Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Bobby Valentine a baseball, PR genius

Bobby Valentine is not just a baseball genius. He is a public relations genius.

The new manager of the Boston Red Sox has wasted no time going after the New York Yankees ever since getting the gig back in November. Valentine understands that a big part of his job is stoking the simmering flames of the Rivalry and reigniting the passion Red Sox Nation has for its underachieving team by unifying the Nation against the Evil Empire. And he is playing that role to perfection.

Valentine pointed a bull's-eye at two large Yankee targets: Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter. ARod has become everyone’s favorite punching bag so it’s no surprise that Valentine would insult him by saying that retiring Saux catcher Jason Varitek beat him up, even if it isn’t actually true. Sure, Varitek got his shots in, but he didn’t beat ARod up and didn’t have the guts to take off his mask to make it a fair fight.

But the bigger and more surprising insult was Valentine’s dismissive attitude toward Jeter’s “flip play” in the 2001 playoffs against the Oakland A’s, a key defensive play in the Jeter lore. The Yankees Captain will have almost a day before he reacts to the news, but I expect him to deflect the attention with some light humor because that’s his way. Yankee fans will not be so forgiving. I wonder if Bobby V will next find a way to disparage Mariano Rivera, which would really get peoples’ blood boiling. And when I say people, I mean me.

Valentine’s move was brilliant from a public relations standpoint. Can you think of a better way to deflect unwanted attention over former Red Sox manager Terry Francona’s dismissive comments on Valentine’s alcohol ban? Francona labeled the move a PR stunt, which has some truth to it. But I think it was in large part a move by Valentine to rein in his clubhouse, which Francona apparently let get way out of control. I thought Francona unfairly took too much of the blame for the team’s September freefall, but he definitely shares the responsibility for that epic collapse so he does not have a leg to stand on in criticizing Red Sox current management.

But Valentine got exactly what he wanted: he changed the subject away from the ugly mess that the Red Sox have become right back to the Rivalry. And it’s only February. Imagine what Bobby V will say when the games actually start to count.

Thanks to the US Consulate General - Osaka for the Bobby V photo.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Braun wrong to imply tampering with no proof

I know that Ryan Braun is angry, but he has no right to even imply that some random drug collector tampered with his urine sample.

Braun said he knows what it is like to be falsely accused of something so he did not come out and directly assert that the collector tampered with his sample. But he did everything short of that by talking about not knowing what happened in the 44 hours before the sample got to the testing laboratory. Braun seems to be trying to clear his name by besmirching everyone else’s, including the collector who should have remained anonymous but now cannot because of Braun’s insinuations. I have absolutely no problem with Braun attacking Major League Baseball and the process itself. That is absolutely fair game. But he should not have crossed the line with his tampering implications.

I believe Major League Baseball should fire the collector, who I will not name even though Braun made him a target and he has been named elsewhere. Not because of supposed tampering, but because he clearly could have done a better job getting that sample out to the laboratory that same day rather than keeping the sample in his home. But that does not mean by any stretch that I believe Braun’s implication that the collector decided to frame him for using a banned substance.

Notably, Braun’s representatives did not try to argue during the arbitration process that the Milwaukee Brewers’ outfielder and reigning National League Most Valuable Player’s sample was tampered with. Why not? Because they had absolutely no concrete proof that it was and they would have lost that appeal if they tried to focus on alleged wrongdoing. Smartly, they focused on the time lapse between the collection and its arrival at the lab and succeeded in getting the 50-game ban tossed on a technicality. But they should have stuck with that approach in their public defense, rather than trying to subtly cast doubt on the results by even hinting at the possibility of tampering.

Braun has every right to be upset about the process and the leak of what should have been confidential information. If he wants to demand that Major League Baseball fix its drug-testing procedures and find out and fire whoever leaked the information, he is well within his rights. But Braun owes that collector a huge apology for even implying, with nothing remotely resembling evidence, that the guy was out to get him. 

Thanks to Steve Paluch via Wikipedia for the Ryan Braun photo. 

Friday, February 24, 2012

Braun not guilty but not innocent

If this were a criminal case, Ryan Braun would have won a not guilty verdict and been immediately set free. But that does not mean he is innocent.

Braun won his appeal of a 50-game suspension basically on a technicality because his urine sample was kept in a tester’s home refrigerator for two days rather than being immediately shipped to the laboratory. I’m not a lawyer, but I’ve watched a lot of Law & Order and it reminds me of one of those episodes where a judge dismisses a case against an obviously guilty defendant because the cops did not follow the proper procedures in securing the evidence. In those episodes, the prosecutors often figure out another way to convict the defendant. Major League Baseball has no such recourse.

Baseball officials were quick to issue a statement expressing their vehement disagreement with the ruling, which now casts a major shadow over the drug-testing system Bud Selig & Co have expressed so much pride in. They take no comfort from the fact that one of the best young players in the game will not have to endure an embarrassing and costly suspension. Truthfully, I think Major League Baseball would much rather have sacrificed Braun’s career to protect the integrity of their system.

Baseball has to move quickly to repair the damage, including firing whoever was responsible for this egregious error at the drug testing facility. I find it so hard to believe that the sample couldn’t be shipped for more than two full days just because it missed the last scheduled courier. In this day and age, could they not have called FedEx or some other shipping company to request a special pickup? And why would a sample being taken so late in the day if making that last shipment was truly an issue?

As for Braun, he probably feels vindicated by his successful appeal, but those feelings of vindication will be short-lived. I do feel badly for him in the sense that his failed test should never have come to the light of day since the process was not complete, per the drug-testing rules both MLB and the union agreed to follow (as part of its review, MLB should seek out the leakers of the information to ESPN and fire them immediately as the leak clearly came from the MLB side—there’s no way Braun or the union would have made this public).

It is technically correct that the unguarded sample could have been tampered with at any time, making its results questionable. But what seems to be the more likely scenario: that someone who for some unknown reason switched the sample or that the outfielder simply failed the test? Complicating Braun’s insistence of his innocence is the fact that of three samples, his was the only one that tested positive. So Braun alone bears the burden of many people believing that he cheated and then beat the system, as unfair as that may seem. 

Thanks to shgmom56 and UC international via Wikipedia for the Braun photo.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Will Mariano Rivera really say goodbye?

Will Mariano Rivera really call it quits after the 2012 baseball season is over?

It’s hard to imagine anyone walking away still at the top of their game, as Mo clearly is, but it seems like he is planning to do exactly that at the end of the year. Mo did not directly say he would retire, but he strongly hinted that the end of his unmatchable career is close to completion.

After achieving the all-time saves record last year, Mo has nothing else left to do in baseball. His status as the greatest reliever in the history of baseball is completely secure. He has five World Series rings and will hopefully win a sixth before he calls it quits. Mo could have even decided to join Jorge Posada in retirement this offseason if he didn’t have another year left on his contract. But Mo just has too much integrity to leave the New York Yankees in the lurch like that.

How do you replace an icon? The Yankees are actually in pretty good shape there. David Robertson has proven he has the chops to pitch late innings in tight games and has absolutely no fear of dangerous baseball situations. If Joba Chamberlain can come back from his arm injury, and all reports are that he is making excellent progress, then he can serve as Robertson’s back-up and take over the 8th inning role. In a worst-case scenario, the Yankees also have Rafael Soriano, who has closer experience, and could try him out in the role.  

But I’m not sure if the Yankees are ready to lose their iconic closer. Even the heir apparent Robertson is unconvinced, suggesting that Rivera could “Brett Favre us”, meaning that he could decide not to retire. I would love it if that were true, but the tone of Mo’s recent comments suggest that as much as he would miss baseball, he is tired of the grind and of being away from his kids so much.

So of course he can call it quits. All good things come to an end eventually. At least we have a chance to say a proper goodbye. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

Yankees baseball is back

There’s nothing like the first day of reporting for pitchers and catchers to get people excited about baseball again.

For me, most of March will be spent tracking Syracuse University’s (hopefully long) journey through the Big East and NCAA tournaments toward another national title. But I will make some time for spring training baseball. I was excited to see the YES Network announcement of the first broadcast of a New York Yankees spring training game on March 4. Sure, most of the Yankees regulars probably won’t even play and those that do will only play for a few innings at the most. But it will be fun seeing the Yankees take the field again after their disappointingly quick exit from the playoffs last year.

And the start of spring training will once again lead to a rash of last-minute activity. Brian Cashman finally managed to trade away AJ Burnett, but he will still have some decisions to make about the roster, namely filling out the bench roles. It’s looking less and less likely that Johnny Damon will return to pinstripes (which I had doubts about due to his desire to chase 3,000 hits), but Eric Chavez seems happy to reclaim his supporting role with the Yankees.

The Yankees have plenty of decisions to make heading into the 2012 baseball season. Who will be the odd man out of the starting rotation? Who will be the back-up catcher for Russell Martin? Do they hire a designated hitter with the money they saved from trading Burnett or do they leave the job open for the aging Yankee infielders? The answers will probably come slowly over the next few weeks, but they will make spring training interesting to watch. 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Rooting for Joba Chamberlain comeback

Heading into spring training in 2011, I wrote about how there is no member of the New York Yankees I would be rooting for more than Joba Chamberlain. The same is true again this year, but for a different reason.

Joba got dealt a bad hand last year when he was felled by a serious arm injury in the midst of a successful campaign to once again become the set-up man for Mariano Rivera. He managed to do what I thought was impossible: cast aside Rafael Soriano despite the millions of dollars the Steinbrenners wasted on Soriano’s services. Joba’s numbers reflected the fantastic year he was having (2-0, with a 2.83 ERA and 1.05 WHIP). But he also showed us a maturity that we hadn’t seen before, which was not surprising considering that he is still only 26 years old. Being in the middle of such a professional renaissance made his unexpected season-ending surgery that much more devastating.

Reports indicate that Chamberlain’s rehabilitation is progressing quite well so perhaps we will see him back on the mound mid-season. Of course, he will need time to find his groove again. But if he can do that, the Yankees already strong bullpen could become an unstoppable force.  

Something good did come out of Joba’s injury since it allowed the baseball world (and the Yankees themselves) to see what David Robertson could do in that job. But I hate to see any player lose his job because of an injury, especially one that may have been preventable if the Yankees hadn’t shifted Joba back and forth from the bullpen to the rotation and back again.  

But that’s all in the past. I will look forward to the future and hope that Joba can once again be the pitcher that had all of New York buzzing about his promise. 

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Best wishes for AJ Burnett

Even though I was too often frustrated by AJ Burnett, I’m truly hoping for him to find success in his new baseball home.

Brian Cashman finally succeeded in trading Burnett to another team willing to take a chance on him. 
After three years of inconsistency, with flashes of the talent that led the New York Yankees to give him that humongous contract mixed in, the Yankees finally admitted what the rest of the baseball world probably already knew: that Burnett was never going to become the pitcher they thought he could be, at least not in New York.

I think Cashman deserves huge kudos for this trade, even though he is only getting marginal prospects in return. I’m actually surprised he persuaded the small-market Pirates to pay $13 million of the remaining $33 million for Burnett’s services, given his struggles in New York and the Yankees’ apparent desperation to move him. But just because Burnett could not succeed in the Big Apple does not mean he cannot do well in Pittsburgh. On the contrary, I think this trade could actually be great for him in a lot of ways, including eliminating the glare of the New York spotlight and leaving the tough American League East for the National League.

No matter his struggles, I never rooted against Burnett. I really did want AJ to succeed in New York, mainly because I always felt the Yankees would be a much better team if he ever could figure things out on the mound. And Burnett, despite his tantrums at times, seems to be a good guy, well-liked by his teammates and coaches and a mentor to young Ivan Nova. Perhaps Burnett could slide into a role as a wise elder in Pittsburgh, a role that will give him purpose and the strength to become a better pitcher.  

AJ, I wish you nothing but the best. 

Friday, February 17, 2012

Sad day as Mets family loses Gary Carter

My heart goes out to the New York Mets family and all their fans over the loss of Gary Carter.

It’s a terribly sad day in Queens even though the news of Carter’s death is hardly a surprise. He had been bravely battling brain cancer for months, but his prognosis seemed to be getting worse. I could sense the end was near when he was too weak to attend last month’s Baseball Writers of America awards, with his children’s emotional acceptance of the “You Gotta Have Heart” award on his behalf.

Carter had a lot of heart. There’s no question about that. He was a mentally tough individual but a steady force in baseball.  And Carter was a very deserving member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, with 11 All-Star elections (twice being named the Most Valuable Player of the game), five Silver Slugger awards and three Gold Gloves.

On a team of hooligans who proudly abused drugs and women, Carter stood out for his refusal to join the party. Carter helped the 1986 Mets win a World Series championship, but never let their bad behavior touch him. He was the voice of reason and responsibility for a team that desperately needed it. The Mets would never have won that title without his leadership and his baseball talents.

Rest in peace, Kid.

Thanks to MTLskyline via Wikipedia for the image. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Phil Hughes determined to rebound in 2012

Phil Hughes has always been his own worst critic so it was not surprising to hear him describe his 2011 baseball season as a wasted year. But I’m glad to hear that he is doing everything he can to avoid a repeat in 2012.

The New York media has pronounced Hughes to be fit as a fiddle, which is saying a lot as the writers hammered him for being out of shape last spring. Hughes’ reshaped physique is a manifestation of his determination to avoid a repeat of his bad 2011 campaign (again his word, not mine). I thought his bad luck with injuries was the main cause of his struggles, but Hughes is not taking any chances, working his body hard to make sure he is ready to fight for his job when pitchers and catchers report on Sunday.

Hughes must be feeling tremendous pressure, even with the possibility of an AJ Burnett trade that could help clear a path for him to a rotation spot. The New York Yankees sure aren’t putting potential stud Michael Pineda in the bullpen and Ivan Nova performed well in that #2 spot after CC Sabathia. With veterans Hideki Kuroda and Freddy Garcia in the mix, Hughes will have to demonstrate that he can re-claim the stuff and mental toughness that made him an All-Star in 2010. The young right-hander has already proven that he can be successful in the bullpen so any misstep in spring training will send him back there rather quickly.

So Hughes is using his “wasted” 2011 campaign as motivation to bounce back and once again become the star pitcher he has shown us he can be. I’m looking forward to watching the comeback. 

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Cashman drama could embarrass Yankees into making a change

When I first wrote about Brian Cashman's messy personal drama, I took the position that it did not seem to be anything more than a distraction and was unlikely to affect his status as general manager of the New York Yankees. That was before reports surfaced that Cashman may have shared insider information that he shouldn't have with his alleged stalker.

I will preface this by saying that this woman could be lying when she says that Cashman told her he misled federal officials about the Yankees’ knowledge of the steroids abuse by their own players. She could easily be doing exactly what she allegedly promised Cashman she would do: make him look bad in the media if he didn’t pay her off. But to me, this seems like exactly the kind of thing a person would say to someone he was seeing, especially if he was feeling guilty or nervous about misleading the feds. It would have been incredibly foolish for Cashman to share such details with anyone, but that does not mean it didn’t happen.

As a Yankees fan frustrated by the extent to which performance-enhancing drugs were abused by Yankee players, I’ve often wondered exactly how much the Yankees knew about what their players were doing. I find it impossible to believe the Yankees had no clue about the problem and there has been some circumstantial evidence that the Yankees may have at least had an inkling, as much as they denied it. In truth, I’ve always thought the Yankees just chose to look the other way.

But the Steinbrenners are not going to be able to look the other way if hard evidence surfaces to back the woman’s claims. If this case goes to trial, and I really doubt that it will, it’s entirely possible that embarrassing – and possibly criminal – information surfaces that will force the Yankees to let Cashman go. I’m fairly sure Cashman’s job is completely safe for now, but it might not be if these revelations continue. 

Friday, February 10, 2012

Can the Yankees really pull off AJ Burnett trade?

Can the New York Yankees really convince another baseball team to take AJ Burnett off their hands?

Brian Cashman has pulled off a number of stunning moves in his tenure as Yankees general manager. But it would be completely shocking to see him somehow sell one of his GM counterparts on the merits of Mr. Erratic.

To a certain extent, I can understand why another team would be interested in Burnett. He has undeniable talent and has pitched some very solid games in big situations for the Yankees. Burnett helped stave off elimination for the Yankees in the 2011 divisional series, even though it was only for one game. And truthfully, I think Burnett could do well in a place like Pittsburgh with extremely low expectations, a lot of young talent and a lack of media glare.

But if I were running another team, I would wonder why Burnett has not been able to harness all his talent into a winning record, even with the mighty Yankees lineup backing him up and relatively low expectations in 2010 and 2011. I would question whether Burnett’s psyche is simply too fragile to ever live up to his potential, even though the Yankees, and Cashman and manager Joe Girardi in particular, have gone out of their way to protect him.

The Yankees are probably going to have to pay almost all of Burnett’s remaining salary over the final two years of his contract, which even in this age of austerity they would happily do in exchange for a good, young prospect. But if I’m the Pittsburgh Pirates, or any other baseball team for that matter, I probably smellblood in the water with the Yankees desperate to move Burnett before the start of the 2012 season. If they wait long enough, they might even get the Yankees to give Burnett away for practically nothing.  

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Giants victory parade a fun day for all

I'm interrupting this regularly scheduled baseball blog for a day in honor of the Super Bowl Champion New York Giants. I was one of the hundreds of thousands of people who played hooky from work, with permission, of course ;)  to attend yesterday's victory parade. Here are some of my pictures from what was a great party, except for the cold wind gusts that made it feel like it was in the 30s rather than above the 40 degree mark.

Despite my relative height disadvantage, I got some pretty good player pictures, including this one of David Diehl, who was loving the crowd attention.

And Justin Tuck, who apparently likes us but is not as fond of Mr. Bundchen, I mean Tom Brady.

And Chris Canty, who accurately predicted the Giants would win, but was slightly off on the final score. He also won the prize for hat of the day.

I only got Eli Manning from behind because some dope got overly excited by the mere presence of the two-time Super Bowl MVP and jumped into my perfectly framed shot. You will have to take my word for it that it would have been an award-winning photo. By the time I recovered, Eli's float had long moved on. But if you're looking for a place in Tribeca, this photo is pretty helpful.

And some daring/crazy chick courting danger in her quest to get better pictures. In her honor, that movie should be renamed Woman on a Ledge. 

Monday, February 6, 2012

Can Rangers manage Hamilton's weak moments?

The Texas Rangers stood firmly in Josh Hamilton’s corner this weekend as he confessed to having a weak moment and succumbing to the temptation of alcohol once again. But I can’t help but wonder if the Rangers are close to deciding that enough is enough and cutting him loose.

The Rangers are not the first baseball team to deal with a player battling substance abuse issues. The New York Yankees welcomed both Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden, among others, into the Yankee family despite repeated suspensions for both players. For all his faults, George Steinbrenner recognized addiction as something beyond the control of the players. He showed them a lot more support and sympathy than he did other players under his control, even though there were always questions about why he kept giving them second chances.

The Rangers have given Hamilton several chances. It’s not altruistic, of course. When Hamilton is healthy, he can be one of the most productive hitters in the American League (something the Yankees know all too well), as shown by his 2010 Most Valuable Player award. And Hamilton helped lead the Rangers to consecutive AL pennants. It would be incredibly difficult to walk away from such a talented player. 

But at some point, you wonder if Rangers’ personnel will simply tire of having to constantly monitor Hamilton to ensure he does not slip again or decide it is too much of a risk to build a lineup around someone with Hamilton’s problems. He is going to be a free agent after the season, which will force the Rangers to make a decision sooner rather than later. Can they give him a multi-year, multi-million dollar contract not knowing if he can maintain his sobriety? It’s an awfully big risk to take. I would not want to be the person having to make that decision.

I hope for Hamilton’s sake that he can find a way to stay sober and free of his addiction demons. I also hope the Rangers can find a way to continue to show him compassion. But baseball is a business and compassion only goes so far, as Hamilton will probably find out soon.

Thanks to Mikejames19 via Wikipedia for the photo.  

Friday, February 3, 2012

Ugly story not a huge distraction for Cashman

Brian Cashman’s messy personal drama does not seem to have had an impact on his ability to function as general manager of the New York Yankees.

Yesterday’s news that Cashman was allegedly being blackmailed and stalked by a woman he may have had an affair with was shocking. Rumors of Cashman’s alleged infidelity have circulated for some time so that was not the part that was surprising. But the shocker was that the story deteriorated into such a nasty situation that the police had to become involved.

The story is making headlines because it’s Cashman and anything remotely having to do with the Yankees is front-page news, even during Super Bowl week. But if it weren’t for the criminal charges, it would be just a personal matter that would probably have gone unreported by the mainstream media. Cashman’s romantic dalliances are not nearly as interesting to the media as those of Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.

But the ugly story does not seem to be a huge distraction for Cashman from a baseball perspective, at least not yet. The Yankees general manager somehow managed to pull off a surprising and solid trade for Michael Pineda despite his personal predicament. He avoided potentially nasty arbitration fights with all his eligible players. Cashman put together a roster that is almost ready for spring training despite the drama in his personal life.

Of course, Cashman will continue to be asked about the situation, although he will likely decline to answer questions given the criminal case. It is a situation that I imagine will cause him a lot of stress, particularly because of the embarrassment it will cause his family. But I doubt it’s going to impede his ability to do his job, which, quite frankly, is the only thing Yankee fans really care about. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Cashman protecting or pitching Burnett?

Is Brian Cashman back to protecting AJ Burnett or is he trying to drum up interest in his erratic right-hander?

The general manager of the New York Yankees was ostensibly trying to give the embattled Burnett a vote of confidence at a recent event. But his use of the word comfortable several times in his comments has me thinking Cashman is actually less than comfortable with the fact that he will probably go into spring training with Burnett still on the Yankees roster.

I suspect Cashman’s positive comments about Burnett’s talent, effort and accountability are actually designed to try to drum up interest in AJ. I think the Yankees have finally come to the realization that Burnett will not have the success they envisioned for him in New York and are trying to move him, even if they have to swallow the vast majority of his salary.

Could I be reading too much into Cashman’s comments? Absolutely. Plus, I wasn’t there to get a feel for the tone and context of his words. It’s entirely possible that Cashman truly meant it when he said he will have AJ’s back, as long as the frustrated Burnett does not give up on himself.

But I can’t help but think that there has been too much damage done to Burnett’s psyche and reputation for him to remain in New York much longer. Plus, I don’t think his relationships with Cashman or manager Joe Girardi is particularly good these days, as they both have taken some of their harshest hits for defending Burnett, something they must be sick of by now.

Of course, if the Yankees are stuck with Burnett, they will put the most positive spin on it that they can come spring training. But I think Cashman is doing his best to spur even the slightest interest from other baseball teams so that someone else can become Burnett’s defender.