Magnificent Mo still getting it done

    Thursday, August 12, 2010, 2:34 PM [General]

    Sometimes, Mariano Rivera’s greatness in the most delicate job in baseball is taken for granted. Rivera is so superb and so precise that he is expected to be unhittable. Not just effective, but excellent. Sometimes, Rivera’s prolonged excellence even baffles the people who have watched him the longest.

    “Can you believe what Rivera is doing?,” asked Gene Michael, who was the Yankees’ general manager when Rivera debuted in 1995. “He just keeps getting better. How do you do that?”

    As a baseball lifer who was a player, a coach, a manager, a general manager and an adviser for the Yankees, Michael has scouted hundreds of players. He has never seen someone as good at what he does as Rivera is as a closer. I haven’t seen as many players as Michael, but I agree with him. I’ve never seen a player who dominates the way Rivera dominates.

    Rivera was his usually sturdy self in a pulsating 7-6 win over the Rangers on Wednesday night. One night after the Rangers conquered Rivera, Rivera pushed back. After Elvis Andrus opened the ninth with a triple, Rivera exhaled and applied a sleeper hold to the Rangers. Andrus, who had celebrated as if he had won the lottery upon reaching third, never budged past there.

    That’s because Rivera retired Michael Young on a pop out to right field. Although Rivera started with a 2-0 count against Josh Hamilton, he knew he had to continue pitching inside so Hamilton couldn’t extend his arms. It worked as Hamilton tapped a ball to Rivera. Then Rivera retired Vladimir Guerrero on a groundout. Three very good hitters, three very important outs, one incredible closer.

    “That’s Mo,” manager Joe Girardi said.

    There will come a time when Rivera will no longer pitch for the Yankees and the journey to get the final outs will become much more perilous for them. Since Rivera succeeded John Wetteland as the closer in 1997, he has given the Yankees an edge in the most critical part of the game. Rivera is the best security blanket in baseball. The Yankees are 61-0 when leading after eight innings this season.

    “When Mo comes in,” Derek Jeter said, “we feel like the game’s over.”

    Even if Michael is ordering breakfast, he speaks like a scout. So, when Michael discussed Rivera, he dug into his memory bank to offer his scouting report on Rivera from 15 years ago. Michael said that Rivera threw a straight fastball that averaged 88 to 91 miles per hour, a nice slider and a solid changeup. Rivera had a smooth motion and Michael said that enabled his pitches “to be right on the hitter.”

    Michael was puzzled when Rivera’s fastball suddenly exploded to 95 MPH while Rivera was fashioning a scoreless streak of 20 2/3 innings at Class AAA Columbus. The GM figured the radar gun readings were erroneous. Once Michael discovered that Rivera’s gun readings were accurate and that Rivera’s fastball was a better weapon, he summoned Rivera to the Major Leagues for the second time in July of 1995.

    “We pitched him in a day game in Chicago,” Michael said. “His ball moved so much that we thought they’d have trouble seeing it.”

    The Yankees were right as Rivera struck out 11 across eight shutout innings to quiet the White Sox, 4-1 on July 4. I covered that game and remember thinking that the Yankees had discovered a stellar starter. But I was incorrect. Eventually, the Yankees would learn that they had discovered a great closer, the greatest of all-time.

    “I know I can pitch up here,” Rivera said that day. “No doubt about it. They have to hit me. They didn’t.”

    Michael marveled at how Rivera inadvertently developed a cut fastball while playing catch with Ramiro Mendoza in the summer of 1997, and how that became his trademark pitch in 1998 and beyond. Rivera still relies on the cutter, which Jim Thome called “the single best pitch ever in game,” most of the time, but he has mixed in more two-seam fastballs this season.
     
    According to fangraphs.com, Rivera’s cutter has averaged 91.1 MPH and he has thrown it 84.5 percent of the time in 2010. His two-seamer is a mile faster and he has uncorked it 15.5 percent. Last year, 92.9 percent of Rivera’s pitchers were cutters. He will be 41 years old in November, but he is still evolving as a pitcher and still mesmerizing hitters and onlookers.   
     
    “Who would have thought Rivera would still be doing this?,” Michael said.

    That doesn’t matter. What matters is that Rivera is still doing it. The Yankees know that they should never take that for granted.

    4.1 (2 Ratings)

    Larry Berkman thrilled, but watching not easy

    Wednesday, August 4, 2010, 9:56 AM [General]

    You would think it would be easy by now. Once your son had made it to the Major Leagues, played 12 seasons, clubbed 326 homers and appeared in a World Series, you would think it would be easy to watch his games.

    Larry Berkman, Lance’s father, said it isn’t easy. It can be torturous.

    After Berkman’s first two games with the Yankees, I called his father to ask Larry about turning his son into a switch-hitter. After Larry explained in vivid detail how he helped transform a six-year old right-handed hitter into a polished switch-hitter, I asked him how excited he was about his son being traded to the Yankees from the Astros. The father was blunt.

    “To be truthful, it scares me to death because I want him to do so well,” Larry said. “It’s tough to sit and watch it. When he doesn’t do something that’s spectacular, it makes your stomach crawl. I want him to do something so badly.”

    The best parents never stop being parents and never stop caring about their children. That is why Larry watches every one of Lance’s at-bats with a nervous stomach. It doesn’t matter how long Lance has been playing. Larry still wants him to succeed, still wants him to get another hit.

    “It’s kind of agonizing,” Larry said. “You start off 1-for-8, like he did, that’s not too good. I think his swing will come around.”

    A few hours after Larry made those comments on Tuesday, Lance singled in his first run as a Yankee. Berkman, who didn’t play Tuesday night, is 2-for-11 in his first three games with the Yankees. Larry said he is hopeful that the trade will “rejuvenate” Lance’s career and will help his son get back the “thrill of playing baseball.” If Lance has a strong finish this season, Larry would love to see him play again in 2011.

    The fact that Lance is playing in the Majors at all can be traced to a decision that Larry made 28 years ago. Since Lance threw left-handed, Larry, a left-handed hitter at the University of Texas, figured Lance would bat left-handed, too. But, when Larry put a plastic bat in Lance’s hands, Lance swung right-handed. Little Lance was a six-year old who gravitated to the right side.

    There aren’t many elite players who bat right-handed and throw left-handed, a disappointed Larry thought. After a week of watching Lance hit right-handed, Larry decided to make his son a switch-hitter. So Lance smacked Larry’s underhanded pitches as a right-handed hitter and then slapped them as a left-handed hitter, too. Lance never resisted the switch. He embraced it.

    For six years, Lance alternated between hitting from the left and the right side in every at-bat during youth games. He would start hitting from the left side and then he would hit from the right side and then he would switch back again. It didn’t matter if the pitcher was a lefty or a righty. Lance stuck to his routine of switching from at-bat to at-bat so he could become proficient from both sides.

    In addition to switch-hitting in games, Lance also took 100 swings off a batting tee in his garage almost every night, taking 50 swings from each side. While Larry set up a net to catch the balls that Lance crushed, Lance still damaged the walls in the garage.

    “At the time, I didn’t have it in my head that he’d be a Major League player,” said Larry. “That’s not something I thought would happen. I wanted him to play in college. It’s astounded me that he made it.”

    Indeed, Berkman has made it. Now Berkman is a Yankee and he is trying to help them win their second straight championship. But, as Larry, an attorney, watches Lance’s at-bats, he still squirms. With the Yankees pushing toward the postseason, Larry acknowledged that he might squirm a little more.
     
    During Lance’s rookie year in 1999, Bud Spiers, whose son, Bill, was also on the Astros, noticed how Larry agonized over Lance’s at-bats. Bill was in his 11th season, but Bud told Larry that his “stomach goes into knots” every time his son played, too.

    “I just want to let you know,” Bud told Larry, “it doesn’t get any easier.”

    Bud was right. It hasn’t gotten easier. But Larry will keep watching Lance, nervous stomach and all.

    3.7 (1 Ratings)

    Say Hey Kid can relate to A-Rod

    Wednesday, July 28, 2010, 4:18 PM [General]

    Willie Mays knows what it is like to wait a little while to climb from 599 homers to 600 in his career, knows what it is like to feel the way Alex Rodriguez is feeling. It took Mays 21 at-bats to collect that elusive homer and reach the milestone almost 40 years ago. Rodriguez, who is stuck on 599, hasn’t homered in 21 at-bats.

    “The pressure was there,” Mays said. “You’re talking about him getting 600 right now? The pressure is there. It’s just that, every day he doesn’t hit it, they want to ask him why you didn’t hit it today. It’s one of those types of things.”

    Once Rodriguez tied Mays for the longest homerless streak between 599 and 600, I decided to call Mays on Wednesday. I have interviewed Mays by telephone a few times. He is blunt and brief, and he can even be gruff. But, when it’s a baseball icon like Mays, a little crankiness on the other end of the phone is O.K. with me.

    When I explained to Mays why I was calling, he warmed to the subject. Mays said Rodriguez has to relax at the plate, but then Mays immediately noted that it is easy to say that and not so easy to do it. According to Mays, it is virtually impossible for Rodriguez to swing and not think about belting his 600th.

    “How can you?” Mays said. “How can you do that when you guys are all consistently asking, ‘How come you’re not doing it?’ How can you not think about it? You have to think about it.”

    Although Mays doesn’t watch every Yankees game, he has seen some of Rodriguez’s recent at-bats and has seen Rodriguez get a few hits. But, like Mays before him, Rodriguez has gone 21 at-bats with 599 in his home run column. Rodriguez’s quest will continue against the Indians on Wednesday night.

    “You’re talking about a milestone of 600, which is a great milestone,” Mays said. “The pressure’s there. It’s just that, once he hits it, he’s going to relax and he’s going to go forward.”

    On Sept. 22, 1969, Mays drilled his 600th homer off Mike Corkins before 4,779 fans in San Diego. Yes, less than 5,000 people saw Mays become the second player to ever reach 600 homers. It was a pinch-hit homer, which I didn’t know and which Mays chided me for not knowing. Mays said he felt more stress trying to hit his 512th homer to surpass Mel Ott, the former Giant, than he did in chasing 600.

    “Pressure was 512, Mel Ott,” Mays said. “I was trying to break Mel Ott’s record and it took me about two weeks to get a homer off Claude Osteen. I didn’t think 600 was a big deal. At the time, people didn’t talk about it like they are talking about it now.”

    I wanted to talk to Mays about other things. Barry Bonds, who is May’s godson and is the all-time home run leader with 762, has been suspected of using steroids. I asked Mays how he felt about players like Rodriguez, who has acknowledged that he used performance enhancing drugs, moving up the all-time home run list. Mays dismissed the question.

    “Wait a minute, we’re not going to do a book here,” Mays said. “You’re talking about two different things. It’s not a book.”

    It wasn’t a book. It was one man with 660 homers talking about another man who was trying to get to 600. Soon enough, Rodriguez will get to 600. Then Rodriguez will target the six home run hitters in front of him, including Mays and Bonds.

    3.7 (1 Ratings)

    The Boss' presence to hover over Old-Timers' Day

    Saturday, July 17, 2010, 10:26 AM [General]

    George Steinbrenner's presence will hover over Old-Timers' Day at Yankee Stadium today, as it should. There will be hundreds, maybe thousands, of stories told about the principal owner who passed away on Tuesday. I have one of my own to share and, fittingly, it happened on an Old-Timers' Day.

    Ten years ago, I woke up on a Saturday in September to discover that Steinbrenner had groused about three players in an article in The New York Daily News. Steinbrenner expressed skepticism about second baseman Chuck Knoblauch's elbow injury, he said reliever Jeff Nelson should "give us what we want and zip the lip" and he also criticized Mike Stanton, another reliever.

    Because Steinbrenner had squawked, everything changed for the reporters who were working that day. The focus shifted from the Yankees-Twins contest and Old-Timers' Day to securing an interview with Steinbrenner. Since Steinbrenner wasn't at the Stadium, that was challenging. Eventually, he picked up the phone at his horse farm in Ocala, Florida and I wrote about it in The New York Times.

    "Old-Timers' Day is great, but, if we don't get in the playoffs, no one's going to care about Old-Timers' Day," Steinbrenner said. "Anything I'm telling these guys, I'm telling them to try and help the team. It's coming from the owner so they should listen."

    That was vintage Steinbrenner. The Yankees were his team and he didn't care if he angered anyone. He wanted to get his message across, even if he delivered it through the news media. He was disappointed that Knoblauch was sidelined and explained that the Yankees' medical staff uncovered no problems with Knoblauch's elbow. Steinbrenner intimated that Knoblauch was faking the injury because he was burdened by throwing woes. That enraged Knoblauch.

    "I'm tired of being questioned like I got to prove myself," Knoblauch said. "What do I got to hide from? Everybody in the world knows I got a throwing problem. So what am I afraid of? That means I'm not hurt?"

    As countless players can attest, including some of the players who will be at the Stadium today, Steinbrenner was never hesitant to challenge his players. When I told Steinbrenner that Knoblauch was baffled that he was in New York and not rehabilitating somewhere else, Steinbrenner blasted him again.

    "He's baffled why he's in New York?" Steinbrenner asked. "I'm baffled. I like this kid, but I can't understand him. Do I know whether he's hurt? No. I can only go by what our doctors say. They mark him as able. Jeter is black-and-blue. O'Neill has a hip problem. Canseco is hobbling. Every player is hurt and they're fighting like warriors. I hope Knoblauch gets back with them."

    When Steinbrenner was on a roll, offering spicier and spicier comments, I always wondered how far he would go. Just when I would think that Steinbrenner couldn't say something more provocative, he would. It's why reporters needed to call him over and over.

    After Steinbrenner tweaked Knoblauch, he criticized Nelson for pitching inconsistently and for arguing with Manager Joe Torre. Nelson was irked by Steinbrenner's comments, but said that he would not let them impact his performance.

    "I'm not going to go on the mound and start thinking about what George said," Nelson said. "I don't pitch for him. I pitch for the team and myself."

    Stanton had been blitzed for homers in four straight games, which is why Steinbrenner said he had not "done the job." When Stanton was asked about the curious timing of Steinbrenner's remarks, he said, "I think it's more of the timing of when I'm stinking." Stanton's candid response was the type that would endear him to Steinbrenner.  

    Ten years after Steinbrenner jabbed Knoblauch, Nelson and Stanton, the Yankees will hold their first Old-Timers' Day without him. It won't be the same. Reporters won't be rushing to get reaction like we did in 2000. That won't happen anymore. It won't ever be the same.

    4.1 (2 Ratings)

    Remembering the Boss' calls

    Wednesday, July 14, 2010, 10:03 AM [General]

    I have tried to look relaxed while sitting in a chair shaped like a baseball glove inside George Steinbrenner’s office. I have sat beside Steinbrenner at a black tie dinner. I have chased Steinbrenner through parking lots and stadiums. I have had Steinbrenner bestow a nickname on me.

    In 20 years of covering baseball, I did a lot of writing and reporting about Steinbrenner. When you cover the Yankees, you had to cover Steinbrenner. It was almost as critical as covering the team. Before Steinbrenner receded into the background in recent years, a reporter who didn’t have access to the principal owner was useless.

    After Steinbrenner had a massive heart attack on Tuesday and passed away at the age of 80, I contacted Don Mattingly, Buck Showalter and David Cone to get their recollections about the legendary owner. As I helped interview these men and others on the YES Network, I was riveted by some of their stories. Cone spoke eloquently about Steinbrenner and was so emotional about the loss that his voice cracked at the end of the interview.

    Once we finished about six hours of live coverage on Steinbrenner, I tried to remember the last time that I had spoken to him. It happened on Easter Sunday in 2009. Steinbrenner walked by me at a steak house in Tampa. I said hello and so did he. Usually, George would have said more, but he didn’t this time. That memory reinforced how I will miss those conversations with Steinbrenner. Specifically, I will miss his calls.

    The calls were legendary. When Steinbrenner called you, he didn’t say hello. At least he didn’t say hello to me. The recognizable voice would simply say, “It’s George.” Steinbrenner would almost sound disinterested, as if he really didn’t want to talk to you. But, quite often, he did want to talk. He might want to talk about his manager or a struggling player. I always tried to extend the interview as long as I could. The longer Steinbrenner spoke, the more likely he was to say something that would produce a provocative article.

    The three most magical words a Yankee writer could say to an editor were, “I got Steinbrenner.” But, once writers said that, editors typically asked, “Did you get him alone?” This was a tricky question. When I was at The New York Times, Steinbrenner routinely told me that I was the only writer whose call he was returning. But, a day later, I would read my competitor’s articles and see that Steinbrenner had called them back, too, and made similar comments.

    I will be honest. It’s easy to say now that I will miss Steinbrenner’s calls. I didn’t love making those calls when they kept me chained to a hotel room during the season or kept me chained to my desk during the offseason. Since I started covering the Yankees before there were cellular phones, I couldn’t leave my room after calling Steinbrenner. If I needed a bucket of ice, I had to sprint from my room to the ice machine. If Steinbrenner called while I was out, that ice run would be the costliest 45 seconds of my week.

    Because covering Steinbrenner was so essential to covering the Yankees, I remember how beat writers danced around discussing whether Steinbrenner had called us back. If we were on the road and another writer asked me to go to lunch, I would tell him I was busy waiting on something. I didn’t need to say anything else. But, if there was one writer who was persistent about trying to arrange lunch with the other writers, that probably meant he had already interviewed Steinbrenner.  

    While I disliked being held hostage to one of Steinbrenner’s calls, the angst has lessened with time. I’d compare covering Steinbrenner to running a marathon, which I’ve done twice. Throughout the 26.2 mile race, there were many times where I hated it and wanted to quit. But, once the race was over, I felt a sense of accomplishment. That’s what it was like covering Steinbrenner, especially if you secured information that no one else had.

    Oh, yes, the nickname. One of Steinbrenner’s calls also yielded my unexplained nickname. For some reason, George started calling me Jackson, something I’d never been called and something that made me sound more like the newspaper boy than a newspaper reporter. I told a few baseball writers how George had inexplicably dubbed me Jackson and they have never forgotten it.

    Several months ago, a writer tried to imitate Steinbrenner’s voice while calling me Jackson in a phone message. It was a terrible imitation. It wouldn’t have mattered if the imitation had been better. I knew Steinbrenner wasn’t returning calls anymore. On Tuesday, he passed away. So many people have memories. So many reporters, like me, will remember the calls.

    3.7 (1 Ratings)

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