Off-season bits: January edition

Happy 2019! It’s only 30 days until pitchers and catcher report to the Tampa minor league complex and officially kick off Spring Training and the 2019 baseball season. There hasn’t really be a lot of splashy signings by the Yankees this off-season, and it looks like the two biggest free agents will be signing elsewhere. But there’s still quite a bit of time before Spring Training, and even more time before the regular season to finalize that perfect 25-man roster.

Last month, CC Sabathia’s off-season took a bit of a detour. He was supposed to travel around England on a press tour for the upcoming Yankees-Red Sox series in the UK this summer, but instead found himself on the operating table getting a stent put in his heart. After experiencing some discomfort during his exercise routine, he was smart enough to listen to his body and see a doctor, who found a 90% blocked artery and scheduled an emergency angioplasty on December 11.

Just last week, he was cleared to resume baseball activities and is on track to report for camp next month with the other pitchers and catchers. Doctors have pronounced him in excellent condition, including for the long-term (much to the relief of his wife and family). Sabathia himself said he felt “like a brand new person“. This procedure is just further support for Sabathia’s recent lifestyle changes — abstaining from alcohol and altering his diet and nutrition intake, something he hopes can carry him through the rest of his life, deterring any future issues with his genetic predisposition for heart disease.

Meanwhile, the Yankees haven’t made any big name signings, but they have secured three decently recognizable names to their major league roster. To provide back-up for Didi Gregorius while he recovers from Tommy John surgery, the Yankees signed shortstop Troy Tulowitzki for a year.

Formerly with the Rockies and Blue Jays and winner of two Gold Gloves and two Silver Sluggers, the five-time All-Star is now 34 and has been inactive for the last 18 months due to a plague of injuries, but was released by the Blue Jays despite owing him a hefty salary for the next two seasons. Tulowitzki has worn #2 in honor of his childhood baseball hero Derek Jeter for his entire MLB career, so it will be interesting to find out what number he’ll don as Jeter’s famous number was retired nearly three year ago.

They also signed free agent infielder DJ LeMathieu to a 2-year contract. LeMathieu has spent all 8 of his MLB seasons with the Rockies at 2nd base and will join his former teammate on the Yankees roster. Both LeMathieu and Tulowitzki could serve as rather active bench players through the season as part of the now full infield.

And the Yankees made the biggest impact by re-signing reliever Zach Britton to a new 3-year contract (potentially 4 if options are exercised), solidifying his presence in the already stellar bullpen with fellow closing relievers like Betances and Chapman.

To make room for the two new faces, the Yankees designated reliever AJ Cole and minor league infielder Hanser Alberto for assignment. Both were picked up quickly by the Indians and Orioles, respectively.

At the end of last year, the Yankees offered all arbitration-eligible players a 1-year deal to close out their contract agreements before the players have the potential to become free agents. Eight players agreed to the Yankees’ terms — Betances, Bird, Gray, Gregorius, Hicks, Kahnle, Paxton and Romine. The remaining player, Luis Severino, is still in negotiations as of this weekend, which can continue until a hearing is held where an arbitrator makes a decision how much a team must pay a player.

And for those of you that pay attention to other sports, you might know that as of yesterday, there are only four teams left in the NFL playoffs. Next weekend will eliminate two more so that the winners of those two games will end up playing in the Superbowl next month. But none of those teams are the Seahawks. And despite playing in the Pro-Bowl (the NFL’s equivalent of the All-Star Game), the current most famous NFL-MLB player, Seattle’s star quarterback Russell Wilson, is preparing for his stint at Spring Training again. He made a big splash with the fans last year with his single at-bat (and strikeout) and is set for six days in camp with hopefully a better game performance.

Next month, Miguel Andujar, Didi Gregorius, and Aaron Boone will bring their star power to the annual Thurmon Munson Awards dinner. The three are being recognized for their philanthropy and active community involvement, in the spirit of the dinner’s namesake. Former Yankee Darryl Strawberry will also be on hand to present an award, and other sports stars and executives are being honored for their life of giving.

And finally, Yankees icon Mel Stottlemyre lost his battle with bone marrow cancer yesterday. The former pitching coach helped guide the 1986 Mets to their championship before being a critical part of the last Yankees dynasty, coaching legends like Pettitte and Rivera, spending a decade with each team.

Initially diagnosed in 2000, the cancer went into remission following intensive treatments before returning in 2011. The Yankees eventually honored him in a surprise presentation with a plaque in Monument Park in 2015 on Old Timers’ Day, surrounded by fellow legends. Our hearts go out to all of his loved ones, especially his wife Jean and their sons Todd and Mel.

Go Yankees!

Game 67: TB vs. NYY — Old Timers’ Day joy, but a series still won

For as long as I remember, summer wasn’t summer without baseball. And baseball wasn’t baseball without my dad. So, watching a ballgame on Father’s Day is a gift for me.

It reminds me of my childhood spent with dad watching games on a grainy black-and-white set while he explained the mechanics of the game and talked of legendary players. Reminds me summer days at the ballpark cheering on a favorite team, despite its dismal record, eating peanuts and telling jokes. Reminds me of the weekend Dad spent teaching us to play ball with his old bat and catcher’s mitt in the backyard. And as always, there was joy and fun building those family memories.

It is in those moments that my strong bonds between Dad and baseball are formed. Dad so enjoyed the game that we couldn’t help but learn the enjoy it too. Our family may all root for different teams now, but the common bond is still the game itself. Though he’s been gone nearly a decade now, Dad would love knowing his kids and grandkids are now building their own family memories around this same game of baseball.

And maybe that’s what he had in mind all along. Thanks, Dad!

In the final game of this weekend series against the visiting Rays, CC Sabathia had a great game overall, throwing 102 pitches into the 8th inning. He gave up 10 hits, a walk, and 3 runs, and solidly struck out 10 Rays’ batters.

The only runs the Rays scored tonight came in the 2nd inning. He gave up 2 consecutive singles to put runners on the corners before a double scored the lead runner. Two outs later, the batter hit a solid single that scored both runners, but then the Yankees defense kicked in and got the runner trying to stretch his single into a double.

Leaving the game to a standing ovation, Sabathia would have had a great game and probably a win had the Yankees had any kind of offensive support. Adam Warren came on to close out the 8th for Sabathia and throw a solid 9th inning, but the Yankees’ offense limped through the game. They still managed 7 hits and 4 walks on the board, but they only run they got was a 2-out solo home run in the 5th by Aaron Hicks.

Final score: 3-1 Rays, Yankees win series 3-1

Next up: The Yankees travel to Washington, D.C. to complete their previously suspended game from May 15. That game will conclude first, picking up in the 6th inning with the game tied 3-3. About 30 minutes after that conclusion, they will play the make-up game from May 16. The Yankees will head back to the Bronx for their 3-game mid-week series against the Mariners before beginning their road trip against the Rays.

Before the current Yankees took the field, Yankee fans were treated to witness the celebration of the 72nd Annual Old Timers’ Day, featuring many favorite players, spanning generations of greats from the 1940s to the 2010s. Always a fan-favorite day, players from decades of former Yankee rosters take the field for a few innings, full of good-natured competition and fun.

Before the action on the field, the familiar voice of the late Bob Sheppard greeted the fans to Old Timers Day and the stadium roared to life, and current Yankee broadcasters John Sterling and Michael Kay began the introductions of each participant.

After introducing the widows of former players — Jill Martin (Billy), Kay Murcer (Bobby), Diana Munson (Thurman), and Helen Hunter (Catfish) — they continued with a plethora of former Yankee greats like Dr. Bobby Brown, Bucky Dent, Ron Guidry, Reggie Jackson, Willie Randolph, Bobby Richardson, and Gene Monahan, among so many others of Yankee Universe. Fans cheered with standing ovations for pitching legends Whitey Ford and Don Larsen, now in their 80s, but looking spry and all smiles today.

(Full video of today’s introductions.)

The newest members making their debut at Old Timers’ Day were Dion James, Jason Giambi, Andy Pettitte, Nick Swisher, and Yankees manager Aaron Boone. It’s a bit of stretch to call most this group “old timers” (Swisher being just 37), but it was good to see this group again. Their relative youth brought a zeal and enthusiasm to the game. Especially fan-favorite Nick Swisher, as they welcomed him back to the Bronx with roaring applause. He waved and thanked the crowd with his signature smile and genuine gratitude, obviously much missed.

As they do every year, the players divided into two teams, the Bombers and the Clippers. The sheer joy of being in pinstripes and taking the field seemed to energize the crowds, and the game did not disappoint. Wild pitches and missed catches brought good-natured ribbing, and Swisher showed off his still-sharp baseball skills with a 2-run double and a big 3-run homer into the second deck. With pitching by the likes of Pettitte and hitting by Swisher, it was inevitbale that the Bombers would outscore the Clippers, final score of 15-3 by the end of their abbreviated game.

Following the game, Swisher was unofficially dubbed the “MVP” of today’s game, saying that today’s festivities sum up the joy of what its like to play baseball for a living. He said, “I feel like every time you take the field, you have a lifetime pass to be a little kid for as long as you want. For me, I’m just happy to be here. I couldn’t believe that [homer]. You only dream of stuff like that!” Close friend David Robertson made sure he celebrated right with his own Gatorade shower during his post-game interview.

Until next year…

Go Yankees!

Game 51: HOU vs. NYY — Gardy Party brings win in 10th, despite 5 errors

No one can say tonight’s game was anything close to cleanly played. Not with 5 errors on the scoreboard. The defense certainly needs some work, some basic throwing and catching and fielding routine grounders.

And yet, despite that mess, the Yankees kept the game tight enough to find a win in extra innings. CC Sabathia started this middle game of the mid-week series against the visiting Astros, threw 99 pitches in his 5 innings, gave up 8 hits, 2 walks, and 5 runs (3 earned, thanks to a few of those errors), and struck out 4 Houston batters.

A lead-off solo homer in the 2nd got the Astros on the board. In the 4th, with 1 out, Sabathia gave up a walk and single that both scored on a big double. And in the sloppy 5th, the lead-off batter made it safely on a messy throwing error, advanced all the way to 3rd on a single that was further complicated by another throwing error, and then scored on a single. A sacrifice fly scored on more run for the Astros.

Then Jonathan Holder came on in relief of Sabathia for 2 innings, and set a pattern the rest of the bullpen would keep for the rest of the game, keeping the Astros from adding to their score and lead. Robertson and Betances continued that momentum through their innings in the 8th and 9th, respectively.

And because this was that kind of game, the Astros’ pitching staff pretty much matched the Yankees’ in many ways. The Astros’ starter gave up 8 hits, a walk, and 3 runs in his time on the mound (6 innings). And most of their bullpen helped keep the Yankees from any potential hope, despite the close game and all their defensive errors.

I once heard someone say that the way Brett Gardner goes, so goes the Yankees. So we should have known something was up when Gardner led off the 1st inning with a big 2nd pitch solo home run. In the 2nd, with 2 outs, Miguel Andujar doubled, moved to 3rd on a passed ball, and then scored on Gleyber Torres’ single. Then the Yankees loaded up the bases with Gardner’s single and Judge’s walk, but left them stranded. Aaron Judge later kept the game tight with a 1st pitch solo home run to the right field seats to lead-off the 5th inning.

Again, a rather tight game ensued, which is really what surprised me with all the sloppy fielding. So into the bottom of the 9th, the Yankees found their next opportunity. Andujar led-off by working a walk, and then 1 out later, Brett Gardner hit 2-run home run just over the right field wall to tie up the game. And the remaining fans of the sold-out game went crazy. (This is the reason you stay until the last out, people!) Judge followed that with a solid double and moved to 3rd on Stanton’s 2-out single, but Sanchez’s big swinging strikeout sent them into the 10th inning.

Aroldis Chapman came on for the top of the 10th and held the Astros scoreless. With 2 outs, he gave up a walk that moved to 2nd on a wild pitch. But then on another wild pitch, catcher Gary Sanchez played the ball off the back wall and fired it down to a waiting Andujar at 3rd to tag out the runner there.

So the Yankees got their 2nd chance (or rather 10th, I guess) to find the winning run in the bottom of the inning. But with 2 fairly quick outs, things were looking grim. And then Miguel Andujar hit a solid double into the left field corner. It would be down to Gleyber Torres. He worked through the at-bat and somehow found a solid enough single to score the speedy Andujar with time to spare for a great walk-off win.

Final score: 6-5 Yankees, in 10 innings

If tonight is any indication, you can understand why the young rookie Gleyber Torres was named the AL Player of the Week. Last week, Torres hit 5 home runs and 9 RBIs and maintained an average of .368 in those 6 games. And he’s certainly making a case for being considered such on a regular basis.

And the annual amateur draft is coming up June 4-6. It’s where we first heard first-round names like Thurman Munson (1968), Derek Jeter (1992), and Aaron Judge (2013). Who knows who the Yankees will choose this year. And every year, the Yankees send representatives to make the announcements of their choices. This year, the Yankees will be represented by former Yankees outfielder and current special assistant to the GM Nick Swisher and Yankees Manager of International Operations Victor Roldan.

Go Yankees!

Midsummer memories

Opening Day, April 5, 2016 (Photo credit: author)

Congratulations to all those who participated in the 2016 MLB All Star Game. And congratulations to the American League for their victory in this midsummer classic that highlights some of the best in baseball. It is wonderful to see these talented players, but also to see how many family-friendly events surround this yearly game that builds a strong fan base and encourages young players, boys and girls, to dream one day of “making the bigs”!

On that note, I have been thinking of all the ways baseball games are about so much more than just sitting in a stadium watching players hit, pitch, field, or run the bases. It is about family and fun and relationships built around a common interest in this great game of baseball. With the first half of the season already in the record books, it seems to be a good time to be reminded why we love to go to the ballpark. To give a nod and a bit of thanks to those who make a day at the stadium a memorable event.

For Yankee fans, the moment we get off the train and Yankee Stadium comes into view, we know it is going to be a memory-making day. From the moment our tickets are scanned at Gate 6, the excitement is palpable as we get that first view of the field from the concourse and are welcomed by the ushers as we settle into our seats. With creative verse or song, the vendors hawk their hot dogs or cotton candy while roaming the aisles. The scoreboard is lit up with baseball trivia, player interviews, and current stats.

The Bleacher Creatures are gathering and preparing for roll call. Seatmates all over the stadium greet each other with smiles in hopes for a Yankee victory. Fans continue to filter into the stands wearing a variety of Yankee shirts and jackets with numbers honoring Mantle, Maris, Berra, Munson, and others. Players on the field begin their pre-game warm-ups. The news crews and photographers roam the field looking for stories and photos. New York’s Finest takes their places to keep an eye on over-exuberant fans.

The National Anthem is sung by a Broadway artist. The ceremonial first pitch is thrown by a former player or celebrity. Inning by inning, faithful fans cheer or laugh or sigh at the plays on the field. It’s as if the fans are playing the game with the team, anticipating every pitch and every play. Yankee fans are involved in the game and seatmates who didn’t know each other at the beginning of the game are conversing and cheering together.

Even the mid-game “Cap Game” and “Subway Races” are cheered by the crowd. The birthday announcements and marriage proposals on the marquee are applauded.  The grounds crew dances their way around the bases. The crowd stands with thundering applause for the military men and women who are honored in the 7th inning as “God Bless America” is sung by another Broadway talent. And then, no matter the score, the true fans stay to end because, as Yogi used to say, “It ain’t over till it’s over!”

Exiting the stadium while Frank Sinatra serenades the fans with his iconic tune “New York, New York”, the stands empty onto the waiting trains. Another great day at the ballpark.

Across the league, this experience is repeated almost daily in different ways in different cities that best reflect their own teams. From mascot races, to running the bases, to trivia contests, to guest vocalists for the National Anthem or “God Bless America”, each team chooses what best reflects the values of their team and sets the tone to build a loyal fan base for baseball. Everyone who organizes or participates in any of these events is to be thanked by us all. You are part of why we love to come to the ballpark and call this game “America’s pastime”.

So, to include how other teams have chosen ways to celebrate the game and include fans, I have included the following videos from the first half of the 2016 season:

Our National Anthem as sung by a variety of gifted musicians including Candace Payne, aka “Chewbacca Mom” (Houston Astros); Hermina Hirsch, Holocaust survivor with the Stoney Creek High School Sign Language Choir (Detroit Tigers); the cast of Jersey Boys, Broadway musical (Washington Nationals); country singer and player’s wife Juliana Zobrist (Chicago Cubs); and the San Diego Children’s Choir Children’s Choir (Padres).

“God Bless America” as sung by Yarrick Conner, USN Petty Officer (several games including the 2016 All-Star Game); the 82nd Airborne Division All-American Chorus (Fort Bragg); and Mackenzie Walker (Houston Astros).

And here is living proof that baseball fans are ageless: we applaud the delightful Kitty Cohen, 103 years old, as she fulfills her baseball dream of running the bases at a Toronto Blue Jays game.

So here’s to a great second half of the 2016 MLB season. Looking forward to continuing the race for October! Play ball!

Go Yankees!

Game 109: NYY vs. BOS — Memories of excellence win the afternoon

Boston-New York games are always known for going longer than the average 3 hours of a baseball game; it’s been derided and mocked by everyone from non-rivalry fans to actual umpires and broadcasters. But when a game is good and involved, most fans or players or even broadcasters won’t care how long the games are. So when this afternoon’s game ran just shy of 4 hours, no one complained. Because it was a really good game. Well, that and the Yankees won, so I’m certainly not complaining.

Shane Greene was given the start for the Yankees today and really struggled his way through 4.2 innings, throwing 96 pitches, allowing 6 hits, 3 runs, and 2 walks, striking out 5 Red Sox batters. As intimidating as everyone thinks playing in New York is, I cannot imagine how much more intimidating it is to play as a Yankee in Fenway. Greene’s troublesome inning was the 2nd, allowing a 2-run home run to the second batter and an RBI single 2 outs later. That put the Red Sox up 3-0 quickly.

They didn’t stay there long. In the top of the 3rd, the Red Sox started quickly loaded the bases with 3 consecutive walks to Prado, Cervelli, and Gardner before Derek Jeter’s solid double scored Prado and Cervelli. Ellsbury’s ground out scored Gardner to tie up the game, and Carlos Beltran’s single scored Jeter to push the Yankees up 4-3. Mark Teixeira added one more in the 5th inning with a solo home run over the Green Monster seats and onto the rooftop of the building next door. That is a long, hard hit, folks! (5-3 Yankees)

In the bottom of the 5th, after Greene got his first 2 outs, the Yankees turned to Shawn Kelley to close out the 5th and deliver a scoreless 6th inning. The Yankees came back in the 7th to add an insurance run. Beltran led-off with a ground-rule double because of fan interference. (Seriously, folks, if it not solidly in the seats, let the ball stay in the field!) Beltran would then score on Stephen Drew’s double. (6-3 Yankees)

Adam Warren struggled in the bottom of the 7th putting two runners on the corners with a walk and a single, so they asked Dellin Betances to relieve Warren. A sacrifice fly scored a run for the Red Sox (6-4 Yankees), but Betances got out of the inning without another scratch. Betances would work his way through the 8th and turn the game over to David Robertson for his 28th save.

The Yankees would take today’s game 6-4, so tomorrow night’s game against Boston will be officially a “rubber match”, meaning the series could be won by either team. (I had to explain that to someone recently, so I thought I’d clarify that on here too.)

And today, the Yankees remembered the legacy of the late Thurman Munson. Munson was killed 35 years ago today in a plane crash near his northeast Ohio home, where he was practicing take-offs and landings in his private plane. He was just 32 years old, leaving behind his wife and 3 children. At the time, Munson was the Yankees’ captain and All-Star catcher on what was an often contentious Bronx team, though Munson was one of the “good guys”, who played the game right.

(Below is a tweet from Yogi Berra’s granddaughter Lindsay, a reporter for MLB.com. A great picture of some great Yankee catchers — Bill Dickey, Berra, Elston Howard, and Munson. Fun trivia fact: all four now have their numbers retired in Monument Park.)

In his memory, the Yankees retired his number #15 and left Munson’s clubhouse locker intact for years, and when they moved to the new stadium in 2009, they put his entire locker in their museum. I love the museum (insider’s tip: see it as part of the tour and not on a game day), but Munson’s locker is something to see in person. It serves as a memory of how fragile and short life is and encourages you to live every day to its fullest and with excellence and character.

In that vein, Munson serves as a reminder of why I love the Yankees and those players who do just that — live life with excellence and character. You know, be a Yankee.

Go Yankees!

Kindness speaks volumes when you listen for it

Alfonso Soriano celebrated his 38th birthday today. A big happy birthday to him, wishing him much health and success this next year as a Yankee once again. I am anxious to see how that expanded outfield/bench will play out this season with such fine and experienced players like Soriano chasing after those stray balls and reaching over that high wall to save their pitchers.

Speaking of Yankee outfielders and pitchers, next month at the Thurman Munson Awards Dinner in New York, current Yankee outfielder Brett Gardner and former Yankee pitcher (and current YES Network broadcaster) David Cone will receive awards honoring their philanthropic and athletic successes. The 34th annual dinner is hosted by Munson’s widow Diana in honor of the late Yankees captain who was killed in a 1979 plane crash, and the event has raised over $12 million for the AHRC NYC Foundation, an organization that supports programs enabling children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Other honorees of the evening will include Mets pitcher Dillon Gee, former Knicks forward Bernard King, and Giants safety Antrel Rolle. (Also, a limited number of tickets to the dinner are still available for purchase should you find yourself in the City on February 4.)

Gardner is being honored because he regularly visits New York-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital, something I’m sure brings smiles and hope to so many children dealing with such awful illnesses. And this got me thinking about the little things we do that may seem so insignificant to us but may mean the world to someone. Gardner isn’t visiting children for the publicity; I certainly didn’t know about this until I read the release on the awards dinner. And he isn’t doing this to get recognized for being a “good guy”; he just is and he’s walking that out by giving back a little in his own private way. It’s very nice that someone is choosing to celebrate his kindness, but I’m guessing Gardner would be doing this even if no one ever found out about it.

You see, he knows something we often miss in this big world of splashy headlines — it’s the little things that matter. He doesn’t have a medical degree or some magic touch that can bring a cure to a disease or make it all disappear. He simply has a smile, a hug, a kind word, and his time to spend with a few kids that so need to be loved and remembered. It’s those moments in their day that for a few minutes they can forget that some of them are literally fighting to see their next birthday and just be kids and feel special because someone took a few minutes to think they were something special, someone worth spending time with, and not just because they were sick, but because they were them.

Here’s the thing: you don’t have to be a baseball player to do something special, and you don’t have to visit sick kids to be kind. You can just be kind because it’s the right thing to do. So smile a little bit more, say kind things to your barista or sales clerk, pay for the groceries of the single mom in front of you at the store, shovel the snow off your elderly neighbor’s driveway, bring your neighbor some homemade cookies, or surprise a co-worker with baseball tickets. Be kind to one another in so many fun, creative ways. Life is so much more enjoyable if you live every day in kindness. Maybe no one will ever know what you did for others or give you an award, but you’ll know and they’ll know, and that’s all that matters.

Go Yankees!