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Big Unit enjoyed time in Big Apple

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Randy Johnson’s two seasons with the Yankees may not have been the finest hours of his remarkable career, but he has fond memories from his time in the Bronx.

Johnson was 34-19 with a 4.37 ERA combined for the Yankees in 2005 and ’06 but was roughed up in two American League Division Series starts (0-1, 6.92 ERA). To his credit, he did pitch with a shoulder ailment much of his second Yankees season when he had a 5.00 ERA.

“I still remember getting a phone call from George Steinbrenner welcoming me to play for the New York Yankees,” Johnson said in his induction speech Sunday at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. “I also enjoyed playing for Joe Torre.”

The former Yankees manager, who was elected to the Hall in 2014, was among 49 former Hall of Famers seated on the platform for the ceremony honoring Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz and Craig Biggio.

Johnson took note of another returning Hall of Famer, Reggie Jackson, when he said, “Look behind me and you can see the best who ever played this game. I had the honor of playing against many of these gentlemen. Some I watched on TV. But it would have have really been fun to face you, Reggie.”

I had a brief chat with Johnson over the weekend, and he told me that he had no regrets about his Yankees experience.

“I actually enjoyed it,” Johnson said. “I remember being able to sit in the dugout and talk pitching with Whitey Ford. How can you not love that?”

No sooner had the words come out of Johnson’s mouth, but Whitey and his wife, Joan, walked out onto the veranda of the Otesaga Hotel. That ended our conversation. The “Big Unit” went right over to the “Chairman of the Board” and spent the rest of the afternoon with him.

Craig Biggio, who grew up on Long Island and played college ball at Seton Hall, had kind words for Yogi Berra in his speech. Yogi was a coach with the Astros when Biggio broke into the majors in 1988 to begin a 20-season career, all in Houston, his adopted home town.

“Yogi was the smartest baseball man I ever knew,” Biggio said. “I know he is known for his Yogisms, but he had a solid knowledge of the game. When I was at Seton Hall, he and [then owner] John McMullen came to scout me. How many owners bring a Hall of Famer to watch some college kid play?”

Unfortunately, Yogi was unable to attend the ceremony.

I ran into Phil Niekro at the Saturday night reception in the Hall of Fame gallery, and he told me a story I had never heard before. On the last day of the 1985 season for the Yankees, Niekkro won his 300th game with a complete-game shutout of the Blue Jays in Toronto. The famed knuckleballer actually threw just one knuckler the whole game — the last pitch — and had the Jays off balance with an array of fastballs and changeups.

“We get back to Yankee Stadium after the flight from Toronto,” Niekro said, “and there in the players’ parking lot is a brand new, white Chrysler LeBaron convertible with a license plate reading ‘300WINS.’ I said to my teammates on the bus, ‘Hey, is there anyone else on this team that has 300 wins?’ It turned out to be a gift from George Steinbrenner. I was shocked. It was a good car, too. The problem was that I could not keep the license plate. It was stolen twice, once in Cleveland the year I played there and once in Atlanta when I went back to the Braves. But I loved that car.”

No. 7 proved lucky for Hall of Fame inductee

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — One of the many distinctions Mickey Mantle had in his legendary career was that for 45 years he was the only player who wore No. 7 to have his number retired. That changed this year when the Astros retired No. 7 in honor of Craig Biggio, who will be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame Sunday alongside Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz.

I chatted with Biggio, a native New Yorker from Smithtown, Long Island, who has made Houston his home, on the veranda of the Otesaga Hotel here about that situation. I asked him if he wore the number because of Mantle.

“No,” he said. “Actually, I sort of got the number by accident.”

Biggio recalled that in his second spring-training camp he asked for a number lower than the 67 he wore the previous year as a late-season callup.

“I had worn No. 44 when I played baseball and football in high school and hoped to get that number again,” Biggio said. “But the equipment manager said I was too thin to wear a double number. So I asked him if I could have ‘4.’ The problem was that another infielder had that number — Steve Lombardozzi, who was senior to me and had played on a World Series championship team [1987 Twins]. So they gave me No. 7, the only single digit that was available at the time.

“The irony is that Lombardozzi was cut just before we broke camp, and I made the team. I could have taken ‘4,’ but since I made the team wearing ‘7’ in camp, I figured I better keep it.”

Biggio would have made Mickey proud. He was an All-Star at three positions (catcher, second base, center field) and banged out 3,060 hits, of which 668 were doubles, the fifth highest total in history and the most by a right-handed batter. The only players in front of him are left-handed hitting Tris Speaker (792), Stan Musial (725) and Ty Cobb (724) and switch hitter Pete Rose (746). The active leader among right-handed batters is Angels first baseman Albert Pujols with 574. Yankees designated hitter Alex Rodriguez has 532.

Teixeira not overwhelmed by all the heat

Mark Teixeira saw his share of blazing fastballs last week. At the All-Star Game in Cincinnati, he faced the Reds’ hard-throwing Aroldis Chapman and ended the game by swinging through a 103-mph heater from the game’s hardest thrower.

So after that, what is a 98-mph fastball to Teixeira? Mariners reliever Fernando Rodney, another of baseball’s muscle men among pitchers, got ahead in the count 1-2 on Teixeira with 98-mph gas with two out in the eighth inning Sunday. Rodney then made the mistake of throwing the same pitch in the same location on the next delivery, which Teixeira crushed to right field for a home run that broke up a tie game and sent the Yankees toward a 2-1 victory.

There were an abundance of contributions Teixeira made to this victory, which increased the Yankees’ lead in the American League East to four games over the Orioles, who moved into second place Sunday and will arrive at Yankee Stadium Tuesday night to open a three-game series.

Teixeira had two other hits in Sunday’s game, both singles, including a knock in the sixth inning off Felix Hernandez that sent Brett “White Shoes” Gardner to third base from where he scored on a clutch, two-out single by Carlos Beltran, who was fresh off the disabled list, that tied the score. Tex also made a dazzling catch leaning over the railing behind first base on a ball hit by the dangerous Nelson Cruz for a big out in the top of the eighth.

The home run was Teixeira’s first hit off Rodney in 10 career at-bats against the righthander, who lost his closer job last month and has been used in a set-up role ever since. Tex’s play on Cruz helped the Yankees’ set-up reliever, Dellin Betances, get through the eighth in which he allowed two walks. The homer created the winning decision for Betances (6-2), thanks to Andrew Miller’s 1-2-3 ninth for his 20th save.

Although he was not involved in the decision, CC Sabathia had his second straight encouraging outing. He gave up one run, six hits and one walk with seven strikeouts in six innings. Pitching for the first time in 11 days, Sabathia appeared strong despite the 92-degree heat. CC worked both sides of the plate, utilizing the cut fastball he has been working on and a hard-biting slider.

Sabathia’s only troublesome inning was the fifth when he gave up singles to Jesus Montero and Chris Taylor, who were sacrificed to third and second bases, respectively, by .158-hitting catcher Mike Zunino.

Austin Jackson singled to center for one run as Taylor stopped at third. He stayed there, too, as Sabathia came back to strike out Kyle Seager and Robinson Cano, who had combined for four home runs and seven RBI over the previous two games. Justin Wilson stranded a runner at third base in the seventh before the late-inning combination of Betances and Miller did their magic.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi talked with Sabathia before the All-Star break and reminded him of his importance to the staff both as a performer and a motivator.

“He is the one guy who has been there,” Girardi said, referring to pennant races among pitchers in the rotation. “We need him to be big for us. The ability is there. It has been a matter of consistency of pitches. He expects to do well and works hard at his trade. He understands this is his time of year.”

Teixeira continues to be a prime candidate for Comeback Player of the Year honors. His 23 home runs and 63 RBI exceed his output in those categories for all of last year (22 homers and 62 RBI in 123 games). Of his 23 home runs this season, 12 have either tied the game (four) or given the Yankees the lead (eight), and of his 74 hits this season, 40 have gone for extra bases (17 doubles, 23 homers).

Another Comeback Player of the Year candidate, Alex Rodriguez, singled in the first inning for his 3,023rd career hit to tie Lou Brock for 24th place on baseball’s all-time hits list. A-Rod is batting .320 in 41 games and 147 at-bats at home this season . . . Over his past 15 games since June 16, Beltran is batting .340 with six runs, five doubles, three home runs and eight RBI in 15 games and 50 at-bats . . . The Yankees have a 6-1 record this season in games started by former Cy Young Award winners.

Refsnyder experiment over — for now

Rob Refsnyder got clipped by Major League Baseball’s numbers game Sunday. Someone had to come off the Yankees’ 25-man roster to make room for the return of Carlos Beltran from the 15-day disabled list, and it turned out to be Refsnyder.

The prospect was given a four-game cup of coffee the past week and handled himself well, but with two other infielders, Stephen Drew and Brendan Ryan, working on multi-million dollar contracts there was no more space for the rookie second baseman who hit .167 with one home run and two RBI in 12 at-bats.

“I had a great experience,” Refsnyder said. “I got my feet wet. I saw what major-league pitching and defense is all about. If you look at our roster, there are a lot of proven veterans, a lot of guys with a lot of experience and a lot of playoff experience. It’s one of those things where I’m kind of the low guy on the totem pole. I never felt overwhelmed. I took a lot of positives out of it. I think I can compete here and help the team win.”

Refsnyder accepted the demotion with a good attitude. The key now is not to be discouraged about being sent down and keep up the good work at Triple A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and work himself back to the big leagues.

Brett Gardner showed off a new look in Sunday’s game. The left fielder was sporting a pair of white cleats, a la Joe Namath, the old Jets quarterback. Gardy raced on those shoes to make a leaping catch of a drive by Austin Jackson in the third inning to rob the Mariners center fielder of a potential extra-base hit.

Stadium just how Cano remembered it

Think Robinson Cano misses Yankee Stadium? You bet he does. Oh, sure, he found 240 million reasons to leave the Yankees as a free agent after the 2013 season and sign a 10-year contract with Seattle where he has found Safeco Field to be no match for hitter friendliness as the right field porch at the Stadium.

Cano was back aiming at that porch Saturday and hit pay dirt twice with a couple of two-run home runs that accounted for all the Mariners’ runs in their 4-3 victory. Both blows were off Michael Pineda (9-6), who took the loss despite six serviceable innings.

For the second straight game, all of Seattle’s runs were the result of two home runs by one player. Friday night it was Kyle Seager in a 4-3 loss to the Yankees. Saturday, it was Cano, who has not been the same power hitter with the Mariners that he was with the Yankees.

In nine seasons with the Yankees, Cano averaged 23 home runs a year. In his second season with the Mariners, Cano has hit 22 home runs total in 949 at-bats, the equivalent of almost two full seasons. The change in venue has been part of it. Including his game Saturday, Cano is a .312 career hitter at Yankee Stadium with 81 home runs, 293 RBI and an OPS above .900 in 1,544 at-bats. At Safeco Field, he has batted for a decent average (.298) but has only 16 home runs and 75 RBI in 608 career at-bats.

Cano has dealt with some health problems this year, especially a chronic case of acid reflux that has sapped some of his strength and presented nutritional issues. But there have been signs lately that he is turning his season around, which has coincided with Edgar Martinez, the Mariners’ former two-time batting champion, joining the club as its hitting coach.

Cano is batting .333 (20-for-60) this month with 10 runs, four doubles, four home runs and 10 RBI in 14 games. In 25 games since June 17, he has hit .290 with 14 runs, seven doubles, six home runs and 15 RBI in 100 at-bats after batting .236 with 25 runs, 16 doubles, two home runs and 19 RBI in his first 63 games and 254 at-bats. Cano has six home runs over his past 21 games after hitting only two over his first 67 games of the year.

He definitely hurt the Yankees, who got a two-run home run from Brian McCann in the fourth inning off Hisashi Iwakuma (2-1) that tied the score. Two innings later, Cano victimized Pineda again.

The Yankees threatened in the ninth inning against righthander Carson Smith, who has replaced Fernando Rodney as Seattle’s closer, but came up a run short. Mark Teixeira, who led off the inning with a double to center, scored on an infield out by Garrett Jones. Chris Young, pinch running for Chase Headley who had reached first base on a third-strike wild pitch, was at second base with two out, but Didi Gregorius grounded out.

That left the Yankees 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position in the game. The Mariners were not any better (0-for-3). It is a rare game in which both sides fail in the clutch. This turned out to be a game of home runs, and for a change with his new club Robinson Cano had the higher total

A-Rod’s homer leads to bullpen formula

The timing of Alex Rodriguez’s 19th home run of the season Friday night could not have been better. A-Rod drove a 1-0 pitch from left-handed reliever Joe Beimel (0-1) into the Yankees’ bullpen with one out in the seventh inning that unlocked a 3-3 score.

The round-tripper, career No. 673, allowed manager Joe Girardi to utilize his winning bullpen combination by bringing in Dellin Betances to work the eighth inning and closer Andrew Miller the ninth. Each did his job and the Yanks had a 4-3 victory over the Mariners in front of a Friday night, sellout crowd of 47,086 at Yankee Stadium.

Home runs made up a big part of both club’s offenses. Kyle Seager took Masahiro Tanaka (6-3) deep twice to account for all of Seattle’s runs. Tanaka allowed only three other hits and two walks with seven strikeouts in seven innings to earn his second consecutive victory.

Chris Young continued his torrid hitting against left-handed pitching with a home run in the second inning and a double in the fourth, both off Seattle starter Mike Montgomery. Young scored the Yanks’ second run on a single through the middle by Chase Headley in the fourth.

Against left-handed pitching this year, the righty-swinging Young is batting .365 with 10 doubles, six home runs and 14 RBI in 85 at-bats. Against righties, Young is a .178 hitter with four doubles, five home runs and 13 RBI in 129 at-bats. With switch-hitting Carlos Beltran on the 15-day disabled list, Young and lefty-swinging Garrett Jones have formed a nice platoon in right field.

Rodriguez also had a part in the Yankees’ fifth-inning run that had tied the score. He led off with a single and after a walk to Mark Teixeira came home on a single by Brian McCann. A bigger inning was thwarted as Young flied out and Headley grounded into a double play. The Yankees made seven outs in a row before A-Rod’s tie-breaking homer in the seventh.

Fresh from his scoreless inning of work Tuesday night in the All-Star Game at Cincinnati, Betances handled the eighth inning flawlessly with two strikeouts and an infield out. Miller, on the other hand, had to deal with some drama in the ninth.

The lefthander retired the first two batters on ground balls to third base, but pinch hitter Mark Trumbo lined a two-strike pitch to left field for a single. Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon then turned to Jesus Montero as a pinch hitter.

The former Yankees prospect who went to Seattle in the trade that brought Michael Pineda, Saturday’s starter, to the Bronx, has been largely a bust for the Mariners. Called up from Triple A Tacoma eight days ago, Montero had a chance to seek revenge against the Yankees, but he struck out as Miller chalked up his 19th save.

The Yankees held the Mariners’ 3-4 hitters in check. Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz were each 0-for-4 with the latter striking out three times.

The Yankees’ victory in their first post-All-Star break game allowed them to open up some ground in the American League East. Their lead swelled to 4 1/2 games over the Rays and Blue Jays. Toronto pulled into a tie with Tampa Bay by beating the Rays Friday night. Meanwhile, the Orioles, who come to the Stadium next week, fell a game below .500 (44-45) with a loss at Detroit. At 49-40, the Yankees are the only team in the division with a record above .500.

Road work to tie up area around Stadium

Those traveling to Yankee Stadium by car should take heed of an advisory from the New York State Department of Transportation.

The three northbound travel lanes on the Major Deegan Expressway will be reduced to two travel lanes starting after Exit 3 (East 138th Street/Grand Concourse) to beyond Exit 5 (161st Street/Macombs Dam Bridge) and the Macombs Dam Bridge.

This new configuration began after the evening rush hour Thursday and will last for approximately two years. Drivers are encouraged to plan ahead and seek alternate routes.

Motorists are reminded that fines are doubled for speeding in a work zone. In accordance with the Work Zone Safety Act of 2005, convictions of two or more speeding violations in a work zone could result in the suspension of an individual’s driver license. It is imperative that motorists drive carefully through this construction zone, for their own safety and the safety of workers.

For up-to-date travel information, call 511 or visit http://www.511NY.org.

Military Appreciation Day during homestand

The Yankees returned home Friday night following the All-Star break for the first of six games at Yankee Stadium. The stretch of games begins with a three-game series against the Mariners featuring former Yankees All-Star Robinson Cano Friday night, Saturday and Sunday afternoons followed by a three-game set against the American League East rival Orioles Tuesday and Wednesday nights and Thursday afternoon.

The Yankees will pay tribute to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation and the United States Armed Forces by hosting Military Appreciation Day Saturday. Ceremonies will begin approximately at noon, prior to the scheduled 1:05 p.m. game against Seattle. As part of the festivities, the Gold Team of the United States Army Golden Knights will parachute into the Stadium.

Following the jump, Maddeline and Mitchell Voas, the family of fallen Air Force Special Operations Pilot Major Randell Voas, will be recognized in a special ceremony. Also taking part in the day’s ceremonies will be United States Air Force Chief Master Sergeant Matt Caruso – who will throw out the ceremonial first pitch; country music recording artist and former Army Ranger, Keni Thomas – who will sing the national anthem; and current member of the United States Air Force Band in Washington, D.C., Technical Sergeant Aaron Paige – who will sing God Bless America.

2000 World Series Champions Fan Ring Day will take place Sunday. The first 18,000 people in attendance 14 and younger will receive a fan ring, courtesy of Betteridge Jewelers.

Ticket specials will run Saturday (Youth Game), Sunday (Youth Game), Tuesday night (Military Personnel Game), Wednesday night (Military Personnel and Student Game) and Thursday (MasterCard Half-Price, Military Personnel, Senior Citizen, and Youth Game).

For a complete list of ticket specials, including game dates, seating locations, and terms and conditions, fans should visit http://www.yankees.com/ticketspecials. Please note that all ticket specials are subject to availability.

The homestand will also feature the following promotional item and date:

Saturday, July 18 – Yankees vs. Mariners, 1:05 p.m.
* Collectible Truck Day, presented by W.B. Mason, to the first 18,000 in attendance, 14 and younger.

Tickets may be purchased online at http://www.yankees.com, http://www.yankeesbeisbol.com, at the Yankee Stadium Ticket Office, via Ticketmaster phone at (877) 469-9849, Ticketmaster TTY at (800) 943-4327 and at all Ticket Offices located within Yankees Clubhouse Shops. Tickets may also be purchased on Yankees Ticket Exchange at http://www.yankees.com/yte, the only official online resale marketplace for Yankees fans to purchase and resell tickets to Yankees games. Fans with questions may call (212) YANKEES [926-5337] or email tickets@yankees.com.

For information on parking and public transportation options to the Stadium, please visit http://www.yankees.com and click on the Yankee Stadium tab at the top of the page.

Betances does his part in AL All-Star victory

CINCINNATI — American League manager Ned Yost of the Royals came through for Dellin Betances. Aware that Betances never got out of the AL bullpen at last year’s All-Star Game at Minneapolis, Yost told the righthander the seventh inning would be all his Tuesday night at Great American Ball Park.

Betances did his part in the AL’s 6-3 victory that guaranteed home field advantage in the World Series to the league, although that did not help Yost last year as his Royals lost Game 7 at home to the Giants. Blame that on Madison Bumgarner.

The Yankees’ set-up reliever got through the seventh unscathed, much like he has during the regular season. Working with a 5-2 lead thanks to a two-run rally in the top of the inning that was fueled in part by teammate Mark Teixeira, Betances retired Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford on a ground ball to second base. After walking Cubs rookie outfielder Kris Bryant, Betances came back to strike out Giants second baseman Joe Panick, the former St. John’s University standout, and set down Diamondbacks outfielder A.J. Pollock on a grounder to third.

In the top of the seventh, Teixeira grounded out to the left side that pushed the Orioles’ Manny Machado to third base from where he scored on a fly ball by the Rangers’ Prince Fielder. Teixeira had a rougher time in the ninth inning as he made the final out of the game striking out on a 103-mph fastball by the Reds’ Aroldis Chapman.

Brett Gardner, the Yankees’ other representative in the game, also had a tough night. He was called out on strikes in both of his at-bats, in the fifth inning against the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw and in the eighth against former Yankees teammate Mark Melancon, now the closer for the Pirates.

It was also announced during the All-Star festivities the Franchise Four for each of the 30 clubs in a vote of fans. The Baseball Writers’ Association of America took part in setting up the ballot of eight players from each franchise (full disclosure: I was the BBWAA voter assigned to the Yankees).

It should come as no surprise that the Yanks’ Franchise Four were the team’s Mount Rushmore: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. It is pretty hard to break through that quartet. Younger fans may wonder about Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera considering all the club records they have, but the other four men helped shape the franchise and are among the most decorated players in baseball history.

For the record, the eight players on the Yankees’ ballot in addition to the four were Jeter, Rivera, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford. Believe me, it was hard to leave players like Bill Dickey and Don Mattingly off that list. This was one of those promotions where the Yankees were hurt because of the richness of their history.

There was a nice moment before the game where the four men voted the game’s greatest living players came onto the field — Hank Aaron, Johnny Bench, Sandy Koufax and Willie Mays. I had three of those players on my ballot but chose Yogi over Koufax in a close call. Some might say that Berra belonged there more than Bench, but even Yogi told me once that he thinks JB was the best catcher who ever lived.

MLB, union to support youth baseball initiative

CINCINNATI — While officials were hopeful that a series of severe thunderstorms that hit this area Monday would not interfere with the Home Run Derby at night on the eve of the All-Star Game at Great American Ballpark, Major League Baseball in conjunction with the Major League Players Association announced plans to allocate $30 million towards a youth baseball and softball initiative throughout North America entitled “Play Ball.”

Commissioner Rob Manfred made the announcement at Monday’s press conference at which American League manager Ned Yost of the Royals and National League manager Bruce Bochy of the Giants announced their starting lineups, including pitchers Dallas Keuchel of the Astros and Zack Greinke of the Dodgers.

“Accessibility is an essential step toward not only strengthening the connection with fan, but also developing talent at the amateur level,” Manfred said. “Through initiatives like Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, the MLB Urban Youth Academies and the Breakthrough Series, Major League Baseball has provided opportunities for thousands of young people to play the game and showcase their skills. This joint commitment with the MLBPA and its current and former members is a significant step toward expanding our focus on ensuring the future growth and prosperity of our sport.”

The commissioner also singled out Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira for his tireless efforts on behalf of the Harlem RBI youth program in New York. Teixeira, a member of the AL All-Star team along with teammates Brett Gardner and Dellin Betances, attended the new conference with fellow All-Stars Chris Archer of the Rays, David Price of the Tigers, Anthony Rizzo of the Cubs and Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates.

MLB and the PA will also create a 501(c)(3) organization to accept donations from players, clubs, corporations and other interested parties to help fund programs. One of the first major programs under the initiative will be the first Elite Development Invitational, operated by USA Baseball, July 18-30 at the old Dodgertown complex in Vero Beach, Fla. Approximately 150 players, ages 13-16, will participate in the two-week program that will provide player development opportunities to top prospects from minority or underserved backgrounds.

“For as long as the game has been played, generations of major leaguers have been passionate about sharing the game they love with others, especially youth,” PA executive director Tony Clark said. “Many current and former players are already actively involved with programs designed to not only teach the game at the youth level and develop future ballplayers but also help excite the next generation of fans. This initiative will help advance and enhance those efforts. Despite their never-ending determination to preserve and grow interest in baseball, players have long known that reseeding the game at the grassroots level requires the cooperation and support of the entire baseball community. Today’s announcement is great news to all players, and we look forward to working with Major League Baseball to make serious strides to ensure that every kid in the United States and Canada who wants to play baseball has an equal opportunity to do so.”

Two Yankees farmhands made contributions in Sunday’s Sirius XM All-Star Futures Game. Triple A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre outfielder Aaron Judge, the designated hitter for the U.S. Team, had 1-for-4 and scored a run in its 10-1 victory over the World Team. Double A Trenton catcher Gary Sanchez started behind the plate for the World Team and had a double in two at-bats.

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