Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Girardi plays the part of cool dad

The big news out of camp on Monday was that the Yankees weren't at camp at all. The players and coaches were instead at a local Tampa strip club pool hall, an activity hatched from the mind of typically anti-fun and happiness manager Joe Girardi.

The players were fantastically giddy about the bonding exercise, Girardi playing the part of Andy Dufresne scoring ice cold beer for his fellow inmates at Shawshank. "Today is one of those days that, as a ballplayer, you'll never forget," Johnny Damon told PeteAbe. "I don't think any team has ever really done this." Mark Teixeira added: "I thought it was a great idea. ... We really appreciate what he did for us today."

I can almost hear Morgan Freeman narrating the whole thing now. We shot stick with the sun on our shoulders and felt like free men. We were the lords of all creation. As for Joe -- he spent that break hunkered in the shade, a strange little smile on his face, watching us play his game.

Not surprisingly, Mariano Rivera, the best closer ever, is the best pool player ever. By this logic, Derrick Turbow would be the worst pool player ever. I can imagine A-Rod jumping out to several early leads before scratching on the eight-ball shot each time, pursing his lips and squinting his eyes as he does. Jeter was probably wearing a Jordan pullover sweatshirt and jeans, on the phone with Minka Kelly discussing late night plans while sinking impossible shots. His life is awesome. Shelly Duncan probably missed a key shot, broke his cue over his knee and went after Brett Gardner ala high-grade crony "Sticks" v. Seagal in Out For Justice. "Anybody seen Richie? Anybody know why Richie did Bobby Lupo?"

I can't tell you how much I wish I was at this pool hall.

Girardi said that the idea was partly inspired by Tom Coughlin's now famous bowling trip during Giants training camp in 2007. The Giants -- coincidentally or not -- went on to win the SuperBowl that season. Hmmmm. Like Coughlin, Girardi earned the reputation in his first season of being a bit of a, well, dick at times. Girardi rode his players hard in spring training last year, upping the conditioning in a failed attempt to ward off injuries during the season. He also pushed unnecessary buttons, like when he banished sweets from the clubhouse and had the ice cream freezer removed from the players lounge.

So this was certainly a step in the right direction for the manager. Do I expect Girardi to go all soft on us from here on out? I doubt it, playboy has had the same haircut since 1964. But, in a camp that has been shrouded in tension courtesy of their darling third baseman, it was a fine idea to give these guys a physical and mental blow.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Curb your enthusiasm in Tampa

In the wee hours following Alex Rodriguez's latest exercise in public humiliation on Tuesday, my buddy Howie and I shared our thoughts about how the Yanks' disgraced third baseman handled his village flogging press conference. Eventually, we presented our own conflicting theories on that moment.

I'm referring, of course, to the 38-second pause that separated A-Rod saying "And to my teammates -- " and "Thank you." Thirty-eight seconds of enough juicy awkwardness to make Larry David squirm in his seat.

I contend that this was the extent of A-Rod's cognitive ability when forced to go off script. To be more blunt, this was the dumb jock waiting for the words to pop in his head only to be met by echoes and cobwebs.

Howie presented an opposite reality, one that explains the 38-second pause as a meticulously-calculated bit of acting. The thought of this cracks me up, as the silence included various pained faces and a completely out-of-place swig from a water bottle. After he finally finished his sentence, he leaned back in his chair and smirked -- it was almost like the guy was proud of himself.

The question is -- was he proud that he actually was able to complete a sentence without the aid of his crisis management team? Or was he smirking because he realized a lifetime achievement award was within grasp at Sunday's Oscars?

As is the case with A-Rod now, you can't be sure of anything.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A-Rod's answers leave more questions

A-Rod was vacationing in the Bahamas when the story -- that story -- broke, the one that changed his life forever. You had to wonder if it ever crossed his mind to just stay at that five-star resort for good. I can't say I would blame him if he did.

Can you imagine the gears grinding in that tortured mind of his this past weekend? A-Rod's utter obsession with how he's perceived had become comic fodder in and around baseball for years now. Like the outcast in junior high attempting to sit with the A-listers at lunch, everything he says and does ultimately undermines him. He tries so hard to be everything to everyone that he ends up pleasing no one at all.

But all the stuff before the SI story was so petty in retrospect. The Jeter soap opera, Madonna, the WBC mess, that buff stripper in Toronto, all just funny anecdotes that pointed out how socially awkward this incredibly talented player could be. The steroids bombshell was a different beast altogether though; a story with endless legs that would give the legions of A-Rod haters all the ammunition they'd ever need. And he knew it.

We know now that Rodriguez did come home, and suddenly there he was, sitting across from a beaming Peter Gammons, looking like he'd just nabbed the biggest elk in all of Bristol. SI may have scooped ESPN on the initial story, but now the Worldwide Leader was getting its revenge by way of an eight-minute sitdown with the fallen Goliath.

We quickly learned that A-Rod -- dressed as the living embodiment of a J. Crew catalog and sporting a tan reminiscent of the Kool-Aid mascot -- had chosen the Pettitte-Giambi route over the Bonds-Clemens highway to hell. He wisely came clean, saying he'd been a user of performance-enhancing drugs from 2001-2003, each of his three seasons with the Rangers. He cited a neck injury during spring training in '03 as the impetus to get off the juice. He insists he's been clean ever since, hitting each of his 208 homers in New York without the help of a banned substance.

Do you believe him? I really want to. I really do. But he hasn't exactly earned that right. I don't necessarily blame him for being dishonest on 60 Minutes in December '07 -- of course he wasn't going to out himself to Katie freaking Couric a week after the Mitchell Report was released. In retrospect, was it tremendously poor judgment to know the truth and still seek out the spotlight at that sensitive time? Absolutely. But again, it's just another example of that need for attention.

That said, it'd be silly to take A-Rod at his word now, especially if you agree that he takes this positive test to the grave if it was never dug up by the media. Here's the part of the Gammons interview that really left me scratching my head:

"When I arrived in Texas in 2001, I felt an enormous amount of pressure. I felt like I had all the weight of the world on top of me and I needed to perform, and perform at a high level every day. ... I wanted to prove to everyone that I was worth being one of the greatest players of all time."
Fair enough. But you're telling me that he didn't feel that same pressure after being traded to the Yankees? You know, one of the most famous teams in the world playing in the country's largest market? The same team that was led by that Jeter guy? Wouldn't those circumstances qualify as far greater pressure? Again, it's just speculation on my part, but unfortunately speculation will hang over No. 13 for the rest of his life.

Desperation hangs over every aspect of this steroid era. The stars were desperate to take their game to the next level and get those massive contracts. The scrubs were desperate to stay above water and keep their jobs. The government was desperate to make a case, ethics and confidentiality be damned. Alex Rodriguez has become the latest desperate figure, grouped in with other desperate refugees like Bonds, McGwire, Sosa and Clemens. The outcast finally has his own clique.

Ultimately, I've come to feel sorry for A-Rod. Working around baseball the last couple of years, I heard some unpleasant stories about him, but he never struck me as a particularly nasty person. And yet here we are, watching vulturous talking heads on abominable ESPN programming saying A-Rod is to blame for the loss of innocence, tainted records, the war in Iraq, the recession, the cancellation of Arrested Development, etc., etc. etc. It all becomes a bit ridiculous after awhile.

The one part of the interview that I unequivocally believed was when he said that the PED culture was all around him when he first began using. He fell into the mess, sure, but he was far from alone. It was an MLB epidemic. This is an issue ultimately less about A-Rod and more about baseball and the powers that be who failed to react. Unfortunately for Rodriguez, that doesn't make nearly as good of a story.

Does he deserve your anger? Sure. But after watching him squirm on Monday, he may deserve your pity, too.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

A-Fraud in every sense of the name

I can't believe I didn't see this one coming.

A report this morning in SI.com is linking Alex Rodriguez with a positive steroids test in 2003, the season before he joined the Yankees. Four anonymous sources have connected the slugger with a positive test for the pricey anabolic drug Primobolan. Most damning is A-Rod's reaction when confronted by a reporter in a Miami gym about the findings. "You'll have to talk to the union," said the man who until now had been thought to have hit 553 homers without blood on his batting gloves. Way to state your case, champ.

In hindsight, it's bizarre to think how I -- and I'm sure many other Yankees fans -- believed A-Rod when he said in the past that he never took performance-enhancing drugs. This is a guy blessed with unique talents, but also well known to be aloof, adulterous, egotistical and starved for attention. Not exactly the traits of an honest man. Whether it was his cheesy revelations about ex-buddy Jeter in '07, the silly team flip-flopping over the World Baseball Classic in '06 or his odd dalliance with 50-year-old Madonna last summer, it's always ultimately been about A-Rod and no one else. He's a man who craves the spotlight but can't handle it, and yet he always comes back for more. A self-made pariah, batting cleanup for your New York Yankees.

When he wasn't named in the Mitchell Report in December 2007, A-Rod's career took on a new calling. He'd never been a beloved figure, but he was also in line to one day become baseball's white knight, the man who who would shatter Barry Bonds' tainted home run record. Sometimes I wonder if the Yankees signed Rodriguez for anything other than the financial windfall that would come with home run No. 763 -- his current contract is loaded with provisions related to various long ball milestones. He may be more valuable to the Yankee-partnered Steiner Sports memorabilia than the ballclub itself.

Prepare for a spring training heavy on A-Rod scandal and light on actual baseball talk, at least in the early going. Take heed, Mr. Rodriguez, you don't have to worry much about questions of Joe Torre and "A-Fraud" anymore. Instead, people will want to know if you're a liar, and a cheat, and if you think you'll ever make the Hall of Fame regardless of what you do the rest of your career. The media will come crushing down on the third baseman, and a Yankees fan has to worry if he'll take that weight into the batter's box come opening day and beyond.

Where do we go from here? Well, barring evidence that exonerates him, A-Rod will become another player forever marked during this weird era in baseball history. That "noble" quest to pass Bonds? It's just one cheat chasing another now. And since the Yankees wisely didn't include any contract provisions for PED use, we get No. 13 for the full ride, including when the poisons in his body create a full body breakdown by 37! All right!

In the end, it's another sad story for not just the Yankees, but baseball. I can't believe I didn't see this one coming. But it makes so much sense in the end.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Fast start a key for these Yankees

It's been raining in Los Angeles for the past two days, a weird development for a place that sees approximately 345 days of sunshine per year. Weirder still is to observe how the locals react to these low pressure systems.

My house overlooks the 101 -- a freeway that cuts through Hollywood -- and at 3 p.m. yesterday the roadway was swamped with bumper-to-bumper traffic. My current theory is that people here don't know how to accurately deal with windshield wipers, creating a mini-hysteria in a large percentage of cars. Then there's the malaise that falls over the general public. It's kind of like how people acted before they killed themselves in that brutal M. Night Shyamalan movie from last year. Blank faces, deliberate movements. The lights are on, but ain't nobody home.

So yeah, as you can guess, the rain has southern Californians holed up like Jessica Simpson in a gingerbread house. Thus, it's me and a cold beer on at Friday night writing about the Yankees. And you know what? Life could be worse.

Looking over the past few Aprils, the Yankees have bared a scary resemblance to zombified Californians. (That's called a Low Grade Transition Sentence, by the way.) The Yankees went nuts in their pennant-winning season of 2003, jumping out to a 21-6 start. Since then, the early returns have vacillated between mediocre and disastrous. Take a look:

14-15, .483, 3 GB

9-14, .391, 6.5 GB

13-10, .565, tied for 1st

10-14, .417, 6.5 GB

12-11, .522, 4 GB

Not exactly impressive stuff. Of course, excluding the 2008 club, each of these teams went on to qualify for the postseason, so we shouldn't get busy carving those pinstriped tombstones if the Yanks stumble early. That said, this may be the most anticipated version of the Yankees in the 2000s. With great expectations comes great pressure, and for the newbies -- Sabathia, Burnett and Teixeira -- this pressure to perform early will amplified ten fold. A slow start could put Joe Girardi firmly on the hotseat as well.

So yeah, it would behoove the Yankees to play well early on. If the Yanks play to their capabilities -- and let's face it, this team is very capable -- there is nothing stopping them from a 2003-like April. Here's a breakdown of the slate.

April 6-9 @ Baltimore
April 10-12 @ Kansas City
April 13-15 @ Tampa Bay
April 16-19 vs. Cleveland
April 20-22 vs. Oakland
April 24-26 @ Boston
April 27-29 @ Detroit
April 30 vs. Los Angeles Angels

Right off the top I'd like to thank Major League Baseball for hitting the Yanks with a nine-game road swing to start the season. Way to earn that $18 million, Bud! The Rays and Red Sox jump out at you naturally, but otherwise the schedule is highly favorable for the season's first 23 games.

This is the part of the post where I feel obligated to mention that Sabathia, Burnett, the Wanger and Joba will likely start about 20 of these games. It may be pouring outside, but the sun is shining in this Yankee fan's heart.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Musings from River & Sunset

As spring training creeps ever closer, we're getting some things off our chest here at River & Sunset, baseball-related or otherwise.

  • Derek Jeter weighed in on the Joe Torre-Alex Rodriguez issue on Wednesday, and as you can imagine, he said nothing of any interest ... at all. "We're all behind Alex", "Joe never wanted to hurt anyone", "The sun comes out during the day." zzzzzzzz. Has this guy ever said anything in his career that raised an eyebrow? Like, ever? Is Derek Jeter secretly the most boring dude on the planet? Does this explain why he's still single?
  • Good to see that Chase Wright gets a fresh start after being traded to the Indians on Wednesday in exchange for a Class A prospect. I still see him ducking Cleveland's first trip to Boston this season, however. "I think the deli tray went bad, skip. I better sit this one out."
  • There was a time when being a Knicks fan was fun, a source of pride even. I swear. Watching Kobe and LeBron desecrate MSG in back-to-back games shows you how far the franchise remains from respectability.
  • Heard Torre's interview on Tuesday with Mike Francesa. Don't think I was the only one thinking, "Man, Russo would have really stirred things up here." WFAN's flagship show just isn't the same without the two hosts playing off each other. Meanwhile, I'm not even sure the Mad Dog is still alive at this point. Those satellite radio contracts are weird -- you get your big money and full autonomy, but it comes at the cost of obscurity. Buyer beware.
  • I'm not so sure the Yankees are prepared for a possible scenario whereby Jorge Posada's shoulder forces him into a designated hitter role by June. I'm not sure the prideful Georgie's ready for that prospect, either.
  • To use a baseball analogy, I think U2's new single, "Get On Your Boots", is a purpose pitch. It's a high-and-tight fastball meant to back you off the plate, to get you feeling uncomfortable. It's something sorely needed after the solid, if blatantly by-the-numbers, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb in 2004. I expect more radio-friendly singles to follow, but this one has a different goal.
  • Am I the only that's completely weirded out by the prospect of going to a different Yankee Stadium in a couple of months?
  • Please, please, please let Cotton Eyed Joey be gone from my life forever. Hank, I'll buy you a fresh carton of Newport Lights to make this happen.
  • I imagine Laura Posada watching Leigh Teixeira on SportsCenter last month and thinking to herself, "That bitch is trying to steal my undisputed Hottest Yankee Wife title!" Meanwhile, Karen Burnett is bashing Amber Sabathia over the head with a steel folding chair, motioning to her waist and yelling maniacally, "I want the belt, Po! I want the belt!"
With that, I'm going to bed. World Series dreams to you all.