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





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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

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.

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.

Carnival of Hope

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

–Patti Smith, People Have the Power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HOPE Week photos copyright of the New York Yankees.

Swish … Redemption!

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

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

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

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

Dumb and dumber, see?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cap Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Meet you back in the car,” I said.

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

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

She ignored me and pulled away from the curb.


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

“What’s the matter?” I said.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

I asked her what happened.

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

“And then?”

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

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

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

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

“Wearing the Yankee cap.”

“Right, he’s got the cap on…”

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

I look at her. “So what’s his story?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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