Thursday, December 30, 2010

Best Christmas Present. Ever.

When you have kids, Christmas shifts. It's their holiday. You're in attendance, and get to have fun with the decorating and the music and the get-togethers, but Christmas morning belongs to them--even if, like my boys, they're too young to really understand what's going on. It's so much about them that the idea of exchanging gifts among adults starts to seem silly.

So everybody was under a tacit agreement to keep things low-key this year, which is why is was a huge surprise when La Chiquita sprung out a couple of tickets--good ones, no less--to Prince's Welcome 2 America concert as her Christmas present to me. I like a lot of different kinds of music, but Prince is the only performer where I have every one of his albums. For a while in the late 1990s, I made sure to catch him whenever he performed within an hour's drive of where I lived (even though I don't drive), still, I hadn't seen his live show in more than a decade--a combination of fan-alienating moves on his part and life getting in the way on my side had slackened my enthusiasm. Although I kept buying the Man's albums, only a few of them captured my imagination for more than a couple of spins (mainly, Musicology and 3121).

Regardless, I was overjoyed with the gift, and full of anticipation for the concert. We arrived a little late, having stopped by my brother's house to visit with my sister-in-law's family and with the newest addition to our clan. When we got there, the first opening number was already in progress. Sadly, neither of us had eaten, so securing food was a priority on arrival. I thought briefly that we were missing Maceo Parker, but it turned out the first opener was Mint Condition--a nice enough band, but not quite worth passing out at a concert over.

We took our seats in time for Janelle Monae's set. The introduction was strange because her albums apparently have a high-concept mythology to them--somehow masks, zombies, and androids are involved--which would've required a pamphlet or something for the uninitiated to understand, but her stage skills were old school in a good way: big voice, sharp dance moves, good presence. There's a lot of Prince in that young lady (perhaps the first time that phrase has been uttered without a truckload of innuendo being rightfully attached). Still, the audience's reaction was tepid--much of the crowd was getting $10 beers and/or watching the Islanders/Penguins game on the MSG TV monitors. It's a thankless job, opening for Prince.

After a looong break, during which the MSG monitors played clips from a late '60s/early '70s stadium concert (looked like the LA Coliseum), the Purple One finally took the stage. The stage was in the shape of the name symbol Prince used during his Artist Formerly Known As Prince period, with a purple baby grand piano set up on "mouthpiece" side of the horn that transects the symbol. Here's a really crappy iPhone photo, for instructional purposes:

Prince started on the piano, opening with the intro to The Beautiful Ones before leaving his seat to sing the ballad on top of the piano, and then leaving the piano to roam all over the stage. The Beautiful Ones is a really unusual song to lead off with--neither a chart-topper nor an uptempo number, but the song definitely showed that the Man's pipes are as powerful as ever. From there, it was on to the hits: Let's Go Crazy wrapped around a full version of Delirious, followed by certified crowd-pleasers 1999 and Little Red Corvette, and then a semi-medley of Uptown, Cream, and Raspberry Beret.

Every musician reacts differently to performing live. Most try to garner the crowd's favor, from seduction to outright sucking up. Prince is one of the guys who reverses the process--the audience has to earn his favor. Sure, he'll make sure you're happy--then again, in his mind, your satisfaction was never in doubt. The question is, will you, the audience, return the favor? Wednesday at Madison Square Garden, the crowd definitely seemed to have won the Purple One's approval, making a ton of noise, filling in verses unbidden, and being enthusiastic in call-and-response, as on Cool, one of The Time's signature cuts. After a segwey back to hitsville for U Got the Look, Prince went back off the beaten path, teasing the intro to Question of U (from Graffitti Bridge) but launching into a song I didn't recognize, that most people seem to be calling Gingerbread Man, and which I assume is new. [One reason it's taken me so long to post this review is because of how skeptical I am about this song's newness, but I can't find a reference to it anywhere and no one else seems to have ID'd it either. I'm sure some Internet Dickwad ($0.25, Gabe & Tycho) will step up with "That's not new, I heard him perform it in Tokyo in '96! I though you said you were a Prince fan!" or it'll turn out to be an obscure cover. So be it--it's new to me.] The song, a hip thrusting slow jam in the mode of Scandalous or Do Me Baby, found Prince in a carnal mode we haven't seen so much of since he got all Jehova's Witness-y on us.

After that, the songs all started to sound like finales. You had a full version of Purple Rain, then a break, then a slightly off-kilter version of Kiss, then a break, then She's Always In My Hair, which moved cleanly into If I Was Your Girlfriend. Monae joined him onstage for If I Was Your Girlfriend, putting on a bravura performance where the two singers tag-teamed a single mike, which they passed back and forth like a relay baton while dancing up a storm, and not tripping over an audience member who seemed to have been brought on stage purely for the purpose of upping the degree of difficulty.

After another break, Prince came back for his first official encore, taking to the piano with little or no band accompaniment for a medley of Do Me Baby, I Wanna Be Your Lover, and How Come You Don't Call Me Anymore, and a full version of Sometimes It Snows In April. The second encore was more perfunctory, an opportunity to invite a lot of people from the expensive seats up to dance onstage, and to get Cyndi Lauper vamping impressively while Prince played Jungle Love.

For two people who never leave the house, La Chiquita and I have had a good year in concerts: we saw one of my favorite jazz performances a couple of months back when Chucho Valdes was in town, and this concert made a great capper for 2010. The only criticisms I could see were that Prince's band, while competent, wasn't going to make anyone forget the Revolution or even the early versions of the NPG, and that (with the possible exception of that Gingerbread Man song) every song was at least 19 years old. Strange, given that one of my complaints when I last saw Prince in concert was that performing the hits left room for little else, but I didn't mind the greatest hits format of this concert, or the exclusion of his catalog after Diamonds & Pearls. More than a nostalgia-fest, the concert felt a bit like a time machine--Prince looked, sounded, and danced like someone 20 years younger, the only concessions to middle age I could see were several strategically-placed teleprompters, and a little less abandon in the way he threw his body around the stage. But with my hands still vibrating at the end of the concert from an evening of nearly non-stop applause, I couldn't have cared what year it was--it felt like I was a kid again.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A Night in Coney Island

Last night I had the good fortune to get out to Coney Island to enjoy some minor league action with Joe Sheehan, Jay Jaffe, Emma Span, Geoff Silver, Matt Meyers and Jesse Spector, as the Mets' New York-Penn League team, the Brooklyn Cyclones, faced down the Baltimore Orioles short-season squad, the Aberdeen IronBirds. I had my camera with me, so enjoy this slideshow with a few notes from the game:

Cyclones 8-25-10

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Game 89: Instant Classic?

Game 89, the first game after this year's All-Star break, was just on YES (for anyone interested, it'll be replayed tomorrow at 9AM). YES has declared the game a Yankees Classic, because it was the Yanks' first game after the death of team owner George Steinbrenner, and their first home game since the death of longtime PA announcer Bob Sheppard. I was at the game, and took a bunch of pictures (but none, sadly, of the pre-game ceremony) which I didn't have time to post at the time. Here's a photo album of that game:

Game 89

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Game 97: Sun, Rain, and Waiting on 600

Yep, I'm blogging on a Wednesday about Sunday's game, but the rain delay really took the energy out of me Sunday night, and the pictures were just too good not to post. Seventy-plus hours after Game 97, the Yanks have added a win and a loss, and Swish and Granderson have added home runs, but Alex is still idling at 599 homers as the Yanks continue on a road trip that will take them from Cleveland to the Trop en route to their return to Yankee Stadium just after the trade deadline. The deadline looms large because, even though the Yanks have the best record in the majors, they don't look like the a complete enough team to stand pat on the trade market.

Back to Sunday's game. Mostly, I'll let the pictures do the talking here:

Phil Hughes, Sunday's starter, is either praying or communing with the rosin bag before throwing his first pitch. Either way, I hope he's asking the powers-that-be that he not turn out like Joba did.

Opposing Phil would be the Kansas City Royals, the miserable ruins of a once-proud franchise. Here's KC's catcher, the twice-washed-up Jason Kendall. He batted second in the lineup. Batting third? Wilson Betemit. Yes, that Wilson Betemit!

The bright point in the Royal's lineup was Scott Podsednik, another player who's had a few major league lives before winding up in KC. He had a career day, matching his high marks with two homers and 4 RBI. He would also make a spectacular catch in the eighth inning, which sadly I didn't catch on virtual film. Here, he's on base after his first-inning single, wearing some sort of sliding mitten on his left hand.

Royals pitchers focused on throwing inside all day. Here's newly-acquired Royal Sean O'Sullivan getting up close and personal with Derek Jeter in the first inning.

Of course, the big draw of the game was Alex Rodriguez's ongoing quest for his 600th career home run. Before each A-Rod at bat, we had the following scene of the ump trading in his regular set of balls for special marked balls, which could be used to verify the authenticity of homer number 600 should Alex manage to launch it in that at-bat.

During the game, Brother Jeff asked if the 600 milestone still meant anything. The answer is yes and no. It used to be that 600 homers meant you were closing in on Willie Mays--undisputed, authentic immortal, with only undisputed authentic immortals ahead of him. These days, it means you're closing in on Sammy Sosa and Ken Griffey Jr. No disrespect to those two, but that air is not so rarified as it once was. Same thing with 500--it used to mean inner-circle Hall of Famers, now it's joining a club that has kinda-greats like Eddie Murray, Gary Sheffield, Rafael Palmeiro, Jim Thome. Sure, some of that has to do with steroids, but a bit of it is just the normal dilution that happens to once-"unreachable" sporting achievements.

On the other hand, as we saw a few years back, even with Palmeiro and Thome et al, 500 still matters. On Sunday, 600 mattered: people were obviously there hoping to see history. Every time Alex came to bat, you could see flashes popping, even though the early innings were played in bright sunlight.

Down 2-0 in the third, the Yanks ripped out a four-run outburst, started by a Curtis Granderson homer and RBI doubles by Jeter and Rodriguez. The weirdest play of the inning was this little squibber off the bat of Mark Teixeira.

It was a weak little grounder, but the Teixeira shift and Jeter heading home from third combined to make this an RBI single. Of course, it didn't hurt that the Royals' infield was basically three utility guys (Chris Getz at third, Mike Aviles at second, and Betemit at first) and Yuniesky Betancourt. (Want to make a Royals fan angry? Bring up Yuniesky Betancourt.) All the infielders had a bit of Bad News Bears in them on Sunday--bad throws, bad catches, butterfingers moments.

But even with the lead, Phil Hughes didn't put much pressure on the Royals. He didn't walk anybody, but he did allow a second home run, a blast from ex-pitcher Rick Ankiel that looked like it might have damaged the third deck. Sure, the first homer he allowed was a cheap foul pole job to Podsednik, but all game long, it didn't look like Hughes had his good swing-and-miss stuff.

Luckily, Granderson responded to Ankiel's homer with a second dinger of his own. In the fifth, with the score 5-3 Yanks, Rodriguez came to the plate again, with the Captain on first and two outs. What followed was a pretty good demonstration of what pressing looks like. The ball was going everywhere but fair.

There were foul balls off the ankle guard...

...there was some falling down...

...there was an awkwardly rinky-dink foul nearly straight up that luckily went out of play. All while the crowd was waiting with bated breath to see history happen. On the 2-2 count, Jeter got bored and stole second. All this ended with a weak grounder to Betancourt.

By this time, clouds had been gathering all game long, and now the sky was steel gray.

Hughes got one batter into the sixth, and suddenly the wind kicked up, and the groundscrew leapt to roll out the tarp.

Luckily, the big rainstorm came on umbrella day at Yankee Stadium. J&R got big bang for their promotional dollar. There were no umbrellas for the grounds crew though, who had their hands full.

Sadly, during the rain delay, the Yankee Stadium screen's entertainment: (c) Failed miserably. Don't blame Swish, whose cooking segment was pretty decent, but it was sandwiched between obnoxious informercials for Yankee Stadium's various food stands and a freakin' documentary about Yankees fantasy camp. No one wants to watch scrubs with too much money play rec-league baseball--as Brother Jeff said, it's like watching watching someone's vacation photos, just you don't know them, and could give even less of a damn than you usually would. Did I mention, that as this was happening, Andre Dawson was at Cooperstown, being inducted to the Hall of Fame? Think a bunch of baseball fans would rather watch that, or a 48-year-old stock broker trying to turn two? Or any of the half-million documentaries in the YES network library? Three days later, I'm still steamed about this.

Two-plus hours later, the tarp came off. Only a small fraction of the crowd was still in the house, but those who stayed had one thought in mind: 600!

Before Rodriguez could get to the plate again, Brett Gardner worked some of his slappy opposite field magic to plate Robinson Cano in the sixth. Gardner, along with Cano and Swisher, has been key in picking up the slack left in the lineup by the Jeter, Teixeira, and Rodriguez's subpar performances. This season he's hit almost exactly what he hit in the minors; which was pretty much what he had to do to justify a regular place in the lineup.

The Yanks added what looked like an insurance run in the seventh, when Rodriguez hit a hard grounder to Aviles that spun the second baseman like a top, scoring Swisher. Sadly, the insurance would be necessary because the hollowed out shell of Joba Chamberlain came into the game in the 8th inning, and gave up a couple of runs on a long homer by Scott Podsednik. To give this some context, Podsednik's hit a homer about once every 100 plate appearances for his career. This is not a power hitter, but he raked Joba for a no-doubter into the right field stands. Aside from that, and walking the number nine hitter to set up that two-run shot, two of the three outs Chamberlain recorded were hard-hit.


Just when it looked like the Yankees would have to summon Mariano Rivera to close things out, the Royals bullpen spit the bit. Improbably, reliever Blake Wood, with a healthy assist from his thirdbaseman and manager, brought A-Rod to the plate for one more shot at the milestone. With the bases loaded and one out, Rodriguez was swinging easier than he had in his previous at bats. The faithful who were still in the stands could taste milestone coming...

...but it was not to be. In a huge anticlimax, Woods came up and in to Rodriguez hitting him on the hand. Alex was down on the ground for a while, and the remaining crowd let Woods and the Royals feel the hate. Ultimately, the Yanks put up a five-spot, though, meaning that instead of Enter Sandman, we got Chan Ho Park.

Or as I like to call him, Exhibit B in why the Yanks can't stand pat coming to the trade deadline. Park only managed to give back one run of the lead--and he had a helping hand from Jorge Posada's face mask and Rule 7.05(d)--but the righthander showed no velocity and just plain refused to throw strikes. Dave Robertson can only throw so many of the non-Mariano innings, and unlike the situations with the Yankees DH spot, there just don't seem to be any reliable internal options to make up for the way Joba and Park have stunk this season.

Anyway, so that was the game. Here's hoping that Alex can get the monkey off his back against grounballista Fausto Carmona tonight.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Game 80: Blue Jays at Yanks

Wow. It's been a while since we've spoken (a quarter-season, to be precise) and there's a lot of catching up to do. Unfortunately, this is not the time for a wide-ranging discussion of all things Bronx Bombers (that'll be later in the week). This is the time for...photoblog:

It's not Fourth of July without baseball, the Yankees, and Freddy.

The pitching matchup for George Steinbrenner's 80th birthday was geared more toward the future--Phil Hughes for the Yanks and Brandon Morrow for the Blue Jay could spend a lot of their time crossing swords in the AL East between now and the Boss's 90th birthday. They're both power pitchers who established themselves in the bullpen before taking regular rotation slots. Morrow's a harder thrower (getting up to 97 on the stadium gun) than Phil, but also more prone to wildness (5.3 BB/9 for his career).

Phil the Phenom, coiled to attack. Has he been Joba'd?

Sadly for the Yanks, Phil's been in a bit of a phunk since the Yankees skipped him in the rotation a couple of weeks ago, the latest manifestation of their continuing experiment in limiting wear-and-tear on young arms. In his first start after the layoff he looked like he was throwing batting practice to the Mariners, allowing a career-high 10 hits in less than seven innings. Today he started strong, striking out the game's first two batters, but later he was Big Fly Hughes, allowing Lyle Overbay a cannon blast to dead center in the third, an excuse-me popup off the right field foul pole to Dwayne Wise, and another scorcher to star underperformer Adam Lind. Hughes' struggles were particularly galling since he was facing a true Sunday lineup: backups starting at second, catcher (Jose Molina for John Buck), and center (Wise for Vernon Wells).

Teixeira achieving full extension for his 5th inning double.

Wise's three-run homer was in the top of the fifth, and it really took the wind out of the crowd, erasing what had been a 3-1 lead. It looked like the Yanks were storming back in the bottom of the frame. Nick Swisher, fresh off his "Vote for Swish" pitch on the Jumbotron, singled to lead off the inning, then Mark Teixeira unleashed a massively promising drive to center...and, I'll let the pictures tell the story.

"Vote for Swish!" heading home! A-Rod says slide!

Sliding didn't work out so well. JoMo stonewalls Swish!

Yankee fans can give great dissertations on Jose Molina's failings, but an inability to block the plate has never been among them. If you click on the above picture, you'll see that the entirety of the plate is safely underneath Molina's ample backside--so long as he holds on to the ball, Swish is dead meat. Now, that was a bummer, but we still have a man on third, just one out, and the cleanup hitter at bat. Feelin' good, right?

Then the whole thing happens again. A-Rod hits a fly to Wise in mid-center. Teixeira heads home to score on the sac fly. Dead at the plate, again. Two hits, only one batter makes an out, no runs. Devastating.

At this point, Dwayne Wise--a guy who's only known because he made a gorgeous play to save Mark Buehrle's no-no last year--has dominated the game. His dinky little foul-pole homer was the leading margin; with Molina's help, his sharp throwing killed the Yankee rally in the fifth. Then, with the score 5-3 Jays in the sixth, here comes Wise again. Two outs, the team's slowest runner on first, and Brett Gardner hits a fly to fairly deep center, but it hangs up and Wise is under it. Should be an easy play. Then he loses it in the bright July 4 sun, something you can't do with Gardner running the bases. Tie game.

Now, as far as I can recall, I've never seen a Yankee hit an inside-the-park homer in person. Despite what the official scorer said, I still haven't seen one. Most inside the park homers involve some sort of blunder on the part of the fielder, but this fly ball hit Wise on the glove. As Brother Joe said on Twitter (mas o menos): if that's not an error, then there is no such thing as an error.

Brett Gardner trots home on his game tying...big mistake by the other team's fielder?

In the seventh, the Yanks took the lead, with Jeter scoring on another Teixeira double. Again, the inning meets a premature end because of a baserunner kill at the plate. (And again, it's Swisher. This is not how you get us to Vote for Swish!) Wise wasn't involved in that play at the plate, but that doesn't mean he was done...

Usually, the opposing team sees this, it's time to make sure you have dinner reservations.

Ninth inning, Enter Sandman, and the folks who've been melting in bright sunshine start heading toward the exits and the shade. The Jays got a couple of ground singles wrapped around a Jose Molina whiff, but it looked like Rivera had gotten out of it when he got Fred Lewis to ground one to Ramiro Peña for what looked like the game-ending double play. Rather than flipping to Cano for the 6-4-3, Peña took a page out of the Jeter playbook, going to the bag so that he could make the throw to first. Interesting idea, but it looked like Peña had a hard time finding the bag, so instead of the game-ending DP, he was only able to record the force.

Even though Peña had scored and knocked in a run earlier, Brother J, my wingman at the game, was livid. Channeling Boss Steinbrenner on his birthday, he wanted Peña immediately pulled off the field and put on a bus to Scranton before the inning was over. Either way, that made it Wise time again, and the center fielder blooped a single to center to get his fourth RBI.

The way the Yanks have been rolling lately, extra innings was bad, bad news. Under very similar circumstances, Dave Roberts and Chan Ho Park collaborated to blow Friday night's game against the Jays, and the bullpen overall has not been one of the team's strong suits (they're ninth in the AL in WXRL). Roberts, pitching the tenth, immediately looked Chan Ho-riffic, putting the first two batters he faced on base. Luckily, he was bailed out by some heads-up defense by Alex Rodriguez, who turned Edwin Encarnacion's sac bunt into a 5-4-3 double play.

In the tenth, it looked like Joe Girardi might have super geniused himself out of a win. Lefty Dave Purcey walked Robinson Cano to lead off the inning, and Francisco Cervelli, who replaced Jorge Posada due to injury, was at the plate. I'm not a Cervelli believer--I like him, but not as much as everyone did when he had a .390 batting average in mid-May--but having him bunt, against the lefty with Granderson and Gardner coming up...I have my qualms. Granderson's brutal against lefties (.514 OPS), Gardner's much better (.742 OPS) but still not wonderful. Splendid chance to see a runner stranded in scoring position. Luckily for Girardi, after Curtis made his out, Gardner was able to work a walk against the lefty, which brought up newly-reactivated Marcus Thames, who, as we all can remember, loves pie as much as he hates fielding. Marcus sent us home happy.

Marcus Thames says "Mmmm, pie!"

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Game 39: Red Sox at Yankees

Oh. That hurts.

I met up with Jay Jaffe (of Futility Infielder and Baseball Prospectus fame), Ben Kabak (of River Avenue Blues and Second Avenue Sagas) and Emma Span (contributor to Bronx Banter and acclaimed author of 90% of the Game is Half Mental) over at the Dram Shop in Brooklyn to watch tonight’s game. The Yankees led 2-0 by the time I arrived, and shortly after I got my first scotch, Juan Miranda went yard with a solo shot. At that point, I remarked “Who’d have thought that in May, in a Red Sox game, we’d have Cervelli, Thames, Miranda and Winn in the lineup, and it wouldn’t be panic time.”

I blame the scotch. I spoke too damn soon.

Of course, the lower half of the lineup wasn’t to blame. They’d driven in three runs, and contributed two hits and two walks coming into the top of the eighth. CC Sabathia passed a 5-1 lead to Joba Chamberlain, which should have been enough. Sadly, keyed by a poor Alex Rodriguez throw that dragged Mark Teixeira off the bag, Joba coughed up the lead in the eighth. Another big error--this time by Marcus Thames, playing right field--doomed Mariano Rivera in the ninth, although the Sandman contributed by being less-than-dominant for a second straight appearance. And then it was back to that lower half of the lineup, with a shot to tie the game, in the bottom of the ninth against Papeldouche (hat tip to Mr. Jaffe).

That didn’t work out so well. With the score 7-6 and the tying run on second, Cervelli bunted, Thames walked, Miranda hit a hard grounder back to the freakishly small-mouthed Papelbon, and Randy WInn--really? there’s no pinch hitter for Randy Winn?--whiffed. Game over.

On the surface, this loss was about how the Yanks suffered immediately from the decision to send Greg Golson down. You can’t hide Marcus Thames on the field, which is pretty much what you have to do to have Tex and Miranda and Thames in the lineup all at the same time. Maybe if Girardi had had Golson on the roster, someone whose glove is not decorative is playing right field, and the gork that handcuffed Thames gets caught. But the real problem right now is a bullpen with no reliable parts, from the best closer ever on down. Still, it’s just a split, and it’s only three games behind the Rays, and it’s only May. Just an opportunity lost.

Still, with Curtis Granderson and Nick Johnson on the DL, and Javy Vazquez sporting an ERA north of eight, this isn’t a good moment for Brian Cashman’s offseason machinations.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

2010, Game 14: Yankees at A's (postgame)

I guess Phil Hughes doesn't really need that changeup, right?

This time--unlike CC's effort in Tampa a few weeks ago--I steadfastly refused to communicate with anyone about the no-hitter in progress. No email to the Baseball Prospectus mailing list, no Twitter, not even text messages to my brothers (on that last one, it helped that the Yanks were in Oakland--the first time I felt like sending out a warning, it was already 11:30 PM on the east coast). When Oakland finally broke through with a hit, I didn't feel as bad as I did during CC's bid--mainly, because I couldn't shout curses at the TV with la Chiquita, her mom, and my sons all fast asleep elsewhere in the apartment, but also because of the way Hughes's no-no ended. Onetime franchise player Eric Chavez hit a hard grounder back to the mound, which hit the heel of Hughes's glove and then his chest. The final result was all a matter of instinct. If Hughes looks down after the ball hits him, he would have had a pretty easy play at first. Feeling the ball kick off his glove, Hughes looked up, and had no chance of making a play. It was a bad break, but understandable; Phil the Phenom shook it off and struck out the next batter before issuing a walk and leaving the game.

Watching from 3,000 or so miles away, I saw no evidence of the Phil Hughes changeup--and neither did Pitch FX. A couple of pitches had an atypical downward motion, but the gun readings were too high to call them changes. It's early, but this just might be a myth that we don't see again until March 2011. Then again, if Hughes pitches like he did in Oakland--pounding the strike zone with his fastball, getting batters to fish for the curve, using the cutter to keep them honest, keeping his pitch count low enough to get into the eighth inning--then it'll hardly matter at all.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

2010, Game 9: Rangers at Yankees (postgame)

That was nice. I mean, Hughes wasn't as efficient as you'd want him to be--108 pitches didn't even get him a single out in the sixth--and the five walks were a downer, though it looked like the home plate ump was squeezing the strike zone a bit. Otherwise, his fastball had good life in the 92-94 MPH range that's his norm as a starter. The curve was gorgeous, the cutter effective.

But where was the changeup? Wasn't that all the hype coming out of Spring Training, Phil Hughes's new changeup? Al Leiter said he saw a couple of them; Pitch FX only identified one: the fourth pitch to Bobby Abreu in the third inning, a pitch well out of the strike zone.

The Spring Training changeup is often a phantasm. You always hear the stories out of the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues of this or that guy who's been working on his change, and just you wait until this devastating new pitch is unleashed on the world in games that count! But when March turns into April, that's exactly what fans wind up doing: waiting, and waiting, and waiting. Maybe the new miracle pitch makes an isolated appearance during the first two weeks of the season, then is quietly shelved. Sometimes, it doesn't even get that much play.

Now, it takes cojones to incorporate the changeup in your repertoire mid-career. A misfired breaking pitch can be embarrassing, but a poorly-located changeup can make you look like an idiot, speeding up the opponent's bat and making a slap-hitting backup catcher look like Babe Ruth. You can understand why so many pitchers flirt with the pitch, and why many of those flirtations turn out to just be Spring flings.

I hope that Hughes's changeup is for real. With or without it, he's the key person in the Yankee starting rotation--the person from whom we're most likely to see upside. Pettitte and Burnett are long shots to improve on their 2009 performances, and might have a hard time matching them. CC could improve, but he was operating at a pretty high level to begin with. The number four starter...well, we'll talk about him in a second. There's a lot resting on Hughes's shoulders--if nothing else, he's the living indication of what, if anything, Dave Eiland and Co. learned from the Joba fiasco last year. Here's hoping the start against the Angels was something to build on.


So, eight games in, the Yanks have three losses, two attributable to Javy Vazquez. The first loss, in which Vazquez pitched three nice innings before giving up eight runs in Tampa, was greeted with panic; yesterday's loss, a more mundane four runs in five and a third innings against the Angels, inspired boos. Not the best way to re-introduce yourself to the fans after that whole 2004 season experience, where Javy went from coveted object of desire, to joyous acquisition, to All-Star, to not entirely trusted, and from there to ALCS Game 7 batting practice pitcher, and victim of a "let's forget this ever happened" trade, when he was passed along to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Randy Johnson.

[ASIDE: Off the top of my head, I can think of two other times that the Yankees immediately cut ties with an acquisition after one season, as if admitting that the whole thing had been a terrible mistake best forgotten. Dave Collins spent a fitful 1982 season with the club, after the Yankees had signed him to a three-year contract to play first base--even though he was an outfielder who'd only played ten games at first in his entire career. It was a bad, bad idea, based on an idiotic concept--that the Yankees should become a NL-style speed-and-average outfit. Collins was basically replaced Reggie Jackson on the roster--small shoes to fill, right?--and that turned out about as well as you'd think it would. After the season, the Yanks compounded their mistake by sending the two years remaining on Collins's contract, along with Mike Morgan and Fred Friggin' McGriff, to the Toronto Blue Jays for Dale Murray. Then, in 1988, Jack Clark was a Yankee for roughly ten months. Again, Clark was coming in without a position--he was a first baseman and so was Don Mattingly--but at least this time the Yankees were celebrating the end of collusion, and Clark was coming off a season where he led the NL in OBP and slugging percentage. He didn't have a horrible season, but he wasn't a good fit, either. Shortly after the World Series, the Yanks dealt Clark to the Padres, where he made Tony Gwynn's life miserable, and received a bunch of guys I dare anyone to name without looking it up. That's the company Javier Vazquez is in.]

It's early. Really early. No one should panic when a veteran pitcher has back-to-back bad starts, unless he's injured. But there's the Javy Vazquez history--that slide from arguably the ace of the staff to being kicked out of the starting rotation in the ALCS and you have to wonder. Vazquez was always regarded as a cerebral pitcher--when the Yanks first acquired him, he was considered Greg Maddux's heir--and you have to wonder if those failures are still in his head. That sounds like mainstream media drama-building, since he performed well enough once he was out of Dodge, and you have to hope that there's a mundane explanation, like he's still building arm strength. After all, last year, in his best season since he left Montreal, Vazquez's started his preparations early to pitch in the World Baseball Classic. So maybe once he gets some more innings under his belt, he'll improve.

Right now, however, the only reasonable thing to do is put him on the mound every fifth day, and hope that eventually he gives us reason not to boo.

Opening Day Photoblog: First Pitch

Bernie Williams prepares to unleash a one-hopper to the plate. Not sure what Matsui's doing in the background, though the Angels were warming up in the outfield throughout the ring ceremony, something which seemed the tiniest bit bush.

Opening Day Photoblog: Hideki-San

The best moment of the day was the team mobbing Hideki Matsui after he came out of the Angels dugout to get his ring. I'm pretty sure that's Jorge Posada quickly ducking out of the scrum with an "It's been real, H, but I've got a game to catch." Either that, or he took a loan from Matsui's video library last fall, and doesn't want Hideki bothering him about it now.

Opening Day Photoblog: Got Rings?

CC, Mariano Rivera, and Derek Jeter stepping up to collect their World Series rings. Jeter naturally has to mug Yogi Berra when he gets to the table.

Opening Day Photoblog: Flags Fly Forever

The newest championship pennant atop the frieze. With all the ceremony the Yankees like to bring to things, Brother J and I thought that raising the flag on Opening Day was going to be a thing. No such luck--we entered the Stadium well before game time to find that both this and the big championship flag had been raised ahead of time.

Opening Day Photoblog: This Used to Be My Playground

The sight that greets people entering new Yankee Stadium is just plain ghoulish: what's left of the old Yankee Stadium (Yankee Stadium II, in parlance) looking like the victim of a scud attack. Much of last season, high scaffolds obscured our view of what the sports salvage & demolitions crew was doing to the Cathedral, but now it's out in the open for anyone to see. The new Stadium is nice and all, but this is just cruel. Why aren't they finished yet? Does Steiner still have more meat to pick off the Stadium's skeleton, or something?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Opening It Up

Heading to the Stadium soon for a little Home Opener action. For me personally, 2010 at the Stadium begins much like 2009 ended--my last game in the Boogie Down Bronx was the deciding game of the ALCS, against the Angels, and now we open the place back up, and it’s the Angels again! Now the Los Angelenos de Anaheimo are carrying our old buddy, Hideki Matsui, who’ll receive his World Series ring and get great big ovation (from me and my brother, at the very least) today. Despite having received a huge bargain on good old Godzilla, the Angels are hurting a little bit from the loss of Chone Figgins and John Lackey to free agency.

Just a week into the season, the Yankees have given us a lot to think about. There was Curtis Granderson getting his revenge against Little Big Mouth Papelbon in the finale of Yanks/Red Sox. There was Javy Vazquez causing all sorts of panic getting shelled by the Devil Rays. There was CC carrying a no-no into the eighth inning against the Rays the following day...lots of good stuff. Still, the season doesn’t really feel official until the team gets home. I hope everyone’s taken a vacation day for this.

Anyway, below we have a few shots from last year’s opener--a couple of pre-game photos and the Captain’s first new Yankee Stadium at bat. Let’s go Yankees!

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

2010, Game 2: Yanks at Boston (Pregame)

Not sure I’ll be able to stay awake until the end of the game (my sleep cycle is out of control, again), so I’ll do a pregame edition, with a short follow-up tomorrow morning.

Three questions coming into Game 2 of the 2010 season:

1. Jorge and AJ -- The question is whether this is a dance that will repeat over and over again for the duration of Burnett’s contract in the Bronx. Will we endlessly repeat this cycle where the starting catcher and putative #2 starter promise to make a commitment to each other, only to break up after the first non-quality start? I’ve always been wary of the personal catcher phenomenon--I mean, you can’t help it if an in-his-prime Steve Carlton wants to throw to Tim McCarver, but it’s harder to justify when a non-demigod wants you to compromise the lineup just to make him feel more comfortable on the mound. Then again, I’m sure Burnett was watching the leaden way Posada worked Sunday’s game and thinking, “Couldn’t I just throw to that nice Venezuelan kid instead? Why isn’t that OK?”

2. How long will it take Joe Girardi to figure out this bullpen? -- Bullpen management isn’t exactly Girardi’s strong suit, a feeling that was reinforced when the skipper went all pitching change happy in last year’s playoffs. Right now, he has two pitchers with real defined roles: Mariano Rivera is Mariano Rivera, and (until he gets injured and/or Boone Logan is brought up from the minors) Damaso Marte is The Lefty. The vast undifferentiated mass of righthanders in the pen, however, look to be a problem. Not sure if Girardi turned to Dave Robertson in the sixth on Sunday because he’s the sixth inning guy, or because he thought the team needed a strikeout with a runner on third. Not sure why Girardi turned to Chan Ho Park at all, other than curiosity. And not sure under what circumstances, if any, Girardi would have called Al Aceves’s number. Hopefully, Girardi will remember that Sergio Mitre is supposed to be the long relief/emergency starter/garbage time guy, but there’s no way to be sure. Remember that for a short while last season, he was quite taken with Brett Tomko as a late inning reliever.

3. How will the lefty lineup work? -- The 2009 Yankees had a nice record against lefties, largely on the strength of the three players who are now gone from their lineup: Johnny Damon was able to hang in there against southpaws, Melky Cabrera had surprisingly even performance from both sides of the plate, and Hideki Matsui was downright fantastic when opponents tried to exploit the platoon advantage (.282/.354/.618 vs LHP). The main players who replaced them are all lefthanded, and there are some issues. Nick Johnson has actually been a bit better against lefties than righties, but over his career Curtis Granderson loses 281 points of OPS against lefties, and despite 65 good PA against them last year, there are questions about Brett Gardner’s ability to be a full-time player. The solution would be one or more platoons with the fourth and fifth outfielders on the roster, Marcus Thames and Randy Winn. Problems here are that even though Thames is a power guy with a rep for mashing lefties, he’s got OBP problems and is an “outfielder” with quotes around it; meanwhile Winn’s a good corner outfield glove, but no one really knows if his bat any life left in it at all. Both guys had a lousy time in Spring Training, so there’s really no telling. Tonight we’re going to see a configuration that has Gardner and Winn on the bench, and Thames and Granderson hitting 8-9 in the lineup. I have a feeling we’ll see a number of lineup permutations against lefties before everything is said and done.

As I guess question 1 makes clear, I’m less than optimistic about tonight’s Burnett/Lester matchup. Then again, Burnett is so unpredictable that he’ll probably go out and throw a 2-hitter. Or give up 8 runs in the second inning. Not sure which of these two.

Monday, April 05, 2010

2010, Game 1: Yanks at Boston

Boston 9, Yankees 7. Just a few thoughts:

  • This game was like one of those hazing rituals where you and another guy trade punches to the gut until someone says when (or vomits blood, whichever comes first). Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?
  • The Jeter/Gardner double steal was one of those moments that either breaks the opposing team’s back or just pisses them off. Personally, with the score at 5-1 I thought I heard some crunching noises when it happened, but it turns out that the Sox wiped the egg off their face and came back fighting. Hat tip to them for that. Didn’t help that the Yanks’ pitching turned to jelly, but you’ve got to be able to capitalize on those opportunities, and the Beantowners did.
  • Joba Chamberlain is depressing right now, because he went from being really special to pretty damn generic in record time. He was a huge fan favorite less than two weeks into his Yankee career, but 3 1/2 years later, he’s just a righty reliever with a straight low-to-mid 90s heater, and a slider that’s still nice but nowhere near as sharp as it used to be. I know it’s just April 5, but my expectations on Joba have started drifting from “they’re grooming a potential superstar” to “I hope they can salvage a useful major leaguer from this mess.”
  • The only comfort I find in the Joba situation is that he’s still using his gentler, cleaner mechanics the Yanks devised when he transitioned to the starting rotation. So there’s a little hope that the guy with the ungodly stuff we saw in 2007 is still in there, somewhere--that it’s not like his arm’s been damaged or something. I feel this statement requires a twitter hashtag like #thesearethethingsitellmyselftogetthroughtheday.
  • It now seems obvious that the goatee was what made Chan Ho Park a decent reliever. He should be able eligible for some sort of exemption on the facial hair policy.
Regardless of the results of Game One, I’m really happy that baseball’s back.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Sympathy for Bob Gutkowski

or, Why Business Is Hard

As you may have read, a judge dismissed former Madison Square Garden exec Bob Gutkowski's suit alleging that the Yankees owed him money for his alleged role as "the architect of the YES Network." The YES Network, and the local media revenue it brings in, being the economic engine that drives the Yankees' financial empire, you'd think that whoever...architected? that engine would be swimming in giant vats of money, Scrooge McDuck-style. But Gutkowski wound up getting none of that filthy lucre--he just got a handful of consulting contracts from the new network, and, he says, a lot of promises that he'd get to build and/or run the network someday. And he got to do neither of those things. For this he sued, and now lost.

Because the law suit was dismissed, rather than going to trial, we have no basis to determine if Gutkowski's claims are true, or if they're more along the lines of those annoying "Windows 7 was my idea" commercials:

(By the way, this parody of those commercials was pretty funny, and only slightly NSFW.)

Anyway, after the YES Network case was dismissed, Gutkowski's attorney's comment to the New York Times was, “What’s interesting about the opinion is that the claims were dismissed on several legal technicalities, not because Steinbrenner didn’t take Gutkowski’s work product and make millions of dollars off it.” Most of those "legal technicalities" amounted to the fact that Gutkowski and Steinbrenner never had a contract, which is quite a troubling technicality when you're suing for breach of contract. The other technicality was that, even though Gutkowski allegedly first pitched the concept of a Yankees network in 1996, and the YES Network came online in 2002, Gutkowski waited until 2009 to sue, so his suit was late.

But beyond the legalities, should we feel bad for Bob Gutkowski? If what he claims is true, George Steinbrenner, a very, very, rich man, got much richer off his ideas and work, and didn't pay him what he was due. The fact that he's much less wealthy than Steinbrenner immediately makes him an object of sympathy, since the relationship was unequal. On the other hand, his claims also sound a bit like the outrage of a girl who's shocked--shocked!--that her date is trying to get to second base during the limo ride after the prom.

(Not a reference to personal events, by the way. It didn't help that my prom date had a boyfriend, and that a food allergy rendered me mute for most of the evening. Long story.)

This is how business works. Coming up with good ideas is not the hard part. This week's announcement of the iPad has experts coming out of the woodwork, all claiming that they could do Steve Jobs's job better than he did, by giving the device a better name, different features, whatever. The big difference, to them, is that Steve Jobs has Apple's considerable resources at his disposal, while they don't. How unlucky for Apple that that hack Jobs is still at the wheel!

Seriously, the hard part isn't getting the brilliant ideas, it's getting paid for them. People with brilliant ideas usually have to hook up with people with resources to make their idea a reality. From the point of view of the person with resources--if you've ever owned or created anything of value, you've probably experienced this--the world is full of people with bright ideas who want to share their ideas with you. Usually, their pitch amounts to some variation of "give me part/half/all of your money/assets/intellectual property, and with my knowhow and contacts, I'll make us a fortune!" These offers come with a differing levels of legitimacy--ranging from emails from a Nigerian prince to a phone call from Bill Gates's garage, circa 1976--and as the party risking more than their time and effort, the person with resources has to be very careful who they listen to. The flipside is also true. People with resources will often string people with ideas along with a lot of handshakes and "that sounds promising"s and vague promises, and if the idea people haven't taken steps to protect themselves, they'll find someone else executing (and, if it's good, profiting from) their idea.

That last scenario is what Bob Gutkowski's claims look like: he had a bright idea, an idea which, to work, required a resource he didn't have and couldn't buy (the Yankees). So he went to the Yankees' owner with his bright idea for a Yankees network, and in return he got a bucket of false promises and betrayals. Simple, right?

The part that makes it complicated is what, according to Gutkowski's complaint, happened in 1998. At that point, he formed a company to help the Yankees create their network, and they gave a presentation in which they laid out their whole strategy. They presented the Yankees with a contract, saying that to get started with their plan, it would take $25,000 a month, for a minimum of six months. The story Gutkowski tells is that Steinbrenner didn't sign, but directed them to go ahead with the plan anyway. He then paid only one month's worth of the contract, and nothing else.

So obviously, they took him to court over the $125,000 the Yankees owed, right? Apparently, no. Instead, Gutkowski signed a short-term consulting agreement with the Yankees, based, he says, on smooth talking and promises from the Boss himself. OK, so that sounds reasonable, kinda, but still: 125 grand!

Maybe that just wasn't enough money to go to war over, but surely things must've changed in 2002. That's when the Yankees started the YES Network, without Gutkowski's participation. According to him, they stole his idea! But did he sue? No, he signed another short-term consulting contract, and then another one in 2004. Why would someone hire on to work for a guy who stole his ideas, not once but multiple times? Again, the answer offered is that the Boss and his lackeys persuaded Gutkowski with false promises that never actually included concrete discussion of salary figures or percentages of ownership in the YES Network Gutkowski would get. In the complaint, it sounds like George Steinbrenner is the most persuasive person ever born, with near-magical powers of mesmerism to make Gutkowski keep playing Charlie Brown to his Lucy van Pelt.

(A quasi-theological corollary to this: if the Boss had magical persuasion powers, why wouldn't he have used them to talk the Red Sox out of winning the 2004 ALCS?)

Back to Gutkowski, given his admitted actions, it just doesn't make sense that he really thought that anyone had anything other than a moral obligation to do right by him. And sadly, in the worlds of business and law, moral obligations ain't worth much, probably much less than he netted from the consulting contracts he kept signing.

(Huge hat tip to Ben Kabak, whose post over at River Avenue Blues inspired this rant.)