July 2014

A Bronx Tale: The Hall of Fame Story of Joe Torre

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It was a chilly night October 8, 2007. The mood was somber. A melancholy atmosphere. The Yankees were in the postseason, having to claw their way back from a record under .500 at the All-Star break to even be playing autumn baseball in New York. They had captured the American League Wild Card in a season where their playoff hopes looked unreal for most of the way.

Towards the end of the season they built up some momentum, but the Yanks found themselves not only trailing the Cleveland Indians two games to one in the ALDS, but were down 6-3 in the top of the eighth in Game 4 facing elimination; looking at a third straight early October exit. Like so many times before, Yankee skipper Joe Torre walked out to the mound with his regular stoic expression on his face.

Fans at Yankee Stadium – all 56,315 of them – knew full well this could be the final pitching change Torre ever made in pinstripes. The manager took the ball from Jose Veras and handed it to his closer Mariano Rivera, hoping to keep the score right where it was to perhaps give the Yankees a fighting chance to come back and force a deciding Game 5.

Deep down everyone knew, though. This was it. As Enter Sandman traditionally blared through the Yankee Stadium sound system, everyone was on their feet, applauding and chanting the name of the man who led the Yankees to the playoffs 12 consecutive years; the man who took the Yankees to six World Series – winning four of those six fall classics, all four within a span of five years.

The end of the Torre era in New York was, in a word, sad. For some Yankee fans, this writer included, Torre was the only skipper they knew since becoming fans in 1996. Yet his last game will hardly be what Yankee fans – and all baseball fans, for that matter – will remember him for.

Now a brighter memory will be made as the unflappable Torre will be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown – a more fitting lasting impression for a man who helped bring the Yankees out of a tailspin, and turned them back into the perennial winners they once were during the golden age of baseball.

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Looking at the bigger picture and not just how his time in New York came to an end, Torre will be remembered for, what one of his former players described as “social genius.” The Yankees could win a game 15-0 or lose a game 15-0, and Torre’s demeanor wouldn’t change. He appeared cool, calm and unbreakable, even in the wake of what critics thought were questionable decisions. Even facing fire from an owner in George Steinbrenner, who could (in the nicest way) be characterized as “difficult.”

Case and point: right before Game 2 of the World Series in 1996.

The Yankees had lost the first game in unflattering fashion, 12-1, when Steinbrenner met with Torre to chat about the state of the team.

“George Steinbrenner walks into my office before Game 2 and he says ‘this is a big game.’ Well yeah, I know it’s a big game. Only seven games you get to play here. For some reason I was in a goofy mood. I didn’t feel the same stress that I felt later on.

“But I said to him, ‘you know George, (Greg) Maddux is pitching against us. We’re not really playing well right now; we’re a little out of whack because we hadn’t played in so long.’ I said we may lose again tonight. But we’re going to Atlanta – that’s my town. We’ll win three there and then next Saturday we’ll come back and win the series for you.

“And I walked out of my office.”

Torre’s words became true; the rest of the ’96 World Series played out exactly that way.

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In his decade at the helm of the Bronx Bombers, he once said he had only one regret: not appealing for a timeout during the infamous “bug game” otherwise known as Game 2 of the ’07 ALDS. He admitted he should’ve asked the umpires for a game stoppage until the midges migrated out of Progressive Field (then known as Jacobs Field) in Cleveland.

Torre didn’t even regret the decisions he made in the 2004 ALCS – which as we all know, didn’t end particularly well for the Yankees. He backed up his choice of starting Kevin Brown, a faltering pitcher far past his prime, in the deciding Game 7 of that historic-yet-woeful round before the ‘04 World Series.

Tomorrow, for the good and the bad; the wins and the losses; the triumph and heartbreak, Torre will be immortalized in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He, along with Tony LaRussa and Bobby Cox, were unanimously elected to baseball’s hallowed hall for their managerial prowess and the important impact they each made on their respective clubs; LaRussa with the St. Louis Cardinals and Cox with the Atlanta Braves, of course.

When I traveled up to Cooperstown on June 12, a lot of Torre’s mementos and artifacts were all over the place, as they’ve prepped for this big day since it was announced he was to be enshrined.

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The Yankees are going the route of MLB, and will also personally recognize Torre’s contributions to the game by retiring his number 6 on Aug. 23. Rightfully, Torre will be eternalized at Yankee Stadium with legendary skippers from the days of old like Miller Huggins, Joe McCarthy, Casey Stengel, and Billy Martin.

We could go on all day about Torre; how he always defended his players, no matter the situation; how under his leadership the Yankees won 1,173 games. How he may have made some not-so-favorable remarks about the organization in his 2009 book The Yankee Years but turned around and basically recanted the bad feelings, making amends with his beloved ballclub in the process.

A player, a manager, a social genius and an upstanding man, there might not be anyone who deserves the honor of the Hall of Fame more than “Mr. T.” And his response to all of this adulation? Well, you couldn’t have expected anything less:

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What we learned in the first half

Tony Pena, Kevin Long, Joe Girardi

Over the first half of this season the Yankees can, at best, be described at “hot-cold.” It seems the Bronx Bombers get into a groove, but begin skidding not long after they appear to hit a good stretch. Nonetheless, they find themselves within an arm’s reach of first place in the AL East at the All-Star break – which, in a word, is miraculous, given their streakiness and injury problems.

There are plenty of storylines to be covered from the first 94 games of 2014. The First topic, of course, has to be

Masahiro Tanaka – Man, not Superman

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If you remember back to the pilot episode of the old TV show Smallville, Lana Lang asks Clark Kent if he’s “man or Superman.” When the news of Masahiro Tanaka’s partially torn UCL broke, it was the only quote this scribe thought of.

The man from Japan was virtually untouchable through his first few starts – dare I say Superman-esque, boasting the best record in baseball at 12-3 with an ERA of 2.27.

Then Tuesday happened. Superman lost his cape.

Tanaka was lit up by Cleveland for five earned on 10 hits. His fastball was flat, his sinker was hanging, and he took the loss in arguably the worst start of his young MLB career.

The bad line and the loss only made the news on Tanaka’s partially torn UCL worse, as he’s been one of the only bright spots in the Yankee rotation this season; with CC Sabathia possibly being done for good, Ivan Nova needing Tommy John surgery, and Michael Pineda being about as useful as a screen door in a submarine.

It’s obvious the loss of Tanaka comes as a huge blow to the Yankees. So far the front office hasn’t made a stunner deal to patch up the rotation holes, although they’ve added Brandon McCarthy from the Arizona Diamondbacks to help, acquired Jeff Francis from the Oakland A’s, and called up the emerging Shane Greene to fill some of the void.

A blockbuster trade for a front-line starter may or may not be in the cards for the Yankees this year – there’s not much out there to take, although Cliff Lee will apparently be off the DL and available come the July 31 non-waivers trade deadline.

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Perhaps the Yankees can land the trade that never was in July, 2010. Lee would’ve been tremendously more valuable in ’10 than he is now, but with the rotation in a state of disarray, he may be the closest the Yankees get to a top-of-the-line starting pitcher.

That is, unless they can somehow snatch David Price from Tampa Bay – but the Yankees stand a better chance of a magical leprechaun falling from a rainbow in the sky and bringing them cake and ice cream. It’s extremely improbable.

On the other hand if there isn’t a starter to be had at the deadline, the Yankees simply have to find a way to win with who they have.

As for Tanaka: the Yanks will be without his services for at least six weeks, yet he’ll probably be gone beyond that timeframe; a UCL tear, no matter how large or small, usually spells a lot of time on the sidelines. It’s also worth noting Tanaka apologized for his injury, taking the same road Hideki Matsui traveled in 2006 when he broke his wrist trying to field a fly ball in left field.

We’ve learned a lot about Tanaka over the first half of the season, but the hardest lesson we all learned is that he’s a man. Not Superman.

 

Alfonso Soriano just not built to last

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When the Yankees picked up McCarthy, it was almost shocking to see Alfonso Soriano’s name on the “designated for assignment” list. The Yanks acquired their old pal “Fonsy” last year from the Cubs and he turned back the clock, becoming an exciting piece of a rather bland and dry 2013 offense.

Soriano said at the outset of the season he was considering retirement at the end of this season as it was; but I’m not sure he – or anyone else – expected the 38-year-old slugger to be cut in what may be his final season.

This year Soriano was batting a weak .221 with 71 strikeouts in 238 plate appearances. He only clubbed six homers and drove in just 23 runs in the 67 games he played – clearly not playing with the fire that burned last summer.

Perhaps it was a classic case of going back to the place, but not the time.

Derek Jeter, for one, was not happy with Fonsy’s release, telling the Star Ledger “Soriano is like family to me. I’m going to miss him. He’s like a brother to me. He should be proud of what he’s been able to do.”

If it really is the end of the line for Soriano, he put together a nice little career with 412 homers, two World Series appearances, and seven All-Star nods. Certainly not a Hall of Famer worthy span, but he was good enough to be a recognizable ballplayer and a bona fide difference-maker.

 

Mark Teixeira still has it

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Soriano wasn’t able to light up the offensive categories this year, but one man who has been ripping and tearing it up with his bat has been Mark Teixeira. The big first baseman is leading the team in homers with 17 and has knocked in 48 runs, which overshadows his somewhat low .239 batting average.

For Teixeira, a guy who missed basically all of last year and even spent time on the DL this year with a nagging hamstring injury, the above average power numbers and situational hitting are pleasantly surprising.

Generally after suffering season-ending injuries players don’t respond with such decent numbers right away. Teixeira looks as good as new and is offering some positive results. It might even be fair to say he’s putting the Yankees on his back and carrying the team this year.

 

David Robertson can indeed close

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Last season the biggest story was Mariano Rivera’s impending retirement and the big question that went with it: can David Robertson, who was set to supplant the great Rivera as Yankee closer, actually do it?

What’s sad is, he’s answered the question this season with a giant “YES” but it’s flown under the proverbial radar; nobody is really talking about it.

Robertson has saved 23 games for the Yankees while only hitting two speed bumps: blowing a save in Chicago to the White Sox on May 23 and failing to save the game vs. the Minnesota Twins at home on June 1.

Other than those two instances Robertson has been as solid as a bull, closing out games without the fans even having to often utilize his famous “Houdini” nickname. Robertson has been shutting down other teams in the ninth with relative ease, evading trouble and doing Rivera proud.

By the way, the official Yankee Yapping term for a Robertson save is “Alabama Slam” because Robertson is an Alabama native and he slams the door in the ninth.

Get it?

It hasn’t quite caught on just yet, although some YY Twitter followers approve.

 

Dellin is dealin’

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Rightfully so, Dellin Betances has been named an AL All-Star this year. As a reliever he’s struck out 84 batters in 55.1 innings pitched, making the best hitters in the league like Mike Trout and Jose Bautista look like hitters trying to strike a pea with a twig.

Betances has emerged as firearm and a practically an automatic 1-2-3 inning out of the ‘pen, but I think the difference between Betances and someone such as Joba Chamberlain (or Phil Hughes for that matter) is that he found what didn’t work and has now found what does work – and that’s where he’s staying.

The Yankees discovered that the role of starting pitcher was just not clicking for Betances. When he didn’t make it as a starter, he found his way as a reliever, and that’s who is – and who he’ll be from here on out.

Unlike, however, Chamberlain and Hughes, who constantly flip-flopped roles and eventually didn’t make it either way.

Bottom line: the Yankees have done the right thing with Betances, and the decision to make (and keep) him a reliever is paying off royally.

 

The Swan Song of Derek Jeter

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Through the first half of 2014, the Yankee Captain is hitting .271 with two homers and 25 RBIs. He’s slugging .321 and has swiped six bases while only getting caught once. He has 91 hits thus far, and has moved up on MLB’s all-time hits list; in fact, at press time, he’s 13 away from tying the legendary Carl Yastrzemski for eighth place on the all-time list.

But it’s not exactly about his numbers this season, or the records he’s shattering. It’s about the atmosphere every time he comes to bat at Yankee Stadium – or anywhere else. Opposing fans cheer him when he steps into the box, showering him with appreciation and respect, while the opposing teams themselves shower him with adulation and parting gifts.

It’ll only get more exciting, or maybe more fittingly bittersweet, when he takes the field in his final All-Star Game Tuesday night at Target Field in Minnesota.

Fans everywhere can appreciate what Jeter’s done over the years, and how much he’s meant not only to the Yankees but baseball in general. It’s nice to see this fine ballplayer get the respect of his peers and those with whom he works.

The atmosphere is going to be surreal on the final day of the Yankees’ season, whenever it may come; whether it be in the playoffs sometime, at the end of the regular season, or at the end of the World Series.

It’s tough to consider right now, but whenever it ends – and however it ends – the Captain will go out a respected winner in the eyes of the baseball fans. And if you can go out with the adoration of everyone around you, isn’t that the greatest thing in sports?

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It’s been a great first half of the 2014 season. Here’s to a fun second half!

But before I go, here’s some Yankee Yapping “Extra Innings”…. !!!

For the third straight summer I’ve been “down on the farm” so-to-speak, covering Minor League Baseball – more specifically the Hudson Valley Renegades, the Tampa Bay Rays’ short season Single-A affiliate.

The last two games I’ve covered ended quite dramatically, as Hunter Lockwood, the Gades’ left fielder, ended the game in extra innings with one swing; first a solo homer to beat the Staten Island Yankees on July 5, and just last night a two-run homer to beat the Batavia MuckDogs (a Miami Marlins affiliate) 12-10.

Just for the heck of it, I’ll post my game story from Lockwood’s walk-off home run that beat the Baby Bombers last weekend. This story ran in my newspaper (The Examiner) this week, so those who don’t get a chance to read my regular recaps in the paper, here’s a taste of what you’re missing:

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Renegades Stun Yankees with Lockwood’s Walk-Off Homer

By A.J. Martelli

Hudson Valley Renegades relief pitcher Isaac Gil had a whipped cream pie ready for designated hitter Hunter Lockwood at the end of their game against the Staten Island Yankees Saturday night. It was the only way to celebrate what had just happened.

In the bottom of the tenth tied 3-3 with two outs, Lockwood delivered a solo, walk-off home run – a spectacular shot over the left field wall at Dutchess Stadium to give the Renegades a 4-3 win, extend Hudson Valley’s win streak to seven in a row, and send the sold out crowd home happy.

“It’s a huge rush for me and I know it’s just a huge rush for the rest of my team,” Lockwood said moments after clubbing the death blow. “Everybody has all the dog piles and stuff you see on TV, and it’s just a lot of fun to be able to go out and produce for our team and for our fans out here.

“We’ve been playing good as a team, we trust everybody to get the job done, coming through in clutch situations, and that helps us stick together as a team and keep playing hard. We’ve had a bunch of late walk-off wins; a bunch of games where we’ve held tight and came through late – it allows us to keep playing hard, and since we’ve done it in the past we know we can do it in the future.”

The dramatic homer was Lockwood’s team-leading fourth of the season. Perhaps more importantly, the win was Hudson Valley’s fifth walk-off style victory of 2014, and its fourth win of the season in extra innings. Skipper Tim Parenton doesn’t mind playing in close games, given the results he’s seeing right now.

“The guys just never quit and they’ve done it all year,” he said. “Hunter Lockwood hit the ball hard a couple times tonight, but got one up in the air a little bit and it got out of here. It’s just a great win for the guys. They just believe in each other, and we just have a resilient group.”

The Gades’ resiliency was never more evident than in the top of the tenth inning. The Yankees loaded the bases with nobody out, looking primed to break the 3-3 stalemate. But reliever Gerardo Reyes, who notched his first win of the year, pitched out of it, getting a line out to left, a pop out to short, and a groundout to end any danger.

“We just hung in there,” Parenton said. “You sit there as a coach and say ‘put it in the zone and see if they can make the hit or we can make the play.’ We were able to get a couple pop ups and the ground ball out.”

The Renegades took a 3-1 lead into the ninth inning; scoring in the sixth on an RBI double off the bat of second baseman Jace Conrad, and an RBI single from left fielder Clayton Henning in the seventh. Conrad plated the Gades’ third run in the eighth, scoring from third on a wild pitch.

The Yankees were able to tie it in the top half of the ninth on two RBI singles off Reyes to send it to extras.

Renegades’ starter D.J. Slaton did a fine job keeping his team in the game, tossing six innings of three-hit ball. He didn’t walk a batter and struck out seven – and also had to wiggle out of trouble in the fifth inning, escaping a second and third, no out jam.

“The biggest thing for me was getting ahead, finishing off batters when I had the chance and trying to keep a low pitch count,” he said. “For me it’s fastball changeup and when those two are rolling for me, usually it’s a good night.

“The fifth was a tough, sucky inning, but the biggest thing was, you just have to get a quick out in the infield somewhere, and a strikeout, and go from there. Once you get those two outs you don’t relax a little bit, but you look for that third out any way you can get it.”

Southpaw Ryan Pennell, a Rye Neck alum and Mamaroneck native, was solid in the role of the middle man. He threw two innings in relief of Slaton and allowed one run on just two hits. He walked two and struck out two.

The Renegades (15-5) are sitting pretty with the New York-Penn League’s best record and are in first place in the McNamara division. With doubleheaders coming up on the schedule – and no days off until next Tuesday – Parenton plans on fielding his entire team to keep the winning recipe cooking.

“It’s going to be tough, but we’re going to rotate our lineup, put fresh guys in there,” he said, “and just keep playing and hopefully keep winning.”

Side note: The photo of Lockwood was taken by me, whilst conducting my postgame interview. I’m not much of a photographer, but my editor has some fantastic shots of Lockwood. He’s a pro, I’m an amateur.

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