Maddon: Fear not the Yankees

    Friday, April 9, 2010, 11:43 AM [General]

    Behind the Buddy Holly glasses, the thoughtful baseball comments and the realistic belief that the Tampa Bay Rays are a World Series contender again, Joe Maddon respects the Yankees. He respects the defending champions, but the manager of the Rays doesn’t fear them. No way.

    Maddon is as honest as any manager in baseball. If the Rays had no chance to compete for a title in 2010, Maddon would admit it and then he would repeat his words an hour later. But the Rays, who are flush with superb athletes and stellar young pitchers, believe they are running alongside the Yankees, not behind them.

    “I think you begin with a clean slate, but there’s still respect for the defending champions,” Maddon said. “I’ve always felt the Yankees and the Red Sox have got it a little tougher than everybody else because, regardless of the team and their perceived spot in the game, everybody wants to beat them. So they have to bring it every night, based on that thought alone.”

    Maddon wants opponents to feel that way about the Rays, too. He wants teams to react to the Rays in the same way that they react to the Yankees and the Red Sox, with a mixture of respect, disdain and vengeance. The Rays weren’t universally treated that way when they ended a decade of misery by reaching the World Series in 2008. A year later, the Rays hobbled to an 84-78 record and watched the Yankees and the Red Sox compete in the playoffs. Same old, same old, many observers surmised.

    Now the Rays are trying to return to the postseason, trying to climb back to the World Series and win it this time. Terry Francona, the manager of the Red Sox, called the Rays a “scary team” and sounded as concerned about them as he was about the Yankees. Maddon likes hearing that chatter because he wants the Rays bundled with the Red Sox and the Yankees, who they play on Friday night in St. Petersburg, Fla.

    The Rays are a dangerous team. Young, talented and feisty, the Rays could easily destroy the Yankees-Red Sox alignment that has happened at the top of the American League East across 10 of the last 12 seasons. In James Shields, Matt Garza, Jeff Niemann, David Price and Wade Davis, the Rays have five starters who Maddon has targeted to throw 200 innings. In Evan Longoria, the Rays have a perennial Most Valuable Player Award candidate. In Ben Zobrist, the Rays have an All-Everything player. In Rafael Soriano, the Rays have the closer that they were lacking last season.
    “I think from the inner circle, with true baseball people, our name is always included with the Yankees and the Red Sox,” said Maddon, in a telephone interview. “I think, on a national level, real baseball fans know how good we are and know that we can compete with these guys and we can play in this division. All of that really doesn’t matter. What matters is that we believe that we can. As long as all the Rays in that room believe that we belong with these guys, that’s all that matters.”

    While Maddon and the Rays preach about an optimistic future, the future is coming fast. Both left fielder Carl Crawford and first baseman Carlos Pena can be free agents after the season. It seems doubtful that the Rays, whose payroll is around $72 million, will be able to retain the marquee players. Crawford has been connected to the Yankees so often that he could start searching for an apartment in Manhattan now.

    Maddon called the Rays a focused team and he had better hope that they are not a sluggish team. If the Rays are buried behind the Yankees and the Red Sox before the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline, there is a good chance that Crawford and Pena could be traded. Still, despite the challenge of succeeding in the A.L. East, Maddon loves hanging out in a division where the third-place team might end up being the third-best team in the league.
    “For me, I want to be in this division,” Maddon said. “This is the best division in baseball. Where else can you get better quicker than playing here?”

    When Maddon studies the Yankees, he marvels at how Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera, the players who he called “the trio,” have been so good for so long. Maddon lauded the addition of Curtis Granderson, but said he wasn’t sure that necessarily improved the Yankees because they lost Johnny Damon.

    The more that the bespectacled and eloquent Maddon discussed the Rays and the Yankees, the more apparent it became that he deeply respects the Yankees. But he doesn’t fear them, stressing that he likes “our names” against the 25 names from any other team. This is a new tussle, not an old rout.

    “The Yankees are easily as strong as last year,” Maddon said. “I don’t know if they’re better or not, but I believe that they’re as good, which is pretty good for what? One hundred and three wins last year? With us, among all the teams, they’ve probably given us our hardest time. We just have not matched up well with them. For us to get over the hump this year, we got to be better against the Yankees.”

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter all season long at @JackCurryYES.

    3.7 (1 Ratings)

    Let the stalking begin

    Sunday, April 4, 2010, 11:14 AM [General]

    WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The stalking will begin early. The Yankees and the Boston Red Sox don’t have to wait a week or a month to play each other. They get to do it in the first game of a new season, which is a perfect opener on Sunday night. The comparisons between the teams never cease. So why delay the inevitable?

    Why wait to compare CC Sabathia and the Yankees’ rotation to Josh Beckett and the other Red Sox starters? Why wait to assess the new Yankees like Curtis Granderson and Nick Johnson against the new Red Sox like Mike Cameron and Marco Scutaro? Why wait to see the first night of Boston’s not-so-revolutionary strategy of stressing run prevention in conjunction with run production?

    Wrestle with these comparisons and others while the Yankees and the Red Sox are side-by-side in Boston. Keep comparing the rivals during the three-game series, and then let the evaluations continue all season. That endless analysis will happen with them anyway. This scheduling simply means the hype-o-meter gets percolating sooner.

    “Every time I turn on ESPN, that’s all I see,” said Red Sox Manager Terry Francona. “I guess we’re just so caught up with trying to win. I’d rather open up against Buffalo. No disrespect to Buffalo. Maybe they’re going to be good this year.”

    Buffalo? Francona would rather face that fantasy team because facing the Yankees is a draining way to march into 2010. Every inning between the Yankees and Red Sox, regardless of when or where, is scrutinized more than when they play other teams. In fact, Francona playfully said he is anxious to gauge the post-series reaction because it will tell him if the Red Sox are going to win it all or if their season will be over after three games.

    While both teams have 0-0 records, the Red Sox are chasing the Yankees. The Yankees won a World Series title six months ago and made smart moves by acquiring Javier Vazquez from the Atlanta Braves and Granderson from the Detroit Tigers. Until further notice, the revamped Red Sox -- who have changed four players from their 2009 opening lineup -- are doing the stalking.  

    As confident as the Red Sox are, they are also comfortable about ceding the favorite role to the Yankees. What one team utters about another team can be irrelevant, but I think the Red Sox like the notion of slotting themselves behind the Yankees. My theory is that the Red Sox privately believe they have a talented club and they don’t mind being plopped behind the Yankees as they push to surpass them.

    Before Boston’s exhibition game at a sunny Nationals Park on Saturday, I presented this theory to Francona. He smiled slightly. He didn’t dispute the theory before concluding, “I think we’re going to be O.K.” That might mean the theory was accurate.

    The Red Sox are underdogs to the Yankees in the same way that Warren Buffett is a financial underdog to Bill Gates. They have a very good team, one of the best in baseball. General Manager Theo Epstein improved the defense by adding Cameron in center field, Scutaro at shortstop and third baseman Adrian Beltre and also signed John Lackey to strengthen a deep rotation. We have heard how defense will help the Red Sox win more games.  We haven’t heard enough about the rotation.

    In Beckett, Lackey and Jon Lester, the Red Sox have three pitchers who have been or could be number one starters. Clay Buchholz has superb stuff but needs to mature to be a serious contributor. Tim Wakefield is a reliable back of the rotation starter, while Daisuke Matsuzaka is an ongoing project. The Yankees counter with Sabathia, who might be the premier pitcher in the American League, and a solid supporting cast of A.J. Burnett, Andy Pettitte, Vazquez and Phil Hughes. Joba Chamberlain is the Yankees’ ongoing project.

    The comparisons between the sturdy rotations will persist all season. That intensity in the rivalry is one of the reasons Cameron is excited to leap into the world of Yankees-Red Sox. Cameron predicted that Sunday’s atmosphere would be “crazy,” which is why he must stay relaxed. When two autograph-seeking fans both flipped baseballs at Cameron, he caught one baseball in each hand, never dropped his pen and maintained a conversation with me. So I’m guessing Cameron knows how to stay relaxed.

    “I’m going to just treat it like a regular game because I don’t want to be like, ‘What if I don’t do this?,’” Cameron said. “I’m going to dive, slide, run my butt off and take CC off the wall.”

    Despite Boston’s stellar pitching and defense, David Ortiz might be the most critical player on the Red Sox. These Red Sox are not the Manny Ramirez-Ortiz Red Sox anymore. They are not even the Jason Bay-Ortiz Red Sox. Big Papi can’t go zero for the first two months, as he did in 2009. If Ortiz sputters for a lengthy period, the Red Sox might search for another power hitter.

    Why wait to see Ortiz spit into his gloves for the first time and try to be intimidating again? Why wait to hear whether Derek Jeter or Alex Rodriguez gets booed more lustily? Why wait to officially begin the yearly Yankees-Red Sox tussle that never ends?

    This season, we don’t have to wait. Let the stalking begin, in both cities.

    4.1 (3 Ratings)

    The last ride for the proud lefty?

    Friday, April 2, 2010, 9:32 AM [General]

    Andy Pettitte can see the end of his gratifying career approaching and can feel the number of games he might have left reduced to a precious few dozen. Pettitte is fine with that scenario, content with trying to help the Yankees fashion another memorable season before probably retiring.

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

    With no prompting, Pettitte veered from discussing how comfortable he has felt as a pitcher this spring to how uncomfortable he feels as an absentee father. When some players lament how much they miss their family because of the draining season, their words seem choreographed. When Pettitte says those same words, he seems sincere.

    As soon as Pettitte vividly described how much it bothered him to see Josh, his 15-year old son, for only three days across a seven-week span, it confirmed what I had already thought about Pettitte in 2010. This will surely be his final season. Pettitte sounded like a proud pitcher who wants to squeeze one last season out of his left arm and then disappear to be a Mr. Mom in Deer Park, Texas.

    “There are so many things going on back home and I’m not there,” Pettitte said. “I can’t keep asking my wife to take care of everything.”

    But, for now, Pettitte still has a full-time gig in the Bronx. After mentioning his wife, Laura, and their four children, Pettitte steered the conversation back to baseball and stressed how motivated he was to produce in his 16th season. He had a bundle of ice wrapped around his elbow, the elbow that almost caused him to retire in 2006. The ice was part of a post-workout routine. The elbow, Pettitte said, felt strong.

    Through excessive elbow pain, lots of starts where his cut fastball wasn’t cutting and an embarrassing period following the Mitchell Report, Pettitte has been a ferocious competitor and a perfectionist. During all of his 229 career wins and 18 postseason wins, Pettitte has scolded himself on the mound. He will verbally batter himself for missing a spot or for dropping his arm angle. Pettitte will undoubtedly scold himself during his last spring start against the Baltimore Orioles on Friday, too.

    Before Pettitte ambles away from the game, he has a plan for how he wants 2010 to unfold for the Yankees. Any eight-year old Yankee fan could write the script that Pettitte envisions because it is every fan’s script, too. Pettitte thinks the Yankees could and should win their second straight championship. That would make the getaway from a stellar left-hander to a left-handed Mr. Mom even smoother.

    “I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t feel we can win it again,” Pettitte said.

    Since the 37-year old Pettitte is the oldest starter in the rotation and is beginning his 13th season in New York, he explained that it is his responsibility to be a mentor to the other pitchers. Pettitte’s most important student will be Javier Vazquez, who will pitch behind Pettitte in the rotation. Pettitte gushed about how Vazquez is a significant addition and vowed to make sure Vazquez does not get unsettled.

    While Pettitte is usually humble, he explained how he mentored CC Sabathia about the intricacies of pitching in New York last season and how he will “stay on” Vazquez to make sure that his second tour with the Yankees has a rosier ending. To me, Pettitte’s revelation was another sliver of evidence that he wants to help orchestrate his own fond farewell.  

    “I’ve got to be a mentor here,” Pettitte said. “I don’t really like talking about doing that kind of stuff. But CC (Sabathia) talked about how I helped him last year so I figure it’s all right to talk about it.”

    For most of the spring, Pettitte has been the invisible pitcher as he has only logged four innings. Officially, that is. Pettitte has actually pitched more than that, but some outings have been in simulated and intra-squad games. Not facing Major League hitters was no problem for Pettitte, who insisted he will know what Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis look like next week at Fenway Park.

    When Pettitte was a rookie trying to make the Yankees in 1995, I remember how nervous he was about the future one morning in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He mentioned how his uncertain status prevented him from telling Laura whether they should plan to be in New York with the Yankees or in Columbus, Ohio, with the Triple-A team. At the time, Josh was a few months old. Pettitte ended up being a mainstay with 12 wins in the Majors.

    Fifteen years later, Pettitte was talking about baseball and family again. He wasn’t nervous anymore. He was content. Pettitte has earned more than $100 million and won five World Series rings because he is so adept at throwing a baseball. He is about to do it for another season, a season that could be his last.

    4.1 (5 Ratings)

    Yankees through the eyes of the Red Sox

    Tuesday, March 30, 2010, 2:32 PM [General]

    The following was originally posted on March 19 on

    BRADENTON, Fla. -- In 16 days, Josh Beckett is scheduled to unleash the first pitch of the 2010 season to Derek Jeter at a boisterous Fenway Park. It will probably be a fastball, a pitch that will climb above 90 miles per hour and will christen the resumption of the rivalry between the Red Sox and the Yankees.

    On Friday, Beckett fired fastballs against the anonymous Pirates in another monotonous Spring Training game. An hour before the game started, an expressionless Beckett sat alone in the third-base dugout, as approachable as a pit bull who had been fasting for a week. So Beckett's ornery demeanor was in perfect form to barge into another season.

    At the same time, the Yankees were playing the Tigers in Tampa, 42 miles away. The Yankees and the Red Sox do not meet this spring, which was the right arrangement for teams that seemingly hang out together every other weekend from April until October. But 16 days is barely a moment in a draining season so the Yankees and the Red Sox, who are never far from each other, are inching closer together again.

    "Obviously, I know where it is and when we play them," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "I try not to think about it. That would ruin my Spring Training."

    Francona laughed after saying that he was ignoring the Yankees, but he explained himself. When Francona was managing the Phillies in 2000, he obsessed all spring about having to begin the season against Arizona's Randy Johnson. Francona promised himself that he would never do that again so he insisted he is not thinking about CC Sabathia. He should have laughed again. Of course, Francona is thinking about the Yankees. Just like the Yankees are thinking about the Red Sox.

    "We know they have smart people making decisions and we know they're going to have the biggest payroll," Francona said. "That's a tough combination. We're the one team that has gone toe to toe with them and held our own."

    Francona's analysis was modest. Because the Yankees are the defending World Series Champions, Francona was both deferential and respectful toward them. While the Yankees won it all last season and are primed to be the best team in baseball again, the Red Sox have won two titles since 2004. That is one more than the Yankees have secured in that time frame. Still, Dustin Pedroia called the Red Sox an underdog these days.

    "I kind of always feel that way against the Yankees," said Pedroia, his hand softly tapping his glove. "They got the highest payroll. And look at that lineup. They've got studs everywhere. Robinson Cano is one of the best hitters in baseball and they were hitting him seventh."

    Beckett, who will have to face that slightly revised Yankee lineup, did not see much of a difference between the team that won a championship with Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui and now features Curtis Granderson and Nick Johnson. Without specifically citing Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Cano, Beckett noted how the Yankees still "have all those other guys" and added that the new additions aren't pushovers, either. The Yankees' lineup will be a lot more challenging than the Pirates' lineup that smudged Beckett, who was recovering from the flu, for four runs in a 9-7 win.

    "I think the Yankees have a lot of tough hitters," Beckett said. "I expect they're probably going to be that way for a long time."

    Pick a defensive metric, any defensive metric, and the 2009 Red Sox were one of the worst fielding teams in baseball. The Red Sox redefined themselves as more defensively oriented by adding shortstop Marco Scutaro, center fielder Mike Cameron and third baseman Adrian Beltre. With Cameron nudging Jacoby Ellsbury from center to left field, where Jason Bay's productive bat was, the Red Sox should have more reliable defenders at four positions.

    By also signing pitcher John Lackey, the Red Sox might have the best and deepest rotation in the Major Leagues. Francona said the Red Sox focused on improving their pitching and defense to "protect ourselves" if their offense sputtered, but he stressed that they would not be a "pitching, defense and no-hit team." In the competitive American League East, the Red Sox, who will prevent more runs, had better not be a feeble offensive squad. Without Bay and with an eroding David Ortiz, the Red Sox will have a softer lineup.

    As Francona discussed how the streamlined Red Sox will perform this season, he eventually said he would have "a better answer if you ask me in October." So will the Yankees. The answers that will define what happens in October and maybe November will start trickling out in 16 days. Another season will begin and the game's best rivalry will resume.


    Jack Curry is in his first season as a YES Network analyst and columnist.
    3.7 (4 Ratings)

    Curiosity has fueled my career

    Tuesday, March 30, 2010, 2:22 PM [General]

    The first time I covered a Yankee game as the main writer, my car was swiped. Or at least I thought it was stolen. After parking in midtown Manhattan to pick up a computer part at The New York Times, I bolted out of the building 10 minutes later and stared at a painfully empty parking spot.

    On the subway to Yankee Stadium, I was equally worried about getting to the Bronx in time for pre-game interviews and about how I was going to eventually get home to New Jersey. Before Pascual Perez had gyrated his way through three innings, I learned that my car had been towed. After writing my story, a friend drove me to the impound lot to retrieve my car. It was around 2 a.m.

    That incident had nothing and everything to do with covering baseball, and taught me a lesson that has shadowed me across 20 seasons of being around the Yankees: Be prepared for anything and everything. When something happens, because it will, be curious about it and react quickly and intelligently.

    Now that I'm working for the YES Network, I wanted to share some of these personal stories in my online debut and explain that I will continue to be curious about everything I see and hear. Sometimes, those pebbles of information can grow into boulders. Staying curious and persistent is how you can uncover information that viewers and readers might never have a chance to know.

    During my first week as a YES analyst and columnist, I received a raft of reactions. Derek Jeter called me "a YES guy" and teased me about the prospect of wearing makeup, Jorge Posada asked me for details about my role, Nick Johnson wondered how come I wasn't nervous doing live interviews and Mariano Rivera shook my hand and wished me luck. The response from the gentlemanly Rivera was not a surprise. The surprise was when two fans asked me to autograph their baseballs, an act which is ahead of incineration as the greatest way to diminish the value of a ball.

    Even as my employer and my job have changed, I noticed people that reminded me why some things are still the same. When I saw Joe Girardi, it reminded me of how I wondered what it would be like to drive to a game with the manager. So I asked Girardi to accompany him to his first game as Yankee manager. As Girardi passed the 230th Street exit on the Major Deegan, he said, "Seventy blocks." He sounded like a boy who was about to open a pile of presents on his 6th birthday.

    When I saw Alex Rodriguez, it reminded me of covering his stint with the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic last year. After a workout, Rodriguez separated from his teammates. It seemed odd. I did some digging, made some calls. A few hours later, I was the first to report that Rodriguez had a hip injury and was flying to meet a specialist in Colorado.

    When I saw Rivera, I thought about the dozens of times I have interviewed him. In 1996, Rivera described how he used the top of a shoe box as a glove as a kid in Panama. In 1999, Rivera told me he planned to pitch four more seasons and retire to become an evangelist. Fortunately for the Yankees, Rivera never followed through on that prediction. And, in my first interview with Rivera on YES, he said his emotions after the 2009 World Series caused him to say he wanted to pitch for five more years. But he still did not discount doing it.

    When I saw Bernie Williams visiting his former teammates, I recalled traveling to Venezuela and Colombia with him on a goodwill tour five years ago. Since Williams, a famous Major League player, would have been an appealing prize to kidnappers, he was surrounded by armed security on the trip. When one of the security officers told us that snipers could shoot the tires of our armored vehicle and we would continue rumbling along, I thought I might need to hand Williams an air sickness bag. That is, after I used one first.

    When I saw George Steinbrenner at a few spring games, I reflected on one of my favorite stories from covering the Yankees. In my earliest months on the Yankees, I couldn't get the principal owner to return a call. I tried day after day and my phone never rang. It was an initiation process, I'm sure.

    Finally, on a random afternoon, the Boss called back. I was floored and flustered. He told me that he believed in trust, honesty and fairness. As long as my writing was fair, Steinbrenner said he would try to call me back.

    About 20 minutes into the interview, the sound of an extension being lifted was heard on the line and a voice muttered, "Doesn't he know there's a dinner hour around here?"

    The extension clicked off, the voice vanished.

    "Who was that?" the Boss bellowed.

    I knew who it was. I knew the voice. Since I had graduated from Fordham and was not yet married, I was living at home in Jersey City. We had one boss in my house.

    "It was my mother," I said sheepishly.

    "What did she say?" he asked.

    I told Steinbrenner what she had said about dinner and waited for his reaction.

    "She's right," he said. "I've always said that family comes first. Go have dinner and we'll talk some other time."

    I protested, telling him that the interview was more critical than chicken cutlets. He didn't listen to me. He listened to my mother.

    "No, no, no," Steinbrenner repeated. "Go have dinner. That's more important."

    Twenty years after that memorable interview, I'm still following the Yankees. I'm very happy with my exciting career change and with the chance to analyze the Yankees for YES. From the time my car was towed until now, I have remained curious about the Yankees and what happens with them. That will never change, even if there are a few people who are now silly enough to ask me for an autograph.


    Jack Curry is in his first season as a YES Network analyst and columnist.
    3.7 (4 Ratings)

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