Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Jeter: One for the Ages

You cannot quantify the immense value, just appreciate it.

A decade after Derek Jeter began his historic postseason run with four hits in the 1996 American League division opener against Baltimore, he threw a 5-for-5 performance at the Detroit Tigers in Game 1 of the ALDS.

That performance, the lynchpin of an 8-4 Yankees' victory, tied a big-league record for hits in a postseason game, held by six. It also added to an undeniable legend, this quintessential performance by the quintessential clutch player.

For Jeter used two doubles, a home run and two singles to extend his own major-league records of most career postseason hits (147) and most DLS hits (64).

Jeter's big night came on the heels of a regular-season in which Jeter hit .345 during what was his fifth 200-hit season (another major-league record, for shortstops). It established once more that who the most valuable Yankee of 2006 is, and underscored the strong argument Jeter made for AL Mvp.

What pushes this special player to such a zone once October arrives?

"I think somewhat personality and his competitive drive," said Joe Torre, who, in 11 years, has reached the postseason every single season in large part because of the guy at shortstop. "You know, it's like this time of year, big games, whether we play Boston or games that are significant; not that he slacks off the other times. Look, he hit .340 this year.

"I guess the only way you characterize it for me, he doesn't go up there thinking negatively. He just doesn't. Failing doesn't scare him."

"You know, you're not always going to come through," said Jeter. "There's been plenty of times that I haven't. But when I'm in that situation, I feel as though I'm going to produce, or come up with a hit, or make a play."

He did tonight, turing a crucial doubleplay before the scoring started, then topping his offensive run with a crowd-pleasing eighth-inning homer.

It is these kinds of performances, and that special makeup that allows Jeter to continually put a damper on any contention that Alex Rodriguez is the best shortstop not playing the position for the Yankees. ARod might have the most talent stuffed in his body. All Derek Jeter does is win.

So, like the Ted Williams-Joe DiMaggio "who's best" debates of old, do you take the best athlete or the guy who just flatout finds a way to win? In the Jeter-ARod tug-of-war, there's no question which player wins.

Another thing: ESPN The Magazine was pretty provocative this week when its cover featured the Mets' Jose Reyes with a headline declaring the dazzling performer the best shortstop in New York.

Well, Reyes has got Jeter in terms of age. Jeter, though, long ago established himself as one for the ages. Reyes will have to wait for such accolades, at least until he can compare one World Series ring to Jeter's four.

Hurt's So Good

The Chicago White Sox threw Frank Thomas away like so much dirty laundry, much the way baseball threw away The Big Hurt's era when it ratcheted up its home-run love affair and turned its fancy to the chemically-induced.

Well, the two-time American League Mvp who was cast aside and demonized in his final days in Chicago, is finally is enjoying the last laugh, and new life with the Oakland A's.

The big man - and he's always been that, even before doctors and juicers pumped the biceps full of steroids - started his first playoff series in xx years by hitting two home runs off Minnesota Twins ace Johan Santana yesterday.

Because he did, the Oakland A's won the first game of an American League Division Series, on the road, 3-2.

Talk about dividends.

All the A's had guaranteed Thomas only $500,000 and a chance. He cashed in on both, using 39 home runs, 144 RBI and a bucketful of incentive clauses to gather in $3.1 million this season.

The man who once vied with Ken Griffey Jr. for title of most feared slugger in baseball - before Barry Bonds and Big Mac - healthy and happy, again, had restored his self-worth, and place in the game.

Now comes the gravy.

So, for those keeping score at home, it's Thomas 1, bloated home run kings 0.

And the White Sox? Not even in the game. Alas, they're home, watching the postseason on TV.

Now that hurts.

John Maine - and Pray for Rain?

Games were played, but the biggest news of the day had to be what happened in the Mets' off-day workout.

Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez - the would-be Game 1 starter today against the Dodgers - strained his right calf. The injury further muddied the pitching outlook for the National League's winningest team, which already must forge ahead after having lost Pedro Martinez.

That pitcher had shoulder surgery and is gone for eight months.

Already there has been speculation about whether Martinez's shoulder trouble resulted from his overcompensating for leg injuries in the second half of the season.

That will make the Mets' handling of El Duque (11-11, 4.66) all the more scrutinized, considering cautionary tales about pitchers hurting themselves all the more by allowing leg injuries to mess with arm delivery dates back to Dizzy Dean.

Before the Mets determine Hernandez's immediate future, they must concern themselves with their own. Should Hernandez miss his start against the visiting Los Angeles Dodgers, his replacement likely won't be Steve Trachsel (15-8, 4.97), who had to leave the team over the weekend for personal reasons.

So that future could now rest with John Maine (6-5, 3.60) - not exactly the hand the Mets envisioned holding the Game 1 mound against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Or their playoff aspirations, for that matter.

But Seriously, The Tigers Will Show Up

The American League Division Series between the Detroit Tigers and New York Yankees hadn't even started and already the guys not called baseball's greatest team had to answer the question:

Why even bother to show up?

Well, Jim Leyland?

Well, I told everybody, they have got Murderers' Row and then Cano. That's not a good feeling," the Tigers manager said, tongue-in-cheek, hours before Game 1 at Yankee Stadium.

But seriously, folks. ...

"I think a lot of people, for whatever reason, they have this as the Yankee varsity versus the scrimmage and freshman team. I don't feel that way.

"I always let my feelings be known, so I'm going to tell all of you: Those that said we lucked out and snuck in, I totally disagree with that. We won more games than only three teams in baseball. That's pretty good."

Piazza Thriving Under The Radar

Mike Piazza, Hall of Fame shoo-in, all-time catching great, has a little secret.
For the first time in his storied major-league career, the onetime marquee player of the mega-market Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets spent a season practically off the grid.
Moved to San Diego. Mellowed out. Went all Left Coast and low-key - and absolutely loved it.
"My whole career, I've had a big job and never shied away from it," said Phoenixville High's most celebrated baseball product. "I always enjoyed being the go-to guy. But this year it's been about being a pseudo-everyday player, and also a role player, and a mentor, working with young kids.
"And, you know what? It's been fun to play this way, to play under the radar."
As he spoke, a grin creased the face of baseball's all-time leader in home runs among catchers (398). And it illustrated just how happy the 38-year-old is to be where he is and who he is.
Who he is: a vital part of a Padres team that won the National League West. Where he is: in the NL division series opener today at home against the NL Central champion St. Louis Cardinals.
As Piazza spoke, he did so with the precocious air of a schoolboy, which is understandable since no matter where this postseason takes him, the 14-year vet will go not as an afterthought.
"He's done a great job with the staff and helped stabilize it," said Padres manager Bruce Bochy. "He gives us a veteran presence back there. Our pitchers have confidence throwing to him."
Value has come at the plate as well as behind it. Though 28-year-old Josh Bard (50 starts) and 25-year-old Rob Bowen (eight) were key backups, it was the old man who started 99 games and hit 22 of the troika's 34 home runs and accounted for 68 of its 121 RBIs. Piazza had not achieved such totals since 2002, when he hit 33 homers and drove in 98 runs for the Mets.
Piazza's home runs this season ranked second among National League catchers, after Atlanta's Brian McCann (24). On the Padres, he trailed only Adrian Gonzalez's 24, a number compiled in 156 games compared to Piazza's 126.
"Twenty-some home runs?" said pitcher David Wells. "His bat is huge."
What a difference a year makes. Last season, back East, questions about whether Piazza could still be the go-to guy became irrelevant. How to get him to just go away became more pertinent as baseball-crazed New York increasingly fixated on Piazza's age, injuries and eroding defensive and offensive capabilities.
The end of what had been a long love affair with a legend was poignant and, at times, painful. Remember the mercifully short-lived attempt to convert Piazza into a first baseman?
Piazza, bright, sensitive, accepted the inevitable. "I wanted to finish my career in New York; I loved the tradition, I loved the fans," Piazza said. "But it just didn't seem like it was going to work out. And I didn't want to be a burden."
Thrown onto the free-agent market, Piazza had his suitors, including the team he grew up watching from his father's field box at Veterans Stadium.
"The Phillies definitely showed interest, and it was definitely an option," Piazza said, "but at the end of the day, with [Mike] Lieberthal there, well, an $8 million catcher is not going to sit.
"I wasn't looking to be a starter, or a guarantee of games, but at that time there was just so much more flexibility in San Diego. Even Pat [Gillick, the Phillies' general manager] said maybe that would be the best option."
San Diego did have its selling points. Weather - 72 and sunny every day - the slew of quality pitchers, a talented roster. Then there was a sincerity as the Padres convinced Piazza they would treat him as a valued commodity.
"You don't want guarantees, but you do want a little bit of a blueprint of how you would fit in," the catcher said. "And it just felt right. There was just an energy there. It became more of a spiritual decision than a mechanical one."
The job was not full-time, but that comes with age, Wells said.
"As a veteran, you know when you are winding down, when you're going to face limited playing time," the pitcher said. "So when people ask: Is his arm as strong? The answer is simple. No one's is when you get older.
"So, you come out for defensive purposes. Your backups take some of the pressure off."
Still, make no mistake, said Wells. "Mike's definitely an impact player. It's all about winning and compiling knowledge, and he's done that. So we need him back there, because he's still that strong a presence."

Abreu Advances Where Phillies Cannot

NEW YORK - Bobby Abreu, gone but never to be forgotten, will forever be the itch Phillies fans cannot scratch.

The former Phillies rightfielder is headed for his first fully realized postseason, but not with the organization that groomed him into being an all-star.

Abreu may finally get his first sip of championship bubbly. But not with the franchise for which he wound up ranked in the top 10 in, among many categories, career extra-base hits, stolen bases, RBIs, runs scored and slugging percentage.

The team that traded him to the New York Yankees on July 30 fell just short of winning the National League wild-card berth.

"That's a tough one," Abreu said Saturday after learning that the Phillies had been eliminated on the next-to-last day of the regular season.

"I know those guys; they play hard. They go for it every day. And for this to be the second time it happened in a row, to get this close, then get eliminated, it's tough."

In a perfect world, Abreu believed, both he and the Phillies would have advanced and - who knows? - restaged the 1950 World Series.

Since that won't happen, he gladly will live with the alternative - returning to the playoffs for the first time since his rookie season in 1997, when he went 0 for 3 for Houston in the National League division series.

"Yeah," he said with a smile, "when they made the trade, they told me it was an opportunity for me to be in the playoffs. So I will take it."

And Phillies fans? Learning that the player they couldn't win with proved to be the player they also could not win without just provided another slice of unappetizing reality to chew on.

Especially since the 32-year-old Abreu turned out to be the last multimillion-dollar piece of the puzzle for the Yankees. Call it overkill, but he was the addition the well-heeled American League team apparently thought it needed to secure a tie for the majors' best regular-season record. And it worked.

Yet from the day Abreu was swapped along with pitcher Cory Lidle for four minor-leaguers, the Phillies appeared more than capable of living with the consequences. After all, they too enjoyed a rebirth after general manager Pat Gillick's series of trade-deadline moves transformed the team into a younger, swifter, more defensively sound version of its former self.

But the Phillies turned out to be wanting at the plate and on the mound just often enough to miss the postseason by a hair. Again.

For some, the reasons for failure 80 miles south of New York likely will include the player who so pleased yet puzzled fans before leaving Philadelphia.

"But," cautioned Larry Bowa, ex-Phillies manager-turned-Yankees third-base coach, "Bobby is not the reason the Phillies don't win.

"I was there with him for four years, and we came in second place three of the four - and it sure wasn't Bobby Abreu's fault."

Where does the fault fall on Pattison Avenue?

You know Bowa has his theories.

"The season is 162 games, and you have to have an attitude - from day one of spring training till the end - an attitude that never goes away," he said. "You don't just wait until August and say it's time to click it in. And it happened to me, too, but there's no way that team should have been under .500 earlier in the year."

Phillies obituaries aside, Abreu obviously changed the Yankees for the better. The question is, did the Phillies' only 30-30 man and one of its most prolific home-run hitters (197) change, too?

"Not at all," Bowa contended. "And his making the postseason is great because of the perception of him that he doesn't care. He does care."

Without a doubt, Abreu excelled, hitting .330 in 209 at-bats in 58 games with the Bombers, with seven home runs, 37 runs scored and 42 RBIs.

"He's done everything; I mean he's fit in perfectly," Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said. "He flat-out plays - can hit, can steal bases, has been playing good defense, has a strong arm that has been shutting down a lot of teams."

Pretty much like the blueprint Philadelphia originally saw in the veteran who wound up batting .277 with eight homers, 61 runs scored and 65 RBIs in his final 98 Phillies games. The player who left behind vocal fans among his former teammates.

"I wish him the best," said pitcher and longtime Abreu teammate Randy Wolf. "I am excited for him. I am happy about what he brought to that team. I like the way he's been taken in by the Yankees fans. He's done a great job. I hope he gets himself a ring."

Said Pat Burrell: "Good for him, man. Good for him. Ultimately, [the postseason] is what you play for. I know it was hard for him to leave here, but he got the opportunity to move on and he got into a situation where he had a chance to help that team."

Abreu perennially was asked to carry Phillies teams off the field as well as on; he just didn't have the kind of personality to convince people that he could. Again, Bowa said, that should not be an indictable offense.

"He just doesn't wear his emotions on his sleeve," Bowa said. "That doesn't mean he don't care. Mike Schmidt didn't wear his emotions on his sleeve, either. He cared."

Now it doesn't matter whether Philadelphia believes that or not. The languid Venezuelan with the ever-present, often-inscrutable Mona Lisa smile is about to enjoy the last laugh.

"I am right where I want to be, in the playoffs, and happy about it," said Abreu, his smile devoid of mystery at last.

Frank Robby: A Class Act Closes

Frank Robinson with former National League president Len Coleman
WASHINGTON - After 51 years in the game, Frank Robinson likely spent his last day in a major-league uniform yesterday.

But before the Hall of Fame player and owner of 1,065 managerial victories oversaw his final Washington Nationals game as skipper, Robinson had some news for the game he loves:

"I am not retiring," the 71-year-old said as the hearty Fan Appreciation Day crowd at antiquated RFK Stadium roared. "There are a lot of things I'd still like to accomplish, for others who come after me."

Robinson - unstoppable offensive force as a player, social pioneer and advocate for equal opportunity at the management level - had done what he promised.

He refused to take his cue from the Montreal Expos-turned-Nationals organization that decided not to bring him back for a sixth season as manager. Instead, he continued to look ahead, even after a 6-2 loss to the visiting New York Mets brought his Nationals tenure to a close.

"I still feel I have something to offer, and to give to baseball," Robinson said. "If that's not the case, then I can very easily fade into the sunset... . But for anyone to understand what I'm saying, you've had to be around the game a long time. It gets in your blood."

Following a game filled with many curtain calls and a postgame victory lap from dugout to dugout, Robinson could only describe himself as "numb." It was a stark contrast to the earlier news conference when one of baseball's most noted competitors dabbed away tears and chastised himself for weeping. ("I said I wasn't going to do this.")

He would choke up again when asked to speak to the crowd after a pregame video salute highlighting his playing and managerial careers.

Once at the mike, though, the silver-haired skipper, clad in Washington Nationals red - his eighth different big-league uniform - enthralled the fans with his humor, poignant reflection, pride and passion.

The crowd of 29,044 showered Robinson, his wife, Barbara, and daughter Nichelle with wave after wave of cheers.

It spoke to the indelible impression made by Robinson in the Delmarva area when he was the heart and soul of the great Baltimore Orioles teams of the late 1960s, following 10 seasons with the Cincinnati Reds.

Baltimore fans were very much in evidence yesterday, cheering every reference to their American League franchise and the man still considered both legend and family.

Only Henry Aaron, Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Sammy Sosa hit more than Robinson's 586 home runs. Only Robinson can claim an MVP award in each league.

Though Robinson yesterday declined to give his opinion on what his legacy is, all he needed do was look across the field to Mets manager Willie Randolph and Mets general manager Omar Minaya to see.

When he played, Robinson started battering away at barriers that once prevented minorities from advancing to coaching staffs, managers' offices and front offices. He finally became the game's first black manager.

His proteges have been many, including Don Baylor and Dusty Baker, who followed his path to winning manager of the year awares.

Now, Randolph is a viable candidate for that same honor after leading his Mets to the National League East crown and the league's best record. And Minaya, a native of the Dominican Republic, is a strong candidate for executive of the year.

Minaya aptly called Frank Robinson the "Jackie Robinson of managers."

"Sitting in his office the other day, Frank told me, 'Here, I'm handing you the baton.' It blew me away," Randolph said.

Randolph wasn't the only one blown away.

After Robinson addressed the crowd, the visiting Mets, led by veterans Julio Franco and Carlos Delgado, Randolph and his coaches, beat the Nationals to the punch by streaming to home plate to hug the Hall of Famer, one by one.

"I've never seen that, not to that extent," Robinson said. "And I've been in baseball 51 years. That was a very nice gesture on their part. It truly was."

Tomorrow, Robinson will return to his California home. The man who wound up with over 1,000 managerial victories has said "goodbye."

But remember his words, and his worth.

The game can top today's tribute by assuring Robinson is right. Find a place somewhere in the game for a man who very much wants to contribute more. History says he's pretty good at following through and baseball would be foolish to turn away from this valued, honorable man for good.