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Observations From Cooperstown: Journeymen Pitchers, Swisher, and the HOF Classic

Posted By Bruce Markusen On June 19, 2011 @ 1:34 pm In 1980s,2010s,21st Century,Baseball,Bronx Banter,Bruce Markusen,Observations From Cooperstown,Yankees | Comments Disabled

If you could have predicted that by the middle of June exactly one quarter of the Yankee pitching staff consisted of journeymen Brian Gordon, Luis Ayala, and Cory Wade, you would have qualified as a full-fledged soothsayer. Heck, you might have your own infomercial by now, making you ready to take the place of the indicted Don LaPre. But here it is, a solid ten weeks into the season, and the Yankee staff is barely recognizable.

By now, I’ve become used to Ayala, a great story who came back from nearly being abducted by home invaders in Mexico to winning the last spot on the roster this spring to being an important part of the late-inning bullpen structure.

In contrast, I’m still getting used to the other three no-names. I’ll be honest with you; I had never ever heard of Gordon prior to this week. When I first heard his name, I thought he might be related to Tom “Flash” Gordon, but that notion quickly became ridiculous. I later learned that he is an outfielder-turned-pitcher who turned heads as a starter for the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs, the Triple-A team managed by Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg. Gordon doesn’t throw overly hard, but he has an appealing tendency to throw strikes and owns a deceptive curveball that runs about 68 miles an hour.

Gordon made a decent first impression in his Yankee debut and will make his next start under National League rules. That will allow him to take his place in the Yankee batting order and possibly fare better at the plate than most of their pitchers have in the interleague matchups. If the Yankees are smart, they’ll think about using Gordon as an emergency outfielder and pinch-hitter, which might help the paper-thin bench that has been harmed by the loss of Eric Chavez and the unwillingness to promote Jorge Vazquez.

In the case of Wade, I vaguely remembered him pitching middle relief for Joe Torre’s Dodgers a few years back. Sure enough, a check of Baseball-Reference.com confirmed my hazy memory. Wade had one good season in 2008 and a terrible season in 2009, before falling through the surface of the Earth into baseball oblivion last summer. In actuality, he spent 2010 pitching badly for three different teams in three different minor leagues. He’s been much better this year, exhibiting pinpoint control (only six walks in 36 innings) for the Durham Bulls before being released and signed by the Yankees. Like Gordon, Wade made a good first impression in his Yankee debut; if he can continue to throw strikes and spot his pitches, he might be able to stick long-term, or at least until Rafael Soriano is able to start delivering on that exorbitant contract he signed last winter…

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Even though he is having his worst season in pinstripes, I still like Nick Swisher. A couple of Cooperstown-area Yankee fans who go to the Stadium and sit amongst the “Bleacher Creatures” told me that they appreciate Swisher’s byplay with the fans in the cheap seats. Of all the Yankees, he reacts the most boisterously in responding to the first inning roll call. He’ll carry on a running conversation with the Creatures, making them feel as if their opinions matter. In an era when too many players fear any interaction with fans as if they were carrying the plague, Swisher’s approach is refreshing.

Yes, the Mohawk hair cuts are ridiculous, and his breathless post-game interviews can be heavy on the clichés, but this guy exhibits such an admirable passion for the game that it‘s hard not to like him (unless your name is Ozzie Guillen). And despite Keith Olbermann’s claims to the contrary, Swisher will hit. Except for one off-season with the White Sox, he’s been a consistent walk-producer and home run hitter throughout his career; he‘s due for a big second half, once he straightens out his left-handed swing…

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One of the best weekends of the year is upon us in Cooperstown. The Hall of Fame Classic takes place on Sunday, featuring about 30 retired players in a seven-inning old-timers’ day. Unlike the previous two years, there won’t be much of a Yankee presence at Doubleday Field this weekend. In fact, only three former Yankees are scheduled to participate: Hall of Famers Goose Gossage and Phil Niekro and 1980s outfielder Billy Sample. I’ve never interviewed Gossage, but I’ve often talked to “Knucksie” and know Billy well, and can vouch for them as two terrific guys.

Sample had a nice career as a role player and platoon outfielder, but he was a phenomenal minor league player. During his three-year apprenticeship in the Rangers’ farm system in the late 1970s, he did not hit below .348. His lifetime minor league average, covering over 1200 plate appearances, was a cool .355. His on-base percentage was an otherworldly .443. If we were to create a Hall of Fame for minor league players, Sample would have to be a serious candidate.

Since leaving MLB.com in 2008, Sample has been out of baseball, but has been doing some freelance research and writing work. In fact, his new baseball screenplay recently took top honors at the Hoboken Film Festival for Best Screenplay. Now he’s looking for a producer. Hey, if Moneyball does well, perhaps that will improve the market for baseball films, and create a new wave like we saw in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

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


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