Monday, March 16, 2009

Business as usual for ungrateful Yankees

The Yankees failed to qualify for the postseason for the first time in 14 years last fall, a jarring stumble for an organization and fan base accustomed to its place in the October landscape. You didn't need Buster Olney to tell you how the Yankees would react to their 2008 shortcomings, though the $423 million spending spree in free agency was proactive even by their standards. Just like that, the retooled Bronx Bombers were primed for another deep autumn run.

This, of course, is the prime advantage of being a Yankees fan. It's a team steeped in a tradition of winning, and it's willing to pay top dollar to uphold that ancestry. Some call the Yankees' free-spending ways a poison to the game, but I see it as a blessing that shouldn't be taken for granted. To do so would to dare the baseball gods to make you a Pittsburgh Pirates fan in another life.

Since George Steinbrenner took the reigns of the organization from CBS in 1973, the Yankees have won 10 American League pennants and six World Series titles. That culture of winning combined with forward business thinking helped the club transform itself into the financial behemoth it is today. The shining symbol of this success is the $1.5 billion new Yankee Stadium -- the crown jewel of an American empire.

But there's another
side to rooting for this team, an open sore that seems to grow in tandem with the franchise's financial might. The Yankees, you see, care very little about you. And they don't care if you know it, just so long as you keep coming back for more.

I went to countless Yankee games growing up, a fun time surely, but also a guarantee to give my poor father a near aneurysm at some point during each visit. My dad is a Bronx native who watched the Yankees' treatment of their fans crumble in the years since Steinbrenner came into power. He grumbled about the constantly rising parking fees and pointed out how the team didn't put the slightest effort into trying to improve the traffic issues that snarled the commute in and out of the stadium. There was ugliness inside the stadium, too, whether it be the rocket trajectory of concession prices or how the pleasant seat ushers had been replaced by the soulless yellow-jacketed goons known as "Stadium Security." Going to Yankee Stadium, it seemed, had become hard work over the years.

A textbook example of this fan disconnect came on a Wednesday night during the ALDS in 2006. Game 2 against the Tigers was rained out after a lengthy delay, and despite it being during a work week, Major League Baseball rescheduled the game for the following afternoon. To compound fan frustrations, the Yankees didn't allow a carry over from the previous night on the beefed up $30 playoff parking fee, in effect charging $60 for fans who returned for the make-up date. My dad was one of the thousands fans taken to the cleaners by his favorite team that day. The disrespect knew no bounds.

And now we've come to the dreaded seat relocation process, the latest chapter in a never-ending story. The blogosphere is flooded with stories of furious season-ticket holders who have been given unappealing take-it-or-leave-it offers despite years of loyal business. Yankees COO Lonn Trost said that the Yankees have made no mistakes in their organization of the relocation process, stating that fans wouldn't be so enraged if they would have simply read the 45-page relocation guide.

“If they had read it,” Trost told the NY Times last month, “they couldn’t possibly be asking these questions. They could be upset that they couldn’t get what they wanted, but we laid it out in detail.”

Well, that makes you feel better, huh?

I'm done being a Yankees fan.
That was the text message I got from my friend Howie last month -- it wasn't a coincidence that the dreaded ticket relocation operation had just pancaked him like a steamroller. Howie was well-versed in the contentious fan-team interaction by now, he and five friends had been partial season-ticket holders since the 2002 season. The first time the Yankees called Howie's bluff was 2005, when they discontinued their 26-game plan and told him that now only an upgrade to the 46-game "B" plan would guarantee the right to purchase postseason tickets. Ever the loyal fan, Howie blinked and the Yankees won. Now they were going after him again.

Last year, Howie filled out a form sent by the team that asked for his top three options for seating options at the new stadium. He requested three upper tier options for the 41-game plan, mailed it off and waited to hear back. Shortly thereafter, Howie received a letter from the Yankees informing him that they regretfully could not fulfill his requests. Staying on the "B" plan in the new Yankee Stadium would require the purchase of "premium" seats that started at $350 a pop. Howie and his friends had been paying $26 a ticket for their upper tier tickets the previous season. The other option was to bump back down to the
20-, 15-, 12- or 11-game plans that featured no rights to opening day or the postseason. All the Yankees could promise him was he would be added to a wait list that would potentially allow him the opportunity to retain his plan at a similar price.

By his math, Howie and his friends had pumped more than $28,000 into the franchise over the seven years they bought ticket plans with the team (including playoffs), and that wasn't even factoring in the buckets of cash spent on $9.50 Miller Lites and $8 Premio sausages. Despite all of that, they were expendable in the organization's eyes if need be.

Curiously, a day after going on the wait list, he received a call from the Yankees offering his preferred plan just one section higher in the upper deck. He got lucky. For countless others, this hasn't been the case.

In the end, it's just another example of the often unpleasant give-and-take with management that defines being a Yankee fan. "I don't know why it surprised me, but it did," Howie said. "You can put nothing past them in their ability to screw their fans."

Harsh words? Maybe. But it's okay to be harsh when you're right.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Joba gets back on track

Perhaps it's just that I hadn't watched YES programming since last September, but Bob Lorenz and David Cone seemed to be especially sycophantic during Tuesday's Yankees-Reds spring training telecast.

The object of their affection was Joba Chamberlain, of course, who actually managed to pitch like he didn't have a handicap tag hanging from his rearview mirror. Hoss allowed one run over three innings, striking out three without walking a batter. His fastball -- clocked at around 91 mph in previous spring outings -- reached a high of 96. Lorenz and Cone reacted to the development as if they'd witnessed baseball nirvana.

Don't get me wrong, it was great to see Chamberlain handle himself out there, especially after his mess of an outing five days earlier. But consider the following: The 96-mph fastball I saw was well up and out of the strike zone, making it misleading. He also gave up a crisp single to Eric Dickerson's nephew leading off the first (he was erased by Molina on a caught stealing) and a run in the third, so this clearly wasn't vintage Joba ... merely an improvement.

It will be interesting to see what kind of leash Joba has in the early going. Phil Hughes has been excellent this spring (five scoreless innings, six K's), and if Chamberlain struggles out of the gate, could Hughes supplant him in the rotation before May 1? What would happen next? A trip to the minors? The ... gulp ... bullpen?

I'm getting ahead myself. Joba looked a lot more like Joba on Tuesday. And that's a start.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Surgery for A-Rod seems like no-brainer

I was at a bar in Hollywood on Thursday night, a place called Birds that offers their happy hour half-price deal from 11 p.m. to midnight. This makes Birds the greatest place on earth. It's also a nice spot to be when your favorite team is dealing with the potential long term loss of its biggest star.

It was of course A-Rod all the time on ESPN that night, and at one point I caught the news scroll in the reflection of a window and swore I saw something about A-Rod and murder. Luckily, "murder" was actually "labrum", though nothing about our heroic third baseman would surprise me at this point. I, too, would probably want to straight-up kill chatty Cathy bullpen catcher Mike Borzello after reading Torre's book.

Here's my take on the whole A-Rod situation. No, not the divorce, or Madonna, or the steroids, or the press conference, or the cousin, or Jose Reyes, I'm referring to the situation involving his bum right hip. From everything we're hearing, this is a condition that's going to continue to deteriorate until he has an invasive procedure. The rest-and-rehab angle could have things looking positive in April, or even May, but we have doctors on the record saying this is slowly going to degenerate into a painful situation for A-Rod, one that will severely limit him both at the plate and in the field. The idea of rest and rehab only makes sense to me if surgery can ultimately be avoided. That's not the case here.

So, as an uneducated blogger with a journalism rather than a medical degree, I'm trying to wrap my head around a scenario whereby A-Rod shouldn't get the surgery. Let's say worst-case scenario he's out the full four months. If he goes under the knife on Monday, that would put him on track to return to the lineup with a clean bill of health on July 9, right on the eve of the All-Star break.

It'd be a painful decision that would deny A-Rod half a season in one of the final years of his prime, not to mention cost him anywhere from 18-25 homers that may be needed to break Bonds' record one day. But surgery seems like a necessary evil at this point, a way to address the problem now rather than pay for it when the pennant race is in full bloom later.

There's one other bit of silver lining here. When a professional athlete is rehabbing a serious injury during a season, it's the sports equivalent of being banished to the cornfields. You don't see the player, you don't hear from the player, it's almost like he ceases to exist.

A-Rod, of course, should always be treated as the exception to the rule, but doesn't the idea of sending this guy off to baseball Siberia for awhile kind of sound like a good idea? If ever a dude needed a time out, it's him.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Yanks hold breath on latest A-Rod calamity

When I woke up this morning and saw that Alex Rodriguez's hip issue was more serious than initially believed, my immediate thought was naturally, "Dear God! Who is going to play third for the Dominicans in the WBC?" Well ... no, that's not true at all. My actual thought was, "Oh sweet Lord! My heart goes out to those poor souls who already drafted A-Rod in their fantasy leagues."

I'm lying again, but to be fair, discussion involving lying and A-Rod should be treated as the rule rather than the exception at this point. What I was really thinking was, "We're screwed." I think these last seven seasons have made me somewhat of a pessimist.

There are different reports flying around the 'net this afternoon, none of which are particularly cheery. and are reporting that A-Rod will undergo surgery for a torn labrum in his hip and will be out up to 10 weeks. PeteAbe posted on his blog that rest and rehab will be the plan, with the hope A-Rod can get through the season without going under the knife. Surgery could sideline the slugger four months, according to Abraham. Clearly there is some misinformation out there right now, or speculation passing as news, but I'm sure we'll have a clearer picture in the coming hours. At any rate, everything we're hearing is scary for the Yankees.

The most obvious question here is why it took until March 5 for this injury to be discovered. If your $275 million third baseman reported stiffness as far back as last season, why did it take until a month before opening day to see a specialist?

If Rodriguez does end up missing time, the Yankees will be put in an immediate bind. As I wrote last month, the Yankees have been woefully slow starters for the better part of the last five seasons, so losing their top run-producer could skew toward bad times. The thought of Cody Ransom getting 125 at-bats for the team is simply terrifying.

The glass-half-full viewpoint is as follows: Though a career .259 hitter in April, you still have Mark Teixeira in the three-hole. And while also known to be a slow starter, Robinson Cano is a very strong candidate to have a bounce back season. Jorge Posada is back as well. If the rest of the team delivers representative numbers, the Bombers may potentially whether the storm.

Nothing is guaranteed, however. When a quad injury forced A-Rod out of the lineup for an extended stretch last May, the Yankees' offense was downright woeful in his absence. Phillies second baseman Chase Utley played through a similar injury last season, and it sapped the pop right out of his bat. We're still waiting to hear hard news on the injury, but the thought of A-Rod trying to play six months on a bum hip doesn't lend itself to MVP talk.

So, just doing a little housekeeping here, since the beginning of last season, A-Rod blew out his quad, had an affair with Madonna, divorced his wife, admitted to steroid use, held a really awkward press conference, drove around Tampa with the cousin who smuggled in his steroids, hinted that he'd rather have Jose Reyes playing shortstop, and suffered a serious hip injury. On the bright side, we get him for another nine years after this.

Where have you gone Scott Brosius? A universe turns its lonely eyes to you.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Wang remains essential piece of the puzzle

If the 2008 season is ultimately remembered as one of frustration for Yankees fans, nothing was more ulcer-inducing than the afternoon of June 15, when Chien-Ming Wang's foot essentially exploded on the basepaths in Houston.

So many things had to fall into place for Wang to be injured so seriously that day. He attempted to sacrifice himself with a bunt but ended up on first base. After the Astros were unable to complete a force out, he found himself at second. And when Derek Jeter singled, an easy jog to home turned catastrophic. Wang tore a ligament and a tendon in his right foot -- he was finished for the year. For all intents and purposes, the Yankees were finished as well.

Fast forward to Monday. The right-hander was back on the mound in Kissimmee facing those same Houston Astros. Wang was his old self over two scoreless innings, eschewing flash for effectiveness while reporting no lingering affects of the foot injury afterward. It was a good day to be No. 40.

At first glance, Wang's place on this version of the Yankees looks very different. The right-hander served as the team's No. 1 starter the last three seasons despite the fact he was very much a No. 2 masquerading as an ace. This winter, the braintrust opened up its check book to bring in CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, two high-profile names that figured to lessen the load on Taiwan's folk hero.

Here's the thing though -- the Yankees will need Wang more than ever.

It's a given that, in Sabathia and Burnett, the Yankees now have two skillful pitchers in their prime. But to simply assume they'll pay immediate dividends to the franchise would be to ignore history. There have been free-agent and trade acquisitions that have succeeded instantly in the Bronx, pitchers such as Jimmy Key, David Cone, Orlando Hernandez, David Wells and Mike Mussina, who came in with big expectations and immediately delivered. But there's a sordid flip side to that, names like Kenny Rogers, Jose Contreras, Carl Pavano, Kevin Brown and Randy Johnson, stars who found the spotlight of New York difficult to tune out.

The reality of the situation is that this is more like a 50/50 proposition. You either thrive in New York or it consumes you. I'm sure the Yankees are expecting 35-40 wins and 400+ innings out of Sabathia and Burnett. I would, too, if I coughed up a few hundred million for them. But just because they paid for 2008 production doesn't mean they'll get it. More likely than not, one or both of these new starters will fall well off the pace as they make the transition.

That's why Wang is just as important as he ever was. A typical Wang season of 18-20 wins and 210+ innings is the perfect fall back option for these Yanks. It will allow Sabathia and Burnett to get into their comfort space knowing they don't have to be lights-out each time out while giving an added level of stability and depth in the rotation not since since the dynasty.

All of which makes Wang the Yankees' ultimate safety net.