Rivera hints 2012 could be his final season

    Monday, February 20, 2012, 5:21 PM [General]

    TAMPA -- The Yankees trickled into the clubhouse Monday morning like any other first workout for pitchers and catchers in any other season. There was a slimmer CC Sabathia, a leaner Phil Hughes and a more sinewy Russell Martin, their bodies telling the stories of their productive off-seasons. There were the endless hugs and handshakes, routine ways to reconnect after four months of separation.

    But, as much as this opening of Spring Training felt like any other opening for the Yankees, there could be something that is very different about the next six and a half weeks. This could be the final time that Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer ever, is part of Spring Training. Rivera could be ready to retire.

    During two interview sessions with reporters, Rivera hinted strongly that 2012 would be his final season. Rivera acknowledged that he had already decided what he would do after this season and would eventually publicize his decision. Maybe Rivera was being coy or maybe Rivera was telling reporters that he was retiring, without officially saying it just yet.

    Once Rivera admitted that he knows his future, he offered evidence that 2012 would be it for him. That’s a decision Rivera can make now. But, conversely, how could Rivera know if he will pitch in 2013 when he hasn’t thrown a pitch in 2012? He could have a serious injury or he could sputter, which I seriously doubt. He also doesn’t know if the Yankees would offer him a deal for 2013 because he hasn’t performed in 2012 yet. But, you see, those issues would be irrelevant to a pitcher who doesn’t expect to pitch next season.

    If the mighty Rivera had already planned to pitch in 2013, there would be some presumption on his part. I know he expects to have another superb season. Who doesn’t expect that? Still, Rivera would have to presume that he would remain healthy and effective and presume that the Yankees would want him back. Naturally, the Yankees would want a dependable Rivera back. But, again, it doesn’t seem as if Rivera analyzed those matters because a soon-to-be retired player doesn’t need to worry about them.

    While Rivera playfully said that he has mentioned retirement in the past, he said, “This one is different.” Rivera said his family knows his intentions and that he will tell the Yankees those plans, too. That might not be necessary. One Yankees executive who has had discussions with Rivera said that he has seen signs that Rivera is poised to throw his cut fastball for one more season and retire.

    Since Rivera has supplied these clues about how the end is near, he has impacted the way fans will view him this season. Watch Rivera closely. Study his smooth motion. Analyze that incredible cutter. Absorb how dominant and how unflappable he is. Appreciate Rivera for being a legend, a legend that is about ready to go home.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

    0 (0 Ratings)

    Jorge knew it was time to say goodbye

    Tuesday, January 24, 2012, 7:24 PM [General]

    Jorge Posada was tired. Not tired of playing baseball. He might never get tired of that. But he was tired of doing everything that he needed to do to prepare himself to play baseball. When Posada didn’t push himself to do baseball workouts in the off-season, his inaction provided the answer that he knew was looming. It was time to retire.

    So Posada, the passionate player who reveled in being a catcher and being a Yankee, will never play another Major League game. We will never see him trace his children’s initials in the dirt again. We will never see him hold a bat with his bare hands again. We will never see him lumber around the bases like a reckless locomotive again. We will never see him contribute something vital to a win again.

    Every player is supposed to care about winning. But there are some players who care more than others. Posada was one of those players who cared a bit more. As a boy in Puerto Rico, Posada watched how his father hated losing in softball and adopted that same feisty approach. If Posada played a sport, he decided then that he was playing to win. Posada carried that attitude throughout his glorious career with the Yankees, a career that began and ended with the same team.

    When Posada officially announced his retirement on Tuesday at Yankee Stadium, the Yankees placed five World Series trophies on a table beside him. While Posada was a bit player in 1996, he was an important part of the championship teams in 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2009. The Yankees paid Posada a major compliment by positioning that impressive hardware near him. No one needed a reminder about Posada’s desire to win, but the trophies provided it anyway.

    If I had to pick a few words to describe Posada, I would pick passionate, proud, stubborn and honest. Posada was drafted as an infielder in the 24th round in 1990, but he somehow became one of the best offensive catchers of his era. A second baseman from a community college isn’t supposed to forge a career that ends with him being mentioned in the same sentence as Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey. But Posada, the son of a scout, made the unthinkable a reality.

    A few minutes into Posada’s press conference, his eyes turned red and he began to weep. Then he cried again and again. It wasn’t surprising that Posada, an emotional man, was emotional on the day where he said good-bye to baseball. It was the only sport Jorge, Sr. allowed his son to play because his goal was to turn the kid into a Major Leaguer. The lifelong Yankee said there wasn’t a Plan B.

    Now Posada needs a Plan B. But he doesn’t have a post-baseball plan yet, other than spending more time with his family. He was tired of preparing for baseball, not tired of baseball. But that fatigue helped Posada make his decision. We will never see Posada play again. The player who cared more than most knew it was time to retire, retire as a Yankee.

    3.7 (1 Ratings)

    Cashman's patience rewarded

    Saturday, January 14, 2012, 1:27 PM [General]

    As the Yankees inched through a sluggish offseason, general manager Brian Cashman admitted that he wanted to strengthen the starting rotation. Cashman stressed that he wasn’t hopeful about his chances, balking at the high prices for free agents and at the lofty requests during trade talks. But, on a frenetic Friday, Cashman revamped the rotation in a splashy way.

    Cashman’s patience was rewarded when he acquired Michael Pineda from the Seattle Mariners for Jesus Montero in a bold, four-player trade. The Yankees also secured Jose Campos, a Class A pitcher, and moved Hector Noesi in the deal. While the Yankees valued Montero’s offense, they picked the elite, young pitcher over the elite, young hitter. That is usually a sound strategy.

    Would the Yankees have rather included Montero, their premier prospect, as part of a package to get Felix Hernandez? Yes. But the Mariners weren’t going to let that happen, so Cashman honed in on Pineda, a 22-year-old pitcher with an intimidating fastball. Some baseball executives told me they were surprised that Cashman was able to obtain such a talented pitcher, especially since Pineda isn’t a free agent until after 2016. Pitchers like Pineda are typically considered untouchable in trade discussions.

    In addition to the trade, the Yankees also signed free agent Hiroki Kuroda to a one-year deal that will pay him between $10-11 million. Kuroda, who refused to wave his no-trade clause last season because he preferred to stay with the Los Angeles Dodgers, grew more and more interested in pitching in New York as the offseason unfolded. Again, patience was a virtue for Cashman. Kuroda was seeking a deal for about $13 million, but the Yankees were able to get him for a lower salary. The Yankees haven’t officially announced the transactions yet because they are pending physicals.

    So, finally, the questions about the Yankees rotation have been silenced because Cashman has acted. Cashman said he was content with CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova, A.J. Burnett, Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia as the 2012 rotation, but he never stopped shopping for help. I think the trade for Pineda, while costly because of what the Yankees gave up, was a terrific move. Pineda averaged more than a strikeout per inning in 2011, though one scout said he needs to add a changeup to his fastball-slider combination. Getting Kuroda, a stable veteran, on a one-year contract was also a savvy decision.

    Not only did Cashman dramatically improve the Yankees rotation, he did it while walking along a financial tightrope. The Yankees are intent on keeping their payroll under $189 million by 2014 because of the extreme monetary benefits they will reap from the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. So adding Pineda, who will only be an arbitration-eligible pitcher by then, and Kuroda, who isn’t likely to be a Yankee by then, fits neatly into that plan.

    After the Yankees changed 40 percent of their rotation and dealt the player who was supposed to be their designated hitter, one Major League talent evaluator described them as “the team to beat” in the American League. With Sabathia followed by Pineda, Nova, Kuroda and either Burnett, Hughes or Garcia as the fifth starter, the evaluator said the rotation has “more depth” and a “higher ceiling.”

    Although the Yankees were thrilled to get Pineda, they acknowledged that they traded a rare hitter in Montero. One Yankees official said Montero can and probably will hit 30 homers a year, but the organization has depth at catcher and felt it was sensible to use that surplus to improve an area of need in the rotation. Montero displayed how damaging he could be as a hitter and showed his opposite-field power last September, sights that Yankees fans hoped to enjoy for the next decade. Instead, Montero is now with the Mariners. The Yankees also lost an effective pitcher in Noesi, who could end up as a No. 3 starter in the Majors.

    How come the Yankees aren’t doing anything this offseason? Everyone from C.J. Wilson to an American League manager to the guy on line at the bagel store asked me that question. I always said that Cashman had until July 31 to get pitching help, which I figured he would do. Cashman beat that deadline by six months. On a frenetic Friday, he added Pineda and Kuroda and made the Yankees a much better and much more interesting team.

    3.7 (1 Ratings)

    Jorge Posada was worth watching

    Monday, January 9, 2012, 9:34 AM [General]

    When Jorge Posada was seven years old, his father woke him on a Saturday morning and told him to get dressed for work. Jorge Sr. brought his son outside, gave him a gallon of paint and instructed him to paint a wall near their home in Puerto Rico. The experience wasn’t about painting the wall, Jorge explained to me so many years later. It was about developing a work ethic.

    The plan worked. For 15 years, Posada had a superb work ethic as a passionate player for the Yankees. Posada played the most difficult position on the field, he never groused about the rigors of catching and he was demanding of himself and of his teammates. If you wanted to bet on the Yankee who was most likely to confront a teammate, Posada would always be the safest bet.

    We already knew that Posada wouldn’t play for the Yankees in 2012, but now we also know that he won’t play for another team, either. WFAN reported on Saturday that Posada has elected to retire, deciding that he would rather leave the sport as a forever Yankee than try to squeeze in one more year with Team X. I’ve always felt queasy about telling a player it is time to retire, but Posada’s choice feels right. He has nothing left to chase. His legacy is superb and secure.

    That legacy includes five World Series rings, 275 homers, 1,065 runs batted in, a .273 average, a .374 on-base percentage and a borderline Hall of Fame career. Beyond the statistics, that legacy also includes a stubbornness that was undeniable, a bluntness that was refreshing and a toughness that made it seem appropriate that he had a picture of Thurman Munson hanging in his locker. It was one tough, talented catcher honoring another tough, talented catcher.

    In one of my first conversations with Posada in 1996, I asked him a simple question. Since I had heard his name pronounced as “Hor-hay” and “George,” I wanted to know which he preferred. Posada looked me in the eyes and emphatically said, “It’s Hor-hay.” That exchange resonated with me because the Posada I spoke to that day was pretty much the Posada I spoke to for the rest of his career. Posada was direct and honest, proud and resilient.

    Some players have the ability to answer questions without saying things that could get possibly push them into uncomfortable situations. Derek Jeter, Posada’s close friend, is adept at doing that and at avoiding controversies. Posada never developed that skill or never cared to develop it. There was no filter with Posada.

    Before the 1998 season, I interviewed Posada about his role with the Yankees. Posada had been Joe Girardi’s backup in the previous season and felt that he deserved to be the starter. At the age of 26, Posada was tired of waiting for his chance.

    “They keep saying I’m the catcher of the future,” Posada said. “For me, the future is now.” And, if that wasn’t a candid enough response, he also added, “They keep saying I’m the future. By the time I get there, it’s going to be too late.”

    The 1998 Yankees won 125 games and a title, with Girardi and Posada splitting the catching duties. Once Posada became the full-time starter, he was a highly productive catcher. While Posada will always be remembered as an offensive catcher, he had energy on defense and he cared. Was Posada an above average defensive catcher? No. But Posada was competent enough to be a major contributor on teams that won it all in 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2009. Posada received a ring in 1996, but he barely played.

    To know where Posada’s feistiness came from, you need to know about Jorge Sr., his father. The elder Posada defected from Cuba in 1968, stowing away on a tobacco ship with a credit card and some water. Once Jorge, Jr. was born, he became his father’s “project.” The goal was to turn the boy into a Major League player.

    That meant Posada was treated differently than the other kids. When Posada was eight, his father took away his aluminum bat and made him use a wooden bat. Although Posada was a natural right-handed hitter, his father only let him hit left-handed from the ages of eight to 13 so that Posada could hone his skills as a switch-hitter. As an 11-year old, Posada once went 21 straight at-bats without getting a hit from the left side. On the 22nd at-bat, Posada hit a homer and waved to his father as he ran around the bases.

    As much toughness as Jorge Sr. and Jorge Jr. have exhibited in their lives, both men would say that Jorge III is the toughest Posada. Jorge III was born with a condition called craniosynostosis, where bones in the skull fuse together before the brain has stopped growing. Little Jorge had his first surgery as an eight-month old. When Posada disclosed his son’s situation for the first time after the 2001 season, I wondered how he ever managed to focus on one at-bat. Posada said it helped that Jorge was “a tough little kid.” The tough kid is now 12 and had his ninth and, the family hopes, his final surgery last year.

    While Posada is retiring, he probably could have played another season. He had stellar statistics against right-handers during a trying season in which he caught only six innings, and he hit .429 in the Division Series. Posada made a dubious decision by pulling himself out of the lineup against the Boston Red Sox in May because he was upset about batting ninth. He acknowledged the mistake the next day.

    One of my most interesting conversations with Posada came as we were both waiting to board a plane at Newark Airport. The plane was delayed so we talked a lot of baseball. At some point, the topic switched to performance enhancing drugs. Posada, who had just finished a 2007 season in which he hit .338 with 20 homers and 90 RBIs, knew that his output created skepticism because 36-year old catchers weren’t supposed to produce like that.

    “Now, when you’re 36 and have a good year,” he said, “it’s guilt by association.”

    Posada insisted that he never used enhancers.

    “Why would I do that?” Posada asked. “You could lose everything. It’s not worth it. It affects your family. It affects everything.”

    As a scout with the Atlanta Braves, Posada Sr. couldn’t convince his bosses to draft his son out of Calhoun Community College in Alabama. The Yankees did, snatching the infielder in the 24th round of the 1990 draft and converting him to catcher. It was a smart decision. Really, it was an historic decision.

    What that decision did was give the Yankees a vital player who would became part of the Core Four with Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte. The kid who learned a lesson while painting a fence one morning in Puerto Rico worked to paint a memorable baseball picture in New York. He was tough, stubborn and passionate. He was worth watching.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

    3.7 (1 Ratings)

    Canos felt at home in Taiwan

    Sunday, November 6, 2011, 8:19 PM [General]

    KAOISHUNG, Taiwan -- The father wore his son's uniform jersey and sat in the same dugout as him. He is a proud man and a gentleman, the father is. He felt blessed to be able to watch his son from the best seat in the ballpark, a place that is reserved for the players. But, for these games, the father sat next to the son.

    Before Robinson Cano visited this island, he had heard stories about this faraway place through Jose, his father. For five different seasons, Jose Cano left his son in the Dominican Republic and traveled here to pitch. He pitched for the Uni-President Lions from 1992 to 1994 and for the Wei Chuan Dragons in 1998 and 1999. He pitched because that was how he made his living.

    As soon as the son was invited to participate in a Major League tour of Taiwan, he telephoned his father. After Robinson excitedly described the upcoming trip, he gave Jose even sweeter news: Jose would be trekking back to his old baseball home because the son was bringing the father as a guest.

    "Being able to tell my Dad that he was coming here was a great thing for me," Robinson said.

    The father and the son were together for almost every step of this memorable trip. Wherever Robinson walked, Jose was usually a few steps behind him. That was done on purpose. Jose wanted to experience everything his son experienced, but he also wanted to watch how Robinson reacted to the endless attention.

    It was a rewarding homecoming for Jose, who watched as his son was treated like royalty. From the fans who took Cano's picture at the airport or the train station to the people who followed him as he strolled through the night markets to the fans who shouted his name at the ballparks, he was smothered with affection. Cano enjoyed Taiwan so much that he said he would consider living here if it weren't so far from the Dominican Republic and New York.

    "The people here treat you so well," Robinson said. "I didn't know it would be like this."

    On a sleepy Sunday morning, about 500 people came to the Dream Mall to see Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson. In addition to the two Yankees, Jose Cano's name was also listed on a gigantic pinstriped billboard. After the players were introduced, Jose was invited to join them on the stage. The Lions, who organized the event, presented Jose with his former jersey.

    "When my son told me I was coming back to Taiwan," Jose said, "I felt like I was going home."

    He was. And the son helped make it a gratifying homecoming for the father.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

    3.7 (1 Ratings)

    Cano loving the limelight in Taiwan

    Friday, November 4, 2011, 9:27 AM [General]

    TAICHUNG, Taiwan -- Robinson Cano hopped out of a white van near one of the popular “night markets” here and the screeching started. Everyone on the bustling street seemingly recognized Cano so they scampered toward him to snap his picture. A group of fans quickly became a crowd that became a mob. There was a wall of 10 security guards surrounding the Yankees’ second baseman.

    Cano took small steps during his shopping expedition. He had no choice. With so many people smothering him, Cano had to shuffle along at a sluggish pace. It didn’t matter to Cano, who stopped to pose for pictures and who appeared to enjoy the attention as much as the people enjoyed seeing him.

    When Cano walked into a sneaker store, fans rushed toward the door and tried to get near him. Eventually, about 200 people blocked the entrance and chanted, “Ca-no, Ca-no.” Even if Cano wanted to leave the store, he couldn’t. But, again, Cano wasn’t bothered. The fans raised their cameras high in the air and pointed them at Cano, a collection of outstretched arms that seemed to stretch a block.

    “I couldn’t believe it,” Cano said. “I had goose bumps.”

    There have been a bunch of rewarding moments for Cano during the 2011 Taiwan All-Star Series, most of them related to his interaction with the passionate fans. Before one of Cano’s at-bats, the fans behind the on-deck circle wouldn’t stop shouting to him. Finally, Cano turned his back to the plate and took some practice swings toward the box seats so the fans could get better pictures.   

    While Cano was at the store, he bought 16 T-Shirts and caps that were emblazoned with the Taiwanese flag. He immediately wore one of the shirts, which allowed the fans to feel even more of a kinship. Any public relations man would have called Cano’s decision to don a Taiwanese shirt a genius move. It was a cool element of another cool night for Cano.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

    0 (0 Ratings)

    In Taiwan, baseball fans are loud and excited

    Wednesday, November 2, 2011, 12:43 PM [General]

    NEW TAIPEI CITY, TAIWAN – The burly man carried his massive drum across the first level of Xinzhuang Stadium as if he was carrying an infant. He placed it behind a row of blue seats, rested his sticks on top of the drum and waited. He was one of the quietest men in the ballpark. But, eventually, that changed.

    As soon as the Chinese Taipei National team hustled on to the field to play the visiting Major Leaguers, the man attacked the drums. He attacked them so vigorously that the folds of flesh on the back of his neck jiggled. The drummer was the essence of an intense fan, a portrait that was visible in hundreds of different shapes and colors throughout the stadium.

    When Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson came to town, they noticed that the pulsating drums were only part of a festive atmosphere. The fans also played horns, they chanted rhythmically, they pounded Thunderstix, they danced on the dugouts and they treated a baseball game like a party.

    “We need to bring some of this back to the states,” Granderson said.

    Soon after some fans chanted “Let’s Go Yankees,” Granderson delighted them by ripping a titanic grand slam off left-hander Yao-Hsun Yan, so Granderson’s remarkable 2011 continued a bit longer. With one swing, Granderson gave the fans a glimpse of what he had done for the Yankees all season. He went deep off a lefty, he collected the most pivotal hit of the 7-0 win and he deflected the attention to his teammates afterwards.

    One inning after Granderson’s granny, I was parked a few feet from the dugout to do an in-game interview with him. It was a terrific spot to do some observing. Even in an exhibition game, Granderson was vocal. After Granderson reached the dugout, he barked, “Good inning, guys, good inning.” 

    There were several fans wearing Granderson and Cano jerseys, but Chien-Ming Wang was, by far, the most popular jersey being worn among the fans. I couldn’t walk 50 feet without seeing a Wang jersey. Cano said that he had heard Wang “was the king” in Taiwan, which might be an understatement. Wang, the former Yankee who was with the Nationals last season, is expected to pitch against the Major Leaguers in Sunday’s finale of the exhibition series.

    From the fried snake in the concession stands to the public address announcer who reminded me of a caffeinated Michael Buffer, there were interesting aspects to baseball in Taiwan. The P.A. announcer was more of a hype man. His enthusiasm was admirable as he implored fans to make noise, but there were times where he kept screeching as a pitcher uncorked a pitch, which is distracting.

    Still, the chants were impressive. Stephanie Chen, a recent college graduate who wants to be a judge or a lawyer, translated some of them for me. Chen said “Asian people like to be loud at baseball games,” and mentioned how Taiwanese fans mimicked the boisterous Japanese fans. The atmosphere here reminded me of the fans in Japan, who I saw when the Yankees played there in 2004.

    Chen spoke impeccable English and said she was a Yankees fan who watched games on FTV. When Chen added that she also watches highlights from our postgame show on YesNetwork.com, I was pleasantly surprised. After traveling over 10,000 miles from home, I wasn’t expecting a fan to ask about our postgame show. Where’s the dude with the drum? After Chen’s cool comment, I need him to bang it a few times for me.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

    0 (0 Ratings)

    Ready for Taiwan, Granderson gets it

    Monday, October 31, 2011, 12:34 PM [General]

    TAIPEI, Taiwan – When Curtis Granderson marched through the airport on Sunday afternoon, there were about two dozen reporters pointing cameras in his face. Granderson didn’t blink. Instead, Granderson mimicked them because he was pointing a video camera right back at them.

    “They’re looking at me and I’m looking at them,” said Granderson, who moved as briskly as if he was dashing from first to third on a single.

    When Granderson was introduced at a press conference for the 2011 Taiwan All-Star Series, he happily waved to the dozens of photographers who were crowded inside a ballroom at the Grand Hyatt. The cameras clicked a little faster and a little louder, trying to capture Granderson’s simple, smart hello.

    A few minutes later, Granderson’s smooth approach continued as he thanked numerous people and organizations who were involved in coordinating the games between the Major League players and the Chinese Taipei National Team. Granderson emphasized how he was looking forward to experiencing “everything” Taiwan has to offer, from the people, to the culture, to the food to the baseball. A publicist couldn’t have written a more suitable answer.

    Granderson is a professional athlete who gets it. He’s so humble that he repeatedly refused to call himself a serious candidate for the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award in 2011. That was ludicrous, of course, since he clubbed 41 homers, drove in 111 runs and scored 136. Still, when a Tawainese reporter congratulated Granderson on his MVP-type season, he offered thanks and then added that Cano had an MVP-type season, too.

    There might not be a better ambassador in baseball than Granderson, who talks the talk and walks the walk. Well, actually, he talks the talk and travels the miles. In addition to this trip to Taiwan, he has visited Europe, New Zealand and South Africa to spread the gospel of baseball. Granderson is planning to visit Panama in December and might also go to Mexico, too.

    “If I have these opportunities,” he said, “why wouldn’t I want to take advantage of them?”

    During this trip, I’ve interviewed Granderson a few times and will interview him a few more times before it ends on Sunday. I plan to delve even deeper into his passion for combining travel and baseball. When Rob, my brother, and I were kids, we had a globe on our desk. Who didn’t? Anyway, we’d spin that globe around and stare at places we’d never heard of and wonder what it would be like to do visit. I wonder if Granderson had a globe as a kid. He must have.

    The Taiwanese are extremely proud of their players, especially former Yankee pitcher Chien-Ming Wang and the five others who have made it the Majors. That list includes Fu-Te Ni, a reliever who was Granderson’s teammate with the Detroit Tigers in 2009. Naturally, a reporter asked Granderson about Ni.

    Since Granderson and Ni were only teammates for about three months, there was a chance that they didn’t have much interaction and a chance that the reporter wouldn’t get much of a response. But, with Granderson, that possibility vanished. Granderson described Ni as an energetic player and recalled how Ni gave him an outfielder’s glove from Taiwan. That purple glove is resting in Granderson’s home as a show piece.

    “It’s cool to see your name written in Mandarin in the glove,” Granderson said.

    With the glove story, Granderson satisfied more than 100 reporters who were starved for any connection between him and Taiwanese baseball. After I told Granderson how much he had helped those reporters, Granderson, ever the ambassador, criticized himself for not doing more.

    “I wish I could have remembered the name of the Taiwanese company that made the glove,” he said. “I would’ve liked to have mentioned that.”

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

    0 (0 Ratings)

    Cano, like Bieber, becoming a world celebrity

    Sunday, October 30, 2011, 7:46 PM [General]

    THIRTY-THREE THOUSAND THREE HUNDRED AND NINETY EIGHT FEET ABOVE THE PACIFIC OCEAN - Four hours into a 14-hour flight from Los Angeles to Taiwan, Robinson Cano looked like Justin Bieber at an elementary school's dance.

    After Cano strolled into the back of the Eva Airlines plane that was carrying a team of Major League players to an exhibition tour, the transformation occurred. The flight attendants behaved like eighth-grade girls while Cano channeled Bieber. The giddy women surrounded Cano, burying him with bags of pristine baseballs.

    So a smiling Cano placed a pillow on the arm rest of seat 64G, sat down and signed and signed and signed. When Cano wasn't autographing baseballs with his right hand, he was pausing to pose for pictures. There were a dozen flight attendants trying to inch closer to Cano and each seemed to have a dozen baseballs. If a chaotic scene could ever be orderly, this one was because the women were mostly patient.

    "Everyone knows who he is," said Angela Lai, one of the flight attendants. "He is very famous."

    The roster for this trip includes 28 players, but Cano and Curtis Granderson, who are Yankee teammates, are the headliners. And, before Cano even climbed the stairs to get on the plane, it was obvious how much of an attraction he was. Cano did more interviews on the tarmac at Los Angeles International Airport than all of the other players combined. Some of the players asked to pose for pictures with Cano.

    As Cano and Granderson spend eight days touring Taiwan and playing five games against the Chinese Taipei National Team, I will be along for the ride. I'll be on the buses, on the airplanes, on the trains, in the clubhouses and will explore some of the interesting parts of this island nation with Cano and Granderson. The YES Network will use my reporting and the footage gathered by Eric Roldan and John Ackerina to produce some future shows. Stay tuned for details on these programs.

    I will also be filing reports for yesnetwork.com called "E-Cards from Taiwan." I thought about calling them "Postcards from Taiwan," which sounds romantic. But, honestly, I don't think I've sent a postcard since I was a teenager. I send e-mails every hour of every day so "E-Cards from Taiwan" is a more accurate moniker. Mostly, they will be snappy anecdotes and observations about our journey.

    The scene with Cano was perfect to explore in my first E-card. Cano was dutiful about signing and used a black marker until every baseball in every bag had his signature. One of the three pilots left the cockpit to have his picture taken with Cano. His stay was brief. The pilot explained that he needed to return to work.

    Cano was so smitten with being the man in the middle of the flight attendants that he implored Jose, his father, to videotape him. Jose, who pitched in Taiwan for five years, knows some Mandarin so he could communicate with the women in the green, pinstriped uniforms in their native language. Jose maneuvered in and out of rows 63, 64 and 65 to videotape Robinson reveling in the mundane act of signing baseballs.

    After Robinson had finished providing more than 100 souvenirs, Jose played reporter and interviewed him in Spanish. What did Jose want to know about such a cool experience?

    "I asked him," said Jose, "what it was like to have so many women around him."

    That's easy. Robinson Cano felt like Justin Bieber.

    0 (0 Ratings)

    ALDS loss will hurt Yankees for a long time

    Friday, October 7, 2011, 2:39 PM [General]

    The precious opportunities kept appearing. Crucial chances for the Yankees, chances for them to overtake the Tigers, win Game 5 of the American League Division Series and prolong their season. But, in futile at-bat after futile at-bat, the Yankees didn’t produce. The powerful Yankees couldn’t smack a timely single Thursday night.

    When Jose Valverde pumped a fastball past Alex Rodriguez, the Tigers had a 3-2 win while the Yankees had the ending to their night and the ending to an exasperating postseason. Rodriguez’s last, helpless hack was an attempt to catch up with a 94-mile per hour pitch. That final swing was an ugly and fitting finale to a game that should haunt the Yankees.

    “This,” said Tigers manager Jim Leyland, “will be a game I remember for the rest of my life.”

    So will the Yankees. Or, at least, they should remember it. The Yankees left the bases loaded in two innings and stranded 11 runners, repeatedly fizzling in important situations. They needed someone, whether it was Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Nick Swisher, Russell Martin or anyone else, to simply collect a single. It didn’t happen. Even a sacrifice fly would have helped, but the Yankees couldn’t do that, either.

    How could the Yankees finish second in the Major Leagues in runs scored, and then let a game and a season drift away because of a succession of failed at-bats? During every batting practice session, hitting coach Kevin Long works on situational hitting with the Yankees. When a Yankee is in the batter’s box, Long will bark, “One out, second and third.” That means the batter should at least try and hit a sac fly.

    Here’s what Long could have shouted to Martin in the fourth. “Bases loaded, one out.” Martin popped out. He could have updated the situation to two outs for Brett Gardner, who also popped out. Long could have told Rodriguez, “Bases loaded, one out,” in the seventh. Rodriguez whiffed on a nasty split-finger fastball from Joaquin Benoit. After Teixeira’s bases-loaded walk, which, as it turns out, was about as clutch an at-bat as the Yankees had all night, Long could have told Swisher that there were three on and two outs. Benoit basically told Swisher to sit down, whiffing him on a 96-mile per hour fastball.

    Teams that are in the postseason are never ready for their journey to end. When it ends, even if it seems inevitable, it ends so abruptly. In one inning, the Yankees are hoping and believing that Derek Jeter’s shot to right field would be a two-run homer in the eighth. In the next inning, they are robotically carrying their equipment back to the clubhouse for the final time in 2011.

    “It’s a terrible day for us,” said Yankees manager Joe Girardi.

    The loss left the Yankees with a numbing feeling. Just as numbing were some of the numbers from their marquee players. In the Yankees’ last two postseason series, the defeat to the Tigers and a loss to the Rangers in the 2010 AL Championship Series, Rodriguez is 6-for-39, Teixeira is 3-for-32 and Swisher is 6-for-41. That’s 15-for-112, a combined average of .134. It’s challenging to win games in October, but it’s even more challenging when core members of the lineup are missing in action.

    Rodriguez has six years and $143 million left on his contract while Teixeira has five years and $112.5 million left on his deal. If the Yankees exercise Swisher’s $10.25 million option, he will return in 2012, too. Those contract totals are lofty numbers, but the numbers that will also cling to all three are their recent postseason numbers.

    Like this stinging loss to the Tigers, those can’t be erased.

    “It’s devastating,” Rodriguez said. “This one is going to hurt for a long time. I’ll be 50 and this will still hurt.”

    Girardi tried to minimize the absence of clutch hitting by citing his players’ effort in the series. Effort should be expected, but, if the effort doesn’t produce results, there’s a void. The Yankees ended up in a void against the Tigers, in a totally empty place. April is a long way off.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

    3.7 (1 Ratings)

    Three-man rotation a must for Yankees in ALDS

    Friday, September 23, 2011, 3:01 PM [General]

    Let’s fast forward to early October. Imagine the Yankees are ahead by one game or behind by one game after the first three contests of a best-of-five Division Series. Who would they want pitching Game 4? CC Sabathia, of course.

    That, in brief, is why the Yankees should use a three-man rotation in the first round of the postseason.

    After the Yankees start Sabathia in Game 1, he would need to pitch on three days’ rest to start Game 4. Sabathia has done that before and he can do that again. That is what Sabathia is built to do. He is 3-1 with a 1.01 earned run average on three days’ rest in his career. He is durable enough to do it and I guarantee that he’d want to do it, too.

    If the Yankees start Sabathia in Games 1 and 4, they can start Ivan Nova in Game 2 and then also start him on regular rest in Game 5. So, instead of sifting through their quartet of ineffective candidates to find starters for Games 3 and 4, the Yankees would only have to use one of those pitchers in Game 3. That means the Yankees would have to keep their fingers and toes crossed especially tight for one game, not two. In a best-of-five series, that’s a significant difference.

    Two weeks ago, the Yankees envisioned Bartolo Colon as the third starter in the postseason. That was after Colon pitched seven solid innings against the Angels. But Colon was bruised by the anemic Tampa Bay Rays in a 15-8 loss Thursday and is 0-4 with a 5.58 ERA in his last nine starts. He hasn’t won a game since July 30, and is a pitcher whose velocity has dipped and whose sharpness has dissipated. Colon will get one final start to try and show that he can be the precise pitcher he was during the first half.

    Besides Colon, Freddy Garcia also seems to be pitching on fumes. He has a 10.95 ERA across his last three starts. A.J. Burnett couldn’t stretch past the fifth inning in his last start and has been as unreliable in 2011 as he was in a historically bad 2010. Phil Hughes, whose last two starts have been decent, has back spasms. While Hughes hopes to start against the Rays next week, the back problems make him an uncertainty. Those are some dubious choices to line up behind Sabathia and Nova.

    The Division Series can be dangerous because it is only five games. If you lose the opener, you’re one loss from an elimination game. Each start is precious. So precious that the Yankees cannot allow two pitchers who haven’t earned starts with their recent performances to get starts in the first round. Only having to use one of those fragile pitchers is easier to digest.

    And what should the Yankees do with their rotation if they make it to the League Championship Series? As any smart baseball person would say, you figure that out once you get there. For the Yankees to get to the ALCS, a three-man rotation makes the most sense.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

    0 (0 Ratings)

    Mariano Rivera: The kid made it

    Tuesday, September 20, 2011, 1:04 PM [General]

    The skinny kid in shorts and a T-shirt was watching the Yankees play an exhibition game at Fort Lauderdale Stadium in 1993. The only reason I noticed him is because he was positioned behind a fence that was alongside the Yankees’ dugout. That was a place where reporters congregated. We could peek at the game and also monitor if George Steinbrenner emerged from an office trailer that was about 100 feet away.

    As the kid talked to a fan, I soon realized he was a Yankee Minor Leaguer and I became intrigued by his words. The kid explained how he had undergone right elbow surgery, how he was going to return soon and how, someday, he would pitch in the Major Leagues.

    “I’ll be there,” the kid said. “You will see.”

    I had no idea who this kid was. After asking a team official, I learned that the kid was someone named Mariano Rivera. The undrafted free agent had been 5-3 with a 2.28 earned run average and 42 strikeouts and 5 walks in 59 1/3 innings at Class A Fort Lauderdale in 1992, but then he needed surgery. He was a long way from the Major Leagues.

    As Rivera stood on the mound Monday and accepted the adulation from the fans for his record-breaking 602nd save, I thought that about that scene from Fort Lauderdale. I thought about how Rivera, who didn’t have an overpowering fastball back in 1993 and hadn’t even learned to throw a cut fastball yet, was already bursting with confidence.

    “I’ll be there,” the kid said. “You will see.”

    The kid made it there. Rivera debuted with the Yankees in 1995, dominated as a superhuman setup man on a championship club in 1996, moved into the closer spot in 1997 and developed into the best closer in baseball history. He didn’t need the record to validate that he is the best closer ever, but it’s more poetic for Rivera to have the most saves. Rivera also has 42 postseason saves, a number that has as much significance as 602.

    Rivera’s 602nd save was a microcosm of his career. He threw 13 pitches in the ninth against the Twins, 12 of them were cutters. He notched a groundout, he shattered one bat, he bagged a soft fly ball and he secured the final out with an 0-2 cutter to Chris Parmalee. After Rivera’s teammates hugged him, Jorge Posada and Alex Rodriguez pushed him out to the mound so the fans could adore him some more. He was a solitary figure in his second home, more uncomfortable at that moment than he ever is when he is actually pitching. 

    “He’s the best ever,” Derek Jeter has said.

    In the sports world, we hype players all the time. Some of the noise is valid. A lot of it isn’t. With Rivera, who should be a unanimous Hall of Fame selection, there really hasn’t been enough hype during his career. As bizarre as that sounds, it’s true. Rivera is so superb in such an understated fashion that the hype-o-meter hasn’t churned enough. His career numbers are numbing, especially in the postseason.

    As fascinating as it is to learn from Rivera when he pitches, it is also enjoyable to learn from him when he preaches. When you interview Rivera, you can receive an education. Rivera speaks deliberately and with a purpose, routinely supplying slivers of wisdom. He doesn’t need to speak too long or too loud to make a compelling point. Sometimes, one sentence says it all.

    Rivera emerged as an indispensable pitcher in 1996, a dazzling setup man who could pitch two or three innings in leading to closer John Wetteland. When I asked Rivera about his humble beginnings, he removed the lid from a shoe box and showed me how he would have used that type of box as a glove in Panama. Rivera explained how he would slice a hole in the cardboard and slip his hand through it, easily making his version of a glove.

    “It makes me smile and it makes me happy to think about that,” Rivera said. “It makes me feel good. I’ll always have that inside of me.”

    In a subsequent interview, Rivera gushed about broomsticks. Yes, broomsticks. When Rivera and his friends played in Puerto Caimito, they didn’t have bats. Most of the time, they used branches. But, if one of the kids was daring enough, he would swipe the family’s broom and they would use that to play.

    “That was trouble for us,” Rivera said. “We had to get somebody’s broom. Somebody’s home would have to suffer for us to play.”

    In December of 1999, I had one of my most revealing interviews with Rivera. During a phone conversation, Rivera, who was had just been named the Most Valuable Player of the World Series as the Yankees won their second straight title, disclosed that he planned to pitch four more years and retire. At the time, Rivera was 30. He was two years away from free agency and had never hinted at retirement.

    But, during that discussion, Rivera was adamant and repeated what he had said in Church two weeks earlier. In the midst of a sluggish outing against the Braves on July 16, 1999, Rivera said he heard a voice that said, “I am the one that has you here.” Rivera said it was God’s voice and that he was sent a message to pursue other things besides baseball.

    “Without Him, I’m nothing,” Rivera said. “I think it means that He has other plans for me, to deliver his word.”

    Rivera’s revelation surprised the Yankees and surprised his agent. Brian Cashman, the Yankees’ general manager, didn’t want to comment because he hadn’t spoken to Rivera. But Cashman mentioned how we all search for peace and how it seemed as if Rivera had found it. I asked Rivera a few times if he really envisioned himself leaving after the 2003 season and he repeatedly confirmed it.

    “Inside of me, I’m thinking four more years,” Rivera said. “That will be enough. I love the game, but I love God more.”

    Imagine if Rivera had stuck to his plans? Imagine how Yankees’ history would have changed? But, about a year after Rivera revealed his plans to me, he changed his mind. Rivera said that he would play baseball as long as he could because he could use his status as a Yankee to help spread God’s word.  The Yankees have been relieved, year after year, that Rivera never retired.

    If Rivera is sitting by his locker, the next lesson is one question away. In the spring of 2003, I asked Rivera about Jaziel, his 4-month-old son. Rivera told me how Clara, his wife, hemorrhaged after Jaziel’s birth and how frightening it was. He gave me permission to interview Dr. Maritza Cruz, Clara’s obstetrician. Rivera was so thankful for Dr. Cruz’s care that he spoke at Brooklyn Tabernacle, her church, before 4,000 people.

    “The one thing I’ve tried to do in life is be humble,” Rivera said. “If you’re humble and you give yourself to the Lord, He’ll take care of you.”

    Conversations with Rivera aren’t one-sided. He was also the rare player who would ask a reporter about his family. Several years ago, Pamela, my wife, was on the same New York-to-California flight as Rivera. She introduced herself. Of course, Rivera was a gentleman. When Pamela told Rivera that her business trip would last for more than a week so he might see me before she did, he joked and promised that he would say hello for her. Sure enough, when I next saw him at a game, he did say hello to me for my wife. We both laughed.

    After Rivera met Pamela, he would always ask me how she was doing. He might ask me once a month or once every few months, but he always asked. When Rivera asked me about Pamela during the 2009 season, I hesitated to respond. It was a complicated answer. Eventually, I told him how Pamela had been stricken with Reflexive Sympathetic Dystrophy, a neurological syndrome that causes severe burning pain, extreme sensitivity to touch and pathological changes in bone and skin. According to the McGill Pain Index, it is the most painful form of chronic pain known to man.

    “I will pray for her,” Rivera said.

    Now fast forward to November 4, 2009. Rivera was about an hour removed from closing out the Phillies in Game 6 of the World Series. After the champagne celebration in the clubhouse, the Yankees ushered players into an interview room. I was near Rivera and attempted to ask the first question.

    “How is your wife?” Rivera interrupted.

    Stunned by Rivera’s question, especially at that time, I told him that she was doing better.

    “Thank God,” he said, and nodded.

    I was shocked and appreciative that Rivera, in his time of glory, thought enough about me and Pamela to inquire about her. It was a 20-second exchange with someone that I have covered since 1995, but it is one of the most memorable exchanges I’ve ever had with a player. It was a vivid example of why Rivera is the rarest of people, not just the rarest of pitchers. He will be there. You will see.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

    3.7 (1 Ratings)

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