Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Game 13: Get Your Walk On

Tonight, the Yankees begin their first West Coast road trip of the year, meaning that most of us have the choice of A) staying up late to watch the game and getting less sleep than we are accustomed to, B) catching the first few innings before passing out on the couch or C) something in between. Personally, I don't mind staying up late, it's just the stretch from 7-10 when it feels like the Yankees should be on and I don't really know what to do with myself that sucks.

Javier Vazquez gets the ball for the Yanks, about as far away as possible from the taunts in the Bronx. As Mike from RAB pointed out earlier today, there are other reasons that tonight might be a good one for Javy to put together his first solid start of the season aside from being relieved of the pressure of starting in front of the home crowd.

The A's have a free-swinging, flyball-hitting lineup that has relatively little power. The Coliseum also has deep outfield dimensions and a notorious amount of foul territory, both of which favor hurlers. After facing the Rays and Angels in Tropicana Field and Yankee Stadium, trying to navigate the A's lineup in Oakland should be an easier task. It's not a guarantee that Javy puts together a great start, but it's reason to hope at least.

Gio Gonzalez goes tonight for the A's. The 24 year old left hander spent part of the last two seasons with the Big League club, making 24 starts and 6 relief appearances, totaling 133 innings and a 6.24 ERA. Over that span, he was able to induce swings and misses but struggled with his command, striking out 143 while walking 81. Gio was also victimized by the long ball, giving up 23 home runs, or 1.6/9 IP.

After struggling to make the rotation out of Spring Training, Gonzalez has started off the year on the right foot. In two starts against the Angels and Mariners, he's given up 4 runs in 10 2/3 IP and stayed true to his high strikeout, high walk tendencies (11K, 5BB). He faced the Yankees once last year in the Bronx, threw 6 2/3 innings of one run ball and got the win. That night he only gave up two hits but walked three.

Given that the Yankees have worked the third most free passes in the MLB and are averaging around 4 pitches per plate appearance, there's a good chance that Gonzalez is going to have a tough time going deep into this game.

If the Yanks get their walk on and Vazquez gets his head right, this should work staying up for.

Get your walk on, get your head tight,
I know you feelin the shit, shit is dead right.


After two plus days off to nurse his cold, Derek Jeter returns to the lineup. Even with the lefty Gonzalez on the mound, Joe Girardi wisely keeps Marcus Thames on the bench. The flyball tendencies of both Javy Vazquez and the A's lineup, coupled with the spacious outfield and ample foul territory at Network Associates Coliseum makes Thames' defense too much of a liability tonight. Besides, Brett Gardner has been productive offensively and needs to see a southpaw every once in awhile. With a lefty of the mound, Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson flip-flop in the seven and eight spots.
Jeter SS
Johnson DH
Teixeira 1B
Rodriguez 3B
Cano 2B
Posada C
Swisher RF
Granderson CF
Gardner LF
Rajai Davis CF
Daric Barton 1B
Ryan Sweeney RF
Kevin Kouzmanoff 3B
Kurt Suzuki C
Eric Chavez DH
Mark Ellis 2B
Travis Buck LF
Cliff Pennington SS

Moment Of Truth

The first time I ever heard a Gang Starr song, it was from an unlikely source. I was watching a skate video called VG8 with my buddy Sampson and this dude Billy Prislin's segment was backed by "You Know My Steez". I had to look up the name of the video and who the skater was, but I'll never forget the imprint that song left on me.

It was one of those tracks that I fell in love with the first time I heard it. I didn't know much hip hop beyond what was on MTV and the radio at that point, but it was immediately apparent that what I was listening to was something different, deeper and more complex than what I thought rap music could be. Gang Starr was underground back then, and even though I probably didn't really understand what that meant, I liked the sound of it.

You Know My Steez is a typical DJ Premier track that has an bouncing, addictive beat punctuated by high tones that runs behind the verse. The chorus consists of mashup of a bunch of spoken parts from other songs (most notably Method Man saying the title, sampled from this tune) tied together with turntable scratching. Subliminally, I'm sure that caught my ear, but what initially stood out were the lyrics.

Guru rapped over the tracks with a steady flow and clever wordplay, dropping ear-grabbing lines without so much as raising his voice. He often referred to his own style as monotone - which was technically close to the truth - but his verses were never boring or droned on like the word tends to connote.

We were about 14 at the time and did what you did back then when you liked a song: went out and bought the CD it was on as soon as humanly possible. Obviously, the way we consumed music was a lot different back in 1998. If you heard a song you liked, you couldn't just bring up YouTube, listen to it again and click your way through the better part of the group's catalog. So there was a period of several days or possibly a week during which I couldn't get the song out of my head but couldn't yet buy the CD.

Maybe that waiting period made me enjoy it more than I would have if I discovered it now. It could just be the fact that we tend to cling to the music that we listened to during our adolescence. But I still think that Moment of Truth, with Premier's intricate tracks and Guru's melodic rhymes, raises a hip hop of a level of high art and is one of the finest albums the genre has to offer.

That original Moment of Truth CD is long gone. It was scratched beyond repair after a couple of years of heavy play and I bought a second copy. That one is gone too, misplaced sometime during college and that too was well-worn. I bought it off of iTunes after that, but maxed out the amount of computers I could link my purchases. I finally downloaded it again, hopefully for the last time.

Gang Starr had plenty of good material before that album and Guru and Premier have each produced a ton of it afterwards, but Moment of Truth is the one creation of theirs that boxed me right in the ears and changed the way I listened to music forever.

The reason for this post is that Guru, whose real name was Keith Elam, passed away yesterday after a battle with cancer (there's a more complete bio if you click the link). About a month ago, he was hospitalized after a heart attack, but made a full recovery and was released. I was hoping I wasn't going to have to write this post for a long time, but unfortunately he was fighting another battle that he couldn't quite conquer.

RIP Guru.

Actions have reactions, don't be quick to judge,
You may not know the hardships people don't speak of,
It's best to step back, and observe with couth,
For we all must meet our moment of truth.

Where Have You Gone Jung Bong?

With the exception of elite sluggers and starting pitchers, perhaps no breed of Major Leaguer has a longer shelf life than the left-handed reliever. Given the dearth of southpaw hurlers and the LaRussian match-game that's taken over in the past twenty years, we've seen several lefties hang on interminably.

So why then did the career of former Braves prospect and lefty pitcher Jung Bong - ahem - burn out at age 24 after parts of just three seasons in the Majors? Bong plays a central role in one of my favorite all time baseball anecdotes.

As the Mets' disastrous 2002 crashed and burned its way to the finish line, a September tabloid scandal broke, alleging widespread use of marijuana within the Mets organization, complete with a Newsday photo of Mets reliever Grant Roberts hitting a (non-Jung) bong. The Mets characteristically botched their public relations response. At the subsequent press conference manager Bobby Valentine, on his way out of a job, hilariously pantomimed a stoned baseball player trying to take an at bat. Lamentably, I can't find the video anywhere online.

A week later the Mets hosted their principal rivals, the Atlanta Braves, in a season ending series at Shea. In the season's final game, long after the Braves had clinched the NL East and with the Mets already having locked up last place, Bobby Cox managed a game that belied his curmudgeonly reputation.

Cox emptied his bench over the course of the game, using twenty four different players. In the top of the fifth, trailing just 2-1, the Braves pitcher Mike Remlinger was due to come to the plate. Cox decided to use a pinch hitter. With the rosters expanded for September, Cox had no shortage of options at his disposal, including star catcher Javy Lopez.

So who did Cox send up to pinch hit? Not a position player at all, but a relief pitcher who hadn't appeared in a Major League game in five months. To the snickers of many, pinch hitter Jung Bong was announced over the Shea Stadium public address system. Bong went down swinging to end the frame, and just to rub salt in the wound, Cox didn't even leave him in the game to pitch.

So in honor of Bobby V's acting, Bobby Cox' managing, Jung Bong's name, and the 2002 New York Mets' recreational practices, we'll play this one:

History Between The Yankees And A's

Tonight will mark the first of ten meetings between the Yankees and A's this year. Thanks to the unbalanced schedule, it'll be the first time since 1999 the two clubs meet more than nine times in the regular season.

Despite the lack of meetings in the past decade there is plenty of history between these clubs. As two of the charter members of the American League, it's inevitable that they'd have some shared history over the past hundred years. But it seems that the Yankees and A's have had more than their share of common moments in that time.

Billy Beane was not the first man to build the A's into a contender on a shoestring budget. Hall of Famer Connie Mack owned the Athletics from their inception until shortly before his death in 1956. He served as their manager from their inaugural season of 1901 through 1950, retiring at 87 years old. In his half century at the helm of the Athletics, Mack built up, tore down, sold off, and rebuilt his team several times over, repeating the cycle as his talent outgrew his budget.

The Yankees were the beneficiaries in one of Mack's earliest sell offs. From 1910 through 1914, the Athletics won four American League pennants, winning the World Series in '10, '11, and '13. The backbone of those clubs was Mack's famed "$100,000 Infield", and the crown jewel of that infield was third baseman Frank "Home Run" Baker. Baker earned his nickname with two momentous home runs against the Giants in the 1911 World Series.

Baker led the American League in home runs four straight years from 1911 through 1914. While his yearly totals of 11, 10, 12, and 9 are laughable by today's standards, they were quite prodigious in the dead ball era. Baker and Mack engaged in a salary dispute prior to the 1915 season, and the slugger held out for the entire year rather than accept Mack's offer. With no end to the dispute in sight after a full year, Mack sold Baker to the Yankees for the princely sum of $37,500.

While Baker didn't quite match his Athletics production with the Yanks, he was a valuable player for them, quite possibly their best in the early and unsuccessful years of the team. After retiring for the 1920 season, Baker was coaxed back to play on the Yankees first two pennant winning clubs in 1921 and '22. By that time the game had changed dramatically from Baker's heyday, and teammate Babe Ruth had long since replaced Baker as the preeminent slugger in the league.

After losing in their first two World Series appearances, Ruth and the Yankees finally captured a championship in 1923. They won three more pennants from 1926 through 1928, winning the World Series in '27 and '28. After dominating the American League for the better part of eight seasons, Ruth's Yankees were displaced by Mack's retooled Athletics atop the American League. Mack's squad won the AL flag in '29, '30, and '31, taking the World Series the first two years, before the Yankees returned to the top in '32. Unfortunately for Mack, it would be the last real success he would attain at the helm of his club. As his team sunk in the standings, Mack sold off his greatest assets, just as he had done nearly twenty years earlier. This time the Red Sox were the primary beneficiary, hauling in Hall of Famers Lefty Grove and Jimmie Foxx.

Following a history of financial struggle, the 91 year old Mack sold his club to Arnold Johnson in 1954. Johnson had entered baseball circles the previous year, when he purchased both Yankee Stadium and Blues Stadium in Kansas City, home to the Yankees' top farm team. Though he divested himself of those interests upon his purchase of the Athletics, he still had strong connections to Yankee ownership, and perhaps some other business dealings with them as well. Johnson moved the Athletics to Kansas City after the 1954 season, pushing the Yankees' top affiliate to Denver, but in some ways, Kansas City never stopped functioning as a Yankee farm club.

In the five seasons from 1955 until Johnson's untimely death during spring training in 1960, the Yankees and Athletics executed seventeen trades and purchases. The Yankees acquired the likes of Roger Maris, Ralph Terry, Ryne Duren, Hector Lopez, Clete Boyer, Bob Cerv, Virgil Trucks, Enos Slaughter, Art Ditmar, and Bobby Shantz through these deals, all of whom made contributions to the Yankees' dynastic run from the mid fifties through the early sixties.

Following Johnson's death the club was sold to Charlie Finley. The franchise languished through the sixties, with former Yankees Joe Gordon, Hank Bauer, and Eddie Lopat managing the team from 1961 through mid '64. While the club was bottoming out with three 10th place finishes in four years, the inventive Finley was rebuilding the farm system and plotting a move to Oakland. There, the A's ran off five consecutive AL West titles from 1971 through 1975, and three consecutive World Series championships from 1972 through '74. In doing so, the A's became the first, and thus far only, non-Yankee team to take three straight championships.

Like Mack before him though, financial issues prevented Finley from keeping his dynasty intact. Finley's failure to fulfill his contractual obligation to make statutory payments to Catfish Hunter's life insurance policy after the 1974 season led to Hunter's contract being declared void. He became the first free agent of the modern era, and signed with the Yankees. Two years later, after a one season layover in Baltimore, the Yankees signed former A's slugger Reggie Jackson. Just as they had in 1916, the Yankees had poached a colorfully nicknamed player and the League's top slugger from the A's. While the A's sunk back to the basement, the Yankees returned to prominence, capturing three straight pennants and back-to-back World Series.

Those Yankee teams may have had even more of a former A's flavor to them if not for some intervention. Following a dispute with Finley, Oakland manager Dick Williams resigned from his post after the 1973 World Series. The Yankees attempted hire Williams to replace the outgoing Ralph Houk, but Williams was still under contract with Oakland and Finley wouldn't allow it. Then in 1976, Finley attempted to further dismantle his team at the trade deadline, selling Rollie Fingers and Joe Rudi to the Red Sox and Vida Blue to the Yankees. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn quickly reversed all three transactions.

Instead of Dick Williams in the dugout during their late seventies run, the Yankees had Billy Martin as their manager. After winning the pennant in '76 and World Series in '77, Martin resigned in mid-1978, returned in '79 and was fired after the season, finding George Steinbrenner as difficult a boss as Hunter, Jackson, and Williams had found Finley.

Just as Martin's career as a Yankee player ended with a trade to the Athletics, his first post-Yankee managerial job came with the A's. Returning home to the Bay Area, Martin took a team that had gone 54-108 in 1979 and led them to second place 83-79 finish in 1980. The following year, he had the team in the post-season, falling to the Yankees in the ALCS.

As he did in all his managerial stints, Martin wore out both his welcome and his pitching staff in Oakland. He was gone after the '82 season, returning to New York for his third stint as Yankee manager. He was joined there by Matt Keough, one of the young pitchers whose arm he had decimated in Oakland. After getting fired again, Martin returned for a fourth managerial stint early in the 1985 season.

By then, the Yankees had stolen another superstar from the Athletics. Rickey Henderson broke in with the A's in 1979, and under Martin's tutelage over the next three years, he became the most prolific base stealer in the history of the game. Henderson was supposed to be the piece to put the Yankees over the top when they traded for him in December of '84. Instead he became just another very good player on a series on 1980s Yankee teams that were consistently good, but never great.

While the Yankees were hitting a glass ceiling, the A's were becoming the game's most dominant club. Led by Tony LaRussa and powered by Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, the A's captured three consecutive pennants from 1988 through 1990, and won the World Series in '89. In mid-1989, the A's finally got the best of the Yankees in a swap. Unhappy in New York and with his contract expiring at the end of the year, Henderson was shipped back to Oakland for the uninspiring package of Luis Polonia, Greg Caderet, and Eric Plunk, who interestingly enough, had been part of the A's haul from the Yankees in the original deal. Henderson was instrumental in the A's success in in '89 and '90, and earned the AL MVP with an outstanding 1990 season.

The early aughts saw further chapters written between these two teams, as they met in the ALDS in both 2000 and 2001. The A's pushed the Yankees to the limit in 2000 before falling in five games. The next year they jumped out to a commanding two games to none lead. Facing elimination, Mike Mussina and Mariano Rivera combined for a Game Three 1-0 shutout, aided by a Jorge Posada home run and Derek Jeter's famous flip play. It changed the momentum of the series, which the Yankees took in five games. Adding insult to injury, that off-season the Yankees signed Jason Giambi, heart and soul of that A's team, to a lucrative free agent deal.

The last several years have been relatively quiet between the clubs. At present, the A's are managed by former Yankee Bob Geren, and coaches Curt Young and Mike Gallego also spent time in pinstripes. The A's roster features relievers Chad Gaudin and Edwar Ramirez, both of whom will receive their World Series rings from Joe Girardi this week.

Don't Step On The Grass, Sam

Good morning Fackers. Willie Nelson has a new album coming out today, and I don't imagine it's coincidental that the Red Headed Stranger has his latest release dropping on this date.

In the same vein, I suppose Oaksterdam, home to the largest medical marijuana dispensary in the world, is as fitting a city as any for the Yankees to find themselves in today.

Back with baseball in a bit. Try to keep your munchies under control until then.