December 2010

‘Boss’ Trophy to be unveiled Tuesday

The blizzard that struck the Eastern seaboard forced the postponement of Monday’s New Era Pinstripe Bowl Kickoff Event at the Times Square Visitor Center at 1560 Broadway. The event has been rescheduled for 3 p.m. Tuesday at the Visitor Center, which has its entrance on Seventh Avenue between 46th and 47th Streets in Manhattan.

The New Era Pinstripe Bowl will pit Syracuse against Kansas State at 3:20 p.m. Thursday at Yankee Stadium, the first college football bowl game in New York since 1962. Among the festivities Tuesday will be the unveiling of the George M. Steinbrenner championship trophy that will be presented to the winning team after the game.

Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira will be on hand Tuesday along with team president Randy Levine and chief operating officer Lonn Trost to launch Bowl Week in New York. Kansas State director of athletics John Curie and representatives of Syracuse will also be in attendance as well as cast members from the Tony Award nominated Broadway musical Rock of Ages, plus the Kansas State band and the school’s mascot, Willie the Wildcat.

Fans will be able to purchase tickets to the New Era Pinstripe Bowl all week at the Times Square Visitors Center all week as well at all Ticketmaster outlets and online at http://www.pinstripebowl.com.

Wednesday, the Empire State Building will get into the act. The north and south sides of the building will be lit orange and white for Syracuse, and the west and east sides will be lit purple and white for Kansas State.

Cliff Lee’s seven-year itch

I realize I am in the minority here, but so what. I believe the Yankees caught a big break with Cliff Lee going to the Phillies.

Huh?

OK, hear me out. It would have been terrific to have Cliff Lee paired with CC Sabathia to give the Yankees a 1-2 punch that would be something out of Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens or David Cone and Jimmy Key or Whitey Ford and Bob Turley or Red Ruffing and Lefty Gomez. Yes, for 2011 and 2012 and 2013 and maybe 2014, it may have been a beautiful thing to watch Sabathia and Lee try to outdo each other with every start.

Then again, something could have gone wrong. Sabathia, after all, is coming off knee surgery. Lee is 32 years old, and that is no small thing when you consider the Yankees’ offer was for seven years for money believed guaranteed at $138 million.

Forget about the money for a minute and look at the term – a seven-year contract. That was what the Yankees gave Sabathia after the 2008 season (for 161 large) when the big guy was 28, four years younger than Lee is now. CC’s deal will take him to age 35, but Lee’s would have gone until he was 39. I am uncomfortable signing any pitcher any age to a seven-year contract, but a 32-year-old who had some back issues last year?

Everyone expected Lee to stay in Texas if he decided against coming to New York, but again, the Yankees caught a break. He went to the National League where he can be a major headache for the Mets. Speaking of the Mets; how is that seven-year contract they gave Johann Santana a few years back looking now?

It is now up to Yankees general manager Brian Cashman to be creative in improving the rotation after being rejected by Lee. Cash is skillful enough an executive to do this. It could have been worse. Think of the Rangers having given up a major prospect in first baseman Justin Smoak to get Lee from the Mariners and having nothing now to show for it. The Yankees at least still have Jesus Montero and Eduardo Nunez.

Bob Feller, American legend

There is a great void in baseball now that Bob Feller has left us. He was a Hall of Famer more than half of his life, a distinction for which he took great pride. Somehow, Induction Weekend in Cooperstown will never be the same.

Feller, fallen by leukemia at the age of 92, represented the epitome of the American Dream, the Iowa farm boy who made it to the big leagues before he graduated from high school and became one of the icons of an era depicted so memorably in Tom Brokaw’s book, “The Greatest Generation.”

Of all his accomplishments – and there were many – Feller was most proud of the four years he served in the United States Navy as a gunner on the U.S. Alabama during World War II. It cost him four precious seasons at the height of his pitching career, but he never regretted a single day he devoted to his country.

I remember his appearance at the 1986 New York Baseball Writers Dinner when he did me a huge favor. That year, Yankees first baseman Don Mattingly and Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden were co-winners of our Sid Mercer Award for the player of the year. The original plan was to have Stan Musial present the award to Mattingly and Feller to Gooden.

The day of the dinner, Musial’s plane was re-routed to Albany due to fog in New York that forced the three metro airports to close for several hours. I offered Stan a private car to come down to Manhattan, but he declined. “I don’t know how old you are, Jack, but I’m 65, and three hours in a car is not something I’m comfortable with anymore,” The Man said.

I thanked him and told him he should just go back home. Less than an hour later, I found out that Gooden couldn’t come, either. Just a couple of hours before the dinner, I had lost two marquee attractions. Mattingly and Feller had come to New York the night before, so I knew we still had them. The idea now was to ask “Rapid Robert” to present the award to “Donnie Baseball.”

Prompt as usual, Feller was the first to arrive in the dais room an hour before the dinner. I explained my dilemma and asked him if he would give the award to Mattingly.

“I’d be honored to,” he said. “Just do me two favors. One, write down some of Donnie’s statistics; I know he had a helluva year, but I don’t know the exact numbers. Two, make sure in your introduction of me that you mention my four years’ service in the Navy in World War II. Nothing I have done in my life is more important than that.”

My father and uncle were at a table up front with Anne, Feller’s wife, and got pretty friendly during the dinner. The last award presentation was Mattingly’s, and I introduced Bob with emphasis on his war record. At that point, Anne leaned over to my father and uncle and said, “He made that poor boy say that.”

Several years later, I did a piece in the Hartford Courant on Feller in connection with the Hall of Fame honoring World War II veterans. He had just come home from a tour of Okinawa where he had served in the war. I figured he was suffering from jet lag and suggested we do the interview when he was more rested.

“Come on, O’Connell, let’s do it now; I’ll have plenty of time to rest when my eyes close for good,” he said and spent the next 90 minutes detailing every step of his tour of duty in the Pacific.

Feller was proudest of the fact that he was the first major league player to enter the armed services after Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese fleet. Another Hall of Famer, Hank Greenberg, also lay claim to being the first, but Feller said, “I checked it out; I beat Hank by about half an hour.”

Here’s the rub. At the time of Bob’s enlistment, his father had terminal cancer. As the sole support of his family, Bob Feller could have been excused from serving in the war, but he felt it was his duty. Think for a minute what his career statistics would have looked like had Feller not joined the Navy and played in those four seasons from 1942 through ’45.

Considering the shape of many of the war-depleted lineups in the early 1940s, Feller might have had seasons of 30-plus victories. Heck, he might have even challenged Jack Chesbro’s 1904 record of 41 victories. Since Feller had pitched in 44 games in 1941, it is conceivable that a 41-win season might not be out of the question. I have a feeling, however, that Feller would have never been able to live with the asterisk that might have been attached to all those victories against hollow lineups.

He had a tremendous career anyway with three no-hitters, including the only Opening Day no-no in 1940, and 12 one-hitters and a ring from the 1948 World Series, still the most recent championship by the Indians. He remains the greatest player in the history of that franchise, which was a charter member of the American League in 1901.

When he and Jackie Robinson were elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962, they were the first to do so in their first year on the ballot since the original class of 1936: Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson.

No one wore his Hall of Fame stature more gallantly. Here are some thoughts on Feller from his Hall teammates:

Bobby Doerr: “Bob was just a regular, solid person. He was the same guy, all the time. He gave his opinions and he said what he thought. He didn’t hedge around anything. He was one of the top pitchers I saw in my time. He was timed at 100 miles per hour, and he had a real good curve ball. You had to always be alert with him. He was a real competitor.”

Gaylord Perry: “I really enjoyed Bob’s company, and hearing his stories about history – from baseball to war and everything else, from out of the cornfields to the major leagues. He did so much for baseball and had so many great stories, particularly about barnstorming and his memories of players like Cool Papa Bell and Satchel Paige. I was very fond of Bob. I traveled to his Museum in Van Meter to support his Museum. I consider Bob a great American.”

Cal Ripken Jr.: “The passing of Bob Feller is a great loss for the game of baseball. Clearly Bob was one of the greatest pitchers in history, and anyone who knew him understood that he was one of the game’s great personalities as well. That said, baseball didn’t define Bob. His service to our country is something that he was very proud of and something we are all grateful for. Bob lived an incredible life, and he will be missed.”

Nolan Ryan: “I am deeply sorry to hear of the passing of Bob Feller. He was baseball’s top power pitcher of the 1940s and 1950s and was a source of inspiration for all Americans for his service during World War II. He was a true Hall of Famer.”

Dennis Eckersley: “Bob was truly a great American and a great ambassador for the game of baseball.”

Hall of Fame board chairman Jane Forbes Clark: “We are all saddened to hear of the passing of Bob Feller. He represented the National Baseball Hall of Fame longer than any individual in history, as 2011 would have been his 50th year as a Hall of Fame member. No one loved coming back to Cooperstown more than Bob, which he and Anne did often. Bob was a wonderful ambassador for the Hall of Fame, always willing to help the Museum. Watching him pitch just shy of his 91st birthday at the Hall of Fame Classic in Cooperstown will be a memory that we will always treasure. He will always be missed.”

Hall president Jeff Idelson: “The Baseball Hall of Fame has lost an American original – there will never be anyone quite like Bob Feller ever again. He was truly larger than life – baseball’s John Wayne – coming out of the Iowa cornfields to the major leagues at age 17 and then dominating for two decades. Bob loved being a member of Baseball’s Hall of Fame, but he was most proud of his service as a highly decorated soldier in the Navy in the Pacific during World War II. He reached the pinnacle of individual achievement in 1962, earning enshrinement in Cooperstown, spending more than half his life as a Hall of Fame member.&nbs
p; He probably flew more miles, signed more autographs, met more people and visited more places than anyone, a testament to his ceaseless zest for life, baseball and country. Cooperstown will never be the same without Rapid Robert.”

That’s for sure.

Mo, Bernie volunteer for Holiday Food Drive

Fresh off his agreeing to a two-year contract, Mariano Rivera will join former teammate Bernie Williams at Yankee Stadium Thursday as part of the Yankees’ 17th annual Holiday Food Drive, presented by White Rose Foods.

Fans bringing at least 30 pounds of non-perishable food to the Stadium between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. at Gate 2 on the corner of Jerome Avenue and 164th Street will receive a voucher good for two complimentary grandstand or bleachers tickets or two half-price tickets in select seating areas to one of 22 designated games during the 2011 regular season.

Fans donating the required food amount will also receive a voucher valid for discounted ticket pricing for the 2010 New Era Pinstripe Bowl between Syracuse and Kansas State Dec. 30 at the Stadium, compliments of New Era. Vouchers may be redeemed online at http://www.ticketmaster.com or at the Yankee Stadium Ticket Office.
 
Rivera (10:30-11:30 a.m.) and Williams (11 a.m.-12 noon) will be on hand to assist in collecting food items. The Yankees, in conjunction with Bronx clergy, will distribute the food throughout the borough to those in need. Rice and bottled water will not be accepted.

To help kick off the Yankees Holiday Food Drive, White Rose Foods – along with their Kraft, Unilever, Snapple, New World Pasta, Masterfoods, Domino, Conagra, Carolina Rice, Clorox, Campbell’s, Nestle, Smuckers and General Mills – will donate more than 40 pallets of food (approximately 60,000 pounds).
 
Fans driving to the Stadium may pull up to Gate 2 to drop off their donation.
 

PSAL title game Tuesday at Stadium

In connection with the inaugural New Era Pinstripe Bowl Dec. 30 at Yankee Stadium, the Yankees have scheduled a series of community initiatives with New York City’s Public Schools Athletic League (PSAL). In support of the PSAL, the Yankees installed a new all-grass football field at Harry S. Truman High School in the Bronx. The sod was donated by DeLea Sod Farms, which plants the same type of grass at Yankee Stadium.
 
The Stadium will also be the site of the PSAL Football Championship Game at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 7, featuring two Brooklyn high schools, Abraham Lincoln against Fort Hamilton. It will be the first high school football game to be contest to be played in the current Stadium. All tickets for the PSAL Championship will be distributed through the PSAL. Fans may request tickets by e-mailing Jennifer Moreno at jmoreno6@schools.nyc.gov.
 
The Yankees also plan to honor the best scholar-athletes in New York City Monday, Dec. 20, at the Stadium during their first annual “MVP Dinner.” The occasion will bring together 55 male and female students – 11 from each borough – who have led by example in the community, classroom and respective sports. The top graduating high school scholar-athlete from each borough will also be recognized during halftime of the New Era Pinstripe Bowl by introducing them to the crowd and designating them as “Borough Captains.”
 
During the week of the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, which will pit Syracuse against Kansas State, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation will host instructional clinics in conjunction with the Yankees for New York City-based youth tackle football teams. The clinics will take place at Macombs Dam Park, located across the street from Yankee Stadium.
 
On the morning of the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, the Yankees and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation are inviting high school performing arts students to Macombs Dam Park for the “Battle of the Bands.” The marching bands of the competing universities in the game will warm up with a friendly musical competition for local youth.
 
Kickoff for the New Era Pinstripe Bowl is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 30, and will be televised nationally televised by ESPN, which has also secured national and local radio rights for ESPN Radio.
 

McDougald’s struggle against silence

In memory of the late Gil McDougald, who died last week of prostate cancer at the age of 82, I would like to share a piece I wrote on the five-time All-Star Yankees infielder back in 1997 when the New York Chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America honored him with the Casey Stengel “You Can Look It Up” Award.

For a long time, Gil McDougald lived in a noiseless world. Embarrassed by his deafness, the former Yankees infielder withdrew from his friends, turned away from all but his immediate family and settled into a chamber of silence.

The lively sounds at Yankee Stadium were once music to McDougald’s ears. A hearing disorder stemming from a concussion McDougald suffered in 1955 during a batting practice accident worsened to the point that in 1976 he resigned as Fordham’s baseball coach because of communication difficulties. In 1985, he felt compelled to sell his building-maintenance business. His suburban New Jersey home had become more a place of exile.

An article in 1994 by New York Times columnist Ira Berkow drew attention to McDougald’s situation. He was contacted by Dr. Stephen Epstein, a Yankees fan who directs the Ear Center in Maryland and recommended McDougald consult Dr. Noel Cohen, chief of otolaryngology at New York University Medical Center. That November, in a 3 -hour operation, McDougald received a cochlea implant of a microcomputer that helped restore his hearing. McDougald lectured around the country on the benefits of the procedure.

“There’s a real need to build awareness of the technology,” McDougald told Sports Illustrated. “When you’re fortunate and something good happens, even though you weren’t expecting anything, that’s when the payback comes. When you see the progress, particularly with little children, it’s so satisfying. It’s like hitting a home run with the bases loaded.”

That was one of McDougald’s career highlights, a grand slam off the Giants’ Larry Jansen at the Polo Grounds in the 1951 World Series. The honor bestowed by the writers is most appropriate for McDougald because Stengel was the only manager he played for in his 10 major-league seasons, all with the from Yankees, from 1951 through 1960 before he quit rather than go into the expansion draft.

McDougald was among the most gifted of the tough, heady infielders who were integral figures on Stengel’s teams such as Phil Rizzuto, Billy Martin, Jerry Coleman, Bobby Brown, Andy Carey, Tony Kubek, Bobby Richardson and Clete Boyer.

The Ol’ Perfessor would have loved Derek Jeter.

That brings us to the “You Can Look It Up” part, which refers to one of Casey’s pet expressions. Among Jeter’s accomplishments in his Jackie Robinson Rookie of the Year Award season of 1996 was a .314 batting average. What’s the big deal, you say? Well, you have to go back 40 years to find a New York shortstop – Yankee, Met, Giant or Dodger – who hit .300 over a full season.

And that shortstop was Gil McDougald. True, Kubek hit .314 in 1962, but he played in only 45 games that year because of military duty and a back injury. McDougald’s .311 mark for the Yankees in 1956 was the highest for a fulltime shortstop before Jeter topped it in ’96.

The American League Rookie of the Year Award is another link between the two Yankees shortstops. McDougald was the first and Jeter the most recent of the eight Yankees who have won the award. McDougald wasn’t a shortstop when he won in 1951 by two votes over White Sox outfielder Minnie Minoso, 13-11. The more heralded Yankees rookie, Mickey Mantle, did not receive a vote.

McDougald played third base and second base until ’56 when Stengel tabbed him to succeed Rizzuto at shortstop. In the 10 years McDougald played for the Yanklees, they won more than 90 games nine times, eight pennants and five World Series, including 1956, which made him a precursor to Jeter as a .300-hitting shortstop for a Series champion.

In that ’56 Series, McDougald made an alert play that helped preserve Don Larsen’s perfect game against the Dodgers in Game 5 at Yankee Stadium. Jackie Robinson led off the second inning with a line drove to third that glanced off Carey’s glove to McDougald, who threw out Robby at first base.

Hitting out of an unorthodox, open stance which he moderated midway through his career, McDougald compiled a .276 career average with 112 home runs before retiring at age 32 after the 1960 World Series rather than play for the expansion Los Angeles Angels or Washington Senators.

McDougald was an unwilling participant in a baseball tragedy May 7, 1957. Indians lefthander Herb Score, then in the third year of a career that might have led him to Cooperstown, was struck in the face of by a liner off McDougald’s bat. Score was never the same pitcher again.

Less known is the incident two years earlier in which a BP liner by Bob Cerv hit McDougald above his left ear. It was diagnosed as a concussion, and McDougald was back in uniform in several days. He later learned that he had inner ear damage from an undetected fractured skull, which began McDougald’s quiet retreat.

“Except for playing golf, Gil had really become a recluse,” said former AL president Bobby Brown, one of McDougald’s oldest and closest friends. “But now since her can hear he can hear again, he’s his old self and able to contribute. It’s an emotional thrill for all of us.”

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