Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Thanks to Yankees' New Vibe, Pies In the Face Are Becoming Popular in the Bronx

Most walk-off wins are met with jumping around home plate, hugs, a pat on the back, lots of high fives—and shaving cream pies?

The Yankees have taken to rewarding the heroes of their walk-off wins with a shaving cream pie in the face. A.J. Burnett started the tradition, and it's something that's apparently sticking.

What makes this even more unique is that the pie to the face occurs right before the game's hero gets interviewed for a post-game report. Who wouldn't want to give an interview with shaving cream all over their face?

Up until this season, the Yankees would've celebrated a walk-off win with excitement, but that would've been the end of it.

This season, however, the Yankees are making the most out of every victory that they get, a sign that this team is having a lot more fun than in the past.

The shaving cream pies to the face aren't the only thing the Yankees have incorporated as part of their clubhouse fun.

Burnett gave Johnny Damon a wrestling belt as a way of saying thanks for showing his kids some wrestling moves. The belt now gets passed on a daily basis to the guy who has the best game. Everyone wants the belt, so that little added incentive is another positive thing in the clubhouse.

However, the biggest sign that the Yankees are all enjoying the loose clubhouse atmosphere was the holding of "kangaroo court" in the clubhouse last week.

Players, coaches, and staff were gathered in the back room of the clubhouse for over an hour, where fines were issued for a variety of antics that have occurred during the first 39 games of the season.

Mariano Rivera served as the judge, while Derek Jeter, Burnett, and Damon acted as jury members. The fines handed out could be for just about anything.

Phil Coke was fined $30 for giving up a home run to Joe Mauer, Nick Swisher was fined $20 for agreeing to do a post-game interview and forgetting to put on a shirt, and Damon was fined for showing up late to court.

The fine that earned the most laughs throughout the clubhouse was when Mo fined Alex Rodriguez for not showing up until May 8 to start the season.

All of these things have nothing to do with playing baseball, but in their own way, they are important.

A loose, pleasant clubhouse atmosphere is good for the entire team. That's not to say that they don't focus on winning, because the victories are what keep the smiles on everyone's faces.

Many of the players credit the new feel to the clubhouse to the day back in spring training when Joe Girardi canceled practice and took his players on a field trip to a pool hall as a way to break up their schedule and to have some fun.

Another factor is that the players' families are now allowed in the clubhouse. In years past, families have been barred from the clubhouse, most likely because they are viewed as a distraction. This season, Girardi has changed that rule, and his players couldn't be happier.

While the pies, the belt, and kangaroo court may seem insignificant, they have brought the players together. Of course, if there was a lot of losing going on, this merriment would not exist.

Most people view the Yankees as an all business type of organization, but this group of players is showing that they know how to win and have fun all at the same time. The fact that there are new personalities on the team this year, like Burnett and Swisher, add to a new type of vibe surrounding the entire team.

Sometimes all it takes is something so small to keep a team going in the right direction. Over the course of the season, the Yankees will experience their share of wins and losses, but as long as there is the prospect of shaving cream pies and a championship wrestling belt, there is something that is bonding them in a way that hasn't existed in a long time.

Hopefully this band of brothers can translate their good vibes into a lot more success that will last all the way through October.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

My First Visit to Yankee Stadium: Much More Than Just Watching A Game

For the past couple of months, I've listened to other people's accounts of their visits to the new Yankee Stadium. I've looked at pictures, watched on TV, but hadn't experienced it for myself.

When the game I was supposed to go to on April 20 was rained out I wasn't sure when I'd get to the stadium.

Two weeks ago, I found some good tickets and was going to take my cousin to the game as his college graduation gift. One day after I purchased the tickets he informed me that he forgot that he had to attend a dinner at his girlfriend's school.

I was looking at the possibility of not being able to go again, and I had to figure something out fast. My dad happened to be sitting next to me when I got the word that my cousin couldn't go, and he offered to step in.

It's a rare occasion when my dad and I get to go to a game just us. I've been watching games with my dad for as long as I can remember. No one else is requiring his attention, and for a few hours it's all about baseball.

Tuesday night we headed to the Bronx, and were set to check out the Yankees' new house.
Over the past five years, I'd become so familiar with the old stadium that I could find my way through there with my eyes closed. Now I was in unfamiliar territory.

My friend, Joe, had warned me that I would feel somewhat strange when I stepped foot into the new stadium, and he couldn't have been more right.

I was in such awe of the stadium, I almost forgot I was going to a baseball game. As we walked through Gate 4 and into the Great Hall I couldn't believe how much space there was to walk. People weren't trying to squeeze past each other, and there was a clear view of everything in front and in back of you.

The banners of the Yankee greats that hang in there were probably one of my favorite things that I saw. The old time Yankees like Ruth, DiMaggio, and Gehrig appear in black and white, while more current legends like Jackson, Munson, and Mattingly are on the opposite sides in color.

Once we walked through there our first order of business was simple. Get a hot dog. The Nathan's hot dogs more than passed the test for a good ballpark dog, and now we could start our tour of the place.

For over an hour and twenty minutes we covered a lot of ground. We tried and failed to eat in NYY Steak and the Hard Rock Cafe. The lines for the museum and Monument Park were both too long, and we voted in favor of checking everything out rather than wait in line.

We sampled several concessions including pulled pork sandwiches at Brother Jimmy's BBQ (which I highly recommend), as well as the Lobel's steak sandwich. We rounded off our pre-game eating and drinking with a quick stop in the Tommy Bahama Bar, which is a very spacious bar with several TVs, and plenty of room to stand.

At 6:50, we headed to our seats on the second level. We were almost directly behind the Yankee dugout, so we had a great view of the entire field. The field looked exactly the same, which gave off the feeling like a part of the old stadium was still there.

Some things hadn't changed at all. The Bleacher Creatures still did their role call as the first inning was underway, the grounds' crew performed the YMCA while they swept the dirt during the sixth inning, and Kate Smith's voice still filled the stadium with "God Bless America" for the seventh inning stretch.

What I liked the least was that Monument Park is no longer in left center field but in straight away center field. You used to be able to see straight into Monument Park from the stands, but now it is somewhat hidden in center field.

I found myself looking out to the left field stands for the out of town score board, but all I kept seeing were advertisements. The out of town score board now resides in the monitor in right field and gives detailed analysis of each game in digital form.

It was a pretty spectacular night. Sabathia pitched a gem, despite giving up one run in the first inning.

My dad turned to me in the bottom of the sixth inning and said he had hoped that the offense would do a little more in support of Sabathia. I assured him that they just needed to hear "God Bless America", and then they'd score some runs.

Sure enough, the Yankees came alive in the bottom of the seventh. The captain broke the game open with a bases clearing double to make it 6-1.

Johnny Damon scored Jeter with a double of his own, and then Mark Teixeira hit a monster home run to put the Yankees up 9-1. Brian Bruney made his first appearance since coming off the DL, and the Yankees wrapped up their seventh win in a row.

The night couldn't be complete, however, without one more thing...

Before heading for the car, my dad and I got some Carvel ice cream in a Yankee souvenir cap. A Yankee win on my first visit to the ball park, a great tour of the new house, a game with my dad, capped off with some Carvel.

Not a bad night at all.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

How Dropping Lots of Money Hasn't Helped the Yankees Win a World Series

The other night I was talking to one of the guys in my fantasy baseball league, and he posed several topics to me to write about. One of the ones I found the most interesting is the difference in how the Yankees dealt with filling a position hole in the mid-late-'90's to the way they do it now.

That really got me thinking. It seemed like back then if the Yankees had a position spot that needed to be filled they rarely signed a high priced free agent. They made a trade or signed a seasoned veteran, and ended up winning four championships in six years.
Since 2001, they broke away from that formula and haven't won a World Series since. Obviously there are many factors that contribute to a team winning or losing, but there is something to be said for a change in the way of things being done as part of the reason.

After Don Mattingly retired, the Yankees needed to fill the hole at first base. They witnessed first hand the damage that Tino Martinez could inflict on his opponents, and decided that trading for the reliable veteran was the best way to fill Mattingly's spot.

Tino went on to play six seasons in the Bronx, won four World Series rings, and came through in some of the most clutch situations.

When the Yankees let Tino go after 2001, they went after the high priced and overrated Jason Giambi. Giambi couldn't match what Tino did for the Yankees. He played for the Yankees for six seasons and the Yankees never won the World Series while Giambi was there.
He ended up being involved in the steroid scandal, and spent much of his time in New York battling different injuries that prevented him from playing.

Giambi doesn't get re-signed after 2008, and the Yankees first trade for Nick Swisher. Swisher can play the outfield and first base, so the Yankees planned to use him in a variety of spots.
It appeared as if the Yankees were reverting back to their old ways by trading for a guy that wasn't necessarily an All-Star, but could provide the Yankees with a lot of options.

And then, the Yankees went out and managed to land the high priced free agent named Mark Teixeira. I happen to believe that Teixeira is a much better signing than Giambi was because he's a switch hitter and he can actually play first base.

However, there's always more of a focus on the type of contract that a guy like Teixeira gets than on anything else. If he's in a slump it always goes back to the amount that he gets paid, instead of just letting him make the transition.

If Teixeira ends up not helping the Yankees win at least one World Series during his time in pinstripes, the signing will be viewed as a complete bust.

The situation is the same for the position of third base. After the '96 season, Wade Boggs left the Yankees as a free agent, and they had a few guys like Charlie Hayes to fill the spot, but the team knew they needed more than that. Before the '98 season, the Yankees traded for Oakland third baseman Scott Brosius.

Brosius was a veteran who just came off of one of the worst seasons of his career. No one expected that he would contribute much to the team.

Somehow, Scott Brosius was able to shine in New York. He made plays at third that reminded Yankee fans of the days of Graig Nettles, and he came through in the clutch when most people would've counted him as an easy out.

Brosius became a fan favorite with his feats in the '98 World Series (He was the MVP of the series). Not to mention he helped the Yankees rally from behind during the 2001 World Series. He was a solid player who handled playing in New York with such ease that it looked like Brosius had been there his entire career.

Once Brosius was gone after 2001, the Yankees filled third base with a couple of people. One of those people was Aaron Boone and while he didn't have the same kind of success that Brosius did, he will forever be known as the guy that sent the Yankees to the World Series and the Red Sox packing with one swing of his bat.

Boone was going to be the starting third baseman for the 2004 season, but ended up blowing out his knee in the offseason, which allowed the Yankees to trade for Alex Rodriguez.

At the time, it seemed like the best thing that could happen to the Yankees, but five years later, a lot of people are questioning that move. During A-Rod's time in New York, the Yankees haven't made it to the World Series, and only once made it past the ALCS.

His post season production is nothing to speak of, and as a result, Yankee fans are left to wonder if they would've been better off with someone else.

Of course, there is the whole issue of hind sight, and if we all knew what we know now would the choice still be the same? Unfortunately, the trend of signing high priced free agents in the place of solid veterans is not yielding the results that the Yankees are looking for.

It is difficult to ignore this when teams like the Red Sox are putting together a competitive team year after year with a lot of solid veterans and farm hands and having success.

A team like Tampa Bay, with no where near the spending capabilities as the Yankees managed to win the AL east with guys that they had in their farm system and a mix of reliable veterans.
That's what the Yankees used to do. They brought up guys like Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, and Jorge Posada, homegrown players to mix in with a group of veterans that knew how to get things done.

Over the past couple of seasons, the Yankees have made moves to look like they are going back to the old way, with the promotion of Robinson Cano, Chien-Ming Wang, Phil Hughes, Melky Cabrera, and Joba Chamberlain to the big league club.

Even this year, the Yankees have promoted guys like Francisco Cervelli, Brett Gardner, and Ramiro Pena to fill in for injured regulars. It is uncertain whether or not these changes will produce the positive results the Yankees are looking for.

Still, it's hard not to wonder if the Yankees had never messed with their way of doing things if there might be a few more championships banners hanging.

Just goes to show you, if it ain't broke don't fix it.

Friday, May 8, 2009

There's A lot More to Zack Greinke Than A Great Arm

During my fantasy draft, Zack Greinke's name kept standing out to me. I didn't know a lot about him, but I felt like I remembered him having pretty good stats. I ended up drafting him, and to date he's been the best pitcher on my staff as well as the best pitcher in baseball.

A few years ago, when Greinke was drafted by the Royals he was considered to be a pitching prodigy. Early on he showed that he had the make up to be a No. 1 type pitcher.

However, he struggled with something that not only effected his game, but his life as well.

The thing about Zack Greinke is that he isn't the type of guy that dreamed of being a major league pitcher. He never wanted to pitch. He was more fascinated with hitting home runs than he ever was with trying to strike hitters out.

In high school, he took part in a home run derby, and pitched occasionally when his coach needed him to. His coaches pushed him into pitching because he was far too good not to pitch.

Most people who know Greinke will tell you that he is a little on the strange side. He's not the type of guy you will find sitting in the clubhouse talking with his teammates or talking to the media.

He's the one staring into his locker or looking bored when he's getting asked questions. He's likely to wander off on the days that he's pitching and fall asleep somewhere around the stadium.

In 2005, Greinke was having an awful season. Nothing was working for him the way it normally did. During one game, he told his manager that he planned on throwing a 50 mph curveball, and when he went out there, the radar guns confirmed the proclamation Greinke had made earlier.

Now, why would a guy with the capability of throwing in the mid-90s feel like all he could throw was a 50 mph curveball to get hitters out?

The truth was Greinke wasn't happy pitching. As a result, he was getting into arguments with his pitching coach and growing even more distant from his teammates. He didn't like having five days between his starts because he was unoccupied, and talked to his family about wanting to become a position player so he'd have more playing time.

Things got worse for Greinke the following spring. He was so unfocused he couldn't pitch. He couldn't throw strikes during his bullpen sessions let alone at any other time. He informed his pitching coach and his manager that he needed to take some time off from baseball.

The Royals allowed Greinke to take the time off, and it was then that he was diagnosed with a social anxiety disorder, a condition that occurs in high tension social situations.

Luckily with the help of everyone around him and medication, Greinke was able to get himself back in a good frame of mind. He pitched his way back into the Royals' starting rotation, and has been lights out so far in 2009.

Many people think that a social anxiety disorder is one of those made up diseases that people say that they have to mask whatever their problem is. However, as someone who suffers from an anxiety disorder, I can vouch that it is in no way made up.

Anxiety can be debilitating. It can make you feel like someone is standing on your chest and you can't breathe. You feel trapped, you can't focus, and that only gets worse when you feel like everyone is zeroing in on you.

Thankfully, it can be dealt with in a variety of ways. Sometimes all a person needs is a little bit of time on medication to feel like they are in control of their lives again, and then they are able to function without it. There are lots of ways to try and eliminate stress or at least keep it at a lower rate and focus on one thing at a time.

I had difficulty feeling calm around small groups of people; Greinke had to pitch in front of thousands of people a night, and that alone can cause anxiety never mind if you already suffer from it.

Zack Greinke will never be the guy that is chatting it up in the clubhouse or laughing with his teammates in the dugout, but he will be able to help his team. He is fortunate that he was able to recognize his problem, and get help.

It is because of that that Greinke has been able to emerge as the dominating pitcher everyone always thought he would be. He still may not love to pitch, but he loves to compete, and that is what fuels his ability.

The Royals love what he's doing as does every fantasy owner who pencils him in every fifth day. It's always good to see someone overcome an obstacle and come out on top.

Keep up the good work, Zack!