December 2011

From the Vault Fridays

The baseball off-season is a very boring time. I don’t think I need to convince anyone in the world how true that statement really is. In an effort to keep baseball alive in a way during the off-season, Yankee Yapping is launching what is going to be known as “From the Vault Fridays.”

Allow me to explain.

Each Friday I will comb through the archives, pick an old Yankee Yapping blog entry, and post it to the Yankee Yapping Facebook Page. I’ll try to pick only the best and most fun entries at the end of each week, and I hope everyone will enjoy some of my past work.

I’ll continue “From the Vault Fridays” all the way up until Opening Day, 2012 – and I will continue to write regular blogs with original topics, as well as provide analysis and highlights throughout Spring Training, when that begins at the end of February.

Remember to give the Yankee Yapping page a “like” on Facebook if you haven’t yet, tell all your friends to like it too (even if they’re not Yankee fans!) and enjoy From the Vault Fridays.

True Colors: Athletes and Expression of Self

Famed martial artist and actor Bruce Lee once said, “Always be yourself, express yourself, and have faith in yourself. Do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate it.”

One could say any professional athlete is successful at what they do. If they were not, they wouldn’t be where they are. Whether it is starting shortstop for the New York Yankees or starting quarterback for the New York Giants, pro athletes are where they are because of their capabilities.

But what about their personalities? Should they be allowed to express themselves on the field after they accomplish something or reach an achievement?

A lot of critics these days are saying no.

When Joba Chamberlain was first called up in the summer of 2007, he was a flame-throwing middle reliever who tossed fastballs clocked in the high-90s and he sometimes struck triple digits on the speed gun. Usually after he fanned a batter to end an inning Chamberlain would wildly pump his fists in pride as he gleefully marched off the mound.

     

Fist pumping is defined as, “A celebratory gesture in which a fist is raised before the torso and subsequently drawn down and nearer to the body in a vigorous, swift motion.

The fist pump is sometimes carried out in parts of the Western Hemisphere, Europe, and Japan (where it is known as guts pose) to denote enthusiasm, exuberance, or success and may be accompanied by a similarly energetic exclamation or vociferation. The gesture may be executed once or in a rapid series.”

Knowing that, a big strikeout can call for a little fist pumping.  So why exactly did critics jump all over Chamberlain and call him on his jubilation, turning his joy into a topic of debate?

Some analysts and sports pundits suggest that getting overly excited and expressing it is a way of “showing up the other team” or in other words rubbing it in their faces after they have failed to some capacity.

I don’t happen to see it that way. I see it as a player simply being honest and outwardly showing how they truly feel after they have done something noteworthy.

And it can work both ways. When a player is on the other end of it – losing – should they be allowed to express it?

I think so.

Think back for a moment to Oct. 16, 2003: Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, otherwise known as the famous “Aaron Boone game.”

When Boone crushed that home run in the 11th inning sending the Yankees to the World Series – and broke the hearts of every fan in New England – the Red Sox were, for the lack of a better term, crushed. I specifically remember the reaction of one Boston player, namely outfielder Trot Nixon.

On his way to the clubhouse, Nixon took his frustration out on a Gatorade cooler, picking it up and then slamming it to the dugout floor in what looked like unadulterated anger.

Nixon and every other Red Sox player were well within their rights to be frustrated in terms of the outcome of that game and the series overall – and they had the right to express that frustration after it was all over.

These days expression in sports has gone to a new level. Looking outside the world of baseball for a minute, ESPN and every other form of sports media seem to be on the case of a young quarterback by the name of Tim Tebow.

After the Denver Broncos’ stud scores a touchdown, or when his team wins, he takes a knee, bows his head and offers a prayer of thanksgiving to God. In fact, the pose has taken on a life of its own and people have turned it into a verb: “Tebowing.”

Everyone and their mother has put Tebow under the microscope and criticized him for this particular pose after a TD or a win. Tebow let it be known when he played football at the University of Florida that he lives his life a certain way (I.E. he has chosen to remain chaste until he gets married) and strongly holds onto what he believes in.

Is it wrong of him to show it when he does something good?

In my view, no. I think it is perfectly fine.

If Tebow feels taking a knee and praying is how he wants to express his happiness when his team wins, I see nothing wrong with it. In fact, I view it as a more civil way to show a good feeling when something positive happens.

A lot of people have made claims that, because it’s a sort of religious action, it’s wrong and should not be permitted. But it’s not as if Tebow is constantly projecting his beliefs onto other people; he isn’t standing on the sideline with a microphone in hand and trying to get every fan who attended the game to convert to Christianity.

If that were the case I’d be opposed to it – and probably feel Tebow is out of his mind.

What I find strange about the criticism of Tebow expressing his faith is that other athletes also express their faith – yet nothing is said about it, or even mentioned.

Before Derek Jeter steps into the batter’s box, he makes the sign of the cross. Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, a one-time Yankee and journeyman catcher always makes the sign of the cross; as a matter of fact, he crosses himself before every pitch during his at-bats.

Where is the barrage of criticism and religious outrage directed at Jeter and Pudge?

Nowhere to be found. It just doesn’t sound very fair to me.

All Tebow is doing is expressing his true personality and incorporating it into what he loves to do – just as I incorporate my personality sometimes when I write these blog entries, with funny inside jokes and obscure references.

As good as it for an athlete to show off their personality, it can get out of hand. It doesn’t happen so much in baseball, but in football and other sports it can certainly be brought to a whole new level. The NFL has banned touchdown celebrations, and if a player crosses the plane, scores, and expresses it, that player’s team will be penalized.

In my view, that’s fair. It’s fine for a player to be happy, and to express that positive energy when they score a touchdown; maybe leap up and bump their teammates’ chests. But spiking the ball and dancing around just makes the player look like a fool, and the NFL did the right thing by outlawing such unprofessionalism.

Perhaps in football things are a little different because there is more contact and physicality; maybe more “heat of the moment” moments. But that’s not to say it hasn’t happened in baseball.

In 2007 former Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon began to exhibit a different side of himself when he Irish step danced at the conclusion of the American League Championship Series. After Boston defeated the Cleveland Indians in seven games, Papelbon danced around the Fenway Park infield like a loon celebrating the win.

There was no need for that. It’s fine to be happy and celebrate a pennant, but do it in the clubhouse with your teammates. There is no reason to run back out onto the field and commence dancing like a ballerina.  

The bottom line is, it’s fine to express yourself as an athlete. Be creative and be yourself; incorporate your personality into your playing style and do it in a respectful, professional manner.

If you’re excited, pump your fists.

If you’re mad, body slam a cooler or two.

If you have a certain belief system, feel free to show it, without projecting it onto to others.

If you want to dance though, become a Rockette not an athlete.

It’s OK to wear your heart on your sleeve.

All is Quiet on the Yankee Front

“What a mix we have goin’ on for the last two innings.

 

Sitting alone upstairs, owner Gary Wheeler…reportedly has already sold his ball club, the Tigers, to the corporate group in the box to his left.

 

Now an unconfirmed report beginning to ripple the water…that the corporate’s first business…would be to trade Billy Chapel when the season is over.

 

So as so often happens in a ball game, there are so many other undercurrents; so many more things that meet the eye.” – Vin Scully in “For Love of the Game” (1999)

The biggest move the Yankees made last off-season was the signing of Rafael Soriano – and some might argue that it wasn’t even a big signing at all. Aside from that and maybe the minor acquisition of Russell Martin, the Yankees who are normally alive during the winter meetings were basically dormant.

The same can be said about this off-season, thus far.

Baseball’s winter meetings kicked off this past Monday in Dallas and there has not been much to report on as far as the Bronx Bombers are concerned. The Yankee brass has not yet signed or agreed to terms with any of the top free agents.

It doesn’t mean they haven’t tried however, winning the bidding to first negotiate with Japanese shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima. The 29-year-old middle infielder possesses a lifetime batting average .302 with 149 career home runs, 664 RBIs, and has stolen 134 bases in his career in the Far East.

How that will translate in the United States remains to be seen – as does whether or not the Yankees will sign him. Sources at the meetings said the Yankees may not even land him, despite winning the right to talk with him before any other team.

I mean really, what’s the point of signing him anyway? Unless they believe Nakajima is Derek Jeter’s heir, then why negotiate with him and attempt to sign him in the first place, especially when starting pitching is more vital to the Yankees than another infielder.

If they do sign him, it could mean the end of Eduardo Nunez’s Yankee tenure, one way or another. They could potentially package Nunez in a trade for a starter, then utilize Nakajima as a backup infielder.

Speaking of starting pitching, Mark Buehrle and C.J. Wilson are both off the market, as they have signed lucrative deals with the Miami Marlins and Los Angeles Angels, respectively. Buehrle followed his former manager Ozzie Guillen to South Beach for a contract worth four years and $58 million.

Meanwhile Wilson left the Texas Rangers for the Angels, a division rival. I suppose five years and $77.5 million will make him a richer and happier man – along with having Albert Pujols as a new teammate.

Pujols is coming off statistically his worst season: 147 games played, 37 home runs, 99 RBIs, and a .299 batting average. He is probably the only player in baseball who could call that his worst season, because any average player would kill for that kind of “off year.”

Yet he recovered with a remarkable postseason; five homers, 16 RBIs, .356 BA, and his second World Series ring. And after all that, “Phat Albert” took his talents to the west coast.

It surprised me, considering Pujols is basically the face of the Cardinals’ organization. He will probably be considered a legend in St. Louis for years to come, despite his abrupt and rather unceremonious departure. He now has the opportunity to make himself a legendary name in Anaheim.

Remember: Reggie Jackson’s number is retired in both New York and Oakland.

But I digress; back to the subject at hand: the Yankees and starting pitching. They may have lost out on Buehrle and Wilson but the Bombers may have one last chance to make a splash and sign a big ticket free agent starter:

Yu Darvish.

The 25-year-old phenom holds a professional record of 93-38 with an ERA of 1.99, and has collected several accolades in Japan including the Pacific League MVP twice (’07, ’09).

Last year I interviewed Brian Sweeney, a former Seattle Mariners reliever who played with Darvish in Japan on the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. Sweeney called Darvish “a classy individual” and “an excellent player.”

Any team could always use a classy and excellent player. He’ll most likely fit in wherever he lands.

ESPN insider Buster Olney reported earlier today that the Yankees feel “lukewarm” about bidding on Darvish. Rightfully so, considering the Yankees have had bad luck with highly-regarded Japanese starting pitchers in the past.

Hideki Irabu was thought to be a one of the best hurlers in the Far East, having led the Pacific League in wins (15) in 1994 and ERA in 1995 (2.53) and 1996 (2.40). He also led the PL in strikeouts in 1995 and 1996 (239 in ‘95 and 167 in ‘96).

Those league-leading numbers didn’t help him when he went 34-35 with a 5.15 ERA in the U.S. – and those nice stats were far from everyone’s mind when then-Yankee owner George Steinbrenner called Irabu a “Fat, p***y toad.”

Ouch.

Kei Igawa was another pitcher the Yanks had on their radar and eventually signed for five years and $20 million. They had such high aspirations for him, taking his numbers in Japan into account: 86-60, a 3.14 ERA, and 1,174 Ks.

His overall numbers at the MLB level in the U.S., dating back to when the Yanks signed him prior to 2007: 2-4, 6.66 ERA and just 53 strikeouts.

Igawa obviously did not turn out to be what the Yankees had hoped for. In the eyes of most Yankee fans, the team spent $20 million for two wins and a minor league starter.

That being said, anyone can understand the Yanks’ reluctance to go after another Japanese starter in Darvish. If the Bombers do go after him and he happens to land in the Bronx he will be expected to accomplish a lot. Maybe not 20 wins in his first season, but a convincing winning record and a low ERA are not out of the question.

And that can be said of whatever team he goes to, not just if he goes to the Yanks.

We probably won’t know for a long time where Darvish will go – and we’ll have to wait even longer to find out if he lives up to the hype.

I don’t usually agree with people associated with the Red Sox – very rarely does that ever happen. But Boston manager-turned-baseball analyst Terry Francona said probably the smartest thing an analyst can say about the winners and losers of the winter meetings:

“Winning the winter meetings doesn’t mean winning the pennant.”

Francona should know that better than anyone. Looking at last year, the Red Sox won big at the winter meetings and didn’t even make the postseason, suffering a gigantic September collapse.

The Red Sox spent a fortune and signed big ticket free agent after big ticket free agent, only to choke worse than Mama Cass did on that…ham sandwich.

Bottom line: on paper does not win ballgames. I hope the Angels and Marlins both understand that.

As for the Yankees: they have a chance to make a splash – and even a chance to make a blockbuster trade – before they head to Spring Training.

But at least for now, like last year, all is quiet on the Yankee front.

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