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Archive for April, 2006

April 27, 2006: MVP! MVP!

April 26, 2006 By: ctan Category: Baseball Musings, Yankee Fan Memories

Tonight, Alex Rodriguez will be handed his 2006 Most Valuable Player Award in a pre-game ceremony. He was previously the first MVP to ever be traded during his reign. The words “best player in the game” can be placed in a sentence with his name without hyperbole or exaggeration.

So why is he still in Derek Jeter’s shadow?

Perception is a funny thing. Baseball fans and writers alike believe what we see. But what we see–and what it means–is as much a function of expectations as performance. Is this why, even though A-rod hits more home runs than Jeter, Jeter’s always seem to come in “big spots”?

Ask your average Yankee fan to name a Jeter homer and a list will probably follow. The Jeffrey Maier one. The Mr. November shot. The walk-off off Foulke at the Stadium last year. The one off Pedro in 2003 in the Zimmer brawl game. The leadoff homer at Shea, on the first pitch after the Yanks lost a game, the first time they had lost a World Series game in recent memory. The very fact that some of these homers have nicknames limns the point that they are legendary moments.

Now make a list of A-rod’s memorable dingers (as a Yankee–I’ll never forget that one he hit off El Duque’s “eephus” pitch when he was with Seattle…). It’s an unfair question, I know, because he has not had the long tenure in pinstripes Jeter has had, yet fewer of them stick in the collective memory. How about the three taters off Bartolo Colon in a single game last season? Reggie-esque. But no one is more disappointed in the way Alex hit (or failed to) in last year’s ALDS against the Angels than Alex himself.

This year both men are off to hot starts, but Jeter still seems to have an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time. He makes his own luck by virtue of being fearless. When he was in a slump worthy of a Sports Illustrated cover story in 2003, Jeter briefly–very briefly–experienced boos at Yankee Stadium. But he has disappointed so rarely (it seems) and come through in the clutch so often (it seems), that the fans’ comfort zone with him is a mile wide. Jeter is home-grown, a fairy tale storybook, and all that. But this does not mean that Alex Rodriguez has to polish his shoes.

Winning the MVP will hopefully add some comfort zone for A-rod, both for himself and the fans. There was a time when Tino Martinez–a guy now thought of as one of the “made” Yankees–was booed at the Stadium as an unworthy replacement for Don Mattingly. A grand slam in Baltimore, another one in the 1996 ALCS, not to mention the homer 2001 World Series… my how perceptions change.

This is what it will take for A-rod to become a “made” Yankee himself. He needs to not only be the best player in the game day in and day out, not just the MVP (though that helps), not only carry the team to another postseason berth, but also to come up big in those big spots in October. Until then, the unfair perception that he is a carpet-bagging attention-seeker will never be completely dispelled on the streets of Yankeetown, and Jeter will always be perceived as the “better” Yankee.

It will be curious to see which one makes it into the Hall of Fame first. I suspect it will be whichever one retires first.

April 11, 2006: Inauguration

April 11, 2006 By: ctan Category: Yankee Fan Memories

And thus was the high holy day of The Home Opener celebrated. With sunshine and cheers and an earsplitting flyover. With elder statesman Yogi Berra throwing out the first pitch and the sacrificial lamb of Ambiorix Burgos served up to appease the gods of Yankee superiority. We clamored in the ritual fashion, and our prayers were answered.

Today dawned sunny and warm in New York City. I have now attended six home openers in a row and this was the first where I did not have to wear a jacket. Sixty-eight degrees, a gentle breeze, it was a great improvement over the snow-out we suffered for Matsui’s debut, and even last year’s 8pm ESPN-fest against the Red Sox. Sadly, announcer Bob Sheppard had to miss his first home opener in 56 years as he fell and suffered a hip injury last night. His understudy, a man I have heard is cut from Sheppard’s mold and like Sheppard taught speech at St. John’s, filled in admirably with his best Bob Sheppard impression. Freddie the Fan was in attendance, though, with his signature pan, and a sign that read “2006 Opening Day/Let’s Go Yankees/Show The Way.”

When Johnny Damon strode to the plate to lead off the bottom of the first, he was greeted by cheers. Opening Day is all about cheering. The last time we had a chance to exercise our lungs was a chilly October night in New York, a game that had been postponed by rain, a nail-biter against the Angels. Today couldn’t have been more different from that night. Damon, the “new Yankee,” doubled, and received a standing ovation. (As I said, all about cheering.)

Jeter and Sheffield each grounded out, though, and Damon remained on second. Was Joe Mays going to escape the first unscathed? Alex Rodriguez then worked a walk, to bring Jason Giambi to the plate. The man sitting next to me called him “the world’s most expensive singles hitter.” I was in the middle of my reply–that it was Giambi who carried the team offensively in the second half of last season, and that even with the awful two months he had, if he had batted as many times as A-rod last season, he would have matched A-rod’s MVP offensive numbers–when Giambi laced a line drive rocket into the bleachers in right field. Three-nothing Yankees.

The cheering was such that Giambi had to be forced out of the dugout for a curtain call. It’s all about the cheering. There were cheers when Damon walked to lead off the third. Louder cheers when A-rod walked again. Still louder when Giambi walked to load the bases. And a terrific cheer when Matsui took ball four to force in a run and knock Mays from the game.

But the Kansas City Royals were not content to merely play a passive part in the inauguration ceremony for the new lineup. They tied the score at four off Chien Ming Wang in the fourth, and went ahead in the fifth. The crowd fell into a lull. But Opening Day, as Jason Giambi can tell you from experience, is also a day for boos. Tanyon Sturtze came in to pitch the seventh, and gave up a home run into the first row of the short porch on his very first pitch. He did strike out Mike Sweeney, but also gave up a ground rule double and another run. Mike Myers and Scott Procter (the Yankees’ best reliever in the spring) closed the barn door after that, though, to give the Yankees the chance to catch up.

Facing Andrew Sisco in the bottom of the eighth, down by a score of 7-4, Giambi reached base for the fourth consecutive time today, drawing his third walk. Matsui followed with a single to the right side, and Posada worked the count and ended up with what would have been ball four but it actually grazed him a little. With the bases loaded, Robinson Cano then his into a fielder’s choice, beating out a double play and bringing in one run. Thus there were men on the corners for Bernie Williams.

Bernie had received the loudest ovations of the day each time he had come up to bat. Yankees fans know this is probably his last year, and as a lifelong Yankee who has provided so many great memories, acknowledge that. Bernie stared at the first three pitches, and anxiety began to grow in the crowd. But Bernie laced a clean line drive into center to bring in another run and make it only 7-6 in favor of the Royals. The standing ovation for Bernie put the crowd on their feet and they did not sit again until the end of the game.

So much for lefthander Andrew Sisco. Even with lefthanded Johnny Damon coming up, Sisco was removed in favor of Ambiorix Burgos. The crowd’s cries for blood in the arena were so loud by then that I have no idea how Bob Sheppard’s understudy pronounced the new pitcher’s name.

A time for boos. Johnny Damon struck out on three pitches and whacked his bat on the ground in frustration. Admittedly, there were only a few token boos at that point–hazing more than genuine disappointment since Johnny had already scored twice and put down a lovely sac bunt which had earned him a standing ovation back in the fourth. Johnny went back to the diugout.

The Captain, Derek Jeter, strode to the plate, looking for all the world like what he might have been thinking was “Jeez, Johnny, do I have to do everything around here? I guess I will.” Jeter walloped the first pitch he saw over the wall in left (yes, he pulled the ball), for a three run home run and a 9-7 lead. Jeter was called out for a curtain call, and fans even tried to get a second one out of him with loud, rhythmic chants of his name, but to no avail.

Gary Sheffield struck out to end the inning in post-climactic fashion. There is always one guy who doesn’t join the party, and Sheff was the only Yankee not to reach base today. The fans serenaded Jeter again as he took his position in the field for the final step in the ceremonial victory over the Royals: Mariano Time.

Rivera wasn’t perfect today, but he didn’t have to be, giving up a bloop single and hitting a man (perhaps payback for Jorge?) but as usual he did not appear troubled. The game ended when Doug Mientkiewicz (remember him?) lined a ball right into Mariano’s glove.

And thus was the high holy day of the Home Opener concluded, with Frank Sinatra, and high fives, and pinstripes shaking hands with pinstripes on the field.

March 30 2006: Yearbook Entry

March 30, 2006 By: ctan Category: Spring Training

Carl Pavano has a sore ass. Boo boo on the bum, sustained when he tripped and fell trying to field a ground ball and made a play at first base the other night. That is the final tidbit of news from Yankee camp this year. As I write this, the Yankee bus is visible from the press box at Legends Field, making its way to Tampa International Airport where a charter awaits the players and staff. They are on their way to Arizona for two exhibition games (supposedly make-goods attached to the Randy Johnson deal), and in usual Yankee style each player and coach is decked out in his finest leisure suit.

It’s funny how a suit makes some of these guys look older and some look younger. Larry Bowa looks positively ancient when he is in uniform, embodying the spirit of every crusty third-base curmudgeon who ever coached the game, but put him in a silk shirt and sport jacket? He could pass for forty something. The opposite happens with Tanyon Sturtze, who if he wasn’t so tall could play the part of overgrown Little Leaguer. In the clubhouse Sturtze is full of smiles and his eyes are round in mock surprise whenever a prank is pulled. Put him in a suit, though, and it gives him a thoughtful bridegroom aspect.

The last day of spring training is a lot like the last day of school. Instead of signing yearbooks, these guys sign autographs for the local staff and coaches, and for each other. Everyone has to clean out their lockers, take down their photos, and figure out what to carry home.

Today, a couple of players even skipped out early (though they had permission, of course). Jason Giambi had so much packing to do, that after one at bat (he walked) he was replaced with a pinch runner. Mariano Rivera, on the other hand, was not happy with the one inning he was scheduled to pitch. He came in early to do extra credit, threw 50 pitches in the bullpen, and then was done for the day.

The Yankees could have used him in the ninth inning, when, clinging to a 4-3 lead, they handed the ball to Matt Smith. Smith gave up line drives to the first two batters he faced, then got a pop-up and faced speedy Carl Crawford. A double-play was probably too much to hope for with the speedster at the plate. In the clubhouse, the players who were not in the game continued their packing. One of them, pitcher Mike Mussina (who had started the game), stood riveted to the clubhouse televsion showing the action on the field. Already in his earth-tone travel suit, Moose couldn’t tear his eyes away.

Smith threw slider after slider to Crawford, but he fouled some off, tipping one low in the zone that would have been strike three if only catcher Wil Nieves had held on. Then after four straight sliders, Smith finally came back with a high fastball, and Crawford chased it for strike three. One more out, and the game could be over, stranding the two runners. “Tough out to get,” Mussina mumbled, the brown of his suit seeming to bring out the dark circles under his eyes.

Moose was right. Jorge Cantu stepped to the plate, and hit a ringing double to bring in two runs. 5-4 Rays. Mussina quit watching after that.

The Yankees went quickly and quietly in the ninth, no chance of staying after school when that bus is set to leave. It wouldn’t have been unusual for the players’ kangaroo court to fine any batter who took a pitch, in fact. Bernie Williams, the ultimate upperclassman for these Yankees flew out on the first pitch, and in no time, the whole team was in the clubhouse, taking hurried showers and cramming the final bits of their possessions into boxes, bags, and suitcases.

Now the jocks are gone, and the honor society are next. After the final postgame chat with Joe Torre, the beat writers repaired to the press box where one by one they are filing their stories, packing their computers, and hightailing it to the airport. (The delay for some seems to be the challenge to come up with a way to write “Carl Pavano has a pain in the ass” without offending either their editors or their readers.) Some are off to Arizona to follow the team, others to New York to wait for the home opener.

Me, I’ll be on a flight back to Boston at the crack of dawn, so my spring training is over, too. And everyone can’t wait for summer vacation.

March 25, 2006: Simple Pleasure

March 25, 2006 By: ctan Category: Spring Training, Yankee Fan Memories

Baseball travelogue: Saint Pete. Today’s travels took us to Al Lang Field, spring home of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. This venerable old park was built in 1916, and the grandstand has been variously rebuilt at different times through the years. The Braves, Yankees, and Cardinals all used the park during their tenures in St. Pete, but nowadays it belongs to the Rays, whose home ballpark is just on the other side of downtown.

I hope the Rays have some fun this year. Lou Piniella is gone, and they are young, well-paid, and living the major league dream. You know they are not going to win very much. They are in a division with the two Beasts of the East, the Yankees and Red Sox, and the Toronto Blue Jays are also much improved. The fun isn’t going to come from winning streaks and the pennant race. It is going to have to come from the simple pleasure of playing baseball.

Rays fans, I imagine, must take a similar approach to the season, which is to enjoy the simple pleasure of watching baseball played. In fact, this is what spring training spectation is all about. Much of the time you don’t know the players you see, and of course the outcome in wins and losses does not matter at all in the spring. So you watch and you enjoy what you see for the simple fact that it is baseball.

This isn’t to say there isn’t enjoyment to be gained from seeing favorite players, or from winning. Today, in fact, if not for two little things, we might have seen the regular A-list of New York Yankees on the field. The two “little things” were that pitcher Mike Mussina just had a spring start against the Rays a few days ago, and they didn’t want the hitters to get a second look at him so close to the beginning of the season. The other was that catcher Jorge Posada just got out of the hospital after suffering one of the most ignominious baseball injuries ever. While playing catch with backup catcher Kelly Stinnett before Wednesday’s game, Jorge took his eye off the ball–it looked like he might have been distracted by a throw from a different game of catch–and got the ball right in the kisser. His nose was broken and today, three days after the injury, his eye is still swollen up. Hence his absence from the lineup.

It was a perfect day to watch baseball. On the cool side, mid-sixties, with brilliant sun and pleasant breezes. More on the breezes later. We arrived in St. Pete about an hour before game time, crept slowly through the pre-game traffic to a parking lot, and settled the car for the bargain-basement price of five bucks. (I hear the Rays’ latest enticement to get fans to come see them during the regular season will be Free Parking, but this doesn’t apply to the neighborhood business lots around Al Lang Field.) We had two pieces of business to take care of before game time–sell our extra tickets and buy a hat for my brother Julian.

We are accustomed to a sort of gray market carnival following the Yankees from place to place. Whether in the Bronx, Tampa, or on the road, there are the bootleg T-shirt vendors, cap sellers, and ticket scalpers who follow the money. There is one fella we have nicknamed Mr. Shyster who for several years we used to see selling beer inside Legends Field, then we would see him in the parking lot after games selling hats for five bucks, and then we would ALSO see him selling hats, shirts, and other Yankee-related souvenirs in the parking lots in Dunedin, Clearwater, and St. Pete. This year, apparently, he was at Legends for the first few weeks but he has since disappeared. Either he’s found a better racket, or the Yankees ran him off for some reason.

If only he were there today. Bypassing the obvious scalpers holding up professionally printed signs proclaiming “I NEED TICKETS,” we looked for genuine fans in Yankee gear who needed tickets. We had three to sell, quickly found a fella holding up three fingers, and sold him our extras for face value. Then it was off to find a hat for my brother. But sadly, it is late in the spring season, Mr. Shyster was not in attendance, and the only cheapo outside seller we found had a single style of hat that was not to Julian’s liking. He got a sunburn instead, which if you are my brother–and therefore macho about both your sun exposure and your headwear–is an acceptable tradeoff.

In the stadium we found the crowd heavily Yankee-partisan, which is not really a surprise. When the Yankees play the Rays in the regular season, the situation is much the same. Still, most of the cheering had a distinctly pinstriped feel to it. That might have also been because it was a complete drubbing of the Rays, as well.

The fun started in the top of the first, when Johnny Damon, still new to the Yankees, strode to the plate. “I’m still not use to this,” was corwin’s reaction to seeing the former Red Sock in a yankee uniform for the first time. “It’s just weird.” I told him what Joe Torre said the other night during his press conference. One of the beat writers from Boston asked him if it was going to be strange to be playing Boston that night and having Damon lead off for him. “Yeah strange,” Joe replied. “Nice and strange.”

Damon walked, and Jeter immediately followed with a triple. Ding! One run on the board. Torre has been saying all along that having Damon and Jeter at the top of the lineup together is going to drive the offense and “make things happen very fast out there.” There it was in action.

Damon was also playing his first game in center since tweaking his shoulder during the World Baseball Classic, and meanwhile Bernie Williams was playing right field (while Sheff DH’d). On the very first play of the day, Joey Gathright hit a pop fly that at first looked for sure like it would be Robinson Cano’s ball. But remember the breezes I mentioned before? They played havoc with pop flies all day, suddenly pushing the ball deeper than expected, until Bernie apparently remarked to Johnny, “I think you better catch that ball,” but by then it was too late and it dropped between the three of them. Damon, though chagrined, stuck by his spring training mantra, which is “just don’t get hurt, just don’t get hurt.” As he told reporters yesterday during a chat with the writers around his locker, “Spring training stinks. We’re ready for the season now. Now all we’re doing is trying not to get injured.” As he imagined the collision between himself, Bernie, and Cano, Damon apparently saw the pennant flash before his eyes. He let it drop, but the Rays did not take advantage.

In fact, the only run the Rays got, despite the fact they ended the day with 10 hits, was a solo homer by Travis Lee off righty side-armer Colter Bean. The Yankees, by comparison, had eleven hits, yet scored 10 runs. The steady diet of supremacy kept the fans smug and contented in the stands. Meanwhile, some kind of sailboat regatta was running in the harbor, and in slow moments we could see tiny sailing vessels threading their way in, one after another. The sky was cloudless, the beer was cold, and there was baseball.

In the sixth inning we ate ice cream. If you are waiting for anything more exciting than that, you are reading the wrong article. Come back in a few weeks when the regular season gets going. For now I encourage you to bask in the simple pleasures, as I am, because the pennant race will come soon enough.

March 23, 2006: Big Man

March 23, 2006 By: ctan Category: Baseball Musings

A new book came out today that details steroid abuse in baseball and which singles out three players in particular, Barry Bonds, Gary Sheffield, and Jason Giambi. Can you guess which of the three has admitted what he did?

Now, in the interest of being honest and open (which is the moral of this story after all), I must say that I like Jason Giambi. He was my favorite non-Yankee player in the American League when he was with the Oakland A’s, and I continue to like him despite the controversy. This is a guy I want to see succeed, and not just because the Yankees need him.

But today I feel he deserves to be lauded for what he has done, especially in light of what Bonds has not. It was a year and a month ago that Giambi convened a press conference in New York to apologize for his involvement in the steroid scandal. Now, I know you can say he was backed into a corner by the leakage of his grand jury testimony in which he admitted to using steroids. But bear with me a minute.

Giambi sat in front of a grand jury and actually told the truth. He explained where he went to get steroids initially, then how he became involved with BALCO. He gave dates, names of drugs, sources, the whole works. Isn’t that remarkable in and of itself? Bonds, by contrast, said he didn’t know bupkus. So there is a pretty stark contrast right there.

Giambi’s reaction to everyone finding out was then not to refute the evidence, spin it, nor lay the blame on a trainer or other scapegoat, but to call a press conference. Fears about contract situations made him unable to utter the words “steroid abuse” but his apology to the fans, the media, and his teammates was remarkable nonetheless.

He went into the 2005 season with the apology still fresh on his lips, but determined to move on. At the start of the season he was so awful, the Yankees considered asking him to go to Columbus to work on getting his swing together, but he wanted to stay with the big club under the tutelage of Don Mattingly. Turned out to be the best thing for him. By the time the season had ended, Giambi had racked up impressive numbers and the Comeback Player of the Year award. If he had not had the rough start, it is likely his offensive output would had rivaled AL MVP Alex Roddriguez’s.

Today in the Legends Field clubhouse, Giambi talked about the decision to handle things the way he did and concluded it was the best thing he could have done. “You know to be honest I had no idea what was going to happen,” he told reporters about making the apology. “I just did what I felt needed to be done and never looked back. I just tried to go forward and get my career back on track.”

I’d say Comeback Player of the Year counts as sign that his career in on track. The fans, too, though have come back. “It’s incredible the way the fans have come around,” Giambi told us, with his usual earnest, little-boy expression. “I don’t think I could ask for anything more. To have their respect and the response they’ve given me, it’s pretty incredible.”

It also means that while Gary Sheffield scowls at reporters who ask about steroids and the book’s allegations, spouting various versions of “No comment,” Giambi has already been through it. “I understand you have to ask about it,” he said to the group of reporters clustering around his locker, “but I handled it and I’ve gone forward and I’m worried about winning a World Series now.”

Since we already knew about Giambi and steroids, the only “news” that prompted the lockerside chat was a report in the NY Post that the book claimed that a reason Giambi turned to steroids was to please his perfectionist father. Giambi was offended at the thought that his father needed to be dragged into it. “Pathetic, that’s the word for it,” he said. The authors of the book have since come back saying that although Giambi’s father is mentioned in the book, they didn’t blame Giambi’s seroid use on his father. Which is good, because after all Giambi has done to shoulder the responsibility himself for what he did, no one else should be trying to lay the blame at someone else’s feet.

Now if only Barry Bonds would get that message.

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