Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Bronx Zoo? Hardly

As Spring Training begins, it is once again the New York Yankees that are dominating the back pages of the New York papers as well as talk radio. Let’s look at the big issues surrounding this team as the 2007 season gets underway:

Carl Pavano/Mike Mussina

Basically, Mussina called out Pavano for being a big prima donna who is hurt more than he pitches. Well, not in so many words, but that was the meat of the statement. What was the problem? Mussina was pretty much right on the money. If Pavano wants to earn his keep and get respect in the locker room, he needs to quit being held back by petty injuries, suck it up and pitch. The two had a brief closed door meeting with skipper Joe Torre this week and seemed to make nice. It will be interesting to see if Pavano tries too hard to impress his teammates, and ends up getting hurt in the process. The guy is pretty damned fragile, after all.

Mariano Rivera

A very convincing case could be made that Rivera, not Jeter, not Bernie Williams, was the single most important member of the team which won four World Series in five seasons. Now the closer is facing an expiring contract after this year, and would like nothing more than to have it addressed prior to the season. Age is a factor, no question, but the feeling here is the Yankees will find a way to get this taken care of before it becomes a bigger issue. The guy has barely slowed down, and is still dominant, though perhaps a bit more fragile. Sure, he’ll tank a couple of early and mid-season saves, but his big game and postseason records are above reproach. The fact that this team has given him precious few chances over the past few playoff series reflects on the overall makeup and performance of the rest of the players, not Mo. Believe me, I would like nothing more than to see him skip town and close out the Yankees in a big spot (hmm…how we he look in a Boston uniform?), but Steinbrenner will likely step in and demand this get taken care of, ensuring Rivera retires a Yankee.

Bernie Williams

A tougher call for the team to make involves Bernie Williams. The outfielder seemed to be poised to take a bench role last year, but was forced into action with the injuries to Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield, and performed admirably. Now, with the signing of 1B Doug Mientkiewicz to spell Jason Giambi (making him more of a full time DH), it’s Bernie who is getting squeezed. Rather than release him, the team offered him a minor league contract with the assurances that he would likely get a spot on the 25 man roster. Williams is currently balking at the offer, feeling that he can still get it done, elsewhere if necessary. Since Giambi is basically immovable due to his enormous contract, it’s the classy lifelong Yankee who gets the short end of the stick. Fair? Nope, but the business end of baseball tends to rear its ugly head far too often, particularly with 38 year old players. Here as well, I would like nothing more than to see #51 don another uniform, come back and stick it to the Yankees in a big spot. I can’t wait to see how this plays out.


This one has gotten less play with the above issues in the forefront, but is the big elephant in the room. ARod has proven time and time again that he is simply not suited to play in New York. As someone who always tries to carefully measure his words and do the right thing, he has an incredible knack for rubbing just about everyone the wrong way (except Michael Kay, who adores him to the point of nausea). The word is Rodriguez hasn’t been fully accepted in the locker room, and that might stem from Derek Jeter. Jeter and ARod, former friends (though the extent of that friendship is somewhat debatable), allegedly haven’t seen eye-to-eye since Rodriguez made some disparaging remarks in a GQ article a few years back. Rodriguez needs to understand that he will never be held in the same regard here as Jeter – even if he wins four rings. Jeter is quite simply, The Man. He’s the Captain, he is media friendly without being controversial, and the fans absolutely adore him. Remember when he was mired in that 0 for 33 slump a few seasons ago? The fans were pulling for him so hard, they never booed, and yelled encouragement as he trotted off the field after yet another pop-up. Imagine if ARod went through a similar stretch. The boos would be deafening, talk radio would be screaming for a trade, and the back pages would explode.

Jeter could quell this by simply making some kind of brief public statement about how there is no feud, how Rodriguez is one of the guys, etc. Even if he is full of it, it might go a long way toward getting this out of the media.

These controversies are nothing compared to the late seventies Bronx Zoo, that’s for certain. Those guys proved that players in the locker room could absolutely hate each other and still win. It’s becoming rarer these days, as the players are part of one big happy fraternity, and change teams even more frequently. One could also chalk up the amount of coverage devoted to these issues being a result of having nothing else to cover.

Here’s hoping the 2007 Yankees dominate the back pages, and WFAN, while the Mets quietly go about their business and win the NL East again.

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