January 31, 2007

2007 Predictions: Read Them Now, Forget Them Later. Part II

Welcome to "2007 Predictions: Read Them Now, Forget Them Later. Part II". To continue, while fan favorite and proven winner Bernie Williams has been offered a minor league contract by the Yankees, and he's been invited to spring training. If he does not make the team, sources close to him in the February 1, 2007 edition of Newsday are quoted as saying that Bernie will most likely retire from baseball. A prediction? Don't expect him to disappear for too long. While this writer does not think that Bernie will sign with another team, he still has value to the Yankees organization. Look for Bernie to show up to future spring training camps as a special instructor. Maybe we'll see Bernie as a hitting coach for the Yankees one day. While his playing days are over, his baseball career most likely is not. One thing fans can certainly look forward to are more of Bernie's guitar CDs.

Look for Robinson Cano to continue flourish. This one is easy. The young second baseman spent six weeks on the DL for a pulled hamstring, and still came back to play enough games to be in contention for the batting title. Cano is s superb athlete with a big bat who exudes the kind of modest, confident, and good natured character that fans of the Bronx Bombers want to see in their favorite Yankees. Team Captain Derek Jeter is a perfect example and an excellent role model for the young Cano.

In this writer's opinion (and this is all speculation), the starting rotation for the 2007 Yankees should look like this: #1) Andy Pettite #2) Chin-Ming Wang #3) Mike Mussina #4) Kei Igawa #5) Carl Pavano. The returning Andy Petitte will find a challenger in Chin-Ming Wang for the title of Yankee's ace pitcher. The number one spot should go to Pettite due to his past success as a star in the Yankee's pitching rotation. Mike Mussina never seemed eager for the role of "ace", yet Mussina's presence in the rotation has always been formidable, with many memorable and important games pitched during his tenure in pinstripes. Mussina should have his best season as a Yankee yet with solid starters such as Pettite and Wang in front of him. Wang will continue to baffle batters with his heavy sinker and his slider and go deep into games. Look for Wang's name to be mentioned in the same sentence as Cy Young's. Kei Igawa is an unknown quantity, but should be skilled enough to fill in the number four spot in the rotation, barring any bouts with "New York-itis" which seems to affect many newcomers to Yankee Stadium (see Johnson, Randy and Brown, Kevin). Should Hideki Matsui be able to help introduce his fellow countryman to New York and the Yankees culture, this would be a huge bonus. Brian Cashman has plenty of young arms to flesh out the bottom of the rotation if things fall apart during the season, so the pressure on the team as a whole for Igawa to perform isn't dire. Carl Pavano? This writer predicts that he should be able to toss the ball 60 feet, 6 inches towards the plate. Whether or not he gets anyone out is another story. All of the above changes if, or when Roger Clemens dons pinstripes again this summer.

Jason Giambi will be no mystery in 2007. His role is simple: be the full time DH. We all know that Giambi's batting average is considerably lower when he doesn't play full time. But, his numerous ailments and his alleged steroid abuse (See: apology, non-specific) has reduced his stock significantly with the fans. While his batting average has fallen over the years, his ability to get on base has remained steady. In 2007, though, he'll be no mystery to pitcher's either. Having survived the last few seasons by drawing walks and getting hit by pitches, his bat has slowed down a bit; but, he makes noise every now and again with a monstrous home run. In '07, more pitcher's will challenge him instead of being careful and his on-base percentage should suffer as a result.

The first base platoon of Doug Mienkiewicz and either Andy Phillips or Josh Phelps (they will compete for the job in spring training) should work out fine. Yankees have been employing an unofficial platoon for the past couple of seasons with Giambi taking a part-time DH role. One would like to see a bonafide first baseman at the position. In this writer's opinion, Mienkiewicz would do well as the sole man at first; but the Yankees have their reasons for a platoon. If they run out and sign someone like Todd Helton since Boston's talks with the Rockies recently collapsed, then that just might be too greedy for the now frugal Yankees organization. Besides, any extra money they saved by letting go of Gary Sheffield, Jaret Wright, and Randy Johnson would be better spent on Roger Clemens

As of this writing, it is fourteen days until pitchers and catchers show up to spring training. One can hear the crack of a ball off the bat already. This is the last of my predictions for the 2007 season. Soon, this writer will be joining the throngs of die hard baseball fans in New York who writhe in agony after every defeat, and wallow in ecstasy after every victory. And that's just during the spring training games.

January 19, 2007

2007 Predictions: Read Them Now, Forget Them Later. Part I

When does the baseball season begin? Ask the casual fan, and the answer will be April. But, ask the die-hard baseball fan, and the answer will be February. The words on the lips of the devoted lovers of leather and lumber are "pitchers and catchers." There's an instant bond formed between two people who recognize the meaning of those two words in the context of the of spring training.

With that said, this writer will share some gratuitous predictions and selfish hopes for the Yankees who will win "27 in '07". By the way, that was prediction number one. Predictions in baseball, in this writer's humble opinion mean nothing. Who could have predicted the Boston Red Sox finishing in third place last season after being unable to recuperate from the loss of several key players? Also, who could have predicted the Yankees stunning ejection from the ALDS at the hands of the Tigers? This writer did, but that's beside the point. The purpose here is to throw out some ideas on the upcoming season, stir the pot a bit, and engage in some frivolous speculation. If I'm wrong? There's always next year.

The second prediction for the 2007 season is that Carl Pavano will pitch and have a good season. This column sees Pavano winning fifteen games with an ERA hovering around 4.0. After a year and a half off with numerous maladies and some broken ribs plaguing him, Pavano won't exactly be in Cy Young form, but with the tremendous amount of run support provided by the Yankee's offense, he should do fine. That is if he is also in top emotional form and his teammates haven't stuffed him down a laundry chute by the end of spring training.

Alex Rodriguez will continue to be the fan favorite...punching bag. The media will continue to focus on his relationship with Jeter, the fans, Joe Torre, etc. But, he will be different. There has to be a saturation point where a man as bright and talented as he has to say to himself that he's damned if he does, and damned if he doesn't, and just go out and play ball. Fans being as fickle as they are will cheer him when he homers, and boo him when he strikes out; yet the added pressure will always remain. By September, he will have amassed another impressive set of numbers to add to his sterling, "Hall of Fame" career; but, and this is a big "BUT", his legacy rests solely on what he can do for the Yankees in the post season. This writer has deflected blame off of Alex this past October because most of the players on the team flopped in the 2006 post season. If A-Rod had produced runs in at least two critical situations while facing the Tiger's in the '06 ALDS, things could have been very different. However, the same could be said of three or four other Yankees who fizzled in clutch situations at the plate. Besides, no one ever suggested that A-Rod must carry the team. He's in there like the rest of them, and the Yankees in general were flat and uninspired. A-Rod's 2007 will be superb by anyone's standards except spoiled Yankee fans who want a home run at every at bat. His post season will be graded separately, but will count for 100% of his legacy.

Randy Johnson...oops, sorry. Whew!

Derek Jeter may or may not chase any batting titles this season; but that never matters to Captain Clutch anyway. Without Bernie Williams, Yankee hero, and co-champion of all those wonderful World Series wins from '96-2000, The glimmer of hope which all Yankee fans have for their beloved team this year will focus more keenly on the “man who dives into the stands” himself. Jeter exudes confidence. His team now consists of the patient, high on-base percentage, move the runner over, and steal-a-base kind of players which characterized the 1996-2000 teams which he cut his teeth playing on. For the most part, that was the Yankees of 2006 in the absence of Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield. But, I don't blame Hideki Matsui or Sheffield for that matter for returning from the DL and erasing the Yankees style of play which allowed them to climb to an eleven game lead over the third place Red Sox by the end of the regular season. This writer blames Joe Torre for not noticing that his team played better when they moved runners over, played hit-and-run, stole bases, and manufactured runs. Once Matsui and Sheffield came back and Melky Cabrera was once again relegated to the fourth outfielder role, things changed. The Yankees became a station to station team with so-so pitching waiting for the three-run home run to tie the game against excellent post season pitching. Jeter won't have to endure that again in 2007. His team will reflect the Jeter teams of the no-so distant past now that they have a team with some character, and Sheffield’s noisy bat and mouth have gone. Things should go smoothly for the Captain, except he’ll have to frisk Doug Mientkiewicz for baseballs before he leaves the stadium.

There’s nothing like job paranoia to make someone produce and Joe Torre has plenty of that. In past seasons, when he absolutely couldn’t take “The Boss” anymore, it appeared as if Joe didn’t care if he either ended back in the broadcaster’s booth or perhaps managing the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. However, after last year’s debacle, the stunning and unexplainable ejection the Yankees endured against the Tigers in the post season, the calls for his head on a pike came not only from media-types, but from fans. For a dignified and respected man such as Joe Torre, losing his fans would probably be devastating. Joe Torre is a celebrity in New York, and around the country. Leaving on such a sour note would mean getting hissed at for the rest of his life as he walked the streets of his city. Sure, many fans would forgive and forget; but the memories of his tenure as Yankee’s manager would stop short at the embarrassing loss to the Tigers and his head floating in a jar of formaldehyde on the Bosses’ desk. Also, Torre knows that not many broadcasters get to be in Subway commercials with Willie Randolph, hang around with mayors, and hob-knob with celebrities. Managing the team like the Devil Rays might get him in tight with the company which makes Rolaids…as a customer. The closest the Devil Rays will get to a parade is if they hop a bus to Disney World between home games. Watch Joe Torre become more animated this season in the dugout. He might just get thrown out of a few more games, and he most likely will start use that bat he totes around the dugout to threaten players to perform instead of bouncing it off the floor between his legs. There are no Lou Piniella types lurking around to step in his shoes if he gets fired for going 6-12 in the first few weeks of the season; still, we all know that Torre is on “double-secret probation”. Lou Piniella isn’t available, but Joe Girardi will do.

That’s it for Part I. Tune into this column later in the week for more predictions and analysis of games which haven’t been played yet. Rest in peace, Corey Lidle.

January 17, 2007

A Ball And A Stick: Your Game Or Mine?

Last April my son began his second season with his Little League team. As a father, I was proud to see my son as he eagerly took the field and applied the skills I helped teach him. I enjoy watching him play more than I do watching professional baseball. One of the side benefits to going to his games is that I get to meet and talk baseball with other serious minded and knowledgeable baseball fans.

On my son's team last year was a young boy from India. His father stood along side me during the first days of practice watching in wonderment as his son took to the sport as if he had been playing for years. The father was confused by the game, its rules, and the overall objectives. "Isn't this just like cricket?" he would ask me. I joked that I know little or nothing about cricket except that no one gets signed to play the game for millions of dollars per season. At least not in the United States they don't.

The dad, an affable gentleman who was also in the Information Technology field like me, and who couldn't care less about talking shop with a colleague. He wanted to know more about this game which his son was so mysteriously drawn to. At each practice, and at every game, the dad would eventually single me out and ask me a question about what the kids were doing on the field.

"Right now" I would tell him, "these kids are just learning. The coaches aren't counting balls and strikes, half of them are milling around the field looking for insects or for rocks to toss at their friends, and the final score could end up being 59 to 58." He didn't get it. Immediately he started ranting about what a great game cricket is compared to baseball. It was then that I sensed that he was a "cricket snob" as he would sneer and shake his head when I'd tell him about base running strategy, or different ways pitchers pitch to right-handed or left-handed batters, or whatever. His response would always be something along the lines of "In cricket, you don't have to..." and that's where I'd tune him out. The guy was a bore who wouldn't listen, and I'm too dignified to get into an argument about which game was "better".

He didn't know this, but when I was a police officer, I would sit in my patrol car and watch organized cricket games played on the field behind the Edgemere Houses in Far Rockaway. These guys were really good, and I had fun being a spectator to this interesting game played with a ball and a stick much like the game of baseball. These players, recent immigrants, I learned, were proud to show off their skills to "newbies" like me. They had crisp, white uniforms; they they tended to the lawns, and had traveling teams. I still don't know much about the game, but I know it is a serious sport which means an awful lot to many different people. That is why I resented it when this father would make comments about how superior cricket was to baseball without knowing anything about the sport. If I sat nearby the field in Edgemere spouting ignorant comments about cricket to the passionate fans who cheered their teams, what would that make me? This man, to me, was doing the equivalent of that.

At the final game of the little league "season" for my seven year old son's team, the "Cricket Dad" as I would call him sauntered up to me with his hands behind his back in an attempt to goad me into another baseball-cricket confrontation. Maybe he enjoyed this sort of banter, I thought. Perhaps his anti-baseball repertoire and his love for cricket afforded him the same pleasure that's often found between Mets/Yankees, or Red Sox/Yankees fans. I decided to give him a second chance. It was then he told me that during the week he managed to watch both a Yankee game and a Mets game on TV. He was pleased that the announcers helped to explain the game and I told him that the networks employ former players as analysts. Once again, he began to pepper me with questions about the game, but his attitude changed. Gone was his distaste for baseball. It didn’t hurt that his son had a natural talent for playing and he had several key hits in recent games. The coaches often told the father that his son “could play.” Possibly that was the catalyst he needed to appreciate baseball. In much the same way I am uninformed about cricket, I wouldn’t begrudge anyone loving their sport. The man was becoming more likable in my eyes because of his sudden objective curiosity.

At that point, I was more eager to talk baseball with him even if he only had a rudimentary understanding of the game because his heart was in it. He wanted to know what the announcer of one particular game meant when he said that “There are no secrets in baseball.” After giving details to him about advanced scouting, the use of video, and pitchers having to make adjustments to pitch to a batter as the batter makes adjustments to the pitcher he’s facing, and teams play the field to the way a batter hits, etc. He sighed in frustration and asked “If everyone knows how the other person plays, then how can one team lose to the other? It doesn’t make sense." I smiled, and I felt a bit of ashamed of myself for answering him the way I did because I disliked his cricket snobbery. Looking him in the eye, I said, “That’s what makes baseball so great. On any day, any team can beat any team.”

The dad shook his head, but I could tell he was hooked. He looked like he had another question, but it had to wait because just then, my son hit a double.

January 11, 2007

Fan Or Foe?: Rude Fan Behavior

In my neighborhood there is a man who won't talk to me anymore. Our children used to play together and our wives were friends. Yet, one day, about four years ago, he decided he didn't need to speak to me again. My crime? I'm a Yankees fan and he's a Mets fan. I am not exaggerating any of this. It didn't help matters that he's a Democrat and I'm a Republican. To him, those attributes were damning enough and were fuel for rivalry; yet our most heated (and ultimately one sided) debates were focused on baseball.

I'm one of those people who is a baseball fan first, and a Yankee fan second. My former "friend" considers him a Mets fan first and last. It didn't matter to him that my father is a Mets fan; many of the folks I work with and socialize with are Mets fans. No, to him I was an enemy agent, a person who should be treated with contempt every time the Yankees made one of their questionable and costly free agent signings. In his mind, I was just as guilty as George Steinbrenner for "ruining the game" as he put often put it. How could I sleep at night being a fan of such greed and largess?

When it comes to baseball (or for any topic for that matter) I prefer objective and calm discourse. Reasonable folks can disagree on just about anything and still behave themselves. At my place of employment, we are staffed with individuals who can rant about the failings of their favorite team, and then boast of their accomplishments without having to insult fans of rival teams. A bit of friendly ribbing here and there is accepted as part of the fun of rivalry; but, no one goes too far. The discussions aren't loud, insults aren't exchanged, and ultimately, there is an acceptance of the other person's point of view, no matter how much it hurts. Does this make us unique? No, I don't think so. I've met married couples where the wife is a Yankee fan and the husband a Mets fan, and vice-versa. What sticks in my craw, and what becomes emblematic of team rivalries is ugly fan behavior. The "former friend" in the opening paragraph of this piece reflects such bad attitudes to the extreme.

My allegiance to the Yankees is my prerogative. It says nothing about my political or social beliefs. George Steinbrenner does not pay me to go to Yankee games, buy their paraphernalia, or watch the YES network. I choose to root for the Bronx Bombers because my affection for the Yankees comes from an appreciation for their organization's dedication to winning, warts and all. With that said, I shouldn't be punished for it by deranged fans of other ball clubs. Nor should any Yankee fan do the same to other fans as well. The way sports are headed these days, with bad fan behavior at sports venues around the country becoming more prevalent, we're not too far removed from European soccer. In a few years, everyone will be bringing helmets to the game even though they are not on the team.

My disgust reaches its peak when rude fan behavior is carried away from the stadium and reaches its way into employment and social settings. Too many times I've found myself cornered at a party having to fend off guys with scant knowledge of the game spouting off about how the "Yankees are trying to buy the World Series." It's boring already. Just as many times I've witnessed Yankee fans gloating in the faces of glum Red Sox and Mets fans without so much as having been to Yankee stadium, or being able to name even two pitchers in the Yankees starting rotation. This makes me cringe.

I've written in the past of the importance of baseball, and sports in general, to society for a whole host of reasons, up to and including bringing us away from the turmoil in our lives and escaping into a world where on any day, any team can beat any team. Trouble, I've observed, comes when fans take their devotion for their team so seriously, they see the success or failure of their favorite sports franchise as a direct reflection on them. It’s as if their favorite team loses, they must be a loser too.

My former friend stopped socializing with me around the same time the Mets weren't doing so well. I saw him a few times this past October when the Yankees were ejected from the playoffs by the Tigers and the Mets moved on to the NLCS. He still wouldn't talk to me, but I know that deep down he wanted to slam on the brakes in front of my house and yell "Yankees suck!" at the tops of his lungs. Such is his own undoing.
In the words of an infamous criminal and victim of police brutality: "Can't we all just get along?"

January 3, 2007

Exit Saddam, Enter Baseball: A Look At Baseball In Iraq

Beyond being a game of historical significance, to this writer, baseball symbolizes freedom. One immediately conjures an image of Jackie Robinson donning a major league baseball uniform to defy segregation in the 1950’s. America, for all of its glory has an evil past which is uncomfortable for many to talk about. But baseball’s full potential was realized when the game was integrated. Men like Robinson fought against stereotypes, ignorance, and bigotry to play America’s Pastime.

There is a photograph of Jackie Robinson meeting with King Faisal II of Iraq. This picture was taken in 1952 after a game at Ebbets Field. The youthful King Faisal II was a baseball fan and the meeting was more than historical, it was a portent to the future.

Under Saddam Hussein, baseball and all things western were antagonistic to Saddam’s regime. One played baseball at the risk of interrogation, prison, or even torture. In a blog called Iraq4ever while discussing women’s softball in Iraq after the fall of Saddam, the author states: “The Iraqi national baseball and softball federation was established after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Hussein considered baseball a product of U.S. imperialism.”

One doesn’t need to look further than a few mouse clicks on the internet to discover that baseball has taken root in Iraq since the U.S. invasion. American soldiers have pitched in to help Iraqi children learn the game. Ismail Khalil, a Baghdad shop owner, formed the Iraqi Baseball and Softball Federation; and, according to a September, 2005 article in U.S.A. Today, “Ismael, a longtime baseball enthusiast, has worked for years to establish the sport in Iraq. In 1994, he submitted a request to the Iraqi Olympic Committee to establish a baseball team to compete against other countries. Committee members rejected the idea, saying it was "too American," he says. He spent three days in a Baghdad jail for even proposing the idea, he says.”

One must imagine the difficulty or organizing a game, much less practicing on a regular basis in Iraq today. As a parent of young children, this writer finds it stressful at times to juggle work, and chauffeuring my own children to and from their sporting events without having to worry (as Iraqis do) about suicide bombers, death squads, and “drive by” shootings. To play baseball, an American import, in any town, city, or country field in Iraq is to take your life into your hands. Many young boys and girls, men and women have been doing just that since 2003.

It is interesting to note that while Carlos Delgado, a millionaire being paid to play a game while others were risking death for doing the same, disappeared during the national anthem in protest against the war in Iraq (while a member of the Toronto Blue Jays in July, 2004). He did so while many in the country where the war he protested raged were picking up donated bats, gloves, and baseballs just to have fun at the risk of getting shot. There’s a certain amount of irony in that.

In 1952, Jackie Robinson, a citizen in a country which once practiced institutionalized slavery, sat with a King after a baseball game. Years earlier, Robinson wasn’t allowed on the field. Because of his bravery, and the boldness of a baseball franchise, he was the first African American to break the color barrier in major league baseball. In that regard, baseball became a symbol of liberty, of freedom, for all those who seek it.

Today, long after King Faisal II was assasinated in 1958, and after the removal of the brutal dictator, Saddam Hussein, young Iraqis everywhere in Baghdad and across Iraq are taking up the sport. Even in 2004 when Carlos Delgado was in the clubhouse during the national anthem in protest, young people thousands of miles away in war-torn Iraq were trying to emulate him. Whether you were for or against the U.S. invasion of Iraq, as was Delgado's right to protest, these young people trying to play Delgado's game likely would be unable if Saddam was still in power.

In Robinson’s America in the 1950’s with lynchings and church burnings being a common threat, and segregation the law, many young minorites yearned to play major league baseball and Jackie Robinson lead the way. Iraq today is battle ground, and baseball is spreading, taking hold among a new generation of infielders, outfielders, pitchers, and home-run kings. Baseball is the greatest of games, and it symbolizes freedom.