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Three years later, George’s death looms large over the Yankees

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin’
A
nd the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’.

The last verse of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” can perfectly be applied to the current state of baseball’s most championed franchise, the New York Yankees.

Yes, the team has continued to make the playoffs and be perennial contenders, but things haven’t been the same and the times surely began to change when the “dynasty” era of Yankees baseball came to a crashing end on July 13th, 2010.

New Yorik Yankees' owner George Steinbrenner speaks at a new

This of course was when George Steinbrenner passed away due to a massive heart attack at the age of 80. His death came just two days after long-time public address announcer Bob Sheppard, known as “The Voice of God”, passed on as well at the ripe old age of 99. Two seemingly immortal figures of the organization were gone in a flash.

Admittedly, both legendary men had disappeared from the public years prior. Due to deteriorating health, Sheppard could no longer muster the strength needed to do his job, as he announced his last game in person on September 5th, 2007. He would later officially retire in November of 2009.

The Boss, on the other hand, made the decision himself to step down as the day-to-day operator of the team. On November 20th, 2008, his sons Hal and Hank Steinbrenner officially became the co-owners of the Yankees, with Hal becoming the managing general partner as well.

George had faith in them, so everyone else did too. And Hal gave no reason to think otherwise when he went out and signed CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Teixiera all to huge free agent contracts during his first winter as the owner of his dad’s most prized possession. Spending in excess of $400 million, the phrase “like father, like son” held true when he put the Yankees in a position win the World Series in 2009.

Which they did on November 4th, 2009, with George Steinbrenner watching from his home in Tampa, Florida. The Yankees defeated the Philadelphia Phillies in six games to capture, what seemed like, an elusive 27th championship since losing the 2001 Fall Classic to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

100_0806Sitting high up in the grandstands that night, I can recall, “Boss, this is for you!” displayed across the Yankee Stadium jumbo-tron. And it was true – the Yanks had won this for George. They sensed his morality and Hal wanted to ensure that if his dad’s life was coming to an end, one of his last memories could be watching his Yankees win the World Series, as George once said that breathing is the only thing better than winning.

So, when The Boss did pass on eight months later, the Bombers were the defending champions and in first place, which was probably the only way he could envision leaving the earth.

And it was that day, as I said, when times really started to change. The Yankees lost control of the AL East and settled for the Wild Card in 2010, losing in the ALCS to the Texas Rangers. Of course, the Yankees had far worse seasons under The Boss’ reign, but you really felt his absence, especially in the following offseason. The Yanks attempted to sign lefty ace Cliff Lee to a contract similar to the one Sabathia received, yet they couldn’t quite close the deal as Lee went back to the Phillies.

Once Cliff spurned the Yankees, the team didn’t know what to do, and most probably were looking back on some foolish moves made once The Boss stepped down as the team’s owner. On December 9th, 2009, the Yankees traded two of their most highly touted prospects, Austin Jackson and Ian Kennedy, in a three-team deal to get Tigers center fielder Curtis Granderson. New York had decided to sacrifice its future for immediate success, something that George had been turned away from doing for years.

Now, there is no denying that The Boss had looked into, and nearly pulled the trigger on, trading the Core Four and other players such as Bernie Williams and Robinson Cano early in each of their respective careers. But when George felt the need to upgrade the team for a particular season, there were guys like Buck Showalter and Gene “Stick” Michael to convince him to hold onto the future stars.

Buck was, of course, fired by George after 1995, and Stick left his position as vice president of the team in 2002. It can be argued that with their departures, went the genius scouting of the Yanks that they had lacked for decades, and once again are in need of. As mentioned, with the Granderson trade, the Yankees mindlessly dealt top prospects for what will turn out to be a three-year rental of a potent, yet strike-out prone outfield bat. Meanwhile, Jackson has become one of the best lead-off men in the game with the Tigers, and Kennedy was an N.L. Cy Young candidate in 2011 with Arizona.

That trade, along with the one for Javier Vazquez weeks later, are moves that wouldn’t have happened if The Boss and his “cabinet”, if you will, were still here. They had the guts to stand up to George and tell him he was wrong, and he had the trust in his advisors to realize that and pull back or prevent any franchise-altering moves to go down. In the three years since he died, there’s already been a slew of those types of trades, and not for the better. Don’t even remind me of the Montero-Pineda deal, which, while we can’t judge quite yet, certainly hasn’t benefited the Yankees at all.

At the same time, while trading away and failing to develop solid prospects, the Yankees haven’t dipped back into the free agent market for any impactful players either. This has left them to piecemeal together their roster over the past few years, signing players off the scrap-heap and simply getting lucky that they actually perform well. The Yanks ran out of such luck towards the end of 2011, resulting in a disappointing ALDS loss, and in 2012 Derek Jeter broke his ankle and the team was subsequently swept out of the ALCS.

While consistently making it into October is universally considered a successful streak of seasons, every year since George Steinbrenner died, it just feels like the franchise is pushing itself farther and farther away from a championship. Although 2013 can perhaps be considered a fluke season considering all the injuries, the Yankees are in a dire situation for the future. Their top prospects are either just drafted or still in the lower levels of the minor league system, and their lone star is Robinson Cano, who is an impending free agent. Their headlining talent of the past such as Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and CC Sabathia, are all either injured, aging, and past their primes, or perhaps a combination of all three. Relying on them to be key contributors at this point is downright foolish, and won’t garner the results the team may hope for as far as October appearances are concerned.

A reluctancy to spend, coupled with an ignorance to focus on developing the farm system, the Yankees have little to offer their fans that would make them, first of all, return to Yankee Stadium and turn their TVs back on to the YES Network. And second, sense a 28th world championship soon to be won.

You may blame it on the scouting. You may blame it on the front office. Heck, you may blame it on the baseball gods giving the Yankees hell for the first time in decades. But the fact remains that since The Boss passed away three years ago today, things haven’t, and probably never will be the same.

How The Yankees Helped Heal New York City

What has now become tradition for the eleven years since that tragic day, thousands gathered at Ground Zero yesterday to remember the victims of September 11th, 2001. The names of all 2,977 people who died that day were read aloud by family members and friends of the victims.

Being just a toddler, I can not say I remember 9/11 or fully understand what it meant to watch the events unfold live, either being in the city or watching from a t.v.  Luckily, not one of my family members or friends were lost, but being a police officer, my father did go down to the site of the Twin Towers just hours after the colossal buildings fell. He stayed there for a couple of days, keeping civilians away from the hazardous area and helping with the rescue efforts.

My uncles and aunts as well, who still work 9 to 5 jobs in the city, recall watching the towers fall from their office buildings, and the nightmarish time they all had in trying to get home safe and sound. From many holiday dinners we are all blessed to still have together, I’ve heard each and every one of their takes on that unbelievable day.

Through my family’s memories, documentaries, and books, I’ve come to understand 9/11 and respect the event as much as a person my age can. And of all the specials and news reports shown on TV each time the anniversary comes around, the most fascinating and inspiring one to me is “Nine Innings from Ground Zero”, an HBO documentary from 2004.

If the title does not give it away, the film is about baseball following 9/11, and how the Yankees managed to help jumpstart the healing process of New Yorkers and Americans everywhere by their improbable and magical playoff run to the 2001 World Series.

As my family recalls and the film details, the city was in a state of confusion and grief. They had no idea what to do. Should they continue on with their lives, as if nothing had happened, or should they keep mourning and grieving the tragedy that to this day has effected every aspect of American life?

No one was sure. Not even Major League Baseball, as all major sporting events ceased immediately after September 11th. Not one game in any sport was played. The now demolished Shea Stadium and Yankee Stadium operated as recovery stations, as hundreds of care packages containing food, clothing, and water were delivered to the streets that just days prior were filled with hopeful fans and buzzed with excitement.

Finally, the city realized the only way to try and move past the horror and pain of the attacks was to go back to doing what they know best – going to baseball games. The September 21st Mets game against the Braves proved to be a rejuvenating moment in the city’s recovery period, as Mike Piazza’s home run, Liza Minnelli’s rendition of “New York, New York”, and more importantly a win, got New Yorkers understanding baseball was a safe haven, just like it had always been to escape the burdens of everyday life.

Then the Yankees came back. And baseball history took place.

The three-time defending world champion Yankees steam-rolled into the playoffs with another AL East crown. The aging dynasty seemed destined for at least one more glorious run. As third baseman Scott Brosius was quoted saying, “…if there was ever a fair time for the Yankees to win the World Series, this was the year.”

But the Oakland A’s tried to stop that from happening. And it seemed like they would, as they took a 2-0 series lead in the 2001 ALDS. But thanks in large part to Derek Jeter’s “Flip Play”, timely hitting and clutch pitching, the Yanks won the next three straight and the series, to become the first team ever to come back and win an ALDS after being down 2-0.

The series win gave the Yankees and their fans a ton of confidence. Forget about the upcoming series – New York’s biggest concern about the Yankees was if they had enough ticker-tape to cover another grand world championship parade.
If the ALDS wasn’t enough to convince people, try the ALCS. The Yankees took down the 118-win Seattle Mariners in just 5 games, and just like that the Yankees were back in the World Series. The city could not have been more confident heading into a Fall Classic facing an expansion team in the Arizona Diamondbacks, filled with a lot of inexperienced and majorly unsuccessful veterans.

The greatest thing about this Yankee playoff run was how it really did take people’s minds off of the ongoing devastation and threat of further attacks in the city. For give or take three hours each day, people could engulf themselves in a childhood game, and watch not just any team play well, but New York’s team, the Yankees, surge to the championship.

Now back to the Fall Classic. Once again, the confidence and strength of the Yankees was zapped out of them, as they quickly lost the first two games to put themselves in a big hole to climb out of.  Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, the eventual co-MVPs of the series, were unstoppable, and it looked like the Yankees’ hopes of delivering a championship to their ailing city were all but lost.

But the series now shifted to the Bronx, at Yankee Stadium. And the Yankees were not going to let the Diamondbacks celebrate on their home field. Not that year, not after everything New York had gone through. So, as they’ve done countless of times before, the Yankees made postseason magic at the House That Ruth Built.

With a tattered American flag found in the rubble of the World Trade Center waving atop Yankee Stadium’s scoreboard, President George W. Bush walked to the mound to throw out the first pitch of Game 3. He fired a perfect strike from the rubber, and gave a thumbs up to a full house at Yankee Stadium. Political allegiances aside, the stadium was united as Americans. Perhaps Bush’s appearance and show of support to the city may have been just what the doctor ordered for the Yankees and their fans.
Roger Clemens pitched a gem that night, and thanks to a game-winning RBI single by Scott Brosius in the 6th, the Yankees took Game 3 2-1, to infuse new life and confidence in the team.

The following night, which just so happened to be Halloween, would go down as one of the most legendary World Series games of all time. With righty Byung-Hyun Kim in for the save for Arizona in the bottom of the 9th, it did look bleak for the Yankees. A win in Game 4 would give the D-Backs a 3-1 series lead, with three more chances to win one more game.

Luckily, a fan favorite, in what would be one of his final games in pinstripes for a while, Tino Martinez stepped to the plate with a runner on and ended any thoughts of losing. He smacked a two-run home run into right-center that lifted the crowd to its feet, and the Yankees to a 3-3 tie with the four-year old Diamondbacks team.

As the game went into extras and the Yankees got their turn at-bat in the 10th, the clock struck midnight, marking November 1st and the first World Series game to ever be played in the 11th month of the year. The young Derek Jeter was at the plate, with Kim in fact still in the game, and  with the scoreboard saying “Welcome to November Baseball”, on a 3-2 pitch the soon-to-be Captain hit a game-winning walk off home run to right field, clinching a Yankees’ 4-3 Game 4 victory.

Just like that, the World Series was all tied up, and New Yorkers couldn’t help but think it was destiny. The Yankees had to do it for the city. There was no way they could lose. Right?

Well, Game 5 sure convinced the doubters.

Once again down by 2 runs in the bottom of the 9th, with Byung-Hyun Kim in to try and redeem himself, the Yankees tried to get a rally started. Jorge Posada doubled to start the inning, but then two quick outs were made to put Arizona one more away from a series-controlling Game 5 win.

Standing in the way of that happening was Scott Brosius. After taking the first pitch for a ball, Brosius swung with all his might on the next one and deposited a game-tying, two run home run over the left field wall. People were in disbelief, shock, and awe, this time for a good and happy reason. The Yankees did it again. Back to-back game tying home runs in the bottom of the 9th in consecutive games? Get out of here. I would think you’re lying if there wasn’t film to prove it.

And after all of that, the game still wasn’t over. Yes it was tied, but that was all. The Yankees still needed to score another run to win it and head to Arizona with the series lead. And three innings later in the 12th, rookie second baseman Alfonso Soriano drove Chuck Knoblauch home with a walk-off single, ironically the game-winning hit being less remembered than the game-tying one.  Either way, New York had now won all three games at Yankee Stadium to take a 3-2 series lead. They were one win away from winning their 27th World Championship, their fourth straight and fifth in the last six years. Talk about a dynasty.

Unfortunately back in Arizona, the Yankees laid an egg in Game 6 and got hammered 15-2. Maybe expected because of all the dramatics, the World Series was now heading to a 7th game.

With New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and many family members of those who died on 9/11 in attendance, the Yankees had to come back strong and win Game 7, not just for the team, but for the city that had gone through so much in the past couple months.
Shown in the documentary was a Game 7 viewing party which was set up in Rockefeller Center, as many of the Yankee faithful braced the fall cold to see their favorite team win the most important championship, potentially, in the history of New York City. Yankee flags adorned the poles surrounding Rockefeller Center, and whether you were in New York or Arizona, even after the Game 6 loss, you still felt Game 7 was for the Yankees to take.

39-year old Roger Clemens got the ball for the Yankees, while Curt Schilling was incredibly making his third start of the series for the Diamondbacks. This time, the Yankees brought their A game, at least on the pitching side, and entered the 8th inning in a 1-1 tie.

In later interviews, manager Joe Torre admitted to originally being reluctant to bring in Mariano Rivera to start the bottom of the 8th, as he would only bring him in if the Yankees had a lead. And at the time, it didn’t seem they’d get one for a while, as Curt Schilling was still in the game and pitching great. But all of that would change with one swing of the bat, by Alfonso Soriano.

On an 0-2 pitch, Soriano smacked a solo home run over the fence in left field. Everyone knew that he had just won the World Series for the Yankees, and that Schilling, though giving it his all, had lost it for Arizona. Having converted the last 23 straight save opportunities, Mariano Rivera’s entrance into the game seemed to be the final nail in the coffin for Arizona’s championship hopes.

New York couldn’t have been more sure that the World Series was theirs. How could anyone deny it? The Iron Man of all closers was coming into the game, and everything that had happened with 9/11, the anthrax cases, and the despair and depression of the most proud city in the world, only this championship, only the Yankees, could lift an entire nation’s hearts in winning another World Series.

After a brisk 1-2-3 bottom of the 8th inning for Rivera and the Yankees, the champagne was being put on ice. Modell’s stores in New York were prepping for overnight shifts. And kids were being allowed to stay up late on this Thursday night, as everyone was set to do what they had been doing for the past three straight years – celebrating another championship. But this one, you simply couldn’t miss, and couldn’t deny the importance of it.

Sure, Randy Johnson’s relief appearance for the Diamondbacks – getting all four batters he faced out – was impressive, but it didn’t matter, since New York still had the lead. He could do nothing to change the outcome of the game. It was up to the Diamondbacks’ hitters, going up against the goliath of all pitchers in baseball at the time.

Veteran Mark Grace led off the bottom of the 9th with a single to center. Yes, a runner was on base, but not every save is a 1-2-3 inning, especially in the postseason. So still, people felt confident.

But it would be the last bit of confidence Yankees fans would feel in the series. A bunt attempt by Damian Miller, fielded by Rivera, was thrown out of the reach of Derek Jeter and went into center field. The slick-fielding Mariano never missed his throws to second, and was trying to do what any pitcher would – get the lead runner out. But sure enough, the pinch-runner David Dellucci was at second, Miller was at first, and things quickly spun out of control for the Yankees, to the point of no return.

Mo rebounded and did in fact get Dellucci out at third, after fielding another bunt attempt this time by Jay Bell. Yet, instead of throwing to first base for the easy double play, third baseman Scott Brosius, who had been so clutch and so great for the Yankees in his four seasons with the team, held the ball and allowed Bell to reach base. So still, there were runners on first and second with only one out. And up came the future Yankee Tony Womack.

He smacked a double down the right field line on a 2-2 pitch, to tie the game up at 2. The save was now blown, and the lead was gone, and the hopes and dreams of the Yankees, their fans, and really the entire city, were gone in a blink of an eye. The worst part – the Yankees still had one out, and were not out of the inning. It would take a miracle to prevent another run from scoring.

Rivera then hit Craig Counsell to load the bases. If I had been watching this game live at my current age, I’m sure I would have been covering my eyes, trying to hide my tears and not see what was clearly going to happen.

As we all know, Diamondbacks’ slugger Luis Gonzalez lofted a walk-off single over the reach of a leaping Derek Jeter, to score the World Series-winning run. The Yankee dynasty had ended. The exciting and happy ride to this point in the playoffs was over. And the sinking, depressing feeling New Yorkers had felt weeks prior on September 11th, had returned.

The Yankees lost. They didn’t win it for the city. The weeks and months following were also painful, as people had to move on and accept life now without being able to escape from it nightly with exciting playoff baseball. The Yankees also lost Tino Martinez, Scott Brosius, Paul O’Neill, and Chuck Knoblauch that offseason, as fan favorites and the faces of that glorious run had either changed uniforms, or left the game entirely.

Immediately, it was extremely difficult. No matter the circumstances, no one wants to lose a World Series like that. Having the lead in the bottom of the 9th, with the best closer on the mound and not being able to get the job done is normally inexcusable and unacceptable.

Yet, 9/11 had made people realize the end to the World Series was not that important. It was every game that led up to it that was so special and so memorable. The Yankees did in fact lift the city up in the most difficult stage in its history. They couldn’t win the whole thing, but they won over the hearts of the mourning and provided a great escape to those who needed it most.

Sports-wise, it’s undoubtedly one of the greatest playoff runs and World Series in baseball history, that’s for certain. The very last play is what most remember, but what New Yorkers remember from that fall are the walk-off wins at Yankee Stadium. “Mr. November.” The Paul O’Neill chants in Game 5. The swagger and confidence the city regained after the attacks, knowing their team was playing hard for them, and most importantly, winning for them.

Once again, I don’t remember witnessing any of this. 9/11, the playoffs, or Game 7 of the World Series. But I can feel the emotions of New Yorkers and sense how it must have been like to be watching those incredible games. September 11th put a horrible cloud over the rest of the year of 2001. But not forgotten is how legendary and amazing the Yankees’ season and the Fall Classic turned out to be.

Yes, many people were lost on 9/11. So where the most iconic buildings in New York City. But as the horrible memories of that day flood back to the minds of people each year, so do the delightful memories of baseball, American pride, and love for each other.

The Twin Towers may not stand anymore. But one thing that will never go away, is the joy, unity, and excitement that postseason baseball brings to millions of peoples’ homes each fall.

This post is dedicated to all the lives lost on September 11th, 2001. May they rest in peace, and I hope the families of the victims have found comfort and closure in the years following that tragic and unforgettable day.

Remembering The Captain – Thurman Munson

I had seen his Yankeeography. I heard of Bobby Murcer’s heroics the day of his funeral. I even remember my dad telling me numerous times he was his favorite player. But I never fully understood Thurman Munson until reading a book called “Munson: The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain” by Marty Appel.

It was the 30th anniversary of his death in August of 2009 when I just so happened to read the book. I had never read a more fascinating and gripping story, and the fact that it was all true was amazing. The fact that Munson actually declined when he was offered the captain position. That he would taunt Goose Gossage in the most heated moments of a game where he struggled. That he played with numerous broken bones in his body, truly giving it all for the Yankees night in and night out.

But something I don’t think I will ever do again happened while I was reading the very end of the biography. Appropriately, it was about the very end of Thurman’s life. August 2nd, 1979.

If you want a detailed, and I mean detailed account of that crash, look no further. It said it all – how the plane crashed, why, how the inside of the plane and Thurman himself looked after the crash. Here’s the thing I had never done – I cried. I genuinely cried, poolside at my grandma’s house as I read the chapter.

This is an 11 year old, mind you, who had never seen him play. I am in no way connected to Thurman or any of past Yankees except for the fact of being a Yankees fan. But I felt I was more than that after reading the book, and especially that chapter.

This is no book review (though I highly suggest reading it if you haven’t), but it really made me appreciate and think of how great a player and person Thurman Munson was. He wore his heart on his sleeve, stood up for his teammates, and even when he was questioned and doubted, he produced.

Look at his statistics. He was a 7 time All-Star. An MVP. A Rookie of the Year. More importantly, a world champion. Twice. If he had a full career, there is no doubt in my mind he would eventually get inshrined into Cooperstown.

Unfortunately, I can’t change that. Thurman did not have a full career, and nothing close to a full life. But boy did he accomplish a lot in his 32 years. He became an amazing baseball player, a facial-hair wonder, and more importantly, a friendly, down-to-earth, happy father. And that’s all you can ask out of anyone. Thurman did all that, and more.

This is a quick tribute to Thurman, thought up very late at night as I couldn’t stop thinking about the impact he had on the Yankees and how much bigger it would have been if he just had more time on Earth.

Again, I never knew him, never saw him play, and didn’t even know much about him until a couple years ago. But he is one of my favorite all-time Yankees who definitely is more deserving of being mentioned one day or week, every August.

Because it’s not what happened on August 2nd, 1979. It’s what happened every day leading up to that.

Taking A Look At Recent MLB Comebacks

We never thought it would happen, yet here we are. Andy Pettitte has come out of retirement and signed a $2.5 million deal with the Yankees, shocking baseball fans and the sports world in general. But this only adds to the long list of players who came out of retirement. Some have had success in doing so; and others haven’t. Here’s a look at a few legendary players who tried to come back, and well, you’ll see how they fared:

SP Roger Clemens (2004, 2006, 2007) – The king of comebacks (sorry Brett Favre), Clemens’ last start was supposed to be Game 5 of the 2003 World Series. His real last start was Game 3 of the 2007 ALDS. Un-retiring three times, pitching for the Astros from ’04-’06, and returning to baseball mid-season for the Yankees in 2007, Clemens would win 44 games and actually capture the 2005 N.L. Cy Young, posting a 1.87 ERA in 32 starts in his age 42 season. Of course he is an alleged PED-user (I personally think he’s guilty), so it’s unclear how natural and real those stats were.

2B Ryne Sandberg (1996) – Ryno was released by the Cubs right before a strike ended the 1994 season, and a divorce on top of it all made Sandberg walk away at the age of 34. Remarried, and baseball back on track with a new CBA, he would return in 1996 and hit 25 home runs and drive in 92 runs. He’d also play in 1997, hitting better average-wise but hitting just 12 home runs.

SP Jim Palmer (1991) – Retiring during the middle of the 1984 campaign, Palmer walked away from baseball with an impressive 268 wins. In fact elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1990, Palmer seriously was attempting to return. More Pettitte-esque than the others, he would sign a non-guaranteed deal with the Orioles in 1991. After pitching in two games in the spring and topping out at 75 MPH, the 45-year old decided he just didn’t have it anymore and decided to stay retired.

Of course, these three players’ results are far different from each other and far different from Pettitte’s situation. But they are well-known names, that thought it wasn’t quite time to hang it up. But besides Clemens in 2005, a lot of the guys not listed never could get back to what they were, nor be a serviceable player. I’m hoping for the best for Andy, as he’s one of my favorite Yankees of all-time, and I’m pumped about his return. However, he’ll need to defy history and age to get back to (in my book) the standards he once held as a future Hall of Famer.