Foundational Character

“If you have skills, it’s easy to play the game. But it’s what you do off the field that dictates whether or not you’re a star.” – Willie Mays

I was thinking a lot yesterday during the Yankees off-day about what an off-day would consist of for the guys. Rest, being the number one priority. A little tweaking or practicing, perhaps. Spending time with their families or friends. If it was a little warmer, perhaps a day by the pool or at the beach. It reminded me that the private side to the Yankees is often seen in public, not because of the looming paparazzi, but because of what they choose to do to give back.

One of the many things I’ve always admired about the team is how much they are determined to give back, both as individuals and as an organization. As an organization, they give back publicly every year through HOPE Week, and this summer will be their 5th year giving back and honoring charities that may not have such a high-profile. It’s their way not only to give back to good causes but also to give a voice to people who may not have one. Everyone in the Yankees organization participates, from the minor leaguers to star athletes and alumni to the coaching staff, executives, and the owners.

Outside of HOPE Week, there are a number of other projects and foundations underway, serving various communities and special needs as set up by the individual players on the team. (And there are many more than what I listed here.) For example:

  • Curtis Granderson established his Grand Kids Foundation that helps support scholarships and grants to schools for arts, sciences, and other educational pursuits, as well as inner city baseball initiatives.
  • Mark Teixeira is a large supporter of the Harlem RBI program via his own Dream Team 25 foundation, which sees a 98% graduation rate in some of the poorest areas of Harlem utilizing sports as an opportunity for community and education for the kids of that area.
  • Derek Jeter’s Turn 2 Foundation has been helping kids in New York, Michigan, and Florida for 17 years, promoting a healthy lifestyle through baseball, student leadership training (“Jeter’s Leaders”), community outreaches (“Holiday Express”), and educational scholarships.

Following their lead, giving his name to charitable causes through action, Yankees’ GM Brian Cashman has been lending his support to various causes for the past few years, including a sleeping in a parking lot to help raise awareness for Covenant House (a homeless support organization) and rappelling down a 22-story building for the city of Stamford, Connecticut. Yesterday, he was invited by the army’s Golden Knights to tandem jump from a plane in South Florida for the Wounded Warrior Project, a foundation created to help the service men and women (and their families) injured in Iraq and Afghanistan. On an adrenaline rush from his first successful jump, he volunteered for another go and broke his ankle on the 2nd landing, which required surgery last night. He seems to remain positive about the injury, noting that it only seems to bring more awareness to the project. At least this is one injury on the Yankees that won’t affect on-field play. We wish him fast healing and suggest he stay on the planes instead of jumping from them from now on.

Cashman’s public support (and ultimate injury) just reminded me of all the good things these Yankees do all the time for their selected communities. They recognize the importance of giving back to the community that supported them all these years. Not everyone can do everything, which is why each of these men specialize their foundations and to the community that means something to them. They are setting a good example for their younger teammates to do something that can make a difference. Philanthropy should be the norm, and not just for the public athletes, but for the everyday people. Kindness and charity are a gift you can give all year-round no matter what your resources. I can’t wait to see what more good things come out of these charities and other yet-to-be recognized organizations this year and in the years to come.

Go Yankees!

Note: No organizations paid or asked to be in or promoted through this blog post. The author chose these charities out of free will and hopes any interested readers will research and support any charity that speaks to them. The author supports a variety of charities including some of those listed here.

Spring Game 10: NYY vs. BOS — The Rivalry Continues…

Today’s starting pitcher Adam Warren had an excellent outing to limit Boston to a single solo shot in the 2nd inning. The Yankee prospects capitalized on a very messy 6th inning (for Boston), scoring 3 runs off a single, a double, 2 walks, a forced out, and 2 fielding errors. Final score was 5-2 New York. Another solid win, and another year’s start to the old rivalry.

So it got me thinking about rivalries again. We’re now at 94 years since the official start of the rivalry between Boston and New York. Before the infamous Babe Ruth trade in 1919, the Red Sox were World Series champions five times (from 1903, the founding of the Yankees, to 1918) and the Yankees had never been close. In other words (for the Yankees fans), the Sox were the Yankees in the early years of the 20th century. And then the Yankees won their first (of 40 so far) AL pennant in 1921 and their first (of 27) World Series in 1923. The Yankees went from being the team to easily beat to the hardest team to beat in just a few short years.

It took the Sox 86 years to win their next Series (1918 to 2004), and for a while in the 1990’s and 2000’s, the rivalry was well and alive for the Yankees-Red Sox fans to jeer and cheer at the games. You see, rivalries only work well if both teams stand a chance of winning that particular game. It’s easy to just “hate” a team because they’re good, and as long-term Yankee fans, we already know what that looks like. And for that, the venom and nastiness that happens by the opposing fan base is anything less than sportsman-like or good competitive action (the 2012 All-Star game comes to mind).

No, for a rivalry to have legs and stamina and validity, you need two teams that can compete against each other on a level playing field. I know I’ve said it before, but I truly love the games that are the “white-knuckle” games — the ones that keep you on the edge of your seat, anxiously awaiting the next hit or home run or budding MVP. We love the walk-off home runs, the final tough strike-out, the hard to catch fly ball at the fence, the last-minute twist to win (or possibly lose) it all. Those stories make up the legends, the tape we play back to laud with praise and approval. It’s not the double-digit shut-out games that we remember; those are often wince-inducing, even for the victors because it’s a hollow victory.

Baseball is meant to be a competitive game, and competition only exists if you have something to challenge you, to motivate you to do your best and excel to heights you never thought possible before. True rivalries are exciting, build a great fan base, and are meant to stay on the playing field. As a Yankees fan, I am thus obligated to dislike the Red Sox, but I love the historic city and I love my family who live there. Except during a game. And only during a game.

On a final note: After yesterday’s game, an errant driver claimed the life of the Land Rover driven by Ichiro Suzuki in a 3-car accident just south of Steinbrenner Field. Air bags worked, no injuries, one at-fault driver (not Ichiro), and a near-totaled SUV to end a Saturday afternoon. Ichiro will see a doctor as a precaution, but he is reporting no soreness or stiffness. We’re certainly glad he’s okay. I think it’s time to stay out of the crazy traffic that is Tampa, specifically that intersection is known for, let’s call it more “aggressive drivers”. Stay safe, Ichiro! We need you!

Go Yankees!

Spring Game 9: DET vs. NYY — A much needed win

The Yankees snapped their 7-game losing streak with a win today against Detroit (final score: 10-3). Due in part, I think, to Detroit’s split squad, the Yankees clearly out-played the Tigers. Ivan Nova, in his first Spring appearance, threw 2 scoreless innings and appeared to be back on his game, something some critics were wary of due to his weaker performance last year.

Robinson Cano’s RBI single in the 3rd inning got the ball rolling for the Yankees, but it was Chris Stewart’s 2-run homer in the 4th that really picked up the Yankees. Another notable player was Tyler Austin’s RBI double in the 8th, on 2 outs. The team, in general, seemed to attack the offense on 2 outs — Cano, Travis Hafner, Austin, Corban Joseph, and Luke Murton all racked up the hits on 2 outs.

Brett Gardner
via BleacherReport

But really, today’s game belongs to Brett Gardner with excellent center field coverage and plays, two solid singles, and those two stolen bases. I think his missing so much of last year with his injury and now seeing play has just opened the door to the Gardner the club’s been developing all these years. Barring any major event or injury, he is on track to being a crucial player in the field and on the bases.

I’m looking forward to seeing how Girardi orders his regular line-up with three potential starters to top the line-up — Gardner, Ichiro Suzuki, and Derek Jeter. We’ll probably see a lot of retooling and playing with combinations the first few weeks until they find their rhythm to knock around the bases. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if that ended up being the 1-2-3 order come Opening Day.

After today’s game, the ranks began to thin. The Yankees formally reassigned pitchers Corey Black, Matt Daley, Nick Goody, Shane Greene, Bryan Mitchell, Zach Nuding, Mike O’Brien, and Ryan Pope and Infielder Kyle Roller to their minor league camp. We are now down to 72 campers. Only 32 left to cut before we see our 40 man roster, and the race is still on to fill in for Granderson for April and for the role of starting catcher.

Now, it’s still too early to make any clear predictions, but it’s definitely starting to lean toward some decent bench players this year for the outfield position. And while the catcher may be leaning toward Francisco Cervelli, especially if he keeps up his current defense, Chris Stewart still makes an excellent case for selecting him with his constancy behind the plate and his home run today at the plate. I could actually see them sharing the role this year.

So what are we left with today? A win, finally. More room in the locker room, and more on its way. Very loud Detroit fans in Tampa, an honor usually reserved for more clear rivals on the home turf (are their fans trying to create a new rivalry?). And some truly decent offense today, combined with some decent defense and pitching, which led to runs scored (something they haven’t been doing for nearly a week).

I feel like we finally saw the Yankees today. It’s been a long winter, but I think they’ve found themselves again. It was fun watching them hit, steal, catch, pitch, defend, and swing for Dale Mabry and MLK (the roads in Tampa that intersect just beyond center field). That is the team we know and love. That is the team that can win #28. Those are my Yankees.

Go Yankees!

Spring Game 8: PHI vs. NYY — One month to go

It’s hard to target what exactly wasn’t there for the Yankees for their 5-10 loss against the Phillies today in Tampa. By the end of the 3rd inning, the Phillies were up 6-1. The Yankees actually out-hit the Phillies in the game (12-10), nearly every batter had a hit and four with two hits. But Hiroki Kuroda’s less-than-stellar first spring outing combined with the four (yes, I said four) fielding errors early in the game really allowed for a less-than-stellar outing overall today.

The two stand-out semi-regular players today would have to be Francisco Cervelli (2-for-2 with a walk and some excellent defense, including a nice throw to catch the only runner attempting to steal 2nd) and Melky Mesa (another nice solo home run today in the 7th inning). An Addison Maruszak 2-run single in the 5th and Ronnier Mustelier’s solo home run in the 6th (no video available for either) topped the non-roster players’ list of good attempts in today’s game. And once again, the Yankees seemed to be able to load bases with their short-ball, but driving in the runs is severely lacking overall.

And while we know that Spring Training games are technically nothing more than a month-long of exhibition games, it still has to be disheartening for the players on the losing team (which lately has been the Yankees). And after losing 7 in a row now, it’s going to take the team veterans to refocus the rookies’ attention and remind them why they were asked to participate in this process.

Spring isn’t actually a level playing field by any means. With the Yankees inviting an extra 44 people to their Spring, they are forced to play the non-roster invitees more than some other teams have quite a bit less — the Phillies have only 18, for example. And with this being a World Baseball Classic year, this means some of the regular players are cutting their Spring short with their teams to represent their countries. Again, I am forced to reiterate to those who get easily discouraged during Spring Training that this isn’t really about getting to Opening Day with the best record in Spring Training, but rather for the coaching staff to see the potential in the farm system and the regular roster to get some actual playing time with some of the guys on the team (like a glorified practice or simulated game) before April 1st (our Opening Day this year).

I’ve been talking with some people who seem all into the current standings of the teams, as if they’re the predictor for the regular season, and I just have to shake my head. It’s like trying to apply letter grades to summer camp and expecting those honors to apply for graduation. It’s a “long season” from April 1st to September 29, as they say. It’s just not worth the effort and stress freaking out about losses now when it doesn’t really count. The Yankees have seen worse Springs, and they’ll see better ones. Like I’ve said before on here, I’m just really loving the opportunity to keep an eye out for the next generation of legends. Which of these non-roster invitees will we see on the banners outside of Yankee Stadium along River Avenue one day soon? Which of these young guys will we associate with a retired number in say 20 years? Which of them are future Hall of Famers?

This is an exciting time of year, and I cannot wait for 2013.

Go Yankees!

Spring Game 6 (TOR vs. NYY) & 7 (NYY vs. HOU): Future dynasty intact despite losses

Game 6’s main story is all about the Chris Stewart ejection in the 2nd inning. Replays do say he was safe at first matching Stewart’s opinion, but apparently a slight argument today earned Stewart a toss from the loss in Tampa. A tight and quick game all the way to the end, the only run a solo home run by the Blue Jays’ replacement 3rd baseman Andy LaRoche in the 7th inning. Starting pitcher David Phelps was in fine form, throwing 3 scoreless innings, displaying his potential for that 5th rotation spot, something he may earn easily if Phil Hughes’ back doesn’t improve in time.

Game 7 in Kissimmee was all about the 6th inning. The Yankees (via Matt Diaz) singled their way into the lead when Melky Mesa slammed a 3-run left field homer, and with that, they took the lead 5-1. Yankee fans sighed in relief, a win was finally in sight. And then the Astros stepped into the box. Loading the bases, relief pitcher Shane Greene walked in a run, allowed a superb grand slam out to center field by Astros’ Brandon Laird, and an RBI double. At the end of the 6th inning the score was 7-5 Astros. A final ditch effort for the Yankees in the 8th had an Adonis Garcia single score Tyler Austin, finalizing the score at 7-6 Astros. With all that drama mid-game, Francisco Cervelli’s excellent catching display was sorely overlooked, throwing two on-target outs, catching the runners attempting to steal 2nd base.

A double loss today drops New York to the very bottom of the Grapefruit League (the teams who Spring in Florida), now with a record of 1 win-6 losses, a .143 average. All of the supposed “good teams” this year are still wallowing at the bottom of their respective leagues — Washington and the Yankees in Florida, and Texas and LA Angels (both 0-5 in the Cactus League, Arizona).

The two games couldn’t have been more different. But something that was the same was the display from those who will land in the minor leagues this season and those non-roster invitees who are trying to win a job. In the Toronto game, we saw an outfield collision, though they made the out, between Slade Heathcott and Ronnier Musteller. No injuries, but gentlemen, this is why you “call it”. In the Houston game’s now famed 6th inning, it was a “minors” game (with the exception of Eduardo Nunez) — with a Hit by Pitch, reach on a fielding error, force out, single, home run, and 5 total RBIs.

What most people don’t realize is that Spring Training is not really about the stars of the team, the regular roster, and contract players. Spring is about the guys you won’t see on national broadcasts or in Yankee Stadium this year. It’s about what the next generation of Yankees are doing and when they’ll be ready to compete on the level of Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, and Derek Jeter. For some, that day may never come. For others, it may be this April (finding a spot in replacement for an injured player) or September (when the rosters swell to 40). For others, we may be seeing their names whispered about for a few years before they burst on the scene in their rookie year.

And from where I sit, the Yankees have a plethora of outfield options (Tyler Austin, Slade Heathcott, Matt Diaz, and Juan Rivera will probably lead the AA Tampa Yankees and/or the AAA SWB Railriders this season in hits and defense), some infield potential (Walter Ibarra and Luke Murton at the corner bases immediately come to mind), and behind the plate is already some tough competition to watch in the minor league (with Bobby Wilson and Gary Sanchez). The farm system seems to be in place to produce some really good players in the next few years. As the Yankees age out and retire or perhaps move on with big contracts (with teams that haven’t maxed out their salary cap for a decade), the team is in desperate need of some home-grown talent. And I think they have it here.

If the Spring teaches us anything, it’s whether there is a future to continue a dynasty or even to create a new one. So long live the Yankee dynasty. This year, it’ll be 110 years and counting.

Go Yankees!

Spring Game 5: BAL vs. NYY — Trying too hard?

Brett Gardner scored a 3-run triple today

Despite today’s loss, Brett Gardner was the man of the game, at least for the Yankees. Following Chris Stewart’s RBI single that put the Yankees finally on the board (but still trailing 7-1), with bases loaded, Gardner hit a nice ball out in center field (just a few feet shy of the fence) and cleared the bases with a 3-run triple (score up to 7-4). He also had some great defensive opportunities. But that was one of so few highlights of this 3 1/2 hour game for the Yankees.

Another outstanding player from today was Slade Heathcott, including a single and a run scored. I think that’s one name we’ll be talking about a lot this Spring and into the future with the Yankees. And in the 9th inning, Kyle Roller hit a beautiful 2-RBI single to bring the score to 10-7 (the final score).

At times, it felt like watching a little league game — the missed easy outs, the sloppy errors (there were 5 for the Yankees), the wild pitches, the ridiculously long innings, the double-digit scores. And while I liked watching kids’ games, the games like today are more wince-inducing because “they should know better”. It’s not fun to watch, and I’m sure it’s not much fun to play in those games.

I guess it’s a result of “trying too hard”. Perhaps then there is a fine line between “trying too hard” and “doing your best”, and that line exists only when you know what your best is. And at 20 years old, you really don’t know where that line is, even if you’re not a professional athlete where everyone can watch you make your mistakes. I think back at the two huge “growing up” times in my own life — between 18 and 21 (college) and between 21 and 25-ish. There is something about that 25 year mark where you just develop a sense of yourself. You’re going to make so many mistakes trying to figure yourself out, pushing yourself too hard or sometimes not trying hard enough, discovering what works for you and what doesn’t. And for a professional baseball player, maybe the hardest thing is finding out in the public eye that your “best” isn’t “good enough”, but that’s a discussion for another time.

On the up side note after today’s loss, teams who end up on the bottom of the standings in Spring Training usually end up on the top of standings in September. As I look across the current spring standings, we should see Texas, LA Angels, Oakland, and New York (AL) and Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Washington, and Philadelphia (NL) all at the top of their respective divisions. (Side note: Perhaps the toughest division in the AL isn’t the East any more, as the competition between Texas, LA, and Oakland is just heating up in the West.) Sounds like we have an interesting season to look forward to this year.

Go Yankees!

Spring Game 4: NYY vs. PHI — All about the helmet… and competition

Eduardo Nunez, helmet on…for now

One of the most consistent things from today’s game was Eduardo Nunez, today’s starting short stop (and Derek Jeter’s primary defensive back up). And not in the way you’d think. He went 0-for-3 in the batter’s box, grounding out every time. He was, however, 3-for-3 on losing his helmet running to 1st base. Does he need a smaller helmet or a chin strap? Is he imitating Willie Mays to appear to run faster? (Thanks for that comparison, Bryan Hoch!) Is he protesting the new helmets that are supposed to offer greater protection from errant balls and are only slightly heavier? Or is it just becoming his trademark? I suppose you have to be known for something. I’m just waiting for a parody video at this point.

Some highlights from today’s game: Starting pitcher Jose Ramirez, the ever-reliable David Robertson, and mustachioed Joba Chamberlain all threw stellar games and kept it scoreless through 5 innings. Mark Teixeira’s defense was outstanding today, with several unassisted outs. He also had an RBI double in the 1st inning, scoring Ichiro Suzuki, which the Phillies matched in the 6th to tie up the game. Speaking of Ichiro, he went 3-for-3 today with 3 gorgeous singles, stamping him consistent, as usual. Teixeira and Robinson Cano tag-teamed for a sweet double play in the bottom of the 5th. Minor league 3rd baseman Walter Ibarra showed his potential with a really tough catch in foul territory in the 6th. In the 7th, replacement catcher JR Murphy hits a long 2-run center field homer, and the Phillies matched again with a solo centerfield home run and a 2-run home run in the bottom of the inning, which won them the game.

This back-and-forth reminds me of the Annie Get Your Gun song “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)”. As strong as the Phillies were a few years ago, it seemed today as if they were determined to outdo the Yankees just enough. This is, for you non-musical fans, just basic competition. And competition is really at the heart of every sport. I’m not a huge fan of out-matched games, where one team really blows away the other team. There’s no tension, no drive, no heart, no real competition. And that’s why these guys got into the game in the first place — not to be fair to everyone, but to win a good strong, tough win. The greatest games in history are always the ones where the two teams have to battle through all 9 innings (or perhaps even more) to see who will land on top. It’s exhausting,but thrilling. The anticipation, the unknown, the waiting for the hero of the game to appear, and the opportunity for the athletes to do something dynamic for your team. That’s what makes a good game. And I hope we never lose that drive in the game.

Go Yankees!