Category: Days of Yore Page 1 of 3

A Baseball Remembrance

This is a repost from something I wrote at RAB in 2015. Updates are in brackets.

Every baseball or softball game that I’ve ever played in has, generally, started the exact same way: some running, some stretching, some throwing. Lately, as in, since I graduated (read: got too old for one) from baseball to slow-pitch softball, I haven’t had a consistent throwing partner before games like I did during high school and American Legion baseball. Back then, I generally threw with the same teammate before each game. My first throwing partners, though, were my relatives, namely my father and his father, my grandfather. This is hardly unique; I’m sure that many of you reading this learned the game through your parents, grandparents, and siblings. Now, however, I’m going to be a bit selfish because today, May 10, would have been my grandfather’s [93rd] birthday.

When it’s hard for me to think back on the totality of the person my grandfather was, I think back on specific memories that involve him or his home where I spent so much time as a kid. And every image has something to do with baseball.

He kept a tennis ball under his deck that he’d throw at his neighbor’s roof if the pigeons he kept got up there. I used to take that ball every chance I could and throw it against his neighbor’s garage, whose outer wall faced into my grandfather’s yard.

Before big pigeon races, he would take his birds to random locations in the tri-state area (he really loved the Vince Lombardi Service Station on the Turnpike for this). One time, I went with him and we let the birds go on a baseball field. I was young, still playing on the small diamond. For fun, I ran the bases of this big diamond; I’m sure it took me forever and a half, but he made me feel like Rickey Henderson.

I recall his living room, which was my father’s childhood bedroom, where I would adjust the blinds so there wouldn’t be too much glare so we could watch the Yankees–at least until he fell asleep in his recliner.

On Saturdays when I would have games of my own on his side of town, my father and I, pizza in tow, would sit in his backyard, waiting for the pigeons to come home, listening to the Yankees on the radio.

His backyard sloped and when we did have a catch, he always insisted that I stand on the top part of the slop so I felt like I was pitching, so my throws would be easier, would seem harder, faster. Even now, I can picture his throwing motion, almost perfectly overhand, his bicep practically clipping his ear as it passed; this makes me think he’d absolutely love watching Chase Headley throw (seriously, could his throws be more over-the-top?).

I can’t even begin to count the amount of times he and I sat with my father around the kitchen table, talking about baseball. The generational connection so often peddled out by MLB for marketing purposes is definitely tired, but it exists for a reason. The three of us did not always have a lot in common–how could we?–but baseball was always there to bind us, to lighten our stresses.

And then on July 24, 2006, after a little under a month in the hospital, my grandfather died. To cope, or to help cope, I threw myself headlong into baseball. Looking back, I most definitely pushed away family and friends at times that summer, which I regret, but I embraced baseball with vigor I hadn’t known before. Every night when the Yankees played, that was my catharsis. I doubt I expressed this properly then, maybe I couldn’t, but turning on those games on TV or the radio, or being at the Stadium made me feel a connection to my grandfather. For three hours a night, I felt better and that’s all I cared about.

I owe all the baseball writing I’ve done to my grandfather. It is partially through the memory of him that I love watching the game, and talking about the game, and writing about the game. This piece alone cannot adequately encapsulate just how much I miss having him around, but (again) selfishly, it feels good to put “pen” to “paper” and talk about his influence on me as a player of and a fan of the game. Happy Birthday, Louie; thanks for helping imbue me with a love for the greatest game there is.

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My Top Three Part 3: Important Players

Welcome to another edition of my Top Three series. As always, I hope you’re doing well and staying healthy where you are. Thanks, again, as always, for reading along during these tough times. There’s a lot of ways you could while away your hours and that you choose to do part of that with us here is flattering to say the least. We’re all in the same boat by isolating or quarantining or sheltering in place and it’s comforting in an uncomfortable time to know that. But we’re also in the same boat when it comes to missing baseball. Hopefully we can provide a little taste of that, even if it isn’t game action. Anyway, on to the list…

Today, I’m gonna discuss the three players I think were most important to my development as a fan and writer. These players aren’t necessarily the ones who had the most impact on the game or were even the best players for my lifetime. Rather, they’re the ones whose careers shaped the way I think about the game or the way I write about the game.

First up is Derek Jeter. Is this cliche for a fan my age (32)? Hell yes. Do I care? Hell no. This isn’t to say Jeter was always my favorite player growing up. Bernie Williams was eventually my favorite with Andy Pettitte close behind. But what Jeter represented and when he did it made him more important to my budding fandom. As Jeter rose to prominence, so did the Yankees. As the Yankees rose to prominence, so did my fandom. Like many young people, I found it easy to latch onto the idea of Derek Jeter–not that his ballplaying didn’t match that image most of the time–and root for him and the team. As the years went on, that image faded and I, like many fans my age and of my persuasion, poked holes in the Jeter image. But all the while, I owe a lot of my Yankee fandom to him. He came along at a perfect time to hook a young fan for life.

Next on the list is Chien-Ming Wang. CMW’s career with the Yankees, despite its brevity, was impactful to both the team and me. To the team, he was the first “real” starter they’d developed since Andy Pettitte. He turned in two back-to-back excellent seasons with the Yankees in 2006 and 2007, finishing (a distant) second to Johan Santana, ahead of Roy Halladay, in 2006’s Cy Young Award voting. It was all going great until June 15, 2008 (coincidentally, my 21st birthday!) when he was injured on the bases in Houston. I’ll never forget the way Robinson Cano went from signaling Wang to stay up, not slide, to waving for a trainer in a split second. But I digress…

Wang’s importance to me came well before that terrible afternoon in Houston. Back then, I spent a lot of time arguing about baseball, mostly on message boards, forums, and the like. Then at some point in 2007, I decided to put myself out there and submitted something for publishing.

It was a piece about CMW that got posted to Dugout Central and, in retrospect, it is terrible, horrible,no good, very bad. Were I to read it today–and I definitely prefer not to–I would likely be embarrassed by its hypothesis, its content, its writing. But what mattered is I published something somewhere public where I could get feedback from outside the closed echo chamber of a forum where I knew everyone. About a year later, I had set up my own blog, then began my odyssey of Yankee writing that eventually led me here. May I have done that anyway, having written about someone other than CMW? Probably. But the reality is I wrote about him because something in his game inspired me to do so. Now here I am, almost 15 years later, still spilling digital ink about the Yankees.

Nick Swisher will likely not go down in any sort of Yankee lore. He was a fun, easy to root for player for some good Yankee teams, but his impact wasn’t monumental. Despite that, he was one of my favorite players in that 2009-2012 run. He was also important to my development as a writer.

When Swisher was acquired from the White Sox, there were doubts about him, considering how poorly he fared in 2008. And even after Spring Training, he wasn’t penciled in as a starter in the outfield–Xavier Nady was until he was injured and Swisher took over full time starting duties and never gave them away. Those doubts, which Swisher eventually erased, helped me become a better baseball writer. I had to make an argument for a player. I had to use (for the time) off the beaten path data to make that case in my writing.

Having to craft the argument(s) in favor of Swisher honed my writing skills and my analytical ability and informed how I would write and analyze going forward. Both things have certainly evolved since then, but they came from humble beginnings.

My Top Three Part 2: Playoff Games

Welcome to another edition of my “top three” series, which started last week when I detailed my three most cherished regular season games (LINK TO LAST WEEK’S POST). Today, I’m going to talk about the same thing with Yankee playoff games this time around. As Yankee fans, we have a lot of playoff games to choose from. You already know this and I don’t need to go into too much detail, but we’re lucky to root for a franchise that doesn’t raise banners for Wild Card games.Like last time, I’ll go in chronological order. 

2009 is my absolute favorite Yankee season ever, so let’s start there, specifically with Game 4 of the World Series. Sure, AJ Burnett’s clutch performance probably makes Game 2 more exciting. And who doesn’t love a clincher like Game 6? But Game 4 offered me such a unique experience that I’ll never forget. Back then, in the first year of Yankee Stadium III, the team tried to cater to fans a little bit more–or so it seemed. And because of that, I was able to “go” to Game 4, even though it was in Philadelphia. The Yankees opened the stadium to fans and for a cheap fee–I think it was $8 and parking was free!–you could get in and watch the game on the big screen in centerfield. A friend and I went, more or less on a whim, and it was a blast, not only because of the game, but because of the unique atmosphere.

Maybe it’s just because they only seated fans in the lower bowl–minus the Legends seats–but the crowd felt just as loud and into things as if the game were playing out for real in front of us rather than on a screen. It was like watching the game at a local bar, but with thousands of people, a comfortable seat, and the ability to talk to those around you.

As expected, the crowd got even louder as the Yankees mounted their comeback and go-ahead in the top of the ninth inning. One thing I’ll likely never forget is the collective “NO NO N–YES!” feeling that just about everyone in the stadium had when Johnny Damon stole second and third in one shot. 

The other thing I won’t forget is walking back to my car with throngs of fans outside, screaming our heads off with excitement while residents in the apartments shouted down the same feelings from high up, waving Yankee flags, banners, towels, jerseys, shirts, whatever out of their windows. My refrain, which many passing by picked up (I swear!), was, “TEN DOWN, ONE TO GO!” A few nights later in the Bronx, it was over and the Yankees were back on top. World Champions for the 27th time. 

I’ve only actually attended one real playoff game, and it was a good one: Game 3 of the 2012 ALDS. Earlier that day, I was day subbing in my hometown back in Connecticut, covering for a gym teacher at my high school. Around lunch time, my wife (then girlfriend) texted me saying, “We should go to the game tonight.” At work, she found tickets and bought them, and I was off to my first playoff game. 

Despite the excitement of that, the feeling I remember for most of the game was frustration. Hiroki Kuroda was pitching his ass off for the Yankees–he only threw two bad pitches all night, which, unfortunately, went for homers–and the offense just couldn’t push anything across. And when Joe Girardi pinch hit for Alex Rodriguez, my immediate reaction was that it was a bad idea. Of course, Raul Ibanez proved me wrong and tied the game with a home run.

I never experienced a playoff game at Yankee Stadium II and I know people like to compare the new one to it negatively in terms of atmosphere. However, after that Ibanez homer, the upper deck of YSIII was rocking. I could feel the feet of thousands across the hard ground, shaking the section to its core. And three innings later, the process was repeated when RAUJ did it again and sent us all home happy. If I never go to another playoff game again, it would be okay, considering the result of this one I did get to go to. 

The 2017 Yankees were an absolutely fantastic ride. Even at my most optimistic, I didn’t expect them to do more than to compete for the second wild card spot. Then, led by Aaron Judge (the should’ve been MVP even before the Astros cheating thing) and Gary Sanchez, they won the first wild card in convincing fashion, beating out the Twins by six games. And all that almost came to a screeching halt when Luis Severino couldn’t get out of the first inning and put the Yankees in a 3-0 hole during the AL Wild Card Game

And then Didi Gregorius came to the plate and the momentum didn’t stop from there. His three run homer to tie the game and swing things back the Yankees’ way is on the short list of ‘most pumped up I’ve ever been during a baseball game’ moments. If it weren’t for the sleeping baby upstairs, I would’ve screamed my head off. Instead, I just silently punched the air about a dozen or six times and knew, from that moment, that the Yankees were winning that game. 

The 2017 run ended in frustration and, given the circumstances, probably shouldn’t have. But that first game of their run was so spectacular that it offers at least a little comfort. The game itself seemed a microcosm of the Yankees and Twins’ many playoff matchups in this century. No matter what, the Twins just can’t seem to get over that hump from the Bronx. 

What are your top 3 playoff games and why? Head to the comments and let’s remember some playoff games. 

My Top Three Part 1: Regular Season Games

In this time of quarantine, one of the things we’ve used to distract ourselves is that “you can only pick three” game going around on various social media sites. It’s a silly time waster and ultimately meaningless as none of us will ever have to “pick three” of our favorite forms of entertainment or whatever, but here’s one set of my top three, with others to follow: regular season games.

First up on the list, at least chronologically speaking, is September, 18, 1995. This random September game against the Blue Jays was the first Yankee game I ever attended. There is very little I remember from it, frankly, aside from about where our seats were–lower level, third base line–that I took the above picture with my dad, that there was some guy next to us yelling about how long and dull the game was (he wasn’t wrong, apparently, as there was no scoring till late) and that Willie Randolph, the third base coach at the time, should be the next Yankee manager.

In terms of on the field performance, I don’t remember David Cone pitching as well as he did. All that I remember is Don Mattingly hitting a ball that almost got out over the wall in right field but didn’t and he got thrown out at second because he had kinda started trotting already.

Regardless of what I do and don’t remember, I was a budding baseball fan at the time and my love for the game only increased from then on.

A side note: is it coincidence that the ‘314’ sign is very visible in this picture? Absolutely. But is it more fun to pretend it was a sign of things to come? Absolutely.

Next, again chronologically speaking, we move to August 4, 2007. This game stands out despite it being one of the few I left early. Why did I leave early? Because it was about 950 degrees in the upper deck that day and by the 7th, my friend and I were fried. But why does the game stand out? Because in the first inning, Alex Rodriguez hit his 500th career home run.

He had been stuck on the 499 mark for a while and even though we all knew it would come, I didn’t think it would during the game I attended. When the ball went into the air, my friend and I were both up on our feet, jumping, screaming in unison, “GO! GO! GO! GO!” We waved our arms frantically towards the left field fence, went still and silent for a second as the ball passed over the wall, then screamed again, jumping and hugging as it landed in the seats.

To this day, it’s the only milestone game I’ve been to and probably the only one I’ll ever go to (statistically speaking); luckily, it was a milestone for one of my favorite players ever. That I got to share it with a good friend, someone whom I’ve known since 10th grade and ended up in my wedding party, made it all the better.

Last, but not least, we have a record-setting game: August 25, 2011. In this game, the Yankees hit three grand slams, one each by Robinson Cano, Russell Martin, and Curtis Granderson. Though they won 22-8, they were, at one point, down 7-1 because, and I’m quoting my own recap here “Phil Hughes couldn’t get out of the third and Cory Wade gave up a two run homer.”

I remember driving home from work, turning the radio off because I was so frustrated by the game. As soon as I got home, though, things changed. The final grand slam, the one by Curtis Granderson, came as I was clearing the dinner table and I remember laughing in the kitchen, amused by the absurdity of the situation–another grand slam.

There might be other games I’m note recalling here, but these were the first three that came to mind when thinking of a ‘pick three’ scenario. What are your ‘pick three’ regular season games? Leave them in the comments and let’s Remember Some Games.

Missing Rings: Reexamining the 2010 Postseason

Welp.

This offseason, I’m doing deep dive into the Yankees’ postseason runs since the 2009 World Series and examine why the Bombers fell short for a title. First up, the title defense of 2010.

The Yankees didn’t fully reunite the band in 2010 as Brian Cashman and co. said farewell to Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui and Melky Cabrera, among others. Brought in to fortify the World Series defense were Marcus Thames, Nick Johnson, Chan Ho Park and Javier Vazquez, the latter of whom came over with Boone Logan to extend the rotation and bullpen.

The big acquisition of the offseason was Curtis Granderson. The 29-year-old center fielder cost the Yankees Austin Jackson, Phil Coke and Ian Kennedy, but he had the potential to add left-handed pop to the top or bottom of their order.

That eclectic group complemented a strong core. Through in their 30s, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira formed the heart of a powerful lineup, while Robinson Cano, Jorge Posada and Nick Swisher were no slouches. On the pitching side, CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes, Andy Pettitte and A.J. Burnett returned from the 2009 squad in front of the ageless Mariano Rivera.

2010 Regular Season

What Went Right

Robinson Canó turned into a superstar. The 27-year-old was the Yankees second-youngest everyday player and had hit .320 in 2009, but he put together both outstanding hitting and glovework to finish third in MVP voting.

Nick Swisher, meanwhile, gelled in his second season with the Bombers and became an All-Star, turning into a better all-around player. Those contributions complemented a rotation with three All-Stars — Sabathia, Hughes and Pettitte — to give New York perhaps the AL’s best top-3 on their staff.

At the deadline, the Yankees made a key addition with Kerry Wood, who would then allow just two runs over 26 innings over the final two months of the season.

What Went Wrong

The bullpen outside of Rivera and Wood wasn’t fantastic. Both Logan and David Robertson were good, but D-Rob’s leap to fireman came a year later while Joba Chamberlain scuffled in his bullpen return.

At age-36, Jeter declined sharply from his resurgent 2009, while A-Rod missed brief time with a calf strain and was good, not outstanding. Granderson could not hit lefties until August.

Meanwhile, the back-end of the rotation wasn’t cutting it with Burnett and Vazquez not panning out. The Yankees could have shored up that issue, but …

The Inflection Point: The Cliff Lee trade

On July 9, the Yankees were reported to be nearing a deal for Mariners ace Cliff Lee after Seattle had fallen out of contention. The deal apparently was set to include top prospect Jesus Montero as well as infielder David Adams and pitcher Zach McAllister.

It all went wrong. Reports said the M’s raised issues with Adams’ medicals and requested either Eduardo Nunez or Ivan Nova in his place. The Yankees then countered with Adam Warren, but Seattle wouldn’t accept the deal.

At the same time, the Mariners had re-opened (or perhaps never stopped) negotiations with the Rangers, who had suddenly become willing to part with their top prospect, Justin Smoak. That swung the deal as Lee went to Texas as part of a six-player deal.

In retrospect, it’s obvious the Yankees would have been wise to deal Nova, Nunez or any of the players in that deal for Lee, but that might not have been on the table. The Mariners may have simply been playing the Yankees off Texas to get Smoak and never actually planned on accepting the initial deal.

The Obligatory Twins Sweep

Even without Lee, the Yankees cruised to a postseason berth. They ceded the division to the Rays and were rewarded with a matchup against an overachieving Twins squad, who had homefield advantage in the series.

I’d do a “What went right” and “What went wrong” for this, but it all went so well. The Bombers trailed in the first two games at Target Field but won on the backs of heroics from Granderson, Teixeira, Posada and Lance Berkman, another deadline acquisition.

Hughes then got the start back at Yankee Stadium for Game 3 and picked up the win in his first postseason start. The Yankees didn’t have to push anyone and avoided going to Sabathia on short rest in Game 4. Meanwhile, the Rangers needed five games to beat the Rays and needed Lee in Game 5, an all-too-familiar scenario to the present day.

Falling Behind in the ALCS

In terms of which games the Yankees won, the 2010 ALCS looked exactly like the 2019 series. The Yankees took Game 1 on the road, Game 5 at home and nothing else en route to defeat.

Game 1, however, was a wild ride. The Rangers had homefield advantage despite an inferior record in the regular season, but Sabathia struggled and the Yankees found themselves in a 5-0 hole. Dustin Moseley (remember him?) kept the Yankees in the game with two scoreless frames with Canó hitting a solo shot. From there, the first seven Yankee batters reached to start the eighth inning as the Bombers scored five and overtook Texas.

The series appeared all set for a Yankees victory and potentially a rematch of 2009 with the Phillies hosting the NLCS with the Giants. However, New York’s lack of depth in their rotation as well as the non-trade for Lee struck hard and ultimately swung the series.

The Yankees flipped Hughes and Pettitte in their rotation and Hughes was battered in Game 2. It was revealed after the fact that Petitte, who missed a swath of the second half with a groin injury, was dealing with hamstring and back issues and needed the 11 days between ALDS Game 2 and ALCS Game 3 to start.

While Pettitte made just one mistake in Game 3 — a first-inning two-run homer to Josh Hamilton — Lee made none and fired eight scoreless frames to give Texas the series lead.

AJ Burnett’s Big Mistake

Game 4 started out well in a duel between Burnett and Tommy Hunter as the latter lasted just 10 outs and gave up three runs. The Yankees’ first run came via a controversial home run as a Canó blast to right field was perhaps interfered with by fans.

Nothing was called and the best gif in recent Yankees history was born.

via GIPHY

The Yankee bros. They summed up a fanbase, one that cared not for lackluster franchises such as the Rangers and had the bird prepared for all challengers. A salute to said bros, who were basically the Laker bros but across the continent.

Stringing together a couple runs, the Yankees led going into the fifth inning. Burnett allowed three men to reach base but persevered unscathed. The Yankees, meanwhile, got their first two men on for Tex and A-Rod, just for a groundout and double play to foil a rally.

And then the fateful sixth inning. Joe Girardi stuck with Burnett with a thin bullpen. The right-hander put a man on before getting two outs. He intentionally walked David Murphy to bring up Bengie Molina. On the first pitch, Molina hit a series-changing homer to put Texas up for good.

The bullpen faltered later, which might absolve Girardi and AJ slightly in a 10-3 defeat. The now 3-1 deficit in the series was compounded by a severely strained hamstring for Teixeira, knocking him out of the series.

The Final Loss

The Yankees rebounded a day later with a 7-2 win behind Sabathia and plenty of offense, including three homers. Back in Texas, the Bombers turned to Hughes with hopes of keeping them alive for a Game 7.

With the Yankees tying the game at one in the fifth inning, Hughes trotted out and, like Burnett, got two outs and a man on before issuing an intentional walk, this time to Hamilton. The final pitch for Hughes on the evening went to Vlad Guerrero Sr., who lined a two-run double. Robertson came in and promptly allowed a two-run homer to Nelson Cruz, just about ending the series in a two-batter span.

Afterward

The Lee deal truly swung everything and might have hung over the Bombers for a couple seasons. Not only were they unable to repeat without the veteran southpaw, they then couldn’t reel him in during free agency. His wife said she was harassed at Yankee Stadium during the postseason, and he ultimately chose to accept a smaller offer to return to Philadelphia. (Reports also put the Rangers’ offer above the Yankees’ deal, but the mystery team Phillies made that moot.)

The Yankees were one or two pitchers short of a title. With another reliever or just a quicker hook, they could have afforded to take out Burnett earlier in Game 4, or they could have held tight in Game 6. Another starter would have bumped Burnett entirely, even if it wasn’t Lee joining the Bombers.

Compounding the issue was the Yankees’ inability to get a big hit against Colby Lewis in Games 2 and 6. The journeyman put 16 men on over 13 2/3 innings but allowed just three to score, earning two victories over Hughes. Perhaps with the games in the Bronx, the Yankees could have poked across more runs, but the wild card team can’t claim homefield there.

That closes the 2010 retrospective. Coming soon will be Missing Rings: 2011. If you have a key moment I missed from 2010, or something you think we could forget from 2011, mention it in the comments below.

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