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Tag: Hall of Fame Classic

Observations From Cooperstown: A Conversation With Jim Kaat

The first Hall of Fame Classic, played Sunday at Cooperstown’s Doubleday Field, gave me the opportunity to talk to former Yankee pitcher and broadcaster Jim Kaat. During our on-field conversation, I asked Kitty about his decision to return to the broadcast booth, his thoughts on the ’09 Yankees, his new marriage, and his continuing connection to the village of Cooperstown.

Markusen: Jim, first off, I know that I speak for a lot of Yankee fans who are glad that you’re back broadcasting, not on the YES Network [as before], but on the MLB Network. What went into your decision to come back after essentially retiring for three years?

Kaat: Well, my wife, who had been battling cancer for a couple of years, passed away last year. I retired because we wanted to get a little more time together. She was doing pretty well, but her cancer came back. She couldn’t survive that, so a lot of my friends and family said to me, maybe you ought to go back to work. So that’s what I did, starting this year just on a part-time basis. I just reached out to some people, and if they wanted me to do it, I said fine. So MLB hired me to do ten games, I did the World Baseball Classic, and I’ll do a little stuff for XM Radio. So that sort of motivated me to do it.

Markusen: Did it take a lot of convincing?

Kaat: Not a lot. There was a period of time there where I didn’t know if I wanted to do that [come back], but toward the end of the year in December, I thought, yeah, it might be a good idea for me to do that.

Markusen: Jim, do you still keep close tabs on the Yankees, a team that you followed so closely for so long? Do you still follow them on a regular basis?

Kaat: Oh, very much so. Two of the three games I’ve done so far have been the Yankees. I did the home opener, and I did the Yankee-Red Sox game on June 11. I keep up with all of the teams, and I’ll have another Yankee game—the Yankees and White Sox—at the end of July, so that gives me good reason to keep up with them. I have a Mets-Dodgers game coming up, too. I still follow the Yankees through the newspapers, the box scores, and of course, nowadays on television you can get about all the highlights you want.

Markusen: It’s been a very uneven year for the Yankees. A very poor April, a lot of injuries early, then they had that nine-game winning streak, and now they seem to be struggling a little bit. As you look at the team, what do you think has been the problem?

Kaat: Well, I still think, and I think that with any team, you really need to have quality guys in the seventh and eighth innings to set up whoever your closer is, in this case Mariano. And I always think that’s a determining factor. I mean, hitting comes and goes, guys will go into slumps. The Yankees have played well in the field, in the infield—I don’t know about their range—but they aren’t making any errors. But I’ve always liked teams, as Tampa Bay did last year and the Red Sox this year, that have good guys down in the pen at the end of the game. You know, when Bruney’s been healthy, Aceves has been in and out of the [late-inning] role, Coke, the lefty, has done pretty well, but they haven’t been able to find that solid seventh and eighth-inning guy.

Of course, Brian Cashman knows, and I always chide him about it, I think Chamberlain should be in the bullpen. I think he’d be a perfect eighth-inning guy, but that’s not my decision. But I think that [the bullpen] will determine how well they do.

Markusen: When you look at the intangibles and more subtle areas with this team, you sometimes hear criticism that they play a little too tense, maybe they don’t have a killer instinct, and they continue to struggle with runners in scoring position. Do you give a lot of merit to any of that?

Kaat: Well, the runners in scoring position I do, because the more years go by, the more we’re aware of how great the 1998 team was and the teams in that era, the team that had Tino Martinez and Paul O’Neill, Knoblauch, Jeter was a younger player, Bernie Williams, Girardi was still playing, guys that made contact, advanced runners, manufactured runs. And they had a great bullpen. I think their offense this year is the kind of explosive offense—they’re like a team of really DHs—they can crush mediocre pitching, but until they do those kinds of things against good pitching like the teams in the late nineties, that’s probably where they’re lacking.


Card Corner: Phil Niekro


Nearly 30 retired major leaguers will congregate at Doubleday Field in Cooperstown on Sunday for the first Hall of Fame Classic. The list of ex-Yankees who will participate includes Mike Pagliarulo, Kevin Maas, Phil Niekro, Jim Kaat, and Lee Smith. In the latest installment of “Card Corner,” we take a closer look at the man known as “Knucksie.”

Like fellow Hall of Famers Harmon Killebrew, Brooks Robinson and Billy Williams, Phil Niekro exudes gentlemanly class. Frankly, Leo “The Lip” Durocher was wrong when he said, “Nice guys finish last.” Some guys, like Niekro, might have played for a lot of last-place teams, but 318 career wins and a permanent residence in Cooperstown hardly qualify as “finishing last.”

During my tenure as a full-time employee at the Hall of Fame, I had the privilege of engaging Phil Niekro in several casual conversations and a few formal interviews. Whether Phil was in front of a microphone or not, he always behaved the same way. He didn’t like talking about himself—I never heard him brag about anything—but preferred steering credit in other directions.

On a Saturday night in Cooperstown in 2006, I watched Niekro behave in his typically dignified fashion. Along with several other retired ballplayers, Niekro was taking part in a roundtable discussion about the game in the Hall of Fame’s Grandstand Theater. As he sat next to his beloved brother Joe, who would pass away unexpectedly only three weeks later, Phil expressed only words of fond praise for his two-time teammate with the Braves and Yankees. “To get to play with your best friend, that’s an experience,” Phil said that evening. “I wish all brothers would get a chance to have that experience.”


Card Corner: The Tall Man


In just over a week, nearly 30 retired major leaguers will come to Cooperstown to participate in the inaugural Hall of Fame Classic. The group will feature several former Yankees, including a fairly prominent and well-traveled pitcher from the mid-1980s.

One of my favorite old ballplayers, the late Pat Dobson, liked to invent new baseball jargon and give out quirky nicknames. He labeled former Yankee Dennis Rasmussen as “Count Full Count,” a reference to the tall left-hander’s tendency to throw too many pitches to each batter. The words “three and two” often accompanied Rasmussen’s struggles with opposing hitters.

Like many of those full counts, Rasmussen took a twisted career path to the Bronx. At one time a top prospect in the California Angels’ organization, Rasmussen came to the Yankees as the player to be named later in the deal that sent Tommy John to the West Coast. The deal, which took place after a dismal 1982 season, made good sense for the Yankees. Firmly in rebuilding mode, the Yankees had unloaded an aging John in exchange for a young left-hander of considerable promise. In the 1980s, however, the Yankees often turned their back on rebuilding at a moment’s notice, reverting back to a win-now philosophy whenever possible. So less than a year later, the Yankees sent Rasmussen to the Padres as the player to be named later for veteran right-hander John “The Count” Montefusco. In other words, they acquired “The Count” for “Count Full Count.”

Wait, there’s more. In the spring of 1984, the Yankees once again reversed course on Rasmussen. Graig Nettles infuriated George Steinbrenner with revelations in his new book, Balls, which angered The Boss so much that he traded his veteran third baseman during spring training. Steinbrenner sent Nettles to the Padres for a package of two prospects: the infamous player to be named later and, you guessed it, Dennis Rasmussen.

Now firmly ensconced in New York, Rasmussen finally made his Yankee debut later that season. Rasmussen brought an amply supply of natural talent to the Bronx, including an above-average fastball, a full repertoire of four pitches, and a dandy pickoff move that foreshadowed Andy Pettitte. He showed some of that promise as a rookie, despite an elevated ERA, by striking out 110 batters in 147 innings and winning nine of 16 decisions. After an up-and-down sophomore season, Rasmussen broke through the fence completely in 1986. Emerging as the ace on a mediocre Yankee staff, Rasmussen went 18-6, logged 202 innings, and kept his ERA a respectable 3.88. At 27, he appeared to be solidifying himself as a legitimate front-of-the-rotation starter.

Rasmussen also made people take notice because of his height. At six-feet, seven inches, Rasmussen was one of the game’s tallest pitchers in the years before Randy Johnson’s arrival. He looked even taller to me, like he was about six-foot-nine, perhaps because he had a bit of awkwardness in his delivery to the plate. His height was either a blessing or a curse, depending on your perspective. Scouts love tall pitchers, especially southpaws. Yet, some scouts believe that pitchers taller than six feet, five inches can have inherent problems. With long limbs and multiple moving parts, tall pitchers sometimes have difficulty keeping their mechanics in order. Rasmussen was not immune to that concern.

Perhaps the Yankees factored his height into the equation the following season, when they decided to trade him. Rasmussen pitched poorly throughout the summer, with an ERA approaching five, causing the Yankees to wonder whether his awkward mechanics and lack of an overpowering fastball would doom him to mediocrity. Whatever the reason, the Yankees traded Rasmussen to the Reds for Bill Gullickson in late August, losing four inches of height in the transaction.

In spite of my seeming obsession with his height, that’s not necessarily the first thing to come to mind when I recall the onetime Yankee. Instead, I’ll always remember an incident from the 1980s, when Rasmussen hit Jorge Bell of the Blue Jays with a pitch. Bell was furious with Rasmussen over what he considered an intentional infraction. After the game, Bell unleashed a tirade against Rasmussen, repeatedly referring to him as “she.” Bell’s intent was clear; he was questioning Rasmussen’s manhood. Whether Rasmussen had meant to hit Bell or not, it was a stupid and chauvinistic reference to make, especially when he made it over and over. Then again, those were the kind of comments that Bell made during a career of mouthing off with the Jays and the White Sox.

With Rasmussen scheduled to come to Cooperstown in just over a week, I’m debating whether to bring up the incident with Bell and find out Rasmussen’s reaction to it. Rasmussen might look at the episode nostalgically, emphasizing the comedic nature of the often volatile Bell. Then again, Rasmussen might think I’m as big a jerk as Bell often was during his career. Perhaps I should stick to the safe side on this one.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times and can be reached at bmarkusen@stny.rr.com.

Observations from Cooperstown: DeRosa, Aceves, and The Classic

When a team plays well for an extended stretch of games, the intensity of the rumor mill tends to lessen. That’s certainly been the case for the Yankees, who have played well for the last month in taking a share of the top spot in the American League East. The only prominent name that I’ve heard linked to the Yankees in recent weeks is Cleveland’s Mark DeRosa, a player that the Cubs foolishly traded over the winter for three middle-of-the-road pitching prospects. Ravaged by injuries, the Indians are going nowhere in the AL Central. DeRosa is 34 years old and just a few months away from free agency; he is almost certain to be traded sometime between now and July 31.

So should the Yankees make a play for DeRosa? I’d say yes, but within reasonable limits. Let’s begin with DeRosa’s potential contribution. As well as the Yankees have played since Johnny Damon hit that three-run homer on a Sunday afternoon against the Orioles, their bench remains mediocre at best. Francisco Cervelli and Brett Gardner have been assets, but the Yankees have received precious little offense from their backup infielders and have virtually no power in reserve—at least until (or if) Xavier Nady returns. DeRosa would solve the latter two concerns. He can play third, second, or first, along with the outfield corners. He has above-average power, along with a team-first grittiness that would play well in New York.

Yet, the Yankees should be conservative in what they offer for DeRosa. After a career year for the Cubs in 2008, DeRosa brought back only three mid-level prospects on the trade market. In the midst of a mediocre campaign with the Indians, DeRosa’s value has decreased further. I might be willing to give up two young pitchers—pick two from a group that includes Anthony Claggett, Jonathan Albaladejo, Edwar Ramirez, and Christian Garcia—but no more. I’m not giving up Mark Melancon, or Alfredo Aceves, or even an injured Ian Kennedy. DeRosa would help, but he’s not currently worth a price tag involving any of those right-handers. If the Indians insist on any of the three, I’d suggest that Brian Cashman hang up the phone…


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