Wednesday, May 09, 2007

In Full Swing

Ah, it’s never boring being a Yankees fan. Never has been. Even when they put a mediocre product on the field during the late 1960s and early 1970s, which happened to be my formative baseball years, they managed to spice things up with some good old-fashioned wife swapping between starting pitchers, giving new meaning to the phrase, What's Mine is Yours. And they have had much more than their share of misery and tragedy. All I have to do is recite the names Lou Gehrig, Thurman Munson, Cory Lidle, Billy Martin, Ed Whitson... Okay, we’re kidding about the last one. At least a little.

But 2007 has seen its own share, if not quite tragedy, at least oodles of turmoil, stress, heartache and disappointment – and we’re only 30-something games into the season! And that was before the deplorable signing of Roger Clemens.

I'll admit that I like being proven right as much as the next guy, but it still somehow hurts me to point out that back in a February post titled Like Rooting For Microsoft, I outlined why the Yankees and GM Brian Cashman were right to be playing a form of hardball when negotiating with uber-closer Mariano Rivera on a contract extension. This season has been an unbridled disaster for #42, with the right-hander giving up three stomach-turning stalk-off home runs so far this short season. Even in his worst stretches, Armando Benitez, for instance, probably never had such a hideous run of luck, with luck in this case being frightening close to looking washed up. Imagine if the Yankees had “rewarded” Mariano with, say, a 3-year 30 or 40 million-dollar extension! In sports it’s always better to let a guy walk away a year too early than having your payroll tied up in older, fading guys.

Which brings me to another topic, Brian Cashman. It seems to me that this dweebish-looking dude gets a free pass from the press far too often. Just what has this guy done that the average fantasy league geek couldn’t have done when assembling a team? Every year he brings in an expensive new middle reliever or three and every year by May Yankees fans realize that Joe Torre doesn’t trust any of them, with justification, and really hasn’t trusted a middle reliever since side-arming Jeff Nelson was in his prime, or maybe Mike Stanton. Every year C Jorge Posada burns out after the all-star break because every year the aptly named Cashman fails to come up with a backup catcher who can play even a lick. I mean, the last few years the team had to suffer with John Flaherty, Wil Nieves, Sal whatever the hell that guy’s name was with the walrus mustache who we got late last year. (Editor’s note: the catcher’s name is Sal Fasano, acquired from the Phillies in exchange for minor league infielder Hector Made in what has to be one of the more inconsequential trades in the history of organized baseball.) These players are sold to the media as “defensive-minded catchers” mainly because they gave up on trying to hit their body weight a long, long time ago and concentrated on their defensive games. Now, this doesn’t mean they can throw anyone out on the bases, only that these unwanted castoffs are willing to block potential wild pitches with their bodies and risk being nicked with fouled-off pitches, the only skills they possess which stand between their making a major league roster and a long stretch of unemployment.

Just look across town, where the Mets have employed Ramon Castro as a more than serviceable backup catcher for the last few years, giving them the luxury of resting first Mike Piazza and now Paul LoDuca. It makes a difference over the course of a long season. The Fasano trade is but one example of typical Cashman erring-do. Do we have to run down the list of bad personnel moves that would be magnified were it not for the inexhaustible funds available for the next high priced free agent? In pitching alone, obscene contracts were doled out to names like Kevin Brown, Jeff Weaver, Kyle Farnsworth... and how does Cashman's much-ballyhooed signing of Japanese pitcher Kei Igawa look right about now? They signed him to a five-year $20 million contact -- AFTER they paid $26 million to his former Japanese team just for the right to negotiate with him. I've already written him off as a bust. Even with all the injuries to the starting staff, this guy is now working out of the bullpen as a glorified long man after giving up a whopping 8 home runs in just 30 innings and about a run per inning, pitching to the sorry tune of a 7.63 ERA. Another nice pickup there, Brian!

Of course, that almost unprecedented run of injuries to the Yankees starting pitching this year will be factored into any discussion of the Clemens contract, with many observers in essence letting Cashman off the hook with a built-in element of enabling one of the more unholy alliances in modern sport. Just part of a Bizarro World sport where the incompetent non-commissioner earns a yearly salary of $14 million. Then again, in a declining, sick society like ours, it's best not to overthink things if you want to enjoy anything--recent news of Paris Hilton and a dose of cold reality intersecting in such joyously unprecedented fashion notwithstanding...

But like a badly written short story I digress. Back to backup catcher. It's painful to look at some of Cashman’s “finds” during the Joe Torre era. Be warned that anything close to a prolonged gaze at these backstops' meager numbers will induce something very much like severe nausea or at best mild bowel irritation if you’re a Yankees fan. This roll call of stone-cold mediocrity includes such legends of the game as the immortal Kelly Stinnett, who is virtually unknown outside of his immediate family members. So with a roster that is for all intents and purposes assembled each year by checkbook, and while the farm system remains the red-headed stepchild, Cashman comes up short once again in acquiring solid relief pitching and backup catching. This year you can add the unholy mess that is the first base situation, where three players into two positions – namely, 1B and DH – just doesn’t add up. Throw in the mishandling of the Bernie Williams situation and it’s a wonder how Cashman skates by. In fact, he is lauded for the job he does by a fawning press. All it will take is another strong start from Philip Hughes and the tabloids will be chock full of features about how the Yankees farm system is resurrected.

All I’m saying is that the sight of Brian Cashman beaming behind Roger Clemens at the press conference announcing the misguided signing is a little hard to take for this long-time Yankees fan. In all honesty, at this stage of the game I no longer live and die with the fate of the team as I used to. It’s really more a case of rooting AGAINST the Boston Red Sox and their insufferable fans, and to a lesser extent the New York Metropolitans and their insecure fans, than rooting FOR the team that plays its games at the big old ball orchard in the South Bronx. Of course, in less than two years, a new, antiseptic, unnecessary replica of Yankee Stadium will house the team, and just a little more luster will leak from the storied history of that team. Just a little more luster, a little at a time, and soon you can’t even make out the spot where there used to be such a glorious shine, no matter how you tilt your head or squinch up your eyes…

But what are payroll concerns when you can pay a single player $28 million (pro rated) for part time work? That’s what the Yankees are shelling out for a retro Rocket, a 6-inning pitcher at best these days, while allowing the 45-year-old to basically come and go as he pleases, rejoining the club according to the imperious whims of the mercenary hurler. BTW, there are teams whose entire payroll is less than $28 million. Let that sink in for a moment and then tell me this can be anything but a negative for the sport itself.

Across the City in Flushing, which another team calls home, there is a pitcher slowly emerging as one of the best in his league, if not all of MLB: John Maine. To think this guy was an afterthought in the Kris Benson & Anna Benson-for-Jorge Julio trade with Baltimore makes his success all the more sweet for Mets fans. It says here that the 5-0 Maine is the starter for the National League for this year’s All-Star game. With very little fanfare considering he plays in the sport's biggest market, Maine has put together as impressive a string of quality starts as any pitcher in baseball, and his ERA heading into today's start in San Francisco against the Giants is a microscopic 1.37. With the Mets strong hitting lineup, the state of Maine appears quite bullish, and winning 20 games may be an annual event for the unassuming righty, given that Maine literally just turned 26 yesterday.

On the other side of the ledger sits the shaggy haired Jeff Weaver. Now with the Mariners, the well-traveled Weaver, who had an atrocious stint with the Yanks a few years back, had some shockingly bad stats entering his start last weekend at Yankee Stadium, the announcer mentioning he had given up 31 hits in 11 total innings! His numbers won’t look any better after being knocked out in the 6th inning. How bad, you ask? His ERA now stands at a robust 15.35, with 40 hits and an astounding 29 runs surrendered in just 17 innings. Yikes! A look at his career stat line shows 1,712 hits given up in 1,585 innings, which to me is the most reliable metric for a pitcher’s effectiveness.

Now, before you accuse me of getting all misty-eyed with my praise of the New York Metropolitans, let me just relate that it's only early May and already I am exhausted by all the area sportswriters, announcers, talk show hosts and sports radio callers waxing bad poetic about how Jose Reyes legging out a triple is somehow mankind’s biggest achievement since the lunar landing. Look, he’s a good little player but he’s not the Best Player in Baseball, another bit of overwrought hyperbole we're hearing all too much of this young season. He’s not even the best shortstop in New York City. We all know who that is, and he wears #2. Derek Jeter, who lost the battling title last year on the final day of the season, is picking up right where he left off, hitting a stellar .354, with an unbelievable 45 hits in just 30 games this season.

Now, in the interest of being fair and balanced, I just looked up Reyes’ stats, and if Jeter’s are unbelievable, I have to say that the Mets’ shortstop has equally incredible numbers: he’s hitting .350, with 49 hits in 32 games, plus his 19 steals lead the league. I will also disclose that Jeter has been somewhat shaky in the field at times this year (6 errors already versus only 15 total in all of 2006), while Reyes has the range of an untamed wildebeest and the strong right arm of a Central American dictator… So I contradict myself. Hey, I contain multitudes, pal; wanna make something of it?

Another New York infielder, Robinson Cano, such a joy to watch last year when he emerged as one of the best looking hitters in the AL, is off to a dreadful start in 2007. It’s to the point where Joe Torre has had to sit the young second baseman, so clueless has Cano looked at the plate. Last year he finished with a .342 average with 15 HRs and 78 RBIs in less than a full season, while he’s struggled mightily this year, hitting a weak .267 with no pop.

Being something of a numerologist, I can’t help but think that Cano’s struggles may stem from switching his uniform number from #22 to #24. Certain people work better with certain numerals, and just a minor change can invoke major consequences. That’s numerology 101. And considering that the unselfish Cano made the switch so that pitcher-for-hire Roger Clemens could have his old uniform number, it makes you wonder if there’s not something amiss in the Bronx this year, the very borough where Edgar Allan Poe once conjured up his tales of the macabre.

Nobody asked me, or is likely to ask me, and I don’t do fantasy baseball, but if I were starting a team tomorrow and got to pick one everyday player, I would immediately select Miguel Cabrera. I’ve always been impressed with the all-around game of the Florida Marlins’ third baseman and would take him over my second choice, the Cards’ Alex Pujols, only because Cabrera plays a tougher position since he switched to 3B from the outfield a couple years ago. At just 23 years old, not only does Cabrera already have a World Series ring, but in a Marlins lineup virtually bereft of hitters who would scare even a small, preternaturally timid child, Cabrera remains extremely patient at the plate, with high walk totals in each of his three full prior seasons. And like Pujols, in his first three seasons Cabrera has put up numbers that rank among the greatest first three years of all time. How good, you ask. Try last year’s .339, with 26 HRs and 114 RBIs; in 2005 he hit .323 with 33 dingers and 116 RBIs, and in 2004, 33 and 112. This year he’s off to another remarkable start, hitting .351 with 8 HRs and 24 RBIs. Yet even with those gaudy numbers, you just don’t hear Cabrera mentioned as one of the game’s best. What we have here may be the second coming of Roberto Clemente, minus the fielding heroics, base-running prowess and sheer hustle. There I go again. Now that I think of it, there may never be another Clemente, a singularly unique player who in many ways was the Jackie Robinson for Latin players when he came up in 1954.

If you read only one book this month, this year, this decade, pick up the tremendous Clemente biography by David Maraniss. It’s about so much more than baseball, so much more than sports really, to the point where you will find yourself choking up at the heart and humanity of this man if you have any kind of pulse still beating. The people whose lives he touched, his ups and downs with the press, bringing a championship to a blue collar town like Pittsburgh, his relief work after the devastating 1972 earthquake in Nicaragua, it’s all there in one terrific biography. It carries the official WardensWorld seal of approval, which, if doesn’t entail anything quite like a money-back guarantee, still confers on all of you the right to call me up late at night and yell at me if you are in any way dissatisfied with the book.