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Category: Observations From Cooperstown

Observations From Cooperstown: Making Changes

When you play baseball in New York City, you cannot spend too much time dwelling on postseason failures. It’s simply time to move on quickly, to think about what changes need to be made to improve the team, so as to avoid future playoff disappointment. That is the situation the Yankees face these days, even as four other major league teams continue their pursuit of a world championship.

The first priority is determining the future of CC Sabathia. Everyone in the free world expects Sabathia to opt out of his current contract, which has four years remaining. The Yankees will obviously try to re-sign their ace, but they also need to be careful. Before they bestow a five or six-year deal on Sabathia, they need to remember that they are already stuck with two ridiculously long contracts in Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira. Giving Sabathia more money per year would be acceptable, but lengthening the contract of a pitcher with weight problems and a recent past of postseason failure should come with several caution flags.

Sabathia is 31. A five-year contract brings him to age 36. A six-year deal extends him to age 37. I’d be very careful about going that deep with any pitcher, especially a pitcher who put on weight during the season.

If the Yankees can re-sign Sabathia at a reasonable length, they will still need to add pitching. That’s why free agent C.J. Wilson, whose outgoing personality looks to be a good fit for New York, should be the No. 1 target. If the Yankees cannot bring back Sabathia, then they really need to sign two free agent pitchers: Wilson and either the durable Mark Buehrle (with 11 straight seasons of 200-plus innings) or the underrated Edwin Jackson. The Yankees’ staff needs to become more left-handed in 2012, making Wilson and Buehrle especially appealing targets. Ideally, the Yankees’ 2012 rotation would look like this: Sabathia and Wilson followed by Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes, and A.J. Burnett. As FBI Special Agent Johnson said in Die Hard, “I can live with that.” Indeed, that’s the kind of rotation that should put the Yankees back in the postseason mix.

Still, there are other areas to address. The Yankees’ offense is aging and showing some decline. The easy solution–and the sensible one at that–is to promote Jesus Montero to the DH role and let him bat behind A-Rod and Teixeira. The Yankees need to stop shopping Montero for pitching and realize what they have: a young, difference-making hitter who can change the complexion of an old lineup.

The next step is to pick up the option on Nick Swisher’s contract and then begin shopping him around both leagues. Swisher has trade value; his power, his patience, and his defensive improvement in right field make him an attractive player. A number of hitting-starved teams could use Swisher, including the Angels, the A’s (his former team), the Braves, the Cubs, the Dodgers, the Padres, and the Giants. If any of them can offer a solid No. 4 starter or a top left-handed reliever, or a couple of good prospects, then the Yankees should make the deal.

If Swisher is traded, he’ll have to be replaced. The Yankees can do that with free agents like Mike Cuddyer (a .338 hitter in the postseason) or Brooklyn native David DeJesus (a superior defender in right field). I particularly like the versatile Cuddyer, who would also give the Yankees a potential backup at third base for the increasingly fragile Rodriguez.

As with Swisher, the Yankees need to make a decision with Russell Martin, whose contract is up. Martin looked terrible at the plate in the playoff series with the Tigers, but his defensive play is just too good to surrender. He blocks everything in sight, frames pitches skillfully, throws well, and basically does everything he can to make the pitcher’s job easier. I’d like to see Martin return as the No. 1 receiver, backed up by Montero and perhaps a veteran backup from the free agent list. The Yankees shouldn’t count on Francisco Cervelli, in part because of his concussion problems and in part because he simply cannot throw out opposing baserunners.

So that’s my off-season plan for the Yankees. Like all plans, it’s one that will change based on free agent wishes and the availability of certain players in trades. But it’s a starting point for what figures to be an interesting winter of comings and goings in the Bronx.

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

Observations From Cooperstown: The End of the Season

In the end it wasn’t the pitching that did in the Yankees, it was the hitting. The Yankees could not even score three runs in the most important game of the season. They managed only two runs–on a total of ten hits. It wasn’t for a lack of effort, but there wasn’t a clutch hit to be found the entire night, with the exception of Jorge Posada’s fourth inning single that loaded the bases before Russell Martin and Brett “The Jet” Gardner ended the inning with back-to-back pop ups. By my count, the Yankees missed at least seven or eight down-the-middle fastballs, pitches that were hittable, but ended up as nothing more than foul balls or called strikes.

In the three losses the Yankees sustained, they scored three runs, four runs, and two runs. When the games were close, the Yankees could not score enough. They won the blowouts, but they could not win the one and two-run games that are so prevalent throughout the season, or in this case, a short playoff series.

In a way, I’m not surprised. I’ve heard out-of-town broadcasters refer to the Yankees’ offense as a “powerhouse” or as a “juggernaut” or as “relentless.” My reaction to that is this: these guys didn’t watch the Yankees play much this season. The Yankees’ offense was hardly relentless. They didn’t even finish first in the league in runs scored; they finished second to the Red Sox, whose season went up in flames largely because their pitching staff exploded. The Yankees ran hot and cold offensively, they were very good at times, and they hit a lot of home runs, but they were sporadic with runners in scoring position. They were not a powerhouse. This was not the “Big Red Machine” or “Murderers’ Row.” Not even close.

So what do the Yankees need to do elevate the offense, particularly in the postseason? It would be helpful to break up the futile threesome of Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Nick Swisher, who once again failed to come up big in the playoffs. All of the blame tends to get put on A-Rod, but Tex has been as much of a black hole with his exaggerated uppercut and pull swing. (He needs to do some serious work with Kevin Long in the spring and get back to being the all-fields hitter he was in Texas and Anaheim.) A-Rod and Teixeira are not tradeable because of their long contracts, so it might be time to trade Swisher and make room for some new blood in right field. I like Swisher, and I love his enthusiasm, but his inability to hit in the postseason has become a problem.

It would also help the Yankees if they make Jesus Montero a featured part of their offense. There is no way that Jorge Posada will be coming back; even though he was one of the few hitters who showed up against the Tigers, he was unproductive for most of the summer and was inadequate as a DH. It’s time to get younger. Montero, who should have received more at-bats as a pinch-hitter against the Tigers, can move into the DH role and bat sixth or seventh from day one. He is the real deal offensively, a player who will hit for average and power, and it is time to stop sending him back to Scranton/Wilkes Barre. It is also time to stop shopping him for pitching. The Yankees need a better and younger offense, just like they need better pitching. They need to keep Montero.

This is not to say that the Yankees should make pitching a secondary priority. Regardless of whether CC Sabathia opts out of his contract, they need to think about free agents like C.J. Wilson and Edwin Jackson. They need to think about trading Swisher for a capable No. 4 starter and/or some left-handed help in the bullpen. And, to borrow a phrase from Bill Parcells, they need to take the Huggies off of Phil Hughes and let him pitch every fifth day and let him strengthen his arm by pitching more–not less. If the Yankees do these things, along with bringing Sabathia back, their starting pitching should be stronger in 2012.

In the meantime, we are left with a disappointing finish to a season. Unlike some, I don’t consider the season a total failure without a World Series championship. I can take some solace in Derek Jeter reaching 3,000, Mariano Rivera becoming the all-time saves leader, and the Yankees winning a division title in a year in which the Red Sox were supposed to be the team to beat.

So there is some consolation in that. I just hope that Brian Cashman and the Yankees don’t find too much consolation, because there is work that needs to be done to help the Yankees take three more steps in 2012.

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

Observations From Cooperstown: The Roster, 1978, and Butch Hobson

As usual, the Yankees are waiting until the last minute to officially announce their 25-man roster for the Division Series. So that leaves me guessing as to what will they do at the periphery of the roster. We do know that Jorge Posada will be on the roster, as will Russell Martin and Jesus Montero. I have a hard time believing the Yankees will carry four catchers, so I’m guessing that rookie Austin Romine will be left off, with the Yankees gambling that they can tolerate either Montero or Posada doing some catching if Martin is lifted in the late innings for a pinch-hitter. The Tigers don’t run much, so a strong throwing catcher becomes less of a priority.

We know that the starting infield will have Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, Derek Jeter, and (hopefully a healthy) Alex Rodriguez, with Eduardo Nunez serving as the primary utility infielder. Eric Chavez will also be around as a backup at first and third base, but perhaps more importantly, as the primary left-handed pinch-hitter. So that makes for six infielders.

The starting outfield of Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher will need a backup, so right-handed specialist Andruw Jones is a certainty. The real question is this: will the Yankees carry a fifth outfielder? It’s a tough call, but I think they will. Chris Dickerson has played well in his limited opportunities; he’s a good corner outfielder who can handle Comerica Park and has enough footspeed to serve as a pinch runner. While he doesn’t have the blazing speed of Greg Golson, he’s a better baserunner, as evidenced by Golon’s extra-inning foul up in extra innings on Wednesday against the Rays. So Golson will be out, and Dickerson should be in as a backup outfielder.

With three catchers, six infielders, and five outfielders, that makes for 14 position players. That leaves room for 11 pitchers, instead of 12. And that’s the right way to go in a series that can go no longer than five games. The Yankees figure to use only three starters (CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova, and Freddy Garcia), which leaves room for an eight-man bullpen. The givens are Mariano Rivera, David Robertson, Rafael Soriano, A.J. Burnett, Cory Wade, and Boone Logan. That still leaves two spots for pitchers from a group that includes Phil Hughes, the slumping Bartolo Colon, Luis Ayala, Hector Noesi and obscure left-hander Raul Valdes. Out of loyalty, I see Joe Girardi going with Hughes for one of the spots. The final spot? Given that the Tigers have a lineup that is deeper from the right side, I see the Yankees going with Noesi, whom the Tigers have never seen face-to-face. So mystery will win out over the strategy of lefty-on-lefty matchups.

On Thursday, the Yankees did announce two important decisions for the postseason. I like one, but not the other. Simply put, Posada is a bad choice to DH against flamethrowing Justin Verlander in Game One; he just doesn’t have the bat speed to catch up with fastballs in the high 90s. Montero, with his OPS of .996, would have been the better choice, riskier, but better.

In terms of the No. 3 starter, Freddy Garcia is absolutely the correct choice. Selecting Burnett, based on one good start last weekend against the Red Sox, would have been a horrendous selection. Similarly, the enigmatic Hughes has been too inconsistent from game to game, with his velocity readings continuing to fluctuate so violently. Of all the possibilities, Garcia has been the most consistent starter, the one who is most likely to give the Yankees six innings of two-run ball. He also has a terrific record in the playoffs and World Series. Across seven different postseason series, Garcia has posted an ERA of 3.11, with 45 strikeouts and 22 walks in 55 innings. “The Chief” will not be rattled by the pressure of a short series, or by the enemy crowd at Comerica Park…


Since my wife Sue is a Red Sox fan, I do have some sympathy for what their fans are enduring in the wake of the team blowing a nine-game lead in the span of four weeks. The collapse of this year’s Sox has me thinking about the events of 1978, when the Red Sox allowed a 14-game lead to fritter away over the span of ten weeks. By comparison, the collapse of the ‘78 Red Sox seems milder. After all, they did win 15 games in September and October, and managed to put together an eight-game win streak at the end to force a one-game tiebreaker against the Yankees. In contrast, the 2011 Red Sox won only seven games in September, lost 20, and generally played dreadful baseball, especially from the mound and on the basepaths.

One of the reasons that the ‘78 Red Sox lost was due to questionable managing by skipper Don Zimmer, who was not yet a gleam in Joe Torre’s eye. Zimmer buried Bill Lee in his doghouse, refusing to use him as a starter while youngsters like Bobby Sprowl and Jim Wright struggled. Zimmer also continued to play Butch Hobson at third base even though he had several bone chips in his elbow that prevented him from making even routine throws to first. Hobson ended up with a whopping 43 errors that summer. Hobson, as hard-nosed a player as I’ve ever seen, did not ask out of the lineup until late September. Zimmer should have taken the decision out of his hands much earlier, made Hobson the DH, and put backup Jack Brohamer at third base. By waiting so long, Zimmer may have cost the Red Sox a game or two in the standings.

Four years later, the Yankees acquired Hobson in a trade with the Angels for righty reliever Bill Castro. I remember being excited about the trade, remembering how tough and tenacious Hobson had been for the rival Red Sox.

Unfortunately, Hobson had nothing left in the tank. He was only 30, but his body was much older. Years of drug abuse, running into walls, and playing through bone chips and bad shoulders had taken their toll. In 60 plate appearances, Hobson put up an OPS of .390, which is so low it doesn’t seem possible.

I wish Hobson had done better with the Yankees. He certainly deserved better in 1978, when his manager should have done him a favor, but didn’t.

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

Observations From Cooperstown: The Catching, The Other Jorge, and Moneyball

A few weeks ago, it would have been unthinkable, but there is now a real possibility that the Yankees will carry both Jesus Montero and Austin Romine on their postseason roster. Francisco Cervelli’s concussion is enough of a concern that it jeopardizes his postseason standing, while Jorge Posada remains a longshot to make the playoff roster. Without Posada, Montero becomes the primary DH, which would make it difficult for him to be the backup to Russell Martin. So that would necessitate carrying Romine as the No. 2 catcher. Romine is eligible for the postseason because the rules allow for a season-long minor leaguer to replace an injured player, in this case Cervelli.

Even if Cervelli is healthy, I would prefer Romine, who is the better defensive catcher. If the Yankees have to pinch-hit for Martin in the late innings of a close game, I’d rather have a more reliable receiver and thrower behind the plate. And there is simply none better in the organization than Romine, who might be the best defensive catcher the Yankees have had since Joel Skinner in the late 1980s.

Of course, I have no idea if Romine is ready to hit at this level (and it would be tough for him to match Cervelli’s second-half hitting surge), but I would be willing to take that chance. In the postseason, where runs are often at a premium, a good defensive catcher who can block pitches and throw out base runners is probably more valuable than someone who might bat once or twice in the late innings. So yes, my vote goes to the inexperienced Romine over the erratic Cervelli…


This is a minor point, but one that deserves mentioning. The Yankees currently have 36 players on their active roster, but haven’t found it fit to include minor league slugger Jorge Vazquez among their late-season promotions. I know what some people will say: Vazquez is not on the 40-man roster, so it’s problematic to include him among the callups. To that I say, “Bunk.” The Yankees are currently carrying at least three players who have little to no business being on the 40-man roster of a playoff team. They are Ramiro Pena, who makes Eddie Brinkman and Mark Belanger seem like Silver Sluggers, and doesn’t have the versatility to be a true utility infielder; journeyman Scott Proctor, who’s simply not a major league caliber pitcher any more; and Raul Valdes, a journeyman left-hander who ranks behind Boone Logan and Aaron Laffey for the lefty specialist role.

Though he’s hardly a primetime prospect, the 28-year-old Vazquez has more value than any of those players. Yes, he strikes out a ton (166 times), but he has legitimate power, can play both of the infield corners, and would be worth a look as a right-handed pinch-hitter. Vazquez likely wouldn’t play much, but he at least deserves a spot based on the 32 home runs he hit at Triple-A Scranton (or 14 more than Jesus Montero), not to mention the team-leading .516 slugging percentage he posted. At the very least, Vazquez profiles like longtime ex-Yankee minor leaguer Shelley Duncan; it would be nice for the Yankees to reward his production by giving him a late-season promotion. At some point, the Yankees need to show their minor leaguers that placement on the 40-man roster is based on merit, and not on being a name player (Proctor), or a failed prospect (Pena), or a pitcher who happens to throw left-handed (Valdes). Until then, too many minor leaguers in the system will remain frustrated by an organization that doesn’t reward minor league productivity…


There’s been much debate recently about the merits of the new Moneyball movie. Aaron Gleeman likes it, Keith Law hates it, and I find myself feeling indifferent. I haven’t even seen the film, but the story just does not strike me as that compelling. A sports movie needs to have a good ending, and that is something that the Moneyball A’s have lacked. Yes, they have made the postseason several times under the regime of Billy Beane, but have reached only one League Championship Series, and never once made the World Series, let alone won one. Where is the payoff, where is the climactic ending? I just don’t see it.

Based on the previews I’ve seen–and boy, they’ve been running trailers on this thing since the spring–Brad Pitt looks funny and charismatic in the role of Beane, but Jonah Hill looks terribly miscast as Paul DePodesta (or Peter Brand, as he’s called in the movie). Maybe I’m typecasting Hill based on his disgustingly funny role in Superbad, but I just don’t find him believable as an advisor to the general manager of a baseball team.

So I remain skeptical. I do plan on watching the movie, and maybe I’ll find it entertaining, but I keep thinking this: a film about Charlie Finley’s A’s would have been a whole lot better.

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

Observations From Cooperstown: September 11 and Frank Tepedino

When I think about September 11, I immediately become angry. Angry with malevolent terrorists who committed mass murder on American soil, terrorists who participated in one of the greatest atrocities in American history. I have no sympathy for the terrorists, and no interest in hearing about their reasons for murdering innocent people.

After awhile, my anger turns to sadness. I think about Adam Lewis, the one person I knew who died in the Twin Towers. Adam and I were classmates at Hamilton College, part of the class of 1987. I didn’t know Adam well enough to call him a friend, but knew him well enough to realize that he was a good guy and a strong family man. Like all of the other civilians who died that day, he deserved better.

And then my sadness turns to a smile. I think about the way that Americans responded to the tragedy. So many firefighters, medical personnel, and policemen reported to Ground Zero on a day when they were not supposed to work. They had no obligation to report, but knew it was the right thing to do. So many volunteers went there, gave hours and hours of themselves, in an effort to rescue whoever might have survived. These were Americans at their finest.

One of those Americans was a former Yankee, Frank Tepedino. A veteran member of the New York Fire Patrol, Tepedino was at home that day when he heard about the terrorist attacks. He, his son, and two other firefighters immediately drove to the towers. Even though they were coming from Long Island, it took them four hours to reach the site.

By the time they arrived, the towers had already collapsed. Tepedino and the others did what they could, searching the rubble for other potential survivors. “Moving debris, opening manhole covers, helping with food, water and excavation,” Tepedino told the Syracuse Herald American in 2001. As they helped in the recovery efforts, Tepedino and his friends worked in 24-hour shifts.

What began as a rescue mission eventually became a job of cleaning up, once they realized that no other survivors would be found. It was frustrating for Tepedino and the others, knowing that the missing would not be found, but they also knew that the cleanup had to be done.

Tepedino’s rescue efforts put him in the spotlight for the first time since 1975, when he wrapped up a journeyman career with the Braves. Originally drafted by the Orioles, Tepedino was then selected by the Yankees in the Rule Five draft. The Yankees loved his left-handed swing, envisioning him as a possible answer at first base. But there were roadblocks at the position, Mickey Mantle and Joe Pepitone early on, and then Johnny Ellis and Ron Blomberg.

The Yankees switched him to the outfield, but there was no room there either, not with people like Roy White and Bobby Murcer holding down starting jobs. As a result, Tepedino never received even close to a full opportunity to play regularly in the Bronx.

He spent a good deal of time at Triple-A Syracuse, where he became one of the Chiefs’ most popular players. Early in 1971, the Yankees finally gave Tepedino a reprieve, sending him to the Brewers for strongboy Danny Walton, who had enormous power but an alarming propensity for striking out.

The Brewers gave Tepedino a look at first base, but he couldn’t beat out veteran Johnny Briggs. So the next spring, the Brewers sold him back to the Yankees. They used him exclusively as a pinch-hitter, and then used him as part of a package to acquire Pat Dobson from the Braves. In 1973, Tepedino became part of the Braves’ celebrated bench brigade, which was known as “F-Troop.” As Tepedino explained to The Sporting News, “F stands for fearless and faithful.” Playing as a backup first baseman and pinch-hitter, Tepedino hit .304 for manager Eddie Mathews. He also had the opportunity to play with a fellow named Hank Aaron, bookending a career that had seen him start his career playing with his boyhood idol, Mickey Mantle.

Two years after leading F-Troop, Tepedino was out of baseball. At the age of 27, Tepedino had to seek out a new career, while continuing his battle with alcoholism. Not only did Tepedino beat the bottle, but he found himself doing worthy work as a fire fighter, beginning a 30-plus year stint with the New York Fire patrol.

On September 11, Tepedino, like thousands of other first responders, became a hero. It was still an awful day, a day that brings with it so many bad memories. But it was a day when people like Frank Tepedino showed us only their best and helped us feel proud.

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

[Drawing by Larry Roibal]

Observations From Cooperstown: Montero, Bernabe, and Luis Arroyo

The Yankees finally did the right thing: they called up their best hitting prospect, a future star named Jesus Montero.

Of course, it took the expansion of the roster from 25 to 40 men to create a space, but at least Montero is here now, with a chance to contribute over the final month of the season. Already one anonymous Yankee executive has predicted that by the time the postseason rolls around, Montero will be their best DH option. I tend to agree. Jorge Posada has very little left to offer, while Andruw Jones and Eric Chavez are best used sparingly, as bench players and not as regular DH’s.

Montero’s final numbers at Scranton/Wilkes Barre were not eye-popping (a .348 on-base percentage and a .467 slugging percentage), but they were much better over the second half of the season, so they reflect a hot hitter on an upward trend. It’s also easy to forget that Montero is still only 21. Not too many 21 year olds put up the kind of numbers that he has over the last two years at Scranton. He deserves a chance to contribute to the Yankees in the race for the top spot in the AL East.

The next question is this: how much will Montero play during the stretch run? Given the way that he has walloped left-handed pitching at Triple-A (to the tune of a 1.039 OPS), I’d expect that Joe Girardi will find a way to play him every time there is a southpaw on the mound, and at least some of the time against right-handers. If Montero hits well from the get-go, he could be the everyday DH long before the postseason becomes a reality. And I have a feeling that Montero will hit, not only because of his talent but because he feels like he has something to prove after laying in wait all summer at Scranton.

The promotion of Montero is a good move by the Yankees. In the end, the flexibility of the 40-man roster finally won out over sentimentality. And that is a good thing when you‘re trying to win a division…


Bernie Williams may have a tough time gaining induction to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, but on Thursday, he won election to the Latino Baseball Hall of Fame, as part of its third ever induction class. A native of Puerto Rico, Williams was elected from the post-1959 ballot, a group that also includes Yankee bench coach Tony Pena and former Yankee third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez.

Hall of Fames such as these generally have lower induction standards than Cooperstown, but Williams is still joining good company in the Latino Hall, which is based in the Dominican Republic. Other Latino members include Roberto Alomar, Luis Aparicio, Rod Carew, Orlando Cepeda, Roberto Clemente, and Juan Marichal–all of whom are duly enshrined in Cooperstown. While Williams was not as good as most of those players (with the exception of Aparicio), I’d put him on a tier just below them. His hitting, his power, his patience, and his early-career play in center field made him an excellent player, an outstanding all-round performer, and a major contributor to numerous championship teams, and none of that should be treated as an afterthought.

Additionally, one other ex-Yankee was elected to the Latino Hall this week, and that was through the Veterans Committee. Yankee fans of a certain age (particularly over 50) will remember Luis Arroyo, the Puerto Rican left-hander who was one of the first standout Yankee relief aces, beginning a long trend that would continue with Lindy McDaniel in the late sixties, Sparky Lyle and Goose Gossage in the 1970s, Dave Righetti in the eighties, and the current Baron of the Bullpen, Mariano Rivera.

Like a lot of relievers, particularly southpaws, Arroyo was a late bloomer. He did not make his major league debut until he was 28. At five-feet, eight inches tall and 180 pounds, Arroyo could charitably be described as “stocky,” though some scouts might have preferred calling him chunky, or even pudgy. Clearly, he did not have the body of an Adonis. Nor did he throw particularly hard, which coupled with a streak of wildness, explained his early career struggles with the Cardinals, Pirates and Reds before he landed in the Bronx. The Yankees acquired him from Cincinnati in the midst of the 1960 season, in a straight-up cash deal.

Arroyo turned his career around that mid-summer, as he refined the screwball, which would become a devastating out-pitch for him in the late innings. He pitched well during the second half of 1960, before blossoming in ‘61, a season that saw him lead the league in games (65) and saves (29), while winning 15 games (all in relief) and posting a 2.19 ERA in 119 innings pitched. All in all, he had a hand in 44 of the Yankees’ 109 wins. The American League’s top reliever that summer, Arroyo did this all at the tender age of 34.

As with many great relievers, especially those who depend on the demands of the screwball, Arroyo’s brilliance did not last. He injured his arm during spring training in 1962, struggled after returning to action, and was never the same. Arroyo retired after making only six appearances in 1963.

Younger Yankee fans might not have heard of him, but Luis Arroyo, now 84 years of age, can enjoy a prestigious honor, one that he shares with Bernie Williams.

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

Observations From Cooperstown: The Comeback, Carlos Pena, and Mike Flanagan

It’s funny how the fortunes of just one game can completely change the complexion and tenor of a column. With the Yankees trailing the A’s, 7-1, on Thursday and seemingly on the verge of being swept by a second-division club, I was ready to lay the hammer down on the team for an inexcusable letdown after a productive road trip. Six innings later, the Yankees had outscored Oakland by a 21-2 margin, set a record by hitting three grand slams in one game, and put the finishing touches on a 22-9 thrashing of the supposedly pitching-rich A’s. So much for a column ripping the Yankees’ effort or performance.

Instead, it’s nothing but praise for a Yankee team that showed some grit this week by trying to stage three consecutive comebacks against the A’s. Two of the comebacks fell short, but the third represented one of the greatest in-game turnarounds in franchise history. A game like the Thursday matinee can do wonders for a team’s confidence–not to mention some individual batting lines. With three hits, Derek Jeter lifted his season average to .299 and his on-base percentage to .360, as he continues to quiet his critics. Curtis Granderson’s grand slam pushed his RBI total over the century mark, giving him 100-plus RBIs and 100 runs scored, and strengthening his argument for the MVP. With a 5-for-5 performance, Russell Martin raised his average to .243, the first time that he has touched the .240s since the spring. And even Eduardo Nunez joined the party with three hits, lifting his batting average to .280 while also turning in an errorless performance at shortstop.

The Yankees won’t score 22 runs in any of their games with Baltimore this weekend, but they should be relaxed and ready to do more damage against one of the American League’s weaker pitching staffs. I have a feeling they may need to score more than a few runs in support of A.J. Burnett, who is scheduled to pitch the Friday night opener. It could be Burnett’s final start of the season, especially if he blows up the way he did against the Twins last weekend…


The Yankees put in a waiver claim for Carlos Pena this week, yet another indication that they are not satisfied with either Jorge Posada or Eric Chavez as the left-handed hitting DH. But don’t expect Pena to be fitted for pinstripes any time soon; the Cubs pulled back the 33-year-old Pena because they’re not willing to give him up for merely the waiver price. The Cubs would want something tangible in a trade, but the Yankees have little interest in giving up even one legitimate prospect for the former Tiger and Ray. In fact, the Cubs and Yankees did not even discuss a trade involving Pena after the waiver claim, an indication that the teams felt there was no middle ground from which to work.

Could Pena have helped the Yankees? With his 23 home runs and 74 walks, Pena would have added to the Yankees’ game plan of power and patience, and certainly would have been an upgrade over Posada. On the downside, Pena’s average is in the .220s, he strikes out a ton, and he would have offered no long-term help, given his age and his current one-year contract. He’s clearly not the player he was during his peak with Tampa Bay from 2007 to 2009. If the Yankees could have added him on a waiver claim, I would have been all for it, but the notion of giving up even a single prospect for an aging Pena does not strike me as the best of ideas.

In the meantime, the Yankees will continue to scan the waiver wires, and will put in claims for any left-handed hitting DH’s (Hideki Matsui?) or legitimate starting pitchers that might become available. The August 31st deadline is less than a week away. Stay tuned…


Observations From Cooperstown: Po, Simmons, and Mo

Brian Kenny of ESPN Radio is one of the best sports talk show hosts when it comes to talking baseball. He knows the history of the game, but he also knows how to apply Sabermetric concepts in a meaningful and understandable way. So I was honored to have the opportunity to do a guest spot on the Wednesday night edition of his show. Right off the bat, Brian asked me about Jorge Posada and whether I felt he was worthy of election to the Hall of Fame. In trying to assess his case objectively, I looked at Posada’s career year by year and determined that he has put up about eight Hall of Fame seasons, based on OPS and fulltime playing status. That puts him roughly two to three seasons short of the call to Cooperstown. For those who prefer Wins Above Replacement (WAR), Posada has accumulated 44.7 of WAR for his career. That’s a respectable total, but well short of another contemporary catcher, Pudge Rodriguez, who stands at 67.2 for his career.

During the radio show, I compared Posada to Ted Simmons, another switch-hitting catcher, albeit from the decades of the 1970s and eighties. Simmons posted about ten Hall of Fame seasons, and did so in an era in which conditions were far less favorable for hitters. Simmons also had the advantage in WAR for his career, at 50.4. All things considered, Simmons’ ledger is probably sufficient to deserve entry to the Hall of Fame.

Right from the start, Simmons had a major advantage over Posada in that he arrived in the major leagues at a much earlier age. Simmons was 18 when he made his debut; Posada had to wait until he was 23. More importantly, Simmons established himself as a regular catcher by the age of 21, while Posada did not become the Yankees’ fulltime catcher until he was 27. That’s a six-year difference. So practically from Day One, Posada has had to play catch-up with his career. He did a terrific job right through last year, when he turned 39, before falling off a cliff in 2011. Barring some kind of late hitting surge this summer, Posada will likely be forced into retirement at season’s end, thereby preventing him from building up any further Hall of Fame value.

While I think that Posada is at least close to Cooperstown requirements (I mean, it wouldn’t be like putting Ron Hassey in the Hall of Fame), I suspect that the mainstream media will treat him less kindly in the Hall of Fame elections. Simmons received only three per cent of the vote in his first season on the ballot; in falling below the five per cent threshold, he fell off the ballot immediately, as the Hall of Fame rules dictate. And he hasn’t received much support from the new Veterans Committee either.

So if Simmons received such a small level of backing, Posada will likely struggle when his turn comes up for the first time in 2017. Yes, he’ll receive a boost from playing in New York and being such an important part of four world championship teams. But I don’t see him coming anywhere near the 75 per cent minimum needed for Hall of Fame selection. He’s more likely to fall somewhere in the 20 to 25 per cent range. That’s nothing to be ashamed about, but it won’t allow him to stand on the Hall of Fame stage next to Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera.

Of course, none of this is pertinent to the Yankees in 2011. Posada is having his worst season, and has been so thoroughly unproductive that he has been demoted from his job as the primary DH. I believe that Joe Girardi is completely justified in making the move; if anything, Girardi gave him more games and at-bats than he deserved because of his status as one of the Yankee icons.

The demotion leaves Posada as a glorified pinch-hitter and backup first baseman, a pair of roles that will translate into little playing time. Given such insignificance, some have argued that the Yankees should just release Posada and replace him with a more versatile and useful player. Ordinarily, I would agree with such sentiment, but releasing Posada is one of those rare cases where the affect of team morale is potentially more damaging than any gain that comes from replacing him with a better bench player. In spite of his paltry power and inability to hit for average, Posada remains one of the team’s respected veterans. He is regarded highly enough by the majority of his teammates that his mere presence in the dugout and clubhouse can be justified–at least for the remainder of the regular season. Simply put, the Yankees don’t need the disruption that would occur with the unconditional release of their catcher-turned-DH.

I’m not usually one for sentimentality when it comes to the cold, hard facts of constructing the 25-man roster, but for the moment, the Yankees are playing it right with Jorge Posada…


Am I concerned about the recent struggles of Mariano Rivera, another of the Yankee icons? Not in the least. Yes, he had a bad week, but it has only comprised three games. The start of the slump coincided with an appearance against the Red Sox, who have historically had their way with the great closer. Rivera’s velocity remains very good; it’s just the movement of the cutter that has been subpar.

It seems to me that Rivera ran into a similar slump last year, but it ended quickly and was not a factor in the postseason. So let’s give Rivera a few more days before we decide that time has finally caught up with the Baron of the Bullpen.

I still don’t understand why Girardi did not give Rivera an extra inning on Sunday night against the Red Sox. Though he had coughed up a one-run lead, he needed only nine pitches to get through the inning. He could have easily started the tenth. Even a subpar Rivera is a better bet than Phil Hughes making his first relief appearance of the season, pitching in the frying pan of Fenway Park, and having to do so with no margin for error.

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

Observations From Cooperstown: Hideki Irabu, Don Wilson, and Danny Thomas

It isn’t often that the death of a former pitcher with a career record of 34-35 makes national news, but that’s what happened on Thursday. On NBC’s Nightly News, anchor Brian Williams included a story on the death of former Yankee Hideki Irabu, a suicide victim at the age of 42. The inclusion of Irabu during a 23-minute national broadcast tells us about his overall impact; he was an internationally known name and a full-fledged legend in his native Japan, where he was often described as the “Japanese Nolan Ryan.”

In major league circles, Irabu was hardly legendary. By the time he joined the Yankees, he no longer had the Ryan fastball. He pitched well for the 1998 Yankees, becoming an important part of their five-man rotation, but he was certainly not spectacular and failed to improve in subsequent seasons. Continually out of shape, he did not improve his conditioning and he did not work hard to become a better pitcher. By the end of 1999, he was out of Yankee pinstripes, and by 2002, he was out of the big leagues. He became a disappointment, a flop, a bust who did not live up to the hype.

Unfortunately, Irabu also became a punch line, largely because of the “fat toad” label that George Steinbrenner pinned on him. Like a lot of other people, I feel bad about that now, after learning that Irabu took his own life. I doubt that the toad jokes had anything to do with his suicide; it’s far more likely that his severe alcoholism, which contributed to incidents involving assault and driving under the influence and ultimately led to the departure of his wife and children, had far more to do with his sad decision to hang himself. Still, it makes me wonder about the cost of making fun of people who have obvious, even blatant weaknesses. Irabu does not seem to have been a bad guy, but simply a lazy one; he deserved a little less cruelty than what the fans and media, including me, gave him.

In the hours after hearing of Irabu’s suicide, I began to think of two other players. One was Don Wilson. The other was Danny Thomas. You might not have heard of either of them, but their tales deserve to be told.

Wilson was one of a flock of blazing right-handers the Astros featured in the 1970s. A smaller version of J.R. Richard, he could throw the ball through a wall, and appeared headed for a long career. He had already thrown two no-hitters, compiled an 18-strikeout game, and struck out 235 batters in a season, all before his 30th birthday.

During the winter that preceded the 1975 season, Wilson’s lifeless body was found in the passenger seat of his Ford Thunderbird, which had been left running in his own garage. Not only did Wilson die from carbon monoxide poisoning, but the gas seeped into the Wilson’s Houston home and took the life of his son, while leaving his daughter and wife in comas. (Thankfully, his wife and daughter would survive.)

Initially, Wilson’s death was reported as a suicide. Because of those initial reports, I assumed that the 29-year-old Wilson had indeed taken his own life. I also considered him a villain because his recklessness had claimed the life of one of his innocent children.

And then, a couple of years ago, I decided to re-visit the Wilson story on the Internet. I read that the official coroner’s report listed Wilson’s death as accidental, and not as a suicide. I didn’t quite understand how the coroner came to that conclusion, but if it happened to be accurate, then Wilson fell into a more sympathetic light.

The Astros gave Wilson the benefit of the doubt. They retired his No. 30 and wore a memorial patch on their uniform jerseys for the entire 1975 season. The Astros continue to honor Wilson at Minute Maid Park, where his plaque is featured on the franchise’s Wall of Honor.

The case of Danny Thomas was more clear-cut, but no less somber. A highly touted prospect in the Brewers’ system, Thomas also had emotional concerns and required psychiatric care. After the 1976 season, he decided to join a religious group known as the Worldwide Church of God. According to the group’s religious beliefs, it was not appropriate to work from sundown on Friday to sundown on Sunday. As a result, when Thomas reported to spring training in 1977, he informed the Brewers that he would have to miss a number of weekend games. Thomas became known as “The Sundown Kid.”

Thomas had enormous power and hit well in two stints with the Brewers, but several disciplinary infractions and his refusal to play on weekends curtailed his career. He seemed to have legitimate mental health problems. Ultimately, the Brewers felt he was too much trouble and demoted him to Double-A; when he refused the assignment, the Brewers gave him his release. In 1979, he attempted a comeback, playing minor league ball for the Miami Amigos in the ill-fated Inter-American League, which folded in the middle of its first season.

The following June, his playing days over, Thomas was arrested on charges of rape and sodomy, a situation made even more complicated because he happened to be married with two young children. On June 12, as he sat in jail awaiting trial, Thomas cut strips from his jeans, tied them to his jail cell, and hanged himself. Like Wilson, Thomas was only 29 years old. To make matters worse, Thomas’ family was so poor that it could not afford to pay for a funeral.

I’m not sure what to make of all this. Perhaps the lessons are two-fold. Athletes, no matter how young and talented, are not invincible or immortal. And athletes, no matter how good they are at what they do, have the same kind of emotional problems that many of us face.

Wilson, Thomas, and Irabu were vulnerable. We all are.

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

Observations From Cooperstown: The Offense, The HOF, and Elliott Maddox

With all of the focus on the Yankees’ alleged pursuit of Ubaldo Jimenez and sundry other pitchers, most of the mainstream media has lost focus on the team’s other concern: an inconsistent and hardly overpowering offense. The Yankees have not scored a ton of runs since a time from before the All-Star break–with the sorry output against James Shields on Thursday being the latest example. Very quietly, the Yankees have fallen to third in the American League in runs scored, trailing not only the Red Sox but the resurgent Rangers.

In the last 11 games, the Yankees have been held to one run four times. In another game, they scored two runs. They haven’t scored more than seven runs in any game over that stretch. And they haven’t reached double figures in runs since June 28. This ain’t a powerhouse any more.

It should be no secret that the loss of Alex Rodriguez is playing a role. A-Rod should be back within the next month, but will the Yankees be able to score enough runs to stay close to the Red Sox during the interim? Even with a small resurgence since his dreadful start, Jorge Posada is still having a terrible season; Derek Jeter remains a middle infield mediocrity; and Mark Teixeira is struggling to keep his batting average above .240. Frankly, the Yankees need some help, and it will probably have to come from within since Brian Cashman will be saving most of his trade chips for a pitcher.

Eric Chavez appears on the verge of returning from the DL, and it’s can’t come at a better time. Once he’s activated, he should immediately be made part of a third base platoon with either Eduardo Nunez (who hasn’t hit much since the A-Rod injury) or prospect Brandon Laird.

Then the Yankees should address the DH situation, where Posada and aging Andruw Jones simply aren’t cutting it. For the umpteenth time this summer, I’m calling for the promotion of Jesus Montero. Once he comes off the minor league DL, it‘s time to let him make his debut as a Yankee. (As Bill Parcells once said about one of his kickers, “It‘s time to take those Huggies off.”) For crying out loud, bring up Montero once and for all, put him in a platoon with Posada, and let him back up Russell Martin ahead of the useless, fist-pumping Francisco Cervelli. It’s beyond me why the Yankees continue to play with a 24-man roster, which is essentially what they’re doing with Cervelli.

None of this is meant to say that the Yankees should ignore their pitching concerns. They shouldn’t. But they need a boost of hitting, at least until Rodriguez returns. And they need it now…


As usual, there will be a nice Yankee presence in Cooperstown this weekend for the annual Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. The Hall of Fame contingent includes plenty of pinstriped blood: Yogi Berra, Wade Boggs, Whitey Ford, Goose Gossage, Rickey Henderson, Reggie Jackson, Phil Niekro, and Dave Winfield. Plus, let’s not forget 2011 inductee Pat Gillick, who once worked for the Yankees as an executive and had extensive input on the trades that brought Willie Randolph, Mickey Rivers, and Ed Figueroa to New York.

There will be other ex-Yankees in town, too. Jim Kaat, who once honeymooned in Cooperstown, will attend Sunday’s ceremony. Favorites like Ron Guidry, Dwight Gooden, and Paul Blair will be signing autographs on Main Street. And others who made relatively overlooked appearances in pinstripes will also be signing, including Jesse Barfield, Bert “Campy” Campaneris, and Elliott Maddox.

Five of these six ex-Yankees have become Cooperstown regulars. The exception is Maddox, who has not visited in years. He tends to be a forgotten Yankee, having been acquired in a straight cash transaction from the Rangers, but at his peak, Maddox was one of the game’s premier defensive center fielder, a player who appeared destined to succeed Blair as the game’s premier flychaser. He had it all: loping speed, the knack for lightning quick jumps, and a powerful arm. On offense, he was a contributor, finishing fourth in the AL in on-base percentage in 1974. The Yankees thought so much of him that they moved Bobby Murcer to right field just to make room for Maddox in center.

And then Maddox had the misfortune of slipping on the wet outfield grass at Shea Stadium (which didn’t drain particularly well) and badly tearing up his knee. It happened in 1975, when the Yankees were playing out the string at Shea as they waited to move into the renovated Yankee Stadium. Maddox was never the same after the incident, for which he sued the Yankees, Mets, and anybody else he could think of, including the City of New York. He lost the suit, not to mention any chance of being a premier player.

But man, at one time, Maddox could go get them better than most, and that includes Mickey Rivers, Bernie Williams in his prime, and even Curtis Granderson. Elliott Maddox was that good.

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

Observations From Cooperstown: Jose Cano, Deadspin's List, and Mike McCormick

One of the nicer outgrowths of Robinson Cano winning the Home Run Derby was the attention given to his designated pitcher, his own father. I suspect that a lot of non-Yankee fans did not know that Cano is a second generation major leaguer, but now they realize that his dad, Jose Cano, did have a major league career–albeit a brief one. And they should know that it was Jose who made the respectful decision to name his son after Hall of Famer and civil rights pioneer Jackie Robinson.

Jose Cano was originally signed by the Yankees in 1980, but was released that summer after making three rough appearances in the Sally League. The tall, thin right-hander then signed with the Braves–on two different occasions–only to be released each time. After signing with the Astros’ organization, he finally made it to the big leagues in 1989, nearly a full decade after beginning his pro career.

Cano did not put up good numbers with the Astros; he had a 5.09 ERA in six career appearances over one fragmented season. But here’s an oddity. In his last appearance, coming on September 30, Cano actually pitched a complete game, allowing only two runs in a 9-2 win over Scott Scudder in the Reds. Now Cano wasn‘t exactly facing the “Big Red Machine“ that day. The Reds, who were playing out the string, featured only one good hitter that day, a fellow named Paul O’Neill. The rest of the lineup showcased people like Herm Winningham, Luis Quinones, onetime Yankee Joe Oliver (who batted fifth!), Rolando Roomes, and a shortstop named Jeff Richardson.

Still, Cano pitched very well that day. How many players throw complete game efforts in their final major league appearance? Well, it turns out that Cano is the only one in history to have achieved that strange feat. Cano, who saved his best pitching for last, then left the Astros’ organization to sign a contract to play in the relative obscurity of the Taiwanese League.

Well, he’s no longer obscure. With a big assist from his son, Jose Cano is now a household name in baseball circles…


I’m not normally a fan of Deadspin, but Eric Nusbaum contributed an interesting article there the other day in which he rated the 100 worst players in major league history. Some of the entries were funny (Johnnie LeMaster once wore the word “BOO” on the back of his jersey) and others were downright revealing (did you know that Mark Lemongello once kidnapped his cousin, singer Peter Lemongello?).

Yet, I do have objections to the inclusions of two former Yankees on the list: Billy Martin and Curt Blefary. “Billy the Kid” and “Clank” were hardly stars, but they were useful players who could contribute to winning teams. Martin was a good defensive second baseman who could fill in at short and third. He also elevated his game enormously in the postseason; he batted .500 with two home runs in the 1953 World Series, and .333 over five World Series combined. Those are hardly the accomplishments of one of the game’s worst players.

In regards to Blefary, I’ve long been a fan of his and feel a need to defend the late journeyman. While it’s true that he was a terrible defender at several positions, he also had some power, drew a lot of walks, and gave teams flexibility with his ability to catch, play first base, or the outfield. At the very least, as a left-handed hitting backup catcher, Blefary provided value in a limited role. Once again, that hardly qualifies him as one of baseball’s worst.

The bottom line is this: there have been hundreds of players far worse than either Martin or Blefary. Those two simply don’t belong on the Deadspin list…


I love living in Cooperstown, in part because on any given day, just about any former major leaguer can show up. You never know whom you might meet in the Hall of Fame, or on Main Street. Already this summer, ex-big leaguers like Luis Gonzalez, Glenn Beckert, both Jose Cruz, Jr. and Jose Cruz, Sr. (who briefly played for the Yankees), and former Met Gene Walter have visited the Hall of Fame. One of the most recent to land in Cooperstown is Mike McCormick, who last week toured the museum with his daughter and her family. McCormick pitched briefly for the Yankees, making a handful of appearances in 1970 before finishing up his career the following summer with the Royals.

McCormick’s prime seasons came with San Francisco in the sixties. It’s easy to forget that McCormick once won the Cy Young Award. In 1967, he moved up from being the Giants’ No. 3 starter behind Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry to being the staff ace. Pitching 262 innings, McCormick led the league with 22 wins, pitched 14 complete games, and posted a 2.85 ERA. He was clearly the best pitcher in the league–and fully deserving of the honor of the Cy Young. Still, he is one of the least known winners of the award, a relative no-name compared to the likes of Seaver, Guidry, Gooden, Maddux, Clemens, and Johnson. McCormick lacked the staying power of other Cy Young winners, largely because of injuries.

Still, McCormick won 134 games during a highly respectable career. He has been retired since 1971, but had never visited Cooperstown until now. “It’s the first time that I’ve been to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and shame on me,” McCormick told Hall of Fame researcher Bill Francis. “It’s an incredible place. I would tell everybody that has an opportunity that this is the place to come.”

Amen, brother. I’m surprised that even more retired players don’t come to Cooperstown. After all, they receive free admission to the Museum, along with a behind-the-scenes tour of the Hall of Fame, if they want it. For the 72-year-old McCormick, it was an experience that was almost as thrilling as winning that Cy Young.

Bruce Markusen’s The Team That Changed Baseball was recently quoted in Sports Illustrated.

Observations From Cooperstown: Dick Williams and the Yankees

This has not been a good year for baseball, at least from an historical standpoint. Hall of Famers Harmon Killebrew and Duke Snider have died. Notable players like Jim Northrup and Paul Splittorff have also left us. Gary Carter is battling an aggressive form of brain cancer. And now we have lost one of the most brilliant managerial minds of the expansion era, the great Dick Williams, who died on Thursday at the age of 82.

Dick Williams led three different franchises to the World Series. He might have led a fourth, the New York Yankees, if only Charlie Finley had been a more reasonable man.

Fed up with Finley’s endless meddling and his detestable “firing” of Mike Andrews during the 1973 World Series, Williams announced that he was stepping down as Oakland’s managers only moments after the A’s beat the Mets in the World Series. A few days later, Williams said he would consider any offers from other major league teams, but he clearly had one club in mind. “Sure I’d love to be with the Yankees,” Williams told famed sportswriter Red Foley. “Anyone who says he wouldn’t is crazy.”

As Williams discussed his resignation during the A’s’ victory celebration, Charlie Finley told his manager that he wished he would return. Speaking on national television, Finley added that he would not stand in Williams’ way should he not change his mind about returning to Oakland.

Two days later, Finley decided to change his mind regarding Williams’ future. Oakland farm director John Claiborne had suggested to Finley that he exact some form of compensation in exchange for Williams’ services, since Williams was still officially under contract to the A‘s. Any major league team wishing to hire Williams as manager would have to compensate the A’s—with players and/or cash, but preferably players. When George Steinbrenner asked Finley for permission to contact Williams, he received a blunt response. “Absolutely not,” Finley told the Associated Press. “They [the Yankees] seemed stunned and wanted to know why.” Finley explained that he had recently given Williams a two-year contract extension. If the Yankees did not properly compensate the A’s, “there will be court action,” Finley vowed.

Though Finley was technically correct, Williams felt that Finley’s failure to live up to his initial vow was the larger issue. Williams expressed surprise at Finley’s turnabout in an interview with The Sporting News. “It’s not like Mr. Finley to go back on his word,” said Williams, his words dripping with sarcasm. “But this is an about-face.” In subsequent interviews, Williams went further, stopping just short of directly calling his former boss a liar. “Charlie says one thing and does another.”

Finley responded to Williams’ claims by trying to clarify his initial remarks during the A’s’ post-game celebration. When he said he would not “stand in the way,” he was referring to Williams’ options in the business world, not in the baseball community. Finley said he never intended to allow Williams to walk off to another managerial job, without some sort of compensation coming his way. This was Finley at his best–or his worst, depending on your perspective–playing semantic gymnastics in an effort to stick it to Williams and the Yankees.

Although Finley also claimed that he preferred Williams return as his manager in Oakland, he really did not. In fact, he had already sent out feelers to the Orioles about the availability of their manager, Earl Weaver, during the World Series. Weaver working for Finley, now that would have been interesting. Not surprisingly, Orioles general manager Frank Cashen refused to give Finley permission to talk to Weaver.

Contract legalities prevented the Yankees, or any other team, from negotiating with Williams. Yet, the Yankees made it clear they wanted Williams. Prior to the winter meetings in Houston, the Yankees finally agreed to compensate Finley, offering veteran second baseman Horace Clarke. Finley said no to Clarke, a fair hitter, speedy runner, and a mediocre fielder, but counter-offered by asking for one of three other players: Thurman Munson, Bobby Murcer, or Mel Stottlemyre. In other words, Finley wanted one of the three best players on the New York roster, while the Yankees were offering about their 15th best player.

In stage two of negotiations, Finley met with Yankee general manager Gabe Paul at the winter meetings. Finley backed off on his request for established stars like Munson, Murcer, or Stottlemyre. Instead, he asked for two of the Yankees’ best minor league prospects: first baseman-outfielder Otto Velez and left-handed pitcher Scott McGregor. “Both?” an incredulous Gabe Paul exclaimed to Finley, according to a story by Dick Young of the New York Daily News. “You can’t have either.”

Finley talked further with Paul, asking for either one of the two, Velez or McGregor, plus a sum of cash. Finley then offered to eliminate the cash part of his request, but wanted the Yankees to include one of the following lower-level prospects—outfielders Kerry Dineen and Terry Whitfield, first baseman John Shupe, or third baseman Steve Coulson—along with either McGregor or Velez. Paul’s response was the same as before—no deal. The two sides had reached a stalemate, ending their meeting in Houston.

Finley’s stubborn posture on ample compensation left Williams furious and frustrated. The former A’s’ manager told reporters that he was considering filing a lawsuit against Finley on the grounds that his former employer was running interference on his legitimate efforts to find new work. Williams also mentioned his disappointment with the American League’s failure to intervene in the matter. Why didn’t league president Joe Cronin step in and determine which players the Yankees should surrender to the A’s in a trade for Williams?

“The problem is between New York and Oakland,” claimed a neutral Cronin in an interview with The Sporting News. Perhaps Cronin wanted to steer away from any involvement in the case as he prepared for his own retirement from the American League office.

Williams wanted the Yankees, the Yankees wanted him, Cronin wanted no part of the dispute, and Finley insisted that he wanted Williams to continue managing the A’s. Since Williams still had a signed contract with the A’s for the 1974 season, Finley reasoned, he still considered Williams his manager. In fact, he continued mailing Williams paychecks on the first and 15th day of each month through the end of the calendar year. Williams later revealed that he had received the checks on a timely basis from Finley, but had neglected to cash any of them after his resignation. Williams did not want to feel beholden to Finley, at least not in any financial way.

On December 13, the Yankees, exasperated in their negotiations with Finley and with Cronin’s refusal to intercede, decided to force the issue by making a bold move that was typical Steinbrenner. The Boss announced that he had reached a contractual agreement with Williams to manage in the Bronx. General manager Gabe Paul introduced Williams to the media at a Yankee Stadium press conference. Williams donned a Yankee cap and uniform jersey and smiled widely for reporters. Photographs of Williams wearing Yankee paraphernalia would eventually become collector’s items.

The Yankees’ press conference unveiling Williams infuriated Finley. He placed an immediate protest with Cronin, who was now forced to make a decision. Finley wasted little time in expressing his contempt for the Yankees, who had essentially tried to steal one of his contracted employees. “What if I tried to sign Bobby Murcer?” Finley told a reporter. “Wouldn’t the Yankees be furious with me for trying to sign one of their best players, one who was already under contract to New York?”

On December 20, just one week after the Yankees had signed Williams, Cronin ruled that Finley still held rights to the veteran manager. Without Finley’s approval, the Yankees would not be allowed to employ Williams as their manager in 1974. Given the letter of the law, Finley was clearly in the right–and the Yankees had no argument.

“Dick Williams was my manager yesterday, he’s my manager today, and he’ll be my manager tomorrow,” Finley emphatically told the New York Daily News. He now refused to even negotiate the compensation issue with the hated Yankees. After several last-ditch legal efforts to secure Williams, the Yankees finally surrendered in their pursuit of the World Championship manager. On January 3, 1974, the Yankees introduced former Pittsburgh Pirates skipper Bill Virdon as their new manager. He would remain on the job until midway through the 1975 season, when Billy Martin came on to the scene.

If Williams had been allowed to manage the Yankees, it would have been interesting to observe the managerial machinations. A far more accomplished skipper than Virdon, Williams might have lasted until the 1976 season, when the Yankees won the American League pennant. Though known as a disciplinarian and general hardass, Williams had a better grasp on his personal life than Martin, and might have avoided the kind of behavior that would have given The Boss a reason to fire him. Who knows, Dick Williams might have been the man to lead the Yankees to their two world championships of the late 1970s.

As it turned out, Williams would eventually join the Yankees as a front office advisor, a position that kept him safe from Steinbrenner’s second guesses. He also wouldn’t need those extra championships to make the Hall of Fame. The Hall’s Veterans’ Committee elected Williams to the Cooperstown shrine in 2008, giving him nearly three years to bask in the glory of the game’s highest achievement.

Williams deserves his spot in the Hall of Fame. On a personal note, I had the privilege to meet him and interview him several times, and always came away impressed with his amiable nature, his sense of humor, and his love of the Yankee organization. But part of me still wishes that Dick Williams would have had one shot working the Yankee dugout, right under the thumb of The Boss.

Observations From Cooperstown: Old Timers' Day

Bar none, it’s my favorite promotion on the Yankee calendar. It is “Old-Timers’ Day” and it arrived early this year. For the 65th time in their history, the Yankees officially celebrated their past glory. It is somewhat hard to believe, but Joe Torre and Bernie Williams participated in their first Old-Timers Day, several years after completing iconic careers in the Bronx. Their presence alone made the day special, but I was just as interested in seeing old schoolers like Moose Skowron and Hector Lopez, characters like Oscar Gamble and Joe Pepitone, and even those Yankees who made only cameos in the Bronx, including Cecil Fielder, Lee Mazzilli, and Aaron Small.

More so than any other sport, baseball revels in its ability to celebrate its past. Some would call it nostalgia; I’m more tempted to call it history. No franchise has had more cause to recall its own accomplishments than the Yankees, given the team’s longstanding on-field success, which began with the arrival of Babe Ruth in 1921. So it’s no surprise that the Yankees became the first team to introduce the concept of an Old-Timers’ Day to its promotional calendar.

The Yankees initiated the promotion in the 1930s, though they didn’t actually refer to the event as Old-Timers’ Day. Rather, the tradition began more informally as solitary tributes to retired stars like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The salute to Gehrig became the best known of the early Old-Timers affairs. On July 4, 1939, the Yankees staged “Lou Gehrig Day” at Yankee Stadium as a way of paying homage to a legendary player whose career had been cut short by the onset of ALS.

After several former and current Yankees delivered emotional speeches lauding Gehrig as both a player and teammate, the retired first baseman stepped to the microphone. In an eloquently stirring address, Gehrig referred to himself as “the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” full knowing that he had only a short time to live because of the ravages of the disease. (Gehrig would succumb to ALS only two years later, at the age of 37.) At the conclusion of his speech, the capacity crowd responded with deafening applause, signifying its appreciation for an “old-timer” who had met with the unkindest of fates.

Seven years later, the Yankees introduced their first official Old-Timers’ Day to the franchise’s promotional slate. Rather than concentrate the honors on one retired player, the event became a celebration of teamwide accomplishments that had taken place over past years. Inviting a number of the team’s former stars to the Stadium, the Yankees introduced each one over the public address system, with each player acknowledging the applause from the 70,000-plus fans in attendance.

Ever since the 1946 event, the Yankees have held Old-Timers’ Day on an annual basis, always on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, and usually sometime from mid-July to mid-August. (Other teams followed suit in the 1960s and seventies, particularly older franchises with sufficient history to draw from. Even an expansion franchise like the Mets participated in the tradition by celebrating the New York roots of the Giants and Dodgers.) In the earlier years of the event, the Old-Timers’ Game pitted former Yankees against retired stars from the rest of baseball, with the non-Yankees wearing the opposition uniforms of their most prominent teams. In more recent times, the Yankees have invited only former Yankees to the party, largely because they have so many retired stars from which to choose, some as far back as the 1940s. The retired stars now play a kind of celebrated intra-squad game, pitting the “Bombers” against the “Pinstripes.”

Other than the game itself, the format of Old-Timers’ Day at Yankee Stadium—with an on-field announcer introducing each retired player, who then jogs (or walks) from the dugout to a spot along the foul line—has remained relatively unaltered. Yet, the voices have changed. For years, famed Yankee broadcaster Mel Allen handled the emcee duties exclusively. Standing at a podium behind home plate, Allen introduced each retired player with his stately Southern drawl. Eventually felled by declining health, Allen gave way to the less acclaimed but highly professional Frank Messer, the team’s longtime play-by-play voice who was best known for his on-air partnership with Phil Rizzuto and Bill White. In recent years, radio voice John Sterling and television play-by-play man Michael Kay have shared the announcing chores—a far cry from Allen’s dignified presence at the microphone.

Over the years, Old-Timers’ Day has occasionally managed to overshadow the events of the “real” game played later in the day by the existing version of the Yankees. This has especially been the case during the franchise’s lean years. In 1973, the Yankees staged one of their most elaborate Old-Timers events as part of a 50th anniversary celebration of Yankee Stadium. The front office invited every living member from the 1923 team, the first to play at the Stadium after the relocation from the nearby Polo Grounds. With Gehrig and Ruth long since deceased, the Yankees invited their widows to participate in the ceremony from box seats located along the first base dugout. Mrs. Claire Ruth and Mrs. Eleanor Gehrig, both outfitted in oversized Easter hats, helped bid farewell to the “old” Yankee Stadium, which was slated for massive renovation after the 1973 season. The day became even memorable because of a development in the Old-Timers’ Game that followed; the fabled Mickey Mantle, retired five years earlier, blasted a home run into the left-field stands. The Mick still had some power in his game.

One of the most indelible Old-Timers’ moments occurred only five years later. After the usual introductions of retired players, the Yankees stunningly declared that Billy Martin would return as Yankee manager. Martin had been fired only five days earlier, done in by his damning declaration that “one’s a born liar, and the other’s convicted,” a reference to the duo of Reggie Jackson and George Steinbrenner.

In spite of the omnipresent New York media, the Yankees somehow succeeded in keeping news of Martin’s return a complete secret. There were no whispers, no rumors, no hints in the local newspapers. Having managed to keep the agreement with Martin in tow throughout the morning and early afternoon, the Yankees arranged to have all of their old timers introduced as usual by Allen, clearing out a final announcement for their deposed manager. Explaining that Yankee Stadium public address announcer Bob Sheppard would now deliver a special announcement, Allen turned over the microphone to his announcing counterpart. Maintaining his dignified delivery throughout, Sheppard revealed that Martin would return to the Yankee dugout two years later, in 1980, with recently hired manager Bob Lemon moving up to the front office as general manager. As a gleeful Martin trotted onto the field at a sun-splashed Yankee Stadium, a capacity crowd greeted him with a prolonged standing ovation that was motivated as much by shock as it was by joy.

In terms of dramatic theater, it was as timely and well orchestrated as any announcement I’ve seen during my lifetime as a fan. It showcased Old-Timers’ Day at its best, combining the predictable and orderly splendor of a ceremonial day with an unexpected and newsworthy development that bordered on spontaneity.

We didn’t see that kind of news making event yesterday, but that didn’t make the day any less significant. Seeing former Yankees in uniform, sometimes for the first time in years, is something that will always prompt the goose bumps. If you like and appreciate the history of this franchise, then Old-Timers’ Day remains the one day that cannot be missed.

[Photo Credit: Ron Antoneli, N.Y. Daily News]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

Observations From Cooperstown: Replacing Joba, Cervelli, and The Gray Fox

The fashionable pitching rules of today couldn’t prevent injury to Phil Hughes and now they’ve failed to save Joba Chamberlain, who is lost for the season with a torn elbow ligament. I’ll spare you a diatribe about the Yankees’ counterproductive babying of their young pitchers and try to answer a more immediate question: who do the Yankees turn to beef up their bullpen?

David Robertson should be fine in the eighth inning, and Luis Ayala may be passable in the seventh, but the Yankees will need more help, at least until Rafael Soriano returns from the M*A*S*H unit. Jeff Marquez and Amaury Sanit are clearly not the answers, nothing more than stopgaps. I’d love to see the Yankees do something daring and try Tim Norton, the six-foot, five-inch, 230-pound right-hander who was just promoted to Scranton after dominating Eastern League hitters. At 28, Norton was clearly too old for Double-A ball, but scouts love his ability to throw a heavy fastball in the 94 to 95 mile-an-hour range. Now recovered from back problems that curtailed his 2010 season, he’s a more complete pitcher who throws strikes. At least one scout has already said that Norton is better than Chamberlain, so why not give him a look in the late innings?

If Norton is too much of a reach, the Yankees could give a look to righty Kevin Whelan, the last remnant of the ill-fated Gary Sheffield-to-the-Tigers trade. As Scranton’s closer, Whelan has struck out 30 batters in 27 innings while holding the International League to a 1.67 ERA. Once considered a real prospect, Whelan is now 27, but is worth a whirl…


It’s beyond me what Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman continue to see in Francisco Cervelli. He made two more errors the other night, bringing his season total to four, and actually putting himself near last year’s pace, when he committed 13 miscues as the backup to Jorge Posada. Cervelli’s throwing is even more atrocious. He’s thrown out a dreadful 11 per cent of runners, down from last year’s merely awful 14 per cent. These are simply not acceptable major league numbers. Cliff Johnson or Curt Blefary could have done better in their day.

As a hitter, Cervelli is mediocre at best, with little power and only a decent walk rate that is worth mentioning on the plus side. Frankly, he’s been living off that hot start to the 2010 season for more than a year now, and it’s high time for the brain trust to take note and a make a change. With Russell Martin ailing, the Yankees need to bring up Jesus Montero NOW–and not in July or August.

I know what the naysayers are saying: Montero is not hitting–he‘s down to a .336 on-base percentage and a .416 slugging percentage–so why bring him up now? Well, it’s possible that Montero is just frustrated over the Yankees’ decision not to promote him at the end of spring training. Sometimes, a call-up is just what a discouraged young player of enormous offensive talent needs. Given Cervelli’s ineptitude, the Yankees should be willing to take the chance on Montero. I don’t see how he could play significantly worse than Cervelli.

If you’re wondering about Austin Romine, he’s not a candidate because of health concerns. Although he’s having a very good season for Double-A Trenton, where he leads the Thunder in hitting and RBIs, he was just placed on the seven-day disabled list with concussion-like symptoms. So that makes him currently unavailable, putting the onus squarely on Montero…


Earlier this week, the baseball world lost two good ones from my childhood years, as Jose Pagan and Jim Northrup both lost battles with Alzheimer’s disease. I wrote about Pagan earlier this week at The Hardball Times, where I touted him as a deserving candidate to become the game’s first black manager ahead of Frank Robinson, but Northrup is certainly worth an extended mention, too.

Northrup was a very good and underrated player for the Tigers, a significant part of their 1968 world championship team and a versatile defender who could handle all three positions in the outfield. A left-handed hitter with power and a knack for hitting grand slams (he hit five in 1968), Northrup gave those Tigers teams of Mayo Smith and Billy Martin some much needed balance. The Tigers’ lineups of that era tended to run heavy to the right, with Al Kaline, Willie Horton, and Bill Freehan forming much of the offensive nucleus. Northrup and Norm Cash gave the Tigers a left-handed presence, discouraging American League opponents from loading up on right-handed pitching.

Noted author Tom Stanton, who has often written about the Tigers as subjects of his books, remembers the ex-Tiger outfielder fondly. “When I think of Northrup, I think of clutch hitting and grand slams and his triple in the 1968 Series [which provided the winning runs in Game Seven] . His name inevitably evokes our unusual outfield situation. We had four top outfielders — Al Kaline, Willie Horton, Mickey Stanley and Northrup — who played together for a decade, sharing duties. This glut of talent, of course, led to Mickey Stanley being shifted to shortstop in the 1968 Series.”

Off the field, Northrup provided the Tigers with one of their most memorable personalities. Nicknamed “The Gray Fox” because of his premature graying, Northrup loved to talk. All one had to do was say hi to him, and that would ignite a quick reply and a long-lasting conversation. A natural conversationalist, Northrup became a Tigers broadcaster in the eighties and nineties, giving him a forum to express his many opinions. When the Tigers changed owners, management decided to fire Northrup because they considered him too opinionated, fearful of his criticism of the new ownership.

Northrup could also lose his temper. He once fought with A’s relief pitcher Jack Aker after “The Chief” hit him with a pitch during the 1968 season. And, not surprisingly, Northrup clashed with Billy Martin, who didn’t play the outfielder as often as he would have liked. Northrup felt that Martin took credit for the team’s victories but often blamed the players when the Tigers fell short.

During the 1974 season, Northrup’s passionate personality led to his departure from Detroit. When the Tigers released Norm Cash late in 1974, they didn’t tell him directly; “Stormin’ Norman” heard it about it on his car radio while driving to the ballpark. Northrup was furious at the Tigers’ inconsiderate treatment of his longtime teammate and friend. He barged into the office of manager Ralph Houk (another ex-Yankee), loudly expressing his disapproval of the handling of Cash’s release. The next day, the Tigers sold Northrup to the Expos.

Jim Northrup, a man who cared, sounded like the kind of guy I would have liked to meet.

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

Observations From Cooperstown: The Roster, Cervelli, and More Stone Gloves

Sometimes the Yankees’ roster decisions leave me befuddled and bewildered. Not to mention confused. When Eric Chavez went down with a broken foot last week, all signs pointed to the promotion of minor league home run machine Jorge Vazquez. Like Chavez, Vazquez can play both third base and first base. In 139 minor league at-bats with Scranton, Vazquez has hit 12 home runs, which translates into a ratio of one home run every 11 at-bats. So what do the Yankees actually do? They call up no-hit Ramiro Pena, who hasn’t managed to make it into a single game over the last eight days.

Why do the Yankees hamstring themselves in these ways? They now have three shortstops on the roster, one who can’t hit (Pena), and one who can’t throw (Eduardo Nunez). And they really have no adequate backup for either Mark Teixeira or Alex Rodriguez, without, of course, having to take one of their outfielders (Nick Swisher) and play him out of position at first base.

Vazquez would have also given the Yankees another DH option. With Jorge Posada flailing away against left-handers, it might have been nice to give Vazquez a few at-bats as a righty DH. If nothing else, the Yankees might have been able to find out if Vazquez’ free swinging ways would translate at the major league level. Instead, the Yankees gave us Ramiro Pena, who is so valuable that Joe Girardi hasn’t seen fit to use him once in the last week. Criminy…


Someone in the Yankee organization needs to come to the realization that Francisco Cervelli is no longer a good defensive catcher. In committing an error and two passed balls in Thursday’s embarrassing loss to the Royals, Cervelli provided more evidence that he is simply not a good backup catcher. A capable defensive catcher through the 2009 season, Cervelli has regressed badly (and mysteriously) ever since. He was brutal defensively last year, and he’s never going to be the kind of hitter who can compensate for his erratic throwing and inability to cut down opposing base stealers.

If Cervelli’s defensive yips continue, the Yankees will need to make a change. Who would be a suitable replacement? Among the unemployed veterans, there’s Bengi Molina. Within the system, there’s always that Jesus Montero fellow…


Last week, I polled Bronx Banter readers to vote for the worst Yankee defender they’d ever seen. Some interesting names were submitted, including those put forth by Banter writers Alex Belth and Diane Firstman. Let’s take a closer look at some of the nominees:

Mel Hall: Suggested by Diane, old Mel has bigger troubles these days in prison, where he must serve a minimum of 22 years before becoming eligible for parole, but he was a favorite of mine during the dark days of the early 1990s. Hall tried hard–I never once saw him “jake” it in the field–but he just wasn’t well suited to playing the outfield. He wasn’t terrible at tracking fly balls, but with his heavy legs and sluggish way of running, he didn’t cover much ground. But it was his throwing arm that was truly a spectacle. Hall simply couldn’t throw at all; it made him a liability in left field and an absolute millstone in right field. When Hall played in right, opposing baserunners went first to third like New York City drivers storm through green lights.

Marcus Thames: Another suggestion by Diane, Thames was truly awful as an outfield defender during his one year in the Bronx. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Thames’ bat, particularly the aggressive, attacking style of hitting that reminded me of another onetime Yankee, Glenallen Hill. But Thames was just brutal wearing a glove, as bad as one of Kenny Banya’s comedy routines. On every fly ball hit his way, and I mean EVERY fly ball, I held my breath. He took bizarre routes, ran awkwardly, and had hands shellacked in iron. He would have been better off using one of those Jai alai cestas, one of which I believe Luis Polonia used when he played left field at the Stadium.

Chuck Knoblauch (as a left fielder): An Alex Belth special, Knoblauch became a nightmare at two different positions during his Yankee career. We all know about Knoblauch’s struggles in making routine throws from second base, but his outfield play almost made me long for his return to the infield. He looked uncertain on any fly ball not hit directly at him, resulting in him taking staggered routes, particularly on balls hit over his head. His throwing arm was also poor; he had a good arm as a second baseman with the Twins, but he just didn’t have the arm strength to make the long throws from the outfield toward the inner diamond. I felt bad for Knoblauch; by the end of his career, there was simply nowhere for him to play without causing collateral damage.

Rich McKinney: When the Yankees acquired McKinney prior to the 1972 season, they considered him the third baseman of the future. They failed to realize that the man known as “Orbit” had as much business playing third as I do piloting a plane. On April 22, 1972, McKinney put on a fielding exhibition for the ages. Playing at Fenway Park, McKinney made four miscues at third base. In the first inning, he booted Danny Cater’s ground ball, permitting an unearned run to score. Later that inning, McKinney made his second error, allowing two more unearned runs. In the second inning, McKinney mishandled another ground ball by Cater, with an unearned run scoring on the play. And then in the sixth inning, McKinney committed a fourth error, this time on a Rico Petrocelli grounder, with yet another unearned run scoring. The head count? Four errors and five unearned runs.

The Yankees ended the McKinney-at-the-hot-corner experiment after 33 games. By then, his fielding percentage was down to .917. Somehow, that was better than his career fielding mark of .911 at the position.

Hector Lopez: One New York writer dubbed him Hector “What a Pair of Hands” Lopez. And he didn’t mean it as a compliment. Lopez was a poor left fielder, as attested by his dreadful .970 career fielding percentage in the left-hand corner. But it was at third base where Hector truly reached his full potential for defensive ineptitude. Brendan Boyd and Fred Harris wrote about it so lyrically in The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book:

“Now, it is not necessary for me to declare that Hector Lopez was the worst fielding third baseman in the history of baseball. Everyone knows that. It is more or less a matter of public record. But I do feel called upon somehow to try to indicate, if only for the historical archivists among us, the sheer depths of his innovative barbarousness. Hector Lopez was a butcher. Pure and simple. A butcher. His range was about one step to either side, his hands seemed to be made of concrete and his defensive attitude was so cavalier and arbitrary as to hardly constitute an attitude at all. Hector did not simply field a groundball, he attacked it. Like a farmer trying to kill a snake with a stick.”

Folks, I can’t describe Lopez any better than that. Enough said there.

[Photo Credit: NJ.com]

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

Observations From Cooperstown: The Old Guard, Chavez, and Stone Gloves

So just how long should the Yankees wait before making some kind of move with Derek Jeter and/or Jorge Posada? While it’s become fashionable to proclaim both players as fully cooked and ready to begin their five-year waits for Hall of Fame consideration, those calls convey ignorance and a lack of knowledge about the Yankee organization. First off, it’s foolish to make full judgments based on the first month of the season. The same people that always cry out “sample size” conveniently forget about the principle when it involves players they don’t like. Jeter has been so reviled by some in the Sabermetric community that they’re ready to drop the guillotine at a moment’s notice.

His critics will quickly add that Jeter’s poor performance is a continuation of his 2010 finish, but his overall 2010 numbers were hardly as bad as what he’s done early in 2011. On the whole, Jeter was a passable player in 2010. So let’s give it more than a month before we proclaim a death knell. I would suggest the Yankees give Jeter at least until the end of May, if not until the middle of June, before they drop him to a lower spot in the batting order. And if his lack of hitting continues beyond that, let’s say into July, then it would certainly be fair for the Yankees to consider removing him entirely from the starting lineup.

There is another reason to have patience. Who exactly is ready to step in to become the starting shortstop? Bucky Dent and Tony Kubek are not available. Eduardo Nunez’ throwing problems make it clear that he’s not ready NOW; he might be later this season, he might be in 2012, but he’s clearly not ready at the present time. Ramiro Pena, starting at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes Barre, is an excellent defensive shortstop but isn’t likely to represent any improvement over Jeter’s current hitting. Are Yankee fans really ready to wade through a bottom-third of the lineup that has both Pena and Brett Gardner? I know I’m not.

Then there’s the case of Posada, who’s coming off a respectable season in 2010. Would it be smart to give up on Posada so quickly, especially when he’s at least shown significant power over the first 30 games? I don’t think so. I would suggest a similar timetable with Posada. If he’s still struggling badly at the end of May, it would be fair to consider a platoon with another player, perhaps Andruw Jones. And if Posada is still struggling into July, and the Yankees are in danger of falling out of contention, then yes, it might be the right time for a total replacement.

In the case of Posada, the Yankees DO have tangible replacement options. Jones is one; the other is super prospect Jesus Montero, who is close to being ready to hit in the major leagues, if not handle regular catching duties. (Montero is finally drawing a few walks and has his batting average up to .372.) Montero could be just what an aging offense needs, particularly if Jeter’s punchless hitting continues. The problem with demoting Posada is what to do with him? Teams do not need backup DH’s who cannot play the field and cannot run the bases. Unless the Yankees change their mind about using Posada as a backup catcher, he could become a roster albatross by the middle of the summer.

It’s certainly possible that Posada and Jeter, who’s been nicknamed “Captain Groundout” by Rob Neyer, might be done as useful players. It’s just too early in a long season to draw that conclusion once and for all. So let’s give it a little more time before we make them walk the plank…


Observations From Cooperstown: What's Up in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre?

From time to time, I’ll be spotlighting key players and highlight moments for the Yankees’ Triple-A team at Scranton/Wilkes Barre. Though I wish the team was still called the Red Barons (back when the city was affiliated with the Phillies), Scranton will be an interesting stopping point for both veteran and younger minor leaguers this season. In this week’s first sampling, let’s take an overview of Dave Miley’s team.

Given the mix of established veterans and legitimately talented prospects the Yankees have assembled at Triple-A, I expected the Scranton/Wilkes Barre Yankees to be a powerhouse this spring and summer. Well, they have not disappointed. Through the first 21 games of the International League season, the Scranton Yankees have posted a record of 14-7, despite playing the majority of their games on the road. Only the Columbus Clippers, the former affiliate of the Yankees, have fared better. The Indians’ affiliate has gone 16-5 to lead the Western Division.

So is there help on the way? Yes, both in terms of immediate reinforcements and future assistance. Francisco Cervelli will be completing his rehab stint any day now; when he does, he’ll take the place of the very limited Gustavo Molina as the No. 2 catcher. The Yankees face a tougher decision with veteran right-hander Kevin Millwood, whose velocity has been spotty. In his first game for Scranton, Millwood pitched a seven-inning complete game (as part of a doubleheader). But then on Thursday night, Millwood was torched for six runs and sent to the whirlpool after only two innings. Here’s the dilemma facing the Yankees. They have a Sunday deadline by which they must promote Millwood to the major league roster, or else he can opt out and become a free agent. The Yankees could always make room for Millwood by cutting the non-descript Buddy Carlyle; Millwood has the better resume and could conceivably work as a spot starter and long reliever. My bet’s on Millwood being promoted, but don’t place any money on that possibility.

From an offensive standpoint, Scranton has two regulars slugging over .650. They are veteran minor leaguers Jorge Vazquez, who’s playing first base, and Justin “Cornbread” Maxwell, who’s been sharing time with Greg Golson in center field. Both have eight home runs, but Vazquez is outhitting Mad Max by 100 points, .345 to .246, and has an OPS of 1.021. He’s also riding a nine-game hitting streak heading into weekend play. Right now, the Yankees don’t have a need for either Vazquez or Maxwell, simply because of how strong the Eric Chavez/Andruw Jones bench has been. One of the Yankees’ corner infielders or outfielders would have to go down with an injury; otherwise, there’s just no room at the inn for the free-swinging Vazquez and the fleet-footed Mad Max.

The two top position player prospects, Jesus Montero and Brandon Laird, have produced a mixed bag of results. Laird is slugging only .265, so he has a long way to go just to build himself up for a September call-up. To no one’s surprise, Montero is hitting a robust .365, but he has only home run and has strangely failed to draw a single walk in 64 at-bats. (He also missed a few games this week with an injured groin before returning on Thursday.) The Yankee brass will want to see significantly more power and patience before even considering Montero as a replacement for the slumping Jorge Posada at DH.

Then there’s the starting rotation, where Scranton has an abundance of riches. Eight different pitchers have made starts, including the five prospects (Andrew Brackman, Adam Warren, D.J. Mitchell, David Phelps, and Hector Noesi). None have been dominant, but Mitchell has been the most efficient, with a 2.95 ERA and one complete game to his credit. Mitchell will have to cut down on his walks, though; he has walked almost as any batters as he has struck out. In terms of the veterans, Mark Prior just made his season debut with a one-inning relief stint, but hefty Carlos Silva remains in no-man’s land. He has yet to be assigned to Scranton, which is only delaying his possible elevation to the Bronx.

All in all, returning manager Miley (one of the better minor league skippers around) and batting coach Butch Wynegar have plenty of options to work with. Miley’s biggest challenge may be finding sufficient playing time for all of his talented regulars; many of them deserve to play every day, but like former Red and Brewer Chris Dickerson, they may be subject to platooning at some point this spring. Still, it’s a pleasant problem to have.

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

Observations From Cooperstown: Hughes, Pitching, and Scranton/Wilkes Barre

I’m not ready to become all jelly-legged about Phil Hughes, not based on a trio of starts. Hughes’ drop in velocity is not as unusual as some make it out to be. I remember just last year the articles that were written in the Bay Area expressing dismay over Madison Bumgarner’s springtime loss of velocity. By the end of the regular season, Bumgarner was not only a significant part of the Giants’ rotation, but he was the No. 4 starter in the postseason, pitching for a world championship team. During the regular season, Bumgarner pitched to the tune of a 3.00 ERA. And then he pitched even more effectively in the postseason, culminating in a scoreless eight-inning start against the Rangers in the World Series.

Assuming that Hughes is not hurt, I think his velocity will return. (It was a bit better on Thursday night against Baltimore.) A 24-year-old pitcher doesn’t usually lose his fastball unless there is something wrong with his elbow or his shoulder. But Hughes could be serving as a test case for what is a flawed organizational pitching philosophy. The Yankees are so overly protective of their minor league pitchers, employing the strictest of pitch counts and innings limits, that it makes me wonder if they are hindering their development.

It’s one thing to avoid giving young pitchers 220-inning workloads in the minor leagues; it’s quite another to bend to the other extreme and do damage in another way. If pitchers don’t throw enough, they can’t develop arm strength, and if they can’t develop arm strength, they won’t be able to throw as hard as they are capable. If pitchers can’t even give you 175 innings in the minor leagues (Hughes never went higher than 146 in a season), how can they be expected to give you anywhere close to 200 innings in the majors, where the competition is stiffer and the pressure is greater?


Observations From Cooperstown: Lame Ducking the Press

Over at Baseball Think Factory, a heated debate has centered on Rafael Soriano’s decision to leave the clubhouse early on Tuesday night, before he could be grilled by reporters about his eighth inning blow-up at the hands of the Twins. Some posters have defended Soriano, saying that they do not want to listen to the media whine about the difficulty of doing their job. The Soriano defenders sympathize with him, saying that it’s understandable that he didn’t want to talk after such a poor performance. Others have criticized Soriano for failing to “face the music” after walking three batters, all of whom scored during Minnesota’s rally from a 4-0 deficit.

As someone who has worked in the media and has had to conduct interviews in locker rooms and clubhouses, I’ll always take the writers’ side on this issue. First off, those that think it is fun or glamorous to conduct interviews in a losing clubhouse, talking to guys who are probably not in the best of moods, are horribly mistaken. Reporters who venture into clubhouses do so because they are expected to by their bosses, whether it’s to pick up a good quote or two for the next day’s newspaper, or to come up with a sound bite that can be used on radio or TV. To me, it’s one of the least pleasant aspects of being a reporter/writer. So I figure that if I have to go into the clubhouse to do an interview, then athletes should shoulder a similar responsibility and make themselves available with a reasonable degree of civility.

Players who don’t stick around after wearing goat horns also place an unfair burden on their teammates, who are left trying to make explanations for the players who avoid the media. Do you really think that Russell Martin wants to sit there trying to explain what Soriano was doing wrong on the mound, or speculating about how he felt after blowing a four-run lead and essentially the game? A report in the New York Daily News indicated that several of the Yankee players were indeed upset with Soriano for leaving the clubhouse early and making them have to do the talking for him. We can be sure that at least one Yankee player pulled Soriano aside the next day and informed the temperamental reliever that he had made a bad choice. So it wasn’t just the Yankee front office that expressed its displeasure to Scott Boras, the agent for Soriano.

I’m not saying that it’s the law, or even a rule, that players must do this: I think it’s just the decent and ethical thing to do. Joe Sheehan and other Sabermetric Internet writers don’t care about players making themselves available because the kind of writing they do doesn’t depend on player interviews or quotes. They’re writing as analysts, and their writing is largely dependent on statistics and the evaluation of what they mean in regard to player performance. So how would Joe Sheehan and other writers react if teams and leagues didn’t make statistics available to the mass media? How would they feel if boxscores were not printed and statistics like on-base percentage or WHIP were not released to the public, but were instead treated as proprietary information? Would they be as quick to give teams a free pass for such a policy? After all, there’s no law or rule that says teams have to make this information available to the public for free. But once again, it’s the right thing to do.

As a fan, I don’t feel that I absolutely have to hear from the players after every game. A lot of what they say is clichéd and trite balderdash. If I hear “It is what it is” one more time, I may not be held responsible for my actions. But if a Yankee player screws up a game, I’d like to hear why it happened, or at least how it happened. And if a Yankee player blasts a game-winning home run, I’d like to hear him talk about it, even if it’s just for a moment.

The Yankee players seem to agree with that philosophy. For years now, their players have made a policy of always talking to reporters, even after losses and even after they themselves endured bad games. Yankee players believe in being accountable, and being willing to answer tough questions after difficult defeats. And they’re absolutely right about it. It’s called being a professional.


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