Sept. 25, 2014
I know after yesterday’s loss you are disappointed. Elimination from the playoffs, to you, is probably the equivalent of failing a test you’ve studied extremely hard for. After the game you called it “rough” and “frustrating.” This will only be the third time in my life as a true navy blue Yankee fan you and your teammates won’t be playing autumn baseball in New York – but trust me, I’m not trying to make you feel bad or drudge up negative feelings.
On the contrary, I’m writing to give you the praise you rightfully deserve, and say thanks.
I can’t even really remember my first Yankee game. I was too young; the picture of it in my head is about as fuzzy as a 1950s analog TV. My parents brought me to Yankee Stadium when I was practically in diapers. My earliest memories were just looking out and seeing the Stadium’s green grass.
1995, I’ve always felt, is the season I became a true fan. At eight years old I was overcome with investment in the New York Yankees. ’95 also happened to be your first season; and not to mention the year before all the glorious seasons of the Yankee Dynasty.
Although 1995 ended in tragedy at the Kingdome, the feeling of winning the World Series at the end of 1996 almost made me completely forget ’95 altogether. Additionally in ’96 you were named A.L. Rookie of the Year unanimously, to which you modestly remarked to the New York Times, “Unanimously? I think I had some family helping me out with the voting.”
While I’m sure your family – who raised you so well – would’ve voted for you, you didn’t need any help in terms with the voting. Hence, why you beat out James Baldwin of the White Sox by 76 points; 140-64.
Thanks for helping teach me humility.
1998 was arguably the best season the Yanks have had in my lifetime, and ’98 also happened to be the year I started playing Little League in Beacon, N.Y. – a city some 70 or so miles north of New York City in the suburbs. Everything about Little League in Beacon was fashioned after the major leagues, from the team names down to the uniforms. God must’ve had it in for me, because the team I wound up on was the Yankees.
Yeah, Tino Martinez was my favorite at the time, but believe me when I say you and him were basically tied for first.
Anyhow, it was my first year playing organized ball, and I had a rough go of it. If I wasn’t striking out I was grounding out. Once in awhile I drew a walk here or there. What’s more, I mostly stood out in left field idly; fly balls rarely ever coming my way.
Nonetheless, I learned how to play the position; how to back up throws to third base and how to hit the cutoff man. I never quit. I kept playing the game, even after wanting to give up after a slew of dreadful “0-for” days.
At last in one of the final games of the regular season, against the Indians, I hit a laser shot into centerfield for not only my first base hit, but my first RBI. When I reached base safely I heard the assistant coach say from the dugout,
“Look at that hit! That was like Derek Jeter, right there!”
That comment meant the world to me, at the same time giving me some much-needed encouragement. A season full of woes, I get one nice hit and all of a sudden it earns me a comparison to you. We beat the Indians, if you were wondering, and afterwards, the coaches gave me the game ball, which I still have encased.
It wasn’t until just now I realized you hit your first career home run against the big league Indians – perhaps a little baseball parallel between the two of us.
From that point on whether it was in Little League, Babe Ruth League at the high school level, in gym class or just playing ball with the kids in my neighborhood, I always wanted to emulate you; the way you have carried yourself: respectfully, gracefully and dignified – and not just on the field. I’ve never done drugs or smoked, because I know that’s not what Derek Jeter would do.
Thank you for leading by example.
Throughout my years as a Yankee fan I’ve seen you play live in the pinstripes countless times. I haven’t taken those times for granted. Though with each passing year, it seemed, you got better and better as opposed to the majority of other players, whose numbers steadily decline as they grow older.
You truly are a fine bottle of wine, getting better with age, as the old adage goes.
On six separate occasions, you have hit home runs in my presence. Of those six games, the Yankees emerged winners in five of them. The only game I saw in-person, in which you hit a home run and the Yanks lost, was against the Mets on June 29, 2002.
But hey, in the 2000 World/Subway Series – which you were an integral part of winning – you gave me and every other Yankee fan bragging rights forever more in beating the Mets in front of the world on baseball’s grandest stage.
Thanks for those bragging rights.
In May of 2010 I graduated from Mercy College in New York with a degree in journalism. It took a lot of hard work to earn that diploma. You’ve preached your entire career about how hard work pays off, and when I walked across the stage and was handed my degree, I finally understood what you meant.
You were right all along. Thanks for beating the hard work concept into my brain.
A couple months after graduation, in July ’10, I had the chance to interview Brian Sweeney, a relief pitcher who (like me) is a Mercy College alumnus. At the time he was pitching for the Seattle Mariners. Sweeney had faced you at the big ballpark in the Bronx just a few weeks prior to my chat with him. He, an opponent, spoke highly of you, saying,
“Obviously Jeter is one of the most celebrated ballplayers on the Yankees. He was a nice challenge.”
However, Sweeney did add, “I wish he had gotten into the box a little faster. Maybe he was trying to slow me down? It could just be his routine.”
A t-shirt should be made: “Derek Jeter: frustrating opposing pitchers since ’95.”
Earlier this year, on May 12 to be exact, I covered an event hosted by fellow New York sports captain Eli Manning. The Giants’ quarterback and two-time Super Bowl MVP does wonderful work with charity, namely Guiding Eyes for the Blind. Guiding Eyes’ annual spring tee-off event came just a week after Eli and his brother Peyton visited you at Yankee Stadium.
Eli had nothing but great things to say about you.
It is my hope that one day I am able to interview you, Derek. Even if I’m one of 100 reporters standing in a media scrum and I only get to ask you one question. I’d gladly welcome a funny response to a question from you, as you’ve been able to mix in some humor with the press all your life.
If I ever get that interview or that chance to ask you a question in a scrum, thank you in advance.
Tonight, Derek, you leave us – but only in the flesh. Everything you’ve done in New York, for New York, and for the fans will never be forgotten. In spirit, you’ll be with us for all of time. I wish you luck in starting your family and hope you enjoy your life after baseball. You have more than earned your days to sit back, take in the sweet aroma of the roses, and bask in the fruits of your labor.
Hopefully in five years, when you’re ticketed for permanent enshrinement in Cooperstown, I’ll be covering the joyous occasion and I’ll see you there.
Until then, for all the wonderful memories, Derek – thank you.
A.J. Martelli “Yankee Yapping”
If the Yankees somehow make the playoffs this year, tonight will go down as the game that saved them. Every team in front of the Yankees won – and this late in the season, the Bronx Bombers can ill afford to lose any more ground in terms of the standings. Down 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth inning against Koji Uehara, and more specifically the pesky Red Sox looking to play spoiler, the future didn’t exactly look bright; the season all but dangling in the balance.
Then Mark Teixeira came up.
Earlier this season in Milwaukee vs. the Brewers, Teixeira tied the game in the ninth with one swing against Francisco Rodriguez, who like Uehara is another established closer.
Did he have it in him again?
Yes. He sure did. The Yankee first baseman sent a “Teix message” into the second porch in right field, knotting the game up at four in the most dramatic way.
But that wasn’t even the best part.
Teixeira’s tater set up Chase Headley later in the frame, and the third baseman got around on a hanger, blasting Uehara’s offering into the bleachers in right field; a spectacular shot to give the Yanks a 5-4 win, keeping them alive in the AL Wild Card race.
Should the Yankees go on a run, this will be a game everyone will make reference to as the turnaround; it’ll be looked at as the game that kept them from drowning altogether and falling out of the postseason hunt for good.
It will be, in a word, remembered.
This writer, however, will not just remember Sept. 4 as the day the Yankees maintained a pulse in 2014. It will also go down as the day I met Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer to ever live.
On Sept. 22 last year, when the Yankees honored Rivera and retired his number 42, I never would’ve guessed I’d have the chance to meet him not even a year later. Yet when my friend had mentioned that he was going to be doing an appearance in Ridgewood, N.J. and asked if I’d be interested in going, I couldn’t pass it up.
Rivera was at a store called Bookends promoting his autobiography, The Closer.
On the way there, my friends and I were just on edge.
“He’s the best. What are you going to say to him?”
I hadn’t thought about it.
When it was my turn, I simply walked up to Mo, one of my childhood heroes and one of the most respected baseball players in history, and merely introduced myself. “Hi, I’m A.J. Nice to meet you” and shook his hand. With his regular, patented ear-to-ear Mo smile, he said – with kindness beaming out in his voice,
“Nice to meet you too!”
They took our picture and before I left I shook his hand again and sincerely said,
“Thank you. For all the wonderful memories.”
He was still smiling, but his expression changed after I thanked him. It’s hard to describe but he gave me almost a look of awe. His expression shortly morphed back into his regular smile, and before I walked away he patted me on the back and said,
“Awwww, thank you, buddy!” He stressed the words “thank you.”
I basically left the bookstore with the same expression Mo shot me when I thanked him – awe-struck; mesmerized. I’m not quite sure what other adjectives I could use to properly word how I felt, except “amazing” or “awesome.”
All of the above.
Overall, it was a phenomenal experience, even if it was just for a brief couple minutes.
Driving home, I also thought to myself how significant the meeting might be in the future.
Rivera resides in New Rochelle, N.Y. and attends/hosts numerous events throughout Westchester County, N.Y.
Working for a Westchester newsweekly, it’s not crazy to think I might someday have to cover an event that Rivera is on hand for, and perhaps interview him. By meeting him today, though, I got the manner of being “star-struck” out of the way. Now, if I cross paths with him again as a reporter (and not a fan) I won’t be as mind-blown as I was today.
For example, when I first interviewed New York Giants’ quarterback and two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning, I was admittedly overwhelmed – even as a reporter. But after interviewing him multiple times, there’s not as much pressure talking to him anymore. To me, interviewing Manning is just business as usual – which is how it’ll likely be now, if I interview Mo, because I’ve already met him.
If that makes sense.
Nevertheless, it was a memorable day. For the Yankees, for the Yankee fans, and for a reporter who happens to be a Yankee fan.
It was crushing. Maybe soul-shattering. But not season-ending. Not yet.
The Blue Jays today pulled the rug right out from under the Yankees, rallying late with a power surge to hand the Bronx Bombers a 4-3 loss in Toronto. Melky Cabrera homered to start the comeback, once again proving how all ex-Yankees kill the Yankees. Jose Bautista followed with a home run of his own, and Edwin Encarnacion “walked the parrot” after his home run – which, if he had played that gimmick during the Roger Clemens days, he would’ve earned himself a bean ball.
Munenori Kawasaki delivered the death blow in the seventh with an RBI single.
And that was that.
The Yankees didn’t do themselves any favors this past week in terms of winning series, going 3-4 on their three-city road trip. Now they come home for a nine-game homestand, kicking it off with a series on Tuesday night against the pest-like Boston Red Sox – and you have to have every reason to believe Boston will try to play spoiler.
No doubt the Red Sox would love nothing more than to knock the Yankees down the proverbial Wild Card totem pole.
Even with the recent string of bad luck, the Yanks haven’t flat lined just yet, clinging on with a chance to make the playoffs as the 2014 season enters its final month. After today’s loss skipper Joe Girardi summed it up by saying the Yankees haven’t made it easy on themselves, and added,
“We have nine games at home coming up. And we have to win a lot of them.”
I’m not sure if it’s sad or funny, but any time the words “Yankees” and “postseason” come together in the same sentence, I have coach Jim Mora’s voice in my head yelling,
“PLAYOFFS? YOU KIDDIN’ ME?!”
To be real for a minute though, it will be difficult for the Yankees to make it to October, but the opportunity is there. It’ll come down to whether or not they hit the ball and beat the teams in front of them in September. The key for them is to buckle down and stop giving away games the way they did this afternoon at Rogers Centre.
While the Yanks are treading water, one team that isn’t struggling to maintain a pulse is the Hudson Valley Renegades – the MiLB team I’ve written about a few times this summer on the blog, as I have been their beat writer for The Examiner throughout the New York-Penn League season.
This past Friday night was the latest game I covered – the ‘Gades hosting the Connecticut Tigers at “The Dutch.” When I got to the press box I was surprised to look at the lineup sheet and see Ben Verlander’s name in the Tigers’ lineup.
Ben of course being the younger brother of Justin Verlander, the ace of the Detroit Tigers, and the former AL Rookie of the Year, MVP and Cy Young winner.
Oh, and Kate Upton’s boyfriend. #Jealous
At any rate, here is my gamer from Friday night, with quotes from Ben Verlander included, as I interviewed him postgame:
Renegades clinch division, but come up short in extras to Tigers
By A.J. Martelli
After a 5-3 win over the Connecticut Tigers this past Thursday night, the Hudson Valley Renegades celebrated by spraying champagne and dumping the Gatorade cooler over manager Tim Parenton’s head, the Gades having clinched the New York-Penn League McNamara Division and a spot in the postseason.
The excitement and momentum of earning a ticket to the playoffs for the second time in three years didn’t carry over to Friday night at Dutchess Stadium, however, as Hudson Valley came up short in 11 innings to the Tigers, losing 5-4.
“Good ballgame,” Parenton said after the extra inning affair. “Both teams are good teams. It came down to extra innings; they got the hit, we didn’t, and that’s just the way it was played.”
Tied 4-4 in the top of the eleventh inning, Connecticut right fielder Ben Verlander – younger brother of Detroit Tigers’ ace and former American League Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander – led off with a well-struck double to centerfield. Renegades reliever Mike Franco then threw two consecutive pitches that got by catcher Zach Marberry, allowing Verlander to score the decider.
To him, the win was important, as the Tigers are trying to stay alive for a possible slot in postseason as a Wild Card team.
“It was just a crazy game,” Verlander said. “We needed that one as far as the standings go. We try not to look at scores, but we knew in the dugout (the team in front of us) Brooklyn had lost, and to be able to score that run in the eleventh was big.
“It was a big win for us, and just a great team win.”
The Renegades didn’t go down without a fight, putting runners on second and third with two outs in the last of the eleventh. Left fielder Grant Kay stepped up looking to deliver the goods, but struck out swinging to end the game. Parenton feels his team has the ability to put pressure on the other team, even in games they lose.
“We had our chances; had the winning run at second base in the last inning right there, but their pitcher did his job,” he said. “We come out and play the game right; our guys hustle and play hard. We do things that you’re supposed to do.”
The Renegades trailed 2-0 in the third, but were able to take the lead with three runs. Right fielder Hunter Lockwood grounded out to third, allowing second baseman Jace Conrad to score. Designated hitter Bralin Jackson followed by smacking a booming triple into the right field corner, which plated Kay. Jackson then came home on a balk by Tigers starter Spencer Turnbull.
In the sixth the Gades padded their lead, receiving an RBI double swatted down the line in left field off the bat of center fielder Clayton Henning. With Hudson Valley up 4-2 the Tigers answered in the seventh, scoring a run on a wild pitch by reliever Gerardo Reyes, and the tying run on an RBI groundout by Will Maddox.
Renegades starter Nolan Gannon, who came into the game with six wins under his belt and an ERA of 2.77, let up two runs on four hits, but settled down, retiring the last eight he faced over five innings. He walked two and struck out one.
On Saturday the Renegades once again fell to Connecticut, losing 2-1. Parenton doesn’t seem worried though, and is thrilled to be managing in the postseason in just his first year as a professional skipper.
“It’s very exciting, it’s one of the things you play for – you play to win your division and get a chance to go to the playoffs,” he said. “We’re there, now we just have to play and see what happens. We’re going to try and get everybody rested, get our pitching lined up so that when it starts we have a full boat, ready to go.”
The New York-Penn League playoffs begin Wednesday.
Note: I asked Verlander what his impressions were playing at Dutchess Stadium. He said, “The ballpark is great, the atmosphere is great. But I’m not a big fan of turf. It is what it is, though.” The Renegades are one of only five minor league teams that play their home games on artificial turf.
Behind the lights-out pitching of Brandon McCarthy, the Yankees were able to salvage the final game of their three-game series against Houston this afternoon, beating the Astros 3-0; the Bronx Bombers picking up their first win since Sunday. McCarthy danced to a complete game tune, putting on a four-hit shutout performance with eight strikeouts and no walks – an outing that looked more like a Roger Clemens start, circa 2001.
The Yankee offense, which has basically struggled since the end of 2012, scored all of its runs in the second inning this afternoon. Chase Headley swatted a double into the right field corner to bring in Mark Teixeira and Martin Prado, and later came in on a sac fly out to center off the bat of Ichiro.
Other than that, it was McCarthy’s day to shine.
The much-needed victory brought the Yankees to 64-61 this season; now trailing Baltimore for first place by nine games in the American League East. The Yanks are also four and a half games out for the second Wild Card spot – but that comes with the task of hurdling Cleveland, Seattle and Detroit for a postseason seed.
Numerically, the Yankees still have a chance at capturing the AL East, with eight games left to play against the Orioles in the month of September. Realistically however, given the immense lack of hitting and team inconsistency on both sides of the field, it’s fair to just hope for a fight into a sudden death Wild Card game down the stretch.
This weekend the Yanks welcome the Chicago White Sox into town, and before Saturday afternoon’s showdown with the pale hose, will honor Joe Torre with a ceremony. The newly crowned Hall of Famer will have his no. 6 rightfully retired by the organization.
Whether or not the Yankees take the game from the White Sox that will follow the ceremony remains to be seen, as they’ve had bad luck winning games on days they pay homage to Monument Park newcomers.
Recent history hasn’t been on their side.
In summation, it’s been a very lackluster summer in the Bronx. The season just has not given off the World Series vibes of 2009 and the ‘90s Dynasty years, which is tragic not only because of the amount of money “the brass” spent in the offseason on players; buying some sought-after free agents in hopes of turning the team around – but you would hope in Derek Jeter’s final year, the captain could go out a winner.
Right now, it doesn’t even seem as though Jeter will play autumn baseball in New York again, let alone collect his sixth World Series ring.
While the Yankees are upsetting fans and not living up to the hype generated in the preseason, a minor league team from just up the Hudson River has been doing what the Yankees haven’t been this year: playing well and consistent. The Hudson Valley Renegades, the New York-Penn League MiLB squad affiliated with the Tampa Bay Rays, have been as clutch and as fun to watch as the ’09 Yankees this year.
The ‘Gades are one of the top teams in the NYPL, and are on track for the playoffs as the season enters its final week and a half. I’m now in my third season covering Hudson Valley and it wasn’t long ago – 2012, in fact – that the Renegades won only their second championship in team history, and first since 1999.
They certainly have a chance to go for their third, and second in three years.
This week was the NYPL All-Star Game in Brooklyn, held at MCU Park where the Cyclones play; the Cyclones, of course the New York Mets farm team. The Renegades sent a record seven players to the ASG. I wrote a little feature about it that ran in the newspaper I work for, The Examiner, this week.
Since the Renegades are playing great baseball – virtually the polar opposite of the Yankees – I figured I’d share my feature on the Hudson Valley all-stars.
Note: The NYPL ASG took place Tuesday night, and as I understand it, ended in a 1-1 tie. Our newsweekly prints on Tuesday mornings, so the story was run timely, but now is actually a couple days late. Nonetheless:
Renegades to Send Record Seven Players to NYPL All-Star Game
By A.J. Martelli
The New York-Penn League All-Star Game may be taking place tonight at MCU Park in Brooklyn, but a strong Hudson Valley presence will be felt. The Renegades will be represented in the All-Star Game by seven players, a record number for the minor league franchise.
“It’s awesome; a great accomplishment to them,” said Renegades skipper Tim Parenton, who will be managing the game with his coaching staff. “They put up the numbers, they got the recognition by the league president and they’re going to do great.”
Two Renegade outfielders in Bralin Jackson and Hunter Lockwood were selected. Jackson, the Tampa Bay Rays’ fifth pick in the 2012 Major League Baseball draft, has tallied 56 hits in 54 games and has demonstrated a keen eye at the plate, drawing 24 walks. He also hit .324 in the month of July and leads the Renegades with 18 multi-hit games.
Lockwood has been as clutch as they come, leading the league with 13 home runs and 43 RBIs. Three of his 13 round-trippers have been of the walk-off variety, and he’s very excited to be playing in his first All-Star Game.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Lockwood said. “Going there with a bunch of guys that you know and get to play with every day is just going to make it all the more special. We’ve had a lot of guys playing well for us all year; been hitting the ball, throwing strikes and getting the job done when we need it.”
Along with a pair of outfielders, three Renegade infielders will be playing tonight. Utility man Coty Blanchard, second baseman Jace Conrad and first baseman Casey Gillaspie each received the nod.
Blanchard currently sports a .287 batting average, has driven in 24 runs and he leads the league with 20 stolen bases. Meanwhile Conrad has 17 steals, boasts a .277 average, and has knocked in 18 runs.
Gillaspie, the Rays’ first pick in this year’s draft, has been worth the price of admission with his seven home runs this summer, coupled with 38 RBIs and a .273 clip at the plate. The younger brother of Chicago White Sox third baseman Conor Gillaspie is looking forward to the experience.
“It should be a fun time,” Gillaspie said. “We have a good team, the guys work hard. I’m happy for all the guys who got invited.”
Rounding out the Renegades in the All-Star Game are pitchers Nolan Gannon and Hunter Wood. Gannon is currently 5-2 in nine starts with an ERA of 2.68. The tall right-hander has struck out 43 batters in 47 innings while only allowing five walks.
Wood, another lanky righty, has been equally as dominant, with a 3-3 record in 11 starts for the Gades, and a 2.91 ERA.
You can check out my latest gamer on the Renegades’ 6-1 win over the Lowell Spinners last Saturday here. Lowell is the NYPL’s Boston Red Sox affiliate.
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:
‘Tis the season of the cracking of the bat and the popping of the leather. Yes, MLB Spring Training is finally here, and yesterday the Yankees began their string of exhibition games. As it is, the Bronx Bombers dropped both of their first two Grapefruit League games to Pittsburgh, losing 6-5 Wednesday and 8-2 today – though we all know final scores are probably the least important stat when it comes to Spring Training.
It’s all about fine tuning and getting ready for April, when the scores count and the Yanks embark on their quest for World Series title number 28. Yankee Captain Derek Jeter, who as we all know announced his retirement after this upcoming season, declared today that he wants to go out a winner:
“We’re the last team standing and we win the championship.
That’s the only way I envision it ending.”
In order for that happen, a lot has to go right. First of all…
CC Sabathia needs a bounce-back campaign
Last year CC Sabathia faced arm problems, really for the first time ever in his career. The Yankee ace lost 13 games in 2013 and only won 14, coming off 2012 when he won 15 – a far cry from the 21 and 19-win seasons he put up in 2010 and 2011, respectively. Last season Sabathia’s ERA was 4.78, the highest earned run average he’s ever posted in his career.
If you’re the type of analyst who likes to throw wins and ERA out the window, here’s something to chew on: Sabathia let up 28 home runs in 2013 – another career-high for a single season. If that isn’t enough, here’s something else to consider: Sabathia served up more taters than Phil Hughes last season, the former homer-happy Yankee and now-Minnesota Twin. Hughes allowed 24 hitters to leave the yard last year compared to Sabathia’s 28.
Yes. You know it’s bad when you’ve given up more long balls than Hughes.
There’s no debating the fact that Sabathia needs to turn it around; be the ace the Yankees bought him for prior to 2009, or at least be close to what he was. It’s not too much to ask, mostly because he’s already proven the type of anchor he can be to a pitching staff.
To his credit, Sabathia slimmed down and lost some weight. According to Michael Kay of YES, Sabathia came into Spring Training last year just under 300 lbs., whereas this year he showed up around 275 and visibly thinner.
Obviously Sabathia is taking serious steps towards getting back to form, but he needs to cut down on the home runs and be clutch this year if the Yankees want to be that last team standing.
Stay healthy, New York
You cannot predict injuries. It’s a fact of sports life. In recent times the Yankees have had a ton of hard luck when it comes to injuries, and they haven’t been able to field a complete team.
New Yankee Jacoby Ellsbury has failed to appear in 100 games in two of the last four seasons because of injuries. In 2010 the speedy center fielder only played 18 games and in 2012 he played just 74, thanks to fractured ribs as a result of an outfield collision (’10) and a collision on the base paths trying to break up a double play (’12).
In between he’s been as solid as they come, though. 2011 was Ellsbury’s best season to date. With 32 home runs, 105 RBIs, a .321 batting average, 212 hits, and an All-Star nod, he was arguably the best all-around player in the American League. Being the runner-up for the AL MVP award, while taking home a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger, is only a testament to how fantastic he truly was in ‘11.
That begs the question, which Ellsbury will be showing up in 2014? The perennial All-Star or the injury prone player who gives up his body en route to disabled list stints?
And Ellsbury is just one example.
To supplant Herculean second baseman Robinson Cano, who split for Seattle, the Yankees signed Brian Roberts – a 36-year-old second sacker once feared by all as a Baltimore Oriole, but has only played 192 games over the last four seasons on account of injuries. (Roberts managed to play 77 games last year, 17 in ’12, 39 in ’11, and 59 in ’10).
Doing the math, Roberts has missed 456 games over the past four seasons; DL stints and concussions have eaten him up. Keep in mind, specifically, he ruptured a tendon behind his right knee last April vs. Tampa Bay attempting a steal of second base.
Knowing all that, will Roberts be a comeback player and offer reliability, or will he simply be unproductive and relegated to the disabled list for a large chunk of the season?
The question marks of Ellsbury and Roberts are of course piled on top of apprehension about Jeter and Mark Teixeira. Jeter (39, 40 in June) as we all know is coming off ankle injuries that limited him to 17 games in 2013, while Teixeira (33, 34 in April) is coming back from wrist problems that only allowed him to play 15 games last year.
How each of these players respond is obviously a “to be determined” but at the same time there is no crystal ball in existence to let us know if they’ll be able to grind out the entire season injury-free.
The bullpen has to be effective
It’s fair to say the Yankees’ bullpen was probably their weakest link last year, even with the legendary Mariano Rivera at the back end closing everything out – which really tells you the whole story. This writer keeps asking himself,
“If the bullpen wasn’t that good with Rivera last year, what can we expect without him this year?
David Robertson, as of now, is expected to succeed Mo in the closer role, which is scary to think about. If you recall in 2012 when Rivera’s season ended on May 3 on the warning track in Kansas City, Robertson was plugged into his spot as closer, but he didn’t cut it.
In just his second save opp a week after Rivera went down, Robertson failed to protect a 1-0 lead over Tampa Bay, giving up a three-run homer to Matt Joyce. He later gave up another run and the Yankees went on to lose, 4-1. Robertson called it afterward “the worst feeling in the world.”
Luckily in 2012 the Yankees had the option of using Rafael Soriano in Robertson’s stead – an option that worked out well, given that Soriano saved 42 games in Rivera’s absence.
Now, similarly, the Yankees have signed former Oakland A’s closer (and 2009 AL Rookie of the Year) Andrew Bailey, albeit to a minor league contract. Bailey has 89 saves to his name in his short career, with experience as a closer, making him the logical choice to succeed Rivera over Robertson.
Bailey, like a lot of other Yankees, has a history with injuries. In 2012 he had reconstructive surgery on his right thumb, and just last year an MRI revealed he had a torn labrum in his pitching shoulder.
It’ll come down to whether or not Bailey can make it back from injury and be a shutdown pitcher like he once was. For now though, the Yankees have a premiere setup man in Robertson – and that’s about it, because Robertson isn’t a proven closer.
At least not yet.
Looking outside the back end of the bullpen, the middle relievers need to step up too. Shawn Kelley and Preston Claiborne are going to be two important pieces to the bullpen, along with newcomer Matt Thornton, the tall order who’ll replace Boone Logan (now with the Colorado Rockies) as the main southpaw out of the ‘pen.
Sources are saying former top Yankee pitching prospect Dellin Betances will be vying for a spot in the bullpen this spring, as it’s already been established by Yankee GM Brian Cashman that he will be a reliever in the long run. Betances could either prove to be a key middle reliever or long reliever, yet he has to pitch well enough for the Yankee brass to have faith in him – and well enough to keep himself off mopping duty.
The Opening Day bullpen is likely going to come down to whichever relievers are effective during Spring Training, and the point stands: they have to be effective, whoever they may be when camp breaks.
Masahiro Tanaka has to adapt
Nobody is expecting Masahiro Tanaka to go 24-0 and post an ERA under 2.00 in his rookie season, but if there is one thing the new, prized Japanese import must do, it’s get acclimated to the MLB style. His numbers in Japan were far better than a lot of the other Japanese-born pitchers who’ve come over from the land of the rising sun, meaning he could potentially have a huge year, but the average fan might not realize a couple of things.
First off, pitchers in Japan throw only once a week, whereas here in the states, Tanaka will have to toe the rubber once every five days. Not only that, but the NPB in Japan also uses smaller-sized baseballs compared to an official MLB rock, therefore an adjustment needs to be made in that respect.
The biggest difference will be the hitters Tanaka faces. Monsters such as David Ortiz, Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout and Prince Fielder will probably pose bigger threats (and are more intimidating) than the more tactical batters he went eye-to-eye with in Japan.
Though one could argue Tanaka won’t be fazed by the Goliath-like giants he faces here in the U.S., given his cool demeanor and calm presence at his introductory press conference.
While it’s perfectly fine to expect Tanaka to succeed – and he will – it’s reasonable to presume he will go through his growing pains. Adjustment is the biggest part of his game.
We’ll get our first live look at Tanaka on Saturday afternoon in the Yankees’ exhibition vs. the Phillies.
They have to make each other better
The key to any successful team is chemistry. Most of the 2014 Yankees will be first-time teammates, not having played with each other before. While some like Jeter, Teixeira and Brett Gardner have been together for a few seasons, newbies like Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran have not had a chance to jell as teammates.
If you look back to 2009 – and the Dynasty years, for that matter – a player could have an off-night, but the rest of the team would be on. For example,
In 1998, Tino Martinez might have an “0-for” night, but Jeter, Bernie Williams, Scott Brosius, and Paul O’Neill would be firing at will, and the Yanks would win. The next night Jeter could have gone 0-for-4, but Martinez and everyone else would still be en fuego.
Those teams were the masters of picking each other up.
If the 2014 Yankees can perfect that same art, they’ll be as lethal as any team in baseball.
And the kingdom will be theirs.
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.