September 2009

Midnight walk

Back in July during the Yankees’ wonderful HOPE Week, I wrote a column about the team’s post-midnight to dawn carnival on the field for Camp Sundown, a retreat in upstate New York serving people afflicted with a rare genetic skin disorder called Xeroderma Pigmentosum. XP prevents sufferers from going outdoors in daylight, and ultraviolet light, including common florescent lighting, causes them severe burns and eventually skin and eye cancer. The camp was founded by Caren and Dan Mahar when their daughter, Katie, was diagnosed with the condition.

Xeroderma Pigmentosum takes the lives of most people with the disorder before they reach the age of 20. It is so rare there are only between 150 and 250 sufferers in this country, maybe two or three thousand around the world. Having the chance to meet and write about Dan, Caren and some of the Camp Sundown kids was one of the most rewarding experiences of my professional career. Their courage and spirit continues to inspire me.

On Saturday, October 17, Camp Sundown will be holding its 11th annual Moonlight Stroll, a nighttime walk in Central Park to raise awareness of the condition and funding for XP research. The walk begins with registration at 8 p.m. outside Tavern on the Green, which is located at Central Park West between 66th and 67th Streets. Caren informs us “there will be refreshments, goodies and prizes and a good time for all.”

The camp will have a bus coming from Columbia County in New York, and stopping in Dutchess County for anyone coming who needs a ride. A registration form is available for those who wish to get sponsors for the walk.

“Can’t make it to NY?” says Caren. “Don’t worry! Do your own walk wherever you are! Fill out the form, get sponsors and walk on the same day.”

For further information or a sponsorship form, please email Camp Sundown at xps@xps.org. And bring everyone you can. The more the merrier!

On a personal note, I will be participating in the Midnight Walk, as will my wife Suzanne. We would love to say hello to any readers of Deep in the Red who wish to join us for a late night in the park. Hopefully, we’ll all be able to talk about some Yankee playoff wins.

Finally, I’ll be at Yankee Stadium tonight to observe and gather some interesting thoughts about the final regular season game of the new Stadium’s first year. It should be fun as the Yankees continue ramping up for the postseason.

Joba and the Sox

Joba-9-26-250.jpgWhen the American League East-leading Yankees became the first team in the Major Leagues to clinch a playoff berth with a 6-5 win over the Los Angeles Angels in Anaheim Tuesday night, the team elected not to celebrate beyond hugs and handshakes.

“Congratulations and let’s keep going,” said manager Joe Girardi of his message to the team. “There’s still a lot of baseball to be played. We have 10 games left, and we know what we want to do. There’s obviously excitement about being in the playoffs. It’s your first goal, but there’s other goals.”

At the time, the combination of Yankees wins and Red Sox losses that would give the Yanks the AL East division championship was four. Two days later in Kansas City, the Sox’s 10-3 win over the Royals reduced their magic number to three for a postseason berth as a second place team. Asked whether they would celebrate if they clinched a likely Wild Card slot at Yankee Stadium — which could happen before the Yankees actually celebrate winning their division — designated hitter David Ortiz replied, “Oh we will, hopefully. So we don’t have to get our clubhouse dirty. It would be great. You get that out of the way and give a welcome to the new Stadium too.”

From the team’s official postgame notes, these are some of the things the Yankees did between the lines Friday night while pounding their way to a 9-5 victory over the Red Sox as they began their three game weekend series in the Bronx:

  • Their leadoff man reached based five times, and scored three of the times.
  • Six different hitters — Jeter, Teixeira, Rodriguez, Matsui, Posada and Cano — had a multi-hit game.
  • Their runners stole seven bases on Red Sox catcher and team captain Jason Varitek, the largest number of bases they’ve swiped in a game since June, 1996, and the most at home in 27 years.
  • Alex Rodriguez went 3-for-5 to drive in four runs, tying his season high of four RBI in a single game, and racking up his most at the Stadium this season.
  • Joba Chamberlain notched his first win since early August, striking out the first 11 batters he faced.

You think somebody in the Yankee clubhouse got wind of Ortiz’s comments?

****

Besides bringing the Yanks to within three games of clinching the AL East with the best record in baseball, Friday night’s game went a significant way towards answering one of their biggest questions as they approach the playoffs — namely, could Joba Chamberlain regain enough of his form to be a successful fourth starter in the rotation after having training wheels forced on him since the All-Star break?

There’s no need to recap Chamberlain’s recent struggles here. There’ve been enough words typed about his lousy performances on the mound and at his locker. After he coughed up seven runs over three innings during his previous start in Seattle, Girardi and his coaches challenged him to “step up.” Always protective of clubhouse exchanges between team members and coaches — the “inner circle,” as he characterized it Friday — Girardi refused to be more specific to the press about exactly how he presented this challenge to Chamberlain.

At his locker after throwing an impressive six-innings in which he surrendered three runs and issued only one walk and five hits, Chamberlain described the tone of the conversation as stern.

“You get challenged a lot in life, and it’s something where you gotta look yourself in the mirror and see how to make yourself better,” he would say in response to a question about it. “It was something my teammates and my coaching staff did, and it was something it was good for me to realize.”

Answering a follow-up moments later, he added that it was important to “realize there’s a lot of people in this game that want your job. And when it comes down to it, you have to look like they’re gonna take money off your table.”

An observation or two about Chamberlain:

1. He looked angry last night throughout most of the game. And an angry Joba is more often than not a successful Joba.  But inning and pitch limits and all the other constraints placed on him this season in the interest of his career longevity have too often muted that anger for reasons that can only be surmised.

“That’s all over with,” he said about the restrictions. The relief was evident in his voice and expression.

Chamberlain feeds off emotion. It is what made him special when he first stepped on the mound to electrify Yankee Stadium with two years ago, and it is what can make him special going forward.  That more than anything was what the Joba Rules seem to have failed to take into account.

2. As frustrating as his defensive reactions have been immediately after his poorer performances, Joba seems to be more able to honestly admit to a lousy performance after a better one. I’ve noticed this twice in the clubhouse. While I won’t attempt to conduct an armchair psychoanalysis, we all know he grew up under difficult circumstances. That isn’t an excuse for a lack of accountability. But public and private accountability are very different things, and it might why he has a hard time letting guard down within minutes of a bad loss.
I believe Chamberlain should be judged by how he responds to adversity on the field rather than at his locker.

****
For the Red Sox, Friday night’s game may have created, rather than answered, a serious question about their pitching going into the playoffs.

Jon Lester posted a July ERA of 2.60 July, a 2.41 August ERA, and 3.07 ERA in September. With a 14-8 record after last night’s game, he has been the team ace this year and was recently designated Game One starter in a potential American League Division Series appearance.

The hard line drive ball that Lester took to his right leg in the third inning looked at first as if it might end his and the Red Sox’s postseason aspirations, and was a startling reminder of how tenuous such things can be. Watching him sprawled on the infield dirt, it was hard to imagine him walking off the field on his own, let alone standing at his locker answering questions. But he did both.

Lester’s injury has been diagnosed as a muscle bruise. He said in the visiting clubhouse that he would be getting compression wraps to the leg and hopes to make his next start. Sox manager Terry Francona did not rule out the possibility. “He actually might be right on turn for his next start. But we’ll have to see how he feels and figure out the right thing to do.”
Lester’s health nevertheless bears watching. He’s a tough kid and might well be OK. But that right leg is his push off leg. If he isn’t good to go for October, neither are the Red Sox.

****

And last but not least . . .
Somebody’s gotta say it: Those Boston media people really clog up the works in the press cafeteria.

A little while before the game I went to get a cup of coffee and found a mob of them around the machine. So I went over to the soft ice cream dispenser and found them swarming it too.  Finally I gave up and decided to get dinner.  More crowding and slowness at the buffet line.
“This happens whenever they’re here,” I grumbled to a venerable fixture of Yankee Stadium after plopping down at his customary table.  “They devour all the food, plus they leave the stacks of paper cups a mess!”

“I know, I know.”

“I mean, they seriously get on my nerves,” I went on. “Last time they ate all the ice cream before the stinking fifth stinking inning!”

The Fixture folded his hands across his chest and nodded his head in wizened commiseration. “What’re you gonna do? They come to New York, they finally see what real food is,” he said.

Hats off to Skip

angels_275_091509.jpgThere were obvious reasons to earmark Monday night’s Yankees-Angels game in the Bronx — a makeup of a May 3 rainout — as a potential look ahead into the playoffs.

The New York Yankees entered the game with the best record in baseball, the largest division lead (seven games) in the American League, and the near certainty that they will clinch the AL East sometime in the next couple of weeks.

The L.A. Angels of Anaheim came in tied with the Dodgers for the second-best record in baseball and holding a six-game lead over their nearest opponent in the AL West, the Texas Rangers.

The likeliest postseason scenario right now in the American league is that the Yankees will face the Detroit Tigers in the Division Series, with the Wild Card-winning Boston Red Sox matching up against the Halos. It doesn’t take a much figuring to see that the second round League Championship Series could be the Yankees-Angels. If that happens, it will be the third time since 2002 that these teams meet in postseason competition — and Yankee fans are ruefully aware that Anaheim has not only come out on top in both previous series, but has long been bane of the Yankees in the regular season as well.

So these were the obvious hooks to Monday’s game — but it had deeper layers of intrigue. In 2002 and for several years thereafter the Angels built their winning formula on the cornerstones Mike Scioscia’s daringly unpredictable play-calling, and a lockdown relief corps modeled after the Yankee pens during the team’s 1996-2000 dynasty seasons. Their most solidly constructed team overall was arguably 2002’s, with a solid if less than great pitching rotation, a versatile offense capable of scoring bundles of runs, and, very critically, the pen: veteran closer Troy Percival and a supporting cast consisting of pitchers Brendan Donnelly, Scott Schoeneweis, Ben Weber, Scot Shields and others. In September of that year, a Minor League call-up named Francisco Rodriguez was added to the mix. And, of course, K-Rod’s supercharged performances against the Yankees in the ALDS, the Minnesota Twins in the ALCS, and the San Francisco Giants in the World Series helped fire the team to a championship.

Parallels have been drawn between this year’s Yankees and the 1998 version of the Bombers, but the better comparison might be to those 2002 Angels. Beyond CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte, the starting rotation going into the playoffs is loaded with maybes, but the offense is flat-out magnificent and the bullpen is by leaps and bounds the best in the Major Leagues.

Meanwhile, the Angels have changed from what they were in 2002. In terms of how the team is built, its starting rotation is similar — okay but not great, with the exception of Jered Weaver, who’s having a career year, and the fact that ace John Lackey is rounding into form. (Lackey is 2-0 with a 0.35 ERA in his last three starts, allowing one earned run over 26 innings.) There’s less power in the lineup then there was back then, but batters hit for higher average and still run, run, run like crazy. The biggest difference throughout the season, however, has been the bullpen. Although it showed some late improvement, it was among the Major League worst in earned runs allowed for much of 2009. It is no longer a strength for the Angels, but a point of vulnerability.

Scioscia, of course, remains Scioscia. He pushes things. He prods. Chaos is his handprint. He rains it on opposing teams, dares them grapple with it. And for some reason, year after year, the Yankees have been prime victims of his unorthodox strategies.

But Monday night in the Bronx the Yankees beat the Angels, and they did the way the Angels usually beat them. And though it’s September and not October, and it was only one regular season victory, there were signs within the game — signs you can bet nobody on either team missed — that the current Yankee team has the ability to cast off the Angels’ dominance when it really counts.

“They’re definitely not a team that you want to get into a bullpen war with,” the team manager said after the game.

This was Scioscia, not Joe Girardi, talking about a Yankee pen that held his team in check for five innings after Joba Chamberlain’s truncated outing — the most encouraging of the current Joba Rule era. It’s true Phil Hughes surrendered a single run that allowed the Angels to briefly tie the game in the eighth, but it was a single run after he’d loaded the bases with the heart of the Angels order, loaded them with no outs, and the Yanks took those runs back, and more, at the bottom of that inning.

In 2009, the Yankees bullpen is no welcome sight to any other team in baseball. Now, in mid-September, that is hardly a revelation. The pen has proved itself time and again, and its success more than anything has become Girardi’s particular handprint.

But what Girardi showed Monday night — showed Scioscia, his Angels, and thousands of roaring fans at Yankee Stadium — was that he now has chaos at his fingertips too. And has the guts to lock, load and fire away when ready.

Everyone who saw the game knows how it went down. Bottom of the eighth, one out, and Mark Teixeira smashed a line-drive ground rule double to right. And then Alex Rodriguez walked, and Scioscia finally pulled Jered Weaver and went to his bullpen. It was Darren Oliver on the mound to face Hideki Matsui, lefty versus lefty, that was his move and there was nothing wrong with it. It was textbook, it was orthodox, it is what Scioscia or any baseball manager might have been expected to do.

Monday night, it was Girardi who did the unorthodox, pulling a gutsy offensive substitution. Suddenly it was Brett Gardner on the bases to pinch run for Teixeira. This wasn’t a game tied in the ninth inning. This was still the eighth, and if the Yankees didn’t score it would have stayed tied, and Girardi would have lost his potent No. 3 hitter for the remainder of the game. And if the Yanks had gone on to lose the game, you can bet he would have heard about it from the media and fans the next day.

rivera_275_091509.jpgBut they didn’t lose. What happened was the speedy Gardner stole third on a pitch, which was what he was there to try and do. And while he was doing that, running like quicksilver, A-Rod was busy stealing second, and Angels catcher Mike Napoli fired the ball to his third-baseman, and missed, and Gardner came racing home to give the Yanks a 4-3 lead. And then they padded that lead by a run, and in came Mariano Rivera, and it was all over.

Girardi’s Yanks had turned the tables on Scioscia’s Angels, given them a taste of their own medicine, fill in the saying of your choice. What counts is that both teams knew it. And most importantly because they’ve been at the wrong end of things for so long, the Yankees knew, and it gave them a confidence you could see in their faces and hear in their voices after the game.

“We could leave the other guys out there if we wanted to play station to station … so he (Gardner) understood, what we walked about, was to try to get bags. And that’s why we put him out there,” Girardi said. “We also know what it does to the attention of everyone around. Pitcher, catcher, everybody.”

“I think you all should go talk to Skip,” said Nick Swisher, whose two hits in the game included a home run in the third. “Making a great change, putting in Gardy … for him to get that stolen base and then come in to score, hat’s off
to Skip.”

It was one game in September, with postseason ramifications insofar as the team with the best record gaining homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. October may or may not see a rematch between them in which the stakes would be immeasurably higher. Should it occur, however, Monday night’s game gave us a tantalizing hint that this year’s Yankee squad may finally have the manager and players to fly past the Angels toward greater glory.

Appreciating Jeter

Last Thursday I exchanged emails with my longtime reader and friend Hye Sun Canning, who’d been a little surprised I hadn’t written a column about Derek Jeter’s tying (at the time) Lou Gehrig’s Yankee hit record.

I told Hye Sun that I hadn’t commented because I like to avoid redundancy, and it seemed to me that others had already a done a very good job writing appreciations of Jeter’s achievement — which of course now includes actually breaking the Gehrig record. And make no mistake, his achievement is indisputably a great one, as there’s a small likelihood that Jeter’s franchise record will ever be surpassed.  Its celebration doesn’t ignore or diminish the records set by all-time hit leaders on other teams, as some have argued. That to me is taking a jaundiced view.  Other great players have had more hits in their careers, and some have had more hits with a single team.  But — and I hope you’ll excuse this one lapse into repetitiveness — Derek Jeter now has more hits as a New York Yankee than anyone who has come before.
 
It’s a very big deal, and I’m glad Jeter, his loved ones and Yankees fans have gotten a chance to enjoy and applaud  it.  Like Jeter, we sometimes have to stop and relish these moments when they happen.

But back to Hye Sun. After I wrote her to explain why I hadn’t shared my feelings about Jeter’s feat in this spot, she went and put down her feelings in an e-mail, stating them so beautifully that I asked her permission to share an excerpt here with other readers.  While her words were typed when Jeter had equaled Gehrig’s record, I think they’re no less apt now that he’s gone beyond it.

And so, from Hye Sun to me to you, an appreciation of Derek Jeter:

I was thinking about a baseball fate that allows a good player to shine on a good team. Yogi, for instance, with his ten rings. How is that possible to achieve? Would we have missed a talent like Jeter had he played for the Reds, who could have had him instead of us? How many stars aligned for Jeter, and for all Yankee fans, when a young kid’s dream actually came true after all his hard work. Drafted by the team he rooted for, he was allowed to blossom there along with other rookies, whom established a dynasty through the first years of his professional career. The mind boggles . . . .

Without a doubt, Jeter is my favorite ballplayer. I didn’t know it in the beginning, but there came a time when I would find myself a little disappointed if his name was not in the lineup. Somehow the Yankees didn’t look the same without him in those rare games. I love his single-mindedness in pursuing team wins instead of personal accolades. He seems genuinely embarrassed to be lauded so publicly for an individual accomplishment and I love that about him. Somehow, I feel Gehrig would have been the same way, though I know so little of him. When I saw his parents celebrating, I was wondering if any words could describe how proud they must be of their son. Jeter, in my mind, embodies everything a ball player should be. Bar none.

I was really glad he got over his mini-slump and got it done that one night, and I’ll be really happy if he gets a hit quickly tomorrow night and get this all behind him. There will be time enough after he finally hangs up his Number 2, when we can all gush ad infinitum about him and his achievements, and when all naysayers will have to begrudgingly agree that this ballplayer really was special and really did have those intangible qualities that can never be measured by numbers. When there will be no more games to be won for him and he can finally look at what he did.

May be he will never be able to stand with those players with gaudy numbers, because in the end, people are easily seduced by shiny things, but I think that makes his career all the more special. He has garnered respect from all not by flashy show of power and strength, but by hard work and everyday demeanor that allowed him to shine day in and day out, allowing us to notice him and truly appreciate what rare qualities he possesses. And no amount of home runs can ever overshadow his innate integrity and dignity, which exists in the rarest of baseball players , who have to cope with more failure than success every time they play.

Truly we were all blessed by the baseball gods when he came to us and I, for one, am grateful that I got to watch his wonderful career as a Yankee.

Thank you, Hye Sun.

9-11: A Recollection

fan_911_091109.jpgOn September 10, 2001 my wife and I were at Yankee Stadium to see the Yankees play the Red Sox and, hopefully, see Roger Clemens attain a career milestone I wish I could recall right now — there were so many of them. But it was a gray, wet day and the rain kept coming down and down through a lengthy game delay.

We had very good seats behind the Yankee dugout. I remember watching Brian Cashman, Joe Torre, and former Red Sox manager Joe Kerrigan confer on the warning track in the rain. At one point they went walking around the field, skirting the tarp over the infield to prod the soggy grass with their shoes, then heading toward the outfield and doing the same to test it. You could see the water squish up under their feet from the saturated turf.

It wasn’t surprising that the game was postponed, with a makeup date to be determined if necessary. The field wasn’t playable, and the Yankees had a big division lead (13 games) over the Red Sox. I’m fairly certain that game never had to be made up.

Although my wife and I were disappointed it was called, we took consolation knowing that we had tickets for the next night’s game. The team coming in was the Chicago White Sox. Our seats weren’t nearly as good but we were still hoping we’d get to see Clemens achieve the milestone I now forget offhand. (Editor’s Note: At age 39, Clemens was after the fifth 20-win season of his career.)  At any rate, we wondered whether he’d make his scheduled start in the pitching rotation or skip his turn.

When I woke up September 11, my wife already had the local news on — the channel was NY1 with its round-the-clock coverage. She had tuned in for the weather forecast and perhaps an update on whether Clemens was pitching that night. The weather really wasn’t much of a question; all you had to do was look out the window to know it was a picture-perfect day.
Not long after I started watching TV the regular morning news cycle was interrupted. It was about a quarter to nine, and there was a report of smoke coming from the World Trade Center. I wondered at first if a fire had broken out in one of the offices. But within minutes somebody — a motorist, I believe — phoned the station to say he thought a small plane had crashed into the tower.

And then the events of that day began to unfold with a horror that was, at least then, so incomprehensible to us.

We had friends who wound up staying at our Manhattan apartment for most of the day. One had been at work and the other was out looking for work. Both lived outside the borough and couldn’t get home when the city went into virtual lockdown. They called and came over searching for a place to go, and I went out to the store and joined the lines of people getting bottled water and extra food provisions. We did not know the scope of the attack, or who was attacking us. We only knew New York city had been attacked and thought it might be wise to stock up.

I remember, now, all of us watching television in stunned disbelief as the towers came down. And then watching all the rest. I cannot describe the sense of unreality and isolation we felt. It was as if we’d slipped into some dark alternate universe. Or if that impossible universe had eclipsed and overtaken our own. What was happening wasn’t really happening. Except of course we knew it was.

About a week later my wife and I had to leave New York for a while, and did so with hearts as sunken as Atlantis. Someone had put prayer candles in our apartment building’s lobby and I stared at them for a long time before heading out. Several tenants had been at the World Trade Center, including two young women who’d asked us to come up to their apartment and have ice cream with them a couple of days before the terrorists struck — they’d taken off from work for their spur-of-the-moment ice cream party. They were roommates in their late twenties or early thirties and hadn’t lived in the building long. They were killed in the flames and destruction of September 11.

usa_200.jpgWe were at Yankee Stadium the day baseball resumed. Then at the end of October, one of the friends who’d stayed with us on the day of the attacks had tickets for Game 3 of the World Series, the first played in New York. He said there was a chance he’d be able to get me a ticket, and stopped over at the apartment for a while and waited for a call. In the end, the seat went to someone else and I stayed home and watched that game on television with my wife.

I’ve never really thought I had much of a shot at that World Series ticket. Or believed that my friend thought I did. We never spoke of it later, but I’ve always been convinced he came over just so we could spend some time together before he left for that game, a raucous, World Series game at Yankee Stadium in New York City, just six weeks or so after the homicidal, suicidal maniacs hijacked those planes.

We’d shared the day of horror, the three of us. And that October evening before President Bush threw his ceremonial first pitch from the mound, we were going to share just a little of the defiant triumph and renewal that series would bring to New York City.

As I sit writing this now, eight years later, with the television on as the names of the lost are read at what was once the place where the Twin Towers stood, it all comes inextricably together for me. The impotent shock and horror, the sorrow, the memory of baseball lifting many of us up when we so desperately needed it — and, yes, the satisfaction of knowing we have endured.

Almost perfect

hairston_250_090109.jpgPreisler@jeromepreisler.com
You thought he’d probably do it. His manager and teammates thought he’d probably do it. And, in his heart, Andy Pettitte probably believed he was on his way to throwing a perfect game too.

“After the fifth inning, I kinda started thinking about it a little bit,” Pettitte would say with the characteristic understatement that’s one of his most endearing qualities.

This past July, the White Sox’s Mark Buehrle went the distance to throw the 18th perfect game in Major League baseball history. As Pettitte notched his first 20 outs over seven and a third innings, many of us felt a gaining sense that he was on his way to earning Number Nineteen.

Over the course of a baseball season, there are generally several bids at perfect games that are broken up late. Not all have the same inexorable feel that Pettitte’s did through most of Monday night in Baltimore. Maybe it was subjective — we root our hearts out for Andy Pettitte because he’s embodied the best of what it is to be Yankee for so long. Maybe it was also because Jerry Hairston Jr.’s excellent barehanded play on a slow-rolling groundball in the sixth inning made us think that was the one that could have set things awry.

Unfortunately it didn’t happen for Pettitte. With two outs in the seventh inning, Hairston, who’d made that great play just one inning earlier, bobbled a groundball to third and ended his bid at perfection.

Pettitte’s handling of the situation may tell more about him than we might have learned had he succeeded. After the Hairston error, he gave up a single to Orioles outfielder Nick Markakis, then gathered himself and went on to close out the frame with a groundout to short, preserving the Yankees’ 5-0 lead. An inning later, no longer focused on preserving his no-hitter, he surrendered a leadoff homer to Melvin Mora, but went on to elicit two strikeouts and a groundout, ending his night with eight innings of one-run ball. Final score, 5-1 Yanks.

Pettitte never took his mind off what was most important, never let the game get away from him. And in the clubhouse afterward, he noticed Hairston walking with his “head down” and consoled him — joking, as Hairston would reveal, “that he didn’t want to have to throw nine innings anyway.”

In a way the almost perfect game is emblematic of Pettitte’s career. A homegrown mainstay of four World Championship Yankee teams — and Joe Torre’s perennial stopper — the humble Pettitte has long lived in the shadow of pitchers with more out-front personalities or gaudier career numbers. In 2003, after a 21-win season in which he threw to a 4.02 ERA and went on to a tremendous postseason, the Yankees botched their contract negotiations with the left-hander and let him slip away to the Houston Astros for three years. Pettitte earned $31.5 million from the Astros. What’s often forgotten is that the Red Sox were prepared to pay him more for a longer-term contract — some reports had the sum exceeding $50 million. Pettitte canceled out on a scheduled tour of Fenway Park and Boston, however, eschewing the Sox’s overtures because he knew he could never pitch for the Yanks’ archrival.

Last season, Pettitte played through a shoulder injury because he and Mike Mussina were the last men standing in a decimated Yankee rotation. Even as the team’s playoff chances completely evaporated in August and September, he continued to pitch rather than be put on the disabled list. Coming off that gritty second half, Pettitte was finally made a belated take-it-or-leave-it offer that paid him $5.5 million in guaranteed money and an additional $6.5 in performance incentives. This was down from the $16 million guaranteed salary he earned in 2008. The rationale was that he was a dispensable fifth starter in a rotation that would include CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Chien-Ming Wang and Joba Chamberlain.

Pettitte accepted the deal because he wanted to go on pitching and could not see himself as anything but a Yankee. Now well on his way to earning his incentives, he has become the second-best pitcher in the Yankees’ rotation after Sabathia, the team’s ace, with Wang a nonfactor in the season. If the Yankees reach the playoffs this year, and merit alone predicated the order of the postseason rotation, Pettitte would start Game Two of the ALDS. But because Joe Girardi may want to break up his two left-handed hurlers, and more so because Pettitte will likely again be considered the stopper, we can expect him to start a pivotal Game Three.

In his fifteenth season as a Major League player — a season when he was signed, if not quite as an afterthought, then as a nonessential component — Andy Pettitte is once more finding himself absolutely essential to the Yankees postseason aspirations.

Pettitte isn’t the greatest pitcher ever to wear pinstripes. There’s barely a chance he will have a plaque in Cooperstown. But in imperfection, he is the perfect pitcher to capture the lasting respect and affection of Yankee fans.

Jeter Meter
As of Monday night, Derek Jeter’s 2009 batting average is .334 with an .880 OPS (on-base and slugging percentages). He has hit 17 home runs and stolen 23 bases. His improved fielding has been written about extensively, as is the fact that he is primed to surpass Lou Gehrig’s all-time Yankee hit record (2,721).

And he is increasingly becoming a prime candidate for season’s American League MVP.

Before this season, though, we were mostly reading analysis and commentary speculating about how the Yankees were going to deal with a fading Jeter. Should they re-sign him after his current contract expires? Trade him preemptively? Or perhaps move him to the outfield — or somewhere else. Anywhere but the shortstop position. Jeter was a defensive liability, we read. And his days as an offensive force were over. What was left, according to various statistical breakdowns and keen scouting observations, was a substandard defensive shortstop and Punch-and-Judy singles hitter.

The New York Post‘s Joel Sherman was far from alone in raising that cry, but he did it with the singular bombastic cruelty that’s become his career trademark.

In his February 6, 2009 column for the Post (Jeter’s Next Contract Will Be Mother of All Yankee Flaps), Sherman argued that “kowtowing to Jeter’s legacy by paying him lavishly and keeping him at short means tying yourself to a late-30s icon well beyond his expiration date.”

Sherman went on to type this:

jeter_250_090109.jpg“Jeter’s offense already is trending the wrong way. Over the last three seasons, his OPS has gone from .900 to .840 to .771; his homers from 14 to 12 to 11; his steals from 34 to 15 to 11. What do you think his offense will look like in two years?

And how about his defense? Every statistical evaluation shows Jeter’s range to consistently be among the Majors’ worst, and the scouting community pretty much confirms that.

By 2011, the Yanks could have either Jeter or just his future plaque at Monument Park play short; they will have about the same range.”

The above is an example of how little the analysts, commentators and stat geeks know about baseball, and why we need to keep level heads, remain patient, and be careful about who we consider reliable experts.

I believe that when Jeter’s contra
ct is up he will re-sign with the Yankees for the remainder of his career. To paraphrase Girardi, he will remain shortstop as long as he is willing and able to play the position. And when he is no longer able, Jeter and the Yankees will decide what is best for the team.

Jeter has always handled every facet of his professional life in exemplary fashion. There is nothing to indicate he won’t handle its waning days, whenever they may come, with equal style.

Joba Blabber

I’ve said nothing here about the latest contortion of the Joba Rules because there’s really very little worth saying. The Yankees long ago committed to making Chamberlain a starting pitcher. In the interests of protecting his arm from injury, they determined that would not throw more than a certain number of innings — said to be 160 — this season. And they have stuck to their plan.

The penultimate (so far) version of the rules, which provided extra days’ rest between starts, clearly wasn’t working for Chamberlain. His rhythm was off, his performances were mediocre. So the Yanks’ modified their plan — and deserve credit for that.

I don’t know if Chamberlain pitching a truncated number of innings every five days will work any better than having him pitch on a staggered schedule with long layoffs between starts. The truth is nobody knows, including the Yankees, who are attempting something one else has done in my mind — that is, trying, at nearly all cost, to protect the career longevity of a prized young player while keeping him integral to a pennant race and possible run for the World Championship.

Enough Joba blabber, folks. The Yanks are doing what they feel they must do with him. We can praise or pillory them come November after we’ve seen how things shake out.