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And Down the Stretch They Come…

If there’s been one constant in the Yankee Universe over the past 100 years, it has been postseason baseball. There have been a few droughts — 1965 to 1975, 1982 to 1994 — but no franchise in the history of sports has enjoyed such consistent excellence. The Pinstripes have only missed the playoffs four times in the last 26 years, and while the 2009 World Series triumph might seem like a distant memory, we’ve been spoiled.

And so when things were at their darkest back in June and the Yankees were looking up at several teams in the standings, it wasn’t just October baseball that seemed unlikely. It didn’t feel like the Yankees would be playing meaningful games in September. We acted like spoiled children do everywhere. We screamed. We cried. We lashed out. We assured our non-Yankee-fan friends that all was lost, that this was the worst and most confounding Yankee team we’d ever seen. (They were confounding.) We wanted general manager Brian Cashman to sell at the deadline even though the roster had virtually no sellable pieces. We were insufferable.

But then the calendar rolled over into July, and the Yankees were much better. When August arrived they were even better than that, and in the first week of September the team now sits firmly in control of its own destiny. With the offense looking healthier each day (Gleyber Torres was activated on Friday) and the Baltimore Sacrificial Lambs coming to town for a three-game weekend series, all signs are pointing towards October baseball. Again.

Now if the Rays could only lose once or twice…

If the Season Ended Today…

When I woke up on Tuesday morning it occurred to me that the first game of the double header between the Yankees and the Red Sox would be arguably the most important game of the Yankees’ season.

Sure, the Yankees’ recent resurgence had paired nicely with Boston’s regression to the mean, trimming several games off of a lead that had seemed insurmountable when the Bombers limped out of Boston last month, but this one game seemed crucial to New York’s hopes. It isn’t just that the Yankees had lost their first seven games to the Red Sox this season and 10 of 13, it’s that they were embarrassingly bad in many of those losses. So even though the Yanks had gone 15-5 since that Fenway series while the Sox were 8-20, a loss on Tuesday afternoon would have erased all of that and sent a powerful message to players in both dugouts. Same old Yankees, same old Red Sox.

And so when Boston loaded the bases with none out in the top of the softball-seventh, the Yankees’ 5-3 lead looked about as solid as a Times Square umbrella. Not only were the Yankees going to lose, they were going to lose in 2021 fashion, promising you victory before ripping your heart out and holding it aloft, beating but still dying.

But Jonathan Loaisiga, the most consistent member of the battered bullpen, cleaned up his own mess, retiring Travis Shaw on a line drive and striking out Kiké Hernández and Hunter Refroe to close things out, the last strike coming on a 100-mph heater that overmatched Renfroe and tipped the balance of power in the game’s most storied rivalry. Last month the jeering chants from the Fenway faithful carried an eerie ring of truth, but Loaisiga’s primal scream from the mound following that final strikeout sounded an awful lot like 1978.

The night cap was much less dramatic — solo homers by Luke Voit and Giancarlo Stanton gave the Yankees all they needed for a 2-0 win behind the historically precocious Luí Gil — and even the ending was uneventful. Chad Green’s three-up-three-down save was delightfully boring.

Yes, the Tampa Bay Rays are still five games clear of the Yankees, and yes, there are still 42 games left to play, but I no longer look at those 42 games with dread.

The last time the Yankees played a double header was on the Fourth of July. After they opened with a horrific loss to the Mets, I honestly hoped that Aaron Boone would be fired in between games. Only a young George Steinbrenner would’ve been bold enough for something like that, and it turned out to be a good thing that his son Hal is not as rash. No matter what happens with the Rays or the White Sox or the Astros, Boone is almost assuredly the American League Manager of the Year. There were times this season (last week even) when the players on the injured list could form a better team than the one on the field, but Boone has somehow not only kept his group afloat through one devastating loss after another, he’s had them playing their best baseball after most observers had written them off.

An entire starting rotation and a closer on the injured list? No problem. We’ll call up a kid from AAA (Luís Gil) and watch him become the first pitcher in more than a century to start his career with fifteen or more innings pitched over three scoreless starts. Not a lot of home run power? No problem. We’ll just become a running team. Since the All Star break, no team in baseball has stolen more bases than the Yankees.

When things were darkest, I found myself wishing for a firing, but even then I knew that the sky was not falling because of any decisions Aaron Boone was making or not making. I wanted a change simply for the sake of change, simply to send a message, but instead Brian Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner chose to send another message — “We believe in this team.” On Tuesday afternoon and Tuesday night, their faith was repaid.

When Aaron Judge was scratched from a lineup during the days before the trading deadline, Yankee Twitter immediately lit up with worries that the centerpiece of the team was being traded. Many voices wanted the Yankees to buy sellers at the deadline, not buyers. Less than a month later, those concerns are forgotten.

If the season ended today, the Yankees would be in the playoffs.

If They Pimp It, They Will Play

Yanks and the formidable Chicago White Sox play in the Field of Dreams tonight.

Oh, what nostalgia. Not for me. But, still. LOL.

Hope it provides some dumb fun.

Yanks on a little run here. Funski.

Never mind the sentiment:

Let’s Go Yank-ees!

New World Order


I like to imagine that somewhere out there are Yankee fans who were off the grid for a few months. They jumped on the internet the first chance they got, and lots of things were the same in Yankeetown.

The first thing they’d notice is that the team is still scuffling, teasing fans into thinking about a World Series one day, ripping their hearts out the next. They’d check on Aaron Judge and be relieved that he’s healthy and still one of the best players in the league. They’d see that Aroldis Chapman has a boatload of saves and has been lights out recently, no concerns there. (Don’t bother telling them; they’d never believe you.)

But then they’d look more closely, and nothing would make sense. Anthony Rizzo playing first base and carrying the Yankee offense? Joey Gallo in the outfield and providing another left-handed bat in the lineup? Rougned Odor at third instead of second? Jameson Taillon was American League Pitcher of the Month in July?

GIANCARLO STANTON WITH A GLOVE ON HIS HAND??? This is obviously the most preposterous development of the past season. After spending two years as a full-time DH, removing any lineup flexibility that would’ve allowed occasional half days for Judge or Gary Sánchez, Stanton is suddenly a versatile corner outfielder, looking adequate in left field one night and right field the next. (The irony of all this is that recently he’s been hitting like a utility infielder, continuing the Yankees’ season-long theme of “two steps forward, two steps back.” Nice for salsa dancing, not for baseball.)

If one those out-of-touch Yankee fans had sat down next to you on the couch for the series opener against the hapless Baltimore Orioles on Monday night, you’d likely have turned to your guest and said, “This is what I’m saying.”

The ballpark was buzzing, the Bleacher Creatures were in full throat, the lineup was delightfully staggered, and the worst team in the American League had generously tied a sacrificial lamb to the mound. You just knew that Rizzo or Gallo or both would launch bombs into the bleachers. You just knew that the momentum from the weekend’s South Beach sweep and the energy of the Bronx would push the Bombers to a big win. You just knew the season had turned.

Didn’t you?

But then Andrew Heaney, the newest Yankee starter, gave up four solo home runs. And then Jorge López and his 6.19 ERA carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning. And then Aaron Boone played the infield back with a runner on third in the eighth even though he was already down by five because probably even he knew how ridiculous the game had become.

It was one of those games, and if the outcome felt familiar it’s because the 2021 Yankees haven’t won a game in which they trailed by four runs or more at any point. Comeback Kids they aren’t.

Oh, and then Boone opened his postgame presser by casually mentioning that Gerrit Cole would miss his Tuesday start because he had tested positive for Covid. (Don’t worry; we’ve got Heaney.)

But. Still.

Somehow I’m still excited about this team. Somehow I’m still looking forward to seeing Corey Kluber and Luís Severino on the mound later this month. Somehow I’m still excited about a playoff run in September and big games in October.

Somehow I still believe. Do you?

Bad News Bombers?

What if — now hear me out — what if it’s possible?

It demands either optimism or delusion to think positively about a team that’s in fourth place in the division and fifth place in the wildcard race, but here we are. This modest stretch of success, taking two of three first from the Astros and then from the Red Sox, feels significant, but we’ll have to wait a bit until we know whether we’ve finally found the oasis or been taken in by a mirage.

But what if it’s real?

The lineup posted for Sunday night’s Red Sox game certainly didn’t give much reason for optimism. While the top four (D.J. LeMahieu, Giancarlo Stanton, Gary Sánchez, Gleyber Torres) might’ve made sense back in April, the next five were simply preposterous. Four of the players were guys I hadn’t heard of back in April; three of them I hadn’t heard of two weeks ago.

We were promised an outfield of Clint Frazier, Aaron Hicks, and Aaron Judge, but for various reasons (mysterious dizziness, wrist surgery, and Covid-19, from left to right) Aaron Boone is left with Ryan LaMarre, Greg Allen, and Trey Amburgey. Seriously.

While it’s tempting to be critical of management for not jumping on Joc Pedersen when the Cubs unloaded him to the Atlanta Braves, here’s the counterpoint — no team in my memory has seen such a devastating stretch of injuries and extenuating circumstances impact a single position group like this. Looking at it from an organizational standpoint, the Yankees are currently working with their fifth outfielder (Brett Gardner), a converted utility infielder (Tyler Wade), and the starting outfield of the Scranton-Wilkes Barre Rail Riders. (LaMarre, Allen, and Amberguey).

But here’s the thing. Not only did the Yankees take the series against Boston with a decisive 9-1 win, they looked good on Sunday night. They were having fun.

The names you know were 2 for 15 (a single for LeMahieu and a hope-inducing homer for Torres), but the interlopers carried the day. LaMarre and the stylish Rougned Odor had two-run homers, and LaMarre and Allen each had a stolen base. (I’d look up the last time a Yankee had a home run and a stolen base in the same game, but I fear the answer might be Rickey Henderson, which would make be too sad to finish this post.)

While fans might the lament the lack of star power in the lineup, part of the appeal of what we saw over the weekend came from the joy of the players wearing the uniform, the clear appreciation of these unexpected opportunities.

LaMarre, a thirty-two-year-old journeyman who is hardly a kid, took a tumble that was serious enough to draw his manager all the way out to right field to check on him, but the outfielder stayed in the game. “I told Boonie that I’m not coming out of the game,” he explained. “You don’t get too many chances to wear pinstripes, so I want to take advantage of every inning that I get out there.”

It isn’t reasonable to expect these Bad News Bombers to make a realistic playoff push, but if they can at least keep up the illusion for another week or so until Aaron Judge, Gio Urshella, and maybe Luke Voit can rejoin the team, the playoffs will be a possibility.

Seriously.

A Swiftly Tilting Universe

When Gary Sánchez jumped on an 0-2 fastball from Houston’s Blake Taylor in the top of the 8th inning, he did more than just give the Yankees an insurmountable 7-2 lead. Before he had even finished the follow through on a swing so pure that it must’ve been hard for any observer to imagine his two-year slump, it felt as if we were witnessing a massive recalibration of Yankees Universe.

With just six more outs the Bombers would complete not just a 5-1 road trip heading into the All-Star break, but a decisive three-game sweep of the team that has clearly surpassed the Red Sox as the principal villains on the Yankee schedule.

Nestor Cortes, who always looks to me like he’s just gotten off his shift at Ray’s Pizza (Original Ray’s, not Famous Rays), started the opener and came an out shy of qualifying for the win but still lowered his ERA to a city-best 1.05 as the Yankees set the tone with a 4-0 win.

Cortes was impressive, but on Saturday evening Gerrit Cole was phenomenal. After yielding nine runs in eight and a third innings over two mediocre starts, the whispers were no longer whispers. Cole had struggled since baseball’s crackdown on illegal substances, and suddenly the most important member of the Yankee pitching staff — in 2021 and for the next five years — was no longer a known quantity.

Given those circumstances along with the current desperation of his team, his complete game shutout in the middle game of the series was his most important and most impressive outing in pinstripes. When Cole struck out Robel García with his 112th pitch to close out the eighth inning with a slim 1-0 lead, anyone who’s been watching baseball for the past decade logically assumed his night was complete, even it wasn’t statistically complete. So when Cole climbed back out of the dugout for the ninth inning to act as his own closer, it was as if we were all stepping back in time.

Perhaps we weren’t headed all the way to the days of Tom Seaver, who hit double-digits in complete games in each of his first eleven seasons, or Bob Gibson, who had fifty-six complete games over 1968 and ’69, but it felt a lot like Jack Morris’s World-Series-clinching ten-inning shutout of the Atlanta Braves in 1991. (I understand that a performance like that in Game 7 of the World Series puts Morris on another level, but if we focus just on the pitching, this is a good comparison.) While Morris pitched all ten of his innings that October night without any runs on the board for either team, Cole worked his masterpiece with the benefit of just a single run, courtesy of an Aaron Judge homer (more on this later).

Like Morris three decades ago, Cole impressed just as much with his determination as with his brilliant stuff. After a lead-off single to José Altuve forced Cole to work the the rest of the ninth inning with the game-winning run standing in the batter’s box, the once and future Yankee ace took hold of the moment and refused to let it go. A ten-pitch battle with Michael Brantley ended with a harmless fly ball to center field for the first out, and then Yuli Gurriél went down on three quick strikes. What followed is the stuff of legend.

When Cole had last faced the Yankees back in May, Yordan Álvarez had touched him twice for two long home runs, so it was no surprise that Aaron Boone popped out of the dugout as the Houston slugger made his way to the plate to face a hurler who had already thrown 126 pitches. Pulling Cole would’ve been the easiest decision of Boone’s night, and it would’ve been that rare move that could never have been second guessed. After all, this is 2021, not 1951.

But Gerrit Cole was not ready to go quietly into that good-night. Surrounded by an infield ready to pat him on the back, Cole greeted his manager with defiance rather than deference, his head bobbing to punctuate words that didn’t need to be heard to be understood. When asked afterwards what he had said, Cole admitted that, “I said the f-word a lot, and I kind of just blacked out. I don’t really remember what I told him, to be honest.”

Whatever he said, he won his case, then threw three fastballs past Álvarez at 97, 99, and 99 miles per hour, the last pitch accompanied by a primal scream that echoed from Houston to the Bronx and back again. In a month that had seen two of the worst regular season losses in recent memory, Cole had spun a superlative on the other end of the spectrum, giving goosebumps and optimism to Yankee fans everywhere.

The Yankees hung on to that momentum into the third game, plating single runs in the third, fourth, fifth, and seventh behind an impressive effort from starting pitcher Jamieson Taillon, so when the Kracken launched that three-run homer in the top of the eighth, I celebrated.

After a long first half of mediocrity and several different losses that felt like rock bottom, I truly believed the team had found itself, and perhaps even forged a new identity. Saturday’s game had ended with the signature moment of Cole’s defiance and determination, but there was a moment during Judge’s home run trot that seemed, at the time, to carry more longterm weight than anything happening on the pitcher’s mound.

As Judge rounded third, he took a quick peek into the Yankee dugout before clutching his jersey with two hands and pulling it tight, clearly mimicking Altúve’s celebration after his ALCS-clinching homer in 2019, an action that led to rampant speculation about cheating that was more high-tech than just the banging of a trash can.

It was a decidedly un-Yankee-like moment for the de facto captain of this team, an on-field jab at an opponent that we never would’ve seen from Jeter or Mattingly or Randolph or even Munson, but it seemed like exactly what this team needed. When asked about it afterwards, Judge smiled mischievously and talked about how chilly it is in Houston in July. He was just reminding the guys, he said, to stay warm.

Joe DiMaggio was probably spinning in his grave, but the modern day Yankees welcomed the opportunity to join the rest of baseball in 2021. When Sánchez returned to the dugout after his blast, his teammates had somehow found a parka, and he wore it draped over his shoulders (stay warm!) as he paced up and down, accepting congratulations.

It was a happy time. The Yankees would surely close out this game and head into the much needed break in the best possible way. Only a week earlier I had texted friends saying, “The Yankees aren’t going to make the playoffs, but for real this time.” But thanks to this series — thanks to Judge, thanks to Cole, thanks to the Kracken — all of that Sturm und Drang had washed away. The Yankees were back.

But you know what happened next.

The stunning part of this latest ninth-inning collapse wasn’t so much that it happened — we’ve grown used to this now — but how quickly things fell apart, how quickly the universe tilted back into disarray. And unlike previous games, it was hard to question any of the manager’s decisions.

Domingo Germán had looked great in two innings of relief of Taillon, and with a five-run lead and Jonathan Loaisiga on the Covid list and Aroldis Chapman on the what-the-hell-is-wrong-with-you list, it made sense to roll with Germán through the ninth.

And you know easily things could have broken differently? Gurriél led off the inning with a single, but it was a ball that dribbled down the third base line before dying in the grass for a base hit. Two pitches later Kyle Tucker hit a rocket off the wall in left for a double, and Green was done.

The unhittable Chad Green came in at 4:39 local time, and things combusted quickly.

4:40 — Double by McCormick, 7-4 Yankees.
4:42 — Double by Toro, 7-5 Yankees.
4:44 — Single by Castro.
4:46 — Line out by Maldonado, one out.
4:49 — Home run by Altúve, 8-7 Astros.

Ryan Roucco described it perfectly: “A crushing gut punch here in the ninth.”

LoCastro might have had a shot at McCormick’s double, Judge had come about two inches short of catching Toro’s double, and Torres really seemed to have skillfully dropped Maldonado’s lineout, setting up what should’ve been an easy double play. Had just one of those butterflies flapped its wings, the Houston rally might not have happened.

But it did happen. As Altúve stepped on home plate to complete the comeback, the smallest man in the ballpark disappeared beneath a horde of celebrating teammates. He was shirtless when he emerged, giving the Astros not just a win but the final word in the conversation Judge had started the night before.

So where do we go from here? If there’s one thing we know, it’s this — no team in baseball has the experience that this team does in rebounding from devastating losses. The only difference now is that they’ll have to rebound with a roster decimated by Covid and against the Boston Red Sox.

We. Shall. See.

Houston, We Have a Problem

If the Yankees were 54-32 and comfortably cruising towards the playoffs rather than 44-42 and desperately clinging to dwindling hopes, this weekend’s series with the Houston Astros would be filled with drama and secondary storylines. We’d be gnashing our teeth heading into a three-game set with a team that isn’t just the class of the American League but a true Yankee nemesis filled with villains up and down the lineup.

But as things are, the Yankees can’t afford to worry about which team is in the opposing dugout. Whether it’s the Astros or the Orioles, the Yankees need wins and lots of them. They’ve put themselves in a position where they’re essentially already in the playoffs, but instead of a five-game series they’re engaged in an eleven-week crucible that demands they win five of every eight games at a minimum. They’ll either eliminate themselves early and limp to the finish line, or they’ll arrive in October battle scarred and forged into a team no one will want to play.

Can this team pull off such a feat? That’s the true value of a series like this. The Yankees can’t afford to think about revenge. Should Aroldis Chapman wind up facing José Altuve with a one-run lead in the ninth inning (gulp!), it won’t make sense to think back to how the Yankee season ended in 2019. Winning two or three games this weekend obviously won’t change the outcomes of either 2017 or 2019, nor will it guarantee anything this season. If the Yankees manage to win twice this weekend, it will simply mean that they’ll need to win just 48 games the rest of the way instead of 50. First-half mediocrity brings nothing but second-half pragmatism.

The good news? It’s possible. Sure, Thursday saw the Yankees fall into old habits as they made a rookie pitcher look like Sandy Koufax and failed to close the deal on a potential series sweep, but there are positive developments that give reason for optimism. Luke Voit had seven hits in eight at bats during the first two games of the Seattle series, Gary Sánchez is a serious offensive threat again, and were it not for the most anti-climactic MVP race I can remember, Aaron Judge would be a strong candidate for the award.

So buckle up, everybody. We’re about to learn something.

Hello, Darkness, My Old Friend

I think I’ve decided that this is it. This is the team we have.

In the three weeks since I last opined in this space, the team has changed and changed back again, teasing us into optimism with flashes of quality play but then falling back into their old ways, cruelly reminding us that we should’ve known better.

Aaron Judge continues to have a fine season. He’s been the one truly consistent Yankee in the lineup, but in a season which needs 2017 Judge, his consistency has been hardly noticeable. Giancarlo Stanton will have a week here or there during which it’s hard to imagine why anyone would ever pitch to him, but then he’ll spend the next week flailing at sliders six inches off the plate. Gleyber Torres has seemed so lost that I’ve caught myself wondering if a week or two in Scranton might do him some good.

Oh, but there’s been good news. Although D.J. LeMaheiu spent the first sixty games hitting a hundred points less than he did in last year’s sixty-game season, he’s been showing some signs of life recently, hitting closer to .300 in June. And if I had told you a month ago that Gary Sánchez would be the team’s best hitter at this point, would you ever have believed me? The Kracken has been slashing at .300/.372/.686 this month, featuring six doubles and seven homers; he had three doubles and six homers in April and May combined.

So as we heard several times this weekend from the YES broadcast crew, it’s been two steps forward and two steps back for the Yankees for a while now. That’s works fine for salsa dancing, but when you’re trying to make up ground in the suddenly-deep-again American League East, not so much.

All of this made this weekend’s series with the Red Sox even more critical than such games usually are. Winning two of three or — dare to dream — a sweep would have erased an awful lot of the frustration of the past few months, but when the Yankees dropped close ones on Friday (5-3) and Saturday (4-2), Sunday suddenly felt like a must-win game. Thankfully, Gerrit Cole was on the mound.

But if you’re reading this, you know what happened. Making his first Fenway start in pinstripes, Cole did not deliver. His first pitch was rocketed over the Green Monster by Kiké Hernández, Alex Verdugo doubled a few pitches after that, and two batters later Rafael Devers launched an 0-2 pitch 470 feet into the seats. There were still eight innings to go, but the game was over.

And you know the strangest part of the whole afternoon? I sat there and watched the whole thing. When Aaron Judge hit a two-run homer in the sixth to cut the lead to 6-2, I found myself getting hopeful. When the Yankees loaded the bases with one out in the seventh and LeMahieu and Judge due up, I started thinking about what a big win this could be.

But when my optimism was repaid with a 9-2 loss and I was forced to look back over an abysmal nine innings, I finally allowed myself to answer the question I posed in this space three weeks ago.

Yes. This is the team we have.

I’ve never really subscribed to the theory that teams built around power can’t win in the postseason, so the structure of this team never bothered me. After all, if you have the major league leaders in batting (LeMahieu) and home runs (Luke Voit), and then you add Judge, Stanton, and Sánchez, you’re obviously going to score a lot of runs. Yet only two teams in the American League, the Tigers and Orioles, have scored fewer runs than the Bronx Bombers, and if you watched the three Fenway games, it isn’t hard to see why.

The Red Sox outscored the Yankees 18-7, but the hit and walk totals were much closer — 38-35. The Yankees had plenty of opportunities to score runs, but they weren’t able to. We’ve been told that runs batted in is a meaningless stat in this era of statistical enlightenment, but here’s something that is enlightening. Aaron Judge leads the Yankees with 42 RBIs. Heading into Sunday’s game his then forty RBIs ranked 54th in baseball. I have neither the time nor the inclination to research this, but I’d guess it’s been decades since the Yankees’ leading RBI man ranked that low. (For comparison’s sake, Rafael Devers and Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., are tied for the lead with 68.)

If we were to rewind the season back to April and play it again, I’m not sure what would happen. If we were to simulate the season a few thousand times, exactly how many times would we see a team this talented look so similar to the Orioles or the Tigers or the Royals? (For the record, the number crunchers over at fivethirtyeight.com haven’t lost faith in our Yankees. Their statistical models see the Bombers as the fifth best team in baseball, but the same model also projects them to 87-75 and gives them only a 36% chance to make the playoffs, which feels about right.)

But we aren’t living in a simulation, and we can’t turn back the clock. Today the Yankees lost in embarrassing fashion, their sixth straight loss to the Red Sox, and they sit in fourth place at 40-37, six and a half games behind Boston. It doesn’t get much more real than that.

The Truth Hits Everybody

The Yankees trailed the Red Sox by a run heading into the bottom of the ninth inning on Sunday night, but there was initially no reason to believe that they had, as Michael Kay is fond of saying, a rally in their bones. Things looked worse after D.J. LeMahieu grounded out meekly to second to open the inning, but then Aaron Judge walked and Gleyber Torres drove him home with a rocketed double down the line, and suddenly the game was tied at four. There was hope.

Gio Urshella whiffed for the second out, but after the Red Sox issued an intentional pass to Gary Sánchez, Rougned Odor came to the plate with a chance to end the game with a base hit. Torres managed to increase the pressure by stealing third base during the at bat, and when Boston closer Matt Barnes wasn’t able to bend a full-count curveball into the strike zone, Odor flipped his bat down onto the plate and turned towards first, delivering what should’ve been a bases loaded opportunity for Clint Frazier.

But home plate umpire Gabe Morales called the pitch a strike and the inning was over.

To be clear, this wasn’t a ball on the edge of the plate that could’ve gone either way. Barnes’s curveball had started wide and had never sniffed the strike zone, a fact clear to both the naked eye and the robotic. It was widely reported that the ball had been 4.55 inches off the plate. Had Odor swung and missed he’d have been chastised for chasing ball four.

Frustrations from a week of futility spilled over immediately as the Yankee dugout erupted. If ever there was a time for a manager to get himself ejected this was the moment, but somehow Aaron Boone remained calm as all those around him lost their heads, most notably third base coach Phil Nevin. That called third strike had not only thwarted a potential game-winning rally, it had offered proof of what was already clear to see. Xander Bogaerts’s two-run double in the top of the tenth stands as the game winner, but that’s like saying Oedipus wasn’t truly ruined until he gouged out his eyes. The fates had conspired against these Yankees.

But if you’ve paying attention, you know that’s a foolish way of looking at things. If the Yankees had become the juggernauts the world expected they’d be and were enjoying a seven-game division lead, they could be excused for dwelling on the misfortune of an umpire’s mistake. It would be understandable that they’d tie the outcome of a game to the temporary myopia of Gabe Morales. But you and I know the truth.

This Yankee offense is historically bad, and it no longer matters whether it’s a team-wide slump, an injury-induced malaise, or something as simple as a coin landing heads 54 times in a row.

Here’s Exhibit A — the historical production of the expected lineup, with the slash lines (AVG/OBA/SLG) from each hitter’s best season, his average season, and (aside from Judge) the trainwreck of 2021. Take a look if you dare.

Player Best Average 2021
Sánchez   ’17: 278/345/531   234/321/493   210/331/384
Voit   ’20: 277/338/610   269/360/514   182/280/250
LeMahieu   ’20: 364/421/590   302/356/425   253/335/321
Urshella   ’19: 314/355/534   272/321/430   269/314/420
Torres   ’19: 278/337/535   271/342/475   272/351/364
Frazier   ’20: 267/394/511   241/325/440   185/305/318
Hicks   ’18: 248/366/467   233/330/399   194/294/333
Judge   ’17: 284/422/627   275/391/556   295/398/540
Stanton   ’17: 281/376/631   267/358/543   252/326/465

It wouldn’t have been reasonable to expect or even hope for all nine players to stay healthy and produce like the far left column in 2021 (that team would win 125-130 games), but I’m sure Brian Cashman and Aaron Boone were counting on the middle column or better. As it turns out, they haven’t gotten close to that. Take a closer look…

  • Not a single player is anywhere close to his career best. In fact, here’s the average differential: -48/-47/-182.
  • Five different players (Sánchez, Voit, LeMahieu, Torres, and Frazier) are slugging more than one hundred points south of their career averages.
  • Two of those players, Luke Voit and D.J. LeMaheiu, somehow have slugging percentages that are lower than their on base percentages.
  • Of the 27 comparable statistics (nine players x BA/OBP/SLG), only two players are exceeding one of the slash numbers from their career best season: Gleyber Torres’s on base percentage (.351|.337) and Aaron Judge’s batting average (.295|.284).

And so even if you want to blame Sunday night’s loss on an umpire’s interpretation of a single pitch thrown in the bottom of the ninth inning, the much larger concern is that during a seven-game homestand against the Rays and the Red Sox, the Yankees went 2-5 while scoring just 22 runs. But really, even that is a minor concern. Here are some things the Bronx Bombers should really be worried about:

  • Only four teams in baseball have scored fewer runs than the Yankees.
  • Only five teams have a lower slugging percentage.
  • No team has hit fewer doubles.
  • No team has hit into more double plays.
  • No team has made more outs on the bases.
  • No team has seen more runners thrown out at the plate.
  • No team has taken fewer extra bases.

Since April we’ve been hearing that these things will turn around, that players will begin to hit like what we see on the backs of their baseball cards, but we’re sixty games into the season. In the old days managers were often criticized for sitting on their hands and waiting for a three-run homer, but this team is waiting for so much more than that.

What if it never happens?

Why Does Everyone Hate Baseball?

Yanks are bumping along. Some guys like Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Hicks, both easy to root for, can’t stay on the field, which makes it frustrating to root for them.

Been listening to a majority of the games this year on the radio with John and Suzyn. They spend a good bit of each broadcast complaining about the state of the game today. And not just in the generic it-was-better-in-my-day kvetching, but unrelenting annoyance at what they are watching. Then I read baseball coverage or look at what’s being said on Twitter and whether you are an old school fan or a woke seamhead one thing everyone has in common is that they think the game is in a bad place aesthetically. And I cannot disagree though I have nothing insightful to suggest to make things better.

Is baseball the only sport where you see this much complaining by announcers, writers, and fans about the game itself?

More in Texas tonight.

Let’s Go Yank-ees!

Picture by Bags

When Up Is Down, and Down Is Up

A couple of hours before first pitch every game day, my phone dutifully buzzes to announce the Yankees’ starting lineup. Back during spring training, even when I wasn’t watching the games, I would still take a look at the batting order and marvel. More than once I caught myself saying, “Man, this offense is going to be really good.”

For the past twenty-five years, the Yankees have always been really good, and most years they’ve fielded one of the top two or three offenses in the sport. You know, Bronx Bombers and all.

But this year seemed like it might be different. I found myself wondering about preposterous possibilities. Sure, D.J. LeMaheiu had led the league in batting average and on-base percentage in 2020, but what might happen if Aaron Judge’s name was on the lineup card behind him 150 times? What if Aaron Hicks and Giancarlo Stanton stayed healthy? What if Gary Sánchez hit even .250 with 25 home runs? What if Clint Frazier built on the quiet success of last season and blossomed into a star?

All baseball fans are overly optimistic in March, but none of those hypotheticals seemed unreasonable back then. None of those things even seemed unlikely.

Well, we know what happened. The Yankee bats waited a few weeks to fly north after spring training, and the result was nothing anyone could’ve expected. On most nights through April and into the first weekend of May, manager Aaron Boone submitted a lineup card with three or four hitters batting below .200 because he simply had no better choices. A recent string of games against some of the weaker pitching staffs in the league has restored some confidence and allowed the Yankees to even their record at 14-14, but there are still concerns up and down the lineup.

We’re three days into May and Gleyber Torres hasn’t hit a home run. Aaron Hicks is hitting far less than his weight, Clint Frazier is no doubt wondering if he might be headed back to Scranton, and while there is a Yankee catcher with an OPS over a thousand, his name is Kyle Higashioka, not Gary Sanchez.

Perhaps inexplicably, I remain a Sanchez supporter, but after teasing us with home runs in the first two games of the season, Sanchez has managed just eight hits and a single RBI over the 17 games since that promising start. The player often referred to as the best pure hitter in the organization now has an OPS (.619) that is lower than Higashioka’s slugging percentage (.706). Every single Yankee season preview devoted a paragraph or two to the Mystery of the Kraken, and most observers marveled that a player as gifted as Sanchez could see his skills completely evaporate during what should’ve been the prime of his career. The Yankees are 6-12 in games when Sanchez starts behind the plate, and 8-2 when he doesn’t. At this point, Higashioka is the best catcher in pinstripes, and everyone knows it.

Oh, but there’s good news, and it abounds from the mound.

Everything begins with Gerit Cole, and even though anyone reading this already knows that he’s been the best pitcher in the American League this season, he’s probably been even better than most people realize.

Cole’s “worst” game was the season opener, in which he pitched a pedestrian five and a third innings, allowing two runs while striking out eight and walking two. It wasn’t a bad outing by any stretch, but his five starts since then have been ridiculous. In 32.1 innings he’s yielded just 19 hits and 4 earned runs, but that isn’t the amazing part. He’s posted 54 strikeouts while walking just one batter; over his last three starts those numbers are 33 and 0.

We’re only five weeks into the season, but we’re clearly watching something historic. The most dominant season by a Yankee starting pitcher in my lifetime was Ron Guidry in 1978. (I was nine years old that October when I created a Ron Guidry costume for Halloween; none of our neighbors in Naperville, Illinois, had any idea what I was doing.)

Should Cole approach Guidry’s legendary season — 25-3, 1.74 ERA, 248 Ks — he would cement himself in Yankee lore forever, but the Cole-Guidry comparison is about more than just numbers. When Cole is pitching at home and finds himself in a two-strike count with two outs in an inning, the Stadium crowd will rise to its feet in anticipation, bridging four decades with a tradition that stretches back to June 17, 1978, the day when Guidry struck out 18 California Angels. Unlike any Yankee starting pitcher since that season, including Clemens and Sabathia and Cone and Pettitte and Mussina, Cole is a flamethrower who seems to have the ability to overwhelm any hitter any time he wants. If you haven’t already begun to plan your week around his starts or schedule your DVR to record his games, it’s time to start.

If there’s been a pitcher more dominant than Cole this season, albeit in smaller doses, it’s been closer Aroldis Chapman. Last year we were constantly reminded that Chapman had lost velocity, but that’s no longer a concern. His fastball is regularly topping out in triple digits, and he’s added a sinker that also hits the century mark. If none of that seems fair as you read from behind the safety of your computer screen, just imagine standing in the batter’s box. Chapman has faced 35 hitters in his ten appearances, and struck out 24 of them. He hasn’t allowed a single runner to get past second base. There are certainly those fans who will withhold judgment until they see him duplicate this in October, but Chapman has shown enough to allow me to move past his playoff disappointments.

Built largely around the dominance of Cole and Chapman, it’s been the Yankees’ pitching, not the hitting, that has kept the team afloat and finally allowed them to climb all the way back to an even 14-14. The staff leads the American League in strikeouts, ERA, and strikeout to walk ratio. The top three arms in the bullpen — Chad Green, Jonathan Loaisiga, and Chapman — have combined for a preposterous stat line: 43 IP/56Ks/8BBs and an ERA of 0.83. The starting rotation behind Cole has also been rounding into form, with Corey Kluber, Jordan Montgomery, Jameson Taillon, and Domingo German all posting excellent outings this week, highlighted by Kluber’s eight shutout innings on Sunday, a dazzling performance that gave him his first Yankee win and the 100th win of his career.

I doubt that things will continue exactly as they are. We’ll begin to see more from the offense (Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton have shown encouraging signs), and it’s possible that Gerit Cole might walk a batter at some point, but if we forget the record for a moment, there’s a lot to be happy about after these first twenty-eight games. In fact, I’d argue that if April had gone as expected, with the offense outslugging the opponents on most nights to cover for mediocre pitching performances, we’d all be more worried than we are right now.

Handshake

Jackie Robinson & George Shuba, Opening Day April 18, 1946
© Mike Shuba, from the webpage The Undefeated from an article by William Weinbaum

What does it all mean? Tracing great events and legacies back to simple moments floating ephemerally in time, waiting for the moment to enrich our understanding of humanity. Through good and bad times.  For richer or poorer. Greatness and scorn.  We live in our moments and pass along to the next, hoping to hold onto the greater fo these and pass along the erst, yet some return to bring either destruction or construction.  In this case, let us say we as fans of baseball should always grab hold of moments like this no matter when they reveal themselves again; such as the light traversing the cosmos they bring revelations through time that may stir even greater events in our own time.

This article, written by William Weinbaum for ESPN’s The Undefeated, touches on such light, describing the powerful significance it has in store. Thank you, Mr. Shuba and Mr. Robinson, for this touching and informative moment, and thank you to Mr. Mike Shuba and Mr. Weinbaum for your diligence in rediscovering and bringing this moment along with the memories and lessons it conveys back to tour time.

Not Your Father’s Rivalry

For the last few years of the last century and the first few years of this one, the rivalry between the Yankees and the Red Sox was as fierce as it had ever been. The Yankees of Jeter and Bernie and Mariano and Posada were on the rise, winning the World Series four times in five years, and the Red Sox were arguably the second-best team in baseball over that stretch.

Whether in the Bronx or Fenway, regular season games carried the intensity of any World Series game played in that era, and any fan from either side of the rivalry whose memory stretches back that far can rattle of an impressive list of dramatic moments — Derek Jeter stumbling out of the stands with blood dripping from his face, Jason Varitek and Alex Rodríguez scrapping at home plate, Pedro Martínez sending Jeter and Alfonso Soriano to the hospital, Mike Mussina losing a perfect game with two strikes and two outs in the ninth inning.

When Major League Baseball switched to an unbalanced schedule in 2001, suddenly the two rivals were matching up 18 or 19 times a season, and each three- or four-game series would drain days off my life. The games would routinely push the four-hour mark, but there were moments within each game that seemed to bend time. Manny Ramírez and David Ortíz used to hit third and fourth, and while their consecutive at bats might only have lasted three of four minutes, the tension — the absolute fear — made watching their plate appearances feel like a punishment dreamed up by Dante.

The Red Sox were a great team, but they were filled with villains. I could never really hate Manny, but I had plenty of venom for other Boston players. We all did. While standing at a Stadium souvenir stand once, a guy turned to me and said, “Fuckin’ Youkilis…” He apologized for his language when he noticed I was holding my three-year-old daughter, but I shook him off. “Don’t worry about it,” I said. “She needs to know.”

All of this escalated more than a little bit when the teams met in the American League Championship Series. I’ve been lucky enough to watch the Yankees play in the World Series ten times, but nothing in their seven wins or three losses — not even 2001 — compares to what happened in the ’03 and ’04 playoffs.

Pedro Martínez reached new depths in 2003 when he plunked Karím García and then tossed 73-year-old Don Zimmer to the ground in Game 3, setting up the drama of Game 7, when he coughed up a three-run lead in the eighth. (Seventeen years later, the highlight clip still gives me goosebumps.) It might seem like blasphemy, but when Aaron Boone hit his walk-off homer three innings later, I knew that the World Series would neither compare nor matter.

In 2004, of course, the Red Sox got their revenge. Before that year’s ALCS, I thought the 2001 World Series would live on as my ultimate Yankee tragedy, but standing by as the Sox climbed out of their 0-3 hole was like watching that bloop single from Luís González four nights in a row. Like having your Promethean heart ripped out by the vultures day after day after day after day.

So here’s my point. THAT was a rivalry. And now we’ve got… the Tampa Bay Rays?

There are so many reasons why I should care about the Rays the way I cared about the Red Sox twenty years ago — the way I care about the Red Sox right now — but I just can’t muster the interest, let alone the hatred.

It should be enough that the Rays maneuvered their way to a division championship last season, but that flag will always have an asterisk on it. It should be enough that Kevin Cash is even more irritating than Alex Cora, but when he threatened to have his stable of relievers throw at Yankee heads, he seemed to be reading from a rejected WWE script. It should be enough that the Rays ended the Yankees’ season last October with a dramatic walk-off blast, but I don’t even remember the name of the kid who hit it.

I’m not being intentionally condescending. There are a lot of things that I like about Tampa Bay. The openers, the incessant shifting, the four outfielders — I love all of those innovations, and I respect what they’ve done without any of the thermonuclear advantages of the Yankees and Red Sox and Dodgers.

But I don’t care about them. So when the Yankees bowed down to them on Friday and Saturday, there was no stomach churning bile, no grinding of teeth into dust, but there were concerns.

We’re only nine games into the season, but we already know a few things. First and foremost, Gerrit Cole is a freak of nature. I know that Roger Clemens was 20-3 and won the Cy Young in 2003, but it’s hard for me to believe that he was any better then than Cole is now. Other pitchers are also throwing well — eight different relievers still have perfect ERAs, led by Chad Green and Jonathan Loaisiga, and Michael King’s one scoreless six-inning appearance was enough to make me want to see him in the starting rotation.

We’re only 1/18 of the way through the season, but it’s still surprising that the biggest Yankee concerns are not on the mound but in the batter’s box. There have been some bright spots — D.J. LeMahieu is riding an eight-game hitting streak and Gary Sánchez is off to a refreshingly nice start, regardless of what the New York Post’s racist emeritus has to say — but there are far more question marks.

Will Aaron Hicks live up to the potential we saw in 2018? Will Gleyber Torres remind us why people think he’ll win an MVP one day? And as good as Aaron Judge has been thus far, will he play 150 games — or even 125?

There aren’t any answers here, nor even any predictions, and I can’t say that I’m bothered by all the uncertainty. Yes, the Yankees are 4-5, but they’ve got 153 more games to figure all this out. The only problem I see right now is this — the Red Sox are 6-3.

M’eh

Not such a special start to the 2021 season, eh?

More today. And we’ll be rooting.

Let’s Go Yank-ees!

Picture by Bags

Back to Life


Lose one, win one.

Yanks Jays today for the third game of the season.

Happy Easter and Let’s Go Yank-ees!

Once Again

Baseball!

Let’s Go Yank-ees!

 

The Morning Paper

[Author’s note: The following was originally written in April of 2019.]

I read a newspaper today. I found myself staying in a hotel in Washington, DC, along with eighty of my middle school students on an East Coast trip that started in Boston, continued in New York, and finished in the nation’s capitol. When I walked downstairs and turned towards the breakfast buffet, there they were, quaintly laid out on a counter like relics in the museums we’d been visiting all week.

I grabbed a copy of the Washington Post, not necessarily for the news, but for the same reason you might pick up your grandmother’s rotary phone and give it a quick spin. There should be a word that means “amused nostalgia.”

But then something interesting happened. It turned out the Sports section was sitting just where I’d left it ten years ago, three sections from the front, and everything else was just as I remembered. (And by the way, if we’re going to add words to the lexicon, we should also replace outdated similes; from here on out, instead of “just like riding a bike,” let’s agree on a different phrase: “just like reading a newspaper.”)

I’m certain that none of my fourteen-year-old traveling companions could navigate a newspaper, nor would they understand its idiosyncrasies. Headlines make perfect sense in the unlimited space of the internet, where a complete sentence or even two can sprawl luxuriously across the top of an article, but “Nats get boost from Robles in No. 2 spot” drew my eye immediately and reminded me of headlines from a past when static dimensions of pages and columns once gave us headlines like “Spike Inks Pact” or John Updike’s famously poetic “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.” It was an art in and of itself.

So after I read the first eight paragraphs about Victor Robles and his productive night from the second spot in the lineup, a kind note at the bottom of the column pointed towards the rest of the article: See NATIONALS on D5. As I dutifully turned the pages, I passed familiar features common to most Sports sections: a digest with highlights from around the sports world, a table of television and radio listings, and a notes column about the hometown Washington Nationals.

But before I could read more about Robles, I was transfixed by a full page of baseball boxscores. Once upon a time this was the highlight of my day. I’d find the Yankee game and carefully scan each line of the agate type for clues about how the game had gone — who had gotten the hits, stolen the bases, and scored the runs. It was a daily ritual during baseball season that began when I was eight or nine and didn’t end until the internet stole it away.

In this current era I’ve become a much more focused fan. I know far more about Judge and Stanton than I ever did about Mattingly and Winfield, but as the internet and satellite television have narrowed my focus, it’s as if the rest of baseball has fallen away.

Again, this morning’s Sports section reminded me of all this. A dozen box scores stood stacked across six columns, each telling a story of a different game, and the league leaders were posted on either side. Perhaps appropriately, there were none of the modern metrics like WAR or even OPS, but instead the statistics from my childhood: batting average, home runs, and RBIs for the hitters; ERA, saves, and strikeouts for the pitchers. Some of the names made sense — Christian Yelich and Khris Davis, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander — but who could’ve known there’s an Alexander in Chicago hitting over .400 or a Yates in San Diego leading the league in saves? None of that would’ve gotten past me as a child, but today it’s news. Tomorrow it’ll be trivia.

I can’t imagine that I’ll ever subscribe to a daily newspaper again, and that’s a shame. For all I’ve gained, something has been lost. Sure, it’s nice to have instant access to the information I want (the Yankee score wasn’t even in the paper: NY Yankees at LA Angels, late), but it was nice this morning to get all the information I didn’t know I needed.

When I put down the paper, I knew more than when I had picked it up, and I was also left with something else my iPhone will never give me — ink-stained fingertips.

Down in the Valley

It’s second and third with two outs in the last inning and we’re down a run. A tight spot, but tighter than you think as it’s the last game of the season and we’re staring at 0-10 if we don’t get these runs home. No team sets out to simply not lose every game, but when the end is three strikes away, it’s the only thing every player, coach and parent is thinking about. As the head coach, I feel like I’ve let these eleven-year-olds down and there’s nothing I can do about it.

As our team looks ahead to a new season, it’s impossible to forget the previous one. We practiced at the end of February to get a jump on the spring schedule. Once we got the basics down, we’d implement our beloved trick plays. I played ball into adult leagues and I had all the time in the world to impart the wisdom of 40 years in the game.

We didn’t see each other again for four months.

We retreated from our offices and classrooms to the dining room table. From hardball at the park to Wiffle ball in the backyard. My wife and six-year-old daughter, previously tolerant of my obsession with the game, became enthusiastic sluggers. My daughter holds all the batting records in the family as the precondition for her participation was guaranteed homers. A Boras-worthy contract. She’d bury her face in the flowers outside the third base line rather than play the field.

We lost a case of balls to the eager dogs on two sides of our diamond and the flourishing vegetable garden on the third side. The deck off the living room was an inviting right field porch and homers to left peppered the neighbors’ black and red Mini Cooper. We debated what was more offensive: leaving Wiffle balls scattered in their driveway or contaminating their living space by retrieving them.  Even the newly converted ran out of steam when the summer arrived. We hadn’t played in a few weeks when Governor Murphy announced we could have a summer team.

Our first practice was unproductive. I recorded temperatures, tracked transmission rates in vacation destinations and sterilized catching equipment. One positive case would bring the team, possibly the league, crashing to a halt. The kids, remote-learning since March, were finally close enough to smell each other’s farts again and who was I to interrupt their joyful togetherness with the infield fly rule? We would get to the baseball when the time was right.

When we started playing games, we lost. I noticed nobody even bothered to know the score. Enjoyment divorced from outcome. I’m not built that way – I’ve never gotten over the championship I blew when I was ten – but I knew better than to try to impose my hang-ups on them even under normal circumstances. We never had any positive tests, but the losses piled up and the competitive kids were smiling less and the more vocal parents had advice.


We enter the bottom half of the last inning down six and a winless season is three outs away. The pizza arrives in the bleachers for the postgame party. We want the kids to celebrate something, even if it’s just a slice and Coke. Like a flash, a couple of walks and a couple of hits flood the bases and the tying run is on third and the winning run on second with two outs.

In the on-deck circle my son takes a deep breath and bangs his bat on the turf to loosen the weighted donut. He’s the shortest player on the team and has the walks to prove it. As a parent, I feel relief when ball four sails high and wide. As a coach, I feel desperation.

The other manager wants to reassure his pitcher and calls for time. As I run out to second base during the meeting on the mound, I curse myself for my sloth. I never got around to trick plays. Why give them more than they could handle? Unforgivable!

“Joe, take a big lead and when the catcher has the ball, fall down. When they chase you, stay in the rundown until Connor can score.” Joe might have questions but I won’t let him ask them as I’m already running back to third. I brief Connor with even less information.

The first pitch is a called strike. Joe hits the deck and I do the one thing I can think of which is to yell at Joe like he’s dropped a live grenade. The catcher is startled, decides he doesn’t want the ball and zips it back where it came from. I am briefly worried, but I needn’t be because every other living soul within a mile radius has taken the bait the catcher passed up. Their screams spin the pitcher into action and he fires to second as Joe jabs toward the bag. Connor breaks for home. The second baseman watches him tie the game as the ball flies into centerfield. Joe winds up safe at third.

The bench and bleachers erupt. There’s finally a passed ball on the next pitch, “Go! Go! Go!” I scream, but Joe’s head is still spinning and he hesitates and stays, stays, stays. The batter strikes out and we go to extra innings. We exchange zeroes and the umpire calls the game as the sun sets.


We didn’t win, but I can’t imagine celebrating one any harder. Coke cans became Champagne bottles and the kids drenched each other as we reminded them to keep their masks on. You have to really shake that can to cover six feet. Earlier in the summer, baseball was secondary to the camaraderie. That night, baseball was the reason for the celebration. And the virus, while ingrained, was only the background.

We called it the “Valley Play” because a team named Pascack Valley had used it on us thirty years ago. Don’t tell the kids; they’re still at ease with mystery. It works because when the game is so tight and the players so focused, they don’t consider the absurd. Everyone was shocked to learn that Joe had fallen on purpose. They forgave my recklessness and we stayed at the field until we could barely imagine each other’s smiles in the darkness.

I had trouble falling asleep. Every time I shut my eyes I saw the ball bouncing behind the catcher. Go! Go! Go!  Ties, unlike masks, are un-American.


[Featured Image Photo Credit: Wasyel Danysh]

Sprung

So there are doing this thing, this spring training and getting ready for a big league season thing again.

What, if anything, excites you about this year’s team?

Picture by Bags

 

Sidebar Topics (Yunnow, To Pass The Time)

Knicks HC Tom Thibodeau and PG Derrick Rose Courtesy CllickPoints.com

I’ve been pretty tied up as a stagehand on some show for a while now, but behind the scenes I’ve been keeping track of much of the major sports moves across MLB, NBA and even (gulp) NFL as the pandemic has stimulated some dramatic changes on rosters and front offices alike.  I’ve had long email threads involving a few folks here about these events, which eventually turned into a request to open the discussion to the rest of us Banterites, which I’ve decided to do as time permits.  I’m sure most have been kept abreast by your favorite credentialed or otherwise consistent sources, but I offer a familiar perspective you can interact with in our comfortable break room, nothing more and nothing less. Shall we begin?

The latest treacle of info is that the New York Kings of Leon Knicks, who have undergone a much needed and dramatic change of culture from front and back (but sadly not the tippy-top) have reacquired guard Derrick Rose from Detroit.  If you’ve paid attention, you know that Rose was last seen (around here anyway) during the 2016-17 season failing with the Phil Jackson-error squad as he struggled with the surprisingly exposed and obsolete Triangle offense and ended up having injury-marred turns with both Cleveland and Minnesota the next season.  He regained his footing with Detroit in 2019, but because of health issues has started this season off the bench for them, so it’s not as much of a significant move on the surface as his name implies.

Given his travails with the Knicks and his outspoken criticism and desire to get away, I’m surprised he would acquiesce to returning, but then there has been significant change here and with him as well.  For one thing, Tom Thibodeau is the coach now, and Rose had his best years with Thibs, so he’s someone who knows the system and can help integrate the younger Knicks on the roster with said system (and commiserate when they get worn out) that worked well for a while with the Chicago Bulls.  Can’t argue with the results so far; Thibs is known as a defensive guru of a coach and has helped lift the current team to 5th in defense across the league well before reaching the halfway point of the season. Not to mention, the Knicks are in real need of a veteran point guard to stimulate the offense, which tends to be a liability with his teams unless he has decent players in place to make them work. He can develop those types (as he did with Rose, or he and the new front office can acquire those types (as they did with Rose).  Of course, the downside of this is Rose’s injury history; he had a significant ACL tear of his left knee during the 2011-12 season playoffs that kept him out for the rest of the series and all of the following season.  He returned for 2013-14. but tore the meniscus of his right knee in November and missed the rest of that season.  The following season he again required surgery on his right knee in March and missed 20 games before returning in April for the playoffs.  In his lone season with the Knicks he was shut down in the latter part of the season for another meniscus tear.  With Cleveland, Minnesota and Detroit the injury trends continued throughout.  Despite this, Rose has shown flashes of his former All-Star form throughout even after returning from various injuries, so his game seems intriguing enough to have him in anyone’s rotation, but even though he’s 32, his injuries have culminated to the point that Detroit restricted his minutes and had him coming off the bench this season, which is likely to continue in his return.  If nothing else, this is an experience pickup that could provide some productivity while allowing the younger point guards to develop (or buy time and space to find/develop a good starter for that role).  There’s promise in guard Immanuel Quickley, inconsistent as he has been, that shines above current roster guards Elfrid Payton, Frank Ntlikina and Austin Rivers (who seemed to be groomed this season solely as trade bait for contending teams).

Meanwhile back in 2019, this happened:
Dennis Smith was acquired by the New York Knicks, along with DeAndre Jordan, Wesley Matthews, a 2021 1st round pick (DAL own) and a conditional 2023 1st round pick (DAL own), from the Dallas Mavericks in exchange for Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee and Kristaps Porzingis.

The flip-side of getting Derrick Rose back is sending Dennis Smith Jr. and a 2021 second-round pick via the Charlotte Hornets. Again if you’ve been paying attention, that probably says more about Rose’s impact on Detroit than Smith Jr has had on New York. To say the least, Smith has been a disappointment. Coming over in what amounted to a salary dump with a couple of okay picks and expiring contracts for guys that probably wudda-cudda-shudda stayed were it not for the massive incompetence of the then-front office… man, this was a strange move, and one that went pretty much as expected as Smith was really deep on the downside of a somewhat promising career and has not deviated from that path to obscurity yet.  In fact, it had gotten to the point that he asked to be placed in the G-League just so he could get quality playing minutes as he was locked out of the rotation and averaged less than ten minuets a game in the 3 games he played in.  Being traded to Detroit could actually be a breath of fresh air for him; a place where he can rehab his game without expectations.

As for the picks; well it’s capital, which will probably be used to acquire more development pieces. Let’s not forget that the Knicks are a rebuilding organization (let alone the team in the locker room) and any success they experience should be viewed from that lens alone. Knicks president Leon Rose and his Funky Associates were brought in specifically to change a losing culture that has hung over and rotted the organization for over twenty years (with one playoff win during this period and oh-look, the head coach from that season is an assistant on the staff this season), and though the coach has them playing surprisingly well, it’s still a work-in-progress, as evident by the trade for a player they once had who can, in a limited capacity, provide a good amount of progression for the younger core players they’ve acquired or drafted.  It won’t change them overnight and it won’t make them surprise contenders, but it does show a commitment to the coach’s system.  I’d start expecting something in year three if I were you.

Oh yeah, Tampa Bay 31, Kansas City 9, Tom Brady greatest of blah-blah whatever…

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