Allen Barra, the wonderful baseball writer/book-reviewer/social critic, recently joined the sports department over at The New York Times. Over the Holiday weekend, Barra wrote stellar columns about Roger Clemens and the 300 win club. I had a chance to speak with Mr. Barra on Sunday afternoon. Here is our exchange regarding the state of the Yankees.
Bronx Banter: Are you planning to be at the Stadium on Monday for the Clemens game?
Allen Barra: I may be. I may have to finish a piece. I would love to be out there for it. I will staunchly maintain, as I said in my book--which I used as background information for the piece I wrote today---that Clemens is the greatest starting pitcher in baseball history. Or certainly one of the top three or four. There is no reason for not considering him in that group. If he had pitched from 1910 through 1925, he would have won 400 games. He would have been Walter Johnson. Or better than Walter Johnson.
BB: Well maybe the Yankees can score a couple of runs for him, God forbid.
Barra: I don't know. This is a bad team. Of course, they are injury-riddled and I can't understand that.
BB: You mean why they are getting hit with the bad breaks?
Barra: Why in the world did they wait to take Bernie Williams out of the line up? It was so obvious that Bernie Williams was hurting. Why would you not take Bernie out and get that knee fixed? Now, it's going to cost them dearly. That was just a terrible, terrible decision by the team. How many double plays do you have to hit into? Their two most consistent hitters were Bernie and Nick Johnson, and now, they're out. I don't understand Mussina's lapses. Nor do I understand what is wrong with Andy Pettitte.
BB: Maybe he lost the Lord somewhere along the way.
Barra: Jason Giambi, we know had an eye infection. I don't know. Does he still have it? Jason Giambi was the American League's best hitter for three years, arguably for four years. All of sudden, you don't want him up there with a runner on third base? Cause he can't lift the ball out of the infield? I don't know what the problem is. I don't know what has happened to this team mentally. This is the same malaise that gripped the Yankees with something like thirty games left last year. They played shitty ball against shitty teams, and they were just terrible. And going into the playoffs, I had no confidence whatsoever that they were going to be able to win. Even if Clemens pitches a good game, you figure he's going to be down 2-1 in the seventh inning. All of a sudden, in the past year and a half, Derek Jeter can't hit for any power. Soriano¡¦
BB: The freak.
Barra: Yeah, but he's beginning to be a like a super version of Juan Samuel.
BB: Or Dave Kingman.
Barra: He's more talented. Especially when you talk about his power and speed, but he can't backhand a ground ball? He can't make contact in key situations. Plus, this is just a team that is way out of whack. The guy who ought to be batting third, fourth or fifth, is batting first. Your lead off hitter is leading the team in runs batted in, doesn't that tell you something a little screwy there? [Torre's ears must have been burning, because Soriano hit third on Sunday and Monday.]
BB: Could it be that this is the end of their run? Is this just the natural cycle of things catching up to them?
Barra: I don't know. I do know that it is really puzzling that there hasn't been one guy who has stepped forward on that team and taken charge. They are rudderless, and they don't seem to have any direction. They don't have any take-charge guy. The closest thing to that is Roger Clemens. And he can go only once every six days.
BB: You don't see Jeter as that guy?
Barra: Have you seen Jeter out in the field? Do you see any sparks coming out of him? I've got to say that this is one of the worst defensive infields I've ever seen. Ventura can still catch balls hit at him, but he can't move to either side. It's just a terrible defensive infield. The whole thing was summarized by that game they played---who was it against? Texas. Batting in the last of the 8th, with the bases loaded and one out.
BB: The Yanks left a zillion guys on base in that game.
Barra: I think they left 8 runners on base in extra innings, but all they had to do is get one home in the eighth, and they got Mariano Rivera pitching [the 9th]. A hit would have scored two runs. Soriano is up there with a 3-1 count. Show some discipline, you know. If it's ball four, the go ahead run scores, and you go to the ninth inning with at least a one-run lead. So he swings at two curveballs out of the strike zone, trying to pull them both. Jeter comes up. You take a pitch in that situation, don't you? To get the run home; try to work the count. Hacks at the first pitch, and hits a routine grounder to second base. So here is Soriano and Jeter playing like rookies in a key situation. And sure enough, they found a way to lose the game. And they don't only lose it; they lose it by several runs.
BB: Those were the games they used to win regularly.
Barra: I'm just appalled at the lack of team discipline. Posada¡¦
BB: He's a mental case.
Barra: I know that catchers are scarce, and that power-hitting catchers are scare, but god, this guy just goes into the tank sometimes. When he's not hitting a home run, he's doesn't make any contribution to the team at all. And then there is his defense. Matsui makes that wonderful relay to Jeter against the Angels, and Jeter turns around and relays the ball home. And where is Posada? He didn't know it was coming; he was on the wrong side of the plate. He's in back of the plate. It's little things like that. Everything they've done like this has come back to bite them in the ass.
BB: Is this something you think they can turn around?
Barra: No I don't. There is something about this team that is just paralyzed. I mean it's entirely possible that when they get all their players back in there, through sheer, overwhelming talent, they could win again. Sure. What could happen is that everybody could just revert to form. But I don't understand why there isn't one player on that team playing up to form. Mariano Rivera and Roger Clemens are the closest ones.
BB: Mondesi has played well.
Barra: The way they've been the last couple of weeks, the other team scores early in the game, and the game is over. Mussina can't be a stopper, Wells can't be a stopper. Weaver, I don't what's his problem. He's not pitching anywhere near the level he pitched with Detroit. Matsui? I'm not going to complain about him. He's dedicated, and he's trying. They ask him to play center field, he does it. I'd like to see some more of that on the team, even if they guy isn't hitting what they expected. Especially if he keeps hitting to the opposite field, I don't care if he hits home runs.
BB: He could be more like a poor man's Wade Boggs.
Barra: And you know, Jeter is not a good short stop. When are the fans going to realize this? When is the team going to realize it? Don't go looking for an expensive, aging third baseman. Move Derek Jeter to his natural position. We hear all this fuss about moving Piazza [from behind the plate to first base], why don't we hear that Jeter ought to playing third base, or second. He doesn't have the range of a shortstop. He's a terrible defensive shortstop. And Soriano is a terrible defensive second baseman. You've got two black holes up the middle, just sucking up runs.
BB: Meanwhile the Red Sox will be down five runs in the eighth and they come back and win the game.
Barra: Well, the Yankees used to be like that. I don't know. I don't understand how everybody tanks at the same time. But that's what is happening. The Yankees have also gotten some terrible calls. On the relay home---the play I was talking about with Posada---the umpire didn't judge his call on whether or not the guy was out---it looked like he was---he judged it on whether Posada was were he should have been. Mondesi hits a home run in extra innings and it bounces off the fucking foul pole---
BB: And nobody in the Yankees dugout said Dick.
Barra: Nobody on the Yankees jumps up and protests? It's about time for Joe Torre or someone, to show a little old fashioned¡¦This team needs, god forbid---I'm sorry to say this---but they really could used Billy Martin right now. I know he'd burn himself out there after two years, but still¡¦I want to see somebody starting hitting somebody at second base.
BB: Posada tried to do that the other night, and got kicked out of the game.
Barra: I know. They could use a little more of that. They could also use somebody trying to work the count a little more. That's the reason they were hitting so well in the first place. I'm so tired of these guys going up a just hacking. Or the other extreme of taking. How many times have you seen somebody go down with runners on base on a called third strike?
BB: Matsui takes a lot of strikes.
Barra: At least he's got an excuse. He's learning the pitchers. What's everybody else's excuse? This team cannot win without Jason Giambi hitting a ton. And I don't understand what's happening, do you?
BB: Not really. I keep looking for signs for him to snap out of it. The guy looks like he's starting to put some good at bats together over the past couple of games and then yesterday (Saturday) in the ninth inning, against the Jays closer, he gets a first pitch fastball, dead over the plate and Giambi swings right through it. When he's on, he murdalizes that pitch. I hear people bitch about, ¡®Why doesn't he just lay one down the third base line?' [Giambi tried to do that in the ninth on Sunday afternoon] But I don't think that is the answer.
Barra: Ted Williams wouldn't do that either. If Giambi was hitting .290, with about 15 home runs, would we be complaining? You might say, ¡®Jeez, he should hit one to the opposite field every now and then.' But that's not what is happening. A weak pop-up to left field with a runner on third base? With no outs? That's where you need Giambi to get on base and bring the tying runner to the plate.
BB: The fans have been sitting on their hands waiting for something to cheer about, and with the Sox coming into the Stadium tomorrow it doesn't get any easier.
Barra: On the other hand, the Sox may be the only team the Yankees can beat.
BB: Why? Just because----
Barra: Because they are the Red Sox. I would not be surprised to see the Yankees beat them two out of three, or even sweep the Sox. I'm not saying it's going to happen, I'm saying it wouldn't surprise me. The Red Sox are the only team right now, who are capable of turning themselves into a worse team than the Yankees.