A view from the circle

    Wednesday, July 7, 2010, 2:20 PM [General]

    OAKLAND – If Alex Rodriguez had squinted or adjusted one finger on his bat before hammering a grand slam on Tuesday night, I would have seen it. That is how close I was to the plate during the third inning at the Oakland Coliseum. If there was an on deck circle behind the on deck circle, that would have been my neighborhood.

    In two decades of covering baseball, I have been fortunate enough to have some terrific views from several press boxes. But I’ve never had a more prime location than the one I have enjoyed during the series between the Yankees and the Athletics. I never thought that standing on a pile of television cable wires and wedging between two camera operators would be so memorable.

    While standing about 20 feet from the first base dugout for an inning in each game, I have seen some of the nuances of the game that most fans and most reporters don’t see. Getting that close to the action has also reminded me of just how blindingly fast the game is. When you see CC Sabathia unleash a 95-mile per hour fastball with movement from that vantage point, you wonder how any player hits it.

    When the Yankees began the top of the third against Trevor Cahill, Rodriguez wasn’t even in the dugout. How do I know? With one out and a runner on first, I saw Rodriguez march along a narrow path and right past me to return to the dugout. I’m not sure why Rodriguez had been in the clubhouse. Since his spot in the lineup was a few batters away, it wasn’t the best time to ask a question.

    Here are some of the things I noticed from my awesome location. Cahill was really working on the mound, almost working too hard. Sometimes, pitchers seem as if they are trying to throw a ball 120 miles per hour. That’s an awful idea. After a 6-1 loss, Cahill, an All-Star, admitted that he was “a little too amped” about facing the Yankees. It showed.

    I saw how pesky Colin Curtis can be as a hitter. Cahill fueled the situation by not challenging the No. 9 hitter, but Curtis’ walk put runners on first and second and helped ignite the inning. When Brett Gardner lined a single to center field, it was obvious to me that Curtis Granderson wouldn’t score from second base. I immediately saw Granderson step back toward second so he had to stop at third.

    I saw how relaxed Derek Jeter is. Before Jeter ambled to the on deck circle, he joked with Kevin Long, the hitting coach, and Joba Chamberlain, who had emerged from the clubhouse before Rodriguez. At that moment, Jeter hadn’t driven in a run in a career-worst 19 straight games. I doubt that Jeter knew that. Jeter threw a pine tar stick at Mark Teixeira before heading to the plate, something that he used to do to Johnny Damon.

    I was reminded of how Jeter hustles. When Jeter smacked a hard grounder to second base, it had the chance to be the inning-ending double play that Cahill needed. But I watched Jeter rumble out of the box as if he was Usain Bolt. He’s not, but Jeter bolted across first base ahead of the throw to get that elusive run batted in and extend the inning.

    I saw and heard what it is like to get plunked by a pitch. When Cahill hit Teixeira with an 0-2 fastball, Teixeira yelped and dropped to the dirt. Teixeira said the pitch hit him near the kidney and “knocked the wind out of me.” Cahill’s misplaced pitch also loaded the bases.

    I saw how one check swing can change an at bat and change a game. After Cahill threw a 2-1 curveball to Rodriguez, Rodriguez barely checked his swing. Rodriguez offered at the pitch, but held up. Rodriguez held the bat in place until Jerry Layne, the first base umpire, called it a ball. The call moved the count to 3-1, which is dramatically different than 2-2.

    Once that call went in Rodriguez’s favor, I wasn’t the only one who expected that he would hit the ball hard or far or both. He did. Cahill threw a fastball that might as well have been placed on a tee. Rodriguez crushed it for his 21st grand slam and the 596th homer of his career. The game was essentially over, although Rodriguez added his 597th homer in his next at bat. The check swing in the third made the difference in the game.

    “That was huge,” Rodriguez said. “At 2-1, the check swing was close. Jerry Layne said I didn’t go. It put me in a good hitting situation. I got a fastball right down the middle and I put a good swing on it.”

    Guess what? I was closer to Rodriguez’s check swing than Layne was. That simply amplifies how riveting it can be to stand on some cable wires behind the on deck circle here. It’s a cool neighborhood.

    4.1 (2 Ratings)

    Burnett's struggles related to tipping pitches?

    Saturday, June 26, 2010, 3:50 PM [General]

    Since A.J. Burnett has labored to throw his fastball in precise locations and has struggled to uncork a consistent curveball, the Yankees have dissected every aspect of his performances to try and determine what is wrong. The Yankees might have discovered one of the reasons that Burnett has been so erratic: he might be tipping his pitches to batters.

    General Manager Brian Cashman expressed confidence that Burnett will rebound from a disappointing stretch in which he is 0-4 with a 10.35 earned run average. Yet, the General Manager noted that the Yankees believe the pitcher’s problems might have involved “tipping his pitches a little bit.” Burnett was blitzed for three homers in the first inning in a 10-4 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks on Tuesday.        

    “I just think, in some starts, it looked like the opposing team knew what was coming,” Cashman said. “We’re working on all the angles. When teams are getting the same kind of hacks against breaking balls as they do against fastballs, it’s something you notice.”

    While Cashman wouldn’t specify how Burnett might have been tipping pitches or which starts he might have been doing so, it seems likely that he was referring to Burnett’s last start. Burnett surrendered six straight two-out hits, including home runs by Justin Upton, Adam LaRoche and Mark Reynolds, in a woeful first inning. Burnett will start against the Dodgers on Saturday.

    It doesn’t take much for pitchers to inadvertently tip off batters to what pitch they are about to throw. Some pitchers reach into their glove and take slightly longer to get a grip when they are about to throw breaking balls, which take more finesse to throw than fastballs. If a hitter notices that a pitcher is reaching into his glove, establishing a grip quickly and then throwing it, he might deduce that he is about to see a fastball. If the pitcher takes a millisecond longer, he might be telegraphing a breaking ball.

    “Whether I’ve been trying too hard or everything was speeding up more than I want it to, it comes down to remembering what it feels like to succeed,” Burnett told reporters.

    Even if Burnett tipped his pitches in his last start, he also hurt himself by missing location on several pitches. On all three homers, Burnett failed to hit catcher Jorge Posada's target. Burnett looked dumbfounded during and after the inning. The Diamondbacks, who are one of the worst teams in the major leagues, looked very comfortable at the plate.

    On a 1-1 pitch to Upton, Posada called for a fastball and set up on the outside corner. Burnett dipped into his glove, pulled the ball out swiftly and fired a 94-mile per hour fastball. Upton clobbered it over the center field fence to give the Diamondbacks a 1-0 lead.

    After Miguel Montero and Chris Young both slapped two-strike hits on breaking balls, Posada wanted to start LaRoche with an outside fastball. Once LaRoche entered the batter’s box, his eyes were locked on Burnett. He looked like he was reading an eye chart, not merely getting ready to hit. Burnett fired a fastball that was down the middle, not outside, and LaRoche bashed the 94-M.P.H. pitch for a three-run homer.  Some batters, like Derek Jeter, love swinging at first-pitch fastball, but LaRoche’s swing was ferocious and looked like something out of a batting practice session.

    After LaRoche’s blast gave the Diamondbacks a 4-0 cushion, Reynolds followed with another comfortable swing. On a 1-1 pitch, Burnett was supposed to toss a curveball that was down and away. But Burnett hung the curve on the inside corner and Reynolds teed off on it. Reynolds, who leads the majors in strikeouts, looked like a slow-pitch softball player as he sized up the pitch and hammered it.

    “I don’t feel like myself,” Burnett said.

    Dave Eiland, the Yankees’ pitching coach, works more closely with Burnett than any of the other starters. But Eiland hasn’t been with the team since June 4 because of an undisclosed personal problem. Eiland’s absence has coincided with Burnett’s troubles. Cashman declined to discuss Eiland’s situation or when the coach might return.
    When Manager Joe Girardi was asked if Burnett would be aided by having the consistency that Eiland’s presence would bring, he said, “That’s our job to investigate why things are going wrong.” That investigation has led the Yankees to theorize that Burnett might have tipped his pitches.

    If Burnett was tipping his pitches, it will be interesting to see if any modifications in his mound behavior will produce better results. But, if Burnett stopped tipping his pitches and still has difficulty, the Yankees will have to continue dissecting him.

    “He’s a streaky pitcher,” Cashman said. “He’s got a complicated delivery. We think he’ll find his way through it.”

    4.1 (2 Ratings)

    Gonzalez, Rivera will always share a unique moment

    Tuesday, June 22, 2010, 2:41 PM [General]

    Mariano Rivera makes hitters fret, makes them adjust and makes them ponder how close they are to having their bat splintered by his cut fastball. Rivera is so superb and so dominant that he and his trusty cutter can invade a batter's cranium before he ever throws a pitch. Some very strong hitters have ambled to the plate wondering how they can conquer the mighty Rivera.

    In Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, Luis Gonzalez was one of those hitters. With the Yankees and the Diamondbacks tied, 2-2, and the bases loaded in the ninth inning, Gonzalez knew he needed to do something, anything, different against Rivera. So Gonzalez moved his hands up the handle of the bat and choked up for the first time all season.

    "I had 140-something R.B.I. that season and I'd hit 57 homers and I was choking up," Gonzalez said. "To let you know what I was thinking about facing Mariano, it was the first time I had done that all season and it was my last at bat of the season."

    Gonzalez felt helpless when Rivera whiffed him in the eighth inning so he thought choking up might give him a better chance to make contact. The strategy worked. Gonzalez connected. He connected just enough to loop a ball over shortstop Derek Jeter's head for a game-winning single. If Jeter, who was playing in, had been at his regular position, the ball would have been a harmless pop out.

    "It was a screaming bleeder," joked Gonzalez, who leaped and danced on his way to first base after delivering one of the most memorable bloop singles in Major League history.

    Almost nine years later, Rivera is still throwing nasty cutters for the Yankees and still suffocating hitters. Rivera has retired 21 straight batters, which is the longest streak of his career. He is 40 years old and he is in his 16th season, but Rivera has now done something he had never done while growing into the best closer of all-time. Rivera, who is back in Arizona with the Yankees this week, has 16 saves and a 1.11 earned run average and, statistically, is as effective as he has ever been.

    "He's a silent assassin," Gonzalez said. "He comes in there and he's going to chop you up."
    Since Gonzalez's single off Rivera gave the Diamondbacks their first World Series title and gave the state of Arizona its only major championship, he said someone asks him about the at bat every day. That is exactly what I did on in a telephone interview on Monday, becoming the 34,675th person to quiz Gonzalez about the single that deprived the Yankees of a fourth straight title.

    When I spoke to Gonzalez, who is now a special assistant with the Diamondbacks, I told him my theory about his hit off Rivera. A player can't experience a sweeter moment on the field than smacking a game-winning hit in a decisive World Series game. But, as exhilarating as Gonzalez's moment was, I think Rivera's success has helped make it even better for him. Because Rivera is still thriving and still adding to his legacy, the fact that Gonzalez beat him has added more shine to an already glossy hit.

    "It makes it extra special," Gonzalez said. "To do something like that against the best reliever in the history of the game, by far, it definitely stands out. I won the battle that day, but I have the deepest respect for Mariano.  He's so strong mentally. If some pitchers blew a save there, it would have ruined their careers."

    Not Rivera. He is still rumbling forward, still retiring hitters and shattering bats. When Rivera allowed a grand slam to Minnesota's Jason Kubel in May, there were the usual questions about how long the closer could continue succeeding. Rivera has answered the questions by being perfect across the last seven innings he has pitched. In addition, Rivera's velocity on his cutter, which had been down earlier this season, averages 91 miles per hour. Last season, Rivera averaged 91.3 with his cutter.

    Gonzalez has never spoken to Rivera about his single, the single that gave the Diamondbacks a title and gave Gonzalez something to talk about every day since then. Three years ago, Gonzalez spotted Rivera at a mall in Tampa, Fla. Gonzalez called it "an awkward moment." The players acknowledged each other, nothing more.

    "I ran into Mariano and it was a mutual respect thing," Gonzalez said. "We said hello, but we didn't talk about it. I won the battle that day, but he had gotten me a lot of other times."

    And Rivera is still getting hitters out, still trying to win another title. With every achievement that Rivera piles on to his resume, he helps make Gonzalez's memorable hit look even better.

    4.1 (2 Ratings)

    Band of fathers

    Sunday, June 20, 2010, 11:07 AM [General]

    Paul O’Neill wears two gold wedding bands on his left hand. The thicker band is his. The thinner band belonged to his father. It is something O’Neill has worn since Charles, his Dad, passed away almost 11 years ago.

    During the 2000 World Series, I interviewed O’Neill as he walked out of Shea Stadium after Game 4. The Yankees were one win away from clinching their third straight championship, but I didn’t want to ask O’Neill about baseball. I wanted to ask him how much he was thinking about his father, who had died during the 1999 World Series.

    We walked across the concrete corridor of Shea together. When I finally asked O’Neill about his father, he stopped walking so he could show me something. He held out his left hand and used his right fingers to separate the two bands. The thinner band was tucked beneath the thicker band. The thinner band was safe, the way a father makes a child feel.

    “I wanted to have it,” O’Neill told me, at the time. “It was the first thing they took off him.”

    Today is Father’s Day, a day to honor the men who help their kids with homework, who teach them how to ride a bike and who provide the best possible roadmap to navigate through life’s endless challenges. It is also a day to honor the men who did those things and millions of other things for their children, but who are no longer with us. O’Neill’s father is one of those men.

    When I asked O’Neill if he remembered our conversation about his Dad at Shea, he told me he did. He remembered how we sauntered from the clubhouse to the parking lot. But, most of all, O’Neill remembered how he had showed me his father’s wedding band. Two weeks ago at Yankee Stadium, O’Neill eagerly showed me the band again.

    “I’m still wearing it,” O’Neill said. “I’ve still got it in the same place.”

    Back in 2000, I was relieved when O’Neill spoke so openly to me about the loss of his father. O’Neill actually thanked me for asking about his Dad, saying that he would much rather talk about the man who was his hero than anything that happened on the baseball field. Anyone who has endured the loss of a family member knows what O’Neill meant. Those folks wouldn’t need an explanation as to why that second wedding band was so important to O’Neill.

    Charles O’Neill, a former minor league player, died of complications from heart disease at 79. He loved Paul’s intense approach and doted on the youngest of his six children. Charles thought it was neat that Paul called him Old-Timer and thought it was even cooler that he sometimes got to hang out in the Yankees’ clubhouse with his son.

    “You’re born and raised with your father being your hero,” O’Neill said. “That’s what you try to be. Every kid in my family feels that way. Anything you accomplish is because of what your parents did for you.”

    Walking beside O’Neill and asking about how much he missed his father in 2000 was eerie for me because it was also the fifth anniversary of my father’s death. I was sleeping in a Cleveland hotel during the 1995 World Series when the phone rang at 3 A.M. It was Pamela, my wife, calling with the news that no spouse wants to deliver.

    A few hours later, I was heading to the airport so I could fly home and plan the funeral services. I remember that I told the cab driver what had happened. He was the first person to offer condolences. I remember forcing my way through a eulogy and weeping after I was done. 53 weeks earlier, my mother had died so I gave two eulogies in about a year. I told O’Neill about the loss of my parents, losses that I have now dealt with for about 15 years, and he understood.

    “It’s weird, isn’t it?,” O’Neill said. “You never stop thinking about them.”

    Some things have changed for O’Neill and for me since we left Shea together in 2000. He doesn’t play for the Yankees anymore. Instead, O’Neill is an entertaining broadcaster for the YES Network. I don’t write for the New York Times anymore. Instead, I’m an analyst on the pregame and postgame shows for YES.

    One thing that hasn’t changed for each of us is the horrible pain that we feel over the loss of a loved one. You figure out how to deal with the sadness, but you never get over it. It’s not just something that you feel on Father’s Day or Mother’s Day. It’s something that you feel every day. That’s why O’Neill wears his father’s wedding band. It makes him feel a little closer to the parent he has lost. I understand.

    4.6 (4 Ratings)

    Culver receives signing bonus from Yanks

    Friday, June 18, 2010, 1:55 PM [General]

    Cito Culver hasn't officially graduated from high school yet, but he is almost the $1 million man. Culver, the Yankees' first round draft pick, has received a signing bonus of $954,000 to join the organization.

    Culver hit .561 with nine homers and 38 runs batted in across 22 games for Irondequoit High School in Rochester, N.Y. The Yankees dispatched seven or eight different scouts to watch Culver before determining that he would be their top choice. Culver was the 32d overall pick in the first round.

    Culver, who has been in Tampa, Fla. this week, will return to Rochester to graduate on Sunday. But Culver will then return to Tampa on Monday to begin his professional career.

    "We are very excited to get Cito signed so quickly and get him out on the field to begin his development as a Major League prospect," said Damon Oppenheimer, the Yankees' vice president of amateur scouting.

    Although Culver's favorite player is Derek Jeter, some of the Yankee scouts said that the 17-year old most reminded them of Robinson Cano. Culver has a smooth style and has an ability to slow the game down, they said, which is the way Cano plays.

    4.1 (2 Ratings)

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