March 2012

2012 Previews: A.L. East

AMID all the curiosity and nostalgia about the sudden unretirement of Andy Pettitte, there rested one question that is absolutely fundamental to understanding the 2012 American League Eastern Division race.

Why?

I heard people ask Pettitte about how it happened, when it happened, why he wanted it to happen, how his arm was, how his legs were, how his head was. I heard questions about when Brian Cashman called him and how often and how much he was offered and how much he eventually signed for and why it took him so long and when he’ll be ready.

What I did not hear was a question about why – in the wake of trading the best hitting prospect they’ve produced since Robinson Cano for a starting pitcher, and in the wake of signing a free agent starting pitcher, and with a training camp full of young starting pitcher prospects – why did the Yankees feel they needed Pettitte?

Even at the point when Cashman traded Jesus Montero to Seattle for Michael Pineda (and then incongruously compared Montero to Miguel Cabrera), the Yankees had a surfeit of starting pitchers. CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova, Freddy Garcia, and Phil Hughes were all back (and Bartolo Colon could’ve been). Manuel Banuelos, Dellin Betances, and Hector Noesi were awaiting opportunities. And then Pineda was added. And then Kuroda. And then Pettitte.

I understand no team divides its 162 starts evenly among five men and if you go through a year with only two rotational changes it’s been a blessing from above. But to add so much is to suggest not that you’re worried about injury or attrition, but about the quality of what you already have. I don’t think the Yankees trust Nova, I think they feel Hughes’ moment is passed, I presume they have no faith that the moment will arrive for Banuelos and Betances. And after his flaccid spring, I’m sure they’re wondering if the Pineda thing was a disaster too.

It was.

Jesus Montero probably can’t catch a lick and the Yankees didn’t have first base open for him to move to. But a player like him, with that kind of high ball opposite field power, is far more scarce than a Michael Pineda at his best, let alone a Michael Pineda who didn’t gain velocity in the off-season, only weight. The Yankees seem deliberately intent on ignoring the reality that they are aging dangerously on offense. I realize that part of the solution to that is to free up the DH spot that Montero would’ve filled, by a rotation of the wheezing Alex Rodriguez, the unpredictable Nick Swisher, the aging Derek Jeter, and the calcified Andruw Jones and Raul Ibanez. But it would seem those guys, and the offense, would’ve benefited a lot more from taking days off and letting the kid get 600 plate appearances and 30 homers.

And while my theory of Cashman getting as much pitching protection as he can speaks well to his preparedness for the ever-growing chance of injury or unreliability among his hurlers, there is no similar cushion being built for the line-up. This is a dreadful bench, from Francisco Cervelli (no power), to Eduardo Nunez (no glove), to Jones (no future). And there’s nobody in the farm system to fill the deficiencies before Gary Sanchez and Mason Williams arise during the early stages of the 2016 presidential campaign. There was a guy but they traded him for a starting pitcher so good that they had to talk a 39-year old out of retirement to replace him. Lord help the Yankees if Curtis Granderson hits like he did last September, or if Rodriguez (“he’s in great shape; oh yeah, he was in great shape last year before he broke”) or Teixeira or Russell Martin get hurt. Or Cano. No Cano and they might not be even a factor in the pennant race.

That’s why I’m picking TAMPA BAY in this division, and handily. This is still a popgun offense, although I giggle every time I read somebody rip them for bringing back Carlos Pena to replace folk hero Casey Kotchman. Casey Kotchman had 560 plate appearances last year in Tampa and drove in 48 runs. A first baseman almost has to try to achieve a statistic that pathetic. In any event, Andrew Friedman has upgraded the offense from anemic to serene, improving by small measure at first, at DH, and at short (where Jeff Keppinger is bound to supplant the .193/.223 boys, Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac). Desmond Jennings is clearly blossoming into a star, and if B.J. Upton can hit merely .275, he will finally become one as well.

And the Rays have the best pitching staff in baseball. Even if Matt Moore is hyped and James Shields returns to earth and David Price keeps underachieving, they can pull Wade Davis back from the bullpen, and bring up Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, and half a dozen other guys from Durham. If the magic spell that made Kyle Farnsworth a top closer suddenly snaps, they have Fernando Rodney and Joel Peralta and Jake McGee and J.P. Howell to give it a try. The Rays probably have not just the best staff, 1-through-14 in baseball; they may have the best staff, 1-through-28. Who knows: if everything doesn’t go wrong maybe they dangle some of those prospects at mid-season and get some hitting?

The problem in BOSTON last year was pitchers drinking before the games were over. The problem in Boston this year could be fans drinking before they begin. Outside of Adrian Gonzalez and Jacoby Ellsbury there isn’t a player on that 25-man roster about whom there is not one huge question. How soon will Kevin Youkilis’ crazy grip finally irreparably damage his hand? Can Carl Crawford actually face a pennant race? Is Buchholz healthy? Or Lester? Or Beckett?

Most importantly, to paraphrase long-ago skipper Joe M. Morgan, “who is running this nine?” New manager Bobby Valentine, showing my earlier criticisms of him may have been extreme and unfair, wanted Jose Iglesias at shortstop and hard-hitting, rapidly-improving Ryan Lavarnway behind the plate (Lavarnway being the only Red Sox player who didn’t panic down the stretch last year). He was overruled – and he certainly wasn’t overruled by newbie GM Ben Cherington. Years ago Terry Francona, John Farrell, and Theo Epstein came to the realization that Daniel Bard didn’t have the emotional chops to be a starting pitcher, and was best served firing gas out of the pen. They’re all gone, Bard was shoved into the rotation, is flailing just as the former bosses knew he would, and now presumably staggers back to the bullpen as broken goods behind the physically sketchy Andrew Bailey (Mark Melancon might close for them yet).

It’s a mess. It’s a mess that could almost accidentally come together in triumph and bolt into the pennant race, but – and heaven help me I’m agreeing with Curt Schilling – it looks like it is going bad quicker than he and I expected it to.  Ah well, maybe they can hire Francona back at some point and he can sift through the ashes and rebuild The Olde Towne Team with an eye towards 2014.

The question in TORONTO is: could it be going good quicker than anybody expects it to? Seven spots in the Jays’ lineup don’t particularly startle you, until you reach the conclusion that the guys occupying them could all, realistically, hit 20 homers apiece this year. This does not include Jose Bautista, or the first full year of The Brett Lawrie, who might become Canada’s first true homegrown baseball hero since The Larry Walker. The Blue Jays might be good for 250 home runs – Adam Lind could easily jump from one of the “other seven” to All-Star status – and the only defensive liability of the bunch, catcher J.P. Arencibia, could soon be supplanted by uber-prospect Travis D’Arnaud.

The Jays will hit and field. Their bullpen – fresh-armed Sergio Santos, protected by the underappreciated Coco Cordero, joining the incumbent Casey Janssen – with Darren Oliver actually finding a team he hasn’t previously played for – is newly solid. The questions are all among the starters. Only Ricky Romero has a resume, but during Toronto’s remarkable spring in dreary Dunedin (I know, I know, spring training stats, but they are 22-4 as I write this), Henderson Alvarez, Brett Cecil, Brandon Morrow, and even Deck McGuire and Kyle Drabek have looked sharp. Dustin McGowan is, in a tradition as old as time itself, hurt again – but perhaps only for a few weeks. If there’s one thing John Farrell knows it’s how to translate pitching potential into success. Just slight success out of the rotation and the Jays could vault into contention.

As to BALTIMORE they seem to be planning to use Wilson Betemit and Nick Johnson as part-time Designated Hitters. End Communication.

AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST FORECAST:

Faint heart never won fair predicting contests. I’m convinced about the winner, and taking a flier on the runners-up. It’s possible one of the Wild Cards comes out of this division but I’m not convinced any more. The Yankees and the Red Sox are not locks, and they are so not locks that I will assume New York will finally suffer the kind of position-player calamity that accelerates its decrepitude. TAMPA BAY is your champion, TORONTO second, NEW YORK third (close), BOSTON fourth, and BALTIMORE should’ve been relegated already.

NEXT TIME…I don’t know, I haven’t written it yet.

Bert Randolph Sugar, 1936-2012

So the story – as I heard it, and as Bert Sugar would’ve told it – goes like this:

There’s this young advertising executive, already climbing his way up the ladder. The 1960′s this is. He works longer than anybody else. He’s at every social event. He’s a lawyer, never practiced, passed the bar – and lord knows it was the only bar he did pass. So this is the kind of palooka who can convince you to give him the buttons off your fly. And he’s that kind of larger-than-life character who can not only sell the advertisers anything, he’s also in creative, he’s also selling the customers – the hoi polloi out in the cheap seats.

Remember that “N-E-S-T-L-E-S, Nestles Makes The Very Best” jingle? That was one of his. Samuel Taylor Coleridge this was not, this “N-E-S-T-L-E-S” – but it sold a lot of chocolate. And our hero is the rising star on Madison Avenue and let me confide in you, my friend, that what you see on Mad Men is like a Sunday Church Ice Cream Social compared to the reality of the ’60s. The motto then was “I’d rather be a good liver than have one,” if you catch my drift.

Well there’s an office party and maybe it’s at J. Walter Thompson and maybe it’s at McCann Erickson. Doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s Tinker, Evers and Steinfeldt – and Steinfeldt was the third baseman with Tinker and Evers and Chance, if you’ve already forgotten, Junior. Anyway, our young hero has a boss who doesn’t like him. Rides him every chance. Sings N-E-S-T-L-E-S at him. Never lets up. Never promotes him. And finally comes the party and there has been more liquor consumed than after Jack Johnson beat James J. Jeffries in Havana on the 4th of July. And unfortunately for the boss, in this equation he’s Jeffries and our kid is Johnson. And the wrong word is said, our kid takes his cigar out of his mouth, and shoves his boss up against the office window.

Now there are two versions of what happens next. A) Boss bounces off the window, glass is cracked, boy wonder’s career is over, or B) — and this is the one you don’t hear a lot — Boss bounces through the window onto the balcony of the high-rise office building, boy wonder’s career is over, and they don’t call the police only because the Boss is more humiliated then hurt.

Great story so far, right?

Well that’s not even the punchline.

The punchline is, Boy Wonder takes his money, says screw advertising, says screw my law degree, I’m going to buy…a boxing magazine. And before it’s all over, after Cosell declines anyway, he’s the best known media guy in boxing, even gets into the Boxing Hall of Fame – and not once does he ever sign a contract with any of the big networks or the big newspapers! He not only knocks the boss into the window, but then he spends the rest of his life doing what he loved, and till the day he dies – **he’s** his own boss!

Here Bert Sugar would’ve laughed and added: “you got time for another story?

The real punch-line was, of course, that the ad exec who pushed his boss into the plate glass window was him – Bert Sugar.  Obviously that extraordinary truth made Bert Randolph Sugar my hero. Actually it made him more of my hero. Because when Bert Sugar – who died Sunday at the age of 75 — left advertising, and was struggling along with that Boxing Illustrated magazine, he had to do outside projects. And one of them stemmed from his perception, in the early 1970′s, that the next big thing…was the collecting of old baseball cards.

In retrospect it’s obvious. But back then, the multi-million-dollar Honus Wagner card cost $11,000 and the family of the guy who’d spent the $11,000 tried to have him committed. But Bert saw something the rest of us did not. So he decided to create a book that identified what the cards were and how much they were worth, and it would turn out to be the single biggest thing that launched a billion-dollar industry.

But to compile it, he needed help – cheap help.

His baseball card contact was a great man named Mike Aronstein, and Mike said “Bert, I got just the kid for you.” Which is how I met Bert Randolph Sugar – in 1974 – when I was fifteen years old. And how, sizing me up in my parents’ living room, smoking his ever-present cigar and talking to me like I was not only another adult but another Damon Runyon character, just like he was, he decided I could do it.

The book was The Sports Collectors Bible. I did the grunt work, organizing the checklists, throwing in notes here and there. He gave me a title: Associate Editor. He gave me $250 – I think. Might’ve been less. Most importantly, h gave me credibility. I’d worked on an actual book, while I was in high school. And a hit, one that was so popular he put out four different volumes of it.

Bert moved on. Baseball Trivia books, boxing books, Harry Houdini books. He put out a couple of books featuring reprints of famous baseball cards, thin little paperback editions with the reprints perforated so you could pretend you had a Wagner. He made a fortune. Not one of those cards was his – he borrowed them. The great secret was that Bert Randolph Sugar, who essentially invented the annual price guide, and the phone book-sized checklist book, and the monthly card price magazines, was not a card collector.

In addition to moving on, Bert moved up. He swapped Boxing Illustrated for the far-more-famous Ring Magazine and then when the idiots over there squeezed him out, he went back and took over Boxing Illustrated again, and just last year he’d bought Ring again. But in the years after he gave me my first paying job, Bert Sugar primarily devoted himself to the business of creating Bert Sugar. Same technique as in advertising. To the ever-present cigar, he added the ever-present hat. And the wardrobe, which he described as “The Salvation Army threw up on me.”

And mostly, he added the being there: Every big boxing match. Every baseball hall of fame induction. Every sports news conference, every sports premiere, every sports confirmation, children’s party, or bris. The last time I saw him it was at the premiere for Ken Burns’ 10th Inning. Burt had written another baseball book (The Baseball Maniac’s Almanac) and he made sure to mention it to all of us. A week later there arrived one of Bert’s singular, typewritten letters – and a copy of the book, vivid and peppy and filled with everything he’d learned in advertising and publishing and the ballpark.

Everybody knew him. Everybody. He became the boxing expert, and that was almost a shame because he really knew baseball at least as well, and boxing represented only about a fifth of his interests and only about a tenth of his stories. Remind me to tell you of the day he ordered one case of sets of Kelloggs Corn Flakes 3-D Football Cards and something went horribly wrong and the cases started arriving at his house like – as he put it – the enchanted mops and buckets in Fantasia — and he wound up with at least a thousand of them, filling his garage and his basement, and he used to hand the sets out instead of candy at Halloween or give me five cases each time he’d come over, just to get rid of them – and when years later they wound up being worth 250 bucks a set, he howled in laughter and shouted at me “of course they did! Of course they did! If I’d have held on to them they wouldn’t have been worth ten cents!”

I think I saw Bert at least once, often dozens of times, in each of the last 38 years. It was always the same. For his long ago confidence in the ultimate untested rookie, he would accept none of my gratitude, but if there was anybody nearby, he would express all of his pride.

27 years ago I was unemployed. “When you’re in the city, meet me at Zum Zum’s in Grand Central. It’s my office between twelve and three. At least you’ll get a nice lunch. And you’ll worry less.”  I asked him what he was doing with a kind of German fast-food restaurant as his office. “I’m plotting there.” Turned out he was plotting to take over Boxing Illustrated for the second time, which he did. “You’ll be fine, Kid,” he assured me. “Just remember me when you make it big.”

I always have, Bert.

I always will.

Because I have never met anybody else like Bert Sugar.

And frankly, I don’t need to. Because I had the privilege of knowing the original.

The above is adapted from my script of my obituary for Bert Sugar on Current TV’s Countdown. The video is here.

 

Bryce Mantle?

So as the spring training games begin, Bryce Harper (1-for-2 against the Astros this afternoon) now says “I want to be up here. I want to play, and I want to play in D.C.” This after Davey Johnson was publicly pushing for him to be on the Opening Day roster and General Manager Mike Rizzo confessed Johnson had convinced him to “keep an open mind.” Thus the most amazing question of the spring isn’t about whether or not Harper is going to open the season with the Nationals, nor the one that goes “are the Nats seriously considering it?” The answer is: what happens if it doesn’t work?

The historical “comp” is Mickey Mantle, who worked his way from a wild-armed shortstop in a pre-Spring Training special showcase camp of top minor league prospects for the benefit of Manager Casey Stengel, to the Yankees’ Opening Day lineup in 1951 (batting third, in an outfield also featuring Joe DiMaggio and an even-more prized youngster that spring, 56-game big league veteran Jackie Jensen). The comparison between Harper and Mantle as players is speculative at best, but the useful history might be what happened when Mantle made the Yankees out-of-nowhere as a 19-year old rightfielder – and then failed.

When Mantle was sent down to AAA Kansas City after the game of July 13, his numbers didn’t look all that bad. In 69 games, he’d batted .260, logged nine doubles, five triples, and seven homers, and driven in 46 runs, while stealing seven bases. But American League pitchers had begun to deny him fastballs late in May, and in his last six weeks before the demotion Mantle had hit just .211. The rest is history: Mantle said he got to Kansas City, called his father to say he now doubted he could cut it, was surprised to find his father in his hotel room a few hours later. Instead of the pat on the back he expected, Mickey saw “Mutt” Mantle begin to empty his son’s clothes into a suitcase and tell him he wasn’t a man and he should come back home and join him in the copper mines.

That worked.

Mantle drove in 50 runs in 40 games and returned to the Yankees on August 24th: six homers, 20 RBI, .284 in his last 27 games.

But Mantle’s demotion came 61 years ago. There was no internet, no cable, no tv sports news to think of, no radio call-ins, no blogs. The Yankees who didn’t get sent to the minors that season included Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, Ed Lopat, coach Bill Dickey, and manager Casey Stengel. They were the two-time defending World Champions and, frankly, it is possible that a lot of Yankee fans had no idea for days or weeks that Mantle had even been sent back to the minors.

That will most assuredly not happen if Bryce Harper struggles in the majors – if he bats .211 over 100 agonizing at bats and Mike Rizzo and Davey Johnson decide they have to send him to AAA. The coverage would be intense, uninterrupted, and brutal, and it would not stop the day Harper went to Syracuse or Harrisburg. It would be relentless.

Thus the question isn’t whether or not the Nats are thinking of taking Bryce Harper north or summoning him early in the season. The question is how much time they’ve spent game-planning the worst case scenario.

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