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Catching up with Eli Manning – again!

While the Yankees are enjoying an off day in the midst of winning six of their last seven, their football counterparts – the New York Giants – are getting prepared for mini-camp this week. Each year, the day before football activity starts, two-time Super Bowl champ and MVP Eli Manning hosts the Guiding Eyes for the Blind Golf Classic at the Mount Kisco Country Club.

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Last year I had the pleasure of covering the event, and as fate would have it, I was given the assignment yet again this year. This year marked Manning’s seventh year as host of the outing; the QB speaking with the press, then demonstrating what it’s like for a blind golfer to sink a putt on the green.

Instead of simply blogging about the experience of interviewing a legendary player as I did last year, I’ll post some video I took of Manning’s demo, and him answering a couple of my questions, as well as my story for the newspaper.

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Note: part of my first question was cut off at the beginning (didn’t hit record until I after had asked the first part of it). The question to Eli was, “What kind of advice would you give to young athletes in New York, like Matt Harvey, who are following in your footsteps, becoming franchise players very quickly?

Another side note: Shout out to the gentlemen from the Public Access TV station. Afterward they approached me and gave me a proverbial “pat on the back” telling me I asked a couple of good questions. Thanks for that, fellas.

Anywho, on to my story from the day…

MOUNT KISCO – The 2013 NFL season will surely bring plenty of storylines and work for the New York Giants, yet every year, before the football madness ensues, quarterback Eli Manning dedicates himself to a worthy cause. Guiding Eyes for the Blind put on its 36th annual golf classic at the Mt. Kisco Country Club Monday afternoon, and for the seventh consecutive year, Manning was on hand serving as host.

The MVP of Super Bowls 42 and 46 started golfing at a young age, and was introduced to the Guiding Eyes tournament by blind golf champion Pat Browne – a longtime friend of the Manning family. The Giants’ QB looks forward to the outing every year, and has noticed steady growth and participation over time.

“It’s really grown over the years,” Manning said. “I got to meet a lot of people whose lives have been greatly impacted by Guiding Eyes and the guide dogs, so it’s been a pleasure to work with them over the years.

Seeing first-hand some of the success that these people have because of their guide dogs; the impact it’s made and how it’s changed their lives, and how the guide dogs have helped them go on to have successful careers in anything that they want to do. There’ve been a lot of amazing stories that have occurred because of this. I’m really proud to be involved and keep helping out.”

Manning also spoke about how impressed he is with the blind golfers, who year in and year out make the Guiding Eyes golf classic a tremendous success.

“Having been in this tournament a number of times and played with some of the blind golfers, it’s amazing to watch them go out there and compete, get around the course, and make pars,” he said. “It’s incredible, it’s a lot of fun to be here and watch them do their craft.”

Taking to the practice green, Manning put on a blindfold, and got a taste for what it’s like for a blind golfer to sink a putt. Standing 14 feet from the hole, Manning swung his putter and came up just short during the demonstration, missing the hole by about three inches – contrary to last year when on his first attempt, he sank the putt from 10 feet away.

Manning also offered a look into the Giants’ upcoming season, which will begin with an automatic bang when the G-Men face off with the Denver Broncos in Week 2; Manning being pitted up against his older brother Peyton for the third time in his career. Although Peyton has won the first two meetings between the brothers, Manning wants nothing more than to turn the tables and make the third time the charm.

“At the end of the day one of us is going to lose,” he said. “I’ll look forward to the day, it’ll be the third time I’ve gotten to play against Peyton’s team before and I don’t know if it’ll be the last one – it could be, so hopefully I’ll get a win under my belt. He’s already got two wins.”

Manning might have all the incentive he needs to want to beat his brother this season, yet reaching Super Bowl 48 when it’s all said and done may be on the top of his to-do list, considering the big game will be held on his home turf: MetLife Stadium at the Meadowlands.

“I think anytime you have the Super Bowl in your home town or in your home stadium, you’d like to play in it and be a part of it,” he said. “You want to win a championship, it’s always your goal, but it would be very special to be the first team to play a Super Bowl in your own stadium.”

Manning then finally offered some words of wisdom to up-and-coming athletes in New York who’d like to follow in his footsteps: a path that’s led to a legendary career, one that will undoubtedly live forever in the minds of New York area sports fans.

“Work hard, be a good teammate, try to earn the respect of your teammates, coaches, and fans,” he said. “Enjoy being an athlete in New York – and if you win a championship, it makes things easier.”

Phil Fails: Nothing looking good for Hughes

If you were on Twitter last night and went to the search box and typed in “Phil Hughes” this came up:

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Appropriate, because these days if you’re watching Hughes pitch, you might need aspirin.

In the Red Sox 11-1 thrashing of the Yankees last night, Hughes was the losing pitcher, dropping to 2-4 on the season with an ERA in the sky at 5.37. The big blow yesterday came off the bat of Mike Napoli, a grand slam home run in the third inning, a blast that stuck a pin in the Yankee balloon effectively giving the short-handed Bronx Bomber lineup no chance at a comeback.

Napoli’s slam marked the second time this season Hughes has let up a home run with the bases loaded – and the 12th meatball he’s served up this year. What’s more, it was the 100th tater he surrendered in his career – a career in which he’s made 114 starts, coming out to nearly one home run allowed per start.

Opponents are taking advantage of every pitch Hughes throws at them, on average batting .292 against the right-hander this season. He’s also allowed 69 hits in the 58.2 innings he’s pitched this year, not exactly fooling anyone he faces.

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The 24-32 Seattle Mariners proved that to be true when they beat Hughes up on May 15, chasing him from the game after just two-thirds of an inning pitched in what wound up being a 12-2 Yankee loss. (Worth noting Hughes delivered a grand slam in the first inning of that nightmare stinker to former Yankee Raul Ibanez).

Putting it nicely, this season Phil Hughes has been “Phail Hughes.”

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To his credit, he recently went on record as saying, “Everyone has been taking me out of the park these days.” At least, if nothing else, he’s self-aware of how poorly he’s been pitching. Yet it doesn’t change the fact that every time he toes the rubber, Yankee Universe has to hold its collective breath because there’s usually a good chance Hughes will put the team in a hole, not giving the Yankee offense – which has only mustered 223 runs this year (11th in the American League, 18th in the majors) – a chance to come from behind.

A la, last night.  

There hasn’t been anyone who has been a bigger critic of Hughes than me. Ever since Game 6 of the 2010 ALCS, an elimination game that Hughes lost decisively to the Texas Rangers (the Yankees ousted and unsuccessful in their attempt to defend their 2009 World Series title) I’ve never had faith in him.

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He hasn’t given me reason to trust his stuff. His fastball is flat with no tailing action, he hooks his breaking balls, and he gets ahead in counts, but somehow always manages to fall behind and turn what should be easy innings into long, dragged-out marathons.

Just sitting through a Hughes start is torture.

In what might be an upside for most Yankee fans that are becoming tired of every home run derby that ensues each time Hughes takes the ball, this is the final year of his contract – and he isn’t exactly making a great case for a return to the Bronx in 2014, given his crummy numbers and ineffectiveness. Additionally, considering his age (26, 27 on June 24), one has to wonder,

If he hasn’t found it yet, when the heck will he? There are pitchers younger than Hughes finding significantly more success than he is. If you don’t believe me, talk to Matt Moore, Chris Sale, and Alex Cobb.

On the downside, the Yankees may be stuck with Hughes for the remainder of 2013. Even if the Yankee brass looks to move him, Hughes’s trade value, at this point, is incredibly low. If the Yanks wanted to move him for purposes of finding a player to help them reach the playoffs, the odds of anyone taking him are likely astronomical, despite the fact that he’ll come cheap. I just cannot think of a team that would take him, otherwise.

After all, no team wants a pitcher who does nothing but toss batting practice, right?

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I suppose what the Yankees could do is put Hughes into the bullpen; give him a relief role. To fill his void in the rotation, they can always call on Vidal Nuno, Ivan Nova, or David Phelps – or try to make a trade before the non-waivers deadline, although it’ll be difficult to make a swap, seeing as how the market for a starting pitcher is, as FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal described last night, “uninspired.”

In 2009 Hughes flourished in his role of setup man, bridging the gap to Mariano Rivera in the eighth inning. In fact he pitched so well, he filled in for Rivera a few times and picked up three saves that season; striking out 96 batters in 86 innings and posting a respectable ERA of 3.03 along the way.

That almost begs the question, “Why did they pull him out of a role which he clearly embraced and succeeded at?”

I’ll never know.

Luckily for Hughes, the Yankees (31-24) are only two games behind Boston in the AL East standings heading into their series finale/rubber game tonight; a chance to close the deficit to just one game.

So throughout all the bad news, there’s a shred of decency.

Yet whether Hughes sticks it out as a starter or is placed in the bullpen this season, an adjustment needs to be made; a solution must be found to this ongoing problem. If we see more of what we saw out of Hughes last night – and this entire season, thus far – it’s going to be a long summer.

A very, very long summer.

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Moms are just awesome

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There’s something sweet every year on this day in baseball. The pink bats, the pink wristbands, pink cleats, and for the first time this year, pink seams lacing together each piece of cowhide. And whether they express it or not, every MLB player takes the field with one special person on their mind.

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The one who drove them to baseball practice over the years. The one who came to every game to sit in the bleachers and watch. The biggest fan: mom.  

The Yankees today couldn’t have done a better job honoring their moms, scratching out a 4-2 win over the Kansas City Royals. The Yanks are now winners of five straight and have taken sole possession of first place in the AL East in front of Boston (by two games) and Baltimore (by one game).

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Yes, the Yankees – sans Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, and Kevin Youkilis – are in first place. That is not a misprint, it is a fact.

It’s difficult to explain how the Yankees continue to do it. It’s not as if they are blowing teams out. With the exception of Friday’s 11-6 win in KC, the rest of the victories during the Bronx Bombers’ current win streak have been decided by two runs or less.

Sure, run scoring remains to be an issue, but when a team is receiving outstanding starting pitching and the bullpen is as solid as a rock, it’s a “no harm, no foul” picture. As a matter of fact, going into yesterday night’s 3-2 win the Yankee bullpen was 5-1 over the previous 14 games with an ERA of 2.23.

Now that’s efficiency.

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Using his pink bat this afternoon Robinson Cano set off a bomb that landed in the seats in right field, a two-run tater that gave the Yanks a lead 2-1. Right after he left the yard Vernon Wells – who has found new life in pinstripes – did him one better: a spectacular solo shot to left field, back-to-back jacks to give the Yanks a 3-1 lead. Wells added an RBI single in the fifth, and that was all the runs the Bombers needed to win.

Though I can’t say for sure, I’m convinced it’s a safe bet to say the Yankee mothers would be proud.

On Mother’s Day I usually like to pull out a special baseball and hold it. When I was 10 years old in 1997 my grandmother gave me a baseball with the printed signatures of the first five inductees of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, which by the way are Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, and Honus Wagner.

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My grandmother passed away in 1998, the year after she gave it to me. I’m going to keep the ball forever, and it’s just a special keepsake I’ll always have.

Along with holding the ball every Mother’s Day a tradition, for me, is the retelling of a classic story proving why my mom is the greatest of all-time.

The night before my fourth or fifth birthday, my mom slaved away all night making me a Batman cake. She baked it, and then labored trying to ice it. My birthday is on June 15 – and it was apparently a hot night. The blue icing kept melting, so my mom had to keep putting the cake in the freezer, thus having to start over several times.

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After all the hard work, it looked perfect. (I had a picture of me next to it, but unfortunately it’s stored away somewhere and I don’t have it and obviously couldn’t include it). When I woke up the next morning she expected me to be overwhelmingly excited at how the cake turned out.

Actually, not so much.

According to her, my exact response upon first view of her hard work was, “it’s great, mom. Where’s my cereal?”

The fact that she didn’t get angry – or even kill me after saying that – is a testament to what type of person she is.

When you’re young you take everything for granted. But as an adult, you start to recognize the types of things your mom does for you; you tend to appreciate her a lot more. Without taking anything for granted, I truly appreciate everything my mom has done, and continues to do, for me.

Yes, I love my mommy. I hope that makes me a good son.

And as for the Yanks: they’ll be looking to keep on making their moms proud tomorrow. In Cleveland they’ll play a doubleheader vs. their old friend Nick Swisher and the Indians, making up two games which were rained out on April 10th and 11th. David Phelps (1-1, 5.02 ERA) is on the bump in the first game, and as announced after this afternoon’s win, newcomer Vidal Nuno (0-0, 0.00 ERA) gets the ball in the second game.

Good luck, DD

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On Tuesday night the Yankees were shut down and shutout 2-0 by the Colorado Rockies in Denver, in what was another dead effort in run scoring. Going into last night’s game the Yanks were 17th in the majors with 133 runs scored for the year, their wins being mostly one or two-run games. Case in point: last night’s ugly 3-2 victory over the Rockies to even the series up 1-1, scoring and stranding baserunners being two issues for the Bronx Bombers.

In the last three games alone the Yankees have left 36 men on base (18 in Sunday’s 5-4 loss to Oakland, 11 Tuesday night, eight last night), clearly struggling to generate runs and bring runners to the plate.

Maybe a crash course in “Run Scoring 101” is in order. That, or just actually hitting with runners in scoring position.

Either way this Yankee team, which sometimes looks more like a team you’d see in the final inning of a Spring Training game, will look to take the series from Colorado this afternoon; CC Sabathia (4-3, 3.31 ERA) trying to get back on track after a slew of starts that have been unlike the typical, dominant outings we normally see from him.

Throughout it all the Yanks (19-13) are still hanging in, numerically in second place in the AL East (behind Boston and Baltimore, who are tied for first) and just one game out of first place in the division – a stark contrast from the Miami Marlins, who are 10-25, in dead last in the NL East.

Over the winter the Marlins made a trade with the Tampa Bay Rays: Yunel Escobar for a name I recognized – infielder Derek Dietrich. The fledgling Marlins called Dietrich up yesterday morning, and later that day he made his MLB debut in Miami’s game in San Diego vs. the Padres. Dietrich started at second base, although all the times I saw him play, he was a shortstop and spent some time at third.

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Over the summer of 2010 (as most regular readers know) I interned for the Hudson Valley Renegades, the short-season Single-A affiliate of the Rays. Dietrich was on the team that season, climbing his way up the minor league rungs, and now he’s made it.

Always one to be pithy, I have a great story about the Marlins’ new second baseman.

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As an intern, one of our many jobs was to help entertain the fans in between innings – and if you’ve ever been to a minor league baseball game, you know it’s commonplace for wacky, tacky games to be played to keep the crowd interested while the players warm up.

We usually kept everything theme-oriented. For example one night our theme was “Groundhog Day” and in honor of the classic and quotable Billy Murray movie, we played the same exact game every inning, in accordance with the déjà vu Murray’s character Phil Connors experiences in the film. At the end of the night we had a groundhog mascot come out and dance on the field – suffice it to say, it was fun for everyone involved.

And that’s just one example. There were plenty of more nights similar to the Groundhog Day game.

One particular game was deemed “Rain Delay Night.” The cheesy, wacky tacky games in between innings involved us squirting each other with super soakers, and pretending the games in between innings were “rained out.” A blue pool tarp was even laid down in foul territory where we usually held these games.

Yeah, that’s how far we took it. Give us credit for committing to the bit, though.

At any rate, as we were stationed in the first base pit next to the Renegades’ dugout, Dietrich apparently thought our shenanigans were quite amusing, because he joined in on the action. I vividly remember him sitting near the edge of the dugout; on the top step plotting his course.

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He went over to the water cooler in the dugout and poured himself a cup. But instead of drinking it, he ran by and splashed the water on us, leaving us standing there like some puzzled, wet ducks on a rainy day.

Dietrich 1, interns 0. But we got our revenge.

In the top of the eighth he walked past us down the right field line towards the bullpen with an ear-to-ear grin; almost begging us to shoot him with our water guns and retaliate. I remember leaning over to another intern, Anthony, (who we called “Yeti” because he was tall and large, like the Yeti) and asking him if Dietrich was coming back to the dugout. I’ll never forget his answer:

“If he comes back down this way, he’s a dead man,” he playfully responded, cocking back his super soaker.

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Eventually the Renegades won the game and Dietrich came back from the bullpen – and right to the first base pit. Not even stopping to take congratulations on the field with the team, he came right up to us and turned his back, as all of us pulled our triggers and fired at will.

On second thought, in reality, we “watered” at will; completely drenched him. When I say we got him good, we got him good – good enough for two points in the water war, I’d say.

Interns 2, Dietrich 1.

The image of the damp “3” and “2” on the back of his (#32) jersey will forever be burnt into my brain. The laughter that ensued by us and Dietrich is also burnt into my brain – truly a fun and lighthearted moment between a player and the ballclub interns.

In his MLB debut today Dietrich went 1-for-3, collecting his first big league hit on a line drive single to right field to lead off the top of the third inning.

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Bear in mind, this is just one story involving one player. There were countless other exchanges and moments during my internship with the Renegades that were just as funny and memorable. In my mind I’ve kicked around the idea of writing a book about that summer and telling a lot of the stories similar to the water war with Dietrich.

I think it’d be a fun read. Wouldn’t you…?

In the meantime, I’m wishing the absolute best of luck to Dietrich in his MLB career. Just know, I was part of a team that once beat him in a water fight…we totally won.

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Hey, we’re not so bad! Yankees survive, raise eyebrows in April

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A weak lineup full of holes. A shoddy pitching rotation. One or two strong arms in the bullpen. No Derek Jeter, no Alex Rodriguez, no Mark Teixeira, and no Curtis Granderson.

No faith; no belief.

The mentality of most Yankee fans on Opening Day was, to put it mildly, not good. The Bombers bombed on April 1, losing in convincing fashion, 8-2, to their most hated rivals, the Boston Red Sox; a bad loss on their home diamond to begin the season. But after a couple of games they started to get it right, and here we are a month later, the Yanks looking at a 17-10 record – in second place, and just two games out of first.

Get some faith. Start to believe.

As usual, a few storylines have enveloped the first month. First, and probably most important…

Mariano Rivera is back & better than ever

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On May 3, 2012 Mariano Rivera’s future looked bleak. After suffering a torn ACL on the warning track shagging fly balls in Kansas City, the “hammer of god” watched the majority of last year from the sidelines. With the veteran, 43-year-old closer’s future in question, he opted to return in 2013.

And boy, has he made his comeback mean something thus far.

Rivera slammed the door 10 times in the month of April and upon sealing last night’s 5-4 victory over the Astros has 11 saves for the year. The best part of it all: he is 11-for-11 in save opps.

Mo has been his usual, perfect self.

I attended Sunday’s 3-2 win over the Blue Jays, and sat in the right field bleachers above the Yankee bullpen. When Rivera got up to start warming, readying himself to enter the game and eventually close the game, he received a huge ovation – even before he customarily ran out of the ‘pen.

Expect this to be a recurring theme all season, given the announcement of his retirement at the end of 2013. Not to mention other teams have (and will) go out of their way to send Rivera off in a respectful manner. And it’s all well-deserved.

What can you say? He is bigger than the game.

Low-scoring affairs and one-run wonders

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For a team beat up, battered and bruised, the Yankees have obviously been able to keep their collective heads above the proverbial water. However, it hasn’t exactly been easy to do. Of their 17 wins this year, there haven’t been too many blowouts; not a lot of huge wins.

Aside from a 14-1 thrashing of the Cleveland Indians back on April 9, the Yankees have played in some incredibly tight ballgames. Three of their last four wins have been one-run victories, and their two previous wins before those last four victories were decided by just two runs: a 5-3 win on April 25 and a 6-4 win on April 26 – both over the Blue Jays.

It would be nice to have a few more of those 14-1 type games, and see the Yankees put some runs on the board. Yet it’s not as if the formula isn’t working, because the Yanks are 10-1 in games decided by two runs or less this season – which is good for the best in the bigs in games of that kind.

If nothing else, they’re becoming battle-tested in close games, which down the stretch will help them.

Robinson Cano still swinging a hot bat

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A power outage was anticipated when the Yankees lost Nick Swisher (24 home runs in 2012) and Russell Martin (21 home runs in 2012) – that of course went with temporarily taking away all the power numbers Curtis Granderson, Alex Rodriguez, and Derek Jeter provided.

But the one constant power player in the lineup is Robinson Cano.

Last night Cano clubbed his eighth home run of the year, which put him at 185 taters for his MLB career, tying him with another Yankee warrior – Paul O’Neill – for 17th place on the all-time Yankee home runs list.

O’Neill, by the way, who is NOT portraying Ted Danson’s character Sam Malone in a Cheers remake.

In any event, Cano is carrying the offense; lighting up the scoreboard on the Yankees’ side in most of these games in the early going. His sweet swing keeps getting sweeter and his defense continues to be top-notch. There’s no doubt his RBI count is going to climb higher and higher, and his average will be significantly over .300 throughout the course of the year.

Having Cano on your side is almost the same as playing a game of doubles in tennis, and having a brick wall as your partner. And the Yankees have that brick wall.

CC Sabathia sharp (but twice not sharp)

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I’ll be the first to admit I was a little bit worried (and dejected) when CC Sabathia got absolutely shelled in Game 4 of the ALCS last year, the big ace losing the final game of the Yankees’ season to the Detroit Tigers. My worries were well-founded and even multiplied when I found out he wasn’t pitching at 100% and needed surgery in the offseason on his pitching arm.

Then Opening Day happened: four earned runs on eight hits, four walks and five Ks in only five frames to a loss to the Red Sox.

Not very encouraging to see, but as usual he turned it around. He won his next three starts, beating the Baltimore Orioles, the Arizona Diamondbacks, and the very team that slaughtered him in the playoffs last year, the Tigers.

Then came Sabathia’s last two starts.

The big man was once again shellacked, this time by the Tampa Bay Rays. In seven abysmal innings he let up five earned runs – three of which were served up on home runs. He hit a batter, walked two, and in his only good stat of the night, struck out eight.

His fastball was flat, he was hanging his breaking ball, and needless to say it wasn’t pretty.

Things seemed to be going in the same direction in his last start vs. the Blue Jays: a dead fastball and bad breaking stuff. He turned it around though, and battled back to actually pick up a win in one of the most valiant efforts of this young season.

Sabathia went 4-2 in April, and believe it or not, this marks the first time in his career he’s picked up four victories in the first month of the season. I think it only proves that Sabathia is so good that even when he isn’t doing well, he’s doing well.

We’ll see how everything carries over on Friday when he toes the rubber vs. Oakland in his first start in the month of May.

Injury bug still chomping away

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There’s an old saying about foul weather: when it rains, it pours.  And coming into the season without Jeter, Teixeira, Granderson, and Rodriguez, the Yankees were short-handed enough.

So it rained, right? Well. Then it poured.

Francisco Cervelli and Kevin Youkilis became two more bruised Bombers, Cervelli fracturing his hand behind home plate on Saturday and Youkilis out with a bulging disc in his back. What hurts even worse is the fact that both players were doing a fine job offensively in a lineup that clearly needs not only effective hitters but more specifically, right-handed bats – Cerv and Youk both being right-handed hitters.

The front office’s hand was forced because of these particular injuries: catcher Austin Romine was called up from Triple-A Scranton to supplant Cervelli, and as announced after last night’s game, the Yankees traded for infielder Chris Nelson, acquiring him from the Colorado Rockies for a player to be named later. Nelson was obviously moved to aid in Youkilis’s absence.

Youkilis was placed on the 15-day disabled list, but Cervelli was put on the 60-day DL. Anymore of these injuries happen, the Yankees might need to start pulling fans out of the bleachers to play.

“You know where the outfield is? Great! Here’s a glove, go stand out there.”

Making a splash

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The day after Opening Day is always an off day. I’m not sure I quite understand why, but as long as I can remember, it always has been. On the off day this year, I was covering a girls’ lacrosse game when my dad called me. It turns out he met Vernon Wells while doing some work at his job.

A very impromptu meeting – nothing major; according to my dad, he just said hi to him, didn’t bother him too much.

The day after his meeting with my dad, Wells hit a home run and he’s been raking ever since. So far the veteran outfielder has smacked six home runs and he’s batting .298, which isn’t bad by any means. In fact, it’s quite a pleasant surprise, and Wells is a reason the Yankees are in such a good position right now.

I’ll go ahead and just say it: Wells is doing…well.

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Then there’s Travis Hafner, who also has six long balls and 17 RBIs. The lefty-hitting slugger known as “Pronk” or “Project Donkey” is helping make up for whatever power was lost to free agency during the offseason.

Brennan Boesch isn’t jumping off the page as much as Wells or Hafner, but for what it’s worth, he’s making contributions to the team when needed. The same can probably be said about Ben Francisco, but in fairness he had a home run last night that narrowly crept over the wall in left field, his first dinger of the year.

If one of them can be as heroic as Raul Ibanez was last year, I think I can safely say we’ll all be happy. However, the four of them are sure as heck a step up from anything Andruw Jones did last year.

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April wasn’t a bad month for the Yankees.

What do ya got, May?

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Here’s to you, Mr. Robinson: A review of 42

WARNING: May Contain Spoilers

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Pee Wee Reese: “Maybe tomorrow we’ll all wear 42. That way they won’t tell us apart.”

If any baseball player, past or present, deserved his own biopic, it was Jackie Robinson. And from the moment I heard about “42” I was interested; curious to see how exactly director Brian Helgeland was going to depict the legendary pioneer of baseball.

The depiction couldn’t have been any better. It was incredibly well done.

Of course, being the fan I am, I went to the movies with my friends geeked out in a blue Dodgers’ shirt with “Robinson 42” on the back, the outfit complete with a Brooklyn cap. I suppose it was my own little way of paying tribute to such an icon.

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And come on. It’s not as bad as dressing up like Batman, cape and cowl, and camping outside a movie theater before opening night of “The Dark Knight Rises.” I swear, I’m not one those people.

But I digress.

Robinson was played by Chadwick Boseman, an actor I knew absolutely nothing about going into the movie. Aside from a few one-time roles on TV shows like Fringe, Justified and CSI:NY, among others he didn’t have much acting work under his belt according to his IMDb page. To say Boseman did a fine job as Robinson would be an understatement. I obviously never saw Robinson play, but in doing some historical research, Boseman had it down pat.

The batting stance, the at-bat ritual of picking up dirt and wiping his hands with it; heck, even his looks – Boseman was the right choice for this role. How he resembled Robinson in this film made me think of the way Barry Pepper looked a lot like Roger Maris in “61*.”

In biopics, looks can tell the whole story.

I knew Robinson dealt with a lot of racism, but “42” really gives the viewer a clear picture of how much hatred he truly was forced to endure. When he gets signed by Brooklyn from the Negro League, then eventually called up to the show from the Montreal Royals in 1947 (the minor league affiliate of the Dodgers at the time) Robinson receives an onslaught of name-calling – and “42” doesn’t exactly pull back.

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In one scene he is heckled disgustingly during an at-bat by the Philadelphia Phillies’ manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk). Throughout the entire AB, Robinson stood stoic – consciously aware of how upset, how angry Chapman’s words were making him, yet suppressing his emotions with the utmost will power before privately breaking down; taking out his frustrations on a bat in the tunnel to the clubhouse.

I can’t imagine having to deal with situations of that nature on a routine basis.

Mentioned in the movie was the fact that other players suffered similar name-calling. For instance it’s brought up that Hank Greenberg, one of the best players the Detroit Tigers ever saw, was called out because he happened to be Jewish. Also noted is the way the Yankee Clipper himself, Joe DiMaggio, was called slurs for being an Italian-American.

Still, I’m not sure if even they went through the type of hardships Robinson coped with.

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Harrison Ford’s performance as the gritty-yet-faithful old cigar-chomping Branch Rickey was nothing short of impressive; a typical outstanding job by the same actor who portrayed both Han Solo and Indiana Jones. Rickey, the owner of the Dodgers and the brainchild behind the idea of adding Robinson to his ballclub, was one of the only white supporters of Robinson in the movie – along with teammate and Brooklyn shortstop Pee Wee Reese, played by Lucas Black.

Being a huge fan of “Friday Night Lights” (which Black starred in as quarterback Mike Winchell) it was nice to see Black do such nice work in another sports movie. When the white Dodger players attempted to coax Reese into signing a petition to not play on account of Robinson’s presence (boycotting the game because they had to be teammates with a black player), Reese takes a stand and opts not to sign his name.

In a way it was comforting. Even though Robinson was surrounded by hate, he had an ally.

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Christopher Meloni served as the wife-cheating Dodgers’ skipper Leo “the lip” Durocher. Robinson’s color didn’t seem to faze the manager, but it’s not as if his character lasted long, anyway: being suspended at the start of the 1947 season because the CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) somehow outed him as an adulterer.

If nothing else, the character throws in a “little-did-you-know” aspect.

Like Boseman, I had no clue who Nicole Beharie was before the movie. Not only did she give a mind-blowing performance as Rachel Robinson, she was absolutely beautiful to boot.

I think I may have a new celebrity crush.

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And I get the feeling when Rachel saw the movie for the first time, she was happy with how Beharie portrayed her. Rachel has been fittingly dubbed “The First Lady of Baseball” – undoubtedly she had to have been proud of how she and her late husband were rendered on screen.

The character of sportswriter Wendell Smith (Andre Holland) made the movie more interesting, too. Smith was assigned to help Robinson along, be sort of his eyes and ears, so-to-speak. When Robinson hits his first home run, Smith is sitting in the grandstands with his typewriter (black sportswriters weren’t allowed in the press box at the time) smiling at his friend’s accomplishment as a divided crowd both cheered and jeered the tater.

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Looking at him with his typewriter as Robinson rounded the bases, my only thought was,

“Today, that’d be an iPhone and he’d be tweeting about that home run.”

Along with strong and accurate character representation, “42” gives a kind of feel “The Sandlot” gives: a warm, fuzzy kid-like feeling, at least in two particular scenes.

In Robinson’s first game in Montreal, he gets nothing to hit and draws a four-pitch walk. He steals second, swipes third, and distracts the peeved pitcher enough for him to balk, which enables Robinson to score from third.

A young black man (who at the end is revealed to be a future major leaguer named Ed Charles) is attending the game with his mom, and is overly impressed with how Robinson – the man who is visibly giving him hope – singlehandedly created a run. His mother didn’t understand how or why Robinson was awarded home plate and inquired about it, to which Charles responds,

“He discombobulated him!”

Baseball is a kid’s game and kids say the darndest things.

The other scene that brings out the childlike nature of baseball is later on when Charles is at the train station, trying to get a glimpse of his hero before he boards. Robinson gets on the train without even looking in his direction, much less acknowledging Charles.

That is, until the train starts chugging.

Robinson calls back to him. “Young man!” and then tosses him a rock.

It had to be my favorite scene in the movie. The authenticity of it was magical.

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If you are a baseball fan – and even if you’re not – “42” is a must-see. Filled with history, a stellar plot, countless “did-you-know” facts, and incredible character depiction, it is easily (now) in my top-3 favorite sports movies.

I learned from “42” that Robinson didn’t just break the color barrier in baseball. He showed humility in a divided and fearful nation – and I only use the word “fearful” because people felt he was different. People are always afraid of what’s different.

Yet his gentle and quiet personality and ability to hold back in the face of hate only showed that, if he was different, he was different for the better. He showed the guts to endure an environment full of folks who spiked him with their cleats, shouted racist remarks his way while he stood in the batter’s box, and threw at his head – and showed those guts with bold, astounding patience and wisdom.

There’s not much more to say about “42” except GO SEE IT. You will be moved.

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Going where everybody knows his name: Paul O’Neill joins “Cheers” reboot

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These days you can usually spot former Yankee right fielder and fan-favorite Paul O’Neill in the YES Network booth, making witty observations during broadcasts.

In the coming months, you’ll still see him on TV, but everyone – not just those watching Yankee games on YES – will know his name.

This afternoon it was announced that television network NBC is rebooting its hit show from 1982, Cheers – which O’Neill will be a part of. The man who the late, great George Steinbrenner once dubbed “The Warrior” will take on the role of Sam Malone, a character portrayed by actor Ted Danson in the original series.

The decision to pick up the role of a retired baseball player that runs his own bar was a no-brainer for O’Neill.

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“I retired in 2001 after the World Series and I even thought about running my own bar when my baseball career ended because I didn’t know what was next,” O’Neill told the Associated Press earlier today.

“In a lot of ways I wanted my life to kind of be like Sam Malone’s life, from the show. He retired from the game and found something he loved to do. Now I can do the same. Of course on the show Sam was a pitcher and I played right field, so it’s a little different in that respect.”

Danson found success after Cheers, acting as the lead on the sitcom Becker, which ran from 1998-2004. He now works on CSI, seemingly landing hit role after hit role. Danson has seen some of O’Neill’s acting in the past, and the Emmy and Golden Globe award winner is proud to see someone carefree and fun-loving – like O’Neill – take up his mantle.

“I saw that episode of Seinfeld Paul was on in the ‘90s, and I laughed; I thought, right off the bat, he had a great sense of humor,” Danson told the AP. “I know he is perfect for the role, and I’m anxious to see how the new series is going to turn out and what direction all these wonderful characters are going to go in.”

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O’Neill’s YES broadcast partner and good friend Michael Kay, albeit a bit shocked, expressed his congratulations.

“I’ve always thought Ted and Paul kind of looked a lot alike, but never would have thought in a million years this would happen,” Kay said.

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“Paul is a pretty funny guy. In 2009 when the Yankees played the Red Sox in August, he sat up in the booth and ate peach yogurt when the game went into extra innings – on the air! Peach yogurt, on the air. That’s the type of personality he’ll bring to the Sam Malone character. I couldn’t be happier for him, I know he’ll do well.”

According to YES, O’Neill will work 30 games in the booth in 2013 before leaving to start filming the first season of the NBC series reboot. He will work alongside Jodie Sweetin (of Full House fame; she’ll play Diane Chambers, Shelley Long’s former character), Patton Oswalt (of King of Queens fame; he’ll play Norm Peterson, George Wendt’s former character), and David Faustino (of Married…with Children fame; he’ll play Woody Boyd, Woody Harrelson’s former character).

Roles for each of the other starring characters are still being cast.

With a new challenge ahead, plainly put, O’Neill is excited to get started.

“I can’t wait for the first table read,” he continued. “I can only hope I do as well on this sitcom as I did in right field. But I’m comfortable. I’m going where everybody knows my name.”

Cheers is expected to premier in October, the night after the World Series.

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………………………………………………………………………………………………………

If you believed this for one second, you’re way too gullible. Yet I suppose there isn’t anything wrong with a little yellow journalism on April 1.

HAPPY APRIL FOOL’S DAY!

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More importantly, HAPPY OPENING DAY!!!

#BeatTheDrum #AndHoldThePhone #TheSunCameOutToday

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Class always on display at West Point

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Legendary golfer Arnold Palmer once said, “I’ve never rooted against an opponent. I’ve never rooted for him, either.”

Some of what I’ve witnessed these past 20 days might leave Mr. Palmer rethinking his words.

On March 10 I made my way to Christl Arena at West Point to cover the New York State girls’ basketball regionals. The best team in my newspaper’s coverage area, Ossining, was matched up against a team located not far from the United States Military Academy, Monroe-Woodbury.

Ossining this season had arguably the best girls’ hoops player in New York State girls’ basketball history: a young lady who next year is heading to UConn by the name of Saniya Chong. This past season Chong broke the New York State all-time scoring record.

Along with that she holds countless records and has won an endless amount of awards – and if you have never heard of her, you’ll probably see her playing in many “March Madness” games for the UConn Huskies somewhere down the line, within the next few years.

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Ossining handed Monroe-Woodbury a 79-50 loss to advance to the Class A New York State girls’ basketball finals, which, by the way, they went on to win. But after winning the game for the region crown, I noticed how players from the losing Monroe-Woodbury team approached Chong, after being defeated.

And with appreciative and respectful smiles across their faces, the losers posed for pictures with her – in my two-and-a-half years of doing this, the most dignified gesture I have ever witnessed. In fact, the Ossining head coach called it “a class act” when I inquired about it in my postgame interview.

Twenty days later, some of the exact same class was clear and present at West Point.

Today, in the Yankees’ final tune-up of the spring before Opening Day on Monday, the Bombers visited the Army Black Knights for an exhibition; the 22nd time in the Yankees’ history they’ve played the Army baseball team. Coming into today, statistically, the Yankees had never lost to the Black Knights; a perfect 21-0 for the Yanks over Army.

If you watched closely though, today wasn’t really about stats, or even the action on the field.

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Yankee players were given a tour of the campus upon arrival at the Military Academy, ate pulled pork in the mess hall with the cadets, and in a lot of ways really embraced their opponents. Despite beating the Black Knights 10-5 (maintaining the win streak, the Yanks now at an undefeated 22-0 vs. the USMA), the Bombers went out of their way to show their appreciation for Army.

While not just posing for pictures with them, the Yanks (most notably Andy Pettitte, the injured Mark Teixeira, and Brett Gardner) hung out with the Black Knight players during the game in their dugout, while Joba Chamberlain left the bullpen for awhile and sat with the cadet spectators in the bleachers.

The Yanks signed autographs before the game and after, and in the spirit of sportsmanship high-fived the Army team following the final out – like a regular old Little League, high school, or college game.

The class just seems to pour out of West Point, doesn’t it?

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In this writer’s opinion, what transpired in these two games at the USMA within the past 20 days have proven that, no matter the sport or the level, gracious losers and respect for a team’s opponent do exist. The realm of sports is such a competitive environment, and in a world where the whole idea is to beat the other team, it’s nice to see.

Yet, we can’t expect the same kind of attitude from the Yankees on Monday. Opening Day they’ll face off with their fiercest rivals, the Boston Red Sox.

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Funny how quickly the Yankees are going to go from caring about their opposition to wanting to beat the other team more than anything in the world in a matter of roughly 48 hours.

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Interest Sparked: The WBC

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It was another Saturday night, I didn’t have nobody. I had some money, because I had just gotten paid. How I wished I had something to do – and then I went on Twitter and saw that David Wright of the New York Mets had crushed a grand slam homer for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, putting them ahead 6-2 in front of Team Italy.

I flipped on the game.

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OK. So the guy from the other New York team hit a bomb. To me, the World Baseball Classic was still meaningless; a pointless, glorified exhibition which simply takes players away from Spring Training, the players competing for seemingly nothing. Japan won the two previous WBCs (2006, ’09), and my philosophy remained,

“The World Baseball Classic is a joke. Spoiler alert: Japan will win it again, its players will come to the USA/MLB…and suck for their entire careers.”

Daisuke Matsuzaka is my case in point.

But as I continued to watch Teams USA’s game vs. Team Italy, my feelings slowly changed. By the end of the night, I was actually interested in the WBC, a position I never imagined I’d be in when the tournament commenced. A couple of storylines have put me over the top.

First off, Robinson Cano has been an absolute beast in the WBC, playing for his homeland, the Dominican Republic. The studly second baseman was named MVP of Pool C, cracking four extra base hits (including an opposite-field home run), five RBIs, while batting .600 over the first three games.

The DR went on to advance in the WBC; Cano ready to lead his squad against Wright and Team USA tonight, in fact.

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Given the concerns and recent, unexpected injuries the Yankees have suffered (Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson) it’s overly encouraging to see Cano slaughtering the ball the way he’s been in the WBC. Come April 1, if Cano keeps it up, there won’t be much to worry about when he steps into the batter’s box.

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There was also a second piece of WBC business that piqued my interest. Italy had a familiar reliever on its roster: my paison, Brian Sweeney. I only say “had” because last night Team Italia was ousted by Puerto Rico, a come-from-behind effort by way of sloppy Italian defense leading to the Azzuri’s downfall.   

I was pleasantly surprised – and in a big way, proud – to see my fellow Mercy College alumnus on the hill in front of a worldwide audience and a packed house at the new Miami Marlins ballpark. As most readers of the blog know, I interviewed Sweeney in July, 2010, weeks after he faced the Yankees in the Bronx.

He went on to make several appearances vs. the Bombers over that summer, and got the likes of Teixeira, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher, and Brett Gardner out. Using his signature changeup which he learned pitching for Mercy, some of the most powerful Yankees didn’t stand a chance against Sweeney.

And during the WBC, Sweeney added some more names to his list of big outs.

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In Wright’s first at-bat following his trip to granny’s, Sweeney got the Mets’ third baseman to pop out. He followed suit by walking the Marlins’ own Giancarlo Stanton, Sweeney’s changeup painting the black; barely missing the outside corner for a walk culminating a 13-pitch at-bat. He went on to get catcher Joe Mauer (Minnesota Twins) to fly out to left field and first baseman Eric Hosmer (KC Royals) to foul out behind third.

Not a bad night at the office for a Mercy College grad.

Team Italy had two more losing efforts vs. Cano’s Dominicans and Team Puerto Rico – both narrow losses; one-run games. Over the course of those two games, Sweeney struck out Alejandro De Aza (Chicago White Sox) swinging, and got both got Jose Reyes (Toronto Blue Jays) and Hanley Ramirez (LA Dodgers) to fly out.

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Unfortunately Sweeney was on the hook for the loss in last night’s elimination game to Puerto Rico, although the decision was more reflective of shoddy defense: particularly on the left side of the infield’s behalf. Italy’s shortstop Anthony Granato was eaten alive on a number of ground balls, and third baseman Alex Liddi didn’t curb the problems, missing an easy out by coming off the bag at third on a force play.

Yet Sweeney’s participation in the WBC wasn’t what made me entirely proud. After the loss, the 38-year-old journeyman right-hander stood on the top step of the dugout and tipped his cap to the fans and to Team Puerto Rico – a class act, all the way through. Despite the ousting, he showed great sportsmanship and a graceful attitude.

That’s a Mercy College guy for you.

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My hope now is that he catches on with a team this spring. Hopefully for him, it’s the Seattle Mariners, seeing as how he told me in the interview he always wanted to pay dividends for them. They gave him a chance in the show; I suppose he feels he owes them.

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As for the rest of the WBC, my interest has been sparked. Next time there’s a night within the next couple of weeks before Opening Day and I don’t have nobody – regardless of whether or not I just got paid, I’ll have something to do: watch the WBC.

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The Shot

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The 2013 baseball season is in its baby stages, Spring Training in full swing and the third annual World Baseball Classic underway. April will bring the full-time cracking of the bat and the popping of the leather, but the basketball craze known globally as “March Madness” is here.

And boy, did yesterday I witness some madness – in fact, madness might not even be the right word for it. Absurdity is more like it.

Yesterday was Championship Sunday in New York’s Section 1 high school hoops season. My beat this entire winter has been girls’ basketball; two teams I’ve been covering all season (Ossining and Peekskill) were playing in their respective title games. Not that it’s all that relevant (although interesting to me) the Ossining team even faced off with the team from the high school I graduated from in 2005, Our Lady of Lourdes (Poughkeepsie, NY).

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I was excited to cover this pair of big games, so I arrived at the Westchester County Center – the site of the Section 1 finals – a little bit early. I found an open seat in the press row, and figured I’d tweet the final few minutes of the New Rochelle vs. Mount Vernon Class AA boys’ championship game.

At 1:35 p.m. I sent out:

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New Rochelle down by nine and with such little time to bounce into a clean offensive rhythm, I thought it was a foregone conclusion Mt. Vernon would be taking home a gold ball; the Class AA crown theirs. Yet somehow, by a stroke of turnovers, defense, rebounds and foul shots, New Rochelle fought its way back into the game, the Huguenots turning a nine-point deficit into a two-point game: 60-58. New Rochelle even had possession, a glimmer of hope.

Despite that, time and location were not of the essence. 2.9 seconds left on the clock, and the Huguenots on the wrong side of the court; the inbounds pass needing to travel a long way in order for New Ro to even have a termite-sized chance of knotting the game up.

What followed would have probably left God himself in utter disbelief.

Khalil Edney, after making the inbounds pass, recovered the ball; took a 55-foot Hail Mary-esque shot from beyond half court that was eventually deemed good by the officials, who initially waved the spectacular basket off, thinking the game clock had expired before he got the shot off.

The refs conferred, ruled it good – a tenth of a second left on the clock before he shot the ball. Just like that, New Rochelle wins it 61-60 to snag the Class AA title from right underneath Mt. Vernon’s nose.

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ESPN was all over this story, as were a number of national media outlets.

Two points I would like to make. First, I’m glad I arrived at work early, which has kind of been the story of this season for me. Come to think of it, my colleague and former editor at the North County News Rob DiAntonio nicknamed me “On Time A.J.” this year. I was not scheduled to cover the New Ro/Mt. Vernon epic (neither team is in my newspaper’s coverage area), but in getting there ahead of time, I was treated to some history.

Secondly, I was able to, I suppose, sneak my way into the footage of it; the MSG Varsity cameras facing the press row. Yes, that’s me (circled), the blur in the white sweater. If you look close enough, the video even shows my dumbfounded reaction; putting my hands on the top of my head in sheer amazement.

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What I hadn’t realized until this morning is that, in October, I had seen Edney play football. New Rochelle visited one of the schools in my newspaper’s coverage area – Mahopac – and I covered that game. Edney was New Ro’s quarterback and led them to not only a 6-0 win over Mahopac in the game I covered, but a state football title.

It’s also worth mentioning New Ro beat Mahopac to reach the basketball finals vs. Mt. Vernon, the Huguenots really playing spoiler to Mahopac’s sports teams this season.

And on top of all that, Baltimore Ravens’ running back Ray Rice – New Rochelle high alum – won a Super Bowl back in February.

The Huguenots received a lot of glory this past year.

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SportsCenter showed two more high school buzzer-beaters from half court yesterday, and in the first girls’ hoops game I covered (Ossining/Lourdes) a young lady headed to UConn next year by the name of Saniya Chong made two shots as time expired in the first and second quarters from beyond half court. (The first shot by Chong was ruled good; the second shot was waved off, as she was called for a travel).

I don’t know what it was yesterday. It’s inexplicable. But half court glory was the order of the day.

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