Sunday, July 13, 2008

Sometimes You Win and You Still Lose

Bobby Murcer is dead.

I knew him as a voice, first and foremost. As a player, he occupied a strange ground in Yankee history. He was the best player on the team in the early seventies--a dubious distinction--then was traded for Bobby Bonds in '74 and missed the championship seasons of 1977 and '78. He returned in 1979, just weeks before the death of his best friend on the team, Thurman Munson. Munson's death provided the one game performance for which he's best remembered by Yankee fans, as the day of Munson's funeral the Yankees came back from Ohio to play the Orioles at Yankee Stadium, and Murcer led a comeback, knocking in all five of the Yankees' runs in a 5-4 victory.

Murcer made it to the playoffs with the Yankees in 1980 and '81, but by then he was more of a role player, and he only got 14 plate appearances in the two playoff series, with one hit, two walks, and no rings. When he retired in 1983, the organization quickly moved him to the Yankee broadcast booth, where he stayed for the most part until his health made it impossible to return. Murcer was diagnosed with brain cancer in late 2006, but was successfully treated and was back in the broadcast booth by the following Opening Day. We cheered Murcer's victory over cancer that day, but all triumphs over death are temporary. Sixteen months later, he's gone.

My condolences go out to his family, and to Yankee fans everywhere. We'll miss him very much.

Monday, July 07, 2008

34 Games Left: Sunday Night Lights

During Friday's Independence Day game, at some point shortly after the the Sox took a 6-3 lead en route to a 6-4 victory, a friend emailed me with a one-sentence note:
Why are there so many Red Sox fans at this game?
There are many answers to this question. As I've complained before, a mind-boggling number of Yankee "fans" can think of nothing better to do with their tickets than to bring a Red Sox fan to the Stadium, to cheer against their team. Corporate ticketholders seem to love giving their tickets to fans of whichever opposing team is in town, and online services like StubHub have made scalping tickets safe and sanitary for any New Englander who wants to make the drive down I-95. Moreover, the Red Sox seem to have attracted a fan base with no connection whatsoever to New England, composed of Dominicans who come out to honor Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, and others who jumped on the bandwagon circa 2004, adopting the Boston "B" as their non-conformist symbol for hatred of the Yankees, and/or New York in general. All told, that makes for a lot of people in the stands to chant "Youuuuuk" when Boston's whiny firstbaseman comes to the plate.

The simpler answer to my friend's question is that the Red Sox fans, from wherever and however they got into the Stadium, came to preside over a funeral. A funeral for the Yankees. They'd come into town on Thursday like they owned the place--they absolutely beat down Andy Pettitte and Jon Lester held the Yankees lineup impotent--and on Friday, the roll continued behind Josh Beckett. The Yankees, losers of five of their last six, actually fell behind Baltimore into fourth place at the end of action on Friday.

Since Wang went down, I've been coming to terms with the thought that this isn't the Yankees' year. Not that I've given up, but the twists that it would take for the Yankees to overtake the Rays and Red Sox--much less perform well in the playoffs--seem to range toward the improbable. Everyone knew that this was a risky season, with the Yanks counting on their young players rather than making yet another move for a top-shelf talent like Johan Santana. That young talent has largely disappointed, with Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy on the shelf with injuries (and before they were injured, they were ineffective); Robinson Cano having a half-season to forget, and Melky Cabrera openly making some of us question whether he belongs in the major leagues.

So I was bracing myself for a Boston sweep, or three-out-of-four on the upside. Then, on Saturday, there was a nice surprise from Mike Mussina--he picked the Red Sox apart with precision pitching and chutzpah, and the Yankees barely survived some ninth-inning trouble for Mariano Rivera. Still, coming to the Stadium for last night's Joba Chamberlain-Tim Wakefield matchup, I wasn't optimistic--sure, Joba's probably the best thing the Yanks have going this season, but he hasn't faced an offense like Boston's as a starter.

Again, tonight proved a pleasant surprise. Joba pumping mid-90s heat at the opposition wasn't surprising, but the Red Sox pounding those balls into the ground was, a little (it shouldn't have been, given that Chamberlain recently induced 10 or more grounders against the Astros and Pirates as well). Chamberlain was excellent outside of the fifth inning, which went 38 pitches long and featured control trouble. I was glad that they let Joba pitch himself out of the mess, despite the fact that he looked fatigued as the inning wore on.

Robinson Cano's seventh-inning triple, which tied the game, was another pleasant surprise, and Kyle Farnsworth making it through the eighth inning without giving the Red Sox the lead was outright shocking. The biggest, and most surprising moment in the game came in the ninth. The Red Sox got a runner to third base with two outs, and Manny Ramirez, who'd spent the game on the bench, came to the plate to face Mariano Rivera. I expected an intentional walk, to face rookie Jacoby Ellsbury rather than the most dangerous batter on the team. Rivera had other ideas, and took down the dreadlocked slugger with a perfect, three-pitch strikeout. Ramirez never took the bat off his shoulder.

At that point, things stopped being surprising. There was a palpable feeling that the worm had turned. The crowd in the left field stands stayed on their feet for the bottom of the ninth, expecting that one of the trio of Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, and Jorge Posada would send us home with a bang. It didn't happen, but then the top of the Red Sox lineup didn't find much to do with Rivera in his second inning of work. When Robinson Cano singled to start the inning, blood was in the water, a sac bunt and a Wilson Betemit whiff later, the game was in the hands of rookie Brett Gardner, who's concluding his first week in the majors. Against Jon Papelbon, the rookie hanged in there, fouling off Papelbon's big fastballs en route to a eight-pitch groundball single up the middle. Welcome to the Show, kid. Thanks for rescuing our week.

  • In the second inning, Alex Rodriguez tied Mickey Mantle on the All-Time home run list, thwacking a Wakefield knuckler down the left field line. Rodriguez had a hard week, with rumors of an affair with Madonna following rumors that his wife had fled to Paris, to be with Lenny Kravitz, in turn followed by the official announcement, tonight before the game, that his wife will seek a divorce.
  • I'm perplexed by Madonna's role as the catalyst that set this chain of events in motion. I remember Madonna at her peak, in the 80's: the photos of her published in Penthouse and Playboy were perhaps the most anticipated thing in the history of published nudity. She was attached or rumored to be attached to dozens of prominent figures of the day, from JFK, Jr. to Jose Canseco and Warren Beatty. But with over-exposure, her reputation as a sex symbol began to wear thin, and it outright died, in my opinion, with her performance in the Basic Instinct rip-off Body of Evidence. The movie cast her as a dangerous sexpot, in a cast that included quality performers like Willem DaFoe, Joe Mantegna, Frank Langella and Julianne Moore. She was hamstrung by an awful, awful script, but it was just shocking that Madonna couldn't manage to convince anyone that she was seductive, or even terribly desirable, in the role. Her coming back from motherhood and marriage to bust up A-Rod's marriage is a bit like if Don Mattingly came out of retirement today and went on to win the batting title.
  • Girardi got booted from the game in the sixth, for arguing balls and strikes right before the Gardner single that set up the Yankees' second run of the night. The guy in front of me remarked "He [Girardi] is the only one in that dugout with any fire." Tough judgment, given that Jeter and Posada are in that dugout, too, but I'm not sure I disagree.
  • Words of encouragement to Kyle Farnsworth: "Kyle! Pretend that Mike Lowell is a beautiful five-point buck. Or six points, whatever. Just take him out!"

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Month in Review: June 2008

Ed. Note: It's taken me a while to do this month-in-review, and no matter what happens today and tomorrow night, this has been a week to forget in Yankeeland. I'll put aside July for the moment, concentrate on June, and we'll talk about the current crisis shortly.

Record for the Month
: 16-12, 137 RS, 114 RA
Overall: 44-39, 386 RS, 366 RA, 3rd Place 6.5 games behind the Rays

Game of the Month: June 27 at Mets. If you'd asked me the most unlikely combination to come through with a combined shutout in pinstripes this season, Sidney Ponson/Kyle FarnsworthJose Veras/Kei Igawa would have been pretty close to the top. Then consider the circumstances: at Shea in the nightcap of a two-borough doubleheader, after Carlos Delgado and the Mets creamolished them at the Stadium in the early game, and facing Pedro Martinez? Raise your hand if you called a Yankee shutout under those circumstances. I thought not.

Player of the Month: Mariano Rivera's numbers look close to getting him a third straight Player of the Month nod, but one loss, and another game where the offense bailed him out, means that we're not quite there. I'll be a bit of a hypocrite by giving Jose Veras part credit by posting 13 innings of 1.98 ERA in June--worse numbers than Rivera, but then, the expectations were much lower. I was kind of dumbfounded by Girardi's affection for Veras earlier in the season, but if he keeps on performing like this, we might just have the player the Yanks thought they were getting in Kyle Farnsworth. Joba Chamberlain made strides in his conversion project, leaving his amazing strikeout rate in the bullpen, but still keeping a 5 to 1 K/Walk ratio, and a 1.80 ERA for the month. Jason Giambi (.305/.430/.585) and Johnny Damon (.363/.425/.441) also get part credits--two players who came into this season on the brink, and are now the team's core performers. But the Player of the Month is Alex Rodriguez, who hit the ball a bit (.366/.455/.693, team-leading 9 HR, 24 Runs, 23 RBI) in his first healthy month of the season.

Dregs of the Month: Darrell Rasner's magical pixie dust ran out (1-5, 6.47 ERA in June), which is a shame, but also just the way the cookie crumbles. Freaky fluke Aaron Small seasons are freaky flukes for a reason: they very rarely happen. Before the season, if someone told you Rasner would have a 4.42 ERA at the end of June, you'd probably think that was about right, maybe a little low. Luckily for Rasner, his poor performance is completely blown away by Melky Cabrera's (.206/.289/.255). Melky's in the middle of the worst offensive stretch by a Yankee regular since Tony Womack back in 2005, he's posted a .565 OPS over the last two months. As Womack shows, there's only so long that you can perform at that level and keep your job. Melky's been fortunate as his slump continued, the Yankees' outfield depth took a hit with the loss of HIdeki Matsui. Otherwise, I can't imagine that the Yankees would let him work his issues out on the major league level, rather than setting him up with a restorative trip to Scranton, no matter how good his defense is.

Story of the Month: If there was one injury the Yankees couldn't afford this season, it would have to have been any injury to Chien Ming Wang. Wang's absence, plus that of Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy, puts a superhuman weight on the shoulders of the rotation's old warhorses, Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte. Unless both pitchers perform to the top of their expectations, the Yanks have little hope of catching the Red Sox or Rays. The Matsui injury leaves the roster pretty thin--now Girardi has an excuse to carry three catchers, as he did for most of the month. I'm sure Chad Moeller's 12 PA last month were totally worth it.