One week left of the off-season, tying up details

There is just one week until pitchers and catchers report to the Yankees minor league complex in Tampa. Though quite a few players (like Luis Severino coming off a great 2017 season) are already working out on the fields and in the cages, a great off-season perk for being part of the organization. With some recent departures, there are a handful of spots to be earned this Spring, including 2nd and 3rd base and a finalized starting rotation and bullpen.

The Yankees announced last week that they have finalized their coaching staff behind new manager Aaron Boone, filling out most of the staff with mostly familiar faces from the Yankees organization. Larry Rothschild, as we already knew, will return as the Yankees’ pitching coach, now joined by Mike Harkey as bullpen pitching coach, Marcus Thames as hitting coach, and Brett Weber as coaching assistant and MLB leading instant replay coordinator (currently sitting at 75% success rate). Yankees settled on Reggie Willits for their 1st base coach, Carlos Mendoza as quality control coach and infield instructor, P.J. Pilittere as assistant hitting coach, Jason Brown as catching coach, and Radley Haddad as coaching assistant and bullpen catcher. They also bring in two new faces in the form of new bench coach Josh Bard (former Dodgers’ bullpen coach) and new 3rd base coach Phil Nevin (former Giants’ minor league coach).

And Spring Training invitations have gone out to all 39 men currently on the 40-man roster, plus 20 non-roster invitees. And because there’s been quite a few departures and only a few big signings (Stanton sound familiar?), here’s a list for you to prep for the Spring. On the 40-man roster: pitchers Albert Abreu, Domingo Acevedo, Dellin Betances, Luis Cessa, Aroldis Chapman, Giovanny Gallegos, Domingo German, Sonny Gray, Chad Green, Ben Heller, Jonathan Holder, Tommy Kahnle, Jonathan Loaisiga, Jordan Montgomery, David Robertson, CC Sabathia, Luis Severino, Chasen Shreve, Masahiro Tanaka, and Adam Warren; catchers Kyle Higashioka, Austin Romine, and Gary Sanchez; infielders Miguel Andujar, Tyler Austin, Greg Bird, Thairo Estrada, Didi Gregorius, Gleyber Torres, and Ronald Torreyes; and outfielders Jabari Blash, Jake Cave, Jacoby Ellsbury, Clint Frazier, Brett Gardner, Aaron Hicks, Aaron Judge, Billy McKinney, and Giancarlo Stanton. Non roster invitees: pitchers Chance Adams, Cody Carroll, Cale Coshow, Raynel Espinal, J.P. Feyereisen, David Hale, Brady Lail, Wade LeBlanc, Justus Sheffield, Dillon Tate, and Taylor Widener; catchers Francisco Diaz, Erik Kratz, Chace Numata, and Jorge Saez; infielders Danny Espinosa, Kyle Holder, Jace Peterson, and Nick Solak; and outfielder Estevan Florial.

On a brief side note, free agent and last year’s part-time 3rd baseman Todd Frazier signed with the Mets this week. The Mets are fortunate to have a great veteran presence on the field and in the clubhouse. However, it is almost oddly fitting for the guy who triggered the “thumbs-down” movement last year come full circle. The fan who stood up and gave the thumbs-down sign at the make-up Yankees-Rays game last September (Gary) is a die-hard Mets fan, only attending the game because he was able to get cheap tickets to a ball game at CitiField. So now, Gary can “thumbs-up” Frazier at CitiField on a regular basis, but something tells me those two will keep the thumbs down as one of those trademark “you had to be there” things for a long time to come. Good luck, Frazier! See you at the Subway Series!

The Yankees lost a fan-favorite alumnus last week. Power-hitting outfielder Oscar Gamble played 7 seasons with the Yankees (1976, 1979-1984) towards the end of his 17 year career (1969-1985) as a professional ball player. Gamble helped the Yankees with their postseason attempts in 1976, 1980, and 1981 to bookend the brief “Bronx is Burning” dynasty era. He was nicknamed the “Big O” by Phil Rizzuto, another Yankee alumnus (and broadcaster, at that point) and was known for his large afro peeking out below his helmet and ball cap, though the infamous Steinbrenner grooming rules certainly tamed that hair for a bit in those late-70s. Despite no history of chewing tobacco, Gamble was diagnosed with a rare tumor of the jaw 9 years ago and underwent several removal surgeries over the years before it became aggressive just over a year ago and ultimately fatal last week. Our prayers and condolences go out to his many friends and his wife Lovell, and their sons Sean and Shane and daughter Sheena.

Again, we’re counting down the days until baseball starts again, and the Yankees have already shipped all their goods from the Bronx, making its way down I-95 towards Sunny Florida. Hopes are running high for this year, but they always do this early in the year. Because right now, anything really is possible. And isn’t that the greatest way to live life? On positivity, hope, and faith.

Go Yankees!

Rizzuto & Ford — two very different legends, one big dynasty

Okay, I began talking about some of my favorite Yankees on Monday, even listing my top 5 from the “Classic Era” (1903-1961). So today, I’m continuing my explanation of my choices beginning with my number 5, actually a tie between Phil Rizzuto and Whitey Ford. I chose Rizzuto because he still is one of the best shortstops in Yankee history, his active time with the Yankees is really unsurpassed even to this day, and he was really a great guy who just loved to play ball. And I had to pick Ford because he’s really one of my favorite Yankee pitchers of all time, and he just loved to play this crazy game with passion and a whole lot of fun.

Phil Rizzuto, about 1955

Phillip Rizzuto, often dubbed “Scooter”, a native New Yorker, born in Brooklyn in 1917 was part of the dynasty years that cemented the Yankee legacy beyond the “Golden Era” of the 20’s led by Ruth and Gehrig. A slight build for an infielder, Rizzuto bounced around the Yankees’ minor leagues in his early 20’s before getting that call to the big leagues in 1941. Rizzuto played his first game for the Yankees on April 14. That first year, the Yankees beat the Dodgers in the World Series, earning Rizzuto the first of his 7 Rings.

The following year, the shortstop even played in his first of 5 All-Star Games. But the Navy came calling, like it did for so many of the young players of that era, and a 25-year-old Rizzuto instead spent 3 years playing baseball for the Navy with fellow future Hall of Famers like the Dodgers Pee Wee Reese and the Yankees own Bill Dickey. After the War, Rizzuto was back in his old #10 pinstriped jersey ready to pick up better than where he left off.

Rizzuto was a master of the “small ball” batting, unlike some of his more power-hitting teammates. This attributed to his lifetime batting average of .273, 1588 career hits, and 563 RBIs. Now in the lead-off batting spot, 1950 was Rizzuto’s most outstanding year, earning him the MVP award. He led the league in plate appearances (735), 2nd in hits (200), and 3rd in doubles (36), though his performance against the Phillies in the Series was one of his weaker outings in his whole career. (The Yankees still went on to win the Series in a 4 game sweep.)

Rizzuto spent his career at shortstop, playing in 5 All-Star Games (1942, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953) and 9 World Series, earning 7 Rings in the process (1941, 1947, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953), all before that final game August 16, 1956. Thirteen seasons in 16 years, all with the Yankees, the 39-year-old, married to the love of his life Cora with 4 kids, continued staying involved with the Yankees and baseball in a different way.

Beginning in the 1957 season, Scooter Rizzuto was at the microphone calling the very games he had played just the previous year. But Rizzuto seemed to make himself very comfortable in the booth, able to watch some of the greatest plays to come in Yankees history (including the famed 1961 home run derby between Mantle and Maris). Rizzuto was a regular fixture at Yankee Stadium again until not being permitted to go to his former fellow teammate’s (Mantle) funeral in 1995, required instead to call a Red Sox game. He abruptly left in the middle of the game, unable to think about anything but his friend’s death, announcing his retirement shortly thereafter.

Yankee Shortstops: Jeter & Rizzuto in 1999

He was persuaded to return to the booth for one more season, something I think modern-day Yankee fans would remember. Rizzuto was the one who called another young shortstop’s very first home run that year. When he retired from the Yankees for good after the 1996 season, Rizzuto had spent almost 60 years with the Yankees, 40 of those years in the broadcasting booth, the longest-running Yankees broadcaster ever.

Rizzuto’s #10 was retired by the Yankees in 1985, and after failing to make the Hall of Fame on the regular ballot (the highest he ever earned was 38% of the vote), the Veteran’s Committee easily granted him the honor in 1994. When asked why he didn’t get elected the normal way, his response was that his numbers “don’t shout; they kind of whisper.” Noted players and managers of the day and his peers felt the slight was unjustified, but Rizzuto had the last laugh as he left that legacy of whispering in Cooperstown for generations to take notice.

Rizzuto died in peacefully in his sleep in 2007 at the age of 89, after some recurring health issues and progressively declining health. His beloved wife Cora passed away just three years later. But in the hearts and minds of Yankees fans everywhere, Scooter lives on, forever memorialized in Monument Park and Cooperstown, and that high standard at shortstop only one other Yankee has ever surpassed.

Whitey Ford, his rookie year, 1950

Edward Ford, another New Yorker by birth (from Astoria, Queens), born in 1928, only became “Whitey” when he joined the Yankees minor leagues in 1947 and the guys figured his light blond hair needed to be recognized. Stepping into the bigs in the middle of 1950 (Rizzuto’s big year), Ford seemed to find his stride early, earning 9 wins just that year. And again, his early career was interrupted by military service, spending 1951 and 1952 in the Army during the Korean War. But when he rejoined the Yankees in 1953, the pitching staff suddenly congealed and the Yankees hit their stride for the rest of that decade, earning the other nickname “Chairman of the Board”.

While he didn’t really have a great fastball, Ford found his home in several other types of pitches to throw off his batters. That great 1961 season was good for Ford too, earning him his only Cy Young Award and the World Series MVP, something he certainly earned with a record of 25-4, leading the league during the regular season in games started (39), innings pitched (283), and batters faced (1159).

By the time Ford retired at the beginning of 1967, after what would be career-ending surgery at the end of 1966, his career stats certainly shouted — a 236-106 W-L record, 2.75 ERA, and 1956 total strikeouts. He was a ten-time All-Star (1954, 1955, 1956, 1958, 1959, twice in 1960, twice in 1961, 1964) and played in 11 World Series, winning 6 Rings (1950, 1953, 1956, 1958, 1961, 1962). Ford was inducted to Cooperstown on the second ballot with 77.81% of the vote in 1974. That same year, the Yankees also retired his #16, which he began wearing following his time in Korea.

Legends at 2013 Old Timer’s Day: Berra & Ford

To this day, Ford’s pitching record still stands in Yankee history. Ford and his wife Joan (married in 1951) had 3 children, and settled in his retirement in the middle of some flurry of accusations of “ball-doctoring”, a common practice among pitchers up until the days when they toss balls for even the slightest dirt mark (that’s how many people get free balls at games today). Ford admitted to some doctoring, especially later in his career, but clearly (looking at those later numbers), that didn’t work as well as he might have hoped admittedly so.

So Ford, now 85, is enjoying the retired life, appearing at special functions like the Old Timer’s Game, the last game at old Yankee Stadium (in 2008), and other functions requiring the great #16. He and Berra seem to be competing for the long-living Yankee, and both characters give Yankees fans to this day a lot of funny stories and excitement from Yankees history to carry us into the next dynasty.

Go Yankees!

Yankee greatness from way back

I mentioned before the Christmas break that I was working on some things for the off-season to gear up for this next one. I spent most of the day today working out a lot of the details for Spring Training, truly one of my favorite parts of the year (the Spring, not really the preparations for it). There’s something to be said for having something to look forward to in life. It gives you a sense of hope, a sense of joy really because something’s just around the bend that is different and new and could lead to unlimited possibilities.

But before we get too caught up in what could be, I want to focus a little on what was. As Yankees fans, we’re constantly reminded, by those who will remain nameless and less “celebrated”, that we can always look to the history of our favorite team to remind ourselves (and anyone who’ll listen) of our great history. And while I understand that can be a crutch to carry a weaker team through some tough seasons (is anyone else hearing “86 year curse” right now?), I think there’s something to be said for carrying on a legacy of greatness. A long line of men worked very hard, played with excellence, and got those 27 rings (well, 26 rings and a pocket watch), setting a standard not just for the Yankees, but for baseball in general.

But in that long line of history, I’m often asked “who is your favorite Yankee?” as I’m sure many of you Yankee fans are asked from time to time. And unlike some other teams, this isn’t an easy answer. There’s almost too many “great ones” to choose from. So, I break my own down my top 5 players like this: classic era (1903-1961), expansion era (1961-2013), and current roster (those only on the 2014 40-man roster). Recent retirees have altered my list a bit, but I think I’ve figured it out.

We’ll start with the most historic ones. So my personal favorite Yankees from the Classic Era of Baseball (1903-1961) are:

  1. Mickey Mantle (#7) — played 1951-1968
  2. Yogi Berra (#8) — played 1946-1965
  3. Joe DiMaggio (#5) — played 1936-1951
  4. Lou Gehrig (#4) — played 1923-1939
  5. Phil Rizzuto (#10) — played 1941-1956 // Whitey Ford (#16) — played 1950-1967

(Notes: I know some of these played into the Expansion Era, but honestly, their best playing years were solidly within the original time frame. Also, this was very difficult because I wanted to limit myself to players who played only with the Yankees during their time as professional players, or else I would have included greats like Roger Maris. And I allowed myself a tie on my fifth selection which I’ll explain in a later post.)

So, I hope I got you thinking now. Who are your favorites from that Classic Era? I know people wonder why I omitted certain choices, but if you remember my original criteria for who I think makes a great baseball player (ability, teamwork, and character), my decisions might make a bit more sense. Or maybe not. But I will take a post to explain each selection in the coming days (barring any further breaking news), and I’m curious to hear your responses and your selections. Use the comment section below to explain your choices.

Go Yankees!