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Archive for December, 2010

(In addition to appearing at The Captain’s Blog, this post is also being syndicated at TheYankeeU.)

The holidays are also major league baseball’s Hall of Fame season. Once the ballot is released after Thanksgiving, hundreds of BBWAA members endeavor to narrow down the choices, and in the process, usually write about their selections ahead of the official announcement on January 5. As a result, an undercurrent usually emerges from the collective prose to offer a hint as to the eventual outcome.

Will the Hall of Fame turn its back on Bagwell because of rumor and innuendo?

Unfortunately for the likes of Bert Blyleven, Tim Raines, Roberto Alomar and Alan Trammell, there really hasn’t been a resounding sentiment that would foreshadow their deserved elections. Instead, the major theme of the process has been steroids. With the addition of Rafael Palmeiro to the ballot, the focus on PEDs is certainly understandable. After all, despite collecting 3,000 hits among many other accomplishments, the former All Star first baseman is now best known for his finger pointing denial in front of Congress just months before testing positive for a banned substance in 2005. Interestingly, Palmeiro, who joins Mark McGwire on the ballot as a qualified candidate stained by PEDs, still maintains his innocence, but the overwhelming sentiment is that he has virtually no chance of being elected.

I was telling the truth then, and I am telling the truth now. I don’t know what else I can say. I have never taken steroids. For people who think I took steroids intentionally, I’m never going to convince them. But I hope the voters judge my career fairly and don’t look at one mistake.” – Rafael Palmeiro, quoted by AP, December 30, 2010

Although no one can come close to knowing the true impact that steroids and other “performance enhancing” drugs actually have on the playing field, it is perfectly legitimate to hold an admission or failed drug test against a particular candidate. According to the Hall of Fame’s BBWAA elections rules, “voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.” Clearly, taking performance enhancing drugs calls into question the qualifications of integrity, sportsmanship and character. Of course, the impact of those qualities still has to be weighed against the overall contribution, not to mention measured against the prevailing attitude of the era. Nonetheless, when there is evidence of  PED use, it becomes reasonable to disregard an otherwise perfectly deserving candidate.

Unfortunately, far too many members of the BBWAA have gone beyond the careful consideration of evidence and allowed rumors, unverified allegations and, even worse, mere hunches to factor into their decision. The chief victim of this perverted process has been Jeff Bagwell. Although some might argue that Bagwell wasn’t as dominant as other more prominent first baseman of his era, it’s nearly impossible to build a case against him on a statistical basis. Based on his numbers and reputation within the game, Bagwell should be a slam dunk, no doubt about it, first ballot Hall of Famer. So, what’s the problem?

Apparently, a large segment of the voting population has gotten it into their heads that Jeff Bagwell did steroids. In what Craig Calcattera perfectly labeled “Steroid McCarthyism”, several eligible voters have openly accused Bagwell of being tainted without offering one shred of evidence to support their vitriolic allegations. Instead, these writers have cowardly hid behind hunches, suspicions and undisclosed circumstantial evidence to not only smear an individual, but make the entire process seem so illegitimate.

Jeff Bagwell’s Career Progression, HRs and OPS+

Source: Baseball-reference.com

The baseless accusations against Bagwell are somewhat curious because his career followed the normal path that one would expect from a superstar player. At the age of 23, he broke into the majors as a productive player, had several strong peak years in his mid-to-late 20s and then slowly declined into his 30s until finishing his last full season at age 36. Unlike other players of the era, Bagwell did not resurrect a stalled career, nor find the fountain of youth in the years after his prime. He has repeatedly denied using PEDs, but that hasn’t stemmed the tide of cowardly innuendo. In fact, the repeated allegations have done so much damage that the truth probably doesn’t even matter anymore.

So much has gone on in the last eight or nine years, it’s kind of taken some of the valor off it for me. If I ever do get to the Hall of Fame and there are 40 guys sitting behind me thinking, ‘He took steroids,’ then it’s not even worth it to me. I don’t know if that sounds stupid. But it’s how I feel in a nutshell.” – Jeff Bagwell, quoted by ESPN.com, December 29, 2010

Another argument many have used against Bagwell is “guilt by association”. Although no evidence exists about his personal use, the theory goes, he still warrants a scarlet letter because of the era in which he played. Clearly, that’s a nonsensical approach to the issue that can’t possibly be applied with any consistency. In fact, one who holds that sentiment should recues himself from the voting process.

Over the past 10-20 years, it has become obvious that the voting process for the Hall of Fame needs a major overhaul. Just as it has demonstrated with its annual post season awards, the BBWAA is no longer uniquely qualified to serve as the sole arbiter of baseball’s greatest honor. Before the advent of the internet and proliferation of television, sportswriters, by virtue of their access, were among a select group of people with particular insight into the game. Nowadays, however, that is no longer the case. On the contrary, the aging BBWAA population has proven to be significantly out of touch with the game’s development, and therefore woefully inadequate in its role as a third-party overseer. This disintegration is perfectly illustrated by the dozens of trade group members who have deemed themselves qualified to serve as doctors and lawyers when considering Hall of Fame candidates.

The current electorate’s inability to see the distinction between Jack Morris and Bert Blyleven is disturbing enough, but its mob mentality in handling players like Bagwell is really the last straw. Using pens as pitchforks, some BBWAA members have torched reputations and tarnished accomplishments, all in the name of preserving the game’s integrity. In reality, however, the opposite has been true. Therefore, the time has come for major league baseball and the Hall of Fame to take a serious look at the electoral process as well as the qualifications of those casting votes.

There are many intelligent, thoughtful sportswriters who should remain a part of the process, but as recent events have proven, there are also many who should not. Simply being a tenured member of a trade group should not merit such a distinct honor. Last decade, baseball endeavored to clean up the game by enacting a strict drug testing regimen. This decade, it should aim to revamp the Hall of Fame election process by ensuring that a more deserving and better qualified group of voters is entrusted with preserving its history. It’s time to put an end to the age of suspicion, and those who wish to wallow in rumor and innuendo should be left behind.

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For obvious reasons, the Yankees’ offseason actions, or lack thereof, have centered on pitching. Considering the team’s offense led the American League in runs, OBP and OPS+ in 2010, the focus on pitching makes perfect sense. That’s not to suggest, however, that a smaller move can’t later prove to be significant (last year’s little noticed acquisition of Marcus Thames is a perfect example).

As a 19-year old, Andruw Jones belted two home runs against the Yankees in the first game of the 1996 World Series (Photo: SI).

With Thames expected to seek more playing time elsewhere, and Lance Berkman and Austin Kearns already signed elsewhere, the Yankees’ bench has been seriously depleted. A utility infielder would make a nice addition, as would a backup first baseman, but above all else, the team’s biggest need in terms of depth is a right handed hitter capable of playing at least adequate defense.

Although two potent right handed bats, Vladimir Guerrero and Manny Ramirez, remain on the market, their inability to play the outfield makes them an unlikely fit. Similarly, Johnny Damon’s rapidly declining defense, not to mention being left handed, also makes him somewhat of a square peg. What’s more, all three of those players would likely demand regular playing time, and with Jorge Posada scheduled to be a full-time DH, that’s not something the Yankees can offer. There is, however, one remaining free agent who fits the profile: Andruw Jones.

Despite being only 33, Jones is really a shell of the player he once was. Nonetheless, he remains a decent outfielder who can still hit left handed pitchers. In other words, he’d be the perfect compliment to a Yankee outfield that features two left handed hitters. Because both Brett Gardner and Curtis Granderson can play centerfield, Jones could be used as a part-time replacement in left as well as an occasional DH when Posada either needs a rest or makes a rare start behind the plate. What’s more, in each of the past two seasons, Jones has had just over 300 plate appearances, so he seems to have willingly accepted a part-time role.

Just because the Yankees have two gaping holes in the rotation doesn’t mean they should ignore the opportunity to make a minor improvement to the offense. Signing Jones won’t close the gap in the A.L. East, but it would address a need with an ideal solution. At some point, the Yankees may need to make a bigger move, but in the meantime, a couple of incremental improvements could mitigate this larger concern.

Andruw Jones vs. LHP, 2002-2010

Source: FanGraphs.com

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Cliff Lee’s return to Philadelphia put the Yankees into a bit of a tailspin, but a tacit expectation that Andy Pettitte would return allowed the team to continue to preach patience. Lately, however, the tea leaves have not been as favorable. In a press conference for the upcoming Pinstripe Bowl, Mark Teixeira stated that Pettitte is still leaning toward retirement, a reality that seems to have evoked a hint of desperation. Speaking at the same event, Yankees’ president Randy Levine all but pleaded for the lefty to return by admitting, “Every day I hope Andy comes back. I think he knows we need him”.

Randy Levine and the rest of the Yankees’ brass have been hoping for Andy Pettitte’s return, but will their prayers be answered?

Pettitte has never seemed like the type of guy to hold a grudge, but as he sits back on a Hawaii beach sipping a Mai Tai, you couldn’t blame him if Levine’s words were sweeter than the pineapple juice in his drink. After all, it was only two years ago when Pettitte was forced to return to the Yankees with hat in hand and accept an incentive laden deal. At that time, the Yankees had just signed C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, so the same urgency to re-sign the veteran lefty didn’t exist. Bargaining from a position of strength, the Yankees presented Pettitte with a “take it or leave it” offer of $10 million, which represented a significant pay cut from the $16 million salary he had earned the year before. After turning down that initial offer, Pettitte eventually agreed to a deal at the end of January. The terms of the contract he signed called for an even lower base salary of $5.5 million with incentives, nearly all of which he reached.

The bottom line is, I’m a man, and I guess it does take a shot at your pride a little bit. But when you put all that aside, I wanted to play for the New York Yankees. I wanted to be there and I wanted to play in that new stadium.” – Andy Pettitte, quoted in The New York Times, January 26, 2009

Needless to say, Pettitte won’t be forced to accept a below market deal this time around. Over the course of a few short months, the services of the veteran have gone from a luxury to an absolute necessity, so now it is Pettitte who holds all the cards. Of course, that assumes that he even wants to play. With anyone else, you could be sure that the song and dance about retirement was really a ploy intended to drive up the Yankees’ offer, but Pettitte’s indecision is likely genuine. Otherwise, his agent would also be soliciting offers from elsewhere, and that doesn’t seem to be the case.

If he decides to return, the Yankees would be more than happy to have Pettitte exact a small pound of flesh in the contract negotiations. Even though the team would still have work to do on its rotation, the return of Pettitte would provide them with enough leeway to continue practicing the art of patience. Should Pettitte actually retire, however, it could finally be time to push the panic button. All of a sudden, reclamation projects like Brad Penny, Jeff Francis, Freddy Garcia and Chris Young would become vital parts of the Yankees’ 2011 blueprint, which isn’t exactly a championship architecture.

The Yankees definitely need Andy Pettitte, and he knows it. But, does he need the Yankees? Somewhere amid the surf and sand, that question is being considered. Whether it’s with money, personal appeals or the lure of historical accomplishment, the Yankees need to do everything possible to influence the eventual decision. Otherwise, the entire organization will probably have the opportunity to join Pettitte on that beach early in October.

Reachable Team Milestones for Andy Pettitte

Rk Player WAR   Player W
1 Whitey Ford 55.3   Whitey Ford 236
2 Mariano Rivera 52.9   Red Ruffing 231
3 Red Ruffing 49.7   Andy Pettitte 203
4 Ron Guidry 44.4   Lefty Gomez 189
5 Lefty Gomez 43.2   Ron Guidry 170
6 Andy Pettitte 42.7   Bob Shawkey 168
           
Rk Player K   Player GS
1 Whitey Ford 1956   Whitey Ford 438
2 Andy Pettitte 1823   Andy Pettitte 396
3 Ron Guidry 1778   Red Ruffing 391
4 Red Ruffing 1526   Mel Stottlemyre 356
5 Lefty Gomez 1468   Ron Guidry 323

Source: Baseball-reference.com

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(In addition to appearing at The Captain’s Blog, this post is also being syndicated at TheYankeeU.)

The acquisition of Russell Martin hasn't had most Yankee fans doing handstands.

The New York Yankees are in the unfamiliar position of entering a new year without having made any significant improvements to the team. Although the free agent signings of Russell Martin and Pedro Feliciano are both positive complementary acquisitions, the team’s failure to make a big splash has left it vulnerable to a serious of question marks, one of which will become an exclamation point should Andy Pettitte decide to retire. Patience has been this offseason’s theme, and hopefully its virtue, so instead of looking too far ahead, perhaps it would be better to look back at past acquisitions over the last decade? Below is a list of the major names acquired (re-signings generally excluded) after each season (based on conventional wisdom at the time) along with an assessment of the group’s overall performance.

2009: Javier Vazquez, Nick Johnson and Curtis Granderson

Fresh off their 27th World Series championship, the Yankees were far from complacent. The team said goodbye to veteran contributors Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui and replaced them Nick Johnson and Curtis Granderson. Cashman also sought to round out what had been a top heavy rotation by acquiring what he hoped was a rejuvenated Javier Vazquez from the Braves. On paper, the Yankees got a little younger, if not better, heading into their title defense.

Until Granderson and hitting coach Kevin Long worked on an adjustment in August, Cashman’s three most significant offseason moves all looked as if they would come up snake eyes. Since returning to the lineup on August 12, however, Granderson posted a line of .261/.356/.564 in his final 192 plate appearances, and then followed that with an OPS above 1.000 in both the ALDS and ALCS. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a “rags to riches” end for either Johnson or Vazquez. After getting off to a poor start, Johnson developed his usually spate of injuries and was eventually shutdown for the season. Meanwhile, Vazquez temporarily rebounded from a poor beginning, but eventually resumed his struggles and ended the season with an ERA+ of 80.

2008: Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett

The Yankees rearmed for 2009 with the signings of Sabathia and Burnett.

After making the playoffs in 12 consecutive seasons, the Yankees finished in third place under rookie manager Joe Girardi in 2008. With high salaries like Jason Giambi and Mike Mussina coming off the books, the Yankees pushed their chips all in and came away with a pair of aces and a wild card.

CC Sabathia’s acquisition was the linchpin, and with the big lefty in the fold, everything fell into place in 2009. Although not as dominant, A.J. Burnett turned in one his finest seasons and teamed with Sabathia and Pettitte to form a three-man rotation throughout the playoffs. Meanwhile, Mark Teixeira was everything the Yankees expected, both with his potent bat and golden glove at first. When all was said and done, the three acquisitions played a monumental part in the Yankees’ return to glory.

2007: Alex Rodriguez* and LaTroy Hawkins

Even though Alex Rodriguez was already a member of the team, the whole production surrounding the opt out made his eventual return seem like a new acquisition. Perhaps distracted by the Rodriquez situation, the Yankees made few other significant additions. LaTroy Hawkins was expected to be a sold bullpen contributor, but after raising the ire Yankees fans by wearing Paul O’Neill’s unretired #21, he struggled mightily and was eventually trade to Houston.

Although Alex Rodriguez had a very strong 2008 campaign, he not only declined from his MVP form in 2007, but also missed 27 games. Still, Arod wasn’t the reason the team missed the playoffs. Instead, it was the failure to strengthen the rotation that did the Yankees in, especially when the team’s reliance on Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy backfired. During the offseason, the Yankees were widely expected to trade for Johan Santana, so the team’s subsequent failure was seen as a repudiation of Cashman’s decision to forgo obtaining the Cy Young lefty from Minnesota. However, one season later, Cashman’s decision would be vindicated.

2006: Andy Pettitte and Kei Igawa

Kei Igawa's press conferences provided a rare opportunity for fans to see him in pinstripes.

In 2006, the Yankees had a powerhouse lineup, but the starting rotation proved rather thin. So, in addition to clearing out a few square pegs like an unhappy Gary Sheffield and Randy Johnson as well as Jaret Wright, the Yankees’ focus for 2007 was centered on acquiring a reliable starter. With the rest of the market both thin and overpriced, the team eventually wound up reuniting with Pettitte, who had left for Houston after the 2003 season, and rolling the dice on Kei Igawa, a move that was at least in part a knee jerk reaction to Boston’s acquisition of the more heralded Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Pettitte, who went 15-9 with a 112 ERA+, was exactly what the Yankees needed in 2007. Unfortunately, the rotation was little improved from the previous year because Mike Mussina suffered through the worst season of his career. What’s more, the signing of Igawa proved to be a colossal bust as the Japanese import was quickly exposed as nothing more than a triple-A talent. The Yankees’ continuing rotation crisis forced them to lure Roger Clemens out of retirement one more time, but even the addition of the 44-year old Rocket wasn’t enough. Not only did the team relinquish the division title for the first time since 1997, but its lack of pitching depth was exposed in the ALDS as the Cleveland Indians knocked the Yankees out of the playoffs in the first round.

2005: Kyle Farnsworth and Johnny Damon

The Yankees won their eighth consecutive A.L. East division title in 2005, but didn’t make it past the Angels in the ALDS. During the decade, the Yankees gradually drifted toward being a lineup of mashers that would compensate for a mediocre pitching staff by bludgeoning other teams, and 2005 was the pinnacle of that trend. Still, the Yankees most significant offseason move was to snatch Johnny Damon from the rival Red Sox and continue to gradually nudge Bernie Williams toward retirement. Damon was an immediate success in pinstripes and eventually wound up providing commensurate value over the entire term of the four-year deal, contrary to initial expectations at the time.

On the pitching side, the Yankees brought in Kyle Farnsworth to take the place of the departing Tom Gordon, who had proven to be an invaluable regular season reliever. The team made no adjustments to the rotation, however, despite its collective failure during the 2005 season. Instead, the Yankees seemed to roll the dice that Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina would rebound from disappointing years, while Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright would enjoy better health in their sophomore seasons in pinstripes. Only Mussina panned out, and the Yankees once again found themselves with a subpar rotation.

2004: Randy Johnson, Carl Pavano, Tony Womack, and Jaret Wright

Carl Pavano also had little use for his home uniform after the press conference announcing his signing.

The 2004 ALCS collapse to the Red Sox was a cataclysmic event that prompted the Yankees to pretty much replace their entire starting rotation. Javier Vazquez, Jon Lieber and Orlando Hernandez were all jettisoned from the staff in favor of Johnson, Pavano and Wright. Although much was expected from Johnson, the initial reaction to the acquisitions of Wright and Pavano was met with justified scorn. Neither would contribute much to the team over the terms of their contracts, but Pavano’s comical 145 innings over four season earned him a special brand of infamy. Luckily, the 2005 season would be saved by two unheralded acquisitions, Shawn Chacon and Aaron Small, who combined to go 17-3, as well as the emergence of Chien-Ming Wang from the minor leagues.

In 2004, Miguel Cairo had surprisingly strong season, but the Yankees smartly decided not to roll the same dice the following year. Unfortunately, they opted to go with an even worse option by signing Tony Womack, who quickly proved to be one of the more futile players in recent team history. Once again, however, fate played a favorable hand when the promotion of Robinson Cano not only added life to the lineup, but also forced the Yankees to incorporate a player who would eventually emerge as a bonafide star. In the meantime, however, Womack continued to be a drag on the lineup as a left fielder.

Although Johnson led the Yankees with a 17-8 record and a respectable 3.79 ERA, he wasn’t the dominant force that team thought it had acquired. Particularly because of the three brutal free agent signings, the 2004 offseason easily ranks as one of the worst in team history. It would take several seasons for the Yankees to free themselves from the mistakes made in the winter of 2004, which only added insult to the injury of that year’s shocking ALCS.

2003: Tom Gordon, Gary Sheffield, Alex Rodriguez, Javier Vazquez and Kevin Brown

The Yankees lost the 2003 World Series to the Marlins, but the euphoria from winning a dramatic ALCS against the Red Sox almost seemed to override that disappointment. Nonetheless, Brian Cashman wasn’t resting on his laurels, despite having a lineup and pitching staff that both performed well above average. On offense, the Yankees added a perennial masher in Gary Sheffield (even if Cashman’s preference for Vladimir Guerrero would have worked out better in the long run). However, an offseason injury to Aaron Boone added a significant hole at third base, which the Yankees wound up filling with the shocking acquisition of Alex Rodriguez. The idea of adding Arod and Sheffield to a lineup that already included Jason Giambi, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Hideki Matsui seemed like enough to guarantee a return trip to the World Series…and it should have…except for a late season breakdown in the pitching staff.

In addition to a lineup overhaul, the Yankees also revamped the starting rotation by replacing Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens with Javier Vazquez and Kevin Brown. On paper, the swap seemed to favor the Yankees, and the early returns were somewhat positive, but both Brown and Vazquez suffered a myriad of mental and physical breakdowns that quickly made their situation in the Bronx untenable. Both pitchers would contribute in a big way to the team’s game seven debacle in the ALCS and forever be branded as failures in the minds of Yankees fans.

The ALCS collapse also stained Tom Gordon, who had two outstanding regular seasons in pinstripes, and even Rodriguez, who was on his way to being the series MVP before going dormant over the final three games. Because of the team’s demise in the playoffs, the overall contribution of Cashman’s 2003 offseason acquisitions was largely discounted. Collectively, the quartet contributed 18.5 wins above replacement, but it was their high profile failures in the ALCS that would be remembered.

2002: Todd Zeile, Hideki Matsui, Jon Lieber and Jose Contreras

After the 2002 season, the Yankees were feeling the unfamiliar sting of an early exit from the playoffs. It was hard to get too worked up, however, because the team recorded 103 wins and outperformed statistically in just about every phase of the game. So, it seemed as if only minor additions would be needed.

The verdict on the Hideki Matsui signing was two thumbs up.

Along with the addition of some depth in Todd Zeile and a reclamation project like Jon Lieber, the Yankees turned to the international market for reinforcements. Both Hideki Matsui and Jose Contreras were widely acclaimed as stars in their respective countries of Japan and Cuba, so much was expected from the two veterans. Matsui was always ticketed for the Bronx, but the pursuit of Contreras caused the first real resumption of hostilities between the Yankees and Red Sox when Boston General Manager Theo Epstein reportedly trashed his hotel room after learning of the Yankees’ signing. Although the conquest of Contreras also prompted Boston CEO Larry Lucchino to refer to the Yankees as the Evil Empire, it was the signing of Matsui, who hit a key double off Pedro Martinez in the fateful eighth inning of the 2003 ALCS, that would torment the Red Sox for years to come.

2001: Robin Ventura, Steve Karsay, Rondell White, Jason Giambi and David Wells

The Yankees responded to a shocking and bitter walk off defeat in the 2001 World Series by making several significant changes to the team. The most notable was the replacement of Tino Martinez with Jason Giambi, who at the time was one of the most feared hitters in the game. The Yankees also compensated for the retirement of Paul O’Neill and Scott Brosius with the signings of White and Ventura, respectively, before rounding out the bullpen and rotation with the addition of Karsay and the return of Wells.

With the exception of White, all of Cashman’s moves worked according to plan, and the team went onto to an impressive 103-win season, despite getting eliminated by the Angels in 2002 ALDS. Over the long term, however, the addition were mostly stop gap moves, with the exception of Giambi, whose declining skills and defensive limitations (not to mention steroid revelations) eventually made his contract an albatross.

2000: Mike Mussina

The Yankees seldom had “too much pitching” during his tenure, but Mike Mussina was always an anchor of the staff.

In a classic case of the rich getting richer, the three-time defending world champions responded to that season’s sudden decline of David Cone by replacing him with Mussina, one of the game’s best pitchers. The addition of Mussina helped give the Yankees a formidable front-line rotation in 2001 and provided the team with an anchor during a turbulent decade that featured more than its share of mediocre starting pitchers. Unfortunately, Mussina never won a World Series with the Yankees, but his 123-72 record over eight seasons in pinstripes is testament to the quality of the signing.

It’s hard to pinpoint which offseason from the recent past is most similar to the current one. In many ways, by putting all of their eggs in the Cliff Lee basket, the strategy resembles the team’s approach with Mussina after the 2000 season. Would the Yankees have returned to the World Series in 2001 and 2003 without the former Orioles ace? And, more importantly, will they go back soon without Lee?

Then again, with the Yankees anxiously awaiting a final decision from Andy Pettitte, this offseason could wind up resembling the 2006 winter when the veteran lefty’s return gave the Yankees’ rotation enough rope to hang on until a midseason reinforcement. We know it won’t end up looking like the treasure troves acquired after the 2003 and 2008 campaigns, but by the same token, Cashman’s philosophy of patience should help avoid the long-term negative ramifications from an offseason similar to 2004.

Unlike all of the offseasons mentioned above, the one difference from this year is there are still three more months until Opening Day. Although very few attractive free agents remain, there is still the possibility of a trade. From a historical perspective, Yankees’ fans just have to hope that if such a transaction occurs, it will turn out to be more like another Arod trade than the one for Randy Johnson.

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With as much as 20 inches of snow on the ground in some parts of the tri-state area, it’s probably little consolation that there are fewer than 50 days until pitchers and catchers start making their annual trek to warmer climates. After all, before getting to enjoy the first sounds of Spring Training, fans in many parts of the country must first survive at least another two months of cold and snow. However, there was a time when sports fans were able to watch the New York Yankees play under such conditions instead of waiting for the warmth of spring time. From 1946 until 1949, the legendary baseball team shared its name with one that played in the All-American Football Conference (AAFC), an upstart league that sort to challenge the incumbent National Football League (NFL) during that period (another New York Yankees football team featuring Red Grange played in the American Football League in 1926 and the NFL in 1927-1928 before disbanding).

Alignment of AAFC and NFL In 1946

NFL
Eastern Division Western Division
Boston Yanks (Fenway Park*) Detroit Lions (Briggs Stadium)
New York Giants (Polo Grounds) Chicago Bears (Wrigley Field)
Philadelphia Eagles (Shibe Park) Chicago Cardinals (Comiskey Park)
Pittsburgh Steelers (Forbes Field) Green Bay Packers (City Stadium)
Washington Redskins (Griffith Stadium) Los Angeles Rams (Los Angeles Coliseum)
   
AAFC
Eastern Division Western Division
New York Yankees** (Yankee Stadium) Cleveland Browns**** (Municipal Stadium)
Brooklyn Dodgers*** (Ebbets Field) Chicago Rockets (Soldier Field)
Buffalo Bisons (Civic Stadium) Los Angeles Dons (Los Angeles Coliseum)
Miami Seahawks (Burdine Stadium) San Francisco 49ers****  (Kezar Stadium)

*Became New York Bulldogs in 1949 and then New York Yanks in 1950.
**First professional football team to call Yankee Stadium home.
***Not related to NFL franchise of same name that became the New York Yankees.
****Admitted to the NFL after the 1949 season.
Source: Wikipedia.com and NFL.com

The connection between the football Yankees and their baseball namesake as well as several other professional football franchises is long and convoluted. The team began as an informal football gathering of St. Mary’s College students before organizing as the Dayton Triangles.  In 1920, the Triangles became an original member of what eventually became the NFL, but moved to Brooklyn in 1930, at which point the team’s name was changed to the Dodgers. In 1934, a business man named Dan Topping purchased half of the team, and then in 1945, along with Del Webb and Larry MacPhail, also purchased a share of baseball’s New York Yankees. Now with access to the much larger Yankee Stadium, Topping sought to move his football team from Ebbets Field to the Bronx, but his intentions were rebuffed by Tim Mara, the owner of the NFL’s New York Giants. As a result, the team faced financial turmoil and eventually had to merge with another struggling franchise called the Boston Yanks (itself named in honor of the baseball Yankees by an owner anxious to move the team to Yankee Stadium).

By the end of the 1946 season, Topping had exhausted all alternatives, which made him especially receptive to the upstart AAFC. He eventually purchased the rights to the AAFC’s New York franchise, which was to be called the Yankees and play in the House That Ruth Built for baseball. In retaliation, the NFL canceled Topping’s ownership in the Boston Yanks franchise, but several of the team’s players followed him over to the Bronx.

Unissued stock certificate of the New York Yankees Football Club, Inc., which was formed by Dan Topping, who was also a part owner of baseball’s New York Yankees.

In its first two seasons, the football Yankees played the Cleveland Browns for the AAFC championship, but lost each time. On December 22, 1946, Paul Brown’s powerhouse Cleveland team, which was quarterbacked by the legendary Otto Graham, rallied from behind “on the frozen, snow-swept turf of the huge lakefront municipal stadium” to beat the Yankees 14-9. The winning score was a 16-yard touchdown pass from Graham to Dante Lavelli with only four minutes remaining in the game. The next year, on December 14, the two teams met once again on a snow covered field, but this time the venue was Yankee Stadium. For the second straight season, Graham proved to be the difference, rushing and passing for a touchdown in the Browns 14-3 victory in front of 61,879 fans.

Although teams like the Browns and Yankees attracted larger crowds than their NFL neighbors, the marketplace for professional football wasn’t big enough for two leagues, so a merger was agreed upon after the 1949 season. As part of the deal, three AAFC franchises were admitted to the NFL and the combined league was temporarily called the National-American Football League. In addition to the Browns, which won all four AAFC championships and compiled an astounding 47-4-3 record, the San Francisco 49’ers and Baltimore Colts (no relation to Johnny Unitas’ team) joined the new league, while Topping’s Yankees were left out in the cold (the NFL already had the Giants and Bulldogs in New York).

With the AAFC out of business, the NFL’s New York Bulldogs, which had formerly been the aforementioned Boston Yanks, changed its name to the New York Yanks and moved from the Polo Grounds to Yankee Stadium. In addition, 18 former players from Topping’s Yankees squad joined the Yanks, extending that team’s legacy for two more years before the franchise was revoked and moved to Dallas (and later to Baltimore before ending up in Indianapolis). The site of football being played in the Bronx wasn’t dead, however, as in 1956 the football Giants moved from the Polo Grounds to Yankee Stadium, which in 1958 was host to the historic NFL championship between the Giants and Colts (remember, the Colts had been the New York Bulldogs, the NFL’s first Yankee Stadium tenant).

In summary, football’s Brooklyn Dodgers became the New York Yankees, who were later merged into the New York Bulldogs before eventually becoming the Baltimore Colts team that returned to Yankee Stadium and beat the New York Giants in a pivotal championship that helped make the NFL the financial behemoth that it is today. Phew! Talk about a small world. With perhaps only slight exaggeration, it could be said that the House That Ruth Built helped build the NFL. Not bad for a part-time job in the off season.

Football Family Tree

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This holiday season, many Yankees fans might not agree with the sentiment expressed below. Instead of waiting for Santa, legions in Yankee Universe have been waiting with baited breath for a left hander from Texas to brighten the new year. In the meantime, however, the off season has kind of taken on the feel of a Yankees Christmas Carol with Brian Cashman in the role of Scrooge. Just check out Emma Span’s brilliant parody at Bronx Banter if you don’t believe me.

Perhaps realizing some of the gloom that exists within the fan base, the Yankees have been careful to wish their season ticket holders holiday greetings. Although things might not be too merry in Yankeeland, the team is certainly not dead as a doornail, so there is still time for Cashman to turn those frowns around. In the meantime, the Yankees will have to abide by the old adage that it is better to give then receive, which, based on revenue sharing calculations, is a sentiment enjoyed all around the major leagues.

For those Yankees fans still discouraged, the following is offered as inspiration. It is a Christmas card from the 1955 season that was printed before the World Series. The inside of the card expresses the eternal optimism of “wait ‘til next year” that had become synonymous with the Brooklyn Dodgers, but by the time Christmas rolled around, Santa had already granted the wish.

 

Will Santa be as generous to Yankees’ fans in 2011? That remains to be seen, but one thing we know is he will need a lot of assistance from one of his helpers.

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The Yankees and Johnny Damon have reportedly discussed a return to the Bronx, but concerns over a lack of playing time have made the possible reunion unlikely.

Is Johnny Damon returning to the Bronx?

Although the Yankees are set in the outfield, the team’s bench has been severely depleted this offseason. Lance Berkman and Austin Kearns have already signed elsewhere, and Marcus Thames seems destined to the do the same. As a result, the Yankees have no depth, literally.

Not only do the Yankees lack a viable fourth outfielder, but they also do not have a capable bat to backup Jorge Posada in the DH role. Last season, Posada and the Yankees outfield trio of Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher missed a collective 92 games. If that is repeated in 2011 (or if Posada is forced to go back behind the plate), the team will not only need to acquire another pitcher during the season, but another hitter as well.

Damon isn’t a perfect fit. His defense is below average and he swings from the left side (although he has developed into an above average hitter against southpaws). The ideal acquisition would be a right handed bat capable of playing plus outfield defense, but no such candidate remains on the market. Vladimir Guerrero swings from the right side, but he really shouldn’t even keep a glove in his locker anymore. In other words, Damon, although an imperfect solution, is really the Yankees last chance to add quality depth via free agency.

From Damon’s perspective, the idea of relinquishing an everyday role is probably hard to accept. However, it isn’t hard to figure out a scenario in which he would play 100 games. Still, that may not be enough for a player used to being in the lineup every game. Ultimately, Damon’s decision may be determined by which teams can offer him a starting position. If a competitive team like the Rays is able to promise him extensive playing time, his choice would be easy. If he is only able to find playing time on an uncompetitive team, however, Damon may eventually decide that a more limited role in a place that he enjoys is the better option.

As has been the case all offseason, the Yankees will need to exercise patience as Damon sorts through his options, but if a reunion is in the offing, the signing would be a rare example of moving ahead by looking back.

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