Results tagged ‘ New York ’

Another silly baseball story

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Spring Training is hardly about final scores, which is why the Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays ended their game in a 3-3 stalemate today in 10 innings. As we all know, there doesn’t need to be a winner in most exhibitions, as long as everyone gets their necessary work in.

The Rays showed off a great deal of their minor league arms in this afternoon’s spring tune-up, and in watching along as I put the finishing touches on my girls’ hoops articles for the week, I took notice of some recognizable names.

In the eighth inning Tampa Bay skipper Joe Maddon brought in a lefty by the name of C.J. Riefenhauser – a familiar name if you’re a Westchester County, N.Y. sports buff such as myself. Riefenhauser attended Mahopac High School, and if I’m not mistaken, my editor has written a number of features on him.

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It’s quite possible Riefenhauser makes the big club this year, and I couldn’t be happier to see a product of a school in my newspaper’s coverage area make it to the show, though I never had the chance to interview him personally. Today Riefenhauser threw (I believe) just two pitches in the 1/3 of an inning he tossed and got Ramon Flores to pop out to short, earning a hold in the process.

Making a note of Rifenhauser’s appearance on Twitter seemed to go over well with those who know him. Ten re-tweets, four favorites and counting.

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Before Riefenhauser did his work, as short as it was, another southpaw by the name of Adam Liberatore was on the mound – yet another familiar name. Liberatore pitched for the Hudson Valley Renegades in 2010, a (short season Single A) farm team of the Rays, and a team which longtime readers of Yankee Yapping might remember I interned for.

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Again, it was nice to see a name I recognized get some playing time in Spring Training. Then the Rays called on their final pitcher in the 10th frame. And all the memories – the good memories – raced back to me.

Maddon brought in Merrill Kelly, a 25-year-old right hander, for the last inning. Kelly, like Liberatore, was a member of the 2010 Renegades. Kelly was called up to extended-A Bowling Green in the middle of the Renegades’ 2010 season, but a few weeks before he was promoted, this writer had a rather humorous exchange with him.

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It was a Sunday in July at Dutchess Stadium – which meant it was kids’ day; children were picked out of the crowd for the wacky activities on the field, in between innings. Then at the end of the game, the kids in attendance were permitted to step onto the diamond and run the bases.

My cousin Thomas (16 at the time, yet short in terms of height for his age), who I went with to the Yankees’ home opener earlier that year, was at the game. I had greeted him when he got to the ballpark but soon after, he ventured off with his friends, while I (doing my duty as an intern) helped set things up for the daffy entertainment in between innings.

A little while later before the game started, I was on the field near the first base dugout and saw Thomas – from the front row of the stands – talking to Kelly. I walked over to see him, only to hear an apparent argument going on between my cousin and the reliever.

“Yes I am!” Thomas kept saying.

“Dude, no you’re not,” Kelly retorted.

“Yes, I AM!” Thomas persisted.

“NO, you’re NOT,” Kelly answered.

Confused, I asked what was going on.

“A.J., tell this guy I’m 16! He doesn’t believe me!” Thomas defiantly said.

Being Thomas’s cousin, knowing he was telling the truth, I was able to vouch for him.

“He is 16, Merrill – I’m his cousin,” I calmly told Kelly.

The cleat/shoe was certainly on the other foot, as Kelly examined me, looked back at Thomas and said to him, “Dude. You’re going to get carded for the rest of your life!” before walking into the dugout.

It was one of the funnier moments of the day, probably second to Thomas participating in the fun in between innings, playing the “dizzy bats” game as part of kids’ day.

I’ve mentioned it before, and I’ll say it again now – I’d really be interested in writing a book about that summer, interning for the Renegades; include all the fun shenanigans and hoopla that ensued that summer. At the moment I’m not exactly sure how to go about pursuing such a project. Hopefully I can find out and go after it, because I think a lot of folks who enjoy the child-like aspect of baseball would appreciate it.

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Keys to the Kingdom

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‘Tis the season of the cracking of the bat and the popping of the leather. Yes, MLB Spring Training is finally here, and yesterday the Yankees began their string of exhibition games. As it is, the Bronx Bombers dropped both of their first two Grapefruit League games to Pittsburgh, losing 6-5 Wednesday and 8-2 today – though we all know final scores are probably the least important stat when it comes to Spring Training.

It’s all about fine tuning and getting ready for April, when the scores count and the Yanks embark on their quest for World Series title number 28. Yankee Captain Derek Jeter, who as we all know announced his retirement after this upcoming season, declared today that he wants to go out a winner:

“We’re the last team standing and we win the championship.

That’s the only way I envision it ending.”

In order for that happen, a lot has to go right. First of all…

CC Sabathia needs a bounce-back campaign

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Last year CC Sabathia faced arm problems, really for the first time ever in his career. The Yankee ace lost 13 games in 2013 and only won 14, coming off 2012 when he won 15 – a far cry from the 21 and 19-win seasons he put up in 2010 and 2011, respectively. Last season Sabathia’s ERA was 4.78, the highest earned run average he’s ever posted in his career.

If you’re the type of analyst who likes to throw wins and ERA out the window, here’s something to chew on: Sabathia let up 28 home runs in 2013 – another career-high for a single season. If that isn’t enough, here’s something else to consider: Sabathia served up more taters than Phil Hughes last season, the former homer-happy Yankee and now-Minnesota Twin. Hughes allowed 24 hitters to leave the yard last year compared to Sabathia’s 28.

Yes. You know it’s bad when you’ve given up more long balls than Hughes.

There’s no debating the fact that Sabathia needs to turn it around; be the ace the Yankees bought him for prior to 2009, or at least be close to what he was. It’s not too much to ask, mostly because he’s already proven the type of anchor he can be to a pitching staff.

To his credit, Sabathia slimmed down and lost some weight. According to Michael Kay of YES, Sabathia came into Spring Training last year just under 300 lbs., whereas this year he showed up around 275 and visibly thinner.

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Obviously Sabathia is taking serious steps towards getting back to form, but he needs to cut down on the home runs and be clutch this year if the Yankees want to be that last team standing.

Stay healthy, New York

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You cannot predict injuries. It’s a fact of sports life. In recent times the Yankees have had a ton of hard luck when it comes to injuries, and they haven’t been able to field a complete team.

New Yankee Jacoby Ellsbury has failed to appear in 100 games in two of the last four seasons because of injuries. In 2010 the speedy center fielder only played 18 games and in 2012 he played just 74, thanks to fractured ribs as a result of an outfield collision (’10) and a collision on the base paths trying to break up a double play (’12).

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In between he’s been as solid as they come, though. 2011 was Ellsbury’s best season to date. With 32 home runs, 105 RBIs, a .321 batting average, 212 hits, and an All-Star nod, he was arguably the best all-around player in the American League. Being the runner-up for the AL MVP award, while taking home a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger, is only a testament to how fantastic he truly was in ‘11.

That begs the question, which Ellsbury will be showing up in 2014? The perennial All-Star or the injury prone player who gives up his body en route to disabled list stints?

And Ellsbury is just one example.

To supplant Herculean second baseman Robinson Cano, who split for Seattle, the Yankees signed Brian Roberts – a 36-year-old second sacker once feared by all as a Baltimore Oriole, but has only played 192 games over the last four seasons on account of injuries. (Roberts managed to play 77 games last year, 17 in ’12, 39 in ’11, and 59 in ’10).

Doing the math, Roberts has missed 456 games over the past four seasons; DL stints and concussions have eaten him up. Keep in mind, specifically, he ruptured a tendon behind his right knee last April vs. Tampa Bay attempting a steal of second base.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Tampa Bay Rays

Knowing all that, will Roberts be a comeback player and offer reliability, or will he simply be unproductive and relegated to the disabled list for a large chunk of the season?

The question marks of Ellsbury and Roberts are of course piled on top of apprehension about Jeter and Mark Teixeira. Jeter (39, 40 in June) as we all know is coming off ankle injuries that limited him to 17 games in 2013, while Teixeira (33, 34 in April) is coming back from wrist problems that only allowed him to play 15 games last year.

How each of these players respond is obviously a “to be determined” but at the same time there is no crystal ball in existence to let us know if they’ll be able to grind out the entire season injury-free.

The bullpen has to be effective

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It’s fair to say the Yankees’ bullpen was probably their weakest link last year, even with the legendary Mariano Rivera at the back end closing everything out – which really tells you the whole story. This writer keeps asking himself,

“If the bullpen wasn’t that good with Rivera last year, what can we expect without him this year?

David Robertson, as of now, is expected to succeed Mo in the closer role, which is scary to think about. If you recall in 2012 when Rivera’s season ended on May 3 on the warning track in Kansas City, Robertson was plugged into his spot as closer, but he didn’t cut it.

In just his second save opp a week after Rivera went down, Robertson failed to protect a 1-0 lead over Tampa Bay, giving up a three-run homer to Matt Joyce. He later gave up another run and the Yankees went on to lose, 4-1. Robertson called it afterward “the worst feeling in the world.”

Luckily in 2012 the Yankees had the option of using Rafael Soriano in Robertson’s stead – an option that worked out well, given that Soriano saved 42 games in Rivera’s absence.

Now, similarly, the Yankees have signed former Oakland A’s closer (and 2009 AL Rookie of the Year) Andrew Bailey, albeit to a minor league contract. Bailey has 89 saves to his name in his short career, with experience as a closer, making him the logical choice to succeed Rivera over Robertson.

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However…

Bailey, like a lot of other Yankees, has a history with injuries. In 2012 he had reconstructive surgery on his right thumb, and just last year an MRI revealed he had a torn labrum in his pitching shoulder.

It’ll come down to whether or not Bailey can make it back from injury and be a shutdown pitcher like he once was. For now though, the Yankees have a premiere setup man in Robertson – and that’s about it, because Robertson isn’t a proven closer.

At least not yet.

Looking outside the back end of the bullpen, the middle relievers need to step up too. Shawn Kelley and Preston Claiborne are going to be two important pieces to the bullpen, along with newcomer Matt Thornton, the tall order who’ll replace Boone Logan (now with the Colorado Rockies) as the main southpaw out of the ‘pen.

Sources are saying former top Yankee pitching prospect Dellin Betances will be vying for a spot in the bullpen this spring, as it’s already been established by Yankee GM Brian Cashman that he will be a reliever in the long run. Betances could either prove to be a key middle reliever or long reliever, yet he has to pitch well enough for the Yankee brass to have faith in him – and well enough to keep himself off mopping duty.

The Opening Day bullpen is likely going to come down to whichever relievers are effective during Spring Training, and the point stands: they have to be effective, whoever they may be when camp breaks.

Masahiro Tanaka has to adapt

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Nobody is expecting Masahiro Tanaka to go 24-0 and post an ERA under 2.00 in his rookie season, but if there is one thing the new, prized Japanese import must do, it’s get acclimated to the MLB style. His numbers in Japan were far better than a lot of the other Japanese-born pitchers who’ve come over from the land of the rising sun, meaning he could potentially have a huge year, but the average fan might not realize a couple of things.

First off, pitchers in Japan throw only once a week, whereas here in the states, Tanaka will have to toe the rubber once every five days. Not only that, but the NPB in Japan also uses smaller-sized baseballs compared to an official MLB rock, therefore an adjustment needs to be made in that respect.

The biggest difference will be the hitters Tanaka faces. Monsters such as David Ortiz, Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout and Prince Fielder will probably pose bigger threats (and are more intimidating) than the more tactical batters he went eye-to-eye with in Japan.

Though one could argue Tanaka won’t be fazed by the Goliath-like giants he faces here in the U.S., given his cool demeanor and calm presence at his introductory press conference.

While it’s perfectly fine to expect Tanaka to succeed – and he will – it’s reasonable to presume he will go through his growing pains. Adjustment is the biggest part of his game.

We’ll get our first live look at Tanaka on Saturday afternoon in the Yankees’ exhibition vs. the Phillies.

They have to make each other better

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The key to any successful team is chemistry. Most of the 2014 Yankees will be first-time teammates, not having played with each other before. While some like Jeter, Teixeira and Brett Gardner have been together for a few seasons, newbies like Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran have not had a chance to jell as teammates.

If you look back to 2009 – and the Dynasty years, for that matter – a player could have an off-night, but the rest of the team would be on. For example,

In 1998, Tino Martinez might have an “0-for” night, but Jeter, Bernie Williams, Scott Brosius, and Paul O’Neill would be firing at will, and the Yanks would win. The next night Jeter could have gone 0-for-4, but Martinez and everyone else would still be en fuego.

Those teams were the masters of picking each other up.

If the 2014 Yankees can perfect that same art, they’ll be as lethal as any team in baseball.

And the kingdom will be theirs.

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Omega, 2014: Derek Jeter announces this season is his last

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If you pick up a Bible and thumb your way through to last book – the book of revelation – you’ll find the story of the end of the world, otherwise known as the apocalypse. Flying, fire-breathing dragons, the harvest of the earth, and the final battle between good and evil are discussed, and it advises all readers to maintain faith. In its epilogue, the Bible’s final line is, “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all.”

Now, we will never know when, exactly, the apocalypse will transpire; it’s an unknown phenomenon in terms of its timing. But if you’re a member of Yankee Universe, you found out today the end of the world will come at the conclusion of the 2014 season.

Or at least the end of a significant era.

This afternoon Yankee Captain Derek Jeter announced (via his “Turn 2 Foundation” Facebook page) that this coming year will be his last, and he will retire when this forthcoming season is over.

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“…it was months ago when I realized that this season would likely be my last. As I came to this conclusion and shared it with my friends and family, they all told me to hold off saying anything until I was absolutely 100% sure.

“And the thing is, I could not be more sure. I know it in my heart. The 2014 season will be my last playing professional baseball.”

This is the end. The day we all had nightmares about.

Jeter has pretty much earned the right to hang ‘em up though, having conquered basically everything there is to conquer in baseball. Cooperstown, for all we know, might already have a special room designated for the wonders of Jeter’s career; there’s no question he’ll be enshrined in upstate New York’s hallowed halls with the ghosts of baseball’s past.

Here’s a little bit of input on my part:

Why now?

For one, his age. Although in recent times certain players have been able to suit up and take the field at 40 years old (and beyond), eventually they can’t do it anymore, for whatever reason. Some players, like Randy Johnson for example, hang around to meet career goals. In Johnson’s case he stayed in the game to reach 300 wins, but he put his cleats away almost immediately after he reached the milestone.

Jeter has no more real goals to reach, being a five-time World Series champ, a World Series MVP, an All-Star game MVP; having 3,000 career hits, being the all-time Yankee hit leader . . . and so on and so forth. Think of doing something unfathomable in baseball, and then realize Jeter has been there and done that.

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Summing it up, Jeter will be 40 in June and he has nothing left to accomplish on the field.

Another reason, clearly, was the injury to his ankle that he sustained in Game 1 of the 2012 ALCS. Since that fateful October night, nothing has been same for him. He only played 17 games in 2013 because his ankle wasn’t quite right, batting an uncharacteristic .190 (12 hits in 63 at-bats) which was a sizable drop from the .316 BA he put up in 2012.

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It was evident his afflictions impacted him in 2013. He didn’t have it last year – and he knew it.

“Last year was a tough one for me. As I suffered through a bunch of injuries, I realized that some of the things that always came easily to me and were always fun had started to become a struggle.

“The one thing I always said to myself was that when baseball started to feel more like a job, it would be time to move forward.”  

One last piece of info Jeter slipped into his reason for retiring: his desire to be more of a businessman and start a family.

“Now it is time for the last chapter. I have new dreams and aspirations, and I want new challenges. There are many things I want to do in business and in philanthropic work, in addition to focusing more on my personal life and starting a family of my own . . .”

It’s good the captain is willing to dive into the business world and try to master it the way he did the game of baseball. The question is, however, as far as beginning a familial lifestyle,

With whom will he start a family?

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Given his glorious track record of dating attractive women, he can practically pick any woman he wants at this point, and then take it from there. Lucky guy.

How he announced it

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Facebook. It shocked most people in the press, including myself.

Jeter isn’t the type of person who takes to social media every time a thought pops into head (like the rest of us), so the fact that he wrote up a note and threw it on his foundation’s Facebook page was a little bizarre. This writer even kept saying to himself, over and over again after the news broke,

“Facebook? Really?”

You would think he would’ve waited until Spring Training started, and called a press conference for all to see. At the very least it would’ve been a little more formal than a Facebook post, but kudos to Jeets going against the grain and breaking the huge news in an unconventional manner – well, at least unconventional by his standards.

He rose through the ranks of pro ball by being an uncommon player, so he might as well go out doing things in uncommon ways.

What it means for the Yankees

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In a nutshell, they’ll need a shortstop after this year. The questions about whether or not the Yankees will pursue Stephen Drew are already rising, though they aren’t expected to make anymore deals now that the offseason is on the downswing. That and the fact they’ve already spent nearly half a $billion already.

Buster Olney, ESPN analyst and former Yankee beat writer, speculated that the Colorado Rockies – if their season starts to crumble and they’re non-contenders before July 31 – might explore the idea of moving their All-Star SS Troy Tulowitzki.

Tulowitzki is owed somewhere around $140 million over the next several years. Who better to pick up that contract than the Yankees: a team notorious for having deep pockets and not being afraid to show it, especially when they’re in need of a key player.

Discussing the topic, MLB Network brought up two other names who will apparently be free agents after this year: Hanley Ramirez (LA Dodgers) and J.J. Hardy (Baltimore Orioles). Ramirez however made a statement today claiming he “wants to be a Dodger for life.”

Yet, should the Yankee brass offer him a larger sum of money than LA does, Ramirez might reword that statement. Robinson Cano made similar remarks about staying with the Yankees, and we all saw what happened there.

On the other hand the Yankees could go the in-house route to supplant Jeter next year, which could mean Eduardo Nunez is the guy going forward. But if they want to look beyond Nunez because of his defensive foibles, every shortstop in the farm system needs to perform well enough this season – or do something extraordinary enough this season – to prove they might just be the heir apparent.

Cito Culver, I’m looking at you.

The farewell tour

New York Yankees player Jeter celebrates as he holds the World Series trophy after the Yankees defeated the Philadelphia Phillies in New York

Like last year (for Mariano Rivera), fans from all over the place are going to flock to wherever the Yankees are just to see Jeter during his last hurrah. The Yankee captain is going to be like a giant neon light in 2014, and the fans are going to be like moths on hot summer nights, flying towards him.

If they can afford it, that is.

Ticket prices for the Thursday, Sept. 25 game vs. Baltimore – the Yankees’ final home game of the 2014 regular season – have absolutely skyrocketed. Before Jeter announced his plans, it was just an average game. Now that his final appearance at Yankee Stadium could potentially fall on that date, you cannot buy a ticket for less than $397. At press time; that figure could be inflating as I’m typing this.

While Sept. 25 may be Jeter’s final game at the big ballpark in the Bronx notwithstanding a playoff run, it’s possible the Yankees honor him with a special day on Sunday, Sept. 21 at home vs. the Blue Jays. Tickets for that game have also become astronomical in terms of price, and it would make sense they pay homage to the captain on that day, being that the Yanks honored Rivera on Sunday, Sept. 22 this past year.

Fitting.

Either way, fans will be coming from near and far to see Jeter this year. 2014. The final year. The apocalypse. The end of the world, or at least the true end of the Yankee dynasty era.

Rising Son: Tanaka separate from the pack

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In 2008 Sports Illustrated published an in-depth article on the life on Yankee starter Chien-Ming Wang, appropriately entitled, Chien-Ming Wang has a secret. In his native country of Taiwan, the former sinker-baller was a celebrity. He couldn’t get out of his car in Taiwan without getting mobbed by worshipping fans. Yet when he walked down the streets in New York City, he was barely bothered; no one hounded him or even recognized him. The piece delved into his personal life, as well as how he developed his signature pitch.

It was an interesting story on the foreign pitcher. One a reader could thoroughly enjoy.

Yesterday the Yanks landed 25-year-old Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka, luring him to the Bronx with a pact worth $155 million over seven years; thus snagging the hurler from the Rakuten Eagles. Tanaka has put up staggering numbers in Japan since his debut in Nippon Pro Baseball in 2007, winning several awards and attaining superstardom along the way.

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This writer does not in fact know whether or not Tanaka can walk down the streets of Tokyo without being mobbed. Only time will tell if he will be able to take a stroll in Times Square without the hassle of adoring fans and media. But over the next seven years, rest assured, we’ll learn a lot about this newcomer.

What we do know now is that he was 24-0 in NPB last year with a microscopic earned run average of 1.27. Over the last three seasons alone he piled up 53 wins and only lost three games, posting an ERA of 1.44. For the sake of getting too analytical, most folks are predicting his WAR to have impressive range, meaning he will be worth a heck of a lot of victories throughout his Yankee tenure.

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His total WAR is going to be 16.8 after seven years.

No! It’s got to be 6.8 per season.

Thanks for your input, Twitter.

Notwithstanding the ever-glorious, overanalyzed “wins above replacement” stat, his regular numbers from the Far East are unheard of here in the United States – and even in Japan, those numbers leap out at you, giving a lot of pundits and writers the impression he is separated from the pack of aces.

Take for example Daisuke Matsuzaka, who was a well-sought-after pitcher during the 2006-07 offseason. His best season in Japan (pitching for the Seibu Lions) was the year right before he signed with Boston, being 2006.

Dice-K’s numbers that season: 17-5, 2.13 ERA, 186.1 innings pitched, and 200 strikeouts. His transition to Major League Baseball wasn’t anything special, going 15-12 with an ERA of 4.40 his first season in Beantown with the Red Sox, which was of course ’07. His workload got a bit heavier that year (204.2 IP) but the number of Ks was consistent; in fact, one more than his previous season at 201 strikeouts.

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His claim to fame was his 2008 season in Boston when he went 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA, which could be attributed to a lighter amount of innings – 167.2. His K total also fell to 154 strikeouts. From there, the “Dice Man” became nothing to write home to Japan about.

Point being Dice-K is not exactly comparable to Tanaka. Neither is Kei Igawa (a teammate of Matsuzaka’s from the Seibu Lions) who the Yanks acquired prior to 2007. Igawa’s best year in Japan came in 2003 when he was 20-5 with a 2.80 ERA; 206 IP, amassing 179 strikeouts. It’s also worth mentioning he never won more than 14 games in a single season for the Lions after ‘03.

That being said, Igawa never made a difference in New York. Before he was let go he finished with a 2-4 record in pinstripes, a 6.66 earned run average, and he struck out just 53 batters.

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In other words, he was a bad investment. Igawa’s ERA describes his time in New York perfectly, being the mark of the devil, and for the record, there’s no chance he was mobbed by fans. Frankly, if Yankee fans were to have seen Igawa in the street (that is if they would have even recognized him to begin with) they probably would have thrown eggs and tomatoes at him.

And no, he cannot be compared to Tanaka.

Even the great Yu Darvish cannot truly be compared to Tanaka. His best season for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters was 2011, the year before he came to the states and joined the Texas Rangers. In ’11, Darvish went 18-6 with a 1.44 ERA; 232 innings pitched and a mind-blowing 276 strikeouts.

While 18 is a strong number in terms of win total, it’s not quite on par with Tanaka’s 24 from last season, although Darvish’s first two seasons in MLB weren’t bad:

2012: 16-9, 3.90 ERA, 232 IP, 221 Ks.

2013: 13-9, 2.83 ERA, 209.2 IP, 277 Ks.

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And while we won’t know what Tanaka’s numbers will be over the course of his first two seasons in pinstripes for another couple years, we do know his numbers were better than Darvish’s were overseas.

Hisashi Iwakuma, a Japanese starter who joined the Seattle Mariners in 2012, only mustered up 29 wins over his last three seasons in Japan (2009-11, for the Golden Eagles) – a far cry from the 53 Tanaka has racked up over his last three seasons pitching in the land of the rising sun.

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It’s quite possible Tanaka is the best Japanese-born starting pitcher we’ve ever seen – at least that’s what the numbers suggest. Better in his native Japan than Matsuzaka; better than Igawa, better than Darvish, better than Iwakuma – and maybe even better than Hideo Nomo.

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Nomo was MLB’s first notable Japanese import, and he pitched for the Kintetsu Buffaloes from 1990-94. The most wins he notched in a single season in the Far East: like Darvish, 18. Again, not as many as Tanaka’s 24.

The truth is we won’t know how well his stuff will translate from NPB to MLB until we receive a sample size, which could be a year or two. Yet if his numbers, compared to the other Japanese-born starters, are any indication, he will surely succeed. He could potentially go soaring above and beyond the realm of accomplishments of the other Japanese pitchers.

And if Tanaka does indeed dominate, there’s a good chance he won’t be as lucky walking down the streets of New York as Wang once was. The man from Japan might just become a little too popular to go unrecognized in the city that never sleeps.

But that all depends on how he does. And you can bet your life Yankee Universe will be watching.

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Mo vs. Mick: Why Mo is better

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I will assume most of the readers of Yankee Yapping are familiar with the Wall Street Journal, a prestigious newspaper founded in 1889, based out of New York City. Now, unless you are a journalism major or have taken a newspaper history class, I will assume most readers are unaware of how the Wall Street Journal developed its own style of story.

A Wall Street Journal-style story always starts with a specific example; names and situations, usually focusing on one topic. The story then gradually delves into that topic with general information, and then at the end reverts back to the specific example used to start the story.

And most of the endings have what’s called a “circle kicker” or a twist; a turn of events.

It’s all very fantastic, genius even. Think of what’s about to happen here as a Wall Street Journal-style blog post. Chances are there will be some backlash, another journalistic term, meaning a strong or adverse reaction by a large number of people. Although some readers might very well agree and feel the same way I do about this next graf.

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Mariano Rivera was better than Mickey Mantle.

(Ducks, hides, takes cover)

There. I said it. That’s your specific example; the topic. Now, general information might contradict that statement, or at least suggest otherwise.

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Mantle, in 18 seasons with the Yankees, was a 20-time (allow me to reiterate, 20-time!) all-star, a three-time AL MVP, and a seven-time World Series champion. The “Commerce Comet” won the Triple Crown in 1956 (52 HR, 130 RBI, .353 BA), and was selected (first ballot) to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974. Mantle’s number 7 is lying proudly behind the center field wall in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium.

A Cople Of DIcks

Rivera, in 19 seasons in pinstripes, was a 13-time all-star, an ALCS MVP (2003), a World Series MVP (1999), an All-Star game MVP (2013), and a five-time World Series champion. He saved more games than any other closer in baseball history (652), owns more saves than any other closer in the postseason (42), and his number 42 was also placed in Monument Park – even before his last game, making him the first Yankee to have his number retired while still a part of the active roster.

In general consideration, both of these Yankee legends’ numbers speak for themselves. It’s difficult to even compare their numbers, as Mantle was a hitter; a position player, while Rivera was a specialty pitcher. Many folks may even say the two are incomparable – or, there is simply no comparing them. It’s impossible to say who was better on the field.

On the field, yes. Maybe incomparable. But here’s where it gets specific again.

In 1973, Yankee Stadium was coming up on its 50-year anniversary. The president of the Yankees at the time, Robert Fishel, reached out to a number of former Yankee players before the House that Ruth Built’s anny, asking them to write down their “most outstanding” Yankee Stadium moment.

Fishel sent a letter to ”The Mick” and asked him to name his most outstanding moment at Yankee Stadium, and also asked him to describe it as best he could: where it took place and when. Mantle’s answer was childish and disturbing.

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I had to censor some of Mantle’s answer, for fear of MLBlogs and the MLB community becoming offended, but using your knowledge, it’s not difficult to determine what Mantle wrote.

A lot of people undoubtedly laughed at the response. Some surely even commended it. “That’s our Mickey! Ha ha ha! Way to go!”

When I first read it, however, I didn’t find humor in the sophomoric response. I didn’t think of the way everyone most assuredly got a chuckle out of Mantle’s answer. Perhaps I just don’t think the way everyone else does, because I only thought of one person:

I thought of Mariano Rivera. I thought of what “The Sandman’s” response would have been to that letter. I thought of what moment he might have picked – and how classy the answer would have been. I thought of how Rivera would have thanked God for whatever the moment was.

Maybe Rivera would have selected celebrating the 1996 World Series victory on Yankee Stadium soil as his favorite moment. Mo’s most outstanding memory could have also been closing out Game 4 in 1999, riding out of the big ballpark in the Bronx on the shoulders of his teammates after being named MVP of the fall classic.

Collapsing with pure joy on the mound after Aaron Boone clubbed the Yanks into the World Series on that fateful October night in 2003 – perhaps that was Rivera’s special moment. Or maybe Sept. 22, 2013, “Mariano Rivera Day” would have been what he wrote back.

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Whatever his answer would’ve been, it would’ve defeated Mantle’s in classiness.

Readers are certainly entitled to their own opinions on this rather controversial topic, but the specific example is what it is. Rivera outclassed Mantle in every way over the course of his career, even if their stats are incomparable.

And that’s why Rivera was better. There’s your circle kicker.

End of the Year Awards

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For the first time since 2008 and for only the second time in 19 years, the Yankees are enjoying October from the comfort of their respective living rooms. Uncharacteristically, the 2013 Bronx Bombers failed to clinch a playoff berth, thanks to a cavalcade of injuries to key players, a lack of home runs, shoddy pitching, and coming up short when men were in scoring position.

Whatever negative notion you might have in your mind, the 2013 Yankees fit the bill.

However they were still able to finish with a winning record; boasting 85 wins – a feat teams like the Houston Astros, Seattle Mariners, Chicago Cubs, Miami Marlins, and a host of others could only dream about. Yes, just because the Yanks are not a part of this year’s postseason tournament doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be proud of them.

In the meantime a number of former Yankees including Nick Swisher, Bartolo Colon, Russell Martin, A.J. Burnett, Jose Molina, Freddy Garcia, Mark Melancon, and even the great Don Mattingly have had – or are going to have – a taste of autumn baseball this year with a chance to capture a ring.

Only problem is, all of them are not wearing those beloved pinstripes.

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Yet, in keeping with tradition, Yankee Yapping is pleased to introduce this year’s version of the end of the year awards for our Yanks. As per the end of every year, the awards are adjusted to fit each of the winners.

Without any further ado, here they are! …

Yankee Yapping Platinum Slugger Award

Winner: Robinson Cano

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In a season plagued by injuries and a power outage, Robinson Cano was a constant. The scorching second baseman from the DR demonstrated his solid durability, playing in 160 of the 162 games, and he led the team in basically every offensive category for the full season.

Cano smacked 27 homers (Alfonso Soriano launched 34, though only 17 of them were hit in pinstripes), and knocked in 107 runs with a batting average of .314 – the same BA Alex Rodriguez posted in his absurd, 2007 MVP campaign.

2013 may have been difficult to watch because of the woes at the plate, but Cano was good enough swinging the bat to be named “Platinum Slugger.”

Congrats Robinson!

P.S. Please come back next year.

Yankee Yapping Ace of the Year Award

Winner: Andy Pettitte

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When veteran southpaw and longtime fan favorite Andy Pettitte came out of retirement before 2012, there was no bigger critic of his return than me. Personally, I’m not a fan of players sitting in front of a podium becoming teary-eyed, proclaiming to the world “I’m done. I’m not playing anymore. Thank you”…

Only for them to come back and have the “retirement show” be just that: a show. A meaningless, attention-hogging show. Brett Favre, Roger Clemens – I’m looking at you.

Pettitte entered that class, but it made little difference. He barely had the chance to pitch in 2012 after being struck in the leg with a comebacker, forcing him to the sidelines for most of the season. And 2013, in a lot of ways, was his final round, as he announced toward the end of the season this year would be his last.

Perhaps he meant it this time. I suppose we’ll find out in 2014.

At any rate, there was no reason to be a critic of Pettitte in 2013 because, in all honesty, he became the Yankees’ best pitcher. CC Sabathia went through some sort of pitching neurosis this year; couldn’t get batters out and served up an inordinate amount of taters. Hiroki Kuroda would have won this award, had he not been the victim of fatigue toward the end of the year.

Pettitte made 30 starts at the ripe old age of 41, going 11-11 in a season where run support was in short supply. He even tossed a complete game and logged 185.1 innings, which is impressive for a pitcher who went a full season without playing, only to come back – and sat out with injury upon his return.

Nonetheless, Pettitte was an integral part of the Dynasty of the late 1990s, and turned back the clock in a way this season, in being the best pitcher on the staff. He also dethroned Sabathia, who has won “Yankee Yapping Ace of the Year” every year since the inception of this blog.

Congrats Andy!

Yankee Yapping Warrior Award

Winner: Derek Jeter

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In Game 1 of the 2012 ALCS, the Yankees took a critical blow when their Captain landed awkwardly on his ankle fielding a groundball, fracturing it to effectively end his postseason. All offseason Derek Jeter rehabbed and in his first game of spring ball came up a bit lame after knocking a single to left field in his first at-bat.

It was obvious Jeter just wasn’t ready.

Upon further examination, the Captain had another smaller fracture in his bone, and all systems were not go for Opening Day. A slew of other players including Eduardo Nunez, Jayson Nix, and David Adams all saw time at short in the absence of the legendary number 2, but reality eventually became evident:

You cannot replace Derek Jeter.

Despite a bad ankle, the Captain worked as hard as he could to return to the field and played 17 games this season when he could have just as easily packed it in; not played a single inning because of his bad wheel.

There weren’t too many moments to write home about this season for Jeter (simply because he didn’t see enough playing time) yet his best moment was probably his first at-bat of the season when he clobbered a home run on the first pitch he saw vs. the Tampa Bay Rays on July 28.

You cannot say Jeter didn’t try. Not this season, not any season. And for that, he is indeed a warrior that deserves recognition.

Congrats Derek!

Yankee Yapping Hot Hot Hot! Award

Winner: Alfonso Soriano

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Before the trade deadline Alfonso Soriano was acquired from the Chicago Cubs and became sort of the metaphorical life preserver for a drowning Yankee offense. Soriano, a Yankee from 1999-03, was welcomed back with open arms by Yankee Universe, and he gave them a lot of reasons to cheer upon his arrival back to the Big Apple.

On Aug. 11 he recorded his 2,000th career hit, and two days later drove two pitches out of the ballpark and knocked in a career-high six runs in a single game. It’s difficult to top a performance like that, but he upstaged himself the next day, recording seven RBI.

From Aug. 13-16 Soriano had 13 hits and 18 RBIs, becoming the talk of SportsCenter, Twitter, and the baseball world in general. Fonsy also became the only player in history to knock in 18 runs and have at least 12 hits in a four game span, earning himself AL Player of the Week honors.

He capped off August with a two home run game on the 27th – the second round-tripper being the 400th of his career.

Milestones, home runs, records and a nightly hitting show in the dog days. Soriano was, in a word, hot. And for that, he gets the nod.

Congrats Alfonso!

Yankee Yapping Reliever of the Year Award

Winner: Mariano Rivera

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Obvious, right?

After suffering an ACL tear on the warning track in Kansas City on May 3, 2012 while shagging fly balls during batting practice, I had doubts that Mariano Rivera, at age 43, would be able to return back to his normal, dominant ways. Those doubts weren’t well-founded however, because the Sandman dazzled this year, and went out with one last solid round of work.

Rivera might have hit a rough patch in the middle, blowing seven saves, yet it didn’t stop him from showcasing that always-dangerous cutter, as the great Rivera nailed down 44 saves in 2013 – after only posting five saves in six chances last year because of the injury.

David Robertson earned himself Yankee Yapping Reliever of the Year in 2010 and ’11, while Rafael Soriano, who supplanted Mo last year, took it home for 2012. But now, for the first time since 2009, Rivera is rightfully the YY Reliever of the Year.

Congrats Mariano!

Yankee Yapping Yakety Yak, Don’t Come Back Award

Co-Winners: Phil Hughes & Joba Chamberlain

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In 2007 two young pitchers emerged into Yankee land, with stuff that promised bright days ahead for the Bronx Bombers, at least in terms of their pitching. Their names were Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain. Hughes was dubbed the “Pocket Rocket” by the Sports Illustrated because his style resembled the style of Roger Clemens so closely.

Chamberlain came in with all the hype in the world, sporting a 100 mph fastball and sliders that clocked out at 85. He was given the moniker “Joba the Heat” and as a reliever, some even went as far as saying he would be the heir apparent to Mariano Rivera.

Yet both have only proved the folks who claim the Yankees don’t draft well.

Proved them right, that is.

Outside a stint in the bullpen in 2009, and an 18-8 regular season record in 2010, “Phil of the Future” has been anything but good. This year alone Hughes posted a record of 4-14: completely ineffective as a starter. He let up 24 home runs to opposing hitting, coming off 2012 when he was second in the league in the home runs allowed category with 35.

Hughes’s ERA after seven years is an unsatisfactory 4.54. Not to mention the fact that he was the losing pitcher in two pivotal games of the 2010 ALCS vs. Texas, a series in which he posted an 11.42 ERA and gave up 11 earned runs in 8.2 innings pitched. What’s more, he’s been riddled with arm and rotator cuff issues throughout his career.

So much for him.

Chamberlain was in and out of the starting rotation, and also battened down with injuries. Tommy John surgery and all, Chamberlain never gave the Yankees more than 28.2 innings in three of the seven years the organization has let him hang around (24 IP in ’07, 28.2 IP in ’11, and 20.2 IP in ’12). 2013 was not his year either; his ERA up around 4.93 and control was a problem: 26 walks in 42 innings pitched. The once-electric reliever was relegated to mopping duty.

Had the Yankee brass not reversed their roles so many times, it’s possible things could have worked out nicely for at least one of these youngsters – who aren’t youngsters anymore. They are now ineffective pitchers in the middle of their careers on a team that desperately needs solid pitching.

As both are free agents now, the so-called “Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain era” is likely over in New York. Hence, their winning of this award.

Happy blowing elsewhere, fellas.

Yankee Yapping MVP

Winner: Mariano Rivera

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I can’t think of anything better than the night of the All-Star Game this summer, July 16, when Mariano Rivera entered the game to a standing ovation from every living, breathing person at Citi Field in Flushing, Queens. And after a perfect inning was named ASG MVP.

Oh, wait. Maybe I can.

The afternoon of Sept. 22 when the Yankees retired his number 42 in Monument Park with a collection of his past teammates and friends; a beautiful send off to a bona fide baseball legend.

Can you top that?

Um. How about when his “Core Four” brothers Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte took him out of the game on Sept. 26: his final appearance ever on an MLB mound; a packed Yankee Stadium crowd becoming misty-eyed.

There were too many unreal “MOments” this season, and each of them were well-deserved by the great Rivera. Other teams, even the hated Boston Red Sox, recognized what Mo has meant to this sport, and showered him with earned love, praise, and respect.

For all the wonderful memories he afforded us all throughout his Hall of Fame worthy career; for his stellar numbers this season, and the fact that he bounced back from a potentially career-ending knee injury, and most importantly for his humble nature during his farewell tour, Rivera is unquestionably the Yankee Yapping MVP this year.

If you were to ask this writer, he should be the league MVP too. But that’s just me.

Congrats Mariano, we love you and we will sorely miss you!

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Yankee Yapping Rooting For You Award

Winner: Don Mattingly

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As it’s already been documented, the Yankees are not playing this October. Yet, a beloved Yankee who will forever live in the hearts and minds of the Bronx Bomber faithful is playing a key role this postseason. Of course I’m talking about the former, graceful, popcorn-stealing Yankee first baseman, Don Mattingly.

Good ol’ number 23 is now wearing number 8 in Dodger Blue, having been at the helm of a huge turnaround season for LA, leading them to the NL West crown and a shot at a World Series ring.

A ring, by the way, Mattingly missed by one year. Back problems forced Mattingly to retire after the 1995 season, and the Yankees supplanted him with Tino Martinez. Mattingly’s successor and the new wave (which included Jeter, Pettitte, and Rivera) went on to win it all in 1996, the sacred ring eluding “Donnie Baseball” by one year.

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That was of course after Mattingly spent his entire career in pinstripes.

As I’m typing this, the Dodgers are up 6-1 in Game 1 of the NLDS over the Atlanta Braves, certainly off to the right start; the quest for the ring Mattingly never got beginning the way a manager would want it to begin.

It’s only fitting to root for him, given all the loyal years of service Mattingly gave the Yanks, coming away empty-handed year after year and coming up short by just one season.

A lot of folks I’ve chatted with want the Pittsburgh Pirates to win, given their postseason drought. The St. Louis Cardinals disposed of them 9-1 in Game 1 of their NLDS, however. Unlike the Dodgers, they’re off to a slow start.

I’ve heard others say they are rooting for Oakland; wanting A’s General Manager Billy Beane to win the last game of the season he never won in the Moneyball movie.

Even some fans would like to see Tampa Bay do it, since the Rays have never won. No surprise: no Yankee fan I’ve spoken with wants to see Boston win it all.

Not one. Including me.

If an NL team wins the World Series this year, the Yankees can still claim they were the last AL team to win it all, obviously in 2009. (SF Giants 2010, Cardinals ’11, Giants ’12).

Again, perfectly fitting to root for Donnie. Yankee Yapping is pulling for you, Mr. Mattingly! You “think blue” and go get that ring.

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Well, there you have it. The 2013 Yankee Yapping awards are a wrap. Congrats again to all who won!

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.”

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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Moving Right Along

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While there’s plenty of offseason left and the Yankees haven’t seen a lot of back page action, there’ve been a few recent stories from the so-called “Bronx Bomber Front,” if you will.

First and foremost, the Yankees signed back 2007’s two breakout pitchers, Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain, inking both to one-year deals to avoid arbitration. Hughes was signed back for $7.15 million while Chamberlain was given just $1.88 million – startling, considering these two were pegged as the future of the Yankee pitching staff, and they’re coming back on a dime with no long-term commitment.

The 27-year-old promising rookies of ’07 haven’t exactly shown much promise.

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In this writer’s opinion, 2013 will be their final chance to prove whether or not they are truly the new breed of Yankee arms. Last year Hughes went 16-13 with an ERA of 4.23, which is somewhat respectable for a middle-of-the-rotation starter, but he was second in the majors in the home runs allowed category with 35. Not to mention he gave up two more long balls in the playoffs while posting a record of 0-1 in October.

If Hughes doesn’t get it straightened out this coming season, I’m afraid his time in pinstripes may be up. His main problem, as noted every year in Spring Training, seems to be his faith, or lack of faith, in his breaking ball. Hughes is characteristically a high-fastball pitcher, and when he hangs his breaking ball, hitters absolutely feast off it.

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Bottom line: Hughes needs to right many wrongs this year, if he wants to stay a Yankee.

Chamberlain’s biggest problem in recent seasons has undoubtedly been his inability to stay healthy. In 2012 Chamberlain logged just 20.2 innings in 22 games, a bizarre ankle injury claiming most of his season.

It got worse for him in the playoffs when, in Game 4 of the ALDS, Matt Wieters of the Baltimore Orioles shattered his bat facing him; the broken shard of wood coming back and striking Chamberlain in the elbow, forcing him out of the game.

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Aside from an electric debut in 2007 and a 2009 World Series ring, I would say it’s not unfair to compare Chamberlain to another injury-prone pitcher: Carl Pavano – who, I just read today, ruptured his spleen shoveling snow.

Why am I not surprised? Only Pavano. I mean…who else would that happen to?

But back to Chamberlain.

2013 will be a test for him. And if he fails, like Hughes, Chamberlain might have to bow out of the Bronx – and as we saw with Nick Swisher, it could potentially be a not-so-gracious departure.

Along with Hughes and Chamberlain, the Bombers announced the re-signing of another 27-year-old pitcher, David Robertson. The setup man from Alabama received $3.1 million for one year, also avoiding arbitration.

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Typical move that made sense. Obviously the Yankees weren’t letting go of him. I suppose they got him for so cheap because of his 2-7 record last year – as he also proved he may not be suited to fill Mariano Rivera’s cleats. In his first save opp following Rivera’s season-ending injury, Robertson blew it vs. Tampa Bay and lost the closer role out to Rafael Soriano, who as we recently learned walked to the Washington Nationals.

Thankfully for the Yankees, Rivera is returning. And I expect Mo to be Mo, barring any lingering effects from his torn ACL. If his body responds nicely, it’s good news for the Bombers. However, as we saw with Chien-Ming Wang a few years back, leg injuries can damage a pitcher’s footing, causing a world of problems.

Then again, Wang’s injury was different from Rivera’s. Wang injured his pivot foot running home during an interleague game in Houston. Nonetheless, we’ll find out just how Mo will do after he runs out of the Yankee bullpen in April, “Enter Sandman” blaring through the Yankee Stadium speakers.

In addition to the retention of some pitchers, the Yankees announced that on March 30, in their last exhibition before Opening Day, they will travel to West Point and face the ARMY baseball team at the United States Military Academy.

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Ever since they announced this special game, I’ve been wondering which key players the Yankees will bring to West Point. Being two days before Opening Day, I’m not exactly sure if many of the regulars, like Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson, Kevin Youkilis, Ichiro, Mark Teixeira, and Robinson Cano, will be playing.

I could see them bringing a few bigs, but certainly not all of them. I’d also like to explore the possibility of covering this game, if humanly possible. I might have to ask my publisher and editors to contact West Point for a credential to get in. I’d be honored to cover such a game, even though it’s simply an exhibition.

One player who won’t be at West Point on March 30 (at least not there to play, anyway) is Alex Rodriguez. The third baseman had surgery on Jan. 16 to repair a torn labrum, a procedure that was said to have gone off without a hitch.

Today Yankee General Manager Brian Cashman was interviewed on WFAN radio in New York and said Rodriguez may miss the entire 2013 season, although it is believed he could be back after the All-Star break.

A-Rod is signed on for a long time – through 2017, to be exact. I’m probably not in the minority here; a lot of folks probably feel the same way, but I for one would be interested to see how the Yanks would fare for a whole year without the 37-year-old slugger-in-decline. The postseason, should the Yankees make it, would be most interesting sans A-Rod, for sure.

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Think about it: if the Yankees go all the way with no Rodriguez, it’ll be the classic “we never needed A-Rod to win” mind frame. By chance the Yankees get ousted early – or don’t make the postseason at all, for that matter – it’ll be the heavy “we need A-Rod to win” spiel.

Again, interesting for sure.

In the meantime, pitchers and catchers will be reporting to Tampa on Feb. 12 and their first full workout will take place the very next day. Position players report to camp on Feb. 17; their first full team workout scheduled, again, for the following day.

The Yanks’ first exhibition game will happen on Feb. 23 at the Braves – the tune-up games beginning nine days earlier because of the World Baseball Classic this spring. Teixeira will play for the USA team, which will be managed by former Yankee skipper Joe Torre.

Cano will play for the Dominican Republic squad, so even though real, meaningful baseball will not completely return until April 1, we’ll be treated to some Yankees playing in games featuring quality competition.

Until then, basketball and next Sunday’s Super Bowl are dominating the sports pages. Just for the heck of it, I’ll entertain you guys with a story from a high school girls’ basketball game I covered a couple weeks back.

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Basically this winter my editor put me on the girls hoops beat. My responsibility is to attend games and write about the girls’ basketball teams in our coverage area – and our newspaper has two of the top-ranked teams in New York state, which makes the job a lot of fun. The girls have been enjoying a tremendous amount of success these past two months.

On Thursday Jan. 10 I was covering a game; the final score being 38-32. Pretty close and low-scoring game, all the way through.

After interviewing the coaches from the winning team and the losing team, collecting their thoughts and impressions, I went to interview the girl with the most points on the winning side. The young lady, a junior forward, finished with 19 points (including two, 3-point field goals) leading all scorers.

Before I could conduct my interview, her friend ran up to her and embraced her, giving her a big hug. Standing next to her with my recorder in hand, ready to conduct the interview, her friend (in an attempt to be discreet, although I heard every word) asked her,

“Is that your boyfriend?”

She looked at me chuckled and replied, “No, he’s…the interviewer.”

Confused, yet aware of what her friend had asked her, I looked at her and said,

“Wait, did she just…”

Smiling, and clearly a little embarrassed, she mustered the response,

“Yeah, she did.”

With a beat red face I tried my best to shake it off, and then carried on, conducting my interview with her.

First of all, at 25 years old I’m so glad I look young enough to still be in high school. Makes me feel so grown up. And secondly, when things like this happen, it gives me more and more motivation and incentive to want to take the next step in my career; cover pro sports and not just high school games – risking incidents similar to this one because I apparently look as if I belong on “Barney & Friends.”

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Not that I haven’t had a taste of pro sports coverage – I did, covering the Hudson Valley Renegades and Eli Manning’s appearance at the Guiding Eyes Golf Classic this past summer – but I’d like to expand upon that; do a lot more of it, more consistently.

MLB.com. YES Network. #GetAtMeBro

Domo arigato, Mr. Matsui

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In 2003 Godzilla came to New York. No, not the monster. Although one could argue what Hideki Matsui accomplished over the course of his MLB career was pretty scary; enough big hits to bring any city in the world – New York, Tokyo, anywhere – to its knees. Today the man from Japan has announced his retirement, the end of an outstanding career. And in a lot of ways, the end of an era in baseball.

What sometimes gets lost when talking about Matsui’s career is the fact that it didn’t begin in the United States. In 1993 Matsui started his baseball career in the Far East, in Nippon Professional Baseball, to be exact. He collected several awards and accolades as a member of the Yomiuri Giants, including three Japan Series Championships in 1993, 2000, and 2002, among countless other notable achievements.

As a matter of fact, there is a museum in Japan dedicated to Matsui’s baseball career. Think about it: the man is basically (and maybe arguably) the Babe Ruth of Japanese baseball. To the fans in Japan who have followed his entire career, today can be considered comparable to the day “the Great Bambino” hung up his cleats.

Throughout his time in pinstripes, Matsui afforded the Yankees many moments of excitement, and now it’s time to once again say goodbye and thank you – or domo arigato – to another beloved Bronx Bomber.

Grand opening

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They say you only get one chance to make a first impression. Matsui made the most of that chance in his debut at Yankee Stadium in 2003. In the first game of the season at home, the left fielder stepped up to the plate in front of Yankee Universe and with one swing became an instant fan favorite.

With the bases chucked and a flurry of light snow falling, Matsui clubbed a grand slam home run which helped the Yanks beat the Minnesota Twins 7-3 in their ’03 home opener – the first Yankee in history to go to granny’s house in his first game at the “House that Ruth built” and a picture perfect way to kick-start a strong tenure in New York.

“I never dreamed of it,” he told the media after the game. “Certainly I feel a little relief.”

Helping stage the comeback

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Matsui pieced together a strong 2003 season. 16 home runs, a .287 batting average, and 106 RBIs were not a bad way for him to introduce himself to the Yankees and for his solid production, he nearly captured the ’03 AL Rookie of the Year Award.

Because of his age at the time, 29, a pair of voters didn’t include him on the ballot – in this writer’s opinion, a whimsical reason to leave any player off the ballot for such an award. If it’s a player’s first season in the league, that said player is a rookie, whether they be 19, 29, 39, or 49.

But the ROTY award seemed inconsequential when Matsui and the Yanks made the ’03 postseason – a World Series title set in sight as opposed to individual titles. Matsui proved to be incredibly valuable to the team down the stretch and into the month of October.

That was never more evident than in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS.

What most people remember about that night is, of course, Aaron Boone’s glorious blast in the 11th to send the Yankees to the World Series. The image of Boone swinging at Tim Wakefield’s hanging knuckleball is burned into all of our brains; the cowhide lifted deep into the New York night, and finally landing in the left field seats for an ALCS-ending win over the Red Sox.

Boone celebrates game winning home run

We all know that. However, what sometimes gets forgotten is how the Yankees fought back in the eighth inning that fateful night.  It was 5-2 Boston in the bottom of the eighth.

Derek Jeter leads off with a double.

Bernie Williams brings him in with a single, 5-3 Boston.

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Matsui sharply lines a ground-rule double down the line in right to set up Jorge Posada, who knocked a blooper into center field, bringing both Williams and Matsui home to knot it up, 5-5, thus setting up the game’s happy ending.

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World Series home run: a first

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The Yankees made the fall classic in ’03, but fell in six games to the Florida Marlins, not the most gracious way to finish the season following the amazing fight back vs. Boston in the ALCS.

However in Game 2 of the World Series – a game the Yankees won, 6-1, Matsui became the first Japanese-born player to homer in a World Series game – a round-tripper in the first inning on a 3-0 pitch.

It was merely a small sample of Matsui’s World Series power: something we all became familiar with six years later.

A classy warrior

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On May 11, 2006 the Yankees hosted the Red Sox at home, an early season rivalry game. In left field Matsui dove for a ball and landed awkwardly. He fractured his wrist; an injury that not only landed him on the DL and sidelined him for a good chunk of the season, but put an end to his streak of 518 consecutive games played with the Yankees – and 1,768 games in a row played professionally, going back to his days in Japan.

Matsui became the only player I’ve ever known who apologized for an injury.

He gracefully stood before the Yankee brass and said he was sorry for diving for the ball and hurting himself, something no common ballplayer would ever do.

When Matsui returned to the team on Sept. 12 he showed no signs of rust, going 4-for-4 with a walk, an RBI single, and two runs scored.

2,000 and 100

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Matsui enjoyed two dates in 2007 that marked milestones in his illustrious career.

First, May 6 vs. Seattle at home. While Roger Clemens basically stole the show with the announcement of his comeback, Matsui made history with his 2,000th career hit, professionally; again dating back to his days with the Yomiuri Giants.

If that wasn’t enough, he made history again on Aug. 5, 2007 at Yankee Stadium vs. the Kansas City Royals – and was in the shadow of another Yankee who had just accomplished a career landmark.

The day after Alex Rodriguez smacked his 500th career home run, Matsui belted his 100th career home run (as a Yankee) in the bottom of the third; a homer off Gil Meche that cleared the wall in right field.

I remember the details of that home run fondly, only because I was in attendance that Sunday afternoon; box seats behind the third base dugout.

Matsui became the first Japanese-born player to reach 100 home runs in MLB, a feat that has only since been matched by current Yankee Ichiro Suzuki (104 home runs).

Birthday bashing

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Matsui celebrated his 34th birthday on June 12, 2008 – and celebrated the best way possible: a grand slam home run. Coincidently, it was the only four runs the Yankees scored, as they went on to beat the Oakland A’s 4-1.

It doesn’t get much better than that. But how does he follow it up on his 35th birthday in 2009?

With a three-run shot. Against the Mets at home, Matsui homered in the sixth inning to give the Yanks a 7-6 lead over their cross-town rivals. The Bombers eventually won on a walk-off error on the part of Luis Castillo – another birthday present Matsui undoubtedly appreciated.

2009

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Matsui enjoyed a tremendous amount of success during his final hurrah in the Bronx. After a knee injury forced him out of left field Matsui took on the role of full-time designated hitter, a move that paid off royally for both him and the Yankees.

Comfortably Matsui smacked 28 home runs and drove in 90 runs while batting .274 in ’09, helping lead the Yanks to some big wins throughout the season.

On July 20 vs. the Orioles Matsui ended the game with one swing, crushing a walk-off home run to keep the Yankees’ win streak of four in a row following the All-Star break alive.

He earned the elusive Pepsi Clutch Performer of the Month honor in August, mostly for his mind boggling performance vs. the Red Sox down the stretch and knack for multi-home run games during the month. On Aug. 21 Godzilla homered twice and drove in seven runs on the road vs. Boston on the way to a 20-11 win, becoming only the second player in Yankee history to knock in seven runs in a single game at Fenway Park since Lou Gehrig in 1930.

And he wasn’t done there.

Two days later he once again smacked two home runs in a game, and when he hit his 26th of the season on Sept. 19, he broke the Yankee record for most home runs hit by a designated hitter – a record previously held by Don Baylor.

A banner year like 2009 could only be topped off in one way…

World Series Hero

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The Yanks reached the fall classic in 2009 for the first time since Matsui’s first season in the majors in ‘03; a fitting way to conclude his time in New York, ending it the way it began, with a World Series appearance. And lucky for him (and all of us) it ended in much happier fashion.

The Yankees pummeled the Phillies and took the series 4-2 from them – a fall classic stage which allowed Matsui’s star to shine brighter than it ever had.

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With an 8-for-13 clip (.615 BA) three home runs, eight RBIs, a double, and a walk, Matsui captured the World Series MVP award. He was the premier hitter in the clinching Game 6 with six runs batted in – the first Yankee since Bobby Richardson (1960) to drive in six runs in a single World Series game, the first full-time DH to capture the MVP of the World Series, and yet again, the first Japanese-born player to win the World Series MVP.

All kinds of history. And Matsui made it all.

 

A day for the Champs

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Matsui left the Yanks after ’09 and headed out west, joining the LA Angels, signing as a free agent. And when the Angels joined the Yankees for their home opener on April 13, 2010 and for their 2009 ring ceremony, it was all love for the reigning World Series MVP.

Sure, he might’ve been wearing a different uniform. He might’ve been in the visiting dugout. He might’ve been an Angel, not a Yankee anymore. But Matsui received a deafening ovation from the Yankee faithful.

Being called to claim his ring, Matsui was embraced by his team – his old team – as the memory of his dominance in the ’09 World Series was not far from everyone’s mind that Tuesday afternoon.

It was an emotional moment for the team, but as a fan – a fan who was fortunate enough to see it live, in-person – it was even more bittersweet. I was happy for Matsui, but at the same time, much like today, it’s sad; knowing such a classy and extraordinary ballplayer is no longer playing the game.

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It’s tough to gauge in this day and age whether or not a player is worthy of the Hall of Fame. Those who vote – the writers, I mean – sometimes throw away their votes; don’t care who gets in, suspecting every player of using PEDs.

I’ll go out on a limb and, for now, say Matsui is on the borderline. If you factor in all he accomplished in Japan, and then add it onto what he did in MLB, there’s no doubt he’s locked in.

After all, isn’t it called the NATIONAL Baseball Hall of Fame?

Am I wrong? I mean, it’s not the AMERICAN Baseball Hall of Fame, is it?

Derek Jeter, a no doubt first ballot player, once called Matsui his favorite teammate. Matsui’s numbers speak for themselves, but if you’re voting for the HOF based on class, dignity, and the right way to play the game, Matsui is a first ballot inductee.

If he ever gets the call from Cooperstown, I think we all know which cap Matsui will be wearing on his plaque: one with a proud interlocking NY. Even when he had to trade up his jersey number (55) in 2012 while playing for the Tampa Bay Rays, he chose to wear 35 – in honor of his old Yankee teammate of six years (2003-08), Mike Mussina.

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Even when he was away from the Bronx, it is evident the Yanks were always in his heart of hearts.

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On behalf of Yankee fans everywhere, THANK YOU HIDEKI! Your contributions to the Yankees and us fans will never be forgotten. You will long live in Yankee lore as one of the best hitters of the last decade, and more importantly the first Japanese player to accomplish so much in Major League Baseball.

I think it’s safe to say you have given a lot of young ballplayers in Japan hope for their future.

Domo arigato, Mr. Matsui. (Bow)

New York Yankees World Series parade

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