SCOTTSDALE, ARIZONA – He has checked out and gone home so the statute of respect towards fellow hotel guests has expired, I guess.
I arrive at my hotel here the other night and the place is spread out enough that they recommend that you let them throw on to a golf cart for transport to your room, not just your bags – but you. And we go about 20 yards in the darkness when a big, broad guy with short hair sort of steps in front of the cart and the bellman/driver says “excuse me” and the fellow turns around and sort of stares for a moment before saying “Oh! I’m sorry. I kinda froze there for a moment,” and with a genuine laugh, hops out of the way. And he looks really familiar and while I’m staring at him I realize he’s staring at me and our light bulbs go off simultaneously and as I say “stop the cart for a second,” he smiles.
“This is where I’m staying while I’m unsigned,” he says with another patented Jim Lunchpail Thome laugh. I say back to him “this is where I’m staying while I’m unsigned,” and we trade career anecdotes and I ask about the Yankees and he says “I doubt it.” And we try to figure out if we first met in 1993 or 1994 and he says he’s working out but otherwise he’s pretty much by the pool each day and I should try to find him when I get back from the ballpark each afternoon. And I joke about how I nearly made his latest free agency academic by running him over with a golf cart and we say good night.
And Thome, who is easily the most universally respected player in the game, is still unsigned despite Twins rumors and Yankees rumors and the reality that somebody should sign him with an idea of convincing him to manage them in a year’s time because the other players think he’s pretty much the epitome of professionalism and knowledge. I think he knows he can’t play in the field any more but that would still let him fit in at Yankee Stadium because lord knows almost none of them can field any more either.
Thome was how my Cactus League jaunt began but the amount of additional quality human beings whom I’ve known forever that I’ve again been able to spend time with exceeds all my previous spring training trips. In the Angels’ camp it was Mike Scioscia (28 years) and executive Tim Mead (28 more), and from their opponents the Reds, writer Hal McCoy (about 10). At the Mariners’ facility it was consultant – and should-be Hall of Famer Ted Simmons (33 years), and manager Eric Wedge (20 years) and our traditional greeting of “Happy Birthday” (we share one; he’s much younger), and the announcers Dave Sims (32 years; we both worked for Charley Steiner in the 1981-82 timeframe) and Rick Rizzs (12). Rick was nice enough to ask me to come on his broadcast for an inning. Then I found out it was after Bob Uecker of the Brewers (36 years) was going to come on for an inning and as I said to Rick on the air: “I thought you liked me.”
At Wednesday night’s Team USA exhibition I got to visit with manager Joe Torre (32 years) and first base coach – and another guy who is a no-brainer Cooperstown pick – Dale Murphy (30). And today in Glendale it was the Texas staff: manager Ron Washington (10), coach Dave Magadan (11) and coach Dave Anderson (30 years ago this month I interviewed him at Vero Beach when we thought he might be the next Dodger rookie-of-the-year – “boy were you wrong,” he said, again). Upstairs I had a great chat with Rick Monday, who I’ve known for 33 years as everything from a player to a World Series star to a rival sportscaster when he was on Channel 11 every night in LA at exactly the same time I was on Channel 5.
To top it off, of course, was my annual visit with Vin Scully. I readily admit that it took me nearly three years to screw up the courage to introduce myself to him – and I was on local tv in LA during all that time – and when I finally did he said he was relieved, because he thought I’d done something to offend him. I’m sure Vin is not the saint we all portray him as, but that’s really just a hunch because nothing I’ve ever seen him do suggests otherwise. The self-deprecation never ends; even today his first words after hello were “thank you.” I said you’re welcome and then asked him what I’d done. He said “thank you for writing that excellent and kind blog about the Piazza interview.”
Ohhh, yeah. That was nearly a month ago and that was what he wanted to talk about. We batted back and forth the singular personality that is Mike Piazza, but mostly he was talking about friendship and support, and I mentioned that this was the kind of loyalty his kindness and patience engendered, and that I knew I spoke for many when I said I felt like it was our job to fire the arrows when he was attacked – especially when it was as unjustified and as inexplicable as it was in poor Piazza’s self-destructive book. And then there were the usual friendship questions that I invariably suddenly realize are being asked and answered by the Babe Ruth or William Shakespeare of his field and I remember why it took me three years to stop shaking long enough to say hello back in 1988.
So I know Vin for 25 years now – and remember that this represents only about 40 percent of the time he’s been bringing you Dahhh-ger base-ball. And if you wonder how much of a self-starter you can be as you begin your 64th year at one job, Vin and I visited for maybe ten or fifteen minutes and then he had to pre-record something for his broadcast and when I looked back in his booth after that he had begun his daily ritual of scribbling and reviewing notes for the game ahead. The exhibition game. The exhibition game on a drowsy Thursday afternoon. The exhibition game three weeks before the season begins. And he would continue to do so for at least an hour.
Talk about a role model.
Later in the week here I’m going to formalize what shallow insights I’ve been able to glean from the games I’ve seen (hint: Billy Hamilton) but for now I’m thinking of everybody that Spring Training provides me the opportunity to see again, from Thome to Scully.
That’s fifteen men who I’ve known for a total of 390 years. And every moment of that time, with every one of them, has been a privilege.
It’s been a pretty good trip, huh?
Update Friday 5:45 EDT: Mariano Rivera answers one question, tweeting:
Thank you fans, friends and family for your prayers, well wishes and support. I will be ok. I will be back.
He also told reporters in Kansas City “I’m not going out like this.” The under-covered part of this story is not the torn ACL but the addition of the meniscus damage, which Rivera originally knew about, but the Yankees did not. Interestingly-timed piece in the New York Daily News.
At the risk of further turning major league baseball pitchers into the equivalents of the pampered and petrified thoroughbred race horses – don’t the Yankees have somebody to shag fly balls forMariano Rivera?
In considering the implications of his likely torn Anterior Cruciate Ligament in his right knee, it is important to remember that since his days in the low minors, Rivera has included in his pre-game routine fairly vigorous pursuit of batting practice shots. But something then-manager Joe Torre said in 2006 is just as important. Somebody was looking at the Yankees’ lack of outfield depth and wondered if Derek Jeter might be an option in center, and Torre noted that while Jeter would survive there, the man on the team who was easily his best defensive center fielder was Rivera.
Torre’s observation was spoken seriously – Rivera has a great ability to read a fly ball, and is a terrific athlete – but it was not supposed to be taken seriously. But the New York newspapers did, and I actually called Torre to ask him about their extrapolations that this was a hint that Rivera was now somehow the greatest closer of all time and an emergency outfielder.
“Yes, he’s a great outfielder,” Torre said, “He’s always bugging me to let him play there in a game. But does anybody really think I’d be crazy enough to let him play in a game? What if he got hurt?”
Tonight we know the answer. After his pre-game injury sustained trying to chase down a fly off the bat of brand-new Yankee Jayson Nix, Rivera underwent an MRI, and after the Yankees’ 4-3 loss in Kansas City, manager Joe Girardi told reporters that the Royals’ team doctor said he thought the imaging indicated a torn ACL. Any tearing injury to that knee ligament would be severe enough to end Rivera’s season and, at his age, perhaps to his career. “If that’s the report,” Girardi told reporters in a media gaggle carried on the Yankee-owned YES network, “that’s about as bad as it gets.”
Did Rivera’s luck just run out? Did the luck of all pitchers just run out? Will they no longer be allowed to do anything unnecessary on the field? Girardi, whom the New York Times noted got the same ‘put me in coach’ pleading from Rivera as Torre had, thought not: “You can fall off a curb and get hurt. You have to allow him to be an athlete and be a baseball player and have fun out there. I’ve never seen Mo do anything recklessly, I’ve never seen Mo dive or try to rob a home run. It’s one of the way he exercises.”
But the disturbing, harrowing video of Rivera’s injury suggests he was in fact doing something that could be considered reckless, or at least slightly so. Just before his knee buckled, Rivera can be seen stretching his glove arm back over his body in a way he would not ordinarily do during a game, while simultaneously leaping. Can you trust pitchers not to jump, not to feel they have to catch that fly ball that’s just out of their grasp? Can you trust 42-year old future Hall of Famers not to?
Rivera told reporters in Kansas City that if he had to be injured, at least it happened while he was doing something he enjoyed. “Shagging, I love to do. If I had to do it all over again, I would do it again. No hesitation.” He confirmed that “it’s torn” and added a detail Girardi did not mention “meniscus also.” It’s unclear the extent of any injury to the meniscus. Rivera said he had no idea if he would pitch again.
But there is a responsibility to balance a player’s rituals and athleticism – and fun – and the inevitability of the clock running out. Decades ago, the Yankees moved Mickey Mantle from center to first base in hopes of preserving his knees and his career a season or two more. Even now Joe Mauer’s future – catcher, first baseman, or outfielder – is debated.
And with time, we reassess what a player should and should not be allowed to do. Jim Lonborg helped to pitch the “Impossible Dream” Boston Red Sox into the World Series, and won the 1967 Cy Young Award. That winter he tore up a leg while skiing, and soon player contracts began to be peppered with clauses prohibiting them from participating in dangerous sports. 26 years later, Texas Rangers’ manager Kevin Kennedy acceded to Jose Canseco’s wishes and let him throw 33 pitches in a blowout game against the Red Sox at Fenway. By the end of another incidence of letting a player do what he wanted, the blowout was in Canseco’s elbow and he would require Tommy John surgery. And just this past winter, the New York Mets made it clear that pitcher R.A. Dickey could go ahead with his plan to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, but if he were injured, they would exercise their right to void his contract.
Girardi is right: Shagging flies has always been integral to Rivera’s pre-game routine, his exercise regimen, and his simple enjoyment of baseball. But that doesn’t mean it was the right thing to do, nor the smart thing – just that nobody this good had previously sustained a potentially career-threatening injury. And Joe Torre’s rhetorical question about what would happen if Rivera were injured playing center underscores another essential element. If it had happened that way, it would at least have happened in a game, presumably for some vital or unavoidable reason, and not because a future Hall of Famer just had to throw himself off balance because his competitiveness demanded that he go all out to catch a batting practice fly ball.
With Rivera’s career potentially over, will teams try to curb their pitchers’ non-essential on-field activities? The answer may lie in another question: When Kendrys Morales of the Angels sustained a devastating fractured ankle during a team celebration after his walk off grand slam two years ago this month, didn’t we all assume we had seen the end of the ‘group jump’?
Presumably the realization is just beginning to sink in now in Boston – and with the rumors that he’ll be the next one out the door, it must be sinking in at levels higher than Theo Epstein – that the Red Sox are now faced with a task far more daunting, and far more likely to result in disaster, than even playing their games in September turned out to be: Finding somebody to manage the team in 2012 who can merely do as well as Terry Francona did last month.
The Yankees-Tigers meeting in soggy New York over the weekend was filled with baseball people trying just to come up with somebody – anybody – who could handle the pressures of ownership, an intense fan base now driven crazier by eight years of entitlement feelings their ancestors hadn’t known since 1918, and the media. Throw in the startling recent comments by some Boston players and you can add in to the mix the fact that Tito apparently kept the lid on a team full of Prima Donnas and protected them against reality at every turn. Remember, in New York, if you are raised on the Yankees and you feel they have done you wrong, you can switch to the Mets (or more likely, vice versa). I know from my time living in Boston that there are people who proclaim themselves Red Sox fans who maintain a seething hatred – often kept below the surface – towards the franchise. I know of one who believes the team shortened the lives of many of his male relatives. There are Red Sox fans who gain as much satisfaction from when there is turmoil as when there are titles. These folks can get bent out of shape very, very easily, and a surprisingly large number of them wind up with the area’s newspapers and radio stations.
After three days at Yankee Stadium, I didn’t hear one managerial suggestion that wasn’t fatally flawed. Worse yet, I didn’t hear one baseball person nominate somebody without saying that the nomination was fatally flawed. Some of the names have shown up at the bottom of a column by my old friend Gordon Edes. He writes mostly about Epstein’s future, but the last part focuses on five guys supposedly already kicked around inside the cramped offices of Yawkey Way:
Among the names that have surfaced in internal discussions are Indians coach Sandy Alomar Jr., Rays coach Dave Martinez, Phillies bench coach Pete Mackanin, minor league manager Ryne Sandberg and Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, who has a mutual option to return to St. Louis.
There is also an assumption that DeMarlo Hale, the long-suffering bench coach for the Sox and the minor league manager of the year – in 1999 – will get an interview. The name “Joe Torre” has been thrown around, and despite the fact that he found his office job as dull as it sounded, I’m thinking this is highly unlikely. The name “Bobby Valentine” has been leaked, too – presumably by Bobby Valentine.
But let’s go with the bold print name there first. Tony LaRussa? Seriously? This man went ballistic at least twice this year facing the scrutiny of the St. Louis media. The St. Louis media is three writers and a guy from KMOX Radio. It’s hard to say for whom this would be a bigger disaster: the Red Sox, or LaRussa. As was agreed at Yankee Stadium when this name was floated (almost literally) there over the weekend: by June 1, a “Manager Tony LaRussa of the Boston Red Sox” would have fallen asleep at a traffic light in at least six different New England towns.
The next name would be Sandberg’s. Now let’s review what I wrote here last year at this time when Cubs fans were understandably clamoring for their old hero to assume the reins at Wrigley. The Cubs loved Ryno’s work ethic, his willingness to go back to Peoria and fight his way up the chain, but they saw nothing in his managerial skill set that even made him a rival to Mike Quade. When you are beloved in a town – irrationally, gigantically, statue-sized beloved – and you’re not a good enough candidate to edge out Mike Quade, you’re probably not a good big league skipper in the making. The Red Sox interviewed him a year ago for their AAA job at Pawtucket but before they made up their minds, he took the equivalent post with the Phillies. They seem to have a higher opinion of Sandberg, given his high-profile roles with the big club in Spring Training and again in September, but they’re not looking to retire Charlie Manuel any time soon, either. It could easily be that the Cub snub woke Sandberg up – and if that’s the case, the Sox would presumably be challenged for his services by several teams, and maybe even the Cubs again, now that new ownership is in full control.
Speaking of which, David Martinez and Sandy Alomar, Jr. are the front-runners for the White Sox job. Martinez, the Rays’ bench coach, was GM Kenny Williams’ teammate in Montreal 20 years ago and seems a cinch for the Chicago job unless something goes wrong. If it does, Alomar is a fine baseball man and as a player was a great calming influence on the high-strung Indians of the ’90s, and was just named bench coach for Cleveland. But each has a serious drawback: not only have they never managed in the majors, they’ve never even managed in the minors. How quickly would this start the Red Sox fans’ verbal riots in the event of a 4-10 start? What credibility would they carry among Prima Donna players? If Martinez has a particularly inspirational effect on the terrified Carl Crawford, that might be reason enough to overlook the inexperience, but I’m thinking the Red Sox are still stinging from the well-intentioned but disastrous decision to promote Joe Kerrigan to manager without any previous experience at any level.
So then there’s Mackanin. This is a solid baseball man who had two all-too brief stints as interim manager at Cincinnati and Pittsburgh and never got the serious shot he deserved at either fulltime job. Mackanin knows his stuff, managed forever in the minors, and just turned 60 years old – which is a problem for the Boston position. Francona aged a century at the helm in Fenway, and he had already had an idea about the kind of media pressures he might face, from his unhappy years in Philadelphia.
So there are the problems. Terry Francona’s successor has to be a young, respected man, with a major league track record, an ability to hurdle the media, the fans, and the Prima Donnas. He has to have enough personality to get the benefit of the doubt from the fans, media, and players going in – but not so much that any of them feels he is overshadowing them. And he has to be an improvement on Francona.
Now who would that be? I kinda see a Bob Melvin type in here, but as the Mariners and Diamondbacks each discovered to their chagrin, there aren’t as many of him as they thought, either. The A’s smartly locked him in long-term after he very quietly did a superior job stopping the Oakland ship from sinking to the bottom of the sea this summer.
Wait – I got it. Give him a month to recuperate and then see if this Francona guy will take the job.
Update: As tweeter Mike Mendez reminded my rain-addled brain: On Halloween night, 2005, Epstein resigned from the Red Sox and sneaked out of Fenway Park in a holiday Gorilla costume. Less than three months later, on January 19th, Epstein’s successor was named – and he got the added title of Vice President. Epstein’s successor was…Theo Epstein.
For four years, MLB has exploited all the in-season holidays – Memorial Day, July 4th, Labor Day – plus on many occasions 9/11, by having all players wear special caps. Today, caps with an American flag patch stitched on the back, to the left of the inviolable MLB logo, were worn by all clubs and all players.
So, in New York, where in 2001 first the Mets and then the Yankees honored the fallen members of – and the heroic and selfless acts of – the New York Police Department, the New York Fire Department, New York EMS, Port Authority Police, New York Sanitation, and several others by wearing their caps during the games of the weeks after the attacks, Major League Baseball denied the Mets the opportunity to wear those caps again, just for tonight’s anniversary game, the only one being played within a thirty minute ride to the World Trade Center.
According to team Player Representative Josh Thole, the Mets players debated violating the dictum and wearing them anyway. Thole told reporters shortly thereafter that the league was adamant and it was a “no-go.” It is meaningful to realize that only three current Mets were even in the majors a decade ago: Miguel Batista, Willie Harris, and Jason Isringhausen. Evidently the Commissioner’s representative reminded them that the punishment – a heavy fine – would be meted out on ownership, not them (and for all we know, a major fine might cause this team to go out of business before noon tomorrow). For his part, David Wright wore a Police cap on the bench, but even he resisted the temptation to wear it on the field and incur the wrath of the Bean Counters in the Commissioner’s Office.
Those bloodless MLB individuals have been down this path before. Ten years ago, Bud Selig’s initially ruled the Mets and Yankees could not wear the caps during games. The Mets ignored the threat, and MLB decided to give them a pass for a game or two, and then the Mets kept wearing them, and MLB wisely backed off their nonsensical decision. Tonight’s ruling reminded everybody that at the moment of the nation’s greatest grief, MLB’s money-making instinct was unhindered by the blood and destruction and fear.
At least in 2001 the sport was smart enough to shut up. Not this year. MLB first blocked the Washington Nationals from wearing military caps in tribute after a disaster in Afghanistan last month. Then came this decision, complete with in the kind of stupidity that would make a megalomaniac proud: they blamed it on MLB Vice President Joe Torre, the native New Yorker who wore these caps at the end of the 2001 season. So if it hadn’t been shameful already, pinning it on Torre made it doubly shameful.
As an aside, I should note that I actually got a tweet from an idiot who wondered why I thought wearing the NYPD/NYFD/PAPD/EMS caps was somehow “patriotic.” It never crossed my mind. It has nothing to do with patriotism. 343 firefighters and paramedics died that day. 23 New York policemen did. And 47 from the Port Authority Police. This is about remembering them – and acknowledging what all those who survived did for this city and the wounds they still have. For me, as the grandson of a New York fireman, and the descendant of several others, and many NYPD and regional PD, this is something deeper than patriotism.
CitiField is, of course, ringed with commemorations and in particular the “We Shall Not Forget” logo placed in the ad right behind the batter’s box. And it has all been rendered utterly hollow because of the crassness of the decision about the NYPD/FD/EMS caps. If you still haven’t figured out why MLB is permitting this public relations disaster to happen; why Commissioner Bud Selig didn’t get on the phone and tell the Mets they could wear those caps right away and damn the consequences, the answer is to be found here.
In case you don’t want to follow the link, here’s your answer: this is available as of tonight directly from MLB for just $36.99.
I guess we should be happy it has an American flag, and that MLB just didn’t sell the space to the highest bidder.
So Adrian Beltre is going to cost the Texas Rangers $16 million a year for six years, and Derek Jeter is going to cost the New York Yankees $17 million a year for three years (maybe more).
The most surprising part of my interview with Joe Torre tonight was his revelation – which he had first mentioned at his late afternoon news conference at Dodger Stadium – that he spoke to George Steinbrenner on July 4th to wish him a happy birthday. They had, evidently, a fairly long conversation, and that fact underscores a quality about Steinbrenner’s penultimate illness which lent it the makings of something akin to a Greek Tragedy.
I dont generally do this, but if you want to pop over from the All-Star Game, Ill be joined by Joe Torre and Ken Burns to recall and reflect upon the life and death of George Steinbrenner – the two segments will begin about 40 minutes past the hour on Countdown.
I mean this with no disrespect and with no touch of humor: Only George Steinbrenner could pass away on the morning of – and thus overshadow – baseball’s All-Star Game.