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Treats, not tricks, for Yanks in Game 3

swisher250.jpgWorld Series Game Three, Halloween night, and the Yanks are loose down the ‘pike  in Philadelphia.

Andy Pettitte, the afterthought, the complimentary player, the maybe-number-five starter last offseason, earns a come-from-behind swing game win to become the winningest postseason pitcher in baseball history. Adios, John Smoltz. And, not to forget, while coming from behind ties the game for himself with his bat. Scary to think where the Yanks would be without him.

Alex Rodriguez, booed just for breathing in the past, embarrassed last offseason, in surgery during spring training, returning with a bang to wake up the Yanks in May, becoming the biggest bat all postseason, shows up now with another bang, his first World Series hit also his first World Series homerun, tying Bernie Williams for most homers in Yankee postseason history and sending still another wakeup call to the Yankee offense.

Nick Swisher, starts the season on the bench, becomes a regular by necessity, gets two big hits and catches for every big bungle all year long, does very little that’s big at the plate through the postseason, benched in Game 2 of the World Series, first doubles and goes barreling home on Pettitte’s single in the fifth, helps him tie the game and then earns the win with a go-ahead solo shot in the sixth. There you have it: Nick Swisher, the Redemption Kid, outslugs Rocky Balboa on a Yank-haunted Saturday night in Philly.

Meanwhile Damon starts looking demonic. Matsui rises late to stomp Myers, Godzilla in the flesh, while the Phanatic cringes out of sight in his costume.

Enter Joba and Marte. Then Hughes, who’s sorta okay. And finally Rivera, his devilish cutter sending the crowd home in graveyard silence.

World Series Game Three, Phillies tricked and not treated.

Yankees win, up 2-1 in a best of seven that has become a best of four.

A happy Halloween for the boys in pinstripes.

World Series Game 1 From a Distance

The first game of the 2009 World Series has Jerome in a dissociative state this morning, which is why he’s referring to himself in the third person. Just to be clear, this is in contrast to, say, Shaquille O’Neal or Rickey Henderson, who refer to themselves in the third person as though they are constantly looking in the mirror and admiring icons too great to be enclosed within their mere mortal frames.

Basically, Jerome doesn’t want to be the same guy who went to bed Wednesday night feeling surly and aggravated over the Yankees’ 6-1 loss to the Phillies. In fact, he doesn’t want to get anywhere close to that miserable, foul-mouthed dude. He prefers to avoid negativity as he starts the day.

hughes_250_102909.jpgJerome realizes there are going to be three or four major storylines surrounding the game as the Thursday media cycle gets on its daily roll. The first is Phillies ace Cliff Lee’s dominance over Yankees hitters.

The second is likely to be the failure of the Yankees bullpen mainstays, most especially Phil Hughes, to hold the Phillies’ offense in check after starter CC Sabathia left the game in the eighth, turning a two-run hole into a bridgeless, six-run chasm in just a couple of innings.

The third will be that the occasionally flammable A.J. Burnett being scheduled to start an all-important Game 2 for the Yankees is a nervous, uncertain, pressure-packed proposition.

Fourth … well, the fourth-place topic, or topics, will be a medley of dire comparisons to the Yankees’ weak 2003 World Series performance against Josh Beckett, concerns about the Alex Rodriguez pressing, and colorful Pedro Martinez highlight clips and quotes.

Jerome won’t feel too sorry for the Yanks as the day wears on. They earned all this chatter for themselves. Yes, one can say Lee had something to do with it, and tip one’s cap to him. But since he as much as tipped his cap to himself non-chalanting a Johnny Damon pop-up in the sixth, Jerome will refrain from doing it here. While Thursday morning’s Positive Jerome may not be anything like Thursday night’s wretched, cussing Negative Jerome, he remains susceptible to temptation by the dark side.

Rather than dissect what others already will be picking apart, Jerome is just going make a few quick points this morning. Get in, get out, and then lay low until tonight’s game.

The goat horns Hughes sprouted in Game 5 of the ALCS have fast grown large and unwieldy. As some may recall, Game 5 was when he followed the Yanks’ dramatic come-from-behind, lead-seizing, six-run rally in the seventh by entering the game at the bottom of that frame with two outs, and immediately coughing up a pair of runs to erase their lead and eventually lose them the game.

Hughes has now been a key factor, and arguably the deciding one, in two of the team’s three 2009 postseason losses. That’s pretty darned awful. One can only hope his coaches are privately telling him it’s time to stand tall and throw strikes — to man up — rather than using coach-speak like “too fine” and “mechanical flaws” and “shortening his delivery” to address his failures, because the latter are not causes, but symptoms. They are happening because he’s showing no confidence in himself. You can see it when he takes the mound. It’s in his face and body language. It has to change, because he is an absolutely vital component of the bullpen, which has itself been vital to the Yanks’ success all season.

Okay, that’s it for Hughes. Next up, Mark Teixeira, who’s hitting .186 for the postseason. This even worse than Damon’s .239 postseason batting average, Hideki Matsui’s .242, and Robin Cano’s dismal .211. For sure, Tex is doing better than Nick Swisher, who presently holds a team-low .114 October average. And yes, he’s got a superb glove at first base, but Tony Clark was no slouch at the defensive end, and neither was Doug Mientkiewicz, and no one ever clamored for the Yankees to go out and sign either of them as their regular first baseman.

Teixeira is the team’s No. 3 batter. He is supposed to be a big bopper in the lineup, supposed to drive in Derek Jeter, who is seemingly always on base, with timely hits. But right now he is not hitting at all, and that is killing the Yanks. If that doesn’t change soon, someone will have to drill horn holes in his batting helmet to prevent it from rising too high off the top of his head.

This is also true for the other culprits mentioned above. Time to wake up, fellas. In fact, it’s past time to wake up. Jeter and Rodriguez can’t be expected shoulder the burden for the entire offense the rest of the way.

But Jerome promised he’d make this short and sweet, and he intends to keep that pledge. He moreover doesn’t want to be anything like the ill-tempered, cussing Jerome of Wednesday night vintage, and get himself or anyone else worked up. So he’s going to end on an upbeat note or two.

burnett_250_102909.jpgJerome believes all the yammering you will hear today about Burnett’s fragile psyche is so much noise. The rap on him is largely unfair. He can be wild, true. And we have seen him rattle. But he’s pitched well overall in the postseason, and has also stepped up in big spots, like when he outdueled Beckett in a pivotal series August series against the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium.

A.J.’s tough and talented enough for the stopper’s job. And ought to be better than a diminished Pedro Martinez, who should no longer strike fear into the collective heart of a Major League lineup, his seven-innings of shutout ball against a tepid Dodgers squad in the NLCS notwithstanding. The Yankees ought to be able to knock Pedro out early and get into the Phillies own horn-toting bullpen tonight.

It is worth pointing out that Phillies manager Charlie Manuel only elected to start Martinez in Game 2 because he has lost faith in Cole Hamels, last year’s ace of his staff.

The Game 3 starters will be Hamels for the Phillies and Andy Pettitte for the Yankees. Hamels has a 7.20 ERA for the NLDS and a 6.52 ERA for the NLCS. Pettitte’s numbers in the two American League playoff rounds, by comparison, are at 1.42 and 2.84. And forget the stats, he is Andy Pettitte.

So Sunnyside-Up Jerome likes the Yank’s chances in the next couple of games. He is going to continue keeping Sunnyside-Down Jerome at a distance throughout the day, concentrate on his work, and keep the TV and radio off till approximately eight o’clock tonight. Then he may or may not be at Yankee Stadium to watch the game, but will be definitely be watching it from somewhere.

He optimistically expects to be back to referring to himself in the first person tomorrow.

Two teams standing

A minuscule entry this morning, as I blearily catch up on various deadlines, to congratulate the Yankees on their 40th trip to the World Series.

Thus far 2009 has been a been a year rich in dramatic storylines for the team — a new Stadium’s opening and christening; the arrival of the Big Man, ALCS Most Valuable Player CC “Must-See” Sabathia; the Mark Teixeira show at first base; Derek Jeter breaking Lou Gehrig’s all-time Yankee hits record; Swisher Mohawks; Burnett pie; clubhouse music; ’round-the-clock Joba, Alex Rodriguez finally showing why he’s one of the greatest players in baseball history; Andy Pettitte showing yet again why he’s one of the greatest starting pitchers in Yankee history; Mariano Rivera showing yet again why he’s indisputably the greatest reliever in baseball history, Phil Hughes’ regular season emergence as a deciding force in the bullpen; Joe Girardi’s brilliant crafting and handling of that ‘pen — and occasionally baffling use of it in the postseason; Girardi’s sometimes brilliant, occasionally baffling in-game calls from the bench . . . .

And a whole bunch plot threads I’ve undoubtedly missed here, plus more to come as we launch into the World Series this week.

The disappearance of reliever David Robertson in the ALCS is a question we’ll likely have answered soon, and we can only hope it’s unrelated to the arm problems that sidelined him toward the end of the regular season. Girardi’s use of Joba Chamberlain over Hughes in the seventh inning of the series’ Game 6  — and the warming of Damaso Marte over Phil Coke for a possible lefty-lefty matchup — create questions as to where his trust now extends as he reaches into the ‘pen. And we’ll see have to see whether his itchy, unpredictable finger on the pinch-runner/mound buzzer switch gets him in trouble or, well, stops itching quite as much or erratically as we’ve seen in the first two rounds of postseason play.

Meanwhile, two teams Major League baseball teams are still standing this week, and the Yankees are one of them. It’s been six years.

The team and its fans have reason to celebrate this bright late October morning.

The Ghost of ’04

For two days before Thursday’s ALCS Game Five in Anaheim, I strongly discounted the media drumbeat that a Yankees failure to close out the series that night would evoke the leering specter of 2004’s collapse against the Red Sox in the minds of Yankees fans.

My feelings stemmed from the key differences between this season’s Yankees squad and the one that historically blew a 3-0 lead over its opposition. I was never comfortable with that lead in ’04. Even as the Yankees headed into Boston for three games after taking a 2-0 series advantage, and then pounded the Sox into their shower room in a 19-8 laugher, I worried about the pitching matchups in potential Games 6 and 7 at Yankee Stadium.

kevinbrown_250_102309.jpgThe Sox had Curt Schilling and Derek Lowe in line to start those games. The Yankees had Jon Lieber, followed by basically nobody. Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez was a candidate for a possible all-or-nothing seventh game, but a very iffy one, as he’d been struggling to recover from a late-season injury. It seemed doubtful that Javier Vzquez, who’d been a huge disappointment in his first and only year with the team, would get the ball. That left the Yankees’ alleged ace going into the season, Kevin Brown, as manager Joe Torre’s likeliest option if the series was extended to its limit.

No Yankees fan in the universe would have chosen to entrust his or her team’s fate with the injury plagued, surly, selfish and ineffective Brown. Most never believed the series would come down to it. The Yankees, after all, had three cracks at putting away the Sox before they reached that critical juncture.

As I said, I was jittery over the prospect all along. For one thing, overconfidence is not one of my personal failings. For another, I had always felt the Yankees’ unwise failure to re-sign Andy Pettitte after the 2003 season had birthed a big, vicious dog that would sink its teeth into them where and when it hurt the most.

I believed then, and still believe, that the Yankees would have never had their 2004 championship aspirations murdered by the Red Sox if Pettitte had been on the team. If they’d held onto Pettitte, I think there’s a good chance they would have won their fifth World Series title in less than a decade.

It’s poetic to me that Pettitte, with his hawkish stare and Texas-sized heart, a Yankee to the marrow rightfully back in the place where he belongs, will be taking the ball for the Yankees in a vital Game 6 of the 2009 ALCS in hopes of staving off yet another apocalyptic Game 7.

But six years have passed since Pettitte threw what would prove to be the last pitch as a Yankee for far too long in the 2003 World Series. He is not the same pitcher now as he was back then, and Yankee Stadium is not the same place as it was back then. His cut fastball has lost several miles of velocity, and he relies more on off-speed pitches and precision accuracy than he used to. The cutter remains his best weapon, the one gets him his groundball outs. If it isn’t sharp, though, it can lead to hard-hit fly balls. And in Yankee Stadium, now, fly balls can travel great distances. This is probably the major reason Pettitte’s 2009 record on the road was better than it was at home.

There’s still reason to be confident–not overconfident–that Pettitte can do his part to send the Angels flying home on droopy wings Saturday night. That the Yankees will close out the series behind him, pop their champagne corks and go on to tackle the Phillies in the World Series. He was excellent overall throughout the regular season, and found renewed success at Yankee Stadium back around June or July, very uncoincidentally when he rediscovered his feel for the cutter.

But even if he pitches well, Pettitte is going to need help. If 2009 is not to resemble 2004 in its outcome — albeit with the current opposition wearing a more garish shade of red than the Boston team — it would be helpful for Phil Hughes to pitch with the courage and confidence we saw from him all season rather than look like Tom Gordon reincarnated on the mound.

It’s okay for Hughes to tell the media, as he did after Thursday night’s loss, that he was “too fine” with his pitches when he entered the game with two outs in the seventh inning, surrendering two runs after the Yankees staged what could have been a comeback for the ages. I wouldn’t have expected him to say Anaheim’s thunder sticks and Rally Monkey overwhelmed him, as the entire postseason seems to have done thus far. But “too fine” is latter day coach-speak, a positive way to say a pitcher isn’t throwing strikes because he’s shying away from contact, which is itself a polite way of saying Hughes is looking scared right now. That has to stop, and at once, or the tomorrows for the Yankees may be numbered. Coach-speak doesn’t win series. Sometimes I think all does is provide a player with a psychological cushion when a hard jolt of reality would serve him better.

joba_250_102309.jpgWhile Hughes may have taken the loss, there were goats aplenty in the pitching staff. The guy one New York Times reporter calls “the pitcher who used to be Joba Chamberlain” was ineffective in the eighth inning, giving up a leadoff double and a single, putting men on first and third with one out, leaving it to the great Mariano Rivera to enter in a non-save situation and hold the Yankees to a one-run deficit. Starter A.J. Burnett would wear the biggest set of horns, first putting the Yankees in a four-run hole before we’d even carried our chips and soda in from the kitchen, and then putting two men on base in the home half of seventh after the Yankees’ breathtaking rally at the top of the inning, the one we all thought would start the corks popping in California.

Offensively, it’s unfortunate the Nick Swisher succumbed to his bte noire, the hyper-adrenalized dark beast of impatience that undermines his natural talent for identifying the strike zone in tight spots. YES postgame analyst Ken Singleton pointed out that Swisher would have been well advised to take a cue from former Yankee Bernie Williams in his bases loaded, ninth inning at-bat, and repeatedly step out of the box to throw off the timing of the Angels’ shaky closer Brian Fuentes. Fuentes was self-destructing, and Swisher had run up a full count on him. A little psychological gamesmanship might have led to ball four, a tie game, and a very different final result.

As fans await Saturday night’s penultimate game of the series, it should be comforting to know that Pettitte will be on the mound. It is an equal comfort that CC Sabathia, the anti-Kevin Brown, will follow him should things come down to a Game 7.

The 2009 Yankees aren’t the 2004 Yankees. I think they will pull this one off.

But I would be lying if I denied that the malevolent specter of the ’04 debacle didn’t reach its cold, ragged-clawed fingers into my heart last night. After insisting all day that the press was summoning up a false demon to sell newspapers papers and keep radio listeners near the dial, I realized I was wrong and they were right. Burnett spoke of leaving it all on the field after his losing effort. That’s all fine and dandy. But I now realize I’m no different than countless other Yankees fans who left something the field at the Old Lady Across the Street after Game 7 of 2004’s ALCS. Burnett didn’t do anything Thursday night to help us reclaim it. And as I went to bed, I couldn’t shake the image of Hughes looking like Gordon on
the mound amid a roaring sea of red.

In my mind’s eye, there was something very scary and dangerous hovering over him.

One out of left field

Over the five or so years I’ve written Deep In the Red, I’ve been given the privilege of writing about baseball — most especially the Yankees, of course — from a unique if not wholly singular perspective.

YESNetwork.com has given a virtual free hand that enables me to switch from wearing my well-worn Yankee cap to my press box sport jacket, if not at will, then mostly so, and often at short notice. As a fan I’ve tried to bare my honest thoughts and emotions to the bone in hopes of capturing the passion shared by countless other fans. In the role of journalist and analyst, I’ve tried to write with an unsensationalistic objectivity, respect Stadium275.jpgfor players, and balance I often find lacking in the work of far too many sportswriters who view the game with jaundiced eyes — and, in some cases nowadays, keep those eyes firmly on their Twitter pages rather than the games they’re supposed to be watching and reporting on.

This forum is something for which I am beyond grateful. I consider it a blessing.

When I’m functioning as a member of the working press, I’m given the professional courtesies all media people are afforded. And when I’m in my seat at the games wearing my Yankee cap there are no special benefits. I’m just one of 50,000 or so other paying customers there for a night out at the ballpark.

Saturday night at Yankee Stadium, at a game my wife and I had highly anticipated, the obduracy and thoughtlessness of one security staffer took some of the luster off the thrill we should have taken from an epic postseason win.

I should mention that my wife’s a stickler for preparation. The preparation part is useful when you’re going to a game during which you’ll be sitting out in the left field bleachers on a night when temperatures are in the 40’s, a nor’easter is supposed to be blasting in and rain delays are expected throughout the game.

I can’t tell you how much insulation Suzanne wore under her long winter coat, scarf and hat.  All I know is that it was a lot. And that as we prepared to leave our apartment for the game, she wondered if people would think she was a little crazy in all those clothes. Walking to the subway station, we laughed  because she could hardly bend her knees. It was the double tights, Under Armour and what-not she’d layered on. She was also carrying a rolled up blanket in some kind of tote. Oh, and an umbrella. She’s on the slight side and needs to bundle up in bad weather.

We were fortunate in that the rain held up till late in the game — I think it was around eleven o’clock. It was chilly for most of the night, though. And when it got wet and windy it felt downright cold out in the bleachers.

When I looked over at Suzanne at some point around the ninth or 10th inning, I noticed she was shivering under her umbrella. And that the umbrella wasn’t doing much good in the slanting rain anyway.

I asked if she was okay, and she said she was. But when you see your wife trembling, and her knees knocking, and her lips getting white, even if you haven’t been married forever like I have, you know she’s only saying that because she doesn’t want to ruin your time and make you feel as if you’d better leave early.

I told her that maybe we ought to go home. But she’s as averse to leaving a Yankees game in progress as I’ve always been, especially a playoff game, and insisted she just needed to get out of the cold and rain for a little while, and would find someplace to stand in the concourse, maybe have a coffee to warm her up.  

“You stay here,” she said. “I’ll call you on the cell and let you know where I am.”

I told her not to be ridiculous and went with her.

At this point — I’m guessing it was the eleventh inning — the crowd had thinned significantly out around the left field bleachers. Some were people with kids, others were people with long drives home, and I guess still others were just tired and cold and soaked. Whatever their reasons, they were heading for the aisles in bunches.

There was a section back there that had been designated as Standing Room Only for theStadium235.jpg playoffs. It has a kind of overhang that blocks the rain, and a wall behind it that cuts down the wind stream. The last two holdouts in that section were a guy with no shirt on and a beer sloshing in his hand, and another guy who was kind of prowling around looking shady. Everybody else had departed.

Suzanne had warmed a bit in the concourse. She had gotten some color back in her face and her teeth weren’t chattering. She wanted to try and hang in and root the team on for the rest of the game, just not in the bleachers where the wind was still ripping over and through her coat. So we figured we’d give the SRO section a shot.

Now, I understand about moving into different seats than the ones you’ve bought. It’s one thing moving down to better, more expensive ones nowadays, even if they’re empty. Back in the old days that was okay, but now it isn’t, and I accept it. But you wouldn’t figure somebody would mind your moving to a worse, cheaper section with no place to sit down, let alone one that was now completely deserted except for the two stragglers I mentioned.

We went into the SRO section and had been there about three minutes when the security guard came over and asked if we had tickets.

“We’ve got bleacher seats,” I said, showing my ticket to him. “But my wife’s soaked, and couldn’t take the cold anymore. It okay if we stay here?”

“Unless you have tickets for this area, you have to leave,” he said. “You have bleacher seats. This is Standing Room Only.”

“But there’s nobody left standing here,” I said.

The security guy just shook his head. Meanwhile, the bare-chested guy came running over. He’s completely toasted but, I realize, trying to help.

“This is the shirtless section now,” he tells the security guard. “And me being the only guy here, I say they can stay, man. They can even keep their shirts on!”

The security guard ignored him.

“You have to leave,” he told me again.

“Look,” I said. “My wife and I aren’t causing problems. We’re into extra innings on a miserable night, and she’s freezing, and it’s a playoff game. We just want to see the end.”

Robotman couldn’t have cared less: “You have to leave. I’m just doing my job.”

“But if I went to a customer service desk, and told them my wife was uncomfortable , they’d probably put us somewhere else right now anyway. Since there are all kinds of seats available.”

I don’t know whether or not the part about the moving’s true. I think it might be. But when you’re in extra innings, and it’s one o’clock in the morning, five hours into a game that can end in a heartbeat with an error or a home run, the last thing you want to do is have to seek out customer service at an enormous Stadium and miss that last play.

Meanwhile, for maybe the fifth time, the security guard is repeating his mantra. “You have to leave, I’m just doing my job.”

Stadium3.jpgBehind him, the shirtless guy’s signaling for us to walk away and circle back from the other direction. And behind me, the guy who’s been roaming aro
und looking shifty tries to grab my wife’s tote bag, which she’s set down against the wall. She yanks it out of his hand at the last minute and he takes off running. I don’t find out about this till later. My back is to him, and the security guard, who is facing in his direction, is too busy telling me he’s doing his job to notice.

“Jerome, let’s just go,” my wife says. “It’s not worth it.”

I’m looking at the guard. I’m pretending not to think he’s the world’s biggest jerk as I oh-so-politely ask one final time to give us a break and am again told to move on. I’m also pretending not to think that maybe he ought to stop repeating that he’s just doing his job and instead try using his head.

And I’m thinking one other thing under that cap of mine that I’ll get around to in a second.

First, though, to make a long story short, we moved. We found a bench in the last row bleachers that was entirely vacated, and had a little coverage, and my wife wrapped herself in her blanket, and we watched the end of the game. The security guards there weren’t hassling anyone. Give them credit.

Finally we cheered and clapped when Hairston ran home on that error, and waited for the pie, and then headed out of the Stadium with the crowd.

We were both a little subdued as we left, though. I wasn’t grinning from ear to ear the way I ordinarily would have. I wasn’t high-fiving anyone, or thinking about what a classic game I’d seen. I was glad the Yanks won and glad, too, that I was going home. It had been a great night for the Yanks but not such a great night for me or my wife.

And as for the final thing I thought under my Yanks cap about the uniform in the SRO section:

What I was thinking was that I would write about him today in this column. Write how he showed no discretionary judgment, no human kindness, no wisdom, no common consideration or decency. Write that I hope he reads this, and I hope even more that somebody takes him to task for it. He stunk at his job and frankly doesn’t deserve to have it.

This morning, I mentioned a little of what happened last night to a pal and fellow journalist — one of the guys who actually watches the games he writes about in the newspaper.  He replied that he hoped my wife and I enjoyed the end of the game anyway. I told him we did, but that our enjoyment was a little diminished by our experience.

My memory of Game 2 of the 2009 ALCS will never be an entirely happy one.

Kind of stinks.

CC!

Figure things probably won’t be as easy the rest of the way. It’s hard to believe the LA Angels of Anaheim will continue to bumble and stumble around the field like Ringling Brothers clowns flopping out of a circus train down at the Garden. And most of all, the Yanks won’t have CC Sabathia on the mound every night for the rest of the LCS.

sabathia275.jpgFriday night, though, the first night of the series, that baby belonged to CC.  Somewhere over the Yankee Stadium frieze, and the lights, and the hard, cold wind blowing in from left field, and the wet snow early in the game, and the sheet of gray October clouds spitting that snow down our hooded heads, somewhere high above it all in the New York City sky, the stars and moon and planets were aligned over CC, were shining down on him as he stood there throwing lightning for strikes in the middle of the infield diamond. Even the flags out in left were pointing stiffly at him as if to say, “This night belongs to you.”

Big stage. Big night. Big man, that CC.

And the crowd let him know it once he got to mowing through that Angels lineup. See ya later Figgins, it’s hard to run wild on the bases when you can’t get on. Fuggedabout it Abreu, you can’t draw a walk when the Big Man’s pounding you with strike after strike. Props to Torii for getting the first of those four Angels hits, but a single won’t hurt CC when he’s firing 95 mph heat to get Guerrero to line out, especially when he then spun him and his humongous lumber in a helpless circle after Vlad touched him for that one mistake in the fourth.
 
Tough to remember exactly when the chanting started. With the wind ripping into us up in the frozen stands, we were still getting loose those first few innings, still trying to get our blood circulating under layers of clothing that made us feel like kids dressed for a snow day — our coats and hoodies and thermals and Under Armour, our gloves and double socks.  Those first few innings, couples were still snuggling under their blankets while trying to stay warm.  We’d clap and yell but our brains were too frozen and numb to come up with something special. Something to fit the occasion.

And then we heard it. Maybe from somewhere in the right field grandstand, though you know those Bleacher Creatures will want to take the credit.  But it really doesn’t matter where it started, or who got it going, because the one who counted Friday night was the guy that got everybody on their feet and out from under the snuggle blankets, the guy that growing, rhythmic chant was all for, the big man on the mound, big man in a big game in the Bronx, where some of the biggest in the history of baseball have been played:

“CC! CC! CC!”

Straight on, no frills, and nothing could have felt more right, because that’s CC in a nutshell. He doesn’t showboat and rarely flashes his emotions. He just plants his foot on the rubber and mops that wide brow of his and deals. Seven, eight innings. 100, 115, 120 pitches. It was like that all summer, and here we are in the fall, and now he’s showing the Yanks, who will tell you over and over he’s their horse, that he wants them to ride him into November’s baseball dreamland.

“CC! CC! CC!”

115 pitches last night. 76 strikes, four hits, one run, eight innings. And then the ball to Mo. Figure it won’t be as easy the entire series. But it was Friday night.
 
Must-see CC hurls the Yanks toward a big postseason win.

Big as big can be.

Hungry hearts

“Anybody know who won?” the guy asks.

I’m on the 4 train minutes after last night’s game, and if you’re reading this I don’t have to tell you what game. Whether you were there among 50,000 or so of us who aged about 30 years and melted off 15 pounds or so at Yankee Stadium — not the new Stadium for me anymore, but finally the Stadium — whether you were there with us or watching at home on television or in a car somewhere on some dark highway listening with the dash radio on, you know what game I’m talking about.

yankees275.jpgAnd here the guy comes aboard the jammed train afterward, pushes in just over to my right, and asks who won.

We turn our wiped out faces his way.  He’s maybe in his late 50s with neatly trimmed gray hair, and though he’s all casual in a tee shirt and jeans tonight, you get the sense that away from the ballpark he’s an exec at some mega-corporation or a heavy-hitter courtroom lawyer, some kind of big shot anyway.

Anybody know? It’s a sucker’s gag. But we’ve all spent the past four and a half hours getting our souls squeezed out of us into that wild, crackling, exhilarating, enervating storm of emotional energy that surrounded the Stadium. We are juiced oranges there in that packed subway car.  We fall for it.

“Just kidding ,” he says with a chuckle after getting  our attention.

And everybody laughs or gives him one of those you-got-me-buddy grins.

“You’ve got my permission to kill him,” says the guy on my opposite side, who I think might be his friend.

I shake my head to let him know I’m too tired for murder.  “I’ll have to do it another time,” I say. “Just don’t have enough strength for it right now.”

The guy nods. “I know what you mean,” he says.  “Geez, what a game.”

What a game, is right. I’ve been at some great ones, but don’t remember being at a better one.

If you were there,  you felt it  from the first ninety-plus-mile-an-hour strike Burnett  threw. And you heard it in the cheers and the smacking of hands around you. I’m talking about the hunger. This crowd was hungry in a way they haven’t been for years, believes in this team in a way they haven’t believed for years, just like this hungry Yankees team believes in itself.

I remember that hunger before 1996. But sometime during the dynasty years, we started taking things a little too much for granted.  By 2001, we’d been so well fed with winning, were so stuffed with it, that we figured even what happened there in Arizona was a tough luck fluke.

 And then in 2002, with Tino and O’Neal gone, and Bernie getting older, and the pitching getting iffier, and the parade of stars coming in, and finally the Angels knocking the Yanks out of the postseason just like that, we were reminded good things don’t last forever, and got to wondering somewhere in our minds if the Yankees team we were watching wasn’t the Yankees team we believed in anymore. Still, though we’d dined well on success for a while — four world championships in five years — we told ourselves another good portion would have to come soon.

We were kidding ourselves.

The team had changed, and something else had changed too. I remember being at the World Series in 2003 days after the great Game 7, the Aaron Boone homer Game 7. All around me, everywhere in the stands, there were people you never saw at the Stadium during the regular season. People sitting around in their seats like they were at a Broadway play or the opera or something. I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know why those people who didn’t seem to know or care anything about the game were getting tickets to it. I didn’t know why the faces I saw around me all throughout the regular season mostly weren’t there, and I still don’t.  But too many of them didn’t get in. And too many bodies in the seats seemed like they were there because it was the place to be rather than because it was somewhere they wanted to be. Seemed like they would have rather spent the night at a restaurant dining lobster claws than feasting on a win.

The Marlins noticed it when they came in. After the first game, some of their players chattered how playing at Yankee Stadium wasn’t  a big deal. The crowd wasn’t so loud, nothing about it was too intimidating. They couldn’t figure out what the fuss was all about. Yankee Stadium didn’t have any edge.

The Marlins won that World Series. And then in 2004 the Red Sox came in and won the bad Game 7 in the second round of the playoffs. And after that — even though somebody in the Yanks organization must have wised up  and started getting tickets back into the hands of real fans again — after that, there were all those early exits from October baseball, all those Yankees teams that never really felt altogether like teams, those teams we wanted to love but just couldn’t.  Postseason games didn’t seem the same as they’d used to be. Or they didn’t to me, anyway. Something was missing. A spark, maybe. A swagger. Something.

And then last season October didn’t even happen. All we had at the end was Derek Jeter’s graceful goodbye to a dear old friend, which was something, at least. But it didn’t make the Yanks’ melancholy September exit any easier to take.

The fans were hungry again. We’d been hungry for a while. We’d learned our lesson, been reminded winning wasn’t so easy after all.  But we had an uneasy feeling maybe the team wasn’t as starved for the big, oven-stuffing World Series prize as we were. 

And then we were given this 2009 team.  And slowly, almost reluctantly, we started to believe they wanted it. That they were going after it. We still kept our expectations in check. You get burned enough, you don’t extend your faith that easily.

Last night at Yankee Stadium, in that up and down, tilt-a-whirl nailbiter of an 11-inning thrill ride, the Yanks took us on with the help of a Minnesota Twins team that wouldn’t quit, just like the home team wouldn’t quit; they earned our belief .

I look for pivotal moments, and I have to go back to that ninth inning. Yanks down 3-1. Joe Nathan, one of the best closers in the game on the mound. He’s got to face Teixeira, Rodriguez and Matsui.  Three guys you’d want him to be facing in that spot.  Except Tex hasn’t had a hit in the series, he’s looked a little tight, and it is the ninth inning. There aren’t many outs left.

We’re all standing and cheering up there in the stands. We have fallen for this team and poured everything we’ve got into rooting for them all night. But we are withholding just a little bit of our hearts so they won’t be broken.

yankees275(2).jpgWhen Teixeira hits the single, some big lunk is standing in the aisle next to my seat, bumping into me every couple of seconds and getting on my nerves. I’m like 5-foot-7 and 150 pounds, and he’s like, 6’3 and 450 pounds, and I’m way, way too tense to put up with his big fat elbow in my side. Why won’t he just go back wherever he belongs?

And into the batter’s box steps the great Rodriguez and hoists one into the energy field over the park, out to deep, deep center where it will finally return to earth in a place of no return, and the score is tied, and the night is roaring. And I look at the lunk, and he looks at me, and then we’re  hugging each other, jumping up and down in the aisle and slapping each others’ backs like we’ve been best friends our entire lives and one or the other or both of us just became a daddy.  I see hands up everywhere,  above me, below me, everywhere, waiting to be high-fived.

That wasn’t the end of course. We all saw or heard the game from somewhere and know it wasn’t the end of it. We thought it was won in the 10th after Gardner made his crazy steal of third with one out, but had the air taken out of us when Damon hit into that hard luck double play. We thought it was lost in the 11th after Damaso Marte gave up consecutive hits to the only two batters he was supposed to get out, and then David Robertson, the 24-year old rookie who just a few weeks ago looked like he might be done for the year, comes in and gives up a single to load the bases with no outs.

And the kid gets out of it without surrendering a run.

Think about it. Postseason, extra innings bases loaded. Game on the line.

The kid came through.  And then so did Mark Teixeira, four pitches into the bottom of the inning, with the walkoff homer that made the Stadium explode.

Hungry fans, hungry team.  It was a hungry man’s feast.

“That was their baptism,” somebody said to me on the train home. He was talking about Teixeira and Rodriguez in the ninth, but might as well have been talking about this 2009 team.

What happened Friday night in Game 2 of the Division series doesn’t mean the  Yanks can’t be beaten.  Anybody can. But  it means that win or lose, they are going to give the winning everything they have, play any kind of game they need to, do whatever it takes to feed the appetite for a championship shared by Yankees fans and players alike. If this team goes down in October or November, they are going to go down hard.

Man, though, it must be getting tough to bet against them.

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.