Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 27, 2014

For One Afternoon, A New Generation Provides The Highlights

It’s the last Saturday in April, a cool springtime afternoon in the South Bronx. I am in my seat high above home plate at the Stadium, waiting for the second of a three game set between the Yankees and Angels to get underway. The end of the first month of sports’ longest season approaches, but that just means that teams have six or so games to play for every one that is in the books. Fans of the Great Game love statistics, but it is still early enough in the campaign that the numbers we track so diligently provide more comic relief than real meaning. Starters can still see their batting average rise by double digits with but one successful swing of the bat, while a situational reliever’s ERA might increase exponentially as a result of a single delivery finding too much of the plate. While in truth every game is equally important, we are still in that time of year when we tell ourselves that the best outcomes might not last and the worst games can still be made up.

So I am thinking not so much about today’s game as about a noble past and an uncertain future. I for one am fully cognizant of just how lucky we Yankee fans have been. It is true in every sport of course, and baseball is no exception. In the age of free agency players come and go, and loyalty to the team that drafts and develops a player is often outranked by a competitor’s checkbook. Even as teams increasingly move to lock up young stars for multiple years before they become eligible for free agency, many of those deals will still allow a player to test the market before their careers are done. Mike Trout, who will bat second for L.A. today, signed a multi-year megadeal with the Angels in March; but he’ll still be just thirty when it expires, so who knows if Trout will retire as perhaps the most decorated and revered Halo of all time?

But for nearly two decades here on both sides of 161st Street, in Stadiums old and new, we got to watch not one, or even two, but four homegrown players lead our team to repeated glory. In the process the Core Four of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada amassed personal statistics that ensure that first two have space waiting for them on the wall in Cooperstown and that Pettitte and Posada will at the very least be part of Hall of Fame discussions a few years hence. But Posada retired after the 2011 season, and I was here in the Stadium last September when Mo jogged in from the bullpen for the final time. That was just a couple of days after Andy made his final start in the Bronx. So the Core Four is down to one, and the Captain has announced that this will be his final season.

The story of every era must have a closing chapter, but even as Jeter writes the ending of this one over the course of this summer and, hopefully, well into the fall, the inevitable question looms large. Who is the next face of our franchise? Whose name will we turn into a rhythmic chant for years to come? Whose number will be seen on the backs of children and adults alike, as they make their way through the gates on game day?

The obvious answer to that question was Robinson Cano, the slick fielding second baseman who hit for both power and average while remaining remarkably durable through nine seasons as Jeter’s double play partner. A teenaged Cano was signed by the Yankees as an amateur free agent in 2001, and came up through the team’s minor league system, just like the Core Four. His photo hangs on the wall of the Staten Island Yankees home field, testament to the truth that the dream shared by every rookie league ballplayer can come true. But in his first year of free agency Cano wanted ten years, and the Yankees, forever chastened by the great A-Rod debacle of a contract, were not interested in paying well north of $20 million a year for a player in his forties. So Cano now plays for Seattle, where the lights are not as bright but the coffee is pretty good.

Cano’s departure leaves a void, for there is no obvious young player who seems ready to become our next homegrown hero. That of course is a sad commentary on the team’s farm system. The minor league organization that once produced the Core Four is now regarded as one of the Great Game’s least promising. In recent years a number of players highly touted by Yankees management have arrived in the Bronx, only to leave with a record of promise unfulfilled.

Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy were going to be mainstays of the rotation. But Kennedy never seemed comfortable in Gotham’s glare, and was soon shipped to Arizona. Hughes won 18 games and was an All-Star in 2010, but went 25-32 the next three years while surrendering home runs at a maddening rate. Jesus Montero was tabbed as Posada’s successor, and became instantly popular during a brief call-up from AAA in 2011 when he batted .328 in 18 games with an OPS of .996. Fans were angry when Montero was traded to Seattle that offseason, but perhaps general manager Brian Cashman knew the hype was just that, as Montero is now back in the minors.

Then again, heroes do not always come prepackaged. In 1995 Rivera was called up to join the Yankees starting rotation. No one dreamt the slender young hurler would become baseball’s greatest closer. Later that same season when Posada made his debut Bob Sheppard, the Yankees legendary public address announcer, mispronounced his name.

Perhaps our next hero is right in front of us. Here is catcher John Ryan Murphy, drafted in 2009 and called up when backup catcher Francisco Cervelli went on the disabled list. The 22-year old Murphy gets the start today, and he breaks a 1-1 tie in the bottom of the 2nd by lacing a two-out two-run single to right field. Here is Dellin Betances, a 26-year old who was born in Washington Heights, the section of northern Manhattan that overlooks the Bronx. Drafted by the Yankees to be a starter in 2006, Betances has overcome injury to make it to the big club as a reliever. He comes on in the 5th with one out and the score tied at three to face Albert Pujols. Betances gets Pujols and throws two scoreless frames, striking out three with his 96 mile per hour fastball.

Then there is Murphy again, who leads off the bottom of the 5th and sends the first pitch he sees soaring into the left field seats for his first major league home run, a round-tripper that will prove the difference for the Yankees. It does so because 29-year old David Robertson, a 17th round selection by New York in the 2006 draft, now tasked with the daunting duty of replacing Mo, jogs in from the bullpen for the 9th with both Trout and Pujols waiting. Robertson strikes out the first Angel he faces before surrendering a single to Trout. He wins an eight-pitch duel with Pujols, who flies weakly to left. Then the Yankees new closer fans Howie Kendrick, and the game is won.

The Yankees, as is their wont, spent a lot of money this offseason, next to none of it on Murphy, or Betances, or Robertson. And it was only one game, early on in the longest season, a time when it’s easy for one’s mind to wander. Murphy and Betances could be sent back down at any time.  Robertson may find Mo’s shoes too big to fill.  But perhaps, just perhaps, years from now, when we Yankee fans are cheering the latter stages of our next hero’s career, we will recall that spring afternoon, when we shook off our reverie just in time to pay attention.

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Responses

  1. It is true that not all future stars are obvious from the start, like Trout or Pujols. Some take a few years to really get going, then end up in the Hall of Fame. There are so many great young players under age 26 today that I’m certain we’re watching several HOF-caliber careers just now taking shape.
    Nice post,
    Bill

    • Thanks Bill. Until Saturday John Ryan Murphy’s biggest major league memory was undoubtedly being the Yankees’ catcher late in the final home game last September, when Mariano jogged in from the bullpen for the final time. He may never make it to Cooperstown, or even have much of a big league career, but he now has another memory that is all his own.

      Thanks again, Mike

      http://www.onsportsandlife.com


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