"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Yankee Panky #16: Halfway There

Depending on your perspective, the All-Star break is a perfect time for the Yankees to regroup and heal, or, based on the offensive eruption that took place last Sunday, the three-day midseason hiatus is a momentum breaker.

More than anything, what the break does is offer a chance to reflect on the first half. In the Yankees’ case, most fans would prefer to look forward than ruminate on inconsistent starting pitching, bullpen performances akin to Rick Vaughn’s tryout fresh from the California Penal League, and hitting results from the left-handed chunk of the lineup that made you think they’d be better off turning around and batting righty.

On the field, it was literally 45 games of three steps back, two steps forward for the Yankees. Last Friday while subbing for Michael Kay on 1050 here in New York, Don LaGreca hit the nail on the head when he discussed how 53 to 55 wins over the last 77 games may not be enough to lift the Yankees into the playoffs, but few are ready to start preparing the team’s eulogy.

As for the coverage in general, the first 85 games featured an ebb and neap between stirring the pot and projecting the panic button. And with that in mind, here are my orders of distinction for the first-half Yankees Media Coverage.

There are actually two. The first is Alex Rodriguez’s offensive barrage. There were so many angles to explore, from it happening in an opt-out year to the technical changes made in his swing through his work with new hitting coach Kevin Long. Over the next three months, the continuation of this story — should he maintain his pace — will center around his MVP candidacy. Should the Yankees miss the playoffs and he still wins the MVP, expect comparison stories to his 2003 win with the last-place Rangers. Of course, if that happens, the uber-cynics will still say that A-Rod needs to prove himself as a clutch player in October.

The second: Roger Clemens’ signing and all the fun that brought, from the hoopla of his 7th-inning stretch introduction to his contract, to whether or not he’d only be with the team every fifth day. With the exception of one outing, he’s pitched well enough to win all his starts. And in typical Clemens fashion, he’s gone 8 innings in each of his last two starts as a sort of middle finger to those who said he’d only be a 6-inning pitcher. (Maybe Andy Pettitte said to him: “Roger, get it straight to Mo. Your chances are better that way. Get into the 8th inning as often as you can.” Sorry. My imagination got the best of me there.)

But looking at the numbers, he’s not even a 6-inning pitcher. The consecutive long starts bumped his average to 5 2/3 innings per start. And the 2.9 runs per game he’s been supported with has to leave him with flashbacks of 2006 as an Astro.

For the story that’s been repeatedly beaten over the past four months: A-Rod’s off-field foibles. I’ll admit, I’m just as guilty for getting caught up in it, since I referenced the coverage his adventures and misadventures in this space and criticized “the third baseman.” The convergence of events in Toronto: the stripper pictures and the Little League yell to distract the Blue Jays’ third baseman from catching a pop-up were a low point. Following that, the presentation of his wife joining him in Boston for what was presented as a “make-up” dinner was too much. The headlines were hilarious, though, save for the TORRE TELLS A-ROD TO SHUT UP item being posted out of context. I’m sure Carl Pavano was happy to have someone taking the tabloid heat off him. Wait, is he still on the team?

The “Holy Crap” stats, to me, are A-Rod’s late-game numbers (7th inning or later): .374 batting average (.542 in the 9th inning, 10 home runs, 25 RBIs, .769 SLG and 1.247 OPS. Aficionados knew this, but only until the past week did this note receive significant air-time.

For all the discussion of Jason Giambi’s cooperation with the Mitchell Investigation, surprisingly little has been written about the positive effect his absence has on the lineup. And by positive, I mean Melky Cabrera being the everyday center fielder and Johnny Damon as the primary DH, when something on his body isn’t creaking.


Joe Torre’s job security. Maybe he’ll be fired. Maybe he won’t. Maybe Brian Cashman will go first. Maybe they’ll both get sacked in one fell swoop. Maybe Joe Girardi came back to YES so he could be in the on-deck circle for the Yankees’ managerial job if and when something happens to Torre. Maybe that’s why he turned down the Orioles. Maybe Don Mattingly will ascend to the post. Maybe in a fit of 77-year-old craziness, GMS3 would consider recycling Buck Showalter.

And maybe, just maybe, Torre will save his job and guide the Yankees to the playoffs by not using any of his right-handed relievers except for Mariano Rivera, and reserve Mike Myers for special occasions and make Kei Igawa a reliever when Phil Hughes returns (more on this below). Wait, now I sound like Joel Sherman.

I’m really intrigued by Bruce Markusen’s hypothesis, posted in this space yesterday:

“On a more realistic front, I wonder why we don’t hear more talk about O’Neill becoming a manager. (After all, there have been whispers about O’Neill becoming the Reds bench coach in 2008.) Fiery and intelligent, O’Neill was often mentioned as a future managerial candidate at the tail end of his playing career. I know that O’Neill is concerned about spending large chunks of time away from his young children, but perhaps he’ll take a page out of Don Mattingly’s book and begin to pursue a coaching career once his children get older. O’Neill could become a curious cross between Billy Martin and Lou Piniella, and wouldn’t that be an interesting kind of manager for Yankee fans to follow after the sedate tenure of Joe Torre?”

To the Post and Daily News, for their coverage of the Steve Swindal fallout. The two tabloids are so combative with each other it’s comical. There were myriad projections of who would succeed Swindal as George Steinbrenner’s heir to the Yankees, Bill Madden of the News reported that it would be Hal the Younger to rise, while the Post’s George King refuted the story a few days later. As it stands now, according to the bevy of reports, it’s still a toss-up between the Steinbrenner brothers and the other son-in-law, Felipe Lopez.

I thought this story was interesting not only for all the Godfather parallels, but because when it comes to stories on the inner workings of the team, particularly Steinbrenner issues, Madden has a history of being accurate. I found his premise credible. Similarly, I know how George King hustles for information, and his rebuttal was just as strong.

To the prospect of trades Brian Cashman may or may not make prior to the July 31 non-waiver deadline, and between August 1 and August 31 before the waiver deadline approaches. Tyler Kepner’s look into Cashman’s plans included a cryptic quote: ”Last year’s team earned the right to get reinforcements. This year’s team’s got to still earn that right. Last year’s team showed it was a championship-type situation, fighting through a lot.”

Phil Hughes’ return and its effect on the pitching staff. A rotation of Wang, Pettitte, Mussina, Clemens and Hughes gives the Yankees the possibility of putting together several extended win streaks, provided the offense cooperates. That makes Kei Igawa a Hideki Okajima-type option (because he can pitch to righties — Torre loves that), leaving Myers to return to the role he was originally assigned: matchup lefty.

Should the Yankees continue to plod along the path to mediocrity and not take the fork in the road, per Yogi’s instructions, how long will it be before the local and national media pull the plug on the season?

I’ll save a fuller list of favorites, best and worsts, and strange occurrences throughout the media landscape as they pertain to Yankees coverage, in my season-ending recap.

Until next week …

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