Sunday, September 21, 2008

Jeter accepts the torch

Derek Jeter had already done enough to ensure he'd never been forgotten.

The Jeffrey Maier game. The backhanded flip to Posada. The walk-off vs. Kim. The head-first dive against Boston. Those four rings. In between, there have been enough jump throws from left and inside-out singles to right to build a lifetime worth of legend cred.

And yet, the Captain managed to outdo himself on a special night at the Stadium. The last night at the Stadium.

“Every member of this organization, past and present, has been calling this place home for 85 years, There’s a lot of tradition, a lot of history and a lot of memories. Now the great thing about memories is you’re able to pass it along from generation to generation.

“Although things are going to change next year. We’re going to move across the street. There are a few things that New York Yankees that never change. That’s pride, tradition and most of all we have the greatest fans in the world.

We want you to take the memories from this stadium, add them to the new memories that come at the new Yankee Stadium and continue to pass them along from generation to generation. So on behalf of the entire organization, we want to take this moment to salute you, the greatest fans in the world.”

That's pretty cool, huh?

Here's the thing about Jeter. He's 34 years old. It's quite possible that, as a player, his best days are now behind him. He's got two more years left on his contract, and it's extremely likely he'll sign another deal for two or three more that ensures he retires a Yankee. He'll get 3,000 hits, maybe even 3,500, have his number retired, probably get a monument and enter the Hall of Fame five years later.

But beyond all those hits and all those rings, I feel like Jeter has now become an equal with the Yankee greats that came before him. I now see Jeter the way I picture Mantle was viewed in his final seasons. Someone who has become bigger than his peers, but for all the right reasons. Jeter's not just the shortstop for the Yankees anymore. He represents a piece of history. He's become another link in a very exclusive chain. For me, watching him give that postgame speech in the middle of the diamond clinched that ideal.

Over the past 12 years, he has been the Yankees' most visible star despite a public profile that favored vanilla quotes and actions that served only to avoid controversy. But when he took that microphone and addressed those 57,000 fans and millions more watching on TV, it was as if he officially accepted his role as the newest Yankee icon.

I grew up worshipping Don Mattingly as my idol. He was baseball to me, and he's the only player that can rival Jeter's popularity since Mantle retired prior to the 1969 season. But despite his immense popularity, Mattingly will never be viewed the same way Jeter will be once he retires. You can make the argument that Mattingly was the better player before his back quit on him, but without any tales of October glory, he'll always be earthbound when talk turns to the legends of the franchise.

Jeter has the rings. He has the numbers. And now you can see that he's finally took on the responsibility for what he means to America's most storied sports franchise. It was the perfect way to close the big ballpark in the Bronx.

Jeter said during his speech that some things about the New York Yankees never change. He's absolutely right. Some things will always be what they are, the history of the franchise will always give it immense meaning to millions of people. With Whitey and Yogi in attendance on Sept. 21, 2008, a new legend accepted his place amongst the satellites.

Goodbye to the Cathedral

Saturday, September 20, 2008

You may say I'm a dreamer ...

... and yes, I'm the only one.

If the Yanks sweep three games from the Jays at Toronto and the Red Sox get swept at home against the Indians in a four-game set, the Yankees can go into Fenway Park mathematically alive.

So yeah, tell Hideki to put off that surgery. We may going to the Dance after all!

(Yes, I understand I'm in dangerous denial.)

Friday, September 19, 2008

Weird times in the Bronx

The Yankees season is basically devoid of meaningful competitive storylines these days, replaced by coldly manufactured ones like Derek Jeter having the most hits in Yankee Stadium history and Billy Connors piling the most dead hookers and buffalo wings under the right-field bleachers.

And with so little in the balance -- the Yanks can be officially eliminated from playoff contention as early as this weekend -- it wouldn't have been surprising for the bottom to fall out as players began turning their attention elsewhere.

With that said, you have to hand it to the veterans that they're making the last homestand at the Stadium a winning one. After taking two of three from the Rays last weekend, they won their first four-game series of the season by taking three from the White Sox. On Thursday, Mike Mussina built upon a season in which he is undoubtable his team's MVP, winning his 18th game. He will have to go 2-for-2 down the stretch to reach elusive No. 20.

It seems as if even Robinson Cano has temporarily put aside his plan to bang every co-ed in America, picking up five hits over the past two nights. On a side note, is it too obvious that the Yanks will deal Cano to the Dodgers this offseason, reuniting the prodigal son with Larry Bowa and Joe Torre? I mean, that almost makes too much sense right? I don't think it's necessarily a good idea to deal Cano when his value is through the floor, but knowing the Dodgers, they'd probably pay the cost of '05-'06 Cano thinking the coaching staff can turn him around. This is the next Rod Carew after all. He converted, by the way.

Thursday's victory clinched a winning season for these Yankees -- their 15th straight such campaign -- and with nine games remaining it's very possible they'll win between 87-89 games. Though hardly a consolation for a dark October, it should be recognized that their record shows that this hasn't been such a terrible season ... at least technically. Just terrible by Yankees standards, standards are ridiculously high. Let me ask you this: If Chien-Ming Wang had made 34 starts instead of 15, are the Yanks in a three-team dogfight in the AL East right now? Yeah, that's what I thought.

But sadly, Wang didn't make those starts and the Yanks have no part in that aforementioned dog race. It's a reality that's still hard to swallow for prideful Bombers fans like me and you. I made my final visit to Yankee Stadium on Monday night -- my reflections on that will come shortly -- and it was weird to watch the mighty Yanks actually playing out the string. As we walked through that stuffy old tunnel-bridge for the last time my buddy Howie, a season-ticket holder and eternal Bombers pessimist, remarked that it had been years since he had seen the Yankees play for nothing. It was 1993 to be exact, a time when I was still hitting wiffle balls in my front yard pretending I was hitting cleanup behind Don Mattingly.

The Yanks were a team on the rise then, with players like Jeter, Pettitte, Williams and Rivera ready to return the franchise to glory. Whether the likes of Chamberlain, Hughes and Jackson can restore this club once again is the new question.

It could be 1993 all over again for the Yankees. It could just as easily be 1965. Thomas Earl Petty famously once said that waiting was the hardest part. He's absolutely right.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Help arrives too little, too late

There haven't been many good stories in Yankee Land these past few weeks, so watching Mexican right-hander Alfredo Aceves' fine performance in his first big league start Tuesday was a welcome change of pace. Signed out of the Mexican League a year ago for $450,000, Aceves showed surprisingly good stuff over seven one-run innings in the Yankees' 7-1 victory in Anaheim. With 27 passes handed out to family and friends before the game, I'm guessing Mr. Aceves and his loved ones are enjoying their Dos Equis tonight.

I do have a complaint though, one that I couldn't shake as the big right-hander wearing No. 91 mowed down the AL West-leading Angels. What took the Yankees so long to give Aceves -- or anyone else thriving within the organization -- a chance?

Week after week Yankees fans were subject to the brutal stylings of Darrell Rasner, a nice enough dude I bet, but certainly not the first guy getting picked in kickball. And while Kennedy and Hughes had the opportunity and coughed it up, it stood to reason there had to be somebody -- anybody -- in the organization worth taking a flyer on as Rasner's poor starts piled up.

Aceves is a perfect example of this. The 25-year-old was 8-6 with a 2.62 ERA in 25 games (23 starts) at Class A Tampa, Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre this season. He was an effective pitcher on every level. And yet he remained in the farm system until Aug. 28. You have to wonder: At any point during Rasner's deadly eight-start winless streak from July 22-Sept.4 did the club think about sliding in another arm from the system?

It's not fair to blame the Yankees' second-half fade on poor Darrell Rasner; you can't put that much on someone never meant to carry the weight of 13 straight playoff appearances on his shoulders. This maddening season can only described as a team effort. But this Yankees team needed an unknown quantity to step up in the rotation the way Aaron Small and Shawn Chacon saved the day in 2005. For a short time it seemed Rasner would fit that description, the product of a 3-0 start in May. Rasner is now 5-10, simple math stating the right-hander had been very bad for a very long period of time before the Yankees finally pulled the plug for good last Thursday.

The damage had already been done by then, however. Too little, too late. Just like Aceves' performance. Injuries and age helped put the Yankees into decline this season, but as Aceves' start tonight prove, roster indecision has played its part as well.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Distractions help during end of an era

For many fans, the start of the NFL seasons brings with it a new dawn in the sports experience.

Watching Brett Favre continue to pump life back into my team was certainly a welcome sight. But it's not a sports cure-all by any means. The average fan is able to turn his or her attention away from baseball and the struggles of their favorite team and hope that the Giants or the Jets or the Patriots will be heading toward a date with the Super Bowl. Well, maybe not the Pats.

But for the diehards out there, this blogger included, the blinding optimism of the NFL season can't make the pain of this Yankees season go away. There's no way to talk yourself into the Bombers going to the playoffs now, not after they lost two of three this weekend to a team with a .380 winning percentage. River & Sunset's Unofficial Theory of Survival is no more. The defibrillators have come out and they couldn't jumpstart the pinstriped heart. It's all over.

There will be a time to reflect on the end of this amazing Yankees run, admittedly soured by postseason failures in recent years, but amazing nonetheless. Say what you will about Brian Cashman -- and with his contract up plenty will be said both for and against him -- but he was the engineer of a franchise that hadn't missed the playoffs since he took the gig in 1997. With a little luck -- Joe Torre playing the infield back in '01, Tony Clark's liner into the corner not bouncing over the wall in Fenway in '04, the unlikely Cleveland humidity descending bugs into Joba Chamberlain's soul in '07 -- this could have been a team with one or two more championships under its belt.

But this isn't about crying over spilled milk. The point is the Yankees of 2001-07 were in a great position to extend their dynasty from one decade to the next. For a variety of reasons -- three of which are listed above -- it didn't happen. But Cashman helped give this franchise that chance. You can argue that his free-agent signings have been more bust than boom, but this guy knows what he's doing. Fans should remember that come next month.

What comes next? Well, I'll definitely begin diving into that as the season's final month wraps up. Suddenly there's a lot of room for different content now that the games mean less than nothing. I guess the lesson here is that every great run in sports comes to an end. And the struggles of '08 will only make it sweeter when New York gets back to the promised land again.

Seeing if Favre and the Jets can claim a suddenly Brady-less AFC East will be fun to watch this fall and winter. Watching how the Yanks try to rebuild this team may end up being just as interesting.

Around The Horn: When I graduated college, I took my first sportswriting job at The Journal News in Westchester County, NY. My favorite gig during my time there was covering the Rockland County baseball beat in 2003. I ultimately decided the everyday life of the newspaperman wasn't for me, but I have a great deal of respect for the business, and the beat guys in particular. The best of the bunch, in my opinion, is Pete Abraham. He's been the Yanks' beat guy for The Journal News for a few years now and his Yanks blog is the best on the 'net. Anyway, if you're interested in the newspaper life, check out Pete's post today, "So what's it like to cover the Yankees?" Really insightful stuff.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Pitching loses championships

If it was the moribund offense largely responsible for putting the Yankees in this unenviable position, then it stands to reason that the back end of the rotation is taking the honors of finishing the season off. See, sports are all about teamwork!

Oh my God. Can you even believe how bad Darrell Rasner is? As the Razz let the game spin out of control in the second inning on Thursday, I started thinking to myself how amazing it is that he was even in this position in the first place. What other Yankees team in my 20+ years as a fan allowed an obviously inferior pitcher to repeatedly shipwreck the team like this? Even more amazing, this undermanned version of the Yankees gainfully employs TWO such pitchers in their starting rotation. Where the fuck is the logic in that? That's bad managing. That's bad management.

After Rasner walked off the mound in a performance he was "ashamed" of (and that's saying a lot), he had allowed five runs on six hits over 1 1/3 innings. He gave his team no chance. The right-hander is now 5-10 with a 5.43 ERA on the season and has not won a game in the second half. I don't care what your team's pitching problems are, how the hell do you leave this guy in the rotation when he literally CANNOT WIN? Where's Adrian Balboa when you need her?

He has a 6.08 ERA in his last 10 games. He has allowed 87 hits and 24 walks in his last 62 1/3 innings. He has just two wins since May 26. And yet the Yankees have trotted him out there every fifth day, save a one-start audition by Ian Kennedy, the journeyman right-hander giving his team zero opportunity to sustain momentum in this lost season.

Rasner's partner in crime, of course, is Sidney Ponson. If you combine their last six starts, this is what you get:

Actually, hide the women children first.

Ready? OK, here we go: 20 1/3 innings, 29 earned runs, 44 hits, 8 strikeouts, 11 walks. That the Yankees actually one two of those six games is a miracle.

Add this slop to Mr. Pettitte's slide into mediocrity, and the Yankees never really stood a chance. I don't think I'm out of turn in saying whoever is in charge of this roster in the offseason has a lot of freaking work to do.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Are Rays vulnerable?

People have been wrong about the Tampa Bay Rays a hundred times this season, this blogger very much included. Every time they've seemed to look vulnerable, Joe Maddon's team has reeled off five of six or eight of 10 and put any theories of a meltdown to rest.

I mention this only because they look vulnerable again and it's the Yankees who are reaping the benefits of it. The irony of the situation is that the Yanks are actually doing the hated Red Sox a great service, as Boston and its unstoppable superstar(?) Dustin Pedroia moved within three games of first place following a third straight win Wednesday.

The Yankees continued to do a good job getting ahead early on Wednesday, taking it to on-again off-again talent Edwin Jackson. Carl Pavano, making his third start off the 500-day DL, couldn't make it out of the fourth inning but the Yanks bullpen did the job in clinching a series win over the Rays with an 8-4 victory. New York now leads Tampa Bay 9-5 in the season series.

The game achieved historic footnote status in the ninth inning when A-Rod's long home run to left became the first play to be reviewed under MLB's instant replay system. It took the umpires two minutes, 15 seconds to make the final ruling, dooming Yankees and Rays beat reporters to 2-3 extra slugs in the process. PeteAbe nailed it a couple days ago when he joked that the Yankees would of course end up being the first team to be involved with a replay. Even more obvious was that A-Rod would be at the center of it all.

The Rays don't look very good right now. Their starting pitching has been poor in both games of the series (in fairness the Yanks haven't seen Kazmir or Shields), the defense and baserunning has been suspect, and the lineup isn't very deep at all with Longoria and Crawford on the shelf. And I'm sorry, Troy Percival is going to kill this team in a big spot (or three) before this season is over. By no means am I writing this team off (I'm sick of being wrong), but they are certainly pregnable at this point. It will be very interesting to see where they are 10 days from now.

It's almost certainly too late for the Yanks to catch the Rays in the standings -- they still trail the AL East leaders by 10 games entering Thursday's finale -- but a sweep would certainly keep the juice flowing into the pinstriped life support system. We all know the Yanks' bleak situation at this point in the season, but being the optimist I am, I will continue to track their playoff hopes and bang you over the head with my utter nonsense. Working under the River & Sunset Unofficial Theory Of Survival, that being the Yanks must win 92 games to potentially win the Wild Card, New York must now finish their schedule at 17-6.

Sounds impossible? Kinda, yeah. But it ain't as bad as 20-6. Just keep winning games. As far as the Rays go, it won't be an easy road to thier first AL East title. After Thursday's finale, they will play nine straight on the road, come home for six games against the Red Sox and Twins before closing the season with an eight more games away from the absurd shitbox that is Tropicana Field.

It's not quite an enviable position ... though in truth it's a place the Yankees would give anything to be in right about now. Like most things in life, it's all about perspective.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The return of Joba

Yankees fans may not have much to cheer about these days, but I'll tell you what we still do have. Joba Freaking Chamberlain. Not to mention his giant, lumbering bluetooth-loving father. And that ain't bad.

Chamberlain was back on the mound for the first time in a month in the opener against the Rays on Tuesday. More effective than sharp, he pitched 1 1/3 scoreless innings in New York's 7-2 win. His fastball was clocked in the mid-90s, and the big man looked comfortable all things considered.

Joba's injury in Texas on Aug. 4 really turned out to be the death knell of the Yankees' season, the moment when the air went out of New York's balloon for good. It was good to have him back in action on Tuesday, even if the damage of his absence has already been done.

The injury did more than sink the Yanks' postseason chances in 2008, it has also now presented the team with the same issue it had entering the season. Had Chamberlain remained healthy, he probably would have thrown between 150-160 innings for the season, which would have set him up in 2009 for the 190-200 inning workload of an upper-tier starter. The DL stint wiped out that carefully orchestrated plan, and it's now likely Joba will finish with around 100 innings for the season.

It's pretty obvious the Yanks won't ask their prized possession to double his workload next year, so you can bet your arse the right-hander will begin the season setting up for Rivera ... again.

This has almost become a comical issue at this point. The Yankees were so careful with Chamberlain that they have actually now managed to foul up his development. In a sense, they will be paying the price for bringing him up as a reliever in '07 for two complete seasons, and that's assuming '09 will go off without a hitch. Let this be a lesson to other teams that may want to emulate the Yankees' move with their own young studs.

But while the future is once again muddled for Joba, there's no debating the Yankees are a much better team with Chamberlain on it, regardless of his role. With Joba setting up Rivera, the Yanks once again have baseball's best bullpen. Needing to go 18-6 to reach 92 wins (my predetermined win total New York must reach to possibly win the Wild Card), the Yankees must be nearly perfect. Having Joba back in the 'pen can only help.

Welcome back, hoss.

Gotta love the Moose

If the Yankees have less than a one percent chance to make the playoffs this season (as Baseball Prospectus leads us to believe), then it makes sense to start taking solace in the smaller things in life. Will Derek Jeter finish over .300? Will Mo get to 40 saves? Will Abreu crack 100 RBIs? Will A-Rod misjudge a popup and have a crippling emotional breakdown?

Most important on this list of personal quests centers upon Mike Mussina, who is going for 20 wins for the first time in his utterly solid career. Mussina moved one step closer to that milestone on Tuesday, going six-plus innings in the Yankees' 7-2 win over the AL East-leading Rays. Tampa Bay is still in first place? What world am I in? This is like a Tom Berenger movie.

Mussina is now 17-7 and he will have five more starts this month to get three wins. He’ll face Seattle, Tampa, Chicago, Toronto and Boston before the regular season wraps on Sept. 28. It's difficult to fathom how a man with 267 career wins can never have reached the 20-win milestone, but with Moose there is a reasonable explanation. From 1994-1996, Mussina could have, probably should have, had 20 wins in each season, but he came up empty each time. In '94, he had 16 wins before the strike wiped out the season in mid-August. The 1995 season was affected by the labor strife as well, not beginning until April 26. That lost time cost Mussina five starts. He finished 19-9. In 1996, he was at 19 wins entering his final start of the season against Toronto. He left the game with the lead after eight innings, but Armando Benitez blew the save (and probably Mussina's mind).

Mussina has now won at least 17 games in four of his eight seasons in New York. His highest win total with the Bombers was 18, achieved in 2002. His 3.39 ERA is the lowest mark since he sported a 3.15 mark in his first year in the Bronx in 2001. Mussina is one of, if not the best, free-agent signing of the Brian Cashman era.

Pettitte faded into oblivion in the second half, wilting when his team needed him the most. Mussina has been a steady presence for five months now, the very definition of a veteran leader. Given the choice to bring one back for '09, I believe it to be a no-brainer.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Still running to stand still

River & Sunset took a Labor Day respite this weekend, a time the Yankees spent playing uneven baseball that gave their fan base ulcers. In other words, absolutely nothing changed.

Carl Pavano made it 2-for-2 in starts off the 500-day disabled list. The Yanks blew a 6-2 lead on Saturday, as Robbie Cano made a crucial error that opened the door for a late Blue Jays rally. Cano once again displayed that he didn't get it after the game, leaving the clubhouse without speaking with reporters. Yes, we have a problem here. Sunday became the Roy Halladay show, as the stud right-hander beat New York for the fourth time this season. Andy Pettitte was not competitive and has one win in his last seven starts. So much for his second-half prowess.

With your season on life support, I'm not sure losing both series of your homestand is a great idea. But such is life when you're talking about the 2008 New York Yankees.

The biggest issue this offseason for Brian Cashman -- or whoever fills his shoes -- is how to fix the offense, and the lumbering lineup showed its warts again in the Bronx. The Yankees scored 19 runs on the six-game homestand and were 9-for-48 (.188) with runners-in-scoring-position. Giambi is obviously history. If I'm in charge I look to move Damon and Matsui as well. This team needs to get younger in a hurry.

Today's makeup game against the Tigers was ugly, but I suppose a win is a win. Justin Verlander (what happened to that dude?) was awful and Sidney Ponson was just as bad. The fat Aruban has a 15.83 ERA over his last three starts, allowing 24 hits, 18 runs, six walks and four strikeouts over 9 2/3 innings. If the Yankees' plight this season could be summed up by one player, it would be Ponson, who is out-of-control awful but continues to pitch every fifth day because the Yankees have literally no other option. I'm going to go out on a limb and say this guy won't even be in baseball next April, yet he is in the starting rotation for a team that's made the playoffs 13 straight years? Amazing.

The Yanks have won six of their last 10 games overall, but they'll need to be much better than that to keep their slim playoff aspirations alive. Working under the assumption of 92 wins at least putting them in the equation for the Wild Card, the Yanks will need to go 19-6 down the stretch. If that isn't sobering enough, keep in mind the Red Sox would have to stumble to a 12-13 finish to complete their schedule at 92-70.

Reality has set in. As Damon said following the second loss to Boston last week, we all need to be professionals now. That includes your area Yankees blogger.