I'll begin with a note on the Phil Rizzuto coverage. All outlets did a good job, but I thought the Daily News hit every angle yesterday. Even the normally crusty Bob Raissman provided a touching eulogy in his column. On the radio broadcast, beat man Mark Feinsand told a story about how he went to grade school with Rizzuto's granddaughter, and when he'd come for Grandparents Day, he'd sign autographs and talk with every kid in the class. Great information all around.
For anyone who believes athletes when they say they don't read the papers or they don't check the standings or the scoreboards, Curt Schilling has burst your bubble. A compliment from 38pitches.com:
"The Yankees have begun playing like we knew they would, which makes how well we played and the cushion we built a nice thing to see. I expect that team, managed by that guy, to maintain that pace the rest of the year.
The bottom line is the ball's in our court, we have a 6 game lead so for us to not be Division Champions will rest squarely on us. As a player I don't think you can ask for anything more. If we win it's our fault, and if we lose it it's our fault as well. No relying on someone to beat someone for it to work out for us. Now we spend the off day in Baltimore and go up against a team playing very well right now. We don't need any one thing to get where we are going, we just need to play better as a team, which we will."
That post was from last Thursday, the 9th, and since then the Yankees have nearly cut that six-game lead in half. Counting Monday's victory over the Orioles, the Yankees are 30-13 since July 1, playing a remarkable stretch of .698 ball to vault over seven teams into the Wild Card lead, and to our delight and the New Englanders' dismay, within striking distance of the Red Sox. In only one week have the Yankees lost three games that was July 26, 27 and 28, when they lost the last of a four-game set in Kansas City and the first two games of a three-game weekender at Camden Yards.
Schilling offers the Yankees and Joe Torre a great deal of respect, and rightfully so, but I'm not sure I agree with him on the point of maintaining that pace throughout the year. The offense has bailed out periodically mediocre starting pitching, more regularly mediocre middle relief, and in his last three appearances, a vulnerable Mariano Rivera. How many more 7-6, 8-5 games can be won? I don't know how the Yankees can maintain this pace with the pitching staff still in such a state of flux. The Jeff Karstens/Jim Brower extravaganza from Tuesday night is proof of that. At least Phil Hughes battled back after a rough beginning to keep the Yankees within range for Shelley Duncan's game-tying homer.
Talking about the Yankees and Red Sox with a couple of co-workers, one of whom happens to be a reasonable Sox fan, there is a sense that the Nation has a sense of "here we go again," largely due to the Eric Gagne acquisition.
"I really didn't like the Gagne trade, because it threw off the balance in the bullpen," he said. Seeing how Terry Francona used him Sunday at Baltimore, there's something to it. Why take out Hideki Okajima, who's holding righties to a .180 average and is a junkballer that can get Kevin Millar a dead pull-hitter -- to chase something away, in favor of the bespectacled Quebecois? Francona has used him as if out of obligation, not unlike how Joe Torre thrust Gary Sheffield into the first base/DH role last September.
My response to my co-worker was that leaving Gagne for the Red Sox could be the best deal Brian Cashman didn't make. He opted for youth, and it's paid off, with Joba Chamberlain looking Bobby Jenks circa 2005, while Gagne (whose middle name is Serge; I'm officially calling him "Serge" from now on) looks like Jon Favreau in a Red Sox uni.
Here are the lines of Serge and Joba, since Aug. 1 (data through Monday, 8/13):
The trend of holding firm has been the spark for the Yankees in the past two years: first, Cashman's decision to hold onto Chien-Ming Wang and Robinson Cano when the Diamondbacks and Marlins wanted both of them during the winter of 2004 as part of the Randy Johnson deal was beneficial, as the two rookies helped lead the second half charge that sparked a division title. Last season, Melky Cabrera proved he was worthy of an everyday job, admirably subbing in left field for Hideki Matsui and leading the AL in outfield assists. Cashman could have dumped him over the winter, but did not.
(Buster Olney goes so far as to say a different Yankees GM might not have had Cashman's fortitude to stand firm and maintain the "build from within" edict.)
Cabrera has arguably been the most important player in the Yankees' lineup since the All-Star break. Cabrera's surge (Serge?) will test Joe Torre's loyalty to the veterans Damon and Giambi, who would best serve the lineup by not playing every day. Through four games, Torre has played it cool and smart. The next four series -- versus Detroit, the Los Angeles Angels who play in Anaheim like the Rams used to, Detroit again, and the Red Sox -- could be a precursor to Torre's playoff lineup, should the Yankees advance. Cabrera, whether he plays center, left or right, should be in there every day. Rotating Damon, Giambi, Matsui and Duncan at DH is a good move.
According to the Post's George King, Damon is fine not playing every day. And Suzyn Waldman noted on Sunday's radio broadcast that Giambi doesn't want to do anything to "muck things up." Torre seems committed to not repeating the 1B/DH fiasco of last September, when all hell broke loose trying to find a way for Gary Sheffield to play every day.
John Sterling was more concerned with Damon during the same broadcast I'll admit, I haven't caught too many games on TV during the weekends because I've been doing a lot of driving saying, "I believe Johnny Damon will be going to the Don Mattingly school of first base. That's not to say Damon can't play first base he's an athlete but he needs to find a way into the lineup. It's a good problem for Joe [Torre] to have." Damon and Giambi have both been banged up. They're a combined 69 years old. If they play three or four games per week each, the team will still be able to function.
I often tell people that I'm not a Yankee fan anymore, that I shed my fandom when I worked at YES in order to observe a level of fairness in setting the dot.com's editorial agenda. (I don't say "objectivity" because there's no such thing, but that's a different blog. And I digress )
While I didn't care as much about wins and losses on a day-to-day basis, I found myself rooting for certain players. Mariano Rivera is all class, as are Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter. Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera have grown up in two-plus years with the team. Another guy I'm rooting for is Wilson Betemit. I haven't met him or had the chance to interview him as I did with the other players, but I have met his father and brother. Their pictures sit in a photo album along with many others from a trip I took to the Dominican Republic seven years ago, where I spent three weeks studying the culture of baseball. When the Yankees acquired Betemit, my thoughts immediately turned to Los Mina, a rough neighborhood in Santo Domingo, where Wilson was discovered. Los Mina was one of the places my study group visited. There, Wilson's father ran a YMCA-type youth academy. Upon our arrival at Mr. Betemit's academy, we donated several bags of baseball equipment, including gloves, bats, balls, helmets, and catcher's gear.
The elder Betemit was a barrel-chested man, proud of his son, who was working his way through the Braves system at the time. He used Wilson as an example of what hard work and discipline can do for kids who grew up poor like he did. Mr. Betemit treated the YMCA kids as his own. He disciplined them if they misbehaved, scheduled schooling and religious education during the day, and taught them to respect authority. The kids, aged 4-16, walked those grounds with a different sense of purpose than those in Boca Chica or San Pedro de Macoris.
Wilson's younger brother, Wascar, an infielder like his brother, was getting looks from the Minnesota Twins at the time. The few hours I spent watching him field, he never stopped smiling.
I've heard that Mr. Betemit's academy no longer exists. I don't know what happened to Wascar, either. Time passes, you lose touch. If I get to the Stadium and have a chance to interview Wilson, I'll be sure to ask him how his family is doing.