By Bruce Markusen
Over the past few days, I’ve tried to settle on a common theme to the Yankees’ spring camp in Tampa, but in the words of Jerry Seinfeld, “I’ve got nothing.” I don’t want to spill any more ink on the Alex Rodriguez-Derek Jeter courtship, refuse to become tempted by Roger Clemens’ game of “Waiting For Godot,” and have grown tired of Gary Sheffield’s illogical rants from Tigertown. So instead I’ll present a smattering of observations on what has taken place at Legends Field over the first four weeks of spring training.
*We’re almost ten days into the exhibition season, but no closer to finding out the identity of the new backup catcher. Todd Pratt is hurt, Raul Chavez is a non-factor, and Wil Nieves reminds me too much of John Ramos (a blast from the past). For most of the 1980s, the Yankees searched high and far for a quality starting catcher. Now they’re having similar trouble finding a merely competent backup receiver. Is it so crazy to suggest that if the Yankees decide to trade Carl Pavano, they should be happy to receive a second-string catcher in return? If the Rockies, Cardinals, or Mariners were willing to give up a B-level catching prospect for Pavano, Brian Cashman should jump at the opportunity. Anything but another right-handed reliever, of which the Yankees have cornered the market.
*From what little I’ve seen of Josh Phelps, he looks like he can hit—to the tune of 25 home runs if given 450 at-bats. With his tall body and long swing, the Dale Murphy lookalike appears to be the kind of guy who could struggle in a platoon role, but might be more productive playing every day. Right now, there’s no chance of him getting those regular at-bats, but that situation could change drastically in Yankeeland. Given Doug Mientkiewicz’ recent history of back problems and poor hitting, he’ll be out of a job by mid-July. If Phelps is still around by then (and if the Yankees are willing to put up with his stodgy defense at first base), he might be a reasonable stopgap at first base. In contrast, I think Andy Phillips would fare better in a platoon, but I have serious doubts that he would even be able to match Minty’s production as an everyday player. And that’s a scary thought.
*How come no one told me about the new baseball terminology in place this spring? I’ve read in more than one place that Bobby Abreu will begin “dry swinging the bat” in a few weeks. Dry swinging? As opposed to wet swinging? When I first heard the term “dry swinging,” I immediately thought of Gregg Jefferies’ routine of taking a bat into a swimming pool and trying to swing the bat under the water. That’s actually a very good way of improving your hand and wrist strength, but I guess we can assume that Abreu won’t be doing that. In the meantime, I’m sure someone will fill me in on the real meaning of the new catch phrase.
*Mariano Rivera showcased his change-up the other day against the Reds, striking out former Devil Rays prospect Josh Hamilton with that very pitch. (Here Hamilton is trying to make the Reds’ roster as a Rule Five draftee and he has to face Mariano in the middle innings. Gee, thanks, Jerry Narron.) Rivera has worked on the change-up in prior springs, but this is the first time I can remember hearing serious talk that he might actually unveil it during the regular season. Left-handed hitters throughout the American League must be thrilled at the possibilities. They’ve already been subjected to the stinging sensation of broken bats on inside cutters; now they might have to protect the outside half of the plate against a fadeaway change-up. That’s not only unfair, it’s downright mortifying.
*Rivera might actually have some help this year. With the additions of Chris Britton and Luis Vizcaino and the availability of Brian Bruney from Day One, the Yankees have their deepest bullpen since the World Championship days. (When was the last time the Yankees had four pitchers who could consistently reach 95 on the gun?) If Scott Proctor’s rubber arm can return from last year’s pounding and if Kyle Farnsworth can work ahead of the count, the bullpen could be second only to Anaheim in the American League.
*A final thought has to do with the suffocating atmosphere around Legends Field. I know some of the hosts over at MLB Radio who have openly discussed the restrictive air around the Yankees. Even with a new PR director and a new director of stadium security in Tampa, the Yankees still conduct spring training as if it were a penitentiary. Members of the Yankee staff, who walk the premises with cold, unsmiling looks, spend much of their time shooing the media from one location to another. Given such a joyless atmosphere, it’s not surprising that the new security director recently booted some fans from box seats at Legends Field, only to realize they were members of Brian Cashman’s family. Don’t the Yankees realize it’s just baseball, and that it’s supposed to be fun? As the late Willie Stargell used to say, you’re supposed to play baseball, not work it. The Yankee organization could learn a lesson from Pops.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books, including A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s. His newest book, a revised edition of Tales From The Mets Dugout, is now available from Sports Publishing. Bruce is a resident of Cooperstown, NY.