As the Yankees try to get in the playoffs for the seventeenth time in the last eighteen years, Yankee fans like me have had a lot to be thankful for. It certainly is nice to have your favorite baseball team still competing every October. But I can’t help but think how many more World Series trophies would now be on display in the new Stadium’s Yankee Museum if the team’s front office were better judges of pitching ability and more efficient developers of pitching talent. Today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant provides a good example of the fabled franchise’s ongoing deficiencies in both areas.
Six seasons ago, Joba Chamberlain burst into the big leagues with some of the most impressive relief pitching I have seen in my fifty years as a fan. He didn’t just get opposing hitters out, he abused them. His ERA in 19 games, all played during pennant race crunch time was 0.38. Most of his outs were K’s and he seemed to have Mariano-like control of the strike zone. The Yankee front office promised us he would be an even better starter and I for one was sure they were right. But then the playoffs came and those stinking bugs swooped in off of Lake Erie and started swarming in Jacobs Field and consuming Joba that night on national TV, right in front of all our eyes. Chamberlain has not been the same pitcher since.
I was lucky enough to see Koufax pitch in his prime. In addition to great stuff, what made him so special was his ability to focus on what he needed to do and wanted to do with every single pitch he threw. Even when the pain in his left arm felt like a chain saw cutting through his flesh, Koufax was never distracted from focusing on the strengths and weaknesses of the hitter in front of him and what the mission of his next pitch had to be. When Joba first came up and things were going so well, I let myself think that maybe, just maybe I was looking at the next Hall of Fame Yankee pitcher. Even when the bugs attacked him, I figured any pitcher, even Koufax would be unnerved by such an occurrence. But since then, I’ve watched Joba walk too many bottom of the order types and make too many bad pitches when he’s ahead of the hitter.
It took the great Koufax a full six years at the beginning of his big league career to hit his stride. This season is Joba’s sixth in the big leagues and I was really hoping it would be the year this guy began to master the art of pitching at the big league level. But instead its been pretty much another lost season for the Lincoln, Nebraska native following his freak trampoline accident in Florida during the Yankees’ exhibition season. Chamberlain did dedicate himself to recovering and rehabbing both his arm and ankle quickly enough to get back on the mound in time for the Yankees’ 2012 stretch run but I’ve pretty much accepted the fact that he will never be the dominant pitcher I and thousands of other Yankee fans hoped he would. I’m ready to admit New York should have traded Joba instead of Ian Kennedy.
You remember Kennedy. He was one of the Holy Trinity of young Yankee hurlers that included Chamberlain and Phil Hughes, who were supposed to resurrect and anchor the Yankees starting rotation for the next decade. None of the three pitched well in their 2008 debut as starters but it was Kennedy who was banished from the Bronx while Chamberlain and Hughes kept getting new chances to redeem and redefine themselves.
I’m not sure who has been making the pitcher acquisition decisions or who’s in charge of young pitcher development for the Yankees but neither has done their job too well over the past decade. From Jeff Weaver for Ted Lilly, the signing of Kevin Brown, giving up on Contreras, getting Jared Wright, Denny Neagle, Karl freaking Pavano, Randy Johnson with a bad back, spending the farm on a second go-round with Clemens then trying to go save money on your eighth inning set-up slot with names like Veras, Vizcaino and Proctor, giving AJ all those years and all that cash, going after Igawa and Vazquez II. Those moves cost millions of Yankee dollars and helped facilitate several quick exits from postseason. Then there’s the whole Joba Rules thing and the “Who’s the real Phil Hughes” game show being played out the past few seasons. How come there were no “Ivan Rules” being enforced? And what on earth has happened to the three Killer B’s who were supposed to anchor the Yankees’ starting rotation for the next decade? I love Curtis Granderson but it sure would have been nice to have both him and Ian Kennedy in pinstripes the last couple of seasons. The Yankees could really use a bottle of Windex to clean that crystal ball they’ve been using to see the future of their pitching personnel, but hey, 16 postseasons in 17 years, I got nothing to complain about.
This former Yankee GM shares Joba’s birthday. Today is also the third birthday of my precious granddaughter, Francesca Rose Cinquanti. Her parents got the inspiration for her name from Yankee catcher Francisco Cervelli. Happy 2nd Birthday Frankie! Poppi loves you with all my heart!
While researching materials for this post, I came across an absolutely wonderful quote from today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant. In a July 1988 interview he did with then Times reporter (and present-day YES Network analyst) Jack Curry, Bob Geren was asked why he had endured over 800 games as a Minor League catcher. “People who think I should quit have probably never experienced the game of baseball,” was Geren’s response. So many of us who grew up playing different versions of America’s favorite pastime; in playgrounds and parks; off the steps of front porches and against solid brick walls; from the time we became strong enough to hold and swing a bat until our knees gave out in our final game of softball; we all would have instantly switched places with Geren on that day.
He had just been named the International League’s All Star catcher for the ’88 season and earlier that same year, he had gotten to play in his first big league game for the New York Yankees. The following year, Geren got called up from Columbus in May and pretty much shared the Yankees’ catching position the rest of that season, hitting a solid .288 and impressing the Yankee brass with his handling of the Yankee pitching staff and his strong throwing arm. But if you’re old enough to remember that 1989 Yankee season than you know it wasn’t too hard to stand out on that team. That was the first Yankee squad to finish below .500 in a regular season in fifteen years. Neither Dallas Green or his late-season predecessor, Bucky Dent could right the ship and George Steinbrenner was far too immersed in the aftereffects of his Dave Winfield/Howie Spira embarrassment to offer any help from ownership.
The following April, Geren joined illustrious company like Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Ellie Howard and Thurman Munson when he was named the Yankees’ Opening Day starting catcher for the 1990 season. Unfortunately for the native of San Diego, that’s where the comparisons to these pinstriped legends ended. Not only did the Yankees finish in last place for the first time in 23 years, Geren’s batting average plummeted to .211 and not a single Yankee starting pitcher won more than nine games that season or had an ERA of less than 4.11. It was a complete shipwreck of a season for the once proud franchise and a quick end to Geren’s tenure as New York’s starting backstop. The following year, New York brought in Matt Nokes from Detroit and Geren was once again relegated to back-up duty. But in addition to losing the starting job, Geren also confirmed he had lost his ability to hit big-league pitching when his 1991 season’s batting average came in at just .219. That November, the Yankees put the then 30-year-old catcher on waivers.
Geren would resurface as the Padres backup receiver in 1993 but he again failed to hit and his big league playing career ended that season. He became a minor league coach and manager. In 2007, he was hired to manage the Oakland A’s. Finally, in 2010, a Major League team that Bob Geren either played for or managed, ended a regular season without a losing record when that year’s A’s finished at 81-81. After Oakland got off to a slow start in 2011, Geren was fired and replaced by Bob Melvin.
|NYY (4 yrs)||249||680||620||54||147||15||1||19||70||0||36||151||.237||.284||.356||.641|
|SDP (1 yr)||58||162||145||8||31||6||0||3||6||0||13||28||.214||.278||.317||.596|
You most likely never heard of today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant but he was the valuable fourth outfielder on the Yankees first-ever World Championship team in 1923. Smith played 70 games for Manager Miller Huggins’ team that year. Back then the Yankees would frequently switch Babe Ruth and Bob Meusel between left and right field. The left-hand hitting Smith would usually play right field against right handed pitching with Babe in left. He thrived in that role, hitting .306 with 7 home runs and 35 RBIs in just 183 at bats.
The native of Erie County, Ohio had been an outfielder for the Indians during most of his big league career, which had been interrupted by military service during WWI. Smith’s best big league season was 1920, when he hit .316 for Cleveland with 103 RBIs. In Game 5 of that year’s World Series between Cleveland and Brooklyn, he hit the first Grand Slam in World Series history. He had been traded to Boston during the 1922 regular season and the Yankees had acquired him and Joe Dugan from the Red Sox a year later. Perhaps Smith’s biggest contribution to Yankee history was the January 7, 1924 transaction that sent him and $50,000 of Yankee owner Jake Ruppert’s money to the Louisville Colonels of the American Association in exchange for center-fielder and future Hall of Famer, Earle Combs. Smith ended up living in Kentucky after his playing days were over and he died there in 1984, at the age of 91.
|CLE (7 yrs)||672||2491||2185||328||615||135||41||46||379||40||219||250||.281||.350||.444||.794|
|WSH (2 yrs)||80||325||285||20||62||14||6||2||44||5||23||42||.218||.283||.330||.613|
|NYY (2 yrs)||91||239||210||31||61||6||2||8||40||3||24||26||.290||.363||.452||.816|
|BOS (1 yr)||73||264||231||43||66||13||6||6||32||0||25||21||.286||.358||.472||.830|
|CIN (1 yr)||96||320||284||47||77||13||7||8||46||6||28||20||.271||.339||.451||.789|