False Spring In New York

Pitchers and Catchers report, New York temperatures clear 40 degrees, and somebody issues a forecast that references “55” by the end of the week and it’s not the age of the latest pitcher the Yankees invited to camp.

These should all be good signs for baseball here in Big Town, and once again optimism balloons like CC Sabathia before his gallant off-season knee-saving conditioning program. And I’m not buying a word of it. In fact, 2011 is shaping up as one of those rare seasons in which neither of the local teams seriously contend, perhaps a year like 1967.
That was my first true season of baseball awareness, inspired by the events of a birthday party for a neighbor named Wolfgang (Wolf wasn’t originally from around here) at which each of us was given a pack of baseball cards and everybody else’s contained the bonus “miniature poster” and mine didn’t and I vowed to get one and I was hooked. This minor childhood trauma is recounted because my vague memory is that Wolf’s birthday was May 10th, which the record books will show you was the last 1967 day in which either the Mets or the Yankees were at .500 or better. Between them the ’67 New York clubs lost 191 games and had the 17th and 20th worst records in all of baseball in a time when all of baseball consisted of 20 teams.
I didn’t see it at the time. I was eight. But clearly, the missing “miniature poster” was a sign of things to come during that awful season.
It’s not going to be that bad, but I continue to get the impression that not one correspondent or fan or executive of either of the teams has any idea exactly how bad it is going to be. The telltale sign is the Mets and Yankees both ended 2010 in decided spirals, yet if the Yankees had not spent gaudy money on the largely unnecessary Rafael Soriano, identifying this city’s biggest off-season acquisition would require an argument over the relative merits of Russell Martin, Ronny Paulino, and Brad Emaus.
The Mets are bleeding at second base, dependent in the outfield on the comebacks of two mega-contract free agents who might not have been good ideas when they were healthy, and absolutely without hope if their closer doesn’t put both his problems with the law and his fastball behind him. The Yankees are facing a superstar’s existential crisis at shortstop, and a far greater drama behind the plate than anybody’s letting on. And barring the kind of luck you only find in Fantasy Leagues, neither team has the starting pitching to expect to compete in their divisions.
I don’t have to fully regurgitate my stance on Derek Jeter. I am as sentimental as any baseball fan, ever. But I get far more choked up about a team making the post-season every year than I do about whether one player performed for 17 seasons with one team or “only” 15. As near as I can figure it, instead of cutting the cord now (or at least keeping their obligations to a minimum), the Yankees have designed some sort of plan by which Jeter will be permitted to deteriorate further at shortstop this year and next, and then be moved to the outfield where he will squeeze out Nick Swisher while producing a quarter of Swisher’s offensive value. 
I get it. Everybody loves Jeter. I’d like to point out the Yankees released Babe Ruth, fired Yogi Berra, trashed Tino Martinez, demoted Bernie Williams, and traded Elston Howard to the Red Sox. Not every great player stays that way until he’s 40 and gets to go out on his own terms. The Yankees’ decision on Jeter will not only cost them playoff appearances, but it will still end in tears, and an even messier conclusion in which Jeter hits .217 and is benched or released or put on waivers or all of the above.
Something also has to give in this odd mish-mosh at Catcher. Jesus Montero is supposedly ready, despite wildly varying reports on his ability to hit or catch anything that isn’t straight down the middle. If there wasn’t already uncertainty about the youngster, it would have been supplied by the acquisition of Russell Martin, who clearly still has the capacity in him for a strong comeback. And then there is Jorge Posada, supposedly still a vibrant presence at bat if not behind the plate, and ready to slide in to the DH role much of the time. Where ever the truth lies here, there are still three guys going into two positions, along with some thought that the DH spot will be used as a parking place for Alex Rodriguez and an At Bats opportunity for Andruw Jones, Ronnie Belliard, and Eric Chavez.
By the by, did you know that Chavez – the new utility cornerman and presumptive emergency middle infielder – has played twelve years in the major leagues and has spent exactly 28 and two-thirds innings playing anywhere except third base? Not games – innings. 

I am also probably belaboring a point I’ve made here before about the Yankees’ starting rotation: They don’t have one. While Sabathia is, simply, one of the best free agent signings in the history of the sport, the questions that follow him do not begin with “who replaces Andy Pettitte?” or “what about A.J. Burnett?” They start with the presumed number two, Phil Hughes, who was a flaccid 7-6, 4.90 after the All-Star Break and was eviscerated twice in the ALCS by Texas. Assuming Hughes enters 2011 as an established front-line major league starter is itself a leap. Then comes the nightmarish implications of the Burnett mystery. Then come the Ivan Novas, Sergio Mitres, and the veritable Old-Timers’ Day grouping that greets new pitching coach Larry Rothschild. Freddy Garcia? Mark Prior? Bartolo Colon? No wonder Kevin Millwood is generating enthusiasm by comparison. Why not Scott Sanderson? Dave LaPoint? Kevin Mmahat?
This team is going to compete with the Red Sox and Rays? This team is going to compete with the Blue Jays who off-loaded the Vernon Wells contract. This team is going to compete with the Orioles in their Buck Showalter Honeymoon Year.
And still the Yankees are in better shape than the Mets. From the middle of last summer onwards, what passed for buzz inside CitiField was some sort of vague sense of doom. It had to do with the jailed Ponzi Schemer Bernie Madoff, but no other details emerged. It didn’t seem to make much sense; the Wilpon family had insisted it had not suffered greatly at the hands of the ultimate financial snake oil salesman, and all evidence backed up their assertion. Now it becomes clear that the owners were in trouble not because Madoff had stolen their money, but because he hadn’t. They are the defendants in an extraordinary billion-dollar suit that claims they knowingly pocketed the profits from a kind of privatized Enron disaster. While the action is headed to mediation by former New York Governor (and former Pittsburgh Pirates farmhand) Mario Cuomo, it has already paralyzed the team’s finances and threatens to continue to do so for an indefinite period.
Which explains why the Mets, when still vaguely competitive last June and July, added no payroll. Which explains why the bullets were not bitten on the statues that replaced Luis Castillo and Ollie Perez. Which explains why, when another bat was needed, the Mets could reach only for Mike Hessman. Which explains why men named Wilpon did not take the fall in October.
Jason Bay and Carlos Beltran are enigmas. Jose Reyes is at the critical step, forwards to greatness or backwards towards underachievement. Ike Davis and Josh Thole are dedicated and gifted players who may not bring enough power to their respective positions. The second baseman could be a Rule V draftee. There isn’t one starting pitcher who isn’t weighed down with a huge question mark (Mike Pelfrey’s head, Jon Niese’s endurance, Johan Santana’s shoulder, Dillon Gee’s inexperience, the overall health of Chri
sses Young and Capuano, and the likelihood that R.A. Dickey actually found himself last season at the age of 35). And the bullpen? You don’t want to know about the bullpen.
So as winter today loosened its grip just slightly after a mean-spirited winter, I am thinking not about the warm spring breezes in the Bronx and Queens. I am thinking again about Wolfgang’s birthday party and the prospect that this year, every New York fan’s pack of cards will be missing something he was counting on getting.


  1. kevrhon@geocities.com

    Writers gotta write. Nice to see this. I didn’t even know you had a baseball blog.

    I’m more a football than baseball fan, although moving to St. Louis a dozen or so years ago has made me a Cardinals fan. As they are usually in contention late into the season, I keep an eye on things.

    My real reason for commenting is to let you know that despite the best efforts of all the bright, talented folks who are holding down the fort, there’s a quite noticeable Keith Olbermann shaped hole at MSNBC. And as Charter Cable doesn’t carry Current, I’ll have to make due with Tweets and and the occasional blog post. It’s nice to see you sharing your long-form work again. Thanks.

  2. peterd@cox.net

    Ahh, a KO essay. Wish I could hear you read it. You, Frank DeFord and Ben Stein are the only people currently I love hearing read their essays — and I am not even much of a baseball fan. I cannot be. My grandfather reluctantly followed the Red Sox. But that was only after the Braves deserted Boston.

    Then in 66 (two years after Grampys death) the Braves eloped again (out of Milwaukee) and went to ATL. Still cannot love them. So, I turned to NASCAR.

  3. gmcurran@hotmail.com

    Keith, your assessment of the Yankee’s catching made me wonder what you think of the Red Sox catchers? Do you think this represents a fatal flaw that prevents them from being the presumed AL frontrunners as many others seem to think?

  4. tomd8@cox.net

    As a video editor for 30 years ( www. hdshotsandcuts.com ) and a FOK I decided to create a KO / Yankees music video for you for your private use and enjoyment. It is a token of appreciation for what you do. I was layed off and you provided both entertainment & inspiration during one of the most difficult years of my life( mom died, pet died and dad developed dementia). I would like to send you a DVD (Blu ray or regular). Please contact me at tomd8@cox.net. I think you will enjoy it! Please check out my web site if you have any qualms about this gift. It represents the kind of work I do and my “kosherness”.
    Tom Daigon
    Avid DS / FCP/After Effects Editor

  5. joannandkelly@gmail.com

    Let me give you the Reader’s Digest version: THE YANKEES SUCK!
    Unless you live in, or near, Gotham, it is hard to identify with a team of spoiled, overpaid, overhyped, overconfident narcissists owned and mismanaged by the same. They perfectly fill the role of a bad guy in wrestling, and are just as easy to like.
    By the way, your writing skill in baseball matches your political commentaries. Wonder how you’d do in say, the sciences or the arts.

  6. johnnypcusa

    Great to see the new post Keith. Miss seeing you every weeknight on Countdown but glad to know I can still get a dose of you here. Now not being a Yankees fan–AND being a long-suffering O’s fan–it is my most fervent hope to see the word “Baltimore Orioles” above “New York Yankees” throughout the upcoming summer. Thanks for stoking those hopes with the latest post!

  7. taipeied

    I too have been flabbergasted by the moves, or should I say non-moves, by the Yankees in the off season. Should all/most of what you write come to pass I think the next question would be, “How long will Cashman be with the Yankees?”.

  8. ipeaceful@hotmail.com

    It is such a treat to read more than just a Tweet! You bring baseball to life with each line, even to a football gal for whom the ins and outs of the game whiz over my bangs like a fly ball over an outstretched mitt. Impatiently waiting for your return, to enlighten and delight with your passion and prose for politics. FOK will take care of the ratings, and the haters can go Beck themselves.

  9. njbaseball

    So much for “hope springs eternal.”

    While I do think the end of the season will turn out closer to what you think than not, it might not be the double disaster you foresee. That’s the beauty of it — who knows how it will play out? The Yankees, of course, will go out and get the pieces they need if they’re in the race. Bay still hasn’t had a full season to acclimate to NY and Citi; I suspect that Beltran, if healthy, will bring a decent return in a trade; and knuckleballers are a different breed — post-35 life hasn’t been too bad for Wakefield.

    That’s why I’m a fan — while my hopes aren’t high for this season, I’m still willing to see how it plays out, to see if I might be pleasantly surprised. There was an “impossible dream” in 1967, why not one now?

  10. ashoein@att.net

    You mean to tell me that even the Great American Pastime has not been spared the reach of Bernie Madoff’s poisonous tentacles? It’s like unraveling a golf ball. Sigh.
    Mention of your neighbor Wolfgang’s birthday party made me chuckle. I have a close friend named Wolfgang who also goes by the shortened “Wolf.” He too isn’t from around here. No, he came to us by way of Berlin. 🙂

  11. mantlewasarockstar

    On paper, are the Yankees looking as good as I’d like? No.
    On paper, are the Red Sox the team to beat in the AL East? Yes.

    But here’s the thing: you gotta play the games. On paper don’t mean crap in the end. After all, on paper, at any point before October, did the Giants look like they’d be the 2010 World Champions? Spring Training hasn’t begun and already there are folks assuming the 2011 WS will be btwn BOS and PHI (with PHI in 5). But guess what? You gotta play the games. Jeez.

  12. tomd8@cox.net

    As a video editor for 30 years ( www. hdshotsandcuts.com ) and a FOK I decided to create a KO / Yankees music video for you for your private use and enjoyment. It is a token of appreciation for what you do. I was layed off and you provided both entertainment & inspiration during one of the most difficult years of my life( mom died, pet died and dad developed dementia). I would like to send you a DVD (Blu ray or regular). Please contact me at tomd8@cox.net. I think you will enjoy it! Please check out my web site if you have any qualms about this gift. It represents the kind of work I do and my “kosherness”.
    Tom Daigon
    Avid DS / FCP/After Effects Editor

  13. 1948braves

    Amazing isn?t it? We both became fans in 1967, with you at a much younger age than me.

    I don?t remember what the situation was but it was in the month of October, so it was either a playoff or World Series game, early in Billy Martin?s managerial career with the Yankees. I recall seeing Billy Martin standing in the dugout during a big game, looking very very depressed. And I remember all of a sudden feeling sorry for Martin and I began rooting for the Yankees to come back and win the game and whatever series they were engaged in at the time. Which they did. It?s the only time I have ever rooted for the Yankees to win anything.

    Your article as I began reading had me literally laughing out loud. But as I read further, I saw rather glum prospects for New York fans this season, and it got me to feeling kinda bad. I do hope NY has an exciting down to the wire season. You never know. Every season brings us surprises. Perhaps the Mets aren?t that good. But perhaps the other teams in the NL won?t be that good. Teams have a way of either overachieving or underachieving. You just never know. Injuries, slumps, etc. Things do happen which opens the door for other less talented teams. I wish the Mets & and their fans an exciting 2011. They have lost some real heartbreakers over the years. But then again, what team hasn’t?

    I was talking the other day with a co-worker about the upcoming baseball season and I told him I was sorry to see the rivalry of the 1990’s/2000’s between the Yankees/Red Sox gone. Great ballplayers. Exciting teams. Exciting games. Exciting memories. The best of times for both the Red Sox and NYY fans. I wonder if we’ll ever see the likes of that again? Perhaps not. But that’s okay. Just glad we had them, as I look over at the photo of Pedro & Clemens I took in Yankee Stadium Memorial Day Weekend 2000. There they were warming up, Pedro in the bullpen and Clemens outside the bullpen. In the same photo. They never spoke nor acknowledged each other while warming up. And hours later, when the game was over, we headed out, with us Sox fans believing we just saw one of the greatest games of our life. And it was. Pitching will do that.

    Spring. And the always reliable April rain-outs. But then – Optimism. Sunshine. Sunglasses. Open windows with music blaring. Flowers. Shrubs. Trees bursting with leaves. Green Grass. Outdoor concerts. NYC Walking Tours. Baseball. Every day.

    Best of luck NY Mets. It’s better to have people believe you aren’t going anywhere than be a favorite to win it all. If the 1967 Red Sox can face the great Bob Gibson and the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series and take it to 7 games, after the Sox had finished the 1966 season with a 72-90 record, with 8 teams finishing the season with a better record in the AL, then anything is possible. Anything. They say it came about because of Boston’s new manager – 39 yr. old Dick Williams. His first season managing in the big leagues. People say all the time that baseball managers don’t win or lose games. I don’t think that’s true.

  14. honder@columbus.rr.com

    Maybe they can sneak Jeet’s locker up to the YES broadcast booth and he can be the most expensive Rizzuto the sports world will ever know. Also, the Yanks will come up with another Ross Moschitto this year. And when he fails that will open the door for the next Roy White.

  15. juanjose200304@hotmail.com

    Hello Mr. Olbermann,

    I’m a Historian student for Stanislaus State in California and I’m working on my thesis paper about the 1919 Black Sox scandal. I have always been a fan of our national pastime, and especially about this subject. I know that you are a passionate fan of baseball and its history, and would like to ask you if you can point me to the right direction of my research. My thesis of the scandal is the public opinion or outcry of the circumstances and affects of the 1919 world series. I have been doing my own research and would like to know what do you recommend.

    Thank you. 😀

  16. giantsteps

    The Boss is likely rolling over in his grave over the results of the off-season; I think if he were still around he would have had no problem letting Jeter walk (or threaten to). The sign of a good team is to let a player go a year too early rather than a year too late; see Oakland A’s with their Big Three pitchers of Mulder, Hudson and Zito.

    I became a baseball fan in 1969, and it was the Miracle Mets; that summer my 5th grade teacher loaded his wife, his cat, his worldly possessions, and his love for the Mets into a VW Beetle and driven across country to California suburbia for his new job. Somehow during the post-season he managed to get hold of a TV from the A/V center, hooked up rabbit ears, and we actually watched the games during class time; this was the era of actual daytime post-season games, after all. Somehow, I got hooked by the game, and even though my allegiance eventually switched to the local teams (A’s first, then Giants), I still have a small spot in my heart for the Mets and am sorry to hear of their current financial and management woes.

    Hope you’re not so busy with the new job that you can’t make it down to Florida for a couple of weeks next month.

  17. giantsteps

    Wish we could edit comments — “driven” should be “drove” of course; I made some minor grammatical corrections earlier in that sentence but forgot to check the whole sentence.

  18. legacyshots

    Pitchers and catchers reported today (actually yesterday for some few impatient ones) and Olbermann gave us another dose of Olbermann. Glad to see two things. First: February because baseball is back again. Second: Olbermann because baseball is back again.


  19. eisenears@yahoo.com

    Wow, a mid-winter thaw coming this week, pitchers & catchers on the field in Tampa later today, AND a Keith Olbermann essay; I’m so psyched! So great to ride the rhythm and and almost hear the cadence of Keith’s voice as I read this. So looking forward to Keith this spring on current, & so looking forward to this Yankee spring.

    All the arms in camp w/the new pitching coach Rothschild has me definitely interested, and I’m looking forward to some longshots making the club going North and others to stick w/the organization at both double & triple A. I’ve got a feeling we’re going to be pleasantly surprised on the pitching front. I am worried about catcher & hope Martin has that bounce back year but that hip of his has me worried. Why oh why did Hank have to give Arod that 10 year obscene contract? I hope Gardner’s hand/thumb/wrist is healed. I’m going to disagree w/ Keith here & say the Yankees are going to have some of their kids & non-roster invites surprise and they are once again going to make the post-season, the Rays, orioles, blue jays be damned, but those sox are a different story altogether.

    Yeah, the Citizens United case virtually assures that we all live as serfs in the new klepocracy we call America, baseball is finally back, and at least for a brief moment, I can wistfully think of the game I’ve loved since I can remember. God bless a lot of people but Mickey Mantle & Keith Olbermann specifically here, and man was this essay a real treat. Keep ’em coming, Keith!

  20. tomd8@cox.net

    As a video editor for 30 years ( www. hdshotsandcuts.com ) and a FOK I decided to create a KO / Yankees music video for you for your private use and enjoyment. It is a token of appreciation for what you do. I was layed off and you provided both entertainment & inspiration during one of the most difficult years of my life( mom died, pet died and dad developed dementia). I would like to send you a DVD (Blu ray or regular). Please contact me at tomd8@cox.net. I think you will enjoy it! Please check out my web site if you have any qualms about this gift. It represents the kind of work I do and my “kosherness”.
    Tom Daigon
    Avid DS / FCP/After Effects Editor

  21. 2010wpm@gmail.com

    Keith – I think you’re great and I respect your knowledge, but I think you are being a little bit too pessimistic about the Yankees – especially when you wrote about Jeter.

    I think Jeter will be just fine this season, but he really should not bat leadoff. He’s really a #2 hitter, and he is statistically better at #2 – but Girardi doesn’t realize that.

    And the pitching won’t be great, but it might be good. We have two all-star starters in Sabathia and Hughes, and maybe a third in Burnett. The bullpen should be one of the best in baseball with Rivera, Soriano, and Feliciano.

    Plus – don’t get down on Jones, Belliard, and Chavez. I have a feeling that at least one of them will have a big year.

    P.S. Can’t wait to have you back on TV, Keith!

  22. mantlewasarockstar

    You know what? The Red Sox advantage over the Yankees is not only overstated, it’s actually quite flimsy. Compare each position and see for yourself:

    Tex / A-Gon
    Cano / Pedroia
    Jeter / Scutaro
    A-Rod / Youkilis
    Swisher / Drew
    Granderson / Ellsbury
    Gardner / Crawford
    Posada / Ortiz
    Martin / Saltalamacchia
    CC / Lester
    Hughes / Bucholz
    Burnett / Beckett
    Pitcher no.4 / Matsusaka
    Pitcher no.5 / Lackey
    Yankees bullpen / Red Sox bullpen

    The Yankees have the clear and overwhelming advantage when it comes to position players; the first 3 pitchers in the starting rotation are about evenly matched (BOS has the 4 & 5 edge), and the Yankee bullpen is arguably the best in the AL. So, KO–why so glum, chum?

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