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A-Rod Reminds Us That Mo Is Just a Man

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Mariano Rivera and Alex Rodriguez were considered two of the greatest baseball players of their generation. Both inspired millions of fans with their historic feats on what appeared to be the fast track to Cooperstown. Yet, the juxtaposition of their final days in Pinstripes is startling.

Rodriguez signed the richest contract in baseball history after winning his third MVP award in 2007 and was heralded as the star who would restore honor to the tarnished home run record. Now, he is a pariah in the game he loves. Yesterday, MLB suspended Rodriguez for 211 games for repeated violations of the league’s drug policy, and the Yankees, who are desperate for production from the third base spot are doing everything in their power to keep him off the field.

Meanwhile, Mariano is being showered with applause and gifts in stadiums across the country (A rocking chair made of broken bats from the Minnesota Twins was particularly creative) during his farewell tour.

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Rivera received a rousing ovation during his final All-Star at Citi Field, and a couple of weeks ago, broadcaster Kenny Albert tweeted that the Yankee closer even received the royal treatment in Boston.

Countless articles have been written about Rivera’s dominance and grace on the field and his humility off of it. His thoughtful and generous meetings with fans and behind-the-scenes employees of every team have been well-documented.

By all accounts, Rivera is worthy of the praise. Some of the statistics from his sensational 19-year career are staggering. Mo rode one pitch, a cut fastball, to 643 saves (and counting) and a 1.002 WHIP, the lowest for a pitcher with a minimum of 1,000 innings since Eddie Walsh, who retired in 1917. His postseason numbers are even more impressive: 42 saves and a 0.70 ERA in 140 innings.

As several writers have noted, it is apropos that the estimable Rivera will be the last player to wear Jackie Robinson’s No. 42. He has been an excellent ambassador for an increasingly Latino sport, marred by the oversized egos and bodies of a never-ending drug scandal.

Yet, the cumulative effect of so many reverential tributes has created a shared cultural image of Rivera as a saint-like figure. Instead of tempering such deification, the dramatic falls from grace of megastars like Rodriguez appear to have the opposite effect, making Mariano look more sanctified in contrast.

Rodriguez has been so vilified in the press that it is easy to forget that there was a time when the #13 was the most popular jersey in the stands at Yankee Stadium. Countless current major leaguers have listed A-Rod as one of their heroes growing up, and many, including Yankees All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano, viewed him as a mentor.

Rodriguez may have never achieved the universal acclaim of Rivera, though history provides plenty of examples who have. Joe DiMaggio’s image as a debonair gentleman, in addition to a flawless ballplayer, was later used by Simon Garfunkel to evoke a collective sense of nostalgia for a simpler time. It was not until after the Yankee Clipper’s death that he was revealed to be extremely self-centered and notoriously vane. His successor in centerfield at Yankee Stadium and in baseball lore, Mickey Mantle, was an alcoholic womanizer.

During the 1970s, Pete Rose, AKA “Charlie Hustle,” epitomized the way baseball should be played. A decade later, he was banned from the game for life. Baseball fans were unaware that Kirby Puckett, one of the most popular players of his generation, had an extensive history of violence towards women. More recently, the steroid era has swallowed up the reputations of several of our children’s heroes, including of course, Rodriguez.
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Consider two of Rivera’s teammates from the great Yankee teams of the late 1990s: Andy Pettitte and Tino Martinez. Both were respected as honorable, hard-working teammates. Pettitte admitted in 2007 that he had used human growth hormones, and Martinez recently resigned as the Miami Marlins hitting coach amid accusations that he verbally, and in one case physically, abused players.

Of course, such falls from grace are not limited to baseball. O.J. Simpson was one of the first African-American athletes to achieve crossover appeal. And if there was an American athlete who was held in higher esteem than Rivera during the past decade it was Lance Armstrong.

Social media has created the impression that we know more about our heroes than ever before. Yet, as evidenced by the steady flow of celebrity scandals, the information we receive is only part of the story and often misleading. We see what athletes allow us to see. Some are better at creating an alter ego than others.

I recognize that we need heroes, and it is inevitable that as the world becomes more interdependent, children will continue to turn from their families and local authority figures to national and international communities to find them. But there is a difference between admiration and idolatry.

Mariano has displayed many honorable qualities during his illustrious career. His consistent excellence, unflappable demeanor, and dedication to his craft, are worth emulating, regardless of one’s profession; and he has set a positive example for our youth through his humility and respect for others.

Let’s celebrate Rivera and his accomplishments, while keeping them in perspective. Mariano appears to be a great man, though just a man.

We’re So Sorry, Uncle Albert

Free Agent Albert Pujols is Ready to Field Offers

Albert Pujols has been the best player in baseball for the better part of the past decade and appeared to be hitting the free agent market at the perfect time this fall. The all-star first baseman just led the Cardinals to their second World Series championship during his tenure in St. Louis, becoming just the third player to blast three home runs in a World Series game in the process in Game 3 against the Rangers.

So, why do there appear to be so few teams vying for his services?

The truth is, in many ways, the timing of Pujols’ free agency couldn’t have been worse. There are usually at most 10 to 12 teams that have the resources to match or exceed the nine year, $200 million offer the Dominican slugger turned down from the Cardinals during last spring training. However, due to lack of need or finances, many of those teams simply aren’t interested.

The first rule of baseball free agency is to try and involve the Yankees in the negotiations. The Steinbrenner clan is often willing to pay way over market rate to get their man (See Alex Rodriguez and C.C. Sabathia). Typically, even if a player has no interest in donning the Pinstripes, he can count on the Yankees upping the ante for other teams interested in his services.

The problem is the Yankees have one of the best all around first basemen in baseball, Mark Teixeira, locked up to a long term deal. Teix is too good in the field to move to DH in order to make room for Pujols and even if Pujols were willing to DH for the Yankees, which is unlikely, the Yanks want to keep the DH spot available for the aging left side of their infield, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. The team’s primary concern is beefing up a shallow starting rotation, not adding a big bat.

The team usually vying with the Yankees for elite talent on the market, their arch rival, the Boston Red Sox, are set at first base as well, having locked up Adrian Gonzalez through 2018. They too are focused on adding a couple of arms to a patchwork rotation which fell apart this past September.

Two big market teams that are usually willing to throw around big dollars have fallen on hard times financially. New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon is embroiled in a lawsuit stemming from the Bernie Madoff scandal and is reluctant to spend an exorbitant amount of money before that matter is resolved. He just let the team’s best player Jose Reyes sign with the division rival Miami Marlins. Even if Wilpon were willing to dish out the cash, the Mets are several players away from being serious contenders and appear to be in rebuilding mode, a situation which doesn’t appeal to Pujols.

The Dodgers, another historically high spending team are in complete turmoil. Contentious divorce proceedings caused owner Frank McCourt to file for bankruptcy and led Major League Baseball to compel him to sell the team. Despite the uncertainty of the situation, the team recently re-signed five-tool centerfielder Matt Kemp to an eight year $160 deal, but don’t expect them to extend another contract offer of that magnitude before a new owner is on board and by that time Pujols will have signed elsewhere.

Other big market teams, such as the Phillies and White Sox are set at first base, with Ryan Howard and Paul Konerko. The Angels’ Mark Trumbo led rookies in home runs and RBIs this past season and the team anticipates the return of Kendry Morales from knee surgery. They have more pressing needs to address than first base, specifically, the left side of their infield.

All of these circumstances have left the game’s best player flirting with the Miami Marlins and visiting with the Toronto Blue Jays, in an attempt to gain leverage in negotiations with the Cardinals. The Chicago Cubs have long been considered a potential suitor for the three-time MVP winner, though their interest has only been lukewarm to this point.

It’s questionable whether Pujols would even be willing to play for a rebuilding team like the Cubs and Chicago’s new General Manager Theo Epstein will certainly take into consideration another factor which is working against Pujols, his age. Prince Albert turns 32 in January, which may have meant nothing during the steroid era, but with more stringent drug testing in place,  even the best conditioned players are slowing down in their mid to late 30s.

Prospective suitors need look no further than Alex Rodriguez. In 2007, at the age of 31, the Yankees third baseman hit 54 home runs and drove in 156 runs on the way to his third MVP award. After that season the Yankees signed him to an outrageous $270 million, 10 year deal.

Since then he hasn’t played more than 137 games or hit over 30 home runs in any of the past three seasons. The Yankees are stuck paying him $27 million a year (possibly more if he breaks the home run record) through the age of 42. Teams are understandably wary of making the same mistake with Pujols.

The few teams that have an opening and the means to sign a first baseman of or near Pujols stature also have the luxury of a younger and cheaper alternative in Prince Fielder. Cecil’s son is only 27 years-old and his numbers were very similar to Pujols last season. He’d make a nice consolation prize for the Cubs or Cardinals, which places less pressure on them to increase their offers for Pujols. The Orioles, Mariners and his former team, the Brewers, have expressed interest in Fielder.

Baseball’s winter meetings began yesterday in Dallas and as the hot stove heats up, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a couple of other teams like the Rangers or Nationals throw their hat in the ring with a serious offer to Pujols. However, as of now, the greatest player in the game is garnering minimal interest on the free agent market. He may have to settle for the nine year, $200 million deal the Cardinals offered him last spring.

A Champagne Super-Nova?

by Paul Knepper

The Yankees have become as synonymous with October as the leaves changing color and candy corn, but they were no sure bet to make the post-season this year. Coming out of spring training they had major question marks in the rotation. Ace CC Sabathia, unpredictable A.J. Burnett and Phil Hughes, an 18-game-winner last season, were penciled into the first three spots in the rotation. It was the fourth and fifth starters that were a concern.

The Bombers suffered two major blows to their hopes for a rotation during the off-season when GM Brain Cashman lost his number one priority, prized free agent Cliff Lee, to Philadelphia and Yankee great Andy Pettitte decided to hang up his pinstripes for good. Those losses were compounded by the rival Red Sox apparent plethora of quality starters.

Cashman attempted to plug up the holes in the rotation by signing over-the-hill veterans Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon to minor league contracts. Colon turned 38 in May, hadn’t pitched 100 innings in a season since he won the Cy Young award with the Angels in 2005 and sat out the entire 2010 season while undergoing controversial stem cell procedure on his shoulder. Garcia was another reclamation project who has lost a great deal of velocity after undergoing shoulder surgery in 2007. Nine years removed from his last all-star game, his E.R.A. hadn’t been below 4.00 since 2005 and he won a total of five games from 2007-2009.

Colon and Garcia’s main competition for the last two rotation sports came from unheralded rookie Ivan Nova. The Yankees signed the Dominican right-hander as an undrafted free agent in 2004, then lost him in the 2008 Rule 5 draft before re-signing him as a free agent a year later. The 24-year-old wasn’t considered one of the team’s top prospects and failed to generate the kind of hype surrounding Hughes and Joba Chamberlain a few years ago. He pitched decently over 42 innings during a cup of coffee with the big club in 2010, but didn’t appear ready to start for a playoff caliber ballclub.

Needless to say, the Yankees didn’t know what they were going to get from Nova, Colon and Garcia and were rested their pre-season hopes on Sabathia, Burnett and Hughes. So if somebody told Cashman in spring training that Burnett and Hughes would both have an E.R.A. over five and win 16 games between them, but the Yankees would easily win the A.L. East, he would have thought they were crazy. That’s exactly what happened.

Hughes’ velocity was down at the start of the season. He got shelled in the month of April and ultimately landed on the DL with inflammation in his shoulder. Burnett has a disaster, failing to bounce back from a putrid 2010 campaign and criticizing manager Joe Girardi in the process. The season could have been lost, but Colon, Garcia and Nova surprisingly picked up the slack.

Colon’s fastball began reaching the mid 90’s for the first time in years. He’s given the Yankees 150 quality innings and his E.R.A. just recently rose to 4.00 as he began to tire. Garcia’s been even more impressive. Relying on guile and changes of speed the one-time 18-game winner has kept hitters off balance all season long. He won 12 games, sporting a 3.62 E.R.A. and will likely be the team’s third starter in the playoffs.

But it’s Nova who’s been the most pleasant surprise among the Yankee starters. The right-hander throws five pitches well, though his two-seam fastball is his out pitch. Reaching the low 90’s on the radar gun, the two-seamer ties up hitters with  its late sinking action. Nova has shown unusual poise on and off the mound, especially following an undeserved mid-season demotion when Hughes returned form the DL.

Nova’s become manager Girardi’s second most dependable starter after Sabathia and a leading candidate for A.L. Rookie of the Year. He’s won 16 games in just 27 starts, including his last twelve decisions, the longest such streak by a rookie starter since Larry Jansen of the Giants did the same in 1947.

Nova seems poised to be a mainstay in the Yankee rotation for years to come, though as with any other Yankee, the true test is how he performs in the post-season. And with Garcia and Colon finallly showing signs of fatigue over the past few weeks, Girardi will be depending on his young right-hander even more so in October.

Nova will be slotted in the number two spot in the rotation, behind Sabathia, where he has big shoes to fill.  Over the past fifteen years, Pettitte set a pretty high standard for the number two starter, winning more post-season games (19) than anyone in Major League history, after often changing the momentum series with his Game 2 starts.

As the old adage goes, pitching wins championships, and history has demonstrated that a team needs at least two hot starters to survive and advance in the playoffs. Sabathia is a pretty safe bet to pitch well in the big games ahead. If the Yankees are going to pop champagne after a 28th World Series championship Nova needs to pitch like a star.

Clutching to Clutch

by Paul Knepper

A few days ago, members of my fantasy baseball league engaged in a heated discussion over whether there’s such a thing as “clutch” hitting in baseball. It’s been an ongoing debate within baseball circles since the sabermetrics revolution became mainstream in the past 20 years.

It’s a fascinating argument, beginning with how to define “clutch” – a word often loosely used to describe a player’s dependability or productivity in high pressure situations – then agreeing on a measurable criteria based on specific game situations. Once a definition is established a clash ensues, with proponents of statistical analysis on one side and those beholden to memory and perception on the other.

Even more intriguing than the debate itself (For the record, I’m not completely sold either way) is the passion it evokes in the debaters, especially those who believe that there are “clutch” hitters. Their outrage is a revealing window into the nature of fandom and the role that sports, in this case baseball specifically, play in the lives of sports fans.

I’m not talking about casual fans who watch or even attend a few games a year and check in on the standings now and then or fantasy leaguers who are more concerned with their imaginary teams than the real ones. I’m talking about the real fans, the die-hards.

For them sports are a religion, a source of structure and escape, a connection with other people and a feeling that they belong to something greater than themselves. Like any religion, sports have their own rules, regulations and etiquette, mantras and superstitions. They even have the requisite mythology and heroes to worship (think of all the plaques, statues, monuments and retired jerseys), along with villains to demean and disdain.

Mythology plays a greater role in baseball than any other major American sport because of its history. It wasn’t just America’s favorite pastime during the early and mid 20th century, it was more popular than all the other American sports combined. Before television and internet, radio and print shaped our images of giants of the game in a way no longer possible due to increased access to information.

Those heroes shared certain common characteristics, chief among them the almost super-human ability to raise their level of play in crucial situations, in other words, to be clutch. The concept was supported by references to specific instances or images, many of which have become imbedded in our collective memory, like Bobby Thompson’s home run or Carlton Fisk waving the ball fair.

Reggie Jackson rose to the occasion to hit three home runs in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series, earning the moniker Mr. October. More recently, he’s been joined on Mount Clutchmore by another Yankee, Derek Jeter.

These heroes have been passed down from generation to generation, along with the magical numbers, records and streaks which have been used to define greatness and shape “conventional baseball wisdom.” Williams .400 season, Henderson’s stolen bases, triple crown winners, DiMiaggio’s hitting streak, Ryan’s no-hitters and the greatest of them all, Aaron’s 755 home runs, represented the pinnacle of success.

The media continues to create and enhance these legends. The drama of heroes and goats make for great headlines and compelling story lines. The press caters to what their audience is comfortable with, the old myths and wisdom. Most television broadcasts still display a hitter’s batting average, home runs and RBIs when he comes to the plate, even though we now know there are more telling statistics than batting average and RBIs.

It’s important to note that fans follow the game for different reasons. Some are infatuated by the mythology, records and statistics, as they understand them. Others love the intricacies of the game itself, the grip on a curveball, a perfectly executed double play or a batter working the count. The vast majority of fans incorporate a little bit of both schools of thought; it’s a question of which way they lean.

The great myth buster, sabermetrics, represented a revolutionary way of examining a player’s productivity and worth, based on objective analysis of empirical evidence. Its followers ruffled many feathers by pointing out inefficiencies in conventional baseball wisdom and questioning the significance of many of the holy numbers associated with the game’s patron saints.

Sabermetricians argued that it never makes sense to bunt, that errors are an inadequate means for measuring a player’s defensive ability and that stolen bases are over-valued. They concluded that batting average RBIs are relatively ineffective means of evaluating a hitter and that a batter’s worth should be determined by more meaningful statistics, such as on his on-base percentage and to a greater extent, OPS (on-base percentage + slugging percentage.)

Most egregiously, the sabermetricians have produced study after study claiming that “clutch” hitting does not exist. They argue that there’s no empirical evidence to demonstrate that certain players elevate their performance in crucial game situations. Sure, some players’ numbers are greater in the post-season, but that’s based on a small sample size.

To delve into sabermetrics takes a curiosity to explore another way of thinking, devoid of myth and memory. Those who have embraced the statistical revolution and still enjoy baseball either love the game as played on the field, statistics in general or both. They may succumb to fairy tales now and then, but it’s not the essence of their connection to the game.

Many adherents to conventional baseball wisdom have laughed off sabermetric findings, choosing to rely on myths, memories and perceptions instead. Like any extremely devout person, they don’t pick and choose which parts of the religion to follow, they adhere to every aspect of it. They cling to the concept of “clutch” because to do otherwise would be to question their faith.

Baseball the religion, goes to the core of their very being, so their reaction to someone questioning the tenets of the game evokes a visceral response. It’s a defense mechanism against what they perceive as an attack against their sense of self.

If they were to explore sabermetrics, they might not like what they find. When the preconceptions and myths fade away, they may realize that they don’t love the game itself as much as they thought they did. Then they’d have to find a new religion to clutch.

Government Dropped the Ball On Steroids

In 2005, the House Government Reform Committee conducted a public hearing regarding the use of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball (MLB). Yesterday, a trial against former MLB star Roger Clemens based on his alleged perjury during that hearing ended in a mistrial, just a few months after a mistrial in the Barry Bonds case a few months ago, leaving the government looking incompetent and imprudent.

Contrary to popular opinion I believed that the unusual step of Congress intervening in the affairs of professional sports league was warranted. I didn’t buy the argument that Congress shouldn’t have gotten involved because they had more important things to do than hold congressional hearings on the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) in baseball or that the U.S. Attorney’s office had more pressing cases to try than perjury charges stemming from those hearings and other investigations.

Obviously, Congress had more important issues to deal with, like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the rising national debt, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have addressed the use of PEDs in baseball as well. Should a physician refuse to treat a patient with a cough or a sprained ankle because he has other patients with more severe conditions like chest pains or pneumonia?  Should the police ignore domestic violence and petty theft claims because they have rapes and murders to deal with? I’m sure there were also members of Congress who pushed the issue as a way to gain favor with their constituents, but that doesn’t mean their actions were unjustified.

The PED problem in baseball needed to be addressed by Congress. Their involvement was necessitated by the unwillingness of the people running MLB, from the commissioner’s office to the team owners, to deal with the problem. Steroid use in baseball is a serious issue, not only because of what PEDs do to the athletes’ bodies, but also because of the influence professional athletes have on children and the culture at large.

The major problem with the Congressional hearing was that six players testified, compared to just four baseball executives and zero team owners. The players who used PEDs were certainly culpable, but they received a disproportionate amount of the blame from Congress and the media. In order for an epidemic to become institutionalized, as PED use in baseball was, those in charge must be complicit in the conspiracy and should be held accountable.

The suggestion that the commissioner’s office and team management had no idea this behavior was going on is ludicrous. The players’ appearances changed, from their muscles to their hat size. Mediocre middle infielders began hitting 30-40 home runs a year and there were rumblings about steroid use inside several locker rooms. Jason Giambi’s agent insisted that the Yankees remove a boilerplate clause from his contract stating that it could be voided in the event that he tested positive for steroids.

Once the hearing was over, I believe the U.S. Attorney’s Office was warranted in pursuing a case against Roger Clemens and Miguel Tejada for lying to Congress (Clemens at the above-mentioned hearing and Tejada when speaking to the house committee later in 2005, regarding his connections to Rafael Palmeiro’s PED use. Tejada pleaded guilty to lying to Congress in 2009 and received one year of probation) and Barry Bonds for lying to a grand jury.

I’m well aware that trials such as the ones involving Clemens and Bonds require a substantial allocation of money and man hours, which could be used for other things, but the analogies I used earlier of the doctor and police officer still apply. Both alleged crimes were a direct challenge to the authority of institutions which are essential to the stability of our society and the perpetrators need to be held accountable in order to maintain the credibility of those institutions.

The catch is that the prosecution must be sure they have enough evidence to prove the charges before they bring a case and then try the case effectively. The U.S. Attorney’s Office typically clears those hurdles. With the power of the federal government behind them they have a tremendous number of resources at their disposal and don’t bring a case to trial unless they’re extremely confident they can secure a guilty verdict. According to the Department of Justice, 94.1 percent of federal prosecutors’ cases resolved in 2009 ended with a conviction.

The case against Barry Bonds stemmed from his grand jury testimony in 2003 regarding charges against a suspected steroid dealer, in which he allegedly lied about his use of PEDs. When the allegations against Bonds first became public he was viewed as a villain and Americans was engaged in the issue, but while the government took eight years to build their case, even sports fan grew indifferent towards the steroid scandal and the pending Bonds and Clemens trials.

The case against Bonds began to fall apart pre-trial, when crucial pieces of evidence were deemed inadmissible. Perhaps, the government should have cut their losses and dropped the case then, but they decided to go forward. Though Bonds was convicted on one charge of obstruction of justice, the prosecution failed to convince all 12 jurors that he was guilty on three counts of lying to the grand jury. The hung jury and resulting mistrial was a public relations nightmare for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The government’s second big perjury case against a baseball icon fell apart due to incompetence. The Clemens trial, which began on Wednesday, was declared a mistrial by U.S. District Court Judge Reggie Walton yesterday morning after the prosecution introduced evidence which had previously been deemed inadmissible by the court. We may never know how strong the government’s case against Clemens was.

One has to wonder if real or imagined pressure from Congress, the Justice Department, or a superior at the U.S. Attorney’s office influenced the attorneys on these cases to bring them to trial against their better judgment. Now they’re left to decide whether they should pursue a re-trial of Bonds, Clemens or both, as public opinion continues to mount against what’s perceived as a waste of time and taxpayer money during a recession.

The government’s immersion into the MLB steroid scandal did reap some positive results. Baseball was forced to adopt more stringent PED testing and disciplinary measures. It was the scope of the investigation and the botched aftermath which backfired in their face. Only the federal government could jump into a situation with the best of intentions and public support behind them and come out looking like fools.

Missing the King

When baseball fans think of the great Yankee teams of the late 1990s, players such as Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera, Paul O’Neill and David Cone quickly come to mind. Yet, it was seldom used backup catcher Jimmy Leyritz who kicked off the dynasty with a memorable blast in Game 4 of the 1996 World Series.

The Yankees faced the defending champion Atlanta Braves in that series and looked over-matched during the first two games in New York as the Braves took a commanding 2-0 lead. They bounced back to win Game 3, but found themselves in dire straits after falling behind 6-0 early in Game 4. The Yanks scraped together three runs in the sixth inning and, with the score 6-3 going into the eighth inning, Atlanta manager Bobby Cox called on his closer Mark Wohlers to shut down the Yankees over the final two innings.

Wohlers was an All-Star that season, armed with a 100 mph fastball, he was one of the most intimidating closers in baseball. He began the inning by surrendering back-to-back singles to Charlie Hayes and Darryl Strawberry. After Mariano Duncan grounded into a fielder’s choice, Leyritz stepped to the plate with one out and two men on.

At the time, Leyritz was better known for his loquacious personality and idiosyncrasies at the plate than his production on the field. Since being called up by the Yankees in 1990, he’d platooned at third base and served as a backup catcher. He was an average hitter who never smacked more than 17 home runs in a season.

The Ohio native often arrived at the ballpark wearing a cowboy hat and boots. His teammates nicknamed him “The King,” due to his large ego, and on a team composed of reserved professionals, he was the one Yankee sportswriters turned to for provocative quotes.

The right-handed Leyritz had a unique batting stance, which many fans tried to emulate. He kept his front leg straight and stiff, while placing his weight on his back knee, which was slightly bent. As he waited for the pitch, he dangled the knob of the bat in a circular motion behind his head. Then, after each pitch, he twirled the bat at waist level, like a baton.

Leyritz had entered Game 4 of the ’96 Series in the sixth inning as a pinch hitter for catcher Joe Girardi. He looked confidant, as always, as he stepped into the batter’s box to face the hard-throwing Wohlers. “The King”  worked the count to 2-2, then fouled off two blistering fastballs just to stay alive. In the seventh pitch of the at-bat Leyritz caught up to Wohlers’ heat and jacked a hanging slider over the leftfield wall at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, tying the game at 6-6.

With one swing of the bat, “The King” completed the Yankee comeback and shifted the momentum of the series. It was the biggest home run by a Yankee since Bucky Dent’s blast against the Red Sox at Fenway Park in 1978. The Yankees won the game 8-6 in the 10th inning and finished off the Braves in six games. They went on to win three more World Series over the next four years.

Leyritz’s sensational shot wasn’t the only dramatic postseason homer of his career, either. The previous year, he hit a walk-off shot against the Mariners in the 15th inning of Game 2 of the ALDS. As a member of the Padres in 1998, he launched three long balls in the NLDS, one of which tied the score in the ninth inning of Game 2 and another in the seventh inning of Game 3 that turned out to be the game winner.

In a second go-around with the Yankees, Leyritz let fly a solo bomb in the eighth inning of Game 4 of the ‘99 World Series. It was the last major league home run hit in the 20th century.

The Yankees had a young Jorge Posada in the farm system so they let Leyritz sign a free agent deal with the Anaheim Angels after the ’96 season. He went on to play for the Rangers, Red Sox, Padres, Yankees again and Dodgers, before hanging it up after the 2000 season. During a career that spanned eleven seasons, Jimmy Leyritz compiled a .264 batting average and hit 90 home runs, though “The King” earned his ransom when the games mattered most. He retired with eight post-season home runs.

Saturday was Old-Timers Day at Yankee Stadium, one of the more glorified traditions in sports. There were several Hall of Famers on hand, including, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford and Reggie Jackson. Joe Torre received a rousing ovation for his first appearance at Old Timers Day and many of his former players participated, such as, Bernie Williams and Tino Martinez, who took his former teammate David Cone deep. But the man that kicked off the most recent Yankee dynasty was conspicuously absent.

Leyritz has spent the last few years fighting serious criminal charges. His blood alcohol level was above the legal limit when he was behind the wheel during a car accident in 2007 that resulted in the death of the other driver. In November 2010, he was acquitted on a charge of DUI Manslaughter, but convicted on the misdemeanor of driving under the influence. Perhaps the Yankees are letting the dust settle before they invite him back.

Despite his mistakes he’s sure to receive a thunderous applause the next time he appears at the stadium. “The King” remains a crowd favorite in the Bronx and his home run in Game 4 of the ‘96 World Series will forever be a part of Yankee lore. Old Timers day isn’t the same without him.

The Unremarkable Odyssey of Joba (Steve) Chamberlain

by Paul Knepper

On August 7, 2007, the Yankees called up 21-year-old flamethrower Joba Chamberlain to fill their desperate need for a set-up man for Mariano Rivera. All the kid did was strike out 34 batters, while allowing just one earned run in 24 innings and help the Yankees recover from a dreadful start of the season to earn the Wild Card. Like that, Joba Chamberlain was the most popular athlete in New York.

Born Justin Chamberlain, his baby cousin called him Joba because he couldn’t pronounce Justin. Chamberlain once said that he thought the name sounded “dynamic,” so he adopted.

Dynamic, was how Yankee fans saw the 21-year-old with the rising fastball that reached triple digits at times on the radar gun. He complemented the heater with a filthy slider in the low 90’s. In addition to his nasty stuff, the rookie had swagger. He gyrated and pumped his fists on the mound after big strikeouts and though many opposing players thought he was showing them up, his emotion invigorated a veteran Yankee team that had been plodding through the season.

The man with the dynamic name was also a public relations man’s dream. Newspaper and television headlines ran with the obvious Jabba the Hut Star Wars references and the Yankees jumped on the phenomenon by selling “Joba Rules” t-shirts, a play on the innings and appearance limitations imposed on the youngster by the organization. Fans and writers began comparing him to another husky right-hander, Roger Clemens, and some proclaimed him the eventual replacement for the great Mariano Rivera.

Soon we learned that Joba was raised by a single dad, Harlan Chamberlain, who’s confined to a motorized scooter due to a childhood bout with polio. Harlan is also a Native American and has several relatives who still live on the Winnebago Indian Reservation where he was born. The TV cameras caught the elder Chamberlain, whom Joba described as his best friend, shedding tears of pride as Yankee fans serenaded his son the first time he witnessed Joba pitch in the big leagues in person.

As Joba-mania reached a level of hype not seen in New York since Doc Gooden, I grew skeptical. Sometime during his splendid run in the summer of ’07, I began calling him Steve. It was my way of staying grounded as a Yankee fan. I knew that more than likely, Joba would have fairly ordinary career; It was his name and story that were somewhat unique, and that’s what fans hung on to. I was convinced that if he were a white man with an ordinary name like Steve, instead of a Native American named Joba, there would have been much less hype.

I recognized that Chamberlain’s stuff was electric and there’s no denying the quality and impact of his performance upon being called up to the big club, but I didn’t believe his talents were as rare as many Yankee fans did. Every season several teams around the league call up a pitching prospect or two who throw in the mid to upper 90’s. The majority of them don’t develop into top line starters or closers, even among those who experience immediate success as Joba did.

Most pitchers who thrive immediately are unable maintain their production, either due to the psychological rigors of being a major league pitcher or because the hitters in the league make adjusts and catch up to them. The other major obstacle to long term success for a young flamethrower is arm trouble. For every great strike out pitcher who had an illustrious career, you can point to two who burned out early. The statistics were simply not in Chamberlain’s favor.

Another red flag was the small sample size of Joba’s success. He hadn’t been a huge prospect like fellow ’07 call-up Phil Hughes and since he’d pitched just a season and a half of minor league ball the Yankees had a limited body of work from which to evaluate him. He hadn’t pitched nearly enough innings to demonstrate that he could be an effective starter at the major league level, as the Yankees projected.

Like everything else pertaining to the Yankees, their prospects and young stars receive greater hype than those in other organizations. I’d seen way to many uber prospects and fast starters pass through the Yankee organization, only to disappear into oblivion. Over the previous two decades there was Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens, Kevin Maas, Ruben Rivera, Brien Taylor, Drew Henson, Sam Militello and Russ Davis, to name a few.

I’d also seen what the media could do with an intriguing story line. Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez had an impressive career with the Yankees, especially in the playoffs, however, it was his story that made him a compelling figure. He arrived in New York through a remarkable, if not entirely true, tale of fleeing Cuba on a raft in shark infested waters. Combine that with a classic nickname, a distinctive leg kick and an air of mystery that arose from his refusal to conduct interviews, based on his supposed inability to speak English, and you have a media sensation.

Yankee fans, starving for a young pitching prospect, were particularly susceptible to the Hollywood storyline. The last Yankee farmhands to develop into consistent contributors on the rubber were Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera, both of whom made their Pinstripe debuts in 1995. New Yorkers were also wary of losing the arms race with the rival Red Sox, who had traded for Josh Beckett during the winter of ’06, signed Japanese star Daisuke Matsuzaka prior to the ’97 season and had two promising young starters of their own in Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz.

The Yankee organization also contributed to the expectations for Joba by the way they handled him. General Manager Brain Cashman made it clear that he intended to build the team around Chamberlain, Hughes and fellow hurler Ian Kennedy. Chamberlain was branded untouchable during Cashman’s trade negotiations with the Minnesota Twins for their star pitcher Johan Santana.

Cashman was afraid to blow out his prize possession’s arm, so he had manager Joe Girardi handle his young stud with kid gloves. The team announced during spring training of 2008 that Joba would begin the season in the bullpen, in order to limit his innings. In mid May, Girardi announced that Joba would join the rotation and after being stretched out in the minors he made his Major League debut against Roy Halladay and the Blue Jays on June 3rd.

Chamberlain had mixed success in the rotation before being placed on the disabled list in August with rotator cuff tendinitis. He was 3-1 as a starter with eight no decisions and finished the season with a 2.60 E.R.A. and 118 strikeouts in just 100 innings.

Following the 2008 campaign, the Yankees indicated that Chamberlain would be in the rotation in 2009, in what many in the organization expected to be a breakout year for the fireballer. But, Chamberlain’s fastball, which cracked triple digits in ’07 was topping out at 92-93 M.P.H. and decreased in velocity as his pitch count climbed. He lost control of the strike zone and his confidence spiraled downward.

To make matters worse, the Yankees instituted a low ceiling on his pitch counts late in the season in order to preserve his arm. Then Girardi moved him back to the bullpen for the playoffs in 2009, where he served as Rivera’s set-up man during the team’s championship run. Once again, Chamberlain didn’t know what his role was with the team.

Heading into the 2010 season, Girardi declared an open competition for the fifth spot in the Yankees rotation between Chamberlain, Hughes, Alfredo Aceves and Sergio Mitre. Hughes won the job and Chamberlain was banished to the bullpen once again, where his velocity was still down and control continued to suffer. His E.R.A topped out over five at the All-Star break, though he finished the season strong.

The Yankees didn’t exactly give Joba a vote of confidence by signing former Tampa Bay Rays closer Rafael Soriano in the winter of 2011, to a staggering 3 year $35 million contract to be the set-up man and eventual successor to Rivera, the role Joba was once supposed to fill. Chamberlain still hadn’t fully regained the pop on his fastball, though he pitched well early in the season, posting a 2.83 E.R.A in 27 appearances.

Then his career took another turn for the worse when he tore a ligament in the elbow of his throwing arm last week. Joba required the dreaded Tommy John surgery, which will keep him off the field for 10 to 14 months. The procedure has become commonplace in baseball and many players have returned to form a year or two later. Some have even throw harder after the surgery than they did before the injury. However, for many players the procedure essentially marks the end of their career, as they never regain their pre-injury form.

Joba burst onto the scene like a rock star and emerged as the crown jewel of the Yankee farm system, projected to be either a future number one starter or Rivera’s successor. Four disappointing years later, he blew out his arm like so many hot shot hurlers before him, and at the age of 25, his career is in jeopardy. Even if he fully recovers he’s likely destined for a career in middle relief. If his name was Steve nobody would even remember him in 20 years.



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