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Archive for February 11th, 2011

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

This morning, a clean cut Eric Chavez trotted out to third base at the Yankees’ spring training complex in Tampa and began taking ground balls. Eager to embark on a second career, Chavez told the assembled group of beat writers that he has “a new heartbeat over here”, referring to his new team and anticipated role as a backup player.

Eric Chavez talks to reporters after working out at the Yankees’ minor league complex (Photo: @BryanHoch)

Already an “old man” in baseball circles, thanks mostly to debilitating back and shoulder injuries that robbed him of a once promising career, it’s hard to remember that Chavez was once part of the heart and soul of a young Athletics team that made the playoffs in the first four seasons of the last decade. During the first year of the string, Chavez was a standout in the 2000 ALDS, batting .333 and knocking in four runs against the Yankees. However, during that series, Chavez made more noise with his mouth than his bat.

After losing game 4 in an 11-1 route, the older Yankee team had to fly across country to play a fifth and deciding game the very next day. While warming up on the field before the game, a larger than life image of Chavez appeared on the Oakland Coliseum scoreboard. The segment was a pre-game interview with the confident third baseman, who had gone 2-5 with two RBIs in the previous game. When asked about the prospect of ending the Yankees’ dynasty, Chavez’ response was very matter of fact and dripping with an air of inevitability. “I don’t mind at all. I mean, they’ve won enough times,” Chavez’ voice boomed throughout the stadium. “It’s time for some other people to have some glory here. But, no, they had a great run.”

According to reports at the time, the Yankees took immediate notice of Chavez’ proclamation, especially one word: “had”. Although the team probably didn’t need the extra motivation, the brash eulogy proved to be premature. Not only did the Yankees go on to beat the A’s 7-5 in the deciding fifth game, but Chavez made the last out that sent the Yankees onward toward another championship. What’s more, the Yankees knocked the Athletics out of the playoffs in 2001 for good measure. Over the rest of his time in Oakland, Chavez and the Athletics would only win one postseason series. Meanwhile, the Yankees would win two more championships and four A.L. pennants. So much for ending the dynasty.

I think it’s fitting that the last out was from the guy who insinuated that we were over the hill. It’s my understanding that we’re not done yet.”Bernie Williams, quoted in The New York Times, October 9, 2000

The Yankees never did pass the torch to the Athletics. Eventually, the big three pitching staff of Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder as well as offensive standouts like Jason Giambi, and Miguel Tejada all moved on from the cost conscious A’s. Amid all the movement, however, Chavez remained. In March 2004, the Athletics signed their talented young third baseman to a six-year/$66 million extension.

Toward the end of his time in Oakland, Chavez spent more time in the trainer’s room than on the field.

At the time, the contract extension seemed like a shrewd move by the Athletics. Only 25 at the time, Chavez was not only a potent hitter, but also a bona fide Gold Glover at third (an earlier generation’s Evan Longoria), making him one of the game’s best all-around players. Almost immediately after signing the extension, however, Chavez began to suffer from a string of injuries. First, a broken hand in 2004 caused him to miss over 30 games in what was shaping up to be his best season. Then, a series of shoulder and back injuries gradually reduced him to a shell of his former self. Over the final three years of his contract, Chavez earned $35 million but only played in 64 games.

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The appointment of former New York governor and one-time presidential hopeful Mario Cuomo as a mediator in Sterling Equities’ dispute with Madoff trustee Irving Picard was the first bit of good news for Fred Wilpon in months. On the surface, this move by the bankruptcy court seems to suggest a reigning in of the overzealous Picard, who some reports suggested was looking to claw back over $1 billion from Wilpon and his partners. If a settlement is reached, Sterling will likely escape the process with a bill well below that nuclear figure, thereby improving Wilpon’s chances of holding onto the Mets.

Statue of Jackie Robinson and PeeWee Reese that stands outside Keyspan Park in Brooklyn.

Another positive for Wilpon is Cuomo himself. As governor of New York, Cuomo frequently worked with Wilpon, then a co-owner of the Mets with Nelson Doubleday, on various projects, ranging from the ambitious building of an 80,000 seat municipal stadium (a precursor to CitiField) to the installation of a statue honoring former Brooklyn Dodgers Jackie Robinson and PeeWee Reese (initial plans called for placement in the old Parade Grounds near Prospect Park, but in 2005 the statue was located outside Keyspan Park, the home of the Mets’ single-A affiliate Brooklyn Cyclones). Wilpon may not literally have a friend in Cuomo, but at least he has someone who not only knows him personally, but also understands the complexity of the industries involved in the dispute.

Cuomo is also intimately familiar with baseball. In fact, before going onto a career in politics, the former governor played minor league baseball for the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 1952, Cuomo was signed to a professional contract and played 81 games with the Brunswick Pirates of the Georgia-Florida League. During the season, however, Cuomo was hit in the head with a pitch and suffered a serious injury that effectively ended his pro career.

A Pirate scout, Ed McCarrick, reported that Cuomo ‘could go all the way if he improves his hitting to a respectable batting average’. He added that the young outfielder had ‘plus power,’ was graceful, was a ‘plus’ fielder and a ‘plus’ runner. All he needed was instruction and experience, McCarrick said.” – Joe Browne, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 18, 1984

Would Cuomo have made the majors if not for the beanball? It’s tough to say, but it’s worth noting that McCarrick was one of the first scouts to discover the likes of Sandy Koufax and Carl Yastrzemski, so he did have some understanding of major league talent. What’s more, Cuomo’s signing bonus was $2,000, or almost twice as much as the Yankees paid to Mickey Mantle only a couple of years earlier. Nonetheless, after only batting .244 in the very low minors at the age of 20, it’s hard to imagine he would have progressed to the majors (the only member of the Brunswick team to make the big leagues was Fred Green, who pitched in the 1960 World Series). Still, it’s fun to think about how the world of politics would have been changed if Cuomo went on to play for Pittsburgh instead of attending law school at St. John’s.

Cuomo (left) receives a baseball trophy.

Almost 60 years after ending his brief playing career, Cuomo has finally made the big leagues…at least as it pertains to the financial dealings of a major league baseball team. Meanwhile, his son Andrew now sits in the same governor’s mansion where he resided for 12 years. During that tenure (1983-1994), the Mets enjoyed their most successful run in franchise history, so maybe Cuomo’s presence as mediator will be the first step in helping the embattled franchise from Queens turn its fortunes around? First things first, however, and before that can happen, Wilpon has to hope he can avoid losing his.

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