There are numerous times when Joe Girardi is asked questions and gives brief answers. That is Girardi's approach as the manager of the Yankees. Sometimes, topics are off limits. But there are also times when Girardi offers enough insight to reveal what he is thinking. I think Girardi did that during his end-of-the season press conference in Houston.
If you analyzed Girardi's answers that day, you wouldn't have been surprised that Girardi agreed to a 4-year, $16 million deal Wednesday to remain as the Yankees manager. As a relaxed Girardi sat in the dugout on that Sunday, he was chatty about his future. My evaluation of what Girardi uttered is that he needed to talk with his family, but that he was almost certain to be back with the Yankees in 2014.
In the end, that's what happened. Girardi's connection with the Chicago Cubs was mentioned a lot, but the sides never even spoke because he was still under contract with the Yankees for the rest of the month. There was also the possibility that Girardi would return to broadcasting or maybe even take a year off. I never thought those were serious options. The Yankees like Girardi, he liked his prestigious job and it was logical to believe both sides would reach a quick agreement.
"To me, I want to be part of this," Girardi said. "I want to be part of us getting back on top."
Girardi couldn't have negotiated with any other teams until November 1, but he still had some leverage because of the superb job he did in 2013. In a season in which the Yankees were hampered by an endless trail of injuries and had to deal with the distraction of Alex Rodriguez's looming suspension, Girardi helped push the club to 85 wins. The Yankees remained in the hunt for a wild card until the last week of the season.
Now Girardi, who initiated the idea of a fourth year on his deal, will be back and he will join with the front office to try and make the Yankees a better team in 2014. Can that happen? When Girardi was asked about the distinct possibility of the Yankees having to assemble a winning team with a payroll under $189 million, he said, "I think $189 million is still an awful lofty number."
Still, Girardi acknowledged that he will be managing the Yankees in a period where there will be some "uncertainty." Both Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte have retired. Robinson Cano, the best player on the Yankees, is a free agent. So are Hiroki Kuroda, Curtis Granderson and Boone Logan. Derek Jeter played in 17 games this year and will turn 40 years old in June. CC Sabathia was disappointing and didn't pitch like a $23 million ace. The Yankees missed Russell Martin and need a reliable starting catcher.
But, despite the many questions, Girardi said, "I wouldn't have come back if I didn't think we could win a championship." Although Girardi stressed the importance of young players producing, the Yankees will also investigate the free agent market. If Rodriguez is suspended and his salary doesn't count against the payroll, the Yankees will have more financial flexibility. Beyond Cano and Kuroda, the players the Yankees like include Brian McCann, Shin-Soo Choo and Masahiro Tanaka, who was 20-0 with a 1.24 earned run average in Japan this season.
"I have faith they'll give us everything we need," Girardi said.
Once Girardi agreed to the new contract, he told his wife and three children how rare it was for a manager or a coach to work in the same city for 10 straight years. As long as Girardi fulfills the length of this deal, a decade is how long he will have managed the Yankees. So Girardi is back, back to the place he never left.
"I don't manage to just work," Girardi said. "I manage to win championships."
We all knew Mariano Rivera was going to pitch at Yankee Stadium for the final time on Thursday night. We all knew the bullpen door was going to open and Rivera was going to jog to the mound and do what he has done for almost two decades. We all knew the star of the show and we all knew what was supposed to be in the script. We had this night all figured out, right?
But there wasn't actually a script for Rivera's last appearance in pinstripes. There was emotion, an endless flow of emotion from the unforgettable pitcher, and there were tears, an abundance of tears that Rivera predicted would never appear. So, on a night where we all thought we knew what to expect, we witnessed scenes that we had never envisioned. Rivera's good-bye was riveting.
Even though we presumably knew what was about to happen with Rivera, we were still in awe. We watched every move he made because, as it turned out, we didn't really know what was about to happen. We knew the cast, but we didn't know how this night would unfold. That's what makes a baseball night like this so great. It's something unpredictable, like Rivera's tears after two of his teammates surprised him on the mound. It's something you'll still be talking about in a decade.
Ten years from now, few people will care that Alex Cobb outpitched Ivan Nova and the Tampa Bay Rays quieted the Yankees, 4-0, on September 26, 2013. Those are the facts of the game, but those facts were shoved aside by Rivera's exploits. The kid who first tried to get signed by the Yankees as a 155-pound shortstop evolved into the greatest closer of all-time. On Thursday, we saw another example of his flair, his class and his dignity.
From the moment Bob Sheppard's voice introduced Rivera in the eighth inning, there was a different buzz about a game that was meaningless for the Yankees. The Yankees weren't in contention for a Wild Card spot anymore, but the fans had something valuable to hold on to in the 159th game of the season. They had come to see Mariano, the mighty pitcher with the amazing cut fastball. They had come to see him, praise him and watch him for the last time.
And, of course, Mariano put on a show. He retired two batters on five pitches to motor through the eighth. Before pitching the ninth, Rivera sat in the dugout for an abnormally long time. While Rivera was waiting for JR Murphy to put on his catcher's gear, he was also absorbing as much of the moment as he could. He was about to go to that mound for the final time. The Yankee Stadium part of his career was about to die forever.
After Rivera notched the first two outs in the ninth, Manager Joe Girardi unveiled an excellent surprise for him. Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter, Rivera's forever friends, became part-time managers and strolled to the mound to remove Riverafrom the game. It was a brilliant move by Girardi as he inserted the two players with strongest bonds to Rivera into Rivera's swan song at the Stadium.
When Rivera saw Pettitte and Jeter, he erupted into a smile. Then Jeter smiled back and said, "Hey, it's time to go." Rivera handed the ball to Pettitte and hugged him, but Rivera wouldn't let go. He hung on tight to Pettitte, maybe thinking he was hanging on to the last few seconds of his career in the Bronx. Pettitte patted Rivera's back and then his head, the way a parent would treat a child. The embrace seemed to last five minutes. Then Rivera hugged Jeter, too. When Rivera finally departed the mound, he had tear stains on his cheeks.
As Rivera approached the dugout, he hugged Girardi. Rivera dropped the game baseball, but Girardi quickly stuffed it back in the pitcher's glove. Rivera hugged his teammates, waved to the fans after a curtain call and waved to the classy Rays, too. Once the game was over, Rivera was the last man to leave the first base dugout. He walked back to the mound, dug at the pitcher's rubber with his cleats to loosen up some dirt and scooped up the dirt. He wanted a keepsake from the home he was leaving.
During our post-game show on the YES Network, Bob Lorenz was the first person to mention that Rivera shouldn't even pitch in Houston this weekend. As soon as Bob said it, I emphatically agreed. There is no reason for Rivera to throw another pitch in his Major League career, no reason for him to try and add any more details to a remarkable story.
If Girardi wants to let Rivera play center field for a few innings against the Astros, that's fine. Let Rivera run around in the outfield as if he's a boy running on the beaches of Panama again. But Rivera shouldn't throw any more cutters. On a pulsating Thursday, Rivera and the Yankees crafted a beautiful ending to his pitching career. It's a scene that won't ever be topped. Rivera should leave that script as is.
A few minutes after our post-game ended on Tuesday night, David Cone was still talking baseball and still raving about Alfonso Soriano. So he asked a question: If Soriano continues to produce offense at this remarkable rate and helps guide the Yankees to the Wild Card, will he get any MVP votes?
It's a superb question because it makes you think about what Soriano has achieved in seven weeks as a Yankee and what other mid-season acquisitions have done to earn MVP votes in the past. I am not saying that Soriano should win the MVP That would be a ridiculous argument. But I am talking about whether or not Soriano has had enough of an impact to get some votes at the bottom of the 10-player ballot. I think he has.
For Soriano to even snag one tenth-place vote, the Yankees would probably have to win the Wild Card. If the Yankees don't reach the post-season, it's difficult to envision voters rewarding Soriano. Yes, Soriano would have still have boosted the Yankees, regardless of where they finish. But voters will see a difference between lifting a team into the post-season and carrying a team through an interesting yet ultimately unsuccessful September.
Since Soriano was acquired from the Cubs in late July, he has been an offensive force with a major league-best 15 homers, 47 runs batted in and a .253 average in 43 games. He has strengthened and lengthened the Yankees' lineup and helped hitters like Robinson Cano. Teams that once thought about pitching around Cano now have to deal with the lethal Soriano hitting behind him.
"He's played like an MVP," said Manager Joe Girardi, about Soriano in August.
If Soriano plays in every game for the rest of the season, he will have logged 60 games with the Yankees. If he maintains his current pace, he will finish with 21 homers and 66 runs batted in. Will some voters dismiss a player who only played in 60 games as a potential MVP candidate? Absolutely, some will do that. It's a reasonable reaction. If Soriano only played in 37 percent of the Yankees' 162 games, how much of an impact could he have had?
But Soriano's impact has been gigantic. Just review Tuesday night's 7-5 win over the Baltimore Orioles. The Yankees were 11 outs away from a potentially devastating loss when Soriano hammered a homer off Miguel Gonzalez to help them crawl within two runs of the Orioles. In Soriano's next at bat, he blasted another homer. Soriano has had that kind of impact in several games with the Yankees and has been the main reason they are still in strong contention for the Wild Card.
Regarding comparisons to Soriano and the possibility of getting MVP votes, I first thought of Doyle Alexander. Alexander was dealt from the Braves to the Tigers for John Smoltz in August of 1987 and was almost flawless in going 9-0 with a 1.53 earned run average in 11 starts. He finished tied for 13th for the MVP. Alexander tossed 88 1/3 innings for the Tigers that season. Soriano will end up with about 230 at bats for the Yankees. If Alexander could get MVP votes, I think Soriano can get them, too.
Two other comparables are David Justice, who was traded from the Indians to the Yankees in 2000, and Fred McGriff, who was shipped from the Padres to the Braves in 1993. Since both of those players were traded within the same league, I think that made it easier for voters to consider them as candidates. Justice hit .305 with 20 homers and 60 RBIs in 60 games for the Yankees. He finished 13th in the MVP balloting. McGriff produced 19 homers, 55 RBIs and a .310 average for the Braves and was fourth for the MVP.
In recent seasons, there have been other examples of players playing only a part of a season with a new club and still getting MVP votes. CC Sabathia was traded from the Indians to the Brewers five seasons ago and finished sixth in the MVP race. He was 11-2 with a 2.13 ERA. In 2004, Carlos Beltran was sent from the Royals to the Astros, belted 23 homers in 90 games and finished 12th for the MVP. In 1998, the Astros acquired Randy Johnson from the Mariners and he was dominant. He went 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA and finished 21st in the NL MVP. Of course, Rick Sutcliffe probably was the best in-season acquisition ever when the Cubs obtained him from the Indians in 1984. Sutcliffe was 16-1 with a 2.69 ERA as he won the Cy Young and came in fourth for the MVP.
When you factor in Wins Above Replacement, a sabermetric statistic that measures a player's overall value, Soriano has a solid case. According to BaseballReference.com, Trout leads the AL with a WAR of 8.4. Soriano has a 1.2, which is 91st in the league. But, again, Soriano has only played 43 games in the AL. If Soriano's production was pro-rated over an entire season, his 5.2 WAR would tie him with Evan Longoria for the 10th-highest total in the league. Yes, I realize that pro-rating Soriano's numbers means he would have to continue this torrid pace for six months, not just seven weeks.
When voters review the AL landscape, I expect that Miguel Cabrera will garner most of the first-place votes and win the MVP over Trout and Chris Davis. After those three players, Cano, Josh Donaldson, Manny Machado, Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Evan Longoria and Adrian Beltre will appear on many ballots. MVP voters have told me that selecting the final three players on the ballot can be tougher than picking the first three.
So the question is: will Soriano squeeze in at the bottom of some ballots? If Soriano continues powering the Yankees and they win a Wild Card, I think he will get a few votes. Voters need to focus on the word valuable. Soriano has been as valuable as anyone in the league since rejoining the Yankees. A few votes would be appropriate for the valuable player who has kept the Yankees' season alive.
Not every interview is memorable. Sometimes, it's the questions that are uninspiring. Sometimes, it's the answers that are unfulfilling. But this 2004 interview with Alfonso Soriano resonated with me. I remember how focused he was about proving that he had moved on from his beloved Yankees. It didn't work.
Three months after Soriano was the other player in the epic trade that sent Alex Rodriguez to the Yankees from the Rangers in 2004, we spoke in Arlington, Texas. Soriano explained how he would always cherish his memories with the Yankees, but that he was happy with the Rangers. Then Soriano said something revealing about his three years in New York.
"The only bad moment I had," he said, "was when I heard the trade."
Obviously, he didn't want to leave. Throughout that interview, I thought Soriano was trying too hard to be convincing that he was thrilled about being a Ranger. I think Soriano had adjusted and he was playing well, but some of his words, mannerisms and questions showed that a part of him still pined to be a Yankee. He once thought he'd be a Yankee for life, a la Don Mattingly, Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter.
"When you have a great moment, you never forget those moments," Soriano said. "I had a great three years with the Yankees. I'll never forget that part of my life. I'm comfortable here, but, when you have something in the past, you'll never forget it."
As Soriano has flourished in his second stint with the Yankees, I've reflected on what he said nine years ago. The interview happened a few days before Soriano opposed the Yankees for the first time after the trade and, as the questions piled up, he grew more emotional. He noted that he still spoke with Jeter. He said he was at peace because Rodriguez was the only player who was talented enough to compel the Yankees to trade Soriano. That was Soriano's opinion.
In a surreal yet suddenly riveting 2013, Soriano, the player who never wanted to leave, is back and is trying to help the Yankees salvage their season. Soriano bashed R.A. Dickey's flat knuckleball for a two-run homer in the eighth inning to power the Yankees to a 4-2 victory over the Blue Jays on Tuesday night. The Yankees have won 10 of their last 13 games and are only four games behind the Athletics for the second Wild Card spot in the American League.
The offensive revival and the streak of successful play wouldn't be possible without the player who I wrote ambled out of New York with "all the anonymity of a substitute teacher" in The New York Times. That was true. At the time, the acquisition of A-Rod, the greatest player on the planet, was all about A-Rod. Now Soriano, who was acquired from the Cubs last month, has helped spearhead the Yankees' surge with nine homers and 28 runs batted in across 24 games. Five of his homers have been go-ahead shots.
For some reason, Soriano is a player whose weaknesses are sometimes highlighted more than his strengths. He is a free swinger who doesn't walk much so he's not a high on base percentage hitter and he isn't a great defensive player. But Soriano also has 2,015 hits, 397 homers and 283 stolen bases. He should eventually surpass 400 homers and 300 steals. Only four players have ever compiled at least 2000 hits, 400 homers and 300 steals: Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, Andrew Dawson and A-Rod.
Back in 2004, it was evident that Soriano hated leaving New York. After the Yankees got him back last month, Soriano was viewed as a right-handed power hitter they desperately needed. He has been that. He has been more than that. The player who had one bad moment in his first stint with the Yankees is creating a lot of good moments in his second stint with them. Soriano might even help save their season.
Alex Rodriguez had multiple opportunities to insist that he didn't use performance enhancing drugs and to say that his 211-game suspension from Major League Baseball for that alleged behavior was an outrage.
But he didn't. Rodriguez deflected those questions three different times.
Essentially, Rodriguez said he wasn't there to talk about the past. Sound familiar?
On a surreal day in the world of A-Rod, Rodriguez was suspended on Monday afternoon and then started at third base for the Yankees about five hours later. Since Rodriguez's lawyer has said he will appeal the suspension, Rodriguez can continue to play until a verdict is reached on his appeal. He can keep playing, but it's difficult for some observers to keep listening to him
As talented as Rodriguez has been in his career, he has often been the player who struggled to do or say the right thing. That routine continued on Monday as Rodriguez, whose actions created the mess that he is immersed in right now, talked about "fighting for my life." Coming from someone baseball investigators have described as a repeat cheater, those words were awkward and hollow.
Anything Rodriguez said on Monday could be used against him in the arbitration case. But, still, his refusal to say he hadn't used performance enhancers during what MLB called a period of "multiple years," was revealing. If Rodriguez could have absolved himself, he would have. But, again, he hustled away from the topic. Like Mark McGwire before Congress in 2005, Rodriguez didn't want to talk about the past.
If Rodriguez doesn't fight for himself and his career, he said that no one would fight for him. So what is A-Rod fighting for? It seems evident that Rodriguez isn't necessarily fighting the charges that he used performance enhancers. What Rodriguez is fighting for is to get the 211-game suspension reduced. While 12 other players accepted 50-game suspensions without attempting to appeal on Monday, A-Rod is fighting his heftier suspension.
In MLB's press release about Rodriguez's punishment, the league said it was for "use and possession of numerous prohibited performance-enhancing substances" and for attempting to obstruct and frustrate the Office of the Commissioner's investigation. The reason Rodriguez's penalty was much harsher than the other players is because MLB is confident it has stronger evidence against him, evidence that A-Rod and his lawyer have seen.
Before and after Rodriguez went 1-for-4 during an 8-1 loss to the Chicago White Sox on Monday, he mentioned how he is 38 years old. Time isn't on Rodriguez's side. With a suspension of some length looming, perhaps Rodriguez viewed the rest of 2013 as his last, best chance to produce. If Rodriguez is suspended for 211 games or something close to that amount, it's reasonable to wonder how effective a player he would be after the suspension. Right now could be his final chance to do something decent.
Members of the Yankees' hierarchy have said that the team sorely needs Rodriguez's right-handed power. Without A-Rod, Yankee third basemen were hitting .215 with four homers, 32 RBIs and a .272 on-base percentage. If A-Rod has anything left, he could be a much better option for manager Joe Girardi.
Michael Weiner of the Players' Association has said the verdict in Rodriguez's appeal might not come until November or December.
At the end of Rodriguez's bizarre Monday, he was asked if things had gone as well as he could have expected. Rodriguez said there was no "well" in any of what he was experiencing and that he just hoped "there's a happy ending there somewhere." There will be an ending for A-Rod. That part is true. But a happy one seems improbable.