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Category: Observations From Cooperstown

Observations From Cooperstown: Memories of Moose

Moose Skowron looked like a character out of “Moon Mullins.” Or in a more contemporary sense, he had the appearance of a secondary character in “The Simpsons.” With his lantern jaw, thick jowls, and military crew cut, he possessed the look of a man who could put his fist through your chest and pull your heart out.

Appearances are often deceiving, and they were exactly that with Skowron, who died at 81 on Friday after a battle with lung cancer. Oh, he could be gruff and curt on the outside, but once you opened a conversation with him, you discovered a down-to-earth guy who enjoyed telling stories from his days with the Yankees. And when you’ve played with characters like Mickey Mantle, Hank Bauer, Yogi Berra, and Whitey Ford, or managed for one-of-a-kind legends like Casey Stengel, you’ve got good material to work with.

There were other deceptions with Skowron. Like many fans, I always assumed that Skowron’s nickname came from his size, his power, and his brute physical strength. He was six feet, two inches, 200 pounds, with much of frame wrapped in muscle. Well, the true origins of his nickname had nothing to do with his physical dimensions. When Skowron was a boy, his grandfather gave him an impromptu haircut, which made the youngster look like the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini. Skowron’s friends called him “Mussolini,” and the family adapted by changing the nickname to “Moose.” By the time he was playing major league ball, everyone was calling him Moose. One of the few exceptions was the Topps Card Company, which always listed him as “Bill Skowron” on his cards.

After signing with the Yankees in 1950, the organization tried him as an outfielder and third baseman, before realizing he lacked the athletic agility needed of those positions. He moved to first base, where he was blocked by players like Johnny Mize and Joe Collins. He finally landed in the Bronx in 1954, when he platooned with Collins, before becoming an everyday player by the late 1950s.

How good was Skowron in his prime? Well, he was very good. From 1957 to 1961, he averaged 20 home runs a season while qualifying for five consecutive American League All-Star teams. During that stretch, he twice slugged better than .500; he also received some support for American League MVP on two occasions.

As a right-handed power hitter, the old Yankee Stadium was hardly made to order for Skowron. But he adapted, developing a power stroke that targeted right-center and right fields, where the dimensions were far more favorable for hitting the long ball. Skowron’s right-handed hitting presence was importance, given that most of their power hitters hit from the left side (including Roger Maris, Berra and the switch-hitting Mantle.) If opposing teams loaded up on left-handed pitching, Skowron could make them pay.

Skowron really had only two flaws in his game. A classic free swinger and bad ball hitter, Skowron could sometimes hit pitches up his eyes, but he could also flail away at other pitches outside of the strike zone. Since he didn’t walk much, his on-base percentage suffered. Skowron’s other weakness involved his health; he simply could not avoid injuries. One time, he hurt his back while lifting an air conditioner. On another occasion, he tore a muscle in his thigh. There were broken bones, too, including a fractured arm that resulted from an on-field collision. With such injuries forcing him to miss chunks of games at a time, he often played 120 to 130 games a season, instead of the 150 to 160 that he would have preferred.

The 1961 season provided contrasts and quandaries for Skowron. On the down side, his slugging percentage and his on-base percentage fell. More favorably, he hit a personal-best 28 home runs while playing in a career-high 150 games. Batting out of the sixth and seventh hole, Skowron provided protection for the middle-of-the-order thumpers, a group that included Maris, Mantle, and Berra.

As he often did, Skowron elevated his play in the World Series. In the 1961 Classic against the Reds, Yet, it was in the 1961 World Series. In five games against the upstart Reds, Skowron slugged .529 with one home run and five RBIs, reached base 45 per cent of the time, and hit a robust .353. Then again, Moose was almost always good in the Series. In 133 at-bats stretched over eight World Series appearances, Skowron hit eight home runs and slugged .519. In Game Seven situations alone, the Moose hit three home runs. If you believe in the existence of clutch, and I do, then Skowron belongs near the top of that list.

Skowron put up another good season in 1962, but his age and the presence of a young player in the system changed his status within the organization. Believing that Joe Pepitone was headed toward superstardom, the Yankees decided to trade Skowron that winter. They sent him to the Dodgers in exchange for Stan Williams, an intimidating veteran reliever who liked to throw pitches up and in as part of his quest for strikeouts.

In some ways, Skowron could not have been traded to a less ideal situation. Newly built Dodger Stadium, which had replaced the Los Angeles Coliseum as the Dodgers’ home, had a ridiculously high mound and outfield measurements that did not favor sluggers like Skowron. He also had to face a new set of pitchers in the National League; outside of World Series competition, Moose had little familiarity with senior circuit pitching. To make matters worse, Skowron did not play first base every day, instead platooning with Ron Fairly. Moose hit a miserable .203 and ripped only three home runs in well under 300 plate appearances.

To the surprise of many, Skowron still had something left for the World Series. Playing against his former Yankee mates, he swatted a home run and batted .385 to help the Dodgers to a four-game Series sweep.

World Series heroics aside, the Dodgers questioned whether Skowron had much left. So they sold him to the Washington Senators. He hit well during a half-season in the Capital City, but when the team fell out of contention, he was sent packing to the White Sox in a mid-season trade. Skowron hit well over the next season and a half, but slumped badly in 1966 before closing out his career in ’67.

Yet, there was much more to Skowron than on-the-field highlights and accomplishments. He made news off the field, sometimes in frivolous ways and sometimes through embarrassing situations. Let’s consider a couple of episodes from the 1960s:

*During the 1963 season, Skowron and several other Dodgers made a guest appearance on the TV show, “Mr. Ed.” Skowron, catcher John Roseboro, center fielder Willie Davis, and Hall of Fame left-hander Sandy Koufax played themselves. In the main plotline of “Leo Durocher meets Mr. Ed,” the talking horse gives batting tips to Durocher, who was billed as the Dodgers’ manager even though he was actually a coach under Walter Alston. Durocher is supposed to relay the tips to a slumping Skowron. Moose and the other Dodgers then watch in amazement as Mr. Ed completes an inside-the-park home run against Koufax. (In a complete aside, Durocher also appeared on an episode of “The Munsters,” and was once again mentioned as the Dodgers’ skipper. Either Alston wanted nothing to do with Hollywood, or someone was trying to send him the message that Durocher was the real Dodgers manager.)

*While training with the Dodgers in Vero Beach, Florida, he decided to make a surprise trip to see his wife at their home in Hilldale, New Jersey. When he arrived at the house, Skowron found his wife in bed with another man. Infuriated by the surprise discovery, Skowron proceeded to pummel his unwanted guest. Shortly thereafter, Skowron was charged with assault, though many were sympathetic to his situation.

Skowron had better long-term success with other relationships, particularly his fellow Yankees. Beloved in the Yankee clubhouse, Moose became especially close friends with Hank Bauer, a rough-and tumble character in his own right. They often made public appearances together, including numerous visits to Cooperstown for Hall of Fame Weekend signings. I remember meeting Skowron and Bauer back in the late 1980s, while I was still working in sports talk radio. They were signing at a table outside one of the many card shops on Main Street. I wanted to interview the two of them, but I was intimidated by Bauer’s raspy voice and Skowron’s rugged appearance. Feeling like a rookie cub reporter, I settled for making a few innocuous remarks to the two ex-Bombers.

It remains one of my regrets. I never did have another chance to interview either Skowron or Bauer. That was a real mistake on my part, losing out on the opportunity to have a real chat with Skowron, one of the game’s great storytellers.

If there is any consolation, some of Skowron’s stories can be found on You Tube, and in the many books that serve as oral histories of the Yankee franchise. This was a guy who was good friends with Mantle and Berra, a guy who knew Whitey Ford, a man who played with Maris, a guy who dealt with the idiosyncrasies of Casey Stengel. Skowron was a man worth listening to, a link to an era that was long ago, but an era that we always want to re-visit.

Moose was a man that we’ll miss.

Bruce Markusen is co-author of the newly revised edition of the book, Yankee World Series memories.

(Photo Credit: Washington Post; Alex Belth.)

[Editor's Note: Bruce will be on leave for the foreseeable future while he works on a book. We'll miss his weekly posts and he will drop in occasionally with a Card Corner piece. Meanwhile, we wish him good luck with his project and thank him for being the man.]

Observations From Cooperstown: Dom Valentino and a Look Back at 1987

It’s tempting to say that Phil Rizzuto, Bill White and Frank Messer were the only broadcasters for the Yankees during the 1970s. It seemed that way, if only because those three men were fixtures on television and radio. But there were a few others who announced for the team that decade, including Fran Healy,  a good guy who made the immediate transition from backup catcher to broadcaster, and Bob Gamere, who is now in a federal prison for possessing and transporting child pornography.

There was also a guy named Dom Valentino.

Valentino died last week at the age of 83. If you don’t remember him as a Yankee broadcaster, you’re easily forgiven. I have only vague recollections of Valentino, and I was a diehard Yankee fan for most of that decade. Valentino announced Yankee games for just one season, in 1975, which turned out to be an also-ran campaign for the Yankees, just one year before their celebrated return to the World Series.

But I do remember Valentino, at least a little bit. Further research reveals that he was all of five feet and four inches, but had a large, booming voice that belied his stature. A colorful personality who wore shirts with wide collars that could have fit aircraft carriers, Valentino had an excitability on the air that made him distinctive. He sometimes embellished details on the field, trying to make circumstances more dramatic than they were, but hey, baseball is entertainment and not precision brain surgery.

The 1975 season was hardly a hallmark campaign for the Yankees, but it was noteworthy for the debuts of both Jim “Catfish” Hunter and Bobby Bonds in Yankee pinstripes. And it was absolutely tumultuous for Valentino, perhaps the most dramatic year in his life. Not only did Valentino do Yankee radio broadcasts that summer, but he also performed play-by-play for the New York Nets, who still had Julius Erving and were still in the ABA, and the NHL’s New York Islanders. It was a hectic time for Valentino, especially in the spring, when the Yankees, Nets and Islanders were all playing simultaneously. Given such a breakneck schedule, it became understandable why Valentino endured a heart attack in July. Then, during his time in the hospital, Valentino suffered a second heart attack. Two heart attacks meant an end to his one season of broadcasting in the Bronx.

Valentino’s life had almost ended a month earlier, and through circumstances under which he had no control. After a Yankee home game on June 13–Friday the 13th as a matter of fact–Valentino was driving home when he was hit head-on by a drunk driver. The collision thrust Valentino partly through his windshield. Miraculously, he survived the terrifying accident, only to endure the two heart attacks later in the summer. No one should have to go through that kind of a year.

After a 15-month layoff, Valentino returned to broadcasting, but not at the major league level. Determined to announce games once again, He took a job announcing New Orleans Pelicans minor league games. By 1980, he was back in the big leagues, doing play-by-play for the Oakland A’s. Valentino’s friendship with Billy Martin, who was guiding the “Billy Ball” A’s at the time, helped him land the job. Finally, a good break had come Valentino’s way, after all those near tragedies of 1975.

That Valentino somehow made it through 1975, and then fought his way back to a major league broadcast booth, is remarkable. He managed to live until his early eighties, when a pair of strokes and prostrate cancer finally took his life. That’s fighting. And that’s surviving. Dom Valentino, God bless you…

 

***

Saturday afternoon’s miraculous comeback from a 9-0 deficit will likely become a Yankee classic, and for good reason (it happened against their hated rivals and occurred on national TV), but it’s not the first time that the Bombers have come back from such a margin against the Beantowners. On June 26, 1987, the Yankees played the Red Sox in a Friday night game at the Stadium. They fell behind the defending American League champions, 9-0, after the first two innings.

In the bottom of the third, the Yankees then went to work against a young Roger Clemens By the end of the inning, the Yankees had knocked “The Rocket” from the game, banged out nine hits against a trio of Red Sox pitchers, taken advantage of an error and a passed ball, and scored a bushel of 11 runs. The big blows came from Dave Winfield (a three-run homer), Gary Ward (a bases-loaded single), and of all people, Wayne Tolleson (another bases-loaded single).

But the Yankees could not maintain their sudden prosperity. Rich Bordi, called on to pitch long relief after a failed start by Tommy John, immediately gave up two runs in the top of the fourth, as the Sox tied the game. The two teams would not score again until the bottom of the 10th, when Mike Pagliarulo drew a leadoff walk against Calvin Schiraldi, moved to second on Rick Cerone’s sacrifice bunt, and came home with the game-winning run on Tolleson’s RBI single.

Not surprisingly, Don Mattingly put himself right in the middle of the offensive heroics. He went 4-for-6, scored two runs, and drove in another. Willie Randolph added three hits and a walk, while Winfield chipped in with his three-run shot, the Yankees’ only home run of the night.

The offensive outburst overshadowed the good work of the Yankee bullpen. After Bordi coughed up the lead, Cecilio Guante gave Lou Piniella three and a third innings of scoreless relief, lefty Pat Clements pitched shutout ball for two and two-thirds, and Tim “Big Foot” Stoddard picked up the win by notching the final out in the top of the 10th. For those three pitchers, the game might have represented the highlight of their brief Yankee careers.

And just to give you a little flavor of the era, some of the other Yankees who played that day included a veteran Claudell Washington, platoon specialist Mike Easler, and the good-hit, no-field catcher, Mark Salas.

Yes, that was 25 years ago. A different time and an era. But the same result–an incredible come-from-behind win against the Sox.

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

Observations From Cooperstown: Girardi, Cervelli, Stewart and Maxwell

If George Steinbrenner were still alive… I just couldn’t resist starting this week’s column with a reference to the late “Boss.” Surely, he would not have been pleased by the Yankees’ season-opening performance in Tampa Bay. Three straight losses to start the season, lowlighted by poor pitching in the first two games and a nonexistent offense in the finale, would have been enough to ignite a Steinbrenner tantrum or two, at least in his prime years.

I won’t offer up any tantrums here. After all, it is only three games, and three games against one of the better teams in the American League. But then again, this series did not exactly produce a highlight reel of great moments in Joe Girardi’s managerial career. We’ve already heard plenty about his panic-stricken decision to intentionally walk the immortal Sean Rodriguez in the very first inning of game one, setting up Carlos Pena’s backbreaking grand slam. So there is no need to add charcoal to that fire.

Just as egregious was Girardi’s decision to start Eduardo Nunez in the second game while giving Derek Jeter a half-day off as the DH. Here we go with the issue of rest, yet again! It is beyond ridiculous that Jeter needed any kind of rest in the second game of the season. The counterargument that Jeter’s legs needed a break from the artificial turf of Tropicana Field doesn’t hold much water either, since most of the Rays’ infield is actually covered with dirt, like a traditional grass infield, and not the harder artificial surface. Whatever the rationale for the Jeter/Nunez move, the Yankees paid the price on Nunez’ first inning error, which led to two unearned runs against a shaky Hiroki Kuroda.

Later in the game, Girardi inexplicably allowed lefty specialist Clay Rapada to face the Rays’ best hitter, Evan Longoria, who responded with a ringing double that was nearly a home run. How could Girardi have allowed this matchup to take place? This is the same Rapada who allowed right-handed batters to hit .692 against him in 16 plate appearances last season!

In the third game, Girardi made another bad lineup decision. For some reason, he decided to play the defensively challenged Raul Ibanez in right field, a position that he has not played since 2005. Ibanez is bad enough in left field, but putting him in the unfamiliar territory of right field, and in a domed ballpark where it is often difficult to pick up the flight of the ball against the roof, is just begging for misadventure. Sure enough, Ibanez delivered with his first error of the season. If Nick Swisher absolutely needed a day off from right field–and to me it’s questionable that he needed a day off so early in the season–then Girardi should have played Andruw Jones in right field and simply foregone the platoon advantage.

Clearly, this was not a good weekend for Girardi, whose obsession with “rest” has become almost comical, and has overridden all other managerial tenets of common sense. I guess there’s little hope that Girardi will change this tendency; we can only hope that he starts to show a better feel for in-game managing, especially with regard to intentional walks and the decision to ever let Rapada face a right-handed batter the quality of Longoria.

Still, I’m not going to panic. Coming out of spring training, the Yankees were the consensus pick of the media to win the American League East. I believe they remain the favorites, even in a stacked division. CC Sabathia and Mariano Rivera will pitch better, Mark Teixeira will start to hit (though he still needs to stop the pull-the-ball tendencies), and the depth of the pitching staff will win out.

But check back with me again if the Yankees lose two out of three to the Orioles…

***

Prior to the tempest in Tampa Bay, the Yankees generated some controversy on the final day of spring training when they made room for newly acquired backup catcher Chris Stewart by demoting Francisco Cervelli to their Scranton/Wilkes Barre, affiliate, also known by its alternate nickname, the Empire State Yankees.

More than a few Yankee fans were outraged by the decision, but you can put me in the opposite camp on this issue. Despite his reputation as a superior defender, Cervelli has actually become a major liability behind the plate. He makes far too many errors, a total of 19 over the last two seasons combined. Even more alarmingly, he has thrown out a scant 14 per cent of opposing base stealers in each of the last two seasons. That’s such a paltry number that it’s reminiscent of the throwing troubles of Johnny Blanchard and Cliff Johnson, two former Yankee backup receivers of decades gone by.

At least Blanchard and “Heathcliff” could hit, and with enough power to make them game-changers in the late innings. Cervelli is a .260 hitter with no power; he has marginal offensive talents, and not nearly enough offensive potential to make up for his poor throwing and erratic decision-making.

In regards to Stewart, he’s reminiscent of Kevin Cash as a hitter, but at least he brings legitimate defensive chops to the position. He’s an excellent catcher with a strong arm, having thrown out nearly 40 per cent of basestealers in 2011. As long as the Yankees don’t ask him to play more than twice a week, he’ll be acceptable–at least until Austin Romine is able to return from his back problems. And perhaps in the interim, Cervelli can change his ways. At one time Cervelli was a good defensive catcher; it might not be too late for him to regain his fielding prowess playing every day at Triple-A…

***

Finally, I’m a little disappointed the Yankees received nothing for Justin Maxwell, other than the waiver price the Astros paid for in claiming him on Sunday. Maxwell’s value should have been at its apex after a great spring in which he impressed everyone with his game- breaking speed, versatile defensive ability, and live bat. I know that he’s 28 and not anyone’s idea of a top prospect, but he has the tools to be a very good fourth outfielder–and that should carry some value. It seems to me that the Yankees should have at least extracted a Grade-C prospect from the Astros or the Orioles, the two teams who expressed the most interest in Mad Max during the spring.

Maxwell couldn’t crack the Yankees’ bench, but he has enough talent to play regularly for the awful Astros. Houston is playing three unproven kids in its baby cradle outfield (J.D. Martinez, Jordan Schafer and Brian Bogusevic). Martinez is regarded as the Astros’ top prospect, but Schafer is a failed prospect out of the Braves’ system and Bogusevic is off to a slow start, so Maxwell figures to receive plenty of opportunity at Minute Maid Park.

Maxwell is a fun player to watch. I’ll be rooting for him to do well for the Astros, who could use all the help they can muster.

 

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

Observations of Spring Training: Mad Max, The Bullpen, and Johnny D

Lost amidst the concerns over the shoulder inflammation experienced by Michael Pineda, one of the most interesting stories of Yankee camp has involved the status of two outfielders who are at a crossroads in their careers. Justin Maxwell and Chris Dickerson are both capable of serving as fifth outfielders on a major league roster, but they are finding no room in a crowded and well-established outfield. The Yankees are set to open the new season with five outfielders, with three of the slots taken by starters Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson, and Nick Swisher, and the other two going to DH platoon partners Andruw Jones and Raul Ibanez.

Unfortunately, the Yankees cannot send either Dickerson or Maxwell to Triple-A, at least not without passing through waivers. Both players are out of options, and both are likely to be claimed by another team if the Yankees try to sneak them through the waiver wire. So the Yankees may be forced to trade one or both of them, or risk losing them for nothing more than the waiver price.

Maxwell, in particular, has opened the eyes of the Yankee brass with his speed, range, and live bat. Like Dickerson, he can play all three outfield positions, which is important given the defensive limitations of Ibanez and the age of Jones. Mad Max might also be the fastest runner in the organization, making him a potential weapon as a pinch-runner. But he’s also 28 years of age, hardly the age of a true prospect, and coming off of major surgery to his throwing shoulder.

So what should the Yankees do? Perhaps the most sensible thing would be to chuck the obsession with a 12-man pitching staff and carry Maxwell as the sixth outfielder. But I just don’t think the Yankees are daring enough to try something different. If that’s indeed the case, then a trade would make the most sense. There are teams, such as the Mets, who are desperately in need of outfield help. With Andres Torres sidelined by leg problems and most of their alternatives better suited to backup or minor league duty, Maxwell could probably start in center field for the Mets right now. The Mets and Yankees hardly ever make trades, but the circumstances might be right for a current exchange, provided the Mets are willing to fork over a C-level prospect from the lower reaches of their minor league system…

***

The injury to Pineda will not only change the configuration of the starting rotation, but it will alter the dynamic of the bullpen. With a healthy Pineda, Freddy Garcia appeared to be the odd man out of the rotation and likely would have been ticketed for long man duty in the pen. Now that Garcia will be starting, the Yankees will have an opening for a long reliever. It figures to be one of three Triple-A prospects: D.J. Mitchell, David Phelps, and Adam Warren. Of the three, Warren throws the hardest, but Mitchell may be best suited to relief work because of his hard sinker.

Earl Weaver would certainly approve of the Yankees’ plan to use a pitching prospect in long relief. The former Orioles skipper was a big believer in breaking in his young pitchers in the relatively pressure-free role of long relief. If they succeeded out of the bullpen, Weaver would then challenge them further by pushing them into the rotation. Weaver certainly had a long record of success with young pitchers in Baltimore, from Jim Palmer and Dave McNally to Doyle Alexander and Ross Grimsley to Mike Flanagan and Scott McGregor.

The Yankees can only hope for similar success from either Mitchell, Phelps, or Warren.

***

After a poor start to the spring training season, Raul Ibanez has shown some life in a body that is closing in on 40. He has hit three home runs over the last week, while showing power to both left and right field. Even if Ibanez had continued to struggle in Grapefruit League play, he was never going to lose his job on the Opening Day roster. Still, the Yankees remain on red alert with regard to the DH position. If Ibanez struggles over the first couple of months of the season, do not be at all surprised if the Yankees cut bait with him and look very seriously at the possibility of signing Johnny Damon. Ibanez is coming off a subpar season in Philadelphia, and given his age, it shouldn’t be any shock if he turns out to be cooked as a major league hitter.

Of all the remaining unsigned free agents, Damon is the best available player. He still has sufficient power and speed to make him dangerous, even if he can’t play the outfield anymore. His OPS of .743 was significantly better than Ibanez’ mark of .707. And he did so without the benefit of having Citizens Bank Park as his home field.

So why hasn’t Damon found a job yet, with the regular season just days away? Damon has been hurt by two factors this off-season: he’s insistent on wanting an everyday DH role because of his pursuit of 3,000 hits, and he’s a Scott Boras client, which can be a discouraging factor to some potential suitors. If Damon were smart, he’d willingly sign as a platoon DH with the Yankees, if only because some playing time is better than no playing time. If Damon were to hit well enough, there’s always a possibility that the Yankees would expand his role and make him the regular DH, though he’d have to concede some DH time to Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and Nick Swisher. But by continuing to sit on the sidelines, Damon won’t be able to impress anybody.

Yankees aside, I hope that Damon signs with some major league club between now and May. Not only can the man still hit, but he brings an energy to the ballpark and to the clubhouse. He’s a fun player to watch. Without a doubt, Johnny Damon should play somewhere in 2012.

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

Observations of Spring Training: Lefty Relievers, Utility Infielders, and Trade Rumors

Once Hideki Okajima failed his physical, most Yankee observers assumed that Joe Girardi would carry only one left-hander–the erratic Boone Logan–in the Opening Day bullpen. That situation may have changed now, thanks to the remarkable spring performances of two obscure pitchers, veteran Clay Rapada and minor leaguer Cesar Cabral. The two southpaws have pitched so well in Grapefruit League play that Girardi and Brian Cashman are now considering the possibility of carrying a second left-hander.

On the surface, Rapada is not that impressive. He’s a 31-year-old journeyman who’s pitched for four teams in five years, doesn’t throw hard, and carries a lifetime ERA of 5.13. But thanks to one of the funkiest lefty deliveries I’ve ever seen, he is virtual Kryptonite to left-handed hitters, holding them to a batting average of .153 and an on-base percentage of .252 in his career. Combining funk and finesse, Rapada has clearly demonstrated the ability of overmatching lefty swingers. This spring, he has struck out nine batters in seven innings while not giving up a single run.

Cabral is a lesser known quantity than Rapada, but has the higher ceiling. Very quietly, he was selected by the Yankees out of the Red Sox’ system in December’s Rule 5 draft. He was above average at Double-A Salem last year, pitching to the tune of a 3.52 ERA and striking out 46 batters in 38 innings. With a smooth and fluid delivery, Cabral throws a fastball in the low nineties, topping out at the 95 mile-an-hour mark. He also has an excellent swing-and-miss changeup which can make him effective against right-handed batters. That ability would make him more than a lefty-on-lefty matchup reliever.

Like Rapada, Cabral has been brilliant this spring. The 23-year old has struck out 11 batters and walked only one in eight-plus innings. The Yankees have been duly impressed.

Here’s the trick with Cabral. As a Rule 5 draftee, he has to stay on the Yankee roster all season or be offered back to the Red Sox. If the Yankees try to slip him through waivers, he has almost no chance of clearing; someone will take a chance on a young left-hander with his ability.

If I were a betting man–and I’m not, unless it’s someone else’s money–I’d bet on the Yankees carrying two left-handers on Opening Day. After all, Girardi does love his late-inning matchups. And if I were to wager on either Cabral or Rapada, I’ll predict the Yankees take Cabral. With youth and stuff on his side–not to mention the chance to stick it to Bobby Valentine and the Red Sox–Cabral will be the choice.

By the way, if Cabral makes the Opening Day roster, he’ll become the first Yankee with the name of “Cesar” since Cesar Tovar played for Billy Martin in 1976.

***

In case you’re wondering why you haven’t seen Russell Branyan in any of these Grapefruit League exhibition games, it’s because he remains sidelined with a bad back. The injury has prevented “Russell The Muscle” from playing any games in Florida; somehow the Yankees have been listing him as day-to-day on their pregame notes, dating all the way back to the beginning of spring training.

Branyan’s inability to hit or play the field will likely cost him any chance of making the Opening Day roster. His chances were slim to begin with, but if he could have proven his ability to play a little third base and still hit with some power, he might have been a valuable backup. Now, his best chance of staying with the Yankees could depend on his willingness to go to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes Barre, where he could be an infield insurance policy. It might be Branyan’s best bet. Given his age and health, I find it hard to believe that any of the other 29 teams would give a guaranteed major league contract to Branyan.

With Branyan pretty much out of the picture, Eric Chavez becomes a lock to make the team as a backup third baseman/first baseman and occasional DH. The question now becomes: who will be the main utility infielder, Eduardo Nunez or veteran Bill Hall?

Clearly the favorite, Nunez is younger, faster, and more athletic. Many observers have already penciled him in as the primary utility infielder, but until the Yankees release Hall, there is a sliver of doubt. While Nunez has more natural talent and youth on his side, Hall has more power and has more experience filling the difficult role of being a part-time player. He also does not have chronic trouble throwing the ball, a habit that plagued Nunez throughout last season. Based on spring training performance, Nunez currently has the advantage. He’s hitting over .300 while Hall is batting in the low .200s.

Perhaps the wise thing to do would be to start the season with Hall, see if he has anything left at the age of 31, and let Nunez compile some regular at-bats in Triple-A. If Hall proves he cannot play, the Yankees can always make the switch to Nunez in mid-season…

***

Very few trades are made during spring training, but the Yankees’ depth in pitching and in the middle infield could result in a deal or two. According to one report, the Yankees have offered Freddy Garcia to the Marlins, but Miami, which has already added free agent Mark Buehrle, wasn’t interested. Still, there are always teams looking for pitching in the spring; the list of Garcia suitors could include the Cardinals and the Tigers. Another rumor has the Yankees talking about a swap of Garcia for Bobby Abreu, but the Angels would have to throw in some money to offset Abreu’s $8 million salary. Garcia is making only $4 million.

On a completely different front, the Phillies, who are currently working without Chase Utley and his ailing knees, have talked to the Yankees about middle infield help. The Phillies are legitimately concerned that Utley will miss the entire season, if not have his career come to an abrupt end. Backup infielder Michael Martinez is also injured, so the Phillies have approached the Yankees about Ramiro Pena, who has no chance of making the Yankees’ Opening Day roster and is destined to start the season for the Scranton/Wilkes Barre traveling baseball show. Pena would likely serve as a defensive caddy behind Placido Polanco, who may be moved back to second base if Utley’s knees are as bad as the Phillies fear.

[Picture by Bags]

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

Observations From Cooperstown: A Tribute to Don Mincher

I usually write exclusively about the Yankees, either past or present, in this space. That’s because many of the readers have told me they prefer to read about the Yankees in “Observations From Cooperstown” and “Card Corner.” But there are times when I find it necessary to deviate from that plan. The loss of former major league slugger Don Mincher is one of those times.

Don died a week ago at the age of 73, just about six months after retiring as president of the Southern League. Though I never met him face to face and only remember his playing career from a few highlights, he meant a lot to me personally. Don was the first player I interviewed for the first book I wrote: A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s.

I had never done an interview for a book-length project, so I really had no idea what I was doing. If the phone interview had gone poorly, I might have felt discouraged to do any more. But Don Mincher wouldn’t let that happen. He was friendly, accommodating, informative, helpful, and funny. At the end of our extended conversation, he gave me some helpful hints. He told me which A’s to avoid interviewing, and even warned me about one guy who would likely ask me for money in exchange for the interview.

The interview with Mincher went so well that I said to myself, “I can do this.” I interviewed several other players on the way to putting together a book over which I take a certain amount of pride and a great deal of pleasure.

Don provided me with some real insights into the inner workings of the A’s in 1971-72. When Mincher heard that t he fiery Dick Williams would replace the laid-back McNamara, he knew that the culture on the ballclub would change dramatically. “Well, I knew one thing right away; there would be some confrontations. I knew that,” Mincher told me back in 1997. “I knew Dick Williams from playing against him, his reputation and what-have-you. And I knew there would be some confrontations that would take place, and I knew that Dick Williams would win ‘em all.”

Mincher realized that a constant swirl of turmoil would result from the heated interaction between the feisty Williams and some of the egocentric players on the A’s. “You could just feel it coming,” Mincher said, “and sure enough there was.” More importantly, Mincher sensed that with the hiring of Williams, the A’s were about to start winning a lot more games than they done in the late 1960s. “That was really the beginning of a great ballclub,” Mincher said declaratively, “when Dick Williams was signed to that contract.”

In addition to the heavy demands imposed by Williams, the 1972 season also marked the beginning of an era of ill feelings between some of the Oakland players. “I can remember a lot of animosity in that clubhouse between individual guys, and it became a little bit cliquish to some degree at that time,” said Mincher, one of the few A’s who didn’t have conflicts with his teammates. “It was amazing the guys that had trouble with each other just forgot about it when they went out on the field, and then picked it up after the game. It was amazing to do that.”

Mincher would be long retired by the time player and owner controversies fully overtook the team in 1973 and ’74. But the roots of dissent all go back to 1972.“Yeah, I can remember it beginning in ’72. Of course, I wasn’t there when it really got hectic, but I can imagine what happened, and I can imagine who was in the middle of it. It wasn’t any fistfights or brawls or anything like that [in ’72], but I remember the bickering, sure.”

The catalyst to much of the controversy could be found in the form of a future Yankee. “Reggie [Jackson], who is probably the most intelligent individual I ever played with,” Mincher recalled, “was always the center of the media attention, either good or bad. And he seemed to always be there. I can remember some bickering with other players and him. You know, Dave Duncan, who was Reggie’s good friend—they had some problems. But David was a very stern individual himself, just like he is now, really demanding a lot of the pitching staff and himself. When an outfielder caused a pitcher to get in trouble with an overthrow or an error or something like that, there could be some things said and some words exchanged in those situations. And I can remember some of those. Of course, my old roomy, Sal Bando, he wasn’t very shy about stepping up to the plate either as far as telling people exactly what he thought. And there would be some words back and forth.”

At times, the wars of words forced a likable, even-tempered player like Mincher to assume the role of peacemaker. “I did,” said Mincher, who usually preferred to stay in the background. “Of course, when you’re not playing regularly and you’re just doing your thing, you try to get along with the players, and just sit down and be quiet… I tried to do my part and console everybody. But really, with those kinds of mentalities, egos, and talent, they worked themselves out.”

Mincher said that the uncomfortable feelings created by such verbal outbursts never seemed to interfere with the team’s on-field playing ability. “These guys were great, great players, and they learned from most things, and while I was there we never had any fistfights or anything like that. And all of the confrontations [actually] led to good things, and they just played better, it seemed like, as they went along.”

Mincher was traded to the Senators in the middle of the 1971 season, but he returned to Oakland in another deal the following season, primarily as a pinch hitter. He achieved his most indelible highlight as a member of the A’s with his appearance in Game Four of the World Series. Called upon as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning with the A’s down a run, Mincher faced Reds relief ace Clay Carroll. With the count one-and-oh, Carroll threw a fastball over the middle of the plate. “I was lucky enough to be able to get a good pitch I could drive, down in the strike zone,” Mincher said, his memory working in overdrive. “I tried to get a ball that you can drive up the middle or pull in the hole to first base. Those were the things I really thought about, and I thought about on that day. The ball went directly over the second baseman’s head. If it had been on the ground, it’d been a double play.”

But it wasn’t. Mincher’s uppercut swing enabled him to lift the ball over the infield. “I remember it just like it was yesterday,” Mincher told me in 1997. “I got it in the right-center field gap, which probably should have been for a double, but I was cold and couldn’t run.” Mincher’s golf shot into the alley scored pinch-runner Allan Lewis with the tying run and sent Gene Tenace, representing the potential game-winning run, to third base.

“It’s the last hit I ever got,” Mincher said in recalling the key RBI single that tied the game and set the table for Angel Mangual’s game-winning single, “and certainly it’s the most vivid in my memory.” Mincher’s pinch-hit RBI helped the A’s win Game Five of the Reds, on their way to a stunning upset in the 1972 World Series. It was also marked the final at-bat of Mincher’s career; he retired after the season, rejecting an overture from Finley to become the team’s first DH in 1973.

Mincher’s career ended with Oakland, but there was much that transpired in his other major league stops. Drafted and signed by the original Washington Senators, he then moved with the franchise when it became the Minnesota Twins. As the starting first baseman, he played an important on the 1965 American League pennant winners, hitting a home run against Don Drysdale in a seven-game World Series loss to the Dodgers.

From there he went to the California Angels, where he put up a productive season before ending up on the receiving end of a Sam McDowell fastball early in 1968. The ball struck him squarely in the face; Mincher slumped to the ground, his face bleeding. Limited to 120 games and plagued by dizzy spells throughout the summer, Mincher muddled through one of his worst seasons. Concerned that Mincher might never be able to return to form, the Angels left him unprotected in the expansion draft. That’s how he ended up with the Seattle Pilots in 1969. He had a good year for a bad team, while becoming the only All-Star representative in the franchise’s one-year existence.

The Pilots moved to Milwaukee, but Mincher never made the trip. He was traded to Oakland for a package of catcher Phil Roof, outfielder Mike Hershberger and pitchers Lew Krausse and Ken Sanders. He then moved on as part of a trade package to Washington for Mike Epstein and Darold Knowles, moved with the Senators franchise to Texas, and then made his last pitstop in Oakland. By the time he called it a career, he had hit exactly 200 home runs, put up an OPS of better than .800 seven times, and accumulated nearly as many walks as strikeouts. He was a hitter with power and smarts, and there is always value in that kind of player.

Yet, Mincher’s story did not end there. Remaining in baseball, he made a smooth transition to the front office, eventually becoming the GM and then the owner of the Double-A Huntsville Stars. (It was while he was owner that I interviewed him for the book on the A’s, and began to understand why he was beloved in the Huntsville community.) From there, he was promoted to president of the Southern League. Along the way, he became a revered figure in Huntsville, the unofficial “Mr. Baseball” of the community. They loved him for his work ethic, his easy going personality, his willingness to talk to just about anybody.

I interviewed Don only once, but I miss him. I can only imagine how much the people of Huntsville, who knew Don Mincher very well, are missing him today.

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

Observations From Cooperstown: Gary Carter and Raul Ibanez

The late Gary Carter never played a game for the Yankees, a fact that should be regretful for any Yankee fan who remembers the 1980s. If Carter had played even one season in the Bronx, the Yankees might just have won a World Series title that proved so elusive during that decade of frustration.

The winter of 1984-85 brought me some of the most difficult times of my life. My mother was dying from abdominal cancer, a horrible experience under any circumstances but particularly difficult for me as I was trying to muddle through a challenging sophomore year at Hamilton College. One of the few diversions that helped me forget about my mother’s terminally ill condition involved the winter meetings that December. Both New York teams made blockbuster trades at those meetings, the Mets acquiring Carter for a package of Hubie Brooks-plus, while the Yankees nabbed Rickey Henderson for a group of young players headlined by Jose Rijo. The news of those two trades, which happened within five days of one another, made that December and that January, when my mother finally passed, a little bit more bearable.

The Yankees ended up with a good team in 1985, a 97-win club that finished only two lengths behind an exceptional group of Blue Jays. Led by Billy Martin, who replaced Yogi Berra after a handful of games, the Yankees came within whiskers of matching the Blue Jays for the AL East title, even with little contribution from their starting catcher, Butch Wynegar. A two-time All-Star, Wynegar was well past his prime at the age of 29, and would later undergo treatment for debilitating depression. What would have happened if the Yankees had added Carter for the 1985 season? Carter, buttressed by a strong left-handed hitting backup in Ron Hassey, would have given the Yankees one of the missing links to an otherwise sterling lineup.

Sure, it would have been a lot to ask Yankee GM Clyde King to swing blockbuster deals for both Carter and Henderson in the same winter, but the Yankees had both the minor league resources and the major league talent to make it happen. They could have centered a package for Carter around Dan Pasqua, who at the time was a top-tier hitting prospect coveted by numerous teams. They could have included a young Doug Drabek (whom they would eventually trade in a regrettable deal for Rick Rhoden) and tossed in a young infielder from among a group of Rex Hudler, Bobby Meacham, and Andre Robertson.

Not only would have Carter solidified the chronically weak catching corps that plagued the franchise in the mid-1980s, but he also would have given the Yankees exactly the kind of rah-rah leader that would have perfectly complemented guide-by-example types in Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield. With Carter behind the plate, improving both a potent offense and perhaps coaxing more from a thin pitching staff, the 1985 Yankees could well have leapfrogged over the Blue Jays into the postseason. And then who knows what might have happened?

Of course, all of this is wishful thinking, and more than 25 years after the fact. Perhaps the Expos would have preferred an established infielder like Brooks, who had the ability to play both shortstop and third base while hitting with game-changing power. Maybe the Expos foresaw that Pasqua would fall well short of the stardom forecast for him.  But the idea of Carter-as-a-Yankee was just one of the thoughts that has gone through my mind in the aftermath of his premature death at the age of 57.

I had the privilege of meeting Carter several times; he never failed to deliver the goods with his friendly nature, boyish enthusiasm, and sincere regard for the concerns of others.

Back in 2003, I interviewed Carter at the Waldorf Astoria, exactly one day after he had been elected to the Hall of Fame. Bruce Brodersen, a friend of mine who heads up the Hall of Fame’s multimedia department, arranged and oversaw the interview. Bruce, a diehard Mets fan like few others, immediately took notice of Carter’s 1986 World Series ring. Noticing the interest, Carter told Bruce that he could wear the ring during the duration of our 20-minute interview. I cannot imagine many players, Hall of Fame or otherwise, offering to let a perfect stranger wear a cherished world championship ring. But that was Carter.

Gary Carter as a Yankee? It’s nothing more than a dream. But imagine if it had happened. Any Yankee fan who cares about integrity, character, and winning would have been proud to watch the man known as “Kid” wear the pinstripes.

***

In contrast to yours truly, Yankee hitting coach Kevin Long is legitimately excited about the addition of free agent Raul Ibanez, whom he calls an “RBI machine.” For the Yankees’ sake, I hope Long is right; batting in the lower third of the Yankee order, Ibanez figures to have plenty of RBI opportunities batting behind the likes of Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Nick Swisher.

Of course, while Long drools over the RBI possibilities, he doesn’t mention Ibanez’ relative lack of power in 2011 (as evidenced by a slugging percentage below .450) and an inability to draw walks or to reach base in any kind of consistent manner. These could be concerns for the Yankees, whose collective offense will be one year older and will have to hope for bounce back seasons from A-Rod and Tex. At the very least, the Yankees will have a capable offense in 2012, but will they have a dominant one? If they don’t, Ibanez will be exposed as a less-than-effective DH.

Having said all of that, I’ll be rooting for Ibanez. He visited Cooperstown last summer, accompanying his son during his week-long participation in the Cooperstown Dreams Park. According to my sources, Ibanez made a good impression with his friendly and receptive manner. That jives with what baseball people have said all along, that Ibanez is one of the game’s good guys, a man of character and a powerful presence in any clubhouse.

So this is no Elijah Dukes here. It will be easy, if somewhat frustrating, to root for Raul Ibanez. I just hope that Joe Girardi uses Ibanez with caution. He cannot hit left-handers anymore, so his at-bats against southpaws should be restricted as much as possible. Furthermore, Ibanez needs to be kept out of the outfield. A brutal defender with little arm, Ibanez should only the play the outfield if the game is a blowout–or if the Yankees simply run out of outfielders. If Girardi follows this plan, he can minimize the damage that Ibanez can do, and allow his other role players to pick up the slack.

[Picture Credit: Aya Francisco]

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

Observations From Cooperstown: Russell the Muscle and A.J. the Ex-Yankee

The Yankees might actually have a good bench in 2012, something we haven’t been able to say very often over the past decade. With returnees Andruw Jones, Chris Dickerson and Eduardo Nunez and free agent acquisitions Bill Hall and Russell “The Muscle” Branyan all in the mix (and Eric Chavez possibly on the way), the Yankees have a chance to cobble together a decent corps of backup players.

Put me down in favor of the Yankees’ signing of Branyan to a minor league contract. Although he’s 36 and coming off a bad season split between Arizona and Los Angeles (the Angels, not the Dodgers), he has enormous power, the kind of power that makes teams pull out the tape measure when he makes contact. I’ve seen Branyan hit some absolutely monstrous home runs, particularly to center and right-center field. He’s one of the strongest players I’ve ever seen, right up there with Reggie Jackson and Willie Stargell in his ability to hit for sheer length. Of course, he hasn’t hit nearly as many home runs as those two Hall of Famers, so that’s where the comparison has to stop.

Branyan also draws a decent number of walks and has a history of success at Yankee Stadium. (He’s the only player to hit a home run against the glass facing of the center field batter’s eye at the new Stadium, having accomplished that feat in 2009.) The key to Branyan’s situation with the Yankees is this: can he still play third base? If he can, then he gives the Yankees someone who can spell Alex Rodriguez against the occasional right-hander, while also providing backup at first base and at DH.

A check of Branyan’s record at Baseball Reference shows that he appeared in two games at third base for the Angels last season. Prior to that, you’d have to go back to the 2008 season for any prior experience at the hot corner; he made 35 appearances at third for the Brewers that season. So it remains somewhat questionable whether Branyan can log any serious time at third base at this late stage of his career.

If Branyan cannot play third, then his value would lie mostly in his ability to DH against right-handed pitching. As a DH, he would need to revert to his 2010 level in order to be helpful. That summer, he slugged 25 home runs and slugged .487 for the Indians and Mariners.

So there are plenty of questions regarding Branyan. But on a minor league contract, with a relatively small salary coming to him if he makes it to Opening Day, Branyan is worth a look. Besides, how can you not love a guy nicknamed Russell the Muscle?..

***

How do I feel about the possibility of trading A.J. Burnett? Where do I sign? Or perhaps I should say, “Great trade, who’d we get?” Even if the Yankees acquire little of value in exchange for Burnett, they figure to save $3 to $4 million in 2012 salary and can then use that money to add a left-handed DH or another piece to the growing bench. And if Brian Cashman is able to pry a meaningful player out of Pittsburgh in the deal, that’s all the better.

Media reports indicate that three or four teams are interested in Burnett, including the Pirates. The Yankees asked for Garrett Jones in a Burnett deal, but were quickly rebuffed by the Bucs. Jones is a left-handed hitting first baseman/outfielder with power, so he’d be a fit for the role as a platoon DH role and backup outfielder. On the downside, he’s already turned 30, is not a nimble defender, and has seen his OPS fall from .938 to .753 over the past three seasons. Therefore, a player like Jones should not be a dealbreaker. Perhaps the Yankees can throw in another player, or perhaps they can find another match on the Pirates’ roster. How about a left-handed reliever like Tony Watson, who could then compete with Boone Logan and Hideki Okajima for the southpaw bullpen role? Or perhaps a minor league outfielder like Gorkys Hernandez?

The fact that the Yankees are engaging teams in serious discussions for Burnett indicates that the enigmatic right-hander has little future in the Bronx. Even if he’s not traded, he has no guarantee of returning to the rotation. He’ll have to beat out both Freddy Garcia and Phil Hughes for the fifth spot, which is no small task. If Burnett is not traded and has a bad spring, the Yankees still have the option to stick him in the bullpen and use him as a long man. The bottom line is this: Burnett has no birthright to the starting rotation, not after the way he’s pitched the last two seasons.

So start the clock on Burnett’s departure from New York. I’d put it better than 70/30 that he’s an ex-Yankee by the end of the month. Heck, it might happen before the Yankees open camp on Sunday. I’d imagine quite a few readers of Bronx Banter would be pleased by that possibility…

***

Now that Luis Ayala has signed with Baltimore, there may be an opening in the bullpen for another right-handed reliever. It could be filled by Manny Delcarmen, who is one of the more interesting names among the 27 non-roster players that the Yankees have invited to spring training. First, the bad news. Delcarmen didn’t pitch at all in the major leagues last season, and he struggled badly in Triple-A ball for two different organizations. Now the better news. He’s only 29, is durable, has had decent success against the American League East in his career, and has plenty of postseason experience.

In 2007 and 2008, Delcarmen was highly effective as a Red Sox set-up reliever, striking out nearly a batter per inning with a WHIP near 1.00. He has struggled badly since then, resulting in a demotion to the minor leagues last spring. In many ways, he reminds me of Ayala–at one time an effective reliever who has fallen on hard times. He’s just the kind of reclamation project that pitching coach Larry Rothschild specializes in, so it’s worth the relatively small gamble of a minor league contract.

When he’s right, Delcarmen throws in the mid-90s and has an excellent curve ball, which he uses as his out-pitch. Remember, Joba Chamberlain won’t be ready by Opening Day, Burnett could be traded, and Cory Wade, while effective in 2011, seems like a candidate for regression in 2012. So Delcarmen has a chance to make the team as the 12th pitcher–and that might not actually be a bad thing.

[Featured image photo credit: Nick Laham/Getty Images]

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

Observations From Cooperstown: Bill Hall, Mel Hall, and Jimmie Hall

The Yankees’ rumored interest in free agent utility man Bill Hall is a bit puzzling. Should we interpret that interest as a sign that the Yankees do not believe that Eduardo Nunez can handle the defensive responsibilities of being a utility infielder. Alternatively, is it a signal that the Yankees would like to trade Nunez, perhaps in a deal for a left-handed bat who can fill part of the DH role? To be honest, I’m not sure which of those thought processes are running through the mind of Brian Cashman.

Still, Hall is an interesting player. In 2006, he hit 35 home runs as a starting shortstop and looked like a budding star at the age of 26. Stardom never happened. In 2010, he was a reasonably productive utility man for the Red Sox, filling in around the infield and outfield. Then he signed a free agent contract with the Astros, where he flopped as the team’s everyday second baseman. After being released by the ‘Stros, the Giants took a flier on him, but watched him hit a mere .158 in 38 late-season at-bats.

Now 32 years old, Hall will never be a 30-home run man again, that’s for sure. But if he can revert back to the player of 2010, a versatile player who can play three infield positions and all three outfield positions while hitting with some pop, he’s be a useful guy to have. If not, if his 2011 numbers are an indication of his true current ability, then the Yankees will have to tread lightly here. If they sign Hall and trade Nunez, there may not be a safety net available in the event of a Hall breakdown.

When you’re a baseball fan, it’s funny how the mind works. When I hear the name “Hall,” I think of the Hall of Fame, and I think of past Yankees with the same last name. The Yankees have not had a player named Hall since the now-infamous Mel Hall, who was one of the team’s bright spots during the fallow years of the early 1990s. Hall played hard, pounded right-handed pitching, and delivered his fair share of clutch hits, but then he took some “hazing” of a young Bernie Williams to ridiculous extremes, driving the young outfielder to the verge of tears. He repeatedly referred to Williams as “Zero.” When Williams began talking in Hall’s presence, the veteran outfielder chided him by yelling, “Shut up, Zero.” Why this treatment was allowed to go on unchecked remains one of the great mysteries in Yankee history.

Hall also failed to make friends with the front office when he brought his two pet cougars–yes, a pair of pet cougars–into the Yankee clubhouse without warning, creating a mild panic in the process.

Yet, the hazing and the cougar incident pale in comparison to Hall’s post-career problems. Hall is currently sitting in a federal prison, where he will remain until he is old and gray because of his repulsive relationship with two underage girls. Hall was convicted of sexual assault; he essentially raped the girls, one of whom was 12 at the time of the relationship. Sentenced in 2009, he will have to serve a minimum of 22 years, or the year 2031, before he is eligible for parole. If he does not gain parole, the total sentence will run 45 years, putting him behind bars until 2054. Hall is 51 now, so that would put him at a ripe old 93 years. So who knows if he’ll even live that long.

There is one other “Hall” that I remember playing for the Yankees. He was Jimmie Hall, a left-handed power hitter of the 1960s. He began his career with a flourish, putting up OPS numbers of better than .800 in his three major league seasons with the Twins. As a rookie, he set a record for most home runs by a first-year player in the American League, busting the mark set by Ted Williams in 1939. He also had the ability to play all three outfield spots, making him particularly valuable toMinnesota.

Apparently on the verge of stardom, Hall then fell off the map. He struggled so badly in 1966 that the Twins traded him to the Angels. Some say his early decline was the result of being hit in the head with a pitch. Others pointed to his inability to handle left-handed pitching. And then there were those who felt that he was done in by the changes to the strike zone that hurt so many hitters during the mid-to-late sixties, when the second deadball era set in.

By the time that Jimmie Hall joined the Yankees, he was a fragment of the player who had once torn through the American League. The Yankees acquired him early in the 1969 season, picking him up from the Indians in a straight cash deal. Hall came to the plate 233 times for the Yankees, but hit just three home runs and reached base only 29 per cent of the time. Even in a deadball era, those numbers didn’t suffice.

Hall didn’t last the season in theBronx. On September 11, the Yankees dealt Hall to the Cubs for two players with wonderfully opposite names, minor league pitcher Terry Bongiovanni and outfielder Rick Bladt. If you remember either of those players, give yourself a cigar.

So that’s it for the Yankees’ legacy of Halls. Mel and Jimmie. If the Yankees end up signing Bill Hall, we can only hope that he’ll be a better player than Jimmie and a better man than Mel.

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

Observations From Cooperstown: Ibanez, Mike Stanley, and Burnett

So who will be the Yankees’ designated hitter? The first DH name that came up in the aftermath of the Jesus Montero trade was Carlos Pena. But he wanted too much money for the Yankees’ liking and returned to Tampa Bay. The second name belonged to Johnny Damon, who instead expressed an interest in returning toDetroit, only to see the Tigers sign Prince Fielder to that ridiculous nine-year contract. So Damon is still in play for the Yankees, at least for the moment. Next up on the list is former Phillie, Mariner, and Royal Raul Ibanez, who is also a free agent. My reaction to the possibility of Ibanez becoming a Yankee? Don’t touch this guy with a ten-foot bat, corked or otherwise.

Ibanez is a native New Yorker, a good guy with a strong clubhouse reputation, and a left-handed hitter with power, so it’s only natural that his name would come up in connection with the Yankees. But that’s where the interest should begin and end. At one time, Ibanez was a fine hitter with the Royals and Mariners, capable of slugging at or near .500. Those days are over. He’s 39, hit only 20 home runs last year despite playing in a hitter’s playground, and slugged a mere .419. His on-base percentage was more strikingly worse, a meager .289. This guy’s not a lefty DH. He’s barely even a good pinch-hitting candidate at this point in his career.

With Ibanez, there’s no consolation coming from his defensive play. Though he spent the last three years playing left field for the Phillies, his fielding is–and always has been–atrocious. There’s a video somewhere on the Internet from a game in which Ibanez is playing for the Mariners against the Yankees. After he fields a ground ball down the left field line, Ibanez attempts to throw the ball back toward the infield, but he instead accidentally spikes the ball, which travels a few feet to the right and straight down to the ground. Video records are incomplete, but it may be the worst throw in the history of major league baseball.

Of course, that play represented Ibanez at his worst, but his general level of fielding acumen ranks somewhere between bad and poor. For his career, TotalZone puts him minus 5 for his play in left field, a ranking that matches his awful reputation. As a point of comparison, former Yankee Marcus Thames has a career TotalZone of minus three. So, by this rating, Ibanez is even worse than Thames, a frightening proposition. Yikes.

So other than DH, there’s no where to play Ibanez without risking further embarrassment. And if he’s not good enough as a hitter to be a DH, then there should be no role for him on the 2012 Yankees…

***

In assessing the great catchers of Yankee lore last week, I discussed Jorge Posada and Thurman Munson while referencing Elston Howard, Yogi Berra, and Bill Dickey. Though he was neither a particularly strong defensive player nor a longtime Yankee, I should have included at least a footnote mention of Mike Stanley. In terms of pure offense, Stanley was one of the best catchers the Yankees have ever had, putting up OPS numbers of .800, .923, .929, and .841 from 1992 to 1995. In 1993, he even received some votes in the MVP balloting. Stanley’s emergence as the No. 1 catcher coincided with the Yankees’ return to glory in the mid-1990s.

Why have we forgotten Stanley so quickly? Unfortunately, he didn’t join the Yankees until he was 29, the result of one of Gene Michael’s prudent free agent signings. He played four full seasons in New York, left when the Yankees acquired Joe Girardi, spent a year and a half with the Red Sox, and then returned to the Yankees as a DH for the tail-end of 1997. As a matter of bad luck, he missed the Yankees’ 1996 title while in Boston, and was not brought back for the world championship season of 1998. The end result was zero titles for Stanley.

The emergence of Posada over the last decade and a half also made it easier to overlook the prior contributions of Stanley. But Stanley was a very good player, a right-handed hitter with power who had a terrific opposite field stroke, and brought the kind of patient, grinding style at the plate that became a hallmark of the Yankees in the mid to late-1990s. He wasn’t Posada and he wasn’t Munson, but Stanley was an important part of the Yankee turnaround, and that makes him an important part of franchise history…

***

A few Yankee fans have asked me which of their bottom-of-the-rotation starters will be traded between now and Opening Day. I don’t think it will be Phil Hughes, if only because the Yankees would be trading him while his value is so low. This Yankee administration hasn’t forgotten that Hughes was once their top prospect, and the front office would love nothing better than to see Hughes report to spring training in good shape and take aim on the potential that he seemed to be tapping two years ago. I also don’t think that the Yankees will trade Garcia, who is probably the one pitcher best suited to serving as a long man/spot starter. Nothing seems to phase “The Chief,” so I’d expect he’d handle the Dick Tidrow/Ray Burris/Ramiro Mendoza role without a hitch.

That leaves A.J. Burnett, who still has two years to go on that nonsensical contract and continues to be Yankee fans’ greatest source of frustration. Is Burnett tradeable? Sure, anyone is, assuming that the Yankees pick up enough of his contract. But I do get the feeling that Brian Cashman will want something tangible in return, whether it’s a lefty DH or a utility infielder. If the Yankees eat something like 80 per cent of the $33 million owed to Burnett, then Cashman will expect a player in return, and not just some 25-year-old middle reliever pitching in Class-A ball.

There have been suggestions of a swap sending Burnett to the Cubs for Alfonso Soriano, but there is a problem with that. Soriano has three years remaining on his monstrosity of a contract, meaning that the Yankees would have to commit an extra year compared to the two years left on the Burnett deal. Soriano also happens to be a right-handed hitter, making a platoon with Andruw Jones a bit unfeasible.

Still, there may be a deal out there somewhere. At the right price, a team might just think that it can fix A.J. Burnett.

Bruce Markusen was born on January 30. Hey, that’s today!

[Drawing by Larry Roibal]

Observations From Cooperstown: Posada, Pineda, and Pena

Jorge Posada still hasn’t made his decision official, but it’s become common knowledge that he has decided to retire rather than continue his career as a backup catcher in Tampa Bay, Baltimore, or Philadelphia. While I would never begrudge a player who wanted to prolong his career as much as possible, there is some artistic symmetry in Posada beginning and ending his playing days in the same place.

Posada represents the latest in a long line of great Yankee catchers, a succession that began with Bill Dickey before continuing with Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, and Thurman Munson. Dickey and Berra are members of the Hall of Fame, Howard and Munson are not, and Posada will become the focal point of what should be an interesting five-year debate over his worthiness for the Hall of Fame.

The comparison of Posada and Munson has long fascinated me. Based strictly on OPS (.848 to .756), one would conclude that Posada was the superior of the two. Posada certainly had more career value, thanks to luck and longevity. But using an eyeball approach–assuming you’re old enough to have seen both players–Munson was the better player, especially when you factor in the areas of fielding and baserunning.

As much as I like Munson, he just didn’t have the career longevity that is needed for a Hall of Fame player. I would also vote “no” on Posada’s entrance into Cooperstown, though I’m open to change my mind. The relatively late start to his career, along with his defensive deficiencies and baserunning misadventures, render him just short of my personal Hall of Fame line. But that should not be interpreted as some kind of insult. Any player who is even considered for the Hall of Fame is a player of achievement, a player of longevity, a player who is worthy of praise and appreciation. Posada’s offensive excellence—encompassing his ability to hit with power, draw walks, and do damage from both sides of the plate–made him a modern day version of Ted Simmons.

And let’s not forget that early in his career, Posada was a respectable receiver who generally developed good rapport with his pitchers. For every A.J. Burnett, there have been dozens of pitchers who came to trust and rely on Posada’s enthusiasm, passion, and leadership abilities. By all accounts, Posada has been a good and well-liked teammate who has blended well with the vast array of personalities the Yankees have had over the last 15 years.

Posada’s career path is rather remarkable given its origins. It’s worth noting that he was not a highly touted player when first signed by the Yankees. He was a 24th round selection in 1990. He started his professional career as a second baseman with the Oneonta Yankees, a short-season Class-A franchise in the NY-Penn League, before someone in the organization had the foresight to convert him to catcher. When the Yankees first brought him to the major leagues, they often used him as a pinch-runner. It’s almost as if the Posada of the 1990s was someone else, some alien life form who possessed the powers of self-transformation. I guess his makeover is proof that players are adaptable, than they can evolve, and that a longshot can become a success in the game of major league baseball.

Farewell, Jorge. Next stop, Old-Timers Day. I think you’ll be pretty popular that day.

***

I think I’ve been as big a booster of Jesus Montero as anyone who writes for The Banter, so you might expect that I’d be unhappy with the trade that sent him and Hector Noesi to the Mariners for Michael Pineda and Jose Campos. Granted, I’m a little disappointed that I won’t have the opportunity to see Montero play every day in pinstripes, primarily because I think he is going to be a star hitter, the kind of player who will hit .300, slug .500, and carry a team’s offense for days at a time.

As much as I like Montero, I love the trade. Scouts praise Pineda the way I rave about Montero. At six-feet, seven inches and 260 pounds, he’s been described as a “monster,” even as a “leviathan,” which may be the first time I’ve heard that word used to refer to a ballplayer. (He looks like a bigger version of Lee Smith, if such a thing is possible.) With his 95 to 98 mile-an-hour fastball and bone snapping slider, Pineda makes mitts pops and heads turn.

If Pineda duplicates the way he pitched for the Mariners, particularly over the first half of the season, the Yankees have a perfectly formidable No. 2 starter. If he adds a third pitch to his repertoire and pitches to a reachable higher level, he becomes a full-fledged No. 1 starter, someone who can eventually wrestle with CC Sabathia for the mythical top spot of the Yankee rotation.

As a bonus, the trade with the Mariners also netted Campos, whom some scouts project to be better than Pineda. With his smooth delivery and live fastball, the 19-year

-old right-hander will start the season at Single-A ball, but could move up to Double-A by midsummer.

While the Yankees often deal prospects for established veterans, they don’t often make trades where they deal young talent for young talent. In fact, I can’t remember Cashman making this sort of transaction in the past. This deal reminds me of the 1978 trade in which the Yankees traded Mike Heath, a highly touted young catcher, to the Rangers for a power-throwing left-hander named Dave Righetti. (The deal also included a longtime veteran in Sparky Lyle, but Heath and the three other prospects going to Texas were really the keys to the trade.) Righetti became a serviceable starter before Yogi Berra made the controversial and still-debated decision to move “Rags” to the bullpen, where he had some level of success but never became a dominant closer.

I think Pineda will turn out to be a better pitcher than Righetti. He’ll need to stay healthy, and have some luck along the way, but I think his chances of success are pretty good. With Pineda and the bonus addition of free agent Hiroki Kuroda, the Yankees now have their deepest rotation since the days of Clemens, Pettitte, Mussina and Wells…

***

As with any trade, the Pineda deal leads to the inevitable question: what is the next move? The subtraction of Montero leaves the Yankees without a DH. Joe Girardi has said he wants to rotate some of his resting veterans into the DH slot, but that’s not a fulltime proposition that can be sustained through 162 games. There will be plenty of days when the Yankees will want–make that, need–a proper DH who can put up some raw numbers. Two free agent candidates appear to be at the top of the list. They are Johnny Damon and Carlos Pena.

I’d be fine with either one on a reasonable one-year contract, but my preference would be Pena. At 33, he’s five years younger than Damon, outslugged him by 44 points in 2011, and has a history of launching long balls at Yankee Stadium. With 28 home runs and 101 walks for the Cubs in 2011, Pena fits the Yankee offensive blueprint to a tee.

Pena can no longer hit for much of an average, and he must be platooned, because he’s become like Oscar Gamble against left-handed pitching. The Yankees have a solution for that in the re-signed Andruw Jones, whose prowess against left-handed pitching has been well documented. A Jones/Pena platoon would be an ideal fit for the seventh position in the Yankee batting order.

On the other hand, Damon still has something to offer. He can hit the long ball (16 home runs) and can still steal a base (19 stolen bases in 2011). He would bring more of a contract presence to the lineup, an ingredient that was sometimes missing in 2011. And we know that Damon would have no trouble fitting into the clubhouse dynamic or dealing with the New York City press.

Damon or Pena, which is your choice?

[Photo Credit: Seattle Mariners Musings]

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times and can be found from time to time on Facebook.

Observations From Cooperstown: Andy Carey and the Utilityman

Andy Carey was not a star–perhaps he was no more than an average player–but he was good enough to start at third base for a pair of world championship teams during the glory years ofNew York City baseball. And if not for his presence at the hot corner, Don Larsen might not have made history in the 1956 World Series.

Carey died on December 15 at the age of 80, succumbing to a severe form of dementia, but his death was only reported publicly last week. Perhaps that’s a testament to the family’s desire for privacy. Or perhaps it’s evidence that Carey had become a forgotten figure in Yankee lore, having not played for the franchise in over 50 years. If the latter reason is the more accurate, then perhaps it’s something of a sad commentary on our society’s lack of interest in history.

Well, Carey should be remembered. First, he had a bit of quirkiness to him. For example, he was known as a voracious eater. He ate so much that he started costing the Yankees money. On road trips, the Yankees typically allowed players to sign for their meals in hotels and restaurants. Because of Carey’s insatiable appetite, the Yankees changed the policy.

On the field, Carey was the Scott Brosius of the 1950s, except for the fact that he never had the kind of breakout season that Brosius enjoyed in 1998. When Carey first came up, he was so strong defensively that the Yankees considered converting him to shortstop, with the plan to have him succeed an aging Phil Rizzuto. Ultimately, the Yankees decided that he was a better fit at third; he became the starting third sacker in 1954.

Offensively, Carey had only marginal talent. He led the league in triples one year and batted over .300 in 1954, but those achievements were the extent of his hitting highlights. Conversely, he was a solid defensive player, once turning four double plays in a single game to tie a major league record. On a team surrounded with sufficient offensive talent, like the Yankees had in the mid-1950s, you could win with a player like Carey at third base.

Larsen was certainly appreciative of Carey in Game Five of the ‘56 Series, when he took part in two remarkable plays. In the second inning, Carey knocked down a line shot off the bat of Jackie Robinson, the ball caroming to the left of the third baseman. Yankee shortstop Gil McDougald retrieved the ball and nipped Robinson at first. And then in the eighth, Carey made a diving snag of Gil Hodges’ line drive. Carey’s two-time heroics preserved both the no-hitter and the perfect game, the latter being the only one of its kind in postseason history.

Carey remained with the Yankees through the 1959 season. With the arrival of Clete Boyer via trade, the Yankees deemed Carey expendable. They traded him to theKansas CityA’s, Boyer’s former team, in exchange for power-hitting outfielder Bob Cerv.

From there, Carey bounced around with the A’s, White Sox and Dodgers before calling it quits in 1962. But it was as a Yankee that he would always be remembered. Carey became a frequent visitor toCooperstown, where he took place in baseball card shows, almost always signing with other Yankees from his era, like Larsen, McDougald, Yogi Berra, Moose Skowron and Hank Bauer.

Off the field, Carey led a busy life. He was married four times, including a past marriage to Lucy Marlow, a relatively little known actress who appeared in such programs as “Gunsmoke” and “The Blue Knight,” two old shows that I actually remember. The IMDB web site describes her as a “knockout-looking minor 50s film and TV actress.”

Some might describe Andy Carey as a “minor” player of the fifties, too. And that would be unfair. When you’re good enough to start for a quartet of pennant-winning teams and a couple of world champions, you deserve more of a description than that…

***

It continues to be a quiet off-season for the Yankees, with the latest non-development being the inability to sign Japanese star Hiroyuki Nakajima by last Friday’s deadline. Nakajima wanted more than a one-year contract, which represented the Yankees’ limit, and was not thrilled with the prospect of playing a backup role inNew York.

While most observers have fluffed off the non-signing, I think there’s something deeper here. That the Yankees had such interest in Nakajima, an All-Star shortstop inJapanwhom Brian Cashman projected as a utility infielder, indicates that they are not completely satisfied with Eduardo Nunez, last year’s utility man, or totally enamored with the prospects of re-signing Eric Chavez.

The Yankees love Nunez’ raw tools–he has an appealing combination of power and speed–but they are legitimately worried about his throwing problems. Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez are going to need more days off in 2012, not fewer, so Nunez will have to become more accurate in making throws from the left side of the infield. Perhaps that deficiency explains why the Yankees have been willing to include Nunez’ name in trade talks with teams like the Braves and the White Sox.

With regards to Chavez, he did play well before breaking his foot, but then showed little power after his return. And then there’s the problem of his repeated trips to the disabled list, which have become an annual occurrence. If a utility infielder cannot be trusted to stay healthy and fill in when needed, he loses a lot of his value.

If the Yankees don’t re-sign Chavez, where will they turn? On the free agent market, the pickings are slim, but there are some intriguing names, including Carlos Guillen, Bill Hall, Jeff Keppinger, and Miguel Tejada. All carry asterisks, if not outright questions. Guillen was once a star, but he’s now 35 and can’t stay healthy. Hall played so poorly for a bad Astros team that he was released in mid-season, and then he flopped during a 16-game trial with the Giants. Keppinger can really play only one position, second base, and doesn’t have the ability to play shortstop for more than a game at a time. Tejada, at 37, is as cooked as the Christmas goose in Scrooge.

All in all, the choices appear so limited that the Yankees may be forgiven for having the following thought: Is Chicken Stanley still available?

[Photo Credit: Hy Peskin]

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

Observations From Cooperstown: Okajima, Jones, the HOF, and Greg Spira

The Yankees made two low-profile roster moves last week, but both were good transactions. First, they signed ex-Red Sock Hideki Okajima to a non-guaranteed contract, giving him a chance to make the team with a good spring training performance. Then the Yankees re-signed Andruw Jones, their most effective bench player in 2011.

At one time, Okajima was one of the American League’s most effective left-handed pitchers. He was also one of the most fun to watch, given the way that his head bobbed toward third base, a particularly distracting trait for many hitters. Okajima spent most of last year at Triple-A Pawtucket, but is only two years removed from being a key member of the Red Sox’ bullpen. For his career, he has held left-handed batters to a .217 batting average and a .277 on-base percentage. He also has no fear of American League East pennant races, having done regular battles against the Yankees and the Rays over the span of three summers.

With a good spring, Okajima could beat out Boone Logan, who was wildly inconsistent against lefty batters in 2011. Or there’s a possibility that the Yankees could carry Okajima as a second southpaw reliever. As it is, the Yankee staff is far too right-handed, with CC Sabathia providing the only certainty from the left side. Another left-hander, provided that he is effective, would be a nice bonus for Girardi to call on in sixth and seventh inning situations.

Now on to Jones, a familiar face from 2011. He did quietly good work in a supporting role last season. After a so-so first half, Jones finished up the season on a strong note, establishing himself as a right-handed hammer. In 146 plate appearances against left-handers, Jones reached base 38 per cent of the time and slugged to the tune of .540. Those are Marcus Thames numbers. Jones is an ideal fourth outfielder who can handle either corner position, and can also play center field in the event that both Curtis Granderson and Brett Gardner go down. If anything, I’d like to see Jones play more in 2012. Whenever the Yankees see a left-hander, Joe Girardi should find a place for Jones in the lineup, whether it’s in left field, right field, or as the DH…

***

We are one week away from the Hall of Fame vote being conducted by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. The ballot contains five names that I personally regard as Hall of Famers, but only one man is likely to emerge with the 75 per cent vote needed for election.

Here are the four players likely to receive the most support in next week’s election:

Barry Larkin:

Of all the players, he has the best chance to win election from the Baseball Writers. He received 62 per cent of the vote last year and would need a jump of 13 per cent, which is not without precedent. Like George Brett, Larkin’s frequent injuries were a factor against him, but not enough to dethrone him as the best all-round shortstop of the 1990s. His power (198 home runs) and his basestealing numbers (379 steals, only 77 caught stealing) really jump out, especially coming from a shortstop. I remember him as a very good player, but the numbers show him to be a great one. Prediction: He’ll receive 78 per cent of the vote and join Ron Santo in the Class of 2012.

Jack Morris:

After Larkin, he has the most favorable odds of earning the required 75 per cent. He received 51 per cent last year, so he will need a huge jump in the balloting. His supporters point to him as the best starting pitcher of the 1980s and cite his standout work in the 1991 postseason. His detractors emphasize his 3.90 career ERA, which would rank the highest of any pitcher in the Hall of Fame. Prediction: He’ll receive about 64 per cent support, well short of election.

Jeff Bagwell:

His lack of voting support in 2011 (41 per cent) was astounding. Rumors of steroid use may have been a factor, but Bagwell never failed a drug test and was not mentioned in the Mitchell Report. MLB Network analyst Peter Gammons, whose opinion I respect greatly, recently rated Bagwell as the fourth best first basemen in history, behind only Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and Albert Pujols. That’s good enough for me, but it doesn’t appear that it will be good enough for the voters. Prediction: He’ll receive just over 50 per cent support.

Tim Raines:

Like Bagwell, his lack of support from the writers has been astonishing. He’s the second best leadoff man of all-time, behind only Rickey Henderson, a supposition that should indicate his worth for the Hall of Fame. And as a bonus, he earned a couple of World Series rings as a part-time player with the Yankees, where he filled in as a left fielder, DH, and clubhouse leader. Prediction: He’ll jump from 37 to 41 per cent, leaving him alarmingly short of election. The lack of support makes little sense to me; he’s a far stronger candidate than Jack Morris, among others.

***

There are celebrities among baseball writers, people like Bill James and Rob Neyer and Bill Madden. And then there are footsoldiers, people who do the research and leave the glory of the written word to other people. Greg Spira was one of those people.

Greg was regarded as one of the best researchers and editors in the baseball world. He wrote occasionally, but it was research and large research projects that really drove him. He did a lot of work related to the Mets, frequently collaborating with a friend of mine, Matt Silverman. They worked on many projects together, trying to come up with stories and statistics that people would be interested in reading and hearing. Greg also served as the editor of ESPN’s Baseball Encyclopedia, a book that was a particular source of pride for him.

There was pride, but little ego. Some of Greg’s friends tried to get him to write more often, but I don’t think he had the ego for that. He just wanted to do the research, and make it available for other people to study, and enjoy.

Greg Spira died last week at the age of 44. He had a difficult history of health problems, dating all the way back to the 1990s. His kidneys and his heart finally gave out on him, even though his mind had plenty of baseball left in it.

I don’t know why we keep losing these writers and researchers at young ages. There was Doug Pappas of Baseball Prospectus, John Brattain of The Hardball Times, and, of course, the beloved Todd Drew of Bronx Banter. I guess that all I can make of it is this: we must do what we can each day, not knowing exactly what might happen next.

Keep researching. Keep writing. Keep loving the game. Do it every day until it’s time to stop.

Observations From Cooperstown: The Yankees and the 1971 Winter Meetings

I’ll be completely honest with you. This has been the dullest Yankee offseason I can remember. There might have been an off-season in the early 1990s, when the Yankees couldn’t convince any top notch free agent to take their money, which might have been just as dull. But that’s about it.

There aren’t even any worthwhile rumors making their ways through the Internet. I don’t think the Yankees have any real interest in trading Jesus Montero (and other commodities) for Gio Gonzalez, which was rumored last week at the winter meetings. Their bid for Japanese sensation Yu Darvish will reportedly fall short of what will be needed to sign him. The Yankees supposedly have no interest in Matt Garza. It doesn’t seem the Yankees have much interest in anyone, either because the player is too costly, or the other general managers continue to ask Brian Cashman for 150 cents on the dollar.

The situation was far different 40 years ago. In the days leading up to the 1971 winter meetings, the Yankees were involved in rumors on multiple fronts, as they searched far and wide for a new third baseman and right fielder.

The third base situation had become particularly sticky, with the Yankees having grown completely dissatisfied with the play of Jerry Kenney. The Yankees talked to the Angels about Jim Fregosi, an All-Star shortstop who was deemed capable of playing the hot corner. They talked to the Twins about Cesar Tovar, a little pepperpot of a player who could also provide backup at second base and the outfield. The Yankees even talked to the Dodgers about a young Steve Garvey, who was still a scatter-armed third baseman who had not yet been moved to the other side of the diamond.

The Yankees also exchanged ideas with the Cubs for new Hall of Famer Ron Santo, who was being made available by Chicagofor the first time. According to the rumors of the day, the Cubs wanted a young catcher and some relief pitching for Santo. The Yankees could have parted with a veteran reliever like Jack Aker or Lindy McDaniel, but there was no way they would have surrendered a young Thurman Munson for an aging Santo. Therefore, no trade took place. And as it turned out, Santo had only two productive seasons left in him, before he fell off badly with the White Sox in 1974.

On the outfield front, the Yankees attempted a run at an Oriole institution, a future Hall of Famer in Frank Robinson, regarded as the spiritual leader of the Birds. One of the rumored Robinson deals at the winter meetings had the Yankees sending veteran left-hander Fritz Peterson toBaltimore. The Yankees would have loved nothing better than to put Robinson in right field, next to Bobby Murcer in center and Roy White in right, giving them one of the game’s premier all-round outfields.

Robinson ended up being traded, but not to the Yankees, partly because ofBaltimore’s leeriness about trading within the American League East. The Orioles instead sent Robby to the Dodgers for a package of four younger players, in a move the O’s would soon regret.

Similarly, Yankee deals for Fregosi, Tovar, and Garvey also fell through. And that was a good thing, thanks to the benefit of hindsight. Sent to the Mets in the ill-fated Nolan Ryan deal, Fregosi flopped in making the transition to third base and was done as an All-Star caliber player. Tovar was also near the end of the line; after being traded to the Phillies, he would become a utility man before making a brief pitstop with the Yankees in 1976. In contrast, Garvey had plenty of value left, but not as a third baseman. An arm injury convinced the Dodgers to move him to first base, where he became a perennial All-Star. Garvey certainly would have helped the Yankees at first base (another problem position), but then again, his presence would have eliminated the trade for Chris Chambliss, perhaps negating the dramatic finish to the 1976 American League pennant.

The Yankees ended up making two trades at the 1971 winter meetings. They sent two young pitchers to the Rangers for Bernie Allen, who would become a utility infielder. More significantly, they did make a deal for a third baseman at the meetings, only it was for someone who was lesser known than the aforementioned candidates. On December 2, Yankee GM Lee MacPhail sent reliable right-handed starter Stan Bahnsen to the White Sox for a young utility infielder named Rich McKinney, who had batted .271 (with a .377 slugging percentage) as a part-time player. The Yankees immediately announcedMcKinneyas their new third baseman. The reaction to the deal was nearly unanimous: the Yankees had panicked and had made an awful trade. Angry fans flooded the Yankee switchboard with calls of complaint. Some fans even called up newspaper writers to vent their anger.

One fan complaint, printed in The Sporting News, summed up the feelings of frustration. “We were expecting Jim Fregosi, Cesar Tovar, Ron Santo or Steve Garvey,” said the irate fan. “And we wind up with a part-time player for a frontline pitcher. Imagine, the guy wasn’t even a regular inChicago.”

Faced with such stinging criticism, MacPhail offered up the following defense. “Our scouts are sure he can play third,” MacPhail told Yankee beat writer Jim Ogle. “I think he’s going to be one helluva hitter.” Perhaps MacPhail was influenced byMcKinney’s .379 average against the Yankees in 1971, when he rapped 11 hits in 29 at-bats.

Both the scouts and MacPhail were wrong. In only his sixth game as a Yankee, McKinneymade four errors, against the rival Red Sox no less. He hit a grand total of one home run. By mid-season, he was back in Triple-A. At the end of the 1972 season, the Yankees cut their losses by sendingMcKinneyto the A’s for a still useful Matty Alou.

Aside from his four-error debacle atFenwayPark,McKinneybecame best known for trying to score marijuana from Yankees public relations director Marty Appel during the team’s winter caravan. Appalled and shocked at the request, Appel toldMcKinneyhe couldn’t help him.

So the one big trade the Yankees made at the 1971 winter meetings turned into a disaster. Clearly, it was a trade they could have done without.

Hey, maybe Brian Cashman is playing it right. Making no trades might be the way to go.

Observations From Cooperstown: Golden Era Fab Four

On Monday, the Hall of Fame could grow by as many as four. That’s the maximum number of candidates who could be elected by the Golden Era Committee. After giving careful consideration to the ballot, I’ve decided to pass on former players Ken Boyer, Tony Oliva, ex-Yankees Allie Reynolds, Luis Tiant, and Jim Kaat (a particularly tough choice), and longtime executive Buzzie Bavasi.

That leaves exactly four men who are deserving of making the grade in Cooperstown.

Ron Santo:

Of the ten men being considered by the Golden Era committee, there is no stronger candidate for election than the late Ron Santo. Arguably one of the five greatest third basemen of all time, and conservatively one of the ten greatest to play the position, Santo has long deserved enshrinement in Cooperstown.

Let’s consider just a few of Santo’s accomplishments. A patient hitter with a keen eye at the plate throughout his career, Santo compiled a lifetime .366 on-base percentage. With 342 home runs, he managed a .464 slugging percentage, despite playing a good portion of his career during an era in which pitchers held major advantages over hitters. Santo’s defensive accomplishments were only slightly less impressive. A five-time Gold Glove winner, the defensively superior Santo led the National League in total chances nine times and led the league in assists seven times. Those numbers indicate that Santo had good range, in addition to the soft hands and ability to start double plays that characterized his long tenure with the Cubs.

With 66 WAR, Santo compares favorably to Brooks (69) and comes within striking distance of George Brett (85) and former Yankee Wade Boggs (89), two offensive-minded third basemen.

Gil Hodges:

Based solely on his accomplishments as a player, or only on his managerial tenure, Hodges likely does not have the requisite resume for the Hall of Fame. But that’s not how the Hall of Fame election process is supposed to work. According to the rules for election, voters are encouraged to consider a candidate’s entire career in assessing his worth for the Hall of Fame.

As a player, Hodges was a fine all-round performer who hit with power, drew walks, and played a Gold Glove-caliber first base, as he contributed prominently to five National League championships for Brooklyn. During his peak, he slugged .500 or better over a span of eight consecutive seasons. As a manager, Hodges oversaw one of the great franchise turnarounds in major league history. He took command of a perennially poor Mets team that had won 57 games, immediately elevated them to a 73-win level, and then engineered one of the most memorable upsets in World Series history. Hodges also maintained the Mets at a level of better than .500 in 1970 and 1971, despite the team’s glaring lack of offense at a number of positions.

In looking at Hodges properly as a combination candidate, the argument for his Hall of Fame election becomes much clearer.

Minnie Minoso:

Like Hodges, Minoso requires more than a surface look to understand his worthiness for the Hall of Fame. He did not become a fulltime major leaguer until the age of 25, through no fault of his own, but because of the Jim Crow segregation that kept black players in the Negro Leagues or the Caribbean.

Over four Negro Leagues seasons, Minoso earned two All-Star game berths and led his teams to two appearances in the Colored World Series. If the game had already been integrated, Minoso might have spent those four seasons playing in the major leagues during his age 20 to 23 seasons.

Even without major league credit for his Negro Leagues years, Minoso’s numbers are impressive. A player in the mold of Enos Slaughter and Pete Rose, Minoso compiled a lifetime on-base percentage of .389 while providing value as both a left fielder and third baseman. Minoso led the league in hits and total bases one time each, in stolen bases and triples three times apiece, and in hit-by-pitches ten times. One of the game’s premier tablesetters, Minoso scored 100-plus runs five times, while topping 90 runs on five other occasions.

Charlie Finley:

Charlie O’s bitter and tempestuous personality will keep him out of the Hall, but an objective look at his accomplishments reveals a deserving Cooperstown candidate. Under the leadership of Finley, the A’s accomplished more during the 1970s than any other major league team, winning three world championships and five division titles. As the team’s owner beginning in 1962, Charlie Finley realized that he was a relative novice at baseball. He listened intently to his scouts—people like Joe Bowman, Dan Carnevale, Tom Giordano, Clyde Kluttz, and Don Pries—who told him which amateur players to pursue as free agents and which ones to draft. As a result, the A’s developed future standouts like Sal Bando, Vida Blue, Bert Campaneris, Rollie Fingers, Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Blue Moon Odom, and Gene Tenace.

In later years, a more confident and penurious Finley pushed out many of his veteran scouts and tended to ignore the advice of those he still employed. Yet, he still managed to exhibit a deft hand in making trades and signing bargain basement role players. In 1971, Finley made perhaps his best trade, sending an underachieving Rick Monday to the Cubs for Ken Holtzman, who would win 77 games over four seasons in Oakland. Finley also engineered the five-player deal that brought a young left-handed power hitter (Mike Epstein) and an important left-handed reliever (Darold Knowles) to the Bay Area. In 1973, the A’s might not have won the World Series without Knowles, who pitched in all seven games against the Mets.

After the 1972 season, Finley acquired a much-needed center fielder in Billy North for aging middle reliever Bob Locker. In his first four years with the A’s, North played a solid center field, stole 212 bases, and become both a capable leadoff man and No. 2 hitter. Finley also swung unheralded deals for key role players like Matty Alou, Deron Johnson, and Horacio Pina, who would fill important holes in the outfield, at designated hitter, and in middle relief, respectively, during the 1972 and ’73 seasons.

Then there is Finley’s impact as an innovator. He championed the cause for night World Series games, the use of the designated hitter, and interleague play, all before they were officially adopted. He also dressed the A’s in colorful green and gold uniforms, giving the team a unique brand and setting a trend for the game’s changing on-field appearance in the 1970s.

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

Observations From Cooperstown: Nix, Nunez, Garcia, and The Mystery Man

The Yankees’ decision to sign journeyman Jayson Nix to a make-good contract might end up as inconsequential, or it might be a harbinger of a larger transaction to come. A utility infielder who can play both the infield and the outfield, Nix looks like he’s part of the Triple-A backup plan, but I wonder if there is more at work here. There have been rumors that the Braves and Yankees are talking about a deal that would send Eduardo Nunez to Atlanta as part of a package for Jair Jurrjens. If the Yankees do trade Nunez, they will need a new utility infielder. Ramiro Pena is clearly not the answer, and the organization has shown no confidence in minor league veteran Jorge Vazquez.

What kind of a player is Nix? He had a miserable 2011, hitting so poorly and striking out so frequently for the Blue Jays that they released him in mid-season. But he does have some power–he hit 26 home runs combined for the White Sox and Indians over the 2009 and 2010 seasons–and can play third base, second base or shortstop, in addition to the outfield corners.

So should the Yankees trade Nunez? He has loads of natural talent, but is very raw, and must find a way to cut down on his throwing errors. He could be a very good utility infielder, ala Randy Velarde or Luis Sojo, but I don’t know if he has enough patience at the plate to be an everyday player. In the meantime, Jurrjens is a very effective right-handed pitcher who has been good in three of his four full seasons. He’s a strike thrower who won’t turn 26 until January, with the one concern being his ability to stay healthy. If the Braves would be willing to part with the native of Curacao in exchange for a package of Nunez, Brandon Laird, and a middling prospect, I’d have to give some serious thought to such a trade…

* * * *

The Yankees’ wise decision to re-sign Freddy “The Chief” Garcia should not be interpreted as a sign that they will not pursue additional starting pitching; rather it’s part of a plan to stockpile as much pitching depth as possible for a long season. The reliable Garcia is an insurance policy, a No. 5 starter under a worst-case scenario, and possibly a long reliever. The Yankees still plan to pursue pitching via both the trade and free agent routes. If they can add someone like Mark Buerhle (free agent) or John Danks (trade), the rotation will look like this:

1) CC Sabathia

2) Ivan Nova

3) Buerhle or Danks or someone else

4) Phil Hughes

5) A.J. Burnett

Under this scenario, Garcia would start the season out of the bullpen and would be available as a long man and spot starter. The Yankees could then give Hector Noesi some more time to develop as a fulltime starter at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes Barre. With Noesi, Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos at Scranton, the Yankees would have exactly the kind of young pitching depth that Brian Cashman desires as mid-season insurance. But the plan depends on adding a starting pitcher of some pedigree, something that Cashman has not been able to do since signing Sabathia in 2009…

* * * *

Over at The Hardball Times, I’ve been writing a series of baseball card mysteries where I ask readers to assist me in identifying players on cards. One of the cards has proved particularly vexing: the 2001 Topps Golden Moments card featuring Bucky Dent’s historic home run against Mike Torrez. I’ve been able to identify most everyone on the card. There’s Dent himself (wearing No. 20), who’s being trailed by Chris Chambliss. The welcome wagon of congratulation includes Yankee trainer Gene Monahan, backup catcher Cliff Johnson and manager Bob Lemon (all in jackets). Behind Lemon is Jay Johnstone, the veteran backup outfielder. Behind Monahan is Willie Randolph, who was injured and unavailable to play in the tiebreaker game against the Red Sox.

That leaves one mystery man. Who is the player to the right of Randolph, the one right next to the gold Topps logo? Among our readers suggestions have been backup outfielder Gary Thomasson, first baseman/DH Jim Spencer, and backup catcher Mike Heath. Still others claim that this player has no number on the back of the uniform, which leaves open the possibility that it is not actually a player, or not a player who was eligible for that game against the Red Sox. Could it be a ballboy or a batboy?

Who in the world is it? At this point, I really have no idea. Perhaps someone at the Banter knows.

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

Observations From Cooperstown: Remembering Mickey Scott

If you’re a Yankee fan who’s never heard of Mickey Scott, I cannot fault you for that. I remember Mickey Scott, but not as a Yankee. It was only after his death in late October that I realized his connection to the Yankee franchise, not to mention his ties to central New York.

Scott did not follow the traditional path to the major leagues. He was born in Weimar, Germany, to a military family that eventually settled in New York state. Scott grew up in Newburgh, located about 60 miles north of New York City. In 1965, the year of the first amateur draft, the Yankees took Scott on the 17th round out of Newburgh Free Academy. Given the rough winter weather in much of upstate New York, relatively few major leaguers have come out of the state from locations north of the city. But the Yankees liked Scott’s live left-handed arm enough to counteract any concerns they had about the small sample size of Scott’s work.

The skinny southpaw quickly showed the Yankees that he had enough stuff and experience to pitch professionally. He pitched brilliantly at two stops in 1965, before putting in a full season at Single-A Binghamton in 1966. He won a league-leading 15 of 20 decisions for the Triplets, held NY-Penn League opponents to a 2.75 ERA, and led the league in strikeouts.

With his career on the verge of a breakthrough, the realities of the late-1960s put up a roadblock. Scott missed all of the 1967 season while serving the military during Vietnam. Like most of the Vietnam vets, he didn’t receive much credit or applause when he returned to civilian life.

Undeterred by the setback, Scott came back to pitch in 1968, returning once again to Binghamton. But the Triplets had now moved up to Double-A status as a member of the Eastern League, so Scott’s return to Binghamton actually represented an impressive jump for the 20-year-old lefthander. Scott lowered his ERA to 2.58 while allowing only 83 hits in 115 innings. Though not overpowering, Scott convinced the Yankees he was now a legitimate prospect.

The following summer, the 21-year-old Scott moved up to Triple-A Syracuse, another location in upstate New York. It was an impressive ascension for a 17th-round draft pick. Like a lot of young lefthanders, Scott struggled with his first taste of Triple-A hitters. Now deeming him expendable, the Yankees traded Scott to the White Sox for Pete Ward, a combination first baseman/third baseman with some lefty power. Ward would last one unproductive season in the Bronx before calling it a career, while Scott would never pitch a game for the ChiSox.

In September of 1970, the Sox traded Scott to the Orioles. The Orioles switched him to the bullpen, where he used a devastating change-up to become the lefty relief ace for the Rochester Red Wings. He also became popular with teammates, who appreciated his upbeat nature and keen sense of humors. In 1972, Scott would finally make his big league debut for the pitching-rich O’s. Scott pitched well in 15 games, kicking off a journeyman career that would last five seasons and include stops in Montreal and California. Used mostly as a relief pitcher, Scott put up a 3.72 ERA in 172 innings.

Scott never pitched a regular season game for the Yankees, but that would not prevent an eventual reunion with the franchise. Appreciating his attitude and work ethic, the Yankees hired Scott to fill a number of duties, including a role throwing batting practice at Yankee Stadium. He threw BP to such notables as Thurman Munson, Reggie Jackson, Roy White and Graig Nettles.

When not in the Bronx, Scott returned to his residence in Binghamton, a place that became so special to him that he settled on it as his permanent home.  He opened up a bar called “Mickey’s Mound,” where the personable and outgoing left-hander often regaled visitors with stories of his life in both the majors and the minors. During the 1980s, Billy Martin moved near the Binghamton area and frequently visited Mickey’s Mound. There Martin and Mickey became good friends.

Though Scott no longer owned the bar, he seemed to be enjoying retirement in Binghamton. He kept himself in good shape, regularly visiting a local gym to keep his weight and conditioning under control. On October 30 of this year, Scott called his mother from his home in Binghamton and told her that he was heading outside to rake some leaves, a common fall chore in upstate New York. Scott never returned to the house. While on his front lawn, he suffered a heart attack. His body was found by two women who happened to be walking by. Scott was 64.

I didn’t know that Mickey Scott lived in Binghamton or had a bar there until I read stories reporting his death. As a resident of Cooperstown, I live only about an hour’s drive from Binghamton. I wish I had known about Mickey’s Mound back in the 1990s; I would have enjoyed saddling up to the bar, ordering a ginger ale, and hearing a few stories from Mickey Scott himself.

Sadly, I never had the chance. But I know that others did. And I would love nothing more than to hear some of those stories about Mickey Scott.

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

Observations From Cooperstown: Thinking About Frank Messer

I’m always amazed how quickly time goes by. Another example hit me last week, when I realized that it has now been ten years since former Yankee broadcaster Frank Messer died. He passed away at the age of 76 in November of 2001, succumbing to a combination of heart problems and an ongoing battle with lupus.

In many ways, Messer is the forgotten Yankee broadcaster. In contrast to Bill White and Phil Rizzuto, his longtime broadcast partners on WPIX TV and various radio stations, no one talks about Messer anymore. It’s understandable that fans who are younger than 35 don’t remember Messer; they likely would never have heard one of his broadcasts. But even fans my age (and older) have placed Messer in a far-away corner of their minds.

Messer was never as popular as Rizzuto or White, but he had a career that is worthy of note. A native of Asheville, North Carolina, Messer joined the Marine Corps and served in the South Pacific during World War II. After a successful tour of duty that ended in 1946, Messer entered the field of broadcasting and eventually went to work as a disc jockey for a country western radio station. His baseball career finally began in 1954, when he entered the broadcast booth for Richmond, a minor league team in the Triple-A International League. During his tenure in Virginia, Messer won the state’s “Sportscaster of the Year” Award three consecutive years.

In 1964, Messer earned a promotion to the major leagues, joining the Orioles as one of their play-by-play men. He also dabbled in football, working radio broadcasts for the NFL’s Baltimore Colts. In 1968, Messer switched affiliations when he joined the broadcasting crew of the Yankees, replacing former major league catcher Joe Garagiola. Messer teamed with Rizzuto and Jerry Coleman–both former Yankee players–as the team’s regular announcers. (And yes, I am shuddering at the idea of “The Scooter” and Coleman working the same broadcast booth.)

Prior to the 1971 season, the Yankees made a milestone change in the history of baseball broadcasting. They replaced Coleman with Bill White, a retired first base standout with the Giants, Cardinals and Phillies and a man with no previous connection to the Yankee franchise. White became the first African American to broadcast a major league team’s games at the local level. The trio of Messer, Rizzuto, and White would become synonymous with Yankee broadcasts over the next 14 seasons, splitting play-by-play and color duties on both radio and WPIX television.

Messer took on the role of Bud Abbott, playing straight man to the two former players. With Messer providing smoothly efficient play-by-play, Rizzuto and White became free to take on more colorful and often comedic broadcast roles, while also offering the perspectives of former star players. The trio became one of the most popular broadcast combinations of all-time, remaining a team until 1984, when Messer ended his tenure in New York.

Working amidst the popular three-man crew that announced Yankee games during that span, Frank Messer was unquestionably the least favored amongst the pinstriped faithful. Yet, that’s more of a tribute to the enormous popularity of Rizzuto and White than it is a genuine blemish against the record of Messer.

Rizzuto and White drew most of the attention, in part because they were former athletes with bigger names, and in part because of their tendency to toss barbs at each other. At times, they could provide hysterical listening. Messer supplied the basics needed in a solid television or radio broadcast. He had a pleasant voice, a smooth play-by-play style, and a small ego, the latter enabling him to accommodate the colorful storytelling of Rizzuto and the insightful analysis of White.

Although the Rizzuto/White combination provided the best listen of any of the three tandems the Yankees commonly used on TV, Rizzuto and White also worked well with Messer. They each had freedom to roam, thanks in large part to Messer’s understated style. Additionally, nine innings of Rizzuto and White might have produced overkill; Messer’s presence for six innings gave the broadcast balance and clarity, while also making listeners appreciate the entertainment value of the more dynamic Rizzuto and White.

Though it was not the principal part of his job description, Messer also added a dignified presence to the Yankees’ popular Old-Timers’ Day events. An articulate announcer and a skilled emcee, Messer elegantly performed his master-of-ceremonies duties in introducing Yankee greats during the seventies, eighties, and nineties. Although he didn’t match Mel Allen (something that few could have done), he nonetheless excelled in a humble, simplified way, enabling him to blend in so well with the festivities of the day. As great as Old-Timers’ Day remains, it’s not quite the same without the presence of Messer.

If there was a legitimate criticism of Messer, it was that he tended to stray far from controversy, which was in plentiful supply during the George Steinbrenner/Billy Martin/Reggie Jackson years. Messer usually treated Yankee conflicts with a see-no-evil attitude, if he didn’t ignore them completely.

On the whole, that’s a relatively small strike against a solidly professional play-by-play man who did such dutiful work in New York for more than a decade. He did the job, while never complaining about being the third wheel to Rizzuto and White. If nothing else, Frank Messer should be remembered for that.

Bruce Markusen writes Cooperstown Confidential for The Hardball Times.

[Photo Credit for featured image: Alex Alexander]

Observations From Cooperstown

By Bruce Markusen

This is the only Topps card that shows Matty Alou as a Yankee. Upon first look, most fans are struck by the enormity of the Yankees’ “NY” logo. But it’s not the actual Yankee logo; it’s been airbrushed onto the photograph, along with the Yankee pinstripes and the navy blue cap. The artist who did the airbrushing simply overestimated the size of the interlocking “NY.”

In the actual photograph that Topps used, Alou is wearing the colors of the A’s, with the Oakland Alameda County Coliseum providing the backdrop. Alou spent the latter half of the 1972 season with the A’s, and played a subtle role in helping Oakland win its first world championship, before being purged by Charlie Finley in a cost-cutting maneuver. Without any photos of Alou in Yankee pinstripes, the people at Topps opted for the old airbrushing route.

All these memories of this card come back to me with the news of Alou’s death. He passed away on Thursday at the age of 72, apparently from the effects of diabetes. This is particularly hard news for me because Matty Alou was one of my favorite players. Though he only played part of one season with the Yankees, he was a guy who left me with a boatload of memories from various points throughout his career.

Why did I like Alou so much? I think part of it has to do with his unconventional hitting style. He used a very unorthodox style at the plate–he swung a heavy bat, often hit off his front foot, and blooped a lot of singles to the opposite field–all of which made him intriguing. Ted Williams, the most scientific hitter in history, used to say that Alou broke every rule of batting, but somehow managed to succeed. And unlike Williams, Alou was an extremely aggressive hitter who didn’t walk all that much. But the man could hit singles with the best of them. Alou batted for a very high average, which coupled with his base stealing ability and the speed that allowed him to go first to third, made him a useful player.

Alou began his career with the Giants, where he had the privilege to play in the same outfield with his older brother Felipe and his younger brother Jesus. But Matty never found his way in San Francisco. It was not until he was traded to the Pirates, where he worked with manager Harry “The Hat” Walker on his hitting. The Hat completely retooled Alou’s approach, and to his credit, Alou openly accepted the advice.

The results were undeniable. In 1966, Alou batted .342 to lead the National League. In his next three seasons, he batted .338, .332, and .331. That represents one of the great four-year stretches a hitter has ever experienced. Alou was also a very good center fielder with range and a plus arm, making him a fairly complete package in Pittsburgh. All that he lacked was power.

By the time that Alou joined the Yankees in 1973, he was no longer the same player. Injuries robbed him of his arm strength, while slowing bat speed erased his abilities as a .330 hitter. But the Yankees felt he could help fill a void in right field. The Yankees were set in the other outfield spots–Roy White played left and Bobby Murcer starred in center–but right field had become a problem. Alou stabilized the position somewhat, though he lacked the arm or the ideal amount of power that once expects from a right fielder. He also made 40 appearances at first base, something he had done previously with the Cardinals. At five feet, nine inches, Alou looked odd playing first base; he could have used a phone book to stand on first base and corral high throws from Gene Michael and Graig Nettles.

Alou hit well for the Yankees, batting .296 with an on-base percentage of nearly .340. If the Yankees remained in contention, Alou would have lasted the entire season in New York. But the Yankees fell out of the pennant race, convincing them to try a late-season youth movement. So they sold Felipe Alou to the Brewers and sold 34-year-old Matty to the Cardinals, ridding themselves of two expensive contracts in the process. And that was it for Matty Alou in pinstripes.

As it turned out, Alou did not have much left in his hitting tank. He batted only .198 for the Padres in 1974, but he did not want to call it quits. So he headed to the Japanese Leagues, where he put in three seasons before retiring.

Alou was still playing in the Far East by the time the Yankees became good again and won back-to-pennants in 1976 and ‘77. Like so many of my favorite old players, like Johnny Callison and Walt “No-Neck” Williams and Jim Ray Hart, he did not last long enough to see the glory years in pinstripes.

But at least fun players like Matty Alou made those lean years of the early 1970s a little more bearable for a Yankee fan like me. For that, I will be ever grateful to Matty Alou. Rest in peace, Matty.

Observations From Cooperstown: Beltran, Marte, and Game Six

It’s been a quiet off-season so far for the Yankees, and for good reason. Teams are discouraged from making major announcements during the World Series. Free agents cannot declare until after the World Series. CC Sabathia has not yet exercised the opt-out clause in his contract, though he is expected to do so at some point.

It wasn’t until Thursday that I saw the first major rumor pop up, courtesy of ESPN’s Wally Matthews, who reports that the Yankees may replace Nick Swisher with free agent Carlos Beltran. If the Yankees sign Beltran, they’ll either decide not to pick up Swisher’s option (a bad idea) or they’ll pick up the option and then trade Swisher for some pitching help.

I’ve already made it clear that the Yankees should explore the possibility of trading Swisher, but I don’t agree with any plan to sign Beltran. That’s because Beltran is a Scot Boras client, and Boras is going to demand a three-year contract for his aging outfielder. Beltran is 34, running on surgically repaired legs, and will probably have to DH within the next season or two. The Yankees need to get younger, not older, and they need to commit as many DH at-bats as they can to Jesus Montero.

Beltran is a name brand player, possibly a Hall of Famer, but the Yankees should pursue someone who is younger and more versatile. Michael Cuddyer might be that player. He is three years younger than Beltran, can play the outfield and infield corners, and has a history of hitting in the postseason. He’s not as famous as Beltran, but he would be a much better fit for the 2012 Yankees.

If the Yankees don’t like Cuddyer, they will have other free agent options for right field. There’s Cuddyer’s Minnesota teammate, the lefty-swinging Jason Kubel, who is limited defensively but is only 29 and has more power than his 12 home runs indicate. (He’d also find Yankee Stadium to his liking.) Veterans David DeJesus, Cody Ross, and Josh Willingham will also be available, and at prices considerably cheaper than Beltran. I‘d explore all of them before committing three years and millions of dollars to a fragile Beltran…

***

The Yankees did make their first transaction of the off-season last week, though it was hardly of the blockbuster variety. As expected, the Yankees declined their $4 million option on lefty Damaso Marte, instead buying out his contract for $250,000. (It must be wonderful to be a major leaguer, receiving a quarter of a million dollars to do nothing.) Marte hardly pitched for the Yankees over the last two seasons–in fact, he didn’t pitch at all this season because of labrum surgery–so it’s hardly the same as losing Andy Pettitte to retirement.

Yet, I’ll always have good memories of Marte, if only because of what he did during the 2009 postseason. He faced 12 batters during that championship run, retiring all of them. Two of those batters came in the clinching Game Six of the World Series, when Marte struck out Chase Utley and Ryan Howard on six pitches. That set the stage for Mariano Rivera to pitch the final two innings and finish off the Yankees’ 27th world championship.

For the most part, Marte was a bust as a Yankee. He made $12 million over the last three years, despite injury and ineffectiveness. But what he contributed in October of 2009 made it all worthwhile…

***

Last night’s Game Six was so reminiscent of the sixth game of the 1975 Fall Classic that the similarities are eerie. The Cardinals successfully played the role of the Red Sox, facing elimination on their home field. Like the Red Sox, the Cardinals had to come back from a late three-run deficit to earn the right to play a Game Seven.

David Freese decided to combine the roles of both Bernie Carbo and Carlton Fisk, first tying the game with an unlikely triple against the blazing Neftali Feliz and then ending the 11-inning marathon affair with a monstrous home run to center field. That put Mark Lowe in the unenviable role of Pat Darcy, a somewhat unfair predicament given that Ron Washington should never have pinch-hit for Scott Feldman in the top half of the 11th.

On two different occasions, the Rangers came within a strike of winning the first world championship in the history of the franchise. On both occasions, the lead slipped out of their pitchers’ hands, thanks in part to ex-Yankee Lance Berkman, who stalled the celebration with a clutch two-strike single to center field.

Rangers fans have had to wait 39 years to win a World Series. Now they will have to wait at least one more day.

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

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