Thursday, April 30, 2009

Yankees update

I know everybody hates the Yankees, so it's probably pointless to write any of this, but:

1) The Yankees starting pitching is starting to come around to where it needs to be: Last night Joba Chamberlain threw 7 strong innings, and the night before Phil Hughes threw six two-hit innings. These are two of the young guns that were supposed to carry the Yanks last year, but weren't quite ready. When you add their potential contributions to the already demonstrated capabilities of CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett (who were both signed in the offseason), and returning aces Chien-Ming Wang and Andy Pettitte, you start to come up with a staff that can approach Boston's and Tampa Bay's. The last time the Yankees won the World Series was 2000, and their starting staff included Pettitte, Clemens, El Duque, and David Cone. Strong starters are key to winning in the playoffs, and since 2002, the last time the Yanks made it to the Series, they just haven't had dominant starting pitching. I'm not saying we're there yet, but in another year....

2) Speaking of another year, Joe Girardi is still developing as a manager: Last night he panicked and brought in Mariano Rivera with a five-run lead in the ninth and two runners on base. Granted, the previous guy was getting shellacked, but Rick Sutcliffe, a former ace pitcher, who was commentating on the TV, said, to him, it didn't look like Rivera was ready. Curtis Granderson promptly took him deep to make the score 8-6, before Rivera got a pop up to end the game. The Yankees started the inning with an 8-2 lead, and there is no way, in my opinion, that Rivera should have even warmed up. He's old and needs his rest. Despite having been named Manager of the Year in his one season at Florida before being hired by the Yankees, Girardi has never led a team to the playoffs and stills needs to learn a little bit of patience. That said, I think he's doing a good job and will turn the Yankees around if given enough time - meaning next year is their year.

3) A-Rod continues to be a sideshow/circus, but we miss his bat: Selena Roberts' book about him apparently says he's been juicing since high school and continued to juice after joining the Yankees. This would explain the serious hip injury he suffered after MLB starting testing for that stuff. That said, if he can come back and be effective, it sure will help Mark Teixeira, the Yanks $20 million per year first baseman, who is hitting like .197. All I've seen him do is walk. Apparently, pitchers would rather face Matsui, or Posada, or even Nick Swisher (who is actually red hot), who have all been batting behind Teixeria in the clean-up spot unti A-Rod gets back.


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Dontrelle Willis

I had the opportunity to watch ex-Tiger pitch in Erie on Sunday. Willis was the 2003 National League Rookie of the year with Florida after winning eight of his first nine starts. He tailed off a bit toward the end of the year, but bounced back with some effective outings in the World Series against the Yankees (as a Yankee fan, I always take special note of great lefties). At 21, Willis was an integral piece of a world champion.

He also has a tremendously high, stylish leg kick that he says he copied from the Yankees great Cuban refugee Orlando, "El Duque" Hernandez. This style, his seemingly gregarious personality and reported friendship with the tennis-playing Williams sisters made him a minor celebrity. When he won 22 games in this third season, Willis was seemingly on top of the world. Of course, peaks can be steep, and Willis was apparently precariously balanced on his.

Personally, I always questioned the fact that he based his pitching motion on something that "looked cool" rather than going with a more utilitarian approach. So, it didn't completely surprise me that Willis' performance started to decline over the next two years with Florida. In 2007, his ERA with Florida was over 5.00, although he did lead the league in starts with 35.

The Tigers thought enough of Willis to trade for him prior to the 2008 season and sign him to a $29 million contract extension over three years. Then things got really bad. In eight games last year, Willis' ERA was 9.38. That means he was giving up more than a run per inning. This was contributed to by Willis' walking 35 batters in 24 innings. To give you an idea of how bad that is, in his big year in 2005, Willis walked only 55 batters in 236 innings.

Willis spent the second half of the last year trying to fix things and in March, the Tigers diagnosed him with some sort of anxiety disorder and have been trying to get him back up to speed. Part of Willis' rehabilitation program involves starting some minor league games, and Sunday was his chance to throw in Erie, vs the Harrisburg Senators. Mind you, the Senators (a farm club of the lowly Nationals, I believe) had lost eight in a row coming in, so Willis wasn't exactly facing the 2004 Red Sox.

I took my son to the game, as he was all stoked to see this ex-MLBer, and while we were standing in line for tickets, he noted that the $10 box seat ticket prices listed on the board seemed expensive. The guy in front of us turned around and said you'd pay 30-40 bucks for major league box seats--at least that 's what he paid to see Willis pitch for the Marlins.

We got two reserved tickets, second-deck, first-base side, for six bucks. (I had a coupon, which are very easy to come by.) For that price, I really felt like I was stealing. Of course, the $10 I spent for a beer, hot dog, and pop lunch added a little to our tab, but still... and we were sitting closer to Willis than you could ever get in a major league park without dropping at least $100.

Willis is a lefty, so our seats gave us prime viewing of his motion. He still has his high leg kick, but he really wasn't throwing that hard. I don't think he topped 90 on the stadium radar. After the game, the Seawolves' manager said he wasn't getting much bite on his breaking ball pitches either.

The results were kind of mixed. Yes, he had a perfect game through four innings, but there were several hard hit balls, including at least three line drives that just happened to be hit right at outfielders and one bouncer back through the middle (to open the game) that Willis made a great play on. Finally, the guy leading off the fifth put a line drive over the fence, and then I think a couple more doubles fell in from there. Willis' last two innings were not that impressive and he left to a mild ovation by the Erie fans, as he made his way back to the club house.

According to Ron Leonardi's story in the ETN, he didn't stick around for post game interviews, so we don't know how Willis felt about his outing. The current news is that he will make his next start Friday at Triple A Toledo (a step up from Erie). It's my estimation that if he doesn't pitch better than he did in Erie, he's not going to be successful again in the major leagues. However, he always was a fairly good hitter, so maybe he can pull a Rick Ankiel and make it back to the majors as an outfielder.



Whippy Dip

Very unique place, I think. Something very Erie about it. One of those few places where you get a great cross-section of the city's population. It's on 26th and Chestnut, just west of St. Vincent's, so it's fairly accessible. And the ice cream and selection is killer.

Last night my son said, I don't know what to get. I asked him, "what do you want? chances are they have it." We ended up getting a blue raspberry freeze-floats - like a Mr. Misty with ice cream. You can't imagine how good this was after a two and a half hour little league game in 80 degree weather, with the sun shining in our dugout the whole time and the water spigots not yet turned on.

We ate our treats on a bench facing the Erie Cemetery and watched the steady flow of customers streaming in. You had everything from conservative just-past-middle-aged empty nesters out for a cone to fat chicks with belly piercings toting their brood, and about everything in between.

Everybody loves the Whippy Dip.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Red Sox Sweep Yanks

Here's one reason why the Red Sox swept the Yanks over the weekend. It's a video of Jacoby Ellsbury stealing home last night off Andy Pettite with the bases loaded and the score tied. The reaction of the crowd is great. It's just one run, but if there is such a thing as momentum in baseball, that's the type of play that swings it. You really don't see home stolen that often these days, so whoever made that call for the Red Sox deserves a lot credit.

The Bosox absolutely embarrassed the Yanks over the weekend. On Friday, ex-Pirate Jason Bay homered with two outs off Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera to send the game into extra innings, where the Sox won with a Youkalis blast. On Saturday, the Red Sox came back from an 0-6 deficit to win like 16-11 or something, and last night you had this home stealing thing.

It's a long season, and maybe the Yanks can get it turned around, but things aren't looking too bright in the Bronx right now. Not to mention, the problems the Yanks are having with the new ballpark, because of seats priced too high for the current market and an inordinate number of cheap home runs. I guess there's some kind of irony there.


Friday, April 24, 2009

Cal Ripken, Jr. Feature

I never really was that big of a Cal Ripken, Jr. fan, but this article I read yesterday really gave me a new appreciation for him. It appeared in a book my wife picked up for me recently, called The Greatest Baseball Stories ever told, edited by a guy named Jeff Silverman out of Chadds Ford, PA. His primary focus seems to be coming up with stories that great writers have written about baseball. One example is a wonderful John Updike piece about Ted Williams' last game for the Red Sox. Just to show you how random life is, Silverman includes an intro that explains that the only reason Updike made it to the game was because his lady friend at the time was not home. If she had been, he would have missed the game and never written this fairly famous article.

The Ripken piece is written by Richard Ben Cramer, who once won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting. Cramer does a great job blowing up a lot of the myths surrounding Ripken. It almost seems like he going to tear the guy down, but then he builds him back up in a more authentic light, and the story ends with an amazing scene that really made me respect and admire baseball's "Iron Man." If you get a chance, it's worth the read.



Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Remembering Mark Fidrych

The 1976 American League Rookie of the Year died yesterday. Fittingly, he was crushed by a truck he was working on. You see, Fidrych, despite being extremely famous, never made a lot of money from baseball. Back in 1976, apparently, it was okay to have 21-year-old rookies throw 24 complete games. Today's top veteran pitchers, who make 100 times what Fidrych did, throw a handful of complete games per year - if that. (Which, of course, reminds me that the Pirates had Zach Duke, who is coming off arm troubles, throw 120 pitches in the cold yesterday. Not sure what they were thinking, but apparently they have a history of promising pitchers coming down with sore arms.) Anyhow, what in hindsight appears very predictable, Fidrych blew out his arm shortly after going 19-9 his rookie year and leading the league in E.R.A. He never pitched a full major league season after that and was out of the league by the time he was 25.

My grandfather, who was old enough to have seen Babe Ruth play at the old League Park in Cleveland, I remember being a huge Fidrych fan. He was impressed with the way he'd sprint on and off the field to and from the dugout and, of course, talk to the ball. My grandfather who was a dentist and apparently a pretty fair ballplayer in this time, also loved that Fidrych said that if he wasn't pitching he'd probably be back in his hometown pumping gas.

Anyhow, for some reason I have always been a Yankee fan and kind of resented Fidrych and the success he always had vs. the Yanks, something, which in retrospect (like Fidrych's throwing 20-plus complete games) I also realize was stupid. Oh well, here's to ya' bird. Let's hope at least one major leaguer over the next couple days, gets down on his hands and knees to smooth at the dirt around the mound!



Friday, April 10, 2009

Jesus Christ Superstar

Much worse things you could do to celebrate Easter than watch the 1973 movie version of this rock opera (it's on Hulu). I'm still kind of baffled that the musical score doesn't get more acclaim. I'm still fascinated by it, and I've heard it like 20 times at least. I think it does a great job humanizing Jesus - almost better than anything else I've ever seen. Of course, it does this by also humanizing Judas, which makes for a great counterbalance. And yes, the movie was made in 1973, so maybe that's why I connect with it so much.



Thursday, April 09, 2009

Aleister Crowley

Prompted by a recent meeting I had with a man named "Crowley," I decided to do a bit of research this morning on the infamous Aleister Crowley-the renowned English occultist. About the only thing I knew of him was that Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page had bought his house at some point. Man, is there a lot more to him than that!

Raised by Puritanical parents, he totally rebelled against all that after his Dad (who he was apparently very close to) died when he was 11. At one point, the papers billed Crowley as "The Most Wicked Man Alive" or something akin to that. Apparently he was fairly wealthy, very hedonistic, charismatic, and perhaps even a genius. All these qualities led him to some big trouble.

In one documentary, he was credited as being a forerunner of the hippie movement. Of course, he really did practice several forms of black magic - to what end, I'm not certain. But, he was also a fairly prolific writer, so I guess I could figure it out if I really wanted to.

Anyhow, if you want to see something spooky, check this thing out. It's The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage (Translated by S.L. MacGregor Mathers in 1900), which is the ancient text that Crowley used to reportedly summon evil spirits into the mansion that Page later bought. Legend has it that this book proscribes some sort of six-month ritual that Crowley abandoned half-way through, resulting in the house being haunted by these evil spirits, who were supposed to be made to cow-tow to his guardian angel - if Crowley had reached that part of the ritual. Let me know if you have the guts to read something like this, because it started to freak me out.