(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.
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.
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.
One decade after brashly declaring an end to the Yankees’ dynasty, things have come full circle. Now, it’s Chavez who is at the end of his string hoping to revive his career. Nothing is guaranteed, however. Chavez’ deal with the Yankees is only a minor league contract, so he’ll have to make the team to earn the $1.5 million salary, not to mention $4 million in various incentives.
Because he has missed so much time over the past three years, it really makes little sense to run projections to evaluate Chavez’ potential contribution, but on a gut level, it seems as if he can be a valuable member of the bench, assuming, of course, that he can stay healthy. Will Chavez’ new heartbeat extend the life to his waning career? It’s probably a crap shoot at best, but if he is able to carve out a niche as a productive bench player, Chavez will have proven wrong the accounts of an early demise…just like the Yankees did in 2000.