July 2010

Newcomers spur changes

The look of the Yankees will be altered somewhat by the player transactions of Friday night and Saturday. The additions did not figure in the Yankees’ 5-4 victory over the Rays Saturday night at Tropicana Field that was yet another tight, well-played game between the teams with the two best records in the majors. It ensured that the Yankees with a two-game lead will be in first place in the American League East when they leave St. Pete after Sunday’s series finale.

The trades were designed to improve the club, of course. Some are good, and some may not be. I won’t mind being proved wrong, but it will take major turnarounds from Lance Berkman and Kerry Wood to do so. The Yankees are gambling on that, and considering what they surrendered in both deals the risks were worth taking.

Let’s get the big plus out of the way. Austin Kearns is a fine addition, a real pro. The Yankees have lacked a quality fourth outfielder. Kearns fits the bill. This is not to disparage Marcus Thames, a fine hitter, but he is a liability in the field. The right-handed Kearns give Yankees manager Joe Girardi an option against left-handed pitching, which may affect the playing time of center fielder Curtis Granderson, who struggles against lefties (.214). Brett Gardner, a .266 hitter against lefties, might move to center on those occasions to open up left field for Kearns.

Berkman had big years in Houston, but 2009 was not one of them. The switch-hitter has been especially vulnerable against left-handed pitching, batting .188 from the right side. He made his Yankees debut as the designated hitter batting second, essentially the Nick Johnson role that took them half a season to fill after Johnson went on the disabled list, obviously for good, else why the move for Berkman? Therein lies the question, what was wrong with Nick Swisher in the 2-hole?

After toying with several options, including leading off Gardner and dropping Derek Jeter one spot, Girardi settled on Swisher, who in 50 games batting second hit .293 with 14 doubles, 1 triple, 12 home runs and 35 RBI in 208 at-bats. No one else came close to those numbers. Batting sixth Saturday night, Swisher struck out three times but also hit a game-tying home run in the seventh, a huge hit.

The other issue with Berkman as the full-time DH is that it locks up a position that can be an aid for a manager with some aging players. The Yankees have a 38-year-old catcher in Jorge Posada, a 36-year-old shortstop in Jeter and a 35-year-old third baseman with a surgical hip in Alex Rodriguez. Having each DH, say, once a week gives them a break from the field. If Berkman’s numbers against lefties remain anemic, Girardi could choose among Posada, Thames and Kearns, but that jeopardizes DH ABs for Jeter and A-Rod.

Is Wood that much of an upgrade over Chan Ho Park? I’m not sure, except for pedigree. Wood is a former Jackie Robinson Rookie of the Year Award winner who tied fellow Texan Roger Clemens’ record of 20 strikeouts in a nine-inning game, but that was more than a decade ago.

No one would have relied on Park to be a regular closer as the Indians did Wood, but he was dreadful with a 1-4 record and 6.30 ERA to go with eight saves. The Yankees won’t use Wood as a closer, either, but will try to work him into the eighth-inning mix that has been a vacuum because of Joba Chamberlain’s inconsistency. Wood may find more competition for that role from David Robertson, who pitched a perfect eighth with two strikeouts.

One player unaffected by all this is Robinson Cano, whose ninth-inning home run off Rays closer Rafael Soriano created the final score. Cano, who also doubled twice, can be found at second base and in the 5-hole of the batting order game after game. No transaction can improve on that. It’s a good look.

Yankees Universe contest winner takes his cuts

What Yankees fan hasn’t imagined what it would be like to step unto into the batter’s box at Yankee Stadium and take aim at the inviting right field porch targeted over the years by Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Reggie Jackson, Don Mattingly, Bernie Williams and Mark Teixeira? Or to look out on the expanse of left-center field’s “Death Valley” and recognize the challenge that faced Joe DiMaggio, Elston Howard, Dave Winfield, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez?

Michael Brindisi got that opportunity Saturday. He was one of 140 bat-wielding fans who took part in the Yankee-Steiner Home Run Classic at the Stadium. Michael was the winner of the Yankees Universe contest from among 70 participants to select the most rapid Yankees fan. The photo he submitted showing him wearing a Yankees jacket and backwards cap with both fists in the air and cheering from his seat in the Stadium told it all. It was displayed on the center field video screen as Brindisi stepped up to the plate.

“I wanted to put one in the right field seats,” Michael said. “It’s a lot harder than it looks. I’m going to blame it on the pitcher. He’s not throwing fast enough. Let’s just use that as an excuse. Next time I go up, I’ll say, ‘Put a little hair on that pitch.’ Honestly, I can see myself getting emotional up there, but there are too many dudes around so I’m trying not to cry.”

Brindisi, 27, a musician from Ithaca, N.Y., located in western New York some 240 miles from the Bronx, treated the day as a once-in-a-lifetime experience and vowed to savor every moment.

“This is a dream for any Yankees fan, just to sit in the dugout,” he said “Like, I called the bullpen. I didn’t even know if I was supposed to. To hold the phone they use, I’m relishing every opportunity. Walking up to the plate and hearing my name called [on the public address system] is really special. My grandfather would love that. I wish he was here to hear and see that.”

Theodore Polchinski, a cancer patient, was unable to make the trip to watch his grandson take part in the event co-sponsored by the Yankees and Steiner Sports Collectibles. He took Michael to his first Yankees game 21 years ago at the old Stadium.

“What was special was that 20 years later, last year, I took my grandfather to his first game at the new Stadium,” Brindisi said. “My buddy, who has premium seats, and I just gave him the full ride. He got to eat in the Legends Suite. He has been to World Series games and watched Mantle play years ago, and he said that day, which was a regular-season game against Toronto, was the greatest day of his life.

“I wanted to take him here today, but he’s just too weak, but I’ve got some stories to tell him. Standing here in the tunnel where the players come out from the clubhouse and past the indoor batting cages, this is literally a dream. It does not feel real. It’s surreal.”

Michael was in the first group of the second annual event that took to the cages at 7:45 a.m. on a postcard morning in the Bronx. He was in semi-full regalia with Yankees logos on his white socks and blue shorts and a regulation jersey with Paul O’Neill’s No. 21 as he took his swings in the first of two rounds for each of the participants who paid $1,400 for the privilege. Small wonder Brindisi was ecstatic over winning the Yankees Universe contest.

“I was going to do the pants and everything, but I thought that might be a little too much,” he said. “I saw some guy with the whole outfit, and I thought, ‘Gee, now I’m glad I didn’t do that.’ Paul O’Neill is definitely in the top three for me. I mean, it’s hard for me to pick. I played outfield and had a bit of a temper, so Paul O’Neill was the one. My coach used to tell me I can’t get away with that stuff. The poor Gatorade bucket took a beating when he was around. And I actually love listening to him as a broadcaster. He does a great job on YES. The other two are Bernie and my man Jeter. I mean, wouldn’t be an American if I didn’t have him high on my list.”

Noah Liv, Steiner’s coordinator for team partnerships, said that the groups were divided into three-hour blocks and would extend to 8 p.m. In addition to two batting practice sessions, participants were given a tour of the clubhouse and Monument Park and were treated to a refreshments session that included an audience with former Yankees Roy White, Bucky Dent and Aaron Boone, who signed baseballs for each contestant.

Brindisi, who fronts a band called Michael Brindisi and the New York Rock, was visiting his parents in Herkimer, N.Y., near Utica when he was notified of his contest victory by Christy Lee, director of the Yankees Fan Club.

“I’m a member of Yankees Universe, and I got the e-mail about the event,” Michael said. “I was always taught to join every contest you can because you never know. It was actually perfect. I was home visiting my parents when my cell phone rang. I looked at my mom wide-eyed when Chris Lee from Yankees Universe phoned. ‘This is it. I got the call, didn’t I? So I’m coming up; Joe Girardi needs me. And then she said, ‘Not really, but you did win a contest.’ I was jumping around like a little kid. I don’t care how old you are. You could be 6 or 62, you’d love this.”

Brindisi took the whole experience so seriously that he did some barbering before heading for the Stadium. The rocker normally has spiky hair and a scruffy beard, but he buzzed his head and shaved his face in deference to the Yankees’ dress code established 37 years ago by the late principal owner George Steinbrenner.

“I’m really laying it on; I’m pretending I’m a Yankee today on my one-day contract,” Michael said. “So if I were to go on the field with spiked hair, I know Mr. Steinbrenner would call me up to his office and say, ‘Listen, son, when we brought Johnny Damon over, the first thing we did was cut his hair. You don’t get any special treatment. Get in there and cut your hair.’ So I’m that committed to today that I shaved my head.”

Brindisi, who said he attends from two to four Yankees games a year, did not bring along his girl friend on the trip.

“She’s a Mets fan,” he said, “but that’s better than a Red Sox fan. I could never date a Sox fan. I’m serious, man. I hate ’em.”

Michael won’t have any problem providing evidence to her and other friends and relatives back home that he indeed took his cuts at the Stadium. Each participant received photographs of the sessions. And there is one more souvenir Michael has just below the index finger on the palm of his left hand.

“I got a blister to prove it,” he said.

Tampa Bay closing in

There is nothing a visiting team in a major matchup likes to do more than take the home fans out of the game early. The Yankees seemed to have done that Friday night when Derek Jeter led off the opener of a three-game showdown against the Rays with a single and Nick Swisher drove a first-pitch fastball from Wade Davis for his 19th home run.

Two batters into the game, the Yankees were up 2-0, and Rays fans had to take pause. Tampa Bay had been on a roll lately but unable to get any closer to the first-place Yankees in the American League East than two games. For five innings, Phil Hughes made the two-run spread seem enormous as he held the Rays to two hits and a walk with one of his strongest outings of the season.

Hughes’ fastball appeared particularly muscular, more so than has been evident in recent starts. Ironically, it was the heat that did Hughes in when the Rays awoke their fans in the sixth inning. Matt Joyce turned around a 2-2 blazer for a three-run home run that made the Yankees take pause. They did precious little against Davis after Swisher’s bomb, and the only drama left came in the ninth when Alex Rodriguez made one more shot at career homer No. 600.

A-Rod could not have asked for a better setting. A leadoff home run in the ninth would have not only made history but also gotten the Yankees back in a game that had they won would have guaranteed they would leave Tropicana Field in first place. That is not the case now. A-Rod fouled out to finish a 0-for-4 night and the Rays prevailed for their seventh straight victory to close to one game of the Yankees.

Davis, a rookie righthander, displayed poise and stuff after the first-inning shock and allowed only one hit after that through the seventh. He is on a roll of his own with four straight winning decisions and a 2.22 ERA in that period. Davis mixed in curves and changeups with his fastball to keep the Yankees off balance most of the night.

For Hughes, that one bad inning proved costly. Joyce’s blow was the 16th home run yielded by Hughes, the first on the road, and the fifth in his past three starts. He is 1-2 with a 6.61 ERA since the All-Star break and 2-3 with a 6.17 ERA in his past six starts. Despite those stats, Hughes’ first five innings indicated he will remain a positive factor for the Yankees.

Another positive sign – and the first for the pitcher in question for a while – was the work of Joba Chamberlain, who pitched a perfect seventh and eighth innings with three strikeouts and not a ball leaving the infield. Here was a stint out of 2007. What remains to be seen is whether he can do that consistently.

The signs Rodriguez showed were quite different. So long as the Yankees were winning and he was contributing in some way with run-scoring hits and alert fielding plays, A-Rod has been able to deal with a home run drought that has now reached 34 at-bats since No. 599. His familiar smile was missing most of Friday night, and he snapped at plate umpire Tim Welke twice over strike calls on borderline pitches.

Behind the scenes, the Yankees announced the completion of one trade and were holding off until Saturday the probable announcement of another. The Yankees got outfielder Austin Kearns from the Indians and are rumored to be adding first baseman Lance Berkman from the Astros as well. Kearns will provide depth in the outfield and is much better defensively than Marcus Thames.

Berkman, who is having an off year, is a switch hitter with power who will likely become the full-time designated hitter, except for those days when A-Rod or catcher Jorge Posada needs a blow. The Yankees have been getting by with rookies Colin Curtis and Juan Miranda on the bench, but as Friday night suggested they need reinforcements to deal with an opponent as potent as Tampa Bay.

How potent? Well, the Rays’ starting pitcher Saturday night will be Matt Garza, who threw a no-hitter in his past start and will become the umpteenth hurler to chase Johnny Vander Meer’s record of back-to-back no-no’s in 1938.

Familiar face missing from big series

There was a post-season atmosphere in St. Petersburg, Fla., Friday night that is likely to be sustained all weekend since dreary Tropicana Field will be filled to capacity for the first time in a full series as all three games are sold out.

Adding to the buzz was Alex Rodriguez’s quest for 600 career home runs.

And while it may be satisfying to the Rays to see all those seats full for a change, the reality is that at least half of the fans in the dome and perhaps more will be rooting for the Yankees, who make their spring training base across the Howard Frankland Bridge in Tampa, and Florida is filled with transplanted New Yorkers.

Tampa was also the hometown of the Yankees’ late principal owner George Steinbrenner, who regularly showed up at the Trop to watch the Yankees when they came to town. The Rays showed plenty of class by observing a moment of silence in memory of the Boss before the game. The Tampa Bay club was at Yankee Stadium two weekends ago when various tributes to Steinbrenner were observed on the field and displayed on the video screen.

Of course, due to the Boss’ connection with Tampa, the players often felt as much pressure playing the Rays as they did in series against the Red Sox or the Mets. Even when Tampa Bay was an expansion pushover, the Yankees had to approach each game as if it were the World Series.

As a former Yankees player once told me, “If we ever lost a series here, we’d never hear the end of it. We could get on a plane and move on, but the Boss had to live here. He didn’t like being teased by the locals if we didn’t win.”

Impressive audition for Moseley

Okay, Andy Pettitte, take your time getting healthy. There’s no use rushing things and risk re-injuring that left groin by coming back too soon. It could be that the Yankees will be all right with Dustin Moseley as a spot starter.

Manager Joe Girardi’s decision to go with Moseley over Sergio Mitre Thursday night at Cleveland paid dividends immediately. In his first major-league start since April 17, 2009 for the Angels, Moseley withstood an adventurous first inning and settled down nicely to tame the Indians on one run and four hits with two walks, a hit batter and four strikeouts in six innings to lower his ERA from 4.22 to 3.24.

He departed with the Yankees clinging to a 2-1 lead before Tribe pitchers began walking the yard and paid for it as the Bombers laughed their way to an 11-4 victory. If that sounds lopsided, imagine how many more runs the Yanks would have put up had they not stranded eight base runners through the fifth inning by going hitless in their first 10 at-bats with runners in scoring position?

How can anyone not love this story? In that start for the Angels last year against the Twins, Moseley came out of the game after three innings due to a right forearm injury and did not pitch again that season. Four months later, Moseley had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his hip, the same operation that Alex Rodriguez underwent the same year.

The Yankees gave the righthander a chance at Triple A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre where he pitched well enough to earn a call-up July 2. Moseley’s 4 2/3 innings of scoreless, one-hit relief against the Royals July 24 at Yankee Stadium convinced Girardi to give him an opportunity to start the next time around the rotation.

The move looked questionable in the first inning when the Indians loaded the bases with one out against Moseley, who recovered nicely by limiting the damage to one run on a sacrifice fly by Austin Kearns. After that, Moseley allowed a walk and two singles with no Cleveland runner advancing past first base.

Meanwhile, the Yankees seemingly took forever to take advantage of getting into the Cleveland bullpen early after starter Mitch Talbot had to bail in the third because of a back strain. Rodriguez tied the score that inning with a sac fly, but the Yankees kept leaving runners aboard until the sixth when Derek Jeter broke through with a two-out, RBI single that made it possible for Moseley to be in position for a winning decision.

The weird thing about the Jeter hit is that it came in an at-bat in which he probably should have been intentionally walked. A lefthander, Tony Sipp, was pitching for the Indians with two outs and a runner on third. Jeter is hitting .341 against left-handed pitching while the next hitter, Curtis Granderson, is batting .216 against lefties. Jeter had a rough series (3-for-16) while Granderson did well (5-for-12, 5 RBI), but Indians manager Manny Acta would like to have that decision back.

A seven-run seventh inning featured seven consecutive Yankees reaching base after the first two batters were retired in order. Robinson Cano hit his 20th home run, but four walks and a hit batter kept the line moving for the Yankees. Cleveland pitchers walked 12 batters, hit one and threw 233 pitches. The Indians’ most effective pitcher turned out to be infielder Adam Marte, who pitched a 1-2-3 ninth, including a strikeout of an embarrassed Nick Swisher.

There were other embarrassing moments for the Yankees in the ninth – the bottom half. Chan Ho Park gave up three runs by allowing three walks and two hits. One of the runs was unearned due to a throwing error by Marcus Thames, who played third base that inning for the first time – and probably the last.

As for A-Rod, the quest for 600 career home runs continues. He had a two-run single to go along with the sacrifice fly, which came on one of three bases-loaded situations Rodriguez had in the game. He grounded out and struck out in the other two at-bats.

The victory was important because it meant the Yankees maintained a two-game lead in the American League East over the Rays heading into Friday night’s opener of a three-game series at Tropicana Field, which will be standing room only.

A.J. takes fight to foes

It takes more than words to apologize to teammates. You know what they say about action speaking louder than them. And good deeds are precisely what the Yankees have gotten from A.J. Burnett since his foolish act June 17 when he put his pitching hand in jeopardy slapping clubhouse doors and sustaining cuts from dislodged Plexiglas.

A lot of the Yankees that day said for public consumption that Burnett did not have to apologize to them, but privately many said that not only did he have to express his regret verbally but also get his temper under control in future for the sake of the entire team.

Burnett has certainly taken that to heart. In his past two starts since sparring with the clubhouse entrance, A.J. has pitched 11 1/3 scoreless innings and won both to push his record to 9-8 with a 4.52 ERA. Limited to five innings because of a rain delay last Friday night, Burnett faced another rain delay Wednesday night at Cleveland, but it had no effect on him this time because the thunderstorm occurred prior to the start of the game.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi said that Burnett was good for 115 pitches, and the righthander responded with 114 in his 6 1/3 innings. The Indians got the leadoff runner on base in each of the first five innings, but Burnett still held them scoreless as the Tribe stranded six runners. Two double plays helped Burnett, who had command of his curve from the beginning and scattered seven hits and three walks with seven strikeouts.

Once again, Girardi did not use Joba Chamberlain in the eighth inning, going instead with Sergio Mitre, who was impressive. However, Girardi showed confidence in Chamberlain by bringing him in to replace Burnett in the seventh after Andy Marte walked with one out. Girardi did not want to use Mitre in the middle of an inning and went with Chamberlain, who got off to an ominous beginning with a balk but recovered to get out of trouble with two fly balls.

There was a comfort zone for all the pitchers thanks to the Yankees’ 13-hit assault that included a single, a double and an RBI but no home run from Alex Rodriguez, who has gone 26 at-bats since he reached 599 for his career to eclipse Willie Mays’ previous mark of 21 at-bats before reaching 600.

Burnett’s sparring session in the clubhouse proved a mere hiccup for him in July. He was 3-1 with a 2.00 ERA in the month, a marked comeback from his June record of 0-5 with an 11.35 ERA.

Go figure

Trying to figure out baseball will drive you nuts. Or drive you broke if you gamble on games. One night after the Yankees could do next to nothing against a pitcher making his major-league debut, they faced the Indians pitcher who represented the franchise in the All-Star Game two weeks ago and knocked him out of the game in the third inning.

The Yankees made Tribe rookie Josh Tomlin look like Bob Feller Tuesday night by scratching for merely one run and three hits in losing to a pitcher starting his first game in the majors for the sixth time in the past seven such occasions. They turned that around Wednesday night and made Fausto Carmona look like Herm Feller (the late Red Sox public address announcer, the only other person named Feller I know) by unloading on him for seven runs and 10 hits in 2 2/3 innings.

Yankees fans surely remember Carmona. In Game 2 of the 2007 American League Division Series, the infamous game in which a swarm of midges surrounded the infield at Progressive Field, Carmona held the Yankees to one run and three hits in nine innings. Joba Chamberlain, then a rookie, was attacked by the midges in the eighth and gave up the tying run on a wild pitch, his second of the inning. The Indians won in the 11th and went on to take the series in four games.

Carmona entered play Wednesday night on a three-game winning streak with a 2.41 ERA over 18 2/3 innings that improved his record to 10-7, impressive for a club playing .420 ball for the season. Big deal, the Yankees bats said.

Alex Rodriguez set the tone in the first inning, not with his 600th career home run but with a two-out, RBI single that got the Yankees on the board quickly. They followed that with a small-ball second inning in which four singles and a stolen base added up to three runs. Extra-base power showed up in the third – doubles by Robinson Cano and Brett Gardner and a triple by Curtis Granderson – an inning that Carmona could not survive.

After Cano opened the fourth with a home run (No. 19) off reliever Hector Ambriz, Jorge Posada singled, which left Derek Jeter as the only Yankees regular without a hit. Posada was back in the lineup one night after missing a game due to a sore left knee. It turns out that Jorgie has a cyst behind the knee as the result of years of squatting behind the plate, which may reduce even more his time as a catcher, although Posada says that he has been treating the ailment for the past four years.

Posada has already had health issues this year with foot and shoulder injuries. It’s tough to be a catcher at age 38.

35 candles, not 600

The Yankees did their share to help teammate Alex Rodriguez celebrate his 35th birthday with career home run No. 600. They created a dramatic situation Tuesday night at Cleveland’s Progressive Field in the ninth inning wherein A-Rod’s 600th would have tied the score.

In the end, it was another oh-fer for Rodriguez as the wait to become the seventh member of the 600 Home Run Club continues. A-Rod is 0-for-8 in two games at Cleveland, but he wasn’t the only Yankees hitter who suffered Tuesday night against Indians rookie righthander Josh Tomlin, who was making his major-league debut and held the Bombers to one run and three hits in seven-plus innings.

Rodriguez grounded out twice and flied out against Tomlin. Derek Jeter gave A-Rod a fresh count when he tried to steal second base on a 1-2 pitch from Tomlin to Rodriguez and was thrown out for the final out of the inning. That meant A-Rod could start anew against Tomlin in the fifth, but he grounded out.

Tomlin’s efficiency and that of three Tribe relievers nearly prevented Rodriguez from getting a fourth at-bat. Entering the ninth, the Yankees needed two men to get on base for A-Rod to have one more shot provided there were no double plays.

They did just that as Brett Gardner and Jeter singled to put runners on the corners with none out and bring the potential tying run to the plate. Nick Swisher struck out and Mark Teixeira flied out, leaving it up to A-Rod to square things against the Indians with his 600th dinger.

Tribe closer Chris Perez yielded Rodriguez’s 590th homer, a grand slam May 31 at Yankee Stadium, but there was no drama this time. Perez got a called strike one on a fastball, then came back with a slider that A-Rod hit softly on the ground to shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, who got the last out on a force play at second base.

Rodriguez has now gone 21 at-bats since he reached 599 last Thursday night against the Royals at the Stadium. Is he pressing? Of course. He has a history of this, going long stretches of at-bats as he approaches a milestone. Maybe in this case, however, Rodriguez knows that there is something hollow about this achievement.

Think back to when he hit his 500th career homer August 4, 2007 at the Stadium off Kansas City’s Kyle Davies. The feat was widely applauded, and A-Rod was perceived as the antidote to Barry Bonds. Many fans believed Bonds had surpassed Hank Aaron in home runs with the help of performance-enhancing drugs. Rodriguez’s pursuit of Bonds’ record was a major part of the contract extension he signed with the Yankees prior to the 2008 season that awards him bonuses on passing certain milestones.

Fast forward to the spring of 2009 when A-Rod admitted that he, too, had used anabolic steroids during his three seasons with the Rangers, and the PED stain fell on him as well. It was to Alex’s credit that he did not smirk at baseball fans as Bonds had done and offered confession. Rodriguez found a new appreciation for the game and performed incredibly last October to earn his first World Series ring. And while his image has been altered to a more positive note because of those accomplishments, the fact that a number of his home runs came under the influence of PEDs cannot be dismissed.

In his Hall of Fame induction speech Sunday at Cooperstown, N.Y., Andre Dawson touched on this issue pointedly when he said, “It bothers me when I hear people knock the game. There’s nothing wrong with the game of baseball. Baseball will from time to time, and like anything else in life, fall victim to the mistakes that people make. It’s not pleasant, and it’s not right. Those mistakes have hurt the game and taken a toll on all of us. Individuals have chosen the wrong road and have chosen that as their legacy. Others still have a chance to choose theirs. Do not be lured to the dark side. It’s a stain on the game, a stain gradually being removed. But that’s the people, not the game. There’s nothing wrong with the game. Never has been. I think people just forget why we ever got involved in the game in the first place. When we were nine of 10 years old, we just loved playing the game. What we found was that if you put your heart into this game, if you love this game, the game will love you back.”

Just the same, the Yankees will be relieved when 600 is come and gone and they can all go about the business of winning games and pennants.

Cutting the pie

One of baseball’s favorite celebrations, a whipped-cream pie in the face to the star of the game while being interviewed on television, was brought to the Yankees last year by pitcher A.J. Burnett, who hopes it can remain a tradition despite what happened Monday night in one of those carousing moments with another team.

Marlins outfielder Chris Coghlan, the National League Rookie of the Year last year, tore the meniscus in his left knee while delivering a pie in the kisser of teammate Wes Helms to celebrate his game-winning single. Surgery could be next for Coghlan, which is why Florida manager Edwin Rodriguez has banned the practice of imitating Soupy Sales after games.

It was the second major injury to occur this season in post-game revelry. Back in May, Angels first baseman Kendry Morales broke his leg jumping on the plate amid a scrum of teammates after a walk-off home run and was lost for the remainder of the season. That prompted Angels manager Mike Scioscia to caution players against such festivities in the future.

My question is: why do they still call those things walk-offs when nobody walks off the field anymore but instead race to the plate with the guys from the dugout to pounce on the hero?

Burnett’s reaction could probably have been expected. After expressing concern for what happened to Coghlan and Morales, Burnett told the media in Cleveland before the Yankees-Indians game: “You can’t take the fun out of the game. Celebrations at home and now pies; what’s next?”

Maybe I’m a bit old school, but isn’t all this stuff sort of ridiculous? These aren’t Little Leaguers out there, after all. This is the major leagues. Players who are being paid extraordinarily high wages and risk their health after the game is already over seems to me extremely irresponsible.

I recall that not long ago Burnett cut his hands as the result of slapping the clubhouse doors that dislodged some Plexiglas. It was not an act of celebration but rather a demonstration of frustration. It, too, was irresponsible. So far, Burnett has not hurt himself at all with his pie throwing, and Yankees manager Joe Girardi has issued no bans, but since when is a handshake not enough to thank a teammate for a victory?

Grand turnaround

I spent some time in Cooperstown talking with a writer friend of mine from Detroit who was of the opinion that the Tigers got the best of the off-season deal in which they acquired outfield prospect Austin Jackson from the Yankees in the three-team trade involving the Diamondbacks that sent Curtis Granderson to the Bronx.

My friend had a point to a degree. Jackson is not your ideal leadoff hitter (25 walks, 98 strikeouts), but he is batting .318 and has played a very good defensive center field. Granderson, on the other hand, has taken longer to have an impact with the Yankees. At 29, he is six years older than Jackson and has a contract for a $5.5 million salary while Jackson is being paid $400,000. Much of this leans the argument to my colleague’s side.

But no trade should be judged that quickly. Things can change, and they have lately for Granderson. Frankly, two weeks ago it could be safely said that Granderson was having not just an off year but a bad year. Heck, 2009 was considered an off year for him, and he still hit 30 home runs, so what were Yankees fans to make of him in 2010?

The Yankees envisioned Granderson taking to the new Yankee Stadium much the way Johnny Damon did last year. That hasn’t quite worked out, but over the past two weeks Granderson has shown signs of settling in to warrant the confidence manager Joe Girardi has expressed in him.

Maybe it has been a steady dose of American League Central pitching against the Yankees of late, but Granderson has come alive offensively. He made the difference in Monday night’s 3-2 Yankees victory over the Indians with a two-run homer in the eighth off Jake Westbrook that swung the pitcher’s duel in favor of Javier Vazquez, who is 3-0 with a 2.77 ERA over his past four starts and has not lost since June 30.

It might have been a second consecutive two-dinger game for Granderson, but a drive in the sixth hit off the top of the right field wall and he was thrown out at second trying for a double. The hits extended Granderson’s modest hitting streak to six games in which he is batting .429 with a double, three home runs and four RBI in 21 at-bats. Go back even further over a period of 14 games and Granderson is batting .346 with two doubles, three homers and five RBI in 52 at-bats to lift his season average from .225 to .249.

Granderson hit .249 last year, so there is nothing all that exciting about that as an average. It is, however, a major improvement over .225. That the Yankees have the best record in the majors has allowed Granderson to stay under the radar somewhat this year. This recent stretch whets the appetite of fans hoping he will fulfill expectations.

As for the bullpen, Girardi continues to make adjustments. He named Dustin Moseley to start Thursday night’s game at Cleveland and return Sergio Mitre to long relief. Even more telling was his decision in the eighth inning Monday night to bring in David Robertson and not Joba Chamberlain to replace Vazquez after a leadoff walk. The move paid off as Robertson got a double play. Joe then brought in lefthander Boone Logan against lefty-swinging Shin-Soo Choo, who struck out.

Girardi said he would continue such maneuvering based on matchups, but it also means that Chamberlain, who is 0-1 with a 12.00 ERA in his past five outings, won’t be getting the automatic eighth-inning call. Competition for roles on a team can often be the antidote for complacency.