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Forgive Gene Michael if he looks a little dazed in his 1969
Topps card. He’s shown as a member of the Yankees, even though he’s wearing the
colors of the Pirates, a team that he hadn’t played for since 1966. Somehow
Topps could not find a picture of Michael with either the Yankees or the
Dodgers, the team that actually traded him to the Yankees.
Now that I’ve thoroughly confused you, I can tell you this without
hesitation: Michael’s move to New
York, which coincided with the start of the 1968
season, helped change his career for the better, more subtly in the short term
and quite significantly over the long haul.
At one time traded for Maury Wills, Michael had fallen into disfavor
with the Dodgers because of his lack of hitting. After the 1967 season, the
Dodgers dealt him to the Yankees, where he would eventually replace Tom Tresh
as the starting shortstop. Like many shortstops of the era, Michael couldn’t
hit worth a damn, but he could field the position with a smooth alacrity that
the Yankees hadn’t seen since the prime years of Tony Kubek.
It was during his Yankee years that Michael established a
reputation as the master of the hidden ball trick. With the runner at second
base thinking that the pitcher already had the ball, Michael would blithely
move toward him and then place a tag on the unsuspecting victim before showing
the ball to the umpire. It’s a play that major leaguers occasionally pull off
in today’s game, but Michael did it with a stunning degree of frequency, at
least five times that have been documented. Considering that the hidden ball
trick relies on heavy doses of surprise and deception, it’s remarkable that
Michael was able to execute it more than once or twice. He was that good at it.
The hidden ball trick epitomized Michael’s intelligence. He
had little obvious talent, possessing no power, average speed, and an overall
gawkiness that came with his rail-like frame of six feet, two inches, and a
mere 180 pounds. Yet, he was surprisingly athletic, enough to have starred as a
college basketball player at Kent
State, where his lean
look earned him the nickname of “Stick.” As a major league shortstop, he made
up for his lack of footspeed and arm strength with good hands and quick feet,
and by studying the tendencies of opposing hitters and baserunners. How good
was Michael defensively? I’d call him a poor man’s Mark Belanger. Like Michael,
Belanger was tall and thin, and overmatched at the plate. But Belanger was
arguably the best defensive shortstop of his era, so it’s no insult to put Michael
in a slightly lower class of fielders.
Michael served the Yankees well as their starting shortstop
from 1969 to 1973, but age and injuries began to catch up with him in 1974. At
the age of 36, Michael received his unconditional release. He eventually signed
with the Tigers, where he played sparingly in 1975, before being returned to
the unemployment line. In February of 1976, Stick signed with the dreaded Red
Sox, but he could do no more than earn a minor league assignment. In May, the
Red Sox released Michael, who never did appear in a game for Boston.
With his playing career over, Michael quickly embarked on
his second life in baseball. George Steinbrenner, remembering him as one of the
original Yankees from his first year as ownership, gave him a job as a coach.
From there Stick became a front office executive and then a two-time Yankee
manager, serving separate stints in 1981 and ’82. Like all Yankee managers of that era, Michael
was fired. He left the organization to manage the Cubs, where he clashed with his
new boss, Dallas Green.
After a brief respite from the reign of Steinbrenner,
Michael eventually returned to the Bronx. In
1990, the Yankees, by now a struggling team and a near laughingstock, made one
of the most important moves in franchise history. They hired Michael as general
manager. I was working as a sports talk show host at the time; I remember being
very critical of Michael, who seemed unwilling to pull the trigger on big
trades. Well, Michael knew a lot more about constructing a ballclub than I did.
He set out to rebuild the Yankees’ farm system, while resisting the temptation to
trade what few prospects the organization had for quick-fix veterans.
Under Michael’s stewardship, the Yankees drafted or signed
the following players: Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, and a fellow
named Mariano Rivera. That’s probably enough of a testament to Michael, but let’s
consider that he also signed Wade Boggs and Jimmy Key as free agents.
When Michael did decide to make a trade, he made a splash.
In November of 1992, Michael executed one of the most pivotal moves for the
franchise’s future. He sent Roberto Kelly, one of the team’s two young center
fielders, to the Reds for Paul O’Neill. It was a controversial deal, to say the
least. Kelly was two years younger than O’Neill, a good player certainly, but
one who was already 30 and had appeared to reach his ceiling. Michael knew what
he was doing. He realized that Kelly, who lacked patience at the plate and
passion in the field, was not as good a player as Bernie Williams, the team’s
other center fielder. He also sensed that O’Neill could blossom as a
left-handed hitter at Yankee Stadium playing for Buck Showalter. Stick was
right on both counts.
With those vital pieces in place–including a catcher, a
shortstop, a right fielder, a starting pitcher, and a closer–Michael left a
championship nucleus for Bob Watson and Brian Cashman when he stepped down as
Yankee GM in 1995.
Dazed and rejected no more, Stick Michael proved himself to
be a pretty smart guy.
The Yankees have had a productive off-season in addressing major problems in the starting rotation and at first base, but they are playing with matches when it comes to their catching. Jorge Posada won’t be ready to catch by the start of the exhibition season, calling into question his timetable in recovering from major shoulder surgery. If Posada is unable to catch more than 80 to 90 games, the Yankees will be forced to play Jose Molina more than they should–which was a major problem in 2008. The light-hitting Molina is a one-man drag on an offense and shouldn’t start more than two to three times a week. A catcher with some decent hitting skills–someone like Chris Coste, Kelly Shoppach, or free agent Javier Valentin–would come in handy for the Bombers…
The Mets made a wise pickup in signing Freddy Garcia to an incentive-laced minor league contract. Garcia hasn’t been healthy the past two seasons, but has the talent of a legitimate No. 2 starter when he’s sound. If the Mets are unable to re-sign Oliver Perez or add someone the caliber of Ben Sheets, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Garcia pitching as the fourth starter behind Johan Santana, John Maine, and Mike Pelfrey. The addition of Garcia could push Tim Redding to the No. 5 slot–or even to the bullpen…
I have no idea what the Dodgers are thinking in giving Brad Ausmus a contract that will pay him nearly $1 million this yearn to back up Russell Martin. Ausmus has always been an offensive nonentity, but now even his vaunted defense has been rendered to a state beyond diminishing returns. At 40 years of age, Ausmus no longer controls the opposition’s running game; in 2008, he threw out fewer than 20 per cent of basestealers. Even with his intangibles, he’s strictly window dressing at this stage of his career, a should-be coach in player’s clothing…
I normally avoid non-baseball topics like the plague, but sometimes the world of popular culture leaves me with no other choice. What was the Motion Picture Academy thinking in not giving a “Best Picture” nomination to The Dark Knight, which was universally heralded as one of the finest films of the past year? The organizers of the Academy Awards have long consisted of superior snobs who think that any movie doing well at the box office must be contemptible because it appeals to the “commoners.” The snubbing of The Dark Knight just places an exclamation point next to their nagging elitism. And don’t even get me started on their exclusion of Clint Eastwood from this year’s awards.
It’s almost unfathomable that only three years ago Andruw Jones hit 41 home runs and slugged .531 while playing a Gold Glove center field. Here in 2009, the Dodgers are so desperate to rid themselves of Jones, coming off a .158 campaign at the plate, that they’ve reworked his contract, reducing his current-year salary to a more manageable $5 million.
But will any team want Jones, even at that reduced rate? I wouldn’t, not unless Jones and the Dodgers were willing to cooperate. First, Jones would have to promise to lose at least 15 to 20 pounds; he’s obviously overweight, especially for a major league center fielder, a position that requires more than its share of mobility. If he doesn’t reach the weight limit by a certain date in the spring, he would stand to forfeit some salary. Additionally, with rumors flying about Jones having eye trouble, he would have to undergo a rigorous eye examination as a way of discovering some underlying problem with his vision. And then the Dodgers would have to pick up at least half of his $5 million salary for 2009, along with all of the money that they’ve arranged to defer. If all of those conditions were met, then and only then should a team like the Yankees or Braves consider making a deal to bring Jones on for a spring training look-see.
I might also be tempted to ask Jones for documentation about his actual date of birth. Jones is supposedly 31, set to turn 32 in April. Given his drastic decline over the past three seasons, it’s not unreasonable to think that Jones may have fudged his birth date at some point. Otherwise, we’d have to surmise that he’s undergone a remarkable and nearly unprecedented decline for a player who is still a relatively young man.
Obviously, Jones brings with him a surplus of risk for 2009–and beyond. But if he and the Dodgers take the necessary steps, he might become a more reasonable risk for some team that finds itself desperate to find a new center fielder.
On the surface, the Yankees appear to be preparing for life with Robinson Cano in 2009. They’ve already given Cano permission to play winter league ball for at least a month, so that he can continue using his newfound batting stance. They’ve also made arrangements to have batting coach Kevin Long work with Cano during his winter league stint. And they appear to be on the verge of hiring minor league defensive coordinator Mick Kelleher as first base coach, largely because they believe that Kelleher will have a positive influence on Cano the way that Larry Bowa once did.
But not so fast. The Yankees, despite the warning signs listed above, will likely listen to several offers for Cano, their starting second baseman who played in a cloud-filled funk for most of the season. And that’s the smart thing to do. Of all the players the Yankees are likely to deal this winter, Cano still has the most trade value. He could become the centerpiece to a deal for a starting pitcher (like Jake Peavy), a first baseman (just for the heck of it, let’s say James Loney), or an outfielder (like David DeJesus). With Cano traded, the Yankees would likely step up efforts to sign free agent second baseman Orlando Hudson, a player with which the Yankee front office is infatuated. Hudson, while five years older than Cano, would represent a significant defensive upsurge over Cano, who may lack the desire and work ethic to achieve his Gold Glove potential.
If I were the Yankees, I would dangle Cano to the Dodgers, whose manager (Joe Torre) and third base coach (Bowa) simply adore the player they came to know during their days in New York. The Yankees should find out if the Dodgers would trade Matt Kemp for Cano straight-up. Or how about Cano and Melky Cabrera for the athletic Kemp, who would give the Yankees the kind of young, power-hitting outfielder they really need? The Yankees could then use Kemp in center field for a season, before shifting him to left field in 2010, when top prospect Austin “Ajax” Jackson is projected to be ready for major league service.
Another possibility could involve the Royals, who have been dissatisfied with the lack of progress made by DeJesus. Although he hasn’t become the star that the Royals once projected him to be, DeJesus is better than any of the Yankees’ current center field options. If the Royals were willing to throw in a spare first baseman or a prospect into the deal, the Yankees might have enough to surrender Cano. As with Kemp, DeJesus could play center field for a season or two, before Jackson makes the move from Scranton-Wilkes Barre.
All things considered, trading Cano might be the Yankees’ best option in trying to upgrade their problematic center field situation this winter. There are no premier center fielders available in this year’s free agent market, whereas there are plenty of first basemen (Mark Teixeira and possibly Adam Dunn) and starting pitchers (CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Derek Lowe, among others). Furthermore, second basemen are a lot easier to find these days than are quality center fielders. Given these realities of the marketplace, the Yankees’ preferred solution might be to trade Cano after all–despite all the hype about him winning a batting title one of these years–and start moving in a different direction at second base.
More than anything, I’m thinking of Don Casey today. Don was a good friend of mine who died a year and a half ago, the victim of a heart related ailment. In addition to being a caring and outgoing guy, he was also the most loyal Phillies fan I’ve ever met, someone who was patiently waiting for a repeat of the 1980 championship season. Don left us before the Phillies could do justice to his wishes, but today he must be nodding approvingly from his perch high above us. Congratulations, Don. You deserve it…
In winning a 5-1 decision in the fifth game clincher against the Dodgers, Cole Hamels solidified his position as the best starting pitcher left standing in this postseason. I’m sure that Jon Lester’s fans will beg to differ, but he lost his No. 1 ranking to Hamels after his flameout in Game Three of the ALCS. Hamels also has the best change-up of any pitcher in this postseason; that pitch, coupled with his 94-mile per hour fastball and solid control, will make the Phillies very difficult to defeat in the first and fifth games of the upcoming World Series…
Shane Victorino’s temper tantrum against Hiroki Kuroda might have changed his name from “The Flying Hawaiian” to “Hawaiian Punch,” but his impressive defensive play in center field left a far more lasting impression with me. Few center fielders cover the right field gap the way that the rangy Victorino does. He also has a right fielder’s throwing arm, which could make for an interesting showdown against Tampa Bay’s speedy base runners, assuming the Rays are able to finish off the Red Sox. We’ve already heard plenty of comparisons between Victorino and former Phillies stalwart Lenny Dykstra. “Nails” was a better offensive player than Victorino and might have been a slightly better center fielder, but Hawaiian Punch brings exactly the same kind of energy and grit that Dykstra did during his hey day in New York and Philadelphia…
I’ve never seen Ryan Madson throw as hard as he did in pitching a scoreless eighth inning in the Game Five clincher. Madson regularly hit 97 miles per hour, giving him a nice contrast between his riding fastball and sinking change-up. Madson has always been a mystery man for the Phillies, a talented right-hander who couldn’t hold up to starting every fifth day, but has become a devastating set-up weapon in Charlie Manuel’s deep bullpen. With Madson and Chad Durbin from the right side and Scott Eyre and J.C. Romero from the left, Manuel has four terrific options for the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings of games…
So what exactly happened to the Dodgers? Other than Manny Ramirez, few of their hitters showed up in this five-game series. Dodgers cleanup batters left a dozen runners on base throughout the series, while Rafael Furcal and Andre Ethier failed to set the table in the top two spots. Furcal had a miserable series all the way around, doing his best Willie Davis impression with three errors in the fifth inning of Game Five. Then there was the managing of Joe Torre, who misused his bullpen in Game Four and mysteriously buried Matt Kemp in the seventh spot in the batting order. Kemp, who hit batted .333 in the five games, should have been batting ahead of Russell Martin and Casey Blake in the Dodger lineup. In fact, Kemp would have made perfect sense as the cleanup man behind Ramirez.
Normally masterful during the postseason, Joe Torre made a series of highly questionable bullpen moves in Game Four of the National League Championship Series, as the Dodgers absorbed their third loss in four games. The second-guessing–or was it first-guessing?–began when Torre took Derek Lowe out after five innings, despite the fact that the veteran sinkerballer had a low pitch count in the 70s and seemed to have settled in to a groove. Instead, Torre turned to rookie left-hander Clayton Kershaw, trusting the 20-year-old in a critical one-run playoff game.
Two innings later, Torre delivered the real head-scratching moment of the game. In the top of the eighth inning, he removed Hong-Chi Kuo, who had breezed through the seventh inning, replacing him with Cory Wade. After watching Wade allow a game-tying home run to Shane Victorino, Torre then summoned closer Jonathan Broxton, who proceeded to give up a game-deciding two-run shot to supersub Matt Stairs. By the end of this quagmire of befuddling bullpen moves, the Dodgers had to crawl home as 7-5 losers, putting them on the precipice of postseason elimination…
While the Phillies have taken control of the NLCS, the resurgent Rays are threatening to do the same in the American League. It’s amazing how quickly momentum can shift in these short postseason series. Let’s remember that the Red Sox, fresh off a 2-0 win in Game One, had taken an early lead in Game Two, scoring two first-inning runs against a laboring Scott Kazmir. Since that moment, the Rays have dominated the scoreboard, scoring 18 runs against one of the game’s premier pitching staffs. Their young hitters, led by B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria, have shown little fear in taking in their first doses of postseason play.
The Red Sox’ offense simply hasn’t been able to keep pace with the Rays. As good as the Red Sox are, they do not have the offensive firepower of their 2004 and 2007 editions. We all know that Manny Ramirez is gone, but it’s the back end of the lineup that really suffers, in part because of the absence of Mike Lowell. Their bottom three of Mark Kotsay, Jed Lowrie (or Alex Cora) and Jason Varitek brings little thump to the table. Kotsay is playing for the purposes of speed and defense, Varitek is virtually shot as a hitter, and Lowrie, while a good complementary player, doesn’t hit with much more than occasional power. With their offense running at something less than full efficiency, it becomes even more imperative for the Red Sox’ vaunted pitching staff to regroup and keep them close at the outset of Games Four and Five.
As the two franchises resurrect a playoff rivalry that reached its heights during the seventies and eighties, the Phillies appear to have a distinct advantage over the Dodgers in the 2008 National League Championship Series. They had by far the better record during the regular season, played much tougher competition within their division, and scored significantly more runs. Well, not so fast. The Dodgers have better pitching and a proven playoff-winning manager in future Hall of Famer Torre. Given all of these factors, this series looks exceedingly even-matched to me, giving us the distinct possibility of a Game Seven, winner-take-all situation.
For the Phillies to win, they really need to claim the games started by staff ace Cole Hamels, who is the best pitcher on either staff. If Hamels can win the first and fifth games, that leaves the Phillies needing only two wins on days when Brett Myers, Jamie Moyer, and Bulldog Blanton are starting. The non-Hamels games will be tougher ones for Philadelphia, since the pitching matchups against Chad Billingsley, Hiroki Kuroda, and an unannounced starter (either Greg Maddux or Clayton Kershaw) figure to be relative tossups. I also wonder how the lefty-throwing Moyer will fare against a Dodger lineup that has right-handed studs like Russell Martin, Manny Ramirez, and Matt Kemp.
Another key factor will involve the run differential in the games. The closer the games, the more I like Torre, who is a supremly underrated postseason skipper and should have the tactical advantage against a less strategic Charlie Manuel. While Manuel has done an exceedingly good job for the Phils over the last two seasons, his strength has never been one-upping his managerial counterparts. His handling of the bullpen sometimes leaves something to be desired, while Torre’s preference for concentrating his innings on his better relievers makes good sense in the postseason, if not as much during the regular season.
All in all, this series looks like it has a chance to match the intensity of those Phillies-Dodgers matchups from 1976 to ’78. The names have changed, from Pete Rose, Steve Garvey, and Mike Schmidt to Ryan Howard, Manny Ramirez, and Chase Utley, but the talent level, the caliber of competition, and the ultimate stakes remain high. Let’s go with the Phillies in seven, as we finally find a postseason series that manages to go the distance.