To hell with the calendar. Every real American knows spring begins in that blessed spell when pitchers and catchers report and the position players aren’t all that far behind.
* A.J. PIRATE?—It’s looking more and more as though the Empire Emeritus and the Pittsburgh Pirates have a deal to send A.J. Burnett to Pittsburgh in exchange for a pair of minor leaguers. Ridding the Yankees of a talented headache on the mound, though from most reports a good guy in the clubhouse.
That talented headache, though, could be seen as something close to the key which unlocked the Yankees’ 2009 World Series conquest. As a matter of fact, in the eyes of ESPN New York’s Wallace Matthews, that is precisely how Burnett is seen. It’s been a staggering decline for the righthander since he led the National League in shutouts (five, in 2002) but pitched himself right out of Florida when he crashed and burned down the stretch of a pennant race in which the Marlins still had a shot at factoring.
As for the two prospects going to the Yankees, pitcher Diego Moreno is thought to have the greater upside—he projects toward becoming a valuable middle reliever thanks to his lively fastball and a well-regarded changeup, since his lack of a breaking ball is believed to keep him out of any starting picture. That projection, though, may point to another season or two up the road, meaning the Burnett deal amounts to a salary dump with the Pirates agreeing to take on about $13 million of Burnett’s remaining salary. Burnett himself had something to do with this deal: he’d previously spurned a potential trade to the Los Angeles Angels.
* CLASS RETIRES—In the end, Tim Wakefield decided hanging on with little enough left in the tank for the sake of seven wins, which would have made him tops on the Red Sox all-time list, wasn’t really worth it no matter how deeply he loves the game.
The classy knuckleballer announced his retirement emotionally Friday, at the Red Sox’s new JetBlue Park in Fort Myers. “I never wanted to pitch for another team,” said the one-time Pirate and converted infielder whom the Red Sox plucked from the minors after a promising beginning faded to minor league frustration. “I’ve always said I wanted to retire a Red Sox and today I’m able to do that.”
Wakefield, who pitched with heart as well as a dancing knuckleball, will be rememebered for many a stout hour on the mound, perdominantly as a starter who could eat innings and keep his team in games more often than not. For this writer, the most outstanding of those memories will be his gallant duel in relief, against The Mariano, in Game Seven of the 2003 American League Championship Series, a duel his side of which ended only when the first pitch he threw to open the bottom of the eleventh was sent into the left field seats by Aaron Boone for game, set, and pennant.
Wakefield earned redemption a year later, in the 2004 ALCS, when his likewise stout relief helped the Red Sox to the second of their four straight pennant-winning wins against the Yankees. But Wakefield’s determination in that 2003 game spoke volumes about the pitcher and the man even if it ended so horrifically. He’s nowhere near the neighbourhood of a Hall of Famer, but don’t let anyone tell you he was anything less than major league from end to end.
* BANG!—Call it political correctness run amok (as usual?) if you must, but the Houston Astros’s 50th anniversary remembrances won’t be allowed to include completely accurate replicas of their original Colt .45s home uniforms. Seems there’s a little problem with the original Colts breast logos, a pistol underlining the word COLTS with a trail of gunsmoke from the barrel forming the C. Can’t have that, says baseball government.
What’s next—ordering the Mets to change their famous sleeve patch logo, of “Mets” in orange script across the blue New York skyline inside a baseball, because the sky is clear above and missing New York’s air pollution? (Oops. Don’t go there. The Tampa Bay Rays were ordered to shenk the cigar from their throwback Tampa Bay Smokies uniforms last year, and the Atlanta Braves may or may not have been ordered to pull the warrior brave from the left sleeves of their mid-to-late-60s throwbacks.)
“During our discussion with Major League Baseball,” wrote Astros authentication manager Mike Acosta, replying to a fan who sent a letter of dismay to commissioner Bud Selig, “it was expressed to us that we could wear the uniform as long as the pistol was removed. We realize this changes the original design, but we still want to honor the Colt .45s. We are also under an obligation to follow Major League Baseball’s requests.” But is MLB obligated to distort history?
* SPEAKING OF THE COLTS—Memorable exchange from Al Spangler, Colt .45s outfielder: Responding to teammates’ kvetching about the tough Arizona spring training skies, Spangler waved off the complaints: “I would merely allow for the force of impact and the rate of descent and could catch the ball while making change for a $20 bill.” Then, he let one fly fall before him and one fall behind him. Naturally, he was asked to re-explain his theory in light of the two errors: “I forgot to figure the curvature of the earth.”
And you thought the 1962 Mets (This is the only park in the league where the women wear insect repellent instead of perfume.—Richie Ashburn, Original Met, on Colt Stadium) were nuts?
* RECUPERATING—Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, from complicated surgery to remove a facial nerve that got wound up with a tumour in his cheek, and to graft a neck nerve to ensure his returning facial movement, which could take eighteen months. The best news: Gwynn’s cancer has not spread and he’s expected to make a full recovery, not to mention returning to his job as San Diego State’s baseball coach soon enough.
* A LOAD OF BULL?—Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire says the only bull he wants to see around his team is the one he brings in from the pen in relief. “There’s a good chance some guys might have their feelings hurt in spring training, because I saw things I really didn’t like,” he tells the St. Paul Pioneer Press. I pay attention to how players are handling situations, and there were parts of last season I didn’t like at all. When something went wrong and you got that, ‘Oh, boy, here we go again, he’s going to say something to us.’ That’s a bunch of bull. I say something because I want you to be a better player. It’s when I don’t say something that you ought to be worried.”
* MEANWHILE, BACK IN THE JUNGLE . . . The word is that the next Red Sox to call it a career could be Jason Varitek . . . Former Red Sox relief pitcher Hideki Okajima, a key man in their 2007 World Series championship, flunked a physical for the Yankees and won’t be at spring training with the Empire Emeritus . . . Johan Santana was said to be “excited” after throwing off a mound for the first time since last fall . . . Manny Ramirez, hoping for a comeback, could yet becomean Oakland Athletic, with reports indicating the A’s may have a deal with him in a few days, though he’ll have to serve a fifty-game drug suspension . . .
Trading A.J. Burnett means the Yankees have a little extra play money for signing former Phillie Raul Ibanez as a DH and former Athletic Eric Chavez as an infield backup . . . Two days before pitchers and catchers reported, the Kansas City Royals created three less headaches by agreeing to deals with Eric Hosmer (first base), Mike Moustakas (third base), Lorenzo Cain (outfield) and Luis Mendoza (pitcher) . . . Two Chicago Cub minor leaguers, righthander Ricardo Estevez and lefthander Jorge Navarrete, will sit out fifty games under minor league drug program: Estevez came up positive for stanozolol and nandroline; Navarrete’s said to have refused a drug test . . .