He’s back and I wish I could honestly end this sentence with the phrase “he’s better than ever,” but that would be a stretch. That’s because in 2006 and 2007 when this elegant Taiwanese right-hander was throwing his hard sinking slider every fifth day in the Yankee rotation, he was one of the very best pitchers in baseball.
If it had been any other player in that fateful day’s Yankee lineup besides Jorge Posada on first base when Chien-Ming Wang laid down that bunt against the Houston Astros, Wang might still be a Yankee today.
At the time, Wang was on his way to earning his eighth victory of the 2008 season against just two defeats. Because it was an inter-league game being played at the NL team’s home park, there was no DH and Wang had to take at bats. Leading 3-0 in the sixth, Wang came to the plate with men on first and second with one out. He attempted a sacrifice but Astro pitcher Roy Oswalt was able to field the bunt and make the throw to third in time to nail the very slow Posada. The play forced Wang to become the baserunner at first. That’s when the floodgates opened for the Yankee offense as they proceeded to score six runs. Unfortunately for Wang and the Yankees, as he was running the bases to score the second of those six runs, he tore a tendon in his right foot and his season was over. As it turned out, so was the Yankees’ thirteen year streak of playoff appearances and effectively, so was Wang’s Yankee career.
My point is this. If its Jeter or A-Rod or Abreu on second at the time, Oswalt probably forgets about the play at third and goes to first for the second out of the inning.
I am a big fan of Wang despite the fact that he never seemed to pitch well in the playoffs. He had a 55-26 career record with New York. Four years ago at his time I was hoping he’d settle in as the number three starter behind CC and AJ and have a great year. That didn’t happen. When he did come back from his foot injury, probably a bit too early, he wasn’t able to replicate his old delivery and hurt his throwing shoulder. He underwent shoulder surgery and signed with the Nationals, finally making it back to a big league mound in late July of 2011. He got 11 starts for Washington during the second half of that season. He finished with a 4-3 record and the Nats re-signed him to a $4 million deal to pitch for them in 2012. He then regressed last year and Washington let him walk. I thought his career was over. But then came this year’s World Baseball Championships during which Wang pitched 12 effective innings for his native Taiwan.
The Yankees signed him to a minor league deal after the tournament and now we will see if Wang can work his way back onto the Yankee pitching staff. His best shot would most likely be as a long reliever. This guy’s been through a lot during the past five years, not just physically with his injuries but emotionally in his private life as well. I’d love to see him get a chance to help the Yankees get into another postseason.
The only former Yankee celebrating a birthday today is a big right hander named Dick Woodson, who appeared in just eight games for New York during the 1974 season and then left the big leagues. Woodson did all of his other pitching for the Twins. I can actually remember when he broke into their rotation. Back then, Minnesota had a young Bert Blyleven, veteran Jim Perry and one of my all-time favorite Yankee announcers, Jim “Kitty” Kaat, as starters. Those three guys had a total of 785 regular season victories between them. Woodson won 14 games as a Twin starter in 1972 and 10 more the following season. Then in May of 1974, Minnesota swapped Woodson for a lefthanded pitching prospect named Mike Pazik, who had been the Yankees first round pick in the 1971 draft. Neither pitcher performed well for their new teams. Woodson had actually torn his rotator cuff before the trade and back in those days, that injury ended a pitcher’s career.
Woodson did, however, play a significant role in baseball history when, in 1974 he was handpicked by the legendary Marvin Miller to become the first Major League Player to go through the newly established arbitration process. Miller had studied every eligible player’s contract and discovered Woodson was the most underpaid player in baseball. At the time, the Twins stingy owner, Calvin Griffith was paying the pitcher $15,000 and had offered him a $2,000 raise after a 14-victory season. Miller’s minions had discovered that pitchers with similar stats were making two and even three times more than Woodson was being offered. Woodson’s arbitration starting point was $30,000 and he won his case easily.
Cy Young was born on today’s date, way back in 1867. The legendary right-hander won 511 games during his 22-season career, more than any other man in baseball history. Young ended up in Cooperstown. He set such a standard for pitching excellence that the award given annually to the best pitcher in each league is named after him. One of the pitchers to win that award was also born on this date, 77 years after Young. His name was Denny McLain and he actually won the AL Cy Young Award two times in a row. McLain was baseball’s last thirty-game winner and he’s also quite a character who battled both drinking and gambling addictions and ended up in jail.
A Yankee pitcher also born on this date never came close to winning thirty games in a season or a Cy Young Award. His name is Bill Castro. He was a very good relief pitcher for the Milwaukee Brewers for much of the 1970′s, winning 25 games and saving 44 more during his seven seasons with that team. The Yankees signed this right-handed native of the Dominican Republic as a free agent in February of 1981. Castro ended up pitching in just eleven games for New York during the strike-shortened season that followed, winning one and losing one decision. The Yankees then traded him to the Royals for third baseman Butch Hobson. When he stopped playing he got into coaching and worked for the Brewers organization until 2009. We know Castro won’t be following Cy Young to Cooperstown and let’s hope he never follows Denny McLain to jail, either.
2013 Yankee Regular Season Finish Prediction
I still can’t believe a New York Yankee team with a payroll that exceeds $200 million will be featuring the Opening Day lineup I’ve projected above. When the Yankees postseason ended last October, I was pretty certain that Nick Swisher would not be returning to New York this year and though I was hoping they’d re-sign Russell Martin, I knew there was a better than even chance that he wouldn’t be around the next Opening Day either. But I figured Cashman had to re-sign Raul Ibanez after his great postseason run.
Well the Yanks will open their 2013 season this week and in addition to Martin, Swisher and Ibanez, they will also be missing Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Curtis Granderson from the lineup they fielded for Opening Day just one year earlier. Teixeira and A-Rod are recuperating from serious injuries that may keep them on the sidelines for much of this regular season. Jeter is still recovering from a badly broken ankle and the Grandy Man won’t be back till May, when a broken arm he suffered during his first spring training at-bat is fully healed.
Fortunately, New York’s starting pitching staff is mostly healthy (except for Phil Hughes) and relatively deep. Ditto for their very strong bullpen. So the task at hand for this skimpy patched together Yankee offense is to score enough runs to win enough games to keep New York within single digits of the AL East lead by June 1. Their record was 27-23 on that date last year. As long as they can keep it around the .500 mark this year, the returning members of the Yankee offense should provide the added boost needed to get them close to at least a postseason wild card spot. But I confess that I honestly have no idea if this new Yankee lineup is capable of doing that. A lot depends on how well their AL East opponents do. Toronto made the biggest roster improvements this off season and Tampa should again have the pitching quality necessary to keep the Rays in contention. I don’t expect Baltimore to digress and even Boston should be better because they no longer have their crazy skipper and added several positive pieces to their lineup during the winter.
Only the Yankee Opening Day lineup looks significantly worse on paper than it did last year so we need to remember that looks can be deceiving, at least until June.
The Yankee career of today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant certainly got off to a rough and painful start. New York selected the six foot two inch right hander in the ninth round of the 2006 MLB Draft. The ex-Yankee infielder, Andy Stankiewicz was the scout who signed him. Melancon was penciled in as a reliever and assigned to the team’s Staten Island minor league club and two weeks later, after just seven appearances, he was shelved for the season when it was discovered he needed Tommy John surgery. After a one-year recovery period, the Wheat Ridge, Colorado native got rolling. He went 19-2 during his next three seasons in New York’s farm system and also earned 15 saves.
He made his Yankee debut with 13 appearances during the team’s 2009 World Championship season. Whenever a reliever on the parent club was injured, they’d bring up Melancon to fill in for him. Although he made four trips up to the Bronx that year, he did not make Joe Girardi’s postseason roster, but he did post a respectable 3.86 ERA. He didn’t make New York’s big league roster the following year either but was called up in May and made what turned out to be his final two appearances in pinstripes. That July, the Yankees swung a deal for Houston slugger, Lance Berkman and Melancon was one of the two prospects New York gave up to get the switch-hitter. (Infielder Jimmy Paredes was the other.)
Finally getting a chance to pitch regularly at the big league level, Melancon took advantage of it. He went 2-0 with a 3.12 ERA during his first half-year in Houston and then had a break-out year in 2011 with a 20-save, 8 win- 4 loss, 2.78 ERA season in 2011. That December, the Red Sox were desperate to find someone to replace their closer, Jonathan Papelbon, who had just signed as a free agent with the Phillies. Boston offered Houston their utility infielder Jed Lowrie along with pitching prospect Kyle Weiland in exchange for Melancon and the Astros bit. As it turned out, the Red Sox were not planning on putting their new acquisition in the closer’s role. Two weeks after their deal with Houston, Boston made a trade for the A’s closer, Andrew Bailey.
I remember the ESPN/Boston blog boards were pretty enthusiastic about the two closers coming to Fenway and I didn’t blame them. I thought they’d do really well there. But we were wrong. First Bailey got hurt in spring training and remained on the DL till August. That forced Melancon into the closer’s role. The team got off to a horrible start during the 2013 regular season under new manager, Bobby Valentine and their new closer was a key culprit. He lost the season opener and then blew a save in his second appearance two days later. After giving up six runs to the Rangers in an April 17th game, his ERA was 49.50. He was a wreck and Boston was forced to send him down to Pawtuckett to try and restore his game and his confidence. He pitched very well there and eventually made his way back to Fenway and pitched decently during the second half. But by then it was too late. The Bobby Valentine hiring had been a disaster for the Red Sox and Melancon would forever be tied to it. He was traded to Pittsburgh on December 26th of 2012.
At Major League Baseball’s annual winter meetings in December of 1973, the American League owners voted to make the designated hitter rule a permanent feature of Junior Circuit play. As soon as the votes were counted, the Yankees made a trade with the Kansas City Royals acquiring Lou Piniella, who many considered a near-perfect DH role-model. But Sweet Lou, had slumped to a .250 batting average the previous season, so just in case he did not return to his .300-hitting ways, New York hedged their bet by also acquiring on that same day, the switch-hitting Bill “Suds” Sudakis from the Rangers.
The then 28-year-old native of Joliet, IL had broken into the big leagues impressively as a third baseman with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1968. But some serious knee problems during his first few seasons in LA, turned him into a role player. LA had released him in 1971 and after a short-time with the Mets, he had landed in Texas in ’73, just in time for the AL’s one-year DH experimental season.
He hit 15 HRs for Texas but only DH’d nine times. He also played a lot of third and first for that Ranger team and even went behind the plate for nine games. That versatility and his two-way hitting caught the attention of Yankee GM Gabe Paul, who was able to negotiate the outright purchase of Sudakis’s contract from Texas.
Suds would play just one season (1974) in pinstripes. Under the direction of skipper Bill Virdon, the Yanks made a surprising run at for the AL East title that year, finishing just two-games behind the Orioles. Sudakis got into 89 games, mostly as a DH and first baseman. He averaged just .232, but he also hit 7 home runs and drove in 39. His biggest impact on that year’s pennant drive however, may have occurred in the lobby of a downtown Milwaukee hotel.
The Yanks were scheduled to fly to Brewer town after a road-series with the Indians to play the last two games of their regular season, but their flight out of Cleveland was delayed for three hours. During those three hours, many of the Yankees did what many big league ballplayers do when they have lots of idle time in an airport, they headed to the bar. Well evidently Sudakis and Dempsey started getting on each other before they left Cleveland and the verbal sparring continued between the two all during their now very late flight. By the time the team departed their bus and entered the lobby of their downtown hotel, Dempsey had reached the boiling point and went after Sudakis like a madman. Yankee players at the scene later verified the ensuing fight was a knockdown drag-out classic with furniture overturned and pictures knocked off the walls. It took quite a while for their Yankee teammates and hotel security to separate the two and when they finally did, it was star outfielder Bobby Murcer, who had gotten the worst of it. Somebody stepped on his hand and broke his finger and that injury kept him out of the next day’s lineup against the Brewers. The Yankees lost that game while the Orioles won their contest against the Indians, clinching the division for the Birds.
I’m not 100% certain his role in that fight is the reason the Yanks traded Sudakis to California for pitcher Skip Lockwood that December, but it sure didn’t help to prevent it. Sudakis played one more season of big league ball before returning to the minors in 1976.
While researching this post I came across some compelling evidence that Sudakis was a bit crazy. For example, he once offered to add some bounce to Yankee third baseman Graig Nettles bat. He sawed the top off, drilled into the barrel and inserted some super balls and then reattached the sawed-off bat top with Elmer’s Glue. Then Yankee shortstop Gene Michael asked Sudakis how he had reassembled the doctored bat and when he got to the Elmer’s Glue part, “the Stick” warned him the glue would not hold. Sudakis assured him it would and one week later, after homering with it in his previous at bat, Nettles hit one off the the end of the modified piece of lumber and sure enough, the bat-top pops off and the rubber balls come rolling out the end of it, getting Nettles ejected.
Whatever happened to the bullpen cars and golf carts that Major League teams use to use to transport relief pitchers from the home team’s bullpen to the pitching mound? The Yankees had a pinstriped Datsun making this trip for quite a while. I remember thinking how unneighborly it was to force the opposing team’s relievers to walk from their pen to the mound while providing air conditioned transport to the homie’s. Did the occupants of the car listen to the radio during these rides? What did the conversation between driver and pitcher consist of? You’d think teams would have been smart enough to have their bullpen coaches drive these vehicles so they could spend those last precious few moments discussing the best pitching strategies for the passenger to use with the hitters he was about to face. How many times did we see anxious relief pitchers waiting for their ride to show up alongside the bullpen? Where was the vehicle, out getting gas?
Today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant causes me to ponder an even more important historical question about the New York franchise’s use of bullpen vehicles. Bill Zuber became a Yankee pitcher in 1943, just as the exodus of Major League players to wartime service was peaking. The deal that brought this native of Iowa to the Bronx was decidedly one-sided. New York gave the Senators a very good second baseman named Jerry Priddy and a promising young pitcher named Milo Candini in exchange for Zuber and both had very strong first years for Washington in 1943.
Perhaps New York’s motivation for the deal was their certainty that their new acquisition would be around to pitch despite the conflicts going on in Europe and the Pacific at the time. The Yankees knew they could depend on having Zuber on their roster through the War’s end because he was a member of a religious group known as The Amana Church Society. Members of this group were against all wars and were granted conscientious objector status by the US Government. This Society also believed that it was a sin to make use of modern machinery like automobiles. So what would have happened if back in 1943, ’44 or ’45, when Zuber was putting together an 18-23 record for Joe McCarthy’s wartime Yankees as a starter and reliever, the Skipper summoned this big peace-loving right hander from the bullpen to pitch in a game and the Yankees were making use of a bullpen vehicle? Would Zuber have put himself in the passenger seat or would he instead have pointed to the sky, like Bobby Abreu used to do every time he got a base hit and proceed to walk the walk?
In any event, as you can see from the graphic accompanying this post, Zuber went into the restaurant business after his baseball career ended. He found away to merge his new business, his Yankee past and his religiosity by adorning the back page of his restaurant’s menu with his former Yankee Manager’s “Ten Commandments of Baseball.”
Also born on March 26th is this former Yankee infielder who played a lot of second base for New York when Chuck Knoblaugh developed his severe case of the Steve Blass throwing disease.
Lee Mazzilli had the good fortune of joining the Mets during the late seventies. He had Hollywood looks, was born in Brooklyn and during the first six seasons of his big league career he became a darling of Met fans, but not because he was an All Star caliber player. No, “Maz” became a Shea Stadium favorite because he played hard every day on some of the worst teams in Met history and alongside many mediocre teammates. So in comparison, Lee looked like an All Star even though he was a pretty ordinary player.
After the 1981 strike-shortened season, the Mets sent Mazzilli to Texas for Ron Darling and Walt Terrell. The Yankees then swapped Bucky Dent for Lee during the 1982 season and Mazzilli hit .266 during his 37-game playing career in pinstripes. He retired as a player in 1989 with 93 home runs, 1068 hits and a .259 lifetime batting average during his 14-seasons in the bigs. After hanging up his glove, Mazzilli got into coaching and was reunited with his old Met manager, Joe Torre on the Yankee coaching staff in 2000. He was then hired to manage Baltimore in 2004 but that didn’t work out too well. Lee turns 58 years old today but he still looks like he’s in his thirties.
Another former Yankee who has a March 25th birthday is this former middle infielder who played most of his big league ball outside of the Bronx.
If first impressions meant everything, Ernie Shore would have never pitched a second big league game and he almost didn’t. Shore was a North Carolina farm boy who hated working his Daddy’s fields so he took the opportunity to attend college and become a mechanical engineer. The school, Guilford College, had a baseball team and Shore became that team’s ace pitcher, winning a total of 38 games during his collegiate career. He was a tall six foot four inch right-hander, who was thin as a rail but he could evidently generate lots of arm speed from that frame because he was known for his fastball.
His success in college got him noticed by the great John McGraw, who sent Shore a ticket to come to New York and pitch for the Giants. McGraw inserted his skinny rookie into a game against the Boston Braves in which the Giants had a 19-run lead. When the kid was finished pitching, that lead had shrunk to nine and he never pitched another inning for a McGraw managed team.
A year later, Shore was pitching for the International League’s Baltimore Orioles, where he was part of the same rotation as a young and promising southpaw named George Ruth. That July, the Boston Red Sox purchased the dynamic duo. It was Shore, who at that time was 23-years-old and 4-years-older than Ruth, who would make the bigger immediate impact on the Boston pitching staff. He went 10-5 during the second half of the 1914 season, while the nineteen-year-old Babe was just 2-1. The following season, Ruth won 19 and Shore won 18 leading the Red Sox to the AL Pennant. But it was again the older more mature Shore that Boston turned to in the 1915 World Series against the Phillies. Ernie got two starts in that Fall Classic and Ruth none, as Boston captured the Fall Classic in five games.
The following year, Ruth won 23 and Shore 16, helping the Red Sox defend their AL title. Shore then won two games in Boston’s five game victory over Brooklyn in the 1916 World Series, while Babe got one of the other two wins.
The Red Sox did not get back to the Series the following year. Ruth won 23 games in 1917 and Shore went 13-10. But in July of that 1917 season, another episode involving the two pitchers once again exemplified the quiet confident nature of Shore versus the much more undisciplined personality of the younger cruder Ruth. Babe had started a game against the Senators and after walking the first hitter on four straight pitches, became so irate at the umpire he actually punched the guy. Shore was inserted to the game and on his first pitch, the runner on first was thrown out trying to steal. Ernie then retired the next 26 hitters he faced, recording one of the most famous two-man no-hitters in baseball history.
That 1917 season was Shore’s last year in Boston. The following season, with the US fully engaged in WWI, he enlisted in the US Navy. When he returned to the game in 1919, it was as a member of the New York Yankees. He had been sold to the Yanks by the Red Sox with teammates Dutch Leonard and Duffy Lewis, the previous December. Unfortunately for both Shore and the Yankees, he caught a very bad case of the mumps at the team’s 1919 spring training camp and blamed the disease for disrupting his training regimen and spoiling his entire season. He would go only 5-8 during his first year in New York.
In January of 1920, the Yankees reunited Ruth and Shore when they purchased Babe’s contract from Boston. The Bambino definitely generated more excitement in the New York sports press that winter but there was still plenty of buzz about how a now-healthy Shore would once again be blazing his fastball by AL hitters.
Turns out, that case of the Mumps was simply hiding the real reason Shore didn’t pitch well in 1919. His right arm was dead. No one was sure how or when it happened but in 1920, it became very clear that Ernie had lost his trademark fastball. He appeared in just 14 games for manager Miller Huggins’ team that year, making just 5 starts and finishing with a 2-2 victory and an ERA of 4.87 runs.
After attempting to pitch his way back to the big leagues via the Pacific Coast League in 1921, Shore retired back to his native North Carolina, where he eventually became a well-known sheriff for Forsyth County.
Most of the information for this post was derived from this excellent article about Shore published by SABR. He shares his March 24th birthday with this former Yankee first baseman, this former starting pitcher and this former reliever.
The “Boomer” played in over 2000 games during a solid fourteen-year career as a power-hitting American League first baseman. He was an eight-time Gold Glove winner and a three-time AL All Star. Raised dirt poor in Mississippi, Scott was a three-sport star in high school, who chose a baseball career over college scholarship offers to play hoops and football because he didn’t want to wait another four years before he could begin helping his mother live a better life.
He made the big leagues with Boston in 1966 and one year later he was an integral part of the Miracle Sox team that captured the 1967 AL Pennant. Boston traded him to the Brewers after the 1971 season and Scott had his best year in the big leagues for Milwaukee in 1975 when he set career highs with 36 home runs and 109 RBIs. After slumping the following season, he was traded back to Boston and he blasted 33 home runs in his 1977 return to Fenway. But he had a horrible year in ’78 and then started complaining that the Red Sox front office was mistreating him. In June of 1979, he was traded to the Royals. When he couldn’t get along with manager Whitey Herzog, Kansas City released him and the Yanks picked him up at the end of August. He told the press he had wanted to play for the Yankees’ his entire career and proceeded to average .318 during his brief 16-game tenure in pinstripes. He also hit his 271st and final big league home run while wearing the Yankee uniform. New York released him one month after the ’79 season ended and when no other big league team showed an interest in him, he finished his playing career in Mexico.
You have to be a pretty passionate and long-time Yankee fan to remember today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant. Scott Bradley had been New York’s third round draft pick in the 1981 MLB amateur draft. After a decent cup-of-coffee trial with the parent club the previous fall, he showed up at the Yankees 1985 spring training camp with a duffel bag that included five different gloves. He had been a catcher during his days in the New York farm system but he was determined to prove to then Yankee manager Yogi Berra that he could also play first, third and the outfield. He knew that Yankee team already had two catchers, Butch Wynegar and Ron Hassey on its roster. As the Essex Falls, New Jersey native explained to a New York Times reporter who interviewed him during that exhibition season, “The best way for me to make this team is to play three or four different positions.”
Bradley’s strategy worked. Berra loved the kid’s attitude and he ended up winning the James P.Dawson Award as the outstanding rookie in that 1985 spring training camp. When Don Mattingly’s back problems forced him to start the ’85 season on the DL, it was an easy decision for Yogi to carry Bradley on the Yanks’ Opening Day roster.
The problem was that though Bradley could play several different positions, he was the Yankees third string choice at each of them. As a result, he saw action in only three games that April, before he was sent back down to the minors. Bradley reappeared in the Bronx that June, after Billy Martin had replaced Berra as Yankee manager and he made several appearances as a DH. But when his average dropped below .200 in early July, he was sent back down. He got one more opportunity in late July, when Wynegar went on the DL, but he again failed to generate any offense whatsoever.
Despite his .163 average, it appeared as if the Yanks were committing to using Bradley as their second string catcher in 1986, when they traded Hassey to the White Sox in December of ’85. But the New York front office had a change of heart and reacquired Hassey just three months later, sending Bradley to Chicago as part of the deal. He appeared in just 8 games as a White Sox before getting traded to the Mariners in July of 1986. It would be in Seattle where Bradley would become a big league starting catcher for the better part of six seasons.
He stopped playing in 1992 and became a minor league coach. In 1997, he accepted the head baseball coaching job at Princeton University, a position he continues to serve in today. Bradley shares his March 22nd birthday with this former Yankee outfielder, this former Yankee pitcher turned pitching instructor and this Yankee hurler who met a tragic death.