Thursday, February 4, 2010

13 Days Until Spring Training: Alex Rodriguez

A year ago today, the biggest PR problem Alex Rodriguez had was his portrayal in Joe Torre's book. At the time, The Yankee Years painted A-Rod as a preening, narcissistic phony who was universally disliked by his teammates. There wasn't much in the book that hadn't been written in the tabloids already, but it was different to hear the rumors of A-Fraud confirmed by his former manager.

It might have been unpleasant for A-Rod to deal with the negative press, but there a revelation far more detrimental to his reputation bubbling just beneath the surface. Over the next few days of 2009, Selena Roberts would confront A-Rod with the knowledge that he failed a steroid test back in 2003 and eventually report it to the world. It made what Joe Torre wrote in his book seem like a mild inconvenience.

Thankfully, A-Rod admitted his steroid use right away, but the backlash began to snowball after his interview with Peter Gammons and got even more ugly following his press conference in Tampa. He added still more fuel to the fire when he left the park during Spring Training with his disgraced cousin, was pictured kissing a mirror in a Details magazine photo shoot and was outed in the Daily News for being involved in a relationship with the madame of a whorehouse.

Those events were really just bad P.R. and weren't going to have much of an impact on his on-field production. But then came the news of his hip injury and the impending surgery which ultimately cost him the first month of the season. What was already a disastrous offseason got tangibly, inarguably, a whole lot worse. At least it seemed pretty terrible at the time.

But at a certain point when he was hiding out and rehabbing in Colorado, things started to change. The details of Selena Roberts's book began to leak and some had the potential to be very damning, but the tide began to turn. Craig from Shysterball was among the first to question the motives and level of objectivity Roberts used in writing her exposé and fairly swiftly, we all grew tired of the never ending stream of A-Rod's exploits.

Then of course he rejoined the team in a moment a movie studio would have rejected because it was too unrealistic; a three run shot on the very first pitch he saw. Although he struggled early on in his return, the back to back days off he got off in Florida seemed to turn his season around.

After his return the Yankees went 88-44 and climbed from 4.5 games behind the Red Sox to achieve the best record in baseball by 6 games. After his two day hiatus in Miami, they were 62-28. He was probably given too much credit for turning Mark Teixeira's season around, but it's hard to understate the importance of swapping replacement-level guys like Angel Berroa and Cody Ransom for one of the 5 best hitters in the game.

We heard a lot about the fact that A-Rod flew under the radar last year. In October, Joel Sherman talked about his newfound ability to blend in with the team. At the conclusion of the season, Marc Carig dubbed him the "Quietest Yankee". Even the notorious PeteAbe, who has never been too fond of the slugger, gave him credit for his ability to "blend in and stay out of the news".

Most importantly, though, A-Rod finally broke out with a monstrous playoff run. He hit a series-changing home run off of Joe Nathan in Game 2 of the ALDS along with a game-tying dinger off of Carl Pavano in Game 3.

He raked .429/.567/.952 against the Angels in the ALCS, including a crucial game-tying shot against Brain Fuentes in the 11th inning of Game 2 on an 0-2 pitch with Freddy Guzman, Brett Gardner and the struggling Robinson Cano waiting behind him.

A-Rod's line of .250/.423/.560 in the Fall Classic wasn't as gaudy as either of the previous series but he came up with huge hit after huge hit. A two run shot off of Cole Hamels in Game 3. The go-ahead double off of Brad Lidge in Game 4. He also scored two runs in the clinching Game 6.

Do you think that if you traveled back one year in time and told A-Rod that he would be outed as a steroid user, have his name splashed throughout the tabloids, have seriuos hip surgery and inadvertently grope a female police officer but would somehow come out better for it on the other side a year later, that he would have believed you? I personally still find it hard to believe now.

13 Days Until Spring Training: Mike Pagliarulo

Baseball players have long been a superstitious bunch: don't step on the foul lines, don't talk to the pitcher during a no-hitter, keep your routine, eat your chicken before every game, virtually every action Turk Wendell ever took, etc.

So given triskaidekaphobia, fear of the the number 13, it's no surprise that the Yankees had been wearing uniform numbers for more than eight full seasons when rookie Spud Chandler became the first to wear it in 1937 . Even at that, it was one of three different numbers Chandler wore that year. The next year, journeyman Lee Stine wore it, and despite appearing in only four games, he too managed to wear two different uniform numbers during that time.

It would be ten years before the number was worn again, this time by rookie outfielder Cliff Mapes. He had begun the year wearing number 3, the eighth and final Yankee to wear the number after Babe Ruth. But with the Babe being terminally ill, the Yankees retired his former number on June 18th. Only then did Mapes switch to number 13, and by 1949 he had switched to number 7, perhaps making him the only man to share uniform numbers with not one but two different Yankee legends.

The number didn't emerge again until 1970. It was worn by Curt Blefary for a season and a half, then after a two year break, by Walt "No Neck" Williams for two more. It went back into the mothballs for five years, until bit players Bobby Brown and Keith Smith wore it for two seasons each, amassing just 174 games between them. Through 57 seasons of numbered Yankee uniforms, 13 had been worn sparingly by just eight men who either couldn't get rid of the number fast enough or whom the club couldn't rid themselves of fast enough.

In mid-1984 the Yankees recalled Mike Pagliarulo from Columbus. Issued the same number Don Mattingly wore in his first two seasons, 46, Pags quickly established himself as the starting third baseman. For 1985 he switched to number 6 and slugged 19 home runs in his first full season.

The following year, Roy White rejoined the coaching staff. He had worn number 6 for the final eleven years of his playing career, as well as during his previous stint as a Yankee coach. Pags relinquished his number to White, and donned the seemingly unwanted number 13. He went on to hit 28 home runs that year, then led the team with 32 in homer happy 1987. Elbow injuries soon began to sap him of his power at the plate and his arm strength in the field, and he was traded to San Diego in mid-1989.

Pags was a fan favorite during his five years manning the hot corner for the Yankees. He was the first Yankee to wear the supposedly cursed number for any extended period, but has since been surpassed by another third baseman as the most successful Bronx Bomber to don the number. Pagliarulo was kind enough to agree to an interview with us last summer. You can revisit it here and here.

Looking Back On The YankeeNets Partnership

Good morning Fackers. Mired in an abhorrent season that is on pace to be the worst in NBA history, the New Jersey Nets are less than an afterthought for most Yankee fans. They serve only as off-season filler for YES, killing time between episodes of Hot Stove and Yankees Magazine. Monday, the news broke that the Nets were close to a deal that would see them leave the Meadowlands to play the next two seasons at Newark's Prudential Center, and then presumably make their long awaited move to Brooklyn in 2012.

Moving is nothing new for the Nets. The Rock would be the seventh different arena to house the team since their inception in 1967, joining such sports meccas as the Teaneck Armory and the Rutgers Athletic Centers as courts they called home. But there is a certain irony in the Nets now reaching a deal to join the Devils in Newark, as it was the proposed construction of a Newark arena that proved to be the final straw in breaking the ambitious, if ultimately unsuccessful, YankeeNets partnership.

In the midst of their 114 victory 1998 championship season, the Yankees were approached by Cablevision, who presented an offer to purchase the club from George Steinbrenner and his partners. Cablevision owned MSG Network, which had carried Yankee games since 1989 as part of a then-record 12 year, $500 million dollar television rights contract that changed that landscape of TV deals for professional sports teams. With that agreement nearing expiration, Cablevision was looking to consolidate their position and maintain their monopoly on the rights of all seven major sports franchises in the metropolitan area. Cablevision already owned the Knicks and Rangers, the marquee basketball and hockey franchises in the area, and were looking to add the area's most valuable franchise to their portfolio.

Negotiations continued into the off-season, and just as it seemed a deal was imminent, it fell apart over the issue of how much control George Steinbrenner would exert as the Yankees managing partner from a minority ownership role. With Cablevision off the table, the Yankees turned to the Nets, and in 1999 YankeeNets was formed as a holding company, owning both franchises. The following year they added the New Jersey Devils to the fold, purchasing the club in the midst of their run to the 2000 Stanley Cup. Interestingly enough, the Devils had been owned for their entire history by Dr. John McMullen, the former Astros owner and a one-time minority owner of the Yankees who said "Nothing is so limited as being one of George's limited partners".

With three major professional franchises in their holdings, from a business standpoint YankeeNets was well positioned to leverage their collective holdings into favorable arrangements. With the Yankees TV deal with Cablevision expiring after the 2001 season, and the Nets deal expiring in 2002, the two teams could collectively negotiate for new deal, or even form a network of their own. Meanwhile, by adding the Devils to the group, the partnership contained two New Jersey based teams desiring a new arena, leaving them better positioned to work towards a new home.

As we all know by now, the first proposition came to pass. Together, the Yankees and Nets offered enough year round programming to establish their own regional sports station, and the highly successful YES Network launched in early 2002. The second issue ended up being the undoing of the partnership. Both the Nets and and Devils were in favor of building a new arena in Newark, But as individual business entities, despite success on the court and on the ice, both teams were losing money and couldn't secure enough funding to finance the project. Given the financial state of the two teams, Steinbrenner was unwilling to put up the remaining funds. This fractured the partnership, and when a resolution couldn't be reached, the dissolution of YankeeNets followed. The Devils and Nets were sold in early 2004 and YankeeNets was renamed Yankee Global Enterprises. It still serves as the holding company for both the Yankees and the YES Network.

While the partnership lasted just five years and fell short of all that seemed possible at its formation, the brief existence of YankeeNets benefited the Yankees in ways they are still enjoying today. It allowed for the formation of the highly successful YES Network, providing the Yankees with an extremely lucrative revenue stream. Though the two teams are no longer linked from a business standpoint, the continued presence of the Nets on YES provides the network with needed winter programming, allowing it to be viable year round. And if nothing else, the YankeeNets partnership prevented the Yankees from reopening sale negotiations with Cablevision. Looking back on the train wrecks that both the Knicks and Rangers have been for the past ten years, I shudder at what might have been had the Yankees falled under the Dolans umbrella. If that's not enough to get you to have a little pity on the 4-44 Nets, nothing is.