"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Johnny, Kick a Hole in the Sky

Luís Tiant was one of my favorite players when I was eight or nine years old. And why wouldn’t he have been? His cork-screwing windup was absolutely beautiful, perfect for imitating in the backyard. By this point in my life baseball was really the only thing in the world that mattered, which explained my four favorite pastimes, listed in no particular order: playing baseball, watching baseball, reading about baseball, and collecting baseball cards.

One afternoon, apparently a rainy afternoon with no baseball available on TV or the bookshelf, I found myself wondering which of my heroes might share my birthday. Today I can find this answer in the click of a mouse, but in 1978 my only choice was to turn to my baseball cards and flip through them one by one, checking the birth dates listed on the back. I don’t remember if it took me five minutes or five hours, but I found my answer: Luís Tiant. I’ll never forget that thrill. Somehow, he and I were connected.

When the Yankees took on the Reds on Sunday afternoon, it was the first time I had really watched Johnny Cueto pitch. Pitchers today are all the same. The perfect wind up has already been discovered (I read somewhere that Roger Clemens’s motion is the ideal), so young American pitchers all grow up into that model. Gone are the days when a flamboyant hurler might try to kick a hole in the sky like Satchell Paige, stare at the heavens like Fernando Valenzuela, or swing his arms above his head like Bob Feller. But there was Cueto, flashing the #47 on his back as he completely turned his back on the hitter, then uncoiling back to unleash a blazing fastball punctuated by a stylish leg whip that pulled him off the mound towards first base. It was enough to make any pitching coach cringe, but it was beautiful to watch. Somewhere in Cuba, El Tiante was chewing on a cigar and smiling.

For most of the game, all the Yankee hitters seemed to be doing was chewing on cigars. Cueto brought a 1.89 ERA in the game, and he backed that up nicely over the first five innings, allowing just four hits while striking out five and picking up two double plays. Robinson Canó was the one Yankee who looked truly comfortable against Cueto all afternoon, and he started the sixth inning with a booming double to the wall in left center. Two batters later Raúl Ibañez turned on a pitch and hit a moonshot down the line in right field for his ninth home run of the season and a 2-0 Yankee lead.

Cueto had looked so good up until this point that it didn’t feel like the Yankees would get anything more off of him. The good news, though, was that CC Sabathia was on the hill for the Bombers, and he had been even better than Cueto. The Big Fella didn’t allow his first hit until there was one out in the fifth inning, and didn’t see a hint of trouble until the sixth. In that frame Drew Stubbs reached on a bunt single and Joey Votto walked to put runners on first and second with no one out. But CC stiffened, getting Brandon Phillips to bounce into a double play and battling Jay Bruce for seven pitches before striking him out to end the inning.

So when the Yankees got those two runs in the bottom of the sixth, it certainly looked like it would be enough. Sabathia would cruise the seventh, maybe even the eighth, and the bullpen would close it down. But it didn’t work that way.

Ryan Ludwick sampled Sabathia’s first offering of the seventh and found it to his liking. He popped it over the wall in left and the lead was sliced in half. One out later someone named Ryan Hanigan watched two straight strikes before jumping on the third and popping his own home run to left, tying the score at two.

Zack Cozart followed that with a dribbling infield single that Sabathia couldn’t quite get to in time, but when CC recovered to strike out the next batter, things looked less dangerous — but only for a minute. Sabathia threw eighteen pitches to the next three Reds to come to the plate (Stubbs, Votto, and Phillips) and walked them all, giving Cincinnati a 3-2 lead. He struck out Bruce to end the inning, but the damage was certainly done. Sabathia let out a yell as he left the mound and it seemed to be directed at the home plate umpire, but I don’t think the strike zone was the problem; it was CC.

The Yankees had only one shot to get back in the game, and it came in the eighth. Curtis Granderson singled to lead off the inning, and Alex Rodríguez came up with one out. The play-by-play says “A Rodríguez flied out to left,” but that doesn’t tell the story. A-Rod jumped on the first pitch he saw from Cueto and appeared to crush it to left center. He immediately went into his “how you like me now” routine, flipping away his bat and looking into the Yankee dugout, confident he had put the ball into the seats and his team into the lead.

But the ball didn’t even get to the warning track before settling harmlessly into Chris Helsey’s glove. A-Rod posted an OPS of 1.067 when he won the American League MVP in 2007. Since then his OPS has looked like this: .965, .934, .847, .823, .767. (If you feel like your glass is a bit too half-full, take out a piece of graph paper and plot that progression out to 2017.) Through forty games this year Rodríguez has four doubles, five home runs, and 15 RBIs. This particular fly ball probably would’ve been a home run had it not been knocked down by the wind, but it was hard not to wonder. Is this what we have to look forward to for the next five years from our cleanup hitter? Warning track power?

Cueto cruised through the eighth before giving way to the triple-digit heat of Aroldis Chapman in the ninth. The Reds had plated two more runs in their half of the ninth, so nothing the Yankees did in the bottom half scared them at all. Reds 5, Yankees 2.

The Yanks have dropped five of six and now sit at 21-20, much closer to last place than first in the upside down American League East. There will be lots of angst in the papers and on the airwaves, so there’s no need for me to add to that here.

Things will get better. Mark Teixeira will be back on Monday. Brett Gardner will be back soon after that. A-Rod has to get at least a little better. The wins will come soon enough, and everything will look an awful lot better. I promise.

[Photo Credits: Al Bello/Getty Images]

Categories:  1: Featured  Game Recap  Hank Waddles  Yankees

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1 Alex Belth   ~  May 21, 2012 6:33 am

Terrific write up, Hank. And thank you for a much-needed dose of optimism.

2 The Hawk   ~  May 21, 2012 6:37 am

Great stuff, yeah. Though Teixeira coming back isn't exactly the cavalry arriving, if you know what I mean

3 OldYanksFan   ~  May 21, 2012 7:08 am


And I've watched some pretty hopeless teams.

While it was to be expected, Jeter has cooled down (in an early 2011 way) over the last 2 weeks, and his OPS and dropped .130 pts.

Swisher, since coming back, has lost about .100 OPS pts.

Grandy is still hitting well, but has also dropped a bit.

Basically, aside from Raoooooooooooooooool and Robbie, everyone has been shit the last 10 days.

And now CC has a mini-meltdown, and a slump busting Win turns into a loss.

I have been at this a loooooooong time, and am not a bridge jumper.
But Holy Shite..... this is not just ugly, but depressing.
When I ewatch games now, as opposed to expecting the Yanks to Win, I just hope they don't lose. Semantics? Maybe... but this team is missing something. They are actually playing like losers. It's like watching vintage KC teams over the last decade.... just waiting for the ball to drop.

I need a serious Winning streak here, because this team is so depressing now, they are hard to watch.

4 monkeypants   ~  May 21, 2012 7:27 am

[3] They don't depress me. They bore me. I could handle the losing better if the organization had some interesting young players to follow, or even they organization pursued a unique philosophy (we're only going to carry 10 pitchers, or we're going to go all Casey Stengel platoon crazy)---well, at least a more interesting philosophy than the revolving-door-DH-get-some sucky-play-as-many-ABs-as-possible philosophy.

But this team is dullsville.

Maybe when their most exciting young position player comes back, the 28 y.o. Brett Gardner, they'll be slightly more interesting.

5 kenboyer made me cry   ~  May 21, 2012 8:05 am

[4] Couldn't agree more with the boredom diagnosis. The vaunted circular line-up has become a thin arc. Aging superstars, too many deflating opponent home runs. No comeback wins. Angst and finally realization that Mo is gone for the year, but even if he were hale, he would not have been in these games. Girardi is depressingly regimented and non-dimensional. On and on.

Hopefully there is a few more weeks of exciting NY hockey, and then the attention will return to the Yankees. Maybe things will have turned around by then. I remain a fan for life, but I can't let this team get in the way of instead of enhancing life. We'll see.

6 Alex Belth   ~  May 21, 2012 8:38 am

It's fortunate that the rest of the contenders--Angels, Red Sox, Tigers--are also off to mediocre starts. There is still time.

I wonder what we would have said about the '78 Yanks if the Internet had existed back then.

7 Jon DeRosa   ~  May 21, 2012 8:51 am

Every year we come up with new excuses for being sore losers.

We like it when they win and they hit and pitch. We don't like it when they lose and make outs. Some of us take our frustrations out on the manager and his lineups, some of us on the GM and his roster, and some on the players and their slumps.

And when they start winning, we'll be psyched and make up reasons about why we've come around on the team just in time to enjoy the streak.

8 Chris in Sydney   ~  May 21, 2012 9:17 am

I getting really sick of hearing about how they're having good ABs, hitting balls hard, blah, blah, blah...

Never have I been more sick of it than when I watched ARod break into his "I'm wonderful" dance for a shot to the warning track. Jesus. Put your head down and run, fancy boy!

And it's nearly the end of May and our best hitter is Raul Ibanez!? Boy was I wrong about that one. That is the only move keeping us out of the cellar!!

Definitely Hard to Watch.

9 Alex Belth   ~  May 21, 2012 9:20 am

8) Yeah, not sure that A Rod does a lot of celebrating for warning track shots. And the fancy boy has 630 career homers. He isn't Mark Whitten for Pete's sake.

They've been frustrating but this isn't a horrible team. Flawed, for sure. And this might be one year where Cashman has to do some something to shake things up. But it could be far, far worse. This isn't the late '60s Yanks or the 1990 Yanks or even the 1987-88 Yanks.

Long time left. A good week or two and we'll have more faith.

10 Jon DeRosa   ~  May 21, 2012 10:04 am

Also, the Yankees may be playing boring baseball, but I don't think that's the same as being a boring team.

They have more interesting players on the DL than most franchises have in their entire system.

11 OldYanksFan   ~  May 21, 2012 10:58 am

It's also true that 4 players... Pineda, DRob, Gritner and Joba, who are all young and fun to watch, are on the DL. It's funny that the only 'old' guy hurt is Mo, and that was 'relatively not' age related, as much as a fluke (although maybe flukes happen more often to older players?).

I think they are boring because they are underperforming. It's boring to watch ARod rarely drive the ball... boring to watch Teix suck in almost every way... boring to not see Cano do amazing things with the bat. It was NOT boring watching Grandy late last year, or Jeter early this year.

I don't think the players themselves are boring. I just think the way they are playing is boring. I mean, weak grounders, DPs and non-stop RISP fail are 'boring' to watch.

12 monkeypants   ~  May 21, 2012 11:22 am

[11] Of course when the are playing well the team is not boring. My pint is that organizationally the Yankees are boring. They hired a safe, boring manager who speaks in safe sound bites. They nearly always make safe FA signings. They construct their rsoter in the most boring and predictable way. They do not really develop young talent all that well, it seems, so we are deprived of the irrational yet palpable joy of following "prospects" or watching "young" players develop.

And consider the young and exciting players whom you cite: Joba is surely not at all fun to watch, especially as the organization appears to have un-developed him with their crack young pitching prospect development plan (the same one that has made the even younger Phil Hughes un-fun to watch). Pineda---who is that? Oh yeah, he's the guy they traded their one blue chip prospect for, the one homegrown prospect with whom many of us had developed that irrational bond. I have no connection to Puneda. Maybe I would have had he not suffered from a catastrophic injury, which may prevent him from pitching effectively again. Gritner is already 28---he's not young, though he is exciting. DRob is already 27 and was the EIGTH INNING GUY before assuming the closer role and getting hurt. Maybe it's me, but I don't get that excited about relief pitchers.

So, when your "young" and "exciting" players are 27 and 28 already, and are hurt, you're not talking about a very exciting ball club, at least in this regard.

The only player I am interested in at this point is Jeter...he's the only player that interests me on a visceral level, even when he plays poorly. Just like Mattingly back in the day, he's the only player whose stat line I anticipate seeing in the box score every morning.

13 YankeeAbby   ~  May 21, 2012 12:41 pm

Tried to hang in there and watch the whole game, but got completely frustrated.

...I switched to watching Investigation Discovery Channel - was hoping to see an episode about who or what poisoned the Yankees offense!

14 weeping for brunnhilde   ~  May 21, 2012 1:15 pm

Great story about Luis Tiant, Hank. The second you said he was one of your favorite players, I anticipated your explanation exactly: Of course he was!

And I love that whenever I think of baseball cards I can instantly smell the chalky gum.

15 weeping for brunnhilde   ~  May 21, 2012 1:22 pm

[7] I don't know why, but that cracks me up, Jon. Thank you for that.

16 Chris in Sydney   ~  May 21, 2012 7:04 pm

[9] All true -- but hes still a fancy boy! :)

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