"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Tag: Xavier Nady

Observations from Cooperstown: Vazquez, Left Fielders, and George Michael

Due to the vagaries of the holiday schedules, I’ve yet to comment publicly on the Yankees’ last major acquisition of the winter: the Javier Vazquez trade. So we’ll file this in the category of “better late than never.” On the one hand, I have to confess I’m not Vazquez’ biggest fan. His career has largely been a disappointment, based on the context of the ability he flashed as a young Montreal Expo seven or eight years ago. He’s had only two dominant seasons in his career—2003 and this past season—which isn’t sufficient for the kind of stuff he’s always had. He’s had a good career, no question, just not the kind of career that matches the talent of his right arm.

With that criticism out of the way, I cannot legitimately complain about the trade that brought him back to the Bronx. The Yankees simply did not give up that much to acquire a capable right-hander who would be a legitimate No. 2 starter on many staffs. Melky Cabrera is a serviceable ballplayer who will never be a star, Mike Dunn is a minor league pitching prospect who cannot start, and Arodys Vizcaino is a 19-year-old right-hander who has never pitched above the pitching-minded NY-Penn League. (As a frequent visitor to Oneonta and Utica, I’ve seen too many kid pitchers dominate this league before flaming out in tougher hitting environments.) Of the three, the only player that caused the Yankees any pain in surrendering was Vizcaino, but there is still so much distance—and so much uncertainty—between where he is now and his anticipated arrival in the major leagues.

For me, the key to the trade was acquiring Vazquez without having to surrender Nick Swisher, whose contract was probably too rich for Atlanta’s thinning bloodstream. Giving up Swisher in this deal would have been a mistake; his regular season power, his versatility, and his infusion of enthusiasm have been forgotten too quickly by too many media types who only want to dwell on the postseason or some ridiculous notion of staid and serious Yankee professionalism. Would the Yankees really have been comfortable opening the season with an outfield of Brett Gardner (left field), Curtis Granderson (center field), and Cabrera (right field)—and Rule 5 pickup Jamie Hoffmann in reserve? I wouldn’t.

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Observations From Cooperstown: Remembering The Bird

Like much of the nation, I first experienced the wonder of Mark “The Bird” Fidrych on a Monday night in June of 1976. Prior to that game, I had seen only snippets of Fidrych’s antics on local sportscasts and read tidbits about him in the New York newspapers. Beyond that, I didn’t know much about the rookie right-hander. There was no ESPN or MLB Network around to provide continuous highlights or in-depth analysis about what this strange-looking character was doing during his whirlwind tour of American League cities.

On June 28, ABC chose to broadcast the Tigers-Yankees matchup as its featured game on “Monday Night Baseball.” With the old Tiger Stadium providing the backdrop, Fidrych put on a show like few fans had ever seen. He “manicured” the mound by combing over the dirt with his hands, fixing cleat marks along the way. When one of his infielders made a great defensive play behind him, Fidrych applauded loudly, congratulating his teammate. After recording the third out of each inning, Fidrych didn’t walk off the mound, but ran as if he were in the midst of a 40-yard dash, usually engaging in a full sprint before coming to a sudden halt at the Tigers’ dugout. There was also an element of superstition in his running. On the way back to the dugout, he jumped over the chalk baselines so as to avoid stepping on the lines. The way this big, gangly right-hander acted, it was little wonder that they called him The Bird.

And, oh by the way, Fidrych talked to the baseball. He felt that by conversing with the ball he could better control the pitch and make it move in the way that he wanted. Fidrych felt every baseball possessed a kind of karma. Once a batter reached safely with a hit, Fidrych asked the umpire to throw out the ball and give him another. He felt the old ball still had hits in it and needed to mix with other baseballs so that it would “right itself.”

Prior to Fidrych’s arrival on the major league scene in 1976, pitchers usually showed little emotion on the mound. They restrained themselves from exhibiting much body language, instead approaching the job of pitching in a businesslike manner. Clearly, Fidrych had a different way of doing things. And the country loved every minute of it.

As a Yankee fan, I didn’t like the fact that Fidrych beat my team, 5-1, that night in Detroit. Granted, the Yankees didn’t field a vintage lineup that night. Thurman Munson and Lou Piniella sat out the game, Jim Mason played shortstop, and Reggie Jackson had not yet arrived. But as a baseball fan, I could appreciate Fidrych as a developing sensation. Fidrych had talent, too. He threw a 93-mile-per-hour fastball with great sinking action. Intentionally or not, he pitched to the strength of his defense. In 1976, the Tigers had a decent defensive infield, but their outfield defense was somewhere between adventurous and atrocious, with Alex Johnson in left, Ron LeFlore in center, and Rusty Staub in right field. In retrospect, some critics of Fidrych (like Bill James) have pointed to his inability to collect strikeouts, but I can’t remember a single person mentioning that in 1976. No one cared. All Fidrych did was collect outs—and fans—while entertaining the hell out of the entire nation.

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They say that the road ain’t no place to start a family . . .

The Yankees are only team in the majors not to have played a home game this season and enter their home opener this afternoon coming off the longest season-opening road trip in team history. Here are some quick impressions from that just-complete trip:

Record: 5-4
Record in Series: 2-1
Runs scored per game: 5.67 (7th best in MLB)
Runs allowed per game: 5.22 (8th worst in MLB)
Runs allowed per game minus Monday’s blowout: 4.00

AL East Standings:

TOR -
BAL .5
NYY 1.5
TBR 2.5
BOS 3.5

  • The Yankees were without Alex Rodriguez. Mark Teixeira missed three games due to a wrist injury. Hideki Matsui and Cody Ransom went a combined 6-for-49 (.122) with five walks. Yet the Yankees scored four or more runs in every game and averaged 5 2/3 runs per game on the trip.
  • A great deal of the credit for that goes to Nick Swisher, who drove in or scored 18 of the Yankees’ 51 runs (35 percent) on the trip.
  • The trip ended with the news that Xavier Nady will likely miss most or all of the season with a tear in his right elbow, but Nady was hitting a very Nady-like .286/.310/.429 and will be replaced in right field by Swisher. That’s an upgrade. Swisher will surely cool off, but he should have been the starting right fielder over Nady anyway. Where the Yankees will miss Nady is on the bench, as Matsui and Johnny Damon will need days off. Nady might be a very ordinary hitter, he’s still more productive than Melky Cabrera.
  • In the comeback department, Matsui and Chien-Ming Wang have been awful, but Robinson Cano has been terrific, hitting .382/.447/.618 with four unintentional walks, and Jorge Posada has looked good both at the plate, driving in nine runs (second on the team to Swisher’s 11) with five of his seven hits going for extra bases, and behind the plate.
  • Despite the solid offensive attack, the Yankees come home just a game over .500 at 5-4. Three of those losses were directly attributable to poor staring pitching performances (by CC Sabathia on Opening Day and by Chien-Ming Wang in both of his starts).
  • Sabathia was not only better, but dominant in his second start. A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte both pitched well twice, and Joba Chamberlain turned in a solid outing in his only start thus far. That leaves only Wang as an issue in the rotation. Dave Eiland is on the case and working hard to get Wang back on track.
  • Since the duds by Sabathia and Wang to open the season, the Yankees have gone 5-2. After dropping the opening series in Baltimore, they won their next two series, most significantly taking two of three from the Rays at the Trop.
  • In their five wins, the Yankees have allowed just nine runs, or 1.8 per victory.

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The Stopper.

Disregard that 7-2 final score; last night’s game at Tropicana Field was a tense pitchers’ duel that saw both teams execute late-game rallies, leaving the result in doubt until the ninth inning.

The Yankees got off to a good start by loading the bases against Matt Garza without recording an out in the top of the first. Singles by Brett Gardner and Derek Jeter and a walk to Mark Teixeira brought up the team’s hottest hitter in Nick Swisher. Swisher worked a seven-pitch full count, but Garza struck out Swisher on a nasty curveball. Jorge Posada got one run home with a sacrifice fly to deep left, but Robinson Cano hit a looping liner to strand the remaning runners.

Burnett had his knuckle-curve working last night (Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)For a while it seemed that one run was all the Yankees would need as A.J. Burnett burned through the Rays order, issuing only a walk to Pat Burrell the first time through.

When Swisher led of the fourth, Garza sent a 1-1 fastball right at Nick’s noggin, likely retribution for Swisher’s jovial mound appearance (and souvenir strikeout ball) from the night before. Swisher ducked out of the way, took a close strike on the outside corner, then dumped Garza’s next pitch in the right-centerfield stands to make the Yankee lead 2-0.

Burnett, set the Rays down in order the second time through the Tampa lineup to bring a no-hitter into the seventh inning. Burnett wound up allowing just three hits in his eight innings of work, unfortunately, they all came in a row to start the seventh as Carl Crawford, Evan Longoria, and Carlos Peña singled to make it 2-1 and Burrell lifted a sac fly to right to tie the game at 2-2.

Undeterred, the Yankees took the lead right back in the eight. With Garza’s night having ended after seven frames, nine Ks, and 112 pitches, Joe Maddon brought in lefty J.P. Howell to face Brett Gardner, Derek Jeter, and Mark Teixeira, whose aching wrist is most bothersome when he hits right-handed. Gardner led off by lifting a fly-ball double over a drawn-in Crawford in left field. Jeter then singled to put runners on the corners, and the aching Teixeira, who had gone 0-for-2 with a walk from the left side, worked a full count, then lifted a sac fly to the warning track to plate Gardner with the go-ahead run.

After one last perfect inning from Burnett in the eight, the Yankees added some insurance against Dan Wheeler in the ninth. Robinson Cano led off with a first-pitch single. Melky Cabrera, who had entered as a defensive replacement for Xavier Nady in the eighth, hit a ground-ball single through the right side. Then, after Ramiro Peña, who started for Cody Ransom and went 0-for-3 with a walk) failed to get down a bunt and Jose Molina (0-for-4) struck out, Gardner bounced a ground-rule double off the warning track in straight-away center and Jeter completed the scoring with a three-run homer to right center. Brian Bruney the capped the night off by striking out the top three men in the Rays’ order on ten pitches, five of them, including all three pitches to Evan Longoria, swinging strikes.

Burnett did exactly what the Yankees needed him to do, and exactly what he set out to do, not only delivering a win, but eating up eight innings in the process. He needed just 103 pitches, struck out nine, and allowed just four baserunners (the Burrell walk and the three straight singles in the seventh).

The Yankees can now wrap up a winning road trip with a win behind Andy Pettitte this afternoon.

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Battles: Right Field

Xavier Nady Nick Swisher
Age (DOB) 30 (11/14/78) 28 (11/25/80)
Height – Wt 6’2″ – 215 6’0″ – 215
Bat/Throw R/R S/L
ML career (PA) .280/.335/.458 (2,434) .244/.354/.451 (2,512)
mL career (PA) .298/.362/.526 (1,591) .261/.379/.476 (1,392)

Unlike the center-field battle in which the prize is a full-time starting job with the loser likely to be banished to Triple-A, the far end of the bench, or perhaps even another organization, the battle between Swisher and Nady is simply over who will have the upper hand in right field. Regardless of the outcome this spring, both are likely to make more than 400 plate appearances this year.

That said, Nady, who was acquired at the trading deadline last year and finished the season as the Yankees’ left fielder, entered camp as Bobby Abreu’s successor in right field. It will be up to Nick Swisher, acquired in a November trade with the White Sox, to prove to Joe Girardi and his staff that he is the superior option for right field, which, truth be told, he is.

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