Game 84: MIL vs. NYY — A soggy disappointment

It took nearly 4 hours, plus a 51 minute rain delay in the middle of the game, for the Yankees to fall short thanks to their biggest weakness of late — their bullpen. They hosted the opening game of the weekend series against the surprisingly surging Brewers, in their final series before the All-Star break.

Jordan Montgomery got the start tonight, throwing a 74 pitches into the 5th inning, giving up 7 hits, no walks, and 2 runs, striking out 4 batters. While the Brewers got a sprinkling of hits, they didn’t do much until the 4th inning against the rookie pitcher. A lead-off double scored as part of a 1-out 2-run home run to get Milwaukee on the board.

Meanwhile, the Yankees began collecting their score against the Brewers’ starter. They got on the board first in the 2nd when Didi Gregorius singled and ended up all the way at 3rd due to a fielding error. He then scored on Clint Frazier’s sacrifice fly. A walk and another fielding error later, and runners were stranded in scoring position.

Then in the 4th, as the rain started pouring over the Bronx, Gregorius led-off the inning by reaching 1st safely thanks to yet another fielding error. He then scored as part of Ji-Man Choi’s big 1-out 2-run home run, hit into the 2nd deck of the right field seats. After Romine reached on a missed catch error (are you seeing a trend?), the starter threw a strike to the new batter (Wade) and the umpires called for the tarp. And we were in rain delay.

For 51 minutes. The Yankees were ahead, and most of the conversation was along the lines of wishing they were already in the bottom of the 5th so they could call the game and hand the Yankees a shortened victory.

But that was not to be. When everyone came back, a new pitcher was on the mound for the Brewers and Wade eventually struck out. After Gardner’s walk, another strike out left more runners stranded. Aaron Judge hit his 30th home run of the season to lead-off the 5th inning (more later). But that would be it for the Yankee offense.

The Brewers’ defense made 5 errors in 4 innings (a season high) and the Yankees just didn’t capitalize on that small detail much at all.

Back to the Yankees’ mound… Tyler Webb came on to close out the 5th inning for Montgomery, which he did thanks to some great defense by Tyler Wade. But then he gave up a walk and double to put runners in scoring position as he handed the ball over to Tyler Clippard. A wild pitch moved runners up, scoring the first runner, and a sacrifice fly scored the next runner and tied up the game. The Yankees lone fielding error allowed a runner to get on base, but Clippard got out of the inning without further damage.

Well, in that inning, that is. With 1 out in the 7th, Clippard walked consecutive batters, and then after another out, intentionally walked the next to load up the bases. So, at this point, we’re all looking for that last out to get out of the jam. Instead, it worked in the Brewers’ favor, in the exact opposite of the Yankees — a grand slam to double the Brewers’ score over the Yankees.

Chasen Shreve came on to stop the bleeding, but even he struggled to get a hold of the game, giving up a lead-off double that scored on an RBI single. But then, as turn about is fair play, he walked a batter and then let a ground out leave a couple of runners stranded. Luis Cessa had a better night, closing out the game’s final 2 innings, keeping the Brewers scoreless.

But overall, the Yankees’ pitchers gave up 14 total hits and struck out just 5, while their batters only got 4 hits and earned 12 strikeouts. And that is what made the difference.

Final score: 9-4 Brewers

Roster move: before the game today, the Yankees announced that they sent Mason Williams outright to AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. And with the upcoming break, I’d expect a few more moves before they come back to face the Red Sox next Friday at Fenway.

On that big Aaron Judge home run: Judge beat Yankee great Joe DiMaggio’s rookie home run record for most homers by a Yankee in their rookie season. Technically, Judge is on track to hit 57-ish home runs this season, still short of the Babe Ruth/Roger Maris mark (60/61). But neither of them hit that many in their rookie season. And the record belongs to Mark Maguire in 1987 with 49. He also holds the record for most homers by a rookie before the All-Star break at 33. (Though right now, Judge may cut it close on that last one.)

Now, I’ve been told that people think both Judge and his NL competitor (and potential rookie rival on Monday night) will fade in the 2nd half of the season due to the “Home Run Derby” curse and perhaps just lack of faith. But I don’t put much stock in predictions and talking heads and odds-makers. Judge will do what Judge does — play baseball as best he can. His best just happens to be heads above most others (yes, this was an intentional height joke).

And as I’m sure you know, the Yankees are sending just 5 players to Miami next week. Didi Gregorius finished 3rd in Final Fan Voting yesterday, falling short of the Royals’ and Red Sox’s nominees, but only just barely. My newsfeed timeline yesterday was packed with Gregorius support from all over, but it just wasn’t enough. This time. Now, Gregorius also spent much of his off-day wandering around the City doing good deeds — giving tourist directions, helping with photos, giving people a free subway swipe, handing out umbrellas, making burritos, and more. Basically, he was being a Yankee ambassador to the City. A day well-spent in my mind.

Didi, you’ll always be an All-Star to Yankee Universe!

Go Yankees!

Game 83: TOR vs. NYY — No last minute rally, but still go & vote #SirDidi4Sure

They say that if you don’t have pitching, you’d don’t have anything. And today’s afternoon closer against the visiting Blue Jays certainly proved that true.

Michael Pineda got the start today and really just got roughed up, an oddity in what’s been a fairly strong season for him. He threw 65 pitches into just the 4th inning, gave up 9 hits, a walk, and 5 runs, and struck out just a single Toronto batter. The Blue Jays dinged into him right in the 1st inning when a lead-off single scored on a 1-out RBI single to get the Jays on the board early.

The 3rd inning was the hardest hit for him. With 1 out and a runner on 1st, a big 2-run home run pushed them further in the lead, only to be followed up by a solo home run. Add on a lead-off solo shot in the 4th, Pineda just didn’t have the game today. With a runner on 1st with a single, his outing ended as he handed the game over to Chasen Shreve. Shreve walked his first runner but then breezed through the next 6 outs to shut down the Jays and give the Yankees a chance to catch up.

So they did just that. In the bottom of the 4th, Gardner led-off with a walk and then scored as part of Aaron Judge’s big home run. His 29th of the season landed right in the Yankees’ bullpen. Then in the 5th, Ellsbury led-off with a single and then scored as part of Ji-Man Choi’s 2-run home run, his first ever as a Yankee.

With the Yankees within a run of the lead, they loaded up the bases with 2 walks and a single, sitting there hoping for a miracle. Two outs later, Didi Gregorius (#SirDidi4Sure, go vote!) hit a solid double into right field scoring the tying run and the go-ahead run in Romine and Gardner. That would be it for the Blue Jays starter, who is a fairly good starter and had a great outing against the Yankees until this final inning.

His bullpen did a much better job of fending off the Yankees’ offense. Which was incredibly unfortunate, as the Yankees’ bullpen wasn’t as lucky today. Chad Green came on in the 6th and did a stellar job of getting through that inning. But then a lead-off solo home run in the 7th to tie up the game. But that’s okay, the Yankees have played many games where they pulled out a last-minute rally. They just needed to stay tied to make it work.

And then Dellin Betances had some real trouble finding the strike zone in the 8th inning. He walked his first 3 batters, then found a strikeout. But then after he walked another batter, walking in the Blue Jays’ winning run, his afternoon was done. It was on to Adam Warren, who shut them down with the bases loaded and then sailed through the 3 outs in the 9th — 5 outs in just 16 pitches.

That last-minute rally of the Yankees? Yeah, stalled in both the 8th and 9th innings. It wasn’t going to happen.

Final score: 7-6 Blue Jays, Blue Jays win series 2-1.

Doctors figured out what’s wrong with Matt Holliday. After testing, they discovered that Holliday was battling the Epstein-barr virus, a common illness that most people get at some point in their lives but also one that comes with some heavy symptoms (extreme fatigue, fever, sore throat, swollen glands, rash, and more). While it does knock its victims out for a bit, it is recoverable, as evident by Holliday now getting back to some easy work outs this week. And with the All-Star Break coming up, he will have some time to recuperate further.

Today in Aaron Judge breaks/sets another record/defies logic… Aaron Judge has tied Joe DiMaggio for most home runs hit by a Yankee rookie at 29. DiMaggio set this Yankee this record in 1936, and Judge is getting ready to break it (and very well could have if not for the intentional walk late in the game). It should be noted that the statistic is during the full 1936 season. Yes, Judge is only just over halfway through the season and has tied the Yankee Clipper’s 81 year old record. (I have a feeling we’ll be saying things like that a lot with this certain rookie.)

I won’t get into the minor blip, a clear case of “sour grapes” regarding Gary Sanchez and his invitation to be part of the home run derby next week in Miami. It’s rather reminiscent of the 2012 HRD issue with the Royals (the ridiculous reason they still boo Cano). Does Sanchez have less home runs than the complainant? Yes, but he’s also played far fewer games this season thanks to a stint on the DL earlier this year. But here’s the facts: in 104 games (back to August 3, 2016), Sanchez has 33 homers, while the other guy has just 28 in 100 games over the exact same time span. So the invite goes to Sanchez… obviously.

And there’s less than a day left to get Didi Gregorius to the All-Star Game, so vote and vote often (through Twitter, text, and online). Gregorius is still running 3rd, but come on, Yankee Universe, we’re bigger than the Royals and Red Sox! Let’s make it happen! Seriously, stop what you’re doing and go vote!

Go Yankees!

Game 89: BOS vs. NYY — High hopes and fireballs

Yankee Stadium tonight was full of anticipation and hope as the crowd welcomed their team back to the Bronx for a three-game series with the rival Red Sox. The weather was a perfect summer evening. Clear skies and warm breezes. The players were fresh and ready to play ball after the All-Star break. The Bleacher Creatures were loud and proud as they wholeheartedly announced roll call as the game began, and the first pitch was thrown.

Yankee right hander Michael Pineda started strong in the first two innings, and backed up by some good defense by Teixeira and others, it was 6 up and 6 down. In the third, Pineda faltered, giving up a homer, but in the fourth, he managed another hitless inning. Struggling a bit more in the 5th, he gave up a walk and another dinger and the Yankees were down by 3. Top of the 6th, Pineda allowed a line drive single and yet another home run that resulted in a visit to the mound and a pitching change.

Chasen Shreve took over in the 6th but promptly loaded the bases, thus had a rather short night. Nick Goody then took charge of the mound and managed to get the last out of the inning on a pop fly. Former starter (and this Tuesday’s starting pitcher) Nathan Eovaldi replaced Goody in the 7th, making his third relief appearance of the year and eventually dismissed a veteran Boston player with a ground out to end the inning. Still in the game in the 8th, Eovaldi gave up 2 hits but, backed up by solid Yankee defense, got out of the inning without any further runs. For example, with one on for Boston in the top of the 8th, a flying grab by Didi Gregorius caught a line drive and stopped the advance. Then with the shift on, moving to the far right (or his left) for the next batter, Chase Headley grabbed the out at second, further declaring that no more runs would be allowed from Boston for the night.

Closer Aroldis Chapman took stellar command at the top of the ninth making his 27th appearance of the season, facing Boston for the first time. In 13 fireball pitches, most over 100 mph (topping out at 104 mph on most radar guns), he effectively shut down the batters, three up, three down.

The Yankees bats, however, were largely silent the first four innings until their first single by Rodriguez in the 5th. But New York ended the inning scoreless and still down by three. In the bottom of the 6th, New York loaded the bases on a single by Castro, a hit by pitch for Headley, and a walk for Ellsbury. The crowd was roaring encouragement as Carlos Beltran came to the plate and slammed a line drive deep to right, scoring both Castro and Headley and putting Ellsbury on third. Brian McCann hit a RBI grounder that forced out Beltran at second on a fielder’s choice but still allowed Ellsbury to score.

Bottom of the 8th, with the crowd cheering “Let’s Go Yankees!”, Headley obliged and hit a hard line drive single to center on a 93 mph pitch but was left stranded by the end of the inning. Boston’s closer is pretty well-known himself for being able to shut down opponents, and with the opportunity for more coming from the Yankees, he was a logical choice for Boston to end the game right there. They did. He did. Game over.

Final score: 5-3, Red Sox.

Congrats to Carlos Beltran on becoming the 4th switch-hitter to reach 1,500 RBIs. He has already joined the 400 home run club, and hit the record books recently with 500 doubles and 300 career stolen bases. Again, that conversation about a potential spot in Cooperstown just isn’t going away for the veteran outfielder.

Alex Rodriguez has been practicing at first base to get more comfortable playing at a different corner than he formerly manned. Joe Girardi is hoping Rodriguez will be able to be available to fill in for this corner spot, if needed, since Mark Teixeira is still recuperating from a knee injury and trying to get through the season without knee surgery.

I found a fun little promo here for the Yankees entitled “Pride Passion Pinstripes”. Enjoy!

On this day in baseball history, Yankee legend Joe DiMaggio continued his hitting streak, reaching 55 games with a hit on July 15, 1941. He would go on to hit in 56 straight games (just 1 more game to go then), a record that remains unbroken to this day.

Go Yankees!

Game 18: NYY vs. TEX — A #NastyNate almost no-hitter

So very close. Must be used to the Texas heat and all, but tonight’s starter and native Texas son Nathan Eovaldi was just a few pitches short of a no-hitter. Blame the jinxes in the press box if you must (I know I did, and I don’t even believe in that stuff), but despite that, he still threw a pretty decent game tonight.

The Yankees are in Arlington tonight for a weekday series against the Rangers, and by luck of the rotation, Texas-born and raised Eovaldi got the start. (Though he’s usually more praised in Houston, as his hometown is basically a suburb of the other major Lone Star city.) And after the cringeworthy game yesterday, the Yankees needed something to get behind and spur them onto a win. Nasty Nate was back in action and gave them something to push the offense (and defense, really) back into proper Yankee form.

Eovaldi threw 98 pitches into the 8th inning (with 6 nasty strikeouts), and it wasn’t until the 7th inning that he started slowing down. He did allow 2 runners on prior to this via a fielding error and a walk, but until the 7th, he was cruising along in the zone. A rookie outfielder worked a 3-2 count and then scooted a ball between 3rd and short stop for the first hit by a Rangers’ batter tonight. But it was all erased on the base paths when the next batter hit into a double play ball. (Which was a little confusing, as the Yankees thought the double play was due to Castro’s catching the ball and then tossing it to 1st; but the umpires didn’t think he caught it, so he tossed it to first for the bag tag and then he, Teixeira, and Gregorius ran down the runner for the 2nd out. Virtually the same result, but he did actually catch the ball so the run down was completely unnecessary.)

Eovaldi came back on for the 8th, but hitting 98 pitches and walking that first batter, his night was over. It was onto the backend bullpen of the Dynamic Duo. With a single exception. After getting a standard double play to eliminate the runner, Betances’ near-perfect pitch became a solo home run with a single swing. (To be fair, it’s the batter’s first MLB home run, and hitting it off Betances, one of the best pitchers in the league, is a pretty nice memory for the kid.)

But that would be it for the Rangers, as Betances shut down the next batter with a strikeout looking, and Miller’s flawless 8-pitch 9th inning (and 5th save) was a continuation of his dominance.

Yankee batters faced a rookie pitcher again, and again, somewhat dominated him, getting 9 hits, 2 walks, and 3 runs, and just 5 strikeouts off the starter. In the 3rd, Jacoby Ellsbury led off the inning with a solo home run. Beltran later worked a 1-out walk and then scored on Mark Teixeira’s solid double to give the Yankees an early lead. Starlin Castro added an exclamation mark to that lead with a nice lead-off solo home run in the 6th.

Final score: 3-1 Yankees.

Injury updates: Both Alex Rodriguez (oblique) and Aaron Hicks (shoulder) traveled with the team, but both were technically unavailable off the bench tonight. Both have said they’re feeling better, but unless it is absolutely necessary for one or both to play, I have a feeling both will be warming the bench for the next few games until “I’m fine” becomes “Now, I’m actually telling the truth and I have no more pain”. Though neither are expected to be formally moved to the DL and both are expected to be back in the lineup sooner rather than later.

And after meeting with Dr. Andrews today for a second opinion, pitcher Branden Pinder has opted for Tommy John surgery to repair the partially torn UCL in his throwing elbow. As you know, this surgery means a recovery time of 12-18 months, which means the young pitcher is out for the rest of the season. Pinder could return as early as next summer. Praying for a quick and full recovery for him.

And a fun “This Day in History” fact: April 25, 1999 (yes, that was 17 years ago, thank you for doing that math and making all of us feel a little bit old now). On that day, the Yankees dedicated their (fittingly) 5th monument plaque to the great #5 Joe DiMaggio, who had passed away just a month prior to the ceremony from a long battle with cancer. DiMaggio was one of those great ones, a once-in-a-generation player. And we were fortunate enough that he wore pinstripes. It’s good to remember every once and awhile, as it makes us remember what’s important — cherish the good times that were, cling to the good times that are, and hope for good times that will be.

Go Yankees!

World Series Game 4: KC vs. SF — Storming Giants

Despite having a starter really struggle through his outing, the Giants certainly know how to pick their battles successfully. In just 2.2 innings, the Giants’ starter threw 62 pitches and gave up 7 hits and all 4 of the Royals’ runs. On the flip side of the field, the Royals’ starter only went 4 innings (and 82 pitches) himself and still gave up 6 hits and 3 runs to the Giants. You know, something I’ve noticed lately is that pitchers aren’t getting nearly as many strikeouts as I’m used to seeing, especially from the starters. I mean, each pitcher has their specialty; on the Yankees, for example, pitchers like Tanaka and Sabathia are “strikeout pitchers”, while former pitcher Pettitte and currently Kuroda are seen more as “ground out pitchers”. But it’s still weird (to me, at least) to see such low numbers in the strikeout category, especially after all the raving about how “great” these pitchers are supposed to be.

Anyway, it was quite a game in San Francisco. The Giants struck first in the bottom of the 1st — a batter walks, stole 2nd on a wild pitch, stole 3rd for kicks and giggles, and then scored on a ground out (trying to get the double play). The Royals took advantage of the struggling starter in his weak 3rd inning to answer the Giants’ jump to lead the game — an RBI single, a 2-RBI single, and another RBI single. It would push the Royals up and over the Giants 4-1. But an RBI single in the 3rd pushed the Yankees back into contention.

In the 5th, the lead-off batter doubled, setting himself up to score on the RBI single 2 batters later, while a sacrifice fly scored a run that tied up the game 4-4. In the 6th, the floodgates flew wide open. Two singles were advanced on a ground out, but stalled on an infield ground out. An intentional walk loaded the bases. The second out became a fielder’s choice and the out was nabbed at home trying to add to the Giants score. A single scored 2 runs, officially bringing the winning runs to the place. Another single added yet another run.

But a 7-4 lead wasn’t really enough yet. I mean, it’s the postseason so do what you must to discourage your opponent from scoring any more runs. In the 7th, they added 4 more runs through a bunt single (and throwing error), 2-RBI double, and an RBI double. So the Giants spent the last few innings defending their 7-run lead, once again, rather successfully.

World Series Game 5: Giants over Royals 11-4, Series tied 2-2

“This Day in Yankee History” travels way back in time to 1939. On this day 75 years ago, Joe DiMaggio was chosen as the AL MVP, his first of three (1939, 1941, and 1947). To win the MVP award this year, the Yankee Clipper played in just 130 games, scored 108 runs, notched 176 hits and 30 home runs, and maintaining an outstanding batting average of .381 (his all-time career record). Joltin’ Joe was still early in his illustrious career, but playing in New York and being ridiculously amazing, already garnered the young outfielder much unwanted attention. (Check out my blogpost on DiMaggio for more information.)

Go Yankees!

Mantle — Ending on the right swing

When I get asked “Who’s your favorite Yankee of all time?”, I always have one response: “Mickey Mantle, but not for reasons you think.” And while I’ve chronicled my all-time favorite Yankees in the Classic Era (Rizzuto & Ford, Gehrig, DiMaggio, and Berra), the hardest one to write is Mantle’s because my reasons for dubbing him my favorite (and not just of this era) are complex and layered. Sure, he’s considered by most people to be one of the greatest players who ever picked up a bat and certainly has the Hall of Fame caliber statistics to back that up. But “the Mick”, like any player really, is so much more than numbers on a scorecard and a retired jersey on a plaque in center field.

“The Mick”
the best year of his career (1956)
via Google Images

Born into a working class mining family in rural Oklahoma in 1931, Mantle was named after his father’s favorite ball player Mickey Cochrane (a catcher playing for the Philadelphia Athletics when Mantle was born and would go on to inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1947). Well before the advent of Google, Mutt Mantle’s easy assumption saved his son from a lifetime of being called “Gordon”, which seemed to please Mickey in the long-run.

As a personal challenge, Mantle picked up switch hitting playing against his father (who pitched right) and his grandfather (who pitched left). Though he would always think of those men with great fondness, neither saw Mantle rise to his full potential because the Mantle men tended to die young (his grandfather died at age 60 in 1944, his father at age 40 in 1952 from Hodgkin’s disease). Athletic by nature it seemed, Mantle rooted for the Cardinals (as did most kids in the area) and played on his high school’s basketball, football, and baseball teams. Mantle was eventually offered a football scholarship, but turned it down in favor of pursuing his real love — baseball.

An incident on the football field came close to ending his life at one point. Following an injury at a practice game, Mantle’s left ankle became infected with a bone infection called osteomyelitis, but thanks to emergency medical intervention with the newest medical miracle known as penicillin, he was spared amputation, which had previously been the normal treatment. That same condition actually spared Mantle from the draft for the Korean War in both 1949 and 1951. Though he was deemed well enough to play ball (which caused many fans to cry foul at his deferment), a recurring knee injury gave Mantle the final service rejection in 1952. Mantle wasn’t ever meant to be a solider.

After spending a couple of years in the minor leagues, Mantle was asked to attend the Yankees Spring Training Camp in 1951. Excited by the prospect, manager Casey Stengel decided to put Mantle in right field, wearing #6, taking a chance on the 20-year-old, small-town kid. But all that pressure took its toll on the kid, and after a drastic slump, Mantle found himself on a bus to the Yankee’s minor league team in Kansas City and that slump kept growing. After frustratingly admitting failure and contemplating quitting baseball altogether, Mutt drove up to see him and began packing up his son’s things. Mickey remembers his father saying,  “I thought I raised a man. I see I raised a coward instead. You can come back to Oklahoma and work the mines with me.” The slump was over. And just 40 games in Kansas City, Mantle was back in New York, with a new number on his back — one he would keep — #7.

Of course, that rookie season of someone like Mickey Mantle wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the World Series. (I should note they faced the same Giants that won that famous play-off game against the Dodgers, where Bobby Thompson hit the “shot heard ’round the world”.) But for Mantle, it would be the Series that really affected the rest of his career. In Game 2, he and DiMaggio went diving for a Willie Mays fly ball, and on his way to the ball (which DiMaggio would catch for the out), Mantle tripped over an exposed drain pipe and tore his ACL in his right knee. He was out for the rest of the series and would play the rest of his 18 year career never fully healed from that injury. In fact, it was the first of many injuries that seemed to plague him.

After the Yankees won the 1951 Series, DiMaggio retired and Stengel again bet on Mickey, putting him in center field. Over the next 17 years, Mantle would go on to bat a career average of .298, hit 536 home runs, 2,415 hits, and 1,509 RBIs for the Yankees. He was a 20-time All-Star (1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1968, and twice in each 1959, 1960, 1961, and 1962), went to the World Series with the Yankees 12 times and won 7 rings as part of that dynasty (1951, 1952, 1953, 1956, 1958, 1961, 1962), was voted the AL MVP 3 times (1956, 1957, 1962), and the AL home run champion 4 times (1955, 1956, 1958, 1960).

1956 was probably Mantle’s best year as a player, leading the league in runs (132), home runs (52), RBIs (130), and batting average (.353). He was easily elected AL MVP that year and earned that coveted Triple Crown. So by that famous 1961 season with the race to 61 with newly acquired Roger Maris (seen by many Mantle fans as a “lesser Mantle”), Mantle was not just a celebrated Yankee, he was an icon. (I should note here that Maris is one of my favorite players to ever don the pinstripes and all that vitriol poured on him during this season was ridiculously undeserved, as through it all, Maris maintained his class and composure like any true Yankee great.) The press hyped up the rivalry between the two teammates and friends, but Mantle had his own personal issues and that nagging recurring injury to be focused on some cooked-up PR stunt of a rivalry. Mantle would end up with 54 home runs, his own personal best, but Maris would go on to win that race in the last game of the season, with Mantle cheering him on every step of the way.

That Yankee dynasty progressively tapered off along with Mantle’s career during the mid-60’s, which led to Mantle’s ultimate retirement just before the start of the 1969 season, leaving a record of 2,401 games played as a Yankee. This record was broken by Derek Jeter in 2011, who currently sits at 2,602 games played as a Yankees going into the current 2014 season.

Mantle spent retirement like many ex-players do — in the broadcasting booth at times, at special events, writing a book (about his favorite playing season: 1956), and of course, receiving all due honors. On Mickey Mantle Day (June 8, 1969), the Yankees retired his #7 and permanently cemented his legacy in Monument Park, that commemorative plaque given to him by former teammate and friend DiMaggio. Mantle insisted that DiMaggio’s honor be hung higher than his, and it was until renovations (and eventually a new stadium) changed the whole layout of Monument Park. Though at teammate Yogi Berra’s museum, DiMaggio’s plaque is still hung higher than Mantle’s, solely on this request.

He was later elected to Cooperstown the same year as his former teammate Whitey Ford (1974). Voters elected Mantle on the first ballot with 88.2% of the votes, though I’d like to meet the 11.8% of the people who didn’t think he deserved the Hall of Fame (but then again, I wonder that every time I don’t see an obvious 100% on someone like Mantle).

While Mantle’s public life soared and excelled, his personal life was certainly a different story. Strongly advised by his father, he married young to his hometown girlfriend Merlyn in 1951 and they had 4 sons Mickey Jr., David, Billy (named for teammate Billy Martin), and Danny (born 1953, 1955, 1957, and 1960). Mantle’s love wasn’t as obvious for his wife and his sons as it was for alcohol, and he set an example as they all quickly joined him in alcoholism. Mantle wasn’t quiet about his drinking, nor about his marital infidelities, but the press certainly kept him in a good light.

Mantle in 1994
recalling his road to redemption

Just after completing treatment, Billy Mantle died at the age of 36 due to heart damage from years of substance abuse. Despite all fears this might send him into relapse, still Mickey stayed sober. Mickey Jr. later died of liver cancer in 2000 (age 47), and Danny would battled but survive prostate cancer. But it was more than just treatment, for Mantle at this point in his life. He realized the impact of his poor life choices weren’t just youthful indiscretions and found a strong foundation with his new Christian faith (because of former teammate Bobby Richardson, an ordained Baptist minister). Mantle’s past regrets may have been numerous, but he wasn’t going to let his past dictate his future any longer.

He helped raise funds to rebuild the federal building in Oklahoma after the 1995 bombing, spent time with family as much as possible, and gave numerous speeches across the country. He spent much of his time asking young people not to look at him as a role model because he can’t imagine wanting to make those same mistakes again or wishing that life on anyone else.

Due to severe cirrhosis, Mantle received a liver transplant in June 1995. Just prior to the operation, the doctors found inoperable liver cancer. While in recovery, he started the Mickey Mantle foundation that raises awareness for organ donations and made peace with his then-estranged family. But he was quickly back in the hospital, as the cancer was spreading quickly through his body.

Mickey Mantle died at the age of just 63, August 13, 1995, Merlyn at his side. The Yankees beat Cleveland 4-1, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was played on the stadium organ, and the world began mourning the loss of #7.

Mantle is a great example of an excellent player who could have been so much greater. As he so readily admitted, it was his own selfishness that interfered with every aspect of his life. And when you look at his professional numbers and honors and accomplishments, it’s not so hard to imagine to what levels a sober life would have taken him. His character may have been questionable when he was in pinstripes (he wouldn’t have made my list had I been doing so in 1961), but he most certainly went out with class and dignity. And as they say, “once a Yankee…”

Go Yankees!

DiMaggio – The class act of the Yankee Clipper

We return today to my list of favorite players from the Classic Era with my selection for #3 — Joe DiMaggio.

Unlike my previous selections, DiMaggio was not a native New Yorker, but rather born (in 1914) and raised in San Francisco, California. The 8th of 9 siblings (and one of five sons) to an immigrant Italian fisherman, DiMaggio knew early on that fishing wasn’t for him and jumped at the chance to follow in his brother’s footsteps as a semi-pro ball player with a local team, officially debuting in 1932 at shortstop. His career was almost cut short a couple of years later when he tore his knee stepping out of a jitney on his way to his sister’s house, and the team was hoping to get rid of his contract.

Enter the Yankees, via a local scout who believed in DiMaggio’s potential enough to help him through the injury and then promote him to the club. The Yankees made a deal with the local team for $50,000 and 5 players, and that the team could keep him for one final season. So, in 1935, he batted .398, earned 154 RBIs and 34 home runs, helped the team to the division title, and named MVP.

Joltin’ Joe

DiMaggio was penciled into the Yankees official line-up on May 3, 1936, batting just ahead legend Gehrig, rising quickly through the ranks and becoming one of the players to watch on the team. By 1939, DiMaggio was dubbed the “Yankee Clipper” when he was likened to the new PanAm airliner due to his speed and defensive range (now as an outfielder). His speed helped him around the bases, including stealing home 5 times in his career.

In 1941, DiMaggio earned his famous career achievement  with his 56-game hitting streak (May 15 – July 17). It would be Cleveland to snap the streak, mostly due to the Indians’ 3rd baseman. During the streak, DiMaggio hit .408, 15 home runs, and 55 RBIs. DiMaggio would go on several more streaks, but none quite as long. Though that year, he would hit safely in 72 of 73 games.

When America entered World War II, like many of his fellow young players, DiMaggio enlisted in the Army Air Forces in 1943 and was stationed in Santa Ana, Hawaii, and Atlantic City as a physical education instructor. Due to his pre-war fame, the military refused DiMaggio’s request for a combat position and instead preferred to keep him busy in other areas like “soldier development”. His immigrant parents were considered “enemy aliens”, kept close to their home and watched, stripped of their income source and many other privileges due to their Italian heritage. They later became American citizens in 1944 and 1945.

After the war, there was a brief time when Yankees and Red Sox GMs talked about trading DiMaggio for Ted Williams, but when the Red Sox demanded Yogi Berra as part of the deal, the Yankees came to their senses and pushed forward into their own destiny with their set players.

DiMaggio played with the Yankees until 1951, an All-Star in all 13 years he played, top 10 in MVP voting in 11 of those years, and voted MVP three times (1939, 1941, 1947). The Yankees went to 10 World Series during his career, winning 9 of them (1936, 1937, 1938, 1939, 1941, 1947, 1949, 1950, 1951). And oddly, it took three ballots (and 88.84% of the votes) before he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1955, despite his .325 lifetime average, 2214 hits, 361 home runs, and 1537 RBIs.

After retirement, DiMaggio refused a managing job with the Dodgers but accepted one as a hitting coach in 1968 for two years with the new Oakland Athletics (recently moved from Kansas City). His quiet legacy of philanthropy was honored in 1992 at the Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital at Memorial Regional Hospital in south Florida.

The Yankee Clipper throwing out the first pitch
Opening Day 1998

Joltin’ Joe went in for surgery for lung cancer in October 1998, a result of over 60 years of heavy smoking. He stayed hospitalized for 99 days, before returning to his home. He died three months later on March 8, 1999. His funeral was held in San Francisco, and his only son died later that same year.

The 1999 Yankees started off that season with heavy hearts, missing a long-term Yankee legend. So they did what they do best. #5 was officially retired and emblazoned in Monument Park on April 25, 1999, and the entire team wore his number on their sleeves in his memory for the entire year. Perhaps with a little inspiration of DiMaggio’s 9 rings, the 1999 team went on to win the Series that year their 3 in 4 years.

DiMaggio was later elected by fans to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team. Other than the Yankees, the only other team to honor DiMaggio with a retired number is the Florida Marlins because their first team president died five months before the team first played in 1993, and DiMaggio was his favorite player.

DiMaggio is known for many things outside of baseball, but he was a quiet sort who preferred to do what he loved best in public (play baseball) and let everything outside the field be personal. In a 24/7 world, I don’t think he would have appreciated the paparazzi-like culture we seem to live in. He certainly had a touch of it during those playing days, but nothing compared to the likes that our current celebrities seem to face. But I like to think that even if he did, he would handle it with the grace and charm and ease that he seemed to have on the field and in those moments with the press.

He was a class act, like many of those on my list. He was an excellent example of how to play the game right with passion, excellence, and a whole lot of fun.

Go Yankees!