Sunday, February 27, 2011

Duke Snider, 1926-2011

I was going to use today's post to show my choices for the Top 10 Yankee Center Fielders.

Instead, I have to pause and bring you the sad news of the passing of a great center fielder who was not a Yankee.

Edwin Donald Snider was born on September 19, 1926 in Los Angeles, California. This, along with Jackie Robinson having been raised in nearby Pasadena, forms one of the great ironies in the history of baseball: The 2 greatest players the Brooklyn Dodgers ever had were both from Los Angeles. Throw in the fact that the greatest player the Los Angeles Dodgers ever had, Sandy Koufax, was from Brooklyn but did nothing for the club until after they moved to L.A., and you've got -- as Johnny Carson, who also moved from New York to L.A., would say -- weird, wild stuff.

It's been suggested that Edwin Donald Snider was nicknamed "Duke" because of his very light hair, just as Edward Charles Ford and Rich Ashburn were nicknamed "Whitey" well before their hair went from light blond to absolutely white. Apparently not, as it seems that Snider's father gave him the nickname at age 5.

He always said that growing up in Southern California, with great weather all year 'round (this was before L.A. became the smog capital of America), gave him the chance to play as much baseball as he wanted, leading him to become a great player. There is something to this: California has produced more players than any other State, and not just because it has the largest population of any State. Sun Belt weather is also why schools in California, Arizona, and the former Confeerate States tend to dominate college baseball.

Duke Snider was straight outta Compton. No, I'm not kidding: Compton High School, Class of 1943. Baseball, football quarterback, basketball. Probably the best athlete the school ever produced -- I looked it up, Venus and Serena Williams may have lived in Compton, but were home-schooled and did not attend Compton High. And even if they had, as far as I know they've only played one sport, though they've been playing it as well as anybody, male or female, the last 15 years.

After spending 1945 in the U.S. Army at the end of World War II, the Duke moved up, and debuted in the major leagues on April 17, 1947 -- 2 days after Robinson did and, in so doing, changed the world. He didn't play in the 1947 World Series, but by 1949 he was the Dodgers' starting center fielder.

That 1949 season was the first full major league season for Duke and catcher Roy Campanella, the first major league season for pitcher Don Newcombe, the second with the Dodgers for third baseman Billy Cox and pitcher Preacher Roe, the second full for first baseman Gil Hodges, the third for second baseman Robinson, and the third full for right fielder Carl Furillo.

It was the beginning of the group of players that Roger Kahn, later to cover the team for the New York Herald Tribune, would call "The Boys of Summer," and use that line, from a poem by Dylan Thomas, as the title of his 1972 book that looked at those former Dodgers as they moved through middle age. The only real veteran among them was their shortstop and Captain, Harold "Pee Wee" Reese.

Among them, Kahn also included pitcher Carl Erskine, who had yet to become a regular in the starting rotation; left fielder Andy Pafko, who did not get to the Dodgers until 1951; pitcher Clem Labine, who would not have a full season until 1951; pitcher Joe Black, who would not arrive until 1952; and reserve outfielder George "Shotgun" Shuba. He did not, however, include pitcher Ralph Branca, for whom 1949 was his third full season. Probably had something to do with the fact that Kahn based the book on the 2 years he covered the team for the Trib, 1952 and '53, after Branca threw a rather inopportune pitch to close the '51 season, became an afterthought in '52, and was traded in '53.

Twelve men. Of them, only Newcombe, Erskine, Pafko and Shuba -- and Kahn himself -- are still alive as we close February 2011. So is Branca. Hodges died just after the book came out; Robinson, a few months later.

*

In 1949, '50 and '51, 3 straight seasons, the Dodgers went down to the last day of the season with the National League Pennant still in doubt. In '49, they won, edging the St. Louis Cardinals by 1 game. In '50, they lost on the last day to the team they were chasing, the Philadelphia Phillies. In '51, they blew a 13 1/2-game lead over their arch-rivals, the New York Giants, and finished in a tie for the Pennant, and lost the Playoff. (If you're reading this, you don't need me to remind you of how -- especially since I've already alluded to it.) In '52 and '53, they did win the Pennant.

Yet they didn't win the World Series. In '41, '47, '49, '52 and '53, they lost every time. To the same team, the New York Yankees. The Dodgers had also lost the World Series in 1916 (to the Boston Red Sox) and in 1920 (to the Cleveland Indians). They were 0-for-7 in Series play -- 0-for-5 against the Yankees. Throw in their close loss to the Cards in '42, their Playoff loss to the Cards in '46, and their agonizing losses in '50 and '51, and their 2nd-place finish as the hated Giants won the Series in '54, and you can see why Dodger fans were frustrated.

It was no fault of Duke Snider, though. He played a fine center field, and boy, could he hit. In 1950, he batted .321, hit 31 doubles, 10 triples, 31 homers and had 107 RBIs, and led the NL in hits and total bases. He was 24, and just gettin' warmed up. He would bat .300 7 times, for a .295 career average. His career OPS+ was a sizzling 140. In '53 he led the NL in slugging percentage, on-base percentage and runs. He led in total bases and runs again in '54. He led in runs and RBIs in '55. He led in homers, on-base and slugging in '56. He made 7 All-Star Games. He never won an MVP, but considering that his teammate Robinson won 1 and his teammate Campanella won 3, that's no shame.

Finally, in 1955, the Dodgers slew all the dragons. They won the Pennant by 13 games, and the Duke batted .309, hit 42 homers and had a career-high 136 RBIs. In the World Series against the Yankees, he tied the record with 4 homers (a record he first tied in '52, sharing it with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and later broken by Reggie Jackson) and had 7 RBIs. The Dodgers beat the Yankees in Game 7 at the old Yankee Stadium, October 4, 1955. It was as cathartic a win as any baseball team ever had, perhaps even more so than the 1969 Mets, certainly more so than the 1977 or 1996 Yankees -- and, unlike the 2004 Red Sox, "Dem Bums" didn't need no steroids.

On September 22, 1957, Snider hit 2 homers off Phillies pitcher Robin Roberts. These turned out to be the last 2 homers ever hit at Ebbets Field. The team moved to Los Angeles. Duke was happy to be going to his hometown, but, like many of the Dodgers, he was sad to leave Brooklyn. He helped the Dodgers win the World Series again in 1959.

After the 1962, he went back to New York, traded to the Mets. Duke Snider, playing home games in the Polo Grounds? Not as strange as where he ended up, in the 1964 season: Playing for the Giants, albeit in San Francisco. At the time of his retirement, his 407 home runs were 10th all-time.

He managed in the minor leagues, became a broadcaster for the San Diego Padres (near his Fallbrook, California home) and the Montreal Expos (he was still popular there from his days with the Dodgers' farm team, the Montreal Royals), and raised fruit on land he owned in Fallbrook. In 1980, in his 11th year on the ballot (much too late), he was elected to the Hall of Fame. The Dodgers then retired his Number 4.

In 1999, Snider was ranked 84th on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players," and was a nominee for the Major League Baseball All-Century Team.

Shortly after his 1980 election to the Hall, Terry Cashman recorded and released one of the iconic baseball songs. Officially titled "Talkin' Baseball," it is best remembered for its chorus, saluting the 3 great New York center fielders of the 1950s: "Willie, Mickey and the Duke."

Actually, while Willie Mays was better in 1951 and '54, and Mickey Mantle had the better seasons by far in '56 and '57, and then Willie and the Duke left for California to leave Mickey all alone, in 1952 and '53, Duke Snider was the best center fielder in New York. Okay, Mays was in the Army for the Korean War for most of '52 and all of '53, but there were no excuses in '55: The Duke was the best that year.

Mickey died in 1995, at the age of 63. The Duke died today, February 27, 2011, of what's currently being called simply "nautral causes," at the age of 84. Now, Willie, age 79 and possibly not in the best of health, is the only one of the 3 left.

But as long as people are talkin' baseball, they'll be talkin' about Duke Snider, a true all-time great.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Top 10 Yankee Left Fielders

This is a tough one. Several center and right fielders in Yankee history have also played left field at various times in their careers, including Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle. I decided to limit this to only players who are best known for playing the position.

That gets harder when you consider that, from 1955 to ’58, the Yankees’ main left fielder was Elston Howard, who was a catcher by trade, but was waiting behind Yogi Berra. In 1959, Yogi’s decline began, although he could still hit, and he and Ellie switched positions. So both Yogi, who remained the starting left fielder until 1962, and Ellie could be among the Top 10 Yankee Left Fielders. But I’ve already included them in the Top 10 Yankee Catchers, so I won’t. That means there’s going to be a big gap from 1955 to 1962, one of the most successful periods in Yankee history.

This also lets out Johnny Damon and, for the moment, Brett Gardner.

Dishonorable Mention to Ben Chapman (1930-36) and Jake Powell (1936-40). Chapman was a member of the 1932 World Champions, a .302 lifetime hitter, a 4-time All-Star, and one of the few base-stealing threats the Yankees had between the 1920 arrival of Babe Ruth and the 1975 return of Billy Martin. But as manager of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1947, he led the most vicious bench-jockeying any athlete has ever received, the noxious racial abuse hurled by the Phils at Jackie Robinson. The backlash got so bad that it was recommended that, when the Dodgers got to Philadelphia, the two men pose for a conciliatory picture. But the Alabama-born Chapman refused to shake hands with Robinson, settling instead for posing with the two of them holding the same bat. The next year, with the Phillies having rising stars like Richie Ashburn and Robin Roberts but still far behind the NL lead, Chapman was fired, and except for a brief tenure as a Reds coach never worked in the game again. Years later, he would admit he had gone too far.

But at least Chapman lived long enough to have, and show, remorse. Powell was, effectively, his replacement as Yankee left fielder, and was a member of the 4 straight World Championship teams of 1936-39. But in 1938, with the Yankees in Chicago, White Sox broadcaster Bob Elson interviewed him for a pregame radio show, and asked Powell what he did in the off-season. The native of the suburbs of Washington, D.C. said he was a police officer in Dayton, Ohio. Asked what he did to keep in shape, Powell told Elson, “Crack (N-word)s over the head with my nightstick.” Even as notorious a racist as Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis knew this was too much – and probably also cared that it was a bald-face lie – and he suspended Powell for 8 games. Two years later, Powell was out of The Bronx, and was out of the game by 1945. In 1948, arrested for public drunkenness, he grabbed the cop’s gun and shot himself, an ironic end considering what he’s best known for.

10. William “Birdie” Cree, 1908-15. Got his nickname because he liked to whistle. He twice batted over .300 and helped the Highlanders/Yankees finish 2nd in 1910. In 1911, he batted .348 with 30 doubles, 22 triples, 4 homers and 88 RBIs.

9. Tim Raines, 1996-98. Just 3 seasons in Pinstripes, but they were all Playoff seasons, and ’96 and ’98 were World Championship seasons. "Rock" .321 in ’97 and .290 in ’98, despite being 37 and 38 years old in those seasons. In Game 3 of the ’96 Series, led off the game with a walk, and scored on Bernie Williams’ single to give the Yanks their first lead of the Series, and later started a double play; his 2-out walk in the top of the 10th led to his scoring the winning run in Game 4.

Overall for his career, a 7-time All-Star, .294 average, 123 OPS+, 2,605 hits, and a whopping 808 stolen bases, 5th all-time and most of anybody not in the Hall of Fame. Judging by Baseball-Reference.com’s HOF Monitor (90 of 100), HOF Standards (47 of 50), and Top 10 Most Similar Batters (4 of 10 already in), he’s got a very good case.

8. Roy White, 1965-79. First Yankee (or former Yankee) I ever actually met (if you’ll pardon the choice of THAT word), and all the talk about him being classy was an understatement. His timing was bad, arriving just as the old dynasty was collapsing, but he was a 2-time All-Star, led the AL in walks in 1972 and runs in 1976, and finally got to play in 3 World Series, winning 2. His 1st-inning homer in Game 3 of the ’78 Series gave the Yanks their first lead of the Series, and in Game 4 he scored the winning run in the 10th.

He never batted .300, hit 25 homers or had 100 RBIs, although he came close to each. But he won games and he won titles. He wasn’t a headline, but he helped make them. Later became a Yankee coach. His Number 6 will be retired someday, although not for him. But he was the first former player introduced at the old Yankee Stadium finale in 2008, and deservedly got a big hand.

7. Gene Woodling, 1949-54. He was from Akron, Ohio – the first Yankee star to be born there, but not the last – but became the last Yankee star to be purchased from the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League. He helped the Yankees win the next 5 World Series, batting over .300 in 1952 and ‘53. Not that anybody knew it at the time, but he led the AL in on-base percentage in ’53, .429. He bobbled what should have been the last out of the 1950 Series, costing rookie Whitey Ford a shutout, but in a far tighter situation (ahead by 2 with the winning run at the plate in Game 7, as opposed to the earlier 5-run lead in a sweep-clincher), caught the last out of the ’52 Series.

The Yankees including him in the biggest trade in baseball history, the 18-player deal with the Baltimore Orioles after the ’54 season that brought in 2 pitchers who would make their mark in Pinstripe history, Don Larsen (still the only man to pitch a no-hitter in the World Series) and Bob Turley (first Yankee to win the Cy Young Award). It was with the O’s that he reached his only All-Star Game, in ’59. (A guy named Ted Williams being in the AL and having the one subpar year of his career in ’59 had something to do with that.)

6. Tom Tresh, 1961-69. Had a cup of coffee with the M&M Boys’ Yankees, then was the AL Rookie of the Year in 1962, playing shortstop while Tony Kubek was spending most of the season in the Army. Moved to the outfield when Kubek came back, and, depending on how big the field was in a ballpark and how much Mickey Mantle’s legs were bothering him, spent much of the next 4 seasons switching between left and center with Mickey. An All-Star in ’62 and ’63 and a Gold Glove in ’65, his homer won Game 5 of the ’62 Series, and his homer in Game 1 of ’63 broke up a no-hitter by Sandy Koufax (though it didn’t stop Koufax from fanning 15, then a Series record and still a Series record for lefties).

Never batted .300 or had 100 RBIs, but topped 20 homers 4 times – and, like Mantle, was a switch-hitter, so he wasn’t just taking advantage of the pre-renovation Stadium’s short RF porch, and in fact was hurt by its LF and CF Death Valley. Grew up outside Detroit, where his father Mike Tresh grew up; unlike his father, who played mostly for the White Sox, finished his career with their hometown Tigers. His own son, Mickey (named for Mantle), was a Yankee farmhand, but never got past Double-A ball.

5. Lou Piniella, 1974-84. The 1969 AL Rookie of the Year with the Kansas City Royals, he didn’t get along with management there, so they sent him to the Yankees for lefty reliever Lindy McDaniel. Great trade for both teams. McDaniel was washed up, but he was practically an extra pitching coach for the Royals’ young staff. Piniella, well, let’s just say he was called “Sweet Lou” not for his disposition, but for his swing.

At first he played mostly right field, with White in left. By the time Reggie Jackson arrived for 1977, White was mostly a bench player and Lou was the main man in left, and he became a pretty good left fielder, his catch taking a home run away from Ron Cey of the Dodgers in Game 4 of the World Series. In the 1978 Playoff with the Red Sox, Reggie was the DH, Roy was in left and Lou in right, and he made 2 key plays in that game to save it.

And what a hitter: .291 lifetime average, 109 OPS+, 6 .300 seasons (4 with the Yankees), and always seemed to come through in key situations. As a boy, I enjoyed Nathan Salant’s book This Day In Yankee History, and as he wrote of the 1978 “Boston Massacre” series, he mentioned that Reggie had been intentionally walked: “That made no sense at all, because the next batter was the Red Sox killer himself, Lou Piniella.” And Piniella went 10-for-16 with 5 RBIs in that series. He also batted .305 with 2 homers and 6 RBIs in his 5 ALCS appearances and .319 with 10 RBIs (albeit none on homers) in his 4 World Series. If it was October, and Lou was batting against you, you were not thinking it was sweet.

He retired and became the Yankees’ hitting instructor, then, except for a brief 5th term for Billy Martin, was the Yankees’ manager from 1985 to ’88, getting them in the AL East 4 straight seasons but never getting that one extra starting pitcher he needed from George Steinbrenner. He helped make Don Mattingly a great hitter, but had to go to the Cincinnati Reds – where he helped make Paul O’Neill a great hitter, if one with a similarly explosive temper – to win a Pennant and a World Series as a manager. He remains the only manager to lead the Seattle Mariners to a postseason berth, 4 of them. It’s unlikely the Number 14 he wore as a Yankee will be retired anytime soon, but Lou was a classic Yankee, and one of my 5 favorite players of my time.

4. Bob Meusel, 1920-29. “Long Bob” and his brother Emil (known as Irish even though the family was of German descent) were among the earliest Californians to reach the majors – or, as the people involved in or rooting for teams in the Pacific Coast League said until 1957, “the eastern leagues.” Both went to New York, Irish to the Giants, Bob to the Yankees, and they opposed each other in 3 straight World Series, the Giants winning in 1921 and ’22, the Yankees in ’23. Bob also helped the Yankees win the ’26 Pennant and the ’27 and ’28 World Series.

He was a lifetime .318 hitter, who was a perfect fit in the Yankee lineup, 5th after Babe Ruth batted 3rd and Lou Gehrig 4th – hence, in his last full season, 1929, the first season in which the Yankees wore uniform numbers, Meusel was the first to wear the Number 5 that would be solely identified with Joe DiMaggio (who, of course, did not always bat 5th). Five times, Meusel drove in at least 100 runs, and led the AL in homers and RBIs in 1925. He played with the Cincinnati Reds in 1930, then headed back west and ended his career in the PCL. He died in 1977, at age 81.

3. Charlie Keller, 1939-49, with a brief return in ‘52. He was big and strong and hairy, and they called him King Kong – though not to his face, as he hated the nickname. This guy formed one of the greatest outfielders ever, with Joe DiMaggio in center and Tommy Henrich in right. His best known hit was a double off the right-field wall at Ebbets Field to complete the rally after Mickey Owen’s muff kept the Yanks alive in Game 4 of the 1941 World Series. He was hitting at a Hall of Fame pace, averaging a .296 batting average, 24 homers and 98 RBIs in his first 5 seasons, 4 of which ended with Yankee Pennants (1939, ’41, ’42 and ’43) and 3 with World Series wins (all but ’42).

Then he went off to war, and when he got back a back injury slowed him down. He helped the Yankees win a 4th and 5th Series in ’47 and ’49, but that was pretty much it for him: His last great year was at age 29, and he packed it in at 35. He returned to his native Maryland and trained racehorses at his Yankeeland Ranch, many of them with "Yankee" in their names.

2. Hideki Matsui, 2003-09. His first home game at a Yankee Stadium, he hit an Opening Day grand slam. His last home game at a Yankee Stadium, he went 3-for-4 with a homer and 6 RBIs to clinch a World Championship. In between he gave us a bunch of memories, including one of the 4 straight hits off Pedro Martinez in 2003 ALCS Game 7, maybe the best game ever played at the old Stadium.

He's with the Oakland Athletics now, and new catcher Russell Martin may end up getting his Number 55. But "Godzilla" was a beast. I wonder if he'll be the first Yankee to get a Plaque with part of its next not in English?

1. Dave Winfield, 1981-90. In the strictest sense, Big Dave was the Yankees’ main left fielder for only 3 seasons, 1981, ’82 and ’83, before moving over to right field. (Steve Kemp was the main one in ’84, Ken Griffey Sr. in ’85, Dan Pasqua in ’86, Gary Ward in ’87, Rickey Henderson moving from center to left for ’88, then Mel Hall taking over after Rickey was traded in ’89.)

Big Dave went 1-for-21 in the 1981 World Series, and that led George Steinbrenner to eventually call him "Mr. May." It was totally unfair, and even less fair was how George got rid of him -- which led to baseball temporarily getting rid of George, and Dave getting the hit that clinched the 1992 Series for the Toronto Blue Jays.

He hit 465 home runs, got over 3,000 hits, is in the Hall of Fame, and had most of his great years with the Yankees. Yet his Number 31 has been continually given out (sometimes it's worked, as with the aforementioned Tim Raines; sometimes not, as with several weak pitchers), and he hasn't gotten his Monument Park Plaque. No ring? Don Mattingly has a Plaque but no ring, and he was not a better player than Winfield. The ovations Dave gets when he comes back for Old-Timers' Day are not enough: Hank, Hal, give him his Plaque! And don't ever let another kid just off the Columbus -- excuse me, Scranton -- Shuttle sully his 31!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Top 10 Yankee Third Basemen

Note: Bobby Cox once played third base for the Yankees, and he’s going to the Baseball Hall of Fame. But these two things are by no means linked.

Honorable Mention to Joe Dugan, 1922-28. “It’s always the same,” Jumpin’ Joe, the 7th-place hitter on the “Murderer’s Row” Yankees said. “Combs walks. Koenig singles. Ruth hits one out of the park. Gehrig doubles. Meusel singles. Lazzeri triples. Then Dugan goes in the dirt on his can.”

Actually, while hardly as fearsome as his teammates, Dugan wasn’t a bad hitter, batting .280 lifetime, and reaching 60 RBIs 3 times, not bad totals for a third baseman in his era. He was a slick fielder, and helped the Yankees win 5 Pennants (1922, ’23, ’26, ’27 and ’28) and 3 World Series (1923, ’27 and ’28). He also had the “honor,” along with Hall of Fame pitcher Herb Pennock, of being sold off by both Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics and Harry Frazee of the Boston Red Sox.

Had he still been with the Yankees when they started wearing uniform numbers in 1929, he would have gotten Number 7 for his place in the batting order. He closed his career with the 1931 Detroit Tigers, wearing Number 25, the only number he ever wore.

10. Mike Pagliarulo, 1984-89. A native of Medford, Massachusetts who grew up as a Red Sox fan, “Pags” used to wear a T-shirt that had “Boston Red Sox, World Champions 1903 1912 1915 1916 1918” on the back and the Yankees’ titles on the front. He was nearly as good a glove as the man he replaced, Graig Nettles, and, also like Nettles, he seemed to have that sweet lefty swing meant for Yankee Stadium. In his 4 full seasons in Pinstripes, he hit 94 home runs, and topped out at 87 RBIs.

Unfortunately, he went too far in mirroring Nettles’ biggest flaw: He didn’t make contact enough, striking out 510 times in what amounted to 5 seasons in The Bronx. He batted in the .230s, then dropped to .216 in 1988 and was at .197 in ’89 when he was traded, like Nettles, to the Padres. In 1991, playing for the Minnesota Twins, he had his best average, .279, and won a World Series. In that Twin infield with him was Chuck Knoblauch, just as he’d once been in an infield with Willie Randolph. So Pags is linked to both the 1976-81 dynasty and the 1996-2003 dynasty… but not closely enough: The Yanks got very close to the AL East title in ’85 and ’88, and made strong runs in ’86 and ’87, but he had to go to Minnesota to win a Pennant and a ring.

He started out wearing Number 46, then switched to 6, then to 13. All 3 numbers are likely to be retired by the Yankees in the next few years, but none for him. He now runs a baseball-themed website, dugoutcentral.com. His son Mike helped Dartmouth’s baseball team win the 2009 Ivy League Championship.

9. Billy Johnson, 1943-51. Batted .280 with 94 RBIs as a rookie on the 1943 World Champion Yankees, the Montclair, New Jersey native missed the next 2 years in World War II, then came back and helped the Yankees win the Series again in 1947, ’49 and ’50. A solid hitter, he was an All-Star in 1947. He started out wearing Number 7, then switched to 24. The former is retired by the Yankees, the latter might be, but neither for him.

8. Scott Brosius, 1998-2001. He was only a Yankee for 4 years, but what a 4 years, just 3 outs away from being 4 straight World Championships. A .203 hitter with an OPS+ of 53 in his last season with the Oakland Athletics, the Yankees sent the hopeless Kenny Rogers (the choking pitcher, not the country singer) to the East Bay for the Oregonian, to replace the man at Number 7 on this list. Joe Torre said he just wanted him to field his position and not worry about hitting.

Turned out, in 1998, it was pitchers who had to worry about his hitting: Not only did he give the Yankees yet another great glove at the position, but he batted a career-high .300, posted a 121 OPS+, hit 19 homers, had a career-high 98 RBIs, made the All-Star Team, hit 2 home runs in Game 3 of the World Series, including a 410-foot game-winner to dead center off the San Diego Padres' supposedly invincible closer Trevor Hoffman, fielded the last out of the Series the next night, and was awarded the Series MVP.

He was hardly done, even in October. The Yankees won again in 1999, aided in part by Brosius' only Gold Glove season and 2 homers against the Red Sox in the ALCS. He hit another homer in the 2000 Series against the Mets, and in Game 5 of the 2001 Series, he tied the game in the bottom of the 9th with a homer, leading to a Yankee win in the 12th. Although he was only 34 and had just batted .287, he retired after that Series.

He went on to become the assistant coach, and then the head coach, at his alma mater, Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon. He is a member of his State's Sports Hall of Fame. He wore Number 18 as a Yankee, although it is unlikely to be retired for him, or anyone else, in the near future.

7. Wade Boggs, 1993-97. He was already a Hall-of-Famer-in-waiting for what he’d done with the Red Sox. This ranking is based solely on what he did with the Yankees. And what he did was help to bring the team back from its 1982-92 doldrums, including its 1989-92 dark age.

Upon arriving in 1993, he instantly became a good influence on the team’s young hitters, and the Yankees finished 2nd, their highest finish since ’85. He batted .302, .342, .324, .311 and .292 in his 5 seasons in Pinstripes. He was the starting third baseman on the 1996 World Champions, won both of his Gold Gloves as a Yankee, and made 4 of his 12 All-Star appearances as a Yankee.

Overall, he batted .328 lifetime, with a 130 OPS+, 3,010 hits including 578 doubles, reached postseason play 6 times, winning 3 Pennants and a World Series – and that doesn’t count the 1994 season when the Yankees had the AL’s best record when the strike hit and didn’t get to find out what would happen. The image of him puffy and pink with tears in the Shea Stadium dugout after the Red Sox blew the 1986 Series will live forever; the image of him equally pink with joy on the Stadium mound in ’96, and then riding that police horse along the outfield track, is what should really be in our minds. As Worcester, Massachusetts native Denis Leary says, “If you had told my father that, one day, Wade Boggs would win the World Series with the Yankees, his head would have blown up.”

He returned to his native Tampa Bay, and became the Devil Rays’ first retired number, 12, which he also wore with the Yankees, rather than the 26 he wore with the Red Sox. The Yankees may never retire 12 for him, but a Plaque in Monument Park would be nice. After all, Reggie Jackson is there, and he, too, played 4½ seasons as a Yankee starter.

6. Gil McDougald, 1951-60. Yet another cog in the Yankees’ old-time San Francisco connection, he was AL Rookie of the Year in 1951, ahead of teammate Mickey Mantle. A 5-time All-Star, he played 10 seasons, winning 8 Pennants and 5 World Series (1951, ’52, ’53, ’56 and ’58). Although just 32 years old, he retired after the 1960 season, expecting to be left unprotected in the expansion draft and not wanting to play for a considerably lesser team. He wore Number 12 throughout his Yankee career, and was later the baseball coach at Fordham University.

5. Frank Baker, 1916-22. John Franklin Baker was nicknamed “Home Run” Baker due to 2 homers he hit for the A’s in the 1911 World Series, off New York Giants, and fellow future Hall-of-Famers, Rube Marquard and then Christy Mathewson. And he did lead the AL in homers 4 times… peaking at 12. It was the Dead Ball Era. Still, his career OPS+ was 135, meaning he was 35 percent more productive a hitter than the average player of his time.

A member of Connie Mack’s first A’s dynasty, 1910-14, he sat out the 1915 season in a contract dispute, and, having already broken the dynasty up, Mack sold him to the Yankees for $37,500 – as sports historian Bert Randolph Sugar would say, these were Woodrow Wilson dollars. The year off hurt Baker, but he did hit .308 for the Yankees in 1918 and help them win their first 2 Pennants, in 1921 and ’22.

4. Clete Boyer, 1959-66. Debuting in the major leagues with the Kansas City Athletics in 1955, the same year Brooks Robinson debuted with the Baltimore Orioles, it was impossible for Clete to win a Gold Glove as long as he stayed in the AL – and, in fact, he only won 1, and that was in 1969, with the Atlanta Braves.

But, at his peak, he was every bit as good a fielder as Robinson, his performance in the 1961 World Series nearly as amazing as those of Robinson in the 1970 edition and Graig Nettles in 1978. He used to dive for balls, come up only to his knees, and throw runners out. He wasn’t a great hitter, not topping 20 homers until he was traded and went to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, a.k.a. the Launching Pad, but he did hit 162 homers, 95 as a Yankee, and probably would have hit a lot more had he not been a righthanded hitter aiming for Death Valley at the pre-renovation old Stadium. A member of the Yankees’ 5 straight Pennant winners of 1960-64, he won World Series in 1961 and ’62.

In 1964, he and his brother Ken, Captain of the St. Louis Cardinals, became the only brothers to both homer in a World Series game. Their brother Cloyd pitched for the Cards a few years before Ken got there, and was briefly Clete’s teammate on the A’s, near their hometown of Alba, Missouri. Clete wore Number 6 through most of his Yankee career, and it will be retired, though not for him.

3. Robert “Red” Rolfe, 1934-42, plus a one-game callup in ’31. He’s not in the Hall of Fame or Monument Park, but in an interview in 1980, Mel Allen called him the best third baseman he’d ever seen. Mel was biased (there’s a shock), because Rolfe was the Yankee hot-corner man when he became “the Voice of the Yankees” in 1939.

But Rolfe was a fantastic fielder, who would have won several Gold Gloves had the award been around then. He also batted .289 lifetime, with 4 .300 seasons. He led the AL in triples in 1936 and in hits, doubles and runs in 1939. He helped the Yankees win 6 Pennants (1936, ’37, ’38, ’39, ’41 and ’42) and 5 World Series (all but the last). Oddly, he retired after the 1942 season, only 34. And it wasn’t to serve in World War II, either, but to become baseball coach at Yale University. He was a Dartmouth graduate, and later served as their athletic director and as manager of the Detroit Tigers. He wore Number 2 throughout his Yankee career, and it will be retired, though not for him.

2. Graig Nettles, 1973-83. He was the last player obtained, from the Cleveland Indians for Charlie Spikes, by the CBS regime before George Steinbrenner and Gabe Paul took over – and, with their Cleveland connections, it may have been a setup. But he hit 71 homers in 3 full seasons playing in what was usually called “Cavernous Cleveland Stadium,” so what could he do at Yankee Stadium with its short right-field porch?

It took a while to find out, as he hit “only” 22 homers in ’73, but he hit another 22 in ’74 and 21 in ’75, despite playing in pitcher’s park Shea Stadium while Yankee Stadium was being renovated. In the refurbished Stadium, with the RF pole being 310 feet from home plate and straightaway right just 353, Nettles hit 32 homers in ’76 to lead the AL. He hit 37 in ’77, although it wasn’t enough to lead the League with Jim Rice hitting 39. He had a .248 lifetime batting average that is lower than that of any nonpitcher in the Hall, but he hit 390 homers and had a 110 career OPS+.

It’s for his fielding that he’s best known. His stops in Game 3 of the ’78 World Series saved the Yankees’ bacon, and that was just what he did when the whole country was watching. He made plays like that all the time when it was only the Tri-State Area watching on WPIX-Channel 11. Starting his career when Brooks Robinson was still around, and playing at the same time as Aurelio Rodriguez and George Brett, limited him to 2 Gold Gloves, but he was at least as good a fielder as the former and better than the latter. In 1984, the Yankees traded him to the San Diego Padres. Playing for his hometown team, alongside former Yankee teammate Goose Gossage, he helped them win their first Pennant. It was his 5th career Pennant, after 4 with the Yankees (1976, ’77, ’78 and ’81) and 2 World Series wins (1977 & ’78).

Should he be in the Hall, despite that .248 average? Baseball-Reference.com’s Hall of Fame Monitor has him at 63 out of 10, and their HOF Standards has him at 31 out of 50. Their 10 Most Similar Batters is loaded with really good third basemen and others who weren’t quite good enough to get in: Darrell Evans, Gary Gaetti, Ron Santo, Dale Murphy, Brian Downing, Chili Davis, Don Baylor, Ron Cey, Joe Carter and Robin Ventura. Of those, a case can be made for Santo and maybe Evans.

But, until recently, Nettles was the greatest third baseman in Yankee history. Though it should be noted that, when he was traded, the Yankees retired his Number 9 not for him, but for Roger Maris. And he has never received a Plaque in Monument Park. No Hall of Fame, no Monument Park, no number retirement. Just a “Yankeeography” and a big cheer every Old-Timers’ Day.

1. Alex Rodriguez, 2004-present. Someone check on Lisa Swan of Subway Squawkers (link to the right), just to make sure my choice of A-Rod as the all-time Yankee third baseman hasn’t shocked her into unconsciousness or hysteria.

What can I say now? Sure, he’s had his difficulties in the postseason, but he’s been with the Yankees for 7 seasons, they’ve reached the postseason 6 times, and he was the biggest reason the Yankees won the 2009 ALDS and ALCS, and he came through in the World Series as well. No one can say he was “just along for the ride.”

Whether he will become the game’s all-time home run leader with 763 or more, we don’t know. But he’s a very good bet to at least reach 700, and get 3,000 hits. Even with the little revelations about what he did back in Texas, that probably won’t hurt him any more than it hurt George W. Bush. Barring a genuine ethical/legal calamity, he’ll make the Hall of Fame. The Yankees will retire his Number 13, and he will get a Plaque in Monument Park.

See what a difference winning one World Series can mean?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Top 10 Yankee Shortstops

Back to the top 10 Yankees by position. Unlike most positions, the Yankees' long-term record at shortstop is thin, especially after (or should that be "before"?) the top 2. If you're looking for 1980s or early '90s shortstops like Bobby Meacham, Andre Robertson, Wayne Tolleson, Alvaro Espinoza or Spike Owen, forget it.

But what a top 2.

10. John Knight, 1909-13. Not much is available about him, but he did help the New York Highlanders (the name "Yankees" was already being used but didn't become official until 1913) finish 2nd in 1910 with a .312 average. Like later Yankee pitcher Waite Hoyt, he was known as "Schoolboy," possibly due to his Ivy League education, attending the University of Pennsylvania in his hometown of Philadelphia. He played every infield position, plus one game in right field.

9. Gene Michael, 1968-74. "Stick" was another "good field, no-hit" middle infielder. His OPS+ was 67, which means, even in that pitching-friendly era, he was one-third worse than the average hitter.

But he redeemed himself by doing just about everything in the organization. Minor league manager. Major league coach (first base coach on the 1977 and '78 World Champs). Major league manager (managed most of the '81 Pennant-winning season but was fired before it ended). General manager (rebuilt the farm system and rearranged the acquisition priorities after the George-induced wreckage of the 1980s). And, since 1996, "superscout." Number 17 will never be retired for him (he wore several other numbers as coach and manager), but he may be deserving of a Monument Park Plaque.

8. Norman "Kid" Elberfeld, 1903-09. The man brought in with the first trade the Highlanders/Yankees ever made, he was known as the Tabasco Kid for his temper (and later just "Kid"). He had 2 .300 seasons, and while he wasn't a great hitter he was not terrible by the standards of the Dead Ball Era. There's not much I can say about his fielding: The gloves used back then were not conducive to shortstops making fewer than 40 errors a season. He did help the Yankees finish 2nd in both 1904 and 1906 (his best season), although by the time the team finished that high again (1910), he was gone.

7. Everett Scott, 1922-25. He wasn't a Yankee for very long, but he was a member of the '22 Pennant winners and the '23 World Champs. Yet another member of the 1910s Red Sox sort-of dynasty that became a part of the 1920s Yankee dynasty. He didn't hit much, but was dependable in the field.

And he set a major league record of 1,307 consecutive games played. Oddly enough, that streak ended on May 5, 1925, when "the Deacon" was pinch-hit for by Paul "Pee-Wee" Wanninger. Just 27 days later, on June 1, Wanninger was taken out for a pinch-hitter named Lou Gehrig. You know the rest of that story, and you should also know Scott's, because he held the record before Gehrig, and long before Cal Ripken was even born.

6. Bucky Dent, 1977-82. With the Chicago White Sox, he nearly won Rookie of the Year in 1974, and made the All-Star Team the next season. The Yanks picked him up just before the '77 season started, and he made 2 more All-Star Games and won 3 Pennants and 2 World Series.

Not a great hitter, but got some key hits. For 2 weeks in October 1978, he was touched by God: That home run at Fenway on the 2nd (only his 5th homer of the season), through the ALCS, to the World Series that ended on the 17th with him being named Series MVP with a .417 average and 7 RBIs. And he and Willie Randolph turned some of the best double plays you'll ever see.

5. Mark Koenig, 1925-30. Even before Tony Lazzeri (see Top 10 Yankee Second Basemen), he was a San Franciscan who moved east to play for the Yankees. Batted .285 in a Yankee uniform, including .319 in 1928. Won Pennants in 1926, '27 and '28, and the World Series in the latter 2 years. Turned out to be the last survivor of the 1927 Yankee team that became known as "Murderer's Row" and "the Greatest Team Ever," living until 1993. In an interview near the end, he joked, "I've got Heinz disease, 57 varieties."

4. Frank Crosetti, 1932-48. A 2-time All-Star, he didn't have many homers but did hit 260 doubles, an extraordinary number for a shortstop in the 1930s. Helped the Yankees win 8 Pennants (1932, '36, '37, '38, '39, '41, '42 and '43) and 7 World Series (all but '42). However, he went into a noticable decline in '39, just 28 years old. In 1940, it made a difference, as, for the first time in 5 years, the Yankees did not win the Pennant. This led to Phil Rizzuto, The Sporting News' 1940 Minor League Player of the Year, being called up. The Crow hung on, and when Rizzuto was drafted became a starter again, and while his hitting was still weak, his fielding was a key component of the war-stripped 1943 World Champions.

Later he became the Yankees' 3rd base coach. In 1969, he became the 3rd base coach for the ill-fated Seattle Pilots, the Milwaukee Brewers-to-be immortalized in former Yankee pitcher Jim Bouton's book Ball Four, in which it was joked that, due to his being the 3rd base coach for the teams of DiMaggio, Berra, Mantle and Maris, Crosetti must have dealt out more pats on the ass to home-run hitters than anyone in history. Due to his association with the Yankees from the end of the Ruth-Gehrig era to the end of the Mantle era, he earned 17 World Series rings (the first in 1932, the last in 1962), which is probably a record for a man in uniform (not counting guys who may have moved into the front office).

3. Tony Kubek, 1957-65. The Milwaukee native ended his first 2 big-league seasons playing his hometown's new team, the Braves in the World Series, losing in 1957 despite his own 2 homers and 4 RBIs in that Series, and winning in 1958. In 1960, he took a ground ball to the throat in Game 7 that gave the Pittsburgh Pirates the lift they needed to win. The American League and the Cincinnati Reds got no such help in 1961, though, as Kubek's slick defense helped the Yanks win 109 games and the World Series. He wrote about that team in his book Sixty-One: The Team, the Record, the Men.

He was AL Rookie of the Year in 1957, and an All-Star in '58, '59 and '61. He won 7 Pennants (1957, '58, '60, '61, '62, '63 and '64) and 3 World Series (1958, '61 and '62). A back injury forced him to retire in 1965, not even 30 years old. He went into broadcasting and was one of NBC's main baseball voices, paired with Joe Garagiola in the 1970s and Bob Costas in the '80s. He did Yankee games on MSG Network, but after the Strike of '94 hit, he quit, saying he was sick of what the game had become.

He has been awarded the Hall of Fame's Ford Frick Award, their equivalent to Hall election for broadcasters, but has never gone back to broadcasting, and except for 1986, in connection with the 25th Anniversary of the 61 in '61 season, does not do interviews and does not attend Old-Timers Day ceremonies.

2. Phil Rizzuto, 1941-56. His Monument Park Plaque calls him "the all-time greatest Yankee shortstop." At the time it was dedicated on August 4, 1985 -- along with the retirement of his Number 10, and I was there at The Stadium that day -- it was a pretty solid opinion.

Had there been a Rookie of the Year award in 1941, the Richmond Hill, Queens native almost certainly would have won it, batting .307. He missed 3 years serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II -- getting seasick all the time, admitting, "I was the worst sailor ever -- but came back strong, and in his 13 seasons the Yankees won 10 Pennants and 8 World Series. He was released late in the 1956 season, so that one doesn't really count, but he did earn 7 World Series rings. He was a 5-time All-Star, and AL MVP in the 1950 season, collecting 200 hits and batting .324. Contrary to popular belief (and his Plaque), he was not the MVP of the 1951 World Series. Perhaps he would have been had there been such an award, but it was not first awarded until 1955.

On Phil Rizzuto Day in 1985, the Scooter said, "This means more to me than getting into the Hall of Fame ever could." I was also at the old Stadium on Old-Timers' Day 1991, celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak, and most of Joe's surviving teammates, including Phil, were on hand. Joe, a man of few words and not one to praise just anyone, told the crowd, "Nobody had a better view than I did of watching him play shortstop... and, Phil, I just want to say that you're my Hall-of-Famer. And I mean that." Huge ovation. In 1994, he was finally elected to the Hall, and found out how wonderful it was.

Holy cow, that huckleberry, he was unbelievable. Because of his longevity, he may be the most beloved Yankee ever, having entertained 4 generations of fans. However, Phil's last year in the broadcast booth, 1996, was the first full season for the man he would live long enough to call "my favorite player" and admit had surpassed him as the greatest Yankee shortstop:

1. Derek Jeter, 1995-present. What can you say about him? He's won 7 Pennants and 5 World Series, the last as Captain of the Yankees. An 11-time All-Star and a 5-time Gold Glove. He is the Yankees' all-time leader in hits, and, barring injury, will reach 3,000 this June. This summer, he will surpass Mickey Mantle's record of 2,401 games in a Yankee uniform.

He has reached the postseason in 13 of his 14 seasons (including his brief callup in 1995 although he wans't on the roster). His postseason record looks like All-Star stats for a single regular season: .309, .850 OPS, 57 RBIs, and 20 homers. Some of those postseason homers will live forever: The 1996 ALCS Game 1 homer that was, uh, helped by Jeffrey Maier; the one to lead off Game 4 of the 2000 World Series and kill off the Mets' momentum, and another homer in Game 5 to set up the clinch; the walkoff in Game 4 of the 2001 Series. Sports Illustrated magazine named him its 2009 Sportsman of the Year. He has been the face of the Yankees for 15 years, the franchise's most popular player since Mantle, over 40 years ago.

Born in Pequannock, New Jersey, the family lived in North Arlington, New Jersey before moving to Kalamazoo, Michigan. In spite of living halfway between Detroit and Chicago and being surrounded by Tiger fans, he remained a Yankee Fan. He used to kid people about wanting to get a single-digit uniform number before they were all retired; he got Number 2, and unless the Steinbrenners insist upon a tremendous slap in the face to Number 6, Joe Torre, Jeter will be the last to wear a single digit in Pinstripes.

To put Jeter in a historical perspective: Baseball-Reference.com's Hall of Fame Monitor has him at 274 out of 100 (meaning he's an easy choice to get in), and its HOF Standards has him at 65 out of 50 (ditto). Their 10 Most Similar Batters are Roberto Alomar (just got in), Barry Larkin (now eligible, not yet in but should be), Frankie Frisch (in), Charlie Gehringer (in), Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell (neither is in but if they could elect Tinker/Evers/Chance then they should do the same for TramWhit), Ryne Sandberg (in), Ted Simmons (not in but a good case can be made), Joe Morgan (in) and Johnny Damon (still active and has a chance).

He'll be 37 on June 26. Contrary to what the Yankee-haters, in the media and out, would want you to believe, he's not done yet.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Lineup for Presidents' Day

Note: This is an updated version of an entry I made on February 12, 2009, the 200th Anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln.

If we were to make a baseball team of all Presidents, who would be on it? Granted, no President has ever played professional ball -- and quite a few were around before the game itself. But let's speculate.

Surely, Abraham Lincoln (who served 1861-65) would have to be on the team. He was tall and thin, but known for splitting rails, so maybe he could hit. With his long legs, he might be a good, fast, rangy center fielder. So we'll put him in center and bat him leadoff.

George Washington (1789-97) would have to be included, for reasons physical as well as historical. Big and strong, and supposedly threw a silver dollar across the Rappahannock River in his youth. (Sometimes, the story is that he threw it across the Potomac River at his Mount Vernon home, but that river is so wide as to make that story ridiculous.)

But a pitcher? I'm not sure. Big George seems to have had a nasty temper, not good for a pitcher. But he was very cool under pressure. Possibly a good choice for "the hot corner," third base, where his good arm would be put to good use. So let's put him there, and in the middle of the lineup, somewhere between 3rd and 6th.

Along with Washington and Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-45) is considered one of the three greatest Presidents. But his polio makes him a bad choice to play. So I'll make him the manager.

Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09)? In real life, he did not like baseball. His favorite sport was boxing, and he was on the boxing team at Harvard. (That's right, the ultimate elitists' school then had a boxing team.)

TR would not have been a pitcher. He liked to say, "Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far." Definitely a hitter. What position woul dhe play? He was a bit of a control freak. Make him the catcher, have him call the signals.

Actually, his successor, William Howard Taft (1909-13), had been a catcher, playing for Yale University. But I'll take the 225-pound TR over the 325-pound Will. "The Colonel" will bat cleanup, although his status as the first real "environmental President" has little to do with that.

The elder George Bush (1989-93), like Taft, played baseball at Yale, and was considerably better at it. He was a member of the Bulldog team that made the first two College World Series finals, in 1947 and '48 -- but lost both. But he's probably still the best baseball-playing President, even if the first ball he through to open Baltimore's Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 1992 fell short of the plate -- and boy, was that recession-plagued President booed for it! He played first base, and he does here as well, though at or near the bottom of the lineup.

Second base requires quick thinking and quick movement, and is not conducive to large men. Tall men, maybe; large men, no. Andrew Jackson (1829-37) is my choice, and I'm guessing he would have liked hitting.

Shortstops need to be versatile. Aside from TR, no President had as varied a set of interests as Thomas Jefferson (1801-09). Tall, not heavy but fairly strong, he'd match the model of shortstops set by Robin Yount and Alan Trammell in the late 1970s, followed by Cal Ripken in the 1980s and Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra and Alex Rodriguez in the 1990s. I'll bat him third.

That leaves left field and right field. I'll avoid the political definitions of "left" and "right." John F. Kennedy (1961-63) would probably get hurt too much, and Lyndon Johnson (1963-69) and Richard Nixon (1969-74) would probably both complain about their place in the batting order. So they're all out.

Barack Obama (2009-present) is a lefthander, and the left fielder could be lefthanded. We know he's a baseball fan (the White Sox), and he's showed some pretty good range so far. Hitting? He certainly hit Hillary Clinton and John McCain hard in the 2008 campaign. Put him second in the order.

James Monroe (1817-25) is the only man to be both Secretary of State and Secretary of War (the post now called Secretary of Defense) at the same time (for 5 months in 1814-15, at the end of the War of 1812). He was with George Washington in the boat crossing the Delaware River on Christmas night, 1776. And he (along with his Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams) created the Monroe Doctrine. Not sure what kind of hitter he'd be, but his defense would be good. Right field.

John Adams (1797-1801), James Madison (1809-17), John Quincy Adams (1825-29), Martin Van Buren (1837-41), James Buchanan (1857-61), Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-81), James Garfield (6 months in 1881) and Benjamin Harrison (1889-93) would be too short by the standards of today's players.

The elder Adams, Ben Harrison, William McKinley (1897-1901) and the aforementioned Will Taft were too fat.

William Henry Harrison (31 days in 1841 before dying of pneumonia), James Polk (1845-49, died within 3 months of leaving office), Chester Arthur (1881-85, died of kidney failure a year and a half out of office) were too sick.

Franklin Pierce (1853-57) and Andrew Johnson (1865-69) were too drunk. Not Ulysses S. Grant (1869-77), though.

Warren Harding (1921-23) and George W. Bush (2001-09) were too dumb.

Calvin Coolidge (1923-29) hated baseball, although his wife Grace would make him take her to Washington Senators games, including in the 1924 and '25 World Series. Herbert Hoover (1929-33) would drop the ball. Jimmy Carter (1977-81) would probably hold out for 444 days.

The pitching rotation could be: Ronald Reagan (1981-89), who played Hall-of-Famer Grover Cleveland Alexander in the film The Winning Team; Bill Clinton (1993-2001), a strong, innings-eating lefthander who might know a trick pitch or two, given his nickname of Slick Willie; Gerald Ford (1974-77), who was an All-American lineman at the University of Michigan and probably could play a little baseball; and Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-61), a calm, cool, corner-painting righthander. Righthanders Ike and Ron (though Ike wasn't really a "right-winger") would balance out the rotation with lefties (physically if not politically) Bill and Jerry.

Grover Cleveland (1885-89 and again 1893-97), rather chunky but a hard worker, could be a fifth starter or a long reliever. Woodrow Wilson (1913-21), who chose to "make the world safe for democracy," could be the closer, except he didn't do what he said he would do. So let's make him the setup man out of the bullpen. No, the closer has to be the cagey lefthander who put the finishing touches on World War II, Harry Truman (1945-53).

So here's the lineup, with their sequential numbers being their "uniform numbers":

Batting 1st, the center fielder, Number 16, Abe Lincoln.

Batting 2nd, the left fielder, Number 44, Barry "the Rock" Obama.

Batting 3rd, the shortstop, Number 3, Tom Jefferson.

Batting 4th, the catcher, Number 26 Teddy "the Colonel" Roosevelt.

Batting 5th, the third baseman, Number 1, George Washington.

Batting 6th, the second baseman, Number 7, "Old Hickory," Andy Jackson.

Batting 7th, the right fielder, Number 5, Jim Monroe.

Batting 8th, the first baseman, Number 41, George "Poppy" Bush.

Warming up in the bullpen, and batting 9th, the pitcher, Number 40, Ron "Dutch" Reagan.

Four Democrats (Obama, Jefferson, Jackson and Monroe), four Republicans (Lincoln, TR, Daddy Bush and Reagan), and the non-partisan Washington. Fair and balanced.

Bring on the other team.

"Leading off, the center fielder, Number 3, George 'the King' Hanover."

George III? In center field? That's crazy!

Play ball!

Sandy Koufax Batting for Fred Wilpon

I've been calling the Mets, their fans, and their organization variations of "stupid" for over 30 years. But I figured, at the least, that Fred Wilpon was a smart businessman.

I guess he should've taken more advice from his old friend Sandy Koufax than from his more recent friend Bernie Madoff.

Now 75 and living in Florida, the scintillating pitcher for the 1960s Los Angeles Dodgers (he arrived with them in his native Brooklyn but didn't get straightened out until after the move) was a classmate of Wilpon's at Lafayette High School, in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn, between Bay Ridge and Brighton Beach. Due to poor recent performance by its student body, the school has been target for closing by the Mayor Bloomberg-controlled Board of Education, but at yet remains open.

Talk-show host Larry King, then still using his birth name of Lawrence Zieger, also attended the school, graduating two years ahead of Koufax and Wilpon. The school, which opened in 1939, has produced more Major League Baseball players than any other, 21. They include the brothers Bob and Ken Aspromonte (in 1970, Bob became the last remaining active former Brooklyn Dodger), Met legend John Franco, not-so-legendary Met pitcher Pete Falcone (whose tendency to walk batters with the bases loaded still leads me to call the action "Falconing"), legendary sportswriter Larry Merchant, artsist Maurice Sendak and Peter Max (the former titled a book Where the Wild Things Are, the latter could have), singer Vic Damone, TV producer Gary David Goldberg, and actors Paul Sorvino, Rhea Perlmand and Steve Schirripa.

Koufax has occasionally been a spring training pitching consultant for the Los Angeles edition of the Dodgers, just as his contemporaries Whitey Ford and Bob Gibson have been for their former teams, the Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals, respectively. The late Jim "Catfish" Hunter had also done this for the Yankees and the Oakland Athletics. But Koufax and the Dodger organization have often had a strained relationship, and he has also offered his services to his old friend Wilpon.

In yesterday's New York Daily News, Koufax discussed his, and Wilpon's, connection to Madoff: http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/baseball/mets/2011/02/20/2011-02-20_sandy_delivers_sunshine.html

"We have been friends for over 60 years," Koufax said of Wilpon. "I just hate to see him being beat up this way. I don't know a kinder, more generous or compassionate human being than Fred. I was part of that investment, and I think if Fred knew it was going to be a bad investment, he never would have told me to put money in it. That's it. I hate to see what he's going through. It bothered him."

I have never said, and I would never say, that Fred Wilpon is a bad person. A bad sports-team owner, maybe. But that doesn't necessarily reflect on a man's character. Koufax is a man whose character has been unimpeachable. He's honest. He stood up for his rights and those of his fellow players, from his 1966 dual holdout with Don Drysdale to his longtime work with the Baseball Assistance Team (BAT). He has been married and divorced twice, but there has been no public suggestion that either ex-wife, or any other real or suspected romantic partner, was ever mistreated by him. He has never written a book torching any of his past associations. He has never been involved in scandal.

The closest he has come, unless you count his investment with Madoff, was in 2003, when the New York Post -- like the Dodgers then were, owned by Rupert Murdoch -- printed a gossip item suggesting that Koufax, twice married and divorced, was gay. He nearly sued, and left the Dodger organization. A year later, Murdoch sold it to Frank McCourt (not the Angela's Ashes author), and relations between the organization and its greatest living player were repaired. (Ironically, McCourt is now trying to sell the Dodgers to pay legal costs from his own divorce, one of the messiest in recent memory.)

So if Sandy Koufax says someone is a good person and doesn't deserve the bad things happening to him, I'm inclined to believe him.

"I don't know who (are) the victims and who aren't the victims," he said. "If I lost any money, I didn't lose it to Madoff; I lost it to the IRS. You pay taxes on money that didn't exist. That's what happened, but I got some of that back. You were allowed to recoup some of your taxes for a few years. I have no problem with what's going on (with arbitratior Irving Picard trying to recover money for Madoff victims). I just feel bad for Fred."

"METS" may now stand for "Madoffed, Extremely, Totally Screwed." But an association with Sandy Koufax can only help. His is still one of the magic names in baseball. Even people who hate the Dodgers (yo) admire him. Even people too young to have seen him pitch (I've seen him at 3 Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, one of the few public appearances he makes, but he retired 3 years before I was born) know his name, his legacy, and his example.

He was one of the greatest pitchers ever, and one of the greatest people ever involved in the game. It is an honor for anyone to have Sandy Koufax "come to bat for him."

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Mark Teixeira is a Yankee Legend; Or, We Don't Need No Stinkin' Pujols

It seems odd to call someone a "legend" if they've only been with your team for 2 seasons. Even if one of those seasons ended with him catching the last out of a World Series won by your team.

But -- and I realize I now have some people getting here, through Facebook, who would not appreciate this kind of language, but I'm going to say this anyway...

Mark Teixeira is a fucking legend.

Or, as they would say in English soccer, Teix = Legend. Top man.

This week, the St. Louis Cardinals were unable to come to an agreement on a contract extension with Albert Pujols, their first baseman.

Pujols, as you may be aware, is the best hitter in the game today. Has been for the last few years. Has been one of the top 2, along with Alex Rodriguez, for the last 10 years. He's become a Gold Glove fielder. He's become a pillar of 2 communities, his native Dominican Republic and the St. Louis area where he plays. He has been a superstar and a gentleman.

If, God forbid, something happens to prevent him from ever playing another game, he would already be bound for the Baseball Hall of Fame:

* A .331 lifetime batting average, identical to that of the Cardinals' greatest all-time legend, Stan Musial.

* A 172 OPS+, easily the highest among active players. Manny Ramirez has a tainted 155, and the next-best among the untainted (as far as we know, he's untainted) is Jim Thome with 147. All-time, Pujols trails only Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, the tainted Barry Bonds, Lou Gehrig and Rogers Hornsby, and tied with Mickey Mantle. Therefore, among honest men, he's tied for 6th, tied for 5th among non-cheaters, tied for 2nd among players whose careers began after 1923, tied for 1st among players whose careers began after 1939, and 1st among players whose careers began after 1951.

* 1,900 hits. Only 24 active players have more, 19 have never been outed as a steroid user, and only 9 are righthanded (thus having an extra step to make to 1st base).

* 426 doubles. Only 17 active players have more, 13 have never been outed as a steroid user, and only 4 are righthanded.

* 408 home runs. Only 7 active players have more, 4 have never been outed as a steroid user, and only Vladimir Guerrero is ahead of him among honest righthanders. (Vlad is not a steroid user as far as I know; Manny Ramirez, who is, is also a righthander ahead of Pujols.)

* 1,230 runs batted in. Only 12 active players have more, 7 have never been outed as a steroid user, and, again, only Vlad (and Manny) are righthanded.

* In his 10 big-league seasons, he's had at least 100 RBI every season. Nobody else has done that.

* 3 National League Most Valuable Player awards, and 3 other near-misses.

* No serious allegations of steroid use. Not by Jose Canseco, not by the Mitchell Report, not by Brian McNamee, not by Kirk Radomski, not by anyone. As far as we know, he's great AND clean.

* In his 10 big-league seasons, the Cardinals have made the Playoffs 6 times, the NLCS 4 times, won 2 Pennants and the 2006 World Series. So he's not just a guy building up stats, he's a proven winner.

* On their "Hall of Fame Monitor," where a "Likely HOFer" would be at 100, Baseball-Reference.com -- this website is your friend, whether you know it or not -- has Pujols at 262.

* On their "Hall of Fame Standards," where the "Average HOFer" is at 50, Pujols is at 53.

* Their "10 Most Similar Batters," based on stats he has already accumulated, are the following: Albert Belle, Hank Greenberg, Johnny Mize, Juan Gonzalez, Larry Walker, Lance Berkman, Jim Edmonds, Chuck Klein, Todd Helton and Jason Giambi.

Greenberg, Mize, Klein are in the Hall of Fame. Edmonds may make it if they consider his amazing fielding. Walker has a shot, but probably won't make it due to not quite having the stats. Berkman is probably another step away. Helton is still active but he's running out of time to make the difference. Gonzalez and Giambi will never make it due to steroid suspicions. Belle will never make it due to injuries cutting his career short, and also due to ticking off the guys who do the voting on recent players, the Baseball Writers' Association of America.

* And, oh yeah, he just turned 31. He should have at least another 10 years in him, assuming he doesn't get tired of the game a bit sooner than that. Before he's done, Pujols could put himself into the discussion, along with Hornsby, Stan Musial, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, to answer the question, "Who is the greatest hitter in National League history?" (Assuming he doesn't sign with an American League team after this season.) Take out any player proven or suspected to have used steroids, and, unless you're a really big fan of Ken Griffey Jr., Pujols will probably be recognized as the best hitter since the generation born in the 1930s and arriving in the majors in the 1950s, which produced Mays, Aaron, Frank Robinson and Mickey Mantle -- as well as 2nd-tier greats like Ernie Banks, Roberto Clemente, Al Kaline and Harmon Killebrew.

So, unless you're a hardcore Chicago Cubs or Kansas City Royals fan (and thus predisposed to hate the Cardinals), or you're a National League pitcher... How can you not like Albert Pujols? Surely, anybody would want Pujols on their team.

He says he'll test the free agent market after the season. Who can afford him? Only a very few teams, including the Cardinals. It's just a matter of which of those teams is willing to spend the kind of money he's looking for.

The Yankees could be one of those teams.

*

As Lee Corso would say, "Not so fast, my friend!" The Yankees have Mark Teixeira at first base.

Granted, Teix is not as good as Pujols, but then, if you check his career numbers, I think you'll see that he's been damn good:

* A .286 batting average, with 3 .300 seasons.

* A 134 career OPS+.

* 1,321 hits in only 8 big-league seasons.

* 275 home runs. Granted, that's been done almost entirely in 2 hitters' parks, Rangers Ballpark in Arlington and Yankee Stadium II, but, again, it's just 8 seasons. Double that, 16 seasons, and we're talking 550 homers without steroids, a total (for the moment) topped only by Aaron, Babe Ruth, Mays, Ken Griffey Jr., Robinson, Killebrew and Reggie Jackson.

* 4 Gold Gloves, including in both seasons with the Yankees.

* Has helped his teams into the last 3 postseasons, '08 with the Whatever They Called Themselves That Year Angels of Anaheim and '09 and '10 with the Yankees.

* Baseball-Reference's HOF Monitor has Teix at 88 out of 100. Their HOF Standards, a bit less favorable, 27 out of 50. Their 10 Most Similar, none are in the Hall or are likely to get there, but some pretty good names: Richie Sexson, Miguel Cabrera, Danny Tartabull, Hal Trosky, Matt Stairs, Wally Berger, Hank Sauer, Mo Vaughn, Kevin Mitchell and Tony Clark. Cabrera is still active, and could make the Hall if he doesn't drink his way out of contention; Mitchell had too many injuries to make it; and Sexson, Trosky, Berger, Sauer and Vaughn could have gotten consideration with a couple of more solid seasons.

* And he'll turn 31 right after Opening Day, so he should have several good years left.

And, despite what fans of the Texas Rangers (his first team, whom he left for more money) or the Baltimore Orioles (he grew up in Severna Park, Maryland, 20 miles south of Camden Yards, but never considered signing with them) might think, Teix is generally considered to be a good guy. Clearly, there's nothing wrong with wanting a healthy Mark Teixeira on your team.

Unless you can have Albert Pujols, right?

*

The Yankees could probably get Albert Pujols, if they wanted him. But they won't try. There's something standing in the way.

Something named Mark Teixeira. He wanted a no-trade clause as a prerequisite for signing with the Yankees, and he got it, and he is not going to waive it, not even to go to a town with the baseball reputation of St. Louis and a team with the history of the Cardinals. Today, as position players reported to spring training in Tampa, Teix said this:

"I'm not going anywhere. I got that no-trade for a reason. I'm going to be buried in these Pinstripes. You know what, I would be disappointed if the fans of New York weren't looking to make our team better, but they've just got to know I'm not leaving."

Which closes the book, to the point where, according to the blog Lady Loves Pinstripes (see link to the right), "ESPNNewYork.com, citing a baseball official, reported earlier this week the Yankees would not explore a trade for Pujols."

I could paraphrase the line from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and say, "Pujols? We don't need no stinkin' Pujols!" But that would imply that I think that Pujols stinks, which, clearly, he doesn't.

But putting together a trade package for Pujols? Which would, almost certainly, have to include, but probably not be limited to, Teixeira? Not on your life would I make that trade. Better to spend a lot of money on a great player you already have (Teixeria) than to spend an insane amount of money on a great player who doesn't know his prospective new teammates and doesn't know the franchise's system.

Albert Pujols is already one of the 50 greatest players in baseball history, and could well end up as one of the top 20. By all accounts he's a good guy and a good teammate. But he's not THAT much of an upgrade over Mark Teixeira, the first baseman the Yankees already have, and therefore he doesn't fill a need that the Yankees have. It would be like trading CC Sabathia for the pitcher some people THINK Cliff Lee -- or Johan Santana -- is. I wouldn't make THAT trade, either.

Albert, if you and the Cardinals win a Pennant in the next few years, you are more than welcome to come to Yankee Stadium II and enjoy the Steinbrenner family's hospitality -- except for during the games, at which point all of us who are Yankee Fans will be opposed; hopefully, we will do it intensely but not make it personal. We repsect you. But you're not becoming a Yankee.

On the other hand, there is Mark Teixeira. A Yankee. A winner. A legend. A top man.

*

Mark also had a "Teix message" about his thoughts on the season that begins in just 40 days:

"We're the underdogs this year. I love it. No one is picking us right now. Everyone in here should be looking forward to winning a championship. When you put on the Pinstripes, that is exactly what your goal should be every year. I think everyone understands that just because the public may not be picking us it doesn't mean we don't believe it in here.

"We didn't win last year. We played terrible in the Playoffs. We didn't win the division. Our goal is to win the Division and we have to re-prove ourselves this year, which is going to be fun for all of us.

"No one is going to feel sorry for us. No one is going to say, 'Poor Yankees. They didn't get this guy. They didn't get that guy. They didn't win a World Series. They always have a bullseye on their back.' We should. We should expect to win every single year... We are the gold standard in baseball and we have to live up to that."

Absolutely the right attitude.

I love this guy.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

A Devil of a Playoff Push

My continuation of my top 10 Yankees at each position will have to wait. In other words, We interrupt this broadcast to bring the following special announcement:

One-nil! We beat The Scum, one-nil! We beat The Scum, one-nil! We beat The Scum, one-nil!

Devils 1, Rangers 0, last night at the Prudential Center in Newark. The only goal came midway through the 2nd period, thanks to Ilya Kovalchuk, who is now living up to his $102 million, 17-year blockbuster contract: Points in his last 9 games, including 7 goals. Johan Hedberg was phenomenal in goal, showing that, while we all want him healthy for the Playoffs should we make it, the Devils do not HAVE to rely on Martin Brodeur.

The Devils have won 14 of their last 17, and since 2 of those 3 losses were in overtime, that's points from 16 of our last 17. ("Their"? "Our"? I know, "What do you mean WE, white man?")

The Devils complete their "three-game series" with the Carolina Hurricanes tonight in the Your Company's Name Here For the Right Price Center in Raleigh. If the current standings hold, the Canes would be the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference... the Rangers, the 7th.

Having taken the first 2 games of the "series" with the Canes, the Devils are now 12 points out of the last Playoff spot, with 24 games to go, including a game in hand on the Canes.

If the Canes go .500 the rest of the way -- winning 11 of 22 and getting an overtime loss and thus a point in the 23rd -- it will give them 87 points. To get to 88, the Devils would have to get 36 points -- roughly, winning 18 of their last 24, or 3 out of every 4.

That's going to be tough. The schedule shows the following:

Home games against Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Ottawa, the Islanders twice, Atlanta, Washington, Philadelphia, Montreal, Toronto and Boston; and visits to Carolina, Dallas, both Florida teams (the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers), the Islanders, Atlanta, Ottawa, Columbus, Boston, Pittsburgh twice, Buffalo, and the home regular-season finale against the Rangers (who suck).

Of the home games, we play 6 out of 11 against teams that would make the Playoffs if the current standings held. Of the road games, 7 out of 13 are against prospective Playoff teams.

I can see the Devils taking 8 of 11 at home, which would give us 16 points. I could see them taking maybe 8 of 13 on the road, which would be another 16, for a total of 32. We'd need another 4, unless the Canes go into a tailspin -- or the Rangers, currently 14 points ahead of the Devils, would would require an even bigger tailspin, which I would love to see happen.

What Jacques Lemaire has done, getting more out of the veterans than they'd previously been giving and getting the kids to show they're ready for the big time, is remarkable. Especially with the kids, who don't remember him as a player (even the veterans probably never saw him play, and he was a legitimate Hall-of-Famer with the 1970s Canadiens), and may not even be old enough to really remember him as the coach of the Devils team that won the 1995 Stanley Cup.

Yet, "Quebec combover," gum-chewing, and all, Lemaire has turned a horrible team into the hottest team in the League -- if only, for the moment, the 13th seed and well out of the Playoff hunt. A case can be made that he should get the Jack Adams Trophy as coach of the year, even though he did not start the season as a head coach. (He previously won the Adams Trophy in 1994 with the Devils and 2003 with Minnesota.)

Whenever he leaves, the Devils have got to hang a banner in the Prudential Center honoring (or "honouring," as they'd write it in his country) for this man. Either with his number of victories as Devils' coach or with the Number 95 for the '95 Cup.

The Hockey Hall of Fame does not elect a man twice if he's been Hall of Fame quality as both a player and a coach -- which has produced the oddities of men better known as "Builders" (as the Hall would say), such as Lester Patrick Art Ross, Jack Adams and Conn Smythe, the 4 men for whom the League's divisions were named from 1974 to 1993, being elected only as players even though there were, at the time of the Hall's establishment, few people alive who'd seen them play. (The College Football Hall of Fame has elected Amos Alonzo Stagg and Bobby Dodd, but not the deserving Johnny Majors or the still-actively-coaching Steve Spurrier, as both players and coaches. The Basketball Hall of Fame has done it for John Wooden, Bill Sharman and Lenny Wilkens.)

Jacques Lemaire is a Hall of Fame player. He should be recognized as a Hall of Fame coach. If you doubt this, look at where the Devils were before he took over: Totally pretenders, not contenders. And he practically built the Minnesota Wild franchise from scratch, and got them to the Western Conference Finals in just 3 seasons.

He is also a Hall of Fame man. A class act. A good soldier for the game that made him rich and famous, and one of those who has paid his debt to the game in full.

But if he can take the Devils from 30th in the NHL during Christmas week to the Playoffs in April, he will have done something beyond any of his previous accomplishments. The team may be called the Devils, but Lemaire has been heaven-sent.

*

Speaking of Lemaire's previous accomplishments, a film based on Mordecai Richler's novel Barney's Version is currently showing in New York. One of the scenes, that of Barney's 2nd wedding, takes place in Montreal on May 14, 1977, when the Canadiens were on the verge of sweeping the Stanley Cup Finals, and Lemaire scored the overtime goal that won it.

The footage is not shown in the film, but here's a link to Lemaire's winning goal, at 2:35 of this clip, and, yes, I know it's in French, deal with it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9gjMZ91cXc

Barney (played by Paul Giamatti, son of former Baseball Commissioner Bart) seems more interested in the game than in his bride, even though she looks like Minnie Driver (who plays her). The movie takes a few liberties, such as combining the characters of the cop who investigates Barney for murder and the former friend who writes a book basically saying the jury that acquitted Barney got it wrong; and moving the time periods up (instead of 1955 to 1995, the film takes place from 1977 to 2010). But it's a really good film, and Rosamund Pike is a dream as Miriam, Barney's 3rd and last wife.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Top 10 Yankee Second Basemen

Honorable Mention to Brian Doyle, for stepping in for the injured Willie Randolph in September and October 1978, and helping to put the finishing touches on what was, until 1996, my favorite baseball season. Speaking of which...

Honorable Mention also to Mariano Duncan. He was only a Yankee for a season and a half, but that full season was 1996, when the Bronx Bombers won the World Series, with Duncan batting .340 and giving the team its motto: "We play today, we win today, das it."

10. Horace Clarke, 1965-74. The native of the Virgin Islands had terrible timing, getting to the big leagues right as the old dynasty was collapsing, and tailing off just as it was all coming back together. For years, he was the answer to a trivia question: "Who was the only player to play 10 years for the New York Yankees without winning a Pennant?" There is, of course, now one who played 14 seasons for the Yankees without winning one, Don Mattingly.

Clarke wasn't a terrible ballplayer -- you generally don't last that long if you are. But he was a typical middle infielder of his time, "good field, no hit." He batted .285 in 1969, but that was pretty much as good as it got: He never topped 6 home runs (1966) or 48 RBI (1969), was a good but not exceptional base stealer (also topped out in that stat in '69, with 33), and never won a Gold Glove or made the All-Star Team. He gave his best, and was hardly the worst of the players the Yankees had when CBS was running the team (into the ground). Roy White, who came up at the same time and did last long enough to help the Yankees win titles, paid him a pretty good compliment: "A 100 percent player. He wanted to play everyday."

9. Aaron Ward, 1917-26. If you say you saw him play, either you're over 90 years old, or you've got a time machine, or you're lying. But somebody had to be the first Yankee 2nd baseman to win a Pennant and the first to win a World Series. This Arkansas was the Yanks' regular "keystone sacker" from 1920 to '25, and batted .306 in '21 to help win that first Pennant. The coming of Tony Lazzeri was the beginning of the end for him, but it should not be forgotten that he was at the beginning of the original Yankee Dynasty.

8. Billy Martin, 1950-57. Let's clear something up: Billy was batting .241 when he was sent to the Kansas City Athletics at the trading deadline, June 15, 1957. True, he was at the Copacabana Club that night a month earlier, but he never threw a punch, and it can be legitimately argued that he was traded because he wasn't hitting. Nevertheless, prior to that, Billy had his moments. He was a good fielder, and in 1953 hit 15 homers with 75 RBIs. In all 7 seasons he played for the Yankees, 1950 to '57, they won the Pennant. They failed to win it in '54, when Billy was in the Army. (The Korean War was over, but he got drafted anyway.) He never got tired of pointing out that fact.

In the 1952 World Series, his catch of a bases-loaded popup by Jackie Robinson, lost in the sun by all the other infielders, ended a potential Dodger rally and saved a Game 7 lead for the Yankees. In 1953, he got 12 hits, tying a Series record (since broken), and his 12th and final hit drove home the Series-winning run in Game 6. He batted .257 during the regular season, but .333 in the 4 World Series where he was a regular. Counting only full seasons, Billy was a member of 4 Pennant winners (1952, '53, '55 and '56) and 3 World Champions (all but '55). In those 4 Series, he played every game, despite the potential availability of Jerry Coleman.

It was his managing, from 1975 to '78 (and 4 more times between '79 and '88) that got him his Plaque in Monument Park and the retirement of his Number 1. But for most of his playing career, Billy was a good player. Yankee general manager George Weiss said he was a "bad influence" on his teammates, especially Mickey Mantle. Oh yeah? As Mickey himself said, "In 1956, I roomed with Billy and I won the Triple Crown and the MVP. How bad an influence could he have been? Then they traded him, and they realized it was Whitey (Ford) who was the bad influence on me."

7. Jerry Coleman, 1949-57. Billy's fellow native of the San Francisco Bay Area (San Jose and later San Francisco, as opposed to Billy's Berkeley) both preceded and outlasted him. Coleman served in both World War II (delaying his big-league debut) and the Korean War (causing him to miss all but the start of the '52 season and all but the end of '53), and was a renowned Marine Corps -- though he's said many times he doesn't consider himself a hero.

In 1949, his 8th-inning double in the season finale against the Boston Red Sox clinched the Pennant, putting him on the way to winning a World Series ring in his rookie season. He remained the Yanks' regular 2nd baseman in '50 and '51, with his reserve callup into the Corps giving Billy his chance. He was the regular again in '54 when Billy was in the service, but once Billy came back, that was it for him. Still, he won 5 Pennants (1949, '50, '51, '55 and '56) and was on the World Series roster for 4 titles (all but '55).

Coleman went into the broadcast booth, teaming with former double-play partner Phil Rizzuto for a few years -- what a mess that must've been, between Phil's whacked-out stories and Jerry's "Colemanisms" -- before going to the expansion San Diego Padres. He has been the voice of the team almost throughout their history, and for this service received the Ford Frick Award, the broadcasters' equivalent of election to the Hall of Fame.

Like Ralph Kiner with the Mets and Herb Score with the Cleveland Indians, Jerry is known for malaprops, such as "Rich Folkers is throwing up in the bullpen," and a line used on a Padre star who became a Yankee star: "There's a long fly ball, deep to right field, Winfield's racing back, he hits his head against the wall! It's rolling away!" But he's also known for his equivalent of Rizzuto's "Holy Cow": "Oh, doctor! You can hang a star on that baby!" For this, his notation along with the Padres' retired numbers at Petco Park is a star. The uniform number he wore with the Yankees will be retired, but it's 42, so it will be retired for Mariano Rivera (and, officially, is already retired for Jackie Robinson).

6. Bobby Richardson, 1955-66. After brief callups in 1955 and '56, Richardson stepped into the void caused by the trade of Martin in '57 and was the Yanks' starting 2nd baseman for the next 10 years, winning 7 Pennants (1957, '58, '60, '61, '62, '63 and '64) and 3 World Series (1958, '61 and '62). He made 7 All-Star Teams. In 1961, the first season of the 162-game schedule, he became the first player ever to play in 162 games in a season. In '62, he set major-league records with 754 plate appearances and 692 at-bats (both since broken), got a League-leading 209 hits, batted .302 and finished 2nd to Mickey Mantle in the MVP voting -- after Mantle, asked in an interview who should get the MVP, said it should be Richardson.

Richardson's 2 most impressive feats came in losing causes. In the 1960 World Series, he collected a record 12 RBIs, including a grand slam, but the Yankees lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 1964, he became the first player to get 13 hits in a World Series (since tied but not broken), but the Yanks lost to the St. Louis Cardinals. But he's best known for catching a Willie McCovey line drive that ended a San Francisco Giant threat and preserved Ralph Terry's 1-0 shutout to win Game 7 of the 1962 Series. He was a .266 hitter in the regular season, but batted .305 in Series play.

Injuries forced his retirement at age 31. He became an ordained minister, and the head baseball coach at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Virginia, and, in his home State, at Coastal Carolina University and the University of South Carolina, leading them to the Final of the 1975 College World Series. Rev. Richardson presided over Mantle's funeral in Dallas in 1995.

5. Chuck Knoblauch, 1998-2001. Go ahead, make your jokes. And, I admit it, after that "Knob-block-head" play in the 1998 ALCS, I personally wanted to beat him to death with my own hands. But this man won 4 World Series rings, in 1991 with the Minnesota Twins (he was AL Rookie of the Year that season) and in '98, '99 and 2000 with the Yankees, and another Pennant in '01. His home runs tied up Game 1 in '98 and Game 3 in '99, and his sacrifice fly sent Game 1 in 2000 into extra innings, making Yankee wins in those games possible. He started the rally that won Game 5 in '01, scoring the winning run.

He made 4 All-Star Games. He led the AL in doubles in 1994 (had 45, a great total for a full season, in 2/3 of a season before the strike hit) and in triples in 1996. He had 3 .300 seasons and just missed a 4th. He had over 300 doubles and 400 stolen bases despite playing only 12 big-league seasons before whatever happened to his throwing also began to affect his hitting. But he still hit .289 for his career.

4. Robinson Cano, 2005-present. Already? Yes, it's been 6 full seasons, haven't you noticed? Named after Jackie Robinson and wearing Number 24, the reverse of 42 as a tribute, Robbie was 2nd in the race for AL Rookie of the Year in 2005 and 3rd for MVP in 2010. He's already been to 2 All-Star Games and won a Gold Glove. His "lifetime" batting average is .309 and his OPS+ 117 -- double-play partner Derek Jeter is at .314 and 119, so Cano is doing just fine. Last year was his first 100-RBI season, and his 4th of at least 40 doubles.

And he's only 28. He's getting better, with the apparent declines of Jeter and Alex Rodriguez he may already be the best player on the Yankees and one of the top 10 in all of baseball, and, barring a medical or ethical calamity, will become the greatest 2nd baseman in Yankee history within 5 years. If he doesn't end up in the Hall of Fame, I will be very surprised.

3. Willie Randolph, 1976-88. The first Yankee 2nd baseman I knew, and still the best in my memory. He got a cup of coffee with the Pirates in 1975, and was on their postseason roster as they won the NL East. Then he was on 3 straight Pennant winners with the Yankees, winning the Pennant in '76 and the World Series in '77 and '78, although he got hurt in September '78 and missed the postseason. In fact, starting in '75, he reached the postseason in 6 of his first 7 seasons.

But that was it, and the rest of his career, while respectable, came with lots of injuries. His last 4 seasons in Pinstripes, '85 through '88, he missed significant time each year; each year, the Yankees were in first place late, but didn't make the Playoffs. His injury shortly after the 1987 All-Star Game was particularly troublesome, as the Yanks went from 1st to 4th in the AL East before he came back. Still, he twice batted .300, had 2,210 hits (1,731 as a Yankee), 271 stolen bases (252 as a Yankee), made 6 All-Star Games (5 as a Yankee), and was as dependable at getting on base and fielding his position as anybody the Yankees have had in my lifetime.

After bouncing around for 4 years, he returned to the Yankees in 1993, first as an assistant general manager, then as 3rd base coach, winning 4 more rings and guiding several young players including Derek Jeter. In 2005, he became the first black manager in New York -- albeit with the Mets, the team he grew up rooting for in Brooklyn (though he was born in South Carolina). He got the Mets to the 2006 NL East title (their only first-place finish since 1988), but we know how that ended. The Mets were still in contention for another Division Title on the final day in 2007, but we know how that ended. Then came the Midnight Massacre (not to be confused with the one the Mets pulled on Tom Seaver in '77), and "Witless Willie," as the Mets' buh-rilliant fans called him, was gone. It wasn't just the results they hated: They hated him because he was a Yankee. Then Jerry Manuel was hired as Met manager and proved that it wasn't Willie's fault at all.

Buck Showalter, under whom Willie coached from 1993 to '95, has just hired him as his bench coach for the Baltimore Orioles. Willie does not have a Monument Park Plaque, and his Number 30 will probably never be retired. But on Old-Timers' Day in 2008, shortly after being fired by The Other Team, he got the biggest ovation of the day -- bigger than Yogi, Whitey, Reggie or Donnie. And in the pregame cermonies for the final game at the old Stadium, Willie, then 54 years old, ran out to his old position and slid into the base, to another thunderous ovation. It may have been 2nd base he was standing on, but, a Yankee forever, he was, truly, safe at home.

2. Joe Gordon, 1938-46. One of many West Coasters to come east in the 1920s and '30s to put on the Pinstripes. With the science-fiction movie serial becoming a phenomenon in the Thirties, it surprised no one that he was nicknamed Flash Gordon, and he certainly knew what it was to "flash the leather." There was no Gold Glove Award until 1957, but Gordon would have been a perennial contender.

But it's not his glove that finally, over 30 years after his death in 1978, got him into the Hall of Fame. Unusual for a 2nd baseman in those days, he was a heck of a hitter. A 9-time All-Star, he had a 120 career OPS+, and collected 1,530 hits in only 11 seasons. In 1942, he was named AL MVP even though Ted Williams won the Triple Crown. Red Sox fans are still pissed about that, but it's Most Valuable Player, not Most Outstanding, and Gordon led the Yankees to the Pennant with a .322 average, 29 doubles, 18 homers, 103 RBIs and 12 stolen bases (not much, but then the Yankees rarely needed a running game until Billy Martin became manager so this was a lot for a Yankee).

Gordon then missed 3 seasons due to World War II, and had a bad first season back in 1946. Then the Yankees pulled off a stunning trade, sending Gordon to the Cleveland Indians, straight-up, for pitcher Allie Reynolds. This may have been the greatest trade in baseball history, because it worked wonders for both teams. Reynolds became the ace of a staff that won 6 of the next 7 World Series. The one AL Pennant the Yanks didn't win in that stretch was in 1948, when Gordon and his manager and double-play partner Lou Boudreau led the Tribe to what is still their last World Championship. Gordon later became a manager, taking the Indians to a 2nd place finish in 1959 and, 10 years later, becoming the first manager of the expansion Kansas City Royals.

1. Tony Lazzeri, 1926-37. Yet another -- perhaps the first -- great player who came out of the Pacific Coast League to star with the Yankees. Like Joe DiMaggio, basketball pioneer Hank Luisetti, and football legend turned criminal defendant O.J. Simpson, he came out of Galileo High School in San Francisco, and became a star on the playing fields of the Bay Area. In 1925, playing for the Salt Lake Bees, he became the first player in the history of professional baseball to hit 60 home runs -- albeit in the PCL, where the weather allowed them a 200-game schedule. But it was enough for the Yankees to send the Bees 3 players and $50,000 for him. As sports historian Bert Randolph Sugar would say, these were Coolidge dollars: It's about $625,000 in today's money.

He wasn't the first Italian player in Major League Baseball, but he was the first who was that good, and New York's Italian community saw runners on base and yelled from the stands, "Push them up, Tony!" In their accent, he became known as Poosh-em-Up Tony. In his first big-league season, 1926, the Yankees won the Pennant. Unfortunately, the Yanks lost the World Series to the Cardinals, with aging legend Grover Cleveland Alexander coming out of the bullpen to strike Lazzeri out with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 7th in Game 7. It is still the most famous strikeout in baseball history, save for the fictional one of the poem "Casey At the Bat."

It didn't faze the 22-year-old star. He helped the Yankees win 6 Pennants (1926, '27, '28, '32, '36 and '37) and 5 World Series (never losing one after that first). In 5 seasons he batted at least .300, and 7 times he had at least 100 RBIs. In 1933, he was the American League's starting 2nd baseman in the first All-Star Game. In 1937, he dropped from a .287 average the year before to .244, and Gordon was brought in to replace him. He signed with the Chicago Cubs, and in 1938 won one more Pennant, but losing the Series to the Yankees. He hung on in the high minors until 1943, age 39.

In 1945, in an interview for John P. Carmichael's classic book My Greatest Day In Baseball, Alexander chose that 1926 Game 7, and mentioned that, just the other day in New York, he'd met Lazzeri on the street, and said, referencing how many times he'd been asked to tell the story, "Tony, I'm getting tired of fanning you." Lazzeri didn't think it was funny, and said, "Maybe you think I'm not!" Sadly, within 5 years, both men would be dead. On August 6, 1946, Lazzeri, who had epilepsy, suffered a seizure at his San Francisco home, fell down the stairs, and broke his neck, killing him at age 42. Alexander, by a sad twist of fate, also had epilepsy, but it was not that but alcoholism that ruined his health and led to his death in 1950, at 63. Alexander did live long enough attend his election to the Hall of Fame in 1938. Lazzeri, with only 14 big-league seasons under his belt, didn't make it until well after his death, in 1991.

I chose him as the greatest Yankee 2nd baseman because he was the first Yankee 2nd baseman elected to the Hall; Gordon recently joined him. But there is no consensus that Lazzeri was better than Gordon; in fact, a lot of people disagree. As a result of there not being a consensus on who the all-time Yankee 2nd baseman is, neither Lazzeri nor Gordon has a Plaque in Monument Park. Nor has the Number 6 that both wore for most of their careers been retired for either of them -- it will almost certainly be retired, but for Joe Torre. And there are very few fans left who saw either of them at their peak. But they deserve to be remembered.