Tuesday, September 8, 2009

How A Trip to A Pool Hall in February Changed the Yankees' Season

Add Image2008 marked Joe Girardi's first year at the helm of the Yankees' ship. After his first year in spring training, Girardi was viewed as somewhat of a drill sergeant with his emphasis on drills, and making sure that all his players were in top shape before leaving camp. 

After missing the playoffs for the first time since 1995, the Yankees decided to try and return to some of the ways that helped them win four championships over fiver years in the late 90's. They spent the off season signing some high end starting pitching as well as some other key players to improve their team. 

The new and improved team had a new goal coming out of spring training. Girardi sought to inspire more than just physical fitness, but team unity. He made his team take a break from their workouts, and put together a field trip to a pool hall in Tampa. It was an opportunity for the new guys to get familiar with their teammates, and get away from baseball before the long season started. 

It's highly unlikely that Girardi could have anticipated just how well his players would get along, but there is no question that the field trip to the pool hall helped cement a good sense of team unity. 

While the Yankees have had their share of ups and downs this season, they have rarely looked like a team that didn't think they could over come whatever odds were thrown at them. No matter what the deficit, they always have the look that they feel like they're going to come back and win the game, and usually they do. 

Of course success is built on a lot of different variables. Everything has to be clicking at the right time in order for a team to be successful, but the difference between this Yankee team and teams of the recent past, is that while a player or two might go through a bit of a slump, there are a number of players that are on the right track. One player isn't trying to carry the whole team, and therefore no one is getting burnt out. 

A lot of the team's success also has to do with the fact that the players on the Yankees genuinely like each other. That doesn't mean that everyone gets along with everyone all the time. I'm sure some guys like some players more than others, but there is still that sense of unity that hasn't existed since the late 90's. 

There will be those who will argue that team chemistry is not an important factor for a team to be successful, and that is most likely true. The championship Oakland A's teams of the 70's were known for their fighting with each other, and the '77-'78 Yankees weren't called the 'Bronx Zoo' for nothing. Those teams were successful, and they certainly weren't all going out and eating dinner together, but it seems that when that sense of togetherness exists on a team, there is a greater chance for big things to happen. 

The Yankees have posted thirteen walk-off wins this season, and with each win, they make it look like it's their first. Guys jumping out of the dugout and rushing to home plate to greet the player responsible for the winning run, the tossing of the batting helmet in the air, and of course the pie in the face courtesy of A.J. Burnett have all become customary in the Bronx. 

There is also "Kangaroo Court" that has been in session twice so far this season, where Mariano Rivera resides as the judge and various players are fined for "crimes". A "crime" can consist of showing up late for practice, not wearing a shirt during an interview, or giving up a hit in a game. 

Some people may view something like "Kangaroo Court" or the Yankees' players bonding as unnecessary details in order for them to win in October. There is no doubt that to make it in the playoffs, the Yankees have to pitch will and hit when it counts, but there is also something really nice about seeing a team that genuinely likes each other. 

Perhaps Girardi sensed that was the final piece of the puzzle. For years, the Yankees have had talented players on their teams, but they haven't been able to take that talent and translate it into a championship. 

If the Yankees are able to go all the way, there are going to be a lot of reasons why they were able to do so. However, one of the reasons that will undoubtedly be overlooked, is the day that Joe Girardi brought his team together for an afternoon at a pool hall. That day helped spark something the Yankees have been missing for a long time; team unity and appreciation for every guy on the roster to get the job done. 

Saturday, August 29, 2009

How Will the Yankees Regain Their Championship Form This October?

Throughout the 90's, the Yankees ruled October baseball amassing four championships in five years. However, they haven't been to the World Series since 2003, and they haven't made it past the ALDS since 2004. 

Despite their efforts to bolster their team to return to postseason glory, the Yankees have fallen short in 2005, 2006, and 2007. 2008 was the first time that the Yankees weren't in the playoffs since '94. 

Falling short is what made Brian Cashman step up his efforts in the offseason this year. Cashman's goal was to sign some legitimate pitching, have a solid bench, and have someone who could actually play first base. 

He landed free agent aces CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, he traded for 1B/OF Nick Swisher, and he signed free agent Mark Teixeira, the switch hitting first baseman who can actually throw and catch the ball. 

As most seasons go, injuries happened, people under performed, and the plan that Cashman and the Yankees had envisioned for returning to October baseball seemed like it might not happen. 

The bullpen couldn't hold a lead that the starters had struggled to keep, nor could they get the ball to Mariano Rivera. The big aces, Sabathia and Burnett, weren't living up to their hype, Wang was a mess mentally and physically, and Joba Chamberlain could barely get through four innings every time out. 

The lineup was struggling without Alex Rodriguez for the first month or so, and the depth that the Yankees thought they would have was relatively nonexistent. 

And then, things took a turn for the better. The rotation got its act together, and Sabathia and Burnett started pitching up to expectations. The bullpen got turned over and Alfredo Aceves, Phil Coke, and Phil Hughes started shutting down opposing hitters, and turning the ball over to Rivera with great ease. 

Alex Rodriguez returned to the lineup which ignited Mark Teixeira and the rest of the Yankee hitters. The Yankees started scoring runs, and put the fear back in opposing pitchers. 

More than any of that, the Yankees started to show something that fans haven't seen since the championship years... team chemistry and unity. From Kangaroo Court to the pie in the face after walk off wins, the Yankees look like a team that genuinely enjoys playing baseball together. That may seem like an unimportant aspect, but it has made a huge difference for the Yankees this season. 

If the Yankees want to return to October glory they need to keep with all the things that have earned them the best record in baseball. 

The pitching staff needs to keep the Yankees in the game. Good pitching is usually the key to teams prevailing in the playoffs, and the Yankees have been without it for some time. Now that they finally have some, they really have a chance to go the distance. 

The offense needs to not drop off the face of the earth. They have to manufacture runs when possible and realize that the long ball isn't going to win them a championship.

The years that the Yankees won their championships, they did so not only with home runs, but with bunts, hit and runs, base stealing, and clutch hitting. Those things really matter come October, and the Yankees need to keep them in mind if they want to win. 

The team finally has a decent bench to call on. Brett Gardner should be returning from his thumb injury within a week or so, and with him in the lineup, he can steal bases and provide a spark the Yankees may need late in a game. 

Not to mention, they have Eric Hinske and Jerry Hairston Jr, whom Cashman traded for in July. They can play a multitude of positions and provide a little pop with their bats. Girardi is going to need to utilize these players correctly, but the fact that he has them at his disposal makes the Yankees that much more of a threat. 

The bullpen needs to keep doing what they've been doing since June. Aceves, Coke, Robertson, and Hughes have been pretty much lights out. Bruney has flashes of brilliance and then deflates. If he's not cutting it come October, Girardi is going to have to stick to the guys that are able to get the ball to Mariano, and if Bruney can't be effective he's going to have to deal with sitting on the bench. 

For the first time in years, the Yankees have a well put together team that can fend off opponents in a variety of ways. They have a real chance to return to post season glory, and everyone around baseball knows it. 

There is no doubt that the Yankees and their fans were starting to wonder if we'd ever see the semblance of a championship team, and it looks like we might finally have one. 

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Innings Limit Will Land Joba Back in the Bullpen

Organizations are all about protecting their young arms. They heavily monitor pitch counts and usually set an innings limit so that there is less chance of them over working their prized arms. 

Joba Chamberlain is considered to be a future No. 1 starter for the Yankees, which is why the team has been so careful with him. He went from being a starter in the minors to a reliever, to limit the number of innings he was throwing. 

The following season, Chamberlain was being stretched out in the bullpen to be converted back to a starter. By going about it in that manner, Chamberlain's innings total wasn't as high as if he had started the season in the rotation. 

Despite their best efforts not to overwork Joba, he ended up on the DL last August with a tired shoulder. Maybe he really wasn't cut out to throw 200 plus innings in a season? 

Chamberlain started the 2009 season in the starting rotation, and for the majority of his starts, he hasn't lasted past the fifth inning. As a result, his innings total is not as high as it would have been if he had been able to go deeper into his starts.

Still, the Yankees have Chamberlain on a tight leash, and have his total number of innings for 2009 around 160. That total is what's going to end up taking him out of the rotation, and land him back in the bullpen. 

With Chien-Ming Wang likely lost for the rest of the season, the Yankees need to fill his spot. As of this moment, Sergio Mitre has been filling in for Wang, but if Chamberlain is taken out of the rotation, the Yankees are going to have to try to find someone to fill his spot as well. 

There's nothing wrong with organizations trying to protect their young pitchers from injury, but does the constant switch from starter to reliever and vice versa help or hurt them? 

Some players aren't able to make the transition from starter to reliever or the other way around. A lot of the time, these young pitchers aren't taken out of a role because the organization feels that they would be better suited doing something else, but because of keeping the innings total down. 

Chamberlain was great as a reliever, and one of the best set-up men Mariano Rivera has had in years, but he has also had success as a starter. While it's clear that he can succeed in both roles, all this back and forth seems unnecessary. 

Being cautious is one thing, but perhaps being too careful is also a detriment to the team. If the Yankees put Joba in the bullpen for the sake of his innings total, they are going to be down another starter, which would put them in a worse position. 

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Nobody Does Tradition Like the Yankees:Old Timers' Day Still a Hit

When it comes to traditions in baseball, no other organization is as well-known for their way of keeping with traditions like the Yankees. 

Some of the greatest players in the game have worn a Yankee uniform at one time or another, and it is because of the reputation the Yankees have for bringing the best to the Bronx that past and present players have said that donning the Yankee pinstripes is like nothing else. 

One of the greatest traditions the Yankees have is Old Timers' Day. Yankee greats of the past gather where they are greeted with loud applause from the fans who remember what they did in their day or who have heard all the stories. The former players are split into two teams, and they play a short game. 

No team could hold an Old Timers' Day and have the likes of Whitey Ford, Reggie Jackson, Goose Gossage, Ron Guidry, Yogi Berra and countless others on the same field. 

John Sterling and Michael Kay shared the MCing duties, and it's pretty remarkable when they read the list of accomplishments of the Old Timers. At today's celebration there were four Hall of Famers on hand (Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Goose Gossage, and Reggie Jackson). Not to mention two pitchers who pitched perfect games and one who pitched a no-hitter during their time in pinstripes (Don Larsen, David Cone, and Doc Gooden). 

Beyond their personal accomplishments, once the cameras panned to the dugout, it was clear to see why they all love coming back for this particular tradition. These guys really enjoy being around each other.They love talking about their glory days and swapping stories about their experiences while playing for the Yankees. 

Just because these guys have officially hung up their cleats, it doesn't mean that they've stashed their competitiveness away. They are out to have a good time, but they also want to prove they still have it, which is why Ron Guidry threw Lee Mazzilli a slider to strike him out instead of giving him something to hit. 

At the end of the day, it really doesn't matter who wins the game, they are all Yankees, and will forever be a part of the organizations' great history. Each year brings new faces to the celebration, and this year, for the first time ever Old Timers' Day wasn't played at 161st Street and River Ave, but at the new stadium across the street. 

The faces may change, the location may change, but what will never change is the way the Yankees' honor those who have meant the most to their organization and to their fans. Sometimes tradition is severely overlooked especially in these current times, but Old Timers' Day gives fans as well as players a chance to remember those who were a part of something special. 

You really have to appreciate the past in order to appreciate the present as well as what's to come. Without traditions such as this, things and people tend to be forgotten, and seeing all of those players out on the field today is a strong reminder as to why those things and those people should never be forgotten. 

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Fate of Phil Hughes: Will the Yankees Make the Same Mistake Twice?

Three years ago, the Yankees were all a buzz about one of their farm hands named Phil Hughes. Hughes was drafted out of high school, and was considered to be the future of the Yankees' starting rotation. 

Hughes got his call up to the big leagues, and had flashes of brilliance, but ended up going through some growing pains and battled some injuries the past two seasons. 

At the start of this season, Hughes began his season in Scranton as the Yankees had a fully stocked rotation with newbies CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett as well as Andy Pettitte and Chien Ming Wang with Joba Chamberlain filling in the fifth spot. 

However, Wang was on the DL after just three starts, and the bullpen was a living nightmare. Hughes was called up to fill Wang's spot for at least a two-week time period, and went 3-2 in seven starts with a 6.59 ERA. 

While those numbers are less than stellar, at the start of the season it seemed that every Yankee pitcher had an inflated ERA. Wang returned in June, and Hughes was moved to the bullpen. The Yankees figured they could keep Hughes' inning total down if he came out of the pen rather than go down to Triple A. 

It seemed like once again the Yankees were taking a pitcher that they planned to be the future of their starting rotation and putting him in the bullpen (i.e. Joba Chamberlain). 

Chamberlain was masterful as Mariano's set-up man, dazzling radar guns with fastballs that reached sometimes 99 m.p.h. and keeping hitters off balance with a nasty 87 m.p.h change up.

The Yankees were determined to make Joba into a starter and used the 2008 season to stretch him out enough so that he would be able to go back to starting. Joba's had mixed success as a starting pitcher. There are some nights that he looks amazing, like the night he struck out 12 Red Sox hitters, but more often than not he can't make it out of the fifth inning. 

Hughes has made the most out of his time in the bullpen lowering his ERA from 6.59 to 3.76. Against the Tigers on July 17, Hughes' fastball topped out at 96 m.p.h., and in two innings of work, he didn't surrender a run. He has easily been one of the Yankees' most reliable relievers. 

So now, the question arises yet again... does Hughes stay in the bullpen where he's had so much success or does he get put back into the fold to be a starter? 

Brian Cashman has already said that the organization sees Hughes as a starting pitcher, and the only reason he's in the bullpen is because of his innings limit and to fill in due to the various injuries. 

Last season, the Yankees felt as if they had stretched out Joba Chamberlain enough before re-inserting him into the starting rotation, but lost him to the DL in August with shoulder soreness. 

Some people thought that after over a year of coming out of the bullpen, trying to push Chamberlain to throw 80 or even 90 plus pitches was too much for his arm. The argument is that Chamberlain has the make-up of a starting pitcher with at least four different pitches in his arsenal, and keeping him in the bullpen would almost be a waste. 

Then again, there is the argument that the Yankee bullpen would be a lot stronger with Chamberlain setting up for Rivera based on the numbers he put up as a set up man. The argument could be the same for Hughes. 

He has the make-up of a starter, but at times has showed that like Chamberlain, he has difficulty being economic with his pitch count, resulting in him not lasting past the fifth inning. A starter is supposed to be durable enough that they can pitch six or seven innings per start, not barely make it to the fifth inning. 

The Yankees are going to need to do some serious thinking where Phil Hughes is concerned. Keeping him in the bullpen might be what's really best for the team, instead of trying to push him into the rotation because that's where they initially said he belonged. 

It just might be better for the Yankees to say they were wrong in this particular case, and not try and make Hughes into a starter at this point. He's helping the team win games and having great success as a reliever, so why mess with a good thing? 

Mariano Rivera started out in the organization as a starter and got moved to the bullpen for one reason or another. It's a safe bet that no one in the Yankee organization regrets leaving Mo in the bullpen, and Hughes has a shot at being really successful in his current role if the Yankees would leave well enough alone. 

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Magic of the Home Run Derby

Each year, when the All-Star break comes around, a lot of fans take the time to catch up on the TV that they miss during the baseball season. There are also a lot of fans who enjoy the majority of the All-Star festivities from the Home Run Derby, to the Celebrity Softball game, to the All-Star game itself. 

Over the past several years, the Home Run Derby has probably ranked last on my list when it comes to the All-Star break. Sure, you get to watch guys hit monster home runs, but a lot of the time you see guys try too hard, and their time is up before they've even had a chance to dazzle the crowd with their home run prowess. 

I always enjoyed watching the players interacting with each other on the field while there was someone hitting, or seeing the players' kids in miniature replicas of their fathers' jerseys on the sidelines more than watching them hit home runs. 

However, last year I got completely sucked into the Derby. Maybe it was because it was taking place at Yankee Stadium, or because there was so much hype surrounding the Rangers' outfielder named Josh Hamilton. 

Josh Hamilton's story had been spread around baseball like wildfire in 2008. He was a great prospect when he was drafted, and was thought to have a lot of promise as he worked his way up. 

Hamilton ended up going down the road of drugs and alcohol, and was out of baseball quicker than he made it up to the big leagues. Yet, somehow he was able to pull himself out of that black hole, and find his way back to baseball. 

Hamilton had an incredible start to 2008, lighting up pitchers all around the league. He earned a starting spot on the AL roster for the All-Star game, and was more than happy to compete in the Home Run Derby. 

He was one of the last guys to hit in the Derby, but it quickly became a case of saving the best for last. For almost 45 minutes, Hamilton hit balls into the deepest parts of Yankee Stadium racking up a record breaking 28 home runs in the first round. 

I couldn't tear my eyes away from the TV; it's always impressive to see a player hit the ball over 500 feet, but what Hamilton was doing was much more than just hitting balls out of the park. It was like magic every time he swung his bat, and all of the All-Stars sitting on the field as spectators watched in complete awe as Hamilton advanced to the final round of the Derby. 

One of the major flaws in the Derby is that once a player qualifies for the second round, their total from the first and second round get combined, and their total propels them into the third round. However, once they reach the final round, the slate is wiped clean and both players start at zero. 

Hamilton ended up going against the Twins' slugger Justin Morneau, and while his total was higher in both rounds, Morneau ended up winning the Derby because he hit more in the third round. 

It would seem that the person with the most home runs overall should win the Derby, but either way that night was all about Hamilton and how he managed to fight his way to the top. 

For once, watching the Home Run Derby was about so much more than just taking up TV time during the All-Star break. There will probably never be another Home Run Derby like it, but like tonight, I'll keep watching, because you can never be sure just when that bit of magic will come along and dazzle you in ways that you never thought possible. 

Sunday, July 5, 2009

70 Years Later, Lou Gehrig's Farewell Speech Still Resonates

70 years ago, a man stood on the field at Yankee Stadium and told the world that he was the luckiest man on the face of the earth. That man was dying, but no one knew it.

He told them that he was the luckiest man on the face of the earth. He spoke about the great teammates and managers he played with, how blessed he felt for the family he had, and how good the game of baseball had been to him. 

That man was Lou Gehrig, and on July 4, 1939, the man more commonly known as "The Iron Horse," had to walk away from baseball. 

He'd been suffering with what is now known as ALS; a disease that causes muscles to twitch and eventually paralyze the individual. Something as simple as combing one's hair becomes impossible; forget about playing baseball. 

Gehrig never once mentioned all the pain he'd been in or the fact that he couldn't even lace up his own cleats. Doing that would have been giving into the disease, and Lou Gehrig was too much of a fighter to do that. 

For years, Gehrig had protected Babe Ruth in the Yankees' line up. He had taken a backseat to the Great Bambino, but never made a fuss about it. He was a team player, who went out and did his job every day. 

It wasn't as if Gehrig was just an average player. It was somewhat unfortunate for him to be on the Yankees at the same time as Babe Ruth, because if Ruth wasn't there, Gehrig would've been noticed a lot more than he was. 

He won two MVPs, and six World Series championships with the Yankees. However, Gehrig's most impressive stat is probably his 2,130 consecutive game streak, a record that wasn't broken until 1995 by Cal Ripken Jr. 

Gehrig's "Farewell Speech" is one of the most recognizable speeches not only in sports, but in history. He had nothing prepared before he got up to the microphones, he simply spoke from his heart.

What makes his speech so compelling is that he praised everyone from Miller Huggins, to his family, to the grounds crew, because somehow they made his career. 

He ended his speech by saying, "I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for." If that doesn't give you chills or bring a tear to your eye, I don't know what will. Two years later, he was gone. 

70 years later, Major League Baseball is honoring Gehrig and raising awareness for the disease that now bears his name. Gehrig meant so much to baseball, but his impact goes beyond the game, it extends out all over the world. 

Lou Gehrig was a great baseball player, but the words written on his monument really say it all about who he was... "A great man, a great teammate, and a great baseball player."

He's honored today more for being a great man and teammate than anything else.