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Archive for January, 2011

January 31 is a red letter day in baseball history. Not only is it the birthdate of three Hall Famers, but the three figures (Ernie Banks, Jackie Robinson and Nolan Ryan) are among the most legendary in the game.

Cooperstown Trifectas: Birthdates Shared by Three Hall of Famers

January 31 Nolan Ryan Jackie Robinson Ernie Banks
April 2 Luke Appling Hughie Jennings Don Sutton
April 6 Bert Blyleven Mickey Cochrane Ernie Lombardi
May 14 Tony Perez Ed Walsh Earle Combs
August 22 Paul Molitor Ned Hanlon Carl Yastrzemski
September 9 Waite Hoyt Frankie Frisch Frank Chance
October 3 Fred Clarke Dennis Eckersley Dave Winfield
December 25 Rickey Henderson Pud Galvin Nellie Fox

Source: Baseball-reference.com

Robinson would have been 92, and Ryan turns 64, but the focus of this post is Banks, who reaches the milestone of 80 years on his birthday today.  

Despite all of his exploits on the field, Banks is perhaps best known for a famous catch phrase. Always an eternal optimist with an unbridled passion for playing the game, Banks would often try to lift the spirits of his teammates with three famous words of encouragement: “Let’s play two”.

We got the setting – sunshine, fresh air, the team behind us. So let’s play two”Ernie Banks, excerpted from his Hall of Fame induction speech, August 8, 1977

As it turns out, Banks was sort of an expert on the subject, having played in 665 doubleheader games. In fact, over 25% of his career at bats were taken during a doubleheader, and almost incomprehensible figure by today’s standards. Unfortunately, although Banks may have enjoyed playing in doubleheaders, his performance in them didn’t deviate much from the norm. Apparently, not even Mr. Cub’s enthusiasm could overcome a reversion to the mean.

Ernie Banks Performance in Doubleheaders

Year G AB HR RBI R BA OBP SLG OPS
1953 2 7 0 0 0 0.143 0.250 0.143 0.393
1954 60 229 7 34 29 0.306 0.343 0.467 0.810
1955 44 170 15 32 31 0.324 0.364 0.659 1.023
1956 57 213 11 24 36 0.291 0.366 0.535 0.901
1957 60 217 18 36 43 0.272 0.360 0.562 0.922
1958 40 157 7 24 28 0.287 0.349 0.497 0.845
1959 28 111 5 17 9 0.189 0.268 0.351 0.620
1960 38 142 7 23 19 0.254 0.341 0.479 0.820
1961 36 136 6 16 21 0.287 0.358 0.478 0.836
1962 36 138 10 26 22 0.304 0.342 0.609 0.951
1963 31 98 4 17 10 0.235 0.284 0.398 0.682
1964 37 135 7 22 15 0.311 0.354 0.556 0.910
1965 41 143 9 27 24 0.252 0.337 0.503 0.841
1966 35 126 1 14 7 0.198 0.226 0.270 0.495
1967 40 146 10 30 24 0.288 0.327 0.548 0.875
1968 33 119 8 30 18 0.311 0.357 0.571 0.928
1969 29 101 3 22 8 0.307 0.377 0.436 0.813
1970 12 32 2 5 3 0.281 0.303 0.500 0.803
1971 6 14 1 4 1 0.214 0.214 0.429 0.643
Total 665 2434 131 403 348 0.279 0.337 0.503 0.840
Career 2528 9421 512 1636 1305 0.274 0.330 0.500 0.830

Source: Baseball-reference.com

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One of the first lessons learned by a journalist is to never bury the lead. In his latest SweetSpot blog post about Bo Jackson, longtime ESPN.com analyst and godfather to a generation of baseball bloggers did just that (and so have I).

The real news in Neyer’s post was the announcement that he is leaving the worldwide leader. Although no details were given, the circumstances seem to suggest that it was ESPN who decided to sever the relationship. Then again, maybe Neyer’s departure, which coincides with the final day of Rob Iracane’s www.walkoffwalk, foreshadows a future collaboration between the two? Regardless of the reason for the split, Neyer’s voice isn’t likely to remain silent for long.

Once upon a time, Neyer’s writing was like a voice in the wilderness. At a time when the internet was viewed as a second class medium, he brought forth a fresh perspective and carved out a niche that would evolve into the myriad of blogs that exist all over the web today. Sports journalism had long been home to features, game stories, editorials and rumor mills, but Neyer became the first person to regularly engage in analytics. Long before OPS became a household word and sabermetrics began to make a foothold in the mainstream, Neyer was writing about these emerging concepts (often while thinking aloud).  Although not a statistician, his open mindedness allowed him to uncover not only a whole new way of thinking, but a whole new group of talented thinkers. All around the internet today are successful bloggers who essentially got their start because Neyer was willing to have an online dialogue about their new ideas and fresh perspective. He probably never thought of himself as a trailblazer, nor endeavored to be one, but his writing did lead the way for many.

As mentioned, Neyer is likely to resurface quickly. Therefore, there really is no need to eulogize his career. So, while we wait for Neyer’s future work, why not take a look back? Fortunately, besides blogs, one of the wonders of the internet is its ability to crack the code of time travel.  Thanks to the wayback machine, vintage Neyer (here and here) is still accessible, so sit back and enjoy the past, and then marvel at how far sports on the internet has come. 

A screenprint from a January 29, 1998 Neyer article on ESPNet.SportsZone.com.

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Yankees’ CF Curtis Granderson recently returned from a goodwill tour of New Zealand, where he not only experienced the unique culture of the island nation, but also served as an ambassador to the country’s fledgling baseball community. Naturally, Granderson’s activities were mostly ignored by the New York tabloids. Wallace Mathews of ESPNNewYork did briefly cover the trip in a blog post, but only to drum up controversy by linking to video of the centerfielder riding on the backseat of a motorcycle.

Granderson tries his hand at Rugby during a visit with the Aukland Blues (Getty Images).

Fortunately, in this age of social media, fans were able to tag along on Granderson’s trip by following his travels on youtube, twitter, Yankees.com and his charitable organization’s website (grandkidsfoundation.org). In addition to the aforementioned motorcycle tour, Granderson also embarked on other cultural adventures (including meeting Prime Minister John Key, whose son plays baseball), but mostly focused on the country’s athletic scene, including visits with professional basketball, cricket and rugby teams.

Baseball was the main reason for Granderson’s visit, which coincided with the IBAF under-16 championship trials for the Oceania region. In addition to presiding at numerous camps and clinics for young baseball players from New Zealand and other countries participating in the tournament, Granderson also served as a visiting dignitary promoting interest in a game that has slowly been making inroads on the island. The trip was the center fielder’s fourth as part of Major League Baseball’s International Ambassador program. His previous visits included Europe (England, the Netherlands and Italy), South Africa and China.

Not only is baseball’s popularity at on all-time high in the United States, but the level of interest and participation abroad has been exploding. The number of foreign born players in the majors is the most obvious evidence, but the growing number of countries eager to host MLB’s ambassador visits is even more encouraging. The popularity of the World Baseball Classic has been an offshoot of this global expansion, and perhaps also a driver, but for whatever reason, interest in baseball seems to be spreading beyond the traditional strongholds of Asia and the Americas.

Granderson’s dedication to the Ambassador program is laudable because a major leaguer’s offseason seems to grow shorter each year. From the Yankees perspective, the fact that his latest visit involved him wearing the interlocking NY logo is an added bonus. As the game of baseball expands its frontiers, it is in the Yankees’ best interest to have their brand on the forefront, and trips like Granderson’s help to do just that. After all, despite previously being unknown in the country, Granderson’s travels were widely covered by the New Zealand Herald, which compared his stature to Tiger Woods, David Beckham and Roger Federer, because of the power and presence of the Yankee name.

The Yankees, with their crossed over NY symbol and their pinstriped pyjamas, are the most recognisable sporting brand on the planet. Granderson, the starting centre fielder with an unrivalled skill set, is a star of the present and future.” – New Zealand Herald, January 28, 2011

Granderson’s goodwill trip was a success for the Yankees and Major League Baseball, but no one fared better than New Zealand baseball. Not only did the country’s amateur players receive tutelage and encouragement from a major league superstar, but its under-16 squad upset a heavily favored team from Guam to advance to the August world championship in Mexico. The next step for the country will be to have one of its own become a big leaguer. Toronto Blue Jays’ minor leaguer Scott Campbell, who hails from Aukland, is currently the best hope, but even if he doesn’t make it, sooner or later someone will. Trips like Granderson’s can only help in that regard.

Members of the New Zealand under-16 national team (Photo: New Zealand Herald).

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They have chosen to start the war. They have fired the gun.” – MLBPA Executive Director Marvin Miller, quoted by AP, February 20, 1981

“We are at war!” – NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith, quoted by The New York Times, January 22, 2011

As the NFL and the NFLPA careen toward what seems like an inevitable work stoppage, both the commissioner and players’ representative have engaged in a bout of public relations saber rattling. Meanwhile, major league baseball is expected to quickly come to an agreement on a new CBA when the current one expires in December 2011.

Smith doesn’t seem as if he’ll be the pushover that NFL owners have come to expect.

Anyone who is familiar with each sport’s labor relations over the past 20 years will immediately see the irony. Dating back to Marvin Miller’s election as head of the MLBPA in 1966, baseball players and owners have shared a rancorous relationship that included five strikes and three lockouts between 1972 and 1995. Football, however, has mostly enjoyed labor peace, particularly after two unsuccessful strikes by the NFLPA in 1982 and 1987 rendered the players’ union as a rubber stamp.

Not surprisingly, the NFLPA’s acquiescence to a salary cap has not mollified the owners’ voracious appetite for a larger piece of the financial pie. As a result, the lords of the NFL now stand poised to lock the players out if they do not once again capitulate to a series of adverse demands. If new NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith has anything to say about the process, however, things won’t be as pleasant for Roger Goodell and his band of profit takers this time around. The economics support the players’ position, so all that is needed is steadfast leadership.

Unlike past executive director Gene Upshaw, whose background was as a player, Smith is a bonafide litigator with 10 years experience in the U.S. Attorney’s office. Although he doesn’t have the labor background that Marvin Miller did when he took over control of the baseball union, Smith does seem to be cut out of the same cloth. Despite being criticized for his tough talk, he has not waivered in his public discourse. Ultimately, Smith will have to maintain unity among the rank and file, just as Miller did with his constituency, but if he can achieve that end, the NFLPA could emerge as a partner instead of an underling in the NFL’s financial structure.

The economic issues at hand are much different, and the relative size of the football union adds a greater challenge, but there are still lessons that Smith can learn from Miller. The chief among these, however, is the most basic. If the NFLPA is going to final win what is essentially a financial war, it can not be timid, and most certainly can not be accommodating. Even though the owners possess a massive war chest, their greed still makes them vulnerable. As much as the NFL chieftains would like to take a larger portion of revenues, they certainly do not want to relinquish the large sums of money that would be forfeited in a prolonged work stoppage. If the owners shut the game down for an extended period of time, they’ll be cutting off their nose to spite their face, and as much as greed can be a motivator for stupidity, multi-millionaires don’t get that way by turning off a steady steam of cash flow.

When it comes to this job, [Miller] remains my idol. He walks into a union that did not have a significant amount of information coming to the players, he had a very hostile reception from management, and what he brought to the players was the meat and potatoes of what organized labor unions do.” – NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith, quoted by The New York Times, January 22, 2011

Miller was never shy about taking his case to the media.

As baseball’s labor history has shown, owners’ resolve can wear thin quickly. What’s more, their veiled negotiating tactics are usually looked upon unfavorably by the courts and relevant government agencies. There has already been a crack in the union ranks, and some have criticized Smith’s reference to being at “war”, but the answer to that is to push forward with even greater resolve. Smith can not be afraid of a lockout. Marvin Miller never was. Whether it’s a war of words in the media or a war of ideas at the negotiating table, Smith needs to be on the front line fighting. He can’t worry about the harsh words that are likely to follow. Those same criticisms were levied at Miller, and now most people believe he merits inclusion in the Hall of Fame.

With selfishness being a natural human tendency, and so many players already “getting theirs”, most people, including the sport’s owners, expect that a lockout will be too costly for the players. The greater cost, however, will come from capitulating to a bad CBA. That’s the lesson the NFLPA has to learn, and that’s the challenge facing Smith. What would Marvin Miller do if he was leading the charge? He’d prepare for war…and that’s what Smith should be doing too.

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Update: Minutes after this post was published, Law also released his top-100 prospect rankings. Angels’ outfield prospect Mike Trout topped the list, just ahead of 2010 draft wunderkind Bryce Harper and the Phillies’ Domonic Brown.

As for the Yankees, Jesus Montero ranked highest on the list at number four. According to Law, Montero’s ability to hit is without question (he invoked Frank Thomas as a comparison), but concerns about his defense as well as the durability of catchers his size remain. Also appearing in the top-100 were four other Yankees, most notably Manny Banuelos, who not only ranked 12th overall, but also fourth among pitchers. Despite his young age, Law stated that his advanced physical development means Banuelos isn’t far from helping the big league club. Perhaps, he will be the Yankees mystery fifth starter by midseason?

Also ranked in the top 100 were Gary Sanchez (68), Dellin Betances (73) and Andrew Brackman (88), while Austin Romine just missed the cut. Rounding out Law’s list of the Yankees’ top-10 prospects were Graham Stoneburner, Slade Heathcott, Hector Noesi and Adam Warren.

Keith Law’s latest MLB organization rankings have been posted at ESPN.com, and the Yankees find themselves inside the top-10. Law singled out the team’s catching depth, which includes Jesus Montero, Gary Sanchez and Austine Romine. Law was also impressed with the development of Dellin Betances and Andrew Brackman, both of whom made significant strides in their recovery from injury. Also mentioned were Manny Banuelos as well as a mystery player selected toward the end of last year’s draft. On Friday, Law intends to publish a profile on that player, so all readers with an ESPN insider account should mark it on their calendars.

Most Yankees fans are familiar with Jesus Montero, but fellow catching prospect Gary Sanchez is not that far behind.

Law’s high opinion of the Yankees’ farm system echoed Jonathan Mayo’s prospect rankings, which were unveiled at MLB.com on Tuesday.  The Yankees placed three prospects –Montero (9), Sanchez (32) and Banuelos (35) – on Mayo’s list of the game’s top-50 prospects, while Betances just missed the cut at 53. Like Law, Mayo also rated the Royals (six prospects) and Rays (four prospects) highly. On the other end of the spectrum, the Mets, Marlins, Brewers and A’s were the only four teams not represented.

Law’s and Mayo’s findings validate Brian Cashman’s strategy of paying almost as much attention to the minors as the major league roster. Even as the Yankees have been able to maintain a championship caliber team, Cashman has simultaneously gone about rebuilding and then fortifying the team’s farm system, which is why the general manager was so reticent to surrender a first round draft pick with the signing of Rafael Soriano. The strength of the farm also provides insight into why Cashman has been so patient this offseason. As Steve S. at TYU noted in his excellent recap of Cashman’s WFAN breakfast chat, the Yankees’ general manager believes Banuelos and Betances both have “Phil Hughes or better ceilings”, and all levels of the minors will feature legitimate prospects in their respective rotations. Cashman even relayed Gene Michael’s belief that David Phelps and Adam Warren could be better than Ivan Nova.

Although Mayo’s list is available in its entirety at MLB, Law’s work (which is probably the most exhaustive and informative in the field) remains behind ESPN’s pay wall. So, listed below is a brief and select summary of his conclusions.

(more…)

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

Before winning the MVP as a CFer, Robin Yount also won the award as a SS.

As is often its custom, the New York Post took a rather innocuous comment and turned it into a blaring headline. Although there really is no reason to suggest that Derek Jeter will be doing his best Robin Yount impersonation anytime soon, that didn’t stop the city’s most creative tabloid from naming him the heir apparent to Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio.

If Jeter does eventually move off his current position, he wouldn’t be the first Yankees’ Hall of Famer to make such a concession to age later in his career. In fact, two of the team’s most decorated legends, Mantle and Yogi Berra, played several years toward the end of their careers in unfamiliar territory.

In 1965, Mantle made his first move over to left field, which allowed Tom Tresh to take over in center. Then, after slipping back into CF for the 1966 season, Mantle closed out his career manning first base for two years. This time, it was Joe Pepitone who took over center field for the Mick.

Yogi’s transition from catcher to the outfield came much earlier in his career. In 1958, at the age of 33, Berra first saw significant playing time outside of the catcher’s box when he started 21 games in right field. Gradually, Berra made a more permanent transition and wound up playing mostly left field in the team’s championship 1961 season. Interestingly, a year earlier, one of the more indelible images of Berra occurred in left field at Forbes Field, where the former catcher had a bird’s eye view of Bill Mazeroski’s series winning homer.

Although Mantle’s and Berra’s position switches were effected without much controversy, the same can’t be said about Joe DiMaggio’s one game stint at first base. With the Yankees struggling against lefties, and DiMaggio showing noticeable signs of slowing down in center, in the summer of 1950, Stengel decided that it would be best for the team if the lineup could squeeze in another right handed bat. The only problem, however, was convincing DiMaggio.

This is strictly my idea. I’ve asked Joe to try first base to help the team. That position has been a sore spot for us all season.” – Yankees’ manager Casey Stengel, quoted by AP, July 2, 1950

It may have been Stengel’s decision, but the Old Perfessor actually had owner Dan Topping deliver the news to DiMaggio, according to UP. Never a big fan of Stengel to begin with, the Yankee Clipper wasn’t thrilled with the idea, but eventually relented to Topping’s request. So, on July 3 against the Senators, DiMaggio took his position at first base after only one afternoon of practice. Lined up behind him in center was Cliff Mapes, whose vacated right field was now left open for Hank Bauer.                                                                                                        

Naturally, I don’t like the idea of changing my position after so many years, but I’ll play wherever they want me.” – Joe DiMaggio, quoted by UP sportswriter Oscar Fraley, July 7, 1950

Despite recording 13 putouts without error, DiMaggio wasn’t exactly comfortable at his new position. “I just wasn’t sure where to make the play,” the former centerfielder told reporters after the game, “I felt as if I was always one play ahead or behind”.

Luckily for DiMaggio, or really Stengel, Bauer sprained his ankle in the July 3 game, which meant the Yankee Clipper was back in his old haunts after only one game at first base. Whether Joltin’ Joe would have remained in the infield had Bauer not been injured is hard to say, but in comments after the game, DiMaggio strongly suggested that a more permanent switch would be more acceptable after a full Spring Training to adjust. In 1950, DiMaggio was not only a revered figure, but also still the team’s best hitter, so it’s hard to imagine Stengel pressing forward with his grand design if his star wasn’t fully on board.

Not surprisingly, there was little talk about DiMaggio moving to first base the following spring. Instead, the big news was the March announcement that 1951 would most likely be his last season. “I may change my mind,” Joe DiMaggio told the assembled hordes, “but the way I feel now I want to have one more good year, and then quit on top”. So much for the Yankees plan of prolonging DiMaggio’s career by moving him to an easier position.

Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio pose before an exhibition at Ebbets Field in 1951 (Photo: AP).

Early in that spring, just days after making his announcement, DiMaggio injured his ankle, forcing a young short stop named Mickey Mantle to take his place in center. Mantle’s raw athletic ability in the outfield, not to mention his explosive bat, opened several eyes and eventually led to the 19-year old going north with the team. Stengel initially expressed the desire to have Mantle spend 1951 in the minors learning how to play center field, but he couldn’t resist adding his bat to the roster. As a result, the rookie learned on the fly by playing right field in the major leagues, even though more than a few observers wondered why the younger, more athletic Mantle hadn’t already been promoted to play center.

In a final twist to the story, Mantle was still playing right field in Game 1 of the 1951 World Series against the Giants, when fellow rookie Willie Mays lined a ball toward him. With Mantle in hot pursuit, legend has it that DiMaggio called for the catch at the last second, causing the 19-year old to pull up short in one of the drain holes in the outfield. Destined to be DiMaggio’s replacement, Mantle’s accident would wind up causing him to endure a career filled with pain and injury, just like the Yankee Clipper.

It was a strange accident with Mantle, striding toward a fly ball that Joe DiMaggio eventually caught in right center, falling flat on his face when the knee gave way.” – AP sportswriter Jack Hand, October 8, 1951  

Derek Jeter has always been compared to Joe DiMaggio, especially because of his elegance, dignity, and preference for maintaining a very private inner circle. Pride is another common bond that seems to exist between the two men, so it’s not hard to imagine an eventual position shift for Jeter proceeding along the same lines as DiMaggio’s. Of course, Jeter could surprise us all and take to a new spot on the field with the same acceptance as Berra and Mantle. Regardless of the Post’s recent headline, however, that’s a story for another day.

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Brian Cashman was the guest of honor at WFAN’s Breakfast with a Champion, a question and answer session hosted by sports talk host Mike Francesa at the Hard Rock Café in Manhattan. ESPNW’s Amanda Rykoff attended the event and provided “live tweets”, from which the following key points emerged:

  • The Yankees need another starter, and their ability to obtain one will determine their chances at winning a 28th World Series.
  • Cashman believes the Red Sox are a better team on paper, but feels the addition of Soriano gives the Yankees a better bullpen.
  • Joba Chamberlain has been limited since his injury in 2008, and as a result, the organization’s plans for him have been altered.
  • Derek Jeter is not expected to remain at SS over the entire length of his current four-year extension.
  • Being a general manager in New York is hard work.

Is Brian Cashman Fed Up Being the Yankees' GM?

Although some of Cashman’s candor was worthy of a raised eyebrow, none of the opinions expressed were particularly groundbreaking. The revelation about Chamberlain represented the first time the organization has used injury as justification for its handling of the once prized pitching prospect, but otherwise, most of the observations were fairly benign.

One remark that was somewhat of a concern, however, was Cashman’s comment about the media in New York having the ability to “wear you out”. Taken alone, it’s really a very mild remark, but in the context of his conduct this offseason, it does make you wonder about whether Cashman really wants to be in New York after his contract expires in 2011.

Last week, New York Daily News columnist Bill Madden wrote about Cashman possibly wanting to leave the Yankees for an opportunity in which he would have less scrutiny and more autonomy. Also hinted at in Madden’s column was Cashman’s desire to operate without the “burden” of the Yankees’ significant financial resources. In a sense, it seems as if Cashman wants to make it on his own…almost like a child of wealth might desire to get out from under his parents’ shadow.

Although Cashman has sometimes bristled at the implication that his success is directly the result of the team’s high payroll (usually by doing so in a self-deprecating manner), he has always seemed content toeing the party line. In fact, Cashman has developed a politician-like reputation for being able to say nothing by saying everything. However, that has all changed this offseason.

Cashman’s conduct during the Derek Jeter contract negotiations was the first sign that something was amiss. Not only did the Yankees’ GM take an early hard line with the team’s superstar, but he also openly discussed the negotiations, even going so far as to lob a few criticisms in Jeter’s direction. Then, after adamantly stating that he would not surrender a first round pick for Rafael Soriano, Cashman was overruled by Hal Steinbrenner, and wasn’t shy about saying as much during the reliever’s introductory press conference. When Cashman talked about having Soriano “forced down his throat”, he was trying to make a point about the positive influence of the Yankees’ resources, but the way he chose to express the thought didn’t seem very flattering.

One can get carried away reading too much into comments, but in this case, it seems like something is up. Is Cashman fed up with the Yankees, and New York in general? Is he tired of the scrutiny and weary of being thought of as “director of spending” (as Madden claims he referred to himself at the recent Winter Meetings)? Does he feel diminished by ownership’s intervention in the Soriano signing, and perhaps even the Jeter negotiations (and, by extension, could there be a split between general manager and short stop)? Finally, has the charm of being a smaller fish in a big pond worn off now that the Boss is no longer the head shark? Regardless of the reason, if Cashman is strongly considering a change of scenery, the Yankees have to consider how that realization will affect his approach during the season.

I’ve always been a fan of Brian Cashman, and see no reason why the Yankees should look to make a change…unless, their GM has already made that decision. If Cashman really would prefer the challenge of a smaller market team with less pressure, less media and less money to spend (i.e., a pasture with less “green”), then it might be better if he and the Yankees part company sooner than later. The Yankees not only have significant challenges facing them before the start of the season (and likely leading up to the trade deadline), but there are also some long-term transition issues slowly emerging. The Yankees need to make sure their general manager is committed for the long haul, and if not, the team might be better off finding that out now.

In a perfect world, the best approach for the Yankees would be to offer Cashman a “take it or leave the organization” contract extension. Because of his long and meritorious service to the organization, however, Cashman deserves the benefit of the doubt as well as every opportunity to decide upon his future. Having said that, it might be time for Hal Steinbrenner and his general manager to have a frank discussion about each man’s respective vision for the future. If it is determined that both paths will not converge, then Cashman and the Yankees might be better off going their separate ways.

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For much of the offseason, all eyes in the A.L. East have been focused at the top as the Red Sox gobbled up high-priced free agents and the Yankees looked for creative ways to spend their money. Yesterday, however, the rest of the division finally responded. In less than 24 hours, the Rays, Blue Jays and Orioles all made (or were on the verge of making) significant moves. Below are some initial observations about these transactions.

Blue Jays trade Vernon Wells to the Los Angeles Angels for Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera

Wells time in Toronto had some pits and valleys, but the Angels seem to be counting on his resurgence.

The banner above should really read the Jays traded Vernon Wells’ contract because that’s probably the most impactful component of the deal. Like the Yankees, the Angels have been unable to spend their money this offseason. First, the team was spurned by Carl Crawford, and then Adrian Beltre decided to play for the rival Texas Rangers. Without any other big names players to sign, and a gaping hole in the team’s offense, GM Tony Reagins turned his attention to the trade market and found an eager partner in Toronto’s Alex Anthopolous.

Even before the ink dried, Wells’ seven-year/$126 million contract extension, which was signed after the centerfielder’s career best 2006 season, was regarded as one of the worst in the game. When Wells’ performance plummeted in 2007, things looked even worse. As Wells’ star descended amid the backdrop of fiscal restraint, the contract became an even greater source of derision, and in some respects, may have cost former GM J.P. Ricciardi his job.

Because Wells’ deal was end-loaded, Toronto wound up paying only $40 million over the first three years of the extension. Even though fangraphs.com estimates the dollar value of his production at only $20 million over that timeframe, getting out from under the avalanche of dollars owed on the backend of the deal makes it seem as if it’s now the Jays who are enjoying the last laugh. Or does it?

Predictably, the initial reaction to the deal has focused on the Angels decision to assume the bulk of the $86 million remaining on Wells’ contract, especially when you consider the average value owed to the centerfielder over the next four seasons will surpass what Crawford is being paid by the Red Sox. However, when you also consider the $5 million reportedly going from Toronto to Anaheim as well as the $11 million in savings from the amount likely to be owed to Rivera and Napoli in 2011, the Angels total commitment of $70 million looks much more palatable. Of course, that depends on whether Wells’ can maintain the momentum of his resurgence in 2010. Besides, when Wells departs after the 2014 season, who’s to say that the Crawford contract won’t then be the focus of derision? Regardless, the Angels’ have the financial wherewithal to take a risk, especially in a year in which the team was unable to spend its resources elsewhere.

Although Rivera is a solid contributor, and Napoli has emerged as a pretty good hitter, neither really had much of a role on the Angels. Mike Sciosca has never been a fan of Napoli’s defense behind the plate (where the team plans to platoon Jeff Mathis and prospect Hank Conger), and the return of Kendry Morales will remove the need for him to play first base. The Blue Jays, however, should be able to use both players in their everyday lineup, especially with the departure of Lyle Overbay and expected shift of Jose Bautista to third base. Ultimately, the main advantage to the Blue Jays is they are no longer responsible for Wells’ hefty salary, which threatened to be almost 25% of the entire payroll. Toronto isn’t likely to get the same level of production from centerfield in 2011, but over the long term, the flexibility gained should help the team build for the future.

Rays sign Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon

Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez are poised for another reunion, but this time as teammates in Tampa.

The sight of Damon and Ramirez in the same A.L. East lineup is enough to give Yankees’ fans frightful flashbacks to when both were key members of the championship Boston Red Sox team. Although neither player still strikes the same amount of fear into the hearts of the opposition, both veterans should help fill out a thin Rays’ lineup that includes Evan Longoria and a whole host of question marks. The immediate indication is that Damon will keep left field warm while prospect Desmond Jennings gets a little more seasoning in Triple-A, while Ramirez will take over as the team’s full-time DH and provide lineup protection to Longoria.

Damon signed a pretty fair deal that could pay him as much as $6 million, but early reports suggest Manny’s contract is for a much more modest $2 million. Granted, Ramirez’ also comes with a lot of baggage, but the bottom line is the future Hall of Famer can still hit. Even in a year widely viewed as a major disappointment, Ramirez still ended up with an on-base percentage of .409 and OPS+ of 138. The key is keeping the enigmatic slugger healthy and happy, but the motivation for a better contract in 2012 should help take care of that. Agent Scott Boras is fond of referring to these kinds of one-year deals as pillow contracts, so in Tampa he has found Manny a soft landing.

If the Yankees had any confidence in Jorge Posada’s ability to catch regularly, either Ramirez of Damon would have been a perfect fit on paper. As things stand, however, the Yankees, like most other teams, really had no room for these two veterans, so the Rays get to reap the benefits. In what clearly is a rebuilding year, Tampa can afford to roll the dice on two players finding some of their lost magic because the price is right and risk is low. What’s more, if Ramirez rebounds with a strong season, the Rays will be in position to offer him arbitration (which would now be off a low base salary) and recoup a draft pick or two in the process.

Orioles reportedly come to tentative agreement with Vladimir Guerrero

Will Vlad be wearing orange on a full-time basis?

Orioles’ president Andy MacPhail has denied reports that his team has come to terms with Guerrero, but if true, the signing would be a perfect fit for the Orioles. After a down 2009, Guerrero bounced back in 2010, proving that the early reports of his demise were exaggerated. Whether or not Vlad can continue his resurgence is hard to say, but if he just maintains last year’s performance, the Orioles could be poised for one of the off season’s best bargains. Guerrero’s potent bat aiming at Camden Yards friendly power alley in left center would not only give the Baltimore lineup a much needed jolt, but help provide protection and guidance for young players like Matt Wieters and Adam Jones (although neither would be advised to adopt Vlad’s free swinging approach). Although the Orioles are an up-and-coming team, they are still unlikely to contend in 2011, so the idea of spending money and occupying a roster space with a veteran can have some downside. However, the time seems right for Baltimore to get more aggressive. They may not win the division for a few more years, but that doesn’t mean the team and its fans can’t have some fun along the way.

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(This is the third in a series on infamous or controversial historical figures who also had a notable association with baseball. For the first installment on John Dillinger, click here, and for the second installment on Billy Sunday, click here.)

Martin Bergen’s childhood dream was to play major league baseball, but soon after realizing that goal, his career and life ended in a nightmare. In what is likely the most heinous act ever committed by a major leaguer, the former catcher awoke on the morning of January 19, 1900 and brutally murdered his wife and children with an axe before cutting his own throat with a razor. Just a stone’s throw from where he had been born, Bergen, and his entire family, lay dead amid a gruesome scene that defied description.

Bergen was considered one of the best catchers in the game during his four years with the Beaneaters.

Bergen was born in North Brookfield, Massachusetts in 1871. Just five years later, professional baseball came within 60 miles of the town when the Boston Red Caps (today’s Atlanta Braves) were inaugurated as a charter member of the brand new National League. The proximity to the town and the game’s growing popularity in the region must have had an impact on the Bergen family because Marty and his younger brother Billy became absolutely enthralled by the sport.

Both brothers exhibited considerable aptitude for the game, so it wasn’t a surprise when Marty embarked on a professional career in 1892. The elder Bergen bounced around various leagues in New England before ending up playing for the Kansas City Blues of the Western League. In addition to being an outstanding defender, Bergen also exhibited impressive ability as a hitter, so not before too long, the now firmly established National League came calling.

In the 1890s, the Beaneaters emerged as of one of the National League’s best teams. In the first five years of the decade, they finished first or second in every season. After the 1893 season, however, the team lost star catcher Charlie Bennett to a train accident that resulted in the amputation of both his legs. Since the tragedy, the Beaneaters had been unable to find a suitable replacement, so the early reports about Bergen were very encouraging. After receiving a positive scouting report, the team reportedly paid over $1,000 to the Blues for the rights to Bergen. The only problem, however, was the suspicious catcher didn’t want to come. Instead of being excited about the chance to play for his hometown team, Bergen felted unfairly treated and insisted that he be compensated as well. Only after Beaneaters’ manager Frank Selee made personal assurances that he would be treated well did Bergen decide to return home.

Bergen was the Boston Beaneaters’ primary catcher from 1896 to 1899, a period during which the team won two additional pennants. Although his batting statistics never lived up to the advanced billing, he was widely considered to be the best defensive catcher in the game. Even the immortal Cap Anson referred to him as one of the game’s best backstops, and, in its May 29, 1898 “Current Baseball News” column, the New York Times concurred, calling Bergen the equal of Deacon McGuire and “a better man than Bennett was in his best days”.

While Robinson and Clarke of Baltimore are good catchers, old Ganzel and young Bergen of Boston can have my money.” – Cap Anson, The New York Sun, June 16, 1897

Despite enjoying a fine reputation as a player, Bergen was also widely regarded as somewhat strange. From his very first days in Boston, the talented catcher exhibited erratic behavior, which included unexplained absences, mood swings, and bouts of paranoia. Most in the organization and the media attributed his behavior to eccentricity, and looked the other way in favor of his great talent…an early day version of “Marty being Marty”. So, despite the numerous trade rumors that swirled around him, the Beaneaters were never really tempted to part with their elite backstop.

During the 1898 season, Bergen’s worst tendencies offered an early glimpse at his potential for violence. First, in the middle of the season, the catcher struck rookie pitcher and future Hall of Famer Vic Willis in the head during breakfast. Then, after an altercation on the bench toward the end of the season, the catcher expressed the desire to bludgeon some of his teammates with a bat. It was hardly the reaction you’d expect from a sane man…even one still angered by a fight. After the incident, the whispers about Bergen’s mental state grew louder. However, the Beaneaters won their second consecutive pennant in 1898, so even these drastic incidents were overlooked.

The 1899 Boston Beaneaters

When the 1899 season rolled around, the growing divide between Bergen and his teammates had not abated. As a result, Bergen’s feelings of paranoia were exacerbated, and his behavior became even more erratic. Then, when his son Willie died of diphtheria at the start of the season, and he missed the funeral because he was on the road, Bergen’s demeanor became even more morose.

Finally, in July, everything came to a head while the team was traveling from Boston to Cincinnati. Earlier in the month, the weary catcher had requested a leave of absence from Selee, but was turned down. So, when the train came to a stop in Washington D.C., Bergen simply hopped off.

Despite pleas from club president Arthur Soden and demands from manager Selee to immediately rejoin the club, Bergen remained on his North Brookfield farm until the team returned to Boston on August 4. In the interim, the weary catcher gave a scathing interview to former Beaneaters’ player and current Boston Globe sportswriter Tim Murnane. In the exchange, Bergen talked about being mistreated by his teammates and threatened with fines by Selee whenever he would request time off.  

Upon the team’s return to Boston, the desperate Beaneaters immediately placed Bergen back into the lineup, and, to everyone’s surprise, the hometown crowd greeted him like a conquering hero. When Bergen knocked in the game winning run, the cheers were even wilder. Apparently, Bergen’s interview had won the sympathy of the crowd. Needless to say, his teammates were not impressed.

Catcher Bergen got out of a row with the Boston players by claiming that Tim Murnane ‘incorrectly’ quoted him.  That’s an old dodge, resorted to by all shades of men when reflection brings  for things that had better be left unsaid. But will Murnane stand for being made out a prevaricator and news fakir?” – Deseret Evening News, August 23, 1899

In order to avert a strike by the rest of the team, Bergen claimed that he was misquoted, but the writing was already the wall. Over the final months of the season, there would be more unexplained absences, louder whispers from disgruntled teammates and increasing examples of bizarre behavior. Finally, in October, Bergen suffered from a mental breakdown during a game. According to reports at the time, the troubled catcher feared that someone was trying to stab him as each pitch was thrown, causing him to move out of the way after each delivery. After numerous passed balls, Bergen was lifted from the game and then derided by the Boston press.

After the crazy events of 1899, there was little doubt that Bergen would be traded. The Cincinnati Reds were rumored to be in hot pursuit that December, but no deal had been reached as of January 19. According to the press accounts, Bergen awoke before dawn on that fateful morning and committed the three grizzly murders. In what can only be assumed was a psychotic stupor, Bergen struck down his wife Hattie and three-year old son Joseph with the forceful blows of an axe before cutting the throat of his six year old daughter Florence and then doing the same to himself. When Bergen’s father Michael discovered the bodies that afternoon, the house was covered with blood. Before much longer, the newspapers were filled with ink.

Unlike many other incidents of extreme violence, everyone who had known Bergen didn’t seem that surprised. “Tragedy Explains All” blared The Boston Globe’s banner. The signs of impending tragedy were everywhere. Bergen knew it; his family knew it; and his teammates knew it. For some reason, however, no one was able to do anything about it.

Almost the entire town of North Brookfield bid farewell to the Bergen family at the funeral on January 21, but only one teammate, Billy Hamilton, attended. In a sad touch of irony, Bergen’s feelings of abandonment by his teammates, which in life were born of paranoia, were finally confirmed by his death.  

At the time of the tragedy, Marty’s brother Bill Bergen was on the verge of making it to the majors. Although he spent 11 years playing for the Cincinnati Reds and Brooklyn Superbas, one wonders if Billy would have traded it all in for just one more game with his older brother?

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Joe Girardi welcomes Rafael Soriano at his press conference, but the sentiment of Brian Cashman’s comments was not as warm (Photo: MLB.com).

Rafael Soriano may not be asked to save many games for the Yankees, but at the press conference announcing his signing, Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman was forced to save face.

The biggest news from yesterday’s media gathering was not the player being introduced, but the back story behind his acquisition. As has now been widely reported, Brian Cashman was not on board with the decision to sign Soriano because he wanted to protect that first round pick that was ultimately forfeited to the Tampa Bay Rays as compensation. So, it was with great anticipation that media members gathered at the press conference to grill Cashman, and not the Yankees’ new reliever.

Let me put it this way, I think 29 GMs would love their owner to force Rafael Soriano down their throat. I don’t think that’s something that anyone would want to complain about. I took a stance and I’m not running from that stance. It doesn’t mean I was right, or that it’s the best approach, but that’s who I am and still am. But we are better in 2011 for this, there’s no doubt about it.” – Brian Cashman, quoted in the New York Daily News, January 20, 2011

Despite his frankness, yesterday’s media event couldn’t have been very comfortable for Cashman. After all, it’s not easy to listen as your authority and autonomy are called into question. Although he seemed at ease with the decision, the now public split could put both Cashman and the organization in line for more uncomfortable questions as the general manager enters the final year of his three-year contract.

For Soriano, the introduction must have been a little surreal. Not only was he forced to play second fiddle at his own press conference, but then he had to sit by as the team’s general manager talked about having him forced down his throat. Hopefully, the Yankees instructed the interpreter (Soriano answered all questions in Spanish) to not use a literal translation. If he is even the least bit sensitive, a comment like that could make Soriano’s transition to the team a little more uncomfortable.

Perhaps anticipating some of the potential awkwardness, the Yankees decided not to air the press conference on YES. Of course, that did little to quell the stories about the latest bizarre happening in what has been a very unorthodox offseason for Cashman and the Yankees.

Immediately after the signing was announced, I noted the potential negative ramifications that could result from the emergence of a split in the Yankees’ baseball operations. As Craig Calcaterra of NBC’s HardBall Talk  replied, however, the decision by Hal Steinbrenner to override Cashman’s recommendation really wasn’t unprecedented. Both before and since Cashman demanded more autonomy from the Boss, the Yankees utilized a committee approach to making decisions. As evidenced by the Joe Torre situation, Cashman has not always gotten his way, even on matters as significant as hiring a manager. Viewed in that light, the Soriano signing really shouldn’t be considered so ominous. As he noted at the press conference, Cashman was fully aware of the negotiations, despite not being in favor of the transaction. In other words, he was not bypassed in the process, as had been the case during the days of Billy Connors and the Tampa faction (not to mention signings like Gary Sheffield and David Wells that were almost exclusively transacted by the Boss). As long as the Yankees maintain a chain of command in which Cashman presides over all baseball recommendations, it shouldn’t be an issue when the owners of the team decide to go in a different direction.

Finally, because of the uniqueness of the situation, it’s easy to see why Cashman and the Yankees have been held to more scrutiny on the matter, but the reality is every single ownership group plays a role in baseball personnel decisions. The only difference is that with 29 other teams, ownership’s constraint revolves around saving money, not spending it. As Cashman noted, it really isn’t a negative when your owner is willing to spend beyond your recommendations. If the Yankees had given Cashman a mandate to cut spending, no one would view it as a blow to his autonomy, so the same inference shouldn’t be made because the Yankees collectively decided that signing Soriano was an affordable cost of doing business.

If Cashman had expressed concerns about Soriano’s ability or his clubhouse presence, then there might be reason to worry about the Yankees’ decision making process. However, when the owner overrules the general manager on what essentially amounts to a financial decision (and does so in order to spend, not save, money), the organization and fans alike should be grateful. After all, there’s nothing wrong with having your cake and eating it too…even when it’s forced down your throat.

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