Results tagged ‘ Yankees ’
Forgive Gene Michael if he looks a little dazed in his 1969
Topps card. He’s shown as a member of the Yankees, even though he’s wearing the
colors of the Pirates, a team that he hadn’t played for since 1966. Somehow
Topps could not find a picture of Michael with either the Yankees or the
Dodgers, the team that actually traded him to the Yankees.
Now that I’ve thoroughly confused you, I can tell you this without
hesitation: Michael’s move to New
York, which coincided with the start of the 1968
season, helped change his career for the better, more subtly in the short term
and quite significantly over the long haul.
At one time traded for Maury Wills, Michael had fallen into disfavor
with the Dodgers because of his lack of hitting. After the 1967 season, the
Dodgers dealt him to the Yankees, where he would eventually replace Tom Tresh
as the starting shortstop. Like many shortstops of the era, Michael couldn’t
hit worth a damn, but he could field the position with a smooth alacrity that
the Yankees hadn’t seen since the prime years of Tony Kubek.
It was during his Yankee years that Michael established a
reputation as the master of the hidden ball trick. With the runner at second
base thinking that the pitcher already had the ball, Michael would blithely
move toward him and then place a tag on the unsuspecting victim before showing
the ball to the umpire. It’s a play that major leaguers occasionally pull off
in today’s game, but Michael did it with a stunning degree of frequency, at
least five times that have been documented. Considering that the hidden ball
trick relies on heavy doses of surprise and deception, it’s remarkable that
Michael was able to execute it more than once or twice. He was that good at it.
The hidden ball trick epitomized Michael’s intelligence. He
had little obvious talent, possessing no power, average speed, and an overall
gawkiness that came with his rail-like frame of six feet, two inches, and a
mere 180 pounds. Yet, he was surprisingly athletic, enough to have starred as a
college basketball player at Kent
State, where his lean
look earned him the nickname of “Stick.” As a major league shortstop, he made
up for his lack of footspeed and arm strength with good hands and quick feet,
and by studying the tendencies of opposing hitters and baserunners. How good
was Michael defensively? I’d call him a poor man’s Mark Belanger. Like Michael,
Belanger was tall and thin, and overmatched at the plate. But Belanger was
arguably the best defensive shortstop of his era, so it’s no insult to put Michael
in a slightly lower class of fielders.
Michael served the Yankees well as their starting shortstop
from 1969 to 1973, but age and injuries began to catch up with him in 1974. At
the age of 36, Michael received his unconditional release. He eventually signed
with the Tigers, where he played sparingly in 1975, before being returned to
the unemployment line. In February of 1976, Stick signed with the dreaded Red
Sox, but he could do no more than earn a minor league assignment. In May, the
Red Sox released Michael, who never did appear in a game for Boston.
With his playing career over, Michael quickly embarked on
his second life in baseball. George Steinbrenner, remembering him as one of the
original Yankees from his first year as ownership, gave him a job as a coach.
From there Stick became a front office executive and then a two-time Yankee
manager, serving separate stints in 1981 and ’82. Like all Yankee managers of that era, Michael
was fired. He left the organization to manage the Cubs, where he clashed with his
new boss, Dallas Green.
After a brief respite from the reign of Steinbrenner,
Michael eventually returned to the Bronx. In
1990, the Yankees, by now a struggling team and a near laughingstock, made one
of the most important moves in franchise history. They hired Michael as general
manager. I was working as a sports talk show host at the time; I remember being
very critical of Michael, who seemed unwilling to pull the trigger on big
trades. Well, Michael knew a lot more about constructing a ballclub than I did.
He set out to rebuild the Yankees’ farm system, while resisting the temptation to
trade what few prospects the organization had for quick-fix veterans.
Under Michael’s stewardship, the Yankees drafted or signed
the following players: Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, and a fellow
named Mariano Rivera. That’s probably enough of a testament to Michael, but let’s
consider that he also signed Wade Boggs and Jimmy Key as free agents.
When Michael did decide to make a trade, he made a splash.
In November of 1992, Michael executed one of the most pivotal moves for the
franchise’s future. He sent Roberto Kelly, one of the team’s two young center
fielders, to the Reds for Paul O’Neill. It was a controversial deal, to say the
least. Kelly was two years younger than O’Neill, a good player certainly, but
one who was already 30 and had appeared to reach his ceiling. Michael knew what
he was doing. He realized that Kelly, who lacked patience at the plate and
passion in the field, was not as good a player as Bernie Williams, the team’s
other center fielder. He also sensed that O’Neill could blossom as a
left-handed hitter at Yankee Stadium playing for Buck Showalter. Stick was
right on both counts.
With those vital pieces in place–including a catcher, a
shortstop, a right fielder, a starting pitcher, and a closer–Michael left a
championship nucleus for Bob Watson and Brian Cashman when he stepped down as
Yankee GM in 1995.
Dazed and rejected no more, Stick Michael proved himself to
be a pretty smart guy.
The Mets finally did the sensible thing in placing Carlos Delgado
on the disabled with a potentially career-threatening hip injury, but now they
face a bit of a quandary in trying to replace him. Do they continue to play
Gary Sheffield in left field every day, thereby freeing up Fernando Tatis and
Daniel Murphy to play first base? And why are they playing Jeremy Reed, a
mediocre hitter with limited experience on the infield, as part of a
three-headed monster at first base? I don’t know that Sheffield
will hold up, considering his age and the fragile state of his shoulder. A
better plan might be to play Murphy every day at first base, while switching
between Tatis and Sheffield in left field.
Tatis or Reed could then serve as defensive caddies for Sheffield,
replacing him in the late innings of games in which the Mets hold the lead…
Jerry Manuel’s Sunday night lineup against the Giants left
me scratching my head. Manuel put Reed at first base and kept Murphy in left
field, even though Reed hasn’t played the position fulltime since college and
Murphy is still a brutal defensive outfielder. Wouldn’t it have made more sense
to put Reed in left, where he is very good, and switch Murphy to first base,
where he has been working out in recent days? That way, the Mets would have had
only one player out of position, instead of two…
I’m simply amazed at the ferocity with which Raul Ibanez
continues to hit for the Phillies. So much for the theory that hitters need a
few months to acclimate themselves to a different set of pitchers in a new
league. Ibanez has obviously kept some good notes from his experience in interleague
play, because he is off to a career-best start in 2009, even though he’s 36 and
supposedly on the downhill climb. (He’s also enjoying the benefits of playing
his games in a hitter-friendly home part, in contrast to the pitchers’ parks of
Seattle (Safeco Field) and Kansas City (Kauffman Stadium). With 13 home
runs and a Babe Ruthian slugging percentage of .714 through the first six
weeks, Ibanez has been the Phillies’ clear-cut MVP, an impressive achievement
considering the presence of teammates Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Jimmy
Rollins. Now the Phillies just need to straighten out their starting pitching,
where everyone is underachieving, and their closer situation, where Brad Lidge
has reverted to the struggles of his latter days with the Astros…
As I watched the Giants’ Pablo Sandoval for the first time
this weekend, I immediately thought that Gates Brown had come out of retirement
to play third base for San Francisco.
(Brown, the old Tiger left fielder and DH, had the ultimate bad body, but was
one of the most dangerous pinch-hitters and part-time players of the sixties
and seventies.) Nicknamed “The Panda” by his teammates, the hefty Sandoval
carries the oddest physique (5’11″ and 245 pounds) I’ve ever seen at third
base, a position that requires a degree of nimble dexterity. Sandoval is more
agile than his body would indicate, but it’s on offense where the switch-hitter
stands out. He can flat-out hit, and with his sizeable power to all fields,
he’s the Giants’ cleanup-hitter-in-waiting. He also brings the bonus of
versatility; Sandoval can catch, which gives the Giants some depth behind the
underrated Bengie Molina…
The Red Sox can still win the AL East without a vintage David
Ortiz, but his inability to hit with any semblance of power will make the chore
that much more challenging. With Ortiz at or near his peak, the Red Sox had
three hitters that struck fear into opposing pitchers. Now they’re down to two,
Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis, both right-handed hitters. The Red Sox say
that Ortiz will return to the lineup on Tuesday after being benched for three
games over the weekend, but they may need to make contingency plans if Ortiz
cannot regain his lost bat speed. The Red Sox could eventually turn to prospect Jeff
Bailey or veteran Rocco Baldelli to take up the slack at DH, but the lack of a
left-handed hitting platoon partner for either player remains a concern…
With three consecutive walkoff wins against the Twins, the
Yankees achieved something they had not done since August of 1972. That was the
last time that the Yankees posted three consecutive wins with game-ending
at-bats. Johnny Callison accounted for two of those victories with game-winning
singles, while old favorite Horace Clarke won the other game with a sacrifice
fly. Callison and Clarke now have company, as Melky Cabrera, Alex Rodriguez,
and Johnny Damon provided the more recent heroics with a single, a home run,
and another home run, respectively…
The Yankees are hoping to receive a triple-boost of talent
sometime this week. It’s possible that Brian Bruney, Chien-Ming Wang, and Jorge
Posada could all return from the disabled list within the next seven days.
Although he is the lesser name among the three players, Bruney’s return could
loom the most important. The Yankees have struggled to find pitchers who can
handle roles in the seventh and eighth innings; Jose Veras and Edwar Ramirez
have both flopped badly, while lefty Phil Coke has brought forth mixed results.
Without Bruney, the Yankees don’t have a single favorable eighth-inning option
among their current pitching contenders. With Bruney, the Yankees can continue
to resist the talk show calls for Joba Chamberlain to return to the bullpen.
For too long now, we in the media have referred to the
Yankees of 1965 to 1974 as representatives of the “Horace Clarke Era.” The
team’s starting second baseman for much of that period, Clarke has come to
symbolize the mediocrity of those Yankee clubs. Seen here in his final Topps
card (vintage 1974), Clarke was viewed as an inadequate player, symptomatic of
a team that was inadequately built to win any pennants or division titles
during that ten-year span.
The criticism of Clarke has run on several different levels.
Too much of a free swinger, he didn’t draw enough walks. He didn’t have great
range at second base, especially toward his backhand side. He also didn’t turn
the double play well.
To some extent, the criticisms are all true. He never coaxed
more than 64 walks in a season and usually finished below the 50-mark.
Defensively, he paled in comparison to two other Yankees, predecessor Bobby
Richardson and successor Willie Randolph. On double plays, Clarke bailed out
early and often. Instead of pivoting at the bag, he sometimes jumped out of the
way of runners while holding onto the baseball.
Those critiques provide only a partial view. The
switch-hitting Clarke stole bases, bunted adeptly, and usually hit for a
respectable average (at least for that era), which would have played acceptably
as the eight-hole or ninth-place hitter. The Yankees made the mistake of using
Clarke as a leadoff man because he looked and ran like a tablesetter. That was
their mistake, not his. In the field, Clarke had his shortcomings, but for a
guy who supposedly lacked range, he did lead the American League in assists six
times. Part of that might have been attributable to having a sinkerballer like
Mel Stottlemyre on the staff, but it’s also an indication that Clarke had pretty
good range to his left.
Was Clarke a top-notch player? Of course not. But I would
say that he was better than mediocre. (The Yankees of that era, like Clarke,
were also better than advertised. Just look at the records of the 1970 and 1974
teams.) I think the Yankees could have
won a division with a second baseman like Clarke, if only they had been better
at other positions, like third base (prior to Graig Nettles’ arrival) or right
field. If you want to find the real reasons why the Yankees so often struggled
during those years, you need to look no further than the revolving doors at
those slots. The Yankees had substantially weaker players at third base (Cox,
Kenney, Sanchez) and right field (Kosco, Swoboda, Callison). It’s just that
none of the third basemen or right fielders lasted long enough to become
targets of the critics.
Putting aside the issue of talent evaluation for a moment,
Clarke was an intriguing player to follow, especially for a young fan like me. Clarke
came attached with a cool nickname. He was called “Hoss,” raising memories of
Dan Blocker’s iconic character from Bonanza. (Bill White, in particular, loved
that nickname. “Hosssss Clarke,” he liked to say with flourish.) Clarke also
had an intriguing background. He was one of the few players I can remember who
hailed from the Virgin Islands. So that made
him a little bit different from your run-of-the-mill player. Then there was
Clarke’s appearance. He wore very large glasses, the kind that became so horribly
fashionable in the early 1970s, really round and overly noticeable. On the
field, Clarke not only wore a helmet at the plate; he sported one while
patrolling second base. I haven’t been able to figure out exactly why he did
that. It may have had something to do with his fear of being upended on
double-play takeout slides. Several years ago, Darren “Repoz” Viola of Baseball
Think Factory asked former Yankee broadcaster Bob Gamere why Clarke wore the
helmet at second base; Gamere explained that it may have stemmed from a 1969
incident in which Clarke was hit in the head with a ball, but he wasn’t
completely certain. Whatever the reason, the helmet made Clarke a distinctive
landmark on the middle infield.
For all of those reasons, and for being a quiet guy who
rarely complained, Hoss Clarke was a likeable guy. He was also a decent ballplayer.
So let’s stop vilifying the man who was once booed during pre-game introductions
on Opening Day at the old Yankee Stadium. Let’s stop raking the man that one New York writer
repeatedly referred to as “Horrible Horace.” I’d prefer to call him “Helpful
Horace.” Let’s go with that instead.
It may be small consolation to their frustrated fan base, but if the Orioles can find someone halfway decent to patrol
left field, they can make an argument for having the best outfield in the game.
Center fielder Adam Jones has blossomed in his second season, adding a robust
bat to his already imposing glove. Right fielder Nick Markakis is now a
legitimate star, having elevated his game each of the last three seasons. Unfortunately, left field remains a problem for the Birds. Felix Pie (.158
batting average and .238 on-base percentage) has hit just as poorly in Baltimore as he did in Chicago, while utilityman Lou Montanez is no
more than a stopgap solution. A more immediate short-term answer might be found at Triple-A, where the
Orioles just assigned Joey Gathright, freshly acquired from the Cubs.
Gathright, who is still one of the three fastest runners in the game (I’ll vote
for Emilio Bonifacio and Brett Gardner as the others) and can handle left field
defensively. As to how much Gathright will hit, that remains the eternal
On Saturday night, Steve Stone provided another example of
why he’s one of baseball’s best color analysts. During the broadcast of the
White Sox-Rangers game, Stone listed Josh Fields and Carlos Quentin as the Sox’
two best runners in terms of going hard into second base and breaking up potential double
plays. That’s just great information. How many color announcers even pay
attention to such overlooked aspects of baserunning, especially in an era when
hitting and pitching are so much the focus of on-air discussion? Keep up the
great work, Steve…
It’s really no mystery why Zack Greinke has been so
masterfully overpowering for the Royals. He has two phenomenal pitches–an
exploding fastball and a biting overhand curve–and throws everything in his
arsenal for strikes. His start to the season is no fluke; he’s a legitimate No.
1 starter that the Royals can build around for years to come. With Greinke, Gil
Meche, and Brian “The Animal” Bannister now in the rotation, and former No. 1
pick Luke Hochevar on the way, the Royals have the makings of a starting staff
that will contend–if not in 2009, then next summer…
Just how low have the Yankees sunk? Fresh off their
disheartening five-game losing streak this week, the front office decided that
answers to their problems could be found in journeyman mediocrities Kevin Cash
and Brett Tomko, recalled from Triple-A Scranton. Cash is the ultimate
good-field, no-hit catcher, a limited player of borderline major league capability.
Tomko pitched horribly for the Padres last season, despite the benefit of
pitching in Petco
Park half of the time. While
it’s undeniable that the Yankees have been hit with a crushing tidal wave of
injuries, it’s inconceivable that such a wealthy franchise has such little
organizational depth. It’s also an indictment of general manager Brian Cashman
and his stunning lack of attention to detail. Remarkably, Cashman failed to put
in a waiver claim on hard-hitting backup catcher Brayan Pena, who was demoted
to Triple-A Omaha by the Royals…
I understand that A.J. Hinch is a bright young mind who has
done well in developing Arizona’s
farm system. But wouldn’t it have made more sense for the Diamondbacks to tap
someone with at least some on-field experience in hiring their new manager,
especially in the middle of the season. There are some legitimate managerial
candidates who have track records in running ballclubs. Torey Lovullo is a
terrific young manager who has won two minor league titles in the Indians’
system. Why didn’t the D-Backs at least approach the Indians about the
possibility of hiring Lovullo? Another possibility would have been Davey
Johnson, fresh off his stint as manager of Team USA in the World Baseball Classic.
Or perhaps the D-Backs could have stayed in-house by promoting bench coach Kirk
Gibson, who could have at least managed the team on an interim basis. Gibson
certainly doesn’t lack fire, which was one of the criticisms aimed at fired
skipper Bob Melvin…
Rickie Weeks, a notoriously poor fielding second baseman,
has been one of the game’s most improved defenders through the first five weeks
of the season. Much of the credit goes to new Brewers coach Willie Randolph, who
was hired as part of Ken Macha’s new-look staff. Randolph was one of the most
fundamentally sound second baseman of his era, so it’s no surprise that he’s
having such a positive impact on the talented but erratic Weeks…
Sandy Alomar, Sr. has been a player, coach, or minor league
instructors for 49 straight years, dating back to 1960, his first year in
professional ball with the Los Angeles Angels’ organization. Yet, Alomar had
never managed even a single game–mostly because he had no such aspirations–until
this weekend. Alomar’s debut took place
on Saturday, as he managed the Mets during Jerry Manuel’s one-game suspension
for incidental contact with an umpire. The Mets won that game against the
Pirates, 10-1, which means that Alomar will have a perfect record as manager
for awhile, at least until the next time that Manuel is suspended. Good for
Alomar, one of the solid men who have been a life-long servant to the game…
Of all the team statistics I’ve heard bandied about, none is
more shocking than this. The Phillies are a meager 3-and-9 at home in games in
which they have faced right-handed starting pitchers. That is simply stunning
for a team that is so heavily loaded with left-handed hitting studs like Ryan
Howard, Chase Utley, the switch-hitting Jimmy Rollins, and new sensation Raul
Ibanez. The Phillies’ poor record against righties is a severe indictment of
their shaky starting pitching, which has too often failed to keep them in
games. None of Philly’s starters–particularly ace Cole Hamels or the
prehistoric Jamie Moyer–have pitched anywhere near their 2008 levels.
The Phillies knew that Raul Ibanez would give them nearly
the same level of offensive production as Pat Burrell, though they thought with
less power and more contact. Through the Phillies’ first 20 games, Ibanez has supplied
plenty of pop, to the tune of seven home runs and a .718 slugging percentage. What
has surprised the Philly brass even more is Ibanez’ defensive play in left
field, which was a subject of much mockery and scorn in Seattle. Ibanez looks like a completely
different fielder in Philadelphia.
He has shown much more mobility than Burrell, which has made life easier on
Shane Victorino in center field.
At some point, the Phillies will need to add some
right-handed hitting to their lineup, but it does not appear that it will come
at the expense of Ibanez’ playing time. If Ibanez continues to hit and defend
at his current level, the Phillies will not relegate him to platoon status.
They’ll have to incorporate right-handed hitting somewhere else, whether that’s
at catcher or third base, two positions where the Phillies currently sacrifice
offense for defense…
Not only did the Yankees do the right thing in reducing the
prices of some of their high-end box seats, they did the smart thing. Let’s
refer to the “Empty Seat Syndrome.” Empty seats are the worst thing that can
happen to a professional sports team. Empty seats don’t buy concession items.
Empty seats don’t buy souvenirs or memorabilia. Empty seats don’t tell their
friends about their wonderful experiences at the ballpark. On top of all that,
empty seats just look bad, especially when they are located so close to the
playing field. When a team is coming off back-to-back seasons of four million
fans in paid attendance, there is no excuse for not filling the
ballpark–especially a new one that has so many improvements over the old
house–on a regular basis. Hopefully, the Yankees have learned their lesson…
Finally, we will continue to take your suggestions on a new
baseball card image for the month of May and post the winner sometime this
weekend. So far, we have votes for Jim Palmer (one of the underrated pitching
greats of the seventies) and Dirty Kurt Bevacqua’s 1977 Topps card, which shows
him blowing a bubble of gargantuan proportions. Both are good suggestions, but
we’re willing to hear more.
Prior to Bucky Dent’s 1978 home run against the Red Sox, I have
to confess I wasn’t the man’s biggest fan. Although Dent was reliable
defensively, he had ordinary range and rarely made spectacular plays. He also
seemed to regress as a hitter each year, to the point that former WPIX
sportscaster Jerry Girard came up with one of the best lines I’ve ever heard delivered
on the nightly news. As Girard narrated Yankee highlights one night, he
blurted: “There’s Bucky Dent, with another line drive to the catcher.” My
father and I chuckled over that crack for days.
For most of the latter half of the 1970s, I wanted the Yankees
to replace Bucky Dent with one man: Toby Harrah. I think George Steinbrenner
shared that same dream, because every summer we Yankee fans in Westchester heard rumors that the Yankees were working on
a deal for Harrah, the starting shortstop for the Rangers. One summer day,
while we were eating lunch at Badger Camp–yes, I spent summers at a place
called Badger Camp, and I’m embarrassed to admit it–we exchanged some
conversation on a particularly hot Harrah rumor. I can’t remember the exact
names, but I think the deal would have sent Dent and one of the lesser starting
pitchers (Dick Tidrow?) to Texas
for Harrah. Heck, it sounded good to me, since the pitcher wasn’t named Guidry,
Figueroa, or Hunter.
I didn’t much care that some people regarded Toby Harrah as
a subpar defensive shortstop. I preferred to obsess about another fact: the man
could hit. He reached the 20-home run mark three times with the Rangers, usually
hit .260 or better, annually achieved double figures in stole bases, and drew a
ton of walks (though I didn’t know that much about on-base percentage at the
time). Even though the Rangers moved Harrah from shortstop to third base in 1977,
largely because of knocks against his range and reliability, I figured he could
make the switch back. As long as Harrah could play shortstop reasonably
well–you know, better than Bobby Murcer once did–I was going to be satisfied.
So I kept dreaming that Steinbrenner and the Yankees’ GM at the time (Gabe
Paul, followed by Al Rosen) would do whatever they could to get that deal
Why did I like Harrah so much? In the mid-1970s, Harrah
represented a rare breed: an American League shortstop who could hit. Keep in
mind that Robin Yount had not yet entered his prime, Alan Trammell wouldn’t
arrive in Detroit until 1978 (and even then he was only 20), and Cal Ripken,
Jr.s’ debut remained several years away.
Most American League shortstops fell into the one-dimensional category
of all-field and little-hit, including the likes of Mark “The Blade” Belanger, Dave
Chalk, Frank Duffy, and Tom Veryzer. Compared to those noodle bats, Harrah
looked like an Adonis in the batter’s box.
The plan to bring in Harrah sounded good. Considering the
depth of the Yankees’ pitching staff, giving up a second-tier pitcher in
addition to Dent seemed doable. There was just one problem. The Rangers had to
agree to the deal, too. They negotiated with the Yankees off and on, with
Harrah’s name periodically being mentioned in rumors, but the two sides could not
reach the appropriate compromise. After the 1978 season, the Rangers finally
received an offer they couldn’t refuse. Only it didn’t come from the Yankees.
Instead, the Rangers found a trading partner in the Indians, who agreed to give
up All-Star third baseman Buddy Bell.
Harrah spent five mostly productive seasons with the Tribe. By
the early 1980s, I had forgotten about Harrah, who had entrenched himself as a
durable and productive player in Cleveland.
It was time to move on. The dream had ended.
In February of 1984, with the Yankees collecting infielders
the way I once collected postage stamps, the team announced a surprising trade.
The deal sent reliever George Frazier and minor league speedster Otis Nixon to
the Indians–for Harrah, of course. By then, Harrah was no longer a shortstop;
he had long since been converted to third base. He was no longer an All-Star
either, with his home run production falling off from 25 to nine in his final season with the Tribe.
At 34, Harrah looked well past his prime.
Lots of folks didn’t understand the trade, including me. The
Yankees already had Graig Nettles and Roy Smalley available to play third.
Nettles eventually vacated the premises, mostly because he ticked off The Boss
with the contents of his tell-all book, Balls.
Harrah ended up splitting time with Smalley, hit all of one home run in
pinstripes, and slugged an ungodly .296. Clearly not the player he once was, Harrah
became trade bait after the season, sent to the Rangers for outfielder Billy
Sample. Harrah would play better in Texas,
but that only made me feel worse.
In the meantime, the Yankees continued their search for a
new shortstop, some of whom could hit, some of whom could field, and some who
could barely stand up. Smalley tried and failed, as did Andre Robertson, Bobby
Meacham, Paul Zuvella, Wayne Tolleson (another personal favorite), Rafael
Santana, Alvaro Espinoza, Spike Owen, and even a fading Tony Fernandez.
The Yankees’ quagmire of shortstop mediocrity continued until
1995. That’s when Toby Harrah finally arrived. Not the actual Toby Harrah, but a newer, better version of Toby Harrah.
Like Harrah, he would receive his fair share of criticism for his defensive
failures, but he would do wondrous things offensively and help spearhead the
next Yankee dynasty.
Yes, Toby Harrah finally did arrive–in the form of a
21-year-old phenom named Derek Jeter.
It wasn’t that long ago that the Yankees played some of the
smartest baseball in the major leagues. Now it seems that their Baseball IQ has
fallen off a cliff, even among veteran players who should know better. How else
to explain Andy Pettitte allowing a second baserunner to steal home plate
against him over the last three years? Jacoby Ellsbury’s two-out steal of home
on Sunday night provided the Yankees with their signature embarrassment in a
weekend filled with lowlights. Jorge Posada, who had just reminded Pettitte about
the possibility of a steal, didn’t help matters by reacting slowly to
Ellsbury’s charge, while also failing to block home plate. Just flat out
Brian Cashman’s inability to build a bench has also cost the
Yankees, who are enduring a third straight spring filled with injuries. How is
it possible for a team with the resources of the Yankees to go into a season
with a journeyman like Cody Ransom and a past-his prime Angel Berroa as the
primary backup options at third base? The Yankees are struggling to score runs
right now, in part because Alex Rodriguez remains sidelined but also because of
the anemic production of the backup third basemen and starting center fielder
Brett Gardner. How much longer before the Yankees give Jim Edmonds a call?
The Cubs can sympathize with the Yankees. Milton Bradley
remains out of the starting lineup, joined now by Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez,
who are also hurt. With a deeper bench than the Yankees, the Cubs are better
equipped to handle the crush, but losing three regulars (including their top
two players) from the starting eight ranks as nearly an impossible predicament.
Lou Piniella has also made another lineup change, moving Alfonso Soriano back
to the leadoff slot in spite of his lack of patience…
How much longer will the Mets wait on Oliver Perez, who was
assaulted by the Nationals in his start on Sunday? The Mets will likely give
Perez at least one more start; if he pitches poorly, he’ll either be dispatched
to the bullpen or head back to the minor leagues for a mid-season adjustment.
Perez would have to approve any demotion to Triple-A, however, which becomes
unlikely when one remembers that his agent is Scott Boras. I just don’t see Boras advising Perez to
accept such a move, even if it is for his own good…
I’m sure that this has been pointed out by other writers,
but that awful Citi Field patch worn by the Mets looks exactly like the
Domino’s Pizza logo. (I have nothing against their product; I just don’t think
a ballteam should have a patch that looks like it belongs on a box of pizza.) While
on the subject of the Mets and their colors, I wish they would go back to
wearing their traditional pinstriped uniform for all home games. The Mets, who
wore the stripes in the finale of the Washington
series, appear much more dignified wearing their traditional look, which also
serves as a reminder of the glory days of Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, and Tug
McGraw. And don’t get me started on the Mets’ black uniforms, which make little
sense for a team whose colors are blue and orange.
How quickly a player’s value can change. Brandon Inge could
have been had for a song during spring training. The Tigers would have taken a
small amount of talent from any team willing to pick up the bulk of Inge’s
contract for 2009. Just a few weeks later, the Tigers are glad that nobody took
a flyer on their starting third baseman. Through Sunday’s games, Inge has hit
seven home runs and is making an early argument for a berth on the American
League All-Star team, especially with Alex Rodriguez on the disabled list. He’s
also played a stellar level of defense at third base, which is no surprise to some
scouts who consider him capable of winning a Gold Glove…
The Royals made a surprising move this weekend when they
designated third-string catcher Brayan Pena for assignment. Pena is a rare
breed in 2009–a backup catcher who can actually hit and carries more than a
modicum of power. He also brings versatility to the table, with his ability to
fill in at third, first, and the outfield corners. Expect the Royals to find a
taker in a trade for Pena. If not, he won’t last long on the waiver wire. There
are at least a dozen major league teams who could use help behind the plate
The Yankees just cannot seem to avoid injuries. For the
third straight year, the Bombers have been assaulted by a wave of physical
setbacks to start the season. They have five players slated to be part of their
25-man roster currently on the disabled list. The growing list includes set-up
reliever Brian Bruney (elbow), starter Chien-Ming Wang (hip), and default third
baseman Cody Ransom (torn quad), all of whom have hit the DL during the
Yankees’ disastrous weekend venture to Boston…
Speaking of waves of injuries, I thought the A’s would be a
factor in the AL West, but the disabled just isn’t cooperating. Staff ace
Justin Duchscherer remains on the 15-day DL with an elbow that underwent
arthroscopic surgery and won’t be able to return until the middle of May at the
earliest. The A’s also learned this week
that their No. 1 set-up reliever, Joey Devine, will likely be lost for the
season because of an elbow injury. With Duchscherer and Devine, the A’s would
have made a run for the Western Division with the Angels, who have a ravaged
pitching staff of their own, but without at least one of the “Double D’s,”
Billy Beane may have to conduct another firesale this July…
Jeff Francouer has promised repeatedly that he’ll be a new
player in 2009, but we’re still seeing the same strangling level of impatience
at the plate. Through Sunday’s games, Francouer has drawn only three walks in
18 games, which is palatable if you’re a Kirby Puckett type of player, but unacceptable
if you’re not hitting for power and not bringing Gold Glove fielding to right
field. Unfortunately, the Braves are strapped for outfielders. They’ve already
made top prospect Jordan Schafer their starting center fielder and just had to place
the disappointing Garret Anderson on the disabled list…
On paper, the signing of Milton Bradley made tons of sense
for the Cubs. They need the kind of left-handed bat that the switch-hitting Bradley
can provide. But Bradley has started out miserably at the plate (one hit in 23
at-bats), has already suffered his first injury, and won’t play again until Lou
Piniella deems him 100 per cent healthy. In the meantime, the Cubs will
continue to play with 24 men. Observers in Chicago are also wondering when Milton and
Sweet Lou will have their first blow-up. Both men have explosive tempers that
tend to erupt when things go badly on the playing field. Watch out in the Windy City…
Carlos Beltran is hitting like he did during the 2004
postseason, when he practically carried the Astros to their first berth in the
World Series. By flattening out an already level swing, Beltran has been able
to hit National League pitching at a .406 clip. Beltran won’t hit .400 for the
entire season, but his speed, patience, and ability to switch-hit make him a
contender for his first batting title. I just hope that Beltran doesn’t wear
himself out trying to catch everything in an outfield that will feature Daniel “Bull
in a China Shop” Murphy all too regularly and Gary Sheffield on occasion… Sheffield’s
presence on the roster continues to surprise many of the New York beat writers. With Sheffield in town, Fernando Tatis’ role has been reduced
to almost nothing, while Ryan Church remains a platoon player in the eyes of
Jerry Manuel. Sheffield started Friday night’s game against Washington’s Scott Olsen, the first time the
Mets had faced a left-handed starter all season…
Finally, a postscript to Hank Aaron’s visit to the Hall of
Fame on Saturday. In filling out all of the artifacts contained in the new
Aaron exhibit, the former Braves legend has donated more than 50 pieces of
memorabilia to the Hall of Fame and Museum. The large supply of Aaron artifacts
include not only the requisite share of milestone bats, balls and gloves, and
his entire uniform from home run No. 715, but also several bricks and a porch
post from Aaron’s childhood home in Mobile, Alabama. Those surviving pieces
from Aaron’s youth serve as yet another reminder of how “The Hammer” came from
modest beginnings, overcoming a lack of money and a preponderance of racism on
his way to one of the greatest careers in the game’s history. Kudos to Hall of
Fame curators Erik Strohl and Mary Quinn for a job well done in constructing
such an extensive exhibit on Aaron, now on permanent display on the Museum’s
What in the name of Omar Moreno is going on in Pittsburgh?
With Ross Ohlendorf, Jeff Karstens, and Pat Maholm making like Bert Blyleven,
Jim Bibby, and John Candelaria, the Pirates find themselves on a PNC
Park roll. They just completed a
stunning three-game sweep of the Marlins on Wednesday, a happening that becomes
all the more remarkable considering that Florida
entered the series a major league best 11-1. The Pirates are the hot and
fashionable team National League team now, with a record of 9-and-6, just a
half game off the pace in the NL Central.
The Pirates are managing to play exceedingly well in a
division in which just about every team was considered better than the Bucs. First
and foremost, they’ve turned around their fortunes with improved starting
pitching. Last year, the Pirates’ rotation teetered on the atrocious. Now they
have confidence that Maholm can be an ace, and have reason to think that
ex-Yankees Ohlendorf and Karstens can be contributors at the back end of the
rotation. All three hurlers pitched well in shutting down the Marlins’ offense,
which is among the most potent and diverse in the National League. The bullpen
has also chipped in heavily. The late-inning lefty-righty punch of John Grabow
and closer Matt Capps has yet to give up an earned run this season.
Offensively, the Pirates have lived up to expectations, highlighted by a
nucleus of Nyjer Morgan, Nate McLouth, Adam LaRoche, and Ryan Doumit.
Can the Pirates keep up the pace? Well, perhaps for a few
weeks, but there are indications that their early-season play may not be
sustainable. Ohlendorf and Karstens fit better long term as relievers, not as
starters. Grabow and Capps will start to give up runs eventually; they’re
capable relievers, but they’re not the latest incarnations of Grant Jackson and
Kent Tekulve either. Three of Pittsburgh’s
hitters–Morgan, LaRoche, and Freddy Sanchez are all hitting over .300–a
circumstance that figures to change as the season ages. And now the offense is
the facing the predicament of losing Doumit for as many as ten weeks with a
broken right wrist.
Putting the negativity aside, the Pirates have succeeded in
avoiding the kind of cruel start that has doomed them in recent years. They
have some young talent that has a chance to blossom, especially in the form of
Doumit, Morgan, McLouth, and Maholm. For the first time in years, Pirates fans
have hope. And that, for a flailing franchise, is worth something…
The Yankees may have found a doable role for Melky Cabrera.
A full-fledged flop as the Yankees’ center fielder in 2008, Cabrera has emerged
as an early supersub stud in New York.
Receiving only his second center field start of the new season on Wednesday,
Cabrera switch-hit home runs–including a game-ending blast in the bottom of
the 14th. Cabrera now has four home runs on the season, despite irregular
playing time and a reputation as a singles hitter.
Based on the bulk of his major league career, Cabrera
doesn’t hit well enough or with sufficient power to play every day. But his
line-drive swing, good defensive skills, and strong throwing arm play well in a
reserve role. He can play center field one day, as he did on Wednesday, or
right field another day. He can come in as a late-inning defensive specialist,
especially in the outfield corners. He can also pinch-run. In other words, he’s
a good player to bring off the bench–an area where the Yankees could use the
If his struggles continue in left field, the New
York media will start referring to him as
“Murphy’s Law.” Daniel Murphy has made just about every mistake that
can be made in the outfield. He’s dropped a fly ball, made a throwing error,
missed the cutoff man, even fallen down on the job, and generally brought back
memories of Dave “King Kong” Kingman trying to play left field at
Shea Stadium. Two of Murphy’s miscues have led directly to Mets losses, which
has led to early calls of panic from some members of the team’s rabid fan base.
Let’s not give up on Murphy too quickly. He’s still learning
to play the outfield fulltime after dabbling in a variety of positions,
including second base. He’ll get better with more repetitions and he’ll be
helped by playing next to a Gold Glove center fielder like Carlos Beltran.
Besides, Murphy’s bat is too good (maybe good enough to win a batting title in
the future) to sit him on the bench or plant him in Triple-A Buffalo. A better
plan would be to platoon Murphy with Gary Sheffield, who also needs at-bats. That
way, the Mets would take some pressure off Murphy and limit their defensive
foibles to left field, while giving Ryan Church a chance to play right field
every day. That’s a far more workable solution, one that would not involve
tossing the towel on the talented Mr. Murphy.
In 1984, Topps printed its final card for Lou Piniella as a
player. Even though he was hitting .302 at the time, Piniella realized that he
was blocking the way of younger outfielders in the organization and agreed to
retire in the midst of that season. The sweet swing, the reliable hands, and
the clubhouse agitation–all prominent features of the longtime Yankee–departed
the Bronx to make room for a new wave of outfield youth.
Piniella was one of the last remnants of Gabe Paul’s regime
as Yankee general manager. After the 1973 season, Paul sent aging reliever
Lindy McDaniel to the Royals for Piniella, who had won the American League’s
Rookie of the Year in 1969 but had slumped to a .250 batting average and a .291
on-base percentage during his final season in Kansas City. Paul figured that Piniella had
endured an off year, nothing more. Piniella fit Yankee needs precisely–given
their lefty-leaning lineup–providing them a semi-regular outfielder and DH who
would play against all left-handers and occasionally against right-handers,
too. In three of his first five seasons in pinstripes, Piniella hit .305 or
better while filling in day-to-day gaps in left field, right field, and at DH. He
became a vital complementary piece to the world championship teams of 1977 and
’78, culminating in his miraculous “stop” of Jerry Remy’s sun-screened line
drive in the tiebreaking playoff game of 1978.
Aside from his one-hop snare of Remy’s drive, I’ll remember two
features of Piniella’s game more than others. First, he owned one of the best
opposite-field strokes of any hitter I’ve seen. As he took his stance, he kept
his hands back, wrapped almost behind his right shoulder. With his left
shoulder tucked in and his back visible to the pitcher, Piniella pushed the
ball toward right field with the same kind of ease and precision that most
players reserve for their pull side. Then there was his reliability in the
field. Though he lacked speed and had nothing more than an average throwing
arm, Piniella possessed hands of velvet. If he could reach a fly ball, he
caught it. And whenever he pounded his fist into his glove, he was sure to make
Piniella’s line-drive stroke and sure hands represented the
best of his talents. But he had his critics–Clete Boyer was among them–those
who felt that he was vastly overrated. Piniella didn’t hit with much power,
rarely drew walks, and ran the bases poorly, sometimes atrociously. Most of his
value was tied up in his batting average. If he batted .300 or better, he could
help you, but if he hit anything less, he was just wasting at-bats that could
have gone to Roy White or Cliff Johnson.
While with the Yankees, Piniella also enhanced his
reputation as “Sweet Lou,” which had begun to form with Jim Bouton’s revealing
passages about him in Ball Four. As
is common with many nicknames, the origins of “Sweet Lou” derived from the
theory of opposites. Like the 400-pound guy who is called “Tiny,” both friends
and detractors of Piniella referred to him as Sweet Lou because of his sour
moods, sarcastic sense of humor, and his explosive temper tantrums. On the
field, his displays of anger, including incidents of helmet-and dirt-kicking,
sometimes reached comic proportions.
I first encountered Piniella three years after his
retirement from playing. By then, he was the Yankees’ manager, one of many
successors to Billy Martin. In 1987, the Yankees played the Braves in the Hall
of Fame Game here in Cooperstown. Aside from
recalling the hijinx of Rickey Henderson and Claudell Washington
at the Sheraton Hotel in UticaHe’s telling
me to go away, I thought to myself. Stopping dead in my tracks, I soon
realized that Piniella was gesturing toward someone else, someone he knew.
Relieved that he hadn’t dismissed me,
I was nonetheless intimidated, and gave up my pursuit of Sweet Lou.
(that’s an article for another day), my strongest memory of that weekend
involved Piniella. Covering the event for WIBX Radio, I had the assignment of
doing on-field interviews prior to the game. I targeted Piniella as one of my
prime interviews. I made my way in his direction amidst an army of media types
that swarmed Doubleday Field; we soon made eye contact each other. As I drew
closer, Piniella’s blank expression became a scowl, followed immediately by a
dismissive wave of the hand.
Piniella did not return to Cooperstown
until last year, when his Cubs were scheduled to play the Padres in the final
Hall of Fame Game. The two teams never actually played, the game canceled after
several downpours of rain. Unfortunately, Piniella provided the other downer of
the day. During the pre-game parade that made its way down Main Street,
Piniella made it obvious he wanted to be anywhere but Cooperstown, underscoring
some earlier negative comments he had made about having to travel to upstate
New York. According to my spies, a number of fans screamed “Lou! Lou,” hoping
that Piniella would wave–or even smile. Instead, he continued to frown,
maintaining a scowl that reflected his contempt for having to come to Cooperstown in the first place.
In spite of my disappointment in Piniella’s dismissive
attitude toward the Hall of Fame Game, I like him as a manager. Except for Tampa Bay,
he’s consistently posted winning records, even for teams with a recent history
of failure. Last year, Piniella guided the Cubs into the postseason for a
second straight fall (though the team followed up with a second straight early
exit from the playoffs). It’s amazing the impact that he continues to have on
his teams offensively, whether it was in New York
in the eighties, Cincinnati and Seattle in the nineties, or now the Windy City
in the 2000s. When Piniella took over Chicago’s helm four years ago, the Cubs
found themselves choked by an offense that could only kindly be described
as below-average. They didn’t walk, didn’t get on base, and didn’t score runs.
By 2008, Piniella’s philosophy had taken hold. Aside from Alfonso Soriano,
almost all of Chicago’s
hitters worked the count capably last summer. Youngsters like Geovany Soto
thrived under Piniella, as did seemingly past-their-prime veterans like Jim
Edmonds. Even the role players, from Mark DeRosa to Mike Fontenot to Reed Johnson,
make ample contributions. It’s no wonder that the Cubs scored 855 runs, putting
them well ahead of all teams in the National League. Simply put, runs
scored translated into games won for the Cubs, just as it did for Piniella
long ago with the Yankees, Reds, and Mariners.
So with Piniella, you take the bad–the temper tantrums and
the moodiness–with the good. Just a few weeks ago, Piniella unleashed another
tirade, this one directed at ESPN’s Steve Phillips. The former Mets general
manager had dared to mention that the presence of an impatient manager like
Piniella made life more difficult for Kosuke Fukudome, a Japanese player who
faced an extremely difficult transition to American culture. I thought it was a
fair point by Phillips, but Piniella took it as a personal insult.
There will likely be more tantrums from Piniella this
season, whether it be a public scolding of the media, an angry mound lecture to
a wild Cubs pitcher, or a childish dirt-kicking of an umpire. That’s Sweet Lou
for you: good player, better manager, and ready to scowl at a moment’s notice.