When I was a kid I had an Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez poster hanging on my wall. To me he was one of the most unique pitchers the Yankees had, with his unorthodox leg kick and wild arm angles. The fact that he dominated opponents and led the Yankees to victory countless times also made me take a liking to him.
This past Tuesday, ESPN ran its 30 for 30 piece on El Duque and his brother Livan Hernandez entitled Brothers in Exile. There was so much more to the two brothers from Cuba that met the eye. For anyone that missed it or didn’t care to watch it, here’s (sort of) a BuzzFeed style article filled with did-you-knows and tidbits from the documentary.
The film was jam-packed with the Hernandez brothers’ story, so bear with me in terms of the length of this article and such. Maybe it’ll be so good BuzzFeed will pick it up and hire me, and I’ll get one of those special blue check boxes next to my Twitter name…
Dare to dream.
Anyway, here goes.
1) Orlando and Livan Hernandez are half-brothers
They share the same father, but not the same mother. Their father was a semi-pro pitcher, so you have to figure the baseball genes were passed down. Orlando is 10 years older than Livan, and the two didn’t meet until Livan was five years old.
2) The Duke of Havana
Long before Orlando Hernandez was fooling MLB hitters he was a stud in his native land, Cuba. He racked up 126 wins in the Cuban league throughout his career. His winning percentage was .728, good enough to give him the record for highest winning percentage by a pitcher – a record that still stands today in Cuba.
Orlando pitched for the Industriales, a team much like the Yankees. The Industriales had the best players, were tremendously successful, and maintained a huge fan base. What’s more, Orlando pitched for the Cuban national team from 1988-95. During that span, the team was undefeated in international play.
Becoming a superstar, as it was, Orlando went to visit Livan in school in later years. Livan’s classmates went insane; “fan-boyed” for his brother, because he was the best pitcher in Cuba.
He was the Duke of Havana. El Duque.
3) Times got tough
Cuba was economically dependent on the Soviet Union up until 1990, when the Soviet Union dissolved. Fidel Castro, the Cuban President, declared a “special period” on the island, although the only aspect of this period was poverty – and there is nothing special about that.
The special period didn’t just impact regular folks; baseball players were affected too. Orlando was paid three Cuban pesos per game, and if he played a doubleheader, he was only compensated for one game.
“That was tough,” El Duque described.
To combat poverty, ballplayers strived to play for the international team. That way, they could compete overseas and sell their jerseys for money, as well as accept gifts from fans in private. Players had to accept favors privately, because taking from fans was not permitted.
Resources were so scarce that Livan had to take soap and shampoo from hotels to bring back home. By 1994 the special period morphed into an economic crisis. Tons of people started leaving Cuba on makeshift rafts and boats, in hopes of reaching the United States.
4) Defection by way of Joe Cubas and Juan Ignacio Hernandez
A man by the name of Joe Cubas was the agent that recruited players to defect to the United States – and yes, it is indeed ironic that his last name is Cubas and he dealt with Cuban ballplayers.
His cousin, Juan Ignacio Hernandez was his helper, and would follow the Cuban national team around the world to scout potential defectors. El Duque said, “The thought of playing baseball in the majors was intriguing. But the thought of defecting also scared me.”
Orlando’s family was a priority. He had a wife and two daughters who he’d lose if he defected.
“I didn’t want to do it because I have two daughters. It was hard, it really was.”
Livan on the other hand was single and was growing tired of the poor conditions in Cuba.
5) Livan defects
In 1995 Livan was pitching for the Cuban national team. The Cubans went over to Japan to work out with the Tokyo Giants; Livan spent 45 days there. Of those 45 days (along with baseball) he spent 20 collecting soap and shampoo to bring back home. Security told him, though, that if they found anything that he was trying to sneak back to the island in his suitcase, he’d no longer be allowed to travel. He had to throw away all the soap and shampoo he’d gathered – which made him angry.
“I don’t want to go through this, anymore,” he said.
On the next trip – which was to Monterrey, Mexico – Livan started the process of defecting. He obtained Cubas’s phone number from a woman asking for autograph, which just goes to show how strict conditions were. Everything had to be done discreetly.
Livan was picked up by Juan Ignacio Hernandez in Monterrey and went to the Dominican Republic from there. In the D.R. all he had to do was gain residency in order to become an MLB free agent. He did just that, and was on the board.
6) Orlando’s thoughts
Livan was free; out of Cuba and about to be taken by an MLB team. He told his brother what was happening and that his mind was made up, to which El Duque responded,
“Don’t worry. I support you no matter what. If that’s what you want to do, go for it.”
7) Livan went to the Marlins, but other teams wanted him
In the Dominican Republic Livan was showcased and sought by the (then) Florida (now) Miami Marlins. A few other teams were watching him, namely the Yankees (shocking, right?) and the Toronto Blue Jays.
Coming from Cuba, the Marlins made the most sense. Miami is a Spanish-speaking city and Livan would likely be most comfortable there. The right-hander signed for $6.5 million with a $250,000 signing bonus. At the time it was the biggest contract given to a Cuban baseball player.
8) After landing the deal, Livan went splurging
Livan never had money before. When he came into the big bucks on account of the contract, Livan bought cars and lived the lifestyle most young, rich and foolish people live; spending money on expensive material. He also started gaining weight; eating at fast food joints such as McDonald’s.
The Marlins kept Livan in the minors for the bulk of the 1996 season as not only way of getting him to shape up, but also a way to spread some discipline on him.
It worked. Livan eventually wised up and everything panned out for him.
9) Back at home, things got unfair
The Cuban government began to feel Orlando might follow in Livan’s footsteps and defect, even though Orlando had a family and made it clear he was afraid to defect. It didn’t matter. He was harassed by Colonel Mesa – the man in charge of security for the national team.
El Duque told Mesa he didn’t support his brother’s decision (in contrast to what he told Livan) but nonetheless he respected him.
After that, Orlando started to suspect something was up.
Juan Ignacio Hernandez cut ties with Cubas, and got arrested for holding false travel documents, hoping to use them to get Orlando to defect. Police found the fake visas and they turned their attention to El Duque.
In fact, they brought him in and interrogated him.
The government wanted Orlando to testify against Juan Ignacio Hernandez, but he wouldn’t do it. Yet, even without El Duque’s testimony, they sentenced Juan Ignacio Hernandez to 15 years behind bars.
El Duque was also sentenced, but not to serve prison time. He was given a lifetime ban from Cuban baseball, essentially for not doing anything.
One cop even went as far as asking him for identification while he was sitting on his own front porch. When Orlando asked why he needed ID, the rude officer said,
“You used to be El Duque, now you’re a nobody.”
10) He wasn’t making a living playing ball – but he still played
Orlando’s feelings were not just hurt; they were shredded and left for dead. When he was banished, he vowed that he would play baseball again. It didn’t matter if “he was 65 or in Haiti,” he said he was going to play baseball again no matter what.
Since he couldn’t step foot on an official field, like the Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana, El Duque played in unofficial pickup games on Cuban sandlots.
Orlando was basically the Benny “the jet” Rodriguez of his group: the best of all of them, who went on to play bigger and better games, as Scotty Smalls described it in the movie. El Duque didn’t pitch in these pickup games because it wouldn’t have been fair to the other players, but he hit and played the field.
11) Livan makes his mark
In 1997 Livan got the call to the show – and he was impressive, to say the least. He started the year with a 9-0 record, which was the best start from a rookie pitcher since Whitey Ford in 1950. The Marlins captured the National League Wild Card in ’97, and Livan pitched brilliantly.
Brilliant, in fact, was the operative word. In Game 5 of the National League Championship Series he went the distance and pitched the Marlins to a 2-1 win, striking out 15 Atlanta Braves along the way. He took advantage of home plate umpire Eric Gregg’s Grand Canyon-like strike zone. Livan’s 15 strikeouts in Game 5 set an NLCS record for most Ks in a single game.
He had also picked up the W in Florida’s 5-2 victory in Game 3. When it was all said and done, he was named NLCS Most Valuable Player.
It only got better for Livan in the ’97 World Series. He won Game 1, won Game 5 and was subsequently named World Series MVP. In hoisting the trophy over his head, Livan declared,
“I love you, Miami!”
12) A thought provoking World Series win
El Duque watched most of Livan’s excellence from back in Cuba. He was proud his brother was succeeding, but felt bittersweet about it. Orlando thought he could’ve been in the same position Livan was in: playing baseball freely.
He listened to Game 7 of the World Series on the radio, and rejoiced when the Marlins walked off to win the title. But after Livan became a winner, El Duque’s thought process changed; he considered defecting himself.
13) Help from an unlikely source
Cuba’s relations with the Catholic Church improved in ’97. Pope John Paul II visited the island and President Castro allowed the Christmas holiday to legally be celebrated in Cuba for the first time since 1960.
El Duque decided that, since everyone would be preoccupied with the holiday, he would stage his escape on Christmas night; the members of the Coast Guard wouldn’t be as alert and he’d be able to narrowly depart. His best friend Osmany Lorenzo helped orchestrate his flight from the island.
But, give an assist to the Pope.
14) Nerves were in the way
Just because El Duque decided he was fleeing Cuba didn’t make the idea of defecting any less scary. A study showed that between 1959 and 1994 an estimated 16,000 people died at sea attempting to leave Cuba for the United States.
Orlando could’ve made it to the U.S.A. or he could’ve become just another statistic.
He also had to leave his mother and two daughters behind, which pained him.
15) Not an easy exit
On Christmas night ’97 Orlando, his (now second) wife Noris, Lorenzo, and a smattering of other escapees set off for Caibarien – a city in Cuba where many defectors went to try and leave the island. They left Caibarien in a small fishing boat at 7 a.m. on Dec. 26, and had to hit the deck as to not be seen upon departure.
If hiding face down in order to leave the island wasn’t bad enough, the motor on the boat stalled not long after they left, and thus the owner of the boat wanted to turn back. El Duque protested, and the man swam into the water to fix the engine. After he managed to correct the malfunction, they continued on.
Jeesh. Not as simple as just speed-boating away.
16) Like Robinson Crusoe, it was as primitive as can be
The boat took El Duque and the group of runaways to a Bahamian island called Anguilla Cay. There they were to await another boat that was to come and ferry them to the U.S.A.
Seemingly everything was working out, as the first part of the plan had been executed, but they weren’t in the clear just yet. The second boat never came. The group was basically stuck, Gilligan’s Island style waiting for help that wasn’t showing up. El Duque’s wife Noris even noticed makeshift crosses on the island – figuring they were graves.
People had come to Anguilla Cay and never left. The thought struck terror into Orlando and everyone involved. Four days passed before the Coast Guard discovered them and brought them to Nassau, Bahamas.
17) More help
If you were a Cuban refugee, the Bahamas were not where you wanted to be. Cuba had a treaty with the Bahamas stating all refugees in the Bahamas were to be extradited back over to Cuba. When the Coast Guard brought El Duque to the Bahamas, they arrested him.
But he used his phone call wisely.
He dialed up Cubas, who was able to help him. He set up a press conference on Orlando’s behalf, and El Duque finally got to tell his side of the story to the media and the world; that he was trying to reach the United States in hopes of obtaining the freedoms and rights that were stolen from him in Cuba.
By Cubas’s doing, Orlando and his wife were approved for visas. He made sure Lorenzo, his friend, was approved for one as well. From there El Duque gained residency in Costa Rica, thus making him eligible to become an MLB free agent.
Just like Livan, El Duque was set up. But what team would get his services?
18) The big deal
Scouts from multiple MLB teams attended an El Duque tryout staged by Cubas. Orlando wasn’t particularly lighting up the radar guns, topping out around 88-90 mph, but the fact that he wasn’t throwing hard didn’t negate his value.
Gordon Blakeley, a scout for the Yankees, took an interest in him. However, General Manager Brian Cashman was a bit iffy about signing him, coming off a bust in the form of inking Japanese pitcher Hideki Irabu. Blakeley assured him not to be afraid to go after him – and added if the Yankees didn’t grab El Duque, they could’ve been missing out on a potential Cy Young Award winner.
El Duque proclaimed his Yankee fandom, and when the Bombers offered him four years and $6.6 million, he gladly took it.
19) Reunited and it feels so good
When everything fell into place for El Duque, he eventually reconnected with Livan. They attended a press conference together, and when they saw each other they embraced. They cried tears of joy. They had a Kodak moment, if you will.
One reporter asked what kind of advice Livan would give Orlando, now that they were both major leaguers living in freedom. Livan’s answer:
“Stay away from McDonald’s!”
20) The Duke of New York
On June 3, 1998 Orlando made his MLB debut at Yankee Stadium. He was nervous, but when he looked up to the stands walking in from taking his warm ups in the bullpen – and saw Cuban flags fluttering around in the stadium’s upper deck – he calmed down. The show of support even brought tears to his eyes.
The first batter he faced in MLB was Quinton McCracken of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. El Duque pitched seven innings, and puzzled every hitter he faced, giving up just one earned run on five hits. He walked two and struck out seven on the way to his first big league win, the Yanks pounding Tampa Bay 7-1.
“He’s a warrior,” Livan said of his brother’s first MLB outing. “He proved it in that game.”
21) Not a simple catch
Jorge Posada mostly caught El Duque in 1998. And in looking at his record and ERA on paper, one would think they had an easy go of it most of the time when they went to work: Orlando finished 1998 with a 12-4 clip and an earned run average of 3.13.
Yet, much like El Duque’s path to the US, it wasn’t smooth sailing through calm seas.
“He wasn’t easy to catch,” Posada said, adding Orlando would shake him off a lot. “I’d go to the mound … Orlando, what do you want to throw?
“I called for the fastball twice and you said no both times!”
Apparently El Duque didn’t want to throw a fastball when Posada called it. He wanted to throw a fastball when a hitter least expected it, to get inside his head.
Very tactical, El Duque was. His numbers and approach gave him a fourth place finish, in fact, for ’98 American League Rookie of the Year.
22) Like brother like brother: playoff hero
The Yankees won a record 114 regular season games in 1998, and made it to the ALCS, where they were pitted up against the team that had eliminated them the year before, the Cleveland Indians. Down two games to one, they turned to El Duque in Game 4, who came up with a spectacular performance of seven shutout innings to lead the Yankees to a 4-0 win, keeping the pinstripers from going down 3-1 in the series.
Unlike Livan, Orlando didn’t capture the LCS MVP in ’98 – that honor went to David Wells. But El Duque did pick up the award the next year, winning the ALCS MVP in 1999 after the Yankees beat the Boston Red Sox in five.
El Duque went on to start Game 2 of the ’98 fall classic against the San Diego Padres. The Yankees were up 1-0 in the series thanks to some grand Game 1 heroics off the bat of Tino Martinez. The Cuban import made sure the Yanks stayed on point, tossing seven innings and letting up just one earned run on six hits.
He walked three and fanned seven on the way to a 9-3 Yankee win.
“He looked like a veteran of 15, 20 years,” teammate Mariano Rivera said.
23) Family first
The Yankees continued their assault on the Padres in Game 3 of the World Series, teetering on the brink of a world title. Yet El Duque’s thoughts were elsewhere. He couldn’t get his daughters, his ex-wife and his mother off his mind, thinking about their hardships back home.
Then finally, he got his chance to reunite with his family.
A woman by the name of Pamela Falk lobbied to bring his daughters, his mother and his daughters’ mother to the states. Falk used the positive relations between Cuba and the Catholic Church to her advantage, reaching out to New York Cardinal Archbishop John O’Connor.
After his conversation with Falk, O’Connor spoke to President Castro about the possibility of El Duque’s family coming to New York. Long story short Castro obliged, and even spoke highly of Orlando, calling him “a good muchacho; one of the glories of Cuba.”
And the rest was history. El Duque’s family was cleared to embark for the Big Apple.
24) A reunion in Teterboro, then a parade down the canyon of heroes
The Yankees swept the Padres in the 1998 World Series, giving the franchise its 24th world championship in history. El Duque found out his family was coming the night the Yanks clinched the series.
Doesn’t get much better than that, does it?
The next night his family landed at the Teterboro airport in New Jersey. El Duque walked right up the runway, to the plane to greet his family. He said he wasn’t nervous, just excited; he hadn’t seen his girls in about a year.
“I’m complete,” he said, embracing his daughters on the steps of the plane. “Finally happy.
His daughters then rode with him in the victory parade in New York City the following day.
“During the parade he was so happy that his family was there to celebrate with him,” Posada described. “He was so emotional during that time; we won but more importantly his family was there.”
His wife Noris couldn’t believe toilet paper rained down from the skyscrapers into the streets of New York – being that in Cuba they didn’t even have toilet paper, whereas in New York it was being thrown from windows.
When the Yankees reached City Hall, El Duque made the brotherly connection:
“I just want to tell you … Last year my brother shouted ‘I love you, Miami!’ And this year I declare, I love you, New York!”
Livan went on to say,
“There are players with 20-year careers who never won the World Series. But my brother and I did.”
25) Never going back
Both Livan and Orlando went on to have careers in MLB that anyone would sign up for. El Duque won three more world titles (two more with the Yankees, 1999-2000; 2005 with the Chicago White Sox) while Livan pitched in over 500 games and became a two-time All-Star.
Both are retired now, but maintain that sibling love. They live near each other in Miami, and both are doing well these days with their families. They can sit on the porch on hot summer nights and smoke fine Cuban cigars together, and share life stories from here on out; reflect on the good ol’ days pitching in the big leagues.
Oh, and neither has since gone back to Cuba – and they’ll never have to.
If you’re a Yankee fan, Oct. 16 holds a warm place in your heart. The memory of a mighty swing by Aaron Boone in the 11th inning of Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series to crush the dreams of Red Sox Nation has held up, and will continue to hold up forever more.
In honor of the 11th anniversary of this profound piece of Yankee history, this writer is going to take you on a ride back to the past and muse about the goings-on of the 2003 Yankees-Red Sox saga; perhaps point some things out that didn’t necessarily meet the eye to the average fan.
Join me, will you?
It took a long time before the Yanks and BoSox reached the climactic Boone game. A really long time, in fact. The two hated rivals had faced each other 25 times in ‘03 leading up to Game 7 of the ALCS. Their 26th meeting in the decisive game was historic, in the sense that no two teams – in any sport – had faced each other more times in a single season.
But so much more happened before Game 7.
In squaring off against each other so many times, the Yankees and Red Sox had generated some disdain for one another. Earlier in the season on July 7 in the Bronx, Pedro Martinez, Boston’s ace, had plunked both Alfonso Soriano and Derek Jeter – bean balls that were so intense they sent the two hitters at the top of the Yankees’ batting order to the hospital.
Jeter was hammered on his right hand while Soriano suffered a shot on his left hand. The after effects of the HBPs were so great that, after more than two weeks later, both hitters felt the pain of Martinez’s missed location; the captain’s hand was still swollen and Fonsy felt some aches just by checking his swing.
Roger Clemens, the Yankee ace, in return struck Red Sox first baseman and team ringleader Kevin Millar with a pitch. Millar, a colorful and outspoken player who had urged his team to “Cowboy Up,” would later express anger towards Clemens for the Yankees act of retaliation.
The late Yankee owner George Steinbrenner even got in on battle. The Boss was asked if Martinez was headhunting; throwing at the Yankees with intent. His response:
“I can’t answer that. But if he was, he’ll regret it.”
Steinbrenner had every reason to be suspicious about whether or not the hit-by-pitches were deliberate. In the past, 2001 to be exact, Martinez told the Boston Globe,
“I’m starting to hate talking about the Yankees. The questions are stupid. They’re wasting my time. It’s getting kind of old … I don’t believe in damn curses. Wake up the damn Bambino and have me face him. I’ll drill him in the ass, pardon the word.”
Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino then got his jab in, giving the Yankees a moniker in homage to the Star Wars franchise. He dubbed the Bronx Bombers “The Evil Empire.” Yankee Universe happily (or at least sarcastically) welcomed the nickname.
So was Jeter Darth Vader? Sure, that makes sense.
How we got there
The physical and verbal blows during the regular season were only the beginning, laying the groundwork for what was to come in the playoffs. The Yankees finished 2003 with a record of 101-61, six games ahead of Boston for the AL East. The 95-67 Red Sox captured the AL Wild Card – keep in mind that in ’03 there was no play-in game; the BoSox were automatically in the eight-team postseason tournament without having to fight their way in the door.
Most fans may not remember that the ’03 Yankees-Red Sox ALCS clash wouldn’t have happened if the Oakland A’s didn’t collapse. In the ALDS the A’s handed Boston a 5-4 loss in Game 1; Oakland winning in the 12th on a walk-off bunt single by catcher Ramon Hernandez. Game 2 wasn’t any better for the Red Sox, as the A’s poured it on and beat Boston 5-1 – Oakland was only one win away from the next round.
Yet, maybe in the spirit of some foreshadowing, the Red Sox fought back.
Boston won Game 3, 2-0. They then took Game 4 by a count of 5-4, and completed the comeback with a 4-3 win in Game 5. The Yankees were already waiting for the winner of the Boston-Oakland series, having disposed of the Minnesota Twins in four games to reach the League Championship Series; the Yanks outscoring the Twins 16-6 in their divisional round.
The rally vs. the A’s and the thrashing of the Twins set the New York-Boston rivalry up for an epic showdown. Yes, the Baseball gods had done it again.
Players on both sides knew the World Series was not just at stake, but bragging rights were up for grabs and in a lot of ways, the ending or the continuation of Curse of the Bambino was on the line.
“Everyone says, ‘we played them towards the end of the year, does it get any bigger than that?’ Well, yeah it does. And this is it,” Jeter told MLB before the ALCS.
The Red Sox took Game 1, beating the Yankees 5-2. However, the first salvo seemed to be fired in the seventh inning when reliever Jeff Nelson hit Red Sox big man David Ortiz with a pitch. The Yanks went on to take Game 2 with a 6-2 win, but in terms of the HBP battle, Boston punched back.
Future hero Boone was beaned by Red Sox starter Derek Lowe and Soriano was plunked by Bronson Arroyo. The ALCS was split 1-1, tensions were at an all-time high, and the teams were beginning to get rather physical.
What’s the worst that could happen in Game 3?
And then, everything explodes
The energy level at Fenway Park on Oct. 11, 2003 was off the charts – not that I was there, but listening to the words of the players and examining everything that had led up to Game 3, everyone from the fans to the media was on edge.
What’s more, the fact that Clemens and Martinez were on the hill for their respective clubs made it even more enticing. During batting practice, Millar was about as hyped up as an 8-year-old after consuming 50 sugar cubes, enthusiastically saying,
“We got Roger and Martinez, Game 3 split, Championship Series, American League, all eyes on the Sox!”
To this day I wonder if even he knew how jumbled that sounded. Mic’d up, he stood next to Ortiz and yelled,
“You’ve got to be going with the Sox! This is the Sox Nation! Two thousand and three! And screw that curse!”
Ortiz couldn’t help but laugh at Millar’s zeal, but a few short innings later, no one was laughing.
In the top of the fourth, Martinez let up an RBI ground rule double to Nick Johnson, which gave the Yankees a 3-2 lead. The very next hitter, outfielder Karim Garcia, took a pitch behind his head which appeared to nick him on the shoulder for another hit-by-pitch.
Soriano came up next and grounded into a 6-4-3 double play, though another Yankee run scored. Leaving the field, Garcia had some choice words for the Red Sox and a heated exchange ensued.
Yankee catcher Jorge Posada, chest protector and shin guards on, came out of the dugout looking like a Roman centurion ready to attack Martinez. The two feisty foes got into some jaw-jacking and a bit of a “pointing battle” – Martinez using his index finger to point at his temple, as if to say to Posada, “I’ll hit you there.”
The Yankees, in a nutshell, were unhappy with Martinez’s antics, and had no problem expressing their grief. Yet somehow the umpires settled matters down.
That is, until the bottom half of the inning.
Clemens delivered a high and tight 1-2 fastball to hothead Manny Ramirez, who believed there was intent behind the pitch – when clearly there wasn’t.
Ramirez angrily tried to approach Clemens with the bat in his hand before being subdued by his teammates when the benches cleared. Needless to say all Hell broke loose at Fenway, but the victim of the fracas wound up being a coach, not a player.
Yankee bench coach, the late Don Zimmer (72 at the time) lunged towards Martinez, who grabbed him by the head and force-fed him to the ground. The Yankee trainers were able to help him up and get him back into the dugout free of serious injury, but the ugly incident further proved how the Yankees and Red Sox were at extreme odds.
Eventually the situation calmed, and Clemens fanned Ramirez with a fastball on the outer part of the plate to get the game going again; the players back to their professional ways.
But just when it seemed everything was back to normal, it became a mess again.
An altercation broke out in the Yankee bullpen in right field between Nelson and a Boston grounds crew member, Paul Williams. Garcia, stationed in right field, also sampled the action. He hopped the wall into the ‘pen and got involved; a scrum of police officers, security officials, and Yankee relief pitchers creating an unpretty scene.
Days later the Yankees’ personnel, notably president Randy Levine, defended the New York relief corps. Meanwhile the Red Sox brass were less than happy, and went to bat for their groundskeeper, explaining that he did nothing wrong. The Yankee side relented, though, and contended Williams had antagonized Nelson, and wanted an apology issued from the Boston side.
Yeah. That never happened.
Once the roller coaster ride finally ended, the Yankees escaped with a 4-3 win and a 2-1 ALCS lead. The reaction by a couple of individuals after Game 3, however, was unlike anything this writer had ever seen in sports – ever.
In terms of the Martinez-Zimmer incident, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg went on the record saying, “If that happened in New York, we would’ve arrested the perpetrator. Nobody should throw a 70-year-old man to the ground, period.”
That would’ve been quite a sight: the Red Sox ace being cuffed and escorted off the Yankee Stadium diamond by New York’s finest.
BoSox skipper Grady Little only had this to say:
“I think we’ve upgraded it from a battle to a war.”
The war raged on. The Red Sox won Game 4, 3-2, to even the series, then the Yankees grabbed Game 5 with a 4-2 win, taking a 3-2 series lead back to the Bronx. The Red Sox raised the eyebrows of the world by beating the Yanks 9-6 in Game 6, overcoming both Andy Pettitte and a raucous Yankee Stadium crowd.
Game 7. Roger and Pedro, again. He we are.
Is this happening?
Before Game 7 took place, Boston sportswriter Howard Bryant caught up with Willie Randolph, a longtime pinstriper who had endured the “Bronx Zoo” era of the late 1970s as a player, and enjoyed the year-by-year success of the dynasty of the ‘90s as the Yankees’ third base coach.
Bryant asked Randolph what he thought about the deciding game. What do you think?
“Listen,” Randolph said. “Every single time we’ve had to beat them, we’ve beaten them. Tonight’s not going to be any different.”
But in the early going, it was different – a lot different. Clemens struggled, surrendering a second inning, two-run home run to Trot Nixon. Later in the frame a throwing error by starting third baseman Enrique Wilson allowed Jason Varitek to come in, making it 3-0 Red Sox.
Clemens pitched into the fourth, although “the rocket” was all but gassed by then. Millar backed up some of his talking by sending Clemens’s offering into the seats in left field, a solo blast to give the Red Sox a 4-0 lead. Yankee manager Joe Torre had told starter Mike Mussina that he might use him out of the bullpen, which would’ve been the first time in his MLB career he would’ve pitched in relief.
A caveat, though: Torre had told “Moose” that, if he were to use him, he’d bring him into the game when nobody was on base. That plan went by the wayside, as Mussina was summoned to mop up a first-and-third, no out mess.
Number 35, cleanup on aisle four.
Mussina was brilliant, striking out Varitek by utilizing his patented knuckle curveball, and followed by getting Johnny Damon to bounce into an unassisted 6-3 double play to skim out of further peril.
After the game Mussina teased Torre, inquiring, “I thought you said you were only bringing me in if there weren’t going to be men on base.”
Torre quipped back: “I lied.”
Jason Giambi, whom the Yankees had acquired after the fall of the dynasty in 2001, kept the Yanks close with two solo home runs off Martinez – a bomb in the fifth and another in the seventh.
The Yankees trimmed the deficit to 4-2 but in the top of the eighth, Ortiz played pepper with the short porch seats, homering off another starter playing the role of reliever that night, David Wells. The solo job (that left Wells in utter disgust, putting it mildly) gave the Red Sox a run right back, making it 5-2 in favor of Boston.
Now Martinez, his pitch count over 100, came out to toss the bottom half of the eighth with a three-run lead, and while most members of Red Sox Nation thought this might ultimately be the year the Curse of the Bambino would be vanquished, some fans back in Beantown were not so convinced.
Baseball historian and Red Sox fan Doris Kearns Goodwin explained:
“When Pedro came back out in the eighth inning, we all started screaming ‘No! No! You can’t be doing it!’ I mean, fans think they know more than the managers – and often we don’t – but at that point everybody knew the pitch counts that Pedro would suddenly fall off the cliff, if he were over that pitch count.
“He was way over that pitch count, and so there was this huge sense of dread when he came to that mound.”
That dread was well-founded and soon realized.
Jeter pounded a one-out double off the wall in right field. Bernie Williams brought him in with a well-struck single in front of Damon in centerfield, cutting Boston’s lead to 5-3. The RBI base hit prompted a mound visit from Little, who shockingly stuck with his ace; Martinez not leaving the mound after the powwow, even with hard-throwing righty Mike Timlin and lefty specialist Alan Embree going double-barreled in the Red Sox bullpen.
Hideki Matsui, a left-handed hitter, was due up next. Embree would have been the obvious choice to match up with Matsui, but Embree could only watch from the ‘pen as Matsui ripped a ground-rule double down the line in right field off a tired Martinez, passing the baton to Posada.
The switch-hitting Yankee catcher, batting from the left side, punched a blooper into centerfield, falling in the middle of shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, second baseman Todd Walker and Damon to bring both Williams and Matsui to the plate. Posada reached second base – getting the last laugh off Martinez, thinking back to their chinwag in Game 3 – and Game 7 was tied, 5-5.
Martinez then departed to a Bronx cheer; there was no undoing the damage the Yankees had done. The decision to keep Martinez in the ballgame haunted Red Sox Nation for a year. Fans were outraged at Little for not removing Martinez before the game turned, but Martinez – and others – have defended the move.
“I was just trying to do it,” Martinez said. “That’s what a lot of people don’t understand. Why didn’t Pedro give away the ball? Well, they didn’t ask me to give away the ball. They asked me if I could face the guys. I said yes! Of course I can! I’m in the middle of the game; I’m here to do this.
“When Grady came out, the simple question was whether I could pitch to Matsui or not. And I said yes.”
Former Red Sox favorite Johnny Pesky (for whom the foul pole in right field at Fenway Park is named) also was a proponent of allowing Martinez to stay in the game, and was quoted as saying,
“When he’s your best pitcher, and he tells you, ‘skipper, I got enough left in my tank’ you’re not going to take him out.”
The fans on the other hand turned their ire on the call, and even went as far as constructing a poem about it, penned by Boston loyalist James Bair:
Why Did You Keep Pedro In?
We couldn’t have got there without you.
We were five outs away from a win.
You were the smartest guy in the stadium.
But why did you keep Pedro in?
We don’t believe in those curses.
We could care less about old Harry’s sin.
But with such a powerful bullpen,
Why did you keep Pedro in?
We know there is one consolation:
We know you’ll never do it again.
Still the cry rises from Red Sox Nation:
Why did you keep Pedro in?
You made us now root for the Marlins,
And we hardly know how to begin.
You almost upended the Empire,
Why did you keep Pedro in?
You brought new pizzazz to the clubhouse:
The crew found the cowboy within.
You did so much for the guys, but with tears in our eyes,
We say, why did you keep Pedro in?
The question could be asked until the end of time. But it was moot. The game was knotted at five, and the Yankees used the unflappable closer Mariano Rivera for the 9th, 10th, and 11th innings. The stage was set. The question was no longer, “why did Grady leave Pedro in?” Rather it became “how is this saga going to finally end?”
Sleeping on the X-Factor
What probably gets lost in the shuffle was the fact that Boone had come into the game as a pinch-runner during that eventful bottom of the eighth. He took over at third base for Wilson on defense, who was surely not the Yankee fans’ favorite player that evening, because remember – he committed that costly error in the third which led to a Boston run.
It’s funny to me because, personally, I can recall the “due up” graphic in the middle of the 11th inning, watching in my Yankee pajamas from my bed in Beacon, New York; soon to be a droopy-eyed high school junior the following day, but the exhaustion coming with the excitement of a possible World Series berth. I even said to myself,
“Aaron Boone. Forget it, easy out. The next few guys have to hit, though! Let’s win this game!”
Perfectly logical assumption. In 31 postseason at-bats, Boone collected just five hits. The Yankees, however, had a lot more faith in Boone than this scribe did. Before he went into the on-deck circle while knuckleballer Tim Wakefield was warming up, Torre told Boone,
“Just hit a single. It doesn’t mean you won’t hit a home run.”
Randolph then issued the ultimate sign of faith:
“That inning, he came to the dugout and I met him at the top step. I patted him on the back and I said, ‘listen. You’re my sleeper pick. You’re the x-factor of the series.’”
Keith Olbermann – a bright sports pundit and someone for whom I have respect, albeit I disagree with him on plenty of topics – analyzed Boone’s at-bat this way:
“The odds were favoring a hitter in a slump. Because a hitter in a slump’s timing is already off. A knuckleball pitcher throws your timing off. Put a guy with bad timing, and add more bad timing to him, suddenly he has good timing – it’s a zero sum game in terms of timing.
“So you’re thinking, who on earth is going to get the base hit for the Yankees? Who can do anything against Tim Wakefield? Boone.”
Sure enough, the timing worked out. Everything worked out.
Boone slaughtered Wakefield’s first pitch for a home run deep into the New York sky; the ball landing behind the wall in left field to give the Yanks a 6-5 win, sending the Bronx Bombers to their 39th World Series in franchise history. Pandemonium commenced; Yankees Stadium completely erupted, became unglued.
The Red Sox were crushed, the pennant was won, and the Curse of the Bambino was alive and well.
Boone was speechless after clubbing the death blow, and managed just a few words:
“Derek told me the ghosts would show up eventually. And they did.”
The Captain verified those words postgame, saying,
“I believe in ghosts, and we got some ghosts in this Stadium!”
Torre went on to admit he thought there was some divine pinstriped intervention, later saying,
“It is weird to me that certain things happen that don’t seem logical. Yeah, you have to believe we’re getting some help from somewhere.”
What’s also not well known is that, after the bliss of a love-fest at home plate for Boone and the champagne celebration; after the presentation of the Will Harridge Award, and after Rivera was named ALCS MVP, the Yankee players made a pilgrimage out to Monument Park, donned with championship hats soaked in champagne. Specifically, they made a visit to Babe Ruth’s monument.
“Look, he’s smiling! He’s smiling!” the Yankees gleefully exclaimed, whilst rubbing the forehead of the Great Bambino’s likeness on the monument.
The aftermath and the impact of another curse
While Little was quickly fired by the Red Sox and the image of Boone’s home run was tattooed on the minds of Red Sox fans everywhere, the Yanks were in the 2003 fall classic, matched up with the Florida Marlins – who Chicago Cubs fans felt had snaked their way in on account of fan interference in the ’03 NLCS. The Cubs had been winning 3-0 in the eighth inning of Game 6, and had they held on would’ve punched their first ticket to the World Series since 1945.
Steve Bartman, a Cubs fan sitting in the front row of the left field stands, accidently reached for a foul ball that was perhaps catchable for left fielder Moises Alou near the wall. Bartman got his hand on it, and the ball took a wrong bounce back into the seats, not going for an out – much to the infuriation of not only Alou, but every Cubs fan in the ballpark. Almost right after the gaffe, the Marlins wound up rallying to score eight runs to win the game, and carried on to win Game 7 by a count of 9-6.
Not unlike the Red Sox and their Curse of the Bambino, the Cubs had the Curse of the Billy Goat hanging over their heads – a long story about a Chicago bar owner, who in 1945 was asked to leave Wrigley Field because the stench of the pet goat he brought to the park was bothering other fans.
He proclaimed, “Them Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more.”
Subsequently the Cubs haven’t won the World Series since 1908.
I can’t help but think how the ’03 World Series would’ve gone had it been Yankees-Cubs, the matchup America wanted to see, instead of Yankees-Marlins – a bland fall classic that ended in a six-game series win for the fish.
Would the Yankees have been able to beat the 1-2 punch of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior? Would they have been able to silence the bat of Sammy Sosa, who just five seasons earlier had smashed 66 home runs, and had hit 40 during the ’03 regular season? Would the Curse of the Billy Goat been upheld in the fall classic, the same way the Yanks kept up the Curse of the Bambino in the ALCS?
Would 2003 have been the year of title number 27 in the Bronx, if only the Yankees faced the Cubs and not the pesky Marlins, equipped with the likes of scrappers Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, Josh Beckett and Juan Pierre?
We’ll never know.
To this writer, though, the ALCS was the World Series in 2003. Passion, heat, unmitigated physicality, the will to win intense rivalry games, and excitement that puts you on the edge of your seat – you want nothing more than that as a fan, or at this stage in my life as a journalist.
Hopefully we see it again, in baseball, sometime soon.
And hopefully, again, it’s between the Yankees and Red Sox.
SOURCES FOR THIS PIECE: Websites: Baseball Almanac, Baseball Reference.
DVDs: The Boston Red Sox vs. The New York Yankees: The Ultimate Rivalry (2005)
Ken Burns: The Tenth Inning (2010)
It was a chilly night October 8, 2007. The mood was somber. A melancholy atmosphere. The Yankees were in the postseason, having to claw their way back from a record under .500 at the All-Star break to even be playing autumn baseball in New York. They had captured the American League Wild Card in a season where their playoff hopes looked unreal for most of the way.
Towards the end of the season they built up some momentum, but the Yanks found themselves not only trailing the Cleveland Indians two games to one in the ALDS, but were down 6-3 in the top of the eighth in Game 4 facing elimination; looking at a third straight early October exit. Like so many times before, Yankee skipper Joe Torre walked out to the mound with his regular stoic expression on his face.
Fans at Yankee Stadium – all 56,315 of them – knew full well this could be the final pitching change Torre ever made in pinstripes. The manager took the ball from Jose Veras and handed it to his closer Mariano Rivera, hoping to keep the score right where it was to perhaps give the Yankees a fighting chance to come back and force a deciding Game 5.
Deep down everyone knew, though. This was it. As Enter Sandman traditionally blared through the Yankee Stadium sound system, everyone was on their feet, applauding and chanting the name of the man who led the Yankees to the playoffs 12 consecutive years; the man who took the Yankees to six World Series – winning four of those six fall classics, all four within a span of five years.
The end of the Torre era in New York was, in a word, sad. For some Yankee fans, this writer included, Torre was the only skipper they knew since becoming fans in 1996. Yet his last game will hardly be what Yankee fans – and all baseball fans, for that matter – will remember him for.
Now a brighter memory will be made as the unflappable Torre will be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown – a more fitting lasting impression for a man who helped bring the Yankees out of a tailspin, and turned them back into the perennial winners they once were during the golden age of baseball.
Looking at the bigger picture and not just how his time in New York came to an end, Torre will be remembered for, what one of his former players described as “social genius.” The Yankees could win a game 15-0 or lose a game 15-0, and Torre’s demeanor wouldn’t change. He appeared cool, calm and unbreakable, even in the wake of what critics thought were questionable decisions. Even facing fire from an owner in George Steinbrenner, who could (in the nicest way) be characterized as “difficult.”
Case and point: right before Game 2 of the World Series in 1996.
The Yankees had lost the first game in unflattering fashion, 12-1, when Steinbrenner met with Torre to chat about the state of the team.
“George Steinbrenner walks into my office before Game 2 and he says ‘this is a big game.’ Well yeah, I know it’s a big game. Only seven games you get to play here. For some reason I was in a goofy mood. I didn’t feel the same stress that I felt later on.
“But I said to him, ‘you know George, (Greg) Maddux is pitching against us. We’re not really playing well right now; we’re a little out of whack because we hadn’t played in so long.’ I said we may lose again tonight. But we’re going to Atlanta – that’s my town. We’ll win three there and then next Saturday we’ll come back and win the series for you.
“And I walked out of my office.”
Torre’s words became true; the rest of the ’96 World Series played out exactly that way.
In his decade at the helm of the Bronx Bombers, he once said he had only one regret: not appealing for a timeout during the infamous “bug game” otherwise known as Game 2 of the ’07 ALDS. He admitted he should’ve asked the umpires for a game stoppage until the midges migrated out of Progressive Field (then known as Jacobs Field) in Cleveland.
Torre didn’t even regret the decisions he made in the 2004 ALCS – which as we all know, didn’t end particularly well for the Yankees. He backed up his choice of starting Kevin Brown, a faltering pitcher far past his prime, in the deciding Game 7 of that historic-yet-woeful round before the ‘04 World Series.
Tomorrow, for the good and the bad; the wins and the losses; the triumph and heartbreak, Torre will be immortalized in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He, along with Tony LaRussa and Bobby Cox, were unanimously elected to baseball’s hallowed hall for their managerial prowess and the important impact they each made on their respective clubs; LaRussa with the St. Louis Cardinals and Cox with the Atlanta Braves, of course.
When I traveled up to Cooperstown on June 12, a lot of Torre’s mementos and artifacts were all over the place, as they’ve prepped for this big day since it was announced he was to be enshrined.
The Yankees are going the route of MLB, and will also personally recognize Torre’s contributions to the game by retiring his number 6 on Aug. 23. Rightfully, Torre will be eternalized at Yankee Stadium with legendary skippers from the days of old like Miller Huggins, Joe McCarthy, Casey Stengel, and Billy Martin.
We could go on all day about Torre; how he always defended his players, no matter the situation; how under his leadership the Yankees won 1,173 games. How he may have made some not-so-favorable remarks about the organization in his 2009 book The Yankee Years but turned around and basically recanted the bad feelings, making amends with his beloved ballclub in the process.
A player, a manager, a social genius and an upstanding man, there might not be anyone who deserves the honor of the Hall of Fame more than “Mr. T.” And his response to all of this adulation? Well, you couldn’t have expected anything less:
If you were on Twitter last night and went to the search box and typed in “Phil Hughes” this came up:
Appropriate, because these days if you’re watching Hughes pitch, you might need aspirin.
In the Red Sox 11-1 thrashing of the Yankees last night, Hughes was the losing pitcher, dropping to 2-4 on the season with an ERA in the sky at 5.37. The big blow yesterday came off the bat of Mike Napoli, a grand slam home run in the third inning, a blast that stuck a pin in the Yankee balloon effectively giving the short-handed Bronx Bomber lineup no chance at a comeback.
Napoli’s slam marked the second time this season Hughes has let up a home run with the bases loaded – and the 12th meatball he’s served up this year. What’s more, it was the 100th tater he surrendered in his career – a career in which he’s made 114 starts, coming out to nearly one home run allowed per start.
Opponents are taking advantage of every pitch Hughes throws at them, on average batting .292 against the right-hander this season. He’s also allowed 69 hits in the 58.2 innings he’s pitched this year, not exactly fooling anyone he faces.
The 24-32 Seattle Mariners proved that to be true when they beat Hughes up on May 15, chasing him from the game after just two-thirds of an inning pitched in what wound up being a 12-2 Yankee loss. (Worth noting Hughes delivered a grand slam in the first inning of that nightmare stinker to former Yankee Raul Ibanez).
Putting it nicely, this season Phil Hughes has been “Phail Hughes.”
To his credit, he recently went on record as saying, “Everyone has been taking me out of the park these days.” At least, if nothing else, he’s self-aware of how poorly he’s been pitching. Yet it doesn’t change the fact that every time he toes the rubber, Yankee Universe has to hold its collective breath because there’s usually a good chance Hughes will put the team in a hole, not giving the Yankee offense – which has only mustered 223 runs this year (11th in the American League, 18th in the majors) – a chance to come from behind.
A la, last night.
There hasn’t been anyone who has been a bigger critic of Hughes than me. Ever since Game 6 of the 2010 ALCS, an elimination game that Hughes lost decisively to the Texas Rangers (the Yankees ousted and unsuccessful in their attempt to defend their 2009 World Series title) I’ve never had faith in him.
He hasn’t given me reason to trust his stuff. His fastball is flat with no tailing action, he hooks his breaking balls, and he gets ahead in counts, but somehow always manages to fall behind and turn what should be easy innings into long, dragged-out marathons.
Just sitting through a Hughes start is torture.
In what might be an upside for most Yankee fans that are becoming tired of every home run derby that ensues each time Hughes takes the ball, this is the final year of his contract – and he isn’t exactly making a great case for a return to the Bronx in 2014, given his crummy numbers and ineffectiveness. Additionally, considering his age (26, 27 on June 24), one has to wonder,
If he hasn’t found it yet, when the heck will he? There are pitchers younger than Hughes finding significantly more success than he is. If you don’t believe me, talk to Matt Moore, Chris Sale, and Alex Cobb.
On the downside, the Yankees may be stuck with Hughes for the remainder of 2013. Even if the Yankee brass looks to move him, Hughes’s trade value, at this point, is incredibly low. If the Yanks wanted to move him for purposes of finding a player to help them reach the playoffs, the odds of anyone taking him are likely astronomical, despite the fact that he’ll come cheap. I just cannot think of a team that would take him, otherwise.
After all, no team wants a pitcher who does nothing but toss batting practice, right?
I suppose what the Yankees could do is put Hughes into the bullpen; give him a relief role. To fill his void in the rotation, they can always call on Vidal Nuno, Ivan Nova, or David Phelps – or try to make a trade before the non-waivers deadline, although it’ll be difficult to make a swap, seeing as how the market for a starting pitcher is, as FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal described last night, “uninspired.”
In 2009 Hughes flourished in his role of setup man, bridging the gap to Mariano Rivera in the eighth inning. In fact he pitched so well, he filled in for Rivera a few times and picked up three saves that season; striking out 96 batters in 86 innings and posting a respectable ERA of 3.03 along the way.
That almost begs the question, “Why did they pull him out of a role which he clearly embraced and succeeded at?”
I’ll never know.
Luckily for Hughes, the Yankees (31-24) are only two games behind Boston in the AL East standings heading into their series finale/rubber game tonight; a chance to close the deficit to just one game.
So throughout all the bad news, there’s a shred of decency.
Yet whether Hughes sticks it out as a starter or is placed in the bullpen this season, an adjustment needs to be made; a solution must be found to this ongoing problem. If we see more of what we saw out of Hughes last night – and this entire season, thus far – it’s going to be a long summer.
A very, very long summer.
A weak lineup full of holes. A shoddy pitching rotation. One or two strong arms in the bullpen. No Derek Jeter, no Alex Rodriguez, no Mark Teixeira, and no Curtis Granderson.
No faith; no belief.
The mentality of most Yankee fans on Opening Day was, to put it mildly, not good. The Bombers bombed on April 1, losing in convincing fashion, 8-2, to their most hated rivals, the Boston Red Sox; a bad loss on their home diamond to begin the season. But after a couple of games they started to get it right, and here we are a month later, the Yanks looking at a 17-10 record – in second place, and just two games out of first.
Get some faith. Start to believe.
As usual, a few storylines have enveloped the first month. First, and probably most important…
Mariano Rivera is back & better than ever
On May 3, 2012 Mariano Rivera’s future looked bleak. After suffering a torn ACL on the warning track shagging fly balls in Kansas City, the “hammer of god” watched the majority of last year from the sidelines. With the veteran, 43-year-old closer’s future in question, he opted to return in 2013.
And boy, has he made his comeback mean something thus far.
Rivera slammed the door 10 times in the month of April and upon sealing last night’s 5-4 victory over the Astros has 11 saves for the year. The best part of it all: he is 11-for-11 in save opps.
Mo has been his usual, perfect self.
I attended Sunday’s 3-2 win over the Blue Jays, and sat in the right field bleachers above the Yankee bullpen. When Rivera got up to start warming, readying himself to enter the game and eventually close the game, he received a huge ovation – even before he customarily ran out of the ‘pen.
Expect this to be a recurring theme all season, given the announcement of his retirement at the end of 2013. Not to mention other teams have (and will) go out of their way to send Rivera off in a respectful manner. And it’s all well-deserved.
What can you say? He is bigger than the game.
Low-scoring affairs and one-run wonders
For a team beat up, battered and bruised, the Yankees have obviously been able to keep their collective heads above the proverbial water. However, it hasn’t exactly been easy to do. Of their 17 wins this year, there haven’t been too many blowouts; not a lot of huge wins.
Aside from a 14-1 thrashing of the Cleveland Indians back on April 9, the Yankees have played in some incredibly tight ballgames. Three of their last four wins have been one-run victories, and their two previous wins before those last four victories were decided by just two runs: a 5-3 win on April 25 and a 6-4 win on April 26 – both over the Blue Jays.
It would be nice to have a few more of those 14-1 type games, and see the Yankees put some runs on the board. Yet it’s not as if the formula isn’t working, because the Yanks are 10-1 in games decided by two runs or less this season – which is good for the best in the bigs in games of that kind.
If nothing else, they’re becoming battle-tested in close games, which down the stretch will help them.
Robinson Cano still swinging a hot bat
A power outage was anticipated when the Yankees lost Nick Swisher (24 home runs in 2012) and Russell Martin (21 home runs in 2012) – that of course went with temporarily taking away all the power numbers Curtis Granderson, Alex Rodriguez, and Derek Jeter provided.
But the one constant power player in the lineup is Robinson Cano.
Last night Cano clubbed his eighth home run of the year, which put him at 185 taters for his MLB career, tying him with another Yankee warrior – Paul O’Neill – for 17th place on the all-time Yankee home runs list.
O’Neill, by the way, who is NOT portraying Ted Danson’s character Sam Malone in a Cheers remake.
In any event, Cano is carrying the offense; lighting up the scoreboard on the Yankees’ side in most of these games in the early going. His sweet swing keeps getting sweeter and his defense continues to be top-notch. There’s no doubt his RBI count is going to climb higher and higher, and his average will be significantly over .300 throughout the course of the year.
Having Cano on your side is almost the same as playing a game of doubles in tennis, and having a brick wall as your partner. And the Yankees have that brick wall.
CC Sabathia sharp (but twice not sharp)
I’ll be the first to admit I was a little bit worried (and dejected) when CC Sabathia got absolutely shelled in Game 4 of the ALCS last year, the big ace losing the final game of the Yankees’ season to the Detroit Tigers. My worries were well-founded and even multiplied when I found out he wasn’t pitching at 100% and needed surgery in the offseason on his pitching arm.
Then Opening Day happened: four earned runs on eight hits, four walks and five Ks in only five frames to a loss to the Red Sox.
Not very encouraging to see, but as usual he turned it around. He won his next three starts, beating the Baltimore Orioles, the Arizona Diamondbacks, and the very team that slaughtered him in the playoffs last year, the Tigers.
Then came Sabathia’s last two starts.
The big man was once again shellacked, this time by the Tampa Bay Rays. In seven abysmal innings he let up five earned runs – three of which were served up on home runs. He hit a batter, walked two, and in his only good stat of the night, struck out eight.
His fastball was flat, he was hanging his breaking ball, and needless to say it wasn’t pretty.
Things seemed to be going in the same direction in his last start vs. the Blue Jays: a dead fastball and bad breaking stuff. He turned it around though, and battled back to actually pick up a win in one of the most valiant efforts of this young season.
Sabathia went 4-2 in April, and believe it or not, this marks the first time in his career he’s picked up four victories in the first month of the season. I think it only proves that Sabathia is so good that even when he isn’t doing well, he’s doing well.
We’ll see how everything carries over on Friday when he toes the rubber vs. Oakland in his first start in the month of May.
Injury bug still chomping away
There’s an old saying about foul weather: when it rains, it pours. And coming into the season without Jeter, Teixeira, Granderson, and Rodriguez, the Yankees were short-handed enough.
So it rained, right? Well. Then it poured.
Francisco Cervelli and Kevin Youkilis became two more bruised Bombers, Cervelli fracturing his hand behind home plate on Saturday and Youkilis out with a bulging disc in his back. What hurts even worse is the fact that both players were doing a fine job offensively in a lineup that clearly needs not only effective hitters but more specifically, right-handed bats – Cerv and Youk both being right-handed hitters.
The front office’s hand was forced because of these particular injuries: catcher Austin Romine was called up from Triple-A Scranton to supplant Cervelli, and as announced after last night’s game, the Yankees traded for infielder Chris Nelson, acquiring him from the Colorado Rockies for a player to be named later. Nelson was obviously moved to aid in Youkilis’s absence.
Youkilis was placed on the 15-day disabled list, but Cervelli was put on the 60-day DL. Anymore of these injuries happen, the Yankees might need to start pulling fans out of the bleachers to play.
“You know where the outfield is? Great! Here’s a glove, go stand out there.”
Making a splash
The day after Opening Day is always an off day. I’m not sure I quite understand why, but as long as I can remember, it always has been. On the off day this year, I was covering a girls’ lacrosse game when my dad called me. It turns out he met Vernon Wells while doing some work at his job.
A very impromptu meeting – nothing major; according to my dad, he just said hi to him, didn’t bother him too much.
The day after his meeting with my dad, Wells hit a home run and he’s been raking ever since. So far the veteran outfielder has smacked six home runs and he’s batting .298, which isn’t bad by any means. In fact, it’s quite a pleasant surprise, and Wells is a reason the Yankees are in such a good position right now.
I’ll go ahead and just say it: Wells is doing…well.
Then there’s Travis Hafner, who also has six long balls and 17 RBIs. The lefty-hitting slugger known as “Pronk” or “Project Donkey” is helping make up for whatever power was lost to free agency during the offseason.
Brennan Boesch isn’t jumping off the page as much as Wells or Hafner, but for what it’s worth, he’s making contributions to the team when needed. The same can probably be said about Ben Francisco, but in fairness he had a home run last night that narrowly crept over the wall in left field, his first dinger of the year.
If one of them can be as heroic as Raul Ibanez was last year, I think I can safely say we’ll all be happy. However, the four of them are sure as heck a step up from anything Andruw Jones did last year.
April wasn’t a bad month for the Yankees.
What do ya got, May?
In 2003 Godzilla came to New York. No, not the monster. Although one could argue what Hideki Matsui accomplished over the course of his MLB career was pretty scary; enough big hits to bring any city in the world – New York, Tokyo, anywhere – to its knees. Today the man from Japan has announced his retirement, the end of an outstanding career. And in a lot of ways, the end of an era in baseball.
What sometimes gets lost when talking about Matsui’s career is the fact that it didn’t begin in the United States. In 1993 Matsui started his baseball career in the Far East, in Nippon Professional Baseball, to be exact. He collected several awards and accolades as a member of the Yomiuri Giants, including three Japan Series Championships in 1993, 2000, and 2002, among countless other notable achievements.
As a matter of fact, there is a museum in Japan dedicated to Matsui’s baseball career. Think about it: the man is basically (and maybe arguably) the Babe Ruth of Japanese baseball. To the fans in Japan who have followed his entire career, today can be considered comparable to the day “the Great Bambino” hung up his cleats.
Throughout his time in pinstripes, Matsui afforded the Yankees many moments of excitement, and now it’s time to once again say goodbye and thank you – or domo arigato – to another beloved Bronx Bomber.
They say you only get one chance to make a first impression. Matsui made the most of that chance in his debut at Yankee Stadium in 2003. In the first game of the season at home, the left fielder stepped up to the plate in front of Yankee Universe and with one swing became an instant fan favorite.
With the bases chucked and a flurry of light snow falling, Matsui clubbed a grand slam home run which helped the Yanks beat the Minnesota Twins 7-3 in their ’03 home opener – the first Yankee in history to go to granny’s house in his first game at the “House that Ruth built” and a picture perfect way to kick-start a strong tenure in New York.
“I never dreamed of it,” he told the media after the game. “Certainly I feel a little relief.”
Helping stage the comeback
Matsui pieced together a strong 2003 season. 16 home runs, a .287 batting average, and 106 RBIs were not a bad way for him to introduce himself to the Yankees and for his solid production, he nearly captured the ’03 AL Rookie of the Year Award.
Because of his age at the time, 29, a pair of voters didn’t include him on the ballot – in this writer’s opinion, a whimsical reason to leave any player off the ballot for such an award. If it’s a player’s first season in the league, that said player is a rookie, whether they be 19, 29, 39, or 49.
But the ROTY award seemed inconsequential when Matsui and the Yanks made the ’03 postseason – a World Series title set in sight as opposed to individual titles. Matsui proved to be incredibly valuable to the team down the stretch and into the month of October.
That was never more evident than in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS.
What most people remember about that night is, of course, Aaron Boone’s glorious blast in the 11th to send the Yankees to the World Series. The image of Boone swinging at Tim Wakefield’s hanging knuckleball is burned into all of our brains; the cowhide lifted deep into the New York night, and finally landing in the left field seats for an ALCS-ending win over the Red Sox.
We all know that. However, what sometimes gets forgotten is how the Yankees fought back in the eighth inning that fateful night. It was 5-2 Boston in the bottom of the eighth.
Derek Jeter leads off with a double.
Bernie Williams brings him in with a single, 5-3 Boston.
Matsui sharply lines a ground-rule double down the line in right to set up Jorge Posada, who knocked a blooper into center field, bringing both Williams and Matsui home to knot it up, 5-5, thus setting up the game’s happy ending.
World Series home run: a first
The Yankees made the fall classic in ’03, but fell in six games to the Florida Marlins, not the most gracious way to finish the season following the amazing fight back vs. Boston in the ALCS.
However in Game 2 of the World Series – a game the Yankees won, 6-1, Matsui became the first Japanese-born player to homer in a World Series game – a round-tripper in the first inning on a 3-0 pitch.
It was merely a small sample of Matsui’s World Series power: something we all became familiar with six years later.
A classy warrior
On May 11, 2006 the Yankees hosted the Red Sox at home, an early season rivalry game. In left field Matsui dove for a ball and landed awkwardly. He fractured his wrist; an injury that not only landed him on the DL and sidelined him for a good chunk of the season, but put an end to his streak of 518 consecutive games played with the Yankees – and 1,768 games in a row played professionally, going back to his days in Japan.
Matsui became the only player I’ve ever known who apologized for an injury.
He gracefully stood before the Yankee brass and said he was sorry for diving for the ball and hurting himself, something no common ballplayer would ever do.
When Matsui returned to the team on Sept. 12 he showed no signs of rust, going 4-for-4 with a walk, an RBI single, and two runs scored.
2,000 and 100
Matsui enjoyed two dates in 2007 that marked milestones in his illustrious career.
First, May 6 vs. Seattle at home. While Roger Clemens basically stole the show with the announcement of his comeback, Matsui made history with his 2,000th career hit, professionally; again dating back to his days with the Yomiuri Giants.
If that wasn’t enough, he made history again on Aug. 5, 2007 at Yankee Stadium vs. the Kansas City Royals – and was in the shadow of another Yankee who had just accomplished a career landmark.
The day after Alex Rodriguez smacked his 500th career home run, Matsui belted his 100th career home run (as a Yankee) in the bottom of the third; a homer off Gil Meche that cleared the wall in right field.
I remember the details of that home run fondly, only because I was in attendance that Sunday afternoon; box seats behind the third base dugout.
Matsui became the first Japanese-born player to reach 100 home runs in MLB, a feat that has only since been matched by current Yankee Ichiro Suzuki (104 home runs).
Matsui celebrated his 34th birthday on June 12, 2008 – and celebrated the best way possible: a grand slam home run. Coincidently, it was the only four runs the Yankees scored, as they went on to beat the Oakland A’s 4-1.
It doesn’t get much better than that. But how does he follow it up on his 35th birthday in 2009?
With a three-run shot. Against the Mets at home, Matsui homered in the sixth inning to give the Yanks a 7-6 lead over their cross-town rivals. The Bombers eventually won on a walk-off error on the part of Luis Castillo – another birthday present Matsui undoubtedly appreciated.
Matsui enjoyed a tremendous amount of success during his final hurrah in the Bronx. After a knee injury forced him out of left field Matsui took on the role of full-time designated hitter, a move that paid off royally for both him and the Yankees.
Comfortably Matsui smacked 28 home runs and drove in 90 runs while batting .274 in ’09, helping lead the Yanks to some big wins throughout the season.
On July 20 vs. the Orioles Matsui ended the game with one swing, crushing a walk-off home run to keep the Yankees’ win streak of four in a row following the All-Star break alive.
He earned the elusive Pepsi Clutch Performer of the Month honor in August, mostly for his mind boggling performance vs. the Red Sox down the stretch and knack for multi-home run games during the month. On Aug. 21 Godzilla homered twice and drove in seven runs on the road vs. Boston on the way to a 20-11 win, becoming only the second player in Yankee history to knock in seven runs in a single game at Fenway Park since Lou Gehrig in 1930.
And he wasn’t done there.
Two days later he once again smacked two home runs in a game, and when he hit his 26th of the season on Sept. 19, he broke the Yankee record for most home runs hit by a designated hitter – a record previously held by Don Baylor.
A banner year like 2009 could only be topped off in one way…
World Series Hero
The Yanks reached the fall classic in 2009 for the first time since Matsui’s first season in the majors in ‘03; a fitting way to conclude his time in New York, ending it the way it began, with a World Series appearance. And lucky for him (and all of us) it ended in much happier fashion.
The Yankees pummeled the Phillies and took the series 4-2 from them – a fall classic stage which allowed Matsui’s star to shine brighter than it ever had.
With an 8-for-13 clip (.615 BA) three home runs, eight RBIs, a double, and a walk, Matsui captured the World Series MVP award. He was the premier hitter in the clinching Game 6 with six runs batted in – the first Yankee since Bobby Richardson (1960) to drive in six runs in a single World Series game, the first full-time DH to capture the MVP of the World Series, and yet again, the first Japanese-born player to win the World Series MVP.
All kinds of history. And Matsui made it all.
A day for the Champs
Matsui left the Yanks after ’09 and headed out west, joining the LA Angels, signing as a free agent. And when the Angels joined the Yankees for their home opener on April 13, 2010 and for their 2009 ring ceremony, it was all love for the reigning World Series MVP.
Sure, he might’ve been wearing a different uniform. He might’ve been in the visiting dugout. He might’ve been an Angel, not a Yankee anymore. But Matsui received a deafening ovation from the Yankee faithful.
Being called to claim his ring, Matsui was embraced by his team – his old team – as the memory of his dominance in the ’09 World Series was not far from everyone’s mind that Tuesday afternoon.
It was an emotional moment for the team, but as a fan – a fan who was fortunate enough to see it live, in-person – it was even more bittersweet. I was happy for Matsui, but at the same time, much like today, it’s sad; knowing such a classy and extraordinary ballplayer is no longer playing the game.
It’s tough to gauge in this day and age whether or not a player is worthy of the Hall of Fame. Those who vote – the writers, I mean – sometimes throw away their votes; don’t care who gets in, suspecting every player of using PEDs.
I’ll go out on a limb and, for now, say Matsui is on the borderline. If you factor in all he accomplished in Japan, and then add it onto what he did in MLB, there’s no doubt he’s locked in.
After all, isn’t it called the NATIONAL Baseball Hall of Fame?
Am I wrong? I mean, it’s not the AMERICAN Baseball Hall of Fame, is it?
Derek Jeter, a no doubt first ballot player, once called Matsui his favorite teammate. Matsui’s numbers speak for themselves, but if you’re voting for the HOF based on class, dignity, and the right way to play the game, Matsui is a first ballot inductee.
If he ever gets the call from Cooperstown, I think we all know which cap Matsui will be wearing on his plaque: one with a proud interlocking NY. Even when he had to trade up his jersey number (55) in 2012 while playing for the Tampa Bay Rays, he chose to wear 35 – in honor of his old Yankee teammate of six years (2003-08), Mike Mussina.
Even when he was away from the Bronx, it is evident the Yanks were always in his heart of hearts.
On behalf of Yankee fans everywhere, THANK YOU HIDEKI! Your contributions to the Yankees and us fans will never be forgotten. You will long live in Yankee lore as one of the best hitters of the last decade, and more importantly the first Japanese player to accomplish so much in Major League Baseball.
I think it’s safe to say you have given a lot of young ballplayers in Japan hope for their future.
Domo arigato, Mr. Matsui. (Bow)
Here we are roughly a month and four days removed from the Yankees’ ugly elimination in the American League Championship Series at the hands of the Detroit Tigers, a nasty sweep to end the season.
But Karma, I suppose, always comes back to collect because the Tigers went on to get broomed themselves by the San Francisco Giants in the World Series. The Giants have now captured two world titles in the last three years. What makes it funny to me is the fact that the football Giants and the baseball Giants were both champions in 2012.
The “Romo” factor also made me believe the sports gods work in mysterious ways.
Allow me to explain.
On Oct. 28 the San Francisco Giants closed out the Fall Classic – the same day the New York Giants faced off with the Dallas Cowboys, beating them 29-24. The football Giants defeated a Romo (Tony) while the baseball Giants ended the World Series with another Romo (Sergio) on the mound.
Fascinating. But maybe I’m over-thinking things.
At any rate, the Giants will enter the 2013 season wearing the title of defending champs. As for the Yankees: they remain the last American League team to win the World Series, three years ago in 2009.
Now, all the attention is focused on off-season news, and building the team for next year. There hasn’t been a “big bang,” so-to-speak, at least not yet. The Yanks’ front office hasn’t made a blockbuster move, but then again, the off-season is remarkably young.
The Baseball/General Managers Winter Meetings will take place next month in Nashville, so perhaps by the time they conclude, there will be a lot more to consider.
Until then, quite a few minor things around baseball and the Yankee community have transpired.
- Robinson Cano finished fourth in the AL MVP voting while Derek Jeter finished seventh. As much as I wanted to believe either Yankee could win the MVP, no one was beating Miguel Cabrera. The Triple Crown sealed the deal for him. At least Cano and Jeter both captured Silver Sluggers for their respective efforts.
- Just last night, the Yanks and Hiroki Kuroda agreed to a one-year deal. I had read Kuroda, 37, was deciding whether or not to pitch here in the states next season or return to Japan. After such a solid year in pinstripes in 2012, I for one am glad he opted to stay in America – and not just in America, but in the Bronx.
- Mark Teixeira didn’t have the best year offensively, but he still proved what a fantastic defender he is at first base, claiming a Gold Glove Award. Cano also took one home – and home to the good old U.S.A., I guess, because he recently became a U.S. citizen.
- Rafael Soriano opted out of his contract, after declining the Yankees’ qualifying offer. Good luck, buddy.
- Nick Swisher is as good as gone, also declining a qualifying offer. His absence will obviously create a void in right field the Yankees will need to fill.
- The Yankees’ 2012 first round draft pick Ty Hensley favorited a tweet of mine. It was “Skyfall” related. If you haven’t been to the movies lately, treat yourself to “Skyfall.” It will blow your mind.
- Raul Ibanez wants to come back. Being the player who did the heavy lifting and carried the team toward the end of 2012, he may have earned a chance to play in New York again.
- Two classics, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera, have expressed interest in pitching next year. I don’t really have any predictions or ideas on what to expect. If anything, Pettitte will come cheap if he returns and Rivera will probably be looking for a sizeable amount of money. I think I’ll just kick back and see what happens with these two.
- There will apparently be a Broadway play about the Yankees. I’m not much of a theatre guy, although I have seen “The Lion King,” “Beauty & the Beast,” and “Mary Poppins” on Broadway in New York. I might have to get some tickets, however, to see this Yankees production. If and when I do, you can be sure I will write a full review of it.
- Ichiro sent some favors to the woman in Seattle who manned the “Ichi-meter.” What a guy.
- According to MLB trade rumors, the Yankees (among other teams) are interested in shortstop Stephen Drew and catcher Mike Napoli. Again, I’ll kick back and see what happens. Both players would be key additions to any team.
- The Toronto Blue Jays decided they want to try and be contenders. I almost wish the season started tomorrow – that’s how anxious I am to see if all these additions pay dividends for them.
There will undoubtedly be a lot more to report on as the off-season continues and the MLB hot stove cooks, or boils, or broils, or bakes, or does whatever the heck it does.
In the meantime, everyone have a happy and safe Thanksgiving!