Yankees make savvy baseball move in extending Gardner

    Sunday, February 23, 2014, 6:35 PM [General]

    When Brett Gardner's name floated around as a possible trade chip for the Yankees in the off-season, general manager Brian Cashman wasn't interested in trading the outfielder. He was much more interested in signing Gardner to a contract extension. On Sunday, the Yankees did just that as Gardner agreed to a four-year, $52 million deal that will begin in the 2015 season.

    By signing Gardner one year before he could became a free agent, the Yankees made a savvy baseball decision. While the Yankees don't typically negotiate extensions with players that are nearing free agency, they recognized the importance of having a reliable player like Gardner to pair with Jacoby Ellsbury in the outfield for the next several years.

    "I love everything about the way Gardy plays the game," Cashman said. "He's a guy who will do whatever he can to help the team win. You want to keep guys like that around."

    Every time I quizzed Yankees executives about the possibility of trading Gardner for a pitcher, they stressed how much they valued Gardner's speed, defense, plate discipline, his on-base percentage and his team-first attitude. If the Yankees were going to trade Gardner, they would have needed to be overwhelmed by any potential offer. That never happened.

    What did happen is that Cashman began conversations with Joe Bick, Gardner's agent, about a new contract at the Winter Meetings in December. Using Michael Bourn's 4-year, $48 million deal with the Cleveland Indians from last year as a guideline, the two sides managed to move at a decent pace to reach an agreement. 

    Gardner, who already had a $5.6 million salary in place for this year, will make $12.5 million in each season from 2015 to 2018. The deal includes a fifth-year club option for $12.5 million, with a $2 million buyout. If the Yankees exercise the option, Gardner will make $62.5 million and will be with the team through the 2019 season. Ellsbury's seven-year, $153 million deal runs through 2020, with an option in 2021. Gardner, who didn't get a no-trade clause, sounded relieved to know that he was staying with the Yankees.

    "It takes a lot of pressure off me and going out and having to perform in a walk year," Gardner said. "Free agency is something that kind of intrigued me, but it also kind of scared me. I've never been anywhere else. I got drafted here almost nine years ago. I love it here. This is where I wanted to be."

    A former walk-on at the College of Charleston, Gardner was drafted by the Yankees in the third round in 2005. Cashman said some baseball evaluators told him that Gardner would never play center field for the Yankees, but Cashman thought differently. So did Gardner. Even after hitting .260 at Class AAA in 2007, Gardner told me in 2008 that he expected to soon be the center fielder for the Yankees. He was right.

    Now Gardner will be with the Yankees a lot longer, although he will be in left field since Ellsbury is the center fielder. While Ellsbury and Gardner are similar players, the Yankees relish the idea of having both of them in their lineup for many more years. Gardner offers the Yankees a dimension that few players can give because he has the ability to change games with his legs, his bat and his glove.

    "He really has developed into a real solid, every day player," Cashman said. "He's tough and he's a gamer. I think he's part of the solution here."

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    Prescient scout to thank for Jeter in pinstripes

    Thursday, February 20, 2014, 5:45 PM [General]

    Even the most ardent Yankees fan wouldn't consider April 8, 1992 an important date in the team's successful history. The Yankees didn't even play a game on that day, which meant it was as benign a day as a franchise could experience. But something memorable did happen on that seemingly sleepy day.

    Dick Groch, a Yankees' scout, was busy that day, busy completing his scouting report on a high school shortstop from Kalamazoo, Michigan named Derek Jeter. Almost 22 years later, it is surreal to analyze how accurate Groch was in forecasting the future for a 17-year-old player. Groch filed the report on April 8, 1992, which is why that innocuous day is actually a relevant date in Yankees' history.

    When Jeter discusses his decision to retire after the 2014 season at a press conference on Wednesday, he will explain why this is the end. There will also be questions about how Jeter, the kid who told his parents and everyone else that he would play for the Yankees, started his career with the organization. While Jeter was drafted in the first round by the Yankees on June 1, 1992, don't overlook the importance of Groch's report from two months earlier.

    After receiving Groch's report, the Yankees were more committed than ever to selecting Jeter with the sixth pick overall. Scouts routinely use a 20 to 80 scale to rate the different skills of a player, with a score of 50 considered to be an average Major Leaguer. A 60 means a player is above average and a 70 means a player is among the best of the best. Groch rated Jeter's overall future potential as a 64, meaning he believed that Jeter would be a well above average player and an All-Star.

    While Groch's numerical ratings of Jeter's hitting, running and throwing were revealing, his comments about Jeter were more intriguing. As I read Groch's report, it was eerie to realize how precisely he had predicted Jeter's career.

    Under the section of the reported entitled, "Summation and Signability," Groch wrote, "A Yankee!" A five-tool player. He will be a M.L. star times five!!."

    In the section for "Abilities," Groch wrote, "Above average arm, quick release. Accurate throws with outstanding carry. Soft hands, good range, active feet. Very good runner. Flow on the bases. Shows power potential. Quick bat."

    In the section for "Weaknesses," Groch wrote, "Anxious hitter. Needs to learn to be more patient at the plate. Swing slightly long."

    When Groch had to give a "Physical Description," for Jeter, he wrote, "Long, lean, sinewy body. Long arms, long legs, narrow waist, thin ankles. Live, electric movements."

    In Groch's report, he graded Jeter's in intangibles. He rated Jeter as "excellent" in dedication, emotional maturity and agility, "good" in habits, aptitude and coachability and "fair" in physical maturity since the shortstop was still a skinny kid. Although the report listed Jeter as 175 pounds, Jeter has said he was 156 when the Yankees drafted him. Groch was prescient enough to give Jeter the highest ranking for dedication and emotional maturity, traits that have been hallmarks of his career, on and off the field.

    Groch's report also used the 20-80 scale to give Jeter a present rating and a future rating for 10 different skills. Jeter's future scores included one 70 (for running speed), one 65 (for fielding), five 60s (for base running, arm strength, arm accuracy, baseball instinct and range), one 55 (for aggressiveness) and and two 50s (for hitting ability and power). Merely giving Jeter, who has 3,316 hits and counting, a 50 for hitting ability was one blemish in the report.

    When Jeter was being scouted, teams knew there was a slight possibility that he could go to Michigan to play baseball. Groch scoffed at the notion and said the only place Jeter was going was to the Hall of Fame. So Groch will eventually be right with that prediction, too. The scout was right about most things with Jeter, which is why the report he filed on April 8, 1992 made that day a memorable one for the Yankees.

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    Family prepared Jeter for life as a Yankee

    Thursday, February 13, 2014, 2:22 PM [General]

    When I collaborated with Derek Jeter on a book in 2000, he let me into his private world a little more than he ever does with reporters. In order to accurately tell Jeter's story in "The Life You Imagine," I told him that he needed to treat me as a co-author and not like the sportswriter from The New York Times, which I was at the time.

    "That sounds good to me," Jeter said simply, after I spent five minutes describing why that distinction was important.

    For several months, I shadowed Jeter and interviewed him anywhere and everywhere. We did an interview over lunch at an Italian restaurant. At least we tried to do it. Once the fans spotted Jeter, I had no chance to get my questions answered. The autograph seekers won. We did interviews in Jeter's home in Tampa. Those were much more productive, but I should have asked him to lower the volume on ESPN. We did an interview on a private plane, which ended up being the most useful session we had. It was just me and Jeter for three straight hours in the four-seat plane. He even reached into the mini-fridge to serve both of us lunch.

    What I learned in the book process reinforced what I had already known about Jeter. He is devoted to his parents, Charles and Dorothy, and his sister, Sharlee. That's not a charade. He had an obsession about becoming a Yankee, a dream that he had chased from the time he was eight years old. That's no charade, either. I read the elementary school yearbook in which Jeter predicted he would be a Yankee. He didn't complicate matters. There was nothing in Jeter's life, from personal to business relationships, that he didn't want there. If there was clutter, he would eliminate it.

    After interviewing Jeter, his parents, his sister, his grandmother and his closest friends, I concluded that the Jeter who took over as the Yankees' shortstop in 1996 had essentially been that responsible since he was the shortstop at Kalamazoo Central High School in Michigan. Obviously, the 22-year old Jeter who helped the Yankees win the 1996 World Series title was more mature than the 15-year old Jeter that wanted to beat Portage Central. But I truly believe that Jeter was so motivated to achieve his goal of playing in the Major Leagues that he started acting like a big leaguer before he had a driver's license.

    As revered as Jeter is these days, he and his family experienced bigotry (Dorothy is white and Charles is African-American) and that caused Jeter to be even more guarded. When Jeter was a kid, he said there "was something different about the way some people treated us." Some kids called Jeter a Zebra or Oreo Cookie or Black and White. When those unfortunate incidents happen, any person would be more selective about who they trust, how they act and what they say.

    While Jeter's parents helped prepare him for a world that wasn't always going to be fair because of the color of his skin, I think that preparation helped him navigate the turbulence that can come with playing baseball in New York. Has any superstar in New York had as spotless an off-the-field reputation as Jeter? No one. Even as Jeter has dated super models, beauty queens and pop stars, his image has remained pristine.

    When I asked Jeter about how he has led his life on and off the field, he explained what has guided his actions. Jeter said that he never wanted to do anything that would "embarrass" his parents. Imagine that? It's a simple, but profound statement. If we all made decisions based on not wanting to embarrass our parents, we'd make safer and smarter choices.

    Now Jeter is retiring after the 2014 season, ending a career that has been exhilarating for him, his family and the generation of fans that don't know the Yankees without him. On the same day that Jeter announced his retirement, Jeff Idelson, the President of the Hall of Fame, noted that the induction ceremony for the 2020 class is on July 26. As cool and classy as ever, Jeter will undoubtedly be enshrined that day. I'm sure he'd say, "That sounds good to me."  

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    Jeter to put finishing touch on a spotless career

    Thursday, February 13, 2014, 9:50 AM [General]

    When Derek Jeter was a rookie shortstop with the Yankees in 1996, the veteran players scrutinized him. They were waiting for Jeter to do something that was immature, something that would require them to scold Jeter. It was all part of the clubhouse culture and was a way for the older players to teach some lessons. Eventually, every young player needed to be reprimanded, even playfully, for something.      

    So the veterans waited. They waited for Jeter to wear a garish outfit on the team plane, speak at the wrong time during a team meeting or miss a sign during a game. They studied the new kid on the block. He was 21 years old when the season started. Soon, they thought, he will do something goofy.

    "We were waiting for him to make a mistake, like a cop with a radar gun," said David Cone. "He never did. Derek handled himself as well as anyone could."

    That snapshot of Jeter's behavior during his first full season was the same picture that could be taken during every season of his career, a tremendous career that will end after 2014. Jeter announced on Wednesday that he would play this season with the Yankees and then will retire. So the man whose career was highlighted by making the right decisions, on and off the field, is making the right decision again.

    While I think Jeter is making the correct decision by retiring, I was still surprised by it. When I interviewed Jeter last spring, before his ankle injury had recurred, I asked him whether he could duplicate his superb 2012 season of 216 hits and how high he could climb up the all-time hits list.

    As always, Jeter was amazingly confident. He didn't want to just repeat 2012. He talked about being even better in 2013. I mentioned that Jeter, who now has 3,316 hits, was two solid seasons away from vaulting into fourth-place on the hits list, behind Pete Rose, Ty Cobb and Hank Aaron. Jeter didn't sprint away from that possibility, didn't sound like a man who was less than a year from retiring.

    But Jeter's mindset changed because of a 2013 season that he called a nightmare, a campaign that was limited to 17 games. In Jeter's statement, he said, "Some of the things that always came easily to me and were always fun had started to become a struggle. The one thing I always said to myself was that when baseball started to feel like a job, it would be time to move forward."

    Five months ago, Jeter chided reporters that asked about the future and wondered why there were so many questions about "the end." Now Jeter has answered the question about the end before it could even be asked this spring. This is it. This is the end for one of the greatest Yankees ever, a player with a .312 lifetime average, five World Series rings, five Gold Gloves, a Rookie of the Year Award and three top-three M.V.P. finishes.

    Scan the crowd at Yankees game. You see all those kids wearing No. 2 jerseys, who root for Jeter and dream that they could be just like him? Jeter was one was of those dreaming kids. When Jeter was eight, he told his parents he would play for the Yankees. But Jeter didn't just have a dream. We all have dreams. He worked to make it a reality. From taking thousands of swings in his garage during frigid Michigan winters, to bypassing summer parties so he could play in tournaments, to abiding by the strict contracts that he signed with his parents -- Jeter was relentless in pursuing his dream.

    "I was always serious about what I was doing," Jeter said. "I knew what I wanted to do."

    In four months, Jeter will turn 40. I remember when he was 18 and the Yankees played host to their first-round draft choice at Yankee Stadium. He weighed 156 pounds. A year later, Jeter made 56 errors in the minor leagues, cried a lot and thought about quitting. But Charles and Dorothy, his parents, reminded him that he had a goal, a very difficult goal, and that he could attain it. Of course, he did.

    A few days before Christmas in 1997, Jeter visited children in a hospital in Kalamazoo, Mich. Before the visit, Jeter conceded that he hated being in hospitals and was uncomfortable. During the visit, Jeter was at ease and was a magnet to the kids. He crouched down to play in a miniature kitchen with a little girl and teased an 11-year-old boy about being a Dallas Cowboys fan.

    As I watched Jeter interact with those kids, I realized how smooth he was. He was as comfortable with them as he would be in lashing a fastball to right field with his familiar inside-out swing. Like Cone said, Jeter handled himself as well as someone could. At the time, Jeter had only been the Yankee shortstop for two years, but he said, "I have the best job in the world."

    For one more year, he still does. Enjoy the final moments of a memorable career, a spotless career.

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    JCTV: Best of Baseball Cards

    Tuesday, February 4, 2014, 11:52 AM [General]

    At the end of each episode of JCTV, host Jack Curry opens a pack of baseball cards with his guest. Watch as Jack compares decks with Adam Sandler, Brian Williams, David Cone, Regis Philbin and more.

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