Friday, January 29, 2010

19 Days Until Spring Training: Dave Righetti

Dave Righetti was one of the lucky few who grew up rooting for the Yankees and lived out the dream of playing for his favorite team. His paternal grandmother grew up next door to Tony Lazzeri in San Francisco, and although she lived 3,000 miles from the Bronx, became a fan of the Bombers. His dad Leo signed with the Yanks shortstop in 1940 at the age of 17, but never made it to the Big Leagues, his journey derailed by a freak accident that severed the tip of one of his fingers.

However, Dave did achieve that goal and a whole lot more. He was originally drafted by the Rangers but was dealt to the Yankees in November of 1978 as part of a trade that sent Juan Beníquez, Mike Griffin, Greg Jemison, Paul Mirabella and Righetti to New York in exchange for Sparky Lyle, Domingo Ramos, Mike Heath, Larry McCall, and Dave Rajsich.

Just three months later, he was nearly redirected to Minnesota as part of a package for Rod Carew. The Yankees agreed to part with Chris Chambliss, Brian Doyle, Beníquez and up to $400,000 but balked at the inclusion of Mirabella or Righetti. Carew grew frustrated with the talks, saying:
"I don't like the idea of being pushed around, cooling my heels while they [Steinbrenner and Twins owner Calvin Griffith] go fishing and play golf. If they think they can wait until the last minute and then tell me to start packing, they are out of their minds."
Luckily for Rags and his family, Carew was sent to the Angels and he got to stick around with the Yankees. After one season of 2.31 ERA ball split between AA and AAA, Righetti made his Major League debut in September of 1979 wearing number 56 when he was only 20 years old. It was a very short stint and he spent all of 1980 in AAA, struggling to a 4.53 ERA.

After an excellent 5-0 tear to begin his season in Columbus in 1981, he was called up in May. Rags got off to a great start, pitching to a 1.50 ERA in his first six starts and went on to win the American Leauge Rookie of the Year in a landslide.

In his next two seasons as a starting pitcher, Righetti threw exactly 400 innings of 3.60 ERA ball (109 ERA+). He famously tossed a no hitter against the Red Sox on the 4th of July in 1983, which Matt detailed around that time last year. It was the first such event in Yankees history since Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series. Of course, the 4th is also George Steinbrenner's birthday which greatly endeared him to the Boss.

Paradoxically, being a favorite of the Boss sent his career down a path that never quite suited Righetti. At the behest of Steinbrenner, before the 1984 season began, the Yanks transitioned the Big Ragu into a reliever to replace the departed Goose Gossage. Privately, he didn't agree with the move to the bullpen, aware that he could be more successful and make more money as a starting pitcher over the long run. Outwardly though, he embraced the role and set the Major League Record for saves in 1986 with 46, though that record would be shattered by Bobby Thigpen 4 years later.

Like Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes, there was frequent and heated debate in regards to Righetti's proper role. Publicly, he was known as the "polite Yankee", keeping quiet about his amidst the chaos, refusing to charge for autographs and personally answering his fan mail.

But in the privacy of the clubhouse, he was rumored to react to his failures by flushing his cleats down the toilet and destroying locker room garbage cans. Eventually, he explained to Jill Lieber of Sports Illustrated how much the pressure of closing was weighing on him:
I've been booed so bad. I walk from the mound with my head down, then fight to get through the parking lot. I watch the fans cheer guys who don't hustle. They cheer guys who rip the organization. I guess you have to be rotten to have the fans like you. Keith Hernandez is involved in the Pittsburgh drug trial, and he gets a standing ovation at Shea Stadium. I give up a run, and I get booed like crazy. You figure it out.

I wish Yankee fans appreciated me as a reliever. They've never accepted me because the team has never stuck behind me as a reliever. And because I've never complained, they think I don't stand up for myself. They think I'm a patsy.
Although it was clear that Righetti wasn't embracing his role as closer, Steinbrenner remained adamant:
He is going to be the closer. He will be brought in in the ninth inning. Period. I'm the only one who knows how to use him. I've told my manager and coaches, 'If you reach for him too early, you'll be reaching for the next train home.'
Those quotes were recorded in early 1990, in Righetti's last year as a Yankee. He rode out that season with a 3.57 ERA and converted 36 saves. The Yanks allowed his contract to expire and he signed as a free agent with the Giants. While he was fairly effective in 1991, he was released halfway through his second consecutive terrible year in San Francisco in 1993.

Rags bounced around from the A's to the Blue Jays to the White Sox at the end of his career before retiring in 1995. In that final season, the White Sox let Rags start 9 games and he was actually pretty respectable, racking up a 4.20 ERA (107 ERA+).

Today he serves as the pitching coach for the Giants a position he's held since 2000.

Sadly, Righetti's career with the Yankees began with a ton of promise - a fan since childhood, a Rookie of the Year and a consummate nice guy. But like many of the Yankee teams he played on throughout the 1980's, his success was hampered by the tyrannical rule of the Boss.

Still, he left an indelible mark on the franchise. Every 4th of July, Yankees fans fondly remember Righetti for his finest moment in Pinstripes and are left to wonder what might have been had things turned out a different way.

History Of MLB Franchise Movement & Expansion

As I said this morning, I don't think the Rays are going anywhere. That the Rays need a new park isn't news; they first floated a proposal for a new St. Petersburg park nearly two years ago. They'll either get a new park in the Tampa/St. Pete area, or move a couple hours up the road to Orlando.

But using Tampa Bay, one of the two most recent MLB expansion franchises, as a jumping off point, it's interesting to look at the history of franchise movement and expansion in Major League Baseball, and see really how interconnected it is.
  • Tampa Bay was awarded an expansion franchise in 1995 as part of the fall out from MLB blocking the San Francisco Giants from moving to St. Petersburg after the 1992 season.
  • The Giants, of course, moved to San Francisco from New York after the 1957 season. That same year the Dodgers left Brooklyn for Los Angeles. As a result, New York was awarded a National League expansion franchise for 1962 to replace the departed teams. If the Rays were to move to New Jersey or Southern Connecticut it would give metro-NYC three MLB clubs for the first time since the Giants and Dodgers called New York home.
  • The Giants considered a move to Toronto in the 1970s, but eventually backed out, and Toronto was awarded the Blue Jays as an expansion franchise for 1977. In the early 80s the Giants investigated a move to the south Bay. As a result, San Jose became considered part of their territory. That decision is currently blocking the A's, the only other club currently actively seeking relocation, from building a new a ball park there.
  • The A's of course, started out in Philadelphia. They moved to Kansas City after the 1954 season, then left KC for Oakland after the 1967 season. As a result, KC was awarded the Royals as an expansion franchise for 1969.
  • The AL's other expansion franchise in 1969 were the Seattle Pilots. After just one season, they moved to Milwaukee where they became the Brewers. The original Milwaukee Brewers played in the AL in 1901, then moved to St. Louis, where they became the Browns. The Browns left St. Louis for Baltimore after 1953, and became the Orioles. The original Baltimore Orioles played in the AL in 1901 and 1902, then left for New York where they became the Highlanders, and later the Yankees. Meanwhile, Seattle received a new club in 1977 when the AL added the expansion Mariners.
  • In between the two Brewer ball clubs, Milwaukee was home to the Braves from 1952 to 1965. Prior to that the Braves played in Boston and have now called Atlanta home for fourty four seasons. Atlanta's current Spring Training home is in Orlando, which of course is a potential new home for the Rays, and according to a completely baseless rumor, the Brewers.
  • If the Rays or the A's were to move, it would be the first time an MLB club relocated since the Montreal Expos became the Washington Nationals for the 2005 season. Not only did that move return Major League Baseball to our nation's capital for the first time since 1971, it was also the first franchise relocation since the Washington Senators left to become the Texas Rangers in 1972. Those Senators were a 1961 expansion franchise to replace the original Washington Senators, one of the AL's founding franchises, who left after the 1960 season to become the Minnesota Twins. The Twins will open brand new Target Field for the start of the 2010 season, and it will be MLB's newest ballpark until either the Rays or the A's get a new home.
If history is any indication, if the Tampa Bay area or Oakland were to lose their club, they stand a good chance to get another at some point in the future.

Lupica Is At It Again...

And by "it", I mean being a sniveling malcontent and finding things to criticize about the Yankees, lest they forget that they play in New York, where the media is notoriously tough on it's teams - mainly because of smarmy, self-righteous whiners like Lupica. To wit:
But for now the story, and the Yankees are sticking to it, is that they've got a by-God budget. That they couldn't afford what they say Damon wanted. Or what they thought he wanted. Or what they were afraid Damon's agent, Scott Boras, might try to weasel out of them, because nobody can out-weasel Boras.

Really? Johnny Damon turns out to be the one guy the Yankees can't afford? It would be like finding the one bar girl Tiger Woods didn't want to take home with him.
Topical! But something tells me that if Tiger were in rehab for drugs or alcohol, Lupica wouldn't be a cracking joke about the line he didn't want to snort of the gin and tonic he didn't want to chug.
For now, though, [the Yankees] desperately want Damon's departure to be somebody else's fault. Damon's. Boras'. Anybody but theirs. At the same time, Boras is out there selling his own version of things, door to door if he has to, the same way he peddled his own self-serving version on Carlos Beltran's knee surgery.
I really don't think the Yankees care whose fault it is that Damon isn't coming back. They didn't fire him. They didn't trade or release him. His contract expired and he became a free agent. This would be like trying assign blame for my departure from college because I didn't go back to Bentley for grad school.
But does anybody believe that Johnny Damon, who helped beat the Yankees in 2004 when he was with the Red Sox and played such a spectacular World Series for the Yankees five years later against the Phillies, has to go because of money? Or because Boras made Brian Cashman mad?
Yes, how could the Yankees let Damon go when he made one play against them five years ago, and then another one for them last year? How stupid can the Yankees be, not giving Damon all the money he wants because he played well in two World Series five years apart?!?1

Cashman might be a little perturbed by this situation, but it's not like he did something irrational because he was angry at Scott Boras. He was keenly aware that the Yankees had the upper hand in the situation and Boras (and to a lesser extend, Damon) refused to give in. Now those two are free to roam the open market and find a one year deal like the one Bobby Abreu had to settle for last year. Sometimes when you play hard to get, you don't get got.

Cashman 1, Boras 0, Lupica -10.

[Update: TYU has a much more thorough takedown of the piece and Craig from CTB has a much more efficient one. But guess who couldn't agree more with Lupica!]

Rays To Connecticut? Not A Chance

Good morning Fackers. As I've mentioned here a few times before, I'm a Connecticut guy, born and bred. The sporting landscape here in Connecticut is an odd one. The entirety of the state is within two hours of either New York or Boston; much of the state is virtually equidistant from the two cities. As such, there's this weird sort of sporting identity here in the Nutmeg State. Baseball fans are every bit as passionate as they are in New York or Boston, but things are far less homogeneous. The state is pretty well divided between Yankee and Red Sox fans, with a small and unfortunate minority pledging their allegiance to the Mets.

But it's slim pickings when comes to teams to call our own. We temporarily hosted the Giants while Yankee Stadium was being renovated and Giants Stadium was being built. The NHL's Hartford Whalers skipped town in April of 1997. The following year the state struck a deal to build a new stadium for the New England Patriots, only to see Robert Kraft use it as leverage to secure a new stadium in Foxboro. We've hosted AA teams for both the Yankees and Red Sox. Currently the state is home to two AHL minor league hockey franchises in Bridgeport and Hartford, and independent Atlantic League ballclub in Bridgeport, the Twins' AA affiliate in New Britain, and as of yesterday, the Tigers' short-season A club in Norwich. None of those squads register much in the consciousness of the locals, who by and large spend their summers following the Yanks, Sox, or Mets, and their winters obsessing over both the men's and women's UConn basketball teams.

All of which is my long-winded way of saying that the unique sporting culture of the state is its lack of an identity to call its own. As much as it galls many of the locals, when it comes to professional sports Connecticut is nothing more than a suburb to the two neighboring metropolises. And there's nothing wrong with that; it's just the way it is. The population of the entire state is just 3.5 million, one million less than the Boston metropolitan area, and less than one fifth the size of the New York City metropolitan area. There is neither the city, nor the people to support a major sports franchise, particularly one located so closely to three of the biggest teams in the game.

So it was with great surprise yesterday that I saw an article from NESN, riffing on a piece from Peter Gammons, speculating that if the Tampa Bay Rays should fail to secure a new stadium, southern Connecticut could be a potential landing spot. We're a few weeks into the dead period of the baseball off season, so it's getting to be slim pickings for news. As such, stories like this will inevitably crop up. And really, this is just an extension of the hypothetical pondering last month of whether New York could support a third team.

But, since this is a slow time of year and since it involves my home state, I'm going to put on my debunking cap and pick this one apart. Here's a look at the cities in southern Connecticut, starting in the east and heading west, and here's why they can't support a Major League team:
  • Norwich / New London: The least likely of any southern Connecticut city to host a team. This is one of the most sparsely populated areas of the state; there simply aren't enough people here to support a team, and one certainly wouldn't be enough to draw Red Sox fans from nearby Rhode Island. The Yankees had their AA club in Norwich from 1995 through 2002, before switching affiliations to Trenton in order to have the squad closer to the parent club. Norwich picked up the Giants' AA squad, which left town after last season. Just yesterday the city announced that the Tigers' NY-Penn League club would move from Oneonta for the 2009 season (interestingly enough the Yankees had their NY-Penn club in Oneonta from 1967 until the creation of the Staten Island Yankees in 1999). On the plus side, these cities are located close to the two gigantic casinos in the state, so if Pete Rose is ever reinstated this would be a good spot for him to revive his managerial career.
  • New Haven: Another failed minor league city, the last 35 years have seen the New York Giants, two different AHL clubs, a AA Eastern League club, and an independent Can-Am League club leave town. Location wise, the Elm City may be the best location for a club. Centrally located at the junction of Interstates 91 and 95, New Haven is relatively accessible from the state's most populous areas of metro Hartford and Fairfield County.
  • Bridgeport: The state's biggest city, Bridgeport has the state's most up to date sports venues in the Arena at Harbor Yard and the Ballpark at Harbor Yard, home to the AHL's Sound Tigers and the Atlantic League's Bluefish respectively. The Ballpark was the site of Jose Offerman's first on field assault. It's also just down the road from Shelton, home of Whiffle Ball. On the negative side, Bridgeport is located in metro NYC, placing it firmly in the Mets' and Yankees' territory. It's not easily accessible from metro Hartford, and it would be an extremely tough sell to get one of the state's poorest cities to build a Major League ballpark a mere decade after the construction of the Habor Yard complex.
  • Stamford: The most financially healthy city on the Connecticut shoreline, Stamford is located in the heart of affluent Fairfield County and is home to several financial firms and the YES Network's studios. Unlike the other cities on the list, its best days are not behind it, and there is enough business and industry present to have something resembling a bustling downtown. On the negative side, Stamford is a stone's throw from NYC, making it an unrealistic possibility. Besides, it couldn't even support a Dunder Mifflin branch; how could it support a Major League franchise?
Even if something could be worked out to convince the Yankees, Mets, and/or Red Sox to relinquish territorial rights - an unlikely scenario - there just isn't a city or the people to support in team in southern Connecticut or anywhere else in the state. Even if there were, a Connecticut club would be facing an uphill battle. Part of the reason the Whalers failed was that too many Connecticut hockey fans were loyal to the Rangers or Bruins. That problem would be infinitely greater for a baseball team, as the loyalties to the Yankees, Red Sox, and even the Mets are stronger and have been forged over generations. The Rays, or any other team, would have very little chance of succeeding here. And in the end, I'm sure the Rays will get their new stadium in either Tampa, St. Petersburg, or Orlando.