Monday, May 28, 2012

Derek Jeter climbing baseball history's ladder

New York Yankees Captain Derek Jeter keeps climbing the ladder of baseball history, showing no signs of slowing down even as he nears the age when shortstops traditionally get pushed to another position.

It seems like every day Jeter is passing another Hall of Fame baseball player on the all-time hits list. Yesterday, it was George Brett, who was gracious and effusive in his praise of Jeter in his congratulatory statement and obvious in his admiration for the Yankees shortstop when he made a guest appearance on a YES Network broadcast last week when the Kansas City Royals were in town. Brett could not decide what he admired more: Jeter’s on-the-field skills or his ability to weather the New York spotlight with barely a bad word written about him.

Eventually, Jeter will join all the players he is now passing in the Baseball Hall of Fame. But people are already pondering the bigger question: will Jeter play long enough to surpass Pete Rose as the all-time hits leader (something that Bud Selig and MLB surely would love to happen). Given his hitting resurgence since he smacked that home run off of David Price for #3,000, Jeter has seemingly quieted all the critics of his ability. I think the real question is will Jeter want to stick around long enough to go for the record. The Yankees Captain has stated that he will keep playing as long as he is having fun. Judging by watching him on the field, particularly his playful interactions with opposing players and his gentle mocking of his own teammates, it seems like Jeter is still having a lot of fun.

Try being the guy who eventually has to replace Derek Jeter at shortstop for the New York Yankees. It’s almost as bad as being the guy who has to replace Mariano Rivera (although I still think David Robertson has the chops for the job). But hopefully a Jeter retirement is far off into the future and we can just keep watching him climb that ladder. 

Friday, May 25, 2012

Yankees for sale? Count me in

Can anyone spare $3-4 billion?

It’s going to take that much dough to take the New York Yankees off the hands of the Steinbrenner family. If the Los Angeles Dodgers are worth $2.175 billion after years of dysfunction and mismanagement, think of how much the Yankees are worth with a hugely successful regional television network. Sure, there are all sorts of questions about the value of the product on the field, with the team struggling during the first two months of the season, falling well short of our admittedly high expectations. But that has not made them less profitable, at least not yet.

For the record, I don’t believe the Yankees are actually for sale right now. I think someone in the Yankees camp casually mentioned the possibility of a sale with one of his banker friends over scotch and cigars one night and the thing just snowballed. Hal Steinbrenner is a businessman, not a die-hard baseball fan, so I could see him wanting to sell the team at some point in the future. But he is a businessman so he surely knows he can get even more for his already valuable property by waiting until general market conditions improve.

I’d be willing to pitch in to buy the Yankees. If we all chip in a little, we and thousands of our fellow Yankees fans could be the proud owners of the most storied franchise in sports. But then we’d have to stop criticizing our team because we’d only be hurting ourselves. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

Mediocre Yankees a cause for concern

I’m not in full-blown panic mode yet, but I’m really starting to worry about the New York Yankees, who have been a mediocre team so far in 2012 rather than the juggernaut they are supposed to be.

It is too late in the baseball season for the Yankees to be a barely-above .500 team. The Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, the traditional powerhouses of the American League East, continue to languish at the bottom of the standings behind the more youthful Baltimore Orioles, Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays. The only thing the Yankees have going for them right now is that they are only 5.5 games out of first place, despite their inconsistent start, in late May. There is still plenty of time for them to right the ship.

But if it wasn’t for a vintage performance by Andy Pettitte, the Yankees would have gotten swept this weekend by the Cincinnati Reds. The Yankees have been getting beat by a lot of teams that they should be pounding on. Most recently, the Yankees have been hurt by a lack of clutch hitting, but poor starting pitching was the main cause of their woes up until a few weeks ago. The Yankees have also been victimized by some unfortunate injuries, not just to Mariano Rivera, but to his replacement David Robertson and Brett Gardner, whose speed is sorely missed on a team struggling mightily to score runs.

I’m starting to wonder not when but if the Yankees will pull it together. I’m not completely panicking just yet, but check in with me in a couple of weeks. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Andy Pettitte's return brings mixed emotions

Even after a full day, I still have mixed emotions about seeing Andy Pettitte return to the New York Yankees.

I was in Pittsburgh watching Syracuse play in the NCAA tournament when I first heard the news about Pettitte’s un-retirement and I couldn’t have been happier. I was so excited that I vowed to be there for his first start back, regardless of the cost. But then Pettitte testified in the Roger Clemens trial, giving his friend a potential out by all of a sudden claiming there was a 50-50 chance he was mistaken about what Clemens told him, even though he was certain about what he heard the day before. All that excitement was gone in an instant, replaced with anger that Pettitte would bend the truth in such a way to save someone who doesn’t deserve to be saved.

Watching Pettitte pitch again on Sunday was by far the most confusing time. I refused to attend the game in person to support him because of what he said and did on the witness stand. And I wasn’t giving him a standing ovation at home either or cheering for him when he first took the mound. But just watching on television every time he got a batter out or induced a ground-ball double play, I felt the rush of positive emotions that I always felt watching him pitch during his glory days. It’s a classic case of old habits dying hard.

However, every warm feeling was always quickly followed by a reminder of how much damage Pettitte’s suddenly faulty memory did to the government’s case against Clemens. That has completed changed my opinion of Pettitte as a person, who once was one of my favorites largely because he seemed like such a good, honest guy. But he will now find himself, for me, in Alex Rodriguez territory, a baseball player I merely tolerate because the Yankees need him to do well if they are going to be successful.

While I will root for Pettitte to do well for the Yankees’ sake, he will no longer get my unconditional support as he had before. I just don’t think he deserves it anymore. 

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Hughes no longer in danger of becoming AJ Burnett

I was beginning to worry that Phil Hughes was becoming the new AJ Burnett for some New York Yankees fans looking for someone to boo and blame for the Bronx Bombers’ mediocre start. But Hughes put those concerns to rest with his gem of a start yesterday.  

With Andy Pettitte coming back to the Yankees today, it was extremely important for Hughes to remind the fans and quite frankly the organization about why they have so much invested in him as a starter. Hughes was on the verge of being shifted to the bullpen, sentenced to a baseball life as a middle reliever, as Joba Chamberlain has been despite his stunning debut in the American League in 2007. But his starting job now seems safe as Hughes delivered by far his best performance of the baseball season. Yes, it was against the Seattle Mariners, but he has been improving with each start and is headed in the right direction.

Hughes claimed he didn’t have his best stuff, but he spotted the baseball beautifully and took full advantage of an improved defense behind him (no longer having to worry about Eduardo Nunez making errors that blow up innings for him as the young shortstop was sent to the minor leagues to work on his defense). Hughes was so efficient that the Yankees finished off the Mariners in about 2 ½ hours. The main improvement has been in Hughes’ attitude, with his newfound aggressiveness leading to more success, which in turn breeds confidence.

Yankee fans don’t have Burnett to kick around anymore so I was worried they were starting to turn their negative attention on to Hughes, a kid who has shown flashes of promise, but has struggled to sustain it. But it looks like he is in the clear again when it comes to restless Yankee fans. All Hughes has to do is keep pitching well and he will hear his name being chanted instead of being booed. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

Robertson deserves shot to be king of the 9th

I had the pleasure of being at Yankee Stadium last night to enjoy CC Sabathia’s bulldog performance (thanks Titi China =). But I was completely shocked to see Rafael Soriano coming out of the bullpen to close CC’s gem in the 9th inning.

New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi has been steadfast in his desire to protect his relievers, refusing to let them pitch three days in a row, which should have meant both David Robertson and Rafael Soriano were unavailable. But there was Soriano on the mound in the 9th, as he was so many times for the Tampa Bay Rays before he left for the Yankees as a free agent.

Did Girardi simply not trust the game to a middle reliever such as Boone Logan? Perhaps. No doubt it was an important game, or as important as a baseball game can be in the second week of May, as the Yankees had to show the Rays that they can’t be pushed around in their own ballpark. But Girardi is a long-term thinker, choosing in the past to risk losing one game rather than making a move that could jeopardize the entire season for one of his players. I just hope that Girardi’s move to bring in Soriano instead of Robertson does not reflect a lack of confidence in Robertson’s ability to close.

Robertson has by far been the best reliever, other than Mariano Rivera, on the Yankees staff in recent years and he has earned a chance to succeed the great Mo. Sure, Robertson has had two very shaky outings in save situations since Mo went down, but anyone would be nervous trying to follow the greatest closer in baseball history.

D-Rob is never going be as smooth in the role as Mariano because no one else has Rivera’s poise. Robertson’s nickname is Houdini for good reason. He constantly finds himself in jams, sometimes of his own making, and then fascinates us with his ability to wiggle out of them. As Girardi jokingly said, Robertson doesn’t seem comfortable unless the bases are loaded.

But as Girardi also said, Mariano has been grooming Robertson to be his successor. And remember, Robertson probably thought he had another year to prepare for the closer’s job ahead of Mo’s supposedly impending retirement. All of a sudden, the kid was thrust into the spotlight. He just needs some time to shake the jitters and let his talent take over. 

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Mo's blood clot more scary than knee injury

I thought watching Mariano Rivera go down with that ACL injury was the scariest moment of the week. I was wrong. Hearing he has a blood clot is much, much worse.

Mo and I don’t have much in common, but sadly I’ve had a similar experience. About 4 ½ years ago, I went to my doctor with what I thought was a pulled muscle in my right leg, one that was preventing me from walking without severe pain. After examining my right calf, my doctor quickly determined that I had a blood clot and sent me to the hospital, where an MRI confirmed the frightening news. I spent the next five days in the hospital, scared and exhausted, before I was sent home with prescriptions for blood thinners, which I was forced to take for 7 ½ months.

The New York Yankees legendary closer will have to be on blood thinners until his clot dissolves and I sympathize with him because having to take that medication changes your whole way of life. I had to take a blood test once a week and constantly fill and refill prescriptions with the right level of blood thinners. Me being a Weight Watchers devotee, I had to adjust my diet to avoid large amounts of healthy foods such asparagus and broccoli because their Vitamin K levels can interfere with the way the medications work. I could not drink alcohol for more than seven months, including at an annual St. Patrick’s Day get together with my old colleagues where I sipped diet soda all night and was probably the only one in the bar with a non-alcoholic beverage.

But the worst part was constantly being afraid of a head injury, which could be fatal for people on blood thinners. I never left my doctor’s office without him reminding me that I should go straight to the hospital if I ever hit my head. I had a scary moment when I bumped my head after the bus I was on swerved unexpectedly. I was OK, but it was truly terrifying wondering how much time I had.

Recovering from his knee injury was going to be bad enough, but the blood clot will complicate Mo’s recovery even more. But I got through that awful situation and Mo will too. 

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

For Cole Hamels, honesty not the best policy

For Cole Hamels, honesty was definitely not the best policy.

Hamels’ candor about intentionally plunking Washington Nationals rookie phenom Bryce Harper earned him a five-game suspension. For me, the most surprising aspect of this whole situation is that it seems that people are criticizing Hamels for his honesty rather than actually hitting the kid. Nobody seems bothered by the fact that he had no good reason for plunking Harper, who got the best revenge by stealing home.

I must have missed the part when Cole Hamels was appointed keeper of the flame. It is not his job to try to return baseball to its glory days by plunking batters. Those days are over and for good reason in many ways. Hamels could have made the same point by throwing a pitch inside without hitting Harper. In that sense, I agree with Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, who called Hamels “gutless” and “fake tough.”

But I do give Hamels some credit in that he is a National League pitcher without the protection of the designated hitter so he knew hitting the kid would earn him his own hit by pitch, which Nationals pitcher Jordan Zimmermann quickly delivered. Hamels wasn’t doing a Roger Clemens impersonation, where Clemens hit guys left and right, including future New York Yankees teammate Derek Jeter, with impunity because he generally didn’t have a bat in his hand. Who could forget the one time the New York Mets try to retaliate and hit Clemens, with Shawn Estes missing the target completely.

But I’m disappointed that Bud Selig and Major League Baseball did not come down harder on Hamels. A five-game ban for a starting pitcher just pushes his next start back one day. To me, the punishment didn’t fit the crime because it should have been a longer ban, one that would have actually forced Hamels to see the error of his ways and served as a deterrent. But it sure put other pitchers on alert: if you hit a guy intentionally, it’s best just to lie about it because the truth will cost you.  

Thanks to Mel Rowling via Flickr for the Cole Hamels photo. 

Monday, May 7, 2012

Phil Hughes saves his job for now

With Andy Pettitte breathing down his neck, Phil Hughes had his best start of the baseball season.

Building on a promising outing five days ago, Hughes took command of the situation and the mound. He wasn’t unhittable and got careless (his word, not mine) with a pitch, giving up a home run to his final batter of the day. But he looked good on the mound, mixing in that elusive change-up to strike batters out left and right. His fastball was strong, hitting 95mph at times, and Hughes trusted it, which allowed him to go 6 2/3rd innings in his longest and by far his best start of the year.

With Pettitte coming back to the Bronx soon, perhaps as early as this weekend, Hughes needed to step up to save his job and he did. Of course, that only buys Hughes some time to prove that he deserves to stay in the rotation. A couple of bad outings by Hughes and David Phelps, likely to get demoted to the bullpen or the minors with Pettitte’s return, will quickly get a second look.   

The New York Yankees and particularly Brian Cashman have a lot invested in Hughes. They have to prove that they can develop a strong starter in their minor league system, something they haven’t really done since Pettitte. (Yes, they have Ivan Nova, but the Yankees didn’t know what they had in that kid, letting him go in the Rule 5 draft before he was eventually returned to the team). So they will give Hughes as many chances as possible to prove that he belongs in the rotation. But those chances will run out eventually so Hughes needs to keep doing what he did yesterday to stick.

I, for one, would like to see him do it. I still remember the kid that won 17 games as a starter in 2010 and provided the hope that for just once, the Yankees actually got it right. 

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Can't forgive Andy Pettitte's shady testimony

The terrible news about Mariano Rivera completely distracted me from an issue that had been bothering me for days: the suddenly faulty memory of Andy Pettitte, which I find incredibly shady.  

Mike Lupica, a writer who I’m normally not the hugest fan of most days, perfectly summed up my feelings in his column today. He basically called Pettitte a phony and made it clear that he cannot have it both ways, constantly expressing his faith in the Lord and then putting his hand on a bible and not telling the whole truth to save his old friend. Unfortunately, the damage of Pettitte’s testimony is done and Roger Clemens could get off scot-free because of it.

I was willing to forgive Pettitte’s use of human growth hormone because he was seemingly remorseful and honest about it, unlike other baseball players (Jason Giambi). But I can’t forgive him going on the witness stand and giving his old pal an out by all of a sudden not being sure about what he heard. For me, Pettitte now falls into the Alex Rodriguez category, a guy who I am forced to root for because the New York Yankees need him to do well. But I won’t be sad the next time Pettitte decides to retire.  

I was so excited about an Andy Pettitte comeback, pledging to do whatever it takes to be there for his first game back with the Yankees, but his testimony has left a sour taste in my mouth. Now I’ll just stay home.  

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Mariano Rivera's vow to return warms the heart

Mariano Rivera’s faith in God is completely unshakeable, even in the face of the devastating injury that ended his baseball season. So it’s no surprise that Mo has decided that God is going to give him the strength to return to the pitcher’s mound and end his career on his own terms.

Even the freak knee injury that made my heart stop, that was even worse than watching Derek Jeter writhing in excruciating pain on the Toronto turf with a dislocated shoulder, will not stop Mariano Rivera forever. The New York Yankees closer and future Hall of Famer vowed that he would come back from the injury, a vow that warms my heart because while I never wanted Mo to retire from baseball, an even worse fate would be to see his career end like this.

Rivera’s Yankee teammates, glum and depressed as they were on Thursday night, were cheered by his decision. They know him well enough to understand that if he says he is coming back, then he is coming back, end of discussion, nothing will keep him off the mound. Jeter even thinks it could happen this year, although that’s probably unrealistic. But the faith Jeter and Rivera have in each other after 20 years playing together in the majors and minors is unbreakable. On the day Jeter got his 3,000th hit, Rivera talked about wanting to see the Yankees shortstop hit a triple to achieve the elusive cycle. He believed Jeter would get that triple, just as Jeter has no doubts that his baseball brother will return to his rightful place closing games for the Yankees again.

I have no doubts either, even though I know the road back will be a long, hard one. But if anyone can navigate that difficult path, it’s Mo, with a little help from the God he completely believes in.   

Friday, May 4, 2012

Mariano's great career coming to a painful end?

After watching Mariano Rivera collapse on the Kansas City warning track in excruciating pain, one thought went racing through my mind over and over again: this isn’t happening. Unfortunately, it is.

Mo’s unmatchable career may be coming to a premature end after the future Hall of Famer tore his ACL before last night’s game. It was a fluke injury in every sense of the word, as Rivera is commonly known to be the New York Yankees best outfielder and has been shagging baseballs in the outfield before games for 20 years. For me, watching Mo crumple to the ground and writhe in obvious pain is by far the most upsetting thing I have ever seen on a ball field.

This is the kind of injury that shakes a team to its core and the Yankees have to figure out a way to recover, if they can. His teammates were obviously crushed, with even the normally stoic Derek Jeter looking watery-eyed at times. The two of them have played together forever. Jeter knew the truth about Rivera’s retirement plans (when few others did) and may have been preparing himself mentally and emotionally for losing Mo, but Jeter surely couldn’t have prepared himself for such a devastating accident.

And I felt so incredibly bad for Alex Rodriguez because you could tell he was personally devastated, not even able to talk about the terrifying moment when he saw Mo collapse out on the field. ARod said he and his teammates are going to have to find a way through this because no one would feel sorry for them. While ARod is right in the sense that nobody will take it easy on the Yankees, I truly doubt that anyone in baseball was happy to see such a great man fall.

The most heartbreaking moment for me was Rivera’s press conference after the game when he said he would not leave his team because he wanted to make sure his guys were okay, and then he unsuccessfully fought back tears talking about how he let his teammates down. I couldn’t help but cry myself, knowing that one thing Mo has never done is let his teammates or Yankee fans down. He may have blown a save here or there, but he always gave his best effort and bounced back the next day, ready to save yet another game. Mo couldn’t disappoint anyone if he tried.

I’ve known in my heart that we would soon have to prepare for life without Mo. I just didn’t expect to see a Hall of Fame career come to a close in such a painful way. But even if it does, I’m incredibly grateful for everything Mo has done for the Yankees and us fans. I hope he understands that we know we will never see another like him and we know how lucky we are to have had him, even if the time we had together has come to an unfortunate, early end. 

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Is Pettitte trying to save his pal Clemens?

Andy Pettitte is a deeply religious man, a fact about his life he has no problem sharing with anyone who asks. So I have to hope that he didn’t put his hand on the Bible, swear to tell the truth and then lie to protect his old friend Roger Clemens.

On cross-examination, Pettitte said that he might have misunderstood Clemens when he thought his mentor and work-out partner told him about using human growth hormone. Pettitte went as far as to call a defense lawyer’s statement that there is a 50-50 chance of a misunderstanding “fair.” That answer is a huge blow to the prosecution’s case because it could discredit the testimony of its most reliable witness, with the judge now considering a motion to dismiss Pettitte’s entire testimony.

Pettitte’s suddenly faulty memory seems incredibly suspicious to me. Prior to his testimony yesterday, he has never given any indication that he had doubts about what Clemens told him. I would imagine that the prosecutors would have grilled him endlessly on this particular point since it’s so crucial to their case. But the prosecution has already seriously screwed up this case before, leading to that quick mistrial last year, so it’s not completely unbelievable that they didn’t make sure Pettitte was 100% certain about what he said Clemens told him before putting Pettitte on the stand.

I don’t think Pettitte would tell an outright lie about what Clemens told him, but even opening the door that widely to the possibility that he is wrong could help keep his pal out of prison. Pettitte is smart enough to know about reasonable doubt and this is just the kind of information that could give the jury the opportunity to set Clemens free.

It seems like Pettitte’s part in this legal drama may be coming to an end, which would allow him to try to regain momentum in his efforts to return to the New York Yankees. But the full ramifications of his testimony and the possibility of another player getting away with breaking the rules are enormous for the game of baseball. However, I’m fairly sure none of that entered Pettitte’s mind when he swore to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help him God.   

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Pettitte may be final nail in Clemens' coffin

Roger Clemens was almost called a liar yesterday by a government witness. Andy Pettitte then stepped up to try to prove how much of a liar Clemens is.

Taking an unwelcome detour from his comeback attempt, Pettitte was in a Washington, DC courtroom yesterday testifying against his old pal, who is accused of committing perjury during the notorious Congressional hearings on the use of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball. Pettitte testified that during an off-season workout in Texas, Clemens told him he used human growth hormone and that it helped him with recover from the grueling exercise regimens Clemens was known to subject his body to, a conversation that set the stage for Pettitte’s own bad decision to use HGH.

This is the conversation Clemens claimed Pettitte “misremembered,” a claim that has been endlessly mocked since Clemens made it. But I doubt that many people believe Clemens’ version more than Pettitte’s recollection of the conversation, especially after a Congressional staffer testified that he had serious questions about the truthfulness of Clemens’ answers in front of the legislature. Of course, what matters most is what the jury believes and we will have to wait to see this trial play out before we know for sure what the jurors are thinking, although they seem obviously bored by the whole process at times.

It seems clear that this was a rather painful and uncomfortable experience for Pettitte, who would surely much rather be focusing on baseball, but was put in this predicament by a stubborn Clemens. But despite his religious upbringing, Pettitte is no saint either. He used HGH to try to recover more quickly from injuries so he could return to his team as soon as possible. While some may consider that noble, Pettitte knew that it was wrong. He testified yesterday that he wished he had never done it and would not find himself in a courtroom instead of on a baseball field if he had not taken HGH. It may be the one thing in his life that Pettitte would do over again if he could.

Whenever Pettitte is ready to return to the big leagues, there is no question that he can help the New York Yankees’ unsteady starting rotation. Even Buck Showalter, a former Yankees manager now running the division rival Baltimore Orioles, thinks Pettitte’s return is great for the Yankees and bad for everyone else. But Pettitte has to get through the extremely unpleasant experience of helping the government put his old friend in prison. I just hope Pettitte can find comfort in the fact that he is telling the truth and the entire situation is out of his hands. 

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Andy Pettitte ready to return to the big leagues

Despite getting back-to-back strong outings from CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda, the New York Yankees have to be thrilled with the prospect of Andy Pettitte’s imminent return to the big leagues.

Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman must be especially pleased. The short stints by his starters has forced Girardi to go to his bullpen early and often, potentially undermining what to date has been the Yankees greatest strength: strong relief work led by Mariano Rivera and David Robertson. And Cashman will feel vindicated by a Pettitte return, considering his Michael Pineda trade has not worked out the way he hoped (still the right move as far as I’m concerned).

Phil Hughes is up tonight and there’s no question that he absolutely needs a strong start. Freddy Garcia has already been banished to the bullpen and Hughes may join him if he doesn’t recover from his perplexing start against the Texas Rangers. Of course, one good start might not save his job, but at this point, it could definitely help.

Pettitte has pronounced himself ready although the Yankees will likely tread more cautiously. No one is expecting Pettitte to pitch lights out every turn in the rotation. But the wise old man (at a mere 39 years old) will immediately calm the nerves of everyone in the Yankees universe. We don’t know if Pettitte is going to have the same stuff considering his year-long pitching sabbatical. But we know he is going to show the same heart and bulldog mentality on the mound that we’re used to seeing, something the Yankees are desperately in need of right now.