Jersey City's The Faa: Gone, but never forgotten

    Tuesday, April 12, 2011, 11:42 PM [General]

    The Faa wanted my uniform back. That was depressing news for a baseball-loving 16-year old: Returning my uniform meant that I was off the team.

    “Meet me outside your house,” Faa barked into the phone. “And bring your uniform.”

    When I heard that Ed Ford, who was the Faa to anyone who knew him for more than a minute, passed away on Tuesday, I thought about his legacy as a Jersey City icon and about how he wanted my uniform back. The demand was made 30 years ago, but it could have been made 30 seconds ago. Once you knew the Faa, the things he said and did left permanent impressions.

    Since I played for the Faa’s summer league team in 1981, I initially knew him as a coach, a brilliant baseball man. I learned more about baseball that summer than I did in any summer of my life. Later, I would know the Faa as a baseball scout, as Jersey City’s assistant recreation director, as a bar owner and as a sports columnist for The Jersey Journal. Always, I knew him as a friend.

    If you played sports in Jersey City or Hudson County across the last 40 years, you had heard of the Faa or, more likely, you had met him.  And, when you met him, you noticed the ever-present chaw of tobacco stuffed in his cheek, and you heard that booming voice. He had opinions and he shared them. The Faa teased, he tweaked, he cajoled and he demanded, forever doing what he had to squeeze the best out of players. I was one of those players for a couple of summers, I’m proud to say.

    If you were one of Faa’s players, one of his guys, you were always one of his guys. The Faa maintained those relationships, dozens and dozens of bonds. One of my last conversations with the Faa was when he was trying to help one of his former players get a job in amateur coaching. He asked me to provide a recommendation which, of course, I did. Until the Faa left us at the age of 65, I’m sure he was still making calls to help some of his guys.

    I know he helped me a lot. I covered Willie Banks, the former Major League pitcher, during his spectacular career at St. Anthony High School. After the Twins drafted Banks in the first round, the Faa advised Banks. Because of the Faa, I had a direct connection to the negotiations. The Faa was loyal and wanted to make sure a Jersey City reporter got the scoop on Banks’s deal. So the Faa called me as Banks was signing the contract on the hood of the Faa’s car. 

    But my most memorable moments with the Faa came as his player. Two months before my junior year at Hudson Catholic High School, I tried out for the Hudson City Yankees of the Build Better Boys Baseball League. There were soon-to-be high school seniors and soon-to-be college freshmen at the tryouts. I hadn’t even played varsity yet, so I was one of the least-known players at Pershing Field. The Faa was the coach, the only voice heard during the workouts.

    These practices were different than any I had ever attended because the Faa ran them like professional tryouts. He timed us in running and he tested our throwing arms, telling us that scouts searched for players who had foot speed and arm strength.

    During one of the workouts, I didn’t run all the way from the outfield to the dugout. The Faa stopped me, pressed his nose about an inch from my nose and asked me why I had stopped running. I had no answer. He told me that I had been a 50-1 shot to make the team, but my play had impressed him.

    “Don’t spoil what you’ve done so far by not running hard,” he said, advice that stayed with me in every game I played after that.

    When I started my first game, the Faa asked me if I knew why I was starting. I didn’t.

    “First of all, you earned it,” he said. “But I’ve also seen your mother at every game. If I didn’t start playing you, I figured we might lose one of our only fans.”

    Remember how the Faa wanted my uniform back? Here’s what happened. When I got to our season opener in 1981, the Faa had left one pair of uniform pants in his car. My pants, as it turned out. He gave me the keys to his car so I could fetch the pants. Our uniforms were brown, orange and white, but the pants in Faa’s trunk were black and red. He noticed that I wasn’t pleased with my oddly colorful look.

    “Hey, it’s not the pants,” the Faa told me. “It’s the player inside the pants.”

    Whether the pants were brown or black or pink, I didn’t play that night. I made the 20-minute walk home to our apartment on Palisade Avenue. When I got there, my father told me that my coach had called. I couldn’t guess why. Then the phone rang again. That’s when the Faa, in an explosive burst of unprintable words, told me that I forgot to return his car keys. That’s when he told me to give up my uniform.

    For a few minutes, I thought about giving my uniform to the Faa. But then I got ornery. Sure, I forgot to give him the keys. But he forgot to ask for them. If the Faa wanted to boot me off the team for that minor mistake, something was wrong with him. I worked too hard for that uniform. I wasn’t giving it back so easily.

    When the car pulled up outside my apartment, I slowly approached the passenger side window. The Faa held out his right hand. I dropped the keys into his hand. He spoke first.

    “I’m glad you were smart enough not to bring your uniform out,” he said, his voice sounding gruff. But then he softened and added, “I wish you had been smart enough to give me my keys back.”

    He laughed and I laughed. Through that tense experience, the Faa had taught me a lesson or two. Actually, he taught me and so many others lots of lessons. He will be missed, desperately missed.

    Visit NJ.com for more on Ed Ford.

    Follow Jack on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

    0 (0 Ratings)

    No fear in Ivan Nova

    Monday, April 4, 2011, 12:19 PM [General]

    Ivan Nova cruised into Spring Training in search of a permanent spot in the Yankees’ starting rotation. The Yankees portrayed the competition as Nova and three others wrestling for the final two spots in the rotation. It was Nova against Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon and Sergio Mitre. Or was it?

    Unless Nova had a brutal spring, I thought that he was a cinch to be the fourth starter. The Yankees were confident enough in Nova to start him as they pushed for a postseason spot. Since the Yankees were impressed with Nova, it was logical to believe that he would have had to flop to get shoved aside. He didn’t fizzle and will make his first start of the season against the Twins on Monday night.

    Regardless of how intense the competition was or wasn’t, Nova felt that he was ensconced in a serious skirmish and treated every outing as if it were more than a spring appearance. Nova felt that he had to be as precise as possible to convince the Yankees of his value. Even after Nova secured the fourth spot, he isn’t changing his approach. He is hauling that competitive philosophy into the season.

    “I had to fight for a spot,” Nova said. “That helped me a lot. Every time I go out there now, I’m thinking that way. I have to fight.”

    Nova is thinking and acting like a pitcher who expects to thrive.

    “I have to feel that nobody is going to hit me,” he said. “I have a plan.”

    For Nova, the plan is to attack hitters with a sinking fastball that averages about 93 miles per hour and produces bushels of grounders. Nova also has a changeup that dives and is a great complement to his fastball, a solid curveball and a decent slider. When Nova experimented with a cut fastball this spring, he ended up with a pitch that acts more like a slider by having a bigger break. Nova, who puts more pressure on his middle finger when throwing the cutter that masquerades as a slider, called it a “new toy.”

    In a spring where young Yankees like Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances and Andrew Brackman were discussed and dissected every day, Nova, another young pitcher who actually had a great chance to be on the Opening Day roster, didn’t receive nearly as much attention. In some ways, that was odd. Nova, who is 24, is one year younger than Brackman and one year older than Betances. Banuelos is 20.

    “When everyone talks about the young pitchers, he flies under the radar a bit,” said Damon Oppenheimer, the Yankees’ Vice President of Amateur Scouting. “He shouldn’t. People should talk about him.”

    Eventually, everyone talked about Nova. He made sure that happened by tossing six no-hit innings against the Orioles in March to cement the fourth spot in the rotation. Nova had a 1.80 earned run average in the spring, which was better than CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett or Phil Hughes. Garcia won the fifth spot over Colon and Mitre, who always seemed be on the outskirts of the rotation tussle, was traded to the Brewers.

    Nova, who was 1-2 with a 4.50 ERA for the Yankees last season, made an impression by pitching into the sixth inning in his first Major League start. Not only did Nova coolly dodge a bases-loaded jam against the Blue Jays in the first, he didn’t back down when Jose Bautista barked about an inside pitch. The Yankees noticed that Nova wasn’t unnerved by Bautista, who had a two-run homer in the game. That meant Nova probably wouldn’t be unnerved by much.

    “He has no fear,” Oppenheimer said. “That’s one of his biggest assets. Some guys get to New York and they’re like a deer in the head lights. He’s not.”

    Now that Nova has won the competition for a rotation spot, he is a much happier and much more confident pitcher. When I asked Nova if he had time for a few questions on Saturday, he smiled and said, “You can ask three, four or five questions. Ask as many as you want.” Nova is proud that he is better at polishing off hitters with two strikes and proud that his ability to speak English has improved immeasurably.

    Before Monday’s start, Nova watched videotape of the Twins’ hitters because he wanted to analyze their tendencies. Joe Mauer and Denard Span are the only Twins that Nova faced last season. But this a new season, a time for Nova to continue fighting. 

    “It’s big to be here,” Nova said. “I’m more confident now. I feel I’m going to be here for many years.”

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

    0 (0 Ratings)

    Granderson looks poised to produce

    Friday, April 1, 2011, 1:20 PM [General]

    Curtis Granderson’s overhauled swing didn’t automatically surface the first day that he swung a bat in Spring Training. It took time. It took work. The magical swing Granderson used from the middle of August until the end of the season had to be discovered again, nurtured again.

    Granderson began the process by doing the same drills that Kevin Long, the batting coach, had used to help him rebuild his swing. He hit baseballs that were softly tossed to him, he hit baseballs off a tee and he hit baseballs inside a netted cage, dutifully working to feel the same way that he felt several months ago.

    “You have to find it again,” Granderson said.

    On Opening Day, it was obvious that Granderson had found it. For at least one memorable day, Granderson found his swing and found his verve. Granderson drilled a tie-breaking homer off Phil Coke and dashed around center field with the sort of style and skill that he has not routinely displayed as the Yankees quieted the Tigers, 6-3.

    It didn’t hurt Granderson’s memorable day that he homered off a left-hander whom the Yankees included in a three-team trade to acquire him, or that Austin Jackson -- who was a bigger piece in the deal -- was the second-best center fielder at Yankee Stadium. By the way, it wasn’t even close: Jackson struck out three times in four at bats. It was one game, but the Yankees hope this was a preview of what lies ahead for Granderson.

    When teams analyze their rosters, they often talk about players who can accomplish more than they did in the previous season. That is one way to speculate how teams can improve, especially teams that didn’t make many lineup changes. Granderson is a player the Yankees have discussed as someone who should be better in 2011 than he was in 2010, when he hit .247 with 24 homers and 67 runs batted in.

    It is foolish to review Granderson’s first season in New York without dividing it into two parts: Before Granderson had a three-day tutorial with Long in August and after Granderson returned to the lineup. Long counseled Granderson to stop moving his hands before swinging, to move his feet closer together and to keep both hands on the bat in his follow through. After Long revamped Granderson’s swing, Granderson hit 14 homers in the last six weeks of the season.

    In addition to Granderson’s surge in power, he was also more comfortable against lefties, as he batted .286 with three homers in 56 at bats. Before Long’s sessions, Granderson hit .206 off lefties and had only one homer in 102 at bats.

    How Granderson performs versus lefties was immediately one of themes in the season opener. With the score tied, 3-3, in the seventh, Jim Leyland, Granderson’s former manager, used Coke to open the inning against Granderson. It was the right move. Leyland watched Granderson hit .199 off lefties in his last year in Detroit. But Coke put himself in a terrible position by falling behind 2-0 in the count. When Coke threw an 89-mile per hour fastball, Granderson must have felt as if Long was flipping him soft toss. Granderson belted the pitch into the second deck.

    “For me, it’s just continuing to prove that I can do it, because I’ve done it,” said Granderson, whose playing status was in doubt until Wednesday because of an oblique injury.

    In The Bill James Handbook, there is a section called “The Fielding Bible Awards,” to designate the premier defensive players in baseball. Granderson is listed as the eighth-best fielding center fielder, which I think is a fair ranking. Michael Bourn was rated as the best center fielder while Jackson is listed as the fourth-best defensive center fielder. Scouts have told me that Brett Gardner, who is ranked as the best left fielder, is a better center fielder than Granderson.

    But, in the season opener, Granderson made three superb plays, the kind of plays he didn’t make consistently last year. Granderson was playing shallow when he rushed in to make a diving catch for the second out of the game, he glided to his right to make a pivotal catch in the sixth and he hustled back toward the warning track to snare a flyball for the second-to-last out of the game. So Granderson came in, went to the side and retreated, doing everything a center fielder needs to do.

    “He has been a different player for us, the last three months of last year, including the playoffs,” Manager Joe Girardi said. “He looks great."

    Granderson visited New Zealand as a baseball ambassador in January, and participated in some clinics. On one sleepy day, the kids were shy. Finally, one boy asked Granderson if he had ever met Jay-Z. Granderson nodded and said that he had met the renowned rapper.

    “Once I said that, they were into it,” Granderson said. “They were into everything I said.”

    On Thursday, Jay-Z was into everything that Granderson did as the rapper was one of the 48,226 fans at the Stadium. Jay-Z saw Granderson’s magical swing and the superb catches. When Jay-Z watched Granderson, he was watching the best Yankee on the field.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

    0 (0 Ratings)

    Sabathia thinks Yankees will win it all

    Wednesday, March 30, 2011, 10:07 PM [General]

    Maybe the Yankees can sneak up on some teams this season. CC Sabathia knew it sounded illogical to say that, but he said it anyway. Then he repeated it.

    The Yankees, who are usually viewed as the big, bad bullies on the block, aren’t being given much of a chance in the skirmish for neighborhood supremacy in 2011. That is how Sabathia sees it. The Red Sox improved by adding Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, so the Yankees have been ignored. That seemed absurd, but it was Sabathia’s hasty summation of how the teams have been analyzed.

    “As crazy as it sounds with the talent we have in here,” Sabathia said, “nobody seems to believe in us.”

    If teams need additional motivation, it is always convenient to mention the doubters. Even if those doubters aren’t as plentiful as some players suggest, there are always people that doubt teams. Sabathia, who will start against the Detroit Tigers on Opening Day on Thursday, had not even thrown a pitch before he expressed disdain for what he perceived as too many doubters.

    Really, it is comical to think of the Yankees, the mighty Yankees, as a forgotten team. General Manager Brian Cashman has called the Yankees “underdogs,” Manager Joe Girardi has said the Yankees might “go under the radar” and Sabathia stressed that they are “not the favorite.” But, with All-Stars at nearly every position, a Stadium that averages over 46,000 fans per game and an ownership mandate to win it all, the Yankees are extremely powerful. The team that Forbes Magazine said is valued at $1.6 billion can’t be an underdog, too.

    While Sabathia didn’t specify which prognostications annoyed him, there are 45 reporters and announcers that made their selections on ESPN.com and all 45 picked the Red Sox to win the American League East. Full disclosure: I put my picks on Twitter and I picked the Red Sox over the Yankees, too.

    Anyway, after Sabathia lamented how “nobody is picking us” and how that was “kind of funny,” he was adamant about his own selection.

    “I’m definitely picking us,” Sabathia said.

    Did Sabathia mean to win the division or to win a championship?

    “That’s to win the whole thing,” Sabathia said. “I wouldn’t show up if I didn’t believe that.”

    Sabathia will show up on Thursday as a pitcher who expects to stop the Tigers. Even if Sabathia doesn’t have the greatest command on his fastball, the best bite on his slider or the perfect feel for his changeup, he is savvy enough and competitive enough to figure out how to get outs. A decent Sabathia is better than some pitchers at their most precise.

    When Sabathia is pumping fastballs and flipping changeups for strikes, he is one of the best pitchers in baseball. But I have actually been more impressed with some of Sabathia’s starts when he hasn’t had his best stuff. There are times where Sabathia knows he needs to make adjustments and he makes them. He doesn’t quit, doesn’t vanish. Sometimes, Sabathia muscles his way into the seventh or the eighth inning on those erratic days. In similar situations, other talented pitchers would be gone by the fourth.

    “He’s always in control of things,” said catcher Russell Martin. “He never lets the game speed up. He has four quality pitches. He’s not afraid of anything. He just grabs the pill and lets it loose.”

    Two weeks ago in Tampa, I asked Sabathia which athlete he would be if he could be someone else for one day. Sabathia, who is as fanatical a sports fan as any player I’ve ever covered, didn’t pick a baseball player. He picked Michael Jordan, perhaps the best basketball player ever.

    Sabathia selected Jordan because the amazing Jordan won six titles and is renowned as one of the all-time great winners. But Jordan was more than just a player who won memorable games. It was how Jordan helped fuel those wins. He was an intense player who pushed himself and his teammates.

    Maybe Sabathia was doing the same thing with the Yankees. By saying that the Yankees had been dismissed, maybe Sabathia’s words were designed as a motivational tool to help push himself and his teammates. That wouldn’t be crazy, like calling the Yankees underdogs. That would be clever.

    0 (0 Ratings)

    Romine mourns loss of 'little brother,' war hero

    Tuesday, March 22, 2011, 6:09 AM [General]

    TAMPA, Fla. – They were cousins who were also best friends, two California boys who loved to play baseball for hours, ride bikes from store to store, compete in everything and laugh forever. Man, did they laugh. Whenever Austin Romine thought about Jordan Stanton, his cousin, he thought about the kid who was always one smirk or one syllable away from making him laugh.

    Those priceless jokes and expressions that Romine adored are gone now, gone because Stanton is gone. Stanton, a Marine Corporal, was killed while participating in combat operations in the Helmand province of Afghanistan on March 4. The kid that Romine called “my little brother” was 20 years old and was scheduled to return home next month. He was to be married in July.

    “At this point in time,” Romine said, “I have no more tears.”

    This spring had the chance to be the most memorable spring of Romine’s life. He is competing against Jesus Montero for the backup catcher’s spot on the Yankees and is trying to emulate his father, Kevin, and his brother, Andrew, by reaching the Major Leagues. Romine is a superb defensive catcher who has impressed the Yankees with his presence and his approach. Everything Romine wanted from this spring had been unfolding so smoothly.

    But then everything changed. Romine was preparing to play a game against the Red Sox two and a half weeks ago when he was summoned into manager Joe Girardi’s office. Girardi told Romine to call home. When Romine reached his father, he learned the devastating news about Stanton. He didn’t play that night. He didn’t care about baseball. He cared about his family, his suddenly somber family.

    “The first thing I wanted to do was be there for my family and my other cousins,” Romine said. “Jordan had two younger brothers and an older brother. I said, ‘Oh my God, I have to call them and I don’t know how I’m going to do it.’ It actually took me four or five days to call my aunt. I just didn’t have any words. What do you say?”

    Eventually, Romine spoke to his aunt, his uncle and his cousins, sharing sobs and stories about Stanton. Romine stressed how proud his family was of Stanton and the sacrifice Stanton had made for his country. Stanton joined the Marine Corps in 2008, choosing that career path after graduating from Trabuco Hills High School. He became a Corporal nine months ago and was deployed to Afghanistan in November.

    As Romine’s family mourned Stanton’s death in California, he remained here for more than 10 days and tried to focus on baseball. But, after the funeral arrangements were finalized, Romine left the Yankees for three days last week. More than 1,000 people attended Stanton’s funeral at Solano Catholic Church in San Francisco, which is where Stanton had been baptized. Robert Stanton, Jordan’s father, and Julie Dickson, Jordan’s fiancée, were among those that eulogized him.

    “I wish everybody could have been there to see the funeral,” Romine said. “Everybody came out for him. It showed how good a kid he was. They were lining the streets. It was unbelievable.”

    After the two-hour funeral, the white hearse that carried Stanton’s body navigated through the streets of Rancho Santa Margarita. Those were the same streets where Romine and Stanton had played hundreds of games as boys. Romine remembered how they would use chalk to draw a baseball field on the asphalt near one of their houses. The games were usually feisty, not casual.

    Since Romine was two years older than Stanton, he typically prevailed in their one-on-one games. But when Stanton was about 10 he blasted one of Romine’s pitches deeper than any ball he had ever hit. Stanton stared at Romine with such a fulfilled look that Romine was happy as well.

    “He was so proud of what he’d accomplished,” Romine said. “I was proud of him, too.”

    The pride that Romine had in Stanton after the homer was miniscule compared to the pride he felt when Stanton became a Marine. As a 15-year old, Stanton decided that he wanted to join the military. Stanton was interested in that career choice in part because of his strong relationship with Jim Reynolds, a grandfather who had served in Vietnam.

    While Stanton was a jokester around Romine and so many others, Romine said Stanton had a serious side and was a “calm guy who was cool under pressure.” That steely demeanor helped Stanton became an assistant team leader in his battalion.

    Standing in front of his locker at Steinbrenner Field on Monday, Romine discussed Stanton for about 15 minutes. He probably could have spoken for 15 hours. He could have talked about Stanton’s obsession with physical fitness, about his fondness for tattoos, about his great relationship with his brothers and about his plans to marry Julie. There was so much Stanton had done, so much he wanted to do.

    Before Romine returned to the Yankees, he asked his Uncle Robert, Jordan’s father, about the best way to honor his cousin. The uncle told Romine that he should show respect for Jordan’s memory in the way that he played baseball. So Romine promised to be like Jordan, the kid who was always more of a little brother than a cousin.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

    4.6 (5 Ratings)

    Banuelos the little lefty that can

    Monday, March 7, 2011, 11:01 AM [General]

    TAMPA, Fla. – The little lefty picked up the baseball and started throwing it in the same smooth way that he had always done. It was supposed to be a simple game of catch, a prelude to Manny Banuelos’s audition for the Yankees. But Banuelos’ motion was so effortless and so seamless that the tryout began from the moment he methodically flipped a baseball to a friend.

    As Lee Sigman studied Banuelos on a schoolyard field in El Vergel Durango, Mexico three-and-a-half years ago, he was entranced with how comfortable the 16-year old looked. Sigman took a four-hour bus ride through a black night to get to an 8 a.m. workout with Banuelos. Any of Sigman’s grogginess dissipated when the Yankees’ scout saw Banuelos throw. Sigman’s eyes were wide open.

    “I didn’t even have to see him in the bullpen to know that he was something special,” Sigman said. “As soon as he started playing catch, I thought to myself that this could be something special.”

    What Sigman spotted was what he called Banuelos’ “very, very easy arm action.” Banuelos’ arm was loose and lively, a pitcher who looked the way a pitcher should look. Sigman remembered how Banuelos’s fastball reached 86 miles per hour that day, but that didn’t matter. What mattered to Sigman was how the little lefty unleashed the ball with such ease and how it rocketed out of his hand.

    “That arm action, you don’t find that all the time,” said Sigman, who eventually signed Banuelos for the Yankees. “I think there’s something natural about it.”

    In a Spring Training camp filled with perennial All-Stars like Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, Banuelos, who hasn’t even won a game above the Class-A level, has been one of the most discussed players here. How much interest has there been in the pitcher who will turn 20 next week? Several Yankees have asked reporters questions about Banuelos and have gushed about him, too.

    When I told catcher Russell Martin that Banuelos felt that he could pitch in the Major Leagues this season, Martin said, “If I had his stuff, I’d feel that way, too.”

    Banuelos has a fastball that hits 96, a curveball that he improved in the Arizona Fall League and a developing changeup. In addition to those stellar pitches, Banuelos has confidence. It isn’t arrogance. It is confidence, wrapped in a shrug and a smile.

    When Banuelos opposed the Tigers in his spring debut, he smiled and said that he believed he belonged “in the same neighborhood as the other guys.” Actually, Banuelos owned the neighborhood as he struck out Brandon Inge and Jhonny Peralta with curves in one scoreless inning. In Banuelos’ second stint of the spring against the Red Sox last Friday, he whiffed Jason Varitek and Darnell McDonald in two more scoreless frames. Banuelos’ next appearance is scheduled for Wednesday against the Pirates.

    “For me, it’s not difficult to play with these guys,” Banuelos said. “I know these guys are Major League hitters. I want to show I can get them out.”

    After Sigman scouted Banuelos’ session, he sat in Banuelos’ two-room home and spoke with his mother, Josefina Majera, and grandmother, Maria Cruz Meza, about the pitcher’s future. Everything was orderly in the home, Sigman recalled, from the spotless cement floors to the neatly made beds. To Sigman, that setting, which featured a tight-knit family and a lot of discipline, dictated who Baneulos was.

    “He knew what he wanted when he was 16 years old,” Sigman said. “He was very serious and very polite. He’s the kind of kid that you root for when you sign him.”

    Sigman was impressed enough with Banuelos’ audition to funnel him to Sultanes de Monterrey in the Mexican League. Several months later, the Yankees signed Banuelos, Alfredo Aceves and three other players out of the league. Aceves (10-1) helped the Yankees win a World Series title in 2009 before injuries caused the team to sour on him. Now Baneulos, who Baseball America ranked as the 41st best prospect in the Majors, is poised to be a factor. Banuelos is 13-10 with a 2.59 earned run average and has averaged more than a strikeout per inning in his Minor League career.

    Three years ago, Martin was with the Dodgers when Clayton Kershaw debuted as a 20-year old. Martin said that Banuelos is more “polished” as a soon-to-be 20-year old than Kershaw was at the same age. That is a heavy compliment for Banuelos since Kershaw is one of the best lefties in the Majors.

    “When he’s out there, he looks like he belongs,” Martin said. “He’s got the mental side of it down. He believes he should be out there. You can see it.”

    The Yankees will undoubtedly be careful with Banuelos, who has only pitched 15 innings at the Class-AA level and has never pitched more than 109 in a season. While Banuelos is the Yankees’ finest pitching prospect, his inexperience has caused the team to slot him behind other pitchers in regards to who is the closest to reaching the Majors. Will that pitching pecking order change? That depends how Banuelos and the other prospects perform.

    Banuelos is expected to open the season at Double-AA Trenton, but, because of his repertory and his polished approach, there is a possibility he could advance through the system quickly. In Banuelos’ confident way, he said that he “would like to get” to the Majors this year. The Yankees will be watching and waiting, waiting to see when the little lefty is ready to help them in the Bronx.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

    0 (0 Ratings)

    Would the Twins deal Liriano?

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011, 3:03 PM [General]

    BRADENTON, Fla. –- The baseball scout in the white hat, brown shirt and tan pants positioned himself behind the plate and scribbled notes during the Yankees-Pirates game. He watched every pitch, every swing and every movement. But was the man also studying the Yankees to collect information for a possible trade?

    The scout was Terry Ryan, who is a senior adviser to the general manager for the Twins and who used to be their GM. Since there has been speculation that the Yankees might be interested in acquiring Minnesota left-hander Francisco Liriano, it seemed possible that Ryan was focusing his experienced eyes on the Yankees. Just in case.

    As intriguing as Ryan’s presence was, Ryan insisted that he wasn’t scouting the Yankees. When I approached Ryan, he said that he wasn’t here to scout the Yankees and explained how the Pirates were one of the teams he is covering this spring. When I asked follow-up questions about the Yankees, Ryan repeated that they were not on his agenda.

    “We have people on them,” Ryan said. “I’m not.”

    Was Ryan’s response as innocent as it sounded? Apparently. General Manager Brian Cashman spent most of the offseason inquiring about every front-end-of-the-rotation starter, including buzzing the Twins about Liriano, but he hasn’t had any substantive conversations with them recently. ESPN.com first reported that Cashman had asked the Twins about Liriano during the winter.

    “I have no talks going on with the Twins,” Cashman said. “Zero talks. There’s nothing going on. I would love to be able to talk to people, but there’s nothing of quality that’s available.”

    Liriano is an interesting and talented pitcher, a 27-year old who was 14-10 with a 3.62 earned run average and 201 strikeouts and 58 walks in 191 2/3 innings a year ago. He will earn $4.3 million in 2011 and can’t become a free agent until after 2012. If the Twins are serious about contending, why would they think about trading their best pitcher?

    Still, according to an article in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune last month, the Twins might be receptive to dealing Liriano because it is unlikely they will sign him to a long-term deal. If I were the Yankees or any team, I’d be suspicious about why the Twins, an organization that is known for being shrewd at talent evaluation, would be willing to trade a left-handed ace. The Twins have six starters competing for five spots in the rotation, but two of them (Nick Blackburn and Scott Baker) had elbow surgery in the offseason. The uncertainty surrounding Blackburn and Baker would appear to make it even more unlikely that the Twins would part with Liriano this early.

    Acquiring Liriano would instantly upgrade the Yankees’ rotation, as long as he stayed healthy and was something close to the pitcher he was in 2010. Liriano, who was 5-13 with a 5.80 E.R.A. in 2009, underwent Tommy John surgery in 2006 and has been viewed as a potentially brittle pitcher. Because Liriano has a violent pitching motion and is so dependent on his slider, the Twins have privately wondered if he might get hurt again.  The Twins have no plans to re-sign Liriano and he’s a future injury risk, which are the reasons they might eventually try and move him.

    Cashman is confident the Twins will contact him if Liriano becomes available, but the Yankees won’t include Dellin Betances or Manny Banuelos , their two premier pitching prospects, in any trade. Andrew Brackman, who is the organization’s third-best pitching prospect, is another player the Yankees would be reluctant to move.

    USA Today’s Bob Nightengale has tweeted that the Twins are monitoring Ivan Nova and Joba Chamberlain as possible trade pieces. Neither pitcher appeared in Tuesday’s game. While Cashman declined to say if he would include those two in a deal for Liriano, he raved about Nova. Cashman was prepared to include top prospect Jesus Montero in a possible deal with the Mariners for Cliff Lee last July, but recalled how he wouldn’t include Nova.

    “There’s a reason I wouldn’t trade Nova when I had those discussions with Seattle last year,” Cashman said. “I was already going to give them a middle-of-the-order hitter. I wasn’t going to give them a guy who projects as a No. 3 starter, too.”

    Liriano is better than a No. 3 starter, but, right now, the Yankees don’t believe he is even available. So Cashman will wait to see if Liriano becomes available and then figure out if the price tag on players is acceptable. Cashman doesn’t expect his phone to ring anytime soon.  

    “I think all of our pitching answers are going to come from within,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to be able to do anything until after the draft [in June]. That’s usually the way it works.”

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter

    0 (0 Ratings)

    Majors close for Montero

    Wednesday, February 23, 2011, 5:56 PM [General]

    TAMPA -- Jesus Montero has never played in a Major League game, something that doesn’t faze him because he knows it will soon change. If Montero makes the Yankees as the backup catcher to start the season, it will change. If Montero joins the Yankees later in the season, it will change, too. Montero’s ascension will soon be a reality.

    As Manager Joe Girardi discussed Montero’s future on Wednesday, he offered indications that Montero will be Russell Martin’s backup. Girardi wants to study Montero’s catching abilities across full Spring Training games to see if Montero maintains defensive consistency, but he sounded enthused, not reluctant, about having Montero in the big leagues.

    “Look at what they did with Buster Posey,” said Girardi, referring to how the Giants promoted Posey from the Minor Leagues last May, made him the starter and smiled as he helped guide them to a championship.

    Girardi wasn’t predicting that Montero will supplant Martin and usher the Yankees to a World Series title, as Posey did in San Francisco. That would be a bold prediction, especially since Montero is not nearly as adept defensively as Posey. But Girardi was stressing that Montero is talented enough to be a valuable player this season, even at the age of 21.

    When the Yankees evaluate Montero’s readiness for the majors, Girardi said they will ask themselves two questions: Is he ready to play in the majors? Can he help the Yankees win games?

    “If those two things line up,” Girardi said, “there’s a pretty good chance we’ll take that player.”

    With Montero, the questions are always about his defense. Scouts feel Montero will have no problems flourishing as a Major League hitter. Montero, who batted .351 with 14 homers in his last 44 games at Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre in 2011, is a .314 lifetime hitter.

    Cesar Presbott, a Yankees’ scout, noted how Montero has excelled at every Minor League level and said he “will hit for power and for average.” The notion of Montero hitting .300 and also hitting 30 homers isn’t far-fetched. Baseball America ranked Montero’s as the Yankees’ best prospect and as one of the top five prospects in baseball.

    “I don’t think about that,” Montero said. “In the big leagues, it’s not about prospects. It’s about winning. I like to help the pitcher and win games. I don’t put those other things in my mind.”

    Montero knows he has flaws as a catcher, which is probably why he mentioned how he is studying the Yankees pitchers and trying to get better at calling pitches. Girardi said he wants to see Montero call a smart, consistent game, protect the signs as he delivers them, block pitches and have a presence behind the plate. During fielding drills on Wednesday, Montero had a presence because he had the strongest arm amongst the catchers. Montero’s arm wasn’t the most accurate, but it was the most noticeable.

    In defending Montero last summer, General Manager Brian Cashman said the Yankees were confident that he was developing into a decent catcher. Montero threw out 23 percent of would-be base stealers and also had 15 passed balls in 123 games last season. Presbott said Montero was “raw,” but that “he had the tools to improve” and he was “in the right place to improve.”

    Although some scouts believe Montero might eventually be better off as a designated hitter or a first baseman, Montero dismissed that speculation.

    “I’ve been behind the plate for four years,” he said. “I don’t want to throw that all away. I want to catch. I want to be a catcher for the Yankees."

    The Yankees must decide if Montero can help them win and also must determine if it behooves him to play part-time in the Majors instead of full-time at Triple-A. Girardi said Montero could benefit playing twice a week with the Yankees because he and Tony Pena, a former Gold Glove catcher, could tutor Montero every day.

    The more Girardi discussed Montero, the more he gave subtle signs that he liked the notion of having Montero on the team. The 21-year old is a hitting savant and a catching apprentice, but Girardi sounded amenable to on-the-job training. Girardi said “there could be enough at-bats,” for Montero in New York, which means that soon, very soon, Montero might be changing from Minor Leaguer to Major Leaguer.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter.

    0 (0 Ratings)

    Sabathia likely staying, but at what cost?

    Tuesday, February 15, 2011, 4:24 PM [General]

    A few months after CC Sabathia joined the Yankees for the 2009 season, I asked him why he decided to live in Bergen County, N.J. Sabathia explained what he liked about the area and how he liked being close to Yankee Stadium, but he quickly turned from the interviewee to the interviewer. He asked me which local high schools had the best athletic programs for boys.

    At the time, CC’s son, Little CC, was five years old and in kindergarten. That didn’t stop CC from gazing several years into the future and wondering which New Jersey high school might someday be the best fit for the next Carsten Charles Sabathia. CC knew a few tidbits about some schools, showing that he had already done a bit of research for Little CC’s freshman year in 2017.

    When Sabathia reported to Spring Training in Tampa on Monday, he was pelted with questions about whether he might opt out of his contract after the 2011 season. Previously, Sabathia had said that he wouldn’t. But Sabathia, who is in the third year of a seven-year, $161-million deal, was more vague about the future Monday, simply saying “I’m here.”

    As Sabathia’s non-committal comments about his Yankees future caused a stir, I remembered our conversation. That chat told me that Sabathia was planning on keeping his family in the New York area for a while. But just because Sabathia was curious about high schools doesn’t mean that he will bypass using the leverage of the option. In fact, unless Sabathia has a dreadful season or gets injured, the Yankees are bracing for the possibility of negotiating an extension.

    Since Sabathia signed his contract, he has grown into an even more valuable commodity. Cliff Lee, Sabathia’s friend, signed a five-year, $120-million deal with the Phillies last December, but he could have accepted a seven-year deal for about $150 million from the Yankees. Sabathia, who will turn 31 in July, is two years younger than Lee. He is a superb pitcher and a dedicated father looking toward the future, but he is also a savvy businessman.

    The Yankees have long described themselves as a “now” team, meaning that they believe they should win a title every year. That was George Steinbrenner’s mandate. Hank Steinbrenner, the general partner, repeated his father’s theme Monday as he told reporters the Yankees would always remain appealing to Sabathia because, “We’re going to be in it every year, every single year.”

    If Sabathia has another strong season, the Yankees will want to make sure they are guaranteed to have him at the top of their rotation. After 2011, Sabathia will have four years and $92 million left on his contract. While that is a massive pile of money for Sabathia to potentially walk away from, he would probably be a more attractive free agent than Lee was in 2010. Of course, Sabathia would need to have some deep-pocketed suitors and none of the West Coast teams (Dodgers, Angels, Giants and Athletics) are likely to fit that profile.

    In Sabathia’s two years with the Yankees, he has shown them that he is a drama-free pitcher. Nothing bothers him. The Yankees believe Sabathia wants to stay in New York and they want him to stay. Because of Sabathia’s opt-out clause, he might be staying here even longer now, long enough to choose the right high school for the next CC.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter.

    0 (0 Ratings)

    Pettitte expected to announce retirement

    Thursday, February 3, 2011, 12:42 PM [General]

    Andy Pettitte will announce his retirement on Friday, finally answering a question that has hovered over the Yankees during the offseason. The Yankees had hoped that Pettitte would return in 2011 to stabilize their starting rotation, but Pettitte has apparently decided to end his 16-year career so that he could spend more time with his family.

    Pettitte traveled to Yankee Stadium on Thursday to meet with Yankee executives, which is his way of offering an official good-bye. The Yankees had known for more than 24 hours that Pettitte was about to retire. While there was a remote chance that Pettitte could have changed his mind before the meeting, team officials didn’t think that would happen and it didn’t. The press conference will be at 10:30 a.m. and will be televised by the YES Network.  

    As the Yankees waited to hear what Pettitte would do, they continually hoped and even believed that he would eventually pitch another season. Since Pettitte had flirted with retirement before, and since he is only 38 years old, the Yankees were cautiously optimistic that he would amble back to the mound at a time when they really need him. Instead, Pettitte elected to amble away.

    Once the Yankees failed to sign Cliff Lee, the need for Pettitte intensified. If Pettitte had returned, the Yankees would have been able to exhale as they studied their rotation because he would have joined CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett as the top four starters. But without Pettitte, the Yankees have the less reliable options of Ivan Nova, Sergio Mitre, Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon competing for the final two spots.

    As genial as Pettitte was, he was as intense a competitor as the Yankees have had across the last 20 years. With his glove perched in front of his stubble-haired face, Pettitte would peek over it to get a sign, almost seeming robotic. When Pettitte didn’t make the pitch he wanted, he would scold himself. Often. There was rarely an inning in which Pettitte didn’t talk to himself. He was a pitching perfectionist.

    The former 22nd round draft pick finishes his career with a 240-138 record and a 3.88 earned run average, which includes a 203-112 mark and a 3.98 ERA. in his 13 seasons with the Yankees. Pettitte compiled more postseason wins than any pitcher in history, going 19-10 with a 3.83 in 42 games. He was 11-3 with a 3.28 ERA last season, but missed two months with a strained left groin.

    During an interview with Pettitte last March in Tampa, I came away feeling that he would probably retire after 2010. Pettitte has always been eager to talk about his wife and four children, but this time it was different. The season hadn’t even begun and Pettitte was lamenting the moments he would miss by being in New York while his family was in Deer Park, Texas.

    “I can’t just keep on playing,” Pettitte said at the time. “I need to get back home.”

    It took Pettitte a bit longer to make it official, but he is, indeed, going back home. For the Yankees and the fans that will miss Pettitte, that’s depressing news.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter.

    0 (0 Ratings)

    On faraway field, Cano continues to strive for better

    Monday, January 17, 2011, 6:19 PM [General]

    SAN PEDRO DE MACORIS, Dominican Republic  -- To find Robinson Cano working out on a hideaway field here, you need a local driver and a vehicle with sturdy shock absorbers. You need a Dominican driver because you need someone who can adeptly steer through the streets that have no names. He needs a rugged ride, meanwhile, because the journey is as adventurous as bouncing around on a Tilt-a-Whirl.

    After buzzing in and around helmetless drivers on motor scooters in the crowded downtown, our driver turned on to a narrow dirt road. The chaos of the streets was replaced by the sobering sights on this road. The houses, which in reality were closer to wooden shacks, were smaller than one-car garages. Some were dilapidated.  Many kids wore no shoes. Some had no shirts, either.

    When the road ended, a field could be seen, but seeing the field and actually getting there were separate issues. The last part of the drive involved slowly inching across a pockmarked pasture that was cluttered with potholes that only a city worker on overtime could love. If any driver accelerated beyond five miles per hour, his head would collide with the roof of his car.  

    Once we finally made it to the field, it was easy to spot Cano. He was standing beside the batting cage, talking and swinging a bat. The patchy grass on the field was filled with weeds, there were massive piles of dirt in foul territory and neither dugout bathroom was operational, but Cano was as content as if he were playing at a gleaming Yankee Stadium.

    “It doesn’t matter where you practice,” Cano said. “It’s how hard you work to get better. I like this field because you're away from everybody. You get to do what you got to do. I feel really comfortable here.”

    In this ever so humble setting, Cano works out five days a week in his quest to become a more complete player. There are other professional players at Cano’s workouts, including Francisco Cervelli and Eduardo Nunez, his Yankees teammates, but most of the kids shagging fly balls are amateur players who want to be the next Cano. Not long ago, a young Cano was on these same types of fields in hopes of getting signed. Now Cano is a superb player and a willing mentor, someone who sits behind the cage to dispense advice to the parade of hitters that follow him.

    Watching the kids watch Cano is riveting. They study how Cano treats batting practice, first by casually spraying balls to left field, then center field and then right field. There is one concession made for Cano’s stardom: the amateurs take their BP hacks off soiled baseballs while Cano’s session features a batch of pearly white baseballs.

    Once Cano is prepared to fully unleash his sweet swing, several kids climb the fence in right-center and position themselves about 350 feet from the plate. The outfielders can make more plays behind the fence and they will have a chance to retrieve more baseballs. These kids are on the same field with Cano and they study how diligent and disciplined he is. That has to help them.

    “When you’re doing your job and you help your team win a game, that’s when you can enjoy the game,” Cano said. “Most of the kids here want to be professional players and they look at me as a role model. That’s what I’m trying to teach them.”

    For Cano, September of 2008, the time when manager Joe Girardi benched him for “a lack of effort,” seems like a long, long time ago. Cano is more mature and much more serious about his game. He had the best season of his career in 2010 when he batted .319 with 29 homers, 109 runs batted in, a .381 on-base percentage and a .534 slugging percentage, but Cano envisions doing even more. When people discuss the premier players in the world, Cano wants to be mentioned early in the conversation.

    While interviewing Cano on his home turf, I was intrigued by how candid he was about wanting to be a megastar. Cano wasn’t cocky, just confident. Cano wants the Yankees to win a title. That’s the most important goal. But the better Cano is, the easier it is for the Yankees to win. Cano’s hopeful words should be refreshing to the Yankees.

    “I want to see how it feels to do everything,” Cano said. “I want to see how it feels to win an MVP [award]. I already had a World Series ring. I want more.” He added, “I want to have a Gold Glove, which I have right now, an MVP, a batting title. I always want to know how that feels, to be there. So that’s why I work hard every single day to try and get better.”

    As Cano praised Roberto Alomar, who was recently elected to the Hall of Fame, I asked him if he ever thought about the Hall. It would have been an easy question to deflect; Derek Jeter does that all the time. But Cano didn’t deflect the question. He embraced it.

    “It’s not something I think about, but I do want that,” Cano said. “I don’t want to finish my career and have people say, ‘Oh, he played second base.’ I want them to say more than that.”

    Jose Cano, Robinson’s father and a former Major League pitcher, monitors the workouts in a steely way. He is all business. Jose has the stature and the mannerisms of Cito Gaston. When Jose told some players that he needed silence in the dugout so the YES Network could interview him, no one even breathed loudly for the next 15 minutes.

    Like Robinson, Jose is almost always at the field. Cano’s name is painted on the blue dugouts. The Orioles used to call the field home for their Dominican academy, but they switched to a different location. Now Jose is rehabilitating the field and tutoring passionate players who are trying to emulate his son. Jose said he is “proud” of what Robinson has done and is trying to do.

    "He’s so kind with everybody,” Jose said. “He never lets the money go to his head or nothing like that. I think he’s doing what I told him right now. In the Dominican, he helps a lot of kids.”

    What Cano is trying to do is to leave an imprint, on the field and on the streets where he was raised. If Cano sees kids playing baseball when they are supposed to be in school, he scolds them and reminds them of the importance of education. Cano called the Dominican Republic “a poor country,” which motivates him to aid those people who have it tougher than he ever did.

    In pursuit of that goal, Cano donated an ambulance to his hometown in 2007. Cano made the donation because one of his friends died from head injuries after tumbling off a motorcycle. Because no ambulance was available, it took over an hour for Cano’s friend to be driven to the hospital in Santo Domingo. Before Cano leaves for Spring Training in Tampa, Fla. next month, he will have donated four ambulances and four school buses to his town.

    “We weren’t rich, but I had some things as a kid because my father played baseball,” Cano said. “I want to make a difference for other people.”

    Cano usually returns home for lunch after his baseball workout, but on the day Bill Boland, YES Network's senior producer, and I visited him, Cano made a detour. Before Cano even showered, he drove his black Escalade to the C.A.E.S. school, a learning center for deaf children. When Cano pulled into the driveway, dozens of kids flocked to him. The students can’t speak, but they used sign language to communicate with their local hero.

    I don’t think Cano knows sign language, but he easily bonded with the kids. He used hand signals and facial expressions to make his points. When Cano saw one boy wearing a 50 Cent t-shirt, he offered a thumbs-up. When a man described the aching story of a sick girl who was resting in her mother’s arms, Cano inched closer to the girl. After Cano hung out with the boys and girls, he gave each of them a toy.

    Seeing Cano in these settings, on and off the field, was compelling. Anyone who wants to see some of these scenes with Cano should watch Yankees Hot Stove show on Thursday, January 20. We will also feature my visit with Cano in a future telecast on YES.

    Cano was adamant about how much he wants to help Dominicans, stressing that this is where he’ll live after his career ends. His future plans include financing the building of a hospital and a school. We found Cano on a faraway field. Cano looked comfortable there and in every other place he traveled in the Dominican. That’s because he was. This is home.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter.

    3.7 (1 Ratings)

    Yankees solidify bullpen with Soriano

    Friday, January 14, 2011, 12:35 AM [General]

    Get the ball to Mariano Rivera. It is the winning formula that the Yankees have used since Rivera became their full-time closer in 1997. If the Yankees get the ball to Rivera, their powerful belief is that they should win the game. Getting the ball to Rivera just got easier.

    The Yankees have signed Rafael Soriano to a 3-year, $35 million contract, which is pending until he passes a physical. As long as Soriano passes a physical, he will be the highest-paid set up man in the major leagues and should combine with Rivera to give the Yankees the best late-inning combination in baseball. The agreement was first reported by SI.com.

    Soriano saved 45 games in 48 opportunities for the Rays last season and was probably the best closer in the American League. Rivera saved 33 games in 38 chances in 2010 and is the best closer of all-time. If the Yankees can secure a lead after seven innings, they will summon Soriano and Rivera to apply sleeper holds on opponents.

    “We think we have the best bullpen in baseball,” said one Yankee official.

    Once the Yankees failed to sign Cliff Lee, they cringed because they realized it would be much more difficult to improve their rotation. After Lee, there was a monumental drop in the quality of the starting pitchers that were available. General Manager Brian Cashman has shown scant interest in the remaining starters, which is why the Yankees haven’t signed any of them.

    But, as the reporting date for pitchers and catchers crept closer, the Yankees grew more interested in adding Soriano. Less than a week after Cashman said he didn’t want to sign Soriano because it would cost the Yankees their first round draft pick, the team pounced on Soriano. Since there were no elite starters available, the Yankees grabbed the elite reliever in Soriano. He was 3-2 with a 1.73 earned run average in his only season with Tampa Bay.

    Soriano’s contract calls for him to earn $10 million in 2011, $11 million in 2012 and $14 million in 2013, but there are also two player options in the deal. If Soriano opts out after the first year, he will make $11.5 million. If he opts out after the second year, he will earn a total of $22.5 million. Soriano, 31, is 10 years younger than Rivera, who recently signed a 2-year, $30 million deal. The plan is for Soriano to eventually replace Rivera as the closer, as long as Rivera retires in two years and as long as Soriano is still effective and still with the Yankees. 

    With Soriano as the eighth-inning reliever, David Robertson, Joba Chamberlain, Boone Logan and Pedro Feliciano will typically be used before the eighth. While there will be some fans who want Chamberlain to be shifted to the rotation, a Yankee official said the team had no plans to do that.

    In 2004, Rivera pitched 78 2/3 innings. Since that season, Rivera’s innings totals have fallen in each successive season. He logged 60 innings in 2010. With Soriano in the same bullpen, the Yankees will be more cautious about Rivera’s workload. The Yankees want Rivera to be prepared to do his best pitching if they play in October. In that month, the winning formula is the same. Get the ball to Rivera. 

    1.9 (1 Ratings)

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