Book Review – Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius by Bill Pennington

Books, MLB

Which was Billy Martin?

Baseball wizard?

Scrappy, determined firebrand?

Two-fisted drinker and two-fisted puncher?

Egomaniacal, self-conscious, self-destructive innovator?

Generous and kind?

Religious and sorrowful?

Reckless womanizer?

Baiter of players, umpires, beat writers, front office folk, and owners?

All of the above?

The answers and more of what made Billy what he was are clear in Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius by Bill Pennington.

There’s no need to refer to him as “Martin” as would be generally appropriate in discussing a biography. His first name is all that is required to know who’s being referred to when discussing baseball from the 1950s when he became Casey Stengel’s pet, a post-season star and leader for the perennial champion New York Yankees and onward through time as he made his way as a nomadic and explosive journeyman player and manager from the late 1950s through to his death in 1989.

From a relatively destitute childhood in Oakland, gazing at the far off glory of Major League Baseball while brushing up against it with local big leaguers who still called the area home and Bay Area product, fellow Italian Joe DiMaggio, Billy was not to be denied. If he wasn’t going to be the prototypical bonus baby that big league clubs congregated around offering vast sums of money to sign with them, he’d force his way onto their radar with his hustle, intelligence, intensity and fearlessness.

Those same attributes carried him throughout a notoriously underrated big league playing career in which he was an irreplaceable cog for four pennant winners and three World Series champions.

Of course, Billy’s reputation from his childhood as someone who was ready and willing to stand up for himself – he’d taken boxing lessons as a youth – and a drinker and carouser are also imperative parts of the story that Pennington tells. These are integral to the character that grew to be larger than life and simultaneously sad and proud; pathetic and admirable. While Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford might have gotten into just as much mischief as Billy, it was always that “bad influence” Billy Martin who received the blame if things went wrong. This was evident in the Copacabana incident when, for once, it appeared that Billy was completely innocent but got the blame and a ticket out of New York anyway.

Once his playing career ended, he worked his way up through the ranks as a coach and manager who owners knew would probably help their teams win, but would also force them to fire him for an off-field incident that couldn’t be covered up with ambiguity or a quiet payoff.

No biography about Billy would be complete without discussing the fights. There were the famous ones with Jim Brewer, Dave Boswell, Ed Whitson, the marshmallow salesman, and the Twins’ traveling secretary to name just a few. Then there were the near-fights with Reggie Jackson and dozens of others in which Billy simply walked away because of the war of attrition having a reputation of a brawler relegated him to.

The dichotomy that was Billy Martin is clearly evident in the pages of Pennington’s book. One minute he would be buying drinks for an entire bar full of patrons and the next minute someone would say the wrong thing, make the wrong move and be lying on the floor contemplating an assault charge and a lawsuit against the famous big league manager whose fists were quicker than his temper and shattered the mental dam of hesitating for fear of long-term consequences that most of us have.

The battles with Reggie (another person for whom the first name is enough) take up a substantial part of the narrative with good reason. While it might be seen as a player and manager who didn’t get along and couldn’t stand the sight of each other, it goes deeper than that. Pennington indicates that one of the main reasons they didn’t get along is because they were basically the same personalities with an inevitable clash occurring not as a matter of circumstance, but as a matter of course. Both were egomaniacal, paranoid, self-loathing, self-loving, loud, and exhibited the diametrically opposed combination of being terrified and unafraid.

Billy’s dislike of Reggie was not linked to Reggie’s shortcomings as a player, but his unquenched desire to draw attention to himself at the expense of anyone who stood in his way – including the manager who wanted the credit for what the team accomplished. It certainly didn’t help that Reggie was signed against the wishes of Billy, who preferred Joe Rudi. Nor did the fact that Reggie walked into camp and immediately alienated the veteran working class, team-centric types like Thurman Munson, Graig Nettles, and Sparky Lyle with whom Billy had bonded. Billy, considering himself the ultimate team man, was saddled with a player whose main function was to bask in the spotlight by any means necessary. Both men seemed to delight in garnering a reaction from the other and, in the end, perhaps needed one another to a degree that they would be loath to admit.

There’s no pigeonholing Billy. For those who considered him a purely bad guy, they speak from experience. For those, like Rickey Henderson, who consider him a great, caring guy who was a catalyst to their careers because he believed in them when no one else did, they too speak from experience. Much is made of coaching “trees” and managerial strategies that are passed down from one to the other over the decades, but Billy’s lineage is clear in the work that Tony La Russa did in his Hall of Fame career as he learned to concern himself with what was best for the team and not care about the reaction. It’s also evident in the work of Buck Showalter, who Billy took under his wing as a young spring training coach in 1988 during Billy’s final go-round as Yankees’ manager as Showalter was starting his climb from minor league manager to his current status as one of baseball’s best tacticians.

Tactics were the foundation to what made Billy so great as a manager. He spotted weaknesses and exploited them. He was forever going for the deep strike with aggressiveness and tailored his decisions to what the players could do best and what rattled the opponents the the highest degree. On the same token, there was rarely a “tomorrow” with Billy. It was win today; do what’s fun today; get the girl today; go get drunk today; worry about tomorrow tomorrow.

That’s not the blueprint to having a long career.

A common question about him is whether or not his tactics would translate to the new era of mathematical formulas, all-powerful general managers, players with contracts paying them one-third of a billion dollars, a smothering media, know nothing “experts”, bloggers, Twitter and numerous other distractions that make the 1970s and 80s seem like the Sixth Century. The answer is as nuanced as Billy himself. He would likely have adapted to a certain degree while maintaining the principles he learned from in-the-trenches work as a student of the game, but he also would have detonated when the daily questions arose as to why he used X reliever instead of Y reliever; why he batted this player fourth when the numbers indicate that batter should be batting second; and why he decided that ordering a steal of home was a smart move given the low percentage of its success.

Add in a 20-something kid with a degree from Harvard who’d never picked up a baseball in his life walking into his office and telling him that the new algorithm the sabermetrics department developed wasn’t being implemented as he was instructed and it’s hard to see him adapting to the degree that he would have had to to survive. Then again, he never survived in any one place for very long anyway. There might not have been a difference between then and now.

That’s just on the field.

His behaviors away from the park were a source of trouble that he never fully reined in or even tried to tamp down. His turbulent off-field life would have set off thousands of YouTube views whether it was a bar brawl, a drunken escapade, a confrontation with a reporter, or an accusation from one of the multitudes of women he insatiably chased.

He managed for five different organizations and had five different tenures as George Steinbrenner’s field boss. He turned each and every one of those teams around. He also forced the management to fire him for reasons on and off the field. Had he not died, there absolutely would have been at least one more tenure as Yankees’ manager – the book out-and-out says so. Regardless of talent level, attitude and situations, he made winners of all of them with his aggressive style of play. There was also a willing trade-off that his employers made knowing that there was going to be an incident that would make it necessary for them to fire him. Had Billy thought ahead off the field as well as he did on the field, there wouldn’t have been a problem. But that wasn’t his style.

Billy’s son implies that the constant turmoil might have been intentional on the part of his father; that Billy knew he grew complacent if he was in any one place for too long; that he couldn’t live without the action. This can explain why, when so many – almost all – of his publicly known fights occurred when he was sitting and drinking in some bar, he continued going to bars. He went drinking the night he died in that car crash in upstate New York. In a dramatic sense of a story with an unavoidable and expected ending, the crash was the only way Billy’s life could possibly have concluded.

A person who put forethought into what could happen to his future if something were to occur and had even the barest sense of self-preservation would have stopped drinking and quit living life at ten times the speed of everyone else.

Not Billy.

He refused to conform in a similar manner to refusing to alter his managerial style when he knew he was fundamentally right. His competitiveness dictated that he never back down even if it was in his interests to do so. Therefore, he never backed down. It gained him almost everything he earned and it cost him even more. That said, if he had backed down, maybe he never would have made it in the first place. On some level, he knew that and acted accordingly. It made him and it broke him on every conceivable level and made him what he was: a man who couldn’t be placed into a single category not because he tried to be that way, but because he couldn’t be any other way and succeed in the way he did.

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Congratulations Ichiro On Hit Number 4,000!! (Make Sure You Purchase Your Commemorative T-Shirt On The Grand Concourse)

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Just remember one thing when quantifying Ichiro Suzuki’s 4,000 combined hits in Japan and North America: Kei Igawa was considered a “star” pitcher in Japan with these gaudy numbers before joining the Yankees. Considering the fact that he was pitching for a powerhouse Yankees team in 2007 and 2008, Igawa could have been less than mediocre and, based on his attendance record, won 12 to 15 games. Instead, in 16 games, the Yankees got an evil 6.66 ERA for their $46 million.

This is not to decry Ichiro’s accomplishment, but how can we legitimately consider this to be worthy of all the attention it’s getting as something other than an attempt on the part of the Yankees to sell some T-shirts? It may not be as silly as my snide Twitter crack that we should calculate O.J. Simpson’s accumulated yards in the white Bronco chase and add them to his NFL rushing total, but it’s in the vicinity.

Because of his contact with an agent, Reggie Bush’s USC football records were wiped out, he surrendered his Heisman Trophy and USC’s wins in 2005 were vacated. Since he was benefiting from these relationships while in college, couldn’t it be argued that he was technically receiving remuneration for his work and was therefore a professional? Shouldn’t his college rushing yards be added to his NFL totals?

You see where I’m going here.

The argument with Ichiro is that he was such an accomplished hitter in the major leagues that he would have had a vast number of hits—probably coming close to 4,000 by now—if he’d spent his entire career in North America. I don’t doubt it. But we can’t give legitimate accolades for a record of this nature based on “probably would have” vs. “would have” and “did.”

If Babe Ruth had been a hitter for his entire career rather than spending his first five seasons with the Red Sox as a pitcher, how many home runs would he have hit? If Josh Gibson or Satchel Paige had been allowed to play in the majors rather than being relegated to the Negro Leagues, what could they have done? There are no answers.

Then we get into the Japan-North America comparison. Do Randy Bass’s 202 homers in Japan get added to his nine big league homers to make 211? Does he jump ahead of Kirby Puckett (207) and Roberto Alomar (210) on the career list?

With a clear stake in the perception of being the top hit-getter in baseball history, Pete Rose diminished Ichiro’s hit total as not being equal in difficulty to his. Any comment Rose made was probably done during a break in relentlessly signing bats, balls and other memorabilia to accrue cash, but he’s not wrong in scoffing at the concept that Ichiro’s 4,000 hits are in any way equivalent to his 4,256 hits. Although he’s banned from baseball and unable to receive Hall of Fame induction, Rose is the true hit king whether Ichiro “passes” him in the next couple of years or not.

The Yankees’ celebration of the achievement was relatively muted compared to what they’ve done for such occurrences in the past. They’ve retired numbers they shouldn’t have retired (Reggie Jackson, Billy Martin, Roger Maris) and created “history” out of thin air even if it isn’t actual history in any way other than to suit the narrative. Michael Kay didn’t have a long-winded and poorly written moment-infringing speech prepared similar to the pablum he recited when Derek Jeter collected his 3,000th hit. The Yankees came out of the dugout to congratulate Ichiro and there will probably be a small ceremony at some point (to go along with the T-shirts), but Ichiro had 2,533 of his hits with the Mariners. His Yankees numbers are those of a fading veteran hanging on and collecting more numbers.

It was handled professionally and appropriately by the Yankees. The problem with this is the idea that there’s a connection between what Ichiro did in Japan and in the majors. There’s not unless you want to start going down that slide to count everything any player has ever done anywhere as part of his “professional” resume. That slide leads back to Igawa. He was a horrible pitcher for the Yankees who didn’t belong in the big leagues and was a star in Japan. For every Yu Darvish, how many pitchers are there like Igawa in Japan against whom Ichiro was getting his hits? Probably a lot. And that means the 4,000 hits is just a number that’s being lost in translation from Japanese to English. It’s an impressive number in context, but a number nonetheless.




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MLB’s Expanded Replay—Did They Miss Another Call?

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Baseball’s incurable habit for getting things wrong has grown so common that even when they get something right, they can’t win. In cases like the performance enhancing drug investigation, their crackdown is almost a doubling-down on the wrong to trample on players’ rights and the collective bargaining agreement. The players brought much of it on themselves, but from the time the 2003 PED test results were leaked, there’s been a concerted effort on the part of baseball to “get” the players who are using PEDs even if that means trusting someone so furtive and lacking in credibility as Anthony Boesch. That’s not a defense of Ryan Braun, Alex Rodriguez or any other player who went to Biogenesis, just an analysis that MLB’s methods weren’t exactly clean themselves. They got down in the dirt to get the dirty, exhibiting audacious hypocricy for cracking down on a culture that they cultivated themselves. Now they’re dirty—well, dirtier—too. They’ve gotten their results, but it comes at an obvious cost that’s yet to be determined.

As the fallout from the Biogenesis suspensions continues to be felt with A-Rod’s continuing soap opera, MLB finally got something right on the money with their expansion of instant replay. The details of what they’re doing can be found here, but the gist is:

  • Managers will be given one challenge for the first six innings of the game and two from the seventh inning on.
  • There will be no challenges on judgment calls such as balls and strikes, check swings and hit by pitches.
  • The plan was created with significant guidance from Joe Torre, Tony LaRussa and John Schuerholz.
  • The players, owners and umpires still have to approve it.

I think this is as close as MLB or any sports organizing body can come to getting it right. The arguments that have been presented against it are selfish and weak. Mike Francesa had callers complaining about it yesterday.

One said that he didn’t want to have to wait for a challenge to be upheld or rejected before celebrating if Derek Jeter hits a game-winning single to win game seven of the World Series. I don’t think he’s got anything to worry about regarding the scenario he presented considering that the Yankees aren’t making the playoffs and Jeter is building a lavish home on the disabled list. As far as the spontaneity, it’s far better than the umpire getting the call wrong and having a respectable career sullied for it as Don Denkinger did for his gaffe in the 1985 World Series between the Cardinals and Royals with the Cardinals losing their chance to win a title.

Another caller complained that the manager-umpire arguments wouldn’t be as prevalent or intense. I don’t think there will be that great a decrease in the number of ejections and probably slightly fewer arguments. If you watched Bobby Cox for his entire managerial career, you’ll know that the vast majority of his record number of ejections came as a result of arguing ball and strike calls. That’s not reviewable and will still be fodder for great debate until MLB takes the next logical step and implements a universal strike zone and forces the umpires to adhere to it. The human element will still be in baseball, but it won’t result in calls so badly blown that teams wind up losing because of them. The number of managers who put on a great show as Lou Piniella, Earl Weaver and Billy Martin used to are gone. And trust me, there will still be enough mistakes made that arguments will happen.

This system won’t take a lot of time, it won’t interfere with the game, and it will make the calls more accurate. It’s not 1960, 1980 or even 2000. Baseball was so resistant to the implementation of a logical replay system that they did nothing to contradict the reputation of the game as stuck in a different century—the 19th. The bottom line is that no matter what they did, there would be a percentage of people who would complain about it for its own sake. They’ve made the game better with this decision. That’s all that counts.

Now, to do something about getting the DH put into the National League. Then we’ll be in business.

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The Mets’ Wally Problem

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There was a mini-storm regarding the Mets decision to send Ike Davis down to Triple A Las Vegas this week not because they did it (they had to); and not because Davis complained about it publicly (it would take an audacity unmeasurable with current available tools for him to do so), but because Las Vegas manager Wally Backman went on WFAN with Mike Francesa on Monday and expressed his opinion as to what’s wrong with Davis and what he’s planning to do to fix it.

Some in the Mets organization (presumably those who have been working with Davis—futilely) were offended that Backman so openly went against what they’ve been doing with the first baseman even though what they’ve been doing has yielded a hitter with home run champion potential batting .161 with 4 homers in 207 plate appearances in 2013. This minor dustup has exacerbated the problem the Mets have as they endure a 2013 season in which they’re likely to lose 95 games and are preparing to use the freed up money from the contract expirations of Johan Santana and Jason Bay to acquire name free agents to make a move in 2014. Any veteran acquisitions along the lines of Shin-Soo Choo and/or Jacoby Ellsbury would be done to add to David Wright, Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, Daniel Murphy, Jonathon Niese and Bobby Parnell. Travis d’Arnaud is also on the way.

Is Davis part of the future? He’s going to have to be right now because he has no trade value and the team doesn’t have a ready-made first baseman to replace him. The only choice they currently have is to get Davis straight and that led to the demotion to Triple A.

The Backman comments came from a miscommunication or Backman simply ignoring what he was told when it came to what was going to be with Davis. The Mets are no longer a club where the major league staff will say and do one thing and the minor league staff will say and do another. There’s not a lack of cohesion from the lowest levels of the minor leagues and going step-by-step to different levels with a multitude of hitting and pitching coaches imparting diametrically opposed theories to clog the heads of the youngsters so they don’t know what’s what when they go from one place to the other as they listen to everyone. For better or worse, the way Dave Hudgens teaches hitting at the big league level is how hitting is to be taught all the way through the organization. And that’s where the disconnect came with Backman.

The front office and Backman had different ideas as to what was going to occur with Davis in Triple A. The Mets major league front office and on-field staff wanted Davis to go to Las Vegas and not worry about media attention, endless questions as to what’s wrong and what he would do in the event that he was demoted, and the constant tweaking to his batting stance and approach to the tune of having a different one from game-to-game and at bat-to-at bat. Backman was under the impression that the Mets were sending Davis down to be “fixed” and that he was the one to do it.

The only way to determine who’s right and who’s wrong here is whether it works because there’s no “right” or “wrong.” If Backman sits Davis down and gets into an old-school “your head is getting in the way of your abilities” and Davis starts hitting, then Backman will have been “right.” If it was a breather he needed to get away from the constant scrutiny, then the front office will have been “right.” Or everyone will have been “right.” Or everyone will have been “wrong.” It might just come down to Davis himself.

Regardless, it’s these types of territorial battles that get in the way of actually developing and correcting players and it’s precisely what the Mets were trying to get away from when they brought Sandy Alderson onboard as GM.

As for Backman and his hopes to manage the Mets one day, it’s still up in the air and unlikely. Reports have surfaced that there is no chance that Alderson will ever hire Backman. That doesn’t mean that ownership won’t overrule Alderson, but given the way Alderson has done essentially whatever he’s wanted since taking over, they probably won’t deviate now just as they’re about to get better. Fred and Jeff Wilpon accepted that the entire organization needed to be rebuilt without the desperation that led to the contracts such as the one Bay signed. They’re taking the hits and dealing with the fallout of the past three years looking forward to the farm system and loosened purse strings building a sustainable success. They’re not going to undercut him and force Backman on him even if Terry Collins is dismissed after the season.

Much like Collins can’t be blamed for the current state of the Mets big league product, nor is it as certain as those in the media and fanbase portray it that Backman is the answer to all the Mets’ problems. As much of a competitor and baseball rat that Backman is, he has had off-field issues and how he handles the day-to-day questioning and pressure he’ll face as a manager in New York with expectations hovering over him has the potential to result in a Billy Martin-style wave of self-destructiveness. Placating the fans and Backman-supporters in the media would bring a brief bout of happiness and good press that would disappear within a month if the team continued to play under Backman as they did under Collins. Or he might be just what they need. There’s no way of knowing.

Backman has patiently bided his time and rebuilt his image after the embarrassing hiring and immediate firing as manager of the Diamondbacks after he didn’t inform them of his DUI and financial problems during the interview. He’s worked his way up through the Mets organization managing from rung-to-rung and is right below the spot he truly and openly wants. One of Backman’s strengths is also a weakness: he has no pretense. He wants the Mets job and doesn’t care who knows it. The failure to adequately play politics has alienated him with many in the organization who are tired of looking over their shoulder at a popular and potentially good manager who is passive aggressively campaigning for the managerial position. Other minor league managers and bench coaches want managerial jobs, but are more adept at knowing their place and skillfully putting up a front of loyalty and humility. That’s not Backman. Backman is, “You’re goddamn right I could do a great job as manager.” It won’t endear him to people in the organization who don’t want to know that’s the opinion of their Triple A manager.

If the Mets continue on the trajectory they’re currently on, they cannot possibly bring Collins—in the final year of his contract—back for 2014 when they’re seriously intent on jumping into the fringes of contention if not outright challenging for the division title next year. They could roll the dice on Backman; they could promote one of their own coaches Tim Teufel or Bob Geren; they could bring in an available and competent veteran manager like Jim Tracy; or they could hire another club’s bench coach who’s waiting for a shot like Dave Martinez.

What I believe will happen, though, is this: The Angels are in worse shape than the Mets with a massive payroll and expectations, nine games under .500, going nowhere and in rampant disarray. Angels owner Arte Moreno will not sit quietly after spending all of this money to make the Angels into a World Series contender and being rewarded with a team closer to the woeful Astros than the first place A’s. But manager Mike Scioscia has a contract through 2018 and Moreno only recently hired GM Jerry Dipoto. Scioscia and Dipoto are not on the same page and Scioscia’s style clearly isn’t working anymore with the type of team that Dipoto and Moreno have handed him. Another wrench in making a change is that the Dodgers are likely to be looking for a new manager and Scioscia is a popular former Dodger who is precisely what their fans want and their players need. The last thing Moreno will want to see is Scioscia picking up and going to the Dodgers days after he’s fired from the Angels.

Here’s the solution: Trade Scioscia to the Mets.

If the Mets are looking for a new manager and a name manager, they’d have to give someone established with Scioscia’s resume a 4-5 year deal anyway. Scioscia is already signed through 2018 with an opt-out after 2015. He’d relish the opportunity to enter a new clubhouse in a new city with a load of young talent and none of the drama and onerous financial obligations with nonexistent communication between the front office and the manager that he’s facing in Anaheim. Moreno wouldn’t have to worry about the back of the Los Angeles newspapers screaming about what a great job Scioscia’s doing with the Dodgers as the Angels face an uncertain future and significant retooling. Sending him across the country and getting out from under the contract while acquiring a couple of mediocre minor leaguers to justify it would fill everyone’s needs simultaneously.

Ironically, it was Scioscia who took over as fulltime Angels manager in 2000 after Collins had been fired at mid-season the year before and replaced on an interim basis by Joe Maddon. It could happen again with the Mets and they can only hope that the extended run of success that the Angels enjoyed with Scioscia’s steady leadership is replicated in New York.

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Dealing With The Closer Issue

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Complaining about closers is like complaining about the weather: everyone talks about it, but no one does anything about it. The difference between the weather and closers is that something can be done about closers.

Amid all the talk about “what to do” with struggling relievers Jim Johnson and Fernando Rodney and the references of clubs who have found unheralded veterans to take over as their closer like the Cardinals with Edward Mujica and the Pirates with Jason Grilli, no one is addressing the fundamental problems with needing to have an “established” closer. Here they are and what to do about them.

Veteran relievers like to know their roles.

Managers like Whitey Herzog, Sparky Anderson, Billy Martin and Earl Weaver had the ability to tell their players that their “role” is to pitch when they tell them to pitch. Nowadays even managers who are relatively entrenched in their jobs like Joe Maddon have to have the players on their side to succeed. The Rays are a different story because they’re not paying any of their relievers big money and can interchange them if need be, but they don’t because Maddon doesn’t operate that way until it’s absolutely necessary.

Other clubs don’t have that luxury. They don’t want to upset the applecart and cause a domino effect of people not knowing when they’re going to pitch; not knowing if a pitcher can mentally handle the role of pitching the ninth inning; and don’t want to hear the whining and deal with the aftermath if there’s not someone established to replace the closer who’s having an issue. Rodney was only the Rays’ closer last season because Kyle Farnsworth (a foundling who in 2011 had a career year similar to Rodney in 2012) got hurt.

Until managers have the backing of the front office and have a group of relievers who are just happy to have the job in the big leagues, there’s no escaping the reality of having to placate the players to keep clubhouse harmony.

Stop paying for mediocrity in a replaceable role.

The Phillies and Yankees are paying big money for their closers Jonathan Papelbon and Mariano Rivera, but these are the elite at the position. Other clubs who have overpaid for closers include the Dodgers with Brandon League, the Red Sox with money and traded players to get Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan, the Nationals with Rafael Soriano, and the Marlins who paid a chunk of Heath Bell’s salary to get him out of the clubhouse.

Bell has taken over for the injured J.J. Putz with the Diamondbacks and pitched well. The Cubs, in desperation, replaced both Carlos Marmol ($9.8 million in 2013) and Kyuji Fujikawa (guaranteed $9.5 million through 2014) with Kevin Gregg. The same Kevin Gregg who was in spring training with the Dodgers and released, signed by the Cubs—for whom he struggled as their closer when they were trying to contend in 2009—as a veteran insurance policy just in case. “Just in case” happened and Gregg has gone unscored upon and saved 6 games in 14 appearances.

As long as teams are paying closers big money, closers will have to stay in the role far longer than performance would dictate in an effort to justify the contract. It’s a vicious circle that teams fall into when they overpay for “established” closers. When the paying stops, so too will the necessity to keep pitching them.

Find a manager who can be flexible.

A manager stops thinking when it gets to the ninth inning by shutting off the logical remnants of his brain to put his closer into the game. If it’s Rivera or Papelbon, this is fine. If it’s anyone else, perhaps it would be wiser to use a lefty specialist if the situation calls for it. If Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are hitting back-to-back and a club has Randy Choate in its bullpen, would it make sense to use a righty whether it’s the ninth inning and “his” inning or not?

Maddon is flexible in his thinking and has the support of the front office to remove Rodney from the role if need be. One option that hasn’t been discussed for the Rays is minor league starter Chris Archer to take over as closer in the second half of the season. With the Rays, anything is possible. With other teams, they not only don’t want to exacerbate the problem by shuffling the entire deck, but the manager is going to panic if he doesn’t have his “ninth inning guy” to close. Even a veteran manager like Jim Leyland isn’t immune to it and a pitcher the front office didn’t want back—Jose Valverde—is now closing again because their handpicked choice Bruce Rondon couldn’t seize his spring training opportunity and the “closer by committee” was on the way to giving Leyland a heart attack, a nervous breakdown or both.

The solution.

There is no solution right now. Until teams make the conscious decision to stop paying relievers upwards of $10 million, there will constantly be the “established” closer. It’s a fundamental fact of business that if there isn’t any money in a job, fewer people who expect to make a lot of money and have the capability to make a lot of money in another position are going to want to take it. Finding replaceable arms who can be used wherever and whenever they’re told to pitch, ignore the save stat, and placed in a situation to be successful instead of how it’s done now will eliminate the need to pay for the ninth inning arm and take all the negative side effects that go along with it. Games will still get blown in the late innings, but at least it won’t be as expensive and will probably happen with an equal frequency. It’s evolution. And evolution doesn’t happen overnight, if it happens at all.

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Billy Martin, Twitter and the Pat Burrell-Jon Heyman “Thing”

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Just imagine the famously pugilistic Billy Martin managing today with all the scrutiny and rapid fire information that winds up on the internet seconds after it happened. Also imagine what the reaction would be if a reporter made public a snarky comment that in years past would have been saved for a whisper to a colleague or for a laugh over beers in the hotel bar long after the game stories had been filed and where there was a reasonable level of plausible deniability to assert, “I didn’t say that,” before Martin was able to throw a punch. Martin probably would’ve thrown the punch anyway, but that’s beside the point.

If Martin were a manager today, he wouldn’t last long. With all the attention to his off-field activities, press conferences, questions asked regarding his strategies and criticisms around the world, people in suits telling him how to do his job, pitch counts, rules, regulations and everything else that’s a job hazard nowadays, he’d get fired quickly.

There are few characters like Martin left and if they are, they’re not managing. But the dynamic of baseball people getting angry enough to want to fight a reporter nearly came to pass last week when Giants’ scout and former player Pat Burrell tried to fight CBS reporter Jon Heyman in a bar. According to the linked story, Kevin Millar broke it up and the general consensus was that Heyman was lucky that the 6’4”, 235 pound Burrell didn’t get to him. I don’t know that that’s necessarily the case. Just because Heyman has a tendency to block people who say “boo” to him on Twitter and takes the tone of a nebbish doesn’t mean he’s an easy mark. It would’ve been far worse for Burrell had he gone after Heyman and gotten beaten up than if he’d satisfied whatever was eating at him to get angry enough to start something in the first place.

Would Martin have taken a poke at the late reporter Henry Hecht? The two despised each other to a remarkable degree. The diminutive Hecht presumably had no chance against Martin, but the revenge would’ve been the fallout and Martin’s inevitable firing.

In this era, we’re going to see more of these confrontations between a reporter and a baseball person. It’s not because of what was tweeted, but specifically because it was on social media and crossed the line from reporter or even columnist to a wise guy making a comment from the safety of his computer or phone that he would never say directly because it was: A) unprofessional; and B) dangerous because he’d get hit.

Heyman almost got hit.

Outlets like Twitter tend to be stream of consciousness and immediate, but when tweeting something that could be deemed offensive—funny or not—perhaps the circuit breaker of, “Would I say this if I might run into this person?” would be wisely adhered to, especially when there’s a genuine possibility that you will.

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Managers Traded For Players

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To the best of my research, managers have been traded six times in baseball history. It wasn’t always player for manager and the criticism the Red Sox are receiving for trading infielder Mike Aviles for righty pitcher David Carpenter and the rights to speak to John Farrell is stereotypical and silly. With it only having happened six times, it’s not a large enough sample size to say it’s not going to work. Also, history has proven that if a manager doesn’t work out in other spots, he might in another. Casey Stengel had one winning season (and that was only 2 games over .500) in nine years as a manager with the Braves and Dodgers before going down to the minor leagues between 1944 and 1948 where he had success he’d never had in the big leagues. The Yankees hired him in 1949 and he won 7 championships and 10 pennants in 12 years.

Here are the manager trades.

Jimmy Dykes for Joe Gordon—August 3, 1960

The genesis of this trade was originally a joke between Tigers’ GM Bill DeWitt and Indians’ GM Frank Lane, but as their teams faded they basically said, “Why not?”

Gordon was managing the Indians and Dykes the Tigers when they were traded for one another. Dykes was 63 when the trade was made and had never finished higher than third place while managing the White Sox, Athletics, Orioles, Reds, and Tigers. At the time of the trade, the Tigers record was 44-52 and they were in sixth place in the American League. Gordon’s Indians were 49-46 and in fourth place.

Interestingly, Dykes was the second Philadelphia Athletics manager in their history after Connie Mack was running things from 1901-1950.

Gordon has been popping up as a background performer in other dramas recently. As the debate regarding the American League MVP between Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout reached a critical mass in the waning days of the regular season, Cabrera’s Triple Crown was a point of contention as it was stacked up against Trout’s higher WAR, superior defense, and perceived overall larger contribution. The Hall of Famer Gordon won the MVP in 1942 while playing for the Yankees over Ted Williams even though Williams won the Triple Crown. You can read about that and other MVP/Triple Crown controversies here.

Gordon had a contract to manage the Tigers for 1961, but asked for his release and it was granted so he could take over the Kansas City A’s where his former GM with the Indians, Lane, was the new GM under the A’s new owner Charlie Finley.

Do you need a family tree yet?

Gordon had a contract with the A’s through 1962, but was fired with the team at 26-33. He was replaced by Hank Bauer. This was long before anyone knew who or what Finley was. Gordon was only 46 at the time of his firing by the A’s, but only managed again in 1969 with the expansion Kansas City Royals. (Finley had moved the A’s to Oakland in 1968.) Gordon’s 1969 Royals went 69-93 and he stepped down after the season. On that 1969 Royals team was a hotheaded 25-year-old who won Rookie of the Year and was, as a manager, traded for a player—Lou Piniella.

Now you do need a family tree.

Dykes managed the Indians in 1961. They finished in fifth place with a 78-83 record and that was his last season, at age 64, as a big league manager.

Gil Hodges for Bill Denehy and $100,000

The Mets traded the right handed pitcher Denehy to the Senators for the rights to their manager Hodges. Hodges was a New York legend from his days with the Dodgers and, despite his poor record with the Senators (321-444), they had improved incrementally under his watch. The most important quality Hodges had was that the players were afraid of him and he didn’t take a load of crap. That they had a bushel of young pitching including Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, and Nolan Ryan helped as well. That not taking crap facet might help Farrell with the Red Sox if they have the talent to contend—and right now, they don’t.

Chuck Tanner for Manny Sanguillen, November 5, 1976

Here was Charlie Finley again, still owner of the A’s, but with three World Series wins in his pocket and free agency and housecleaning trades decimating his team of Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter and in the future Joe Rudi, Rollie Fingers, Vida Blue, and others. Finley wasn’t kind to his managers, but he won anyway. When the Yankees tried to hire Dick Williams while Williams was under contract after having resigned from the A’s after the 1973 World Series win, Finley demanded the Yankees top prospects Otto Velez and Scott McGregor. The Yankees hired Bill Virdon instead and then Billy Martin. George Steinbrenner always used his friendly relationship with Williams as a weapon to torment Martin.

I find fascinating the way perceptions cloud reality. Finley was thought to be ruthless and borderline cruel with the way he treated his managers, but he was also a brilliant and innovative marketer who’s rarely gotten the credit for being the shrewd judge of baseball talent he was. On the other hand, an executive like Lou Lamoriello of the New Jersey Devils hockey club has made (by my count) 19 coaching changes in his 25 years with the team. Several of the changes have been recycle jobs of bringing back men he’d fired or who’d stepped down; twice he changed coaches right before the playoffs started and replaced them with…Lou Lamoriello. Because he’s won three Stanley Cups and lost in the Finals two other times, he’s gotten away with it.

The Tanner trade came about because the Pirates needed someone to take over for longtime Pirates’ manager Danny Murtaugh and Tanner had a reputation for being relentlessly positive, well-liked, and solid strategically. He was also said to be strong as an ox so if a player did mess with him, it was a mistake.

Tanner was an inspired hire because that Pirates’ team had strong clubhouse personalities Willie Stargell and Dave Parker and the last thing they needed was for a new manager to come storming in and throwing things. Tanner and the Pirates won the World Series in 1979. The team came apart under Tanner’s watch, but they got old and had little talent to speak of until the end of his tenure in 1985. He was replaced by Jim Leyland.

Sanguillen still threw well from behind the plate at age 33 and spent one season with the A’s, playing serviceably, before being dealt back to the Pirates prior to the 1978 season.

Lou Piniella and Antonio Perez for Randy Winn—October 28, 2002

Like the David Carpenter for Aviles trade by the Red Sox (or the Chris Carpenter for the rights for Theo Epstein—what is it with players named Carpenter and the Red Sox?), the players were secondary to the rights to speak to and hire the still-under-contract managers. Piniella had resigned as the Mariners’ manager after ten successful years and want to go to the Mets who had just fired Bobby Valentine. This is more family tree fodder since Valentine was the consolation hire the Red Sox made a year ago after failing to acquiesce to the Blue Jays’ demands to speak to Farrell. It didn’t work out.

The Mets were in disarray, GM Steve Phillips absolutely did not want Piniella for the same reasons Yankees’ GM Brian Cashman didn’t want Piniella when it was rumored he was going to replace Joe Torre after 2006—he would be uncontrollable.

It was said by the likes of Peter Gammons that the Piniella to the Mets deal would eventually get done. Of course it was nonsense. The Mariners were annoyed at Piniella and weren’t going to reward him with going to his location of choice unless they were heavily compensated. They asked the Mets for Jose Reyes knowing the Mets would say no. The Mets hired Art Howe instead.

Piniella had nowhere to go aside from the Devil Rays and, while in retrospect, he should’ve sat out a year and waited for his contract to expire, he wanted to manage and the opportunity to be close to his home appealed to him regardless of the state of the Devil Rays. Promises were made that the team would spend money and Piniella—unlike Farrell—had the cachet to squawk publicly about it when the promise was reneged upon. Owner Vince Naimoli hoped the fans would come out to see a manager manage in spite of the players and, of course, they didn’t. For Piniella’s rights and journeyman infielder Antonio Perez, they traded their best player at the time, Winn. Winn had a solid big league career and the Devil Rays would’ve been better off trading him for players rather than a manager, but judging by how the team was run at the time, they wouldn’t have accrued much more value from the players they would’ve gotten than they did from Piniella. Maybe they sold a few extra seats because Piniella was there, so what’s the difference?

Piniella spent three years there losing over 90 games in each before leaving. He took over the Cubs in 2007.

Ozzie Guillen and Ricardo Andres for Jhan Marinez and Osvaldo Martinez

The Marlins had their eye on Guillen going back years. He was a coach on their 2003 World Series winning team and had won a title of his own with the White Sox in 2005. Looking to bring a Spanish-speaking, “name” manager to buttress their winter 2011-2012 spending spree and fill their beautiful new ballpark, Guillen was still under contract with the White Sox. But the White Sox had had enough of Guillen’s antics and wanted him gone. The Marlins traded Martinez and Marinez to the White Sox to get Guillen and signed him to a 4-year contract.

The Marlins were a top-to-bottom disaster due in no small part to Guillen immediately drawing the ire of a large portion of the Marlins’ hoped-for fanbase by proclaiming his love for Fidel Castro. Guillen was suspended as manager by the club. That can’t be blamed for the Marlins’ atrocious season. They played brilliantly in May after the incident, but incrementally came apart amid infighting and poor performance.

It’s been rumored that Guillen might be fired, but if the Marlins were going to do it, they would’ve done it already. Trading Heath Bell—one of Guillen’s main agitators in the clubhouse—is a signal that Guillen will at least get a chance to start the 2013 season with a different cast of players. Since it’s Guillen, he’s absolutely going to say something stupid sooner rather than later and force owner Jeffrey Loria to fire him.

Free from Guillen’s lunacy and with a new, laid-back manager Robin Ventura, the White Sox overachieved and were in contention for the AL Central title before a late-season swoon did them in.

I discussed the Farrell deal yesterday here. He’s who the Red Sox wanted, he’s who the Red Sox got. Surrendering Aviles isn’t insignificant, but everyone in Boston appears to be on the same page when it comes to the manager.

Whether it works or not will have no connection to the past deals of this kind and if a team wants a particular person to manage their team, it’s their right to make a trade to get it done. Criticizing the Red Sox on anyone else for the hire itself is fine, but for the steps they took to do it? No. Because Farrell is the man they wanted and now he’s the man they got. For better or worse.

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Denial Doesn’t Solve The Yankees’ Problems

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I’m no fan of Chris Russo as a broadcaster, sports analyst, or human being, but his absence as a partner and counterweight (figuratively—there’s no way he could do it literally) to Mike Francesa is sorely missed during the Yankees September swoon. If you listen to Francesa and his guests, this run of poor play is little more than a blip with multitudes of excuses and Fight Club-style group therapy sessions to assuage the small warning light in the backs of their collective heads telling them, “Yes, the Yankees might actually blow this.”

Is it a “blip”? The Yankees were 60-39 on July 27th; since then, they’ve gone 19-23. That’s a quarter of the season. That’s no small sample to be dismissed. Objectively, they’ve had one good month this whole season in June when they went 20-7; aside from that, it’s been this. There’s a disturbing amount of delusional denial within the media of what’s happening with this team.

This from Ken Davidoff in the New York Post today:

You can’t call this your classic collapse. The Yankees are winning too often, playing too well, to draw comparisons to any of the all-time tank jobs.

Really? Is that the barometer? Because they’re not comparable to the 1964 Phillies; the 2007 Mets; the 2011 Red Sox and Braves, then it’s not as bad as it seems? It’s a ridiculous argument that isn’t worth examining the current Yankees circumstances and peeling the layers of other collapses. They’re playing too well? Where? Art Howe used to get roasted in the same pages in which Davidoff writes because he explained away the Mets losses with, “We battled.” Are the Yankees battling? I suppose they are. But they’re also losing those battles.

This overriding theme is the classic excuse of, “It’s not their fault.” But whose fault is it? The umpires? Other teams for not blindly accepting the Yankees’ superiority and letting them win? You can’t look down on other franchises and openly promote historic greatness and then complain when the formula doesn’t hold true. It doesn’t work this way with the Yankees. They don’t want to hear excuses from other franchises as they look down smugly from their self-created perch, so they shouldn’t be indulging in such weak excuses themselves. The Red Sox, Blue Jays, Twins or any of the other clubs on their supposed powderpuff schedule is going to have sympathy, want to hear about how the playoffs aren’t the same without the Yankees or other similar bits of absurdity.

There appears to be a coping structure in place among those whose embarrassment will rival that of the Yankees organization if the team does somehow manage to stumble out of the playoffs; that they’re more concerned with the ridicule they’re going to have to endure rather than honestly analyze why this is happening. Much like the entire YES Network, the media contingent whose lifeblood hinges on the success of the Yankees, and the fanbase, there’s a tacit decision to ignore this reality as if it’s going to go away; as if the schedule will save them.

Every Francesa guest has been offering validation to his underlying pleas to tell him and the listeners/watchers that everything’s going to be okay with little basis for the assertion other than the schedule. From Peter Gammons to Sweeny Murti to Mark Feinsand to anyone and everyone, they’re clinging to what the Yankees were and thinking that it’s still what they are. It’s the furthest thing from the truth. He sounds like one of his callers. If he had Russo—or anyone willing to stand up to him—it wouldn’t pass without protest.

The Yankees’ margin of error that is usually in place in September has been wiped out since they blew that 10 game lead and there are not one, but two teams ahead of them in the American League standings. They’re tied for first place in the division, and three teams are right on their heels. Mistakes or strategic missteps are magnified when the margin for error disappears. Manager Joe Girardi’s strategic moves are under greater scrutiny because they matter. In July, when they were rolling toward the playoffs, one small bullpen call that didn’t work wasn’t an issue because it was a tiny pebble in the river of that lead. Now there’s no river. It’s a disappearing puddle. This is how you wind up with Girardi physically looking like Billy Martin after a 5-day bender and losing his composure at the provocation of the instigator Joel Sherman. Girardi has handled himself as well as can be expected and been a professional. That’s not going to fly with the masses. They want someone or something to blame.

Francesa’s new template is to desperately look at the upcoming schedule and, in an identically ignorant fashion to his annual picking of the Twins in the AL Central since “I awways pick da Twins,” is picking and choosing wins and losses. This isn’t football where there are factors such as quarterbacking, special teams, matchups, and home field advantages that will make a difference.

The Red Sox won last night because the Yankees didn’t capitalize on Jon Lester’s wildness. David Robertson’s luck in getting himself into and out of trouble didn’t work its magic. The idea that the Yankees were going to stroll into Boston and sweep the Red Sox—no matter how poorly the Red Sox were playing—is ignoring how much hatred the key performers in last night’s game, Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury, have implanted in their psyches from battles between the franchises over the past decade. That permeates to the clubhouse. The players can feel the buzz in the ballpark and it’s going to spur them to play harder. Manager Bobby Valentine, knowing his time as Red Sox manager is dwindling to these final three weeks, also despises the Yankees from his time as Mets’ manager and would love to put an addendum on what is likely his final ballroom dance as a big league manager with “helped knock the Yankees from the playoffs” instead of having “Red Sox disaster” standing alone as his managerial epitaph.

Semantics and the cuddly positive reinforcement that the heroes from years gone by like Andy Pettitte will tear off his shirt and go into a Superman act to save the day aren’t solutions. They’re dreams. The first step to dealing with a problem is admitting it, but that’s something no one invested in the Yankees is willing to do.

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Joe Girardi Channels His Inner Billy Martin

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Joe Girardi turned into Billy Martin, but he did it at the wrong time and in the wrong way.

Girardi was said to have blown up at Joel Sherman of the New York Post after his post-game press conference. It’s unknown whether the catalyst was a misunderstanding that Sherman couldn’t hear Girardi’s response as to whether CC Sabathia is healthy or not; if Sherman was intentionally antagonizing Girardi; or if it was simply a matter of frustration boiling over in the midst of an unexpected pennant race and increasingly dire circumstances. Perhaps it was all three.

Details of what was said in Girardi’s office between him and Sherman are unknown. The media circled the wagons around Sherman and, en masse, attacked Girardi.

Unless Sherman or Girardi say what happened, no one can know how much truth there is to the likes of Andrew Marchand saying they were “nose-to-nose”. As disturbing as that image is in and of itself, I seriously doubt that Girardi pulled Marchand aside and said, “Listen Andrew, Joel and I were nose-to-nose.” So the Marchand side of the story is coming from Sherman and Sherman’s not exactly credible when it comes to his supposed dogged reporter tough-guy persona. I think Lara Logan of 60 Minutes could beat him up.

As for the Yankees, here are the facts:

Mark Teixeira was safe

Teixeira was safe in the play at first. It was an atrocious call. But the Yankees can’t complain about a blown call ending a game when part of their historic lore—against the Orioles no less—is that in the 1996 ALCS, a young fan named Jeffrey Maier reached over the fence and snatched a Derek Jeter long fly ball away from right fielder Tony Tarasco.

The Yankees eventually won that game, that series and the World Series, and it’s seen as a seminal moment of their dynasty.

Is there a connection?

No one play wins or loses a game and you can’t have it both ways. There’s no celebrating one play when it goes your way and lamenting a call when it doesn’t.

Umpire Jerry Meals blew the call, but that wasn’t why the Yankees lost.

Should Girardi have argued the call?

He had gotten thrown out of a game in Tampa partially because he thought the pitch in question was not a strike; partially because he was looking to spark his team; and partially because he had a problem with the umpire Tony Randazzo going back to August.

Did it work?

The Yankees are still in a sleepwalk and they lost the game in which he got ejected. Last night’s game was over, so if he’d gone over and started a screaming session with Meals, he’d have gotten kicked out after the game was over, maybe gotten suspended, or the umpires would’ve simply walked away after letting him have his say. As Girardi implied after the game, what good would it have done?

The idea that Girardi is melting down in the pressure of the pennant race would’ve been bolstered by another screaming session with an umpire. As it turned out, that perception was bolstered by his confrontation with Sherman, but he couldn’t have known that was coming at the time of the Teixeira call.

There’s a difference between a manager imploding and acting out and getting ejected to help the team. Lou Piniella, his face the color of an eggplant, wasn’t always that angry when arguing a call. As managers and coaches sometimes need to be, Piniella is an actor. Many times a made-for-TV Piniella base-tossing show was done to loosen up his team, get them laughing in the dugout at what a raving lunatic he is, and possibly relax them to play better.

Then there’s the Billy Martin-style nervous breakdown type argument. A recent example of a manager coming undone with his team in contention in two consecutive years is Ned Yost with the 2007-2008 Brewers. In both seasons, Yost was so tight as the season wound down that a guitar could’ve been strummed on his chest. In 2007, he was ejected from 3 games in six days as the Brewers fell out of contention. In 2008, the team was staggering to the finish and blowing a playoff spot after trading for CC Sabathia at mid-season. Yost was fired with 12 games left and the Brewers did the right thing in pulling the trigger.

The confrontation with Sherman

As of this writing this morning, the aforementioned Sherman had been called into Girardi’s office in Baltimore. Presumably they’re going to come to a détente to end lingering bad blood and stop the story from festering.

Sherman had a right to ask the question. Girardi had reason to be annoyed and, given the scrutiny he’s under, was probably going to snap at anyone who asked what he felt was a loaded question designed to get a rise from him. This wasn’t Martin threatening to toss Henry Hecht of the Post into the team whirlpool in 1983. The idea that Girardi and Sherman had to be “separated” is ludicrous. The security personnel probably heard the yelling and stopped Girardi before he got angry enough to hit Sherman, which he 99.9% wouldn’t have done anyway.

The final analysis

The Yankees are not playing well. They’re old. They’re beaten up. They’re collapsing.

These are facts.

Can they save the season? Absolutely. Will they? Not if they keep playing—and especially pitching—like this. It’s not Jerry Meals’s fault; it’s not Joel Sherman’s fault; it’s really not Girardi’s fault. They’re not very good right now. And unless they get any better, they’ll have a mess to clean up on and off the field. As the Mets and Red Sox have proven, it’s not so easy to repair the damage from a collapse. If this continues, the Yankees will learn soon enough.

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The Yankees Have Become George

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The Yankees have become George.

Not George Steinbrenner. Their George. Their lovable little buddy loser who always seems close to breaking free of his lot in life as the little brother who can’t quite get it right. The Mets. To make matters worse for the Yankees as they continue this death spiral is that the inherent egomania among the organization, the media that covers them, and their fanbase (the last two are interchangeable) will spur the retaliatory ridicule from fans of other clubs—specifically the Mets and Red Sox—who have had to endure the condescending taunts and “we’re better than you” undertones of their run over the past two decades following a long lull of mediocrity and embarrassment.

They’re still wearing the pinstripes, but they’re not fulfilling their end of the ridiculous notion of “class,” “dignity,” and “professionalism” that had been instilled by the manager in the opposite dugout last night, Buck Showalter, his successor Joe Torre, and the players who were the foundation for the dynasty Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, and Bernie Williams. It was always a bit silly that a team that carried such players as David Wells was considered “classy”, but they won. Whatever device that was necessary to push the story forward was used in the telling of the tale, real or not.

When current manager Joe Girardi picked up the phone in the first inning to call for Derek Lowe to warm up in back of an overmatched David Phelps, I halfway expected his face to turn paler and thinner than it already is as the strain of the team’s stumble takes its toll on him because on the other end of the phone, from beyond the grave, was George Steinbrenner, shouting like a raving lunatic and threatening to fire him and replace him with Billy Martin, looming next to the Boss from the netherworld. (Are they in heaven or hell? Discuss.)

Jeter said earlier this week that he’s not panicking. And he’s not. But how about the rest of the team? Was it the vaunted “Yankees way”—supposedly better than yours or mine—when Phelps gestured toward left field on Matt Wieters’s home run as if he felt that left fielder Raul Ibanez should’ve caught it? Phelps can claim that he thought a fan interfered, but we all know the truth. Was it the “Yankees way” when they authored a stirring comeback and handed the lead right back with an Orioles display of thunder that the Yankees can no longer muster using the compromised, mediocre, and slumping lineup they’re trotting out on a nightly basis?

I had the sound turned down on the game, but as embedded in my brain as he unfortunately is, I could still hear Michael Kay shrieking like a maniac thinking gumdrop thoughts of “Yankees magic” when they tied the score just as well as I could hear his crestfallen devastation when the Orioles snatched the game right back.

Fans are looking for someone to blame. So accustomed to an easy ride that they don’t know how to deal with adversity such as this; to handle teams like the Orioles, a longtime punching bag, suddenly hitting them back and having not just the audacity to do it, but to hurt them as well(!!) that they’re reverting to the Steinbrenner years of wanting to fire people (Kevin Long is a popular target) or to alter the strategy of hitting the ball out of the park in favor of bunting and small-ball.

Reliance on hitting home runs wasn’t a “problem” as it was implied at mid-season; the idea that they have to find a method of manufacturing runs was absurd as long as they had deep starting pitching, a well-organized bullpen, and mashers who hit a lot of home runs. Now they have none of that and they’re losing because of it.

It’s a matter of perception. Had the Yankees been hovering around first place or behind all season and found themselves tied for first place on September 7th, it would be seen as a positive. But they’re losing, losing, and losing more and the disappearing division lead, competition, and pressure is overwhelming them. Yes, they’re injured; yes, they’re slumping, but much of the Yankees’ dominance over the years has been their ruthlessness against teams that didn’t have the manpower to compete with them and bashing them brutally. Expecting sympathy on and off the field is indicative of an arrogance that has sparked this downfall in the first place. “We’re the Yankees!!! How dare you?!?!”

But teams are daring and exploiting the weakness and disarray.

The Yankees still have time to right their ship, but they’re in very serious danger of falling out of the playoffs entirely—something unacceptable given their expectations, payroll, and that they’d accumulated enough of a cushion that this shouldn’t be happening.

They have to win a few games and not worry about what their competition is doing, but humanity inevitably intervenes. Watching the scoreboard, tightening up with every run scored and win accumulated by the younger and fresher Rays; the star-studded and finally playing up to their capabilities Angels; the loaded Rangers; the upstart Athletics; and the determined Orioles—it all factors in to what’s happening to the Yankees.

I’ve seen this movie before and know how it ends. It’s formulaic, but not in the manner Yankees’ fans have come to expect. The underdogs are ganging up on them, smell blood, and have an opportunity at comeuppance.

They’ve become George. And once you become George, there’s really nowhere to go from there but down.

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