September 2009

A view from the Legends suites

I was given the opportunity to watch a game from the Legends seats at Yankee Stadium, that Goldfinger mini-plane of a section where the elite meet to eat and sometimes watch a ballgame. I came pre-jaundiced, ready to jump on anything that struck me as phony or artificial. Instead, I must report that I had a very good time. It is nice to feel pampered while watching a very exciting ballgame. In fact, if I have any complaint, the pampering was a bit distracting. Had the game been a blowout in either direction, the constant scurrying of waiters and fans fetching food back to the seats would have been a welcome event instead of something that frequently obscured the action.

The high-backed seats were far more comfortable than your typical ballpark torture device. However, they are not positioned perfectly; my seat was a little bit past the infield, and as the seats are not angled, sitting in a natural position would have provided a view only into the short outfield. Combine that with the view being frequently obscured by waiters, fans rising to help themselves to candy and buckets of popcorn (and duck, and sushi, and petit fours), and fans just rising to rise — even these seats play host to the ubiquitous jerk who thinks he can stand in front of you and film the first three innings on his cell phone while you can see nothing but his upholstered backside — and trying to watch the game itself could be a bit of a strain.

Security is also a constant presence, although now that I’ve been in the seats I better understand why. When the Stadium first opened, I was bothered by the concrete moats and Plexiglass barriers between the Legends seats (or “suites” as the Yankees call them) because they offended my sense of egalitarianism. Given that the way the Yankees have elected to set up their Legends benefits, it seems necessary.

Once you’re finally in (after showing my ticket four times and obtaining a wristband), you have free run of the place. Unless you buy alcohol, which is not included in the ticket price, no one asks you for money. This is true not only of the buffet in the main dining room (which is beautifully appointed), but in the subsidiary lounges in which you can, if you choose, fill your arms with food and take it back to your seat. It takes getting used to–I continually expected someone to tap me on the shoulder and say, “Hey! Aren’t you going to pay for that?” They never did. You already paid for it when you bought the ticket.

Some fans I saw were clearly unhinged by the concept. In several places the Yankees have tables piled high with candy for the taking. As I walked past, a couple unfolded plastic bags and were shoveling in piles of M&M’s and Skittles. “Halloween’s come early this year!” the man shouted hysterically. Late in the game, the waiters were making a point of giving the day’s excess away, so I don’t think the team wants to discourage this kind of behavior on the part of the paying customers, but I understand why they wouldn’t want to have those that did not pay able to walk in and start shoving filet of sole and boxes of Rasinets down their pants.

The downside to this policy is that security is a constant and obtrusive presence. They frequently popped into our section to check tickets, attracted, I think, by fans who came late to the section. This contributed to an atmosphere that was in direct contrast to the great friendliness of the waiters and the other staff I encountered.

Several times I heard fans ask for items that were not on the menu, and the waiters promised to make them appear. “Can you guys do a milkshake?” someone asked. “Sure we can,” the waiter said cheerfully (the waiter in our section not only looked like Heath Ledger, but also had an Australian accent — he lives, conspiracy theorists, working anonymously at Yankee Stadium). All of the food and drink orders are sent wirelessly back to the kitchen and brought out by a separate server, so deliveries are nigh-instantaneous.

Those fans that were found to have inappropriate credentials were escorted out of the section. One fellow, apparently slightly inebriated, became belligerent, telling the guard that if he insisted on removing him, he would talk to someone with the Yankees and “have his job.” “You do that,” was the reply, and the guard went about his business. Then the inebriate upped the invective, saying that the guard would be fired and “could go work at McDonald’s for seven dollars an hour.”

“What did you say?” the guard asked. The drunk repeated it. At that, the security guard touched his shoulder radio, called a police officer, and moments later the fan was removed from his seat. Many in the nearby seats applauded — there is no call for saying things like that,  especially over a seat at a ballgame and a chance at all the chicken fingers you can eat. Later, I saw the same police officer as we left the ballpark. He was singing along to Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” as if it were an official anthem, and maybe it is.

I wish I could give you a more thorough review of the food beyond it being plentiful. Somehow Heath Ledger gave everyone in my section but me a menu, so I never got a chance to have the duck sent out to my seat, and the buffet options were mostly too meat-centric for my vegetarian self. I stuck with pappardelle pasta in tomato sauce that was a bit on the bland side. The petit fours were delicious though, especially one with coffee-flavored icing. I confess I had two, but then, I could have had ten, or twenty, or taken out a bag and dumped the entire tray.

I was amused to see many adults enjoying ice cream sundaes in upturned plastic Yankees helmets, just as many of us used to get from Carvel when we were kids. I did enjoy sitting in the buffet area, with its dark blue and wood décor and its long bar and countless television sets set to the ballgame. Due to a train mishap (I will spare you my traditional rant on the sorry state of public transit in this country) I got to the ballpark only 15 minutes before game time, but I could see coming early and having a pleasant meal here. I noted as I exited through the same venue that the bar was still serving, and perhaps this is another privilege of being a member, not being chased out of the building the moment the game is over, but instead getting to linger over a beer or cup of coffee and savor the latest win, mourn a loss, or execute a hostile takeover.

I could get used to seeing games this way, though I’m not sure if I would want to, given that morbid obesity would rapidly tip over into simple morbidity were I to avail myself of the all-you-can eat environment too often. Greater self-control than mine is clearly warranted. I also felt oddly guilty, as if the whole exercise was overly decadent and indulgent. The heavy mix of people in suits and ties (including the “go work at McDonald’s” guy) reinforced the feeling that these seats were intended for a class of people who would take this kind of largesse for granted or paradoxically, feel that the premium they paid for the seats would entitle them to act like Hansel and Gretel and gorge themselves on the candy house in the forest, or unfurl sacks and try to cart it home.

That said, there is nothing wrong with the occasional indulgence, and the thought that kept returning is that the Legends seats are a wonderful change of pace, and would make a terrific present for an anniversary, birthday, or graduation. Hey, something special is going on, let’s go see the Yankees in style. And if the other team happens to put Kyle Farnsworth on the mound in a crucial situation while you’re celebrating, so much the better. I don’t think the Yankees can guarantee that, but you may be so busy enjoying the amenities that you won’t notice.

The day after, sans hangover

yanks250.jpgIT’S ABOUT TIME
It seems as if the Yankees have been waiting to clinch for about three months, but seven weeks, ever since the Yankees swept the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium from August 6 to August 9 and went up by 6.5 games. You can shave the Countdown to Coronation to just over a month if you choose August 23 as your starting date. Since August 9, the Yankees have gone 31-14 (.689); since the 23rd, they’ve gone 23-10 (.697). They’ve more than held up their end of the bargain, as even the 1927 Yankees would have had a hard time overtaking them given that level of success. Since August 9, the club has allowed 4.5 runs per game while scoring 5.9. If you discount Sergio Mitre’s starts, the team’s runs allowed in that stretch drops to about 3.2. That’s simply astounding, and given the level of the offense, borderline unfair. Since Mitre won’t come within sniffing distance of the mound in October, that’s the real measure of the offensive/defensive balance that opponents will face. Anything can happen in a short series (stop me if you’ve heard this one before), but the Yankees have to be considered the favorites at this point.

If you’re looking for a key stat, it’s this: the Yankees lead the American League in strikeouts per nine innings, something they haven’t done since 2001 (they finished a close second in 2002 and 2003, those squandered seasons). It’s not a foolproof formula (again, nothing is), but when confronted with a tough offense, as most postseason offenses are, the best thing a team can do to beat them is to get them to swing and miss. When the Royals make contact, the ball doesn’t go too far. When the Angels make contact, it leaps tall buildings. As such, it’s best to keep the bats and the balls from meeting as often as you can.

If the Tigers hold on to their division lead, the Yankees will actually confront a postseason team with a fairly mediocre offense, and that would represent the best of all worlds, regardless of the prowess of their pitching staff — said prowess possibly having been overstated. More on that when and if the Yankees face the Tigers. We’ll be doing the usual head-to-head, position-by-position rankings as soon as the Central race is decided.

Joe Girardi’s day-after-clinching lineup has no Nick Swisher, no A-Rod, no Jeter, no Teixeira, and the opponent is the Royals. This game should be part of a two-for-one special–buy one ballgame and we’ll give you a pseudo-Yankees game for free. At least Robbie Cano is still in there. It would be something of a shock if he wasn’t. The last time he didn’t start was August 16. The last time he didn’t play was, I believe, on July 3, 1928, when Miller Huggins benched him against Rube Walberg in favor of Mike Gazella. Cano sulked for weeks and ultimately got into a fistfight with Leo Durocher, hastening the latter’s release. Since then, managers have been afraid to bench him, with the result that Cal Ripken, Jr. shattered his record for consecutive games played back in 1995, the record that, paradoxically, Cano is still building.

All of this will be explained in a future installment of “Robinson Crusoe Cano, Time-Tossed Traveler.”

Louis Armstrong, “Hobo, You Can’t Ride This Train.” Big hit for Satchmo in 1932.

Last week I commented on the child who was forced by his teacher to reverse his Sabathia T-Shirt, and said, among other things, “Longtime readers know that I am no fan of the teaching profession.” This comment reaped the usual mix of responses, and I was prompted to go back and see what I had said here in the past. I first raised the topic in an off-hand remark on Don Mattingly becoming a Yankees coach way back in 2003, and got the predictable firestorm of hostility. Here was my answer then:

The most controversial comment in last week’s PB was this one from the discussion of Don Mattingly as hitting coach: “My own educational experience, which I assume to be typical, is that the ratio of good teachers to mediocrities hacking it out for a paycheck is approximately one out of ten.” Some correspondents thought I had nailed the pedagogical profession while others thought I was being grossly unfair.

The qualifiers offered above were meant to indicate that the statement was entirely subjective. That being said, I feel safe extrapolating from my own experience for this reason: I grew up in a prosperous, middle-class suburban town, one whose school district benefited from an inordinate amount of financial and emotional support from the community. It is considered one of the best in my state and has been cited as one of the best in the nation. And yet, it was terrible.

At six years old I encountered a teacher who was physically abusive (not to me, thank goodness, but to my classmates). Severe verbal abuse was commonplace. Female students were treated by male teachers in a patronizing, insulting manner that would be classified as sexual harassment today. I spent a year with one aged English teacher who was clearly senile–classes sometimes consisted of watching him stare silently at the ceiling–and yet he was allowed to remain. As for Mister Chips, John Keating, Albus Dumbledore–I never saw them. Even the few inspiring teachers I had were flawed. My one favorite, the only one I really admired and to whom I felt sincere gratitude, once, in a rage, attacked me with the blade from a pair of broken shears (long story). I just got away.

This was a good school district, a great school district, so I can barely imagine what an average one must be like, let alone a bad one.

I think back on those shears quite often, as the blade was whipped past my face, knife-thrower style, just missing what is now the eye I can see out of. Then again, it might not have blinded me, it might have just killed me. As I look back over this, I can think of so many details and stories that are left out of that very abbreviated telling, and I may write more about the story in another forum.

The topic came up again a couple of years later. At that time, I received many responses along the lines of those this weekend. Here’s one response along with my answer.

A word about educators. I want you to know that they’re not all bad. My cousin is a teacher in the NYC public school system. She teaches first and second grade. The majority of her students do not speak English at home. The problems she has dealt with include overcrowding, rodents in the classroom, children who are not properly bathed, etc. Many people, include those within my family have encouraged her to seek a position with a private school, where she would be better paid and work under better conditions. She told me something like, “I love these kids, I can’t leave them. Who would take care of them if I didn’t?” To me, she is a great hero! I am a product of a NYC public school education. And as I have moved and traveled extensively throughout the US, I have become more aware of the quality education I received in comparison to many, even private school educated people, in other parts of the country. Just wanted to get that off my chest. — Lis

Lis, I appreciate what you’re saying. I struggle with this all the time. I know generalizations are for dopes and bigotry is for the simpleminded, so for me to paint an entire profession as all good or all bad is weak. I have known good teachers, and I can think of one in particular that had a huge positive impact on my life. Yet, given my own experiences and observations, I do feel that educators like your cousin and the person I’m descri
bing are the exceptions that prove the rule. In fact, the teacher I just mentioned is no longer a teacher, having found, after a long career, that the harassment that came with being good at his job was just too much to take. Perhaps this is true of most professions; one individual excels, all the mediocrities below him try to pull him down. Or perhaps I’m cynical.

The “one in particular” noted above is the same guy that hurled half a scissors at my head. I must have been in a forgiving mood. At the time this response appeared, my oldest child was just starting school, so I had nothing to work with except my own experience. Said child is now well into elementary school, and she has had one or two encounters that have rivaled my own, though no blades were thrown. I don’t want to violate her privacy at this time by writing about what she has gone through in specific terms, since at her age I can’t ask her for her permission in a way that’s really fair. What I can say is that I’m in there fighting for her, because I will not let her be terrorized the way I was.

All I can say is that I’m sorry and I’m not sorry. I’m sorry I hold this particular view, because as I said above I recognize that it is not wholly fair, but I’m not sorry because I am justifiably bitter and will remain bitter for the rest of my life. I love learning. I like being challenged to pick up new things. I’m like that now and I was like that as a child. Then I saw six-year-olds hauled out of chairs and thrown to the floor, or I was repeatedly brought up before a class, harangued, and called stupid because of some perceived offense like poor penmanship. I fondly recall the elementary school gym teacher who called me “[reproductive gerund] useless” in front of my class because I couldn’t do X number of chin-ups one day, or the junior high school English teacher with whom, because of a little classroom disagreement, called my father and told him I was in danger of failing out of school–you can imagine how my father let me have it when I got home–a story she invented out of whole cloth (this incident damaged by relationship with my father for years), or the high school teacher who admitted I knew more about history than he did but was going to fail me anyway. Where I was at first eager, I became afraid, then angry, then resentful, and pretty much turned off until college. I am admittedly biased, and yet I have seen what I have seen. I have seen my education and my daughter’s. I am working against a confirmation bias, but it can’t be helped.

Are there great teachers? Sure. I don’t deny their existence and never have. Do I think they’re anything like in the majority? No. Do our educational statistics bear out that they are anything like in the majority? No (that’s not letting the parents off the hook, of course). I have had friends who have become teachers, but only after failing at some other profession. I had friends in college who became teachers, but only after failing at some other major. Again, these are very narrow slices of information and seen the way I want to see them. I admit that. My anger overcomes that rationality. As a victim of a kind of abuse, what I most want is to run into one of those by-now ancient men or women and be able to say, “Scream at me now! Call me stupid now!” I want to say now what I didn’t have the power to say then. Once I’ve gotten that out of my system, I might be more able to hear arguments about this prejudice, the only one I permit myself.

In closing, to all you great teachers out there, to all of you who are proud relatives of great teachers, I apologize and would very much like to know what it is that makes you different. As for the rest of you, my wish for you is that you find another line of work… But before you do, please join that Yankees-hating teacher on the concourse outside of the Stadium, starting an hour before the first game of the ALCS. Tell everyone who comes by wearing a Sabathia shirt, or better yet a Jeter shirt, to cover it up or else. I promise I’ll send flowers.

On Tuesday at 1 PM EST, I’ll be fielding your questions live at Baseball Prospectus. As always, if you can’t tune in and participate at the starting time, you can post your questions in advance here.

This series still matters

jeter_250_092509.jpgRED SOX REDUX
The alliterative phrase “possible playoff preview” is overused, but here we have one of those series that could be exactly that. If the current seeding holds through the end of the season, the Yankees would face Detroit in the first round and, if they survive that test, see the winner of a Red Sox/Angels match-up in the second round.

Facing either opponent emphasizes the importance of maintaining the division lead and home field advantage, because the Red Sox are a .500 club on the road to date, and despite the recent successful action in Anaheim, the Yankees want to see as little of California as possible. Beating the Tigers only to find out one has to play up to four games in Anaheim might be the only time in sports history that the line, “I’m going to Disneyland!” would signify a negative.

Announcer: Hey, Derek Jeter! You just thrashed the Tigers in the first round of the playoffs! What are you going to do now?

Derek Jeter: I’m going to Disneyland! Aw, [expletive, expletive, expletive]!”

Thus, this series does matter in a real way, beyond the usual Red Sox-Yankees hoopla. There are also three pitchers undergoing key tests: Joba Chamberlain gets yet another chance to lower his post-Rules ERA from 8.50, and against a pitcher, Jon Lester, who has been almost unhittable since getting off to a rough beginning to the season, so there’s not a lot of margin for error. On May 26, Lester was 3-5 with an ERA of 6.07. He’s made 20 starts since then, going 11-2 with an ERA of 2.13. I hope that you readers won’t fault me too much when I say that I root for Lester as a fellow cancer survivor in spite of the uniform he wears. Some things transcend petty rivalry. I don’t mind if the Yankees beat him, of course, but I’d rather it was by a 2-1 score than a 15-1 score. In any case, much as with Joba’s most recent start in Seattle, the Yankees stand a good chance of being lulled to sleep if Joba allows the Sox to score an early touchdown.

On Saturday, CC Sabathia gets a chance to continue his recent dominance against a resurgent Daisuke Matsuzaka, which is really just a game of minimal expectations: You don’t have to win, but don’t pitch so badly that people start to wonder if you’re hurt, or have turned into Joe Cowley or something. On Sunday, Andy Pettitte will get a chance to put his shoulder fatigue further behind him, drawing Paul Byrd as his opponent, Byrd being Boston’s placeholder for a guy named Hypothetical Better Starter that We Don’t Have.

In short, it’s a weekend of confidence testing, of pulling back from a 3-3 road trip. The playoffs are assured and even the shape of the playoffs as far as the Yankees goes seems largely locked into place, so the key thing here is to not fall apart. That doesn’t seem like very much to add.

Lester on the hill means Melky Cabrera in the lineup. Last year at Triple-A, Brett Gardner batted .324/.407/.495 against southpaws. This year in the Majors he’s hit .302/.393/.415 against them. Cabrera has hit .261/.335/.418 against them, and those rates have slid in the second half — whereas Cabrera hit .267/.345/.480 against lefties through mid-July, since then he’s hit only .256/.326/.359 against them, which is actually a pathetically poor number for a right-handed hitter against left-handed pitching.

This year, all right-handed hitters in the Majors are batting .268/.341/.431 against lefties. All right-handers have a built-in ability to hit left-handers, but not Cabrera. His career averages against southpaws stand at .254/.323/.354, and as with so much about his post-April work, his final numbers are going to be reflective of what he’s done in the rest of his career rather than what he did earlier this year. Joe Girardi really needs to forget about what he thinks he saw this spring and move on with things.

I note Baseball Think Factory:

Van Buren Elementary fourth-grader Nathan Johns thought his teacher was kidding when he instructed him to go to the bathroom and turn his Yankees T-shirt inside out.

The blue shirt read “New York No. 52” on the front and “Sabathia” for the New York Yankees’ pitcher CC Sabathia, on the back.

” I thought to myself ‘Is he serious or is he kidding,'” said Nate, 9, a student in Peter Addabbo’s fourth-grade class. “But he had this look like he wasn’t kidding at all.”

Nate complied, and said he was later told to wear it that way until dismissal. At lunch, Nate said the fifth-graders made fun of him because he wearing his shirt inside out.

“It was such a horrible day.” Nate said. “I don’t ever want anything like to happen again.”

Nate said he felt he was treated unfairly.

“Just because my teacher doesn’t like the Yankees I should still have the right to wear a Yankees shirt,” Nate said Thursday after school. The teacher has Boston Red Sox paraphernalia all over the classroom on display, he said.

I have long felt that one of the problems with the educational experience in our country is that school is a place where they teach you about your rights and then fail to honor them. As an aspiring columnist in high school, I simultaneously learned about first amendment rights and was subject to prior restraint and press censorship because the administration didn’t like my choice of topics.

Apparently, now you can also be bullied because the teacher doesn’t like your choice of teams. Had the kid been wearing an Obama T-Shirt, or for that matter a Richard Nixon T-shirt (a friend actually did wear one in high school, albeit as a kind of ironic statement), the violation of his rights would have been much more obvious and probably wouldn’t have been contemplated. Instead, the kid, a fourth-grader, all of nine years old, was singled out in a possibly traumatic way. The petty tyranny of some teachers over children is astounding to behold. They indulge in arbitrary behaviors that they would never, ever have the guts to pull with an adult.

Longtime readers know that I am no fan of the teaching profession. As time goes on and my own children get further into the school system, and I read of matters like this one, I see little to change my mind. This incident was wholly inappropriate and the teacher should be disciplined — and although this is a Yankees-centric feature, I would say that even if the roles were reversed, and an educator who was a Yankees fan told some helpless child to reverse his Kevin Youkilis T.

Since he’s such a brave Red Sox fan, his punishment should be to stand outside of Gate 4 of Yankee Stadium this weekend and ask everyone coming in to reverse their T-shirts. I’d like to see the reaction of people old enough to answer back. Pathetic, pathetic, pathetic.

The Understudies

bradpitt_250_092409.jpgEver go to a Broadway play to see a famous actor in a part, only to have the guy not show up? You’ve dropped some serious dough on Brad Pitt as Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman” (work with me here). As you’re sitting in your seat waiting for the lights to go down, a little slip of paper flutters out of your Playbill. It says, “For tonight’s performance, the part of Willy Loman, normally played by Brad Pitt, will be played by Ethel Birnbaum.” You are, at the very least, nonplussed.

Wednesday’s game had the feeling of an Ethel Birnbaum performance. For reasons of necessity, Joe Girardi started only about half of his normal lineup. There was no Jorge Posada, Alex Rodriguez, Johnny Damon and Nick Swisher, and once the game was turned over to the bullpen — perhaps a bit hastily — there was no Phil Hughes. That the Yankees won in spite of these sacrifices is one of those “any given day” hand-outs that sports, and that Flying Dutchman of a pitcher A.J. Burnett, can grant.

I am reminded of an occasion during Casey Stengel’s Minor League managerial career when, desperate for a starter, he called on a pitcher lacking the stuff to break the proverbial pane of glass, and won. “Casey,” said the opposing manager, “I think you’re underestimating this league.” Girardi wasn’t guilty of that; he had his reasons, but the effect was the same. You wouldn’t want to try this again unless you had to, especially not against the Angels.


gardner_250_092409.jpgCan we please have more Brett Gardner? By this I am not asking that he make even more appearances as a pinch-runner or defensive substitute, but that he be given more starting assignments now and into the playoffs. He’s not dramatically more productive than Melky Cabrera is, but as we saw on Tuesday in Anaheim, his style of play can be a welcome change of pace from the usual Earl Weaver-style approach employed by the Yankees.

Now, I’m the last one to ever criticize Weaver-style on-base ‘n’ bash baseball, because I believe it is the most effective form of offense there is. You could almost say I’m religious about it, Joe. Yet, even Earl employed his base-stealers, players like Paul Blair, Don Buford, Al Bumbry and Don Baylor, who in his younger, more svelte period swiped 30 bases a year for Team Baltimore. Even Reggie Jackson swiped 28 bags his one year in the Crab Kingdom, a career high. Earl’s 1973 team even led the league, hard as that is to believe.

See, it wasn’t that Earl totally disdained the stolen base. He saw it as a tactical weapon, one to be used sparingly rather than fetishized. And if the base-stealer in question does some other things, like takes the odd walk and plays solid defense, well, Earl had his Mark Belanger, after all. Gardner is no Belanger, Joe. My point is our particular offensive cult does permit this kind of messing around with speed guys; as long as two guys are on when the home run hitters come up, we’re okay. Gardner would seem to provide your best option for getting that out of your center fielder.

As for the power you would be giving up, there’s not a whole lot there on Cabrera’s part, and its loss should be offset by Gardner’s larger contribution on defense, on the bases, and of course from his reaching base more often. Cabrera is a groundball hitter, and his current 12 home runs seems to be around the upper limit of his power. Sure, he gets into stretches where he gets a little more loft on the ball, resulting in his bunching four of his home runs into the month of April, but outside of those hot streaks the power production comes down to one or two home runs a month.

That’s not a lot to sacrifice given what’s being gained. And here’s another bonus: both Gardner and Cabrera hit a ton of ground balls, but the latter’s speed is unexceptional, resulting in a high percentage of double plays. The Major League average hitter (the number is almost the same in both leagues) hits into a double play in about 11 percent of his chances. Cabrera hits into one 14 percent of the time. Gardner, with his speed, hits into one only seven percent of the time. Over the course of a full season this is a gain of many outs. This is why, despite the gap in home runs, Gardner is creating 5.5 runs per 27 outs, while Cabrera trails at 4.7. Over a full season, this would work out to at least one added win, and that’s without considering defense. Speaking of which, most metrics agree that Gardner is the rangier fielder. I would say that most naked eyes agree as well, but I can only speak for myself, and being down one eye, I should probably leave that assessment to others not part of the Greater New Jersey Order of Cyclopians.

I understand why you’ve been reluctant to start Gardner of late; he had just come off the disabled list, and maybe his thumb isn’t up to the daily pounding. Cabrera would also seem to have “won” the job while Gardner was gone, but in truth, his recent production has been nothing special. He’s hit .255/.318/.382 in the second half, .243/.299/.361 in August-September. Cabrera is also getting to the point in his career where he’s going to cost the Yankees some significant dollars (he’s in his arbitration years), and given that the budget has proved to be only semi-infinite it would probably be a good idea to get Gardner established so the front office knows the full extent of its flexibility. Perhaps a Gardner/Austin Jackson combination next year will be just as good as a Gardner/Cabrera combination. In that case: voila, instant trade bait! Instant payroll reduction! This sounds like the best of all worlds to me.

Thank you for giving this matter your full attention.

Very Truly Yours,
Ethel Birnbaum

Gaudin to the rescue?

… Because sometimes I just don’t understand the thinking that goes into certain decisions. Today, the (sadly) Boston-bound Pete Abraham reports that not only is Chad Gaudin now in the starting rotation in place of Sergio Mitre, but if he pitches well he has a shot to be in the postseason rotation ahead of Joba Chamberlain:

With Chamberlain not pitching well, Gaudin has emerged as a candidate should the Yankees need a No. 4 starter at some point in the playoffs. Manager Joe Girardi nodded enthusiastically when asked if Gaudin had that chance.

“He sure does,” Girardi said in the dugout Monday night before the Yankees played the Angels. “He’s obviously in the mix or he wouldn’t be starting for us. We went out and got Chad because we felt that he could help us down the stretch and in the postseason, and he has pitched pretty well. He has done a very good job.”

What I can’ t figure out is that if Gaudin was such an important acquisition for the Yankees, why has he done so much sitting around? I’m not trying to pretend that Gaudin is the next Walter Johnson, because we’re talking about a 26-year-old who has a 4.53 ERA in about 600 Major League innings and averages four walks per nine innings. Still, he was a more likely candidate for the fifth starter’s spot, and perhaps even the fourth, than the other fellows the Yankees insisted on using. Let’s review.

Chad Gaudin has pitched only 29.1 innings for the Yankees. He was acquired on August 6 and then didn’t pitch for six days. He didn’t start for almost two weeks, getting his first assignment on August 19 at Oakland. After pitching 4.1 one-hit innings in the game (albeit with five walks), he headed back to the bullpen, not starting again until September 3. He made his third start five days later, but eight days went by before he made his fourth start. Consider what the other Yankees starters have done in that time, and if there was perhaps a place for Gaudin to get a shot at starting:

CC Sabathia has made nine starts with an ERA of 1.79 in 65.1 innings. The team went 9-0 in those games. Hmm. You probably wouldn’t want to pull CC out of the rotation.

A.J. Burnett made nine starts with an ERA of 4.97 in 58 innings. The team went 4-5. This is something of a downer, but opponents have hit only .257/.335/.428 (everyone is Melky Cabrera), which isn’t quite the same as being bombed, plus he’s mixed some good starts in there. Let’s move on.

Andy Pettitte made eight starts, skipping one to rest his shoulder. His ERA was 3.60 in 50 innings, and opponents hit .214. The team went 6-2. No problems here, assuming all the parts are in place.

Joba Chamberlain, kneecapped by his Rules or mechanical problems, or some combination thereof, made eight starts and pitched 31 innings with an ERA of 8.42. Opponents hit .331/.396/.496, which means the average hitter against Joba in this period was Rod Carew. The team went 4-4 since they had turned Joba’s starts into bad relief appearances. This is the only reason you can’t say, “There’s no way the Yankees could have gotten a worse result short of shooting the pitcher themselves.”

Sergio Mitre joined the rotation on July 21 and was started religiously every five days through late August. At the time Gaudin was acquired, Mitre had made four starts and had posted an ERA of 7.50 in 18 innings. He had given up 32 hits and opponents were hitting like Ted Williams, batting .395/.432/.506. Despite the alternative provided by Gaudin, Mitre kept taking his turn in the pulpit. In his next six games before finally being pulled from the rotation, the greatest Yankee named Sergio (also the only Yankee named Sergio) improved his results, the averages against him dropping to a still-miserable .301/.343/.553. His ERA for 28 innings was 7.71. The team record in those games was 3-3. The Yankees actually went 5-4 in Mitre starts, which is (A) a bit lower than a team like the Yankees wants to perform and (B) a reflection of the quality of Mitre’s opponents, teams that let the Yankees back into some games they might have been out of had they been playing a playoff-level opponent.

The Yankees had ample proof that Mitre couldn’t pitch before they got Gaudin, and two appearances since (one starting, one relieving) notwithstanding, he hasn’t given them much argument to the contrary. They could also see Joba, the potential fourth starter in the playoffs, or even third starter if Pettitte’s shoulder continues to trouble him, disintegrating. Yet Gaudin has always been on hold for a rainy day that the Yankees never accepted was here, even though it poured baseballs every time Mitre pitched. Now, with a fraction of the season left and so many games wasted, the guy is supposed to ride to the rescue.

I would tell you what the decision tree that must have led to this point must have been if only I could perceive it myself.

melky286_092209.jpgJudging from the reaction to yesterday’s entry, I did a poor job of making myself clear. My intention was to be forward-looking. I was not suggesting that Cabrera’s performance was overly hindering the 2009 Yankees or was a reason they might fall out of the playoffs or fail to save the world when Galactus comes, or anything like that. The 2009 Yankees have their offense pretty much squared away, and while Melky’s 95 OPS+ isn’t a big part of that, it’s good enough under the circumstances. Despite the current rough stretch, I’m not encouraging panic about the team’s chances, though if they punt away home-field advantage, I might change my position on that.

My point was meant to pertain to next season. The Yankees are an old team. Jorge Posada has been great this year, but next year he’ll be 38 and you can’t keep expecting greatness. You can say the same thing about Derek Jeter and A-Rod and Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui, assuming either or both of them come back. Heck, you could say it if they were in their 20s instead of their 30s, because life is unpredictable, but there would be less reason to worry about it. Because of the unsettled state of things, because it is hard to imagine next year’s offense being of the same quality as this year’s offense, the Yankees may need to get more out of center field. That is, they can’t just assume that other positions will make up for whatever sorta-decent to sub-decent things that Cabrera or Brett Gardner might do. As such, if there’s a “Don’t Look at This Until Spring” pile that Brian Cashman has, which one would assume includes Mark Teixeira and first base, Sabathia as No. 1 starter, etc, center field  should not be on it. It is reasonable to suggest that if other positions, within and without the outfield, are going to decline, center field may have to go up. If the Yankees are satisfied, viewing Melky in isolation, that won’t happen.

That was my major point. It had naught to do with 2009. No doubt the current Yankees would do better if Joe DiMaggio was available to play center, but he’s not strictly necessary at the moment.

That Cervelli kid

cervelli_275_091809.jpgI want to respond to one commenter on yesterday’s entry — I tend to assume that even one opinion fronts for an army of like-thinking fellow travelers, though in this case it’s something we’ve heard before: Let Frankie Cervelli catch next year.

We’ve been over this ground before, but since this thought is still harbored out there like some kind of hidden infestation of bedbugs, I want to go back to it. Cervelli is an athletic, mobile catcher and he’s going to have a decent career just on the quality of his defense. This is not in dispute. Cervelli’s active presence behind the plate catches the eye; there’s nothing subtle about his work, no “inside baseball” aspect that requires you to be told what he’s doing. He’s a lot of fun to watch back there, especially compared to Jorge Posada’s no-frills brand of backstopping, with his trademark “pick it up when it stops rolling” approach to pitches in the dirt. Posada was never the most artful of catchers, and now that his ballplaying life can be numbered in dog-years, he’s starting to be a bit reminiscent of Rodin’s “Thinker”

You already know where we’re going with this: Posada is a crazy good hitter for a catcher. The average MLB receiver is batting .254/.320/.397. There’s a reason the Tigers have tried to shift their catching responsibilities from veteran Gerald Laird to Alex Avila, a rookie out of Double-A while in the midst of a pennant race, which is that Posada-ism is seen as a desirable thing to pursue. There’s always a team or two that goes with a Brad Ausmus-style catcher and sees that as an advantage, but the offensive pace of today’s game is simply too demanding to embrace purely defensive players on more than a limited basis.  

Make no mistake that Cervelli is a purely defensive player at this time. While 89 Major League plate appearances is a small sample, Cervelli’s .268/.282/.341 is consistent with his production during his short Minor League career, during which he hit .273/.367/.380 in 828 plate appearances. Although Cervelli showed decent selectivity at the lower levels, his complete lack of power mean pitchers won’t respect him enough to let him utilize that patience — they’re going to come right after him. One key takeaway here is that .273/.367/.380 in the Minors, primarily the low Minors, does not suggest the foundations of a Major League hitter. It suggests an out machine. It might suggest Jose Molina, and Molina, also a very talented catcher, isn’t good enough to play every day.

The Angels, for all of Mike Scioscia’s love of good defense at catcher (he being an excellent defender himself, and a brick wall when blocking the plate), kept him firmly behind Bengie Molina. The team to give Molina the most playing time, last year’s Yankees, was also the first Yankees team to miss the playoffs in 100 years. It was not a coincidence — despite the fact that Molina allowed only two passed balls, despite the fact that he caught 44 percent of basestealers. An offense can’t overcome that many outs, and a bad hitter makes more of them on offense than he can possibly save on defense.

Period. No debate. This is reality. It’s not a stathead thing. It’s not a calculator thing. It’s just very basic truth. A catcher might get 600 chances on offense a year. The number of great, run-saving plays that a strong defensive catcher will make over a mediocre one doesn’t add up to the extra outs. It can’t when we’re talking about plays that save perhaps a base a game, if that.

If Posada’s defense frustrates you, that’s understandable. However, the kind of exchange being proposed suggest that winning is also frustrating. Posada, when he’s not elbowing opposing pitchers in the ribs, is a huge contributor. You want to get mad at the Yankees for being tolerant of players who don’t contribute, you can always remember how many games they lost with Cody Ransom subbing for Alex Rodriguez, or think on how long Angel Berroa stuck on the roster, or rent your garments every time Sergio Mitre pitches — I’m about out of good shirts at this point, although the cats enjoy chasing the flying buttons.

Otherwise, you’re really biting the hand that feeds the Yankees, or one of them. As it says in the New Testament, a prophet is not without honor, save in his own country. It turns out the same thing is true of Jorge Posada. An offensive-minded catcher is not without honor, save to team’s fans.

Scranton lost their playoff series on Thursday, which frees as many Pennsylvania Yankees as the club would like to come on up to the big city. Juan Miranda was recalled today. Austin Jackson is not on the 40-man roster, so a move would have to be made to get him to the bigs. Perhaps Christian “Out For the Year” Garcia could be shifted over to the 60-day disabled list to create a spot. Or Sergio Mitre could be released…

…Miranda, who is either 16 or 29, had a solid year at Scranton, batting .290/.369/.498 with 19 home runs in 122 games, handling left-handed and right-handed pitchers with equal aplomb. This performance translates to .273/.351/.491, which is not without its uses, though it’s not particularly useful to the Yankees because they’ve gotten fine left-handed production at DH and Mark Teixeira is a full-service first baseman. Thus, the Yankees have another power-hitting pinch-hitter to go with Shelley Duncan, which is okay.

Unfortunately, every team except, apparently, the Rays, has their own Duncan or Miranda, so there’s not much market for these guys. Every once in awhile one will surface in the Majors and do well, like Randy Ruiz with the Blue Jays or Garrett Jones with the Pirates, and everyone will act surprised, but they shouldn’t, because the thing that held them back wasn’t that they couldn’t hit, but that over the long term they weren’t expected to hit well enough to sustain first base or right field given lousy-to-non-existent defense. Kevin Millar is the rare example of this brand of player who actually went on to have a sustained career as a starter.

Whatever his age, Miranda has hit well enough in the minors to deserve at least a small chance from some team looking for a low-cost lefty for a DH or first base rotation. The production likely wouldn’t be great, but say your team is in the position of the Rays, having to play 35-year-old Chris Richard — at that point, you’ll take whatever Miranda can give you.

Unfortunately for him, barring a catastrophic series of injuries, that team will never be the Yankees. Here’s hoping he pops a few home runs during his Big League cameo and ups his trade value. Given his age, which is closer to 30 than not, he’s not going to be getting any better, so he’s not doing much at Scranton other than providing a “Break Glass in Case of” option.

Matsui and Damon are as old as The Beatles

matsui01.jpgMATSUI FOREVER?
Hideki Matsui is now hitting an excellent .280/.370/.516. There is life in the old boy yet. The average AL DH (it used to be redundant to say “AL DH,” but with the advent of interleague play, there is now such a thing as the NL DH) has hit .253/.336/.446 this season, which is depressing in that a position purely devoted to hitting has produced only slightly above-average offense, the league as a whole averaging .266/335/.429.

Teams with middling to miserable DH production include the Rays, who made a very expensive mistake in signing Pat Burrell; the Tigers (.245/.319/.390), primarily due to the decline of Carlos Guillen, Marcus Thames’ weak season and Aubrey Huff’s inability to hit in their uniform; the Royals, because Dayton Moore and Trey Hillman somehow think Mike Jacobs can hit (.231/.300/.395 as the DH); Seattle (Junior Griffey’s Seattle comeback is like one of those reunion tours in which none of the original band members participates); and Oakland (Jack Cust isn’t the hitter he was last year).

Some of the best DH production belongs to the Twins (primarily Jason Kubel, but also lots of Joe Mauer), Angels (Vlad Guerrero plus great work from almost every regular Mike Scioscia has rotated through) and the White Sox (until recently, Jim Thome). Thanks to Matsui, along with small contributions from Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter, the Yankees lead them all in hitting at the hitting position.

Matsui has done this despite bad knees and a stroke which has not made great use of Yankee Stadium — he’s hitting .268/.356/.481 there versus .294/.389/.561 on the road. Joe Girardi has kept him on the bench against some lefties, but Godzilla has never had a platoon problem and has creamed them, hitting .276/.348/.610 against southpaws. The semi-platooning has been primarily directed towards keeping Matsui’s knees functional as well as giving rest to the other Yankees veterans, and it seems to have worked out very well.

Matsui’s contract is up at the end of the season, as is Johnny Damon’s. Next year will be Matsui’s age-36 campaign. Damon will turn 36 this winter. It’s going to be a crowded winter for players whose main job is to hit. Likely free agents include Russell Branyan (if ambulatory), Carlos Delgado (ditto), Nick Johnson (likewise), Adam LaRoche (Mr. Second Half), Hank Blalock (having a miserable year at .237/.278/.466), Troy Glaus (back in the “if ambulatory” category), Bobby Abreu, Jason Bay (who plays the field but maybe shouldn’t), Jermaine Dye (if the White Sox don’t pick up his option), Vlad Guerrero and Andruw Jones.

These players are going to have to tamp down their financial expectations given how few slots are available, how limited their contributions, their generally advanced age, and of course, The Economy. This is true of Damon as well, who has had a strong year at the plate but whose defensive abilities are at ebb tide.

The Yankees have the option of filling both spots internally: Damon’s place with Austin Jackson, Matsui’s with some kind of rotation, but that would be a huge offensive blow. Unless Jackson takes an unexpected leap forward, there just won’t be enough hitting to make up for the loss. The Yankees could also re-sign one player, or both, while attempting to work Jackson into the mix. The International League playoffs could end as soon as tonight (Scranton is down two games to none in a best of five series) and perhaps we’ll see a bit of Jackson in the Majors soon after. They could also re-sign Damon, refuse to pay a high price to keep Matsui in the fold and sign whichever of the many free agent bats fits their budget.

There is no correct answer, except perhaps to observe that retaining two 36-year-olds is courting twice the danger of keeping one — one of them is likely to decline. Actually, there is a correct answer, and that’s two 23-year-olds in those spots, young players who can be Yankees over the next five to ten years, but unless Jesus Montero is going to get an express ticket to the Bronx, the Yankees don’t have even one of those guys in position.

He’s been up and down since his miserable first two months, but on the whole he’s had a productive half-season’s worth of work since then, hitting .262/.353/.544 in 88 games, 82 of them starts. He’s hit 23 home runs in that span. Left-handed pitchers can neutralize him (.216/.298/.435 overall), but you can’t take him for granted in most situations.

Tim McCarver Sings Selections from the Great American Songbook
I really, really hate to alert McCarver to the fact that “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” is not part of the American Songbook, though Americans have sung it. It was written by two British fellows and made famous by Vera Lynn, the same chanteuse who is presently keeping the reissued Beatles CDs off the top of the charts in Great Britain.


Speaking of those Beatles CDs, I’ve been assiduously working my way through the remastered stereo set and enjoying the heck out of it. The music is much clearer, as if you had been listening through some kind of murky haze all of these years. You can make out small touches in the playing and singing that you couldn’t before, perhaps not even on the original vinyl, though I confess it has been years since I listened to those.

Coincidentally, yesterday I came across this quote from the late Kurt Vonnegut in my notes:

The function of the artist is to make people like life better than they did before. When I’ve been asked if I’ve seen that done, I say, ‘Yes, the Beatles did it.’

… I wonder if John Lennon knew he had won the battle of the White Album. The Beatles were writing and basically recording separately by this point, with each composer using the other three as backing musicians (and in Paul McCartney’s case, sometimes leaving them out altogether), so you can attribute each track individually and sort the sprawling mess that is the “The Beatles” (IE “The White Album”). George Harrison and Ringo Starr got a combined total of five tracks; as good as George’s are (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Long, Long, Long,” “Piggies” and “Savoy Truffle”) you can’t call that more than an EP’s worth of material, whereas John and Paul each contributed a standard album of material. John’s White Album looks like this:

1.    Dear Prudence
2.    Glass Onion
3.    The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
4.    Happiness is a Warm Gun
5.    I’m So Tired
6.    Julia
7.    Yer Blues
8.    Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey
9.    Sexy Sadie
10.  Revolution I
11.  Cry Baby Cry
12.  Revolution 9
13.  Good Night (sung by Ringo, but written by John)

I haven’t yet listened to the remastered “Revolution 9,” but in a perverse way I’m looking forward to it. If you look at this track listing, it anticipates John’s early solo albums. He wasn’t trying to write pop singles anymore (though “Dear Prudence” could have been one) and instead concentrated on emotional work that tried to express a deeper mood or feeling than good time rock and roll. Given that this is the same man who was primarily responsible for “I Feel Fine” and “Ticket to Ride,” both No. 1 singles, Lennon’s turn towards introspec
tion is, retrospectively, shocking and a harbinger of the group’s dissolution.

Here’s Paul’s White Album:
1.    Back in the U.S.S.R.
2.    Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
3.    Wild Honey Pie
4.    Martha My Dear
5.    Blackbird
6.    Rocky Raccoon
7.    Why Don’t We Do It in the Road
8.    I Will
9.    Birthday
10.  Mother Nature’s Son
11.  Helter Skelter
12.  Honey Pie

Here you have three tracks that could have been singles but weren’t — the Beatles’ 1968 singles releases were non-album tracks like “Lady Madonna” and “Hey Jude” —  “Back in the U.S.S.R,” the Beach Boys parody, “Ob-La-Di,” which did get a belated single release in the US eight years later, and perhaps the irritating and ubiquitous “Birthday.” A souped-up version of “Revolution” was the B-Side to “Hey Jude,” but that’s the closest the group came to taking a single off the album. McCartney was still working the pop song-craft part of the street, with one song even inspired by his sheepdog. “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and “Blackbird” were initially attempts at political relevance, though one’s enjoyment of those songs is greatly enhanced by being unaware of the discarded subtext. Or the sheepdog.

John’s would have been the better album. Take this, brother. May it serve you well. 

Down with Mitre, brawling, rivers in Thailand

mitre02.jpgWHAT CASEY SAID
Forgive me if I’ve used this quote before in talking about Sergio Mitre. When the Yankees lost a miserable home game, ten-time pennant-winning Yankees manager Casey Stengel had a saying: “The attendance was robbed,” by which he meant, “We didn’t give the fans fair value tonight.

Each time the Yankees start Mitre, the attendance gets robbed. After Mitre’s last start, Joe Girardi claimed that the defense had undermined what was otherwise a good start. This time, Mitre allowed four home runs in five innings of work. With all respect to Girardi, who has largely done a fine job this season, if he says that Mitre pitched well but the stadium was too small to contain his genius, I’m going to be sick.

The Yankees don’t need these wins, or at least they don’t right now, though if they somehow lose home field advantage in the playoffs, you can start pointing fingers at whoever has authorized Mitre to make start after miserable start. Still, even if they end up with pole position in the postseason, simple professionalism should dictate that Mitre doesn’t get any more games.

Even if these starts rank as throwaways for the 2009 season, surely there is some deserving young hurler — perhaps Trenton’s Zach McAllister? — who deserves a chance to show what he can do so the Yankees are more informed about their options for next year. The more the Yankees know about what they have on hand for 2010, the less they have to sweat subsidizing Chen-Ming Wang’s decline or making any other needlessly expensive moves. At this point, all Mitre is telling them is that he’s currently not a Major League pitcher. What he’s telling the fans, or what the Yankees are telling them by pitching him, is a very different matter.

I was drinking coffee in a bookstore recently when I heard a fellow at the table next to me say, “Denial is a river in Thailand.” I’m still not sure what he thought he was saying.

It seems like just about every observer of last night’s fracas has come to the same very reasonable conclusion, which is that whatever the offense Jorge Posada thought he had suffered — and having someone throw behind you is worse than having someone throw at you, because you can duck the latter, whereas you’re more likely to duck into the former — the fight was not something the Yankees needed. The risk of serious injury to a key player is too great, and with the team needing to protect both the division title and home-field advantage, even a small suspension can be ruinous.

This is particularly true in the case of Posada, who is sure to be seen as the primary instigator of last night’s action. The drop-off in offense from Hip-Hip Jorge to Hic-Hic Jose Molina or the non-alliterative Francisco Cervelli is so huge that an ICBM couldn’t carry the distance – although let’s give all due credit to Molina for his .320 on-base percentage, which is easily a career high; Molina has never cleared a .300 OBP in any season of more than 81 plate appearances. Sadly, his newfound selectivity does not erase his other offensive deficiencies, so he’s literally about half the hitter that Posada has been this year.

Jesse Carlson is a busher, a 28-year-old sophomore spot reliever on a nowhere team. He was wrong to throw behind Posada, even to deliver a message, and he was out of place on the play at the plate during which Posada (needlessly) elbowed him. We talk about players like this playing spoiler, but usually they do that by beating a contender, not taking a beating so that the contender loses its best players to disciplinary action. Tempers can flare, people will fight — that’s all understandable and human. The Yankees have to be smarter than base instinct if they want to win a pennant and eventually a championship. Girardi was right to tell them so after the game. There’s more at stake than masculine pride.

A couple of notes on player achievements

Swisher hit his 27th home run Monday night and has begun to show more consistency at Yankee Stadium II, which bodes well for the playoffs. Right field is a traditional power spot, especially for the Yankees (that Ruth guy, you know), but the last time the Yankees had a right fielder hit over 30 home runs, Gary Sheffield was still young, or at least younger. He hit 36 home runs in 2004 and 34 in ’05 while spending most of his time in right. If you want a Yankees right fielder who topped 25 home runs before Sheffield, you have to skip past Paul O’Neill (who was a great hitter but averaged 22 round-trippers a season) and Danny Tartabull (who did a lot of his work at designated hitter) and point to Jesse Barfield in 1990. As mention of Sheffield, O’Neill, and also Bobby Abreu should make abundantly clear, the Yankees have largely gotten excellent production from the position — we will skip quietly past the Raul Mondesi Interregnum — but with the exception of Sheffield it has come in the form of high averages and on-base percentages and only average home run power. Nothing wrong with that if you can get it. Swisher lags those players in exactly one regard — fewer singles.

With last night’s 3-for-4, Teixeira upped his numbers to .285/.381/.551. Teixeira has been terrific, both with the bat and with the glove, and if he finishes with roughly this level of production, his season will rank somewhere in the top 10 for production by a Yankees first baseman/post-Gehrig division. Incredibly, though, it won’t rank anywhere near the top. That’s no insult to Teixeira, but a measure of just how good Don Mattingly was in the 1984 to 1986 period. He out-hit Teixeira in each of those seasons, doing so in a vastly different league. The American League of 2009 slugs .429. The AL of Mattingly’s glory days slugged about .400. Power comes more easily now than it did then.

As frustrating as he could be at times, the best-hitting Yankees first baseman of the last half-century not named Mattingly was Jason Giambi in 2002. Giambi hit .314/.435/.598 that year, a devastating combination of power and patience. Of course, he couldn’t field like the other two guys. Heck, he couldn’t field like anybody.

Went 3-for-3 to raise his average to .371. At one point it seemed as if .400 was the goal, but now the question is if he can record the highest batting average in history by a catcher. Depending on where you want to place your cutoff, the highest batting average in a full season by a backstop was .362 by the Yankees’ Bill Dickey in 1936 (472 plate appearances) and Mike Piazza in 1997 (633 plate appearances). Smoky Burgess hit .368 in 1954, but had only 392 plate appearances. One wonders what having a minor record like that would do to strengthen Mauer’s MVP candidacy….

People and records, gone but not forgotten

With the relentless focus on Derek Jeter and Lou Gehrig these past few weeks, the Iron Horse has been on my mind quite a bit. As I explained a few entries back, Jeter deserves to have his wonderful career and accomplishments celebrated, but it was difficult to feel complete enthusiasm regarding the passing of one of Gehrig’s records. We can try to be purely unemotional about things and say that baseball careers end for all kinds of reasons, injury being one of them, and a disabling illness or untimely death is just another form of career-ending injury. We can say that, but inside we know that it’s not true. A ballplayer’s record is supposed to end when he proves himself unable to play at the same high levels of his youth, or when he’s ready to go on to other things, or both. He’s supposed to play out the string, not have the string cut as if the three Fates had pulled out their sharpened scissors. As has often been remarked, baseball is one of the few games without a clock. Death is the imposition of time on a game that is supposed to be untimed.

Ty Cobb was a .323 hitter when he retired at the age of 41, but his legs had started to go and so to himself he wasn’t the same Ty Cobb. He also had a hugely successful investment portfolio to manage, and so he moved on. Ted Williams slugged .645 the year he quit, but he was ready to devote more time to fishing. Mike Mussina won 20 games for the first time and went off to watch his kids grow up. Alternatively, Babe Ruth went out fat, lame, and sniffling, but at least he got to give it one more try. All of these players went out on their own terms. So too did every player waived out of the Majors after a .119 season, an 0-for-30, or a 8.11 ERA in 50 innings. They got to take those 30 turns at the plate. They got to pitch the 50 innings. That’s self-determination.

Gehrig never got the chance to end his career because his body quit on him at high speed, not the languorous, creeping way it does for the truly lucky among us. His song didn’t end; the needle was pulled off the record, and if Jeter’s going past him provokes mixed feelings, it is because he gets to impose an alien ending on an unfinished story. No one really passes Gehrig, because Gehrig never finished; he was only interrupted.

None of this is meant to take anything away from Derek Jeter, may all praise his name and sing his deeds. Jeter just happens to be playing through a valley where someone else was struck by lightning, and I can’t help but smell the ozone lingering in the air. I’m not angry at Jeter, I’m sore at an unfair universe, a universe that builds up so many mountains and monuments and then knocks them all over, some suddenly, painfully, without symmetry or justice, and often without apparent meaning. It’s left for us to infer meaning, and life as a course in creative writing can be bewildering and unsatisfying. Gehrig tried his hand at this himself, in his famous Farewell. “Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth.” I was about to write, “Lou Gehrig was a liar,” but he wasn’t. I think he meant it. I think he meant to reassure us and reassure himself. That doesn’t get at what I’ve always felt when I’ve heard those wonderful words. This is it: He was a great man to say what he said. We were saps to believe him for a second. He had great fans, great friends, a loving family, and shared a storied history with all of them. He was, in all these things, greatly blessed — and none of that changes the fact that he got a raw deal. It was a clever non-sequitur, a changing of the subject, and just about everyone who has ever heard that speech is dumb enough to fall for it. If instead of saying what he had said, Gehrig had just stated, “You’ve been reading about a bad break I got. No, really, everything’s okay. It’s no big deal.” no one would have believed him.

Last November I first told you about my friends Rich Faber and Traci Wagner and Traci’s battle with malignant melanoma, a disease I know from personal experience. I am greatly sorry to report that on the morning of September 10, Traci died of the disease. She leaves behind Rich, devoted husband, who dedicated the last year to caring for her, and a son, Jason, on the verge of turning three, whose youth will, I hope, spare him some of the pain of this moment.

Traci was 42, and she had a lot left to do, from inconsequential things — like seeing how the Yankees make out in this year’s playoffs (she was a dedicated fan, with a particular fondness for Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, and Tino Martinez) — to the serious and important, like raising her son and seeing out the years with her husband. As with Lou Gehrig, her record will never be surpassed. Other lives will go on in parallel, but no one will ever do what she did in the way that she did it. Others may live more days, see more than she got to see in her time on Earth, accomplish things that one who is struggling to stay alive day by day is not permitted the time or endurance to attempt, but there will never be another Traci — not a greater Traci, nor a lesser Traci, nor an equivalent Traci. A wife, a mother, a friend can never be surpassed. Everything after is different, even if there is somehow more of it, even if somehow we go on.  

That takes nothing away from those who live on, who come after, but let us also not deprive the dead of their due.

Lou Gehrig had no children; it must have made it easier for him to say what he did. In Alan Jay Lerner’s autobiography, he tells of his father’s declining health, and how he was forced to undergo many painful and debilitating medical procedures to stay alive. “How can you go through all this, Dad?” Lerner asked. “Because I want to see what happens to you,” the senior Lerner replied. When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I didn’t cry until I saw my daughter, because just as I would not have her taken from me, I would not have me taken from her, not until I had a better idea of how it all turns out. She was only three at the time. There would be so much more to see. We erect sand castles of families and homes and children and 2,130 games played in a row. We should get to finish building them in the fullness of time. I wanted more. I want Gehrig to have had more. I want Traci to have had more. It’s all of one thing to me, life and death and records.

When I first told you about Rich and Traci — and this is particularly current given the politics of the moment — I talked about how financially debilitating Traci’s battle against cancer had been, in spite of their health insurance, which treated them with typical capriciousness. I asked you to check out his Web site; Rich is a professional, Harvey Award-nominated illustrator, and with his love of baseball, ballplayers have often been his subjects. As noted in his blog, some of these pieces are for sale. Rich also takes commissions. I urge you to drop Rich a line and purchase one; Traci’s battle may be done, but Rich has another ongoing fight to provide for his son’s education as a single parent. I have two of his pieces up in my living room, and they look great; you’ll not only be helping Rich out, you’ll be doing your wall a favor.

If you’re not into bas
eball art or happy walls, there is a Paypal donation button on the sidebar of Rich’s blog; anything you give will go towards Jason’s education.

I struggle to leave you with happier words at the conclusion of this bleak entry. I have watched loved ones come and go. I’ve nearly watched me come and go once or twice. In a song about cancer, Lou Reed sang, “There’s a bit of magic in everything, and some loss to even things out.” I think that’s the best, most uplifting thought I have at the moment. Life is an accumulation of events, not separate threads. It is wonderful to be here and terrible to leave, and yet we are always in the process of leaving. Yet, each time we do, what we leave behind us represents a unique, unalterable tale — in the words we say, the songs and stories we write, in those we loved who remember us, and the children we bring into the world, who carry within them our part of those who have gone in their very genes. Others may write other stories, sing louder songs, or make more hits on the ballfield, but never better, only different. As Albert Einstein said, nothing is created or destroyed. It’s all still here. That’s the magic. So let us not say goodbye to Lou, or even Lou’s record, for Lou is still here, and nor will we say goodbye to Traci, for she too will remain.