83 Men In

83 pinstriped-legged men took the field in the Yankees’ minor league complex in Tampa this morning. Batting practice, fielding exercises, stretching, more throwing off the mound, greeting old faces, meeting new ones, and the hordes of media and rabid fans trying to get the attention of the big names on the team. Ladies and gentlemen, Spring Training has officially begun.

Before heading off to Steinbrenner Field this morning, Curtis Granderson summed it up:

He seems to reiterate what I cannot seem to emphasize it enough lately — that the Yankees are a team first and once a Yankee, always a Yankee. As my Twitter feed filled up with pictures and updates from the field (Hafner’s BP home run, Jeter being harassed by fans, Cano’s stretching, Girardi’s crossed arms and eagle eye, etc.), it just reminded me of so many other BP before games I’ve seen. They’re finding their grooves, hanging with the guys, and playing the game they’ve loved longer than some of the newer guys on the field have been alive.

Actually, pre-game BP is one of my favorite parts of going to a game. You can watch the team just play and be guys, all without the pressure of winning or out-strategizing their opponents. It’s like what I remember from watching my brother play little league over 15 years ago, and I suppose where you can really see if they’re a true team or not. I’ve watched pre-game BP from other teams, and sometimes they have that cohesion of teamwork and camaraderie  But more often, they’re just trying to hit monster home runs in BP and throw long shots during fielding practice to show how cool and important they are. But they have forgotten what Tom Selleck’s character so accurately stated in Mr. Baseball, “Baseball is grown men getting paid to play a game. When you were a kid, I bet you didn’t pick up a bat and ball because you were dying to work. A player’s career is short enough. Let them enjoy it.”

(l to r) Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera,
Phil Hughes, & Hiroki Kuroda
via Yankees

And that’s what BP and these work-out days are all about — working on their craft and having fun in the process. There’s a ton of pictures coming out of Tampa with smiles and laughs from the players, and that to me is encouraging. They are ready to enjoy this year, so bring it on.

Go Yankees!

Once a Yankee, always a Yankee

Full squad reporting for duty today. The first official warm-up starts tomorrow with all 83 men, roster players and invitees. Team Captain Derek Jeter did his first official press conference for the season, talking a good portion of the time about his recovery and expected return (Opening Day is just around the corner!). At the end of the it, Jeter was asked about Kevin Youkilis’ recent comments about whether Youk still considers himself a Red Sock, which he has since clarified and explained that he is glad to be donning the pinstripes this year and looks forward to beating them on April 1st in the Bronx. Jeter’s response, with an amused smirk, was simply, “Welcome to New York.”

This got me thinking about that old saying (something Youkilis actually referred to in his clarification interview): “once a Yankee, always a Yankee.” I know you cannot erase your history; in fact, you should embrace it as it helped make you into the person you are today (for better or worse). In that case, once a player’s been a Yankee, it’s not something they can deny any more than they can their other teams or heritage or family life or whatever. It’s part of your make-up, your identity, and you can either accept it or deny a part of who you are.

For example, there were a few years where Andy Pettitte played for another team, closer to his hometown, or even a brief retirement in 2011. But when he came back to New York, it wasn’t a denial or shameful betrayal, but rather a point of fact. Once a Yankee, always a Yankee. No one really even pictured Pettitte as anything but a Yankee who was temporarily reassigned to Houston or his home.

Even Babe Ruth played for another team his final year of baseball (Boston Braves in 1935), but he is enshrined at Cooperstown as a Yankee, even though his career with the Red Sox for the first 5 years were stellar. (Side note: many people thought he would never amount to anything in New York and wrote him off as a lost cause, thinking Boston was the only place where he could be a superstar.)

DiMaggio Sign
The sign, autographed by Yankees players from
the 1977 World Series Championship team
via Yankees.com

There is a well-known sign to remind the players as they approach the dugout from the locker room is Joe DiMaggio’s famous 1941 quote: “I thank the good Lord every day for making me a Yankee.” And what a reminder!

I think DiMaggio’s saying serves to remind the players that being a Yankee is a privilege, not an obligation. You can play on any of the other 29 professional teams and still be a million dollar athletic celebrity. But only a select few can call themselves “Yankees”. Much like anything in the world, the moment something becomes an obligation is the moment we lose passion and open the doors to burn out or sell out. This obligation to fulfill a contract or push for a certain statistic robs players of the joy and the privilege of being first a ball player and second proud to wear their team’s colors (especially the pinstripes).

There is an award the Yankees give out every year just before their season opener to a former Yankee who emulates everything it means to be with the team both on and off the field. They call it the “Pride of the Yankees”, after the Lou Gehrig-inspired 1942 film (former Yankees catcher Jorge Posada won the 2012 award). Giving this award prior to the season is a reminder for all current players as to what a privilege it is to wear the pinstripes and the level of leadership and responsibility that is required of the men who do, whether it be for one season or twenty with the club.

And I, for one, am proud to be a Yankees fan.

Go Yankees!

Surgeries, Stories, & Sluggers — the 2012-3 Off-season

We left yesterday off with Jeter’s fractured ankle and Game 1 of the ALCS against the Detroit Tigers, which the Tigers won in extra innings following the Captain’s injury. Three games later, the Tigers swept through the deflated Yankees before they themselves got swept by the waiting San Francisco Giants, led by Buster Posey, Pablo “Panda” Sandoval, and a slew of remarkable pitchers. (About 3 months later, another San Francisco team tried to win another championship, but it was Baltimore who took home the Superbowl rings that night. There must be something in the water there…)

Derek Jeter’s fractured ankle and subsequent surgery to repair it the following week was the first of several colorful off-season stories. Shortly after the season ended for the Yankees, pitching ace CC Sabathia underwent surgery on his elbow to repair a bone spur. A doctor finally put a cause to Alex Rodriguez’s decline (much to the chagrin of the haters) and scheduled a January surgery on his left hip, similar to a 2009 procedure on his right hip. While Sabathia will be ready for Opening Day, Alex will be out until at least the 2013 All-Star Break (July 16 is exactly 6 months from his surgery, so a solid recovery and rehabilitation should get him back on the field by August at the latest).

Yes, there is an ongoing investigation into some links with the now-infamous South Florida clinic regarding the possibility of PED usage or consultations. But until the MLB completes their investigation, I don’t want to opine or stipulate or assume. PEDs are evil on their own merit, so until there are conclusive statements from officials, I won’t give it another thought or comment on this blog.

The Yankees picked up their options (predictably) on Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson, re-signed several key players (Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, and Ichiro Suzuki), and saw many other good free agents get snapped up by waiting teams — Eric Chavez (Arizona), Freddy Garcia (San Diego), Raul Ibanez (Seattle), Andruw Jones (Japan), Russell Martin (Pittsburgh), Nick Swisher (Cleveland), and Rafael Soriano (Washington).

The two biggest pick-ups for the team were Kevin Youkilis (long-time former Red Sox) to fill in for Alex Rodriguez at 3rd base while he recovers and DH Travis Hafner (long-time former Indian) to fill in the role left vacant by Raul Ibanez and Andruw Jones. Already Youkilis is finding the media around the Yankees is much different from what he’s used to with Boston, but I’m willing to bet that with a little encouragement from the veterans, Youk can learn the art of the cliché and vague comments we’ve come to love from the Bronx. Hafner has yet to make an official appearance at Spring Training, so we’ll find out soon enough how these two veterans in their own right settle into their Pinstripes.

I know there was a lot of flack regarding the relatively quiet off-season, but I have to agree with some of the remarks made by the front office recently. First, the Yankees weren’t in a position to grab a high-priced free agent because they are trying to cut their expenses and not pay that luxury tax again (how did this not get resolved 20 years ago during the strike I’ll never know, but that’s for another day’s entry). And second, there were only a handful of really quality free agents this year (which they weren’t going to spend the money on anyway), and if the Yankees are known for anything, it’s going after the quality acquisitions, perhaps with some minor missteps along the way, but quality still overall. 2014 does have quite a few free agents ready to ask for the moon come the off-season — including Cano and Granderson.

With the high possibility of several big retirements coming at the end of this year or even in 2015, this could be the last full year of this team as is, steeped in the history-makers of the last 20 years of the game. 2014 may have a completely different clubhouse, which could cause much disturbance among the “message board managers”.

But right now, we’re still looking at the core team we love for this year. The first week of Spring Training is nearly over and its stories are minor in comparison, predictable even. But isn’t that what we’ve come to expect from the team? Predictability, stability, and hard-work? That sounds exactly like what’s happening in Tampa to me.

Go Yankees!

2012 Postseason Recap, part 3

Yesterday, we remembered the ALDS, in which Raul Ibanez was minted “The King of New York”. Triumphant and on a roll, the Yankees were looking to keep the momentum up going into the ALCS.

The American League Championship Series pitted the fledgling rivals Detroit Tigers (led by ace Justin Verlander, 2012 Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, and power-hitter Prince Fielder) against the New York Yankees. It’s still hard for me to remember that first game without reliving the roller coaster of emotions from the game.

Going into the bottom of the 9th inning, the Tigers were up 4-0 as Ichiro Suzuki steps up to the plate and slams a 2-run home run into the right field fans. Yankees fans suddenly have hope with 2 outs and Teixeira on 1st with a walk, the “King” steps up and does it again to tie the game and take it into extra innings. Ladies and gentlemen, lightning struck three times in the Bronx this October.

In the 12th, a Tiger double scores a run, putting the Tigers on top 5-4. The next batter steps up to the plate and finds his pitch on the 6th pitch, a 91 mph four-seam fastball, looks to find a gap between Robinson Cano at 2nd base and Derek Jeter at Shortstop. But the ever-agile (though still quite wounded from the September bone bruise incident) Derek Jeter goes diving for it, tumbling to the ground, screaming in pain and tossing it to a waiting Cano, who instead calls over Joe Girardi and head trainer Steve Donahue.

Jeter ankle
Joe Girardi (L) and Steve Donahue
carrying injured Jeter (2) off the field
via RiverAveBlues.com

The world fell silent for those minutes, as the unflappable Derek Jeter wasn’t getting up. He fouls a 90+ mph ball off his foot and walks it off like a little fly bit him. This was different, this was threatening, this wasn’t good.

Half carried off by Girardi and Donahue, Jeter was rushed into the training room to be x-rayed by the team doctor. This wasn’t something he could play through. He was done for the season. The good news? It wasn’t over for his career.

Yes, the Yankees lost 6-4 in the opener, but like much of the rest of the world, no one (but the Tigers) seemed to care about finishing the game when the fate of their Captain, their friend was still unknown. That loss is going to be the footnote in most stories from that day and for the rest of this season. This was the first time since October 1995 that the Yankees played the postseason without their Captain.

Some people have said this gives a taste of what the Yankees will be like when he one day retires from the game, but I’d have to disagree. When he retires, the team will have a whole Spring Training and regular season to become accustomed to the plays, daily life, clubhouse dynamics, and personality of the team without him before they reach October.

Knowing the end of the story now and seeing the success of Jeter’s progress during these last few months leading into Spring Training, it almost seems like we can relive those moments of shock with some relief. Our heroes, our Yankees may not be invincible, but they sure do like to overcome all odds with flare and triumph. If this is any indication of how they’re going to perform in 2013, we could see something amazing this year.

Go Yankees!

2012 Postseason Recap, part 2

Happy Valentine’s Day to everyone who celebrates it! And a Happy Thursday to everyone else!

Yesterday, I began the recap of last year’s postseason escapades. Now, I’ve never been a big fan of the “sweep” in longer series due to the occurrence of a longer break between the series, and actually, last year’s postseason proved that teams that swept usually got swept on their next series (like Detroit from the ALCS to the World Series), while teams that had to play most of their games in one series were able to continue their momentum to win (like San Francisco from the NLCS to the World Series).

Raul Ibanez
Raul Ibanez, “King of New York”
3 home runs during the ALDS
via WashingtonPost.com

After clinching their 18th AL East division title, the Yankees went 3-for-5 in the division serious over the Orioles, who had been threatening to unseat their #1 position since nearly the All-Star Break. (Though I am proud to say the Bombers never gave up their top spot!)

  • In Game 1, Russell Martin started a run-rally in the 9th inning which ended with a 7-2 Yankees win.
  • Game 2 went to the Orioles 3-2, in a bit of back-and-forth game.
  • Back in the Bronx for Game 3, going into the bottom of the 9th inning and down 2-1, Raul Ibanez, pinch-hitting for struggling Alex Rodriguez, smacked a gorgeous right field homer to send the game into extra innings and then proceeded to walk-off another one in the bottom of the 12th inning. (And the “King of New York” was born!)
  • Game 4 had them tied 1-1 until an Oriole double at the top of the 13th inning brought a Baltimore victory.
  • Going into Game 5 with a tied series, Yankees triumphantly hold their early lead, with a little help from the “King”. The Yankees were headed into the Championship series on a high, but with some minor exceptions, their usual stars weren’t performing up to par.

At this point, I should also point out the 2012 season wasn’t looking good for the Yankees at all in the Post-Season, mainly due to the ridiculous amount of injuries the team had endured. Retired Andy Pettitte returned to the mound in May and by June was out due to a broken ankle only to be back strong in September and the Post-Season. Mark Teixeira spent a good portion of August and September out with a strained calf muscle. The ever-reliable Derek Jeter had his share of scrapes and close calls; after getting a wild pitch that broke his helmet in Cleveland in August and several fouled-off balls on his left foot, he remained slightly wounded with a severe bone bruise for most of September and October, ever determined to still play every game Girardi would let him. Alex Rodriguez seemed to have some recurring hip pain, which contributed to his limited range of motion and poor performance in the Fall. And while every team that season seemed plagued with numerous injuries, it seemed the Yankees were always putting someone on the Disabled List at least once a week during the regular season. It became a game of “Who’s Next?”.

I guess today’s post is reminding me of all the negative press the Yankees get at the beginning of every year, including this year. Every year, the sports analyst discount them, and every year, they just prove them wrong. It’s too bad it usually takes 7 months for the desk-bound guys to act surprised at the fact that we Yankee fans already know — they’re the Yankees, so they’ll be amazing no matter who’s injured or traded or struggling. It’s always a team, no matter who’s on the roster that day.

Go Yankees!

2012 Postseason Recap, part 1

Derek Jeter (2) & Robinson Cano after a 2012 game
via CBSsports.com

Okay, so the biggest news so far is that to accommodate all their invitees the “lesser” Yankees are being forced to share numbers 87-99 — 2 players per number. So while we await any major news from the Spring Training warm-ups, I’m going to switch it up here with a bit of a recap over the next few days, to remember where last season left us and what the off-season produced.

The Yankees’ 2013 season really began the last day of the 2012 season – Wednesday, October 3, 2012. The Baltimore Orioles fell to the Tampa Bay Rays at the Trop, going 1-for-3 in their final season series, securing their spot as a potential Wild Card (which they won over the Rangers two days later) and giving the Yankees a 2 game lead to clinch the American League East.

If one equates a standard baseball season with a school year, then making it to the Post-Season is like going off to a great summer camp right after your last class. Some people don’t join you – rosters reduce from the swollen September Forty to the Shining Twenty-Five, usually heavy on pitchers and your power hitters.

The odd thing about Post-Season is that for all the glory and bonuses surrounding it, nothing actually counts toward your career, even if you carry a title. You can have the best average of your life or hit 12 monster home runs or pitch 4 perfect games, and it will never appear in your official career statistics. This is why the Post-Season is like summer camp. You can become a skilled equestrian or learn how to make a canoe out of toilet paper or be awarded the funniest kid in the camp, but when you go back to school in a few months, none of that really matters in the long run. You can talk about it and carry those awards and skills, but you will still have to take math and science next year. No amount of summer camp “life skills” will excuse you from your academic pursuit and applies toward your eventual high school degree.

Does it make someone a better baseball player because they went to the Series six times but batted below .200 every Post-Season over someone whose career batting average is well above .300 and never made it to the World Series? True, most Hall of Famers do have at least one World Series ring to their name, but it’s the 162 games during the regular season that far outweigh anything else.

I know the age-old philosophy that the ultimate goal of a team is to win the Series. So does that mean the Yankees failed? Perhaps, but only in respect to the goal. The Yankees as a team congealed to form the camaraderie you want to see in your team, as we saw in the celebration an individual’s victory or the mourning of an individual’s loss. There’s a reason why the Yankees don’t have their names on the backs of their jerseys like most of the other clubs do — the team is more important than the individual.

Like I said in a previous post, I would rather be the biggest loser on a winning team than the star player on a losing team. I’ll be discussing this more at length over the next few days because we certainly saw this in action and several times worked to the Yankees advantage over the course of the 9 games they played last October.

So we prepare to put the past behind us, embrace another season, and hope for the 28th Championship in 2013.

Go Yankees!

Happy Pitchers & Catchers’ Day!

Happy Pitchers & Catchers’ Reporting Day! (Also known as the day when the “Sidewalk Crew” is actually allowed in the Tampa complex to do viable interviews.)

Reporting today:

  • Pitchers from the 40-man roster (22): David Aardsma, Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances, Cesar Cabral, Joba Chamberlain, Cody Eppley, Phil Hughes, Hiroki Kuroda, Boone Logan, Brett Marshall, Ivan Nova, Andy Pettitte, David Phelps, Michael Pineda, Jose Ramirez, Clay Rapada, Mariano Rivera, David Robertson, Francisco Rondon, CC Sabathia, Nik Turley, and Adam Warren.
  • Pitchers invited to Spring Training (20): Corey Black, Juan Cedeno, Preston Claiborne, Matt Daley, Nick Goody, Shane Greene, David Herndon, Tom Kahnle, Jim Miller, Bryan Mitchell, Mark Montgomery, Zach Nuding, Vidal Nuno, Mike O’Brien, Kelvin Perez, Branden Pinder, Ryan Pope, Josh Spence, Matt Tracy, and Chase Whitley
  • Battling out for Starting Catcher (3): Francisco Cervelli, Austin Romine, and Chris Stewart
  • Catchers invited this Spring (5): Francisco Arcia, Kyle Higashioka, JR Murphy, Gary Sanchez, and Bobby Wilson

Yes, that’s right, of the 83 people reporting to Spring Training this week (Joe Girardi made it clear in his press conference today that rehabbing Alex Rodriguez will not make an appearance in Florida due to his rehab schedule being top priority), 50 of them are checking in today (42 are pitchers).

There is always that debate whether it’s pitching or hitting that really makes a winning team. The Yankees have made it clear that pitching is a priority, perhaps because their hitting has been the stuff of legends. With the loss of some big power hitters in the off-season, I can imagine the Yankees big wigs must be trying to find that delicate balance between stellar pitching (which we have in spades), run-producers (which again we have), and teamwork (which once again we have).

This Spring we are looking at an already proven stellar roster, with 44 young-ish men in the waiting. So as all these men (plus all the coaches, front office, and hundreds of groundscrew and stadiums’ employees) are preparing for their Spring Training, we get to see a team find that delicate balance once again that makes a winning team, a team that has already won 27 World Championships. So many reporters and sports analysts behind a desk or computer screen have already discounted the “aging” roster as “over-the-hill” and celebrating the apparent virtues of the flash-in-the-pan hot shots on other teams, who might have some good numbers but lack the genuineness found so easily in Pinstripes. We Yankee fans, however, are watching with great interest as we are treated these next 8 weeks (up to Opening Day) to the intricacies that began at the end of last season to build yet another championship-caliber team.

I personally can’t wait for Spring.

Go Yankees!