Francesa’s Angel Is The Centerfold

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The ESPN Body Issue is a clever and creative response to the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Rather than try and create a copy as other magazines have done, ESPN went one step further using athletes naked as an “ode to exceptional athletic form.” That it’s done to spur sales and create buzz goes without mention.

Mike Francesa sounded like he was about to burst into a teary rendition of Centerfold by the J. Geils Band when discussing Matt Harvey’s participation. It’s no secret that Francesa has developed a borderline disturbing man-crush on Harvey. One can only wonder whether Andy Pettitte feels like a member of the first wives’ club as Francesa is throwing him over for the younger, stronger Harvey.

Francesa couldn’t hide his disappointment in Harvey taking part in the ESPN Magazine Body Issue going so far as to say that Harvey’s demeanor had been Derek Jeter-like in not making any stupid and embarrassing mistakes in his young career. Harvey’s rise has been meteoric, but is this as much of a misstep as Francesa implies?

Much like it’s preferable for a young pitcher like Zack Wheeler to come to the big leagues and scuffle rather than dominate making the game look easy only to be jolted later on, it’s also preferable for Harvey to be the person he is rather than transform himself into the mythic idol that Jeter has become. For Jeter, his position as the ideal for so many has resulted in a level of expectation that no one could match. He’s almost been deified to the degree that when something, anything happens that could possibly tarnish that image, it evolves into a giant story where, if it were another player, it would either be shrugged off or ignored.

In short, the Jeter image has shunned any pretense of reality. When he first started in the majors, Jeter had the guidance from his parents as well as baseball people Don Zimmer, Joe Torre and Buck Showalter. It also helped Jeter that, as a rookie, he was surrounded by players like Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden from whom he could learn and ask questions of what precisely not to do. His supposed playboy lifestyle with one starlet after another is winked and nodded at because he’s Derek Jeter. That it’s more of a show than anything else is beside the point.

With Jeter there has never been a public paternity question; never been a DUI; never been a bar fight or incident captured on cellphone camera of Jeter acting the fool. He’s guarded and careful with that image. In some instances it has turned into ridiculous expectations such as when he feigned being hit by a pitch against the Rays and took first base even though he hadn’t been hit. Parents were wondering how they could explain to their children how Derek Jeter could be so cavalier about fair play. This isn’t a carefully camouflaged, Christianity-tinged commercial from The Foundation for a Better Life in which the high school basketball player admits he touched the ball before it went out of bounds as a show of sportsmanship and Jeter was under no obligation to say he wasn’t hit when the ump told him to go to first base. The idea that he was “supposed” to do that because it was the “right” thing is ludicrous.

The one play that helped launch Jeter occurred in the 1996 ALCS against the Orioles when his deep fly ball was ably assisted out of the park by young fan Jeffrey Maier. It would not have gone out of the park if not for Maier and the Yankees might not have won that ALCS. Who knows how history would have been altered had they not won that first championship in 1996? Would Jeter turn the homer down in the interest of “fair play”? Of course not.

Jeter’s legend has grown to the level where it’s gone from he won’t take a misstep to he can’t take a misstep. That’s not an easy way to live. Harvey has the supermodel girlfriend and appears to be enjoying his success. He did the ESPN shoot and doesn’t need to explain nor apologize for it. Perhaps it would’ve helped Jeter if he’d pulled a Charles Barkley at some point and gone into an “I am not a role model” rant. Harvey probably wasn’t thinking that the appearance in the ESPN photo shoot would take a hammer to this image that the likes of Francesa were thrusting upon him, but it will have that affect. In the long run it’s a good thing.

There’s no question that Jeter is a player to emulate. For young stars including Harvey, he’s someone whose lead to follow, but that doesn’t mean the self should be superseded toward that end especially to live up to the dreamy expectations of someone like Mike Francesa.

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The Yankees’ Problems Go Far Beyond One Fractured Ankle and a Blown Call

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So Nick Swisher’s gregariousness—long an irritant to opponents—is no longer charming to the home fans when he’s 4 for 26, lost a ball in the lights in right field, and they’re looking for someone, anyone to blame for Derek Jeter’s ankle injury no matter how ludicrous the shifting of responsibility is? Swisher is surprised and “hurt” by the fans heckling and booing him?

Indicative of the need for vast chunks of the fanbase to awaken to an unexpected and unforeseen reality, Swisher is the case study of how things truly are for the Yankees when the “magic” disappears or decides to shift its allegiance to another venue.

The search for reasons that there were blocks empty seats at Yankee Stadium for playoff games is a bunch of noise. No one can pinpoint exactly why it’s happening in spite of Randy Levine’s complaints or baseless theories. It could mean anything. In a poor economic climate, fans may not have the money to purchase the seats, pay for the parking, indulge in the concessions. It could be that some have become so accustomed to the Yankees being in the playoffs every year that it’s lost its specialness and they’re paying scant attention to the how and are making the unsaid statement of, “Let me know when the World Series starts.”

The World Series will start on October 24th and the Yankees still have time to be a participant. But barring a miraculous turnaround, they will instead be cleaning out their lockers while it’s going on. Some, like Swisher, will be doing it for the final time as a Yankee.

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t call for instant replay when it negatively influences you, but laugh heartily and say smugly, “Them’s the breaks!” when Joe Mauer hits a ball that was clearly fair and was called foul; or when Jeffrey Maier has become a folk hero and part of the “Yankees lore” when he interferes with a Jeter home run ball that wasn’t and may have turned the entire 1996 ALCS in the Yankees’ favor and been the catalyst for their dynasty. Jeter, after that game, was asked what he would say to the young Maier and with the remnants of his antiquated fade haircut still in place and in the formative years of being a Yankees’ hero, he said, “Attaboy!!!” with undisguised glee at the Yankees winning in a similarly unfair fashion as they’re complaining about losing now. Except the Mauer and Maier calls changed the games entirely and the blown call on Omar Infante was only made because Infante made a mistake rounding the base and that the subsequent Yankees’ pitchers couldn’t record one out to make the point moot.

It’s the condescension and self-indulgent arrogance that is currently reverberating on the entire Yankees apparatus from the front office, to the YES Network, to the sanctioned bloggers, to the media, to the players, to the fanbase.

We want justice when it benefits us.

We love the players as long as they perform for us.

We function with dignity and class as long as we win.

Players join the Yankees because they offer the most money and they win. But when a player says no as Cliff Lee did, it’s because he doesn’t appreciate the “privilege” of being a Yankee, not because he and his wife preferred Philadelphia or Texas or because his wife didn’t brush off the same abuse that is being heaped on Swisher now was being hurled at her (along with spit and beer) in the 2010 ALCS.

It’s a wonderful world to live in where there’s no responsibility and money can be tossed at every problem to solve it.

The reality hurts when it hits like a sledgehammer. This faux history and concept of invisible baseball Gods smiling on the Yankees is eliminated by the truth. It was the need for capital in a musical produced by Red Sox owner Harry Frazee that led to the selling of Babe Ruth to the Yankees. They started winning shortly after getting the best player in the game and it turned into a circular entity. The more they won, the more money they made; the more money they made, the more free agent amateurs wanted to play for them because they paid the most in bonuses and they won. It continued on through Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. The amateur draft was implemented in the mid-1960s and the Yankees collapsed. They began winning again through free agency in the mid-late-1970s and it started all up again. There was a long lull and lucky—not smart, lucky—drafts garnered Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte. Amateur free agents upon whom they stumbled and nearly dumped such as Mariano Rivera and Bernie Williams turned into stars. They drafted a skinny shortstop, Jeter, in the first round of 1992 and got a historic player. This talk I’ve seen of a method to the madness with “doing the most damage in the later rounds of the draft” is pure better-breeding, blueblood idiocy. Any team that drafts an infielder in the 24th round who develops into Posada, or a lanky lefty like Pettitte in the 22nd round—both in the 1990 draft—is lucky.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but don’t make it more than it is.

Jeter gets injured and rather than being treated as an athlete who happened to get hurt in the middle of a contest, on Twitter it morphs into “a funeral procession,” and those who laughed (sort of the way the Yankees laugh at the Mets and Red Sox when misfortune hits them), are “justified” to have been thrown over the railing at Yankee Stadium. Jeter is analogous to a “wounded warrior being carted off the battlefield.” No. He’s not. He’s a very rich athlete who got hurt. That this type of thing was said while there are actual soldiers being carted off real battlefields and coming back missing limbs, burned beyond recognition, or dead makes this type of comparison all the more despicable.

Yes. Murdering someone makes logical sense when things don’t work out for you. That’s the way 12-year-old, bullying mentalities think. “If I don’t get to play with your toy, I’m gonna break the toy so you can’t play with it either.” “If I don’t get to win, I’m taking my ball and going home.”

When Rivera got hurt, there was this identical dynamic.

There’s an impenetrable fortress of delusion among these fans who have known nothing but winning in their time as Yankees’ fans. They don’t realize that sports is a diversion and these are human beings doing a job. A true tragedy occurred in 2006 when Cory Lidle crashed his plane days after the Yankees had been eliminated by the Tigers. Days earlier, he’d been a guest on WFAN with Chris Russo and, when Lidle said he was enjoying a beautiful day in New York City with his daughter, Russo indignantly said something to the tune of, “Well, if I’d just lost a playoff series I wouldn’t be out enjoying the day.” Lidle replied, “What am I supposed to do? Sit home and cry?”

In the Jimmy Fallon movie Fever Pitch, as the Red Sox fell behind the Yankees 3 games to 0 in the ALCS of 2004, Fallon’s character is out drowning his sorrows when he spots then-Red Sox players Johnny Damon and Jason Varitek out having dinner. An epiphany hits him that they’re human beings who are doing a job and will then go out and live their lives after the fact and that includes going out and having a nice dinner. There’s no reason to cry; a tantrum won’t help; and there’s no hiding in their homes musing on what went wrong.

Because it’s a job.

This incarnation of the Yankees from 1996 to now has never had to do a rebuild. They never had to worry about money because George Steinbrenner, for all his faults, was willing to spend under the theory that success on the field would beget profit off it. And he was right. But now the Boss is gone and GM Brian Cashman is hell-bent on getting the payroll down to a reasonable level so the new luxury tax regulations won’t drastically increase the bottom line. Is it due to a mandate from Hank and Hal Steinbrenner? Or is it Cashman trying again to prove that he belongs in the fleeting upper echelon of GMs currently inhabited by the likes of Andrew Friedman and Billy Beane who are specifically there because of limited resources and their own cagey maneuvers that sometimes work and sometimes don’t?

Cashman tried to rebuild his farm system so the Yankees didn’t have to rely on the checkbook to save them. In 2008 that resulted in a missed playoff spot and was, as usual, covered by spending, spending, spending on Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, and A.J. Burnett. They’re still seeking young pitchers with cost certainty and upside and have Manny Banuelos (Tommy John surgery), Dellin Betances (can’t throw strikes), Michael Pineda (acquired, abused, and on the shelf with a torn labrum), and Jose Campos (the invisible key who hasn’t pitched or been heard from since May).

Annual contention and a World Series or failure sentiment is a great roadmap to disappointment. As the Phillies, Angels, and Red Sox have proven, money doesn’t buy a playoff spot, let alone a championship. The Red Sox and Mets have proven how quickly it can all come apart.

That can happen to the Yankees.

As they age, they decline (Alex Rodriguez); get hurt (Jeter and Rivera); outlive their usefulness (Swisher, Curtis Granderson), and bear the brunt of the outrage that the championships are not being delivered as they were in the past.

Are they prepared to pay Robinson Cano the $200+ million he’s going to want as a free agent after 2013? While they’re trying to cut costs and know that Cano isn’t the hardest worker in the world and whose laziness will extract an increasing toll on his production when the game is no longer easy for him? Does Cano look effortless because he’s so good or is it that he doesn’t put in much effort? And how does that portend what a player like him is going to accomplish as he’s guaranteed an amount of money that he’ll never be able to spend is coming to him no matter how he performs? He doesn’t run ground balls out now in the playoffs, is he going to run them out when he’s 35 and has 5 years to run on a contract that the Yankees can look at A-Rod’s fall and know is disastrous? The days of a player putting up Barry Bonds numbers at ages 36-42 ended with increased drug testing and harsher punishments. A-Rod is a 37-year-old player and this is what happens to 37-year-old players regardless of how great they once were. They can’t catch up to the fastball, they have to start their swings earlier in case it’s on the way leaving them susceptible to hard breaking stuff and changeups.

There’s no fixing it.

The Yankees might come back and win this ALCS. To do it, they’ll have to beat the best pitcher in baseball, Justin Verlander, pitching at home as the Tigers have a 2-0 series lead. It can be done. The Yankees can still win the World Series. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that they do. Will it be enjoyed or will there be a la-de-da, “we win again,” attitude that has set the stage for this rickety foundation and imminent collapse?

How much cake can a fan eat? How many pieces of chicken parm can Michael Kay stuff into his mouth? Like Wall Street, how many yachts can they waterski behind? When is enough enough?

Whether your personal investment and fantasyworld of egomania lets you see it, win or lose this dynasty is coming down and it’s happening right before your eyes.

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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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