January 2013

Are the Yankees now a last-place team? Grab a chair and let’s discuss.

Let’s not bury the lead, to use a time-tested newsroom phrase. No, they are not. On the other hand, it’s not a ridiculous discussion either. You can make a case for them winning the American League East again. If Andy Pettitte, Hiroki Kuroda and C.C. Sabathia can go the distance. If Phil Hughes pitches 200 innings. If Ivan Nova or David Phelps grab the fifth spot in the rotation and emerge as solid, consistent performers. If all those things happen, the Yankee rotation will be as good as any in the American League East.

In fact, given the circumstances in which he operated this off-season, this might end up being GM Brian Cashman’s finest hour. Unlike previous years when he was given a checkbook and told to start spending, he has had to pick his spots. He has also had to find some bargains, Travis Hafner being the latest. I suspect this off-season has been terrific fun for Cashman. He has worked relentlessly to construct a first-rate front office, a front office that combines the best of the new-age analytics with the traditional gumshoe scouting.

Those huge payrolls have sometimes overshadowed the great work Cashman and his people did in acquiring and developing Brett Gardner, Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes, Robinson Cano and others. The Yankee farm system had a tough 2012 with a combination of injuries and disappointing performances. But smart work always pays off, and it could look completely and dramatically different a year from now. That’s how it goes with kids. They thrill you one minute, break your heart the next.

The Blue Jays have gotten way better, adding 600 innings to their rotation and Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera to their lineup. The Red Sox filled a bunch of hole without spending outrageous money and got a new manager, John Farrell, who should help change the environment. The Rays are significantly different and still good. The Orioles were quieter, but if some of those young pitchers take a step forward, they could very well be right back in contention. GM Dan Duquette did an amazing job acquiring talent last season, so it would be a mistake to count them out.

With Opening Day still 60 days away, here’s a quick power ranking of the AL East:

1. Blue Jays

2. Rays

3. Yankees

4. Orioles

5. Red Sox

But the division is so tight that the Rays, Yankees, Orioles and Red Sox seem capable of finishing anywhere from first to fifth. Nothing in this division should be a surprise.

Now about the Yankees.  I count 112 home runs gone from their 2012 lineup with no dramatic addition. Still, this being so close to the start of Spring Training and all, let’s look at the glass as being at least half full. The Yankees can win again because:

  1. The starting rotation will be the best in the American League East, better than Toronto’s, better than Tampa Bay’s.
  2. Mark Teixeira will be healthy and productive, which means he’ll be a huge presence in the middle of the lineup.
  3. Kevin Youkilis will show that 2012 was a fluke and have a huge comeback season.
  4. Brett Gardner will stay on the field and match his .723 career on-base-plus-slugging.
  5. Bullpen depth.
  6. Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter. Yes, the band is back together. And the band will again lead the way.
  7. Brian Cashman will watch some of his best kids have break out seasons at Double-A, and this will give him the flexibility to either make a deal or fill a hole in the second half.
  8. The Yankees go to the playoffs every year, and you can check my math. This core of players knows how to win.
  9. Addition by subtraction, and you know who I’m talking about.

My favorite A-Rod story occurred in a Kansas City restaurant

I was having lunch at Houston’s in Country Club Plaza when one of the people at our table said, “Hey, look, that’s one of A-Rod’s guys.” He pointed to a man who was engaged in a hush-hush conversation with the restaurant’s host, pointing, gesturing, explaining. My lunch buddies—they covered the Texas Rangers—knew what was up.

“He wants to make sure A-Rod isn’t bothered during lunch,” one said.

Sure enough, after making sure A-Rod, then a Texas Ranger, would have a table in a corner of the restaurant, a table that would afford him some measure of privacy, a table that would keep him somewhat away from the screaming masses who were sure to lose their minds when he entered the restaurant, A-Rod walked through the front door and was guided quickly and quietly to a section of the dining room.

This seemed surreal since I had friends at a Kansas City rib joint a few years earlier who looked up to find the President of the United States standing at their table. Bill Clinton worked the room, smiling and shaking hands, then sat down with some baseball writers to have lunch.

Anyway back to A-Rod. There was just one problem with the care that was taken to guaranteed his security in Kansas City that day, and looking back on it now, it seems a little bit astonishing and a little bit sad. No one—and I mean no one—recognized him. There was zero buzz. There were no fans desperately trying to get a moment of his time. All that happened that day was A-Rod had lunch.

“He has to be crushed,” one of the guys at my table said.

For a lot of his 19 seasons in the Major Leagues, it has been like that with Alex Rodriguez. He has always seemed just a tad out of step, never really comfortable in a clubhouse setting where the best teams have a bunch of guys focused on winning baseball games.

I have no way of knowing how important winning is to A-Rod, and believe me, he’s not the first player with a healthy ego. It’s just that one of the beauties of being part of a team is that salary, race and all the other stuff that seems to separate us at times melts during the eight or nine hours when preparing for and playing a game is the sole focus.

Some of us thought A-Rod would change when he joined the Yankees. For the first time, he would not be bigger than the franchise. He’d be surrounded by players even more famous and part of a franchise that won before he arrived and would win once he departed.

The Yankees changed Roger Clemens, and not in a small way. He’d probably reject such a notion, but Clemens became a different guy with the Yankees. He was no longer the main player. Instead, he was part of something larger, and he understood it and absolutely loved it.

The Rocket misbehaved some early in his career, seemed to do things to draw attention to himself. Once he walked into the clubhouse doors at Yankee Stadium, he saw that it was no longer about him. It was about winning. It was about carrying himself a certain way.

He saw how Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte and Joe Torre conducted themselves. He saw there was no drama in the clubhouse. He saw that only one thing mattered. As a result, The Rocket had a great six seasons with the Bombers. He was a beloved and respected teammate. He did charity work, befriended cops and soldiers and competed like hell on the field.

He may not enter the Hall of Fame as a Yankee, but I’m guessing that in his heart and his soul he’s a Yankee.

For whatever reason, A-Rod never seemed to find that same comfort level with being a Yankee. He was constantly making missteps or doing things that called attention—many times negative attention—to himself. Some people may have disliked him intensely, but there seemed to be more who just never understood him.

He had a wonderful career arc written for him long ago. He was the kid who showed up at Miami Stadium and befriended Cal Ripken Jr. during Spring Training one year. He wanted to be like Ripken, who tried to do everything right, signing every autograph, preparing and performing in a way that would influence others in a way more powerful than words.

All great players have special needs, and so it has been with A-Rod. If this is the end of his career or the beginning of the end of his career, he’ll go out with people remembering all the wrong things about him, not that he was an incredibly gifted player, but that the attention too often wasn’t on his playing.

I’m trying to understand how Craig Biggio came up short in the eyes of 89 Hall of Fame voters

I’d really like to hear from the 81 voters who didn’t think Craig Biggio belonged in the Hall of Fame. I’d like to try and understand where he came up short in their eyes. Having watched over a thousand of his 2,850 career games, having seen the impact he had on winning, having seen how conscientious he was in just about everything he did, I figured he was a slam-dunk first-ballot inductee.

I thought I would have it figured out by now why he came up short in being named on 388 of 469 ballots, 39 short of the number needed for induction. But I just went over Biggio’s statistics again and am still baffled. I’m baffled about Tim Raines, Alan Trammell, Curt Schilling, Edgar Martinez and others, but Biggio is personal.

I saw every side of him. I saw how well he played on the field and how much community work he did and how he really and truly believed a Major League Baseball player should be a role model.

I was about the luckiest sportswriter on earth for a few years when I’d walk into the home clubhouse at Minute Maid Park and see them lined up on one side of the room: Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Brad Ausmus, Lance Berkman, etc.

Jeff Kent and Brad Lidge were there with them for a few seasons. On the other side of the room: Roy Oswalt, Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens, and for a time, Billy Wagner.

You can cover a lot of hardball and not have that much talent gathered in one room.  They understood winning baseball, too. They prepared meticulously and played their tails off.

But it started with Biggio and Bagwell. Former Astros owner Drayton McLane called them “the heart and soul of the Houston Astros,” and they were exactly that. They were both great players. They were both leaders, too, running the clubhouse with styles that complemented one another. Bagwell was the nice guy, the one everyone loved. Biggio had more of an edge, less popular, more blunt. He played that way, too, with his spikes up and his emotions on display.

They’d sit there in front of a big-screen television after games and discuss the contest they’d just played as well as all the games that were still going on. For a lot of us in the media, it was like a graduate school class in the sport.

They led the Astros to six playoff appearances in nine years, and even though there was some playoff heartbreak, they sent Astros’ fans home happy thousands of nights. For some of us, it was hard to comprehend there’d be a day when they would no longer be there.

I’ve been lucky enough to cover a few Hall of Famers–Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken, Earl Weaver and Jim Palmer. When their careers are over, you felt blessed to have been able to watch them play.

That’s how it was with Bagwell and Biggio. By the time they were done, there didn’t seem to be any doubt they were headed for Cooperstown.

It wasn’t just performance with them, although that, obviously, is the best way to measure what they did. It was also more than that. It was their preparation and smarts and their competitive fires.

This Hall of Fame balloting was dominated by performance-enhancing drugs. And that’s why Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens didn’t get in. And that’s probably why Bagwell came up 88 votes short.

He never failed a drug test or got named in a criminal investigation, but in the terrible guessing game some voters have decided to play, he’s apparently on the wrong side of suspicion. Among offensive plays on this ballot, only Bonds had better numbers.

Still, there’s just no explanation for Biggio falling short. There has never been a whiff of scandal around him.

Was it the .281 career batting average? Did that lone number overshadow everything else on his resume? Biggio was also fifth all-time in doubles, 21st in hits and 33rd in total bases.

He’s 88th all-time in Wins Above Replacement for position players, according to BaseballReference.com. He’s just behind Ernie Banks and just ahead of Willie McCovey, Dave Winfield and Jackie Robinson.

In fact, Biggio does well in most of the advanced metrics. Maybe, though, there’s just a large number of voters who believe a .281 career batting average isn’t Hall of Fame-worthy.

If that’s it, maybe it’s some voters way of not making Biggio “a first-ballot Hall of Famer.” That’s a stupid way of doing things. Either a guy is a Hall of Famer, or he isn’t. At least, it’s a reason.

It’s not a good reason, but it’s a reason. Even a .281 career batting average isn’t a good enough reason when compared to all the other numbers. To those of us who watched Craig Biggio–and Jeff Bagwell–play, this week’s voting was a bitter disappointment.

Those who knew them best–Lance Berkman, Brad Ausmus, Roger Clemens–would tell you they represent the best of their generation, and then some. If it happens next year for one or both of them, we’ll have a big party, and it’ll be as sweet as ever. But it won’t make waiting an extra year any more understandable. Or right.