When Jorge Posada tore his shoulder muscle during the 2008 season, the Yankees tried to make do with the backstop platoon of Jose Molina and today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant. Originally drafted by New York out of high school in 1993, Moeller decided to instead play college ball for USC. Three years later, he was the Twins seventh round pick, even though he had torn his ACL in a home plate collision on the very last play of his USC career. He made his big league debut with Minnesota in 2000 and the following spring he was traded to the Diamondbacks where he would eventually become Randy Johnson’s personal receiver.
Tall for a catcher at 6′ 3″, Moeller had decent defensive skills but he was always a below-average big league hitter. His only shot at starting had come with the Brewers in 2004 and when he averaged just .208 that season, he was destined to remain a second-string receiver for the rest of his career. If you’re going to be a backup position player and survive in the big leagues, your best shot is as a catcher since every team is forced to carry at least two of them at all times. That fact helped Moeller put together an 11-year Major League career with seven different teams.
When Posada’s shoulder started hurting during the 2008 spring training season, the Yanks signed Moeller as a free agent insurance policy. When Hip Hip Jorge’s injury did not improve, the Yanks restricted him to DH duty and brought Moeller up in mid April to back up Molina. The Upland, California native surprised everyone including me by hitting a robust .350 during that initial call-up. When it was later determined that Posada’s shoulder would require season-ending surgery, Moeller was brought back up to the Bronx where he would pretty much become the personal catcher of Yankee veteran Andy Pettitte and Yankee rookie, Darrell Rasner.
Moeller ended up appearing in 41 games for New York that year. It would have been more but neither he (Moeller finished 2008 with a .231 average) or Molina (who finished with a .216 average) were hitting well and the Yankees’ offense was sputtering. That’s why, on July 30th of that season, GM Brian Cashman acquired veteran catcher Ivan Rodriguez from the Tigers for Yankee reliever Kyle Farnesworth. Unfortunately by then, I-Rod’s best offensive days were behind him and he would end up hitting just .218 in pinstripes and the Yankees ended up missing the postseason for the first time in thirteen years. One thing Moeller did exhibit that year was an improved throwing arm. He threw out almost 40% of the runners attempting to steal off of him in 2008, a career high. His lifetime average was just 24%.
New York let Moeller become a free agent after that 2008 season. He spent the following year as a backup catcher with Baltimore. The Yankees re-signed him in April of 2010 and he played his final nine big-league games in pinstripes. He retired with 315 career hits, 29 home runs and a lifetime batting average of .226.
Long before Gladys Knight recorded Midnight Train to Georgia, Wally was the most famous Pipp in America. He succeeded the notorious Hal Chase as the regular Yankee first baseman and played brilliantly at that position for eleven consecutive seasons.
Pipp established several firsts as a Yankee first baseman. He was the first Yankee to lead the American League in home runs. He was the first Yankee starting first baseman to wear the Yankee pinstripes. He was the first one to play in the World Series. He was the first Yankee starting first baseman to play in the now-closed original Yankee Stadium and the first one to play on a world championship team, in 1923.
None of those honors mattered, however, when Pipp innocently sat out a game against the Senators on the first day of June during the 1925 season. Legend has it that he had a headache and asked Yankee skipper, Miller Huggins, for that afternoon off. Whatever the reason, Lou Gehrig, took his place and every Yankee fan knows the rest of that story.
Pipp broke into the big leagues with the Detroit Tigers in 1913 and was picked up on waivers by the Yankees on January 15, 1915. He led the American League in home runs in both 1916 and 1917. In fact, the Yankees earned the nickname Murderers Row because of pre-Ruth sluggers like Pipp and Frank “Home Run” Baker. In addition to being a power hitter in the dead-ball era, he was also a good and graceful fielder and smart base runner, stealing 114 bases during his eleven years with the Yanks.
Pipp’s best year in New York was 1922, when he hit .329 with 190 hits, 96 runs scored, and drove in 90 more. His best World Series performance was the 1922 Fall Classic when he batted .286 in a losing effort against arch rival Giants.
In 1926, the Yankees sold Pipp, outright, to the Cincinnati Reds where he played three more seasons before retiring. He passed away in Rapid City, MI on January 11, 1965, at the age of 71.
Sergio Mitre was another Yankee relief pitcher who had the full faith and confidence of Yankee skipper Joe Girardi, even though I was never sure what he had done to earn it. I remember hearing the Yankee manager tell members of the Yankee press corps that this big right-hander threw lots of ground ball outs. After watching him pitch in pinstripes for almost three seasons, it seemed to me as if I saw more bombs hit off Mitre than groundballs. During his five seasons in the big leagues before coming to New York. Sergio had a combined won-loss record of 10-23, an ERA of 5.36 runs per game and about six walks for every nine innings he pitched. On top of that he was suspended a year for steroid use and then underwent Tommy John surgery.
In 2009, his ERA as a Yankee was 6.79. The only time Sergio truly impressed me that season was during a start against the White Sox in late August, when he threw six innings of one-hit shutout ball in a 10-0 Yankee triumph. He certainly pitched better for New York in 2010 but not nearly good enough to earn him a shot at starting in 2011. But that was exactly the scenario Girardi set up for him. He let this native of Tijuana, Mexico compete for the fourth and fifth spot in the team’s 2011 rotation on equal footing with Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, and Ivan Nova. I was not at all surprised when Mitre failed to win that competition. The Yankees then traded Mitre to the Brewers a week before Opening Day, for outfielder Chris Dickerson. Three months later, the Yankees purchased him back from Milwaukee and gave him one more chance to become a key member of their bullpen. He failed to do so and was not offered a contract for the 2012 season. His three year record as a Yankee was 3-6, with 1 save and a lofty ERA of 5.35.
Mitre turns 32 years old today and shares his February 16th birthday with this former Yankee backup catcher.
Unless they had another move to acquire a catcher in mind before Opening Day of the 2013 regular season, the Yankees made a mistake by not re-signing Russell Martin. Instead, they allowed their starting catcher for the 2011 and ’12 seasons to make a new two-year $15 million deal for himself with Pittsburgh. I realize this native Canadian had a very bad offensive season in 2012, but his game management skills and defense remained steady and he did pound 21 home runs. None of the trio of receivers who will battle to take over Martin’s job in 2013 will be as good as he was for New York.
My single biggest concern about the former Dodger catcher when the Yankees signed him before the 2011 season was his health. He had hurt his hip during the 2010 season and the injury required surgery. But Martin had worked like crazy to recuperate from that operation and was able to catch 253 games during his two years in the Big Apple. His pinstripe career got off to a great start during the first half of 2011 and he made the AL All Star team. But his offense then pretty much abandoned him until he finally started hitting again during the final month of the 2012 season. Fortunately, he never let those hitting woes impact his solid work behind the plate. I loved the fact that he had the confidence and catching ability necessary to have Yankee pitchers throw their nastiest curves and sliders when hitters were ahead in the count or with opposing runners on base. When Martin was on a roll, be could block short pitches and dig them out of the dirt as well as any catcher I’ve seen. I also liked the fact that Martin had some pop in his bat (39 home runs in his two seasons with New York) and some speed in his legs. He’s stolen 80 bases during his seven years in the big leagues. Plus the guy turns just 30-years-old today.
I think Pittsburgh got themselves one of the ten best catchers in baseball for their 2013 lineup. Meanwhile, neither Chris Stewart or Francisco Cervelli have really proven they’ve got the all-around skills to handle the role of a big league team’s starting catcher. A still developing Austin Romine hasn’t either. That means the Yanks go into a new season with a big question mark at one of baseball’s most important positions, when for $15 million over the next two seasons they could have had one of the better catchers in baseball in that slot. Brian Cashman has said the organization is just biding time, waiting for 19-year-old Gary Sanchez, the franchise’s number 1 catching prospect to be ready for the big show. But that’s at least two years and two postseasons away. Having Martin behind the plate until that happened was a wise and affordable option.
Joe Girardi was a big fan of former Yankee reliever Damaso Marte and for the life of me I could not figure out why. The Yankees had acquired the Dominican southpaw from Pittsburgh in the same 2008 trade that brought outfielder Xavier Nady to the Bronx. Marte had been 4-0 with 5 saves for the Pirates at the time that trade was made but he finished the ’08 season 1-3 as a Yankee and his ERA ballooned to 5.40. When New York then declined his option, I was pretty sure his Yankee days were over. I was wrong. Brian Cashman instead signed him to a new three-year deal.
Marte got worse instead of better during the 2009 regular season, going 1-3 and his ERA skyrocketed to 9.45. I again predicted his days in pinstripes were numbered but Joe Girardi had other ideas. He put Marte on the New York’s postseason roster. There was something in the Yankee skipper’s head or that famous binder of his that made him think Marte was going to get some huge outs somewhere along the way.
Those outs didn’t happen against Minnesota in that year’s ALDS. In his only appearance against the Twins, he gave up two straight singles and was quickly removed. That’s when the Marte Magic began. In his next seven appearances in that postseason, which included an inning-and-a-third against the Angels in the ALCS and two-and-a-third more against Philadelphia in the World Series, Marte did not surrender a single hit or walk a single batter. He struck out the final two hitters he faced, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard on six consecutive pitches. That’s when the Marte Magic ended.
His 2010 season was disrupted by inflammation in his pitching arm and cut short when his left shoulder required surgery. That knocked him out for the entire 2011 season and finally ended his Yankee career. He did not pitch any where in 2012 and it looks as if his big league career is also over.
He shares his Valentine’s Day birthday with this Hall-of-Fame Yankee announcer and this one-time Yankee pitching prospect. My father-in-law, Lou Rossi of Boynton Beach, FL, turns 93-years-old today. Happy Birthday Lou!
Guy Zinn was the starting right fielder for the 1912 New York Highlanders. He was born in West Virginia in 1887. He played his first game of minor league ball in 1909 and two seasons later, while playing for a B level team in Altoona, PA, he caught the attention of the Highlanders by belting 11 triples, 7 home runs and averaging .317. New York offered him a contract after his Altoona season ended and Zinn made his Major League debut that September, with a nine-game cup-of-coffee trial with the Highlanders.
That 1911 New York team that Zinn became part of was in complete disarray. The season before, the Highlanders had looked as if they were becoming one of the junior circuit’s better teams, finishing second to Connie Mack’s mighty A’s. But in a bizarre late-season episode, New York skipper George Stallings had accused first baseman Hal Chase, his team’s biggest star, of throwing games. Unbelievably, the Highlander ownership sided with Chase and fired Stallings. Even more unbelievably, they gave Chase the manager’s job. You can imagine the turmoil this craziness must have caused among the Highlander roster. The team went from 88 wins and a second place finish in 1910 to a 76-win, seventh-place finish in 1911, to a disastrous 50-win, last place, bottom-falling-out debacle in 1912.
Zinn actually played well for that 1912 Highlander team. He led New York with 6 home runs and finished second in RBIs with 55, while averaging .262. Just 25-years-old at the time, under more normal circumstances, these stats from a rookie outfielder would be good enough to warrant a return invitation. But these were far from normal times. Harry Wolverton had replaced Chase as Highlander manager after the 1911 season, but Chase retained his job as the Highlander starting first baseman. After the last-place finish in 1912, the no-nonsense, two-time World Series winning former Cub manager, Frank Chance was brought in to right the ship. Several player personnel moves were made and one of them was the sale of Zinn’s contract to the Boston Braves. A year later, Zinn jumped to the upstart Federal League. Frank Chance did finally convince New York to dump the corrupt Chase, who himself would join Zinn in the Federal League in 1914.
Due to an eye ailment, Walter “Monk” Dubiel was not considered healthy enough to serve in WWII and with a sore hip and chronically aching back, there were times he was just barely healthy enough to pitch for the Yankees. New York signed this native of Hartford, Connecticut in 1941 and he spent the next four seasons moving up the organization’s farm system. By 1944, most of the front-line big league pitchers were in the military and Dubiel, who had gone 16-9 for the Yankees’ double A affiliate in Newark the year before, was ready to make his debut in the Bronx. The six foot tall right-hander went 13-13 in his rookie year, threw three shutouts and posted a very respectable ERA of 3.38. But he also pitched 232 innings for Manager Joe McCarthy’s third place ball club, which was fifty more than he had ever pitched in a single season in the minors. He couldn’t match that workload in his sophomore season in pinstripes and his ERA in 1945 climbed to 4.64, but he did manage to post a 10-9 record, which would turn out to be his only winning season as a big league pitcher.
Since the war had ended, all of the Yankee pitchers who had served in the armed forces returned en-masse to New York’s 1946 spring training camp. Dubiel couldn’t make the cut and he was sent back to Newark by McCarthy. Accompanying him to the minor league club that spring was a short stumpy Yankee catcher by the name of Lawrence Berra. Yogi would end up back in pinstripes one day but Monk never did.
In 1947, he became the property of the pitching poor Philadelphia Phillies via the Rule 5 Draft, which eased his path back to the big leagues. He went 8-10 for Philadelphia in 1948, with 2 shutouts and 4 saves. That December he was traded to the Cubs. He would pitch the next three seasons and a tiny part of a fourth in the Windy City and then return to the minors for good. He ended his seven-year career as a Major League pitcher with a 45-53 record and an ERA of 3.87 with 11 saves and 9 shutouts.
Dubiel wore uniform number 14 with New York. Here are my picks for the top five number “14′s” in Yankee history:
Today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant certainly is not a household name, but in addition to playing 54 games in the Yankee outfield during the 1997 season, Scott Pose also had a pretty decent part in Kevin Costner’s 1999 movie, For the Love of the Game. Costner played an aging Detroit Tiger pitcher who throws a perfect game in his final Major League start, which happens to take place in Yankee Stadium against my favorite team. Pose played Yankee outfielder, Matt Crane in that flick.
Pose’s other claim to fame is that he was the very first Florida Marlin in history to make a plate appearance, when he led off that franchise’s inaugural season opener against the Dodgers on April 5, 1993. Moments later, he became the first Marlin in history to get on base safely, thanks to an error by LA first baseman, Erik Karros.
Yankee Manager, Joe Torre took a liking to Pose during the 1997 season. He used the Davenport, Iowa native quite a bit as a utility outfielder that year. He got into 56 games, starting eighteen of them, but he hit just .218. Still, Torre thought enough of Pose to keep him on New York’s 1997 postseason roster. Most long-time Yankee fans remember the play resulting in Pose’s only appearance in that year’s ALDS, very well. That’s because it happened in the fifth and final game of the Cleveland series. The Yankees, who had taken a two-games to one lead in that series, lost the fourth game back in Cleveland and were behind in the fifth, 4-3. In the top of the ninth, both Tim Raines and Derek Jeter had grounded out and it was up to Paul O’Neill to keep the Yankees’ defense of their 1996 World Championship going. Paulie O had been on fire that entire series and his streak continued when he laced a line drive double to center off of Cleveland’s closer, Jose Mesa. That’s when Torre sent Pose into the game to replace O’Neill as the potential tying run at second base. It all became academic moments later, when Bernie Williams flew out to deep left for the final out of the Yankee season.
Pose then spent the next two years in the minors before resurfacing with the Royals in 1999. His last year in the big leagues was 2000.
There have not been too many Yankees born in the state of Iowa, although two who were, starting pitchers Stan Bahnsen and George Pipgras, both put together 20-victory seasons in pinstripes. Former Yankee utility infielder, Fred “The Chicken” Stanley, is also a native Hawkeye.
The only other guy to wear a Yankee uniform and have a February 11th birthday is this former New York pitching coach who also was a 20-game winner in the big leagues.
Nobody was happier than me, when the Yankees acquired Lance Berkman from the Astros at the 2010 inter-league trading deadline. I had followed the career of the Waco, Texas native ever since he made his Major League debut with Houston in 1999. Back then, the Astros killer B duo of Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio were both at the peak of their careers and the addition of Berkman as the third “B” in that hive added even more sting to Houston’s offense.
The switch-hitting first-round draft pick became a full-time starting outfielder for the Astros in 2001 and during the next eight seasons he averaged 35 home runs and 117 RBIs along with a .303 batting average. Injuries plagued the “Big Puma” the next two seasons and with the struggling Astros desperate to shed payroll, Berkman ok’d the trade to the Yankees on July 31, 2010. Houston got Yankee pitching prospect Mark Melancon and minor league infielder, Jimmy Paredes in the deal but they also had to agree to pay $5 million of Berkman’s remaining 2010 salary.
I absolutely loved the move. I was sure that Berkman would deliver some key hits during the Yankees stretch drive and I was really hoping he’d tear it up in the second half so the Yankee would offer him enough money to stick around a second season. As it turned out, he was still not fully recovered from his knee surgery. He struggled at the plate, hitting just .255 during second half of the 2010 season with just 1 home run and 9 RBIs in 37 games. It wasn’t until the ALDS against the Twins that he made an impact, when he broke a 2-2 tie in Game 2 against the Twins with a monster two-run shot in the seventh inning. He then played in every game against Texas in that season’s ALCS but after he hit just .250 in that series and the Yanks were eliminated, any interest on the part of New York’s front office to offer Berkman a new contract, disappeared. I remember being very disappointed that Cashman did not do so. The Yankee GM had already made up his mind that Jorge Posada would never catch again for New York forcing the veteran catcher into the left-handed DH slot for the final year of his final Yankee contract.
So instead, a now healthy Berkman signed with the Cardinals in 2011 and all he did was smack 31 home runs, drive in 94 and average .301 during that year’s regular season and than followed that up by hitting .423 against the Rangers and winning his first and only World Series ring. The injury bug would hit Berkman again in 2012 and he ended appearing in just 32 games for St. Louis. He then signed a free agent contract to play for the Texas Rangers in 2013. Though I was again hoping the Yankees would consider signing Berkman to DH for them this year, New York was absolutely justified to not pay him the $22 million he will receive from Texas this year and next. After all, he turns 37 years-old today.
All the hopeful comments I read and hear about the Yankee’s top catching prospect, Gary Sanchez, remind me of the similar hype surrounding today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant back at the turn of this century. The Yankees signed Dioner Navarro as an amateur free agent in 2000 and three seasons later this native Venezuelan hit .341 for double-A Trenton and was named the organization’s Minor League Player of the Year. Only 19-years-old at the time, he was being groomed as the eventual replacement for Jorge Posada. He got Yankee fans really excited when New York brought him up to the parent club in September of 2004 and the kid hit .429 in the seven games in which he got a chance to play.
Just a few weeks later, the Yankees suffered their famous collapse against Boston in the 2004 ALCS and New York’s front office went into a panic mode for a pitching ace. They settled on Randy Johnson but it cost them Navarro. Arizona then turned right around and traded their new acquisition to the Dodgers in a deal for Shawn Greene. He was given a shot to battle Russell Martin for the Los Angeles starting catcher’s job but he broke his wrist. The Dodgers ended up dealing him to Tampa Bay the following season and he started for the Rays behind the plate from 2007 until 2010, when he lost his job to John Jaso. Navarro’s best season was 2008 when he averaged .297 and made the AL All Star team. He turns just 29-years-old today and spent the 2012 season as a backup catcher for the Reds.
After the Yankees traded Navarro, they signed another teen-aged native-Venezuelan catching prospect to take his place as Posada’s heir apparent. The new kid’s name was Jesus Montero. He too gave Yankee fans something to get excited about in a late season call-up a couple seasons ago and then got traded to Seattle. Perhaps now you understand why I refuse to get too excited about Gary Sanchez.