When Mariano Rivera tore his ACL shagging fly balls during a Yankee batting practice in Kauffman Stadium’s outfield last May, I thought David Robertson’s moment with destiny had arrived. I was sure it would be D-Rob and not the much higher-salaried Rafael Soriano who would be given the opportunity to replace the greatest closer ever to play the game and I was right. The next day it was Robertson who Joe Giardi summoned to pitch the ninth inning of a CC Sabathia 6-2 victory over Kansas City. Back at Yankee Stadium against the Rays a few days later, it was again D-Rob who got the call in the ninth inning, this time in a save situation. I can distinctly remember wondering how Soriano felt that night watching Robertson walk to the mound in a save situation against the team Raffie had left to take millions of Yankee dollars.
Robertson got the save that night but it wasn’t pretty. He walked two batter and gave up a hit. Yankee fans had gotten use to seeing Robertson put men on base and then wiggle his way out of it. But that was when he was Rivera’s set-up man. Now, as closer, that wiggle room seemed a lot less spacious to Yankee fans and maybe Robertson noticed the difference too. The next night he got shelled for four runs against the same Tampa team, blowing the save and losing the game. The following night, Girardi turned to Soriano to close out the final game of the series and you could feel the torch being passed. A couple nights later, Robertson finished a game in Seattle (a non-save-situation) and the a few days later he was placed on the DL with a strained muscle in his rib cage, which could have been the result of a young pitcher trying too hard in his effort to replace a legend.
Now that Soriano opted out of his Yankee contract after the 2012 season, Robertson is again the favorite to replace Mariano, who announced in spring training that the 2013 season would be his last one. I believe D-Rob will benefit from his first attempt at closer and be much better prepared mentally to take over the role the next time he is given the opportunity, if the Yankees let there be a next time.
Robertson was born in Birmingham, AL, on April 9, 1985. He was a 17th round pick for New York in the 2006 draft. He was 4-0 during his first big league season in 2008 and has a 16-13 cumulative record as a Yankee, through the 2012 season and he has struck out 351 hitters in the 262 innings he has pitched for New York.
Ten years before Robertson joined the Yankee bullpen, this lefty reliever, also born on April 9th, was a key member of New York’s relief corps. This long-ago starting pitcher also shares D-Rob’s birthday.
The 1939 season was an historic year for the New York Yankee franchise. It is probably best remembered as the season Lou Gehrig’s consecutive game playing streak and remarkable Yankee career both came to a tragic end. It was also the year that the team, under manager Joe McCarthy, captured a record fourth straight World Series crown. The 1939 Yankees were also the only team in franchise history to have seven pitchers achieve at least ten wins during the same regular season. Hall of Famer, Red Ruffing led the staff with 21 victories. Atley Donald was next with 13. Another Hall of Famer, Lefty Gomez won a dozen as did Bump Hadley and Monte Pearson. Reliever, Steve “Smokey” Sundra chipped in with 11. All six of these guys had also pitched for New York the year before. In ’39 they were joined by today’s Birthday Celebrant, Oral Hildebrand. The Yankees had picked the big right hander up in a trade with the St Louis Browns after winning the 1938 World Series. At the time of the trade, Hildebrand was a 31-year-old eight-year veteran and one-time All Star, who had led the American League with six shutouts in 1933, while pitching for Cleveland. He became the sixth Yankee pitcher to achieve 15 starts during the 1939 season. He ended up winning 10 of his 14 decisions.
Jason Giambi’s mediocre defensive talents at first base were a source of constant consternation for Joe Torre and the Yankee front office. When he first joined the club as a prized free agent in 2002, the Giambino’s offensive production was good enough to offset his weakness
in the field but over the years, as his hitting declined, his defensive deficiencies became more of a net negative. So beginning in 2004, the
Yankees began employing what I’ve come to refer to as the “Affordable Gloves for Giambi” initiative. These were first basemen who could field better than Jason and who were willing to play for what the Yankee’s then considered were “modest” salaries. In 2004, Giambi’s glove was Tony Clarke. Then in 2005, the Yankees handed the job to an aging Tino Martinez. In 2006, as Giambi’s contract was nearing its end, the team took a new approach by giving the role to a first base prospect in the Yankee’s Minor League organization. That turned out to be today’s Birthday Celebrant.
Andy Phillips had hit 80 home runs during his three previous seasons in New York’s farm system when he assumed the “Glove for Giambi” role in April of 2006. The Yankees had selected the Tuscaloosa, AL native in the seventh round of the 1999 draft out of the University of Alabama, so he was already 29-years-old when given the opportunity to become the Yankee’s regular first baseman. He turned out to be solid defensively but as a right handed hitter, his power was marginalized by Yankee Stadium. He hit just .240 that first season and his on-base percentage was a very-low .288.
He found himself back in the minors to start the 2007 season as the Yankees opened that year with former Gold Glove winner and World Series Game 4 ball-stealer, Doug Mientkiewicz at first. When Mientkiewicz got hurt in June of that year, Phillips was called up to replace him and he did that rather well. Andy hit .292 in 61 games that year plus he played flawless defense at first base, handling 408 chances without making an error. Despite the improved effort, the Yankee front office decided Phillips was not in their plans for the future and released him after the 2007 season. He was picked up by the Reds and even played a few games for the Mets in 2008 but was back in the minors the following year and playing in Japan, during the 2010 season.
Phillips shares his April 6th birthday with another Yankee prospect who was trying to work his way up New York’s farm team chain the same time as Andy. This Yankee pitching prospect, also born on April 6th tried to make the same climb three decades earlier.
Today’s birthday celebrant was the first starting third baseman in Yankee franchise history. His name was William Edward Conroy but he was better known to everyone as Wid. He was born In Philadelphia on April 5, 1877. After the 1902 season, he jumped from the National League’s pennant winning Pittsburgh Pirates to the new AL franchise in the Big Apple which was then known as the Highlanders. On Opening Day of the 1903 season, he batted sixth in the Highlander’s first ever lineup. During his six seasons playing for New York, Conroy was one of the teams better offensive players. He had decent power, leading New York in home runs with 4 during the 1906 season. He was also a good base runner and gifted base stealer. In fact, old Wid is still tied for sixth place on the Yankee franchise’s all-time list of stolen bases with 186. In 1909, the Yankees sold Conroy to the Senators, where he finished his playing career in 1911.
Conroy was New York’s starting third baseman for three of his six seasons on the team, playing mostly in the outfield the rest of the time. Here’s the list of top five Yankee third baseman by the number of years they started at the hot corner for New York:
Today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant is best known for his involvement in one of the most publicized deals in both Yankee and Major League Baseball history. The trade did not take place between two ball clubs and did not require anyone to switch uniforms. Instead, after a dinner party one evening at the home of New York Post sportswriter, Maury Allen, Yankee pitchers Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson agreed to trade families. Kekich’s wife and two daughters would move in with Peterson and Fritzie’s wife and two sons would live with Kekich. As it turned out, Kekich got the short end of that deal.
The left handed fire-baller was once considered the next Sandy Koufak, when the Dodgers drafted him in 1964. He got a chance to pitch with the great one the following season, when LA brought him up for a look-see as a 20-year-old, just before the All Star break. Kekich’s problem on the mound was control. He walked almost as many as he struck out. The Dodgers used him as a starter in 1968 and when he finished that year with a 2-10 record, he was traded to the Yankees for outfielder Andy Kosco. The only thing I remember about that transaction was that it officially converted my big brother Jerry into an ex-Yankee fan for life because for some reason, Andy Kosco was his favorite player.
Over the next four seasons, Kekich evolved into a decent starter for some pretty mediocre Yankee teams. In fact, by 1971, the Yankees had put together a five-man rotation that looked as if it could help get the Yankees back into the pennant picture for seasons to come. In addition to Kekich and Peterson, it included ace Mel Stottlemyre, Stan Bahnsen and Steve Kline, all of whom were younger than 30 and each of whom won in double figures during that ’71 season. Instead, the Yankees proceeded to inexplicably trade Bahnsen for some guy named Rich McKinney and then Peterson and Kekich made that infamous trade of their own.
The family swap worked out for Fritz and Susanne Kekich. The two are still married today. Marilyn Peterson and her two boys left Kekich days after the exchange took place and the pitcher’s personal life and baseball career were pretty much turned upside down. After starting the 1973 season as a Yankee, Kekich was traded to Cleveland for a pitcher named Lowell Palmer. He lasted just one season with the Indians and then started pitching on any team and in any country that would have him. During that period of his life Kekich almost died when he ruptured his spleen trying to break up a player brawl in a Venezuelan league game and almost died again when his motorcycle struck a police car in California. By 1980 he was playing baseball in Mexico by day and enrolled in a course to become a medical doctor, at night. That didn’t work for him either.
Eventually, Kekich did remarry and now lives in New Mexico. He was born in San Diego on this date in 1945. That’s him sitting in the foreground in the above photo next to his first wife, Susan, with Fritz and Marilyn Peterson sitting behind them. He shared his wife with Peterson and he shares his April 2nd birthday with another former Yankee starting pitcher and this former Yankee outfielder.