Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Well, That Wasn't Too Nice, Was it?

OK, since last we spoke, the Yanks dropped the last two games of their series with the Red Sox in seriously disheartening fashion. Game Two was an old-fashioned creamolishment (ASIDE: I love the term "creamolish" which I attribute to Alex Belth over at Bronx Banter. Does anyone know if it has a longer history than Alex's blog?) with Matt Clement and the Red Sox beating down Carl Pavano and the Yanks 17-1.

You know this one burns, because Clement and Pavano were pretty much straight-up competitors in the free agent market, kind of like Jon Lieber and Jaret Wright, just with unequal salaries. The Red Sox got the better pitcher, for less money. Is anyone surprised about this?

Game Three was disheartening because David Wells, who wasn't getting anyone out since April 25, spun a gorgeous 8+ inning, six hit effort against the Yanks. To put this in context, two weeks ago, Oakland (yeah, the A's) racked Wells for seven runs in less than two innings. The Yankees managed two runs against him.

The Yankees' designated old pitcher in that game--Mike Mussina--had to be removed after three innings because David Ortiz was thwacking him like a pinata.

So uneasy lies the AL East Crown. The Yankees remain in a tie for second place behind the Orioles [coughcan'tkeepupthepacecough] but it feels like the team's sinking. The Red Sox, meanwhile, look like they might not need Schilling this season.

To put it in another way, when things get tough for the Red Sox, they can look forward to Schilling coming off the DL. Or Manny Ramirez getting his batting average over .280. Or Renteria hitting. What can the Yanks look forward to?

That's not a rhetorical question, if you have an answer, share with the group down in the comments section.

To me, when the cavalry is Jaret Wright, coming back from his mysterious shoulder ailments, or the Jason Giambi rebounding from the case of Bat Speed Death he's been suffering, that's not much hope.

OK, one Yankee could give the team a big pick-me-up: Hideki Matsui. Past that, we're talking pipe dreams--Roger Clemens coming back to the Stadium, and whatnot.

Like last year, I don't think the Yankees can look outside of the organization for rescue from their ills. They'll be stuck with what they have on hand. I know I'm riding the post-Sox blues, but right now, does anyone feel that's enough?

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Game Report: May 27, 2005

My first live game action of the season comes almost at the end of May, which is a pretty bad sign in and of itself, and comes out of the zoo that is Yankees/Red Sox at the Stadium. I was prepared for the worst. Arriving mere minutes before first pitch, I didn't bother with a scorecard, and went directly to mine and Brother J's seats up in the extreme leftfield side of the loge level.

[By the way, where does this "loge level" thing come from? I've heard of mezzanines, 1st and 2nd decks, all sorts of stuff, but Yankee Stadium is the only place I can think of with a "loge."]

The game started off badly, with Robinson Cano making an error on an easy grounder from Johnny Damon, practically before the Bleacher creatures had finished their roll call. Randy Johnson went on to walk the bases loaded before inducing a Kevin Millar flyout that would end the inning.

In the bottom of the first, things were pretty typical of a Yanks/Tim Wakefield matchup. The buys were getting nowhere. Wakefield retired the side in order in the first, allowed a couple of baserunners in the second (walk to A-Rod, single by Posada) but got out of it, and escaped two man on jams in the third and fourth. Through four innings, the Big Unit was matching Wakefield's zeros, but looked like a less dominant pitcher. He wasn't finding the strike zone, and when the Sox swung, they were putting good wood on the ball. The new pitch scoreboard (which tells the crowd the hurler's pitch count, as well as the velocity and type of most pitches) had the Unit's fastball in the 94-97 range, but I wouldn't be surprised if there was some puffery going on. It really didn't look like Johnson was hitting the high 90's. Also, he was throwing LOTS of sliders.

In the fifth, Johnson was actually looking better than he had in previous innings when things went wrong. After a leadoff single to Renteria, Johnson retired both David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez, and looked good doing so. He was at two strikes on Jason Varitek, with the crowd standing and clapping for the strikeout, when Varitek launched one to center, 2-0 Red Sox.

However, the Yanks came back the very next inning, with Derek Jeter stretching an extra base hit into a triple, to lead off the inning. After Tony Womack grounded out to score Jeter, the Yanks loaded the bases, with Sheffield walking, A-Rod getting hit by a pitch, and Tino Martinez drawing a walk. This definitely felt like the inning to "get" Wakefield. Still, Wakefield was bailed out when Jorge Posada got under a ball for a harmless fly to right.

Starting the sixth on such a letdown, and with Randy Johnson up over 90 pitches at the beginning of the inning...let's say things didn't look good. With one out, Jay Payton doubled, followed by a single to Hideki Matsui. Payton didn't score out of respect for Matsui's arm, and justifiably so: Matsui threw an absolute rocket to the plate.

[I'm going to interrupt for a small note on outfield defense. I don't know the numbers on this, but it's strange the way you notice Matsui's defensive superiority to Bernie Williams, at this stage in the game. Yankee fans tensed up on just about every fly ball to center, even though Matsui handled most of them as routine chances. After one of these, I turned to Brother J and told him "We've been conditioned to expect bad things" by Bernie Williams' deteriorating play in center over the years. Matsui isn't going to make anyone forget Paul Blair, but he's a damn sight closer to average than Bernabe.

In left, Tony Womack's arm is a different kind of problem than Bernie's. Womack throws weakly, but on a line, compared to the Bernie Williams lollypop throw special. Still, you could see the Yankees infielders straying out further than usual to catch relays from Womack, and Renteria's double to Womack in the third, things were kind of ridiculous, with Jeter out in mid left field for the cutoff, and Cano looking more worried about an inaccurate throw by Tony than about trying to nail the runner at second.

Thanks for sticking with me on this. It'll fit in in a second.]

So with men on first and third, and one out, Johnny Damon singles to plate Jay Payton, and extend the Red Sox lead, 3-1. It's now obvious that Johnson has nothing. Once upon a time, you couldn't pay a lefty batter to dig in there the way that Damon did against Johnson. Is Randy hurt? Maybe--it seemed to me at times that Johnson's left leg (that's the one where he still has cartilage in his knee) was dragging, particularly when he went to cover home as Payton scored. On the other hand, I look at the recent success of Javier Vazquez, and I wonder if Stottlemyre isn't somehow involved in this.

Anyway, things were getting worse. Renteria ropes another single out to left. Womack's charging, and the Red Sox have already decided to send runners on Womack's arm. Womack's throw is a Vince Coleman special, a low-line ten-hopper. I don't know if this made any difference to Bellhorn, but Alex Rodriguez then pulls one of the most convincing decoys that I've ever seen, to the point where I almost missed the play at the plate, thinking that the ball had been cut off. The ball then took a couple more bounces past Rodriguez, to meet Jorge Posada rather perfectly at the plate.

The jam's not over yet, however. Two on and two out, and David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez coming up. Tanyon Sturtze is feverishly warming in the pen, but he isn't coming in to face Ortiz. Ortiz hits a hard grounder up the middle, on which Cano makes a spectacular play to knock it down. That should have been enough to save the run, but with Ramirez on deck, Damon decides to go running home. Fortunately, that crazyy long hair of his must create drag and slow Johnny down at times like these. Cano recovered the ball, and made a strong throw to the plate to end the Boston rally.

With those two plays at the plate, I've never seen such a clearly defined turning point to a game. Bernie Williams walked against a still-shaky Wakefield, and Cano followed up on his top of the inning heroics by blasting a flat knuckler out to right center. Jeter then chased Wakefield with a single, bringing in Alan Embree to face Womack. Just Embree can't stop Womack from getting on, and Francona doesn't pull Embree with Sheffield, Matsui, and A-Rod coming up. Big Mistake.

Sheff puts one in the upper deck. Yanks up, 6-3.

After Tanyon Sturtze pitches a scoreless seventh, Torre starts to manage a little. Sturtze takes the mound to start the eighth, but that's just to make Francona substitute Trot Nixon for Jay Payton. Once Francona makes the switch, Buddy Groom comes on to retire Nixon and Johnny Damon, sandwiched around a single to Bellhorn. Tom Gordon is then brought on to strike out Edgar Renteria.

A scoreless bottom of the eighth later, we're conditioned to expect the opening strings of "Enter Sandman" as Mariano Rivera comes out for the save. In what has become a controversial move, Gordon stayed in to face David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez, with mixed results--he struck out Ortiz but walked the Pride of Washington Heights. Now Rivera was brought in, to face Jason Varitek--a guy who belted him for a game-tying homer in the second game of the season-- and Kevin Millar and Bill Mueller--both guys who have hit Rivera pretty hard in the past.

Rivera handled it pretty well, striking out Varitek and Mueller, with a rope single by the Fried Chicken Man in between. Still, questions persisted about why Torre held Rivera out at the beginning of the ninth. Torre has proclaimed that he wanted to give Rivera the night off, after he pitched in the last two games of the Tigers series (since the Yanks didn't play on Thrusday, that would mean Torre's worried about Rivera pitching three times over the course of four days [UPDATE: as mentioned by commenter Cliff below, there was no off-day on Thursday...I stand before you a humbled conspiracy theorist]) on the other hand, Rivera claims that no one told him he had the night off, and that not getting the call in the ninth was a surprise.

Wrapping up, Friday night at the stadium was the weakest that theYanks/Sox rivalry felt in a long time. Even though the Yanks won, and cheers of "Boston Sucks!" rang out on the ramps heading out of the Stadium, the Boston fans in attendance weren't deflated, or fighting drunk. A good number of them carried little smiles. I remember those smiles, because they were the same ones I used to carry whenever the Yanks lost a regular season tilt with the Sox.

Those smiles say "but we've got your number." At least for a moment in May, this rivalry is a shell of what it once was.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Catch Up!

Sorry for the lack of posts lately--real life has a way of intruding with my hobbies.

Over the last couple of days, while the Detroit Tigers were visiting the Yankees in the Bronx, I myself was visiting Detroit, albeit for less happy reasons. I was there to say good-bye to La Chiquita's father, who passed away over the weekend.

He'd been sick for most of 2005, fighting a series of ravages of old age. The last time I saw him, at the end of last month, his faculties were about him, but he was wheelchair-bound and in great pain. Over the last month, his lucidity came and went, but the pain became much, much, worse. So while I mourn his passing, I am happy that he is beyond suffering, now.

La Chiquita's dad's name was Menelaus, and her mom's name is Helen. If I have to explain to you what's strange about that combination, there's someone out there who tried to teach you the classics, who is probably openly weeping right now.

Let's talk some baseball:

While I was away, Derek Jeter was busy re-stitching the "S" on his superman cape. We've yet to see if the catch he made over the back of Robinson Cano will have the persistence of the July 1st headfirst dive into the stands last year. That play against the Red Sox probably netted Jeter a gold glove, all by itself.

From the scarred mind of Darren Viola, a/k/a Repoz, this trippy take on a Tigers/Yanks double header in '72 is simply priceless. Not only is it a must-read for anyone with an interest in the Yankees or New York in the 70's, it should also be reproduced as the required warning label on every bottle of Southern Comfort sold or marketed in the United States.

Rickey's the Man. Alan Schwarz's quick ditty on Rickey Henderson at ESPN.com is not only a good piece of writing, but I particularly love the picture, which shows Rickey in his new San Diego Surf Dawgs uni. The look on his face is something out of the cover of a Jimi Hendrix album. Also, Schwarz provides me the great comfort of pointing out that Nadia Comenice, Nastassja Kinski, and Sheena Easton (each a crush from a different period of my adolescence) are all younger than Rickey Henderson.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Off the Subway and Onward

The weekend's Subway Series came and went, leaving the Yanks up on the season series against the Mets 2-1. I'm not much of a fan of interleague play, but this weekend's action made a creditable showcase for baseball. You had a close game in the opener, with Garbage Time pitching much better than we've come to expect of him. You had Dae Sung Koo making a case for the abolition of the DH, with a shot off of the (right now) Not-So Big Unit. You had the Yanks coming back in the late innings of Sunday's game.

On the downside, both teams played brutal defense. The two games the Yanks won were largely won on errors. Koo scoring from second on a sacrifice was the kind of brain lock you haven't seen the Yanks commit over the past eight years. The two star pitchers in the matchup disappointed in different ways: Pedro Martinez by leaving game 3 after 7 innings, to avoid his pre-100 pitches/post-100 pitches split against the Yanks; Johnson by being so hittable that even a lefty-batting pitcher could rope him.

Also, both teams leave this weekend series diminished from where they were when they came in. Sheffield, Jeter, and Posada couldn't start Sunday's game because of injuries. The injury bug took the Mets star centerfielder, Carlos Beltran.

In the jarring way the 2005 schedule has, the first weekend of interleague play now gives way to two weeks of regular play against the teams' respective leagues, before the Yanks return to interleague madness with a swing against bits of the NL Central, then a series against the D-Rays, and then a second Subway matchup. The Mets have a similar row to hoe, including a similar showdown with the Big Division Rival. For the Yanks, that's next weekend's hypefest against the Red Sox.

For the Mets, that's their current series against the Braves. The Braves are approaching the Freddy Kreuger/Jason Voorhees point, where you just scream to the heavens "Won't you just die?" I picked the Braves to win the NL East this year, just because logical analysis of this team doesn't ever seem to work. The Braves haven't been the logical first place team in their league for what, three years now? In 2001, it looked like they had no offense, starting stiffs like Rico Brogna and the petrified remains of BJ Surhoff in power positions. Didn't matter, their pitching was strong enough to win 88 games, and the division. In 2002, they brought on Vinny Castilla and Julio Franco, in a bizarre attempt to court Hispanic senior citizens to come out to Turner Field. Still too much pitching, a 100 win season.

So in 2003, Glavine and Millwood leave. They're done, right? The mighty pitching has abandoned them!

Wrong. The Braves now become an offensive powerhouse behind Gary Sheffield and Marcus Giles. Plus, they get above league average pitching from Russ Ortiz, Mike Hampton, and Horacio Ramirez. Another 100+ win season.

2004. Now Maddux is gone, Sheff is gone, Javy Lopez is gone. The offense is in tatters, the pitching loses its ace. They can't possibly absorb this kind of talent drain. The run is over, right?!?

Nope. This year? They're a game and a half behind Florida, while starting the corpses of Brian Jordan and Raul Mondesi in the outfield corners, and leading off a guy with a .286 OBP. Logic fails, plain and simple.

So I give up on trying to forecast the Braves. I'm just short of believing that you could give Cox and Mazzone a pickup roster of random softball players, minor league pitchers from the 1980's, and Baseball Prospectus staffers, and they'd still field a winning team. One that finishes higher in the NL East than the Phillies, at least.

We'll talk about the Yanks tomorrow, I hope.

Thursday, May 19, 2005


Call it an homage to a few sports writers I don't particularly like:

You know, I see where another steroid suspendee returns from his non-paid vacation, and no one gave a damn.

I also remember the Yanks in Tampa Bay, where the first big leaguer suspended, Alex Sanchez, plies his trade, is probably also the place where the crowd made the most of jeering Sheffield and Giambi for their past steroid use.

The lesson being, no one gives a damn, unless it gives you one more bit of ammo to hurl at the other team's players.

People don't care about steroids in baseball for the same reason they don't care about the guys in porn films using Viagra: we're there to see the action.

And we don't particularly care what the performers have to do to give it to us.

Maybe on some level we'd prefer for the performance to be all-natural; but then again, we'd also like to believe that all those ladies in the film really were that excited.

Speaking of films, Kung Fu Hustle was great fun. It's one of those movies that throws a dozen jokes at you per scene, and doesn't particularly care if only one or two stick.

Hustle also features both the best and the worst side of digital technology. In one scene, CGI turns the film into a live action Roadrunner cartoon, which is plenty silly, but also pretty creative.

Other scenes remind you that you really shouldn't turn to CGI for anything where you could safely use a human actor.

I suspect this is a subject I'll revisit when I review Revenge of the Sith. Just a hunch.

You mean that Marlon Byrd was out there to be acquired, in exchange for waiver-bait like Endy friggin' Chavez, and the Yanks couldn't pick him up?

Byrd would have been an ideal guy to get for the Yanks: young, legit CF, lots of potential if you can get his bat back on track.

Yeah, I know, big "if". Still, couldn't we take a shot?

You know that right after you praise Jason Giambi, he's gonna look at strike three with the bases loaded and the team down a run in the ninth inning.

Betcha that's what everyone remembers when the team comes home after this road trip.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Umm, That's What I'm Talkin' About!

I'm a superstitious type.

I'm the kind of guy who won't say the words "no hitter" when one of my team's pitchers (or a pitcher that I like, or any pitcher in a game where I have no rooting interest) goes into the fifth inning with a zero in the middle of the team's linescore. Even though announcers have eased up on this sort of silliness, I'll make cryptic phone calls friends and siblings when something like that is going down, and I'll never use the "n" and "h" words when doing it.

Why? I'm a fairly rational bloke. Reasonably educated. I know that my words, over a phone, sometimes hundreds or even thousands of miles away from where a baseball contest is being played can't affect the outcome. But still, I stand by the simple axiom: you don't [mess] with fate. You don't take any chances when something legitimately special is happening.

By the by, I usually don't use the word "mess" there. But I'm told this is a family weblog.

Anyway, with what's happening with the Bombers right now, I have a hard time talking about it. Not so much talking about it, but giving the thing a name.

For example, I'm happy to speak about Giambi's 3 for 4 night, with a dinger, as a really hopeful sign. It's a sign that Jason really needed, too, seeing as Ruben Sierra is ready to start his rehab assignment, and DH at bats could soon become real scarce.

I'm happy to marvel at the str--um, better to not use that word--the hot hitting that Tino Martinez is doing, ripping his way near the top of the home run leaderboard.

I'm not quite as happy to see that Carl Pavano, a guy both Alex and Cliff over at Bronx Banter say reminds them of Andy Pettitte, has gotten into that Pettitte-like knack for inconsistency. World beater one day, whipped mule the next. More about this in another post.

I haven't seen nearly enough of Robinson Cano. But since every time I have seen him, he does something weird in the field, I think it might be for the best.

And I'll say that it's odd that the first West Coast road trip is where the Yanks have gone to get healthy. Part of it is two disappointing teams--the A's legitimately disappointing, the Mariners unsurprisingly so--meeting the wrong team at the wrong time.

I'm not going to complain. As Crash Davis once said, you never [mess] with a wi...

Nah, I'm not going to say that now, am I?

Friday, May 13, 2005

Borrowed Bullet Points

Brother Joe tends to do "bullet point fridays" over at his Prospectus Today gig. I'm borrowing the concept for the day, with a few notes and one-line type items.

  • Think of Your Health -- According to reports, Jaret Wright's bad shoulder is good enough that he's going on a rehab assignment. I'm no Will Carroll, but my advice is don't pencil him into the rotation just yet. At the same time the pendulum seems to swing up for Wright, it comes down on Felix Rodriguez, who had surgery on his knee, to repair damaged cartilage after the reliever slipped in the bathtub/hot tub/whatever.

  • FYI -- If Wright does come back, that sets up a conflict between Jaret and Chien Ming Wang (that last name being pronounced "Wong"). So we're looking a classic battle between Wright and Wang. (No applause necessary--I'm here all week!)

  • The Picture of Tino Martinez -- Submitted for your consideration: one baseball player, old for his craft, on the obvious decline of his career, suddenly experiences a renaissance where he plays even better than he did as a youth. Meanwhile, his younger teammate--intended to replace him--withers before our very eyes, his diminishing bat speed pointing in the direction of senility, old age, and death. Unnatural? Probably. Improbable? Certainly. Impossible? Not in...the Twilight Zone.

  • Wild Ride on Getaway Day -- yesterday's game had to be the most astounding that I've followed in a long time. Checked on MLB.com: down 5-0 in the top of the first. Looked back a while later: the Yanks tied it in the bottom of the inning. The Yanks were down when I went to get lunch, and were tied again (behind Tino's 9th homer) by the time I reached the take-out place.

  • Getting the [Bleep] Out of Dodge -- Tony Pena becomes the first manager--to my knowledge--to quit his job because of a booty call. It's a meteoric fall from grace for a guy who was the AL's manager of the year two years ago. You have to wonder if this puts him on the same near-unhirable list as Wally Backman.

  • The Maslow Award for Special Achievement in the Field of Revenge -- Revenge is a dish best served cold, and how cold was it for Kelly Locke, the guy to whom Pena allegely (as we say in Spanish) "le pego los cuernos," to subpoena Tony, thereby ruining Pena's career, and simultaneously making his cheatin' wife a nation-wide laughing stock? I mean, this thing has not only spawned a zillion "Desperate Housewives" jokes, but the wife is now so notorious they throw her middle initial in there when writing about her--she's "Monica A. Locke" in news reports, lest some other Monica Locke be accidentally accused of being an adulteress.

  • A Biiiiig Mouth! -- Note to John Rocker: this is exactly why the Long Island Ducks picked you up. They may or may not have known that you couldn't pitch anymore, but they were damn certain you'd run your fool mouth, and get them tons of free press.

  • Conspiracy Theory of the Day -- ...Or the joke could be on all of us. I have to admit that Rocker's blatherings are so perfectly offensive, I sometimes wonder if there's some brilliant scriptwriter or PR guy behind it all. I mean, if you've got a reputation as the racist redneck guy, who better to compare your self to than Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron? It's perfectly ironic--almost too much so.

  • Greetings & Felicitations! -- First off, I wish a happy to Brother J, whose birthday is tomorrow; and second, a hearty congratulations to Jay and Andra, who are getting hitched on Sunday.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Jason Giambi Blues (Make Him Wanna Holler)

Last things first, today.

In other news, the Yanks have asked Jason Giambi to go down to the minors, to work on his swing at AAA, rather than continue to sit on the bench. Right now, Giambi's hitting .195 with three homers and a ton of walks, but his bat speed inspires no confidence, and one suspects the reason that he's taking so many walks is because he can't get the bathead around on pitches he would have tattooed only a few short years ago. Reportedly, if the Yanks can get the Giambino off the 40 man roster, they save some luxury tax dough.

Naturally, the media is behind this minor league scheme, except for those who think that Columbus, Ohio is better than Giambi deserves.

Do I think Giambi should go to the minors? Sure, that'd suit me just fine. It's not my decision, however. Really, it isn't the decision of the Yankees brass, or of Jon Heyman, or Buster Olney.

Under the CBA, it's Jason's decision. He has the right to refuse assignment to the minors as a player with more than 5 years experience in the Majors. What does Giambi have to gain from going down to the minors? Sure, he'll get more at bats than he will in pinstripes, but otherwise, probably nothing.

If Giambi goes down to the minors and tears up the joint, does that improve his stock? Not that much, not "taking $80MM worth of old ballplayer off the Yankees' hands" worth. If he goes down and doesn't hit? Career over, no hope of parole, and he's even more of a laughing stock than he is now.

The weirdest idea in all this is how going to the minors is supposed to "help Giambi's confidence".

Giambi's not a 21 year old who's been overwhelmed in his first taste of the majors. He's an 11 year major league veteran. After you've been a big leaguer for more than ten years, a star for the past seven, how the heck is showing that you're capable of hitting AAA pitching supposed to give you confidence?

All this "back to the minors" stuff fits the storylines writers have ready for Jason, regardless of how it works out. If Giambi is somehow able to get his swing back down on the farm, it fits the Behind the Music self-destruction-and-redemption outline ("Next, after hitting rock bottom, a trip to the minors turned out to be just what the doctor ordered..."). If Giambi fails, it's just one more step in the sin-and-punishment story of his steroid abuse.

Sure, there was a disconnect going when Giambi was cheered in Florida during Spring Training. But there's also a disconnect by all the folks who are presently using him as a pinata (you'll have to imagine the tilde over the "n") in the press. The Daily News, after a Mike Lupica hatchet job on Tuesday, now runs a daily "Man of Steal" update on Giambi, complete with a cartoon of Giambi dressed as a pinstriped burglar.

Pure class.

Maybe Giambi's done. Maybe it's just a slump. What seems certain is that the Yanks are stuck with him to the bitter end.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

PTP for You and Me

My monthly raving about the Yanks (and Pirates, and Marlins) over at Baseball Prospectus est arrive. From that article, my surprising fact of the month:
While Womack gets a lot of flack for his failings, the defensive translations credit him for doing a fine job at second base: His 114 Rate2 is excellent and his 22 double plays turned and 88 assists still rank 2nd and 3rd respectively in the league--even though Womack has spent the past week playing left field.

You can read the rest of the article here. Although the defensive translations aren't perfect, the raw numbers 88 assists and 22 DP, were a revelation. It's only April, and I don't think that Woe-mack's defense at second will ever win aesthetic acclaim, but there's some evidence he has value as a fielder.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

No Comment

No, I don't want to talk about it.

OK, how about some movie reviews? I haven't done those in a while.

The Interpreter

If I have to hear one more white character lecture me about Africa in a movie, I'm gonna scream.

Let me backtrack. The conventional wisdom is, that if you tell a story about Africa from a black African perspective, and you cut down your box office to just African-Americans and perhaps the arthouse crowd--this is pretty much what happened to the excellent Hotel Rwanda this past winter.

So Hollywood's natural inclination is to introduce sympathetic white Europeans or Americans as leads, who will be the characters the (presumably white) audience will relate to. A couple of problems with this approach. First, it marginalizes the people who are putatively the focus of the story, as black characters take to the sidelines so that a more marketeable white star can get screen time. Second, history teaches us that white people usually aren't the heroes of African stories, so the white leads distort reality, and make the suspension of disbelief just a little bit harder than it usually is.

So at the climax of the Interpreter, when Nicole Kidman (a great actress, but perhaps the whitest woman in Hollywood) confronts an african tyrant, screaming, "Why did you do this to our country?" I was out of that willing suspension of disbelief--with a resounding thump.

You see, in the Interpreter, Kidman plays the eponymous translator, working at the U.N. to bring together the peacemakers with her linguistic skills. In a turn of events so improbable that Kidman's co-star, Sean Penn, later remarks upon it, Kidman's character just happens to overhear a whispered conversation in an African dialect rare enough that "maybe seven people in the whole UN," including Kidman--a British born white African--know it.

Penn's involved because the conversation Kidman overheard was about a plot to kill the leader of a fictional African nation of Matobo. You see, Penn is a secret service agent (must...hold on...to suspension of disbelief) assigned to figure out if the threat Kidman reports is for real or not.

Now, this is a Hollywood movie, and Kidman is an established star, so we pretty much know which way this is going. Nonetheless, the movie insists on throwing red herrings at us--just enough red herrings to render the plot near-incomprehensible. It's a testament to director Sydney Pollack that the film's slow middle section is watchable, and manages to build some suspense. Pollack does a good job of using the U.N. (and New York City) as a backdrop for the action; Kidman and Penn do good work bringing heft to their roles. Catherine Keener, an actress whose work I usually hate, does a good job in a pretty small role as Penn's partner.

[By the way, there is one scene in the General Assembly room where Sean Penn is at the speakers' podium, staring intently at the various representatives as they're filing in. I do hope that there are outtakes on the DVD of him shouting "At last, I'm here and you all have to listen to me babble incoherently about whichever cause I please! Bwahahaha!" I doubt Penn actually has a sense of humor, so I'm bound to be disappointed.]

In the end, I don't have nearly as many problems with the plot as I do with the casting. Has Hollywood run out of black actresses? Throughout the movie, I kept thinking about Thandie Newton, who starred with Kidman 15 or so years ago in a nice little movie out of Australia called Flirting. Newton doesn't have Kidman's awards and isn't a box-office draw, but she's every bit as good an actress as the former Mrs. Tom Cruise, every bit as attractive, and she's got one thing for her that Kidman doesn't: she's actually African.

I understand the box office realities of the situation, but my point is that at least with Newton, there isn't the bizarre discomfort of having tall, blond Kidman lecture Penn about African tribal customs, or playing tribal melodies on the flute; and things don't work out so that all of the protagonists are white, leaving black characters as only villains or shady possible allies.

If it wasn't for the otherwise fawning presentation of the U.N., you might take this for commentary or even criticism on the U.N.'s role in the world. In reality, all that it is is the politics of Hollywood outranking the realities of politics.

Overall, the Interpreter wasn't a complete waste of time and money, but it wasn't such a good movie that I could just let its bizarre stand on race slide. As that the cineplex has been pretty much a wasteland since December, this film gets a weak recommendation.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

The Opposite

Game 3 of the new-look Yanks was...about as successful as the first two. In Tampa. In front of George.

You know that in the old days (or maybe right now, if the Boss didn't have Bellamy Road as the favorite in the Kentucky Derby) George Steinbrenner would be brutalizing the franchise. He'd be firing guys, throwing furniture, starting fights with opposing fans, and perhaps even torching the Stadium in pure unadulterated rage.

A start not quite as bad as this got Yogi fired in 1985. Any three game losing streak could get the pitching coach tossed in the '80s. A 33-35 record in 1989 put the Yanks in such a panic that they traded Rickey Henderson to the Oakland A's, for my cousin (Luis Polonia) and a couple of pitchers, and started a chain reaction that saw the Yanks jettison their starting third baseman (Mike Pagliarulo) , starters John Candelaria and Richard Dotson, and DH extraordinaire (well, at least he was until he became a Yankee) Ken Phelps.

So what's going to happen now? Nobody knows. The powers that be are having a lot of fun writing epitaphs for this Yankees team. Here's a typical bit from Mike Lupica's column:

The arrogance of the Yankees and their fans is that they are supposed to be a sure thing every year, because of the money, and the name. They aren't a sure thing this time. This is the way it works everywhere else in sports. Part of sports is overcoming things. Sometimes overcoming things makes you stronger. The Yankees are asked to overcome some things now. So are Cashman and Torre. This will be a good season to see what everybody has left in the tank.

In a prior paragraph, Lupica references the Raul Mondesi trade, which makes me think he's been reading Buster Olney's The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty, or at least the free epilogue to the book, which is available at ESPN.com:
From the time that Gene Michael took over the team in 1990, club executives had carefully weighed players' personalities when making decisions, but more and more the choices were based on statistics, the soulless numbers. The Yankees had once acquired or developed players not just because of their talents but because their character added a necessary ingredient – Jeter's confidence, O'Neill's intensity, Raines's humor, Girardi's professionalism. They weren't all superstars, but together they were extraordinary. Now the patient, meticulous empire-building of the early '90s was all but gone, and the farm system was close to barren. By 2004, Jeter, Rivera, Williams, and Posada were the last Yankees with consecutive tenure from the championship years.

Judging from this, Last Night of the Yankees Dynasty is a pretty piece of revisionist history: not all the Yanks of 1996-2001 were saints, and not all of the ones since are bastards. When you lose, it's easy to call someone out for their crappy attitude, and when you win, it's much, much easier to let people slide.

Yeah, I know, he was in that clubhouse and I wasn't. But some of what Olney describes here doesn't match what was being said by the folks covering the team at the time -- including him, I would wager. Still, it looks like an interesting book, and one I'll probably have to read, after I read Will Carroll's The Juice, Steven Goldman's Forging Genius, and Alan Schwartz's The Numbers Game. One part of the excerpt, where Steinbrenner is running around yelling at his employees "You're on the bubble!" (i.e., you're close to getting fired) is classic.

It's the kind of thing that makes me wish Seinfeld was still on the air. They'd be building a whole episode around it. (Can't you see it? Steinbrenner announces George is on the bubble, after he's caught enjoying a box of cracker jacks during a Yankee loss; the next day, Cramer shorts the tip at the diner, and is told by George that now he's on the bubble; Cramer puts Jerry on the bubble after Jerry refuses to store two gross of tangerines Cramer picked up at Whole Foods; Jerry tells Elaine she's on the bubble after she convinces him to trade dental appointments with her; Elaine announces that her boyfriend-of-the-week is on the bubble, after he complains about her use of the newly-reissued contraceptive sponge.)

Since October, the Yanks resemble an episode of Seinfeld: "The Opposite", where George becomes a winner by doing the opposite of what he usually does, and, in turn, Elaine becomes a loser to balance out Jerry's life.

You see, what's wrong with the Yankees in 2005 is pretty much the opposite of the "Yanks acquire mercenaries, lose team chemistry" accusation Olney levels in his book. With one exception, the Yanks didn't acquire superstars this off-season. They did the opposite, picking up a bunch of role players coming off of career years--Jaret Wright, Carl Pavano, Tony F. Womack. These fellows were billed as "character guys" scrappy Womack, solid Pavano, "intense" Wright.

And the real problem is, as a team, some of these fellas aren't all that good. Womack's below league average in almost every respect. Pavano looks like he might define the league average, alternating good and bad starts. Wright might spend his entire Yankee career on the disabled list. Add that to a bunch of old players who are looking old--Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Jason Friggin' Giambi, Kevin Brown, Paul Quantrill, Tom Gordon--and really, what did you expect?

Now, this season ain't over yet. Some of the above-mentioned oldies might round back into form, Hideki Matsui isn't likely to continue as he is. Randy Johnson has room for improvement. And even at this low point, the Yanks are only 5 1/2 games behind the Red Sox (I mean, do you really believe that the Orioles will keep this up). You can make up that gap.

Not that it looks that way right now.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

...In A Handbasket

I don't post for a week, and the whole damn team falls to pieces.

The Butcher's Bill stands at 11-16, and tonight, the team was in Tampa battling last-place Devil Rays. After tonight's 11-4 schellacking, the Yanks are closer to last place in the AL East (the D-Rays are now 9-18) than they are to third (the Red Sox, 13-12).


The past week has been a seesaw of ups and downs, with emphasis on the downs. It started in a promising fashion, with Alex Rodriguez looking historically sweet against the Californian Los Angeles Angels formerly of Disney (more on that in a moment). The good mojo didn't last. After winning 12-4 last Tuesday, the Yanks were outscored 8-2 over the next two games of the Angels series--at home.

Toronto then came into town, just in time for Roy Halladay to outduel Randy Johnson. Bad news, losing the Big Unit's start, worse news that Randy was feeling "groin stiffness" (please, get your minds out of the gutter and have the decency to be concerned) particularly with callup Chien-Ming Wang making his first start in the wake of a three game losing streak.

Luckily, Wang didn't seem to notice all the pressure he was supposed to be under, and he pitched a nice little ballgame, allowing two runs through seven innings on Saturday. The bullpen coughed up Wang's lead, but still, the Yanks won 4-3.

But the good feelings from Wang's start didn't last, as Carl Pavano (or, as the Boys at Bronx Banter call him, "Meat") got flambasted for six runs, letting the Jays back in a game which the Yanks led , and allowing the soft underbelly of the Yankee bullpen to cough up the win.

Yesterday, against the Devil Rays, things looked much more promising (don't they always?). Mike Mussina looked better than he has in his past couple of appearances, although his fastball still wasn't breaking any speed limits. Starting opposite Mussina, ex-Met Scott Kazmir looked good (9 Ks in 6 IP) but was undone by bad defense and worse relief support.

That brought us to today. The D-Rays riding an eight game losing streak, facing Kevin Brown, who beat them like a redheaded stepchild in 2004 (4-0 1.88 ERA). The Yanks were facing a serious shake-up of the roster and lineup: Robinson Cano coming from AAA to play second base (yay!), Bernie Williams going to the bench (huh), Hideki Matsui going from left to center (OK) and Tony Womack starting in left field (boo...kinda). Steve Karsay was told to hit the road, the Yankees eating his salary by designating him for assignment. I forget the roster rules as to whether they can work a salary dump trade within the next couple of days, or if Karsay's contract goes into the books as one of the worst expenditures in franchise history (not that those options are mutually exclusive). Either which way, he's gone.

Well, it seems like the Rays weren't buying the new-look Yankees, or at least the new-look (but definitely old-lookin') Kevin Brown. They smacked him up for six runs in the opening frame, and the team never recovered.

So April's over, a month in which the Yanks took 16 of their 24 games at home, finished with a 6-10 record at the Stadium, for the month.

Not promising. Not promising at all.