Passing Time with a Pastime

Call it a side perk of a pandemic, I suppose. With the social calendar on hold and weekend outings limited, I watched more baseball games than I have in years, and sucked up as much baseball as I could. The national pastime proved a marvelous diversion this summer: when my politics-related text strings wallowed in masochism during the first presidential debate, I blissfully sat back and watched the Yankees beat up on Cleveland.

The Yankees, the team of this Minnesota sports traitor, delivered on the entertainment value, if not always the wins. DJ LeMahieu won a batting title and Luke Voit won a home run crown and Clint Frazier, who I’d always wanted to succeed, broke out. The rest of the offense was an injury-riven or declining mess, which lent itself to a streaky and drama-filled season that came together at the end until it didn’t. A questionable pitching decision in Game Two of their Division Series with the Rays gets the biggest bit of the blame, but a starting rotation with only one truly reliable arm and a bullpen thinner than in years past created the separation. For a second straight season, the Yankees’ hopes ended on a late-inning home run off Aroldis Chapman. Yes, we now officially miss Mariano Rivera, knowing we’ll never see the likes again.

Baseball has undergone a revolution over the past twenty years, and after immersing myself so fully in the sport in the late 90s and early 00s, I’m still adjusting. Instead of checking the daily paper for a box score, I now enjoy MLB.TV and look up WAR and other various sabermetrics. Ever since Billy Beane and the Moneyball Oakland Athletics burst on the scene, baseball has herded toward a series of new insights into how games are won and lost, first valorizing on-base percentage above all else and now reaching an apex of openers, short leashes on starters, and extreme defensive shifts. I’m torn: I’ve always been a believer in using every piece of available knowledge to gain an advantage (Bill James’ 1984 Baseball Abstract remains a seminal text in my life), but sometimes the end result feels blandly scripted.

By 2020, that trend came to involve something we might call three-outcome power baseball, a game reduced largely to walks, strikeouts, and home runs. It might be a road map to success, but it’s also often rather boring. Baseball is at its best when there’s a full range of skills on display, but we’ve now learned that the game, as currently structured, often does not incentivize that. For some time I’ve held out hope that some losing team will start trying to intentionally beat the defensive shift with everything it has and start a new analytical revolution against it, but since it really is so hard for people not named Ichiro or DJ LeMahieu to exhibit the bat control necessary to spray the ball to all fields, I am now a card-carrying member of the Ban the Shift Club. I want baseball with high-average hitters, with speed and grace and not just station-to-station mashing.

Some of the realities imposed by 2020 made the game even less recognizable. The 60-game season turned a marathon season into a mid-distance push, a novelistic sport into a lurching novella. Empty stadiums in places other than Florida never stopped feeling unnatural, and while Atlanta’s all-dog section amused me, the cardboard cutouts mostly just seemed weird, and I was glad the Yankees stayed on-brand and snobbishly dismissed such gimmicks. The lack of travel outside divisions left fans in the dark about two-thirds of the teams, and the central divisions got exposed as posers when all seven of their playoff entrants accounted for seven of the eight of the first-round losers. At one point, it looked like the Yankees’ season might die on a couple of late August games played in Buffalo, the home-in-exile for the Toronto Blue Jays.

Baseball also got creative with some rule experiments only tangentially related to the pandemic. I didn’t much like the changes. The extra innings rules were wacky but excusable given the circumstances. Expanded rosters only exacerbated the spree of pitching changes and bullpen reliance, which only seems to slow games down and dim the luster of some of the pitching stars who should be the face of the sport. And I don’t care if it supposedly makes for better baseball: the complications that come from forcing pitchers to hit will forever entertain me more than a universal DH. Futility begets creativity, and sometimes genuine achievement. The expanded postseason was excessive for a sport whose marathon regular season should count for something, and too friendly to lower seeds. Three-batter minimums for relievers, on the other hand, are a perk that can help speed up the game, even if it may leave a few of my brethren, the LOOGYs (left-handed one-out guys), out of work.

For all the changes, the World Series still delivered the best two teams in baseball over the regular season, and it presented a collision between a team that embodies everything about the baseball analytics movement and a team that combines some of its sensibilities with a very large budget. Despite my annoyance with their style and their defeat of the Yankees, it was hard not to like the underdog Rays, especially when they pulled off that most improbable of wins in the Game Four instant classic. I was on the Rays’ bandwagon until manager Kevin Cash yanked the dominant Blake Snell after he gave up his second hit in the sixth inning of Game Six. They deserved a comeuppance for such mechanical thinking, and my schadenfreude surged with a vengeance when Nick Anderson promptly blew the Ray lead. Score one for the eye test, and the joy that comes from full immersion in sports.

The Bums who long ago left Brooklyn fully deserved their title after falling short with strong teams over the past three seasons. Corey Seager and Mookie Betts were the golden boy stars; Clayton Kershaw, perhaps the greatest pitcher of his generation, finally shook his reputation as a playoff choker. Julio Urías, the one Hispanic player whose name the FOX crew decided to pronounce with an accent, was reborn as a relief ace, a true example of how a manager should ride a hot hand. Their depth across the board made them impossible to match, and they did enough creative and different things that they don’t seem representative of the analytics era, even though many of their players fit the trends well enough. This was a dynamic team that did everything well, and there’s no reason to think they can’t go on dominating the National League for years to come. Baseball goes through all sorts of trends, from power to pitching to speed, but the best of the bunch can do a little bit of everything.

In Yankees circles, there’s a raging debate over where to cast the blame for the Bombers’ inability to reach a World Series over the past four years, despite Dodger-level talent and money: does it fall on manager Aaron Boone, a formulaic focus on the analytics in the front office, choking high-priced players like Giancarlo Stanton in past years and Chapman this year, or the sheer random happenstance of playoff baseball? For my part, despite the analytical grumbling, I still blame the starting pitching. The most predictable way to win a tight series comes when star pitchers seize the moment, whether it was the Nationals last season or the Astros’ aces before that or Madison Bumgarner earlier this decade. For all the hype of the Rays’ bullpen, it became rather less dominant upon repeated viewing, while Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler were simply their otherworldly selves, and Urías and even Tony Gonsolin filled in admirably behind.

In the end, the Dodgers showed us what a great baseball team looks like, even if they didn’t get to show that over a full 162 games. Baseball was a welcome preoccupation, and now it becomes still harder to avert one’s eyes from election-related blather. But we can start to speculate on what an offseason will look like, and find new rule changes to grumble about. Meanwhile, can we please clone Gerrit Cole?


Pinstriped Pleasures

Half the fun of being a Yankees fan is the freedom to revel in being rich and evil. By those standards, the Bronx Bombers’ 2017 season was an odd one. With this year’s squad, we had a chance to enjoy things the way most other fans must: with cautious optimism, excitement at rising prospects, and eventually coming to realize that hey, maybe this team can make the playoffs and has a fighting shot once it’s there! This Yankee team was fun to watch, their most entertaining in years, and gave a necessary jolt of life to a franchise that had been treading water for years.

This didn’t come out of nowhere. Luis Severino and Gary Sanchez had both shown their potential at the major league level, and there are always enough high-priced stars in the Yankee constellation to keep them relevant, even if said stars are past their prime (CC Sabathia), having down years (Masahiro Tanaka), or otherwise not living up to their contracts (Jacoby Ellsbury). In the Age of the Bullpen, they had about as impressive an assemblage of talent for the late innings as any team ever. With a young core and a strong farm system, an 88-win season and a chance at the second wild card berth didn’t sound too outlandish at the start. The ultimate result was within the margin of error of that prediction.

It didn’t come easy, though. Many of the things we assumed would be strengths (Tanaka, that bullpen) were surprisingly inconsistent. Injuries depleted the lineup at times, most notably to Gary Sanchez, but also afflicting Aaron Hicks and Starlin Castro after fine starts to the season, and ruining most of Greg Bird’s year. The Yankees had the run differential of a team that should have won 100 games, meaning their end total of 91 was in some sense a pretty serious underachievement.

They made up for it in the postseason. After an early deficit against the Twins made the Wild Card game look lost from the get-go, Gregorious had an instant response, and the Yankee offense rolled from there. Down 0-2 to a Cleveland juggernaut after a brutal blown lead, they flipped a switch and restored order in the Bronx behind a rejuvenated rotation and that bullpen. Again down 0-2 to Houston, the offense awoke at home in Game 3, and a late stunner in Game 4 seemed to flip the whole series. Yankees fans had every reason to be confident heading back to Houston with a 3-2 lead in the ALCS, but you can’t predict baseball, Suyzn, and the feisty Astros fought back, while the Yankee bats went cold.

Unlike the Yankees’ ALCS run, a 2012 push that felt like it was running on fumes, this roster was laden with energy and hope for the future. To get the obvious out of the way, there was Aaron Judge, whose record-setting rookie season got most of the national headlines, and gave the Bronx Bombers a bona fide offensive star for the first time since Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez listed into decline. Didi Gregorius set the Yankee record for home runs by a shortstop, and has succeeded at the impossible task of being Jeter’s successor. He and Castro create a dynamic double play combination with plenty of years ahead of them, and combine with Judge and Sanchez to form a multifaceted offensive core.

Some of the more important moves for these Yankees took place off the field. ALDS review snafu aside, Joe Girardi stayed himself, handling the craziness of New York and (eventually) managing his pitchers well, and while I’ve gone up and down on him over his ten(!) years in the Bronx, I believe he deserves an extension. Brian Cashman comes out of the past year and a half looking brilliant, with particularly with his deadline moves. In 2016, he had the guts to admit the Yankees were out of it and held a fire sale that rebuilt the farm system overnight. This season, he shored up the rotation and the bullpen with a couple of decisive moves that made a deep playoff run possible.

They bring back everyone who was anyone on offense, and have Clint Frazier and Gleyber Torres lurking in the wings to help in the spots with the biggest long-term question marks. The bullpen will be just as lethal, and if it lives up to its fullest potential, will be practically unhittable. The rotation, the weak spot to begin with, remains the biggest issue, though it’s full of respectable options. They’ll have to make decisions on Tanaka and Sabathia, whose postseason performances may have earned them both extensions; they could do a lot worse than those two, especially with Tanaka, whose rough regular year was probably a blip. Severino is still growing into his role, Sonny Gray is fairly reliable, and if Jordan Montgomery can reprise his respectable role from this past season, they could have a complete rotation, albeit one with little margin for error. Of course they could just go shopping to shore things up, but within a monster free agent class coming up after this next season, I expect they might save their pennies for now.

No season without a pennant is a true success in Yankeeland, but it was hard not to enjoy this one, even with the end result. Yankee Stadium came alive again, or perhaps truly alive for the first time since the move across the street in 2009. It’s been loud, of course, but the intimidating Yankee environment hasn’t quite been the same in the new behemoth, and the ring of ever-empty box seats and paltry attendances (by Yankee standards) at times even this season attest to this loss of the old ideal. But this fall the Bleacher Creatures seemed to find that raucousness that made the old building shake, bouncing around and singing like soccer hooligans. After a phase of gradual decline and painfully long good-byes to old icons, the Yankees and their fans are finding their swagger again. The Yankees won back the Bronx this postseason, going 6-0 at home, and with any luck a couple of its old residents, Mystique and Aura, aren’t far behind.

For now, though, it’s time for a long winter, and for the first time in a while, “maybe next year” is more than an idle wish. And I do believe high school hockey teams drop the puck in less than a month…

Exit Alex Rodriguez

The most complicated of Yankees came to a more-or-less mutual agreement with his team last Sunday, and his career will come to an abrupt end when he plays his final game tonight. The writing was on the wall. Alex Rodriguez has been atrocious since the All-Star Break, seemingly spent as an offensive force. The Yankee front office has launched a long-overdue rebuilding operation in the past weeks, as they became sellers at the trade deadline for the first time in my lifetime. They purged a heap of long-term contracts, and Mark Teixeira, another aging star in an injury-riddled decline, also announced his retirement at the end of the season. Now, they are effectively paying the fading slugger to go away, giving him a cushy parachute with a job as an incredibly highly paid advisor.

It was, perhaps, the best way to save face. I’ve always had a nuanced take on A-Rod: I stood up for him when the New York media trashed his early playoff struggles in the Bronx, and said he deserved every boo he heard when the steroid suspension came down in 2013. And so I appreciate his efforts to redeem himself over the past two seasons and atone for the various mistakes of his youth. He came across as humbler; a changed man. Perhaps such an iconic player, just four home runs short of 700, deserved to pick his own time to go. But baseball is a business, and the Yankees are looking to the future. There was no point in wasting a bench spot on him when there are so many young guns to bring along and give a shot at the major league level. Nor is it any fun to watch a former great limp along as a shadow of his former self. It is time to move on.

A-Rod is a fitting face for the post-90s-dynasty Yankees: almost always good, but only able to meet the glare of absurd expectations on rare occasions. Tainted but talented, always hoping there was one good year left in an aging body. His arrival in 2004 marked the end of their run of six World Series berths in eight years, though the drop-off had more to do with the collapse of the pitching staff and the rise of the Red Sox than anything that A-Rod did. He wasn’t a total choke: he got his one ring in 2009, after a superb playoff performance. And after a steroid scandal in which he was nearly disowned by his team, he showed remarkable loyalty. For good and ill, he became the face of the franchise, and his departure, along with Teixeira’s retirement, severs the last remaining ties to those powerful offenses of the 00s. The revolution is at hand, and this Yankees fan is more encouraged about his franchise’s future than at any point this decade.

Once the hysteria fades away, A-Rod should still get some recognition for what he is: the greatest player of a generation. Like Barry Bonds, his predecessor to that title, he took his quest for greatness too far. But instead of rolling with the villain role as Bonds did, A-Rod was always tinkering, trying to make himself even better and manage a tarnished image. He shouldn’t have thought he needed drugs to make himself better, but he paid his dues, and will continue to do so when he doesn’t make it into the Hall of Fame. He had the versatility to switch positions mid-career as he sought out a winning team, and found some contrition in old age. His vanity and ego are part of the package, yes, but he’s hardly alone in such excesses among athletes. At the very least, he won back most Yankees fans, and will wind up with a respectable place in the team pantheon. Just about any judgment of him beyond that, whether scathing or appreciative, is defensible in its own way.

As a baseball fan, A-Rod’s retirement is also a generational marker. One of the final remaining icons of my childhood—and with it, the steroid era that corrupted baseball—is out the door. (It was heartening to see A-Rod’s exit coincide with a milestone for one of the most graceful, awe-inspiring, untainted stars of the past fifteen years: Ichiro’s 3,000th major league hit.) These aren’t my boyhood Yankees, and this is a new Major League Baseball in which the Yankees are sellers and rebuilders. Well, it worked out last time. Bring on the new era.

Out of the Park

Tonight I’m going to a baseball game between the New York Yankees and the Minnesota Twins in Minneapolis. It will be my first baseball game this year. In fact, I can count the number of games I’ve caught on radio or TV this year on one hand. High school friends will find this shocking, but many of my more recent acquaintances don’t even know I’m a Yankees fan. I’ve fallen away from my first sports love, and barely even noticed the change.

I grew up glued to baseball, with internet radio feeds of Yankee games running in the background every night, all summer long. I was a proud member of the Bronx Bombers’ elitist and cutthroat fan base, and poured out my soul on internet forums discussing their performance. I loved baseball in any form: adventures in the miserable old Metrodome, family outings to the bleachers at Wrigley, and nights in crumbling old Wade Stadium on the west side of Duluth, watching the now-defunct Dukes go on that 2001 title run. (I still have plenty of the old scorecards.) Bob Uecker’s voice was the soundtrack to countless childhood drives across Wisconsin, and in a home without cable, FOX’s Saturday Game of the Week was required viewing, even though I had to endure Joe Buck. Baseball’s lessons spilled over into life: Bill James taught me how to analyze the world around me, and Roger Angell taught me how to write with grace. I wrote my college admissions personal statement on being a Yankees fan.

Now, however, I just glance at the standings from time to time. Part of my apostasy is just a natural swing. My evenings tend to be more interesting now than they were when I was fifteen, and few of my roommates or housemates over the years have been baseball fans. It became hard to find time, and harder to multi-task as other chores became more demanding than the high school math I used to do during the middle innings. Baseball requires a level of commitment that is harder and harder to find in a busy life, especially when compared to other sports that only feature a game or two a week.

I also admit that part of it may be me being a fair-weather fan. The Yankees are treading water around .500, in need of a desperate boost if they are to avoid missing October baseball for a fourth year running. (No, I don’t count last season’s stupid wild card playoff.) I started out as a Yankees fan when titles seemed to fall from the sky, but those days are now long gone, and when you’re rich and still can’t win, it feels rather lame. With Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter riding off into retirement, even a new genuine star would pale in comparison. They set the bar so stratospherically high, and were so tied up in my childhood, that no one can ever fill those holes in the roster. At least the decline of the mid-2000s, and even into the first few years of this decade, still had some compelling drama. Now, the franchise just feels mediocre and tired.

I still enjoy a warm night at the ballpark, and will happily use any cheap tickets that come my way. My other major sports loyalty doesn’t overlap with it; in fact, it’s perfectly timed to cover for the few months when baseball isn’t on. I’ll confess to a rising interest in soccer; in recent weeks, the Copa America and Euro 2016 have commanded a little more of my attention. These international tournaments that come only once have every few years have much more urgency than one game out of 162 in June, and the pageantry puts any American sport to shame. But baseball still has so much potential.

The popular narrative says young people now find baseball boring, and while I don’t have any reason to doubt that, I find it highly ironic that a sport in which you’re lucky to see three goals in a game is eclipsing baseball. Don’t get me wrong, I think there is lots of beauty in the slow build-up of play in the 88 minutes of soccer when people aren’t scoring, but why can’t we see the same thing in baseball’s steady rhythms, and the slow pacing that builds to each climactic pitch late in a game? There are so many little details to appreciate, and so many ways the sport could still be great. It isn’t clear that anyone has noticed them.

There’s the usual list of in-game culprits that MLB should attack, and it has made a few efforts to speed up time between innings and to (allegedly) crack down on batters stepping out of the box. The sabermetrics revolution, both insightful and perhaps alienating to fans who don’t understand WAR or advanced fielding metrics, has to date mostly decreased excitement for those not in its thralls by emphasizing walks, long at-bats, and crazy shifts that depress batting averages. We can only hope that the next round of innovation speeds up the game by attacking some of the more dense forms of conventional wisdom such as by-the-book platoon pitching changes. Instant replay, MLB’s latest tone-deaf experiment, is a time-wasting bore. And while baseball has been dominated by pitchers in recent years after the heavy-hitting 90s—so long, steroids—a few rule tweaks could up the runs and make it a bit sexier.

Still, any issues with baseball go beyond the immediate game. Stadiums have become pretty but sterile containers for mild amusement, and amenities have taken precedence over the product on the field. There is no worse offender than the new Yankee Stadium, a gaudy shell of its raucous predecessor, where the seats were right on top of the field and the chanting rarely ceased. Sometime last year I popped in a DVD of the 2003 ALCS, and was shocked by how much more alive it all felt. Now even Wrigley Field has been brought into the modern age with scoreboards and ads and prices through the roof. Alas, the rickety old stadiums are all but gone now. Here in Minnesota we’re left with Target Field, a beautiful structure that facilitates quiet family picnics on middlebrow Asian food and ten-dollar beer. People will occasionally glance up to offer a few halfhearted claps along with the canned music, but otherwise keep to themselves. It’s almost enough to make one nostalgic for the Metrodome. Almost.

To rise again, baseball needs to rediscover its edge. A few young stars provide that, but it goes beyond the product on the field. Again, take soccer: how can their fans be so raucous, even in mundane midseason games with a lousy product on the pitch, while baseball fans idly play with their phones? Some baseball team needs to build itself a core of loyal hooligans who won’t shut up, much like the bleacher bums of old, and rekindle that old sense of tribal loyalty for a team. What they lose in ticket sales, they’ll make back ten times over in energy and hype. Instead, most teams will probably just add on new steakhouses and jumbotrons, convinced that fans need to be entertained by something that isn’t the game.

For all my gripes, though, I’m sure I’ll enjoy myself tonight, and with any luck, it will rekindle an old flame. Go Yankees.

A Curtain Call for Captain Clutch

Derek Jeter was my childhood hero, the first and greatest of my various sports man-crushes. I became a Yankee fan because of him. I’d go to bed cuddling a Jeter beanie baby bear, and I copied his stance in backyard baseball. I was crushed when I learned that lefties don’t play shortstop. (End the discrimination!) I admired his versatility, his prowess in every facet of the game, and in his life off the field, too. He may not be the greatest player ever, but he was certainly baseball’s most enduring champion in my lifetime, and his likes may never be seen again. He was the face of one of the most recognizable franchises in all of sport, enduring the brutality of New York scrutiny for twenty years, and in an era when many baseball stars were besmirched by the steroid scrutiny, he remained a pillar of decency.

Only in retrospect did I realize how much Derek helped form my ideal of what a man should be. Patient and respectful, words always carefully measured, yet consumed by a relentless drive toward greatness. Classy, and with an appreciation for finer things, though not overboard in flaunting it; just living it as it came, naturally, and with pride. A commitment to a clean and decent image, though not afraid to have a bit of fun, too. In hearing from the many fans of other teams who poured out their respect to Jeter this season, I felt a childish bit of possessiveness: Derek never meant to you what he meant to me. He was my idol in my fullest sense of the word, exactly the diversion a lost little eight-year-old needed, and while I grew older and deeper and stopped looking to sports for heroes, he never did anything to betray that trust.

At the heart of the Jeter mystique was his flair for the dramatic, something that made his 9th inning walk-off in his final Yankee Stadium game all too predictable. He had something others didn’t. Just reflect on that list of moments. There was his rookie season in 1996, when he always seemed to be the catalyst of every Yankee rally, most famously on that home run assisted by an 11-year-old; by 1999, he was one of the greatest offensive weapons in the game. His home run on the first pitch of Game 4 of the 2000 World Series snuffed out any momentum the Mets might have had after finally beating the Yankees, and that Subway Series left no doubt who was the king of New York. He’d built a dynasty, and was the face of the greatest run by a major sport franchise in 40 years. Perhaps his greatest moments came in 2001, when he made that sublime flip play in the ALDS against Oakland, a play whose ingenuity I never expect to see topped. His “Mr. November” home run that year won the 4th game of one of the greatest World Series ever played, an emotionally draining and ultimately crushing run in the shadow of 9/11.

That was hardly the end, though. Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS is synonymous with Aaron Boone, but the man who started it all was Jeter, who cranked a double with the Yankees down by three in the eighth to ignite the game-tying rally. While the team imploded against Boston in 2004, he was still fighting to the end, showing some rare extra emotion when swatting a key hit in Game 7. The Yankees’ fortunes dwindled over the rest of the decade, their fate tied to increasingly worse pitching and stars who had no measure of Jeterian class, but there was still room for one last spurt of brilliance in 2009, when he collected his fifth ring. Naturally, his 3,000th hit left the park; even when the injuries began to mount, it seemed like every return to action was punctuated by some little reminder of that flair.

Over the years the worship of Derek’s clutch performance became near universal, and the gushing at times went overboard; in turn, there arose a group of snarky critics who pointed out the flaws in his game—his lack of range, his inevitable gradual decline, and the emptiness of that vague, undefined ‘clutch’ adjective. No wonder that by the end it all became a bit tired, a perfunctory string of praise in which everything there was to say had already been said. It didn’t help that Mariano Rivera had gone through the same retirement rigmarole the year before Jeter, and that the team he captains, too, seemed a bit tired. Jeter leaves the Yankees in a state unworthy of his legacy, an iconic franchise sliding into mediocrity due to its failure to nurture that farm system that once produced Jeter and Rivera. The end of these farewell tours lifts a burden from the shoulders of this franchise, and frees them to take the first few steps into a very different era of baseball.

Losing was new and foreign to Jeter, and at times his steadiness in the face of it all seemed aloof and uncertain. Beneath the façade was a man with an unshakable belief in his own self, and unlike the serene Rivera, aging did not come naturally to him. His career paralleled the passing of the years that so many of us go through: invincible in his youth, living the dream and building that legacy before he had to come to terms with the steady march of time, the realization that he was no longer the man he once was. Time was the last and greatest enemy that not even Jeter’s mystique could conquer. But it couldn’t kill those memories, nor prevent another chapter in that fairy tale life from writing itself every now and then. As with Rivera’s stirring sendoff last year, tonight’s Yankee Stadium finale was a homage to all that is good in sports, one that can send us back into childhood without a hint of shame. Dream and reality blur, and whatever we call that state in between, it’s one of pure delight.

I’ve heard a few other Yankees fans say that Jeter’s retirement marks the end of their childhood. I’m not sure how my own story lines up with that, but it was hard not to feel another little twinge of age tonight. Tonight, when I got the goosebumps and, yes, the hints of tears when Bob Sheppard’s immortal voice echoed through Yankee Stadium for the last time ever: “Now batting for New York, numbah two, Derek. Jetah. Numbah two.”

Say it Ain’t so, Robbie Cano

(If you don’t care about baseball, read this post anyway and see if you can find all the Jay-Z allusions! Sorry I’m not sorry.)

Jay-Z’s blueprint for his newest client has come to fruition. Robinson Cano, the star second baseman of the New York Yankees, is headed to Seattle, to the tune of 10 years and $240 million.

Gut-wrenching as it may be for Yankee fans, the team was right to not compete with the Mariners’ offer. Decoding the difference between the Seattle deal and the Yankees’ 7-year, $175 million offer, the Yankees actually offered Cano more per year; the difference is in those last three years. The Yankees, burned in recent years by a number of players tied up in huge contracts in their late 30s, know Cano won’t stay young forever. For years 8-10, Cano will probably be a shell of his former self. Of course, this can be worthwhile if he puts up MVP-type numbers in the first few years. He might. But while Cano’s physique may make him more likely to age gracefully than Albert Pujols (who signed a very similar contract two winters ago), he also has never quite been at Pujols’ level. He’s a very good player at a position that doesn’t have many great hitters, but he has yet to carry his team in the way you’d expect out of someone getting the third-richest contract in baseball history.

The move is also bad for Cano for a number of reasons: he goes from one of the best ballparks for left-handed hitters to cavernous Safeco Field; he probably could have made back the difference of the contracts in endorsements by staying in New York; and unless the Mariners continue to spend a lot of money, he probably won’t be sniffing the playoffs anytime soon. The contract looks an awful lot like the one the Texas Rangers gave Alex Rodriguez ten years ago, and that isn’t a comparison that should inspire much optimism in Mariner fans. For Cano, the Holy Grail was apparently the guaranteed money in the last few years of his career. Baseball is a business, man.

The Yankees may have 99 problems, but the payroll ain’t one, especially with Cano out of the picture. The 2014 Yankees will look very different, but they could still be a pretty good team. They’ve already gone shopping this offseason, luring in catcher Brian McCann and Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, and while both deals are not without some injury-and-aging risks of their own, the Yankees are in decent position to have an offense that is stronger than last season’s. They’re now free to spend even more, though the free agent market isn’t ideal for filing all of their needs if they want to stop watching other teams mount the throne in October.

The infield, which was one of baseball’s all-time greatest just three years ago, is now a mess. Mark Teixeira is aging and coming off a major injury—and he is the most reliable person here. Derek Jeter is forty and coming off a lost season; ideally he should move to third base, given his diminished range (which was never good, even in his prime) and the decent shortstop options available, but he may have too much pride for that. The options at the other two positions currently consist of Eduardo Nunez, Kelly Johnson, and Brendan Ryan, with perhaps a splash of Mark Reynolds for good measure. They’re going to need another player there, but Omar Infante is probably the best they can do.

Still, I’ve long believed that teams tend to overpay and go awry when they fixate too much on their weaknesses instead of going after the best options available. (Bill James will back me up on this, too.) Hence the Ellsbury deal: who cares that the Yankees already have a decent left-handed, leadoff-hitting center fielder in Brett Gardner? Go get one of the best out there, move Gardner to left, and have two of them. The 2014 Yankees may not have the Murderers’ Row heart of the order we expect out of the Bronx Bombers, but they’ll have two of the fastest players in the league, and one of the best outfield defenses. And to that end, it now makes good sense to lock up the likes of a Carlos Beltran. He may not be young, but it’ll be a short deal without the deadweight one sees in these ten-year contracts, and he once again improves the defense, bumping Alfonso Soriano to DH and adding a switch-hitting power bat. With enough good outfielders, they can handle bad offense at an infield position or two.

After that, they should train their attention on the pitching staff, where Masahiro Tanaka should be their priority. He comes with some risk, but 24-year-old potential star pitchers don’t come along every day, and this team needs to take some risks to be successful. Add him to Hiroki Kuroda, CC Sabathia (he can’t possibly be worse than last season, can he?), and some intriguing younger options, and you have the makings of a passable rotation. David Robertson, as the heir apparent to Mariano Rivera, could use an established presence to set him up and take his spot if he flounders. Complete that checklist, and the Yankees will have had a very strong offseason, considering where they were just a few months ago. They may not be a great team, but they’ll have enough storylines to fill the seats, and if enough of the veterans bounce back from lost seasons in 2013, they’ll contend.

Cano’s legacy in pinstripes will be an oddly incomplete one; it’s hard to think of a Yankee star who came up through the system who chose to go elsewhere mid-career. He could have run the town; made himself an icon in that concrete jungle where dreams are made of, but he’ll be big pimpin’ in Seattle now. (Three in one line! I’m on fire now.) During Cano’s time in New York, it was common to compare him to his Boston counterpart, Dustin Pedroia. We Yankee fans got pretty sick of the comparison: the scrappy, impish Pedroia with dirt on his shoulders (and everywhere else on his uniform) versus Cano, a man of impeccable physique whose smoothness led some to charge him with laziness; despite his clear edge in talent, some argued, Cano was never the leader or the gamer that Pedroia is. It played into the tiresome scrappy-white-guy-vs.-lazy-but-talented-minority storyline, too. In the end, though, Pedroia took a smaller contract to stay in Boston; he chose to stay true to an organization, and something larger than himself. Cano, while not lazy, chose to chase the money. I don’t blame him for that; you can’t knock the hustle. But while Cano may become a Hall-of-Famer, he will probably never be the icon Pedroia is, unless the Mariners do shock us all in the next few years.

In a deal that looks murky for the Yankees, the Mariners, and Robinson Cano, one person did come out a big winner: Cano’s rookie agent, the man who informed the Yankee brass that they could refer to him as “Jay” during the negotiations. The man knows what he’s doing, and after this contract coup, the clients should come pouring in. On to the next one.

Image from the aptly named

A Hero in a Sport without Heroes: Farewell, Mariano Rivera


I’ve been meaning to write a post on the impending retirement of Mariano Rivera ever since I started this blog. Much to the chagrin of my Minnesotan friends, I grew up a diehard Yankees fan, and my earliest baseball memories are of their late 1990s dynasty. Derek Jeter was, naturally, my childhood idol, and I still have a deep respect the Yankee captain; I’m sure I’ll write some glowing words when he retires, too. But as I grew older and more jaded, my pantheon of athletes whom I was willing to call a hero slowly shrank to include just one man. That man is Mariano Rivera.

Writing this post wasn’t easy, in large part because I’m not sure what I have to say that hasn’t already been said. Dave D’Alessandro wrote a masterful column about Rivera in 2011, and the god of all sportswriters, the 93-year-old Roger Angell, used Sunday’s game to remind the rest of us mere mortals of our places. I could trail on about his dominance, both across 19 regular seasons and 16 postseasons, or wax about that single pitch he used to it all, that untouchable cutter. There are the five World Series championships, the All-Star games, and the admirable sendoffs heaped upon him by his opponents over the course of this season’s long good-bye. (The Twins’ “chair of broken dreams,” made entirely of bats broken by Rivera’s cutter, was the best gift he got.) There are also those few moments when some emotion snuck out from behind his serene façade, like when he flopped over in exhausted ecstasy on the Yankee Stadium mound after three shutout innings in the 2003 ALCS against Boston, or his composure when the Red Sox finally got to him the next year. There is also his winning smile, his profound faith, his care for his Panamanian hometown, and his farewell tour in which he spent time with the unrecognized workers and fans at every park. D’Alessandro nails it: Rivera’s statistics are phenomenal, but he became the most universally adored ballplayer in an otherwise troubled era because of his character, his class, and his dignity.

Better writers who know Rivera far better than I do have told those stories superbly, so I’ll settle for simply sharing a memory. I’ve been to a ton of baseball games over the years, including a number of very memorable ones; many stars in their prime have had great days, and I’ve seen some extra-inning marathons and some brutal weather. I saw one of Roger Clemens’ tries at a 300th win in person, and any Yankees fan’s first trip to Yankee Stadium (the old one in particular, though the first visit to the new one was pretty cool, too) has to rank right up there among one’s favorite baseball moments.

But my most cherished memory is one that, on the surface, appears utterly mundane. It happened during my first ever Yankees game, a 2000 win against the Twins. The game itself was smooth sailing for the Yankees, and the paltry Metrodome crowd included more backers of the Bronx Bombers than loyalists to the hometown team. My seat, however, was not terribly far from the Yankee bullpen, and in the top of the ninth, the last ballplayer to ever wear number forty-two rose to his feet and began to warm up.

It was as if the entire game behind him had stopped. My ten-year-old self was absolutely mesmerized. While Rivera was great at the time, he was still a few years away from being as universally lauded as he is today. But even then, there was something different about him. His windup was swift and graceful, yet he unleashed the ball with so much power that it popped in the catcher’s glove in a way no other pitcher’s did. He was the platonic ideal of a ballplayer, and only a handful of other modern athletes can match that blend of dominance and aesthetic beauty embodied by the lanky Panamanian with a soothingly smooth name. Perhaps Lionel Messi, though he still has years to go before he is on Rivera’s level of consistency; perhaps Roger Federer in his prime, but he rose and then began to decline all while Rivera kept plugging away. He leaves the game at age 43, just as dominant as he was when he first settled into his setup role in 1996. It is never fun to watch a former great tail off and struggle some at the end of his career with some other team, as with Michael Jordan or Brett Favre; Rivera didn’t do that. He simply remained Mariano Rivera.

No one does ceremonies quite like the Yankees, and Rivera had his Lou Gehrig moment in front of the fans last Sunday in the Bronx. They trotted out all of the greats of the 1990s dynasty, deluged him in gifts, unveiled his Monument Park plaque, brought in Metallica to give a live rendition of “Enter Sandman,” and even Jackie Robinson’s family took the field to honor the man worthy of being the last to ever wear wearing Jackie’s number. It went for fifty minutes, yet Rivera’s surprise and gratitude never wavered. On the same day, Yankee great Andy Pettitte made his final home start in the Bronx, and he was almost an afterthought. Yet Pettitte wanted it that way, and in fact only announced his retirement because Rivera told him to; so great was his respect for Rivera that he didn’t want to steal a second of his time.

Gehrig called himself the “luckiest man on the face of the earth” to be showered with such praise, but with Mariano, one got the sense that there was never all that much luck involved. He is a reminder of everything that is good about sports; the sort of human being who deserves every ounce of recognition and fame he’s received, a poor Panamanian kid who used a silly game to make something of himself, and to inspire millions.

His mantra was a simple one.

I know where I come from. And when you always have in mind where you come from, the rest will be easy.

We’re going to miss you, Mariano.



Photos from


A-Rod’s World Continues to Turn

When I wrote about Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez’s ongoing steroid suspension saga two weeks ago, I was skeptical he’d have any prayer for success upon his return to the lineup. But I did leave one little caveat, saying one never really knows how fallen mythic heroes like A-Rod might respond. I’m glad I did.

Of course, one game in August between two teams separated by eight games in the standings isn’t going to change much. Nor is A-Rod anywhere close to being out of the woods, as the events on a Sunday night in Boston shared headlines with his blustering lawyer claiming A-Rod did not deserve to be suspended for “one inning” given the evidence against him, and announcing that Team A-Rod is filing a grievance against the Yankees for their handling of his injury.

But when Red Sox pitcher Ryan Dempster took justice into his own hands (video highlights here), something changed. Joe Girardi, in the midst of his finest season as Yankee manager for his evenness amid a circus of injuries and A-Rod stories, showed a completely different side. He had good reason to be angry: if opposing pitchers are free to throw multiple pitches at his player and avoid ejection, and the Yankees are never given a chance to retaliate, the rest of the season easily could become “open season on A-Rod,” as he described it in an uncharacteristically frank post-game press conference. The incident stirred up some tribal instincts in the Yankees, who rallied around the teammate they really don’t seem to like all that much. And rather than resort to a retaliatory bean-ball, A-Rod and the Yankees avenged themselves in a far more practical way. A-Rod launched an A-Bomb of a home run to dead-center off Dempster to lead off the sixth, and a three-run triple later in the inning turned a 6-3 deficit into a 7-6 lead, one they would build on as they stormed to a 9-6 victory.

After the Yankees took the lead, the Fenway faithful went deathly quiet. Perhaps the reaction to A-Rod’s hubris brought with it a self-righteous hubris of its own, and the Boston fans’ bloodlust came back to haunt them. Perhaps they woke the sleeping giant. It was hard not to watch the game and think back to the last great A-Rod bean-brawl between these two bitter rivals, in a 2004 game around this time of year when the fired-up Red Sox rallied to beat Mariano Rivera in the ninth inning. That game was often cited as the turning point that made the Red Sox believe they could end their 86-year World Series drought, which they promptly did that October.

If ever a game could spark the 2013 Yankees on a run, this could be it. They’ve been making noise for over a week now, with three straight series wins (two against division leaders). After months of mystery names and constant question marks, the lineup suddenly looks like a force. The bullpen has been strong throughout, and the starting rotation does the job more often than not. There are some real concerns; C.C. Sabathia must return to form for the Yankees to have a chance, and so many things have gone wrong for this creaky, old team this year that no player’s production can be taken for granted. But there is still an awful lot of talent on this Yankee squad, and while the gap between the team and a playoff berth will not be easily bridged, it is within their ability.

As for A-Rod, his 38-year-old self may not necessarily be a better person than the younger, philandering, juicing version, but he does seem to have matured in important ways. He yelled a few things and did a bit of glaring after he was hit, but he didn’t take any steps toward the mound, as he did in 2004. In the mid-00s, he would have come up in the later innings and struck out with his eyes closed as he tried to hit the ball to the moon. On Sunday night, he let his bat make the first response, though he did show some emotion as he rounded the bases. A few weeks ago, Ian Crouch lamented the fact that A-Rod “has never embraced the full potential of his villainy” in his hopelessly forced efforts to show he is a good person, but Sunday night’s deliberate imitation of David Ortiz’s skyward gesture at home plate after his home run was the act of a man who wanted to revel in a fresh chorus of boos. Why bother with the self-image obsession anymore? A-Rod is what he is—and, based on a small sample size since his return from injury, he is still one of the better hitters out there. If he produces, the Yankee organization and its fans will come back to him, and to the extent that he can salvage his legacy somewhat, it has to start with (and may be limited to) his own team. He may actually have figured that out.

Even though they tend to relish being the Evil Empire, the Yankees probably aren’t too fond of that. But the team and the player are stuck with one another, and they can either work with one another or go down in flames together. No, I don’t like the man, but I am also not such a vicious moralist that I want him thrown to the curb without due process, and he should be held to the same standard as other players—which he simply has not been. The puritanical urge to make A-Rod the symbol for everything that is wrong with baseball lets too many other people off the hook. As Girardi noted, the current rules were created by the players’ association—on which Dempster served. I don’t think steroids belong in baseball, but some perspective is in order here, and going a step too far in a search for a competitive advantage—something countless players do with nutritional supplements and such—is not on par with some of the worst sins out there. The testing regime that exists, while late in arrival, is getting to where it needs to be, and its suspensions are longer than the NFL’s. A veteran like Dempster should have known to let the system do its work, rather than play with fire. Before the A-Rod saga erupted, the storyline of this season was one of many younger stars (many of them vicious in their criticism of A-Rod) who’d come forward as A-Rod’s generation (of which his own team was the poster child) faded into the past. Anyone who wanted it to stay that way should have done what they could to make sure future A-Rods are caught before they can be anointed the Chosen One as A-Rod was, not single out one man who otherwise seemed to be on his way out the door.

Boo A-Rod all you like, but if you want to see violent on-field retribution for what he did, be prepared to deal with the consequences—which just might end up being an angry, resurgent A-Rod with something to prove, and a Yankee team that can pull together and make a playoff run. Just as the Yankees’ trade for A-Rod gave the Red Sox something to stand up to in that 2004 fight, taking shots at him could ignite this team to believe in itself. Or, of course, the Yankees could still crash and burn. But there is a window of possibility now, and that should make for an exciting final month and a half of the season. To the extent that baseball makes for great theater, it would, admittedly, be a poorer sport without the excesses of A-Rod and Dempster.

As A-Rod’s World Turns

New York Yankees radio broadcaster John Sterling, a jovial if somewhat pompous fellow well-suited for the Yankee ethos, is known for his personalized, colorful home run calls for each Yankee batter. Over the past ten years, he has used two different calls on Alex Rodriguez’s 302 homers in pinstripes, one of which now seems more apt than Sterling ever could have guessed: “Alexander the Great Conquers Again!”

A-Rod’s story is, indeed, like that of the famed Greek king. For years he was baseball’s golden boy, the hero who seemed destined to shatter the all-time home run record. He conquered Seattle, he conquered Texas, and won himself the richest contract in the history of American professional sports. When he was traded to the Yankees—baseball’s greatest stage—it looked like one last step to securing his spot on the baseball Acropolis.

The first five years of his tenure in New York complicated the narrative somewhat. He put up some huge numbers, yes, but he also struggled mightily in the playoffs—the only thing that really matters in Yankee lore—and never quite managed to be the model citizen his teammates Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera were (and are). The scrutiny only increased when he opted out of his contract after the 2007 season, a bungled affair in which Rivera eventually convinced A-Rod to ditch his agent and declare his intent to stay in the Bronx. His new contract—even larger than his earlier record-setting deal—was negotiated directly with the Yankee ownership, went over the head of General Manager Brian Cashman, and locked A-Rod into a Yankee uniform into his 40s.

In 2009, his story grew even more complicated: first, he admitted to using steroids back during his days in Texas. But the supposedly clean A-Rod then went on to carry his team to a World Series title, finally shaking off the ‘playoff flop’ tag. Perhaps Alexander the Great had finally purged himself of his past sins and would be able to build a lasting legacy.

It wasn’t to be. First, his performance began to decline, and injuries started to mount; now, A-Rod has been suspended by Major League Baseball through the 2014 season for his ties to the Biogenesis steroid clinic. Like most all mythic Greek heroes, A-Rod’s quest for greatness has led him to reach too far, and he now must pay the price for his sins. The hero’s hubris has destroyed him.

In a typical twist of A-Rod oddness, the suspension came down on the day he will play his first game for the Yankees in 2013. After an injury rehab stint so long that some suspected the Yankees were trying to keep him off the field intentionally—Cashman, the GM who didn’t really want him back in 2007, at one point publicly told A-Rod to “shut the fuck up” when he seemed to contradict the Yankee doctors—he will finally take the field in Chicago tonight. He will appeal the suspension, which means he’ll be playing for the foreseeable future.

His return will make the next two months a complete circus for a Yankee team desperately trying to stay in the playoff picture. On the one hand, the Yankees’ third basemen this season have been atrocious, and even a shell of a past A-Rod will likely be an upgrade. But despite his real upside in that sense, it is clear that no one wants him here. His team’s front office almost certainly wishes the Commissioner’s Office had gone through with its threat to ban A-Rod for life, thus freeing the Yankees of his burdensome contract. His teammates say all of the right things, but even the unflappable Rivera grew peeved at reporters last night, when the only thing they asked him about was A-Rod’s impending return. A-Rod was never a popular figure with the Yankee fan base, and though 2009 will keep him from landing in the Yankee Ring of Hell with the likes of Carl Pavano and Kevin Brown, he’s now in a purgatory that will require a mythic performance if he has any hope of escaping. And that is his own team: for the rest of baseball he is a pariah, all of the worst suspicions about his questionable character now confirmed.

Even if he puts the Yankees in his back for the rest of this season, even if his appeal is successful, A-Rod’s legacy is now secure. He could have tailed off after 2009 and slumped to an early retirement; while perhaps not beloved, he would have been respected as a pretty good hitter, perhaps worthy of some sympathy both for the media that marked him as a target and his earnest desire to win that messed with his head when he came to the plate in October. Instead, he struck out again, and cost himself even the defenders who were willing to give him breaks through his playoff struggles and off-field escapades (of which I was one). A-Rod is now the player who got a doctor whom he had never to met—a man once disciplined by the state of New Jersey for irregularities in the prescription of steroids—to go on the interview circuit contradicting his team’s claims about his health.

And so the A-Rod saga has now become a full-fledged soap opera; the sort of macabre spectacle that baseball fans will claim to hate all while riveting themselves to each and every new detail. He has become bigger than his team and bigger than the game, but he still stubbornly believes he can win everyone over and reclaim some of that past glory. Most likely he is deluded, though one never truly knows when it comes to legendary figures. Thinking of A-Rod in such abstract terms may be the only way for Yankees fans to cope with their returning third baseman, as they certainly cannot embrace him as they do with their other stars. The man is now a myth, a lesson to us all of the dangers of excess, one whose ongoing story may reveal yet more about the endless human capacity for self-deception. For all the undeserved fixations over the trivial details of A-Rod’s life, for all of the possibly troublesome tactics the Commissioner’s Office used in its push to find itself a scapegoat for the steroid era it so badly mismanaged, he will deserve every boo he hears.