- Gary Miller, MLB commentator
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Imagine though, if the Yankees didn't have a 9½-game lead coming into the weekend, and hadn't come back from an almost certain 2-0 hole in their series with Oakland, only to rebound in extra innings on Wednesday and knock the A's out of first place the next afternoon. New York has already exceeded last year's 41 come-from-behind wins, but of course in the Big Apple, it has to be analyzed as to why that is a bad thing. The subtext is, the Yankees starting pitching isn't doing much of a job, digging frequent, early holes. But with the brilliance of Kevin Brown on Thursday, if he can stay healthy, and Mike Mussina's return, that situation could be well on its way to mending.
They are able to stage comebacks, not only because of a powerful lineup, but also because their bullpen keeps them in games. Although my colleague Jeff Brantley doesn't see Paul Quantrill, Tom Gordon and Mariano Rivera being 1-2-3 in the league in appearances as a concern, most people do. All on the far side of 35 years old with considerable wear and tear in recent seasons, Quantrill is also pitching on one leg, with a knee brace on his left that makes what he's accomplishing all the more remarkable. Quantrill's on pace to go over 80 appearances for the third straight year, and probably could hit 90 which would give him a third straight season of new career standards in games. Only Mike Marshall and Kent Tekulve have been used more in as short a span. Marshall logged 263 appearances from 1972-74, (including the all-time record 106 in 1974), Tekulve doing the same from 1978-80. Both of them were just turning 30 at the time. If Quantrill's knees hold up, (they're both troublesome) and he hits 90 appearances, (which would tie him with Marshall for the AL record), he'll have 265 trips to the mound in the last three seasons and 345 in the last four. Unprecedented. After that daily trio, there's little else. Felix Heredia's been shipped out to the Billy Connors re-finishing school, and C.J. Nitkowski is now with his sixth organization, and trying to do what he couldn't in pitching-starved stops like Detroit, Cincinnati, and Texas.
These concerns of excess are all part of being a Yankee, as Gary Sheffield is finding out firsthand. He's won a championship in Florida, been in Dodger blue, played with the NL-dominating Braves, but nothing is like coming to New York. Roger Clemens realized the same thing, and it's no coincidence that Sheffield inhabits the locker stall that the Rocket abandoned, or that Sheffield got his 400th home run in pinstripes just as Clemens got his 300th win. Joining David Kingman as the only members of the 400-Homer Club to play for as many as half a dozen teams, Sheffield is immersed in the experience of being a Yankee. As he put it, "every day, every game, is just like a playoff game here. When you get to the park, there are hundreds of people waiting, telling you, 'you better beat these guys today.' It starts in your neighborhood, at the store or the cleaners, that's All anyone cares about is winning." It took awhile for Sheffield to get acclimated, hitting just one home run in his first month as a Yankee. Now he leads the team in RBI, has been on a power rampage lately, and perfectly complements the aloof grace of Alex Rodriguez and the grit of the captain Derek Jeter. Sheffield frequently talks to his mom, Betty, back in St. Petersburg, Fla., and even though she told him to "get it over with already" on the way to No. 400, he's getting a special plaque and engraving for the ball to give to her. Betty happens to be "Uncle Doc's" older sister. Uncle Doc happens to be Dwight Gooden, who calls almost everyday to remind his little nephew "not to swing at bad pitches" and what opposing pitchers are going to be trying to do to him. Too bad Gooden's not a real Doctor. Sheffield is holding off as long as he can on a second cortisone shot for his left shoulder, which some days he can't lift above his head. It makes playing right field resemble a stress test, and he's also battling through a torn ligament in his thumb, but still doing more damage than he's enduring.
While Sheffield prepares to make his mom's day with the 400th home run ball, the A's Bobby Crosby got what probably will be his most-cherished item until he receives the Rookie of the Year Award. Waiting in the visiting clubhouse to play the Yankees in the rubber game of their series, Crosby was presented with a signed bat from Jeter that had him beaming. Both Jeter and A-Rod singled out the Oakland rookie the first time they played against each other to tell him how impressed they were with his game. It's meant everything to Crosby, who emulated Jeter as a teenager in high school and college. He rose to the level of his audience this week in Yankee Stadium with a pair of superlative defensive plays in Tuesday's win, and another Thursday afternoon.
No token of appreciation registered deeper in the heart than what Eric Chavez did for his third-base coach Ron Washington this spring. The day he received his third Gold Glove award, he left if in Washington's locker. Often the butt of practical jokes and a big part of one of the most colorful clubhouses in the majors, Washington assumed it was a joke -- until he saw that Chavez had signed it. Even now, months later, Washington is nearly brought to tears thinking about it. As he put it, "that's the only way I'm ever gonna get a Gold Glove." It's the third for Chavez, whom Washington says "loves to figure out everything on his own" and work and work until he does. But he praised Chavez for his efforts, patience, and diligence in letting "Wash" help him. To Washington, it all comes down to footwork and balance. Washington is a huge part of the A's having the best fielding team in the American League, and he credits his approach to his mentor growing up in the Dodgers' system, Chico Fernandez. As Washington put it, "most people see symptoms, I see a problem." Then he goes about fixing the problem. Five-time Gold Glover and current A's broadcaster Ray Fosse is gonna help Wash with how best to display his cherished Chavez Gold Glove, fixing up a special case and plaque to feature it in his living room.
Another unheralded A's coach is hitting instructor Dave Hudgens. Two weeks ago, Eric Byrnes broke out of an 0-for-15 slump with the first opposite-field homer of his career. This week, Byrnes was player of the week. A notorious feast-or-famine hitter, now that the high-octane Byrnes has moved away from dead pull all the time, perhaps the dry spells won't be quite as deep. It's a trap Damian Miller fell into even as he was becoming the ultimate defensive catcher in receiving Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, Carlos Zambrano, Matt Clement, and now Hudson, Zito and Mulder. Career lows of .233, nine homers and just 36 RBI in hitter-friendly Wrigley Field had helped get Miller shipped out of Chicago to replace the popular, defensive and offensively gifted Ramon Hernandez. Miller said he knew last year he was deep in the rut of trying to pull everything, but he couldn't break out of it. This winter he worked on going the other way, and continued this spring on into the season with Hudgens, and is now well on his way to setting career bests in the three major offensive categories, including hitting over .300 much of the season.
The A's continue to lead the majors in raunchiest pre-game entertainment; from Bobby Kielty's still unmentionable homemade CD to outakes from "Bad Santa" two weeks ago, and now a bootleg copy of "Dodgeball" in the hallowed halls of the Yankee Stadium clubhouse. It may seem like sacrilege, but sooner or later, the walls of the house that Ruth built are coming down. Yet another proposal on a new Yankee Stadium goes before Mayor Michael Bloomberg's desk in the coming month, and with this one coming almost exclusively with private funding, and in the $750-million dollar range, George Steinbrenner may finally get the city's approval to fund the surrounding improvements to parks and transportation. It would be built across 161st street from the existing shrine, and while the seating would be reduced to about 50,000, there would be an all-important 50 corporate suites. Also tantalizing to Steinbrenner, who currently pays about $60 million in revenue sharing for his excessive payroll; about $40 million of that could be subtracted for stadium expenses. Although Yankee Stadium is still on the hallowed ground, the seating is drastically different. Maris' 61st homer likely would have been a flyout in the new park configuration, and even the storied clubhouses underwent dramatic renovations, to the point you couldn't even say "this is where" Maris, Mantle, Ruth or Gehrig dressed after 1974. Until the late 40's, the Yankees were on the third-base side, so DiMaggio and those that pre-dated him all dressed in what's now the visitor's space. For now, the plan is to preserve most of the existing building, although much of it will be parking.
If you want to talk some Yankees lineage, how about Willie Randolph's son playing with Rickey Henderson on the Newark Bears, the guy he used to torment in that clubhouse as a little kid.
Was hoping to bring you the latest edition of entertainment celebrities at the ballpark, but Yankee Stadium security wouldn't let us get near Christie Brinkley during a day game. This week, the diamondmen turned the tables with Oakland manager Ken Macha inviting Ron Washington to join him for a taping of the "Late Show with David Letterman." Wash is more of a Leno man, but he was intrigued at the process and got to see the final taping before Letterman's summer vacation. He also was educated by the two author guests, Al Franken, and "novelist" Pamela Anderson.
It's always fun to watch major leaguers interact with someone they admire, like last Sunday in San Francisco when Tony La Russa's long-time Bay Area buddy Bill Walsh stopped by the clubhouse with his son Craig. Both Mike Matheny and Scott Rolen were at a loss for words with the Hall of Fame coach, but they did go on to beat the Giants that night. Neither La Russa or Walsh could remember when they first met, with Walsh coaching the 49ers and La Russa taking over the A's. La Russa said Walsh set the championship tone in the area which his A's tried to emulate in the late 80s. Walsh doesn't get to many games, but does visit when he can when La Russa or Dusty Baker are back in town.
While everyone tries to figure out what the Cardinals' weakness is (leaning toward what's up with Matt Morris?), don't overlook something that gets overshadowed by the bop of Rolen, Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds. Their bullpen depth. While many contending teams search for one quality left-handed reliever (re: Yankees, Angels, Braves, Cubs, and now Dodgers), the Cardinals have two. Sunday night in San Francisco, Ray King batted for the first time since 2001. Having entered in the seventh to get pinch-hitter Ricky Ledee, King stayed in with Michael Tucker, J.T. Snow and Barry Bonds due up -- and he got them in order. King even did his trademark, ask for a new ball while walking in to stare down Bonds during his at-bat. He got him to tap to first. The night before, Kline froze Bonds on a called third strike in a crucial spot. With the unheralded Kiko Calero and workhorses Cal Eldred and Julian Tavarez, they've allowed a revitalized Jason Isringhausen being able to work exclusively in the ninth; no other team comes close to the combination of shutdown from the mound, and beat up from the box.
King came on to get Ledee, who never did get to hit in his first appearance since being traded from the Phillies. Lifted for pinch-hitter Dustin Mohr once King came in, Ledee didn't get so much as a plate appearance in his debut, just a PA. announcement and a visit to the on-deck circle. It's an adjustment for Ledee, who's keeping his sense of humor despite the sting of being traded. When I asked what Felipe Alou had told him about where he'd be playing, Ledee said, "left." Actually, he may give Bonds the occasional day off, but mostly he'll sub for Marquis Grissom in center field, and back up Michael Tucker. With a perfect opportunity to blast Larry Bowa now that he was no longer a Phillie, Ledee had nothing but praise for his former skipper, saying the team doesn't feel about him the way it's portrayed. Although Bowa can be fiery and emotional, the players understand and accept that. He enjoyed playing for Bowa and thought he was treated fairly. And this is from a part-timer. He leaves behind many good friends in Philadelphia, including Bobby Abreu, Tomas Perez, Placido Polanco and Doug Glanville, and still feels they can make the playoffs. (That was before Pat Burrell went down and Billy Wagner made an appointment to see Dr. Frank Jobe.) Even though Ledee's now with his fifth organization, he didn't have any existing relationships in the SBC Park clubhouse when he got there. The only guys he really knew were Joe Lefevre, who was his minor league hitting instructor when he broke in, and Brian Sabean, who scouted and drafted him as the Yankees scouting director and vice president of player development in 1990.
Giants lefty bullpen ace Scott Eyre is in his forth organization, having been drafted by Texas, traded to the White Sox, then Toronto, then waived by the Blue Jays and signed by San Francisco. But Eyre stays grounded no matter whose hat he dons. Under the bill he writes "Millwood" along one side. That's his nickname from the minor leagues, bestowed upon him by Birmingham teammate Brian Woods, who never made it to the big leagues. The nickname did, however, because of Eyre's resemblance to the nerdy "Simpson's" character back in the days when Eyre wore glasses. Also written in sharpee on the other side, are his wife Laura's initials, and those of son Caleb and Jacob. In the middle of the bill is the No. 31. That's for good friend Robb Nen, who is taking the summer off in San Diego, where Eyre visits him when they play the Padres. Two more failed attempts at comebacks this year after three shoulder surgeries following the 2002 World Series season, and Nen's facing the inevitable. He told Eyre, he'll try one more time in September to see if he can begin to rehabilitate the shoulder and throw again, finally pain-free. If it still won't respond, he's "had a great career, and couldn't have asked for anything more." Although we may never see Robb Nen take the mound in the majors again, he's out there every time Felipe Alou calls on Eyre, which so far has been nearly 60 times.
Now let's come full circle on the Yankees and Loaiza, who had to shave the goatee he'd sported since he first came up to the big leagues in 1995, to comply with Steinbrenner's ban on excessive facial hair. With ESPN-25's Welcome Home week set to commence, and Charley Steiner about to be reunited with Bob Ley in midweek, I wondered how the Yankees' announcer was able to get that beard through the ban. He said, "hey, I'm in radio." I said, "yeah, but you're still a Yankee." Gary Thorne reminded me you "don't wanna see Charley without that beard." In a tribute to Jayson Stark's Useless Information Department, Charley informed me, this is the 20th anniversary of the last time he went "beardless ... for a day, in 1984, when I first got back from the Olympics." And now you know the rest of the story.
Gary Miller is a reporter and play-by-play announcer for ESPN's major league baseball coverage.
News and notes from around the majors, including Gary Sheffield's acclimation to life in the Bronx Zoo.