The “Legends Series”… and there’s some guy named Jeter

The gratitude, surprise, sentiments, tributes, and all-out love fest for the Captain began almost immediately after his announcement via his Facebook page yesterday afternoon. The social media world exploded (serious, my Twitter feed was updating every minute with a new post and the top 7 trends were related to the announcement), the news outlets exploded (everything from ESPN to local non-NY sports shows to small town print newspapers explored every angle and talked to anyone who would speak), and then the skies over Florida exploded. That last one’s not figurative either; the Tampa area (like much of the East Coast yesterday) had severe storms last night. A friend mused that clearly the heavens were weeping over Jeter’s announcement.

And while it’s been a mix of entertainment, sadness, nostalgia, and acceptance, it’s nice to shelve this whole story for a week and get back to the business of baseball. Like so many before him, Derek Jeter will be holding a press conference on Wednesday, February 19 at Steinbrenner Field to discuss his decision and get everything out in the open so he can return to what he loves to do for the last time — playing baseball. And pace yourself, people, we have all of Spring Training and 162 regular games and hopefully a full off-season to say our goodbyes.

A couple of dates to keep in mind on the 2014 Jeter Farewell Tour:

  • Last Spring Training game: March 29 vs. Miami at Steinbrenner Field, Tampa
  • First Game: April 1 vs. Houston at Minute Maid Park, Houston
  • Opening Day: April 7 vs. Baltimore at Yankee Stadium, Bronx
  • All Star Game: July 15 at Target Field, Minneapolis (Not a guarantee, but with Chipper Jones honored in 2012 and Mariano Rivera in 2013, it’s becoming tradition the ASG to always invite the to their final game)
  • Last Home Game: September 25 vs. Baltimore at Yankee Stadium, Bronx
  • Last Game: September 28 vs. Boston at Fenway Park, Boston
  • Playoff games: October, TBD
  • World Series Win #28 (#6 for Jeter): October, TBD
  • July 26, 2020 — Hall of Fame Induction Day at Cooperstown

So in other news, as there are 39 other players on the roster and 26 non-roster invitees descending progressively on Steinbrenner Field officially beginning tomorrow, all those pitchers and catchers (which is about half of the roster and non-roster) check into camp. Now, some of these guys have already started their own workouts. For example, fresh off his own major news story and press conference, Masahiro Tanaka, who showed up at the field yesterday amid the Jeter breaking news, worked out with pitching coach Larry Rothschild and catcher Francisco Cervelli yesterday and today, getting himself used to pitching in America and being with the guys.

And like it was announced earlier in the off-season, a split squad will travel down to Panama this March to play two exhibition games against the Marlins, now dubbed the “Legends Series”. Half the team will be back in Florida at Baltimore’s Spring Training facility in Sarasota on Saturday, March 15 and then host the Braves at Steinbrenner on Sunday, March 16. The other half will be fighting the Marlins those two days in Panama City, honoring  special hometown host Mariano Rivera. A special fundraising gala for his foundation and a local children’s hospital will also be held prior to the games on Friday, March 14. As to who will be getting a stamp in their passport and who will be staying behind, that is yet to be determined.

At any rate, this is shaping up to be a very entertaining spring to say the least. As I’m collecting my game tickets (which have legends featured on them — Mantle, Berra, Gehrig, Jackson, etc.), I’m mentally preparing myself for this spring. And beyond all the obvious news-type stories, the one thing keeps echoing through my brain — “there’s no snow in Florida, no snow and 70-something degree, and no snow”. And that combined with 17 games of great baseball is continuing to drive me forward in anticipation of yet-to-come in this 2014 season. I think great things are in store, and I can’t tell you exactly why. But I just know it, and that makes me smile.

Go Yankees!

“Hello. My name is Masahiro Tanaka. I’m very happy to be a Yankee.”

Masahiro Tanaka
“happy to be a Yankee”

Flying into the city from Japan a few days ago, Masahiro Tanaka got to explore his new home a bit before heading up to Yankee Stadium for his press conference today. All smiles and celebrated, Tanaka donned his new #19 jersey (his jersey in Japan was #18, but that in New York is worn by fellow Japanese pitcher Kuroda), posing with his new bosses, Girardi, Cashman, Steinbrenner, & Co.

Given a strong welcome by Cashman and Girardi, Tanaka stepped up to the podium to greet the cadre of reporters, photographers, and staff. He then smiled and said (in English), “Hello. My name is Masahiro Tanaka. I’m very happy to be a Yankee.” And then the press conference continued through his interpreter answering questions like “What’s your goal?” (“To win a world championship”), “Who are you looking forward to facing?” (“I’m looking forward to facing ANYONE”), and “What was the first dish you ate here when you arrived in New York?” (“Sushi that I bought at a grocery store”). He joked around a bit, seemed to enjoy his day (even with some nervousness), and is looking forward to getting down to Tampa to meet and get to know his new teammates.

Much has been said about Tanaka’s history with a hero Hideki Matsui. Tanaka visited New York and the old Yankee Stadium when he was in high school with a group of fellow high school baseball players. The game was rained out, but he still got to meet Matsui and explore the old stadium. This time around, he enjoyed his time in the city (thanks to a recent bout of sunshine and fairly good weather for a February) and got to chat with Matsui over the phone about playing with the Yankees and living in New York. It seemed to leave him with a good impression. (Note: Matsui just accepted the invitation to be a guest instructor during Spring Training. So “asking for a friend” but can we please get sushi at Steinbrenner Field like they have at Yankee Stadium in honor of the great Japanese-Yankees like Matsui, Ichiro, and now Tanaka who will all be at Spring Training now?)

Media links: Tanaka answering official questions, Tanaka chatting with YES Network, Cashman and Girardi introduce Tanaka, Tanaka reminisces about meeting Matsui almost 10 years ago, Cashman and Steinbrenner discuss Tanaka’s impact

Tanaka is now set to fly down to Tampa tonight to get settled there before reporting on Friday with all the other pitchers and catchers. As of now, the starting rotation (though not necessarily in this order) is Sabathia, Kuroda, Tanaka, Nova, and {Pineda, Phelps, Nuno, Warren, or maybe someone else}. Even without a definite fifth starter (though this will make camp very interesting), that’s still a nasty rotation, heavy on the right-handers, but still something to be feared, especially in the AL East. In fact, adding Tanaka gave the Yankees that sudden boost that made those desk analysts take notice and stop dismissing the Yankees as “has-beens”.

Look, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in all my years of watching baseball (which is longer than Tanaka’s been alive, but not that much longer, mind you), it’s that nothing is as obvious as it seems before the first pitch is thrown. Baseball, like life, is anything but predictable. And that’s what makes it fun. At this point, every team in the league has a 1 in 30 chance to be the 2014 World Champions, and one of them will be. This year, I think it’s our turn. So this year, they have to prove me right. And since I like being right, don’t let me down, guys!

Go Yankees!

News from the Sidewalk Six… and well, Australia

I think one of my favorite parts of preparing for the preseason is getting regular Twitter updates from the “Sidewalk Six” (as they’ve dubbed themselves), the small group of sports reporters loitering outside the Yankees minor league complex’s outfield fence in hopes of getting a blurry phone picture of the guys in practice or by the parking lot for the random interview with anyone who will stop and talk to them. They are certainly making me smile with their pictures of the “reporter seating” (aka Port-a-Potties), random tweets about car alarms or crazy drivers yelling “Yankees suck”, and the occasional great quote from a player on their way home after practice.

If I still lived in the Tampa area, I’d drive over some Krispy Kremes as thanks for the entertainment; should anyone do this in the area, let me know (tell them it’s from me), and I’ll give you a Yankees gift. These guys are the low-men on the totem pole in the reporting world, on assignment until the big guys get there when the Yankees officially open their doors to the press. For now, the Sidewalk Six resort to portable step ladders, sneaking peeks at the nearby local circus tent (not kidding), and entertaining their followers with the mundane of their current situation (Jeter’s fielding baseballs again, Jeter’s doing BP in the cages, Jeter’s tossing the long ball in the outfield, Jeter’s…).

So following that train of thought, Derek Jeter stopped by the crowd today, dressed in an American Museum of Natural History sweatshirt (the museum in New York where the first Night at the Museum movie took place). Jeter answered questions relating to his sweatshirt (really creative, guys!), daily workouts, his expectations for the 2014 season (hint: it’s winning the World Series, just like every year), and his reaction to the whole Alex Rodriguez situation. In regards to that last one, Jeter said, “It is what it is. He’s not here for this season, so we’re going to have to find ways to win with the team that we have… For us, look, we show up and we do our job… It’s not something that’s weighing on our minds when we’re playing games. It’s a situation that he has to deal with. Now it’s over and it’s done with, and we’ll move on from there. But you’d have to ask him how he feels about that… It’s a situation that he has to deal with. It is what it is. He’s not going to be here this year, so we’ve got to find ways to get it done.”

Francisco Cervelli also stopped to chat with the Six today, discussing how he really looking forward to closing the door on 2013. He spent Spring and the early part of 2013 settling into the role he worked so hard to earn, the starting catcher, only to have it snatched away twice. First, he caught a foul ball off his hand, fracturing it in late April, which continued to cause him trouble through his rehab. Then in August, he accepted a 50-game suspension due to his connections with the Biogenesis matter. It wasn’t until December 14, just 2 months ago, that all his restrictions were finally lifted, and he was cleared to resume his off-season preparations for next season. He is the clear contender for back-up catcher to recent acquisition McCann. “I’ve just got to keep working, having fun and playing baseball,” Cervelli said. “Do what they ask me to do, and I know what’s my role now, but you never know.”

Michael Pineda is ready to compete for a rotation spot after two years on the DL and in rehab with a should injury. He’s been working the pitching coach Larry Rothschild this week to help him prepare for Spring. Pineda is expected to be competing for that fifth rotation spot against Phelps, Warren, and Nuno, all of whom have a great chance to prove their big league potential this Spring. “I want to pitch,” Pineda said. “I want to help my team… I’m here, I’m ready to compete and I want to help my team this year and help my team make the playoffs and play in the World Series. That’s what I want… I know I had injuries, but right now, I’m feeling stronger and my shoulder is feeling good. I’m the same Michael Pineda.”

And the news from Australia (though I don’t know why they picked up this story) is in regards to Masahiro Tanaka. Tanaka’s move to the U.S. was done with a certain sense of style. He charted a 787 (one of the new models of the Boeing line of planes) to transport himself, his wife, 3 other people, and his pet poodle from Tokyo to the Bronx for his press conference tomorrow. Tokyo, like much of America recently, has been battling winter storms that have been affecting air travel, and many flights have been cancelled or delayed. However, this doesn’t affect charters that leave on the traveler’s schedule (within reason of nature’s wrath in the winter, of course). Tanaka will don his pinstripes tomorrow at Yankee Stadium before heading down for a much sunnier climate for Spring.

And to put things into perspective, it will be 27 in New York tomorrow, but 77 in Tampa. I’m guessing everyone is looking forward to that 50 degree increase. I know I am.

Go Yankees!

Some drop a suit, others suit up

Well, consider it a closed chapter to an unnecessarily elongated saga, but today, Alex Rodriguez dropped his lawsuits against MLB and the MLBPA (the players’ union) in regards to the Biogenesis case. MLB released a statement confirming this decision:

We have been informed that Alex Rodriguez has reached the prudent decision to end all of the litigation related to the Biogenesis matter. We believe that Mr. Rodriguez’s actions show his desire to return the focus to the play of our great game on the field and to all of the positive attributes and actions of his fellow Major League Players. We share that desire.

Rodriguez’s attorney (or at least the main guy of a cache of attorney on his payroll) also confirmed that Rodriguez won’t be at Spring Training this year, contrary to some earlier assumptions that he might due to his suspension on applying to regular season games. But Rodriguez removing himself from the drama that always is the Yankees camp (even more so when there’s such an interesting bit of journalism) is actually seen as a sign that he is instead choosing to accept the ruling, move on, and focus on the future, which I think is the best case scenario for everyone in the long-run.

It should be worth noting that Rodriguez’s suit against Yankees’ team doctor Dr. Ahmad and New York Presbyterian Hospital is still ongoing because it has nothing to do with the Biogenesis matter. To recap that issue: Rodriguez accused Dr. Ahmad and the hospital of malpractice for not catching the hip issue that he says affected his playing in the 2012 postseason and eventually needed surgery following that season, causing him to miss more than half of the 2013 regular season. Again, as this has nothing to do with the Biogenesis case, this suit is still in the court system. Only time will tell how this unfolds.

In his place, the Yankees are set to use new acquisition Kelly Johnson at 3rd base, rotating in a platoon of Eduardo Nunez, Scott Sizemore, and Dean Anna. And then again, anything can happen during Spring Training, so it’s technically still anyone’s guess who will play 3rd this year, almost too reminiscent of 2013 already.

And the Yankees announced today that they will do their official “Welcome to the Yankees” press conference for pitcher Masahiro Tanaka on Tuesday at Yankee Stadium before he heads down to Florida to report in on Friday. Like Ellsbury, McCann, and Beltran before him this year, it will be Tanaka’s turn to shine, don his own pinstripes, and talk about what is expected of him and what he expects of himself. Tanaka joins a distinguished line of Japanese heroes to make a splash in the Bronx, some of whom were his own heroes growing up, so I’m guessing being a Yankee like Matsui and Ichiro might come up at some point. And rightly so. I’m looking forward to seeing Tanaka don the pinstripes and go from being a “Japanese wunderkind” to a New York Yankee and learn that “once a Yankee, always a Yankee”.

Go Yankees!

Babe Ruth is 119, and Masahiro Tanaka is on his way to the U.S.

Legends, teammates, and friends
Lou Gehrig & Babe Ruth in 1927
via Google Images

Today is Babe Ruth’s 119th birthday, and this month in his honor, thousands will make the pilgrimage to his grave site in Westchester county, just north of the NYC metro area. I honestly had no idea this was a thing, but apparently, fans do this every year prior to the start of each season. They even have a tour bus that arranges a stop to the grave site so fans can pay homage to what a lot of people consider to be the “Greatest Ball Player Who Ever Lived”. It’s a big tourist attraction and tradition for many baseball fans. About 10 years ago when the Red Sox were looking to “break the curse” so closely associated with Ruth, even Red Sox fans made the pilgrimage to “ask him” to release their team from the curse.

Yes, this is one of those weird things about baseball that non-baseball fans seem to like to focus on to point of why “everyone hates baseball now”. I am going to say here and now that this baseball fan thinks this is beyond weird and abnormal. I am a huge fan of traditions and nostalgia, but this might be taking things a bit too far. Right up there for me with some of the weirder superstitions like players wearing the same socks without washing them for every game or not shaving the entire season in hopes that alone will gift them the Championship.

It pays to have friends in high places, as they say. The NY state department was able to put a rush on Masahiro Tanaka‘s work visa so Tanaka would be able to make it to Spring Training. Tanaka is expected to leave Japan by Sunday, which puts him in Florida in plenty of time for his reporting date next Friday (February 14). And like many of his new teammates, he will escaping the winter (albeit a much more mild one than some of this country’s winter this year) into Florida temperatures.

Tanaka will be joining fellow pitchers and catchers as they begin their own workouts at the Tampa minor league complex. One of the smartest things they do for Spring Training is to call for pitchers and catchers to report early because they require more fluidity and teamwork than all the other players. For at least half the game, the entire flow of the half-inning is dictated by the communication and work of the pitcher and catcher. And with McCann being the new starting catcher and back-up Cervelli coming off the DL and a suspension, they have a mix of old and new pitchers to learn how to work together and build a functional professional relationship. Plus, there’s that magic of developing the bullpen and giving those minor leaguers and non-roster invitees a chance to show off their stuff and give Girardi, Cashman, & Co. someone to remember for the “what if” days.

And so we are at 8 days to pitchers and catchers, 13 to full squad, 14 to first full workout, 19 to first Spring game, and 53 days to Opening Day (and 59 to Opening Day in the Bronx). And if you remember the thing they were doing last year with the countdown, that’s Yogi Berra, Alex Rodriguez, formerly Curtis Granderson (I really doubt anyone will wear this number this year), Austin Romine, and 3rd base coach Rob Thomson, respectively. Of course, I can’t help but think of Yankees every time I get a number, be it at a restaurant or the random lottery ticket. I guess that’s a side effect of being a fan not just of today’s Yankees, but of their history and legacy.

Go Yankees!

The week wrap-up

Instead of continuing my Classic Era favorite player series (next week, I promise), I wanted to wrap up a little bit of some of the things happening around Yankee Universe.

Today, they announced that recent signee Masahiro Tanaka will wear #19 (yes, that was Chris Stewart’s former number).

After designating him for assignment Wednesday to make room for Tanaka on the roster, the Yankees traded pitcher David Huff to the Giants for cash considerations.

Last night, Yankee fans gathered at a local sports bar in the City, Foley’s, to celebrate its 10th year in business. It also served as a fundraiser for Yankee fans Carlos & Ashley Rivera, founder of the “Yankees Empire” fan base, whose young daughter Sophia was diagnosed with multiple tumor on her brain and spine. Their fundraising efforts have been dubbed “Smiles for Sophia”. Guest bartender and Yankee celebrity “Bald” Vinny Milano (of Bleacher Creature fame) helped bring attention to the event. They had a great turn-out and raised money to help little Sophia. Our prayers continue to go out for her and her family.

This Sunday, Yankees Stadium is freezing over. Despite the conclusion what some Boston fans might think with that statement, the infield has been transitioned into a ice hockey rink. Even with predicted snow the night before and a 19 degree high on Sunday, fans will bundle up to watch the New York Rangers play the New Jersey Devils. With all the recent snow fall and arctic blasts coming through the City, those setting up the open-air stadium have been severely hampered by such a massive task. Something that could definitely be echoed in a couple of weeks across the river in New Jersey with the Superbowl. It looks like it’s just going to be one of those years for wild, crazy weather, and those wonderful outdoor stadiums (and their fans) are certainly being affected more than their fair share. But I guess that’s what makes me happy that baseball is a summer sport. (And suddenly, I’m reminded of some of those late April snow storms from last season; but nothing’s perfect.)

And in legacy news, Cooperstown announced that, while other inductees this year won’t have a specific team designated on their Hall of Fame plaque,  Joe Torre will be inducted as a Yankee. And rightfully so, I think. When people think of Torre, they aren’t thinking of the various teams he played with during his playing career, nor are they thinking of the brief managing stint with the Dodgers. No, Torre will always be remembered as the man who led the Yankees into the most recent dynasty years. And any Yankee fan today is indebted to him for his impact and legacy that the team still seems to carry with them today. As they say, “Once a Yankee…”

Go Yankees!

Masahiro Tanaka in pinstripes for the win

So unless you’ve been under an NFL-sized rock today, the big news story in the MLB world is where the young Japanese phenom pitcher Masahiro Tanaka chose to play for his MLB debut. With Jeter’s agent representing him and Tanaka’s idol Matsui’s encouragement, it was only a matter of time before Tanaka declared his allegiance to the Yankees.

This means, as MLB writer Richard Justice put it, the Yankees are “back in business”. Blowing away that $189 million luxury-tax threshold “goal, not a mandate” with today’s signing, the Yankees have pulled a little George Steinbrenner-ness today (and through the off-season) creating what should be a winning team. And honestly, when you look at the new signings combined with those left on that roster, there is a lot of reason to hope for Bronx Baseball this October. Tanaka’s addition just cements what the Yankees seemed dead-set on doing, even before that last game in September.

The Yankees offered Tanaka $155 million over the next 7 years to play in pinstripes, with an opt-out clause after the 4th year. This means that stellar arm, we in America have only seen in small clips and imagined about from rumors, could be throwing his cavalcade of strike-out pitches through the 2021 season, where the now-25-year-old will be in his early 30’s and looking for another medium-term contract (like the 4 years they usually offer players in their early 30’s).

While much is being said by the fan bases of the teams who were supposedly “outbid” (Dodgers, Angels, Cubs, White Sox, and Diamondbacks) about his lack of experience in the MLB seems foolish to offer such a contract to an “untested” player, I have to look at his NPB (Japanese equivalent) record to compare — 99-35 win-loss record, 2.30 ERA, 1238 strikeouts, part of the Japanese Series championship team (2013), 5 time NPB All-Star, and 2007 Rookie of the Year. And some have questioned the pressure of playing in such a large market like New York, but Tanaka is a celebrity in Japan, handling himself with the same class we’ve grown to respect from fellow countrymen and Yankees players like Matsui and Ichiro.

And in case you were wondering about the 40-man roster count (of course you weren’t, but I’m at capacity with information today thanks to my Twitter feed that seriously needed cooling off once an hour due to all the Tanaka-news), the Yankees designated relief pitcher David Huff for assignment to make room for Tanaka. And while this may seem like a loss in a bullpen that still needs to be molded a bit more, this is great news and timing for pitchers like Huff. The free agent pitching market has been on hold while Tanaka was deciding his course because the teams with the losing bids still wanted a shot at some of the great free agents left on the market. Once that handful of starters go, the remaining guys, predominantly relievers, will be divided up and pieced into the puzzle that are the bullpens across Major League Baseball.

I guess, as the dust settles with this announcement today, I’m left thinking about how my (perhaps naively) optimistic hope for 2014 back in October seems almost oddly prophetic and very smart today. Maybe I just never forgot that this is George’s team, this is the Boss’ team, and to believe, even at any point in the process, that it wasn’t, was borderline heresy for a Yankees fan. The legacy of the man who knew you had to spend big to win, the image of whom looms above the right field bleachers and watches every action and inaction, the spirit and drive to create a legendary dynasty — he showed up today, and I have to think he might just be a little bit proud of his boys.

Go Yankees!