After coming up through the Yankee farm system, Al Leiter made his Major League debut in pinstripes, starting four games for New York during the 1987 season. The following year he finished 4-4 for the Yankees but was hampered by a chronic blistering problem on the fingers of his pitching hand. At the end of the first month of the 1989 season, New York traded the promising left hander to the Blue Jays for Toronto’s slugging outfielder, Jesse Barfield. Leiter bounced up and down between Toronto and the Blue Jays top farm team for the next three seasons before becoming a semi-regular member of the parent club’s starting staff in 1993. He won a World Series game and a ring that year and by 1995, he’d pitched well enough to sign a nice free agent deal with the Marlins. Al won 27 games and another World Series ring during his two years in Florida but the Marlins dealt him to the Mets in 1998 in the deal for A.J. Burnett. During the next seven seasons he pitched some very good baseball for the Amazin’s, winning 95 games, losing just 67 and pitching seven shutouts. When the Mets let him become a free agent in 2004, he went back to the Marlins, where he had compiled a 3-7 record when he was traded to the Yankees.
I remember watching him pitch his first start as a returning Yankee, a six-plus-inning, three hit victory over Boston’s Tim Wakefield. Unfortunately, Leiter’s career-long struggle with control prevented him from becoming an even more effective member of that 2005 Yankee pitching staff. He retired from baseball after that season and is now a very talented and hard-working television analyst for both the YES and MLB Networks. Al was born on October 23, 1965, in Toms River, NJ. This long-ago Yankee outfielder was also born on today’s date.
I remember when the Yankees signed Tony Womack as a free agent to become their starting second baseman for the 2005 season. He was coming off a career year with the NL Champion Cardinals but he was 35 years of age, had no real pop in his bat and didn’t seem to me to be the kind of player Yankee fans would embrace. I was right and Joe Torre evidently agreed with me because Womack lasted only a couple of dozen games as New York’s starting second baseman.
I have to admit, at first, I wasn’t a big fan of Womack’s successor either. When the Yankees brought Robinson Cano up and installed him at second base, he started off pretty slow at the plate, experienced rookie-type-lapses of concentration in the field and he had the most annoying nail-biting habit of any Yankee in history. I was screaming for the Yankees to make a deal to bring back Soriano, confident that “Canoe,” Derek Jeter’s nickname for his new teammate, would be back in Triple A before the 2005 season was over.
This fully underscores why the Yankees paid Joe Torre millions of dollars to make field decisions and never responded to my written offer to manage their team for free. Torre’s patience with his young second baseman was rewarded, when Cano did start hitting, finishing his rookie season with a .297 batting average. He also fielded brilliantly and became a key reason why the Yankees made it to the 2005 postseason.
Cano then got better in both his second and third seasons in the Bronx before he digressed in 2008. I’m not sure what happened to him that season. He made more mistakes in the field and seemed to concentrate less at the plate. Cano had always been an undisciplined hitter, swinging at nearly everything pitchers threw him but during that ’08 season, he was swinging at literally everything.
Fortunately for New York, Cano has been superb ever since, making a gigantic leap during the past three seasons to becoming the best all-around second baseman in the Major Leagues. He makes plays in the field that I’ve never seen made by any second baseman, ever. He has also become one of the game’s great offensive forces, with that special ability to both score and drive in 100 runs per season. Cano is so good and so gifted, it has become easy for fans like me to take some of the extraordinary things he does both at the plate and defensively at second base, for granted. But I don’t think I’m being unfair when I call him out for his propensity to not hustle on the base paths. When he hits a field-able ground ball he often jogs to first and when he hits fly balls deep that have a chance to go out of the park, he goes into his home run trot much too soon. If he’d get rid of both bad habits, he’d be an absolute perfect second baseman. But even if he doesn’t, he’s pretty damn close to perfect anyway.
It took big Bill Bevens eight seasons to pitch his way up the ladder of the Yankee Minor League organization in the late thirties and early forties. He may never have taken the final step if it weren’t for the parent club’s pitching shortage caused by WWII. The six foot three inch right-hander went 4-1 for the 1944 Yankee team and in the process proved he had good enough stuff to earn a shot at making the post war Yankee rotation. He then proceeded to put together 13-9 and 16-13 records for New York the following two seasons and his 2.26 ERA in 1946 was the fourth best figure in the American League. But he also threw 249 innings during that ’46 season, far more than he had ever been asked to pitch since he first broke into the minors.
The wear and tear on Beven’s right arm began to show during the 1947 regular season. His walks per inning and ERA both climbed and he won just 7 games while losing 13. Still, Yankee Manager Bucky Harris had enough faith in the Hubbard, Oregon native to start him in the fourth game of ’47 World Series versus Brooklyn. The contest took place at Ebbets Field and for eight and two thirds innings, Bevens held the Dodgers hitless. It wasn’t what you would call a masterpiece performance. Up to that point he had already walked ten guys and given up a run because of his wildness but it was the World Series for God’s sake and as he faced Dodger pinch-hitter Cookie Lavagetto with runners on first and second, there was still a big “0″ under the “H” alongside the “Home” team on the Ebbets Field scoreboard. Bevens was on the threshold of making history!
But instead, Lavagetto swung late but hard on a Bevens’ fastball and hit it down the right field line. The Yankees were playing Cookie to pull and by the time right fielder Tommy Henrich got to the ball, both Dodger base runners were well on their way to scoring the tying and game-winning runs. Fortunately for Bevens and the Yankees, New York would go on to win the Series in seven games and big Bill would pitch very well in relief in that seventh game.
Bevens then showed up at the Yankee’s 1948 spring training camp with a sore arm. The guy who was one batter away from throwing the first World Series no-hitter in big league history just four months previously, would never again throw a pitch in a big league game. After spending the first eight seasons of his professional baseball career pitching in the Minors trying to get to the Majors, Bevens spent the last six years of his career doing the exact same thing. He finally gave up trying in 1953. He died in 1991 at the age of 75.