Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Bronx Issues

This week, I had the distinct pleasure (ahem, sarcasm) of watching two Jaret Wright starts in person.

Much to my amazement, the Yankees won them both.

On May 23, I climbed the bleachers in Fenway in the cold. And on Sunday, I made my first trip to the Bronx to catch the Yanks take on the Royals in the scorching heat of an early “summer” day.

Despite the 80+ degree temperature and my lobster-colored kneecaps, a trip to Yankee Stadium is always something I enjoy. I donned my Rivera #42 and trudged up the steep, circuitous ramps that line the intestines of the House that Ruth Built, and made my way to my top-tier seats, where the sun had already cooked the blue plastic seats to a butt-sweat inducing sizzle.

The heat wasn’t the only thing making the Yankee faithful sweat. After the Yankees chased Royals stater Runelvys Hernandez after 33 pitches and 5 runs in the first inning, the Yanks made things interesting by letting the lowly Royals creep back into it. I had thought my shirt wouldn’t be telling the tale of a game against the Royals, but sure enough, Enter Sandman was heard in the Bronx later that day in a “shouldn’t-have-been-that-close” Yanks win.

(Aside: The concession stand ran out of water in the sixth inning. A billion-dollar franchise ran out of water in the sixth inning. Seriously. We can pay A-Rod $25 million but we can't get me a damn bottle of Poland Spring. Life is just mean sometimes.)

Sitting amongst “my people” for the first time this year, I took the opportunity to cheer like a drunken fool (something, if you read last issue’s column, I can’t normally do) and to discuss the “State of the Yankees” with a fellow fan, even though I was in attendance with my friend Mary Kate, a transplanted Sox fan. (She lives in NY now, but I think the conversion has begun…)

I thought I’d bring back a scouting report to Boston, in the form of 5 Issues Facing the Yankees. So if you care, here they are:

1. Randy and the Staff. Watching Clement and Johnson last Wednesday was worse than being forced to watch Girl Interrupted. Even though Randy two-hit the overrated and soon-to-collapse Tigers on Monday, no one is convinced The Big Unit is on his game. I know he had a similar start to the season last year, and I know he’s a warm weather guy (it was 92 in Detroit) but there is strong concern about the Unit in the Bronx. He is the Yanks #1, and when your number one has an ERA hovering around infinite, you worry about it. It doesn’t help that we only have four starters right now, either, even if Moose is pitching very well and Wang has been above average.

2. Matsui’s injury. Joe could write his name on the card in pen every day. He was the most technical, and in my opinion, most clutch Yankees hitter. And he absolutely killed the Red Sox. So losing Matsui is a huge blow. But it’s not an insurmountable barrier. Matsui’s numbers were never gaudy, and his defense was average. The Yankees may not find a guy who can replace all Godzilla brought to the table, but they can find someone to plug the hole—and by the look of Melky Cabrera, that stopgap may come without having to expend any prospects in a trade. The real concern here for New York is the deluge of Japanese reporters and cameramen in local karaoke bars, now that they don’t have Matsui to cover anymore.

3. Defense. Or lack thereof. The Yankees are second-last in the AL, in front of only Cleveland, in both fielding percentage and errors committed. A-Rod has been awful, and like his team, Robbie Cano is the second-worst two-bagger in the game this season (5 errors). I compare him to another New York youngster, Eli Manning, when I describe his game: it is flashes of brilliance surrounded by moments of sheer terror. I know he’s young; I know he works with Larry Bowa every day; and I know that he had better keep that average above .300 if he wants to justify his playing every day until his defense improves.

4. Old Bones. This is the best way I can describe it. We’re only in May and we’ve got one major contributor (Matsui) likely out for the year. The Yankees depend of veterans, and by that I mean Old Dudes. The Sheff got burnt and was already on the DL; Posada’s legs are shot; Randy is a slippery mound away from shutting down. Then there’s our laundry list of not-so-old guys who are currently on the DL: Crosby and Chacon (legs); Dotel (Tommy John surgery); Sturtze (surgery, out for year); and of course, the bastion of durability that is Carl Pavano, who has been listed on the DL with everything from (sore elbow) to (sore butt).

An aside: Seriously, a sore butt? Doesn’t that just raise concerns and eyebrows? I mean, I want to know what he did to get a sore butt, and I want to know why the Yankees couldn’t figure out anything better to list him with. Bruised tailbone? Sore groin? And given all his injuries, we need to ask what this guy is made of… Paper mache? Is he the biggest pussy who ever wore a uniform? What’s he going to be out with next? I’m waiting for the day when I open the paper and see:

Pavano, 15-day DL, (hair pain)

Probably only a matter of time. I wish I could earn $49 million for not working at all.

The Yankees need to find a way to get some of these guys to get healthy if they are going to make a run at this thing. Moving on…

5. Lack of Routine. When it comes to having a routine, baseball players are like your Uncle Frank—they like to do the same damn thing every day, from a morning coffee to a beer at Joe’s Bar after work. The Yankees have used seven players and at least 16 different outfield configurations this year, and I can’t even begin to contemplate how many different lineups. Defensively, guys work together better when they work together consistently, and offensively, batters like to know the tendencies of the guys they follow and precede, and where they consistently will appear in the lineup so they know how much time they have to prepare—among other reasons. Shuffling hurts everyone, and the Yankees have been forced to shuffle the lineup like Sawyer shuffled against Jack on Lost.

With all the chaos, it’s worth noting a few things: the Yanks are just a game out of first behind a Sox team that has its own issues; hot-hitting Toronto can’t seem to catch either team; the Yanks have won five of six at the time of printing and are nine games over .500 for the first time all year; and it’s still only the end of May, after all.

Given the situation, things are relatively stable in the Bronx. Don’t look for major trades for outfielders. (I won’t say the same about pitchers.) Don’t look for signs of panic. Above all, don’t think the Yankees are done.

In the Bronx, the Stadium is still standing tall, the Yankees are still winning, and unlike Boston, at least the friggin sun has been out lately. I’ve got the kneecaps to prove it.

Gearing up for Fenway

Life isn’t easy.

You work your ass off. Your bills are too high. Your credit card company has you on speed dial. Your bank apparently makes up new fees just for you. You haven’t gotten laid in four weeks, but you’ve been laid off twice in four years. Your car is a homing beacon for meter maids.

And to top it off, you live in the city that’s home to your baseball team’s rival.

Oh wait, that’s my life.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Boston. It’s way better than New York. Boston has big-city culture with a small town feel. New York is… well, New York.

So my baseball team plays about three hundred miles to the southwest, and I spend my days living behind enemy lines. I’d say it only matters during the season, but when it comes to baseball, there’s no such thing as an off-season in Boston.

Sure, there are worse things I could be than a yanks fan. In fact, in Boston, the “most hated people” list looks something like this:

1. Sex offenders
2. Murderers
3. Yankee fans
4. Terrorists
5. Common criminals

I wish I was kidding. But actual blood relatives of Osama bin Laden live here. And no one really seems to mind.

Yankee fans? We’re not welcome. Maybe it’s because it is the best rivalry in sport and the tension is infectious, or maybe it’s because Yankees fans rubbed in 86 years of futility just a little too hard. (Guilty!)

When I tell a Bostonian that I’m a Yanks fan, a look crosses their face like someone took a shit in their shoe. I’ve literally had girls in bars turn around and walk away. (I tell myself it’s because I’m a Yanks fan, anyway…)

They don’t take kindly to my folk in these parts. Especially not at Fenway.

It is a cathedral, a living homage to the talent, passion and skill of some of the greatest players every to walk on this planet. In the same way I like Boston more than New York, I like Fenway more than Yankee Stadium, if only slightly. It is more unique, has a little more character. And it’s smaller, which makes it, ironically, more intimidating. Like you packed 38,000 friends into your living room to watch the game in HD.

It may be a cathedral, but the language at Fenway would make a priest’s ears bleed.

I’ve gone to a lot of Yankee games at Fenway, and I think I’ve attended just about all of them clad in some kind of Yankees gear. I’ll do the same when the Yanks come to Boston for the second time after what Joe Torre called “a taste” earlier in the month.

Even though I write for one of the few publications that wouldn’t censor anything I wrote—in fact, David Portnoy, the managing editor, told me, “There’s nothing that can’t be published in Barstool”—I won’t reprint some of the names I’ve been called. (One rhymes with “bunt” and another with “mucking grassnole”)

Of course, I could deserve it. I’m the kind of guy that bought a Rodriguez shirt after the Sox failed to sign him a few years ago, and promptly wore it to the first Yanks game at Fenway.

Amazingly, I’ve never gotten into a fight while at a Yankees game—I’m not stupid enough for that—because I know that it’s possible to cheer for a team without being a complete jackass, something that more than a few sports fans don’t seem to grasp. But I also follow a few simple rules that are essential to surviving the bleachers while wearing Yankees gear:

1. Wear a shirt, not a hat. You wear a hat, you’ll never see it again, and you’ll probably end up in handcuffs if you try to get it back.
2. Don’t look anyone in the eye. Seriously, treat fans in the bleachers like you would a gorilla in the wild. In fact, don’t look at or talk to anyone.
3. When the Yanks do something good, don’t jump up and down. Unless you’re a girl with big jubblies, which I decidedly am not. You can clap and cheer, just don’t overdo it.
4. If you yell at a player, it had better be a Yankee.

I do a lot of that last one. I’m what you could call a high-demand fan. If you put on the Yankee uniform, you had better be good. I do expect to win, and every game. I know it’s not possible, but there isn’t a team top-to-bottom that has more talent on the roster, so I expect to win. And when my team sucks I’m pretty damn vocal about it. (If only my TV could talk.)

But I love the game and my team, so I’m willing to risk possible mental abuse and bodily harm to watch my team play, even if it means I’m surrounded by angry gorillas (and I seriously mean that in a “respect” way—it’s your job to make Fenway inhospitable… I just wish it was more about the actual players and not about the fans.). It makes life interesting, and makes me a better fan. I can probably tell you as much about the Sox as you can, and definitely can tell you more about the Yankees, because that’s how I’ll get your respect.

There’s nothing like walking into Fenway with a Yankees jersey on. I’m a little kid at heart, so I love any stadium. But when you do it like that, it’s an adrenaline rush. You’re the enemy. My buddy Tim—a Sox fan—and I went down to New York last year for the September series, three games of Yanks and Sox. The first day, he didn’t wear his Sox stuff. He was unsure of the reception he’d get. I kidded him about it, but I could understand. The next night he wore it, and got some choice words shouted in his direction. “I know how you feel,” he said. Good times.

But it also matters what jersey you have on. I wouldn’t wear a Jeter shirt, even though he’s the player the team counts on the most. Jeter shirts are for chicks. I also don’t want to hear “Jeter sucks” a million times. Damon, also for chicks. I wouldn’t wear a Randy Johnson shirt, because I just don’t like him. Matsui’s on the DL for three months. And I have retired the Rodriguez jersey, because quite frankly, until he does something in the postseason, he doesn’t deserve my praise or my loyalty.

I thought about the Rivera shirt maybe, because the last player who will ever wear #42 is also the best closer of all time. But instead, I’ll be clad in my #23 Mattingly shirt when I climb those steps to the top of the bleachers. I’m gonna go old school. As a Sox fan told me one time I wore it in the bleachers, “If you don’t like Donnie Baseball, you don’t like baseball.”

I guess Sox fans do know a thing or two about the Yankees, after all.

Yanks and Sox odds

With the 2006 edition of the best rivalry in sports already underway by the time you read this, I thought I’d lay down some betting odds for the Sox and Yanks games this season.

Johnny Damon gets booed in his first game at Fenway
Odds: OFF
Assessment: This has already happened by the time you read this. I just wanted to get started with a sure thing.

Curt Schilling’s other ankle bleeds
Odds: 50 to 1
Assessment: Seeing as how the devil has not come to collect on the pact Curt must have made with him during the 2004 season, I’m guessing he just might be getting old.

Alex Rodriguez comes out of the closet
Odds: 18 to 1
Assessment: I’m a Yankees fan, and even I have my doubts.

David Ortiz wins a game with a walk off
Odds: 5 to 1
Assessment: Oh, how I long for the day when Joe Torre realizes that you should not pitch to David Ortiz under any circumstances. Honestly, the only reason David Ortiz has as many game winning hits as he does is because MLB managers are apparently idiots. I’d take my chances with Manny.

The Red Sox start handing out Viagra in the dugout
Odds: 500 to 1
Assessment: In a desperate attempt to make the offense more potent, Sox management starts… well, you get it.

Manny washes his hair
Odds: 15 to 1
Assessment: Seriously, I can smell it through the TV.

The NY Post publishes an article that Randy Johnson is actually a corpse
Odds: 1,000 to 1
Assessment: Either that, or Joe Torre brings the geriatric lefty out to the mound in a wheelchair.

Kyle Farnsworth puts a two foot hole in Jorge Posada
Odds: 10 to 1
Assessment: The Yanks middle reliever regularly hits 100 on the radar gun. Pure gas.

Mariano Rivera blows a save
Odds: 2 to 1
Assessment: I’m not about to say that the Sox have his number, but he hasn’t been the same against the Sox since 2004.

John Papelbon grows dreads
Odds: 5 to 1
Assessment: With the Wild Thing Mohawk under his belt, he moves on to pick up the slack left by “Brandon” Arroyo as the token white guy with nappy hair.

Gary Sheffield finally snaps and kills a fan during a game
Odds: 25 to 1
Assessment: Gary Sheffield’s brain is like that creaky, boarded up dock on a spooky lake. All it takes is one idiot who takes a wrong step.

Alex Rodriguez gets a two out RBI hit in the late innings to win a game
Odds: 10 billion to 1
Assessment: Alex is the first guy to have 130+ RBI without ever getting a hit with men on base.

A Yankees baserunner gets caught in a rundown
Odds: 7 to 1
Assessment: Thanks to the MLB Extra Innings Package, I’ve been able to watch the Yankees attempt to break the record for most run-downs in the month of April.

Josh Beckett becomes the next Carl Pavano
Odds: 22 to 1
Assessment: Despite the early season results, Pavano’s numbers were better than Beckett’s when he came over to the AL. I’m just saying.

The Yankees Suck chant will be recorded by the Hall of Fame and get its own exhibition as the “Dumbest Chant in the History of Sports”
Odds: 8 to 1
Assessment: I can only wish.

There will be a bench clearing brawl
Odds: 4 to 1
Assessment: Did the World Baseball Classic make these guys best friends? Or do they still dislike each other? We’ll see how things go when tension gets high. But I want a brawl to happen just to watch Johnny Damon wander around like a confused, lost child.

The teams will combine to set a season record for most men left in scoring position
Odds: 9 to 1
Assessment: If the early season trend continues, the odds on this will be a lot lower soon.

Roger Clemens will pitch for the Yankees
Odds: 3 to 1
Assessment: Honestly, if both teams are in contention, it’s going to be all about the money. And when that happens, you know who wins.

FOX Sports will still run Babe Ruth stories
Odds: 5 to 1
Assessment: I don’t think any other network has been hit harder by the 04 Sox Championship than Fox. I mean, after they won, someone had to teach Jeannie Zelasko a new baseball story. This was all she had.

We’ll see that 2K6 Sports commercial with Jeter and Beckett 1,000 times
Odds: 2 to 1
Assessment: Cool commercial. I like it. But after a whole season of it, I’m going to want both those guys dead.

Derek Jeter will make an amazing play
Odds: OFF
Assessment: Remember when he dove into the stands for a foul ball two years ago while Nomar moped in the dugout? Sox fans can say whatever they want about Jeter (and they do) but at the end of the day, he’s just one of those guys who has “it” and any manager would love to have him.

The Yankees win the division
Odds: 2 to 1
Assessment: Nine years in a row.

The World Series Ain’t In April

Schilling’s ankle hasn’t imploded… Beckett looks like the real deal… Papelbon is throwing like Rivera… Lowell is having a Giambi-like resurgence… and the Yankees’ pitching is struggling.

Clement looks like the guy who ended last season rather than the guy who began last season… Coco Crisp “can’t stay healthy”… David Wells pitched so bad he must be sober… Wakefield’s knuckler isn’t knuckling—and no one can catch it anyway… and the Yankees hitters are on pace to score enough runs to match their payroll.

This is early-season baseball.

Of course, the baseball writers have one in the bag for this, one of the many trite sayings they uncork on us, the lowly baseball public, over the course of the season:

You can’t win a division in April, but you can lose one.

This is one of their tactics to get us to keep watching—not that most of us wouldn’t anyway. This is why the opinions of the mainstream media are worth as much as that Nomar rookie card you’ve been hanging on to. You would think guys who have been around the sport as long as guys like Olney and Gammons have would know better. If anything this just makes us nervous, and drives the powerful engine that is sports talk radio.

You can’t win or lose a division in April. April is as meaningful as spring training.

There’s a reason they play 162 games. Think about that number for a minute. From Opening Day until the last out of the regular season on October 1st, baseball players will go to “work” on more days than you will. Position players will field more ground balls than you’ll send emails. They’ll have twice as many at bats as you’ll take dumps (unless you have a thing for Taco Bell). Starting Pitchers will throw more pitches in a week than you’ll drink beers in a month (unless you’re me). Teams will travel more miles than you’ll probably walk in feet.

Judging the outcome of games in April is like judging Tom Cruise’s mental stability right after Top Gun.

In other words, the first month of the season means jack shit. Of course, when we see the early stories unfold, like Wells getting pounded or Tanyon Sturtze throwing tater tots, it makes us crazier than time-traveler Darren Daulton. But those of us who have actually watched baseball all our lives shake it off after about five seconds, because we know you can put as much stock in Papelbon’s April saves as you can in Dalton’s claim that he’s “crossed over” through other dimensions.

That’s not saying that Papelbon won’t have a banner year and dominate. In the same way how bad you perform early has nothing to do with how good you’ll perform late, the reverse is true. He’s got the stuff, and he’s got the mentality down. He’s an icy son of a bitch, and I don’t want the Yanks to face him. But if he can hold up in October on the Big Stage, only time will tell. (In the interest in circumventing any angry emails from Yanks fans, my comparison to Rivera in the intro was meant to be a humorous exaggeration.)

Has everyone forgotten last year? Let’s see, the Yanks had their worst April ever. The Orioles were the best team in baseball for that month. Brian Roberts—BRIAN ROBERTS, at the time a career .264 hitter—was the early season MVP candidate. Matt Clement started off 6-0. The Big Unit’s first 10 starts went about as well as Jeff Weaver’s career in the Big Apple.

And where did things end up in the standings at the end of the season? The same damn place they had the previous seven. Despite all of that early season crapola.

This week, I had a confrontation with a Sox fan—who shall remain nameless because I won’t justify her comments by publishing her name (and because I’m still friends with her)—who said she’s positive the Sox are the better team than the Yankees this year, and that she’s positive they’ll win the division this year. This was a statement, not a prediction. Anyone can make predictions, I do it all the time. But this was a statement, based purely on the first week of the season.

These are the types of fans that drive me nuts. Unfortunately, Boston is as rife with them now as New York was in the late 90s. People who love their team but don’t know anything about baseball.

This sort of “Blind Optimism” is what separates fans of teams from fans of the sport. It’s one thing to want your team to win. It’s another to KNOW they will. BO—as I will call it from here on out because it is just as disgusting—is one thing and one thing only: stupid.

Look. I hope the Yankees will win the division. I hope they’ll win the World Series. If you want me to make a prediction, I think they will win the division (but not the Series), and the Sox will finish second. But I’m not Nostradamus. I can’t see the future. And there’s nothing in the first few weeks of the season that make me think—for better or for worse—the Yanks can’t win the division, or won’t. Same with the Sox or Toronto.

(Okay, I know Tampa Bay won’t. But hell, everyone knows that.)

So listen. You casual fans out there who don’t know what the 6 in a 6-4-3 double play means; you who think a suicide squeeze is a tactic pulled by the investigators on Law & Order; you who have never watched a game your team wasn’t playing in; you of the BO… do us all a favor and play Helen Keller for a bit.

That way we all can enjoy April Baseball for the one reason we should: we’ve got our sport back.

And for that I’m grateful.