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LAST WORD ON LIEBER:

LAST WORD ON LIEBER: JOE G GIVES HIS BLESSING

When former Yankee catcher, Joe Girardi speaks, Yankee fans should listen. Joel Sherman reports that Joe G thinks the Bombers did the right thing in signing Jon Lieber, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery:


Girardi, a Yankee from 1996-99 and Lieber’s catcher as a Cub the past three seasons, told a pitcher who had spent his career in the Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Cub organizations that he “would love every minute of it because of the drive to be the best.”

Lieber accepted the counsel, signing a two-year, $3.3 million free-agent contract that could escalate to $16.55 million over three years if the righty earns every incentive.

But Girardi predicted Lieber would be with the Yanks by July 1, saying “George [Steinbrenner] always uses the word warrior and he got a warrior in Jon Lieber. He’s going to come back quicker than most people.”

Girardi likened Lieber to Wells, explaining, “You don’t think he is going to be ready. But he is almost a freak like Wells with that kind of strong back and broad shoulders, and there he is on the mound ahead of everyone else.”

Also like Wells, Lieber throws strikes and, Girardi said, “is a joy to play behind because he works so quickly and goes after hitters.”

Unlike Wells, Girardi calls Lieber, “incredibly humble. He hates talking about himself. If he pitches a great game, he credits the catcher, and if he pitches poorly he blames himself. He was a great teammate. He has the makeup to be a great Yankee.”

“This is not a big monetary commitment for a pitcher with a potential high ceiling, especially when you consider the very high success rate now with this kind of surgery,” Cashman said.

SALIERI’S NEXT MOVEMENT?

One day, there will be books written about the current Yankee Dynasty; there will be books that cover the Mets, and their relationship to the Yankee team, too. Perhaps the 1995-2002 run won’t inspire the volume of writing that the Bronx Zoo Era, and the Amazin Mets of the 80′s did, but we can expect the exploits of Bernie, and Fonzie, Piazza, Jeter and Paul O’Neill to be given their just due some day. The recent crop of Yankee players may not be as wild, irreverent or quotable, as the som’bitches of yesteryear, but they’ve been more successful on the field.

Since the middle of 1997, the Yankees and Mets rivalry has been comically represented by the various fortunes of the two Italian guys from the Tri-State Area: Joe Torre and Bobby Valentine. Now, with Bobby V fired, and Art Howe taking his place, the Mets are sure to experience a drastic change in personality.

But back to Valentine for a moment. His time in New York constitutes a memorable chapter in the history of the Mets and the Yanks. For every good break Torre received, Valentine seemingly got a bad one. I can’t tell you how many times over the years I turned away from a Mets game when something awful went wrong (uh-hum, Armando), just to tune in to the Yankee game just in time for some late-inning horseshit magic.

Torre, sure of himself, settled, reserved, has been the antithesis of Valentine, who is combative, and bold—alternatively unctuous and charming. I always had the feeling that Valentine still thought of himself as the super-prospect whose career was derailed, unjustly, horribly, by the leg injury in California. He never seemed to be over the fact that he never made it as a player. Or maybe he was but he managed with vindictive, almost paranoid energy. A young man’s energy. Known as a top-step manager, I always got the feeling that Valentine was cock-blocking his players.

The STATS Inc. 2002 Scouting Book report on Valentine put it bluntly:


Little changed regarding Bobby Valentine and his massive ego. Although his confrontations with others were minimal last season, he remains perhaps the most disliked skipper in the game. Nevertheless, Valentine played a crucial role in his team’s comeback during the final six weeks, despite going to battle with a popgun offense that ranked 15th in batting average in the National League.

Compare that with their assessment of Saint Joe:


Torre relies on his players more than his scouting report or stats. He often lamented last year about the information overload that exists when some players try to use technology instead of common sense. Torre has as much sense as any manager in the game, and will continue to manage well as long as the Boss provides him with the horses.

Watching the Mets lose in spite of his best efforts, while the Yankees did everything but fall ass-backwards into victory, I couldn’t help but think of Bobby Valentine cast as Salieri to Joe Torre’s Amadeus. Only Mozart isn’t a genius boy wonder, and it’s not his peerless talent that set him apart. Joe Torre’s Mozart would be played by Abe Vigoda or maybe Paul Sorvino: The Lifer, The Sage, A Real Brooklyn Joe. It was Torre’s peerless good fortune, mixed with competence and patience that have made him a success.

But Bobby V was the young stud, who had excelled in so many things so earlier—he was an outstanding football player, a terrific dancer, and also once won a pancake-eating contest. Valentine has been compared with other strategists like Gene Mauch, Tony LaRussa and Buck Showalter. He’s Mozart and Salieri all wrapped up in one. With a hint of Billy Martin thrown in for flavor.

I noticed the similarities between Valentine and Salieri in Pauline Kael’s review of Milos Forman’s 1985 film:


Salieri, who has worked hard at his music, been a servile courtier, and achieved fame and high position, is envious of Mozart’s incredible talent…At first, its quite funny when the slimy-smooth Salieri complains that his exertions–his always doing the proper thing, studying, going to church—he seems to expect God to give him exact value for every prayer he has ever delivered. (He’s like a kid saying to Mommy, “I was always a good boy and ate my spinach and did my homework, but you love my brother more than you love me–and he uses dirty words and chases girls.”) Salieri thinks that because he suffers so much he should be a genius.

As written for the screen, the big, showy role of Salieri seems to be an impossible one (he has too many schemes)…But Abraham’s intensity has a theatrical charge to it in the glances that tell us what’s going on under Salieri’s polite smiles…Abraham is a wizard at eager, manic, full-of-life roles, and he gives Salieri a cartoon animal’s obsession with Mozart—he’s Wile E. Coyote.

Valentine was back in the news this weekend, having turned down a analyst job at ESPN. According to Bob Raissman in Sunday’s Daily News:


The gang from Bristol, interested in hiring Bobby V to replace Buck Showalter in its “Baseball Tonight” studio, offered him a three-year contract. Included in the offer was a stipulation that probably was the first of its kind by a network looking to sign a former manager or player.

If Valentine decided to bolt for a manager’s job at some point during the life of the proposed contract, he’d have to pay a monetary penalty to ESPN.

Whether this unusual clause prevented Valentine and ESPN from reaching an agreement is unclear. Valentine told friends at last weeks’ Baseball Assistance Team dinner he wasn’t sure what he will be doing this coming baseball season.

“It might just be I’ll have my first summer off in 33 years,” Valentine said.

SHEA REY

There were a couple of articles on the Mets’ super-prospect Jose Reyes over the weekend in the local papers. On Saturday, the Times reported:


Jose Reyes was the first player Fred Wilpon sought out today when the Mets’ bus finally arrived at their complex here
[in the Dominican Republic]. Wilpon would address a group of players the Mets are training here, but Reyes was the one Mets executives were here to see.

…Reyes, 19, realizes the Mets have set up their shortstop job to be his before the end of the season, and meeting him was among the objectives of the delegation of team executives that spent 24 hours bouncing across dusty roads in the southern part of this country.

Team executives also visited closer Armando Benitez’s ranch and baseball stadium Wednesday, met for four hours that night at a beach resort to discuss improving player development and building a facility here, and spent most of today on a bus between tours of a local baseball academy and a university that has proposed starting an education program for Mets players. Then they visited the team’s current field for its Dominican program.

A photograph accompanies the article, which shows Reyes, in shorts—sunglasses resting on the bill on his cap—taking batting practice. A switch hitter, the photo captures Reyes from the left side; at first glance, the following through, the form doesn’t look unlike Junior Griffey. There are four Mets executives in the background, casually dressed, monitoring the session.

It took me a few moments to recognize that Art Howe was one of the blurred figures in the background. He is standing a few feet away from the other execs—which included Steve Phillips—hands clasped behind his back, shoulders drooped slightly. He looks strong in his passivity; reflective, observant. The papers in New York have already made the comparisons between Howe’s hands-off approach and the laid-back success Joe Torre has enjoyed. It is an easy analogy, but a fitting one. What stuck me about the photograph isn’t how much Howe looked like Torre but how much he didn’t look like Bobby Valentine.

He doesn’t have to be Joe Torre to have a Joe Torre effect.

On Sunday, Michael Morrissey filed an article on Reyes too:


“He’s a young, hungry kid with a very captivating smile that just embraces you,” former Double-A Binghamton manager Howie Freiling said.

…Scouts still believe Reyes will grow into his frame – if he hasn’t stopped growing yet. He’s added an inch or two since September. Offensively, he still needs to improve his on-base percentage and become a more lethal bunter. Defensively, he must cut down on his occasionally erratic throws.

But can he help the Mets in 2003?

“There’s the million-dollar question,” Freiling said. “Let me say this right off the bat: I’m dodging it.

“But clearly, irrefutably, he has both the physical and mental tools to be a major league ballplayer soon. Do they want to rush the kid and watch his growing pains?

“Sure, he can play there next year. Would it be better for Jose to start at Triple-A and develop and get more seasoning? That’s the question.”

ALL TOGETHER NOW

The Mets have invoked the spirit of the Yankees quite convincingly this off-season, not to mention some of their ex-players. Whether it’s intentional or not—and I can’t believe it’s pure coincidence, it’s there. Joining Mike Stanton, David Weathers, Rey Sanchez, Al Lieter, and even bench-coach Don Baylor, is former Yankee reliever, Graeme Llyod., who was signed to a minor league contract by the Mets Friday.

According to Newsday:


Graeme Lloyd joined the Mets Friday as a kindred spirit. He feels like a New Yorker, having enjoyed his time with the Yankees. He is close friends with some of the Mets’ relievers. Most of all, like most of the Mets, he believes he has nowhere to go but up.

“I’m at a loss as to why the Mets played as they did last year,” the 35-year-old lefthanded reliever said. “But this year is a new year. As a player who hasn’t done well, I certainly feel I’ve got a lot left, and I want to redeem myself.”

He said his body has “recovered from a hectic last two years, you might say.” It was a passing reference to his rough road since the Yankees sent him to the Toronto Blue Jays in the February 1999 deal for Roger Clemens. Lloyd missed the 2000 season because of rotator cuff surgery – at the same time he was mourning the death of his wife, Cindy, 27, to Crohn’s disease.

In an interview during spring training in 2001, he said it helped that he could concentrate on his work: “Whatever you’ve got, you’ve just got to give.”

The Mets, in announcing the signing, mentioned his 0.00 career postseason ERA (13 games, eight innings). They hope it does not become an irrelevant statistic.

FRED, SANDY, TOM GLAVINE, AND AL

I sure hope that Al Leiter and Tom Glavine can remain healthy this year because they would be one of the more appealing 1-2 combos—or book-ends of a top three—New York has seen in a few seasons. Certainly the most quotable. With Glavine, living on the outside part of the plate, and then Leiter busting you in on the hands with the hard, heavy stuff, they’d compliment each other nicely. Leiter and Glavine are like a two-headed incarnation of David Cone. Leiter is demonstrative, and emotional—all schoolyard—on the mound; affable and easy with the media. Glavine is the calm, poised professional, and a big union man to boot. Put them together and you get a riff on our old friend Coney.
Leiter makes a brief appearance in Jane Leavy’s new book, “Sandy Koufax:”


Now, [Koufax] mentors informally–showing up at the Mets spring training camp in Port St. Lucie to help Wilpon’s team, and of course, at Dodgertown, eschewing face-time for distant mounds where he works with young pitchers. In this way, Koufax is not unlike Milt Gold, Milt Laurie, and Milt “Pop” Secol, Brooklyn men, coaches, who volunteered their time to help other men’s sons realize their potential. This is where he can be a baseball player again…and a teacher. “You should be better,” he told Al Leiter one day after observing him in spring training. “I know,” Leiter replied.

A couple of days later, Wilpon passed on Koufax’s telephone number and a message: “Call anytime.” Leiter was honored and astonished, unsure what he had done to merit the attention. Unlike so many self-satisfied players, Leiter wanted to get better. As Koufax likes to say, When a pupil is ready, a teacher will come.

One night, not long after, Leiter returned home after pitching eight shutout innings to find a message from Koufax on his answering machine: “Way to go. Great job. But when you’ve got him set up for the outside corner, you gotta nail it.” And then he hung up.

Although Tom Glavine doesn’t throw nearly as hard as Koufax did, he has made his reputation living on the outside corner, and he will one day join Koufax in Cooperstown. Here is more from Leavy:


No matter what the scouting reports said, Koufax would pitch his game. He believed in cultivating his fastball, working it the way a farmer works the land. Little by little, he would expand the strike zone, training the umpire to see its dimensions his way. By game’s end, he’d get that strike call on the outside corner. He told Torborg, “Sit in the middle of the plate and if I starting hitting your glove, then we’ll move to the corners.

…Koufax believed in the outside corner of the plate the way some people believe in reincarnation. It was a tenet of his faith that anyone who can put a fastball on the outside corner of the plate 85 percent of the time can win fifteen games in the major leagues. He never believed in just getting a pitcher over, everyone one had a purpose. Throwing strikes? Overrated dogma. Challenging a power hitter inside? Macho posturing. His job was to train the home plate umpire to define the strike zone as he saw it, expanding it inch by inch, inning by inning, cajoling him into giving a little more, and then a little more. When finally, he had a batter where he wanted him, leaning out over the plate, he’d come inside–and then go outside again. “You pitch outside, you throw inside,” he liked to say.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver