"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Monthly Archives: April 2006

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Soporific Saturday Slaughter

A beautiful day did not make for a beautiful game. Actually, Saturday’s ballgame was often tedious, though there was some upper deck excitement provided by Johnny “Double Dutch” Damon, Jason Giambi and Jorge Posada. The slumping Alex Rodriguez made a great backhanded catch (it’s funny, Rodriguez is clearly in a funk at the plate and yet his numbers are still respectable–he was 0-4 yesterday but scored three runs and had an RBI) as the offense crushed Toronto pitching.

Final score: Yanks 17, Jays 6.

The most alarming moment of the game came when Gary Sheffield collided with first baseman Shea Hillenbrand. Both went down hard, with Sheff staying down longer. At first I thought, “Oh, God, his right shoulder.” But according to the early reports, Sheff has a bruised right knee and banged up both of his wrists. It was a scary moment though. Oh yeah, and Randy Johnson got beat about the face and neck again by the Jays. This time, he was bailed out, but it was another underwhelming outing for the Big Unit against Toronto.

Otherwise, the game was a snoozer, perfect time for Yankee fans to take a mid-afternoon nap without fear of waking up suddenly in a panic. The Blue Jays could simply not throw strikes, almost every count went deep and the Bombers scored runs in all eight innings they came to bat, only the second time in team history that they’ve accomplished that feat (the first was back in 1939).

They played deep enough into the afternoon for the shadows to become a factor in the last couple of innings. The intense spring light against the grass is just different enough from the more mellow, autumn light–and the shadows they create–to really give you a sense of time and place.

Mr. Chacin goes against Mr. Moose this afternoon, another drop-dead gorgeous day here in the Bronx. Our man, Cliff Cocoran will be on hand, drinking it all in.

Go get ‘em Moose.

Beautifical Day for Ball in the Bronx (ain’t it?)

It is a sterling spring day here in New York as Randy Johnson goes against the Blue Jays this afternoon. Really, not a cloud in the sky, sunny, but breezy, in the low sixties. It’ll be chilly later on. Of course, the Big Unit was served by the Blue Jays last week in Toronto. They just pounded him. Let’s see what he has for them this time around. The Yankee offense has sputtered for the past three games. How much longer can that happen?

Let’s Go Yan-Kees.

Howe Come (Bernie)?

The news of Steve Howe’s unpleasant death hovered over Friday night’s game, didn’t it? Michael Kay didn’t exactly go out of his way to say anything flattering about Howe, who was probably a real hard-on to a guy like Kay in the clubhouse. Or any repoter, for that matter. Joel Sherman was on Channel Nine later on and he too painted Howe as this hyper-active, amped-up nut. I’m sure this is was true–that Howe was what the Brits call the “c” word to the writers. But he was evidentally appreciated by some of his teammates, including none other than Gentle Ben, Bernie Williams. According to Filip Bondy in the Daily News:

He didn’t always tell people the truth, and that probably included himself. But Howe made memories in New York, was a real character with real character flaws. Bernie Williams talked yesterday about exactly that – how Howe was wacky in the clubhouse, dead serious on the mound.

“He’d do anything for his teammates,” Williams said. “He tried to keep us loose in the clubhouse. He was a prankster. He took me under his wing.”

It is hard to imagine how a wild personality like Howe would be something of a mentor for a steady, straight-arrow star like Williams. But Howe was like that. He could be extremely helpful, amiable. He also just happened to be in trouble, almost all the time.

Great to hear that Howe played the mentor to Bernie. That is a great pairing to imagine, right? I never really disliked Howe, who was an effective part of those Buck Showalter-Stick Michael rebuilding teams. Talk about a presence. Howe came across like one of those nutzo spaz performances by James Woods, or the guy Mel Gibson played in “Lethal Weapon.” But had more of a Jim Bouton-square face. He was uncomfortably wound-up. All sweaty and on-the-edge, ready to burst. I don’t think he was altogether unappealing, but man was he volatile. If he didn’t like you it must have been brutal. It’s nice to know he had an warm side. Howe is possibly hilarious from a distance, but if you found Howe amusing at all, it is because you enjoy laughing nervously. Or if you liked Howe it is also because you probably just sympathized with his kind of schlimazzel. But as troubled as he was, he left Yankee fans with compelling memories, on and off the field. It’s too bad that his story ended sadly, but it sure doesn’t come as a surprise.

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Mismatch

On paper, last night’s Roy Halladay-Jaret Wright matchup screamed landslide victory for the Blue Jays. As it turns out, the Jays won 7-2, but the game was far closer than that score indicates.

Jaret Wright allowed a two-run home run to Frank Catalanotto before getting an out in the first, but then held the Jays scoreless through five innings, thanks in part to four double plays turned by the Yankee defense. Not that he pitched all that well. He walked four and struck out none, throwing just 52 percent of his pitches for strikes. Wright left in the sixth with two men on and none out. Scott Proctor came on and got away with a hanging curve to Troy Glaus only to have another to Shea Hillenbrand leave the park to make it 5-0. Much like Wright, Proctor settled down from there to pitch two more scoreless frames, though through more of his own doing, striking out two, walking none, and throwing 69 percent of his pitches for strikes. The Hillenbrand homer was the only hit Proctor allowed in three full innings of work.

Roy Halladay, meanwhile, kept the Yankees off the board entirely through five and a third, despite throwing just 55 percent of 99 pitches for strikes. Scott Schoeneweis came on to face lefties Giambi and Matsui, but walked Matsui and then surrendered Bernie Williams first home run since August 26 of last year (184 plate appearances ago). The home run was just Bernie’s second extra base hit since September 7 of last year (151 PAs ago). Williams’ next at-bat came with two outs in the eighth with the Yanks down 5-3 and runners on the corners and ended in a 5-4-3 double play that was aided by first base umpire Bruce Dreckman, who called Bernie out despite the fact that he was clearly safe.

Joe Torre then handed the ball to Tanyon Sturtze, who, after getting Lyle Overbay to ground out, gave up another Hillenbrand homer, a Bengie Molina single, an Alexis Rios double (oddly the red hot Rios did not start the game), and a sac fly by Aaron Hill that put the game out of reach.

Today, the script is flipped as Randy Johnson, who has been outstanding in four of his five starts (the one exception being a very off night in Toronto last week), takes on Josh Towers, who is 0-4 with an 8.35 ERA after four starts. Here’s hoping the results are similarly reversed.

Blue Jays Vol. II

Tonight, the Yankees open a three-game weekend series with the Blue Jays in the Bronx. These two teams last met in Toronto just over a week ago, splitting a two-game “series” due to radically disperate performances by Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina. Not much has changed about this Blue Jay team in the interim. The only change to their roster is that A.J. Burnett (hereafter known as the Canadian Pavano) is back on the DL and has been replaced in the rotation by hot prospect Casey Janssen, who was drafted out of UCLA in 2004. Burnett did not pitch against the Yankees last week and Janssen will not pitch in this weekend’s series, so for all the Yankees will know, this team is unaltered.

They have shuffled the line-up however, primarily because of Alexis Rios, who at 25 appears to finally be living up to his early hype. Rios was rushed to the majors at age 23 after just 185 unimpressive triple-A at-bats and has struggled mightily the past two seasons to the point that he was supposed to platoon in right field this year with twice displaced former Rookie of the Year Eric Hinske. Poor Eric.

What’s been most startling about Rios thus far is his power. Rios had just 31 professional homers coming into this season and no more than 11 in any single season at any level, or combination of levels. Thus far, in 18 games he’s homered six times and is hitting .368/.375/.772. Certainly he’s not that good, but a month into the season, he doesn’t appear to be cooling off very much, having gone 3 for 4 with a homer against the Orioles on Wednesday. Last week in two games against the Yankees, Rios went 3 for 7 with a homer, two doubles, four RBIs and two runs scored (doing most of that damage against Randy Johnson whom he’s now 6 for 11 against career with three extra base hits). You just can’t keep that kind of production in the eighth spot, so Rios moves up to second in the order, pushing Frank Catalanotto (or Reed Johnson) into the lead-off spot, and dropping Russ Adams down to his vacated eighth spot. The result looks like this:

L – Frank Catalanotto (LF)
R – Alexis Rios (RF)
R – Vernon Wells (CF)
R – Troy Glaus (3B)
L – Lyle Overbay (1B)
R – Shea Hillenbrand (DH)
R – Bengie Molina (C)
L – Russ Adams (SS)
R – Aaron Hill (2B)

The man who will try to stop some version of that lineup tonight will be Jaret Wright. Wright is making just his second start of the year in addition to a lone relief appearance, both of those prior outings having ended badly. Wright claims that the long rest and excitement about finally getting on the mound caused him to overthrow against the Twins two weeks ago. We’ll see if he’s able to dial it down a bit tonight. He’ll certainly shock the pants off of everyone watching if he is. Making matters worse, his mound opponent is Blue Jay ace Roy Halladay. Halladay hasn’t been his dominant self yet this season, and was even skipped two turns ago due to stiffness in his pitching forearm, but still comes into the Bronx sporting a 3.60 ERA, which should be more than enough to outpitch Jaret Wrong.

A couple quick line-up notes: Kelly Stinnett will catch Wright tonight so that Posada can catch Johnson in tomorrow’s day game. Johnny Damon is back in the field, as is Bernie, who will play right for tonight’s DH, Gary Sheffield.

Yanks Win a Close One

Shawn Chacon and Mark Hendrickson, last night’s two junk ball starters, were both effective with plenty of the soft stuff. Joey Gathright made a sterling play in the bottom of the first inning to snatch a home run away from Gary Sheffield. However, an error later in the game by Tampa Bay’s third baseman Russell Branyan paved the way for the slumping Hideki Matsui, who came through with the winning hit for the Bombers–a seeing-eye single that was reminiscent of Luis Sojo’s ground ball in Game 5 of the 2000 World Serious. After a horribly frustrating night for the New Yorkers, the home team prevailed, 4-2. Derek Jeter had three hits himself and is now batting over .400. The bullpen performed well and this was just the kind of win the Yankees needed, wouldn’t you say?

Like Rubbah

The three-game series is baseball’s perfect package. It exposes enough of each team’s pitching to prevent any single hurler from dominating the competition, but doesn’t go on so long as to overstay is welcome. Five games may not be enough for a postseason series, but they are way too many for a regular-season confrontation, particularly when a team such as the 2006 Royals, Orioles, Mariners or Devil Rays is involved. Two games are unrewarding, over too fast and often without exposing the true nature of the teams involved. Baseball is a game for people who savor the moment and chew their food before swallowing. Until recently it wasn’t uncommon for teams to have two games scheduled on the same day. A two-game “series” is as big an affront to the game as artificial turf (which may be why the Yankees always seem to play two against Toronto). Four games are fun for marquee matchups, such as when the Red Sox come to town, but the possibility of a 2-2 series split just doesn’t belong in a game that refuses to end in a tie. Indeed, it’s the fact that a three-game series must have a winner that, above all else, makes it baseball’s ideal regular season sample size.

Tonight, the Yankees play their third rubber game of the year, having previously dropped their first in Oakland and won their second this past Sunday against the Orioles. I guess that makes it something of a rubber rubber game. At any rate, they’ll be digging in against lefty Mark Hendrickson, who needed just 106 pitches to hurl a three-hit, one-walk shutout against the O’s in his first start, but has been on the DL with tendonitis in his pitching shoulder ever since.

Last year, Hendrickson made a whopping five starts against the Yankees, posting an ERA more than a full run better than his overall mark. As one might expect from a 6’9″ lefty, Hendrickson is murder on fellow southpaws (career .225 GPA), but he’s rather useless against right-handed hitters, who hit him to the tune of .312/.356/.504. Taking a closer look at his five starts against the Yanks last year, he gave up at least four runs in four of them, but only once gave up as many as five. He also lasted a minimum 6 2/3 innings in four of those starts, pitching a full five in the one exception. That surprisingly consistent, and suggests that, if Hendrickson is fully healthy and on his game coming off the DL, Shawn Chacon will have to do his part tonight.

Chacon, meanwhile, is coming off a tremendously lucky outing against the Orioles in which he held the O’s to one run over seven innings due almost entirely to a .182 opponent’s average on balls in play. Prior to that, Chacon had racked up a representative 8.03 ERA across two disappointing starts and a pair of ugly relief outings. Here’s hoping he gets a few lucky bounces tonight.

Dervish

Speaking of Roger Angell, after going to hear David Maraniss talk about his new book on Roberto Clemente last night, I was reminded of Angell’s description of Clemente in the 1971 World Serious. Maraniss spoke about Clemente’s game going deeper than what the numbers can tell us, and I don’t think he meant it as a cop-out. It was meant it as a way of describing somebody whose very body language was memorable–all of a piece. “Sensations” was the term Maraniss used and Clemente certainly made the country take notice with his performance–on the bases, in the field and at the plate–in that Serious (by the way, for what it is worth, Maraniss believes that Clemente would have been a fine player today, and he compared him to two other athletes of that era whose games suggested something timeless–Gayle Sayers and Earl Monroe).

Before Game 7, Clemente told Angell, “I want everybody in the world to know that this is the way I play all the time. All season, every season. I gave everything I had to this game.” The final game hadn’t begun yet, when Angell, summing-up the first six games, wrote:

And then too, there was the shared experience, already permanently fixed in memory, of Roberto Clemente playing a kind of baseball that none of us had ever seen before–throwing and running and hitting at something close to the level of perfection, playing to win but also playing the game as if it were a form of punishment for everyone else on the field.

Now, that’s a sensation.

Oy

Talk about a night to forget in the Bronx. The Devil Rays set a dubious team record issuing fourteen walks, but the Yankees only managed to score two lousy runs (how’s the old blood pressure, Yankee fans?). The Bombers stranded sixteen men on base. The two teams combined for nine stolen bases, but poor base running cost New York. In the end, the Rays rallied against Mariano Rivera in the tenth and won the game, 4-2. Gary Sheffield grounded out with the bases loaded to end the game.

Sam Borden reports in the Daily News:

Despite the unsightly performance, Joe Torre wasn’t angry. Asked to explain how a lineup of All-Stars could miss on so many chances to break out against a mediocre pitching staff, the manager simply nodded to the baseball gods.

“There is just no explaining it,” he said. “The quality of the at-bats was there. Nobody gave anything away. You scratch your head sometimes over how things happen but you know there’s nothing you can do. I can’t find fault with anything but the result.”

As Roger Angell once wrote–trying to describe how the Orioles swept the once mighty Dodgers in the 1966 Fall Classic–”the only explanation must be that baseball is still the most difficult, and thus the most unpredictable and interesting, of all professional sports.” Look for the Bombers’ bats to bounce back tonight.

Everybody Wang-McClung Tonight

Worst. Headline. Ever.

Meanwhile, duck and cover tonight folks. The one team Chien-Ming couldn’t solve last year was the D-Rays, against whom he posted a 6.94 ERA across four starts. Aside from one ugly start against the eventual NL Central Champion Cardinals that lasted a mere four innings, his work against the Rays was by far his worst aggregate performance against any single team in his rookie season. Underlining that fact, the Devil Rays were the only team other than the Cardinals to collect more than a hit per inning off of Wang. Distressingly, they were also the team he faced the most last year, as he didn’t face any other single team as many as three times. Sadly, Wang’s performance thus far this year doesn’t suggest that his fortunes are about to change, though the B-squad line-up the Rays are running out there due to injuries to Huff, Lugo, and Cantu (day-to-day with a bruised foot) could help.

All of that said, there’s something curious about Wang’s four starts thus far this season. One would expect him to do poorly on turf as the groundballs he induces are more likely to speed through the infield for hits. Indeed, it would seem that’s partially to blame for his struggles against the Rays last year (though he did just as poorly against them in the Bronx). But Wang’s one dominant outing this year came on the Metrodome turf. That start also saw his lowest single-game groundball-flyball ratio of the year (1.75 compared to a typical 3.14 in his first two starts combined and a staggering 14.00 in his most recent outing), in combination with his highest strikeout total (eight Ks versus five total in his other three outings combined). Perhaps the solution to Wang’s early-season struggles isn’t getting the ball down, but actually getting away from thinking groundball all the time and making more of an effort to go for the strikeout, even if it means going high in the zone to blow one of his mid-90s heaters past a hitter.

For his part, the hard-throwing McClung has been godawful this year save for one solid, but unimpressive outing against the Royals. The Yanks feasted on him last year and he has a 14.00 ERA in nine career innings against the Bombers, all of which suggests that Wang might have some room to experiment tonight.

Bubba Crosby gets his first start of the year tonight, batting ninth and playing center in place of DH Johnny Damon. Encouragingly, Bernie continues to ride pine. For the Rays, Crawford is expected back tonight, Cantu remains questionable, and Edwin Jackson has already been send down in favor of tomorrow’s starter Mark Hendrickson.

Slow, Slower…

Last week, Buster Olney wrote about how Mike Mussina has been making like Greg Maddux and throwing his soft stuff even slower. Today, Tom Verducci gives us more insight into why Moose has been so successful this spring:

“I threw in an intrasquad game in spring training,” Mussina said. “People were like, ‘Why are you pitching in an intrasquad game?’ Really, the only reason why I did was that you back everything up from the start of the season, counting five days between starts, and five days before my first spring training start happened to be a day when we had an intrasquad game.

“So I’m pitching in this intrasquad game and [Jorge] Posada is up. The count is 3 and 2 and I throw a changeup. Now for some reason, Posada is right on the pitch and he smokes it. Hits it on a line. We got him out, but I was surprised that he would be right on a 3-and-2 change.

“So after the game I asked him, ‘How could you be right on that changeup I threw you?’ He said, ‘I saw your fingers on top of the ball as it was coming out of your hand. I could tell it was a changeup.’”

What Posada saw were Mussina’s index, middle and ring fingers splayed across the top of the baseball, a grip that makes it impossible for a pitcher to throw anything but an off-speed pitch. (Only two fingers, the index and middle, top the ball for a fastball.) Posada saw the dead giveaway, kept his hands and weight back and timed the changeup perfectly.

Mussina is 37 years old and has been pitching in the major leagues since 1991. No one had ever told him what Posada told him. So Mussina decided to change his grip. He slid his index finger more to the side of the ball than the top of the ball — not quite the grip for a circle changeup, in which the thumb and index finger form a circle on the side of the ball, but a modified version of it.

The pitch worked perfectly. Not only was Mussina able to disguise the pitch, but he also was able to throw it slower and generate better downward movement on it. “It doesn’t so much run,” Mussina said, referring to the sideways motion some pitchers get from their changeup, “but it just kind of dies at the end. It tumbles under the hitter’s bat. And to think if I didn’t bother pitching in an intrasquad game, none of this would have happened.”

A few years ago, I did a pre-season Q&A with a bunch of sportswriters. One of the questions I posed was whether Mussina would finally win 20 games that season. Most thought he’d be a lock for at least 15. We’ve seen Mussina break down with injuries for the past two years, and so the old “Will he win 20?” was not exactly the first question many Yankee fans had on their mind when considering Mussina in 2006. But wouldn’t it be wunnerful if he did win 20 this year?

I know, it’s a jinx to mention it, but screw it, Mussina has enough bad luck on his own–I’m not going to be the one that puts the whammy on him. Regardless, I hope he gets at least 15 and has a terrific year. It’s been cool reading the comments section lately and seeing how many fans he has out there. Cliff and I have always been big supporters. Should be interesting to see how he fares against the Jays this weekend, as they get their second look at him. Friday night, which pits the Big Unit v. Roy Halladay could be something special too.

The Tortoise and the Hare

The biggest story of the season thus far for the Yankees has to be the resurgence of Mike Mussina, who has found the fountain of youth in the form of a 70-mile-per-hour changeup. Moose did it again last night, stymieing the Devil Ray’s B-squad for six innings, holding them to four hits in six innings while walking none and striking out seven. Only a first-inning Jonny Gomes homer (his league-leading tenth) managed to spoil Moose’s evening.

Fireballer Scott Kazmir, meanwhile, was unable to uphold his end of the bargain, walking Johnny Damon on four pitches to start the evening and then surrendering a two-run homer to Derek Jeter to hand over the lead before he had recorded a single out. By the time the first inning ended on a broken-bat grounder by Andy Phillips, who didn’t strike out once in his rematch with Kazmir, the Yanks had a 3-1 lead and were off to the races.

In the fourth, Phillips delivered a one-out opposite-field single and came around to score. In the sixth, Tampa manager Joe Maddon replaced Kazmir, who walked five and threw 101 pitches in his five innings of work, with Scott Dunn and watched as Dunn and subsequent reliever Ruddy Lugo doubled the Yankee run total to make it 8-1. In the eighth, the Yanks plated a lead-off double by Jeter–who was 3 for 5 with a double, a homer, three runs scored and three driven in on the night–to push the eventual final score to 9-1. Sturtze, Villone and Proctor mopped up for Moose, allowing just one baserunner across three innings (a single off Villone).

Other highlights included Miguel Cairo going 2 for 3 with a pair of doubles and a walk (though he did get picked off second following the first double). Not bad for his first start since April 12. Jason Giambi, meanwhile, went 2 for 3 with a double, a walk and three RBIs from the DH spot giving him a two-day DH line of 7 AB, 3 R, 5 H, 8 RBI, 2 2B, 2 HR, 1 BB, 0 K. Hmmm, maybe he can hit in that role after all.

Finally, making his fourth start in five games at first base, Andy Phillips made a pair of nice plays in the field and is starting to look more comfortable at the plate. Phillips has singling in each of the last two games, worked a full count with the bases loaded in his third at-bat last night (though that AB ended in another broken bat groundout), and drove a ball to deep center in his final trip. He’s also struck out just twice in his last 11 plate appearances. These are small signs of what I hope will be greater things to come. Hopefully Phillips will start again on Thursday against lefty Mark Hendrickson.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

As strange as it might be to say, the Devil Rays are actually a pretty interesting team. Despite finishing in last place in 2005 for the seventh time in their eight-year history, the team’s long-rumored youth movement finally bore some fruit, enabling the Rays to assemble the league’s sixth most productive offense in the season’s second half and give the Yankees hell for most of the season. Prior to their final head-to-head series of the year, which the Yankees swept decisively, the Devil Rays were 11-5 against the eventual division champs, having scored 102 runs in those first 16 games. This winter, minority partner Stuart Sternberg bought out founding owner Vince Naimoli and overhauled the front office in the hopes of capitalizing on the team’s emerging talent before Naimoli and the administration of ousted GM Chuck LaMarr could do any more damange. Sounds crazy, but it just might work.

Last year, to established stars Aubrey Huff and Julio Lugo and the still-emerging talent of Carl Crawford, the Rays added second baseman Jorge Cantu and finally found room for slugger Jonny Gomes and speedster Joey Gathright. On the mound, Scott Kazmir spent his first full season in the bigs, and reliever Chad Orvella pitched well enough to make Danys Baez and former All-Star Lance Cater trade bait.

This year should bring further maturation from Kazmir (22) and Crawford (24), full seasons of Gomes and Gathright (both 25), and allow Cantu (24) to settle in at second base after being yanked back and forth between second and third last year. Exactly what will come of Orvella (25), who failed to make the team out of camp, or Huff (29) and Lugo (30), both of whom were shopped in the offseason due to their impending free-agency after the current season, remains to be seen. But should Huff or Lugo be moved, uberprospects B.J. Upton (21) and Delmon Young (20) should be ready to step into their shoes, though Upton’s ability to remain at shortstop remains in doubt.

Curiously, neither Huff nor Lugo will see action in the Bronx this week, as both are on the 15-day DL. In their place, the Rays will send out not Upton and Young, but Tomas Perez and Ty Wiggington. I was startled at the outpouring of emotion when Perez was released by the Phillies this spring. Apparently, Perez was considered something of an institution in Philadelphia and in the Philly clubhouse. I didn’t even realize he was still in the league. Turns out Perez was the Phillies jack of all trades and resident prankster for the past six seasons, though he appeared to have sustained that position on the basis of hitting .304/.347/.437 in 135 at-bats in his second year with the club. Since then he’s hit just .245/.300/.372. Good news for the Yanks there. Wigginton, meanwhile, couldn’t stick with the Pirates last year after coming over in the Kris Benson trade the year before, but, starting at the hot corner for the injured Huff, has been crushing the ball to the tune of .284/.333/.687, with eight homers in 17 games.

Thus far this season, the Devil Rays offense has been Wigginton and Gomes (.302/.444/.746) with a helping of Cantu. Wigginton is clearly playing over his head, but Alex’s boy Gomes just might be this good. Okay maybe not, that good, but his .282/.372/.534 performance last year seems utterly legit. If nothing else, his performance should teach the Yankees and their fans a lesson about judging my man Andy Phillips on 40-odd scattered at-bats. Over 30 plate appearances in 2003 and 2004 Gomes hit just .103/.161/.138 (3 for 29 with a double and one walk), but when finally given regular playing time last year he posted that .282/.273/.534 line. It’s not a perfect comparison as Gomes is three and a half years younger than Phillips. Then again, Gomes, despite having success in triple-A, didn’t demolish the International League the way Phillips has the last two years.

Of course, all of this swing don’t mean a thing if the Rays don’t get their pitching in order. Speedster Kazmir, who will start tonight against slowpoke Mike Mussina in what I hope will be a stirring pitcher’s duel, looks to be rounding into form, but even with his success, the Rays are only separated from the worst ERA in baseball by the existence of the Kansas City Royals. Last year the Yankees put up thirteen runs on the D-Rays in a single inning twice, and finished the year having put up exactly ten times that against them in 19 games.

There are glimmers of progress. It appears the Rays would be willing to cut bait on Doug Waechter and push hard-throwing Seth McClung into the bullpen should failed Dodger prospect Edwin Jackson (the take for Baez and Carter) and the home grown Jason Hammel take root, but that’s hardly as promising as having Upton and Young on deck, particularly given that duo’s three starts thus far this year. In the meantime, it’ll be more Mark Hendrickson for your money. Indeed, Hendrickson will come off the DL to start Thursday night, which means that Jackson, who will be sent down to make room before Thursday’s game, and Waechter, who is getting skipped due to yesterday’s off-day, will be available out of the pen should the Rays need nine unexceptional relievers to keep the Bombers at bay rather than the seven they normally employ.

Enjoy tonight’s duel. It could get ugly from here.

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Boricua, Baby

“Clemente,” the new book by pulitizer prize-winning author, David Maraniss, hits the shelves today. It is a fine appreciation of Roberto Clemente, who is undoubtedly one of the most charasmatic players of the post-War era. Although Clemente was a key member of two World Championship teams, he played in relative obscurity in Pittsburgh during the 1950s and ’60s, and was overlooked for his much of his career. Until, of course, his monumental performance in the 1971 Serious, and his untimely death in December of 1972. His legend and reputation have grown ever since.

As my pal Steve Treder put it to me in an e-mail recently:

Clemente was actually slightly underrated until the late ’60s, and especially during the 1971 World Series when he suddenly got noticed by the national media. At that point they all suddenly seemed to think he was better than he actually was, after years of being overlooked. His early tragic death soon afterward froze his image in time. Had he lived, and had a few years of decline phase at the end of his career, his reputation probably would have balanced out about right. As it is, many casual fans seem to think he was the equal of Mays/Aaron/Robinson/Mantle, when in fact he wasn’t nearly as good as any of them.

It is no insult to say that Clemente wasn’t as great as Mays, Aaron, Robinson or Mantle. They are all legends. Fortunately for Maraniss, off-the-field, Clemente was more interesting than most. And between the lines, Maraniss points out, Clemente had a terrific, inimitable style.

There was something about Clemente that surpassed statistics, then and always. Some baseball mavens love the sport precisely because of its numbers. They can take the mathematics of a box score and of a year’s worth of statistics and calculate the case for players they consider underrated or overrated and declare who has the most real value to a team. To some skilled practitioners of this science, Clemente comes out very good but not the greatest; he walks too seldom, has too few home runs, steals too few bases. Their perspective is legitimate, but to people who appreciate Clemente this is like chemists trying to explain Van Gogh by analyzing the ingredients of his paint. Clemente was art, not science. Every time he strolled slowly to the batter’s box or trotted out to right field, he seized the scene like a great actor. It was hard to take one’s eyes off him, because he could do anything on a baseball field and carried himself with such nobility. “The rest of us were just players,” Steve Blass would say. “Clemente was a prince.”

Thanks to Mr. Maraniss and the good people at Simon and Schuster, here is an excerpt from “Clemente.” This section is less about Clemente specifically and more about the conditions that Black and latin players encountered in the early 1960s. But it establishes the backdrop that is essential to understanding Clemente’s story. Enjoy!

BOOK EXCERPT: From “Clemente”

By David Maraniss

“Pride and Prejudice”

[Clemente] arrived at Pirates camp to train for the 1961 season on March 2, a day late. He and Tite Arroyo had been delayed entry from Puerto Rico to Florida until tests came back proving they did not have the bubonic plague, a few cases of which had broken out in Venezuela during the tournament.

On the day he reached Fort Myers, free from the plague, a story ran on the front page of the New York Times under the headline: NEGROES SAY CONDITIONS IN U.S. EXPLAIN NATIONALIST’S MILITANCY. One of the key figures quoted in the story was Malcolm X, the Black Muslim leader, who in the Times account was referred to as Minister Malcolm. Interviewed at a Muslim-run restaurant on Lenox Avenue in Harlem, Malcolm X said the only answer to America’s racial dilemma was for blacks to segregate themselves, by their own choice, with their own land and financial reparations due them from centuries of slavery. He dismissed the tactics of the civil rights movement as humiliating, especially the lunch-counter sit-ins that were taking place throughout the South. “To beg a white man to let you into his restaurant feeds his ego,” Minister Malcolm told the newspaper.

This was fourteen years after Jackie Robinson broke the major league color line, seven years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the separate-but-equal doctrine of segregated schools, five years after Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. led the bus boycott in Montgomery, four years after the Little Rock Nine desegregated Central High School in the capital of Arkansas, one year after the first lunch-counter sit-in in Greensboro. Year by year, the issue of race was becoming more urgent. The momentum was on the side of change, but the questions were how and how fast. In baseball, where once there had been no black ballplayers, now there were a hundred competing for major league jobs, and along with numbers came enormous talent, with ten past and future most valuable players among them. Yet every black player who reported to training camp in Florida that spring of 1961 still had to confront Jim Crow segregation. Even if their private emotions were sympathetic to Malcolm X’s rage at having to beg a white man to let you into his restaurant, the issue in baseball was necessarily shaped by its own history. Having moved away from the professional Negro Leagues and busted through the twentieth century’s racial barrier, black players did not view voluntary resegregation as an option, and separate and unequal off the field was no longer tolerable.

Wendell Smith, the influential black sportswriter who still had a column in the weekly Pittsburgh Courier but wrote daily now for the white-owned newspaper Chicago’s American, began a concerted campaign against training camp segregation that year. On January 23, a month before the spring camps opened, Smith wrote a seminal article that appeared on the top of the front page of Chicago’s American headlined negro ball players want rights in south. “Beneath the apparently tranquil surface of baseball there is a growing feeling of resentment among Negro major leaguers who still experience embarrassment, humiliation, and even indignities during spring training in the south,” Smith wrote. “The Negro player who is accepted as a first class citizen in the regular season is tired of being a second class citizen in spring training.” Smith added that leading black players were “moving cautiously and were anxious to avert becoming engulfed in fiery debate over civil rights,” but nonetheless were preparing to meet with club owners and league executives to talk about the problem and make it a front-burner issue for the players association.

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Here Comes Da Mums

My mother was born in Belgium and then raised in the Belgian Congo. When she met my father and came to New York in 1966-67, she spoke English well enough, but though she’s lived here in the States ever since, her high-pitched French accent remains. Once you meet her once, you’ll never forget the way she talks. As kids, she’d sing us lullabys–mostly in French–but sometimes in English too. One that I remember with particular fondess was mom singing the chorus of George Harrison’s sweet-natured record, “Here Comes the Sun.” Ma didn’t know any of the lyrics so she’d just sing the chorus and then add her own “Do-da-do-doo doos.” But in her high-lilting voice, it sounded so charming, and for us as kids (my twin sister and younger brother), undoubtedly warming too.

This memory came to mind yesterday as I watched the Yankee game at home with Emily. I had spoken with my co-host Cliff earlier in the day and he expressed some concern about the rainy weather. Cliff’s got a season ticket package for Sundays. Since he was on puppy-duty yesterday he offered his tickets to his mom–who is a bonafide Yankee fan–and a cheery one at that. But he was feeling guilty at the thought of his mom getting soaked out there in the bleachers all afternoon. I could relate to feeling guilty like that, so you can imagine how pleased I was for Cliff and his mom when the sun came out mid-way through the game, and remained for the rest of the afternoon.

When the sun poked through, I thought of Cliff and his mom as I heard my own mother singing “Here Comes the Sun.”

Just a quick, personal memory during yesterday’s 7-1 win at the Stadium. Randy Johnson pitched, Jorge Posada caught, while Jason Giambi supplied the pop.

Rainy Day? Let Them Play!

On a cold rainy afternoon in the Bronx, Shawn Chacon returned to the rotation to work his low BABIP magic against the Orioles. Turning in his first solid start of the season, Chacon only threw 57 percent of 111 pitches for strikes over seven innings, struck out just three and walked just as many, but somehow managed to hold the O’s to one run on four hits. That means that just four of the 22 balls in play fell for hits, a .182 BABIP.

The Yankee bats, meanwhile, plated single runs against Daniel Cabrera in the third and fourth (the first a lead-off walk by Robinson Cano, yes you read that right, that came around to score, the second a lead-off single by Alex Rodriguez that also came around to score), then broke the game open in the sixth. That inning started with a walk to Sheffield, a Rodriguez single, and Jason Giambi’s third walk in as many trips. Hideki Matsui then cracked a bases-loaded double to plate Sheff and Rodriguez and drive Cabrera from the game. After John Halama came on and got Bernie Williams to ground out, Robinson Cano drew his second walk of the game (and the season!), Kelly Stinnett popped out, and Johnny Damon reached on an infield single to Tejada at short that plated Bubba Crosby, who had come on to run for Giambi perhaps because of the weather. Eddy Rodriguez then relieved Halama and started his day by walking Derek Jeter to force in another run.

And that was the ball game. Chacon, Farnsworth and Villone combined to hold the Orioles to a pair of singles (both off Farnsworth) over the remaining three innings and the Yanks won it 6-1.

Today they hope to find another break in the rain to play the rubber game of the series. Jorge Posada will make his second start behind the plate with Randy Johnson on the mound as Johnson looks to rebound from his awful start in Toronto last time out. Bruce Chen has similar things in mind as he was absolutely lit up by the Indians in his last turn, giving up eight runs on eight hits, two of them home runs, and three walks in four innings. Last year, Chen faced Johnson in the Bronx in his first start of the year and handled the Yankees well only to have his bullpen blow the game. After that, the Yankee had his number, dropping 18 runs on him in 10 2/3 innings across their final three meetings. Here’s hoping that trend continues today.

They Wuz Robbed!

Bottom of the ninth. Yanks trailing by one, 6-5. Newly minted 24-year-old closer Chris Ray on the mound for the Orioles against the top of the Yankee order.

After Johnny Damon pops out, Derek Jeter walks on five pitches. Gary Sheffield follows with a line-drive single to center that almost decapitates the second base umpire. Alex Rodriguez then takes a strike, fouls off a slider low and away, swings through a 96 mile-per-hour fastball in on his hands, takes another further up and in to even the count at 2-2, then swings through yet another which is perfectly placed on the upper inside corner. Jason Giambi follows and on a 1-0 count, Jeter and Sheffield pull off a double steal that is ruled defensive indifference despite the fact that it puts the winning run in scoring position. Ray’s 1-0 pitch was a ball and with first base open he walks Giambi on two more tosses.

That passes the baton to Hideki Matsui. Two outs, bottom of the ninth, tying run on third, winning run on second. Ray has thrown 21 pitches and walked two already, though Giambi was semi-intentional. Ray’s first pitch to Matsui is a ball. His second is below the knee on the outside corner but is ruled a strike. His next pitch is ball two. The 2-1 pitch is almost a foot outside but ruled strike two. Matsui then checks his swing on ball three to run the count full. Ray then delivers the same pitch that was called strike two, it’s nearly a foot outside and Matsui watches it go by thinking he’s just tied the game with a walk, but home plate ump Phil Cuzzi rings him up. Game over. O’s win 6-5.

That wasn’t the only call that cost the Yankees the win last night. Chien-Ming Wang set the first seven Orioles down in order (six on ground balls) but fell apart in the third after a Kevin Millar double. He got Corey Patterson to ground out for the second out of the inning, but then walked Brian Roberts and rookie Nick Markakis on five pitches each to load the bases. Wang then threw three straight balls to Melvin Mora before coming back to get two called strikes to run the count full. Mora then hits a grounder to Jeter, who flips to Andy Phillips at first as Mora dives head first into the bag. Replays showed that Mora was should have been the third out of the inning, but he was called safe by first-base ump Jerry Crawford. Two runs scored on the play and Miguel Tejada followed with an RBI single before Wang finally got Jay Gibbons to ground out to end the inning.

I don’t like to blame umpires for losses, but in this case there’s no getting around it. They wuz robbed.

Incidentally, Wang had another rough inning in the sixth and was pulled in favor of Scott Proctor, who walked in a run (which is impressive as it took him two walks to do it) before getting out of it. Andy Phillips went 0 for 2, popping out on the first pitch in his first at-bat, then working Kris Benson for six pitches in his second only to strike-out looking on a full count. He was then pinch-hit for by Bernie Williams in the sixth with the tying runs on base and two outs. Bernie worked a walk to load the bases, but Johnny Damon grounded out to end the threat. Miguel Cario then took over at first and grounded out to strand the tying run on second in the eighth. Jason Giambi, whose right forearm just above the wrist is considerably swollen from being hit by a pitch on Thursday, went 0 for 4 as the DH with the walk desribed above. Finally, Tanyon Sturtze got three outs, two by strikout, without allowing a baserunner.

This afternoon, Shawn Chacon makes just his third start of the young season, this coming off a pair of dreadful relief appearances during the bast week. Here’s hoping Chacon learned something by watching Mike Mussina’s slow, slower, slowest routine on Thursday. Chacon’s mound opponent will be Daniel Cabrera. Everyone’s breakout candidate this winter, Cabrera walked 16 men over 6 1/3 innings in his first two starts, but just one in seven innings in his last outing. In that last start, against the Angels, he lasted seven innings allowing one unearned run on five hits and striking out ten. Uh oh.

The Baltimore Orioles

The last team to beat out the Atlanta Braves for a division title was the wire-to-wire World Champion 1990 Cincinnati Reds. The last team to beat out the New York Yankees for a division title? The 1997 Baltimore Orioles. In the eight seasons since then, the Orioles have finished above fourth place exactly once (2004, thanks to the collapse of the Blue Jays), finished within fewer than 20 games of first place once (2000, when the Yankees finished the season with a dreadful 3-15 slump capped by dropping the final three games of the season to the O’s by a combined score of 29-6), and not won 80 games in any single season. For all the attention heaped on the Pirates, Royals, Tigers and Brewers, Kansas City and Milwaukee have been at or above .500 more recently than Baltimore, and the Tigers appear to be more likely to do so in the near future than the Orioles. Quite simply, the Orioles are one of the worst franchises in baseball, giving locals a feast of famine with the newly imported Natspos. (Seriously, is it that abhorrent to be a Phillies fan? With their new ballpark and annual runs at the wild card, the Phillies are the pick of the litter in the mid-Atlantic region, but they barely outdrew Baltimore last year. Sorry. Where was I?)

The O’s have shuffled the deck chairs by bringing in yet another collection of over the hill, overrated and overexposed veterans to compliment . . . nothing. The Orioles are horrible. There’s no budding future here. Just because they’re able to float slightly higher in the water than the Royals doesn’t make them anything but an affront to their fans.

But I’m getting carried away. Let’s find some positives here: They’ve finally dumped the Big Ponson Toad. Tonight’s starter Kris Benson is nothing special, but he’s a huge upgrade over Sir Sidney. Letting J.P Riccardi overpay B.J. Ryan and giving the closer’s job to Chris Ray represents both solid baseball economics and highlights one of the few young bright spots in the organization. Luis Matos recent injury just might clear room for Nick Markakis, who broke camp with the club despite having just a half season at double-A under his belt, to Wally Pip him, which would rid the O’s of yet another home grown disaster.

I couldn’t understand the decision to bring back Sam Perlozzo as manager as the team’s winning percentage under him down the stretch was nearly 40 points lower than it was under Lee Mazzilli last year and it was a widely reported story that the Orioles appeared to collectively throw I in the towel by the end of August. But I must say, I like his line-up construction. Putting the slow-footed, but high-on-base-percentage Jeff Conine in the two-hole suggests progressive thinking, and burying big-name 2004 free agent Javy Lopez and new pick-up Kevin Millar in the seventh and eighth spots suggests a true meritocracy that refuses to allow name recognition or salary to determine playing time. In addition, Perlozzo has just two lefties in his line-up and he has them separated by no fewer than three righies in both directions. Part of that is a side-effect of one of them being the rookie Markakis, who of course hits ninth, and of having just two lefties to begin with, but Joe Torre—who started the season with his four lefties paired up in two different spots in his line-up, continues to write Bernie Williams’ name into the line-up, and has buried last year’s AL OBP leader Jason Giambi in the fifth spot—would be wise to take notes.

Speaking of Giambi, swelling in his right forearm resulting from being hit by a pitch on Wednesday (Bernie Williams pinch hit for him in his final at-bat of that game in Toronto) might keep him on the bench tonight. Meanwhile, Tanyon Sturtze was reportedly available on Wednesday and, having had another 48 hours to rest his balky back, should definitely be in the mix tonight. I needn’t tell you, neither of these things is good news, though with Chien-Ming Wang on the mound looking to repeat his fantastic start in Minnesota last weekend, it wouldn’t be the worst idea to at the very least put Giambi at DH and allow someone other than Miguel Cairo to man first base.

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Random Girlfriend Question #4080

When I’m watching the ballgame at home with Emily–the ‘lil perfessor–she loves throwing questions my way. At times I have to bite my tongue and contain my smug, male superiority–”God, what a chick thing to say,” I’ll think, rolling my eyes. Then of course, Emily will also come out with things that leave me completely stumped. So the other night, as we watched Johnny Damon make several catches against the wall, she asked about the origins of the warning track. How did it get its name? When was it invented?

Mr. Wizard didn’t have an answer. So I asked around some, and still don’t have a definitive answer. Bill James suggested that they were possibly invented as a response to Pete Reiser, the Brooklyn Dodger outfielder who was famous for running into outfield fences and getting knocked out. Late ’50s, early ’60s was his guess. Steve Treder thinks it could have been a bit earlier but agrees that it was probably designed at the same time other player-safety innovations were created–batting helmets and padded walls. (By the way, I just learned in David Maraniss’ forthcoming book on Roberto Clemente that none other than Branch Rickey came up with the plastic/fiber-glass batting helmet–was there anything that Rickey wasn’t invovled in?) Here is Rich Lederer’s take:

Warning tracks, as we now know them, were fairly standard by the 1950s. I’m not aware of any ballpark without a warning track by the 1960s. Are you?

The first warning track dates back much earlier though. Yankee Stadium had what was known as a running track dating back to the 1920s. It was used as just that: a running track (used for foot races) but it served a dual purpose as a warning track for baseball games, too. I just don’t know if it was a coincidence or not. That said, I have black and white photos in baseball books that backs up this claim.

So, anyone else have any ideas? Paging Mr. Markusen. Hey, my girl’s just got to know.

Slow Down

Buster Olney has some sharp observations on Mike Mussina over at ESPN today:

The last couple of years, Mussina’s success or failure was often predicated on how good his fastball was on a given day. If he threw 88-90 mph, he had a chance to have a pretty good day, throwing his fastball high in the strike zone, while most of his offspeed stuff was in the range of 77-78 mph. If Mussina’s fastball was 85-86 mph, however, he would get wrecked, the hitters always looking like they were all over everything he threw.

The adjustment Mussina has made, it seems, is to slow down his slow stuff. He was bending curves and flopping changeups at 70-71 mph against the Jays, with spectacular location (on an afternoon when both he and Jays starter Ted Lilly took advantage of home plate umpire Paul Runge’s generous and consistent strike zone). Every so often, Mussina — like Schilling, like Pedro Martinez — would look to finish off a hitter with a fastball and suddenly whiz a 91-93 mph four-seam fastball, and because the Jays were kept off-balance by the variance, they were overwhelmed. In one of Troy Glaus’ three strikeouts, the third baseman looked like he started his swing when the ball was already buried in Jorge Posada’s mitt. It was the first time in several years that hitters appeared downright uncomfortable hacking against Mussina, because they never got a firm read on his velocity, the trajectory or the selection of his pitches.

As Mussina changed arm angles and speeds (he reminded me a lot of Orlando Hernandez, in how El Duque pitches), he allowed a run in 7.1 innings and picked up the 226th victory of his career. The Yankees have pitching problems, undoubtedly, but based on how Mussina looked, I don’t think he’ll be a concern. He appears to have learned how to win with slop — good ol’ fashioned slow stuff.

Word, Buster. Got to love the slow stuff.

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