Spring Game 15: ATL vs. NYY — The Return

Mariano Rivera
Mariano Rivera announces his retirement
via LAtimes.com

I don’t think anyone in sports is talking about anything else. As of this morning, Mariano Rivera, the all-time save king, will be retiring following the 2013 season. (You can watch his full press conference from Steinbrenner Field here.) Rivera is a class act and the embodiment of what it means to be a ball player and a Yankee. He will leave behind a role in the clubhouse, not just for his statistics, but his character.

Donning 42 before MLB retired Jackie Robinson’s number across the league in 1997, Rivera has proudly been the final person to wear Robinson’s famous number and deserves as much accolades for representing the uniform and number with class and excellence. Robinson broke the color barrier not just for African-American athletes, but for the many Hispanic and Asian players that now seem to dominate the game. But he did so with integrity and excellence. To honor both men, I will wear my Rivera jersey proudly to see the new movie coming out about Robinson’s life next month.

As far as the little game of baseball that was played at Steinbrenner Field today, ultimately the Braves won 2-1, but no one really cared. There was much bigger news for today. Leading off as the DH today was (as Bob Shepard) “Number two, Derek Jeter… number two.” That’s right, Yankees fans, the Captain having been cleared for active duty is making his way toward the Opening Day start. On the first pitch of the game, Jeter proceeded to knock a line drive through the gap into left field for a very nice single.

The Yankees started prospect Jose Ramirez, who struck out four in four innings and only allowed one hit. And as good as his performance was, it was merely an opener for today’s top story Rivera to throw his 15 pitches in the 5th inning, getting 2 strike-outs and a pop-up. The crowd offered their respect via a standing ovation for his entrance and exit from the field and for every strike and out in between. The beginning of many similar scenes over the next 7 months, I would assume.

Again, I cannot say enough about Rivera. He is a living legend and a credit to both the Yankees and the entire game of professional baseball, if not all professional sports. Like I’ve said before, you must have three things (in my mind) to be considered a good player — ability, teamwork, and character. Rivera definitely fits that and exceeds all basic standards. I can only guess they are already building his plaque for Monument Park and readying his name for the (what should be 100%) first ballot entry to the 2018 class of Hall of Famers. I am truly privileged to have watched him play in person. So I challenge everyone to catch a Yankees game this season and see the legend in action one last time.

Go Yankees! (And Happy Mariano Day!)

Spring Game 14: NYY vs. MIA — Awaiting the surprise in the mundane

Miami took today’s game 6-1, with four of those runs scored on an out (2 sacrifice flies and 2 ground outs). It was Melky Mesa’s offense that really helped keep the game from being a shut-out, going 2-for-4 and scoring off Thomas Neal’s double in the 4th inning. The team, once again, didn’t capitalize on some early opportunities when the bases were loaded. Dan Johnson started at 1st base today, recently becoming one of the front-runners to replace Teixeira for the next 10 weeks. Luke Murton, being the another option, filled in for Johnson in the 7th and had a nice solid hit in the 9th today. Juan Rivera, who started at 1st yesterday, is the other corner fielding option. The Marlins just out-hit the Yankees today 11-5.

Side note: Eduardo Nunez also lost his helmet again every trip down the 1st base line. I think we can officially declare it his trademark for 2013.

Tomorrow is a big day for the Yankees. All the press can talk about is the scheduled press conference that is presumed to be the public statement from Mariano Rivera regarding his expected retirement after this 2013 season. And while I’m in agreement with this assumption regarding tomorrow, I don’t think it would surprise me in the slightest if they announced something like a contract extension for Rivera. It’s the Yankees, so anything is possible.

This could include Jeter’s return this weekend, as hinted at by both Girardi and Jeter. After his surgeon declared him 100% healed, it’s just a matter now of how Jeter wants to work his way back into the lineup, though I think both Yankees fans and Jeter himself are anxiously awaiting his return to the field, even if it’s just as the DH initially.

And a handful of other minor injuries have popped up recently in the bullpen in David Robertson and Clay Rapada to join the growing list of injured and semi-injured players littering the Yankees roster, though these new additions have relatively minor recovery time and we should see them back on the field in no time.

Oh, and the Yankees also have a game against Atlanta tomorrow, but I’m guessing based on whatever comes out of the press conference, the game is little more than a minor note on any report by Saturday night. The Yankees have always been known to defy the odds and do the unexpected. Even when they’re doing something predictable (like say a retirement), they’ll throw in their own twist and make it unpredictable. It’s what keeps us fans on the edges of our seats, anxiously awaiting the new from the “experienced” and the surprise in the mundane.

Go Yankees!

Spring Game 13: NYY vs. STL — You never know what the future holds…

A 2-run homer and walk-off RBI single grabbed today’s win for the Cardinals in South Florida today. The Yankees grabbed an early lead, backed by Ivan Nova’s excellent outing as starting pitcher, including 27 strikes of 45 pitches thrown today. Francisco Cervelli was also given a chance to do some decent offense, taking a break from behind the plate to focus on the DH role today, and impacting the scoreboard with a hit, a run scored, and a walk. Addison Maruszak played the whole game at short stop and his offensive drive came with a double in the 9th inning and scoring a run off next batter Ramon Flores’ single and ran a good defensive game, including a double play in the 7th.

In injury-related news: Mark Teixeira is looking at 8-10 weeks of recovery time for his arm/wrist strain, so he is choosing to spend his spring back in the New York area, closer to his family and closer to the doctors and rehab facilities. Today, Derek Jeter saw the surgeon in Charlotte who performed his October surgery to repair his broken ankle and is currently scheduled to be back at camp on Friday; this sounds like good progress toward that March 10th (or thereabouts) spring starting date to me. Curtis Granderson is recovering and using his time wisely, visiting Tampa area schools and charities and preparing to host a fundraising event for his Grand Kids Foundation next week. Mariano Rivera is set for a press conference Saturday morning; this leads most people to assume that he will announce his retirement at the end of the 2013 season, something we have expected all Spring. If so, it looks like another #42 will be up at Monument Park this time next year.

That being said, people are already talking about the 2014 Yankees when so many will be up for free agency and contract options/extensions that year — including Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Hiroki Kuroda, Boone Logan, and Phil Hughes. Honestly, this seems more than a little presumptuous as we’re not even out of Spring Training and have yet to play a single regular game. And with Cashman already talking with Cano’s agent about contract extensions and the increase of both injuries and the ever-talked-about age factor, I just think critics (and fans in some ways) are already setting themselves up for something that just may never happen.

Something I’ve learned in all these years, as a baseball fan and a Yankees fan, is that you never know what the future holds (as I hear Back to the Future lines in my head). And that’s what adds excitement to this game that’s so based on strategy and planning and talent. There are too many factors you cannot control, including individual streaks and slumps and flukes and surprises. Who really expected Raul Ibanez, a forty year old “has-been” (as he was dubbed in Spring of last year), to be the champion of the Yankees’ postseason last year? No one, and that’s why I can’t discount this year, and I certainly won’t start fretting about 2014. In fact, I’m excited at the thought of the surprises yet to come from people you don’t expect both on and off the field.

Go Yankees!

Spring Game 12: DR vs. NYY — When is a game not a game?

Yankees line-up
Lined up and ready to play
the Dominican Republic
(author’s photo)

Today’s “game” or rather exhibition saw Robinson Cano suited up and playing for another team — the World Baseball Classic’s Dominican Republic team in an exhibition game. Yesterday, the Dominican team whaled on the Phillies 15-2. Today was not as terrible, partly due to starting pitcher Hiroki Kuroda’s 3 scoreless innings at the beginning of the game.

Then it all fell apart, and by the 6th inning, the Dominican team (with a roster of All-Stars and star players like Cano and Toronto’s Jose Reyes and Edwin Encarnacion) took advantage of the Yankee minor leaguers to create a very messy 6th inning. The final score was 8-2 for the DR. The highlight for me personally was hearing the cheers from both Yankee and Dominican fans for their shared son Robinson Cano, especially when he hit a nice RBI single in the 5th inning. It was one of the few times in a player’s life that the entire stadium is rooting for you to succeed, a drastic difference from another exhibition game in July 2012, for example.

In the outfield for the second half of the game, Zoilo Almonte is working toward that Curtis Granderson coverage job open this April. Not only was his defensive coverage excellent with an extraordinary effort at every play, his offense today included a 2-run right field HR to score the Yankees’ only runs of the game. Personally, another stand-out player has jumped higher on my radar, the hometown player Addison Maruszak, who spent the last two years in AA Trenton. His fielding reminded me so much of a young Derek Jeter, anticipating every play, hustling to the ball, covering his teammates, and playing full-out. I guess time will tell, but I think with some continued development we could see more from the Yankees farm system.

Honestly, the most interesting thing about this “game” today was the Dominican fan base. At times, you felt like you were at a soccer game, with the cheering, celebrations, whistles, chants, songs and fan camaraderie. I think it was one of the few things that saved this loss from being excruciating at times. Another was knowing that as much as Spring Training doesn’t count for anything but Spring Training statistics, today’s performance was basically just a structured work-out for the players. Even the players not on the roster today were having fun and enjoying their time there, cheering on their renegade teammate (Cano) and always in it for a joke or laugh or whatever prank they were pulling with the walkie-talkies at the beginning of the game. Sticking with the spirit of fun and lightheartedness allowed for the fans just to relax and enjoy seeing this collection of All-Stars from across the league on one field together.

Go Yankees!

Spring Game 11: ATL vs. NYY — Another one bites the dust

David Phelps did an excellent job campaigning for that 5th spot on the rotation with tonight’s performance, allowing only 2 hits and 1 run and striking out 2 batters through 4 solid innings. Though the Braves ultimately won 2-0, it was truly fantastic pitching that kept the Atlanta stars (Jason Heyward, B.J. and Justin Upton, and Dan Uggla, among the starters) from running away with the game. Diving stops, flip plays, and spirited teamwork all coincided for a superb showing for the Yankees tonight in Tampa and really demonstrated the excellent defensive capabilities in many of tonight’s infielders. No infielder was a regular starter, but certainly for most of the game they played like they could be one day.

News came from Arizona today, where World Baseball Classic’s Team USA was working through their exhibition games, that Mark Teixeira strained his right wrist, which will be looked at by the team doctor in New York to get an accurate estimate on the injury and recovery time. And OF prospect Adonis Garcia broke his left hand and is now scheduled for surgery on Thursday. So we have yet another set of well-wishing for quick healings and return to the field.

Seven more players have been reassigned to minor league camp, including outfielder Tyler Austin and catcher Gary Sanchez. (Greg Bird, Cito Culver, Rob Segedin, Francisco Arcia, and Kyle Higashioka fill out the rest of the crew.) I know much has been made about “not making the cut” and getting sent down so early, especially for the Yankee’s #1 prospect Sanchez. But when I think about it, the catcher’s position during Spring is really a competition between Chris Stewart and Francisco Cervelli for the regular starter and a look at the younger guys trying to make an impression for the minors. They already know Sanchez is a great catcher who needs a few years experience and refinement before stepping behind the plate in the Bronx. So why would they waste his time during Spring warming the bench? No, they already like him and want him, but they know he’s playing in the minors this year. Smart move all around, I’d say.

Tomorrow, the Yankees plays the WBC’s Dominican Republic team for an exhibition game, and while we know the Spring Training games are basically just a month of exhibition games, this one counts for even less as no one will ever count a player’s totals for or against them. It’s just to get a country’s team used to playing together, as they’re used to playing against each other during the regular season. And if nothing, it will be interesting to see Joe Girardi on one side and his regular bench coach Tony Pena managing on the other, in addition to Robinson Cano batting for another team. The latter sight should be enough to put some fire under all parties to get Cano signed more permanently to the Yankees beginning in 2014. I just don’t think the team would get over him hitting against them.

Go Yankees!

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!