The Yankees finished 2008 with an 89-73 record and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1993, leading many to wonder what went wrong. There was a sense of uncertainty surrounding this team going back to last November and December, when amid the fallout of another ALDS loss, the managerial situation, specifically how the team handled Joe Torre's contract, mushroomed to a PR disaster. Anyone stepping into that mess, whether it was Joe Girardi, Don Mattingly, Larry Bowa, would have felt squeezed. Throw in the A-Rod contract situation and the World Series drama with Scott Boras, Andy Pettitte's vacillating between retiring and returning before signing the $16 million deal and being named in the Mitchell Report and Hank Steinbrenner's impersonation of his father, and it was an offseason to forget.
On the field, the Yankees did what they've done each of the last four years: dug themselves a big hole with a slow start. While they valiantly tried to extricate themselves, they just did not have the horses to climb over a handful of teams to play October baseball in Yankee Stadium II's curtain call. In short, as a team, the Yankees were incomplete. There were some debilitating injuries — losing Jorge Posada and Chien-Ming Wang for the last 3 ½ months were crushers, to be sure. But overall, the maladies that plagued the Yankees for the better part of the last three or four seasons caught up with them. Age, poor situational hitting, and erratic pitching and defense were recurring ills. During down times, those holes were gaping. Alex Rodriguez, despite the six-week absence in April and May, could not and did not carry the offense as he did a year ago. With 32 HR, 103 RBI and 104 runs scored, he had a down year — for him. According to Baseball Prospectus, A-Rod posted below league-average numbers in RBI situations (he drove in 15.1% of runners during RBI situations overall, and a conversion rate of just 33.7% with runners on third), and in at-bats where the double play was in effect, his 15.3 GIDP percentage was the fourth-highest among MLB third basemen.
A-Rod wasn't the only one under fire Robinson Cano got the big contract and regressed. Melky Cabrera proved what scouts have said for the better part of two years — he's a fourth outfielder at best. Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy, the two supposed stalwarts of the Yankees' future starting rotation, bombed. The bullpen was a mess. Even Mariano Rivera was not immune to the scrutiny: his numbers in save situations.
And unlike the Red Sox, who were able to infuse their lineup with youngsters like Jed Lowrie, who has made Julio Lugo expendable, the Yankees had little in the minors to fill the holes.
How did the numerous media outlets treat the Yankees? Relentlessly until they figured out that the Yankees would miss the playoffs and they were a non-story.
As usual, all the action around the Bronx made for interesting reading and viewing, which brings us to the 2008 Yankee Pankies, which cover the good, the bad, and the ugly of the Yankees' on-field play and the media's coverage of it.
Mike Mussina. I'm not one of those who buys into the fact that a pitcher is not a player. If you suit up and you get paid, you're a player. Pitcher is just one of nine positions. Per Baseball Prospectus, Mussina was second on the team in VORP (value over replacement players), with a 43.1 total, and 23 of the team's victories came in games he started. After Wang's injury, he stepped into an ace role he's been reluctant to assume in years past, and shined.
How much was the local media wrapped up in Mussina's Quest for 20? Even Michael Kay sounded like he was rooting for it to happen. If he wasn't, he did a good job of faking.
You might be asking, "What is an MVPWWRAP?" It's the Most Valuable Player Who Wasn't Really A Player. That distinguished honor can only go to Jason Giambi's mustache. As of this writing, if you Google "Jason Giambi mustache," 514,000 results will appear. I wish I was kidding.
Sure, he Just For Menned the hell out of it and looked like he was preparing to head to Gettysburg for a Civil War battle reenactment, but for whatever reason, the 'stache became a media darling. Journalistic beacons — sarcasm alert — like Page 2 to the Daily News contained features on the scruff, and it was a constant talking point and source of levity on broadcasts during a period where, let's face it, watching the Yankees required some levity.
Joba Chamberlain as a starter. Despite Tim McCarver's criticism — he went on Mike and the Mad Dog and said the decision should have been made in Spring Training — Joba, until his injury, proved he could be a future ace. He was 3-1 as a starter, compared to 1-2 as a reliever, and his K/BB splits were comparable in both roles. I was against this move, and I'll say it here: crow tastes great with ketchup.
Friday, July 25 — Fenway Park. Joba outdueled Josh Beckett to lead the Yankees to a 1-0 win. The victory marked the team's seventh straight coming out of the All-Star break.
BEST GAME AT YANKEE STADIUM
Sunday, July 6 — Yankees 5, Red Sox 4. The game-winning hit in the 10th inning came from the unlikely bat of Brett Gardner.
STRANGEST MOMENT OF THE SEASON
Two nights before the late-inning comeback, Johnny Damon crashed into the left-field wall in an effort to rob Kevin Youkilis of an extra-base hit. When he met the wall, the ball popped out of his glove, landed on the flat part of the top of the fence … and stayed there.
BEST YANKEE STADIUM MOMENT
Hint: It didn't involve a Yankee.
Josh Hamilton's 28-home run performance in the first round of the Home Run Derby has become the stuff of legend. Like many, I sat rapt in front of my TV. The shots he hit off the Utz Potato Chips sign beyond the bleachers were some of the most impressive shots I've ever seen hit. I thought he would hit one out of the Stadium. He came the closest anyone has since Mantle hit the façade.
Tie. Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy. Wins = Value. No wins = no value.
Tie between Jorge Posada's shoulder and the actual third base bag at Minute Maid Park, which felled Chien-Ming Wang on June 15.
I'm torn between the 15-6 loss to the Mets at the Stadium where Carlos Delgado drove in nine runs, and the 12-1 loss to the Angels in Anaheim when the Yankees were in the midst of a make-or-break stretch. What do you think?
WORST YANKEE STADIUM MOMENT
During the final Red Sox-Yankees series, a patron was arrested and removed from the Stadium for leaving his seat to go to the men's room during the playing of "God Bless America" in the seventh-inning stretch. Not a good reflection of the Yankees as an organization.
* * *
Now to the Pankies for Media Coverage:
BEST BEAT WRITER
The Yankees have arguably the strongest and most influential crop of beat writers in the business, along with the Red Sox and Mets. For me, though, George A. King III of the New York Post unseats Tyler Kepner of the Times for this year's award. His blend of humor, stirring controversy and ability to get stories that no one else does gives him the edge.
Again, a deep category. Curry, Sherman, Klapisch, O'Connor, etc. All are tremendous writers and reporters, and each brings a different level of skill to the craft. This year, I put Ken Davidoff at the top of the list. He consistently solid, and brings a reporter's eye to his columns, contrary to the "commentator" angle some of his counterparts take.
BEST OVERALL NEWSPAPER COVERAGE
New York Daily News. If there's an important game, they staff it, on average, with eight writers. They're consistent, get the angles, and with Feinsand, McCarron, Harper, et al, they have the deepest lineup.
BEST NEWSPAPER BLOG
LoHud. Pete Abe. It's not even close.
QUOTE OF THE YEAR
"Bottom line, they sucked."
— Hank Steinbrenner, following the first loss of the last Red Sox-Yankees Series at the Stadium.
BEST GENERAL YANKEES BLOG
Bronx Banter. This list, like all lists, is subjective. Taking nothing away from Steve Lombardi, Derek Jacques, the crews at NoMaas and River Ave Blues, the Yankees Chick or any of the other bloggers, but Alex and Cliff have built a great community here. I'm proud to call them colleagues, as well as Emma and Bruce. You guys keep us going, too, so thank you for all the feedback, both positive and negative. The only thing that compares to the immediate reaction we get from a column here is an audience reaction when performing on stage, either in a play or in concert.
BEST YANKEES BLOG AFFILIATED WITH A MAJOR LOCAL MEDIA OUTLET
Pinstriped Blog / Pinstriped Bible. Steven Goldman is not only a great writer and an astute observer of the team, but he is a tough SOB to have endured the level of treatment of ocular cancer that he has over the past four years.
BEST YANKEES ANNOUNCER
In my first year at YES, a fellow writer told me that the best source of information on the team was the backup catcher. That was very true. John Flaherty was a goldmine for me during his three-year tenure as a Yankees player, and he continues to impress in the booth. The only area where he doesn't have a great deal of credibility is when he talks about hitting, since he had a career average of .252. One thing about Flash: he's not a shill. Points for that.
On a different announcing note …
MOST ANNOYING BROADCAST TREND
When did Mariano Rivera's first name become "The Great?" Did we get a memo? And amid all the suspicion about Pudge Rodriguez and steroids, how could Michael Kay unequivocally say he's a "first-ballot Hall of Famer?"
Am I missing something?
BEST DISPLAY OF ANTI-YANKEE SENTIMENT
Of course, it has to come from ESPN. ESPN.com's Yankees playoffs R.I.P. series after the team was officially eliminated was humorous, creative, and not as riddled with hate as it could have been.
MOST OVER-REPORTED STORY
A-Rod's tabloid taboo. He's getting divorced, he's ditching the birth of his second child so he can cavort with Madonna and claim they're "soul mates." Can the guy not invite this kind of seedy press coverage upon him, and just shut up and play baseball? Please? For one season?
MOST UNDER-REPORTED STORY
As the Yankees were in the process of being eliminated, stories projecting the offseason were few and far between, even as lineups featuring Cody Ransom and Juan Miranda were rampant. With Jason Giambi, Bob Abreu, Carl Pavano, Mike Mussina, and Andy Pettitte — nearly $90 million in salary coming off the books, the stove will likely be hot all winter. The media did not play an influence card in the retention of Brian Cashman. Aside from it being a sound baseball move — he has earned the right to continue building this team &3151; to me it was an obvious step to amend the public relations gaffes made a year ago.
And finally …
BEST YANKEE STADIUM II TRIBUTE BY THE LOCAL MEDIA
The papers had various interactive features all season. YESNetwork.com rounded up current and former players and celebrities for video vignettes. Bronx Banter was the only blog to do something along the lines of what the papers were doing, and with the lineup of writers that we all brought to the table, the level of information and number of truly interesting stories that sprang from this feature were exactly what fans wanted. It was relatable. My personal favorites: Anthony McCarron, Jane Leavy, Scott Raab, and Marty Appel.
Alex, thanks for allowing me to put in my two cents, and to be part of the Banter for another season. I'll be resuming the weekly posting schedule during the Hot Stove season. There's nothing I enjoy more than sifting through material and separating b.s. from fact.