It was the (only sometimes) unspoken question always in the background for the first season of the new Yankee Stadium, and it increasingly became the undertone as the post-season accelerated.
Even this afternoon, as the minions of the nation’s media capital tried to out-do each other with more and more speculative coverage of the victory parade, a reporter who has been on the radio here for nearly half a century insisted that the highlight of the day would be the “emotional moment” when Steinbrenner accepted his key to the city. A less-senior and far more skeptical colleague asked if this was actually going to happen. The veteran’s answer: “It’s right here in the program for the ceremony!”
This is, of course, the impression the Yankees continue to give: that all is not necessarily well with their venerable owner, but that he’s still frequently involved. There was even a very sad effort just last Saturday by The New York Post to palm off a series of e-mailed answers from infamous mega-flak Howard Rubinstein as an “exclusive interview” with George Steinbrenner. To paraphrase Churchill, the answers contained every cliche except “prepare to meet thy maker,” and “employees must wash hands.”
I have seen The Boss, with whom I have had a surprisingly warm and even conspiratorial relationship since I was a teenager, only twice this year, and the information gleaned from each encounter was directly self-contradictory. In March, David Cone and I were leaving the press box at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa when the place was frozen by security – it was George on his way out and they cleared the route for him. He was in a wheelchair and looked just this side of robust – twinkly-eyed and neither gaunt nor puffy. Cone whispered that he just had to say hello, and hoped he’d get a hello back.
This is what I heard:
Cone: (mumbled greeting)
Steinbrenner: Of course I know it’s you, David. Jesus! We could’ve used you pitching out there today. Who were those kids? Are any of them ready?
So much for Cone’s fear (and mine – to this day I think of George less for the chaos of the ’70s and ’80s and more for the letter he wrote to ESPN management praising my work on the 1992 Expansion Draft, in which I roundly criticized how his team handled the non-protection of its younger prospects, or the day he spent twenty minutes recounting to Bill Clinton, of all people, virtually every encounter he and I had had since 1973, right down to the story of my mother getting hit by the Knoblauch ball and refusing to ever go back to Shea Stadium even though the Yanks were playing World Series games there).
But just weeks later, during another lockdown, I saw Steinbrenner carted through the bowels of the new ballpark in the Bronx and lifted – not helped, but moved by a guy at each end – into a wheelchair.
Over the last few years, as his health has gotten intermittent, the volume of even rumors and whispers around the Bronx about how he is has declined. When the Yankees traded for Jeff Weaver, Steinbrenner poked his head in to the press conference and asked me “What do you think? How clear-headed does he sound? Is he going to be able to handle this?” – prescient questions, as it proved. A year later I was told that everybody knew there were “awareness problems” but that to my source’s knowledge, nobody in the Yankee organization had ever heard a diagnosis, a prognosis, or even a vaguely medical-sounding term. A year after that, when he recited our history to Clinton, his memory was so sharp as to include some stories that I had forgotten – but each time he tried to say my name, all he could come up with was “uhh… this young man.” After the 2007 season, there is no question that, to some degree great or small, he was behind the nightmarish, take-it-or-leave-it dethroning of Joe Torre as manager.
There are fewer such reports these days, and not even that level of source information. There’s a lot to be said against George Steinbrenner and lord knows I’ve said much of it. But something made me feel very sad today at that Yankee ceremony: contrary to what it said “right here on the program for the ceremony!,” The Boss was indeed not there to accept the keys to the city.
Two things popped into my Big Empty Head in route: anybody remember George Steinbrenners last great personnel gasp? His insistence that the Yankees trade Andy Pettitte because he just wasnt tough enough in the critical games? This, as I recall, was in. 1999 and the deal was supposed to send him to…the Phillies. The other thought: what became of the four teams that really did blow 3-1 leads in the Series? The 1985 Cards fell below .500 in 1986 but made it back to the Series in 87 and it was five years until manager Whitey Herzog left the job. The 68 Cards never recovered but skipper Red Schoendienst lasted until 1976. But the 1958 Braves would stagger into another crisis – a tie for what wouldve been a third straight pennant in 1959. But after a disturbing playoff loss to the Dodgers, manager Fred Haney was fired, Milwaukee never again seriously contended, and within seven years the franchise was moving to Atlanta. The 1925 Senators werent competitive again until 1933 and player-manager Bucky Harris was out by 28.
So the scenario has almost completely played out: Joe Girardi’s misuse of his bullpen, and the forces of nature, have combined to push Game Six of the ALCS to Sunday. It is a game that likely will determine whether or not Girardi is still Yankee manager on the 15th of next June.
The advent of the Mets’ annual visit to Dodger Stadium always reminds me of one of the greatest baseball stories nobody tells.
Don’t be fooled by that alarming statistic out of the new
Yankee Stadium, namely that the Indians and Yankees shattered the record for
the most homers hit in the first four games of a new big league park: 20,
compared to the 16 hit in the bandbox in Las Vegas back when the A’s had to
open up there.
Don’t be fooled. The problem is much worse.
That raw number excludes the two exhibition games the
Yankees played against the Cubs at the start of the month. That raw number
doesn’t address the bazooka-like quality at the new park, of any left-handed
hitter holding a bat. That raw number doesn’t address the variety of weather
conditions in which the homers have been hit.
Through circumstances unlikely to be repeated, I have thus far
attended all the events at the new facility, and thus I can not only
report on the 28 blasts that rocketed out of the place in the first six games,
I can testify to them. Let’s start by noting that 21 of them have exploded into
rightfield (and only a few have “just made it,” pretty much invalidating the
three- or four-foot shortening of the fence at some points, as compared to the
old Stadium). A 22nd was absolutely blasted by Jorge Posada to
dead-center (and it may be awhile before we see anybody do that again).
Two more were fluke jobs against the Cubs by Cody Ransom to
the corner in left. One actually struck the pole. Judging by body language
alone, Ransom’s freak bases-clearing double in the 8th Inning Sunday
against Cleveland certainly appeared to Ransom, and probably to leftfielder
Shin-Soo Choo, as a ball that was curving into the stands, foul, by twenty feet
or more. Choo only sauntered toward the corner. Ransom didn’t even follow the
ball and was staring at the broken bat handle in his hands. From my seat I get
a full view of the third base foul line, from the plate to the wall. I know
that I looked down, convinced the ball was foul, in the seats, and by a lot.
Only four traditional in-the-seats homers were hit to left in the first two exhibitions and four regular season games.
For all the air-gun blasts of Mark Teixeira, Ransom’s
hitting patterns may be the best clue so far as to what’s going on here. There
seems to be a jet stream, left to right, at all times. I speculated here
earlier that it is probably a fabrication of the open-to-the-air ring in the
Upper Deck combined with the open-to-the-air entrances at street level in the
corners, from which the playing field is visible. I think it was bad enough
Sunday that it blew Ransom’s ball, left to right, and fair. I think it’s been bad
enough this month to blow several balls already heading to right, far deeper
than physics should’ve allowed.
This does not discount another juiced ball theory (although
this theory must be incredibly flexible, to explain why juiced balls being hit
to LF aren’t pushing through the wind) and presumably the Posada homer Sunday
would’ve been a clear case of interference, or maybe just a ball caught at the
fence, if the new Stadium measurement was precisely the same as the old one).
It should also be noted, as it was noted here, that as early as the middle of
the Yankees’ first workout in the place on April 2, righty batters like Xavier
Nady were pointing to the seeming jet stream, and trying to go the opposite way
in batting practice. Thus it would seem that the wind currents are either the
only explanation, or, far and away, the most important one.
The question becomes, as Lou Piniella posited it after his
first experience with a wind that scared him as much as the gusts of Wrigley:
“Will it change when the weather does?” Obviously the vagaries of the climate
in April are not equivalent to the contrast between any April day and August.
But of the first six dates here, none have been identical. Review them with me
1. Cubs-Yankees, Friday April 3: Left-handed hitters Cano
and Matsui take left-hander Ted Lilly deep in consecutive innings. Ransom hits
the LF foul pole off Lilly in the 4th. It’s a night game, the air
heavy and dank, 56 degrees and falling, and it rains starting in the 3rd
2. Cubs-Yankees, Saturday April 4: It’s now a 1 PM start,
colder, drier, much windier. Alfonso Soriano hits the hardest ball yet to LF
off Andy Pettitte. Then Jeter goes the opposite way off Rich Harden in the 3rd,
and Teixeira touches him in consecutive innings for homers to RF that looked
like the Mets’ Party Patrol shooting t-shirts into the stands. Ransom hits the
fifth homer of the blustery afternoon into the LF corner off Chad Gaudin.
3. Indians-Yankees, Thursday April 16. It’s a beautiful,
sunny day with no excessive wind. 56 degrees – at least ten degrees warmer than
the second Cubs game – and it
feels warmer still. This time Posada (batting righty) takes Cliff Lee over the
wall in center. Damaso Marte gives up blasts to Sizemore (RF) and Martinez (LF).
4. Indians-Yankees, Friday April 17. Now it’s warmer still,
63 at game time. In a 6-5 game, six homers are hit, all into various distant
locales in right, including two by righthanded batters (DeRosa and Jeter).
5. Indians-Yankees, Saturday April 18. Again the temperature
jumps around ten degrees and it’s a preview of summer. We start later in the
afternoon (3:43 EDT) and there are no fewer than eight homers, six to dead
Right and another by DeRosa to Right/Right-Center. Counting the exhibitions, we
are already up to 25 homers in five games here.
6. Indians-Yankees, Sunday April 19. Now the weather
plummets. It’s 17 degrees cooler at game time and a breezy wind makes it feel
colder. And we still get three more homers, two to rightfield.
So basically at this point we have five different kinds of
weather conditions (six if you think Thursday and Friday are radically
different) and the only pattern, based on very skimpy evidence, is that we
might be seeing homers rise as temperatures do.
Steinbrenner Stadium Illustrated:
I earlier noted the one major architectural anomaly in the new
place and finally got a decent shot at it. All the other deck facings at each
tier are absolutely symmetrical except this one:
Yep. The official Steinbrenner Box – although he has not yet
been seen in the perch that guarantees occupants are actually about ten feet
“closer” than anybody else. This is to say nothing of the direct view provided
into the Yankee dugout, which can be used to stare daggers at Joe Girardi.
Baseball Photo Of The Week:
Courtesy my friend T.S. O’Connell at Sports Collectors Digest: Nothing less than a photo of the front display at a
Woolworth’s store, apparently in the New York metropolitan area, in the spring
of 1952. He has figured out what would today be the estimated value of what
seems to be 231 unopened, pristine boxes of 1952 Topps Baseball Cards. He has
apparently not even included the value of two partial uncut sheets hanging in
the window, one of which shows a Warren Spahn card, and the other both an Enos
Slaughter and a Duke Snider.
Gaps In My Education:
This is driving me more nuts than usual. I abhor things like
“The Great Yankee Subway Race” – not on any kind of “purity” level, but simply
because people sit there and think there is some legitimacy to the competition
when it’s only an animation. Stories abound of a foolish Yankee employee of the
past who actually thought the outcome was performance-based, or somehow
randomly-generated, and who actually wagered on the outcome, not knowing that
his opponent could simply call up his friend in Scoreboard Operations and say
“Make sure the B-Train wins tonight.” Also, the “B” is the local version of the
“D” train – how could it ever win? And at many times of day the “D” terminates
two stops before The Stadium. Maddening, I tells ya.
But what I want to know is: what is the name of the piece of
classical music which serves as the soundtrack for the “race.” I may have known
it once, but that brain cell is long since hors-de-combat. Anybody know?