"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Tag: Joe Torre

Star Power

I’m a Scrooge when it comes to the World Baseball Classic. I don’t want any Yankees to play. Correction: I don’t want any Yankee players to get hurt. I care about how the Yankees play in 2013 not about the WBC.

Will Andy Pettitte pitch for the US team? Klap has the skinny.

[Photo Credit: The Star-Ledger]

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.

And You Knew Who You Were Then

Old Timers’ Day should prove to be especially sentimental this year with the Godfather Joe Torre in the House. Sweet Lou Piniella and Sweet Pea Bernie Williams will also be there.

Here are some pictures I took at last year’s Class Reunion:

Hot and sunny in New York. Nostalgia followed by Yanks and Rocks.

Enjoy everyone!

Kim Ng Follows Torre, I Follow Kim Ng

Kim Ng

Yesterday the news came that Joe Torre, in moving to his new gig with MLB, is taking Dodgers Assistant GM Kim Ng with him. She told the LA Times she still wants to be a GM eventually (she has already interviewed for three GM positions); if we get a woman GM in baseball in the next decade, she will likely be the first. To the best of my knowledge, Ng is the only woman who’s really been seriously considered for that gig. The Yankees Assistant GM Jean Afterman – who took over Ng’s job when Ng left for LA in 2001 – is the only other woman in a front office position that high, so far as I’m aware, but I haven’t heard anything about her being considered for a top post anywhere, nor do I know if she even has any interest in that (although this 2007 Crain’s article implies that she does, or at least did at one point).

Ng, on the other hand, has frequently been discussed as a candidate (and even championed for that role by Joe Torre, quoted by Yahoo! as saying a few years ago: “Dealing with her this winter, this spring and so far this summer, I’ve been impressed with how ready she’d be for something like that… I hope to hell it happens. She’d be a ground breaker not only for baseball but for women.” No wonder he took her with him to MLB, thereby helping her escape from the McCourt’s sinking ship, and hopefully positioning herself well for future openings.

Realistically, there will not be a female manager any time soon – even setting aside sexism (of which there is still plenty in baseball), the pool of candidates is almost entirely former professional players. There are reasons for that, and you can count on one hand the managers who never played pro ball. Still, though there would be challenges, I don’t doubt the right woman could do the job; there are female neurosurgeons and astrophysicists, and managing a baseball team ain’t that. But how a woman would even get herself in a position to be considered I honestly can’t see, at least at this point. As for general manager, though, there’s no reason I can think of why gender should matter a whit. Right now there’s a dearth of candidates, but Ng seems as qualified as many current GMs and more qualified than some.

There are far greater issues facing woman in America today, but any time someone wants to do a job they’re capable of but doesn’t get the chance, it’s a situation that should be rectified. Although she certainly seems qualified, I don’t know enough about Ng to say with any certainty whether she would be a good general manager. But it would be great if we got a chance to find out.

Give it Up

The Yanks have seemingly learned from George Steinbrenner’s mistakes. They invited Joe Torre back to the Stadium before this turned into a George-Yogi stand-off that they would never win. Good for them and for Torre. Nice night for the Boss. Over-the-top, sure. But that’s the Yankee Way.  Still, it was appealing to see Torre and Cashman hug it out. I’m a sucker for a happy ending.

[Photo Credit: Barton Silverman, NY Times]

Bronx Cheer

Joe Torre and Don Mattingly are expected to be at Yankee Stadium tonight to honor the late George M Steinbrenner. This will be Torre’s first trip to the new Yankee Stadium. Imagine the hand he’s going to get. For once Mattingly, Reggie and Yogi will have to take a back seat, because the loudest cheers will go to Joe.

The Last Don, First

A report has Torre out, Mattingly in. Should be a lost year next season for the Dodgers. Wonder how Dodgers’ fans feel about it.

I Wish I Could Quit You

The Dodgers’ Blues have Jay Jaffe seeing red. While Manny Ramirez has been getting killed for his final days, in particular his last at-bat, which was classic Manny, Jay takes aim at Joe Torre:

Torre hasn’t exactly covered himself in glory elsewhere this season. He’s made a hash of the bullpen at times, failing to get closer Jonathan Broxton save opportunities early in the year, then overusing him in non-save situations. Worse, he quickly burned out his top setup men, a tale that will be all too familiar to Yankee fans. Righty Ramon Troncoso and lefty George Sherrill made a combined 28 appearances in April and another 25 in May, a pace that comes out to 168 combined appearances over the course of the season; not coincidentally, that not-so-dynamic duo has combined for an 8.06 Fair Run Average while each facing demotions to the minors. To be fair, the Dodger bullpen ranks third in the league by BP’s advanced metrics, but those quality arms may be in Proctorville by the time the season is all said and done.

Worse, the young, homegrown players on whom so much of the Dodgers’ present and future depends have regressed on Torre’s watch. Catcher Russell Martin, first baseman James Loney and center field Matt Kemp have played mediocre ball for most of the season. The production of Martin, who once looked to be the Dodgers’ answer to Derek Jeter — a face-of-the-franchise leader — declined for the third straight season before it ended abruptly due to a hip injury earlier this month. Torre’s overuse — starting him behind the plate 271 games in 2008-2009, the third highest total in the majors, and using him in 298 overall, the highest — can’t help but be implicated in that decline; as a former catcher himself, he should have known better, particularly as Martin’s production flagged. After earning All-Star honors last year, the still-raw Kemp has at times suffered from braindead play at the plate, in the field and on the basepaths. After some heavy-handed benching by Torre which was accompanied by unsubtle comments from henchman Larry Bowa, Kemp appears to want to talk his way out of town if he can’t play his way out.

Finally, there’s Torre’s handling of Ramirez, who at .311/.405/.510 still rates among the game’s top hitters; his .328 True Average would rank third in the league given enough plate appearances to qualify. Around his injuries, he started just 54 games out of the 72 games for which he was active, meaning that Torre didn’t start him a whopping 25 percent of the time — about double what you might expect for an aging player of his caliber. The Dodgers went 32-22 in his starts, scoring 5.3 runs per game, and 35-42 in games he didn’t start, averaging 3.7 runs. Four of those non-starts came in the days immediately after Ramirez hit the waiver wire, three of them against the Rockies, the team directly above them in the NL West standings.

And for an even more lively take-down, head on over to Futility Infielder.

[Photo Credit: Zimbio]

The Day of the Locust

 

Jon Weisman has a good piece on Joe Torre’s future (and legacy) in Los Angeles:

Nearly three seasons into his post-Yankees tenure on the West Coast, Torre remains more a baseball manager than a Dodgers manager, more an ambassador and icon than an integral part of the City of Angels.

This is reflective of two things, neither of them particularly damning toward Torre. In certain respects, Torre has been a welcome relief in Los Angeles, steering the Dodgers to the most success since the Tommy Lasorda days, leading with a combination of class, calm and clarity not witnessed since Walter Alston. More than two decades since the team’s last World Series title, more than one decade since the organization was last thought of as noble, these are not qualities to be taken for granted.

But presuming the Dodgers don’t rally from third place in the National League West today into the World Series two months from now, the aftershocks of a Torre departure will be felt in Los Angeles far more modestly than in the baseball community at large.

Man, the Joe Torre Era in the Bronx seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it?

[Photo Credit: UK Guardian]

Yankee Panky: Book Review

Tom Verducci’s “The Yankee Years” caused a tremendous stir in spring training, when the tabloids got hold of it and railed Joe Torre for allegedly violating the cardinal rule of keeping clubhouse events in the clubhouse. YES Network fired Verducci from “Yankees Hot Stove” for the way he portrayed the Yankees’ front office in the book, and he was put on the spot by numerous outlets, including our own Alex Belth in an SI.com Q&A.

I finally got around to reading the book, and I wholly disagree with the negative criticism heaped upon Torre, Verducci and the book earlier in the year. It’s not an “as told to” story, as Alex points out. It reads like a well-researched textbook on the Yankees from 1995 to 2007, with notes and observations by a reporter who had been there through all of it. The anecdotes from the Yankee manager of the time, as well as former players, coaches and staffers enrich the context of the story.

As a Yankee fan, I almost think you have to read this book to gain an understanding of the teams of the YES Network era and just how tough a job Joe Torre had, and how difficult it was to pull those 2005, ’06 and ’07 teams into the playoffs after what they went through those years.

Was there information I knew already? Certainly. The details of Bernie Williams’ near move to the Red Sox and Andy Pettitte’s near trade in 1998, the Roger Clemens trade in 1999 and the components of the dynasty breaking up following the Game 7 loss of the 2001 World Series have been recounted in numerous books this decade, most notably in Buster Olney’s “The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty.” Moreover, covering the team from 2002 through ’06, Torre would tell the local press corps some of the anecdotes Verducci recalled in the book, like the fan in Tampa during Spring Training of 2002 telling him, “Don’t worry Joe. We’ll get ‘em this year,” and his fondness for Pettitte, given the way he stepped up in Game 5 of the ’96 World Series, out-dueling John Smoltz. I got to see the best and worst of David Wells’ second tour of duty, Jeff Weaver (Torre said the day of Weaver’s introductory press conference: “That kid will be leading the parade here some day.”), Gary Sheffield, Randy Johnson, Kevin Brown, and of course, Carl Pavano, and Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon and A-Rod’s brain cramps in the clutch and Chien-Ming Wang’s inability to handle being the ace of the staff.

For me, the most revealing quotes came from bullpen catcher Mike Borzello, who was the key source on the “A-Fraud” items, and Mike Mussina, who was great because he presented the point of view as an outsider to those championship Yankee teams. He acknowledged the greatness of Mariano Rivera but looked back on three games: Game 7 of ’01, and Games 4 and 5 in Boston in ’04, and wondered why and how he blows those three games? It sounded selfish at first, but if you were in the same spot, how would you have answered? I came away from this with a different level of respect for Moose. His insight helped shape the book.

The stories of the emotional toll dealing with Management took on Torre over the last three years of his tenure got me thinking about his current situation in Los Angeles. He has a similar makeup to what he had in 1996 and ’97. A good mix of veteran free agents like Manny Ramirez, Orlando Hudson and Rafael Furcal, and young players like Russell Martin, James Loney, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, and an even younger pitching staff figuring out how to win. But beyond that, the loyalty of the coaches he brought with him shifted as well. The way Verducci portrays Larry Bowa and Don Mattingly and their places in the coaching hierarchy during Torre’s last few years on the job, it’s easy to see why they followed him to L.A.

Why bring this up at this juncture of the season? The Yankees clawed back to sniff first place and had a chance to hold or share first place and had a chance to sweep the Angels in Anaheim. The makeup of the team, particularly Joba Chamberlain’s place on it, is under heavy scrutiny. It’s looking like a repeat of the last four years, only with a greater sense of impending doom because the Yankees’ run of 13 consecutive playoff appearances ended, while Torre’s didn’t.

If it happens again, Verducci might want to consider a similar book for Mr. Girardi.

Yankee Panky: The Tao of Pooh-vano

There was so much hype about Carl Pavano facing the Yankees. The tabloids ate it up, and Suzyn Waldman, as far back as the Texas series, said, “If there’s any justice, C.C. Sabathia will pitch against Carl Pavano in Cleveland.”

Sabathia and Pavano both pitched, but not against each other. Sabathia faced his No. 2 two years ago, Fausto Carmona, on Saturday, while Pavano squared off against Phil Hughes, which may have been a more intriguing matchup considering Pavano’s history with the Yankees and his five victories in May, and Hughes’ stellar outing in Texas and continued effort to stay in the rotation.

As I was listening to the game on the radio (another Sunday spent driving), I got to thinking about the myriad options the local editors and writers had for the game. Would Pavano be the lead? Would I make Phil Hughes’ mediocre start coupled by Chien-Ming Wang’s three scoreless innings of relief the lead, playing up the intrigue of Wang’s possible return to the rotation? Poor umpiring was a theme of the day. Where would that fit in? Are all these topics combined into one or do you do take one story as your base and go with the others as supplemental pieces?

I probably would have made Pavano the focus of the game story and made Hughes/Wang a featured supplement, tying in the early note that Andy Pettitte expects to be ready to start on Wednesday. How would you have presented Sunday’s game? Thinking of the broadest audience possible, how would you have set up your Yankees section as an editor? How would you have attacked the game if you were on-site? It’s two different thought processes. I’m curious to get your thoughts.

An examination of the eight local papers covering the Yankees revealed the following:

NY TIMES: Jack Curry had Pavano leading but alluded to the Hughes/Wang situation, melding everything into a tidy recap with analysis and historical context. Typical goods from Mr. Curry.

NEWSDAY: Three individual stories from Erik Boland, who’s now off the Jets beat and has replaced Kat O’Brien: Hughes/Wang leading, a Pavano piece tied with notes, and a short piece on Gardner’s failure to steal.

NY POST: As of this writing, only George King’s recap had been posted. Interesting to see that he focused on the bullpen, specifically Coke and David Robertson. (Had I been reporting, that would have been the angle I took with the game recap.)

NY DAILY NEWS: Mark Feinsand tied everything together, but it looked and read strangely like an AP wire story.

JOURNAL NEWS: No full game recap posted, but Pete Abe gives more in about 200 words on a blog than most other scribes do in 800.

STAR LEDGER: Marc Carig copied off Erik Boland’s paper in that he had individual stories on Gardner and Wang/Hughes, But he had a couple of other tidbits: 1) His recap was short and had additional bulletpointed notes. I thought this was an interesting format. It reminded me of an anchor calling highlights and then reading key notes off the scoreboard graphic. 2) He had a full feature on Phil Coke and his blaming the umpire’s call on the 3-2 pitch to Trevor Crowe. Check out the last paragraph. Looks like he copied off Pete Abe’s paper, too.

BERGEN RECORD: Only one story on the game from Pete Caldera, but boy does he know how to write a lead paragraph.

HARTFORD COURANT: Associated Press recap. Not much to say except this paper is an example of what’s happening in the industry. Dom Amore’s words are missed.

And this just in … on the “Inside Pitch” segment of the midnight ET edition of Baseball Tonight, Karl Ravech and Peter Gammons said the Yankees were the best team in baseball. This revelation comes hours after the ESPN ticker read “Pavano dominates Yankees” in the first half of its description of the game. I’m not sure what to make of this. I know Ravech, my fellow Ithaca College alum, is as good as it gets, but when Gammons agrees, I get concerned.

I’d say the best team is the team with the best record, and the team that’s playing most consistently on a daily basis. That team is being managed by Joe Torre.

Yankee Panky: Paralysis By Analysis?

The past 10 days have seen an immense range of stories leapfrog to the forefront of New York sports fans’ collective consciousness. In no particular order, with some analysis and commentary mixed in…

• The Yankees slashed prices for the primo seats, an altruistic move that still leaves many of us thinking, “You know, you have your own network, and it’s on my cable system. I’ll contribute to your bottom line that way and I won’t feel like I got stabbed in the wallet.”

• Alex Rodriguez did everything necessary in extended spring training and returned to the lineup Friday. He punctuated the return with a home run on the first pitch he saw, thus fulfilling his job as the media-anointed savior of the team’s season. He proceeded to go 1-for-10 with two strikeouts in the remainder of the series, and perhaps fearing aggravating the hip injury, didn’t hustle down the line to run out a ground ball, thus reclaiming his role as the team’s most prominent punching bag.

• The Yankees lost two straight to the Red Sox at home and have lost the first five meetings of the season. (Sound the alarms! Head for the hills! There’s no way the Yankees can win the division without beating the Red Sox! Except that they can, and they have. In 2004, the Yankees went 1-6 in their first seven games against the BoSox, ended up losing the season series 8-11 and still finished 101-61 to win the American League East by three games.)

• Joba Chamberlain 1: His mother was arrested for allegedly selling crystal meth to an undercover officer. Following Chamberlain’s own brushes with the law during the offseason, it stood to reason that the tabloids attacked this story like starving coyotes. It’s remarkable that he was able to pitch at all given the negative attention he received.

• Joba Chamberlain 2: Flash back to Aug. 13, 2007. Chamberlain struck out Orioles first baseman Aubrey Huff in a crucial late-inning at-bat to end the inning and in the heat of the moment pumped his fist in exultation. Yesterday, following a three-run home run in the first inning that gave the O’s a 3-1 lead, Huff mocked Chamberlain’s emotional outburst with his own fist pump, first while rounding first base, and again when crossing home plate. Apparently, Mr. Huff holds grudges. Thanks to the New York Daily News’s headline, “MOCKING BIRD” with a photo of the home-plate celebration, this story will have wings when Baltimore comes to the Bronx next week. Even better, as it currently stands, Chamberlain is due to start in the series finale on Thursday the 21st. Get ready for a rash of redux stories leading up to that game.

• Mariano Rivera surrendered back-to-back home runs for the first time in his career last Wednesday night, a clear signal that something is wrong. Maybe.

• The team as a whole. The Yankees are 15-16 through 31 games, and some rabid fans (the “Spoiled Set,” as Michael Kay likes to call them; the group of fans between ages 18-30 that only knows first-place finishes for the Yankees) are calling for Joe Girardi’s head. As in the above note on the Red Sox, some context is required. The Yankees’ records through 31 games this decade:

2000: 22-9 (finished 87-74, won AL East)
2001: 18-13 (finished 95-65, won AL East)
2002: 18-13 (finished 103-58, won AL East)
2003: 23-8 (finished 101-61, won AL East)
2004: 18-13 (finished 101-61, won AL East)
2005: 12-19 (finished 95-67, won AL East)
2006: 19-12 (finished 97-65, won AL East)
2007: 15-16 (finished 94-68, won AL Wild Card)
2008: 15-16 (finished 89-73, missed playoffs)
2009: 15-16 (finish TBD)

No one is going to make excuses for the team with the billion dollar stadium and the highest payroll, least of all your trusted scribes here at the Banter. Looking at the last three years — including 2009 — it should be noted that similar issues of injury, age, and woes throughout the pitching staff have befallen the Yankees.

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Yankee Panky: Full Circle

The last time a sense of newness and expectation this powerful converged with the New York Yankees was 2002. The YES Network had been clear for takeoff — it launched on March 19 on Time Warner Cable and RCN in New York (Cablevision would be left out until March 31 the following year). The major signing was a power-hitting first baseman brought to New York from an American League West stalwart.

This year, a massive new stadium — in size and cost — sets the backdrop for a Yankee team that has brought in another powerful first baseman from the AL West, but two stud pitchers to solidify the starting rotation.

The Yankees opened the 2002 season on a Monday afternoon in April, in Baltimore. The same scenario comes to the fore today. Seven years ago, Roger Clemens took the hill and was tattooed in a 10-3 loss. Clemens injured his pitching hand trying to snare a hard-bouncing ground ball with his bare hand.

What will the outcome be today? Will history repeat itself? Will C.C. Sabathia, the highest-paid pitcher ever, try to barehand a line drive and damage the investment the Yankees have placed in him? Will Mark Teixeira, the topic of much discussion over the weekend, particularly after Saturday’s two-home-run performance, do what Jason Giambi couldn’t: get off to a great start in New York and convince the fans that he can hang in New York?

The greatest differences: the 2002 team, while starkly different than its predecessor, was coming off a Game 7 loss in the World Series and a potential four-peat. This Yankee team, at least in the makeup of its core players, is not that different than last year’s, and is coming off its first playoff absence since 1993.

How about the season? Will history repeat itself there also? The opening-day loss didn’t faze the 2002 group, which went on to finish 103-58 and coasted to a fifth straight AL East title only to get complacent and lose to the Angels in the first round. A 103-58 record is possible, but the intradivision competition is tougher. The Angels lurk again.

From everything I’ve read, seen and heard, I sense the air of purpose from this team is as strong as the Joe Torre championship teams. I’m as curious as the rest of you to see how it all plays out, and I can’t wait.

Yankee Panky: The Writes of Spring

The last week of March signals the beginning of the regular season like light at the end of a tunnel. In Florida, beat writers and their backups, many of whom have been stationed there since the beginning of February, are gathering the final roster notes and putting the finishing touches on their season preview specials for next Sunday’s paper, while the columnists, most of whom are based in New York, continue to track the off-field news and craft profiles of the key players involved in those scenarios.

It’s an exciting and stressful time for all the moving parts of a baseball operation, from the team itself to the media outlets covering the team, but if you work in sports and if baseball is the sport in which you’ve chosen to specialize, it’s the best stress you can have outside of being involved in the postseason.

STORY OF THE WEEK
Much has been made of Joe Girardi’s decision to flip Derek Jeter and Johnny Damon in the batting order. Much was written about this topic in the winter and spring leading up to the 2006 season, Damon’s first in pinstripes. At the Baseball Writers Association of America dinner in December of 2005, I remember asking SI’s Tom Verducci, who is a proponent of Sabermetric analysis, what he thought about putting Jeter in the leadoff spot. He agreed that the combination of Jeter’s ability to get on base more consistently (he was coming off a year with a .389 OBP to Damon’s .366), and Gary Sheffield batting third—which would have kept the righty-lefty-righty element in play that Joe Torre favored—made Jeter the better choice for the leadoff spot. But that spring, when the writers asked Torre about his plan, the Yankee manager was undeterred about keeping Damon as the leadoff hitter. Torre, in his way, usually deflected the discussion by saying, “You only have to worry about the leadoff batter for the first inning. Then the rest of the lineup takes care of itself.” It was as if the decision was predetermined from the moment Damon signed with the Yankees.

What we know as baseball fans is that the numbers rarely lie. Jeter’s lowest seasonal on-base percentage pre-Damon was .352 in 2004. Head to head, Damon, whose career has spanned the same exact time frame of Jeter’s, had a higher OBP than Jeter only once prior to his arrival in New York (in 2004: Damon .380 to Jeter’s .352.). The trend has held true since 2006, as Jeter has bested Damon in OBP twice: .417 to .359 in ’06, and .388 to .351 in ’07.

Adding further credibility to Jeter as a leadoff batter is the number of times that Jeter has grounded into double plays versus Damon. Over the course of their respective careers, Damon has grounded into 120 fewer double plays than Jeter (75 to 95), an average of nine fewer GIDPs per season.

Cliff Corcoran, through Pete Abe, did a great job of breaking down the numbers earlier this week.

Here’s a thought, though: If Girardi is adamant about Jeter in the leadoff spot now, did he think about this at all in 2006 when he was Torre’s consiglieri on the bench? If so, and if he had Torre’s ear, why didn’t he suggest it? By the numbers, and the fact that Damon is entering his Age 35 season and Jeter will turn 35 on June 26, this decision appears to be three years late.

OTHER THINGS WE LEARNED

Until next week . . .

Yankee Panky: Slow Goings, Until Now

If you’re hungry for action on the Hot Stove, mid-January is a time that will leave you starving. There’s plenty of analysis of the Yankees’ 40-man roster and prospects in the trades. Locally, the stories have revolved around the Yankees’ pursuit or non-pursuit of Manny Ramirez and Ben Sheets, the arbitration roundup, the list of players representing their respective countries in the World Baseball Classic in March, the team’s move to the new Stadium, and the politics of how the Stadium’s construction was financed.

With all this in mind, the countdown to pitchers and catchers reporting has become more prevalent.

Speaking of pitchers, are the Yankees going back to the well with Andy Pettitte? That appears to be the case, according to MLB.com’s Bryan Hoch and Pete Caldera of the Bergen Record.

If Pettitte truly wants to be in a Yankee uniform when the new stadium opens in April, he’ll swallow his pride and assume some accountability for the salary-based standoff. If he reads the reports of who the Yankees have vying for the fifth starter spot, he’ll see that he’s a better option than the unproven – or mediocre, depending on your perspective – law firm of Hughes, Kennedy, Aceves, Coke & Johnson. If the reports are true that the Yankees still prefer him over that quintet, then Pettitte has even more incentive to re-engage in discussions, and compromise with Brian Cashman.

This situation is different than 2003, when the Yankees’ concern about Pettitte’s arm led them to shy away from negotiating with him. Pettitte then signed with the Astros and made the Yankees look good when a forearm injury limited him to just 15 starts in ‘04.

The Pettitte saga has been a recurring topic in this space all winter also, and judging from the comments, I’d estimate it’s about 70-30 against Pettitte returning. From a baseball sense, though, if he and the Yankees agreed to a one-year deal in the $11-$12 million range as opposed to the $10-$10.5MM number, would you be opposed? I wouldn’t, especially if it meant 12-15 wins from the No. 5 spot. The possibility of his ascension to the fourth spot can’t be discounted, either; Joba Chamberlain could go down with an injury or be moved to the bullpen at some point.

For the next three weeks, this is the story to watch.

As for off-field news, per the New York Post and the Daily News, the next eight days leading up to the Feb. 3 release of Tom Verducci’s book “The Yankee Years,” with Joe Torre, are sure to be laced with all the venom, vitriol and public betrayal worthy of an Aaron Spelling drama. The revelation that Alex Rodriguez was fragile, narcissistic, had a “Single White Female”-level obsession with Derek Jeter, and had a clubhouse attendant run errands for him is not news. Torre crying foul on the character of GM Brian Cashman, who was long considered to be Torre’s greatest supporter in the wake of Hurricane Steinbrenner, is a surprise.

In the book, Torre states that Cashman’s public advocacy during the contract negotiations that followed the 2007 season was a façade. As The News’s Bill Madden reported:

According to a source familiar with the book, Torre does not step out of character. He simply recites the facts as he saw them and does not unfairly disparage the Yankees.

On SportsCenter Sunday morning, Buster Olney corroborated Madden’s assessment and confirmed that it is public record that the one-year offer the Yankees made was due to Cashman’s influence. A clip of Torre’s farewell press conference from Oct. 19, 2007, was run to illustrate the point that Torre and Cashman worked together to hammer out a deal. Olney also noted that in Torre’s first book, “Chasing the Dream: My Lifelong Journey to the World Series,” published in 1998, the ex-manager expressed dismay at the way the Steinbrenners viewed him. Right or wrong, Torre’s sensitivity to Steinbrenner criticism was the backdrop for much of his Yankee tenure.

Torre did have protection, though, and not only in the way of Cashman. I’ve thought that ever since Steve Swindal’s DUI arrest and fall from grace from the Steinbrenner family in February of ‘07, that Torre’s departure was imminent. I was in Tampa five years ago when Torre negotiated a three-year extension. At the ensuing press conference, Torre said that a meeting with Swindal helped get it done. I came away from that presser with the impression that amid the internal battle for power, as long as Swindal and Cashman were there, then Torre was “safe.” When Swindal literally and figuratively drove himself away, an “every man for himself” scenario developed.

I’ve had conversations on this topic with a few Bronx Banter colleagues, and I’m of the opinion that if Cashman did in fact betray Torre, it was to save his own job. Following the ’07 playoff debacle, it was clear that when it came to Torre and Cashman and their places with the organization in 2008, one or both of them would be gone. Cashman pulled a classic SYA move.

Torre pulled a classic move also: blasting his former employer in order to spike book sales. Does he have a right to be bitter? Perhaps. Was Chris Russo correct in his assessment of Torre, that the Yankee money kept him in New York for 12 years? Maybe. We may never know.

To that point,  judging from the excerpts I’ve read of the Verducci book, and from the strong comments in Alex Belth’s earlier post in this space, all parties involved have their own version of the truth. I believe the truth lies somewhere between Torre, Cashman, Verducci and select members of the Yankees’ front office. Torre will say his peace on “Late Show with David Letterman” on the book’s release date. Cashman will likely comment this week. For his role as the messenger, Verducci will have to answer for himself at some point, maybe on one of his stints on MLB Network.

We as fans, as usual, will be left to draw conclusions and take sides.

_________________________

PROGRAM NOTE: Yankee Panky is on baby watch. I’m in the Red Zone, as my wife is due with our first child any day now. My next post will take place when I settle in at home following the birth.

Calmer than You

This year for Christmas, my secret Santa (my step-sister’s husband) got me a 1996 World Series baseball autographed by Joe Torre. How cool is that? I don’t care much about autographs but this one I like. It’s the perfect gift to get from a secret Santa. Thoughtful.

One of the things I’m most excited about 2008 is the release of The Best Sports Writing of Pat Jordan, a book I edited, with help from Gabe Fried at Persea books and Pat himself. As I’ve mentioned on the Banter previously, Jordan played with Torre in the Braves’ minor league system in the early ’60s.

In 1996, Pat did a piece on Joe Torre for the New York Times magazine in the middle of the summer as the team was surging then slumping. It wasn’t a long profile or a particularly memorable one. By Jordan’s own admission, it is a minor piece. The story did not make the cut for our collection; in fact, it didn’t make the B-list. However, I have a couple of drafts of the story, one called “The Patience of Joe,” and another one, completely restructured, called “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” that have some good stuff in ‘em.

Here is the begining and end of Pat’s working draft of “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”

Joe Torre, the New York Yankees’ manager, is sitting behind his desk in his office off the clubhouse in Yankee Stadium, talking to Rick Cerrone, the team’s director of media relations, while making out today’s line-up card.

Torre is a big, dark, sinister-looking man of 55. He has the blocky build of a professional wrestler, The Villain, recently gone on a diet. He has dark, olive-colored skin, black stubble of beard, and bushy black eyebrows that hand low over his threatening, black eyes. He does look villainous…a Mexican bandito about to pillage a town of peasants…a vengeful Saracan warrior about to sack the camp of a hated enemy.

A sportswriter barges in, unannounced. He starts haranguing Cerrone over his late-arriving press credentials which caused him to be an hour late for his interview with Torre. The sportswriter’s face is flushed with anger. Torre’s threatening eyes shift up, only the whites showing. Torre stands, a dark, threatening presence. He raises his hands, palms out, as if to fend off heat.

“Calm down,” he says, almost pleading. “Calm down. I’ll give you all the time you need. Have some coffee. Someone get him some coffee. Please!”

When Torre was a pudgy, 20-year-old catcher in the Milwaukee Braves’ minor league farm system in 1960, he looked every bit as old and dark and threatening as he does now. He always looked like an old man playing a young man’s game. At 20, Torre would waddle out to the pitcher’s mound in his catching gear to confront his baby-faced pitcher, red-faced, furious, kicking the dirt, making a spectacle of himself, embarrassing himself and his teammates because of their latest error. (Torre never embarrasses his players, he says, because, “I hit .360 one year, and .240 another, and I know I tired just as hard both years.” When Yankees’ rookie shortstop, Derek Jeter, made a crucial error that lost a game in August, Torre said, “He’s played his tail off for us and has won a lot of games. More than the error, that’s what to keep in mind.” Which is why, Wade Boggs, the Yanks’ veteran third baseman calls Torre, “A player’s manager.”)

Even at 20, Torre knew not to embarrass his teammates, and when he saw his young pitcher doing it, thrashing around the mound, he would stop ten feet from his raging pitcher, raises his hands, palms out, and say, in the same, pleading voice he uses today, “Calm down. Relax. We’ll get ‘em for you. Don’t worry.”

After Torre has calmed the sportswriter, he says, “I have a temper, I just don’t vent it. (He also has stomach troubles.) Maybe it’s more healthy to show emotion. I don’t know. I’m a patient person.”

Torre always played the game with the patience of an older man. Even at 20, he had what was called “a professional attitude.” Which meant he approached the game unemotionally, diligently, doggedly, the only way possible if a player is to fashion a long career over 100-plus games a year. Each season, each game, each inning even, can be a lifetime of emotional highs and lows. Young players, furious pitchers, caught up in those emotional high and lows don’t last long in the game. Torre lasted 17 years. He finished his playing career with a lifetime .297 batting average and is the only player to be voted the National League’s Most Valuable Player, in 1971, when he led the league in both batting, .363 and runs batted in, 137, and the National League’s Manager of the Year, in 1982, when he led the Atlanta Braves to a division title. This is Torre’s 15th season as a manager (New York Mets, Atlanta, St. Louis Cardinals) and his first with the Yankees, who are leading the American League East with the third best record in baseball, and are considered one of three teams with the best chance at winning the World Series, the last of which the Yankees won in 1978.

Torre has blended a team of youthful players and grizzled veterans, born again Christians and recovering substance abusers, into arguably one of the most well-balanced teams in baseball. The present-day Yankees play an unremarkably adept game Torre calls “a National League game. We grind it out, one run at a time.” The Yankees pick away at their opponents, a single, a stolen base, a sacrifice bunt, a sacrifice fly ball, and a run, in a way that makes every player feel he’s contributing to their success.

(more…)

Hall of Fame Watch JOE,

Hall of Fame Watch

JOE, HO, HO

Joe Torre is on the list of 26 former ballplayers who are up for Hall of Fame consideration by the newly revamped Veterans Committee (Rob Neyer has a good article regarding the recent changes in his most recent column). In his book, “Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame” Bill James listed Joe Torre as one of the two most qualified catchers who are not in the Hall (Ted Simmons was the other). But even if Torre is not elected by the Veterans Committee for his accomplishments as a player, there is little doubt that his success as a manager will eventually place him in Cooperstown.

The following excerpt is from Pat Jordan’s acutely observed memoir, “A False Spring”. While it doesn’t necessarily prove that Torre should be in the Hall of Fame, it does provide a revealing portrait of a young man at the start of what has turned out to be quite an impressive baseball career.

It is spring training, 1960 and Pat Jordan is struggling to make an impression as a pitcher in the Milwaukee Braves organization…

‘I was determined to impress…There was no task too menial or unpleasant (carrying the bats to and from the diamond) for which I did not volunteer. And when I suffered a minor yet painful sore arm, I told no one. I knew it wasn’t serious, was just a spring training sore arm that would heal with a few day’s rest, and so, when Billy asked for a batting practice pitcer one day, I couldn’t resist offering myself. My arm was so sore my pitches barely reached the plate. The batters, thrown off their timing by my lobs, swung so far ahead as to hit them foul or miss them entirely. They complained to my catcther, Joe Torre. He fired the ball back to me and said, “Put something on the damn ball!”

“Mind your own business,” I replied. I lobbed another pitch, and the batter swung and missed. He said something to Torre. Joe stepped in front of the plate. He held the ball up in front of his eyes and said, “If you can’t put something on this,” and then he fired it back to me, “get the hell off the mound.” He turned around and I threw the ball at the back of his head. I missed and the ball bounced off the screen. Joe flung down his glove and his mask and started toward me. We’d certainly have come to blows if [skipper] Billy Smith had not come between us. With a hand against each of our chests, he told us to cool off, forget it. I remember being suprised by the look on Billy’s face as he separated us. His eyes were wide and there was a tremor in his voice.

I was glad Billy stopped us. I had no desire to fight Joe Torre, who at 19 already had the looks and attitude of a 30-year old veteran. Joe was fat then, over 220 pounds, and his unbelievably dark skin and black brows were frightening. He looked like a fierce Bedouin tribesman whose distrust for everything could be read in the shifting whites of his eyes. Like myself, he too, was earnest that spring. Joe’s earnestness was genuine, however, not recently picked off the rack like mine. He was unwavering in his dedication to baseball. He tolerated no lapses of desire or effort from either himself or his teammates. Billy Smith called him a “hard-nosed sunuvabitch.” It was a term of endearment. Joe viewed my feeble lobs during batting practice as “unprofessional.” He was right. I should have either confessed a sore arm and not pitched, or else ignored the pain and thrown at good speed. My weak compromise hurt my teammates.

Yet this was Torre’s first spring training, too. He had acquired his professionalism from his brother Frank, then a star with Milwaukee; from his desire to prove he expected no favors from the Braves because of Frank of his own $30,000 bonus; from his Roman Catholic, Italian working-class upbringing in Brooklyn; and from his own nature. At 19 Joe was simply a mature and serious youth. He took everythying seriously—his baseball, his family, his religion, his brother’s career and even the Playboy bunny he would one day marry.

The night of our dispute in Waycross, I lay on my cot thinking that Billy Smith would admire for standing up to Joe. At that moment the scouts and managers and executives were assembling to pick tomorrow’s teams. I could almost hear Billy’s high voice as he picked me: “That’s my kinda player. Won’t take shit from no one.” But the following morning when I passed the bulletin board my name was under that of Travis Jackson, managaer of Davenport of the Class D Midwest League. Later that afternoon, I discovereed that what Billy Smith had actually said the night before was, “I won’t have no red-ass guinea on my club.” Surely he meant Torre, I thought. But his name was still under Billy’s, while mine remained under Travis’s for the rest of the spring. Why? How had Billy decided that I was the red-ass geinea?’

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