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

    0 (0 Ratings)

    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)

    A-Rod, K-Long diagnose problem, but is it fixed?

    Wednesday, May 18, 2011, 11:56 AM [General]

    The detailed conversations took place a few times every day. The words were exchanged in the batting cage, in the dugout, in the clubhouse and in front of a computer. Again and again, the two men discussed how to eradicate a problem that has been bothering both of them.

    Alex Rodriguez and Kevin Long were the two Yankees who have had these talks and who have shared concern for Rodriguez’s vanishing act as a hitter. After Rodriguez dominated pitchers during the first three weeks of the season, he plummeted into a deep drought. How, Long wondered, could he help get Rodriguez back to being a prolific hitter?

    Long determined the cause of Rodriguez’s struggles, detecting that the third baseman hadn’t been using the lower half of his body to ignite his swing. Rodriguez called it a “disconnect” between his lower and upper body. But what has been especially vexing for Rodriguez, who normally makes rapid adjustments, is that he has labored to make these changes. He knew what to do, but he didn’t do it.

    “We’ve diagnosed the problem,” Long said. “It’s vivid. We know what it is. But Alex said there’s been some hesitation. He knows he has to use his legs and he’s telling himself to use his legs. But when it comes time to do it, he hesitates. It’s all about fixing mechanics.”

    Several hours after Long spoke to me about Rodriguez’s missing swing on Tuesday, Rodriguez corrected his mechanics and found that smooth swing again. Rodriguez blasted two homers off James Shields to help guide the Yankees to a much-needed 6-2 win over the Rays. The Yankees exhaled after ending their six-game losing streak and, for at least for one day, shifted the focus back to the field.

    Across a few days, the storylines around the Yankees were about Jorge Posada refusing to play and then apologizing for it, about Derek Jeter defending his best friend and the Yankees speaking with Jeter about their version of the messy situation and about how the team was aging and fraying. With a win over the Rays, the Yankees had some relief. Rodriguez, the missing man, helped provided it.

    For the Yankees to be a successful offensive team, they need Rodriguez to be great, not just good. Rodriguez knows it. Long knows it. Manager Joe Girardi knows it. As the Yankees faltered with runners in scoring position and labored to score runs, Rodriguez’s wasn’t even a good hitter. He was a lost hitter, a hitter who couldn’t get his legs effectively driving as part of his swing. Rodriguez also needs to be aware of how his surgically-repaired right hip is impacting his swing, especially since he has had issues with his lower body. Without Rodriguez’s typical output, the Yankees can sometimes look more feeble than feared.

    “He’s the most important piece of our offense,” Long said. “When he’s right, our other guys just need to be average. He can carry us.”

    With the Yankees trailing 1-0 in the fourth, Shields uncorked four fastballs and a cut fastball to Rodriguez to advance the count to 2-2. Kelly Shoppach, the catcher, wanted Shields to continue with the hard stuff and throw another fastball. Shields shook off that signal. He wanted to throw his changeup, a changeup that Long said “is the best in the league.” When the changeup hung just enough, Rodriguez drilled it into the left field seats. It was Rodriguez’s second homer in 30 at-bats off Shields.

    In Rodriguez’s next at bat, he did it again. This time, Shields threw a fastball on the outside part of the plate and Rodriguez and drove it over the center field fence to put the Yankees ahead, 2-1. There was no disconnect in Rodriguez’s swing as his legs and upper body looked in sync. Rodriguez’s leg kick, which triggers his swing, was compact and didn’t cause him to move toward the pitcher. After managing two homers in his previous 100 at-bats, Rodriguez had two homers in two at-bats.

    Has Rodriguez finally solved the problem with his legs and his swing? Obviously, against Shields, Rodriguez solved it for one important game. Now Rodriguez must keep using his legs, which he called “the most important part of my swing.” According to Long, Rodriguez “doesn’t have a swing when his lower half isn’t firing.”

    Rodriguez needs to use his legs properly to make sure he has his smoothest swing. The Yankees need Rodriguez to produce to make sure they have their best lineup. Those are simple statements, but powerful statements. That’s because Rodriguez is the most important element in the lineup, a talented player who, when he is hitting, can allow the rest of the Yankees to be average.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

    3.7 (1 Ratings)

    Too late to hit rewind

    Sunday, May 15, 2011, 3:12 PM [General]

    Day after day in Spring Training, Jorge Posada explained how he had accepted being stripped of his job as the Yankees catcher and would embrace being the designated hitter. Every time Posada said it, I wondered if his words matched his thoughts. Posada is a proud catcher, a man whose career revolved around strapping shin guards to his legs and pulling a mask over his face.

    Finally, after hearing Posada methodically repeat how he would slide into the DH role without creating a ruckus, I cornered him in the clubhouse one day. Since Posada’s tenure with the Yankees had been intrinsically linked to him being a durable catcher, I wanted to know if he really was content with merely being a DH.

    “That’s the way I need to approach it,” Posada said. “If I don’t do it this way, it won’t be good for me or the team.”

    As Posada’s saga unfolded on Saturday night, a saga that turned from surprising to puzzling to messy to even messier, I recalled our conversation from February. Posada is a team player, a stubborn, emotional, successful player who has always been focused on how he could make the Yankees better. I’ve covered players who were more concerned about themselves than the team. Posada isn’t one of them. He has produced, he has played hurt and he has scolded teammates when necessary.

    That is why Posada’s actions on Saturday were surprising, even shocking. After Posada learned that he would be batting ninth against the Red Sox, he initially told reporters that he had brought that situation on himself by batting .165. He wasn’t happy with batting ninth, but he didn’t criticize manager Joe Girardi or the Yankees. He grudgingly accepted it.

    But, about two hours later, Posada wasn’t accepting the lineup demotion. Posada marched into Girardi’s office and said that he couldn’t play because he needed to “clear my head.” Girardi said that he didn’t ask Posada any questions. Other Yankee officials did. With less than an hour before the first pitch, General Manager Brian Cashman tried to coax Posada into playing. But officials said Posada felt insulted by being asked to hit ninth.

    When the Yankees announced that Andruw Jones had replaced Posada in the lineup, and didn’t explain why, it was evident that something was awry. Cashman later disclosed that Posada asked out of the lineup and added that Posada’s request wasn’t related to an injury. The Yankees said Posada would address his situation after the game, leading to speculation that he might retire.

    The notion that Posada would retire, would walk away from what is left on the $13.1 million he will earn this year, seemed remote. I wanted to see how remote it was so I contacted Jorge Posada, Sr., the DH’s father. Posada, Sr. immediately dismissed that idea.

    “No, no, no,” he said. “He will play all year.”

    Posada, Sr. explained that it had been a frustrating season for his son because he hasn’t been hitting and because he is no longer catching. But Posada, Sr., who is a scout for the Rockies, said that Posada should have played on Saturday. Sometimes, the father said, athletes make “a bad decision.”

    It’s not easy for one player to overshadow a Yankees-Red Sox game, but Posada did. The Red Sox silenced the slumping Yankees, 6-0, but the focus after the game was on Posada. During the game, Laura Posada, Jorge’s wife, had tweeted that her husband had back stiffness and that’s why he didn’t play. That contradicted Cashman’s statement. Posada also didn’t mention any injury to Girardi.

    The Yankees were angry with Posada for pulling himself from the lineup and forcing Girardi to be one player short as they fought the Red Sox. Although Posada hasn’t been hitting, he had 42 at-bats off Josh Beckett and would have been a better option than Jones.  Girardi was mad, Cashman was mad and senior executives were mad, too. Some of them still are perturbed.

    For seven rambling minutes, Posada tried to explain himself. He said that he needed a day off to give himself a mental break, but he didn’t say it was related to batting ninth. He said his back was stiff, but that it wasn’t a serious issue. He said that the Yankees had disrespected him a bit, which was surely a reference to his losing his catcher’s job. He criticized Cashman for discussing his absence from the lineup during the game. Cashman fired back and told reporters that Posada was aware that he planned to talk to the news media.

    It was an awkward seven minutes for Posada. If Posada could hit rewind on his life and have a do-over, I think he would. I think he would rewind to Saturday at about 6 p.m. and not march anywhere near Girardi’s office. I think he would have decided to play, to hit ninth and to try and help the Yankees win, something he has done in glorious fashion and has done hundreds of times.

    Of all the things Posada said in front of his locker, there were two sentences that resonated with me. They were the two sentences where Posada, a very good guy and very good player who made a bad decision, tried to hit fast forward. It was too late to hit rewind.

    “I still want to be here,” Posada said. “Hopefully, we can move on.”

    4.1 (2 Ratings)

    Yankees trainer Monahan a true professional, class act

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011, 4:46 PM [General]

    Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time around the Yankees across the last four decades has a Gene Monahan story. Most of the time, I guarantee, those stories revolve around how Monahan was classy, dignified or professional. Now that Monahan is retiring as the Yankees’ trainer after 2011, I want to share my Monahan story.

    Spring Training with the Yankees was hectic in 1993. George Steinbrenner returned from a suspension to reclaim his position as principal owner and the man running the daily activities of the franchise. It was a major story, a story that essentially impacted everything else that happened that spring. Every beat reporter vied to be the first to secure an interview with Steinbrenner or at least be the first to snag some crumb of news about Steinbrenner and his future plans.

    As a refuge from the daily grind of covering the Yankees, the writers sneaked in some pickup basketball games. We didn’t play every day. We might’ve played twice a week, but I looked forward to competing at something besides chasing news. During one of those 3-on-3 games, I landed awkwardly on my left ankle and immediately knew I was in trouble.  I hobbled off the court in a lot of pain.

    When I showed up to cover the Yankees the next morning, my ankle had swollen to the size of a grapefruit. Suzyn Waldman, who was covering the team for WFAN, implored me to seek out Monahan. I told her I couldn’t do that. I believed that there was a distinct line between the journalists that covered the team and the Yankees' employees. I didn’t think it was ethical asking Monahan for a throat lozenge, never mind asking him to examine me.

    As Suzyn was repeating her advice, Monahan -- who always walks with the pace of a man who is dealing with serious business -- marched through the clubhouse. Suzyn called his name and pointed at my ankle.  Monahan stopped, then stared at the ankle and asked what had happened. After I explained how I had injured myself, Monahan ushered me into the trainer’s room.

    I had never been inside the Yankees’ training room in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., which is where the team trained. Reporters weren’t allowed in that room. There might have even been a sign that stressed that the area was off-limits to reporters. Since it was early in the day, there were no players in the room. I was thankful for that.

    Shortly after Monahan began treating my ankle, Dion James, a backup outfielder, ambled into the room. James, who was rubbing his left shoulder, told Monahan that he was sore and that he needed a rubdown.

    “Can’t you see I have a man on the table?” Monahan said.

    After Monahan’s response, he continued to work on my ankle. James nodded his head, turned and walked out of the room. I told Monahan that I could leave so James could get treated because he was actually a player and he deserved the treatment Monahan was giving me, but Monahan wouldn’t let me get up. The man who had been the trainer since 1973 had started treating one person and he planned to finish the job.

    At the time, I was uncomfortable with Monahan continuing to treat me before addressing James’s shoulder. But, now, I love telling the story. I love repeating how the great Gene Monahan showed class, dignity and professionalism, the hallmarks of his career, when he noticed that I was hurting.  I wish Geno health and happiness in his much-deserved retirement.

    3.7 (1 Ratings)

    For Jeter, numbers don't lie and don't enter discussion

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011, 12:49 PM [General]

    Nine days ago, Derek Jeter was hitting .250. He had 23 hits in his first 92 at-bats, about half of them infield hits. As Jeter got ready for a Sunday game with the Blue Jays, I asked him a few questions by his locker. I was curious to know if Jeter felt better about his much-dissected swing, if he had made any adjustments, and how quickly he expected that .250 beside his name to turn into a thicker number.

    When I mentioned Jeter’s career average of .314 during one of my questions, Jeter offered an interesting response. He didn’t answer the question. Instead, he honed in on the shiny statistic that I had cited and supplied his perspective.

    "If I go 4-for-4 in the next two games, I’ll be there,” Jeter said. He was basically correct; if he went 8-for-8, he would have collected 31 hits in 100 at-bats, boosting his average to .310.

    While Jeter’s analysis was accurate, I was surprised he made that comment. I’ve covered Jeter since the Yankees drafted him in 1992, and he has always been the anti-Pete Rose, a player who isn’t obsessed with his numbers. Jeter wants the team, not himself, to be the focus.

    Maybe someone told Jeter that he was an 8-for-8 performance away from being a .310 hitter again. Maybe it was a relative, a friend or a team official. I can’t imagine Jeter punching numbers into a calculator to determine his average. Unless a reporter brings up a personal statistic, Jeter isn’t the type of player to spout his own numbers.

    A week after our interview, Jeter had one of those four-hit games that he had referenced when he bashed back-to-back homers and went 4-for-6 in a 12-5 thrashing of the Rangers last Sunday. It was Jeter’s most productive day of the season. He displayed serious power in drilling one homer to right-center field and the other to center. He had three extra-base hits in his last two games in Texas, one more than he had notched in his first 112 at-bats.

    “You can’t make too much of what’s happened in the last two weeks,” Jeter said during our interview on May 1. “We don’t think that way.”

    Jeter’s message was clear: No matter how many people wanted to focus on his first 92 at-bats, Jeter couldn’t and wouldn’t do that. Jeter could be 0 for his last 92 and would still believe that he was the best player to hit in the most important point in a game. That confidence, that impenetrable belief, has helped make Jeter a future Hall of Famer. But, given that seven out of every 10 balls that Jeter put into play were grounders, he didn’t perform like a player who should be hitting in the most crucial spots.

    One of the reasons Jeter has been so successful in New York is that he has the uncanny ability to eliminate the clutter that can crowd a player’s cranium. Jeter prefers to keep it simple. Play nine innings of baseball, win the game (hopefully), answer a few questions and go home. Sometimes, like last season and the opening weeks of this season, it’s hasn’t been so seamless. For Jeter, there’s been more clutter.

    Since the first day of Spring Training, Jeter has had to answer questions about his new, no-stride approach to his swing. If it were up to Jeter, he would have preferred to make that adjustment without anyone noticing and without having to discuss it. In the first week of the season, Jeter abandoned the revision. And, when Jeter didn’t hit, the questions kept coming for him, for manager Joe Girardi and for Kevin Long, the hitting coach. More clutter, in Jeter’s mind.

    The list of shortstops that have been productive at the age of 37, which Jeter will turn next month, is slim. It includes Ozzie Smith and Honus Wagner and little else. But last month, when I spoke to Orioles manager Buck Showalter, he theorized that Jeter was getting more scrutiny than other players. I told Showalter it was linked to Jeter’s career-worst .270 batting average in 2010, and to the fact that Jeter is one of the most popular Yankees ever. Jeter’s play, good or bad, will always attract more attention.

    “Do you really think this guy isn’t going to come through?,” Showalter asked. “We’ll see.” 

    Yes, we’ll see. Entering Tuesday’s game with the Royals, Jeter was batting .276 with two homers and nine runs batted in. His statistics were rosier than the numbers compiled by Dustin Pedroia (.237, two homers, 10 RBI) and Justin Morneau (.212, one homer, nine RBI), two former Most Valuable Players.    

    Jeter has hit over .300 in 11 of his 15 full seasons and has hit at least .291 in three of the other seasons. Without even asking Jeter recently, I know he still believes he will hit .300 in 2011 and beyond. That’s how Jeter thinks. That’s how he will always think.

    Nine days after Jeter supplied the math regarding his average, I’ll do the math for him this time. If Jeter goes 3-for-3 in his next two games, he’ll be hitting .310. I doubt Jeter will talk about his numbers, but, in a season that has been onerous for him, I do wonder if he knows those numbers better than I thought.

    Follow Jack on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

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    Goose can relate to Soriano's struggles

    Tuesday, May 3, 2011, 3:19 PM [General]

    In Goose Gossage’s first appearance for the Yankees in 1978 he surrendered a game-winning homer to Richie Zisk in the ninth inning. The Rangers walked away with a 2-1 win and Gossage, who was New York’s splashy free agent signing and the reliever given Sparky Lyle’s closer job, stalked off the mound in anger.

    In Gossage’s second outing with the Yankees, he couldn’t hold a 3-1 lead. He gave up another homer as the Brewers prevailed, 5-3. Gossage simmered, knowing how badly he wanted to have a stellar start as a Yankee. Billy Martin, Gossage presumed, was muttering about this lousy new guy.

    In Gossage’s third game with the Yankees, he improved. Well, sort of. He was nicked for a homer for the third straight game, but that was the only run he allowed in 3 2/3 innings. Still, the Yankees lost to the Orioles, 6-1.

    While Gossage rebounded and allowed one run in his next 11 1/3 innings and had a 2.50 earned run average in April, he insisted that his problems stretched for two months. Across Gossage’s first two months in New York, he lost four games and botched four saves. Since Gossage had replaced Lyle, the 1977 Cy Young Award winner, he felt pressure to succeed. In Gossage’s own words, he failed miserably. 

    “I stunk up the joint for a couple of months,” Gossage said. “It was a nightmare. Mentally, it was the lowest point I was ever in as a player.”

    When Rafael Soriano experienced some potholes and speed bumps in his first month with the Yankees, Michael Kay, my YES colleague, compared his rough beginning with the Yankees to Gossage’s rocky start. How nervous were the Yankees about Gossage? When one of the old bullpen cars began chauffeuring him into a game, Mickey Rivers dived on top of the vehicle to try and stop Gossage from getting anywhere near the baseball. 

    “The harder I tried,” Gossage said, “the worse it got.”

    Like Gossage, Soriano was a splashy free agent for the Yankees who has struggled with a 1-1 record and 6.57 ERA. Like Gossage, the Yankees need Soriano to get important outs at the end of the game. Unlike Gossage, Soriano isn’t being asked to pitch in the ninth. That is Mariano Rivera’s domain. But, interestingly and surprisingly, Soriano has said that pitching the eighth, not the ninth, has “been a lot different for me” and has contributed to his sluggish start.

    In 12 1/3 innings, Soriano has been bruised for nine earned runs and walked nine. In 62 1/3 innings with the Rays in 2010, he allowed a mere 12 earned runs, walked 14 and had 45 saves. Soriano, who was so precise for the Rays, has allowed at least one base runner in 12 of his 13 appearances.

    “I don’t know his mental state, but I know he’s really good,” Gossage said. “He has to remind himself that and to do what he has already done. I had to stop telling myself to try and throw the ball 150 miles an hour. I could throw it 100 and that was good enough. I had to remember to be myself.”

    In a way, that is what Soriano is doing by imagining that the eighth is the ninth. If that’s what Soriano has to do to resemble the superb pitcher he was for the Rays last season, then he should keep doing it. Whatever it takes, he needs to be the smooth bridge to Rivera. After Soriano tossed a scoreless eighth on Sunday, his second in two days, he explained that he got his “mind ready” by telling himself he was attempting to secure a win in the ninth.

    “You put it in your mind and think it will be like when you throw the ninth,” Soriano said.

    Gossage referenced Soriano’s brilliant year with the Rays in expressing confidence that he will be an effective setup man for the Yankees. In 1978, Gossage, a Hall of Famer, finished the season with 27 saves and a 2.01 ERA. The Yankees rallied from a 14-game deficit to overtake the Red Sox for the American League East and eventually won the World Series.

    “If I hadn’t dug us such a big hole,” Gossage said, “it wouldn’t have been the greatest comeback ever.”

    Thirty-three years after Gossage struggled through the start of his Yankee career, Soriano has struggled even more. But Gossage can laugh about those depressing days now because his first season here ended with a title. Soriano is hoping he gets to do the same.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

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    Yanks remain cautious with Colon, but enjoying the ride

    Thursday, April 28, 2011, 9:33 AM [General]

    If Bartolo Colon never made it out of Spring Training with the Yankees, if his quest to make the team failed and if he never fired another pitch in the Major Leagues, he wouldn’t have had any reason to be embarrassed. It had been a memorable ride, a career that included a Cy Young Award, 153 wins and five trips to the postseason.

    But Colon wanted more. Colon wanted to remember what it was like to stand 60 feet, six inches away from the best hitters in the world and know that he could silence them. It is an intoxicating feeling, a feeling fueled with excitement and tension. It is a feeling that Colon kept chasing.

    That long, lonesome chase has proven to be worthwhile for Colon. After making the Yankees as a reliever, Colon has slid into the rotation for the injured Phil Hughes and given them an unexpected yet very timely and very important jolt. The Yankees thought enough of Colon to sign him to a Minor League contract and give him an audition, but they couldn’t have envisioned that he would be this superb.

    Colon was the embodiment of a power pitcher in steering the Yankees past the White Sox, 3-1, at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday night. If you predicted that Colon was about to throw a fastball, you would have been accurate for 88 of his 99 pitches. Across eight innings, Colon was a pitching machine. He kept firing his two-seam fastball and he kept suppressing the White Sox.

    Have you ever been to one of those high school games where the pitcher is so dominant that all he needs to do his throw fastball after fastball? That is what Colon’s performance was like. While the White Sox did manage one run and seven hits off Colon, he kept attacking them and kept attacking with fastballs. When Colon’s two-seamer is moving as much as it was, there’s no reason to complicate things with too many sliders or changeups. So he didn’t.

    It was easy to tell how much Colon frustrated and, let’s be honest, surprised the White Sox. All you had to do was watch the way some hitters reacted. When Colon whiffed Juan Pierre with a 94-mile per hour fastball, Pierre’s face was a mask of confusion. When Colon threw a 93 MPH pitch that darted several inches to strikeout A.J. Pierzynski, Pierzynski’s only recourse was to grouse at the umpire. Sorry, A.J., it was a strike.

    On the same night Colon excelled, the Yankees said that tests performed on Hughes showed that he could have thoracic outlet syndrome. That circulatory condition is a pinching of the vein responsible for returning blood from the arm to the heart. Hughes, who has complained of a dead arm, will visit a specialist in St. Louis. Until the Yankees know Hughes’ full diagnosis, they can’t speculate about if or when he will pitch in 2011. That is why Colon, who seemed to be a decent insurance policy, is now a much more pivotal pitcher. He is 2-1 with a 2.77 earned run average and has 26 strikeouts in 26 innings.

    The Yankees are cautious when they talk about Colon’s future. There is no way of knowing if a pitcher who went almost two years between victories and who will turn 38 next month can continue to thrive. So far, there have been some promising signs. Colon’s fastball was clocked at 96 MPH in the eighth inning, a rare situation where a pitcher had his best velocity in his final inning. The movement on Colon’s two-seamer has been so impressive that it sometimes seems as if he is throwing a Wiffle ball. As efficient as Colon has been, general manager Brian Cashman won’t stop searching for another starter.

    Colon has experienced the intoxicating feeling of winning in the Majors again, but he doesn’t want this improbable journey to end. Neither do the Yankees. The Yankees need Colon to keep chasing that feeling because they need him now more than they ever did.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

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    For Showalter, preparedness meets opportunity

    Friday, April 22, 2011, 10:47 AM [General]

    The first time I introduced myself to Buck Showalter, he was reading a baseball publication. I don’t remember which one. Maybe it was Baseball America. But that’s irrelevant. What is relevant is that Showalter was immersed in baseball from the moment we first shook hands in 1991. He still is.

    Showalter’s latest baseball immersion involves trying to transform the once-proud Baltimore Orioles into a proud franchise again. The Orioles haven’t had a winning season since 1997 and the fans that used to make Camden Yards one of the premier places to watch a game don’t flock there as readily anymore. It’s a challenging chore, which means Showalter is perfect for the manager’s job.

    When the Yankees oppose the Orioles on Friday night, the most observant person on the field will be Showalter. He will watch Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez take batting practice. He will determine if the Yankees are pitching any of his hitters differently than they did last week and he will notice where manager Joe Girardi positions himself in the dugout.

    Did Showalter tell me he would do these things? No, but, if you have covered Showalter as regularly as I have, you know it’s inevitable that he will do those things and a lot more to prepare for a game. I can’t think of a more observant person. Showalter is the type who will break away from a topic to say, “I’ve never seen you wear jeans to the ballpark.” And he would be right.

    Just because Showalter is observant, prepared and competitive doesn’t mean that the Orioles will even be a .500 squad. The Orioles have promising young pitchers in Zach Britton, Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman, who are all 25 or younger, and a competent starter in Jeremy Guthrie, who is 32, but Showalter realizes the youngsters have to prove they can succeed in the American League East. Young pitchers can delight or depress, especially when they face lineups where Curtis Granderson hits eighth.

    Showalter thinks Matt Wieters will be an All-Star, thinks Nick Markakis is a superb hitter, thinks Brian Roberts is a talented and feisty leader, and thinks Adam Jones is another talent who has displayed a renewed work ethic. Still, even with those players and the additions of Vladimir Guerrero, Derrek Lee and Mark Reynolds, the Orioles don’t have as formidable a lineup as the Yankees or the Red Sox. Those are two of the teams the Orioles need to surpass to someday crawl into the postseason. That is quite a challenge, but, eventually, that is Showalter’s goal.

    Before the Orioles hired Showalter to his fourth Major League managing job, he had been out of baseball for three and a half years. That is illogical to me. How could someone as talented as Showalter be absent from a dugout for that long? Showalter has controlling tendencies, a rigid approach that has helped him and hurt him in previous organizations.

    But, if you were operating a franchise, wouldn’t you want a manager who wanted to be in control and who cared about the team as much as you did? Showalter is that manager. In two decades of covering baseball, I’d say Showalter cares as much about winning as anyone I’ve ever covered. That desire causes Showalter to work to prepare his players to perform at the highest level. The Orioles don’t have the most talent in the AL East, but Showalter has squeezed a lot out of them. While the Orioles are 8-10 this season, they finished 34-23 under Showalter in 2010.

    Since I became the Yankees’ beat writer for The Times at the All-Star Game break in 1991, Showalter, who replaced Stump Merrill in 1992, was the first manager I covered for a full season. From the beginning, it was evident how much effort he put into trying to do the job the proper way. I didn’t agree with everything Showalter did, but he always had a plan and always had a reason for doing it his way.

    I remember how disappointed Showalter was with the work stoppage of 1994 because he thought the Yankees could have won a championship. Anyway, one of my cooler memories from that aborted season was when Showalter let me hang out in his managerial world. I convinced Showalter, who analyzes the videotapes of games, to watch the replay of a game with me and have him explain his decisions. A manager makes dozens of choices in a game. I wanted to know why Showalter did what he did.

    Across two hours of playing the tape, re-winding it and playing it again, Showalter reinforced why he is a savvy baseball man. Todd Van Poppel was pitching for the Oakland A’s in the game in mid-July. In the first inning, Showalter detected that Van Poppel was tipping off his fastballs. If Van Poppel nodded yes to the sign, shook no and nodded yes again, he was set to throw a fastball. Showalter told me Van Poppel was saying yes to a fastball, no to a certain location and yes to the next location. Then Showalter said he surmised this because catchers don’t give a specific location with breaking pitches.

    One inning later, Sterling Hitchcock, the Yankees’ starter, walked Scott Brosius. In two other instances that season, the A’s had attempted steals after the Yankees made two pickoff attempts. So Showalter instructed Hitchcock to throw to first a third time. It worked. Hitchcock picked off Brosius.

    When Danny Tartabull opened the third, he walked to the plate with Showalter’s instructions swimming in his cranium: Be prepared for a first-pitch fastball. It is easy for anyone to find a pitcher’s pattern on the Internet these days, but Showalter was armed with that crucial information back then. Van Poppel threw a first-pitch fastball and, sure enough, Tartabull blasted it for a homer. Through three innings, Showalter had a profound impact on the game.

    During that session, I learned how Showalter managed and it helped me to sometimes think like a manager from the press box. When I spoke with Showalter at Yankee Stadium last week, he continued the education by mentioning two subtle changes the sport could make. I should let him reveal them, but I think he’s right about both. From our first meeting until our last, Showalter is still immersed in baseball.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

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    Even for a catcher, Martin's toughness impresses

    Wednesday, April 20, 2011, 6:26 PM [General]

    A foul tip smashed off Russell Martin’s mask in a recent game, causing the mask to twist almost entirely off the catcher’s face. Martin shook his head, spit and then reached back to the umpire to collect a new baseball. Only after doing all that did he finally pull the mask back into its proper position.

    This scene from Martin’s life as a catcher lasted a few seconds, but it was another snippet of evidence that exemplified his toughness. Martin is tough. Most catchers are. But Martin being more concerned with getting a new ball to the pitcher than straightening out his mask was another small reminder of how tenacious he is.

    As general manager Brian Cashman pursued Martin in the offseason, he was intrigued by Martin’s defensive abilities, superb athleticism and outgoing personality. In Martin, Cashman saw a durable catcher who, if his hip and knee were healed, could be a significant addition to the Yankees because of the way he could help control a game.

    Cashman’s vision of Martin as a sturdy shepherd of the pitching staff has unfolded neatly. Martin, who has started 15 of the team’s first 16 games, is adept at framing pitches, at blocking balls and at calling pitches. Without Martin’s guidance, A.J. Burnett wouldn’t be throwing as many changeups as he has thrown. Burnett can bounce some two-strike curveballs, too, knowing that Martin rarely lets the ball elude him.

    Martin’s marriage to the Yankees has lasted less than a month, but it is a relationship that is thriving. Not surprisingly, Cashman’s assessment of Martin focused on Martin’s most noticeable intangible.

    “He’s the toughest Yankee,” Cashman said. “He’s as tough as nails.”

    Is Martin the toughest Yankee? In a clubhouse that includes Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera, who each have five World Series rings, has Martin already soared to the top on the tough-guy meter? According to Cashman, he’s soared even higher.

    “He’s Thurman Munson-tough,” Cashman said.

    For Yankees fans, the memories of the legendary Munson often focus on his toughness. He was gritty, pushy and tough, a catcher who looked and played the way a tough catcher should look and play. Munson was the Most Valuable Player in 1976 and helped the Yankees win two World Series titles before perishing in a plane crash in 1979. Martin is a solid player, but he’s no Munson.

    As much as Martin appreciated Cashman’s hefty compliment, he was realistic on the comparison.

    “I don’t know, man," Martin said. "I think Thurman belongs in a category of his own.”

    Still, Martin said some players from Munson’s era have told him that he reminded them of Munson “a little bit in the way” that he played. Although Martin, who was born in 1983, never saw Munson play, he has heard enough stories to form an opinion about the former Yankee captain.

    “He was a beast,” Martin said.

    So is Martin. He has a detailed pre-game and post-game workout routine, which is why he longingly talks about playing every game. While Martin has come close to doing that so far this season, the Yankees plan to give him more rest. Cashman said that not giving Martin time off is a dangerous prescription for draining a catcher, noting how Martin played 151 and 155 games in back-to-back seasons with the Dodgers.    

    Before games, Martin rides an exercise bike, uses a machine that gives his body a deep tissue massage and a foam roller for stretching. After games, Martin varies between lifting weights for his upper or lower body. Martin works out for three days and then takes one day off. During the offseason, Martin added mixed martial arts routines into his training. Again, Martin is tough.

    “The way that I’m treating my body pre- and post-game, I don’t see how I’m not going to feel good,” Martin explained. “It’s something I’ve learned over the years and it works for me. I personally feel that the more I play, the better I feel at the plate. The only thing is I don’t want is to get so run down that it affects the team and affects me defensively.”

    That’s the part that concerns the Yankees, too. With off days and rainouts, the Yankees have been able to maneuver to keep Martin in the lineup. As the season continues, the Yankees won’t have that luxury. And once Francisco Cervelli is activated, he will start more games than Gustavo Molina has as the backup. The Yankees wanted Martin for defense, but he is also batting .292 with four homers.

    Because Martin has had such a successful start, there has been speculation about whether his play can further delay the ascension of catcher Jesus Montero, the Yankees’ top prospect. In addition, Martin’s play might also influence the Yankees to include Montero in a deal for a starting pitcher.

    For now, Cashman isn’t forecasting whether Martin, who signed a one-year, $4 million deal, will be with the Yankees next season. But interestingly, Cashman did compare the signing of Martin to the acquisitions of Nick Swisher and Paul O’Neill, saying Martin, like those two, could be a respected player who blossoms and excels in New York. The general manager said it could be “another situation where we bought low and get big results.”

    The toughest Yankee enjoys the intensity of playing in New York, which is one of the reasons he thinks he has made a smooth adjustment. If you call somebody a tough guy in a bar, it will probably get you into a fight. If you call Martin a tough guy, it will get you a smile.  

    “I take pride in that,” Martin said. “Being a catcher, you’re going to get banged up. It’s just a position where it comes with the job. I just pride myself on getting through those tough times.”

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