Un-Occupy Yankee Stadium

Another off-season, another winter-in-stealth for Brian Cashman.

Amazingly, this time the Yankee GM’s intentions were so cleverly shrouded, even prying eyes were thrown off the scent. The surprising additions of Michael Pineda and Hiroki “Don’t Call Me Karaoke” Kuroda have undoubtedly solidified what was an extremely suspect Yankee rotation, but in the process, the moves also inadvertently reignited my long-simmering internal debate over what it means to be a Yankee fan.

Allow me to explain.

The funny thing about political movements is that they sometimes affect bystanders in ways their founders never expected. The Boston Tea Party started out – I think – as a symbolic protest against chai tea lattés, and ended up as a precursor to the American Revolution. The present-day Tea Party exists to restore our “freedoms” – whatever that means – but somewhere along the way it has morphed into a caricature of itself. Now, we have Occupy [Location Anywhere], an ideology best known to date for its way-too-public bowel movements. Yet despite the inherently unattractive nature of anything political, OWS has been successful insofar as it has encouraged widespread debate over the status quo.

Which brings us to my dirty little secret: I am a lifelong New York Yankee fan whose loyalty may be waning.

Make no mistake: I am was the genuine article. Born and raised in the Bronx – like my parents before me – the Bombers are literally my hometown team. I grew up learning about baseball in the shadow of the elevated 4-train on Jerome Ave., where my father owned and operated a sporting goods store for almost 25 years. Everyone had an opinion about the Yankees in those days, too; whether it was the NYPD beat cop (who wasn’t patrolling, exactly), the sanitation guy (who swore Dallas Green was a communist), or the Albanians manning the pizzeria next door. There were no such things as OBP, fWAR, or strand rate – at least, not that we had ever heard of. Like politics, baseball, too, was simpler back then.

My mom was also a diehard. She sat in the old Yankee Stadium right field bleachers on October 1, 1961, when Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s single-season HR record. My grandfather took her to the ballpark that day, and though he’s been gone for a decade, I fondly recall him lamenting that he wasn’t just an inch or two taller, lest that historic ball would have been his.

2009 was my last year as a season ticket holder, but I have attended countless games in my life, both at home and on the road. I saw Rickey Henderson, Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield play together. I repeatedly shook my head during Greg Maddux’s 84-pitch three-hitter that felt like it took less than an hour to complete. I stared, mouth agape, when the hardest ball I’ve ever seen hit was blasted by Jim Thome off an incredulous David Cone in Game 6 of the 1998 ALCS. I feared for my safety when David Justice took the immortal Arthur Rhodes deep in Game 6 of 2000 ALCS and the old Stadium literally shook beneath my feet. I taunted Mets fans on the way out of Shea after the World Series Game 5 clincher that same year.  I saw (and heard) Josh Hamilton put on the greatest display of power ever witnessed during the 2008 Home Run Derby. I attended the first exhibition game ever played in the new place.  I was there for the first regular-season game ever played there, too. And I lost my voice cheering as Mariano Rivera locked down Game 6 of the World Series against the Phillies in 2009. Oh, and I write for this site – though not nearly as often or as well as my colleagues – so I feel somewhat entitled to espouse my views. But really, it’s not about me so much as it is about the franchise itself.

In fairness, the club and its owners have generously delivered seven World Championships in my lifetime. And counting. As far as professional sports teams go, the Pinstripes are the crème de la crème, the best of the best, they’re as good as it gets. It’s been said before, but the Yankees really are are the one-percent.

And therein lies the problem.

The organization’s pinstriped-mantra decries anything short of a championship as an abject failure. It is a proclamation that stirs emotions and sells ticket-packages based on the Steinbrenners’ commitment to perennially field a competitive stacked product. But the edict also breeds an atmosphere where cash is king, and the opportunity to be a Yankee fan has become more privilege than right.

Maybe it’s because I have my own son now, or maybe it’s because these times require each of us to engage in a certain degree of frugality, but I’ve run out of reasons excuses to defend the Bombers’ excesses. There was a time when I could easily parry attacks over the Yankee-payroll or the club’s ubiquitous involvement in the signing of and/or trade for every available player. I once justified my team’s muscular roster with bulletproof one-liners like “the Yankees are good for the game” or “large market teams are entitled to their large market payrolls.” Now, more often than not, I wonder “how much is enough?”

I can’t be the only one who feels this way, either. Something has changed at the intersection of River Ave. and 161st. St., and it’s not just the newly-minted billion-dollar cathedral that I’m talking about – although that’s a big part of it.

According to last year’s Forbes valuation, the Yankees generated $325 million in revenue from regular-season tickets and luxury suites in 2010 alone. The wildly successful YES Network, now a seminal blueprint for every other team, bolstered that take with over $400 million. Sure, the team carries significant debt in connection with the stadium’s construction, but when you factor in corporate sponsorships, advertising, and licensing revenue from MLB.com and apparel sales, the Yankees are literally swimming in cashish.

Please understand; I don’t begrudge capitalism. Baseball is a business now — there’s no going back — and the powers that be are simply charging what the market will bear. Sadly, that market is alienating the very people who made going to the Stadium an irreplaceable experience. Just because the Yankees inject a significant percentage of their profit into the roster, that shouldn’t mean that Delta-Suites-this and Audi-Club-that is any more vital to the franchise than the “real” fan. Would you believe that during last year’s ALDS against the Detroit Tigers, I was actually told to sit down with two strikes on an opposing hitter during an elimination game. Shirley, you can’t be serious?!

So forgive me for evaluating my loyalties, but maybe the place where I grew up on baseball is already gone. And consider giving me a pass for conflating the issues, but the rise of the Yankee “Empire” and the deterioration of my nostalgia is interconnected.

As far as the here and now, Cashman had to deal a homegrown impact-bat in Jesus Montero because the starting rotation lacked any semblance of depth. This, despite the conventional-wisdom that the farm system is purportedly flush with talented arms. And why? Because those high-ceiling pitchers are not yet Major League ready, and god forbid the franchise scuffles a bit every fifth year or so. There is no margin for error, no room for debate, and no excuse for failure. I get it, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it, and it certainly doesn’t make it right (for the record, I think Michael Pineda will do very well here).

In the end, we are left with impossible-to-meet expectations, extraordinary team-spending and increasingly disproportionate fan-pricing. Yankee fans have become accustomed to spoiled by winning, so much so that waiting on young talent is a virtual Yankee-impossibility. But in this win-at-all-costs world, when, exactly, will I again get to root for an underdog team? How about a scrappy one? Will I ever again see the kind of serendipity and karma that so gloriously enshrouded the 1996 Yankees? And even if it does – kinda-sorta like it did in 2009 – will I even care?

Despite my introspection, there is probably “99%” of me that still bleeds pinstripes. I just hope that when the day arrives for me to bring my boy to the House That A-Rod Built, the sushi is fresh.


For those who may not be aware, I am extremely fortunate to now be covering the New York Knicks for The Journal News. You can read my work here, and I would be honored to earn your Twitter follow (@LoHudKnicks) as well. If you despise basketball, you can still get your snark on with a more well-rounded version me, @BronXoo.

Special thanks to Jonah Kaner, aka @TheKnicksWall, for the fantastic OYS graphic above.

Poll: The Fifth Starter

(Garcia via AP; Burnett and Hughes via Reuters)

Over the last few days I’ve explained why A.J. Burnett, Freddy Garcia, and Phil Hughes each deserves to be the Yankees’ fifth starter to open the season while Joe countered with a reason for the team to essentially get rid of each player. Once upon a time all three guys were in the rotation no questions asked (like, three weeks ago), but right now two of three will be on the outside looking in come Opening Day, barring something unforeseen. That’s pretty neat.

Before we jump into the actual poll, let’s quickly go back and summarize each player’s case…

Burnett (case for, case against)
The healthiest of the bunch, A.J. has started each of the last two seasons well before completely tanking in the second half. The Yankees could take advantage of another potentially strong start by boosting his trade value a bit, since we know they’re trying to get rid of him. There are also some reasons to believe he might have gotten a little unlucky last year.

Garcia (case for, case against)
Crafty and sweaty, Garcia straight-up outpitched both Burnett and Hughes last year, and didn’t do anything to lose his job over the winter. He doesn’t have much bullpen experience, and his … ahem … extreme finesse approach would be a nice change of pace in a rotation fronted by four hard-throwers.

Hughes (case for, case against)
It boils down to youth and upside for St. Philip of Hughes, who is still just 25 and theoretically has his best years ahead of him. We know Burnett and Garcia definitely do not. An offseason of rest and a more serious conditioning program should have Hughes more prepared in Spring Training, and there’s no lingering dead arm/innings jump to worry about.

* * *

This whole fifth starter thing is just a weird situation. I want Hughes to get the job but I expect them to give it to Burnett, all while Garcia is the one that actually deserves it based on merit. Anyway, let’s get to the poll…

Who should be the fifth starter when the season starts?
View Results

Looking Ahead To The April Schedule

(Photo bia Mike Segar/Reuters)

According to our little Spring Training Countdown in the sidebar, we’re just 24 days away from pitchers and catchers reporting for duty in Florida. That’s the most exciting non-news days of the year — all the players have to do is inform the team that they’re physically in the Tampa area — but it gets us that much closer to baseball. Soon after will be full squad workouts and Spring Training games, and before you know it, the regular season.

The fun starts before the regular season though. The Yankees will play two exhibition games against the Marlins in their new stadium (April 1st and 2nd), the first games played by two big league clubs in the building, and that’s pretty cool. The Cubs did the honors when the New Yankee Stadium opened in 2009, if you remember. After that, the Yankees will wrap up their exhibition schedule with two games against the Mets, take a day off, then start the regular season. Let’s preview the awesomeness of April…

April 6th-8th @ Rays
Opening Day! The Yankees start the 2012 season at their home away from home in Tampa, and will face a Rays lineup rebuilt with noted Yankees-killer Carlos Pena and the insufferable Luke Scott. Old pal Jose Molina will be behind the plate as well. Hopefully these three games go better than the last three games of 2011, when the Yankees got swept at Tropicana Field in what would have been heartbreaking fashion had the games meant anything to them.

April 9th-11th @ Orioles
The most boring series of the month is the second one, a three gamer in Baltimore against the nondescript Orioles. We’ll probably get to see new imports Tsuyoshi Wada and Wei-Yin Chen on the mound, but otherwise it’s the same old Orioles. At least we can still despise Buck Showalter. I’m sure there will be a ton of Yankees fans in the house even though it’s a mid-week series.

April 13th-15th vs. Angels
After a day off, the Yankees come home to Yankee Stadium for the first time this season and welcome Albert Pujols, C.J. Wilson, and the rest of the Angels to the Bronx. We’re all familiar with Wilson from his time with the Rangers, but Pujols has never played in the New Stadium and has only played six career games against the Yankees, none since 2005. He’ll play six games in the Boogie Down in 2012 alone.

April 16th-19th vs. Twins
A midweek four-game series against Minnesota isn’t anything to write home about, though the Yankees do completely own the Twinkies, especially at home. Did you know they’re 63-20 against the Twins during the Ron Gardenhire era (including playoffs)? That’s a .759 winning percentage, or a 123-win pace over a full season. Furthermore, the Yankees are 33-7 against them in the Bronx, and four of those losses were at the hands of Johan Santana when he was in his heyday. Pretty crazy.

April 20th-22nd @ Red Sox
Once they’re done having their way with the Twinkies, it’s off to Boston for the first Red Sox series of the year. I do loathe these series only because of the over-hyped drama and the fact that it’s a weekend series, which means FOX and ESPN are going to get involved. That and the fact that the Yankees also seem to lose to the Red Sox in the first half of the season before pounding on them in the second half. Nothing sends fans to the ledge quite like an early-season series loss to the Sawx.

April 23rd-25th @ Rangers
The Yankees will fly to Texas following the Sunday night game, and with any luck, we’ll get a look at Yu Darvish during these three games. Hopefully it’s not a long look, maybe an inning or two before the bullpen has to get involved, but the odds are in favor of him starting one of those games. Neftali Feliz too, I hope to see him in his new starting role. Imagine if we get a CC Sabathia-Darvish and/or a Michael Pineda-Neftali matchup? Oh boy.

April 27th-29th vs. Tigers
A day off follows the three games in Texas, then the Yankees will come back home for quick little six-game homestand. First they’ll look to exact some revenge for last year’s ALDS loss to the Tigers, but Detroit is going to bring new addition Prince Fielder to town. He and Miguel Cabrera will invoke memories of David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez circa 2004-2007, so just be thankful they’re in another division.

The Yankees wrap up their April schedule with a home series against the Orioles that carries over into May, then they’ll fade into the monotony and grind of the regular season. They’re going to see the three biggest contracts handed out this winter during the first month of 2012, assuming they catch a Darvish start. It’s a tough schedule for the Yankees, but as a baseball fan, it will be fun to see all those players with their new teams.

Mailbag: Brown and Heyward

(Brown via Getty; Heyward via AP)

Poindexter asks: Cashman is looking for a young controlled bat via trade. Do we have the pieces to land Domonic Brown or Jason Heyward?

As they look to replace Jesus Montero‘s since traded bat, Brian Cashman said one of the options they’re exploring is a trade for a young bat using one of their young pitchers. Dealing A.J. Burnett for a DH-type or salary relief so they could sign a free agent is another option, but I think we can all agree that that’s a long shot. No one seems to want Burnett. Using the excess pitching to land a bat makes sense, and both Brown and Heyward are qualified targets.

The Yankees just used their top trade chip, so the farm system did take a significant hit. I do believe they still have the pieces to land a young hitter of that caliber, but they won’t come cheap. As we just saw with Montero, a highly touted young hitter will cost a ton in a trade. Brown’s and Heyward’s stock might be down at the moment, but I don’t think that means their clubs are ready to pull the plug yet. They’ll ask for a massive return and rightfully so. If the Yankees want to package Phil Hughes and Manny Banuelos and more, they can do that. But I don’t think it’s realistic.

I love the idea of trading for a young bat, even if it costs Banuelos and then some. The Yankees have a clear need for a young hitter — preferably an outfielder — and a surplus of pitching at the Triple-A level. Using the position of depth to shore up the position of weakness is like, Sports GM 101. The problem is that there aren’t many of these hitters available, at least not at this point of the offseason, when Spring Training is right around the corner and every team thinks they’re ready to contend. I expect the Yankees to sign a free agent DH for peanuts a few days before the start of camp, and that will be that. Also, I’m starting to think your name really isn’t Poindexter. *shifty eyes*

Open Thread: MLB Network on Posada’s Career

I’ve been on a Jorge Posada kick lately because of his retirement, which is why I’m posting this MLB Network video looking back at his career. This Clubhouse Confidential clip about his Hall of Fame chances is worth the watch as well. I was expecting, and really hoping Posada would retire this winter because we knew the Yankees weren’t going to bring him back and I honestly didn’t want to see him wear another team’s uniform, but it’ll still take some getting used to when he’s not around next year. Kinda sucks.

* * *

Here is tonight’s open thread. Both the Knicks and Nets are playing, but all the hockey locals will be off until next week for the All-Star break. Talk about anything you like here (but politics, that gets messy), go nuts.

It’s official: Andruw’s back for another year

The Yankees announced that they’ve officially re-signed Andruw Jones to a one-year contract, meaning he passed his physical. He did have his knee scoped after the season, so the check-up was slightly more than routine. Back in December we heard that it was going to a one-year, $2M pact, and the AP has a breakdown of the plate appearance-based incentives. The 40-man roster is now full, so someone will have to get the boot when the Hiroki Kuroda signing becomes official. I ran down the list of candidates a few weeks ago. Welcome back, Mr. Jones.