A runner is thrown out by a step. A season ends. A team celebrates. The fan unleashes a smiling scream, his thirst for truth within the confines of sport measuring beyond naught, his more optimistic idea of human nature at least temporarily satiated.
Champagne adorns the clubhouse, on walls, soaking into the carpet, for all eternity. It will never dry. A manager accepts validation for his dedication, a player due adulation for an unforgiving occupation. An owner wipes away betraying tears. Commentators, live, attempt valiantly to trap a moment with words. Some succeed.
The sun sets earlier in the day; darkness accentuates winter, enveloping its essence. A hot stove flickers, belches, than burns. Amid the burning tumult, a team is delivered, forged and steadied, easily identifiable. We keep the game alive, us alone, carrying a tattered torch, at times expressively through will.
One day, nature scoffs at the calendar, and the air belies any tangible temperature. It feels lighter, looser; our mind automatically triggers a specific response. The mind searches for definition, until one magic word produces an exacting, all encompassing correlation.
Baseball, even in the winter we still think of Baseball.
The Ice melts. Days are counted, sped up, part of something greater than just game.
Finally, the pitchers and catchers report, our rhythm returns from the down turn of an infinitely epic crescendo, rising and flying again.
Ken Griffey’s bat waggles behind his head, a composer’s instrument of ultimate athletic expression, grace.
Nomar readjusts his batting gloves, Derek Jeter smiles while living the life we imagine, somewhere, sometime, Ernie Banks’ requests two.
Some fool analyzes his favorite team.
State of the East
Without announcement, it appeared an unmistakable upheaval had gripped baseball’s glamour division in 2005. The Baltimore Orioles, blessed with talent and incidentally buoyed by low expectations, rode a tidal wave of momentum, parlaying it into a multiple month pent house stay, above the defending champion Red Sox and a winded Yankees team. In the end, order would be restored, as Baltimore folded, built on a sand foundation of equal parts embarrassment [Raffy Palmeiro] age [Sammy Sosa] and downright waste. [Sidney Ponson]
The Yankees persevered, surviving the regular season, navigating over constantly choppy waters. They claimed a share of the division crown, before suffering a crushing first round defeat. This year, however, may see a new contender rise, with the aforementioned upheaval perhaps inescapable. Despite the Jays numerous and beneficial moves, my predicted order of finish rings of serene familiarity.
Predicted Order of Finish:
1. New York Yankees
2. Boston Red Sox* [Wild Card]
3. Toronto Blue Jays
4. Baltimore Orioles
5. Tampa Bay Devil Rays
NEW YORK YANKEES: 2005 RECORD 95-67 Predicted A.L. East Finish: 1
Projected Batting Order:
1. Johnny Damon: The latest big name defection in the ongoing Yankee-Red Sox hot stove war, Damon felt slighted by Boston’s Front Office, and their apparent lack of inclination to bring him back with a lucrative, multi-year contract. The negotiations quickly turned brittle when the Sox first contract offer fell much below the expectation of both Johnny and his representation, professional psychological diluter Scot Boras. The Yankees remained out of the picture, openly questioning the sanity of giving a player the caliber and age of Damon a seven-year deal. Boras pressed on, truly an avenging agent, shopping his client around before concluding that he had a struck a cord with the Dodgers. This connection produced the final straw between Damon and the Red Sox, and a gaping entrance into realistic contractual discussions for the Yankees. For, as Damon informed the Red Sox about a supposedly big offer under consideration from the Dodgers, the response was as chilly as it been all winter, leaving the free spirit’s psyche wounded. Ironically, the Dodgers and Red Sox eventually measured Johnny’s value similarly. All of the sudden, Boras and his gem were no longer shopping, but pursuing suitors. Brian Cashman seized the opportunity, and rapidly apparent desperation, offering a reasonable four-year deal. With the chance to reap revenge on his now past employer, Damon gladly shaved his defining beard, forgoing a last second bid from a mystery team, which may or not even exist. [The same team perhaps, that offered Boras Client Kevin Millwood 5 years and 75 million two years ago?] In Damon, the Yankees get a quality lead off man worthy of pushing Derek Jeter down a spot. While Damon’s numbers decidedly pale to Jeter’s, especially at the table setter position, the Captain’s main strengths may be better utilized in his new slot, making Johnny all the more valuable. Damon’s 2005 was marred by a painful shoulder injury, which he valiantly played through. As the injury worsened, so did Damon’s numbers, and although his production was of high quality, it is reasonable to expect slightly higher power numbers and a better .OBP this coming campaign. This of course, barring any further health related setbacks. Damon is an excellent sign by the Yankees.
2.Derek Jeter: The Captain appeared on a sinking ship halfway through 2005, through no fault of his own. Jeter rocketed out of the gate, before slowing down and eventually falling in line with his outstanding career performance. Along the way he hit his first career grand slam and was one of the driving force on the Yankees climatic run toward the playoffs. A natural opposite field hitter, Jeter’s batting average will be enhanced, due to Damon’s regular attendance leading off first base, leaving the hole on the right side open for the taking. There is no reason to expect a drop off from the always hard working Jeter in 2006.
3.Alex Rodriguez: Another Hall of Fame performance from perhaps the game’s greatest player, A-Rod’s 2005 served notice throughout the American League that the collapse of ’04 had not adversely affected his always stellar regular season play. October on the other hand, is a beast of burden that Alex has not yet slain. He, however, has time and talent, two essential qualities of a Champion.
4.Jason Giambi: A nightmarish start, an onslaught of criticism, charges of corrupting inert innocence, and above all else, the brand of cheater. These are the markings of a self-established hell. These are the depths from which Jason Giambi had to crawl from. Jason’s journey evolved from pathetic to inspiring, as he revived his career, and perhaps his life, with a sterling second half performance that conjured up memories of his MVP season with Oakland. Another money performance in the playoffs all but sealed his return to the heart of the Yankees line up in 2006.
5.Gary Sheffield: Gary just keeps on thumping, possibly scaring away any approaching career twilight. The slight decline in his stats, great as they were, could possibly explained by an unsettling slump at the most tumultuous of times. With his name being bandied about in trade discussions, the right fielder fell into an abyss, physical and emotional, from late July until the dealing deadline passed. Without this abhorrent blip, Sheffield would have come close to reaching 2004’s peak, when he finished second to Vlad in the MVP running.
6.Hideki Matsui: The Japanese import was rewarded with a five year deal this past Winter, in the wake of another year of consistent excellence at the plate. This outcome often looked bleak early, as Hideki lost his trademark simple stroke. His struggles reflected the team, as he took awkward, failing swipes at pitch after pitch. It appeared at one time that Matsui would be stuck on .267 for the entire summer. An ankle injury served as the impetus for reversal. His foot in severe discomfort, Matsui was forced to stay back on the ball, trusting his hands. In his first game from the DH spot, a limping Hideki bashed two homers and cleared the doldrums. What followed was a prototypical year for the reserved superstar, an intriguing blend of his first two seasons wearing the pinstripes.
7.Jorge Posada: Ridiculous overtures to sign Bengie Molina flowed unevenly from some Yankee followers to the front office following a down year from the normally reliable backstop. Jorge started off well enough, looking extremely comfortable, playing his game of power and patience. His production tailed off severely however, producing stretches of games without even a slight contribution from the frustrated All Star. His year, when viewed in whole, does not appear as ragged as the perception suggests. But the longer slumps and uncharacteristic awful A.B.s force the ugly word age to enter into any discussion involving Posada. Jorge is due to make a killing off a player option once he has caught 81 games this coming season, adding to previously unheard of speculation regarding his future.
8.Robinson Cano: The young, slightly unpolished second baseman was a breath of fresh air upon his arrival to the Bronx, wielding a smooth yet mechanically complicated swing. Cano’s future appears abundantly bright, especially when analyzing his mind blowing September, a rookie on the big stage adjusting right back to pitchers attempting to turn his natural game into a jumbled, discombobulated mess. Everything Robinson could ever want as a player rests in front of him, a leap necessary for possession. It is undeniable that he has the talent to make that leap. The question of will echoes silently, awaiting response.
9.Bernie Williams: Bernie appeared an apparition in center last season, but his bat remained dangerous in pressure situations. This situation calls perfectly for a DH, a skill set that allows Williams to still be abundantly dangerous, especially close and late.
Bench: Andy Phillips showed flashes last season, but at 29, he needs this time to shine. Andy will get the opportunity, granted the backup first baseman job going into Spring Training. In the winter thaw, it was becoming rapidly apparent that the Yankees were seriously considering going with Crosby as their man in center. Alas, Johnny Damon was spurned by Boston, falling into the Bombers’ lap, canceling Bubba’s walk in the shadows with Dimaggio, Mantle, and Coombs. Miguel Cairo, the useful utility man who excels at the fundamentals will make his return to Yankee Stadium after a one year sabbatical at Shea. Kelly Stinnett, a grizzled veteran, who has previously caught Randy Johnson in Arizona, will do well just to replace John Flaherty’s production, and with all apologies to that class act, such an accomplishment would be tantamount to overlapping a void. Kevin Howard is a multi-purpose infielder embezzled from the Reds in the Womack dump gives the Yankees quality depth in the Minor Leagues. Kevin Thompson has a very outside shot of putting heat on Crosby with an impressive Spring Training.
1.Randy Johnson: The Big Unit became an even bigger enigma in his first season on Broadway, appearing dominant at times, washed up at others. Nothing typified his season quite like the two months of September and October. Down the stretch Johnson was brilliant, specifically defeating Tim Wakefield in a 1-0 classic to keep the Yankees afloat in the AL east race. The tables turn. In game 3 of the ALDS against the Angels, Johnson was unmercifully flogged, bullied and battered, nothing more than a number four starter in over his head. The wheels spin. Game five saw Johnson emerge from the bullpen and shut down the Angels in relief, a performance that would have garnered him the role of hero had the Yankees come back. They didn’t. It is long forgotten. Which Johnson shows up in 2006?
2.Mike Mussina: What’s left in the tank? Mussina now relies more on cunning and guile than stuff, making him a solid number two, quality number three. Mike equaled the inconsistency of Johnson, lacking any defined steadiness inning to inning, let alone game to game. In a memorable shocker against Toronto, The Moose cruised through the first four innings before giving up six in the fifth, this after recording the first two outs. Stinkers such as that did nothing to dissuade Mussina’s critics, who claim the former ace to be temperamental and aloof. Anyone Yankee fan worth his salt who saw Mussina pitch in game 3 of the ALDS against Oakland, circa 2001, will defend him down to the last breath. However, is that Mike nothing more than a memory?
3.Shawn Chacon: Acquired for two erratic minor leaguers, the mysterious Chacon thrived outside the pitcher’s grave yard, Coors Field, and fulfilled his massive talent. Underneath a cool exterior resides a fierce competitor, who pitched a great game against Anaheim to keep his team alive in the playoffs. Whether Chacon repeats his breakout is a question only to be answered after a second ride through the lumber company residing in the AL East.
4.Chien-Ming Wang: Before anything else could be stated, wondered, or questioned about Wang, one fact must be abundantly clear: he throws a 94 MPH sinker. Let alone nasty, that pitch should be completely illegal. When Wang is on, he is rightfully unhittable, inducing a brigade of benign rollers back toward the mound. He has talent, an icy demeanor, and presence. The Heir Apparent.
5.Carl Pavano/ Jaret Wright/ Aaron Small: Pavano, a big ticket signing off an off-season prior, has the pressure free spot reserved for his use barring a major physical or mental breakdown. Carl’s heart, fair or not, is in question after a complete shut down following a case of shoulder tendonitis. Whether or not he can regain the form that earned him his Benjamins debatable, but if the fastball still sits on 89 instead of 92, the scales will be tilted heavily against him.
Jaret Wright on the other hand, bounced back from his arm injury to help pitch the Yankees to a few direly necessary wins in August and September. Despite that bit of good news, three facts are unavoidable: The numbers are ugly, the health is in question, and the contract is ridiculous. The expectations are deservedly low for Jaret Wright.
Aaron Small rode in on a white horse from oblivion to save the Yanks’ season, going 10-0 in a decidedly Kurt Warner-esque performance. Small is a good story even if the book has already reached its conclusion.
Closer: Mariano Rivera: Enter Sandman. The most important cog in the Yankees’ machine, present and immediate future, it is a yearly custom for fans to ponder where the Bombers would be without the best reliever in the entire history of the game. The answer is quick and decisive: nowhere.
Set-Up Man: Kyle Farnsworth: The good? Farnsworth had a spectacular 2005, shutting down opponents with two vicious out pitches [fastball, slider] and commanding respect around Baseball as a legitimate closer after converting perfectly to stopper for the Braves. The bad? Playoffs. Farnsworth melted down against Houston, squandering a five run lead and launching a Instant Classic, setting the stage for Atlanta to go home in the first round yet again. Another playoff low light for Kyle took place in 2003, when he came in to face Mike Mordecai and stop the bleeding for the Cubs while they were falling apart in game six of the NLCS. Farnsworth didn’t play hero, he just furthered a legend, as the Billy Goat fingerprinted Chicago once again. He would give up a game breaking triple. A Yankee fan hopes that Kyle has learned from his mistakes, a Brave and Cubs fan waits for the other shoe to drop. Stay tuned.
Mike Myers and Ron Villone: Two veteran, crafty lefties, Myers will be used as a specialist, Villone as a backup swingman/ long reliever.
Octavio Dotel: An astute signing by Brian Cashman, the Yankees hope the Tommy John patient can recover his arm strength and be a difference maker out of the pen by May or June. Dotel is far more optimistic, hinting he could be ready by Opening Day. If healthy, Dotel provides most valuable insurance in case Farnsworth crumbles in the New York spotlight. Optimistically, Dotel, Farnsworth, and Rivera could be 2006’s answer to the Nasty Boys of the 1990 Champion Reds.
Tanyon Sturtze: Tanyon is known as an underachiever, but he can be a serviceable bullpen cog. If the overuse continues, without exaggeration, his arm just might explode.
Bring on the sweet summer winds…
Yankees Over White Sox in A.L.D.S.
Yankees Over Oakland in A.L.C.S.
Yankees Over Cubs in World Series