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Observations From Cooperstown: The Boss, Frank Verdi, Blalock, and Sherrill

Posted By Bruce Markusen On July 16, 2010 @ 11:08 am In Bronx Banter,Bruce Markusen | Comments Disabled

I met George Steinbrenner one time. It was at Doubleday Field about ten or 12 years ago. The Boss was in town to watch his minor league affiliate, the Oneonta Yankees, play in the annual NY-Penn League game that is part of Hall of Fame Weekend. I asked Steinbrenner if he would be willing to do an interview for the Hall of Fame’s video archive. Not only did Steinbrenner say yes to my request, but he expressed enthusiasm about the interview. He asked me my name, showing interest in what I did for the Hall of Fame. Throughout the interview, he was charming, gracious, engaging. At the end of our talk, I felt as if I had just interviewed an old friend at a college reunion. Frankly, the man could not have been nicer.

Quite obviously, George Steinbrenner treated his employees quite differently, particularly his office secretaries, public relations directors, general managers, and field managers. If I had worked for The Boss, I would have lasted about a day and a half. I suspect that I would have reacted to his first tirade with a few choice words of my own, or at least a prompt letter of resignation. Steinbrenner’s mistreatment of his underlings was one of his worst traits, a character flaw that was mocked so skillfully by Larry David in so many of those classic Seinfeld episodes.

While I can offer no defense of the way The Boss treated people in the front office, I have long been a defender of his old habit of railing against Yankee players and performance. He made an art form of critiquing slumping Yankee teams during the 1970s and eighties. My father and I found those media sessions to be great theater, often hysterically funny. And, here’s the thing, they were usually justified. When Steinbrenner issued one of his scathing assessments, they came in response to a prolonged period of poor play, seeming lack of effort, or general underachievement. He reacted just like fans would, just like fans at Bronx Banter usually do when the team fails to win.

I never felt sympathy for the players in those situations. Steinbrenner almost always paid his players well, even the backups and the middle relievers, and generally provided first- class amenities in the clubhouse, on the team’s charter, and at Yankee functions. When you make big money and enjoy the luxury of big league life, and then you don’t perform up to expectation, you have no right to complain when The Boss gets mad about it. Imagine that, a high-paying owner expecting his players to live up to their reputations and their salaries.

On a larger scale, Steinbrenner brought vivid color and personality to the owner’s box. Unlike too many of the owners in today’s corporate front office structure, Steinbrenner was passionate about his team, engrossed fully in the game as a fan, and knowledgeable about its many subtleties. As Bill Madden emphasizes in his new biography, Steinbrenner may very well be the last owner who was larger than life, a fully bloomed character.

I suspect that Madden is right. Now that The Boss is gone for good, the game has become a little less interesting.

***

Lost amidst the massive amount of coverage given to the passing of The Boss was the recent death of one of the organization’s most loyal farmhands of the 1970s and eighties. Frank Verdi, who managed Yankee affiliates for the better part of his 21-year career as a minor league skipper, died last Friday at the age of 84. Often entrusted with the responsibility of guiding Yankee prospects, Verdi managed the Oneonta Yankees during their first year of existence in 1967, before being promoted to Triple-A Syracuse, where he led the Chiefs to back-to-back titles in 1969 and ‘70.

Verdi left the organization in the mid-seventies to become a manager in the Mets’ system, but was eventually brought back to the Yankees by Steinbrenner. In 1981, Verdi guided the Columbus Clippers to an International League title, giving him three championships at the minor league level. He accomplished this despite knowing that he was never a candidate to manage the Yankees at the highest level.

It was something of a miracle that Verdi managed at all. As a minor league player with the Rochester Red wings, Verdi somehow survived a nearly tragic accident. As the Red Wings played the Havana Sugar Kings on July 25, 1959, Verdi found himself coaching third base after manager Cot Deal was ejected from the game. As Verdi coached from his position down the third base line, a fan fired a gun from the stands in Havana, the bullet striking Verdi in the head. Verdi was wearing only a soft cap at the time, but it still had the plastic liner used during his at-bats. The bullet ricocheted off the plastic liner, embedding in his shoulder. Verdi suffered a minor shoulder wound, a far better injury than the possibly fatal head wound that could have resulted.

Not to be intimidated by a stray bullet, Verdi lived another 51 years past that day.

***

The waiver wire is becoming a crowded place, and an interesting one at that. Last weekend, the Rays released Hank Blalock after designating him for assignment. And now, former Orioles closer George Sherrill has been placed on waivers by the Dodgers, as a direct response to an ERA that is approaching seven and a half.

Both players could fit needs for the Yankees. Let’s begin with Blalock. With Nick “The Stick” Johnson’s wrist hurting again after surgery, Blalock would make sense as a left-handed DH and platoon partner for Marcus “Mister” Thames. Blalock can also play third base, giving Joe Girardi the option of resting Alex Rodriguez as a DH once or twice a week. Although Blalock hit poorly in limited duty for the Rays, I’m not convinced that his career is cooked. He’s still only 29, slugged a respectable .459 with Texas in 2009, and is only two seasons removed from a season in which he slugged .508. All in all, he has a better resume than Chad Tracy, whom the Yankees recently signed to a minor league contract and has been playing at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes Barre.

Although Sherrill looks like he has been dining on the Wilbur Wood food plan of late, he could fill a role as a late-inning left-hander, a job in which Damaso Marte has been shaky. But Sherrill’s contract situation is a bit more problematic. In placing him on waivers, the Dodgers are banking that no other teams will claim the hefty lefty, who is due about half of his $4.5 million contract for the remainder of 2010. If Sherrill does clear waivers, the Dodgers could send him to the minors, but only if gives his permission. Perhaps the Yankees could work out a deal with the Dodgers in which the two teams split the difference on the contract, while the Yankees send the Dodgers a low-level minor leaguer as compensation. Then again, if Sherrill refuses the demotion, he would become a free agent, allowing the Yankees to sign him for the major league minimum.

Let’s remember that this is the same George Sherrill who put up an 0.65 ERA in 30 appearances for the Dodgers last season. If he can straighten out his mechanics, he could be effective again. Of course, the 33-year-old southpaw would have to shave that large goatee–not to mention do some work on that large belly and those thick thighs–before joining the Yankees for the second half. Perhaps David Wells’ uniform is still available.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.


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