August 2009

Why, why, why, A.J.?

aj_blog_082309.jpgA.J. Burnett has been awful in his last two starts and nobody can quite figure out who he blames. But some of his postgame comments, with their hints of ambiguity, have created a growing distraction the Yankees don’t need right now.

The questions first arose on August 12th after Burnett earned a no-decision against the Blue Jays, lasting six innings in a bumpy 4-3 extra-inning Yankee win. Asked about Burnett’s three wild pitches during the game, catcher Jorge Posada blamed the problem on cross-ups, saying he got curveballs from the pitcher when calling for fastballs.

“But you gotta be on your toes,” he said. “He’s gonna throw a curveball in the dirt and you just gotta try to put your body in front of it. Most of them I got.”

For his part, Burnett declined to say anything about the wild pitches, although after being pressed  for an explanation, he would comment, “It’s a curveball down in the dirt. I don’t know. I got nothin’ to say on it.”

Burnett’s next start was a 3-0 loss to the Oakland Athletics on August 18th.  In a chaotic fourth inning during which Oakland scored all their runs, he and Posada again crossed up a sign. As a result, Burnett would halt his delivery with runners on second and third, leading to a balk call that scored a run for the A’s.  

Again Burnett fielded questions about responsibility in the clubhouse afterwords. “It’s probably me,” he said. “I mean, he’s (Posada) been doing this behind the plate for a long time. And, I don’t know, I had no way of seeing it. He had the tape {on his fingers}. It’s just the at-bat.  But it’s just one of those mistakes.”

Burnett’s remarks were widely characterized in the media as an unequivocal assumption of responsibility. In his New York Daily News blog, Yankees beat reporter Mark Feinsand wrote, “I’ve covered this team long enough to know that when a player thinks it’s someone else’s fault, they say ‘no comment; to questions like this. Burnett placed the blame on himself for the cross-up, so that’s where it probably belongs.”

With due respect to Feinsand, I didn’t see things quite the same. Burnett’s words were pretty much the right ones, true, although he used enough qualifiers to create lingering questions. And his overall manner frankly had me wondering if he wasn’t so much saying what he really thought as letting everyone know he wasn’t going to say what he really thought.

Which, if it’s the case, meant he was intentionally saying plenty without saying it.
I wasn’t alone in being a bit thrown off by Burnett’s remarks — Feinsand blogged about it precisely because my confusion was shared by many others who’d seen the locker room interview on YES.

Interpreting a player’s words is an uncomfortable exercise for me. It’s a bit unfair to parse and analyze what a ballplayer says moments after a tough loss, when emotions — most particularly frustration — are still running high. And the confusion only multiplies when his comments are relayed to his catcher (albeit in summary) for a response.

That’s exactly what happened after Saturday’s 14-1 loss to the Red Sox at Fenway in which Burnett allowed nine earned runs in five innings of work. It was an ugly performance during which little went  right for him. There were walks, pitches getting pounded for doubles, flying over the wall,  you name it.  In the fifth inning, with the Yanks trailing by seven, David Ortiz slammed a badly placed fastball over the Green Monster in left, prompting Burnett to turn toward the wall with his hands outspread. “Why? Why? Why?” he appeared to say. “Why would you throw that?”

This was a mistake for several reasons. First it can be viewed by teammates as showing up his catcher on the field. Not good. Second, it was caught by television cameras on a FOX national broadcast. Worse. Third, and worse yet, it happened in Boston, where the local media would have a field day stirring the pot, even at the price of inaccuracy. Blogger John Haggerty of WEEI sports radio’s official website would go so far as to misquote Burnett when he typed: “As Ortiz circled the bases following his homer to left, Burnett raised his hands up in mock outrage and appeared to ask with incredulity, “Why? Why? Why? Why would you CALL that? Why?”

Which brings me to the worst consequence of Burnett’s display of emotion, namely that he and Posada once again had to answer questions about their functional relationship in the clubhouse.

Burnett again seemed to take responsibility without really embracing it, suggesting he should have shaken off Posada’s calls more often. After saying the main problem with his outing was that he “threw a lot of balls I didn’t want to throw”,  he was asked whether there had been more communication problems with his battery-mate

“I didn’t have a lot of conviction on some pitches,” he replied. “It’s our {pitchers’} job. We throw what we want to throw. He’s (Posada) there to aid, so it’s definitely not him. I had a good hook today and I definitely should have used it more in more counts and more often.”

That’s a pretty wishy washy answer — and hardly a ringing endorsement of Jorge Posada’s pitch-calling behind the plate. Meanwhile, the veteran catcher, who attributed the pitcher’s problem’s to mislocation, seemed less than thrilled when informed Burnett had been “lamenting some of the pitch selection”.

“Well, you know, when the balls leave the park, you’re gonna look back and you’re gonna see the pitches that you call and pitches that he threw,” Posada said with a resigned smile. “That’s about it.”

But it isn’t. Burnett and Posada’s relationship has become a story that will hover over the clubhouse at least until Burnett’s start, and well beyond if it’s another  ineffective one. It’s also a legitimate issue as the Yanks launch into the season’s stretch run and hopefully the playoffs. Stating the obvious, the Yankees’ number two starter and his catcher must be in synch for the team to continue its success.

This season Joe Girardi has shown a dramatic evolution in game management skills. He’s has done an impressive job composing and handling his bullpen. He must now demonstrate that he can also manage his players, put an end to the public back-and-forth between Burnett and Posada, and see that they fall into, if not quite harmony, then an acceptable working relationship.

There’s really no other choice except failure for the Yanks. After everything the team has accomplished this season, both men would surely agree that is unacceptable.

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Short Hops: A tour of the Stadium

stadium250.jpgPRESS BOX SNOB
“I don’t know about you any more,” the Fellow Author said. “All that stuff you write from the press box. Geez.”
I looked at him. We were at Yankee Stadium before one of the games in last week’s Yanks-Toronto series, waiting on line at one of those “Beers of the World” stands. where he buys his schmaltzy expensive brews.

“‘Geez’?” I said. “Whaddya mean geez?”

“I thought you were supposed to be a fan. One of us. Not some hack with a press pass. That’s what made your column different from the rest.”

“You telling me it isn’t different anymore?”

“I’m tellin’ you any clown can write that kinda junk.” He gave me a reproachful look, nodding in the box’s general direction. “Like I said, I dunno. Lately with you everything’s pressbox, this pressbox that … I’ve got a feeling you’ve turned into a press box snob.”

I frowned. “You’re kidding, right?”

“A press box snob,” he repeated, shaking his head.

I looked at him, feeling guilty. Never mind that this was all coming from a guy who’d made us walk halfway around the Stadium because a domestic beer wasn’t good enough for his very special taste buds.

“You’ve got the wrong idea,” I said. “I’m just trying to give some perspective from the clubhouse and…”
“Blah, blah, blah.” He paid for his beer. “Just wait and see. Pretty soon, you won’t even want to hang around with paying customers like me. What am I gonna tell my son? He used to respect you.”
“You mean he doesn’t any more?”

“All I’m sayin’ is he might not in the near future if this keeps up,” The Fellow Author said. “And by the way, you gave us lousy directions to the Garlic Fries place last time we were here.”
I blinked. “Look … how about I buy you an Italian sausage?
“Maybe later — and you’re gonna want to make sure it’s got everything on it.” He paid for his beer, started toward the Carvel stand, noticed I was lagging behind. “Thought you wanted that vanilla helmet cup.”

“I did.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

I’d stopped dead, looking at the menu above the Carvel stand. “It’s, like, six bucks.”

“So in the press box we have an ice-cream machine. With chocolate, vanilla and black-and-white swirl … and a stack of cups on the side…”

The Fellow Author shook his head in disgust.

“Press box snob,” he muttered, tossing back some beer.

I hate to say it, but I’ve soured on Disco Stu. Those of you who can get down to the Stadium know this is the white-haired guy with the shades who dances in the aisle between innings. Usually he’s wearing something flamboyant — a jacket or T-shirt, depending on the weather. Sometimes he gets the people around him to dance too.

I was a big fan of the guy once upon a time. This was back when he was still an anonymous dancer. The camera would land on him, and he’d be in a groove, and everybody watching on the big video board would get a kick out of it.

I guess it was maybe a year ago when he got his tag — there he was dancing with his moniker right up on the bottom of the screen. Disco Stu. Now all of a sudden, he’s a celebrity. I actually heard some German-speaking tourists talking about him on a night when he hadn’t even made an appearance, like they were waiting to see him. Like he’s suddenly an official Yankee Stadium attraction. Trouble.

The thing about Stu is that he used to be spontaneous. He’d dress for himself. If the Yanks were losing, he’d dance less enthusiastically than when they were winning. Sometimes he wouldn’t be dancing at all when the camera found him.

Now he’s waiting for his face time. His garish tees have often given way to shirts with designer logos on them . . . Dolce & Gabbana, Versace, and so on. The homer spirit has been leached out of his moves, which have frankly gotten stale. And he seems equally dance crazy during wins and losses, which bugs me the most. You have to wonder if fame has gotten to his head.

I didn’t want to be the first to say it. I know it’s going to be controversial. But the truth is the truth.

Disco Stu is mailing it in.

It’s time the Bleacher Creatures stopped hogging all the glory at the Stadium. They’re still great fans, and they do a mean roll call. However, the reality is that they, like Stu, aren’t quite what they used to be. They are living largely on reputation, on the stats on the back of their cards. But they are no longer producing the way they used to.

A few weeks ago, for example, I was at the ballpark and somebody sitting on the third base line started the Wave. It spread up to the terrace from the lower level seats and back toward the left field bleachers and then came around to the right field bleachers, where I figured the reliable Section 39ers, as we called them across the street, would be the human breakwater that put a merciful halt to it.

Instead, they joined in. They Waved. I couldn’t believe my eyes. What was happening to the world?

And then I realized it was okay. Like the old Yankee Stadium, the Bleacher Creatures’ light has dimmed. Their day is fading into dusk.  But in the gloaming, something unexpected has happened. The people in Section 200 have risen to take their place.
And not by coincidence.  These are the people who would have been one level closer to the field back in the old Stadium — many of them partial season ticket holders with seats in the once and former Main Box section. When the action moved over to the new place, what used to be Main Box seats turned into pricier Field Level seats that weren’t offered in the smaller partial plans. And the people who used to have those partial plans got relocated one level up onto the first deck’s Main Level seats. Which are more comparable to the old Loge seats, though you will hear they have better sightlines.

I won’t debate that now. What’s for sure is that you can always count on the Section 200 fans to get the place rocking. When Toronto manager Cito Gaston contested a Jorge Posada homer last week, it was Section 200 that started the “Home run!” chant. When the big board showed an announcement that it was Melky Cabrera’s twenty-fifth birthday, Melky could thank Section 200 for starting up the Happy Birthday song. Whenever the noise level ramps up, it’s Section 200 that’s making the biggest racket.

The rightfield Bleacher Creatures did a stalwart job back when they had their own entrance and couldn’t drink beer or leave their area. But now they’re behind those fancy planters and can go where they please, and have to live with being what they are rather than what they were.
Props to Section 200.  It’s got the new best fans at Yankee Stadium.

The Greatest, without question

<![CDATA[ortiz_250_080709.jpgWord hit the press box long after former heavyweight champion of the world Muhammad Ali — for me, always, The Greatest — appeared at Yankee Stadium for a stirring pregame ceremony. This was sometime during Thursday night’s Yanks-Red Sox series opener, and the news I was hearing up in the box was that that Red Sox slugger David Ortiz and incoming MLB players’ union head Michael Weiner would make a special appearance of their own before Saturday’s game.

It will be anything but a ceremony for them. Instead they will be addressing reports that Ortiz tested positive for using performance enhancing drugs in 2003.

Over a week has passed since Ortiz name was leaked as being among 104 others on the list of players who drew positive results — a list that was supposed to be anonymous when the union agreed to testing and now under a court seal that’s obviously looser than the waistband of the trousers that were always slipping down below Harpo Marx’s knees in all those old movies.

A real Harpo Pants list we’ve got here. It makes me feel wonderful about how our legal system protects your and my constitutional rights in the US of A. But I’m not writing about the leaks now, the injustice and basic moral wrongness of those names getting out to the public one by one despite binding guarantees to the contrary. That’s for another time, maybe.

This is about how far we’ve come from when I was a kid who watched so many of Ali’s fights with my father on our huge black and white living room console television, and loved Ali for what he did in boxing ring and his larger-than-life personality, and never had to wonder whether his accomplishments were aided by some kind of doping.

Clean it up. That’s the slogan on the sleeveless red T-shirt David Ortiz wore at his locker over an hour before Thursday’s game in the Bronx. It’s in the middle of this immense chest, right below the Red Sox logo. Ortiz wore the same shirt during warm-ups in Baltimore a few days after it was revealed he was on the Harpo Pants list. When a news story revealed his name was on it, Ortiz said he was “surprised” to find out he’d tested positive for anything.

Of course that doesn’t jibe with what we’ve heard before from the Feds, namely that all the players on the list were notified they were on it. Who knows if that’s true, or exactly true. I don’t.

I don’t know that to believe from David Ortiz, just like I didn’t know exactly what to believe from Alex Rodriguez when his name slipped off the non-anonymous anonymous list a few months ago. Throw our Harpo Marx government into the pot, too, since I definitely don’t know what to believe from them. Everybody’s got an agenda.

“You know me — I will not hide and I will not make excuses,” Ortiz said over a week ago. And since then there’s been nothing but silence.

Clean it up. Ortiz has advocated more thorough testing and stiffer penalties for PEDs, and maybe that’s what the slogan on his T-shirt is about. Again, I don’t know. All I do know is that in the visiting team clubhouse at the Stadium before Thursday’s game, he joked around with friends at his locker, and then got serious with the reporters around him, said he’d soon “let them know” whenever he was going to about his testing positive. And then he cranked up the music on whatever mini sound system he had in his locker and didn’t say anything else.

A little later, when the Sox were taking BP, I was hanging around the visiting dugout, and happened to find myself between Ortiz and the field. As he made his way to the batting cage Ortiz passed me, put a huge hand on my shoulder, squeezed it warmly, and smiled.

I’ve never met David Ortiz. I don’t know him any more than I knew the network TV cameraman who pushed me out of his way trying to get to Mark Teixeira’s locker about five, six hours later for some postgame footage.

“Hey c’mon, outta my way I gotta get in here!” the cameraman yelled as he bulled through from behind me, swinging around his video contraption.

Compare and contrast. Ortiz the besieged baseball superstar giving me the shoulder squeeze when I’m getting in his way near the steps of his dugout, and the cameraman who’s got no business telling anybody anything in the Yankee clubhouse acting like a jerk when a simple “excuse me” will do the trick.

Ortiz got booed loudly every time he came up to bat Thursday night. There were a few “Steroid!” chants mixed in for most of the nights. Comes with the territory, I’m not crying for him. Personally, though, I’d have liked to hear the cameraman getting booed out of the clubhouse.

Which is to say that Ortiz makes it easy to like him, and hard to want to see him go down as just another name on the list, even for this diehard Yankee fan.

I was at a Portland Sea Dogs game in Maine once when I noticed all the Big Papi merch in the team store. The Sea Dogs are a Double-A Red Sox affiliate, and they sell out on a regular basis. But go into the store, and you won’t see a fraction as many T-shirts and jerseys with the names of Sea Dogs on them as you’ll see the Ortiz stuff. At least that’s how it was a couple of years back. Ortiz stuff was clearly outselling everything else, especially in the kids’ sizes. The store’s mascot was even a gigantic Ortiz bobblehead.

I remember thinking back then that I was glad those Maine kids had a big, loveable athlete who’d captivate their imaginations and make them proud of their team. You have to want that for kids, even if you’re a diehard Yank fan. It isn’t as if they’re going to be rooting for Derek Jeter up in Maine anyway.

That’s why I’m sad David Ortiz is on the Harpo list. One by one by one, we hear the names. One by one by one, the careers and records are tarnished. No matter what Ortiz says on Saturday, which I have a hunch is going to be irresolute at best.

ali_250_080709.jpgWatching Muhammad Ali being honored on the field before the game, I was glad he fought his game before any of us ever heard of PEDs and leaky government lists. As he was driven around the warning track in a golf cart, everybody was on their feet. The fans, the players in both dugouts, on their feet as he waved and pointed to them with the one arm that seemed easiest for him to move. I stood in the press box, pretending it was for a better look, but really to show my own respect for this man, the best heavyweight fighter of a generation, and maybe ever, who stood up for his principles even though it stripped him of a title and almost sent him to jail. Who has not only kept his dignity while enduring the ravages of Parkinson’s disease, but enhanced his reputation with countless humanitarian efforts.

When that old chant — “Ali! Ali! Ali!” — broke out from the stands, I felt a shiver run through me. And I wasn’t alone.

“I got chill bumps, to tell you the truth,” said Jorge Posada, who’d jogged up to shake the fighter’s hand. “I didn’t know what to say. It was a good feeling to see him at the Stadium.”

One day, a long time from now I hope, Ali will be gone, but his magnificent accomplishments as a man and athlete will remain with us forever.

Sad, really sad, about steroids and leaky lists. For we are helpless as they leach our tomorrows of moments such as the one everyone shared at the Stadium on Thursday, Yankee and Red Sox players and fans, all briefly standing together to recognize a man’s unassailable greatness.