Tomorrow arrives for Mariano Rivera, Yankees

    Friday, March 8, 2013, 1:54 PM [General]

    TAMPA - Even from about 100 feet away, the man's confident walk looked familiar. Even in a darkened concourse outside the Yankees' clubhouse, it was easy to peek at the man's back and realize exactly who it was. There is style in everything Mariano Rivera does, even when he is walking from the clubhouse to the parking lot.

    On this sunny Friday at Steinbrenner Field, Rivera's stroll was interrupted when reporters caught up to him and inquired about the press conference he is having on Saturday. Rivera, the greatest closer of all-time, is expected to announce that he is retiring after the 2013 season. But, naturally, Rivera wasn't ready to disclose that one day early.

    "I told you guys that I would talk one day," Rivera said. "Tomorrow is the day."

    Tomorrow is the day the Yankees knew would eventually arrive, a day that will be filled with questions. Why is Rivera retiring after 2013? Is there anything that would ever change his mind? How difficult was this decision? Who will succeed Rivera as the closer? On and on, the questions will keep flowing on Saturday and for every day throughout the season.

    But, on Friday, Rivera politely deflected all retirement questions. He was in a good mood as he walked with one of his sons, whose presence was another sign that a major announcement is imminent. When we asked Derek Jeter about Rivera, Jeter wouldn't comment until after Rivera spoke. Then Jeter said that Rivera might be "announcing an extension," before smiling and adding how that would violate team policy. Rivera laughed at Jeter's playful theory.

    "You never know," Rivera said. "A lot of things happen. Maybe we'll get an exception."  

    Interestingly enough, Rivera is scheduled to make his spring debut a few hours after he reveals what his future plans are. Since Rivera, 43, is recovering from right knee surgery, his first outing would have been covered extensively. Now that Rivera has added his pre-game announcement into the stew, there will be dozens of reporters here to chronicle every word and every pitch. Saturday promises to be the most memorable day of the spring in Yankeeland.

    While Andy Pettitte opposed Jeter in a simulated game, an appealing storyline on any other day, the focus was on Rivera. I expect to see Pettitte and Jeter at Rivera's press conference since both players have deep connections with him. Jeter and Rivera first became teammates when they were at Class-A Greensboro in 1993. Pettite and Rivera both played for Class-AA Albany in 1994.

    Pettitte couldn't remember the first time he met Rivera, but he gave a detailed scouting report on Rivera's evolution as a pitcher and called him "the greatest closer to ever play." Like Rivera, Pettitte has relied on a cut fastball in his career. But Rivera's cutter is different. It is basically the only pitch that Rivera has ever thrown, and it's more devastating because of how dramatically it moves and how adeptly Rivera controls it.

    "He's made it into a Hall of Fame pitch," Pettitte said.

    Without Rivera's excellence, the Yankees might not have won five World Series titles since 1996. The Yankees had superb teams in their championship seasons, but Rivera always gave them a huge edge at the end of games. He is 8-1 with a 0.70 earned run average and 42 saves in the post-season, dominant statistics that amaze everyone.

    "I've never seen anything like it," Pettitte said. "I don't think we'll ever see anything like it again."

    Pettitte is right. We won't.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

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    Mariano Rivera's final chapter

    Thursday, March 7, 2013, 3:45 PM [General]

    TAMPA - We all knew this day was coming. Someday soon, Mariano Rivera would sit down, thank everyone for attending his news conference and then tell the world he wasn't planning to play baseball anymore. When Rivera first arrived for Spring Training with the Yankees last month, he strongly hinted that 2013 would be his final season. Now he is expected to finally confirm that decision.

    After ESPN's Buster Olney tweeted that Rivera could announce his retirement as early as Saturday, Joel Sherman of The New York Posttweeted that Rivera would have a news conference at 10 a.m. on Saturday. While Rivera's retirement announcement is probable, one source added that there was a remote chance that Rivera could change his mind.

    Rivera has a rarified place in baseball history. He is the greatest closer ever, a stoic assassin with a cut fastball whose postseason statistics are absolutely ridiculous. There are so many layers to Rivera's legacy, so many different numbers and stories that make him such a memorable player. But what he has accomplished in the postseason will always be as remarkable as anything else he did. So many relievers have fizzled in October. Rivera has flourished.

    Video: Rivera saves No. 602

    Whenever people ask me which player I like interviewing the most, I always say Rivera. When you speak to Rivera, it is more of a conversation than an interview. He looks you in the eye, he answers questions politely and, most of the time, he educates you. When Rivera retires, he will take a world of wisdom out the door with him. The clubhouse will be an emptier place.

    The Yankees will find a successor for Rivera, whether it is David Robertson, Mark Montgomery or someone else. But they will never replace Rivera. How could anyone be as dominant as Rivera? With Rivera in the bullpen, the Yankees believed that they simply needed to get the lead by the eighth inning and they were guaranteed to win. As Derek Jeter often said, "When Mo comes in, we feel the game is over."

    At the age of 43, Rivera has apparently decided he has one year left in his amazing arm. He will pitch on a surgically-repaired right knee, the knee he destroyed last May. I never thought Rivera would retire after that injury. He had to return and craft a more suitable final chapter. That chapter will unfold throughout 2013. Cherish it. This story won't be written again.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

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    Teixeira's injury further complicates Yanks' plans

    Thursday, March 7, 2013, 1:00 AM [General]

    TAMPA, Fla. -- The words spilled out of Joe Girardi's mouth, quickly and disgustedly. Mark Teixeira will miss 8-10 weeks with a strained tendon in his right wrist, the Yankees' manager said.

    Those were the discouraging words that Girardi never wanted to utter on Wednesday, but they were words that fit the theme of this excruciating Spring Training.

    So Teixeira will join Curtis Granderson as another linchpin player the Yankees won't have for at least the first month of the season. Granderson strained his right forearm on Feb. 24 and is likely to miss 10 weeks. The Yankees have been evaluating Matt Diaz, Juan Rivera, Melky Mesa and Zoilo Almonte to determine how they will replace Granderson in the outfield; now, they must figure out how to replace Teixeira at first base, too.

    "It's not what you want, but it's what you've got to deal with," Girardi said. "It's life."

    Life has become more complicated for the Yankees because of these injuries. Without Teixeira and Granderson to begin the season, the Yanks will be without eight of their top 10 home run hitters from 2012.

    The Yankees knew they would be without five players that signed elsewhere, and have admitted their offense won't have the same muscle. But they never anticipated they would be without Granderson and Teixeira, too.

    "It's a tough loss," said general manager Brian Cashman, "like all these are."

    When Cashman discussed Teixeira's injury, the general manager was sitting in a wheelchair in the Yankee clubhouse because of his own leg injury. Cashman broke his right fibula and dislocated his ankle after he landed awkwardly during a skydiving endeavor for the Wounded Warrior Project. It was a painfully appropriate scene for the Yankees: the injured GM talking about another injured player.

    While Cashman focused on how the Yankees could address their issues internally and said "it's not the time of year to make a move," he will surely investigate possible replacements from outside the organization. Carlos Lee and Aubrey Huff are free-agent first basemen, but neither is terribly attractive.

    Even if it will be difficult and costly to pry away a solid position player, Cashman probably began making calls soon after he received the news about Teixeira. Without Granderson (43 homers in 2012) and Teixeira (24 homers), the Yankees, who were second in the Major Leagues in runs last season, are staring at a much more toothless lineup in 2013.

    If the Yankees don't make a deal, their best option could be to move Kevin Youkilis from third base to first and insert Eduardo Nunez at third. Youkilis won a Gold Glove at first for the Red Sox in 2007, so his versatility gives the Yankees some flexibility. Girardi told Youkilis to begin taking grounders at first.

    If the Yankees don't shift Youkilis across the diamond, Dan Johnson is a candidate to start at first. He played in 14 games with the White Sox in 2012.

    Travis Hafner won't be asked to play first. The Yankees lack the depth that they had last season, which is already impacting them.

    Before the spring began, the Yanks understood that Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and CC Sabathia would have to prove they had recovered from surgeries. Since the spring began, Granderson and Teixeira have been lost for extended periods, Phil Hughes has been sidelined by a back injury and Boone Logan and David Robertson have also been slowed by achy arms.

    Any major injury is challenging to a team, but the Teixeira news definitely stung the Yankees. Girardi said the team must "find a way" to compete without two of its best players. That will be easier for the Yankees if they find a way to add another reliable player.

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    Curtis Granderson to take fly balls in LF

    Thursday, February 21, 2013, 12:41 PM [General]

    TAMPA -- Curtis Granderson began working out in left field for the Yankees on Thursday, which is a precursor to Granderson moving from center field to left. Brett Gardner will move from left to center.

    There has been speculation about the Yankees starting Gardner, who is the better defensive player, in center this offseason. While manager Joe Girardi has addressed questions about the possible switch, it didn't come to fruition until he spoke to both players about the plan.

    According to defensive metrics, Gardner has been one of the best defensive left fielders in the Major Leagues while Granderson has been one of the worst center fielders. Gardner considers center field his natural position. The Yankees aren't concerned about Gardner transitioning to center, but they do want Granderson to get acclimated to playing left.

    General Manager Brian Cashman said Granderson and Gardner will both play center and left during the spring, and the Yankees will decide which alignment works best for them. If the Yankees were to make the move with Granderson going to left, Cashman said, "We have to decide if it weakens us or makes us better."

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

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    Phil Hughes' injury reinforces value of depth

    Wednesday, February 20, 2013, 6:44 PM [General]

    TAMPA– On Monday, Phil Hughes explained how his five-day-a-week workouts at Athletes’ Performance in California in the off-season had helped him get a jump start for the 2013 season. On Tuesday, the Yankees announced that Hughes had stiffness in his upper back. On Wednesday, Hughes revealed that he had a bulging disc in his back. He will miss at least two weeks.

    In the span of 48 hours, Hughes went from discussing how prepared he was for the season to speculating on whether he will be ready for the start of the season. Hughes’s injury occurred when he ran to cover first base during pitcher’s fielding practice, routine drills that aren’t supposed to result in injuries. Hughes’s early injury reinforced the value of depth because every team will have to deal with some injuries.

    When I asked General Manager Brian Cashman what excited him about Spring Training last week, he said he wanted the Yankees to stay healthy and get their work done. It might have sounded like a simple response, but it isn’t simple to avoid injuries. Sometimes, a pitcher hurts his back while doing something he has done a thousand times. Who would have predicted that?

    While Hughes spoke about trying to throw again in six or seven days, Cashman said the pitcher would probably need a “two-week timeout.” Cashman said he was hopeful that the pitcher’s off-season conditioning would help Hughes from falling behind the other starting pitchers.

    In a rotation that features a 40-year old Andy Pettitte, Hiroki Kuroda, 38, and CC Sabathia, 32, Hughes, who is 26, was the first starter to be throttled by an injury this spring. Hughes forced a smile and acknowledged that some teammates had reminded him how the youngest of the first four starters is now the starter who is expected to miss about two weeks.

    If Hughes’s back issue prevented him from opening the season on time, the Yankees would use Ivan Nova and David Phelps at the back end of the rotation. As of now, Nova and Phelps are competing for the fifth spot. The Yankees would much prefer to have Hughes in the fourth spot, staying healthy and getting his work done.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

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    Andy Pettitte ready for a big season

    Wednesday, February 20, 2013, 6:52 AM [General]

    TAMPA - One year ago, Andy Pettitte came to Spring Training as a guest instructor. As Pettitte stood near the first base dugout at Steinbrenner Field and discussed his new role, he looked as athletic as ever. Pettitte looked like someone who could still pitch. Soon, very soon, we all learned that he could.

    That gig as an instructor didn't last too long for Pettitte. He came out of retirement about three weeks later to pitch for the Yankees and he is back again in 2013. When Pettitte pitched in 2012, which was only for 75 1/3 innings because of a broken fibula, he was very good. This season, Pettitte expects to be just as reliable.

    For Pettitte, being a 40-year old pitcher trumps being a 30-year old pitcher since he suggested that he is a better pitcher than he was a decade ago. Pettitte, who is excited about the baseball detour that took him from retired instructor to dependable starting pitcher (again) has lofty goals. He stressed that he wants to stay healthy, make each of his starts and also log at least 200 innings.

    "Heck, I want to win 20 games," Pettitte added. "That's what I want."

    As long as Pettitte avoids injuries, the Yankees trust that he will be effective. He was 5-4 with a 2.87 earned run average and averaged 8.2 strikeouts and 2.5 walks per nine innings last year, excellent statistics for a left-hander who was a spectator throughout 2011. Pettitte was honest about how much the Yankees need him stay on the mound and produce. The same is true for CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda, the two starters that precede him in the rotation, and Phil Hughes, who follows him and who already has a stiff upper back this spring.

    "It's a big responsibility," Pettitte said. "I want to uphold that responsibility."

    Watching the animated Pettitte pitch can be entertaining. He scolds himself on the mound, essentially talking himself through innings. One of Pettitte's former catchers said he sometimes had to suppress laughter when he heard Pettitte's self-criticism about throwing a poor pitch.

    While Pettitte still has a solid repertoire, his intelligence and intensity help make him an elite pitcher. According to fangraphs.com, Pettitte's fastball averaged 87.8 miles per hour last season. He doesn't overpower hitters. He outwits them. Pettitte, who used his nasty cutter to stifle hitters for so many years, now throws a slider that has a bigger break than the cutter. The slider is the cousin to the cutter and Pettitte's reliance on it shows how he has evolved.

    On a sunny morning in February of 2012, Pettitte, the instructor, joked about how he planned to help Ron Guidry, a fellow instructor, catch baseballs during pitcher's fielding practice. But, when Pettitte was asked if he could still pitch, he said, "I'm sure I could." Soon, Pettitte proved that he could. In 2013, the Yankees need Pettitte to keep proving that.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

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    With expectations 'same as always,' Yanks need a healthy Jeter

    Sunday, February 17, 2013, 4:38 PM [General]

    TAMPA, Fla. -- Derek Jeter is almost always dismissive when he's asked about injuries, preferring to say that he is fine, just fine, while providing scant details. That has been Jeter's stubborn approach for his entire career, a routine stemming from his refusal to make excuses.

    But on Sunday, when Jeter and the Yankees' position players reported to Spring Training at Steinbrenner Field, he elaborated on how deeply he was impacted by breaking his left ankle in the postseason.

    Four months after he was carried off the field at Yankee Stadium, Jeter understood there would be a plethora of questions about his injury and his future, so he addressed them more descriptively than he usually does.

    Since Jeter's ankle is healing, and he is poised to start running on the field for the first time on Monday, it naturally made it easier for him to discuss his injury. Jeter reiterated that his goal is to start Opening Day against the Boston Red Sox on April 1, a goal that will be measured on a day-by-day basis as the 38-year-old eases into baseball shape.

    "Why wouldn't it be realistic?" Jeter said about playing on Opening Day. "I broke my ankle in October. I'm right where I'm supposed to be up until this point. The ankle has healed perfectly. Now it's just a matter of getting everything else in shape."

    Then, he added, "I'm going to have to push myself. But, Opening Day, yeah, that's been a goal all along."

    Jeter, who normally wouldn't disclose if his temperature rose to 99 degrees, said he had a plate and screws inserted in his ankle to help stabilize it. But he stressed that he wasn't concerned about his mobility and joked that it's not as if his ankle is "just going to fall off." Still, when a shortstop is four months shy of his 39th birthday and playing on a surgically-repaired ankle, the questions about his future will persist.

    After Jeter bruised a bone in his ankle, he said, at some undisclosed point, it eventually "turned into a stress fracture" and then "broke in half." Doctors told him that if he hadn't broken his ankle scampering to his left in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series, he would have suffered the same injury at another point. While Jeter admitted that he probably shouldn't have been playing on the fragile ankle, he said he "would do the same thing all over again."

    The Yankees need Jeter to do the same thing all over again this season, meaning they need him to have the same productive season he had one year ago. That is a hefty request.

    The captain led the league with 216 hits, batted .316 and had a .362 on-base percentage. How Jeter progresses will be one of the dominant themes of the spring. But, not only do the Yankees need Jeter to be healthy, they need him to be an offensive linchpin again, too.

    "If I didn't break my ankle, I'd still be answering similar questions about getting older," Jeter said. "It's not like I go out and say I have to prove something. I just go out and try to improve. That's the approach I take.

    "I don't think about age. I don't. I think, if you get caught up in thinking how old you are, those are negative thoughts."

    In an offseason recuperation that Jeter described as "terrible, absolutely terrible," he spent about five or six weeks confined to a couch. Jeter actually conceded that he used a motorized scooter for transportation when he wasn't on the couch. After saying that he didn't want to be overly dramatic, Jeter explained how he had to "learn to walk again" and how challenging that was.

    Eventually, questions about Jeter's ankle were replaced by questions about the 2013 Yankees. That's when Jeter returned to being the same, old Jeter. He said the expectations for the Yankees are "the same as always. You have to win."

    For that to happen, Jeter must be a major part of it. For Jeter to be a major part of it, he needs to rebound from the ankle injury. So, in 2013, Jeter and his ankle need to be just as effective as 2012.

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    Mariano Rivera determined to return to form

    Wednesday, February 13, 2013, 3:22 PM [General]

    TAMPA, Fla. – Mariano Rivera never throws on the first day of workouts for pitchers and catchers, a fact that he mentioned with a sly smile. But Rivera threw on Wednesday, smoothly navigating through a 25-pitch bullpen session. It was the most scrutinized session in the state with about 40 reporters watching every pitch that Rivera uncorked.

    When it was over, Rivera exhaled. So did the Yankees. It was the first step in a process that the Yankees hope will end with Rivera returning to his dominant form as a closer. Rivera, who wore a light-weight brace on his right knee, said that it felt "wonderful to be out there again." For the Yankees, the feeling was mutual.

    It was only one bullpen session, only 25 pitches to Minor League catcher J.R. Murphy, but seeing a healthy Rivera on the mound brought some peace to the Yankees. Manager Joe Girardi praised Rivera as a pitcher, but also cited how crucial Rivera's presence is to his teammates. Andy Pettitte spoke about the value of Rivera's enthusiastic personality and called Rivera "a difference-maker" for the Yankees.

    "You got to have him," Pettitte said.

    Now the Yankees do. They have Rivera, their ninth-inning security blanket, back. Rivera still has to complete Spring Training and prove that his surgically-repaired knee, which he injured while shagging fly balls in Kansas City last May 3, is sound. But Rivera estimated that the strength in his knee was a nine on a scale of 1 to 10, saying that he needs to complete running and agility drills to push that number to a resounding 10.

    "I'm definitely expecting good things," Rivera said. "That's what I demand of myself. I'm looking for that or else I wouldn't be here."

    Since Rivera is 43 years old and hasn't pitched in a game in nine months, even Girardi is eager to be told that he doesn't need to be concerned about Rivera's knee anymore. I wouldn't doubt Rivera. I think Rivera, who is as impressive and dedicated as any athlete as I've ever covered, will return and be as good as he was in 2011 (1.91 earned run average with 44 saves in 49 chances) and in his truncated 2012 (2.16 ERA with five saves in six tries). And, even if Rivera is 90 percent of what he was, he will still be one of the best closers in baseball. Rivera said he may wear a knee brace all season as a precaution.

    How long Rivera will continue pitching remained an unanswered question, although Rivera promised that he would give the answer soon. Rivera said he would reveal his plans for the future at "the right moment" and added that it wouldn't hurt reporters to wait another day or another week for the information. Later, Rivera said he will disclose if he is retiring after the season before Opening Day.

     "I will give you that," Rivera said.

    Rivera's injury occurred while shagging fly balls in batting practice, a routine he doesn't expect to change. That pregame ritual was Rivera's way of strengthening his legs and staying in shape. While Rivera said he would be careful, he stressed that he wants to do "whatever it takes to be myself again." The Yankees want the same thing this season, the same, dominant Rivera. Especially since this sounds like it could be his final season.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

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    Joe Girardi with high hopes for 'old' team

    Tuesday, February 12, 2013, 3:53 PM [General]

    TAMPA, Fla., – Before Spring Training, there's a snap shot or an assessment of every team. That snap shot is a quick way of deciphering who that team could be or should be. It's not always accurate, but it's the theme that follows the team into camp.

    In Joe Girardi's association with the Yankees as a player, as a coach and now as the manager, those evaluations have invariably involved the team winning at least 90 games and qualifying for the postseason. Actually, in 17 of the last 18 seasons, the Yankees have reached the playoffs, eclipsing 90 victories in 15 of those seasons. Girardi was part of 10 of those teams.

    So when I asked Girardi for his snapshot of the 2013 Yankees, he naturally didn't hesitate.

    "This team could win 95 games and get to the World Series," Girardi said.

    Why did Girardi speak so confidently?

    "Because," he said, "there's a lot of talent in this room."

    After an offseason in which the Yankees acted early to retain Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera, and then signed Kevin Youkilis and re-signed Ichiro Suzuki, there was also considerable focus on the players they lost. Russell Martin, Nick Swisher, Raul Ibanez, Rafael Soriano and Eric Chavez were all important players last season and they have all departed. The Yankees have some uncertainty about replacing those productive players, especially at catcher.

    Of the players the Yankees lost, I think Martin will be the most difficult to replace. While Martin only hit .211 a year ago, he was actually one of the Yankees' better hitters late in the season. Martin was also a tough, reliable player at the most difficult position on the field. General Manager Brian Cashman called him the toughest Yankee he had ever seen. Now Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart, who profile as backups, and Austin Romine, who has only played 21 games at Class AAA, are fighting for the starting spot.

    Still, Girardi, the eternal optimist, preached optimism. The manager emphasized how the Yankees have the same starting rotation, essentially the same bullpen (with Rivera replacing Soriano) and the same infield back. Since the departures of Martin, Swisher, Ibanez, Chavez and Andruw Jones mean that almost 100 homers have left the building, Girardi acknowledged that the Yankees must be a different offensive team. The Yankees led the Major Leagues with 245 homers in 2012.

    "I believe we're going to score runs," Girardi said. "It's just going to be in a different fashion."

    By that, Girardi meant the Yankees would rely more on Brett Gardner, who missed most of last season, and Suzuki to help create some offense with their speed. It won't be easy. Some fans groused that the Yankees hit too many homers. Cashman has already said that those fans will get their wish and will see a time with less power. By the way, hitting homers was never a problem for the Yankees. Every team wants to blast homers. It was the lack of situational hitting that buried the Yankees.

    If CC Sabathia, Kuroda and Pettitte can remain healthy and effective, the Yankees will have a stellar 1-2-3 in their rotation. Phil Hughes, who can be a free agent after the season, is a solid fourth starter while Ivan Nova probably has the edge over David Phelps for the fifth slot. The Yankees had a 3.85 earned run average last year, which was fifth-best in the American League. Yes, the Yankees will have a different look on offense. But they would be satisfied with a duplicate performance from their pitching staff.

    When pitchers turn around, which player will they see manning center field? Although there has been speculation that the Yankees might flip-flop Gardner, the left fielder, with Curtis Granderson, the center fielder, Girardi hasn't discussed the possibility with either player. Girardi didn't sound like someone who was poised to make that switch.

    On the day where Yankee pitchers and catchers reported to camp for the first time, Girardi answered the most questions about a player who is rehabilitating his hip in New York: Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod, Cervelli and other players were mentioned in the documents of Biogenesis, an anti-aging clinic in Miami.

    Both Major League Baseball and the Drug Enforcement Agency are investigating Anthony Bosch of Biogenesis for allegedly providing performance enhancing drugs to players. In a statement, Rodriguez said the Biogenesis records, which were first reported by the Miami New Times, are "not legitimate." Girardi, who said he has only spoken to Rodriguez about his rehab, said the Yankees are "used to having distractions."

    Lane: Yankees out to defy age | More from Jack Curry

    This club is also used to hearing about age, an issue that is prominent again as Derek Jeter and Rivera try to rebound from surgeries. Girardi said he will be relieved when he knows he doesn't need to worry about the comebacks of Jeter and Rivera, but Girardi won't have a chance to experience that relief until later in the spring. Girardi said having aging players is always "a concern," but noted that age has been a topic swirling around the Yankees for the last decade.

    "We were old last year," Girardi said, "and we won 95 games."

    Now Girardi thinks they can win 95 again. The journey toward that goal has begun. It will be an interesting ride. 

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

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    A new season, a new stance, for Kevin Youkilis

    Wednesday, February 6, 2013, 10:18 AM [General]

    Kevin Youkilis was standing on a golf course in northern California, but once he picked up a black bat, he might as well have drifted into any batter's box in any stadium. Although there was no pitcher and no screaming fans, Youkilis morphed into baseball mode on this January afternoon.

    We have all seen Youkilis' unusual batting stance. He stood almost upright and rocked his body slightly. His feet were close together. He held his hands and his bat near his shoulders. He had a leg kick as he swung. And, of course, Youkilis' top hand moved along the handle of the bat and only caressed it. He didn't fully grip it until the pitcher released the baseball.

    "That was the old me," Youkilis said.

    In YES' Yankees Access show with Youkilis, the third baseman explained why he changed his stance and how he ever gravitated toward having such a distinctive stance. The Batting Stance Guy and other devotees of Youkilis' stance can relax. He made alterations to his stance, but it's not an overhaul. There are subtle differences that Youkilis details in our show, which aired after the Nets-Lakers game Tuesday night.

    After Youkilis had a two-day session with Kevin Long, the Yankees' batting coach, he emerged with a stance that mirrors his stance from 2008 and that he thinks should help him stay more balanced. His feet are wider apart and he is in more of a crouch. He has lowered his hands, which should enable him to get his bat into the hitting zone quicker. He has eliminated the leg kick and will now lift his left foot and lower it quickly. Youkilis' top hand is still not fully gripping the bat as he prepares to swing, a quirk that that he said gives him a rhythm at the plate.

    While spending a day with Youkilis, it was interesting to hear him discuss his hitting approach, how he has thrived as an underdog (in high school, college and even now), how challenging it was for him to sign with the Yankees, how he asked the Patriots' Tom Brady, his brother-in-law, for insight on the Boston-to-New York transition and how important it is to him to be a Jewish baseball player in New York.

    When Joe Bick, Youkilis' agent, told Youkilis that the Yankees were interested in signing him, Youkilis was shocked. Youkilis never saw that curveball coming. But, after the news of Alex Rodriguez's need for hip surgery became public, Youkilis understood why the Yankees were pursuing him. The player who was endlessly booed by Yankee fans when he played with the Red Sox signed a one-year, $12 million contract with the Yankees.

    Behind-the-scenes photos | Youkilis Trivia

    Youkilis, who said his first preference was to play close to home on the West Coast, plans to live in Manhattan and relish the New York experience. If Youkilis' stint with the Yankees lasts one year, which is what he expects, he's going to soak up as much of New York as he can.

    Having interviewed Youkilis when he was with the Red Sox, I thought he was edgy and honest. The Youkilis I encountered in the Bay Area was just as edgy, just as honest. Since Rodriguez's timetable is uncertain, Youkilis is bound to be a vital player in 2013. It's a new stance and a new team for Youkilis. 

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

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    PED connection cost Bonds and Clemens the Hall

    Wednesday, January 9, 2013, 2:50 PM [General]

    No players were elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame today, a development that didn’t shock or disappoint me. It is difficult for candidates to get 75 percent of any vote, especially once that process becomes complicated and muddied by the simmering steroid debate.

    As a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America since 1990, I have a vote. I checked the box near the names of eight players on the ballot, the most players I’ve ever selected. I voted for Craig Biggio, who received the highest total with 68.2 percent, Mike Piazza, Tim Raines, Curt Schilling, Jeff Bagwell, Jack Morris, Edgar Martinez and Larry Walker.

    But it’s the two players that I failed to vote for that were discussed and dissected more than any other this year. I didn’t vote for Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens, who might be the best hitter and best pitcher I’ve ever covered. While Bonds won seven Most Valuable Player Awards and Clemens won seven Cy Young Awards, I couldn’t take my pen and put an X beside their names because of their connection to performance-enhancing drugs. I wasn’t alone with those thoughts. Clemens notched 37.6 percent of the vote while Bonds got 36.2.

    I’ve had dozens of conversations with players, managers, coaches and fellow voters about the 2013 ballot. Some of the smartest writers in the country made convincing arguments about why they voted for Bonds and Clemens. I respect their opinions, but I disagree with them. I’m not sure how and when it became so acceptable to honor players that cheated others and the game.

    To me, the easiest decision would have been to vote for Bonds, who belted 762 homers, and Clemens, who won 354 games. Based on their career statistics, do they belong in the Hall? Of course they do. But I have a vital follow up question: What statistics are we judging them on? Are we judging them on career stats or the stats they accumulated before they became linked to steroids? I couldn’t vote for a player whose numbers were artificially enhanced. I also hate the argument about how they were Hall of Famer players before their connection to PEDs so that makes them Hall of Famers.

    Let’s say two high school students were competing for the valedictorian. In senior year, one of the students decided to cheat. He was already great, but he wanted to be greater. If you found out that he cheated, would you be willing to honor him because he was worthy of being the valedictorian before he started cheating? I wouldn’t.

    Bonds admitted to using steroids, although he said he did it “unknowingly.” Clemens’s former trainer, who seemingly spent almost every hour with him, said that Clemens also used steroids. When you take that information and combine it with the incredible boost in stats that both players produced later in their careers, it’s improbable to think that they did everything on their own. As journalists, we’re taught to report about what we see. Any reporter who saw Bonds and Clemens now knows that he or she wasn’t seeing entirely legitimate performances.

    “I’m going to vote for both of them,” one voter told me. “But I’m going to hold my nose while I do it.”

    Since I didn’t vote for Bonds or Clemens, I’ve been asked why I voted for Piazza and Bagwell. I don’t think that tandem should be grouped with Bonds and Clemens. I haven’t seen anyone uncover how either of those players had a direct connection to steroids. In fact, I think Piazza got blasted with steroid shrapnel in this election. It’s unfathomable to me that the best-hitting catcher ever isn’t a first-ballot Hall of Famer.  He was named on 57.8 percent of the ballots and is likely to be elected soon.

    My refusal to vote for Bonds and Clemens isn’t some personal issue. I covered Bonds during his pursuit of Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record and recall having an enjoyable conversation with him about Notorious B.I.G. I liked covering Clemens, who I called John Wayne in pinstripes. I’m not trying to influence anyone’s vote. It’s my ballot and I needed to feel I was doing the right thing with it. For me and for this year, that meant not voting for Bonds and Clemens.  

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

    3.7 (1 Ratings)

    Kevin Youkilis: Shades of Paul O'Neill

    Wednesday, December 12, 2012, 11:56 AM [General]

    The comparison is there, even if some Yankee fans are reticent to concede it. When you watch Kevin Youkilis moan about a close call, fling his bat or go into a dugout rage after an out, you should be reminded of another fiery player from the recent past. You should see shades of Paul O’Neill.

    Before some of the O’Neill acolytes explode, relax. This doesn’t mean Youkilis and O’Neill are exactly the same player with the exact accomplishments. Of course, they’re not. What it means is that Youkilis and O’Neill share the same style for playing baseball with an intensity that’s visible to everyone and with an approach that chases perfection.

    “He expects to get a hit every time up,” Joe Torre often said while trying to explain some of O’Neill’s tantrums.

    When I asked Boston’s Dustin Pedroia about Youkilis for The New York Times in 2007, he used the same speechwriter as Torre.

    “He thinks,” Pedroia said of Youkilis, “he should get a hit every time up.”

    Since Youkilis has agreed to a one-year, $12 million deal with the Yankees and will be their third baseman to start the season, O’Neill will have ample opportunities to discuss Youkilis from his perch in the YES Network broadcast booth. He can mention how they were both born in Ohio, how they have seen each other at high school games, how they have the same agent and he might also mention how they play the game similarly. There was always a ton of emotion whenever O’Neill played, something that is true of Youkilis, too.

    Five years ago, I asked Joe Bick, the agent for both players, if he saw similarities in the way that the ex-Yankee outfielder and the then Red Sox first baseman performed. Bick reacted as if I’d found the car keys that he’d been missing for a week.

    “I’ve been waiting for someone to finally make that connection,” Bick said. “There are definitely similarities in the way they play. They both want to do so well.”

    For Youkilis to do well as a Yankee, he needs to have a rebound season. In a season in which Youkilis was traded from the Red Sox to the White Sox in June, Youkilis hit .235 with a .336 on-base percentage, a .409 slugging percentage, 19 homers and 60 runs batted in. It was his worst offensive output since he became a full-time player in 2006.

    Still, the Yankees are encouraged because Youkilis finished better with the White Sox than he started with the Red Sox. Youkilis also continued to show his ability to grind through at-bats and force pitchers to work as he was third in the Major Leagues while seeing 4.36 pitches per plate appearances. Youkilis’s statistics against left-handed pitchers were also stellar (.275 average, .386 on base and .492 slugging). Finally, the Yankees feel Youkilis, a former Gold Glover who has battled back injuries, will be a solid defensive replacement for Alex Rodriguez.

    Back in 2007, O’Neill admitted that he rooted for Youkilis because of their Ohio connections. Even though Youkilis played for the team O’Neill hated as a Yankee, O’Neill, who retired after the 2001 season, still found himself cheering for a Red Sox player that debuted in 2004 and reminded people of him.

    “I loved to compete and I loved to win,” O’Neill said. “He’s the same way. In Boston and New York, they really care about winning and losing. I think they appreciate that about you more than in other cities.”

    Youkilis never understood why Joba Chamberlain targeted him with a handful of fastballs that made him uncomfortable and also wondered why the Yankee fans vilified him. While Youkilis was still with the Red Sox, he cited O’Neill’s style of play as a way of defending himself.

    “They play ‘Yankeeography’ on Paul O’Neill every day,” Youkilis told The Boston Globe. “So what’s the problem?”

    For the Yankee fans who say that they can’t or won’t accept Youkilis, they need to take a quick baseball history lesson. After the Yankees added Wade Boggs, Roger Clemens and Johnny Damon, three players with deep roots in Boston, all three eventually won at least one World Series title in New York.

    Youkilis is a Yankee because the Yankees needed him, needed someone reliable to fill in until Rodriguez returns from hip surgery. If you watch Youkilis play, you will see an ornery guy who doesn’t care if the other team dislikes him. Youkilis once told me that “other teams aren’t supposed to like you.” There’s something for Yankee fans to like about Youkilis now. Look closely. He’ll remind you of O’Neill.

    “I really didn’t think I was like Paul O’Neill until someone mentioned it to me,” Youkilis said. “I have a lot of respect for him. I’ve always liked guys that played with a lot of fire.”

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

    0 (0 Ratings)

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