The sweet scene after a baseball game resembled a scene from Little League. The little brother approached the older brother, who played for the opposing team. A few seconds later, the brothers walked toward the seats on the third base side to rendezvous with their parents. Both players leaned across a railing to hug their mother and father.
What made this scene sweet and remarkable is that it didn’t happen at a Little League game. It happened at a Major League game. After catcher Austin Romine made his debut with the Yankees as a defensive replacement last Sunday, he only had to saunter across Angels Stadium to hang out with his brother, Andrew, who is an infielder for the Angels. The big brother got to see his baby brother follow him into the Majors.
And, as if that wasn’t a cool enough baseball story, Austin and Andrew embraced a father that had started the big-league chain. Kevin Romine, the proud dad, batted .251 for the Red Sox from 1985 to 1991. So Kevin and June, his wife, were witnesses as their second son became the third member to ascend to the family’s specialized line of work. The odds of that are beyond astronomical.
“That was a very emotional, roller coaster weekend for our family,” said Kevin Romine. “I don’t know if I can put into words the emotions I was feeling, other than it was utter joy. You just think of the sacrifices and what we did as a family. And they made it.”
On that memorable day, there were so many reasons the Romines were weeping in the box seats. Some of them were private, sorrowful thoughts that collided with the obvious jubilation of the occasion. Kevin explained how the family reminisced about his father, Willis, who had died of cancer earlier this year. Willis’s goal was to remain healthy long enough to see both Andrew and Austin in the Majors.
“In some ways,” Kevin said, “I believe that he was there and he was seeing his grandsons.”
On that memorable day, the Romines also cried for Jordan Stanton. Stanton, who was Austin’s and Andrew’s cousin, was a Marine corporal who was killed during combat operations in Afghanistan on March 4. Stanton was 20 years old and four months away from getting married. Before the game, June rushed to make sure Austin had a picture of Jordan with him.
“When Austin hugged me after the game,” June said, “he told me, ‘I’ve got Jordan in my pocket.’ That’s the first thing he wanted me to know.”
Two and a half weeks after Jordan’s death, Austin told me how Jordan, a boy who was always ready with another joke, had been his best friend. They played baseball, rode their bikes and laughed, laughed all the time, as kids growing up in southern California. Austin cried so much over losing Jordan that he said, “I have no more tears.” June found comfort in Austin debuting against the Angels because they were Jordan’s favorite team, and also found it symbolic that it was the 10-year anniversary of 9-11.
After 9-11, Jordan told Aunt June he wanted to join the military to help prevent another horrific attack against the United States. In June’s mind, Jordan hovered over the game.
“There was,” she said, “an extra angel there that day.”
June wore an Angels’ jersey and a Yankees’ cap to Sunday’s game, deciding that was the perfect wardrobe for a mother who had a son in each dugout. Kevin didn’t wear any paraphernalia from either team, although June theorized that he would have been most comfortable wearing a Red Sox cap. It’s not that Kevin roots for the Red Sox over either of his son’s teams. It’s just that he played for the Red Sox and still has that link. With a son who is on the Yankees, Kevin is constantly reminding people that he never despised the Yankees.
“I played against the Yankees,” Kevin said. “I never hated the Yankees.”
As June watched her sons share the field, she didn’t always see two Major Leaguers. At times, she easily flashed back to a different time.
“It felt like family,” June said. “It felt like how I’d see them when they’d come home and play catch.”
With an injured shoulder and an injured knee aggravating him, and a growing family pulling him home, Kevin, who hit .164 in 1991, retired at the age of 30. At the time, Andrew was 5 ½ years old and Austin 2 ½. While Andrew spent some time scooting around clubhouses, Austin was too young. Still, from the outset, they were raised on baby food and baseball.
Kevin stressed that he encouraged his sons to play baseball, but that he never pushed them to play the sport. That was the same approach that Kevin’s father used with him. Andrew and Austin kept devoting more time to baseball and kept dominating. Still, Kevin told them they should only play if they loved it, not to satisfy their parents.
“They loved it,” Kevin said. “It was never an issue.”
In family discussions about baseball, Kevin and June were always honest with their sons about how challenging it would be for them to get to the Majors. When Kevin was in the Minor Leagues, June recalled how she and Janelle, their oldest daughter, often ate 19 -ent cans of bean and bacon soup for dinner. Interestingly enough, Janelle, who is 29, still loves that type of soup. The Romines also have a 12-year old daughter named Becka.
Kevin doesn’t remember one moment when he felt Andrew, who is 25, and Austin, who is 22, had enough talent to be Major Leaguers. He called his memories “a culmination of moments.” One of those moments happened when Austin was a seven-year old slugger.
At that age, Austin was scheduled to play tee ball. Kevin asked the league organizers to move Austin to a higher level because he was an advanced player and might hurt someone. The organizers declined that request. In one of Austin’s first games, he hit a line drive off the center fielder’s chest and flattened the unsuspecting player. Kevin said the kid never had a chance to get ready for Austin’s bullet.
“That led me to believe that he would be a special talent,” Kevin said. “You just didn’t know how good he could be. Every kid has a ceiling.”
Because Kevin had friends who were police officers, and because the perilous profession was appealing to him, he joined the Los Angeles police force after his baseball career and is now a detective. After acknowledging the dangers of being a detective in L.A., Kevin noted that he came from a career that involved risks because he was trying to hit 95-mile per hour fastballs.
“There are risks in everything we do,” Kevin said. “We all take risks every day.”
Relieved that his two sons are in the big leagues, Kevin is hopeful that both of them will seize more playing time and enjoy prosperous careers. Andrew has two hits in 23 at-bats with the Angels for the last two seasons. Austin recorded his first hit on Monday and is a candidate for the Yankees’ postseason roster.
But, whatever happens to the brothers in the future, the Romines have already done something extraordinary. All three men, the father and two sons, have appeared in the Major Leagues. It made for a sweet and remarkable scene at a baseball game last Sunday.
Fifteen days after the most horrendous experience of their young lives, Brielle and Kirsten Saracini were smiling again. They were skipping along the concourse of old Yankee Stadium, then scooting through the box seats and then scampering along the grass near the first base dugout.
“I couldn’t breathe for about 20 minutes,” Brielle said.
It was one visit to a ballpark on September 26, 2001, but it was a memorable visit that allowed Brielle and Kirsten to feel like innocent children again for a few hours. Actually, they felt like queens or princesses or the 26th and 27th players on the Yankees roster. Every place the girls looked, another player or another person embraced them or hung out with them. It was a day where some healing, which is an endless process, began.
Brielle and Kirsten were devastated because their father, Victor, had been killed during the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11. Victor was the pilot on United Airlines Flight 175, which was taken over by hijackers and crashed into the south tower. At that time, Brielle was 10 years old and Kirsten was 13. Their father was stolen from them and from Ellen, their mother, like so many other people were stolen from their families.
“I didn’t know what to do so I hid behind my Yankee cap,” Brielle said. “I turned to baseball.”
Because Brielle had read about Derek Jeter’s close relationship with his parents, she wrote the Yankees’ shortstop a letter. She explained what had happened to her father and how her family was mourning. She asked Jeter if there was any way they could meet him.
Miraculously, the letter made it to the Yankees. Jason Zillo, who worked in the media relations department, contacted the Saracinis to verify the story. After the Yankees did that, Jeter called Brielle and invited the family to the Stadium. When Brielle answered the phone and realized it was Jeter, she was stunned and giddy, stupefied and ecstatic.
“What 10-year old,” she asked a decade later, “gets a call from Derek Jeter?”
At least one did. At least one brave girl got that call. That is how Brielle and Kirsten, her equally brave sister, ended up sitting on Joe Torre’s tower behind the cage to watch batting practice, how they posed for pictures with Tino Martinez and Bernie Williams, how they chatted with Paul O’Neill and Scott Brosius and how they each received brand new gloves from Jeter. By the way, Jeter strayed from the on deck circle to deliver the freshly-stitched gloves to Brielle and Kirsten in the seventh inning.
The Saracinis are one of the inspiring stories of courage from 9/11. In the YES Network special “9/11 Remembered” that will air on Thursday night at 10 p.m., we will recount the family’s incredible story. From the unspeakable tragedy of losing their father and husband, the Saracinis have displayed amazing strength and have developed powerful friendships that trace back to their visit to the Stadium in 2001. I know because I’m one of those friends.
Since I had co-authored the book “The Life You Imagine” with Jeter, Brielle told Zillo she wanted to meet me. Once I was told who the girls were and how their father had perished, I was worried about what to say. What could I possibly tell these kids? Besides “I’m sorry for your loss,” and “I’m praying for you,” what else would be appropriate?
As Brielle and Kirsten approached me in the back of the press box, I decided that the best thing I could do was offer them insight about Jeter and the Yankees. I told them things that would appeal to young girls. How I had flown on a private jet with Jeter. How one of my interviews with Jeter at a restaurant was ruined because fans kept interrupting us and asking for his autograph. How Jeter’s favorite meal was chicken parmesan. For three innings, I answered their questions and told them anything and everything about the Yankees.
Ten years later, I’m still talking to Brielle, Kirsten and Ellen and I’m thrilled to have maintained that connection. Ten years later, the family talked to Jeter again, too. Our cameras captured the reunion between the Saracinis and Jeter. If you want see that and see how one courageous family has remained so strong since 9/11, watch YES on Thursday night. You will get to Brielle and Kirsten smiling.
Before Jesus Montero had taken one swing with the Yankees, general manager Brian Cashman had already discussed a scenario in which Montero could snatch the designated hitter’s job in the postseason. The Yankees didn’t promote Montero on Sept. 1 because they simply wanted to give him a look. They did it because they realized Montero could be their best option at DH in October and beyond.
After Montero hammered two homers in an 11-10 win over the Orioles on Monday, it became more evident that the potential plan to give Montero at-bats in the postseason was progressing nicely. While manager Joe Girardi said he didn’t want to get “too giddy” after one game, the Yankees are giddy about Montero and what he could provide.
“He’s a hitter,” Cashman said. “He can hit lefties and righties. It could be something for 2011 or 2012. We’ll see.”
The Yankees have always described Montero as a special hitter, a hitter with superb bat speed, an ability to wait on pitches before he unleashes his swing and power to all fields. Since Montero waits on pitches so effectively, he gives himself more time to recognize pitches and produces excellent power to the opposite field. Both of Montero’s homers off Jim Johnson came on fastballs that Montero drove to right center. It was a rare hitting display, a display of smarts and strength.
“It’s unbelievable,” Montero said. “I like to hit that way because that’s the way I’ve been hitting all my life. I’m just thinking that way all the time. And look what happens.”
Look what happened and think about what else can happen with Montero. A player who didn’t secure his first at-bat with the Yankees until Sept. 1, who didn’t notch his first hit until Sept. 3 and who didn’t bash his first homer until Sept. 5 could easily evolve into a pivotal role in October for a team that leads the Major Leagues in runs. As formidable as the Yankee lineup has been, Cashman was blunt about wanting more production from the DH slot.
“There’s nobody crushing for us in the DH mode,” Cashman said. “It’s up for grabs.”
The Yankees could have recalled Montero earlier this season, but they hesitated because of Jorge Posada. After the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline, the Yankees had internal conversations about summoning Montero. But, if the Yankees promoted Montero, Posada, the proud veteran who is in the final year of his contract, would have likely been the player who was sacrificed. Instead of tampering with Posada, the Yankees waited until the rosters expanded on Sept. 1. Since Montero’s arrival, Posada has had one at-bat.
Now that Montero is in the Majors, the Yankees will give him the chance to win the DH job. When Girardi spoke about Montero’s second homer off Johnson, he gushed. Johnson threw a sinking fastball that was several inches off the plate and was just below the knee. Montero recognized the pitch and clubbed it the opposite way. If Montero could do that against a right-hander like Johnson, the Yankees are anxious to see what he can do against other righties.
“We’ve always said this kid has a lot of power, all over the field,” Girardi said. “And he can drive the ball to right. The first one, it looked like he got a ball up a little. The second one is pretty special.”
Cashman said he wouldn’t hesitate to use Montero, a 21-year-old rookie who would have only one month of Major League experience, as the DH in the postseason if he keeps proving himself. The GM added that the Yankees will make a decision that puts “the best team on the field.” Right now, Montero is making a powerful statement about being part of that team.
Joe Girardi has supplied the same answer numerous times to explain why he made a particular lineup decision with the Yankees. He is starting the players that he thinks will give the Yankees the best chance to win. It is a simple answer, a way to seemingly throttle any follow up questions.
But, when A.J. Burnett is involved, nothing is ever simple.
The Yankees have CC Sabathia as their ace and five other pitchers vying for the remaining four spots in their rotation. And, as Burnett continues to falter, Girardi’s words about using the best players are appropriate, because anytime the Yankees start Burnett over any of the other pitchers they aren’t putting their best team on the field. These days, Burnett is their worst starting pitcher.
Burnett confounded the Yankees again during a disheartening 6-4 loss to the Angels at Yankee Stadium. Bobby Abreu smacked Mariano Rivera’s flat, cut fastball over the right field fence for a two-run homer in the ninth inning to lift the Angels to the win. It was Rivera’s second straight ineffective outing. Relax. Rivera is the greatest closer ever. He will rebound. But Burnett is a concern, a lingering concern.
When Girardi removed Jorge Posada as the regular designated hitter and turned him into a reserve on Sunday in Boston, he said he was doing what was best for the team. Posada had not hit a homer since June 29 and had driven in four runs in his last 78 at-bats. After Eric Chavez returned from the disabled list, the Yankees spoke internally about how he could eventually take Posada’s at bats at the DH slot. Now Chavez has done that. Posada is a glorified pinch-hitter, a player who seems unlikely to make the postseason roster.
So what about Burnett’s status? The Yankees recognized how Posada’s unproductive at-bats were hurting them and made a change. It was decisive. The Yankees see how Burnett’s disappointing starts are hurting them, too. They need to be just as decisive with Burnett as they were with Posada. Since Ivan Nova has pitched much better than Burnett, and since Phil Hughes looked superb in his last start, why should they lose potential starts to Burnett? The answer is simple. They shouldn’t.
Still, Girardi insisted that Burnett will make his next start, surely hoping that the pitcher doesn’t repeat what he did on Tuesday. After five scoreless innings, Burnett crumbled in a four-run sixth. Abreu blasted a 3-2 fastball for a homer to tie the score, 1-1. Burnett walked Mark Trumbo, who smartly took second on a fly ball to center field. Girardi ordered an intentional walk of Maicer Izturis. Burnett ruined the strategy by walking Peter Bourgos to load the bases.
Jeff Mathis, a .180 hitter, was next for the Angels. If you are Burnett, a pitcher who is armed with a 93-mile per hour fastball and a nasty curveball, you must attack a hitter like Mathis. Burnett got Mathis to wave at a curveball for the first strike. But Burnett, who strayed from using his fastball in the inning, hung the next curve and Mathis blasted a two-run double to make it, 3-1. Burnett later bounced another curve for a wild pitch that delivered the fourth run.
In Burnett’s last seven starts, he is 0-3 with a 6.00 ERA. Burnett, who hasn’t won since June 29, said he wouldn’t change much with how he pitched. He called Abreu’s homer a ball that landed two rows deep in the right field seats. But it wasn’t the homer that damaged the Yankees. It was what happened after the homer that damaged them and maybe even infuriated them. Burnett couldn’t prevent the inning from becoming a debacle. As seamless as Burnett was through five, he was as messy in the sixth.
If the Yankees took Posada’s job away from him, they should be able to take Burnett’s job away from him, too. Even if it’s a temporary move, the Yankees could tell Burnett that he’s being bypassed in the rotation for one turn to work with pitching coach Larry Rothschild to improve. The Yankees can tell Burnett that he’s important to their success, so they want to get him better now, not later.
After Burnett was effective in five of six innings, Girardi didn’t sound like a manager that was contemplating any type of move with Burnett. But, if Burnett struggles in his next start, can the Yankees continue to start him in critical games? If the Yankees didn’t have any viable options, they would have to wobble along with Burnett, but they have options because they have an extra starter in Nova or Hughes.
When Burnett was asked if he thought he would start in the postseason, he said the Yankees had to first qualify and he’d answer that question. “Next question,” he said. But, actually, how Burnett fits in to the rotation isn’t a question for the future. It’s a question for the present. And, if the Yankees want to field their best team right now, they already know the answer to the question.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.