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IMHO: Baseball Recap 2008

I was too busy during the last half of baseball season to post much about it. Now that it’s ended with the Philadelphia Phillies as the 2008 champions (big boring thud) it’s time for a summation, from my own unique, limited, and peculiar point of view—which, of course, is focused primarily on the New York Yankees.

It’s been a dismal season in my corner of the baseball world, beginning with the goings-on in the Bronx. The Yankees don’t make excuses for themselves, and nobody else allows them to – but hey, let’s be real: these guys had a lot to contend with this year. Change of management. Change in owners’ leadership (if you can call what Hank Steinbrenner did ‘leadership’). And more injuries of key players than any team should ever have to deal with. The dugout was like the ER at Bellevue.

Early in the season, on June 15th, their Number One starting pitcher, Chien-Ming Wang, sprained his right foot running bases in a 13-0 win over the Astros at Minute Maid Park. Wang was considered the Major Leagues’ winningest pitcher since the beginning of the 2006 season; his injury, said Manager Joe Girardi, was “a manager’s worst nightmare.” Pitcher Mike Mussina noted, “American League pitchers are at the most risk, because we don’t hit and we don’t run the bases. When you get four or five at-bats a year at the most, and you happen to get on base once or twice, you never know. We run in a straight line most of the time. Turning corners, we just don’t do it that often.”

Another of Wang’s pitching brothers, Andy Pettite, said Wang was “irreplaceable” – and he was. At this point nobody knew the extent of his injuries; they expected he’d be back on the mound within weeks. Wang did not play all season.

After Wang fell, a series of new starting pitchers suffered a series of injuries; it was like the mound was cursed. The only one to rise above the melee was Mussina, who had one of the best seasons of his career. Without Moose, the Yankees would have come out with an even worse record.

Next to collapse was Hideki Matsui’s knee; he too was on the DL most of the season. Then, my favorite player, catcher Jorge Posada, who hadn’t spent a single day of his career on the DL, required shoulder surgery that put him out of commission for the year (and may have ended his catching career for good). The Yankees got Ivan (Pudge) Rodriguez to fill in behind the batter, but his hitting performance wasn’t much to write home about. And Posada has always been an important leader on this team. How many teams could have done even as well as the Yankees did under these circumstances? Not many, IMHO.

Then there was all the weird crap surrounding both the new owner/leader and the new manager. In any situation this would be a difficult transition, but with Joe Torre being so well-liked, correction, well-loved, surely a lot of emotions were floating around the locker room. Hank Steinbrenner attended something like two games all season. Can you imagine Papa George being that disconnected? Why don’t the Steinbrenner kids sell the team if that’s their level of interest? Oh, yeah: they like the money.

Shortly after exiting the stadium after the second game he attended, Steinbrenner told reporters, “They have to start hitting. Injuries or no injuries, they’ve got to be more consistent.”

GM Brian Cashman responded: “It’s certainly something that is hard to watch. We’re losing right now and we’re better than this.”

Girardi was an even worse disaster, again, IMHO. Most people seemed to want to give him the benefit of the doubt in his first year; even the media wasn’t that hard on him. But in the privacy of my armchair I shouted and cursed at his erratic and unnecessary line-up changes (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it), particularly his compulsion to shuffle the deck any time a left-handed pitcher came to the mound. He was evasive and even dishonest about revealing the extent of players’ injuries. And he apparently wasn’t much of a communicator: somewhere I read that Girardi would walk through the locker room with his head and eyes down, not saying a word to any of the players. Again—can you imagine Joe #1 avoiding his boys? The big tragedy was that this was their last season in the old stadium: not a very fond farewell. No playoffs for the first time since 1993.

As if the Yankee situation wasn’t enough for me to bear, my local Bay Area teams did even worse than usual. Billy Beane kept selling off whoever was left of the old Oakland A’s—at least anyone I knew or cared about. I don’t know if his grand plan is to have a solid team in place by next year, or if he’ll go right on “rebuilding” through yet another lost season, but the whole Billy Beane/Moneyball system makes me sick. Beane spends more time “rebuilding” than letting a team cohere enough to play one decent season. It’s a sad way to play baseball, again, IMHO. (One positive for the A’s, though: Frank Thomas got kicked out of Toronto and came home to Oakland, where he was welcomed with open arms.)

Then there are the San Francisco Giants, who had another dreadful season, even without the distraction of the Barry Bonds Traveling Circus – and also, needless to say, without the benefit of the Barry Bonds Home Run Derby. Watching Barry Zito pitch during the first half of the season was unbearable; eventually I stopped tuning in altogether. Manager Bruce Bochy demoted Zito to the bullpen after Zito’s worst performance of the season, a three-inning, eight-run outing in a 10-1 loss to Cincinnati. That dropped Zito’s record to a Major League-worst of 0-6. His ERA was 7.53. Pitching out of the bullpen was quite an adjustment for Zito, since all but one of his 262 lifetime Major League appearances was as a starter. He only remained in the pen through one rotation, and by the end of the season he’d rebounded, finishing with a 3.76 ERA in his last eight starts. The seven-year, $126 million contract the Giants gave Zito in 2006 intensifies the scrutiny he lives under – which, IMHO, is the primary cause of his whole meltdown. He knows that observers will continue to view him skeptically next year as well. One difference that will help him, he said, is that he can’t sink any lower than he did early this season.

“I think I pretty much got to rock bottom this year,” Zito said. “I know what that’s like. So I won’t even worry about it.”

Giants closer Brian Wilson, a noted workout-aholic, plans to spend the offseason at Zito’s Los Angeles home, to help him in his workouts. Zito, who practices yoga and meditation, also plans to exercise mentally by writing in his journal, which he has kept since he was 18.

Around the leagues, fewer home runs were hit than in recent sesons, surely a result of everyone flushing their steroids down the toilet. This is from InterSports Wire:

You don’t need to be a statistician in order to figure out major league baseball players hit fewer home runs this year. As a matter of fact, this downward trend started during the 2006 seasons when former New York Met clubhouse boy and drug dealer Kirk Radomski was pinched by the feds, taken out of circulation and turned state’s evidence.

The top 10 home run hitters in the American and National Leagues accounted for about 15% fewer home runs this year than they did in 2006. It isn’t drug testing or bigger stadiums, and you don’t have to go back 15 years to establish this trend. Guys have hit fewer homers because their supply of human growth hormone and steroids has dried up since the Balco Labs and Radomski busts. Since MLB doesn’t employ any testing measures that can detect HGH use, you can’t point to the league’s testing vigilance as the reason for the power drop off. You can point to the increased attention being paid to the drug trafficking trade and the drying up of sources for these drugs as the reason for the power outage.

Meanwhile, steroid use in football made a brief headline appearance last week, about which nobody, in or out of sports, seems to give a shit. Why the disparity? ( InterSports has a good story on this subject).

The one bright light of the year was the huge number of hits to my post about the Tampa Bay Rays’ name change. Nearly every day twenty or thirty people Googled “Tampa Bay name change” or words to that effect, and were delivered to my cyber door. I assumed, and I hope, that some of them stuck around to read more of my posts. Thus I felt somewhat bonded with the Rays, and was glad when they made it to the Series—although to be honest, I’d earlier hoped for a Dodger-Red Sox shootout. with LA the ultimate victors, so as to vindicate both Joe Torre and Manny Ramirez in one fell swoop. The Dodgers, I thought, would in some convoluted way stand in for New York this year. Crazy as that seems, apparently I wasn’t the only New Yorker to feel this way: back in Brooklyn they held Dodger playoff parties, serving pastrami sandwiches and egg creams. (Note: My sister and I recently confessed to one another that, as kids, we thought the World Series was an annual ritual created and intended for the Yankee and Dodger teams only.)

When the Dodgers tanked I readjusted yet again, only to see the Rays go down in an ignominious five games. I never warmed up to the Phillies; there’s something about the red teams that makes me think of the red states. Seriously, it seems that every team I dislike wears a red uniform: Red Sox, Angels, Braves, Indians (we all know how I feel about them and their lovely logo). My favorite teams, on the other hand, wear blue: Yankees, Mets, Dodgers, Rays…and then there are the Oakland A’s, lovable whack jobs in neon green and yellow.

Last but not least in my litany of seasonal whining: the closing ceremonies for Yankee Stadium were, of course, poignant: nobody does sentimental ritual the way baseball does sentimental ritual. But they were marred, IMHO, by the lack of any reference whatsoever to either Joe Torre or Roger Clemens. It’s like living in Orwell’s 1984, or in the Stalinist Soviet Union, where people are simply erased from history. Joe Torre, who managed the Yankees for thirteen years, and Roger Clemens, who pitched for them something like eight, have become personae non grata.

My son has a countdown clock alerting us to the time of the next Opening Day. As of this moment there are 156 days, 14 hours and 30 minutes until Opening Day 2009. In the meantime, we’ll be renting baseball movies. Stay tuned for reviews that will be, no doubt, as shamelessly subjective as this recap.

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