"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Category: Yankees

The New Evil Empire

[Logo Credit: Chlorineer via Wikimedia Commons]

If there was one thing that seemed out of place in 1996 and 1998 it was that people around the country seemed to be rooting for the Yankees. Ninety-six was the team’s first visit to the World Series in fifteen years and there was the feel good story surrounding Joe Torre and his brother Frank, and in 1998 there was an industry-wide admiration not just for the completeness of that team but also for the way it had been built, largely from within and with shrewd trades as opposed to the failed free agency buys of the late ’80s and early ’90s. These Yankees were beloved. And it didn’t feel quite right.

After four World Series titles in five years, however, the act wore thin. And when the Yankees lost to the Angels in the 2002 Divisional Series and responded by signing Japanese slugger Hideki Matsui and Cuban pitcher José Contreras, Boston Red Sox president Larry Lucchino had had enough. “The evil empire,” he famously said, “extends its tentacles even into Latin America.”

He was angry and defeated, so we’ll forgive his mixing of metaphors, but he gave yet another nickname to the team that already had more than any other in baseball. No longer just the Pinstripes or the Bronx Bombers, they’ve now been known as the Evil Empire for the past two decades, and for most of those twenty-one years, the name has made sense.

When the team missed the playoffs in 2008, they opened the vault and spent quickly and decisively, signing free agents Mark Teixeira, C.C. Sabathia, and A.J. Burnett. The result was beautiful on field and off. They won the 2009 World Series, and they were the villains again. Order was restored to the universe.

So after last year’s disappointing season it wasn’t surprising that Brian Cashman pulled the trigger on the Juan Soto deal, and most expected the 25-year-old Japanese superstar Yoshinobu Yamamoto to be next, simply because that’s who the Yankees are. They are the Evil Empire.

But suddenly they aren’t.

No one was the least bit surprised when the Dodgers signed Shohei Ohtani, but there were some audible gasps when word of the $700 million contract — by far the largest ever — was announced. It was a big number, but it didn’t really change the expected narrative of the post season. The Dodgers got their man, and soon the Yankees would get theirs.

Everything changed, however, when we learned that Ohtani would be deferring a staggering 97% of his salary. The Dodgers were getting a Rolls Royce for the price of a Pinto, so why not go shopping for a Maserati?

By following up the Ohtani deal with Yamamoto, the Dodgers did more than just strengthen their rotation while stealing a pitcher from the Yankees. They announced to the baseball world that they are the new Evil Empire. Not satisfied with being the best regular season team in baseball over the last several seasons and apparently no longer willing to subject themselves to the random chance of the postseason, the Dodgers used their deep pockets and their deep farm system to bolster a team that won 100 games in 2023.

With Ohtani, Mookie Betts, and Freddie Freeman, the Dodgers lineup will feature the reigning A.L. MVP and the second and third place finishers in the NL MVP voting, and Yamamoto will headline a rotation that also includes another newcomer, Tyler Glasnow.

That embarrassment of riches would be enough to turn the stomaches of every small market fan in America, but the truly evil — or genius — aspect of all this is the subversive innovation of Ohtani’s contract. Ohtani has been called a unicorn for his unprecedented combination of hitting and pitching, but he’s also unique in another sense. With an endorsement portfolio that dwarfs every other player in the game, he is one of the few athletes in the world, certainly the only baseball player, who doesn’t need a salary. There will be at least twelve Dodgers who will earn more money than Ohtani in 2023.

All of this is something the Yankees might once have been expected to do, but times have changed. As news broke of Yamamoto’s signing, criticism of Hal Steinbrenner and Brian Cashman immediately swelled, but I find it difficult to lay any blame on them. Reports indicate that the Yankees offered a ten-year contract for $300M, less overall money but with a higher annual average and an earlier opt out than the Dodger deal. If had only been about the money, that Yankee offer would have made more sense.

Some fans have suggested they should’ve gone to $350M or higher, but it’s understandable that Steinbrenner and Cashman showed some restraint. It isn’t my money, but thirty million dollars a year already seems a bit high for a player who has neither stood on a major league mound nor held a major league ball. Also, there have been reports that Yamamoto simply always wanted to be a Dodger, and that the large Japanese community in Los Angeles as well as the shorter flight home to Japan both played a part as well. It’s highly possible that he was never going to sign with either New York team.

The question now for the Yankees is simple. What next? With Gerrit Cole the only sure thing in the starting rotation, will Cashman pursue Blake Snell or Jordan Montgomery? Will he instead try to build a super bullpen to cover for rotation deficiencies? Will he do both?

Only time will tell, but there’s one thing we know right now. The Yankees are no longer the Evil Empire.

Flexing!

[Photo Credit: Ryan Casey Aguinaldo via Wikimedia Commons]

The Yankees, it seems, are still the Yankees.

After watching along with the rest of us as the Yankees slogged their way through an 82-80 season, general manager Brian Cashman took the first step towards a return to relevance by swinging the deal that he had to make, sending Michael King, Jhony Brito, Randy Vasquez, Drew Thorpe, and Kyle Higashioka to San Diego for Juan Soto and Trent Grisham.

That’s a big haul for San Diego, and it’s a shame that we won’t get to watch the continued development of Michael King, but think about this. The Yankees entered the off season needing to fill a hole in left field and get a left-handed hitter, and on Wednesday evening they acquired not just the best available player fitting that description but one of the best young hitters in the history of the game. There are six players in baseball history with a .940 OPS, 150 home runs, and 500 runs all before turning 25 — Jimmie Foxx, Mel Ott, Mickey Mantle, Albert Pújols, Mike Trout, and Soto. Want another fun statistic? Soto has 640 career walks and only 577 career strikeouts. This kid is different.

This is a player who would fit nicely in any lineup in any city, but think for a minute about what the Yankee lineup will look like with Soto. If we assume that Aaron Boone will pencil in Aaron Judge in the second spot in the order as usual, that puts Soto hitting third, Giancarlo Stanton fourth, Anthony Rizzo fifth, and Gleyber Torres sixth. Those five hitters, alternating right-left-right-left-right, will strike fear into the heart of any opposing pitcher, and I can’t wait to watch.

If there’s a criticism of the deal, it’s that it comes with no guarantee that Soto will be a Yankee for more than just the 2024 season. He’s certain to test free agency, but that’s a year from now. Tonight, he’s a Yankee. And that’s a pretty good thing.

Fire Up the Hot Stove!

If we are to see a different version of the New York Yankees in 2024, the puzzle pieces will begin to fall in place this week and next. Everyone in the Yankee Universe seems to be on edge, most notably general manager Brian Cashman, who’s been uncharacteristically explosive recently, choosing for some reason to speak his true feelings about Giancarlo Stanton just days before entering into negotiations with a franchise-changing player who happens to share the same agent as Stanton. It’s one way to go, I guess.

Anyway, in the coming days and weeks, a few things will become clear…

Will the Yankees be able to sign Yoshinobu Yamamoto?
The best pitcher in Japanese baseball officially posted on Monday, meaning that negotiations will open on Tuesday and close after 45 days on January 4th. The usual suspects will all be in on this, with the Yankees, Mets, and Red Sox reportedly leading the way. I know the Yankees need a left-fielder, preferably one who swings from the left side of the plate, but signing Yamamoto has to be a priority. Slotting him in as the number two starter behind Cy Young Award winner Gerrit Cole would make a lot of other things possible. Including…

Will the Yankees trade for Juan Soto?
If it’s at all possible, the Yankees MUST make this trade. I hope that Jasson Dominguez is off the table, but everyone else should be in the discussion. I’m not as down on Anthony Volpe as many are, but if he (or maybe Clarke Schmidt) can be packaged with a couple other minor leaguers, I’d be thrilled. There’s a Bryce-Harper-shaped hole in this lineup, and Soto would fill it for the next ten years (assuming the Yankees sign him to a long-term deal) while hitting 400 home runs or so. Sign me up.

Will the Yankees sign Cody Bellinger?
If you look deep into Bellinger’s numbers there is cause for concern. The statheads will tell you that his hard-hit percentage last year didn’t match his actual production, which means he might regress. It was only four years ago that Bellinger won a Gold Glove and an MVP, but in the years since he’s been a bit of a mystery. In 2021 he hit .165 with an OPS+ of 44. (The league average is set at 100.) He rebounded a bit in 2022, but suddenly hit .305 with the second highest OB% of his career and an OPS+ of 133. It’s a shame that he had his peak year in his age 23 season, but he fits a need for the Yankees. He can play centerfield until Dominguez is ready to take over, then he can finish his contract out at first base after Rizzo is gone. There’s risk involved with any signing, and there’s probably a bit more risk here, but he won’t make this team worse. It’s too obvious for Cashman to pass on this.

Will the Yankees do something crazy?
Well, probably not. But there’s a possibility that Stanton would waive his no-trade clause to go back home to California, so if the Yankees want to eat the majority of his contract and include him in a deal for Soto, that would also open up the possibility of pursuing Shohei Ohtani, especially if what we’re hearing is true and Ohtani would be open to a shorter-term deal. The only downside is that if the Yankees had a lineup with Judge, Soto, Bellinger, and Ohtani, Major League Baseball might decided to cancel the season and just send the trophy to New York.

I keep thinking about the winter of 2008. After missing the playoffs in the final year of the old Yankee Stadium, Cashman responded by rebuilding the Death Star by signing CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Teixeira. All of that spending translated into the 27th (and last) World Series championship. Here’s hoping all this brings number 28.

The Outside Looking In

Well, this is awkward. The Yankees might already have stumbled off into the sunset, but eight teams are still alive. While the rest of the baseball world is gushing about the drama — the drama! — of October baseball, here we sit. About a month ago I ran into an acquaintance of mine who happens to be a Dodger fan. We hadn’t seen each other in a few months, so after we exchanged pleasantries he slid a knife into my kidney. “I guess you’ll have some free time in October since the Yankees won’t be playing.”

There was a hint of smile on his face, just enough to make me wonder if he was giving me shit or stating a fact. It didn’t matter. If I’m being honest, the silver lining of this cloud is that my life right now doesn’t revolve around the vagaries of Major League Baseball scheduling or Aaron Boone’s bullpen management. I know my friend suffered dearly on Saturday night as Clayton Kershaw self-immolated on the Dodger Stadium mound, and there was part of me that was grateful it wasn’t Gerit Cole and the Yankees suffering a similar fate. It turns out there is freedom in mediocrity.

But there’s also bitterness. I couldn’t be happy for Minnesota fans who got to watch their team win a playoff series for the first time in forever, so instead I wondered aloud why the Twins were celebrating as if they’d just won the World Series. Look away; I am hideous.

Because the baseball, I’m told, has been brilliant. Carlos Correa (sorry) continues to craft a postseason résumé that screams Cooperstown; Bryce Harper still rounds third like a man possessed, making all of us wish he had run through Hal Steinbrenner’s stop sign and into Yankee pinstripes all those years ago; the Arizona Diamondbacks have looked the Dodgers dead in the eye and wondered why they’re supposed to be scared.

It’s October, and it’s baseball. It just ain’t us.

Like a Blister in the Sun

In August of 1990 I left my house for the 39-mile trip to Anaheim Stadium to see a very bad Yankee team take on the Angels, but I never made it. I was driving an orange late 70s model Ford Pinto, and numerous things went wrong. First, I ran out of gas soon after getting off the freeway near the park, but after walking a few miles to and back from a gas station I discovered a deeper problem, the details of which have faded, but on that evening demanded a trip to a service station and some hard-earned cash out of my pocket. While I was walking the hard streets of Anaheim and haggling with a mechanic, the Angels’ Luís Polonia was hitting an inside the park grand slam, if you can believe it. The Yankees would lose 9-5, the fifth of six consecutive games they’d drop on a road trip that was as abysmal as my wanderings that night, and they’d end the season 67-95, buried in last place.

What I’m telling you is that things have been worse.

So even though I was disappointed as I watched the Yankees lose two of three to Colorado and confused by their first two losses in this series, I knew there was no way my son and I could skip the series altogether.

The late afternoon start was a double-edged sword. Ticket demand was low, so I was able to get two seats in the fifth row, midway between first base and the foul pole, without having to sell a kidney; but I knew we’d be baking in the ninety-degree sun for most of the game. It was a tradeoff I was willing to make.

When I took a tour of Fenway Park last spring I bought an MLB Ballpark Passport, a binder with pages for each major league ballpark so you can validate your visits to stadiums around the country by stamping the appropriate page with postage-style cancellation stamps available in every park. It’s fun. What I didn’t know when I bought it was how much I’d enjoy each exchange with the person armed with the stamp. In the Fenway gift shop, the sales woman at the counter was too nervous to do it, so she called over a co-worker; at Dodger Stadium the woman at Guest Relations positively lit up and said, “Oh, I love when people bring these in!” And then we talked for a minute about the parks I’ve been to and which ones I’m hoping to visit next.

In Anaheim last night, it was even better. The gentleman behind the counter was happy to apply the stamp and sign his name next to it, but then he noticed the scorebook I had with me, eyeing it as if it were a relic from the past.

“Hey, look at that! Where’d you get that? Can I take a look at it?”

It was actually a gift from a reader of this site several years ago, and I take it with me to every game, showing my age more than anything else. Why would any normal person spend time tracking information that’s readily available in real time on any smart device? I suppose for the same reason that I wear a tie to work, do crossword puzzles, and call friends on their birthdays.

“Hey, John. Come out and take a look at this! Look what this guy’s got…”

John emerged from a back office and immediately stepped into his role.

“Wow. Where’d you find that? My daughter plays softball, but everybody’s gone digital now. They’re using iPads.”

I half expected someone from Antiques Roadshow to come out and give me an appraisal.

Once we got to our seats, armed with a pretzel and a couple sodas, first pitch was still thirty minutes away and there were a handful of players out on the field. Nearest to us was Giancarlo Stanton, languidly stretching in the sun, then jogging a few gentle strides into the outfield before returning to the foul line to begin it all again. Dozens of fans stood in a crush along the rail, desperately calling for his attention, but Stanton didn’t seem to hear them. This was every single day for him, a superstar getting ready for work.

But then after a few minutes he turned towards the rail and slowly, slowly, slowly walked towards them. The mass of humanity before him surged and roiled, and dozens more fans flooded down from the seats above, each with a ball or a card or a hat or a jersey to be signed. They stood on the plastic seats to get better angles for their photos or to extend their reach into Stanton’s orbit. Two members of stadium security trundled down the steps and one dutifully told everyone not to stand on the seats; when no one heeded he only shrugged his shoulders and watched. Stanton stood in the eye of the storm, neither relishing the attention nor resenting it. We were ten or fifteen feet away, and I’m not sure if he ever spoke, ever smiled, or ever interacted with anyone beyond the exchange of the object to be signed. It didn’t matter, though. A small boy in a Yankees t-shirt emerged from the pile and bounced towards his father, clutching an autographed ball and a story he’ll tell for the rest of his life.

The Angels grabbed a 2-0 lead after Carlos Rodón walked Shohei Ohtani (two days late) and then coughed up a home run to Tyler Ward. There was another walk and a bomb (Luís Rengifo) in the second inning to make it 4-0, and then two more runs from a rally in the third and the Yankees were down 6-0. In the space of thirty minutes, all hope was gone.

As always when the Yankees are playing in this stadium, there were Yankees fans everywhere, especially along the right field line where supporters of the Bronx Bombers traditionally sit after raiding the secondary market to be closer to their heroes. It’s normally the most raucous area of the park, but on this afternoon it was subdued, and not just because of the oppressive heat. Everywhere I looked there were Yankees fans shaking their heads. There was muttering to my left and right. Out on the field it was the same. When a Yankee would strike out to end an inning — there were a preposterous sixteen strikeouts — he’d trudge slowly towards his position, shoulders sagging, head shaking in disbelief. A teammate would arrive with his cap and glove and there might be a pat of encouragement, or there might be more head shaking. They were a somber bunch out on the field, and so were we.

I didn’t notice it during the game, but as Carlos Rodón walked off the field after one of those disastrous innings, he responded to some heckling by blowing a kiss towards some dissatisfied Yankee fans sitting behind the dugout. This might’ve been the worst thing that happened, simply because Rodón has no idea what could be in store for him if he brings that nonsense to the Bronx. After Tommy Kahnle gave up a run in a messy eighth inning, he returned to the dugout and destroyed an electric fan.

No matter how frustrated you are with this team, I guarantee that the players are even more frustrated. On Wednesday afternoon, the weight of it all was showing.

But as I say, it’s fun going out to the park. When Franchy Cordero went deep to lead off the eighth and then the Yankees loaded the bases later in the inning, putting them one swing away from tying the game, the stadium suddenly woke up and it seemed louder than it had been when the Angels were scoring.

It isn’t like Friday night in the Bronx against the Red Sox, but there’s something special about being in a visiting stadium surrounded by so many cheering Yankee fans. It brought me back to a similarly warm afternoon in July of 1994 when Don Mattingly came off the bench in the ninth inning with the Yankees trailing 4-2 and promptly blasted a ball into the seats, sending all of us into a frenzy, or even just last season when we were in the stands to watch Aaron Judge hit his 50th home run.

All of us were poised for something similar, and the “Let’s-Go-Yan-kees” chants were echoing across the stadium, but when Oswaldo Cabrera struck out to strand all three runners, all the air came out of the balloon.

If you’re wondering why things look so bleak for this team, it’s really quite simple. The Yankee hitters struck out sixteen times on Wednesday afternoon and evening, and the Yankee pitchers yielded eleven walks. If you were to feed only those two numbers into the Baseball Probability Machine, I’m sure it would return a win probability of five percent or so.

As we walked out of the park, my son asked how long the flight back to New York would be, and my answer was quick. “About five hours or so, but it’s gonna seem an awful lot longer for them.”

We were home in a blink, though, and even if I’d known ahead of time how it was all going to shake out, I still wouldn’t have missed it.

The Assistant

What follows is the transcript of a press conference convened in the early hours of Monday, July 10, in the Yankee Stadium press room. The press had gathered to hear from Hal Steinbrenner, chairman and managing general partner of Yankee Global Enterprises; Brian Cashman, general manager of the New York Yankees; Aaron Boone, field manager of the New York Yankees; Aaron Judge, team captain of the New York Yankees; Derek Jeter, Hall of Fame shortstop and Captain Emeritus of the New York Yankees; Jason Zillo, vice president of Communications and Media Relations for the New York Yankees; and Hank Waddles, writer for the New York Yankees blog, Bronx Banter.

Zillo: Ladies and gentlemen of the press, thank you so much for being here on what should be a rare off day for all of you. With that in mind, I’m going to hand things over immediately to Mr. Steinbrenner.

Steinbrenner: Thank you so much, Jason. I think everyone here knows that success and failure here is measured by only one metric. My wife and I were vacationing recently at a villa in Northern Italy, and I just couldn’t take any more of these reports I was getting from the states. The losses. The struggling offense. I knew that my father wouldn’t have been able to stomach it. You know, people don’t think I hear the criticism, but I do. I know that people think I’m not my father, that I don’t want to win the way he did, but let me tell you… So I got Cash on the phone, and I told him enough was enough.

Cashman: I can confirm all of that. Mr. Steinbrenner — this Mr. Steinbrenner — wants to win just as badly as his father did. Even more so, I think sometimes. So we’re making some changes at the organizational level. It’s unusual for any team, especially for this organization, to make sweeping changes in the middle of the season, but here’s why…

[Cashman takes a large championship ring off of his finger and forcefully bangs it on the table in front of him before continuing.]

Cashman: This is ring #27, from 2009. I look at this ring every night before I go to sleep, and I can’t believe it’s been fourteen years since our organization won this ring. Four. [click] Teen. [click] Years. [click]. And it’s not good enough. So I decided to look in the mirror, and I realized that I have to take some responsibility. Maybe I have to step back.

Jack Curry: Are you resigning?

Steinbrenner: Brian is not resigning, and he hasn’t been fired. We’re just reimagining things. I think I’ve come up with a way to help the office run more smoothly. We’ll have co-general managers going forward.

Brian Hoch: How can that possibly work? Who’s in charge? Is this new guy the assistant general manager, or the assistant to the general manager?

Steinbrenner: Again, these are co-general managers. Brian will be in charge of big picture decisions (budget, salaries, scouting) and his co-general manager — this morning we’re introducing Hank Waddles — will be in charge of the day-to-day stuff. Trades, roster decisions. He’ll also consult with Boone on lineup constructions and bullpen usage.

Curry: I’ve got two questions for Waddles. One, what makes you qualified for this position? Two, when can we expect to see some changes?

Waddles: Thanks for that question, Jack. First of all, I’m more than qualified. I’ve been watching Yankees baseball for more than forty years now. My entire life has been preparation for this moment. But really, this isn’t rocket science, which brings me to your second question. I’ve got some changes to announce right now.

First, we made a few transactions just a few minutes ago. Josh Donaldson has been designated for assignment. I don’t think I should have to explain that move to anyone here, but I will because it highlights a major change in this organization. If you look at the back of his baseball card, you’ll see that Donaldson was once a great player, but that’s no longer the case. I actually had a conversation with Boone about this. He keeps saying that Donaldson has had just one bad month, but it’s been more than bad. It’s been historically awful. In 99 at bats, he has ten home runs, five singles, and 31 strikeouts — balanced against just eleven walks. And this idea that this is just one bad month? In 132 games last year he was actually worse with an OPS of .682. This organization can’t have a player like that taking up roster space, so his locker is empty right now. I wish him well.

Next, we’re sending Billy McKinney and Franchy Cordero back to Scranton. We’re considering trade options for them, but you won’t see them in pinstripes again. They both filled in when they were needed, but I just don’t believe that they have anything else to offer. We’ve seen their ceilings. And just so you know where we’re headed, there are a couple other players you won’t be seeing in the Bronx any time soon — Willie Calhoun and Jake Bauers.

We’ve also called up Oswald Peraza from Scranton, which might not be that much of a surprise. Also, releasing Donaldson opens up a spot on the 40-man, and we’re filling that with Estevan Florial. He’ll be joining the team in Colorado and starting in left field. He’ll continue in that spot at least through the end of July.

Hoch: Can you explain your rationale for those moves?

Waddles: You know the rationale for those moves. First of all, we can’t continue to play D.J. LeMahieu every night and just keep telling each other that he’s better than what he’s shown. Well you know what he’s shown? He’s shown us exactly who he is, and there’s no sense putting him in the lineup every night just because of who we’re wishing he could be. Peraza has been playing third down at Scranton, and now he’s gonna play third for us up here. Just like Florial, he’ll have a thirty-game stretch to show us what he can do. We believe he’s gonna be great.

And Florial? That’s the easiest of all these decisions. This is a kid with a .985 OPS. I mean, NINE-EIGHTY-FIVE! What is he even doing in Scranton when we can’t score any runs in the Bronx? What else does this kid have to prove?

Cashman: To be honest, I had completely forgotten he was even in the organization until Hank reminded me this morning.

Steinbrenner: It really is the perfect example of big-picture-little-picture.

Waddles: He probably still strikes out a bit too much, but here we are at the all-star break and he’s got 21 home runs and 18 steals. There aren’t too many players in baseball with that type of a power-speed package, and since we’ve got a glaring hole in left field, this move is obvious. The organization placed bets on all these guys multiple times over the years when they decided against signing any of those marquee free agents, decided against including them in deadline deals that could’ve helped us in the short term. You can only hold your cards for so long. I believe it’s time to lay our cards on the table and see what happens. It’s been working well so far with Anthony Volpe, and we believe — I believe — it’ll work with this group as well.

Curry: What do these moves mean for Isaiah Kiner-Falefa? And is this a rebuild?

Waddles: This might surprise you, but I’m a big IKF fan. We’re lucky to have him. Booney and I have been talking, and I think he’ll still be in the lineup somewhere at least four or five nights a week. But this is definitely not a rebuild. We’re here to win games and win championships. Period. But what have we been doing so far in 2024? Who here feels like the old model was working?

Curry: A question for Aaron Boone. How do you feel about all this? It seems like you’ve lost some of your autonomy.

Boone: You know, that’s not how I see it. Hanky and I spent some time this morning…

Waddles: Never call me that.

Boone: Sorry about that, it’s just a tendency. Hank and I spoke this morning for a while when we met, and here’s what strikes me about him. I really like his compete. You know, he’s gonna get after it. I’m not worried about this at all — our working relationship or this team in general. I mean, I’m excited! Right? We’re in a position to get everything we want. It’s all right there in front of us, and with our rotation coming together — for the first time really — gosh, I’m just excited! And Hank’s got some great ideas.

Waddles: And here’s another one. Giancarlo Stanton is our right fielder. End of discussion. We’ll get him off his feet a couple times a week and give him a DH night, but he’s our right fielder. So through the rest of this month and into August, here’s the lineup you’ll see:

C Higashioka/Treviño
1B Rizzo
2B Torres
3B Peraza
SS Volpe
LF Florial
CF Bader
RF Stanton
DH LeMahieu

But we’ll roll IKF through second, third, and the outfield spots to give guys time at DH. I’d imagine IKF will start more games than D.J. Doesn’t that sound about right, Aaron?

Boone: Yes, that’s what we talked about. Again, I really like the looks of this lineup.

Waddles: Oh, and another thing — the Martian will be landing on September 1st, guaranteed, and he’ll be playing. It seems like the Yankees have been the only team in baseball that’s afraid to bring up young prospects, but that stops now. I mean, the only reason he isn’t coming up right now is that we’ve got Florial and Peraza ready to contribute. But you can mark your calendars right now — Jasson Dominguez will be in the starting lineup on September 1st. To help move him along, we’re moving him up to Scranton today.

Hoch: And what about when Judge returns? How will he impact all this?

Judge: Maybe I should answer that. What everyone knows but is afraid to say out loud is this — I don’t know if I’m gonna be back out on the field this season. No one knows. This team can’t afford to wait for me, they’ve got to get out there every night and compete, and this line up gives us the best shot at that. If I can get back sometime in August or September, I’ll just fit in wherever and whenever Hank and Aaron — hey, did you hear that? Hank… Aaron? Anyway, I’ll be happy to jump in wherever they feel like I can help the team.

Curry: I’m wondering something else. Derek, why are you here this morning? What’s your role in all this?

Jeter: No reason, really. No role. They mentioned that I was always Hank’s favorite player, so I thought it would be cool to stop by and say hello.

Waddles: Yes. It’s been very cool. Now let’s get to work.

Perfect!

It was a night when the game was on more as background than anything else, so as I pulled my pork shoulder out of the pressure cooker during the third inning, I didn’t really notice what was going on in Oakland. A bit later while dicing an onion I took off my glasses for a moment to wipe away some tears and  watched as Giancarlo Stanton pounded a home run deep into the stands in left and then punctuated the blast by spiking his bat into the turf, more in exasperation than celebration.

I shredded the pork, popped it under the broiler for a few minutes while I warmed some tortillas on the comal, then called the family for dinner. Still, I had no idea.

The Yankees built a rally in the fifth inning, but my family and I were sitting in the dinning room with our carnitas tacos, so I didn’t see the string of hits that led to all the scoring; I only knew that it was 7-0 and that the tacos were delicious.

Back in the kitchen to pack up leftovers for tomorrow, I peeked at the game and noticed that Domingo Germán was still on the mound. After he gave up 15 runs in 5.1 innings over his last two starts, this was at least as surprising as the offensive outburst, but, I told myself, these were the A’s — not just a bad team, but an historically bad team.

Not until Germán struck out Esteury Ruíz for the last out of the sixth did I realize what was going on. Kind of. The camera zoomed in on Germán as he strode off the mound, and my eye was drawn to the game summary that popped up onto the screen: Oakland 0 0 0. He was throwing a no-hitter?!?

I caught up with the rest of the baseball world when the game returned from commercial break and I heard Ryan Ruocco cast superstition aside and tell us that Germán had retired all eighteen batters he’d faced. Inexplicably, the pitcher who had once been so lost was pitching a perfect game.

For the next nine outs, I hung on every pitch. But here’s the thing — there was no drama aside from the constant references to Don Larsen and David Wells and David Cone (and Mike Mussina). There was nothing dramatic happening between the lines. Germán’s final three innings went like this:

0-1 fly out
1-2 strikeout
0-1 groundout

0-1 pop out
0-1 groundout
3-2 groundout (seven pitches, the only hint of apprehension)

1-2 groundout
0-0 fly out
0-0 groundout

Germán needed just 25 pitches to get those final nine outs, and seven of them were spent on one batter. When Ruíz swung at Germán’s first pitch with two outs in the ninth, the contact was good enough that I imagined a base hit between shortstop and third, but when the camera view switched, there was Josh Donaldson calmly taking the long hop.

Germán had quickly spun around after releasing his ninety-ninth and final pitch, likely fearing the same result I had, but now the ball held him like a magnet. As Donaldson fired across the infield, the ball pulled Germán, who now saw what was coming. The ball popped into Anthony Rizzo’s glove for the 27th and final out of the game, and Domingo Germán slowly spun between the mound and first base, the zero on his back suddenly significant. His arms stretched out in celebration for a brief moment until first his catcher, Kyle Higashioka, and then the rest of the team engulfed him. It was a moment.

Fifteen minutes later, after Meredith Marakovits had interviewed Germán and then Higgy, no one had left. In this moment no one was worried about Aaron Judge’s torn ligament or Josh Donaldson’s anemic bat or Carlos Rodón’s rehab assignment. It was the purest regular season celebration you’ll ever see, as every Yankee on the roster stood smiling on the Oakland Coliseum turf not wanting that moment to end. Germán and his catcher stood shoulder to shoulder and posed for a picture, and then their teammates filled in around them for another. After the last photo was snapped, Germán brought the game ball to his lips for a kiss and then pointed to the heavens.

It was perfect.

June Gloom

When people think of Southern California they imagine sunshine that never stops with just enough of a breeze to cool the sunbathers and gently lift the blond hair of the smiling women you pass on the street.

Honestly, it’s like that a lot of the time, but not in June. Now is the time when various atmospheric conditions combine to create a marine layer that creeps in overnight like a blanket, tucking in the coastal cities and hiding the sun until mid-morning or even early afternoon. June Gloom. It’s dismal and depressing. The perfect analogy for what’s been going on with the New York Yankees.

Everything was wonderful before the calendar turned to June. They boasted one of the top offenses in baseball in May, leading everyone in home runs and perched near the top in many offensive categories, and Aaron Judge was the runaway winner of the American League Player of the Month. He slashed .342/.474/.882 while hitting 12 home runs with 25 RBIs in just 21 games. The common line of thinking was that he was even better than he was in 2022.

But on June 3rd he crashed into the fence at Dodger Stadium and the Yankee offense crashed along with him. Twenty days into this gloomiest of months, the Yankees currently rank dead last in batting average, on base percentage, and OPS. Dead. Last. Looking at the June numbers for the players expected to take up the slack in Judge’s absence, things look even gloomier…

Player June Statistics
Stanton .122/.234/.293  2 HRs, 2 RBIs
Rizzo .083/.185/.104  0 HRs, 4 RBIs
Donaldson* .162/.256/.568  5 HRs, 7 RBIs
Torres .204/.278/.429  3 HRs, 5 RBIs
Volpe .167/.222/.310  3 RBIs, 2 SBs
Bader Zero games played.
* Josh Donaldson, inexplicably, has six home runs on the season and two singles. That’s it.

Ah, but there’s some good news. Harrison Bader returns from the injured list and will presumably start in center field against the Mariners tonight, and we’ll hear all about the added length he’ll bring the lineup. That’s obviously a good thing, but nothing will get better until the other guys listed above begin to do something. Anything.

Maybe tonight’s the night. We can hope, right?

Say Goodbye to Hollywood

When Mookie Betts stepped to the plate in the bottom of the first inning on Friday night, the Dodger Stadium scoreboard boasted an ominous stat — the one-time Boston Red Sox superstar and current Dodger icon had hit 40 leadoff home runs in his career, twenty of those with the Dodgers. I’ve never been a pessimistic fan, but a negative voice in my head suggested that number forty-one might be coming up. Two pitches later it was 1-0, Dodgers. Ten batters later it was 6-0, and before everyone had gotten to their seats the game was essentially over.

There are lots of Yankee fans in Southern California, and there’s good and bad to that. I’ve gone to see the Yankees play the Angels when Anaheim felt more like the West West Bronx, and nothing could be more fun. But the downside is that when the Yankees only make a few appearances out here, the interest is high and the ticket prices are higher. When they’re playing a team with an actual fan base that appreciates the history as much as they appreciate their own team, the prices are higher still. There were moments last week when I wondered if I might have preferred to save my money and watch the games on TV.

Thankfully, though, my son insisted we go to at least one of the three games, so I pulled on my Jeter jersey, he wore his 99, and we were off. I paid almost three hundred dollars for two reserve seats (high, but almost directly behind the plate) and it took us about two hours from our driveway to the stadium, but it was completely worth it.

Many will see this as blasphemous, but Dodger Stadium — the structure — isn’t that special. It lacks the history of Fenway and the charm of Wrigley (the only two stadiums built earlier), and it doesn’t have the unique architectural design seen in the post-Camden Yards parks. Dodger Stadium is beautiful mainly because of where it sits, high atop a bluff overlooking the Los Angeles skyline with sight lines looking beyond the foothills and into the Southern California mountains. Baseball’s early ballparks were either wedged into cities that wouldn’t give another inch or built in such a way that the urban symbiotic sprawl eventually made it difficult to find the divide between town and team, but that isn’t the case here. In the most L.A. kind of way, Dodger Stadium is aloof but welcoming, modern but classic. Even if it doesn’t feel old, even if it’s symmetrical, Dodger Stadium is forever the jewel of Los Angeles.

So how could we not go?

After that nightmarish first inning, I was beginning to wonder. Given his first two starts, I had been excited to see Luís Severino pitch. As awful as his final line looks (4 IP, 9 hits, 7 runs, 3 HRs), it almost wasn’t that bad. The Betts home run was one thing, but Sevy was undone by six consecutive hits later in the inning — five singles and another home run. A couple of those base hits were rockets, but there was bloop and a ground ball and a check swing thrown in as well.

No one wearing pinstripes would take solace from what I’m about to write, but it’s true — after that first inning, the Yankees outscored the Dodgers the rest of the way, thanks to home runs from improbable sources. Just hours removed from the injured list, Josh Donaldson went deep twice, and Giancarlo Stanton hit one of his own. It wasn’t enough to make the game interesting at any point, but it certainly was enough to make me dream about a potent Yankee offense. Maybe.

Oh, and there was also Clayton Kershaw. I’m not sure what the national narrative is on Kershaw nowadays, but he has to be the most under-appreciated first ballot Hall of Famer in history. In a city that loves to elevate heroes, Kershaw has been the forgotten superstar. If there’s one thing more certain than his eventual enshrinement in Cooperstown, it’s the response you’ll get if you voice that opinion to a group of Dodger fans. Invariably, one of them will say, “Yeah, but he can’t win in October.” I don’t care much about the Dodgers one way or the other, but it’s maddening to me.

Watching Kershaw on Friday night was a pleasure, even if it was at the expense of the Yanks. He never looked overpowering the way he once was, but he was always in control. Sure, he yielded two home runs, but neither one mattered. When he walked off the mound following a perfect seventh inning, the fans sent him off with polite applause. It was his league-leading seventh win of the season and the 204th of his career.

All in all it was a fun night at the ballpark, mainly because any night at the ballpark watching baseball with your son is nothing but fun.

Yankee Privilege

Just a few weeks ago the team was in disarray, and some of the less optimistic members of the fan base were giving up on the season (in May!) and predicting an October without Yankees baseball. The rotation was in a shambles, the bullpen was running on fumes, the reigning MVP was on the injured list along with several other important cogs, and Aaron Boone was being booed at the big ballpark in the Bronx. The mighty Yankees were in last place in the American League East. The End Times had arrived.

But over the past two weeks the Yankees have won 11 of 14 games and climbed out of the cellar and into third place. You may ask yourself, “Well, how did I get here?”

First of all, Aaron Judge is good, and it’s good to have him back in the lineup. All he did upon his return was earn A.L. Player of the Week honors by slashing .500/.621/1.273 with five home runs, eleven RBIs, and a stolen base thrown in just for fun.

The home runs, though. A couple of them were the types that mere mortals might hit, standard shots that landed in the first few rows of the bleachers, but two in Toronto traveled over 450 feet each. The first broke Toronto hearts as conspiracy theorists were certain he had peeked into the dugout to get information about the pitch as it was being delivered, while the second broke an actual Toronto Maple Leaf, a plastic display beyond the bleachers in straight away center field, a problem park designers never could have foreseen.

We also got more evidence of something we’ve seen for quite a while from our new Captain. He’s never said anything remotely controversial in any postgame interview, but he’s secretly a low-key shit talker. We first saw this back in 2021 when Judge homered in Houston and clutched his jersey tightly as he rounded third. He was clearly referencing José Altuve’s similar (and controversial) gesture following his series-ending home run the previous October; after the game Judge “diffused” that talk by explaining he was just a bit chilly since the Astros always had the air conditioning on full blast. Sure.

After all the buzz about the dugout peek before that home run in Toronto, Judge took lots of abuse and cheating accusations from the fans in the bleachers as he stood at his post in right field. When he went deep again the next night, he pointed out towards those same fans while rounding first base and heading towards second; after the game he explained that he was actually pointing at the Yankee bullpen to acknowledge their hard work. Right.

Later in the dugout the cameras caught him celebrating with his teammates, and now he covered his eyes with his hands. No peeking.

Is he petty? Yes. Do I love it? Hell, yes.

Harrison Bader is also back, and he’s brought both his bat and glove. The added length to the lineup makes a huge difference — his big home run on Sunday turned the game for the Yankees — but anything he does with a bat in his hand is gravy. Last year we all convinced ourselves that Aaron Judge was a great center fielder, but this year we’ve seen that Bader is elite. Your eyes will tell you that, but the numbers back that up. Five days ago Katie Sharp tweeted that when balls are hit to him with a 75% catch probability or lower, Bader has caught seven of the nine, the highest success rate of any outfielder in baseball.

With Judge in right and Bader in center, the Yankees have Gold Glove caliber fielders in those two spots, which leaves… left field.

When the Yankees signed Aaron Hicks to a seven-year, $70 million deal prior to the 2019 season, it looked like a brilliant move. He was a high level centerfielder with an excellent arm and he had just hit a career-high 27 home runs with an OPS of .833. I don’t need to tell you this, but it was all downhill from there. Instead of providing solid defense in left and a switch hitting bat with pop towards the back end of the lineup, Hicks became an overpaid albatross and the target of merciless booing at the Stadium — and even on the road.

Hicks was finally released a few days ago, a disappointing end to a Yankee career that once held so much promise. I always rooted for him — both because he’s from my hometown, Long Beach, California, and because it’s always good to have someone who looks like me wearing the Yankee pinstripes. It was the right move, but I’m still a little sad about it.

There are other things swirling about. All members of the starting rotation not named Gerrit Cole remain an enigma. Nestor Cortés has been inconsistent, the legend of Carlos Rodón has yet to materialize, and Clarke Schmidt is Clarke Schmidt. Domingo Germán has shown brilliance on a few occasions, but that only makes him more maddening; he’s currently serving a ten-game suspension for pitching with an illegal substance on his hand. He had been checked and warned before, and Schmidt was checked and warned during Germán’s suspension, so it seems like the blame lies as much with the organization as it does with the players.

But just as the lineup has benefited from the reinsertion of Judge and Bader, the rotation suddenly looks a lot more viable with the addition of Luís Severino, who was virtually unhittable in his season debut against the Reds on Sunday.

As much as we like to wring our hands and worry that this team can’t possibly play with the Rays or the Dodgers or the Astros or whichever team is the scariest, the cupboard is far from bare. The surge of the last two weeks has allowed everyone to breathe, and with Cole on the mound tonight to start an important series with the Baltimore Orioles (and when was the last time the Yankees and O’s played an important series?), things are looking up for the first time in weeks, maybe for the first time all season.

So if you were born in the shadow of the old Stadium, if a parent or grandparent brainwashed you in your youth, if you were drawn by Mantle or Munson or Mattingly or Jeter, or if you fell in love when you convinced your parents to take you to a game during a family vacation to New York City, take a minute to be grateful that you hitched yourself to this team way back when. Have there been frustrations and heartbreak and incomprehensible trades? Sure, just like any other team. But through it all, we’ve been the luckiest fans in the world.

The Darling Buds of May

If Shakespeare was right, and rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, perhaps this current Yankee slide, like all things, is temporary. We all saw what happened yesterday. Just as we were foolishly putting a win in the bank and thinking about winning a series against the best team in baseball, everything collapsed in the worst possible way. A 1-0 loss would’ve been bad enough, but to watch Gerrit Cole cough up a six-run lead and then watch the Rays celebrate a walk-win a few innings later… Well, it was a bit too much to take. Cole hasn’t just been the best pitcher in baseball, until Sunday afternoon he had been the one truly consistent player on the Yankees roster. The one sure thing.

But then suddenly he wasn’t.

This happens in baseball. Aaron Boone summed it up well after the game, I thought. He acknowledged that it was a tough loss, but he also pointed out something we tend to forget — this is baseball. There will be crushing losses like this one, just as there will be improbable comebacks. We just tend to remember the former rather than the latter. The Rays, no doubt, are telling themselves that they deserved yesterday’s win because they refused to give up, and while that may be true, I can’t imagine they’ll remember this game come September. This is baseball.

So if we can convince ourselves to move past the improbability of this game — even the improbability of this current string of injuries — maybe we can begin to see some positive signs. The most obvious one is Harrison Bader, who has suddenly become one of the most productive players on the team. Tuesday should bring the return of Aaron Judge, maybe, and not long after that we could see Josh Donaldson. (I’m not a fan, but he would add consistent play at third along with a bat that pitchers would at least have to pay attention to.) There’s hope.

My Magic 8 Ball has nothing encouraging to say about Giancarlo Stanton (“Ask again later”) or Carlos Rodon (“Outlook not so good”), but Luís Severino is about to start a rehab stint, which is something, I guess.

But if you really want some good news, there’s this. The Oakland A’s are in town, and they just might end up being the worst team we’ve seen in years. Sometimes the schedule smiles.

It’s All in the Cards

I was probably seven years old when I bought my first pack of baseball cards from the Melrose Market in Southfield, Michigan. It would’ve been in 1977, and card collecting couldn’t really have been called a hobby back then.

We’d rip open our packs desperately looking for players we knew, then we’d sort them by team, wrap each team in a rubber band, and toss them all into a shoebox. In the five decades since then, the hobby exploded (in the 1980s), imploded (in the 90s), and enjoyed an unlikely resurgence (during the pandemic).

In the 46 years since I bought my first pack, everything has changed about the hobby. What once was simple — open the packs and collect the cards — has become an elaborate enterprise that resembles a lottery more than anything else. Collectors today don’t complete sets. In fact, most are only interested in the limited run insert cards that are randomly shuffled into the packs. The common cards are about as interesting to collectors today as the crisp pieces of gum were years ago.

I’ve got several crates of cards out in the garage, most worth nothing at all, but there are a few treasures that will bring in some money when I eventually sell them. The starting lineup of the 1961 Yankees, rookie cards of all the Hall of Famers who debuted in the 1980s, and some of Derek Jeter’s most desirable cards. It’s been twenty-five years since I was actively collecting, but every spring I’ll make a point to buy a few packs of the latest set, just to see what they look like and to get a taste of the glorious anticipation that shoots from your fingertips to your brain as you open a pack of cards. Say what you will about the hobby and the foolishness of paying actual money for small pieces of cardboard, but there’s really no feeling quite like opening a pack of baseball cards.

So when I finished my grocery shopping this morning, I turned the cart towards the back of the store to the hobby section, and I found what I was looking for — Topps 2023 Series One. A box with seven packs inside, price tag $24.99. Let’s open a pack together…

J.T. Realmuto, Phillies
It’s a nice card. Realmuto seems to have just hit a walk off, and he’s looking into the dugout and pumping his fist. And those home Phillies jerseys with the red pinstripes are definitely in the running for second-best uniforms in baseball.

Zack Thompson, Cardinals
Nothing special here. The standard mid-windup photo that most pitchers get.

Kris Bryant, Rockies
On the one hand, why in the world did the Cubs trade this guy? On the other, maybe they were right.

Tanner Rainey, Nationals
See Zack Thompson, but with a boring uniform. Why teams started using their spring training unis in actual games is completely beyond me.

Bobby Witt, Jr., Royals
The best thing about this card is the Topps All-Star Rookie trophy cup in the corner. Topps went away from logos like this for a while, but it was a nice move to bring them back. I loved these when I was a kid. Still do.

Alex Cobb, Giants
The Giants home uniform is another one of my favorites, so it’s too bad that they’ve also fallen victim to the alternate jersey disease. Here Cobb is wearing white pants with a hideous orange jersey, not the classic cream. Such a shame.

Josh Naylor, Guardians
He’s not rocking the baby, but he is celebrating like he’s just done something important. Even though he’s never really done anything important.

Matt Chapman, Blue Jays
It’s like the pack was watching the game today and is taunting me.

Rafael Devers, Red Sox
This is an insert card, but a worthless one. For some reason Topps is celebrating the 35th anniversary of the 1988 set, possibly the lowest point in the company’s history. (You could argue that 1987 is their most worthless set, but it doesn’t really matter.) Anyway, Devers is depicted here on the 1988 design, which is hardly memorable.

Ozzie Albies, Braves (Stars of MLB)
This is another insert, and it isn’t too interesting. Apparently it’s worth 75¢, which seems about right.

Shane Bieber, Guardians
When Bieber was great, he was probably the most uninteresting great pitcher we’ve seen in the past forty years. Greg Maddux was about as exciting as a metronome, but somehow he made that interesting. Bieber? Not so much. Boring pitcher, boring card.

Kevin Gausman, Blue Jays.
More taunting. Here he’s depicted just after releasing the ball, with his long hair flying out from under his hat, reminiscent of the guy in the Maxell tape ad from so long ago.

Sandy Alcantara, Marlins
Probably the best pitcher that no one’s ever heard of. The last column on the back of his card is WAR. Once upon a time we got games, innings pitched, wins, losses, hits, walks, strikeouts, and saves — and that seemed like a lot of information.

Darick Hall, Phillies
Never heard of him before today.

And that’s it. Kind of a dud of a pack. No Yankees, no superstars. But I’ve got six more packs to go…

The Sho Comes to Town

The Angels have to be the biggest mystery in baseball, and not just because they’ve claimed three different locations without once moving stadiums. These Los Angeles California Angels of Anaheim claim the distinction of having a centerfielder who will likely sit comfortably among the top ten players of all-time once his career is done, along with another player who is unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes.

But even with Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani in the same dugout, the Angels have ranged from abysmal to mediocre over the past several years. Either player should be the face of baseball, but if you never play games in October, not even the marketing machine of Major League Baseball can help you.

Over in the other dugout, the Yankees are facing problems of their own. Yes, Gerrit Cole appears to be the best pitcher on the planet. Yes, Aaron Judge is still as great as we’d like him to be. Yes, Anthony Volpe is living up to the hype. (Don’t worry about that batting average; he’ll be fine.)

But what about Josh Donaldson? What about the back end of the rotation? What about Giancarlo Stanton and his right-on-time hamstring injury? Questions abound. Thank goodness we’ve got five more months to answer them.

And So It Begins…

And just like that, here we are again. I’ve written about this many times here, but I still haven’t gotten used to how quickly the season rolls back around again. When I was a boy, the stretch of time between October and April was interminable. I was interested in football and basketball, but really just as placeholders for my true love. Long before the James Earl Jones soliloquy, baseball was marking the time for me.

In December and January I would catch an article in the sports section about a trade or a free agent signing, in March I’d begin to see baseball cards and preview magazines in the grocery store, and then finally, at long last, there would be baseball. Back then it would likely be weeks before I might get to see a Yankee game on television out here in California, but just knowing that my heroes were back playing in the Bronx was enough. The boxscores that popped up in the morning paper were the daffodils in my flower bed; signs of spring signaling the end of a long, cold winter.

Things are different now. After fifty-three trips around the sun, each orbit seems shorter than the last, so last season’s exploits are still fresh. Aaron Judge’s 62nd home run seems to have just landed, and the team’s eventual (and disturbingly annual) demise at the hands of the Houston Astros couldn’t have been more than a month ago.

But even if I haven’t been counting the days through a long off-season, today is no less exciting, because today we have baseball. Today we’ll see Aaron Judge take his first swings, and wouldn’t it be great if he picked up where he left off and launched a ball deep into the left field stands? We’ll watch as Gerrit Cole takes the mound, and wouldn’t it be comforting if he threw seven shutout innings and struck out twelve?

Oh, and we’ve got the added fun of watching a young kid at shortstop, the team’s top prospect and the jewel of the organization. As hard as it is for me to believe, it was almost three decades ago that Derek Jeter opened his rookie season as the starting shortstop in the spring of 1996, and today we’ll get to watch Anthony Volpe. It isn’t fair to compare him to one of the greatest ever to wear the pinstripes, but this is what we do. This is the way.

We can’t possibly know what the next six months will bring, but today brings baseball, and that’s always enough.

The Eternal Hope

If it’s true that hope springs eternal, we can agree that no hope springs as eternal as the hope of spring training.

Can it possibly be that the season starts this week? The biblical rains out here in Southern California have pushed the spring so far from my mind that I only just now realized that the vernal equinox has come and gone, so how can Opening Day be only four days away?

If you’ve been paying attention to the Yankees through February and March, you no doubt enjoyed the spring tease of Jasson Domínguez. With Harrison Bader set to begin the season on the injured list (more on that crowded room in a bit), there was part of me that hoped the Yankees would take a page from the Atlanta Braves’ book and just give the centerfield job to the young phenom, but I knew that would never happen. Sending the Martian back to the minors for another year of development was obviously the right move, but it wasn’t the exciting one.

Speaking of minor leaguers with potential, where do you come down on the Oswald Peraza vs. Anthony Volpe debate? After his successful September stint last season, most observers assumed that Peraza would emerge as the starting shortstop this spring, but then the Yankees let it slip that Volpe, the organization’s top prospect (and the #5 overall according to MLB Pipeline) would be part of a competition that would also include last year’s starter, Isaiah Kiner-Falefa.

Our friend IKF quickly became an afterthought — he’ll be on the roster, but likely as a super-utilityman — and the battle currently comes down to the 22-year-old Peraza and the 21-year-old Volpe. To call it a battle at this point, however, is a bit generous. Peraza has struggled while Volpe has starred, currently hitting .314 with a gaudy 1.064 OPS and five stolen bases over 51 spring training at bats.

If Volpe were 24 instead of 21, this wouldn’t even be a conversation, but some worry that pushing a prospect to the Bronx after only 89 AAA at bats could be a problem. Brendan Kuty and Chris Kirschner debate the competition in the Athletic and include this statement regarding the possible pitfalls of choosing Volpe over Peraza: “If Volpe fails early, the team will face ridicule for promoting him too soon.”

That seems ridiculous to me. There’s obviously no guarantee that Volpe will enjoy the same success in April and May as he has in March, but there’s also no reason not to give him the chance. I’m sorry that I’m about to be the thousandth person you know to point this out, but we’re talking about an organization that passed on a parade of all-star (and a couple Hall of Fame) shortstops that were available through trade or free agency precisely because Anthony Volpe was waiting in the wings. They also refused to include him in trades that would’ve bolstered last season’s playoff run. If they really think that highly of him, and since he’s spent the past month living up to that hype, he should be the starting shortstop this Thursday afternoon.

But wouldn’t it be nice if that were the only story worth talking about? Sadly, the Yankees could probably pull 72-year-old Mario Mendoza out of retirement and give him the shortstop job, and the team’s biggest concern would still be the starting rotation. Once the clear strength of the team and one of the best rotations in baseball, the Yankees’ projected starting five of Gerrit Cole, Carlos Rodon, Luís Severino, Nestor Cortés, and Frankie Montas might never materialize. Rodon, Severino, and Montas will all begin the season on the IL, leaving Cole and Cortés to head a group that will also include Clarke Schmidt, Domingo Germán, and someone else. To quote a former manager, it’s not what you want.

But who knows? Maybe Aaron Judge will hit another 62 home runs, Giancarlo Stanton will play 145 games, Aaron Hicks will turn the clock back to 2018, D.J. LeMahieu will look like he did in 2020, and Josh Donaldson will prove that last season was an aberration. If all that happens, the rotation concerns won’t matter as much, will they? It’s spring, right? When else can we be so hopeful?

It’s (Basically) Spring Again…

It might as well be anyway if you live in the Northeast.  The weather has been as changeable as a Coinstar machine, so why not start the festivities in mid-February? Well, I dunno about Florida’s weather, but it seems the Yanks are all in and ready to work… well, except for a couple of key IL entries like Frankie Montas and Nestor Cortes; no insignificant absences from the playing field to be sure.  Considering where the team has put themselves in regards to the tax threshold, one can’t really blame them for not following in their crosstown rivals and treating that line like a cigar smoke ring, especially since the talent/money ratio doesn’t really add up for now.

At any rate, I’m certain you all were waiting for a chance to discuss doings of yours and theirs, so have at it. The training wheels will come off sooner than we know, so enjoy the talk and let’s see where they walk…

Happy New Year! (TL;DR)

It’s been a minute. Maybe a minute-and-a-half?

Whatever the case may be, as we turn the page on a new year, we continue to scour the sports pages and sports blogs (yes, you do) in search of the latest iota of information, inspiration and motivation to believe that ‘next year’ is going to be different than ‘this year’, especially if this year saw you repeat the same ending from the year before, the year before that and so on.

How many times does the record (record? CD? MP3? concussion?) have to skip before we hear the rest of the song or we simply skip to the next track?

Well if you’ve followed the Yankees up to this point, you probably already know that answer.  We’ve seen the Yankees throw huge wads of cash at certain players while totally avoiding others; like a hobbyist restoring a classic car, they tinker with certain parts while keeping the style and shape intact; maybe polishing it up to make it look nice, take it for a spin until it breaks down, take it back to the garage and tinker with it some more, repeat.  The Yankees always seem to have the makings of a great (if not super) team, but that team always seems to break down before they get to the World Series.  Sometimes sooner, sometimes later.  Playoff-bound, but insecure at best.

That said, you cannot say (anymore, at least) that the Yanks, i.e. Hal Steinbrenner and Family, are, um, “Cheap!” as has been thrown around the horn more times than Tinker-Evers-Chance.  No (reasonable) fan can look at how much the Yanks pay for key players on the current roster and accuse them of being the Bronx Wilpons, no matter how many high-priced vets their new nemesis Steve Cohen comfortably gobbles up like familiar hedge fund assets.  The problem that we as (again, reasonable) fans have with the Yankees’ spending is the allocation.

Of course, you can call up the local radio hotheaded hosts and talk until you’re blue in the face about this, and the narrative will not change, but just between you and me I don’t think Hal and his stepbrother Cashman like the idea of being labelled anything that doesn’t correspond with “genius”.  Too bad, because to this point that conjecture has been very hit-and-miss.  The fact is, while they have certainly pinpointed and extracted unseen or unexploited talent from other organizations and have even developed their own through aggressive drafting strategies, the gambles they’ve lost have been ignominious, self-inflicted and to a certain extent debilitating.

By most accounts, the Yanks have one of the strongest farm systems in baseball, and it’s a well-known fact that they spend well to recruit and develop talent to their system. But having a great system does very little good if you only use it except as an “in case of emergency, break glass” option (or a way to maintain and extend team control over elevated young players for an ethically-challenging and legally-inordinate amount of time). But then, there is the strange flip-side behavior of HODLing various prospects who, in due time, fail to develop into full-time contributors on the 40-man roster, never mind in the lineup or rotation.  It’s one thing to have high expectations, but then to not offer them consistency throughout the season for years on end is obtuse, which leads us to another problem:

The way several times the Yanks have painted themselves into a corner with strikingly bad contracts on borderline has-been/never-were vets they used microscopes and tweezers to pluck a shred of overlooked value from… this seems to be an organizational blind spot with either Cashman or his advisors; how they sign or trade for players who have shown either a spark of promise in a little time or consistency in other places for a long time, yet that consistency ends within a year or two of putting on pinstripes.  Some would call it a blatant misallocation of funds, some would call it pure bad luck.  All I know is that with this and the unwillingness to move prospects in deals (while failing to utilize or develop them in a reasonable amount of time to address those weaknesses) has prevented the Yanks from making solid moves to shore-up weaknesses in their lineup or rotation.

Sometimes they got lucky, like with Jose Treviño as their new No.1 catcher who not only had a marked effect on the pitchers’ productivity, but also had a bigger bat than they expected.  However, that was in response to a puzzling move to acquire a promising, yet equally unheralded catcher to replace the former blue-chip prospect and former All-Star catcher they had who had fallen so far into the gutter as a productive player and clubhouse guy in general that they had to not only get rid of him, but absorb a seriously and indisputably bad contract and worse overall presence as their third baseman; that also to make up for the weakness at that position they fell into with promising, but inconsistent/unlucky signings to fill that and other holes.

How far does this rabbit hole go down, you ask? Let’s not go there, or we’ll have to dig up names like Jacoby Ellsbury who, were it not for a slight indulgence that opened up the escape hatch for the front office, would still be on this roster for the next three seasons.  And that’s tangentially in relation to the long-gone and until recent years lamented Robinson Cano!

But soft, let us look yonder towards the future and take leave of our past frustrations.  What’s done is done as they would have us believe (underlined by Cashman’s recent extension and continued duties), and we gloss over the present confluence of talent heading into the new year…

Aaron Judge is the the new King of New York (with apologies to teammate Michael King, and to say nothing of the Emperor-in-making or New Clothes HQ’d in Flushing), and perhaps the only reason I’ve decided to remain a Yankee fan and a baseball fan in general.  I’ll be quite honest, I was ready to walk away from not only the Yankees, but baseball altogether if the Yankees decided not to pursue him as hard as they did. They knew he is what makes them relevant to anything these days.  Not Cole, not Stanton, not Gleyber, not Severino, not Loáisiga(sp!), not Rizzo, not Nasty Nestor, not “The Best Framer in Baseball” Treviño, not the idea of new Baby Bombers in the Ozwaldo Twins or Volpe or Jones or other Whatchamacallits, not the ever-present threat of Brett Gardner’s dirty uniform leading off and starting in left (although even that might be a slight upgrade at the present) and certainly not the existential threat that Cashman will convince Hal to go for it and sign Carlos Correa from under Cohen’s suddenly wary nose, thus giving us a replacement for the dread of Scott Proctor’s Arm with My Leg!!

Nope. It’s all about Judge; for you, for me and the whole world. Judge playing for any other team would have meant the end of believing in any player being anything more than an asset, any team being a team but instead just a business organization first and last.  Judge, being a homegrown player for any team and staying would be an affirmation to a large degree in the eternity and resiliancy of baseball in the face of contemporary and ever-evolving trends, a bastion of consistency and the rewarding of greatness by the very family that raised you.

That he happens to be a Yankee means more than most people are willing to admit firsthand.  Of course the Yankees are the hated (perceived) rivals of every other team in existense, according to traditional baseball fans at least.  Of course they are considered the Most Moneyed Team Of All and the big bad wolves who just might come and steal your most precious All Star either in free agency or with with a bargain trade for “overblown” prospects.  Even though we all know that’s not been true for decades now, we still believe in the Evil Empire mythos, not the least because the front office still plays with this jargon in some of their press conferences and releases to the media-at-large.

But this, signing Judge and keeping him a Yankee-for-Life (ostensibly) and deifying that signing by anointing him as the new captain gives life to baseball on a mitochondrial level.  How often do we see star players, superstar players at that, stay with the team they were raised with? The Yanks have three players that stand out as traveling mercenaries either by choice (Cole, Rizzo) or by circumstance to a degree (Stanton).  And of all the Baby Bombers that were supposed to revolutionize the Yankees’ new focus on core-and-dynasty building through analytics, the only ones left standing today are Severino (who is a free agent after this season, btw) and Judge…

Yunnow, there was a time when the Yankees were much concerned about the conundrum of being able to afford the embarrassment of riches they were grooming.  Instead, they gave it all to one guy. The thing is though, that guy took an enormous risk, bet on himself… and hit the (mouthallmighty!!) jackpot. The strange thing about this though, he did it with the team he came up with. He could have gotten even more if he listened to San Diego. He could have been much closer to home and family playing for the team he rooted for growing up with San Francisco. He even could have been more generous with his loyalty and signed an extension instead of betting his professional career on one season.

But he didn’t, and I applaud him for it. For all the things the Yankees could have done and actually did with and to him over the years, from (perceived*) service-time manipulation to capitalizing on his rookie fame, the many times he was placed on the IR, which compelled the limiting of his playing time directly or indirectly (in an “abundance of caution”) to staging themselves as the heroes during negotiations before the Season of All Seasons desecnded upon the masses, Judge had every right and reason to hold the organization over a barrel and squeeze every drop of juice from their cold, dead bank accounts.  And he did it with class! As far as we know (being reasonable fans), he was the Consummate Teammate™; hero of the proletariat, striking back at the ever-capitalist bourgeoisie ownership and its middling, confounding bureaucracy… yeah, okay.

As comment boards around the interwebs foamed with gnashing teeth and ever dropping temperatures from the shade from largely anonymous individuals or entities who identify as fans, i.e. HATERS speaking ill of the rich getting richer, those awful Yankees, they’ll eventually admit that viscerally it makes sense for a player to not only stay with the one team he’s always known out of a sense of loyalty, but to what having that loyalty rewarded immensely (by hook and by crook, regardless) says; speaking to his name, there is a semblance of justice in the world that we can relate to, even if only in our dreams.

Before anyone says it, I was going to try to figure out how to work in David Justice, Justus Sheffield, Lawyer Malloy, Babe Ruth, Harrison Bader, Joe Ginsberg and other subversive distractions from this feel-good musing, but it’s just too much to ask you all to suspend your disbelief at such an audacious attempt at a Dad-joke >;)

That’s all I will say for now; as much as I’m certain you miss me either by sentiment or by lack of proper aim, but I’ve said all this to say: I’m sorry I’ve not been around as much, I’m glad to have not been compelled to give up my fandom over the machinations of modern baseball, and although I likely will continue posting intermittently (ces’t la vie), I will be alongside you all in spirit, pushing this team over the top.  May this new year bring us all joy and reward.  Welcome aboard the Crazy Train, Carlos Rodón!

(Insert Stylized Parenthetical Here)

 

If This Is It

The Yanks are down 3-0. Here’s hoping they can make us happy at least once more. One they lose, the panic about signing Aaron Judge, followed by Aaron Boone’s inevitable dismissal will set off a long, weird off-season.

Never mind hot stove:

Let’s Go Yank-ees!

Dread Not

The most difficult part of the playoffs from a fan’s perspective is that the narratives are crafted so quickly that they become fact before anyone has a chance to question them. After two games in Houston most people have decided that these Astros are simply too good for the Yankees, that their dominant pitching staff is untouchable, that the Yankee bullpen is a dumpster fire, that this team from the Bronx simply isn’t very good.

Perhaps it’s time to back away from the ledge and remember that we’re talking about two games, and those two games weren’t all bad. Consider, for example, that the mighty Astros only scored seven runs in those two games, and that the three runs they scored on Thursday night came courtesy of one mistake — a two-out, two-strike fastball that Luís Severino wasn’t able to get up in the zone. There’s also the fact that Aaron Judge nearly grabbed Game Two right back with a laser that might’ve been a home run were it not for the winds that were whipping through Minute Maid Park.

A quick note about those two balls, Alex Bregman’s towering fly ball that landed in the seats for a three-run home run and Judge’s line drive that was caught at the wall by Kyle Tucker. Those two balls determined the game, so the postgame analysis naturally focused on the differences between the two, and the Yankees came out looking a bit petulant as one after another they stood in line to tell us that they thought Judge’s ball was going out. (In their defense, they had to answer the questions.) Severino even went so far as to say the Astros had been lucky because Bregman’s ball had been only 91 MPH off the bat while Judge’s had been 106. (Ever the diplomat, Judge said he never thought it was going out. He had hit it to the wrong part of the yard.)

Alex Eisert at Fangraphs provides some quick analysis on the data behind those two balls:

After the game, Severino expressed surprise that Bregman’s looping 91.8 mph fly left the park and Aaron Judge’s 106.3 mph shot to right didn’t. He mentioned the wind as a factor; the roof was open at Minute Maid, and the swirling air currents may have brought balls back into the park in right field but lifted out those hit to left. Yet, it’s hard to discern the ultimate impact environmental factors had on the game’s outcome; there were plenty of Astros who flied out to deep right as well, notably Peña, who hit a 99.2-mph, 22-degree drive that stayed in the yard. Besides the wind, batted ball spin may have caused Judge’s knock to fall short.

The whole discussion was interesting because it pointed out how exit velocity and launch angle haven’t just changed the way the game is played but the way it’s perceived. When you’re sitting in ballpark, every ball hit in the air looks like it’s going to be a home run, so we’ve all quickly learned to watch the outfielders, not the ball. Knowledgeable fans have been doing that for generations, but the players don’t do that anymore. With stadium scoreboards posting exit velocity and launch angle the instant a ball is struck, all eyes in the dugout immediately look to those magic numbers. It’s no longer the crack of the bat but the flash of the scoreboard that triggers celebration in one dugout and despair in the other. The game has changed.

Today will determine whether or not this series changes. If I’m being honest, I’ll admit that the narrative being written right now actually isn’t based on just games one and two. We all know that Houston beat the Yankees five out of seven games this season, without Yankee pitchers throwing a single pitch while holding the lead, and we all bear the scars of 2017 and 2019. These Astros, whether cheating or not, have ripped our hearts out of our collective chests over and over.

Ah, but this is baseball, and sometimes the action doesn’t follow the script — just ask the Dodgers and Mets. Gerrit Cole pitched and won the biggest game of his Yankee career six days ago in Cleveland, and today he takes the mound for a game that’s probably even bigger. (No, it’s not an elimination game, but to my knowledge no team has ever come back to win an ALCS after being down 0-3, right?)

I have faith in Cole because I have to. There is no other choice.

There are a few tweaks to the lineup — Rizzo moving into the leadoff spot, Carpenter back at DH, and Cabrera at short. I’ve gotten used to Boone’s constant shuffling of the batting order, so I have no thoughts on that, but I wonder about playing Matt Carpenter. He looks hopelessly lost, bringing to mind the days of Gary Sánchez. The only hope is that he might run into one and accidentally put a ball into the seats. Here’s hoping. Anyway…

Let’s-Go-Yank-Ees!

  1. Rizzo, 1B
  2. Judge, RF
  3. Stanton, LF
  4. Torres, 2B
  5. Carpenter, DH
  6. Bader, CF
  7. Donaldson, 3B
  8. Cabrera, SS
  9. Trevino, C

Grab-and-Go

Yanks still have a chance to swipe a game in Houston—and yes, Game 1 was within reach, a missed opportunity, dammit.

Sevi on the hill tonight.

Never mind the brisket:

Let’s Go Yank-ees!

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