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    Tragic end for former Yankee Hideki Irabu

    Thursday, July 28, 2011, 6:24 PM [General]

    Hideki Irabu stood up, raised his hand in an animated way and drew an imaginary box around the perimeter of his locker at Yankee Stadium. That was Irabu’s blunt way of telling reporters that we shouldn’t invade his space, even if the walls he created with his finger were imaginary. I had never seen a player do that.

    When I heard about Irabu’s death at the age of 42 years old on Thursday and heard that the Los Angeles police said it was an apparent suicide, I thought about that clubhouse scene. Irabu was dubbed the Nolan Ryan of Japan and he desperately wanted to pitch for the Yankees, but, once he helped force that into happening, he never seemed happy in New York.

    I have no idea what it’s like to relocate to a foreign country and try to succeed in a place where you don’t speak the language. Few of us do. When Irabu decided to leave Japan in 1997 and pitch in the United States, he knew there would be obstacles, endless obstacles. Irabu believed that he was talented enough to excel and, I’m guessing, believed that his stubbornness would help him, too. He would thrive, even if it meant being a loner.

    For most of Irabu’s time with the Yankees from 1997-1999, he was a loner. He didn’t interact much with his teammates and he viewed the news media as an annoyance. Irabu had been a superstar in Japan, the man with the 99 mile per hour fastball, so all of his words and actions were dissected. He zealously guarded his privacy in his native country, an approach that he continued in the United States.

    In the beginning, Irabu’s marriage to the Yankees looked like it would be special, as he stifled the Detroit Tigers, 10-3, in his debut on July 10, 1997. With 51,901 pairs of eyes staring at Irabu, he showed excellent poise and also showed off a solid fastball, a nasty split-finger fastball and a decent curveball in whiffing nine and allowing two runs in six and two thirds innings. Presumably, Irabu had conquered New York.

    “He literally took on a nation to come here,” said George Steinbrenner, the principal owner. “He said, ‘I want New York.’"

    There were 300 reporters, including 100 from Japan, covering the game. In addition, about 35 million people in Japan watched Irabu’s debut on television. None of it bothered him.

    “It was remarkable what he did with all the hoopla that was going on,” said Manager Joe Torre. “We knew it was going to take on a carnival-like atmosphere. No one was disappointed.”

    Eventually, Irabu, who was 5-4 with a 7.09 earned run average in 1997, would disappoint the Yankees. He opened 1998 by going 6-1 with a 1.59, but finished 13-9 with a 4.06. He was 11-7 with a 4.84 in 1999, including winning eight straight decisions. After that season, the Yankees traded Irabu to the Montreal Expos. He finished 34-35 with a 5.15 in his career.  

    While there were stretches where Irabu was effective, he was never consistently reliable. That wouldn’t have been such a terrible thing if there weren’t such lofty expectations for Irabu. Steinbrenner, who loved having stars on his roster, wanted the Japanese Nolan Ryan. But he learned that pitcher didn’t exist.

    It’s impossible to chronicle Irabu’s career without detailing an incident from what should have been a harmless exhibition game in 1999. When Irabu failed to cover first for the second straight game, it infuriated Steinbrenner and unleashed an awkward series of events around a team waiting to leave Tampa and fly to Los Angeles to two exhibition games.

    A few minutes after Irabu’s mistake, Steinbrenner criticized the 253-pound pitcher.

    “He looked like a fat, p***y (rhymes with fussy) toad out there, not covering first base,” Steinbrenner said. “I don’t know what you got to do. That’s not a Yankee.”

    Irabu, who was typically bland in interviews, raised his voice that day and said that he couldn’t understand why he was being questioned for not having “any guts” or “any fight.” He lamented that he was being judged “on a play-by-play basis rather than my overall play.”

    While the Yankees sorted out what to do about Irabu, the rest of the dumbfounded players sat by their lockers in sports coats and the buses to the airport idled. Irabu, who was already a distraction, became an even bigger distraction. David Cone joked that the Yankees would have to wait an extra day before leaving town. Bernie Williams ordered 20 pizzas for the hungry players. The Yankees left without Irabu, leaving him behind in Tampa to workout.

    Writing an obituary about Irabu, who was younger than me, was a daunting assignment. Yes, I covered Irabu. But, because of the language barrier and because he didn’t trust reporters, I never had the opportunity to really get to know Irabu in the way I’ve gotten to know so many other players. That’s unfortunate.

    As I was searching for a way to finish this piece, I received a text from my cousin, Gerald Bruno. He lamented Irabu’s passing and added, “I remember when he offered to buy you a beer.” That is true. Apparently, Irabu wanted to make a peace offering with the beat writers and he bought me a beer one night. Now that Irabu has left this world in a terrible way, that’s one positive story I’ll remember about him.   

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

    0 (0 Ratings)

    An inside look at batting practice

    Tuesday, July 26, 2011, 11:31 AM [General]

    Watching batting practice is an intracite process. A manager gets a sense of what a player may bring to that night's game, and it provides an opportunity to communicate and share ideas one-on-one. Jack Curry had an opportunity to speak with Joe Girardi about what he looks for and evaluates during baseball's pregame ritual. (Click here to watch.)

    0 (0 Ratings)

    Yankees won’t overpay for Jimenez or anyone

    Tuesday, July 19, 2011, 1:57 PM [General]

    Last year, the Colorado Rockies would have been considered insane if they entertained trade talk about Ubaldo Jimenez. Jimenez was 15-1 with a 2.20 ERA when he started the All-Star Game for the National League. When baseball executives discussed the best pitchers in the Major Leagues, his name was mentioned prominently.

    But, these days, the Rockies have said they are willing to listen to offers on Jimenez. Jimenez’s production has dropped since that brilliant first half in 2010 and he is said to be disenchanted with the Rockies because of his team-friendly contract. Suddenly, the Rockies have publicly acknowledged that Jimenez could be acquired if a team overwhelmed them with a proposal.

    As the Yankees monitor Jimenez’s situation, they have scoffed at the idea of being the club that surrenders four elite prospects for the 27-year old. Dan O’Dowd, the Rockies’ general manager, told The Denver Post that the team would need to make “a Herschel Walker” trade to move Jimenez. The Dallas Cowboys traded Walker to the Minnesota Vikings for a bushel of players and draft picks, which helped revive the organization.

    When I mentioned the Herschel Walker scenario to general manager Brian Cashman, he simply said, “We’re not going to do anything stupid.”

    According to Sports Illustrated’s website, the Rockies would want Ivan Nova, Manny Banuelos, Jesus Montero and Dellin Betances from the Yankees for Jimenez. There is no way the Yankees will give up four of their best young players for the right-hander. Cashman listed Montero, Betances, Banuelos and Austin Romine as prospects he has “no inclination to trade.”

    But the Yankees have internally discussed how they could use another starter, preferably a left-hander who could help them neutralize the Boston Red Sox. The Yankees aren’t enthused about Wandy Rodriguez, a lefty who is 6-6 with a 3.67 ERA for the Houston Astros. While Cashman thinks the Yankees “definitely have enough” pitching “to get in the playoffs,” he also knows there are some concerns. After CC Sabathia, the Yankees don’t have a definitive No. 2 starter. There are doubts about all of the current candidates.

    Bartolo Colon, who has been the Yankees’ second-best starter, was trampled for eight runs in his last start, has been plagued by a hamstring injury and must prove that he’s not fading. A.J. Burnett, who was supposed to be the No. 2 man after Sabathia, lost that distinction during a dreadful 2010. He has pitched much better this season, but the Yankees can’t risk putting him behind Sabathia. Like Colon, Freddy Garcia has to show he’s not operating on fumes. Phil Hughes won his first game of the season in his last start, but it’s too early to know how effective he will be for the rest of 2011.

    The doubts about the starters are why the Yankees have been linked to Jimenez. With the July 31 non-waiver deadline approaching, the Yankees will undoubtedly be connected to other pitchers as well. In 2009, the Yankees were hunting for a starter. Cashman reacted by acquired Chad Gaudin, a back of the rotation type, from the San Diego Padres because he thought the prices for pitchers were too high. Cashman cited that example to intimate that it could happen again.

    “If the prices stink,” Cashman said, “I’m not going there.”

    By even acknowledging that Jimenez is available, some baseball executives said that the Rockies have devalued their pitcher. Jimenez will make $4.2 million in 2012 and there are club options for $5.75 in 2013 and $8 million in 2014, which is a sweet deal for the Rockies. The Rockies know Jimenez better than anyone. If the Rockies thought that Jimenez would return to his form from 2010, why would they trade him? Sure, the Rockies would snare several prospects, but Jimenez is supposed to be a sure thing. Prospects never are.

    “It tells me that they’re tired of him,” said one Major League executive. “That’s a red flag.”

    Jimenez is 5-8 with a 4.08 ERA and averages eight strikeouts and 3.5 walks per game. Nova, who is at Class AAA Scranton, was 8-4 with a 4.12 ERA and averaged five strikeouts and 3.6 walks per game while with the Yankees and in a better offensive league. This isn’t to suggest that Nova is better, but it’s more evidence for the Yankees to digest as they consider their options.

    Since the Yankees have been willing to trade Montero in the past, it is likely that he would be included in a trade. If the Yankees dealt one of their better pitchers, they would surrender Nova ahead of Banuelos or Betances. Could Montero and Nova and two other prospects that aren’t named Banuelos or Betances be enough to satisfy the Rockies? If the Rockies are fixated on getting Banuelos, Betances, Montero and Nova, the Yankees will not engage them. Perhaps the Rockies will wait until the offseason and try and get a stash of players then.  

    Even though Cashman emphasized that he doesn’t like to “give up my young talent,” he added that ownership might feel differently and could overrule him. The Yankees always have the mandate of winning a World Series title. To have the best chance of doing that in 2011, it would help the Yankees to have a legitimate No. 2 starter.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

    0 (0 Ratings)

    Confident, stubborn Captain creates magical history

    Monday, July 11, 2011, 2:08 PM [General]

    An unrelenting confidence has always been one of Derek Jeter’s most important attributes. His steely stubbornness has been an important attribute, too. Jeter has always believed he could be one of the elite players in baseball and, even if there were moments where some doubts emerged, he was too stubborn to ever let those moments fester.

    When Jeter blasted an unlikely homer off David Price for his 3,000th hit on Saturday, he made an at-bat that was memorable and historic into something even more grandiose. How could something be more memorable or more historic? Maybe it can’t, but, ask anyone who witnessed the homer and they will surely acknowledge that it seemed that way.

    As Jeter’s day began so successfully and unfolded so incredibly, a baseball game turned into a one-man show. It was Jeter’s reality show, with the reality being that Jeter could still dominate a game by getting five hits, including the game-winner, in nine blissful innings. Yes, Jeter’s skills have diminished. Yes, there will be more questions about his play. But there were none on Sunday.

    “All of a sudden, he stepped up and he said, ‘Hey, I still got game,’” said general manager Brian Cashman. “He said, ‘I’m still relevant.’ He turned back the clock big time.”

    Jeter was confident and stubborn on Saturday because he is always confident and stubborn. Until Jeter performs in his final game, I envision him as a player who will always believe he can go 5-for-5. That is how Jeter operates. He eliminates the clutter, which includes dismissing any angst or any self-doubt.

    But Cashman speculated that Jeter’s confidence had eroded during a draining season, a season in which his status as the leadoff man and full-time shortstop has been questioned. When Jeter strained his calf and went on the disabled list, the Yankees went 14-4 without him. Eduardo Nunez flashed great bat speed and hit .339 in Jeter’s absence. His fielding at shortstop was suspect, though. Still, there were doubts about whether Jeter should maintain his stranglehold on the position.

    Did one at-bat boost Jeter? Cashman thinks that might have happened. In Jeter’s first at-bat on Saturday, Price threw 1-2 and 2-2 fastballs that looked like strikes. Even Cashman acknowledged that both pitches could have easily been called strikes. When they weren’t, that allowed Jeter to smack a 3-2 fastball to left field for a single and his 2,999th hit. Cashman theorized that the at-bat eased the pressure on Jeter, pressure that Jeter subsequently admitted that he was feeling to get the last few hits at Yankee Stadium.

    “There’s something to be said about self-confidence,” Cashman said. “He had his confidence shaken in the first half. He got that back. He became the Energizer bunny of confidence.”

    In Cashman’s time machine, Jeter pushed the calendar back about a decade. But, as I watched Jeter’s display, I was compelled to push the calendar back even earlier to Kalamazoo, Michigan. It has been well-chronicled how Jeter told his parents that he wanted to play shortstop for the Yankees and how that dream was realized when the Yankees selected him with the sixth pick in the 1992 draft. There have been countless baseball people who have wondered how Jeter’s career would have been different if one of the other five teams chose him. It is also valid to wonder who things would have been different for the Yankees if they didn’t have a future Hall of Fame shortstop in their lineup for the last 16 seasons.

    To me, it’s worthwhile to look back even earlier. Jeter’s family lived in a modest house on Cumberland Street in Kalamazoo. I’ve seen that house and what stands out is how the backyard was next to Kalamazoo Central High School’s baseball field. All Jeter had to do was climb a five-foot fence to have his own practice field. If Jeter didn’t live so close to the field, would he have practiced as often and as religiously? Perhaps, but the proximity was extremely valuable to his development. 

    Also, because Jeter couldn’t play baseball year-round in frigid Michigan, he asked his parents to help him find a way to take swings during the winter. They purchased a hitting contraption and set it up in the family’s one-car garage. It was a steel cage that had a ball dangling from it. Jeter would hit the ball into the netting, wait for the ball to flop back into place and then hit it again. Sometimes, he would take 1,000 swings a day. If Jeter’s parents didn’t devote the garage to their son’s baseball career and if Jeter didn’t take tens of thousands of swings, what kind of player would he have been? It’s worth wondering.

    Now that Jeter became the 28th player to accumulate 3,000 hits, it is also worth wondering how high he can climb on the all-time hit list. Jeter is on pace for 144 hits this season, which would take him to 3,070 career hits. If he averages 144 hits in 2012, 2013 and 2014, he would have 3,502 hits. Only five players have exceeded 3,500 hits, a number Jeter isn’t ready to digest yet.

    “Anything is a possibility,” Jeter said. “I wouldn’t rule anything out. I try not to predict the future.”

    In the immediate future, Cashman said Jeter’s glorious five-hit day has “bought him time” to silence some of the questions about being a 37-year old whose talents, like most 37-year olds, have decreased. Cashman called those questions “fair and real,” and conceded that they will return. 

    “It’s like he’s in a boxing match with Father Time,” Cashman said. “It’s late in the match and he’s thrown a couple of great punches. It’s a difficult opponent to have, but he’s going at it with Father Time on a daily basis. It’s a great fight.”

    The fight will continue. And, when Jeter fights, he will continue to be confident and stubborn. That’s who Jeter is and who he will always will be.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

    4.1 (2 Ratings)

    Boggs: Never a doubt about Jeter and 3,000

    Friday, July 8, 2011, 2:24 PM [General]

    When Derek Jeter made his debut at shortstop for the Yankees on May 29, 1995, Wade Boggs was standing about 40 feet to Jeter’s right at third base. Boggs was a five-time batting champion who was known for being a smart, selective hitter. Jeter studied Boggs because Jeter studied everything.

    The Yankees signed Boggs from the hated Red Sox before the 1993 season because general manager Gene Michael wanted players who valued on-base percentage. Long before Billy Beane and “Moneyball,” Michael and Manager Buck Showalter desired batters like Boggs, hitters who understood the importance of extending at-bats. One of Boggs’s most memorable at-bats as a Yankee was a bases-loaded walk in the 1996 World Series.

    Now Jeter has never been close to being as patient as Boggs. Jeter is a much more aggressive hitter, the kind who is more likely to swing at a first-pitch fastball than to advance a count to 3-2. Jeter’s double off Jeff Neimann’s first pitch fastball for his 2,998th hit on Thursday exemplified the type of hitter he is, but Jeter is also a student of the game and he absorbed how Boggs was meticulous about every swing.

    “Boggsy never gave an at-bat away,” Jeter has said.

    As Jeter tries to collect two hits in the next three games so he can reach the 3,000th-hit plateau at Yankee Stadium, he is trying not to give any at-bats away, either. Jeter will probably have at least 12 at-bats against the Tampa Bay Rays this weekend to try and smack two more hits and try and join Boggs in the 3,000-hit club. Boggs was on Tampa Bay when he homered for his milestone hit in 1999 and is the only player to ever celebrate 3,000 in that muscular manner.

    Last month, I playfully asked Jeter if he fantasized about matching Boggs and going deep for his 3,000th. When Jeter, who has two homers this season, stopped chuckling, he said that he has never been a power hitter, so he wasn’t even dreaming about that. Jeter just wants to get a clean hit, something that will look impressive as it is replayed over and over and over.

    Since Boggs was in the Yankees’ dugout when Jeter slapped his first hit off Seattle’s Tim Belcher, and since Boggs compiled 3,010 career hits, I figured he is someone who could provide insight into who Jeter was and who Jeter has become. Although Boggs was never the mentor to Jeter that Don Mattingly was and was never as close to Jeter as Tino Martinez was, he saw Jeter develop from a raw rookie into a cool shortstop on the team that won it all in 1996.

    I contacted Brad Horn, the Senior Director of Communications at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, to try and help me arrange an interview with Boggs. Boggs declined to do the interview because of family commitments, but, in anticipation of Jeter securing the last two hits, he issued a statement through the Hall. Boggs noted that Jeter will be joining a “select group” and that it is a “monumental achievement” to climb to that lofty level. 

    “I had the opportunity to play with Derek when he was a rookie in 1996, and I had no doubts that Derek would reach that milestone,” Boggs said. “He is a very consistent player and he never deviated from his game. When you stay healthy and you are consistent and compile a lengthy career like Derek has done, you have the opportunity to reach that 3,000-hit plateau.”

    Boggs’s statement added that “reaching the 3,000-hit mark is another piece of the legacy that Derek has created.” Then Boggs, who was inducted into the Hall in 2005, predicted that Jeter’s legacy will grow even more since he expects Jeter to eventually join him in another exclusive club.

    “It won’t be too long now before we are on the verandah in Cooperstown at the Otesaga Hotel,” Boggs said, “celebrating his induction to the Hall of Fame.”

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

    0 (0 Ratings)

    Biggio: Jeter will be 'relieved it’s over'

    Wednesday, July 6, 2011, 3:01 PM [General]

    Craig Biggio knew he had to relish the moment that he collected his 3,000th hit, but a part of him also wanted to hustle past it as if he was trying to turn a single into a double.  Biggio wanted to dive into the exclusive club, wipe the dirt off his uniform, wave to the fans, hug his family and get back to playing.

    Biggio thinks Derek Jeter is probably feeling the same way.

    As the last player to reach 3,000 hits, Biggio’s insight into Jeter’s pursuit is valuable. While Biggio acknowledged that he doesn’t know Jeter well, he knows exactly what it’s like to enter a season in which the chase for 3,000 was a daily story. Everyone expected Biggio to do it four years ago, just like everyone expects Jeter will soon get his four hits, but the player is the one who must perform and make it happen.

    “The 3,000-hit night was a night I’ll never forget,” said Biggio in a telephone interview. “I know Derek will enjoy it. I know his teammates and the fans will enjoy it. Then he’ll be relieved it’s over. He’ll want to get back to his job, which is helping the Yankees win games.”

    Why was Biggio so relieved to get to 3,000? Naturally, he was elated to become the 27th player in history to accomplish the feat and to do it with a flourish. Biggio was three hits shy of 3,000 on June 28, 2007 and he notched five in one game. But Biggio was also thrilled to have the intense spotlight off him and back on the Astros. He speculated that Jeter will feel the same way.

    “From what I know about Derek, we’re very similar,” Biggio said. “It’s not about us. It’s about the team. You’re apologizing to the boys every day about how they have to talk about it. You’re telling them to hang in there and you’ll get it soon. I know Derek will enjoy it, but he’s thinking about getting to the postseason and winning a World Series.”

    When the 2007 season began, Biggio, who played his entire career with the Astros, needed 70 hits to reach 3,000. Jeter, a career Yankee, came into this season needing 74 hits to climb to 3,000. Like Jeter, Biggio’s batting average faded in the year in which he chased 3,000. On the night Biggio did it, he was hitting .238, which was about 45 points below his career mark. Jeter is hitting .257, about 55 points below his career average.

    “The reality is, as you get older, you lose some of skills,” Biggio said. “But you also get smarter. Derek Jeter is still producing in a lot of ways. If he wasn’t producing in that market, you wouldn’t play.  Batting average is one thing, but there are a lot of other things you can do to help a team win.”

    After Jeter was activated off the disabled list on Monday, he and manager Joe Girardi fielded a lot of questions and not all of them were about the pursuit of 3,000 hits. While Jeter recovered from a strained calf injury, the Yankees were 14-4. In addition, Eduardo Nunez batted .339 as his replacement at shortstop and Brett Gardner and Nick Swisher combined for an on-base percentage of .398 from the leadoff spot. Naturally, there has been speculation about whether Nunez should get more at-bats and whether the Yankees should remove Jeter from the leadoff spot.

    Usually, the unflappable Jeter is oblivious to any criticism that floats near him. But Jeter, who notched two hits on Tuesday night to increase his total to 2,996, admitted that some of the happiness has been drained from what should be an historic march.

    “It’s kind of hard to enjoy when there’s a lot of negativity out there,” Jeter told reporters. “Hopefully, I might be able to enjoy these next few days.” 

    Biggio watches sports highlight shows every day, so he has seen Jeter’s recent at bats. When I mentioned Jeter’s comment about not being able to enjoy the ride, Biggio didn’t focus on how much Jeter’s status with the Yankees has been dissected lately. Instead, with Jeter only four hits away from joining Biggio in the 3,000-hit club, Biggio zoomed past the present and talked about the future.    

    “Let me throw this thought into your mind,” Biggio said. “You’re not truly going to appreciate Derek until he’s gone. When he’s finished playing and you’re trying to replace him, people are going to realize how lucky they were to have him for 20 years.”

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

    3.7 (1 Ratings)

    Bernie and the Big Man

    Sunday, June 26, 2011, 10:26 AM [General]

    I love baseball and I love music. I was fortunate enough to get a job with The New York Times where I wrote about baseball. Now I work for the YES Network and I talk about baseball. I’ve never had anyone offer me money to write about or talk about music. Guess what? I’ve done it anyway.

    Whenever I could filter some music into a baseball story, I’ve rushed to do it. That’s why I’ve talked about Biggie Smalls with Barry Bonds, about Johnny Cash with Gene Monahan, about Warren Zevon with Bill Lee and about Cindy Bullens with Tim Wakefield. If there’s a way to jam some music knowledge into my baseball coverage, I will make it happen.

    Because of my dual passions, Bernie Williams, the graceful center fielder and graceful guitarist, was a treat to cover. I started covering the Yankees for The Times in 1991, which was Bernie’s first year with the Yankees. While I watched Williams grow into a player who helped the Yankees win four World Series titles, one of the most interesting moments I ever covered with Williams involved music. I joined Williams on a tour of South America and saw him strum his guitar with college students in Barranquilla, Colombia. When the lights in the auditorium went out, no one minded. The music was that soothing.

    Anyway, since Williams will be making his first appearance at Old-Timers' Day for the Yankees on Sunday, it seemed like the perfect time for another story that blended baseball and music. After the Yankees won the 1998 World Series, Williams was among a group of musically-talented major leaguers who were asked to perform a live show in Orlando, Florida. The players were supplemented by a house band and several other musicians. Those musicians included Clarence Clemons, the cool saxophonist for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. Clemons, of course, died of complications from a stroke on June 18.

    Loren Harriett, who subsequently produced Williams’s two albums, coordinated the players and the band 13 years ago. Harriet’s plan was to have Clemons burst on stage to help the band play “Glory Days,” a Springsteen about a baseball player who constantly harkens back to his early years. There was no sax solo in that song, but Clemons told Harriet that he would create one. The song was the finale of the event.

    Gibson Guitars, which sponsored the event, had created a “Gibson Guitar Baseball Bat” as a gift for the players and musicians who participated in the show. When Clemons got the guitar bat, he asked Harriet to help him get autographs. According to Harriet, the first person who signed Clemon’s guitar bat was Williams. Williams signed the guitar bat on the sweet spot. If Clemons ever actually hit a ball in that spot, Williams told him it would go a long way.

    Once Clemons secured Williams’s autograph, he wanted an autograph from Trevor Hoffman. Hoffman, whose San Diego Padres had just lost to Williams’s Yankees in the World Series, had played some percussion at the event. Hoffman didn’t want to sign the guitar bat. As a pitcher, Hoffman said it violated protocol for him to sign a bat, even if it was a novelty guitar bat.

    But, because Clemons was so affable, Hoffman said he would make an exception and agreed to sign the guitar bat. Hoffman signed Clemons' bat on the handle. If Clemons ever connected with a ball on the spot where Hoffman signed it, Hoffman predicted that Clemons would dribble a ball to the pitcher. Clemons thought that Hoffman’s compromise was hilarious.

    As someone who first listened to Springsteen’s music as a 13-year old kid, I’ve always had a deep respect for Clemons. I’m saddened that the Big Man has passed on and that the E Street Band will never be the same. Because of an assist from Harriet, I’m glad I finally got to write about Clemons. It was another column that was disguised as a baseball piece, but was really about music.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

    3.7 (1 Ratings)

    Rodriguez offers advice to Logan

    Friday, June 24, 2011, 10:56 AM [General]

    CINCINNATI -- Soon after Alex Rodriguez cruised into the Great American Ball Park on Tuesday afternoon he had a mission. Rodriguez needed to locate one of his Yankee teammates and needed to have a conversation about what happened on Monday night. Rodriguez needed to find Boone Logan.

    Logan had a miserable one-pitch outing when the Yankees defeated the Reds, 5-3, in the series opener on Monday. Summoned to oppose the left-handed hitting Joey Votto in the ninth inning, Logan drilled Votto with his first pitch. That was the end of Logan’s night. One pitch, one shabby fastball, and the Yankees needed Mariano Rivera to rescue them.

    Since Logan is the only lefty in the bullpen, he needs to be adept at one thing: retiring left-handed hitters. But Logan has been disappointing in his critical role as lefties have a .286 average and a .375 on base percentage off him. Manager Joe Girardi wanted to use Logan to face Votto and Jay Bruce, another left-handed hitter, on Monday. After one pitch, Girardi’s plan was trashed.

    Rodriguez watched Logan’s outing and, a day later, decided to give him some advice. While it’s common for Rodriguez to mentor Robinson Cano, it’s not common for him to offer tidbits to a reliever. But Rodriguez felt it was necessary. So, along a back row of lockers in the clubhouse here, he lectured Logan for several minutes. There wasn’t a lot of back and forth in the exchange. Rodriguez did most of the talking, bouncing between counseling, encouraging and chiding Logan.

    As the two Yankees sat across from each other, Rodriguez lifted his left arm and slowly moved through a pitcher’s motion to seemingly make a point about releasing a breaking ball. After Rodriguez’s display, Logan responded by showing Rodriguez his motion, also doing it in slow motion.

    When I asked Rodriguez about his chat with Logan, he said that he mostly spoke to Logan about the importance of preparation. If a reliever waits until after his warm-up pitches to decide how he wants to attack hitters, Rodriguez said that’s too late. Before a pitcher uncorks a pitch or a hitter takes a swing, Rodriguez stressed how imperative it is to have a plan.

    Logan’s first and only pitch to Votto was a fastball that was supposed to be on the inside corner. Was that a shrewd plan? Against a powerful hitter like Votto, Logan would have been better off tossing fastballs on the outside corner to try and force Votto to hit the ball the opposite way. When Logan gets ahead in the count, he can then use his slider to try and stifle lefties.

    A day after Rodriguez’s conversation with Logan, Girardi called on the left-hander to oppose Votto in the second game of a split doubleheader. After tossing one inside fastball to Votto, Logan was precise about spotting his pitches away. Logan pumped an outside fastball for the second ball, he threw a fastball that Votto fouled off and he nipped the outside corner for the second strike. After Votto fouled off two more pitches, Logan fired a slider on the outside corner. Votto tried to pull the pitch and tapped it to second.

    Because Logan retired Votto, he stayed in and faced Bruce. He took the same approach with Bruce, staying away from him with a fastball for a strike. Bruce fouled off an outside slider and then let another slider drift outside for a ball. But Logan came back with a third consecutive slider, which Bruce swung at and missed. For one game, Logan, who held lefties to a .190 average last season, performed like it was 2010.

    The Yankees desperately need Logan to produce, which Rodriguez and every player realizes and which is one of the reasons Rodriguez addressed him. After Pedro Feliciano was diagnosed with a strained left rotator cuff in March, General manager Brian Cashman said that he wasn’t hopeful about finding another dependable lefty reliever. The sports talk show callers can shout for Cashman to get somebody to retire lefties, but Logan might have to be that somebody.

    During Rodriguez’s talk with Logan, he mentioned how smart Freddy Garcia is at spotting his breaking pitches and how Logan should study what Garcia does. If Logan throws his slider for strikes, Rodriguez told him he “can help us win a World Series.” That’s a hopeful statement, one that won’t happen for Logan unless he’s much better at silencing lefties.  

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

    0 (0 Ratings)

    Gordon's journey leads him to Yankee Stadium

    Wednesday, June 15, 2011, 12:21 PM [General]

    Brian Gordon’s car ride from Allentown, Penn., to New York was surreal on Tuesday night. So surreal. There have been dozens of journeys in Gordon’s career that, frankly, ended up being trips to nowhere. So Tuesday’s trip, a trip with a tangible destination in Yankee Stadium, numbed Gordon.

    Gordon has been stranded in the Minor Leagues since 1997, a tedious, twisting career that saw him fail as an outfielder for a decade before deciding to try and climb to the Major Leagues as a pitcher. Good luck with that career strategy, right? But, shockingly, he persevered and wiggled into the Majors to pitch three games with the Texas Rangers in 2008.

    Now Gordon’s story of persistence and dedication has taken another detour since he has agreed to a contract with the Yankees and is a candidate to start against the Rangers on Thursday. Gordon, who was 5-0 with a 1.14 earned run average for the Phillies’ Class AAA Lehigh Valley IronPigs, had an opt out clause in his deal and exercised it. The Yankees will soon announce his signing.

    “This has been very emotional for me,” Gordon said. “I’m really looking forward to helping the Yankees. It feels funny to even say that, that I’m a Yankee. It’s a special moment.”

    When Gordon, 32, and his agent communicated with Yankee officials, he was told to travel to New York and to prepare as if will start on Thursday. The Yankees have said that Hector Noesi, who has been impressive as a reliever with a 1.76 E.R.A., and David Phelps, who is 4-4 with a 2.95 E.R.A. at Class AAA Scranton, were candidates to be Thursday’s starter, too.

    “I don’t know if it’s 100 percent,” said Gordon, about the likelihood that he will face his old team in his first career start. “I was told to be mentally prepared to start on Thursday. That could change.”

    While the Yankees have spoken glowingly of their pitching prospects, their best prospects aren’t ready to start (Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances) at the Major League level yet or aren’t pitching well (Andrew Brackman). If the Yankees had a pitcher with Gordon’s glossy statistics at Scranton, they would surely start him on Thursday. Instead, the Yankees swooped in to add Gordon and give him a chance. He has been the best pitcher in the International League with 56 strikeouts and 7 walks in 55 1/3 innings.

    What can the Yankees expect from a converted outfielder who has never made more than 11 starts or pitched more than 78 innings in a season? Gordon stressed that he will throw strikes and he will use his repertoire of six pitches to keep hitters off-balance. Gordon throws a four-seam and two-seam fastball, a split-finger fastball, a slider, a curveball and a recently added cut fastball. The right-hander’s fastball hovers from 89 to 91 miles per hour.

    Gordon, who batted .275 with 119 homers in 1,206 games in the Minors, said he was always uncomfortable against pitchers who were unpredictable. Because Gordon was stifled by pitchers who were adept at mixing their pitches, he has used that approach in trying to stifle hitters.

    “I do my best to work in different combinations and try to keep hitters off-balance,” Gordon said.  “Being an ex-hitter, I know what got me. I have to pitch that way. I’m not going to blow anyone with velocity.”

    Whether or not Gordon succeeds with the Yankees, he has overcome incredible obstacles to even dent their roster. As a 17-year old, Gordon was drafted in the seventh round by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 1997. Gordon figured he would be a Major League outfielder within a few years, but that path was cluttered. He averaged almost a strikeout a game as a hitter and lasted six lonely seasons with Arizona. Then Gordon spent two seasons with the Angels before joining the Astros in 2006.

    After Gordon’s first season with Houston’s Class AAA Round Rock, he asked Jackie Moore, his manager, if he could switch to pitching. Moore gave Gordon permission and Gordon ended up working with Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan. Ryan told Gordon that it was imperative that he have fastball command or he would never get a chance in the Majors. Gordon followed that advice.

    The Astros released Gordon after one Minor League appearance in 2008. By then, Ryan was the recently-hired President of the Rangers. The Rangers signed Gordon and he crawled into the Majors in his 12th professional season, logging a 2.25 E.R.A. over four innings. Gordon has pitched in the Phillies’ organization for the last two seasons. He is 25-13 with a 3.09 E.R.A. as a Minor Leaguer.

    Now Gordon could start against the Rangers on Thursday, which he called “chilling.” As Gordon drove to New York, he said that he always believed that he had the God-given ability to become a Major Leaguer so he never quit. Gordon’s latest baseball ride was surreal, but it was unbelievably cool, too. For once, it was a ride to somewhere.

    3.7 (1 Ratings)

    To Jeter, the clock is the calendar

    Friday, June 10, 2011, 1:21 PM [General]

    Derek Jeter was on the field by 3:30 on Tuesday afternoon, which is more than an hour earlier than he normally saunters out of the clubhouse. Jeter, a creature of habit, played the early bird to tape two public service announcements and to do two interviews, one with Nomar Garciaparra for ESPN and one with me for the YES Network.

    Jeter knew what was coming. The questions weren’t going to focus on the Yankees or the Red Sox. On this day, the questions were about Jeter’s pursuit of 3,000 hits. When I asked Jeter what could lie beyond 3,000 and if he thinks 3,500 hits could be attainable, he wasn’t ready to predict the future.

    “Let me get to 3,000,” Jeter said. “I’m not even to 2,990 yet.”

    After Jeter smacked a single off Josh Beckett in a disheartening 8-3 loss to the Boston Red Sox on Thursday night, he is at 2,990. Now the countdown to 3,000 is at 10. If Jeter can collect 10 hits across the next seven games at Yankee Stadium, he could celebrate becoming the first Yankee to reach the 3,000 plateau and could do it in front of the home fans. If not, Jeter will take his pursuit on the road to Chicago.

    One of the romantic aspects of baseball is that it doesn’t have a clock. The game is timeless with both teams trying to score more runs than the other before using up 27 outs. But, as Jeter chases 3,000, he is on the clock. The clock is the calendar. Jeter has seven games in seven days to get those last 10 hits and enjoy the milestone with about 50,000 of his closest buddies at the Stadium.

    Can Jeter get 10 hits in seven games? Of course he can. But it’s not a simple task. If a player averaged 10 hits in every seven games for a 162-game season, he would notch 231 hits. In the last 20 years, only Ichiro Suzuki (three times) and Darin Erstad have had that many hits in a season. While Jeter simply needs to have a productive week at an opportune time, not a full season of averaging 1.43 hits a game, getting those hits on demand can be a difficult chore.

    When I interviewed Jeter, he was in a playful mood. He hugged Garciaparra, his old counterpart with the Red Sox, on his way to our interview. Jeter eased into a director’s chair in foul territory behind first base and cracked a joke before I could even finish my first question. By the way, this interview with Jeter will be part of a feature that will air on YES after the game in which he becomes Mr. 3000.

    During the interview, Jeter talked about some of his memorable hits, from his first to his 2,000th. Jeter’s 2,000th hit wasn’t artistic. In 2006, he hit a dribbler off Kansas City’s Scott Elarton. Paul Bako burst out from behind the plate to field it, but he fired it past first base. As Jeter cruised into second, everyone waited to see if it would be ruled a hit or an error. Television cameras showed Dorothy, Derek’s mother, turning to Charles, Derek’s father, and saying, “Error.” It was ruled a hit.

    “Good thing my mother wasn’t the official scorer,” Jeter joked.

    Jeter stressed that “there are no cheap hits” so he didn’t care that his 2,000th hit never left the infield. But, when I asked Jeter if he would mind if his 3,000th hit was just as modest, he balked. Since Jeter’s 3000th hit will be re-played again and again, he said he wants it to be “a clean hit.”

    Jeter added that he can’t be picky about the type of hit he gets. The same is true about where he gets the hit. But Jeter wants it to be a solid hit and he wants to do it at the Stadium. He has a week. The calendar is ticking.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

    0 (0 Ratings)

    The coach who molded the Captain

    Tuesday, May 24, 2011, 2:19 PM [General]

    When Brian Butterfield coaches third base for the Toronto Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium this week, he stands about 50 feet away from his former pupil. When one of the Jays smacks a grounder to shortstop, Butterfield studies how Derek Jeter, his old student, moves. Butterfield watches Jeter, but he could just as easily close his eyes. He would still be able to recite Jeter’s movements.

    Eighteen years ago, Butterfield, a coach in the Yankees’ organization, was given an important offseason assignment: Help make the athletic yet inconsistent Jeter a better defensive shortstop. It was Butterfield’s task to guarantee that Jeter, who had made 56 errors in 128 games at Class-A Greensboro, was proficient enough as a shortstop that the Yankees could confidently keep him there.

    The Yankees sent Jeter to the Instructional League in Tampa and Butterfield was waiting there, a fungo bat in his hands and a purposeful look in his eyes. For 35 straight days, Butterfield schooled Jeter in every aspect of his defense. There were no days off as Jeter began every session at 8 a.m. and fielded grounders, talked defense, played defense only in games, watched videotapes of his play and seemed to sleep and eat defense, too. Jeter has called Butterfield’s lessons the “five of the most important weeks of my career.”

    As Jeter inches toward his 3,000th career hit, he has been stuck in an offensive malaise. After batting a career-low .270 in 2010, Jeter was hitting .261 before Tuesday’s game with Butterfield’s Jays. He tried a new no-stride approach as a hitter to start the season, but quickly abandoned it. There have been persistent questions about when manager Joe Girardi will eventually remove Jeter from the top of the lineup.

    Still, despite Jeter’s malaise, there is a tendency to evaluate his career and think that he has always been a problem-free Yankee. Yes, Jeter arrived as a calm rookie in 1996 and helped the Yankees win a championship, the first of five titles that they have won in his career. But, before Jeter’s successful rookie season, he experienced some angst on his path to the Major Leagues, too.

    Butterfield helped ease some of Jeter’s angst. The enthusiastic, barrel-chested coach played a significant role in shaping the recent history of the Yankees, where he worked for more than a decade, by molding Jeter. The Yankees drafted Jeter in 1992 and wanted him to be their reliable anchor in the infield. Butterfield, a former Minor League infielder with the Yankees, helped steer Jeter toward that goal. In turn, Jeter helped steer the Yankees to excellence.

    Back in 1993, Jeter was a raw talent, a 19-year old who was still making some of the mistakes that he had made at Kalamazoo Central High School. In high school, Jeter was so talented that he could get away with them. But, in the Minors, it was different. Jeter knew there was speculation about whether the Yankees might have to switch him to third base or the outfield.

    “I had always been a shortstop,” Jeter said. “I planned to improve enough to stay at shortstop.”

    On the day Butterfield started the Basics of Playing Shortstop with Jeter, he first told him that he needed to be more aggressive. Butterfield noticed that Jeter would let the ball play him, meaning he hesitated to begin making plays. Jeter was taught to move forward and attack the ball.

    Butterfield also counseled Jeter about keeping his glove in front of him and only moving it in the direction of the ball. It sounds like simple stuff, but Jeter had a habit of carelessly shifting his glove from left to right before snaring a ball. Once Jeter decreased the movement of his glove, he became a quieter and more dependable glove man.

    The Yankees videotaped Jeter’s play at shortstop and showed him slide-by-slide images of what he did on certain plays. By analyzing those images, Jeter could see some of his sloppy habits and how he did some things that he didn’t even realize. After fielding grounders, Jeter would sometimes tap the ball against his glove. If Jeter lost a millisecond fumbling with the ball, a routine 6-3 could become an infield single or an E-6.

    In recent years, Jeter’s range has decreased and his defense has been pilloried. In the Fielding Bible section of the 2011 Bill James Handbook, 20 shortstops received at least one vote for being one of the best defensive shortstops in the Majors. Jeter didn’t receive one vote, but Jeter, who committed six errors in 2010, won his fifth Gold Glove Award.

    Someday, Jeter might have to vacate shortstop, but evaluating Jeter’s defense in 2011 isn’t what this story is about. This story is about how Jeter spent five weeks with Butterfield and how those tutorials helped make him a much better shortstop. It was a crash course that proved very productive. So, as Butterfield stands in the third base coaching box at the Stadium, he isn’t merely looking at his former student. He’s looking at a former student who will someday be in the Hall of Fame.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

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    For once, who pitches ninth is a great debate

    Thursday, May 19, 2011, 1:03 PM [General]

    Our debate on who should pitch the ninth inning for the Yankees started in the seventh in Bob Lorenz’s office at the YES studios. Bob, who is superb at posing questions whether we are on- or off-camera, asked John Flaherty and me if we thought Bartolo Colon should stay in the game or if the Yankees should use Mariano Rivera in the inning that he usually owns.

    Typically, this wouldn’t even have been a question for me. Rivera is the greatest closer of all-time, so he should get the ball like he always does. That is one of manager Joe Girardi’s easiest decisions. But because of the way Colon was pitching on Wednesday night, I hedged on that easiest of choices.

    Once Bob floated the question, John fielded it first. The former Yankee, who has caught Rivera, reminded us how the team focuses on getting the lead through eight so that Mariano can take over the ninth. For Flaherty, the answer came quickly and emphatically: You happily hand the ball to Rivera.

    “You get the lead after eight innings, and it’s time for Mariano,” Flaherty said. “That’s what you’re working to get to, a chance to have him finish the game.”

    I know John’s opinion was as solid as a cement wall. Since 1997, the mantra around the Yankees has been smart, consistent and successful: Build a lead, and then build a bridge to Rivera so he can handle the ninth. In Rivera’s remarkable career, he has saved 572 games and has been successful in 89 percent of his save chances.

    Still, as Colon powered his way through the eighth against the Orioles, I continued to like the idea of the Yankees allowing him to start the ninth. I’ve covered Rivera’s entire career and I can’t recall ever thinking that it would be preferential to leave the starter in for the ninth. But as efficient and as dominant as Colon was, I thought this would be the time.

    “I’d leave Colon in,” I said. “I think he deserves the opportunity to get the complete game. If you don’t let him go for a complete game, you’re never letting a pitcher go for it. He’s earned that shot.”

    From the couch across the room, Flaherty disagreed.

    “Are you trying to win or are you trying to get the guy a complete game?” Flaherty said. “Why does the complete game matter?”

    Bob, who was sitting behind his desk, is a former college pitcher. He had watched Colon buzz two-seam and four-seam fastballs to the corners to stifle the Orioles on three hits in eight innings, and he was impressed. Like me, Bob thought Colon should start the ninth.

    “He’s only thrown 87 pitches,” Bob said. “If he’d thrown 100, maybe it would be different. But I’d leave him in there.”

    If I had any lingering doubts about letting Colon pitch the ninth, he erased those with the way that he navigated through the eighth. Mark Reynolds had a two-out walk, stole second and chugged to third on Francisco Cervelli’s throwing error. Colon, who was hanging on to a 1-0 lead, stayed cool and whiffed Robert Andino on a 2-2 slider. It was Colon’s 19th pitch of the inning, and also the first pitch of the inning that wasn’t a fastball. That at-bat told me Colon was still strong (he reached 97 mph in the eighth) and still savvy (he saved his slider for the most crucial spot in the inning).

    Even after Girardi decided to use Rivera in the ninth, our spirited debate on the topic continued. Jared Boshnack, the producer for the pre-game and post-game, playfully barked, “Get me some cameras in here,” to record our banter.

    I never felt that using Rivera was an awful decision. It would be illogical to feel that way. I just thought Colon was in such a groove and looked so comfortable that he would probably barrel through the ninth.

    “We thought about it,” admitted Girardi, about leaving Colon in the game. “I have Mariano Rivera. That’s why I made the move.”

    After the Orioles nicked Rivera for two singles, Vladimir Guerrero punched a sacrifice fly to left to tie the score, 1-1. So Rivera’s third blown save of the season meant that Colon’s glistening start would end up with him getting a no-decision.  Because the mighty Mariano had a rare failure, the debate about who should have pitched the ninth intensified.

    “It’s not automatic,” said Girardi, about his decision. “But it’s Mariano Rivera.”

    Once the Yankees outlasted the Orioles, 4-1, in 15 innings, the ninth-inning debate wasn’t as intense. But, for a while, it had been the major story. It was that way inside Bob’s office, where we all spoke like managerial wannabes. It was a memorable debate that I wish we had recorded. I’m going to have to talk to Bob about getting some cameras in his office.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

    0 (0 Ratings)

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