-wracking, arduous test of patience. One can only surmise what it must be like for his manager and teammates.

Unfortunately Chien-Ming Wang’s injury, just as he showed signs of a return to his past winning form, has complicated matters for the Yankees. Already short a starter, they cannot now remove Chamberlain from the rotation, even should they be so inclined.
So, what can be done?

For one thing, the Yankee organization, from the front office to his coaches, must hold Chamberlain accountable for his subpar and poor performances. It can only be hoped that Chamberlain’s self-assessments reflect a young ballplayer’s pride and bravado speaking before throngs of reporters and cameras, and not a real and profound blindness to his own shortcomings. If Chamberlain truly believes he’s been getting better, something is disturbingly wrong with his perspective.
This should not be considered an indictment of Joba Chamberlain, but a reasoned appeal to the Yankee organization. They must evaluate what they have with him over the long and short term, and then decide how to proceed moving on. Because there are undeniable signs that Chamberlain is not at all what they once thought they had, and may be rapidly turning into something they cannot live with.
Which is to say, a liability. 

Cervelli, anyone?

cervelli_250_070909.jpgWhen I say I’m going to miss Francisco Cervelli, it isn’t because I don’t think Jose Molina’s a fine backup catcher. And when I say I already miss Ramiro Pena, it isn’t that I don’t realize Cody Ransom has more pop in his bat than the rookie infielder.

I realize the Yankees have options on Cervelli and Pena that they don’t with the two guys they replaced for a while. I understand that their getting consistent playing time in the Minors is generally better than bench time in the majors.

I also agree with the unwritten rule that says a player shouldn’t lose his job to another guy because of injury — all things being equal, or fairly equal, in terms of their relative production.

Finally, I admire the modest, workmanlike professionalism of Molina, and think the Yankees had a real need for a lefty slugger and versatile utility guy like Eric Hinske, so I won’t raise a stink about Cervelli being sent down to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes Barre with the reactivation of Molina from the disabled list, just like I didn’t when Pena lost his spot on the active Major League roster with the trade acquisition of Hinske.

But because the Baseball Gods are fickle — and human understanding of how they work tenuous at best — I feel some trepidation now that Cervelli and Pena have exited the stage, at least until the big-club rosters expand in September.

Maybe it’s those traces of my 2006 playoff elimination hangover. I have overlapping playoff elimination hangovers, some of which go back quite a few years. There’s the 1995 horror in Seattle, of course. And then Cleveland in 1997; unlike Mariano Rivera, I can’t put the losses completely behind me. It’s one reason I appreciate his greatness – I don’t think I could be a closer for more than a week or so, even if I found myself in another life and could throw a pitch faster than 50 mph.

I’m too easily haunted by the past.

Again, my ’06 PEH being an example.

A brief refresher: The first half of the Yankees’ 2006 season was marked by a slow start and critical injuries. In late April, the power slugging Gary Sheffield crashed into Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Shea Hillenbrand while attempting to run out a groundball. Sheffield injured his leg and wrist, and the bum wrist would eventually require surgery to repair a torn tendon and ligament and sideline him for almost the entire season. Ouch.

That hurt in more ways than one. Especially from my perspective, because Hillenbrand was a former member of the Red Sox.

Just over a week after Sheffield went on the DL, the Yanks’ problems were gravely compounded when Hideki Matsui messed up his wrist trying to make a sliding catch in shallow left field. In his case, there were broken bones. Ouch-ouch. And yet again, incidentally, the whole thing was tied to the Red Sox, who the Yanks happened to be playing when their No. 2 batter, Mark Loretta, hit his miserable blooper out to left to end Godzilla’s monster 518-consecutive-game streak.

There were a number of other injuries that year. I won’t mention the starting pitcher with the bruised backside by name because saying, thinking or typing it still puts me in a surly mood. But even as things looked their bleakest, the team’s personality began taking on a kind of mojo-moxie magic. Robinson Cano had an incredible second season, Melky Cabrera a very good first full year in the Majors, and replacement/utility guys like Andy Phillips, Bubba Crosby, Miguel Cairo and a few others really fired up the team. Meanwhile, Bernie Williams, who was supposed to see very limited playing time from the bench, wound up in the outfield a whole lot more than anticipated, and did far better than the Yankee front office seemed to expect, being that they hadn’t asked for the opinion of Bernie fans beforehand.
Then came the midseason trade for Bobby Abreu and the late Cory Lidle, and Boston Massacre II, and the Yanks winning the AL East pennant to charge into the playoffs.

What also happened along the way was Matsui returning around mid-September, and Sheffield later in the month — in Sheffield’s case just in time for former Yankees manager Joe Torre to try and squeeze him into the postseason lineup.

In October, the Yanks hit a wall. Screech, crash. There were many contributing factors to their prompt division series elimination at the hands of the Detroit Tigers and their suddenly maniacal pitching ace Kenny Rogers. But I’ll always feel that some of the team’s do-or-die spark left when Melky moved aside to make room for Matsui, and Sheffield’s return pushed Phillips, who didn’t hit much but had a decent glove, out of the picture.

Now, I’m not comparing that baseball season to the current one or suggesting the Yanks’ recent player moves will have similar ramifications. It’s a whole different set of circumstances right now — apples and oranges, in a way, since we’re presently talking about utility players rather than starters.

pena_200_070909.jpgBut Pena is a vastly superior fielder to Ransom, and he’s quick as quicksilver, and had a penchant for timely hitting in his brief stint with the Yankees. And Cervelli was defensively not all that inferior to Molina, and could run, steal bases and had a determination, intelligence and special way working with pitchers that compensated for his lack of experience behind the plate.

And both those guys had that mojo-moxie-magic-do-or-die-spark thing going.

Now that they’re gone, I wish them well refining their skills, hope to see them in September, and believe the team will do fine in their absence.

Still, what can I tell you?

When you’re a PEH sufferer, you can’t help but worry.