Bernie Williams talks baseball, music, Steinbrenner

It’s not everyday that you get an opportunity to talk baseball with a Yankee great. So when Don Povia of HHR Media Group and Taylor PR invited me, along with a number of other bloggers, to speak to Bernie Williams, I couldn’t say yes faster. The roundtable discussion was sponsored by MasterCard, which is currently running a Reserved by MasterCard promo. Just go to Facebook.com/mastercard to find out more.*

A big thanks to Hugging Harold Reynolds, which has a video of Bernie talking about the Yanks-Sox rivalry.

With Bernie Williams it would seem that two topics are appropriate. We were all there because of Bernie the Yankee, but there is also Bernie the musician. He’s had no modest music career — last year he was nominated for a Latin Grammy. Those were the two obvious discussion points, and for much of the time our questions centered on those topics. But towards the end we hit on a related topic, George Steinbrenner. While Bernie was comfortable and affable the entire time, he really shined when discussing Mr. Steinbrenner. You could tell he meant a lot to Bernie, not necessarily by the content of the stories, but by how animated he became when telling them.

Music

One of the bloggers started the afternoon’s discussion with a question about Bernie’s music career, asking him how he’s handling the change from baseball. As he did with every question Bernie gave a thoughtful response. I was impressed by his humbleness. He admitted, without prompt, that he isn’t as skilled as many other popular recording artists. But it seemed more like he was expressing a desire to continue improving. He was also honest about how audiences receive him. Yet he’s not just some ballplayer who used his fame to start a different career. That plays into it, of course, but unbeknownst to me until yesterday afternoon, Bernie attended a performing arts high school.

Still, as interesting as Bernie has made his musical career, I was more interested in his amateur efforts. In the late 90s I remember reading in the papers that Bernie and Paul O’Neill used to jam in the clubhouse. O’Neill played drums, so it was only natural that the two would get together and pass the time playing their instruments. I was kind of skeptical — did they really jam? — but Bernie took right to the topic. They jammed plenty, he said: after batting practice, in rain delays, and even after games. Sometimes O’Neill would bring in some of his buddies and they’d jam with four, five instruments going.

O’Neill wasn’t the first Yankee to hammer at the skins. The kit he used, according to Bernie, was actually Ron Guidry’s. It was set up in a storage closet near the clubhouse, making for easy access. Bernie did mention that he developed an affinity for rock and the blues in high school, which I’m sure helped him meet O’Neill stylistically — I can’t imagine O’Neill being into the kind of music Bernie enjoys now. But it’s clear that Bernie has a passion for music. It makes me glad that he was able to find his niche in the industry following his baseball career.

Baseball

Bernie might talk about passion in music, but he really shows it when he talks about his upbringing with the New York Yankees. This was a topic that always interested me because, in the same way as many other Yankee fans at the time, I didn’t warm to Bernie at first. He came up as an injury replacement for Roberto Kelly, at the time one of my favorite players, and he did’t exactly hit well in his stead. Bernie, though, says he was just happy for the opportunity, and didn’t feel the additional pressure of filling in for a popular player. It’s not like he had many fans in the Stadium to impress.

He was surprised, he said, when the Yankees ended up trading Kelly. He thought he was the one to be traded. That’s an understandable position, given how the Yankees operated in the 80s. They routinely traded young talent for established veterans. But when they traded Kelly and decided to keep Bernie, he thought they were changing philosophy; and they were. The decision to hang onto Bernie came when George Steinbrenner was banned from baseball, a period when the Yankees hung onto a number of young players who would become the core of their championship teams.

The other major point he hit on, one that we discuss frequently in the comments, is the ability to succeed in New York. It’s true, he said. Some people have an attitude conducive to surviving and succeeding in New York. He described it as even-keeled — the ability to weather some bad play and realize that when you’re yourself and performing well, the fans will love you. Bernie clearly has that attitude himself. I did ask, without getting names or specifics, if Bernie had come across a player or two who had the requisite attitude but just had a few bad years in the city. He clearly wanted to bring up an example, but held back. His response, though, led to the Yankee Attitude Matrix, which we’ll debut later today.

George Steinbrenner

Towards the end of our time together we started asking questions about Bernie’s relationship with George Steinbrenner. He had two stories that illustrated what the Boss meant to him, and both were his most elaborate moments of the afternoon.

The first involved his contract negotiations after the 1998 season. After being tied to the Yankees for so long, he said, he wanted to test the market. He received interest from a number of teams and, as we know, a large offer from the Red Sox. His agent, Scott Boras, and Brian Cashman were talking about a deal, but Bernie didn’t feel they were getting it done the way he wanted it to be. So he reached out to Mr. Steinbrenner.

Bernie recalls that he called Mr. Steinbrenner and told him that he wanted to remain a Yankee. That, apparently, is what Steinbrenner wanted to hear. His response, according to Bernie, was, “OK. What do you want?” Bernie mentioned Mike Piazza’s seven-year, $91 million contract, and George said he’d do what he could. This was at a time, remember, when the Yankees were looking at Albert Belle — wining and dining, Bernie said. But George came back hours later with a seven-year, $87.5 million offer. That got the deal done.

At some point during his tenure in pinstripes, though he can’t remember which year, the team apparently cancelled a family day for the players. This is when they can bring their kids to the park and let them play on the field. This dismayed Bernie, but more importantly it dismayed his wife. He called up Mr. Steinbrenner and asked him to reconsider family day, saying how important it had become for his kids. The answer, “I’ll think about it,” turned into a yes later that day. Bernie thinks it’s because the Yankees won. I don’t doubt that.

The afternoon was nothing but enjoyable. How could it not be? It was a bunch of fans sitting around and asking questions of a guy who helped deliver four World Series titles. Bernie had plenty to say, and he certainly gave us elaborate answers to each question. Major thanks go to him, Taylor, and MasterCard for hosting the afternoon. If you want a different angle on the event, you can check out Emma Span’s write-up at Bronx Banter. Amanda Rykoff at The OCD Chick will have a comprehensive recap up later in the day. Which is good, because I surely didn’t get in everything.

* Brought to you by Carl’s Jr.

Do the Yankees need Burnett at all in the ALDS?


(AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

As you surely know by now, the ALDS schedule lines up in a way that allows the Yankees to use just three starters, the same formula that helped bring home World Championship #27 last year. CC Sabathia gets the Ball in Game One and then again in Game Four on short rest, with Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes taking Games Two, Three, and Five (on regular rest) in some undetermined order. That leaves A.J. Burnett in a precarious position, and the best solution might be to leave him off the ALDS roster all together.

A fourth starter isn’t necessary obviously, and the Yanks will carry presumably at least one long man from a group that includes Dustin Moseley, Ivan Nova, Chad Gaudin, and Sergio Mitre (Javy Vazquez isn’t even an option, sadly). If Burnett were to be included on the playoff roster, you’ve basically got a guy that won’t be needed to start or even be used in relief since the setup crew of Kerry Wood, Joba Chamberlain, David Robertson, and Boone Logan figure to do as much of the heavy lifting between the starter and Mariano Rivera as humanly possible. Yeah, there’s always the possibility of extra innings or blowouts, but that’s what the guys in the first sentence are for.

It comes down to what is more useful for the Yanks against the Twins, Burnett or a more strategic reliever like Royce Ring, a second lefty for Minnesota’s lefty heavy lineup. Granted, we’re not debating between filet mignon and lobster here, it’s more like we’re on line in the McDonald’s drive-thru trying to pick stuff off the dollar menu. Chances are it’ll all make you just as sick in the end, kinda like A.J. and Ring.

Seriously though, Ring hasn’t been very impressive over the last several weeks, retiring just five of the nine lefties he was brought in to face. It was a brief but underwhelming audition, yet with Damaso Marte‘s injury* he’s the best option for a second bullpen lefty. Both Jim Thome (.477 wOBA vs. .334) and Jason Kubel (.341 wOBA vs. .297) have considerable platoon splits, so perhaps it’s worth it to have that second matchup lefty for low-leverage work even if it’s a five-piece nuggets like Ring. Sometimes the low arm slot alone is enough to throw a batter off.

It’s entirely possible that we’re overthinking things here. Considering his sheer velocity, the best option might be to just carry Burnett and let him air it out one relief inning at a time. There’s no holding back, he wouldn’t have to worry about getting through the order two or three times. It could be one of the most electric things we’ll ever see on a baseball field, or it could blow up in everyone’s face.

I’ve never been a fan of carrying a lefty reliever just because he was a lefty reliever, I’d rather take the X best pitchers regardless of handedness, but in a short series there’s a definite tactical advantage. The tenth and eleventh arms on the staff aren’t likely to see much action in a short series because of all the off days anyway, not unless something goes horribly wrong or wonderfully right, but in the off chance that one is needed, another southpaw against a lineup like that could be mighty handy.

Aside: Seriously, how awesome would it be to have both Logan and Marte in the pen in this or any other series? For shame.

Anticipating a robust ALDS market (and a cap contest)

Now that the Yankees know when and where they’ll be playing their ALDS games, our partners at TiqIQ have put together a series preview graphic for us. Tickets, as you might imagine, are selling for top dollar for this best-of-five set. We have the dual combination of the first playoff series at Target Field plus a weekend in the Bronx fueling ticket prices. Not unsurprisingly, the Saturday night game in the Bronx and a potential Game 5 are the most expensive tickets of the set, and you can find a full breakdown and seats at Yankee Stadium for sale at RAB Tickets.

In other ticket-related news, RAB Tickets now has a Facebook page that we’ll be using for more ticket-related news. We’ll post some graphs that don’t make it to the RAB main page and host an informal ticket exchange. You can find it right here, and we’re running a contest to promote it. Anyone who “likes” RAB Tickets on Facebook during the ALDS will automatically be entered into a drawing for a Yankee hat. We were thinking we’d go with the 2010 Playoffs cap, but we might be convinced to splurge for the authentic 59Fifty on-field hat instead.

A-Rod takes home September’s AL Player of the Month award

Coming into September, Alex Rodriguez was having a disappointing season, and he was serving time on the disabled list. He returned to the lineup on September 5th and had a month to remember. After .309/.385/.667 with 9 home runs and an AL-leading 26 RBIs, A-Rod earned himself the AL Player of the Month award. A-Rod’s hot September allowed him to reach 30 home runs for the 13th time of the year, and when he returned from the DL, that mark seemed unlikely. Hopefully, he’ll carry the hot hitting into the ALDS and beyond.

Open Thread: Comment registration and editing

Since the three of us started River Ave. Blues and the site and its community began to grow, we’ve tried to add various elements to the site to make it user-friendly. We started with the straight forwarding commenting form and added threaded comments for RAB’s first birthday. We’ve since branched out to Twitter and Facebook and launched RAB Tickets earlier this year.

This weekend, we soft-launched a new feature: optional commenting registration. For over three and a half years, frequent and infrequent RAB commenters have had to put in their information every time they want to comment, and we’ve depended upon the honor system to keep commenting handles in check. Now, you can register for the site and stay logged in. As a bonus, those who register now have the ability to edit their comments for three minutes after posting.

In terms of details, this is an entirely voluntary feature. You don’t have to register, but you can’t edit your comments unless you do. To register, you need a valid e-mail address. It can be an anonymous one, but you must be able to receive e-mails at this address to complete the registration process. We’re not going to use your e-mail address for any reason other than to communicate with you personally if necessary, and we won’t be harvesting or selling e-mail addresses. To register, click here. Once you’ve registered, you can sign in right here or by clicking the link above the “submit comment” button beneath the commenting box. And please register with your own unique commenting handle and not someone else’s.

For the editing process, just follow the prompts on the screen. We’d prefer that people edit their comments for egregious typos and spelling mistakes, but we realize that some people will try to change what they say. That said, three minutes is a lot shorter than you think. As we fine-tune this system, we’ll look to add more features for registered users only. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me via email.

Now, enough of that site administration stuff. Unfortunately, because the Padres lost, we don’t have baseball until Wednesday afternoon. We do have the Dolphins and Patriots squaring off on Monday Night Football. So feel free to use this as your open thread tonight, and I leave with you quite possibly the most amazingly terrible or terribly amazing video around:

ALDS Playoff Scouting Reports

For the last several weeks, every team in contention has been scouting potential matchups in advance of the postseason. “If you’re advance scouting us here in September, I think we’re holding back all our big plays,” joked Brian Cashman over the weekend. “We’re saving hopefully our best for October, and we’re playing possum in September.” I’m not sure how much a baseball team can hold back, but given how poorly the Yankees played in September, I sure hope they have some tricks up their sleeve.

Anyway, both Keith Law (Yanks, Twins) (Insider req’d) and Frankie Piliere (Yanks, Twins) posted scouting reports of every club that qualified for the postseason today. They both note the same positives for the Yanks; a powerhouse offense that will work pitchers to the bone and a bullpen that excels at missing bats. Of course the rotation question marks behind CC Sabathia are very real, but it’s comforting to be reminded that on any given day Andy Pettitte, Phil Hughes, and even A.J. Burnett is capable of spinning a gem.

As for the Twins, both KLaw and Piliere consider this year’s team to be stronger than last year’s, but they still have the potential to get burned by a pitching staff that relies on pitching to contact. That approach can work with good glovework, but Minnesota is atrocious defensively in the outfield corners and they’ve been known to shoot themselves in the foot at key times despite being a fundamentally sound club. Make sure you give all the reports a read, they’re great overviews of what we’re in store for later this week.

Don’t overlook these under-the-radar Twins

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Like every other team in the postseason, the Twins are only going to go as far as their best players take them. Francisco Liriano needs to match the opposing team’s ace pitch-for-pitch, Joe Mauer needs to take advantage of whatever opportunities he’s given, and Jim Thome has to be that second offensive force. It’s imperative that those three do their part, but like everyone else the Twins are also going to need contributions from other players as well.

The Yankees certainly benefited from some unexpected contributions during last season’s title run, whether it be Damaso Marte‘s shutdown relief work or Jerry Hairston spot starting in rightfield, so we know how important complimentary players can be. Here’s a few names that they shouldn’t overlook when preparing for the ALDS, because if they do, chances are they’ll regret it…

Delmon Young

The Twins’ lineup certainly features plenty of dangerous lefty bats, but the Yanks are going to be able to counter that somewhat with CC Sabathia in Game One and (more than likely) Andy Pettitte in Game Two. Minnesota hasn’t had too many righthanded power bats beyond the good, but not holy crap good Michael Cuddyer to help balance out their lineup over the years, but now they have that extra power righty in Young.

A former first overall pick who didn’t turn 25 until just three weeks ago, Young finally started to deliver on his immense promise this season, hitting .298/.333/.493 with career bests in wOBA (.352), homers (21), doubles (46), and strikeout rate (14.2%). He’s done a huge chunk of his damage against lefthanded pitchers, posting a .390 wOBA against them in 2010 and .352 for his career. Young will still expand the zone and have poor at-bats on occasion, but he’s growing into some more power and mistake pitches are leaving the yard more often than ever before. Sabathia and Pettitte are going to have to make sure they’re careful with Minnesota’s best righthanded threat.

Brian Fuentes

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

I’m sure at least some of you snickered when you read Fuentes’ name, because we all remember him being pretty shaky in the closer’s role over the last two seasons or so. Well, Fuentes isn’t a closer now, instead shifted to a role that’s much more suited to his skill set: lefty specialist. Fuentes crushed lefthanded batters this season, holding them to a .128/.222/.149 batting line and just a single extra base hit. Over the last three years, his dinosaur arm delivery limited lefties to a .196/.258/.234 line, and he’s surrendered just two (!!!) extra base hits to same-side batters since 2007 and one homerun since 2006.

Laugh at him for his failures as a closer or for Alex Rodriguez‘s game-tying blast in last year’s ALCS, but the guy is shutdown lefthander that will create some matchup havoc late in games. Marcus Thames, and even … gulp … Austin Kearns are going to have to pull their weight against Fuentes this series.

Danny Valencia & J.J. Hardy

Young isn’t the only righthanded bat worth worrying about, the Twins new left side of the infield improved their team immensely in that area as well. Hardy, acquired from the Brewers in the offseason, brings what amounts to a league average bat from the shortstop position, an upgrade over what Orlando Cabrera gave them last season. The defensive improvement is considerable as well.

Valencia, the second half rookie sensation, looks like Alex Rodriguez compared to the dreck Minnesota has run out at the hot corner over the last few seasons. He brings a .351 wOBA from the right side, and like Young he murders lefthanded pitching (.424 wOBA this year). Compare that to Brendan Harris, who (mostly) started at third last year and was lucky to get his slugging percentage over .351, forget wOBA. Automatic outs like Harris, Nick Punto, and Carlos Gomez are nowhere to be found this year, so Yankee pitchers are going to have to be much more careful once they get past the heart of the order.