Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Offseason Space Filler Post: My Top 10 Favorite Yankees Part II

If you missed Part I of this epic list you can find it right here.  Now let's get back into the list and check out the Top 5.

5) David Cone- After reading all the books on the 90s-2000s Yankee dynasty, Cone has retroactively become one of my favorite all-time Yankees.  If I had known all the 'behind the scenes' stuff that I know now back then, there's a chance Coney would be even higher on this list.  Cone is another guy who established himself as a big time fan favorite despite only being a Yankee for a little over 5 years, fewer than that actually on the mound, because of his drive, his work ethic, and his insane thirst for winning that made him a great teammate and the unquestioned clubhouse leader of the 90s Yankee dynasty.

In the locker room, Cone was the team's spokesman, always willing to stick around and deal with the media, especially in situations where he knew other teammates wouldn't want to after a bad performance.  He also had the ear and trust of Joe Torre and the balls to talk crap to George Steinbrenner.  The story of Cone telling The Boss to "get the fuck out of here" when he tried to interfere in a team meeting was one of my favorite stories from Buster Olney's book.  All the stories about Cone pitching with the aneurysm, the diagnosis, how crushed he was when he found out, and how hard he busted his ass to get back out on the mound because he didn't want to let his teammates down are all perfect examples of just how badass David Cone was.

On the mound, Cone used all kinds of different pitches and arm angles to work hitters.  He was a bit like El Duque in that sometimes he would dial something up and you would watch and just think "what the hell did he just throw?"  But that was Cone's style.  He was going to use every way he could think of to get a guy out, and even more ways than that if it was a day where he didn't have his best stuff.  Watching him pitch was kind of like watching a painter put together a portrait; a little bit of this, a little bit of that, inside, outside, up in the zone, down in the zone, all kinds of angles and release points, and boom!  Done.  8 innings of 1-run, 4-hit ball.

I missed the first couple innings of Boomer's perfect game, but I sat and watched every inning of Cone's in July of '98.  To date, standing and cheering in my living room with my dad and watching his reaction as the final out was made is one of my favorite memories as a Yankee fan.  As a former athlete, I wish I could have played with more guys like David Cone.

4) Paul O'Neill- He was probably a bit too ornery, he was definitely intense, and he might have been certifiably insane, but Paul O'Neill was and is the man and was definitely one of the most fun Yankees to watch.  After basically being given away by a Cincinnati Reds team that didn't realize what they had, O'Neill flourished in the Bronx, putting up a .303/.377/.492 tripleslash line, 4 ASG nominations, and, like pretty much everybody else on this list) 4 World Series rings during his 9-year Yankee career.

O'Neill was great to watch because he was such an open book.  Just by looking at his face and his body language you could tell not only what kind of day he was having, but how he felt about it.  Some guys could go 2-4 with an RBI and be happy as clams, but O'Neill could be 2-4 and still be grumbling and shaking his head as he stepped into the box in the 9th inning because one hit was a weak grounder that found its way through the infield and the other probably should have been scored an error.  In his mind, he was stepping up there trying to get his first "real" hit of the day.  As somebody who cursed every mistake I ever made on the lacrosse field and who has to try incredibly hard not to do the same to the players I now coach, I can relate to and respect that kind of intensity and dedication to his job that O'Neill had.  Every out he made made him feel like he was letting the team down, the fans down, and himself down.  While it may be a little over the top, it shows how much O'Neill cared and that's the kind of teammate you want.  That's a guy you can go to war with.

That caring and intensity is probably while O'Neill and his stats aged more gracefully than others who still play ball at 38.  Even in his final year, with his batting average down to .267, O'Neill still managed 55 XBH, 70 RBIs, a .789 OPS, and a 104 OPS+.  The dude had skills and even as he got older he didn't lose them.  On top of the everyday stuff, O'Neill has been a part of some of the most iconic Yankees images of the last 50 years.  The running, stretching catch to rob Luis Polonia of a hit and seal the win in Game 5 of the '96 World Series, stepping on the field for Game 4 of the '99 WS just hours after his father had died, and of course, the iconic leg kick in his swing.  Oh, and if you didn't have tears in your eyes watching the Yankee crowd chant his name in Game 5 of the 2001 World Series, then there is something seriously wrong with you.

3) Andy Pettitte- Say what you want about the HGH, the steroids, leaving and coming back, and the hemming and hawing on retirement over the last couple years, but there is no denying that if you make up a list of Top 5 Yankee pitchers of all time, Andy Pettitte's name has to be somewhere on that list.  In my mind, it's like the years he was in Houston didn't even happen.  Andy always was, always has been, and always will be a Yankee, and he was a great one at that.  Maybe my opinion is influenced a bit by the fact that I've watched Andy pitch more games in a Yankee uniform than any other starter, but I love the guy and it's my list.

I think the best thing about Andy was the dedication to his craft.  He was always in shape, always ready to go, always had command of at least 2 of his pitches, and always seemed to know what pitches to throw to each batter he faced.  He had a great pick-off move, he could field his position, there were really no holes to Andy's game on the mound.  And all of that added up to a remarkably consistent career as a Yankee.  In his 13 years in pinstripes, Andy started fewer than 31 games in a season only twice, '02 and last year, and even then he still put up 22 and 21 in those seasons respectively.  He had double-digit wins every year as a Yankee, racking up fewer than 13 just 3 times.  Not counting his 2 injury-shortened seasons, Andy never pitched fewer than 175 innings in a season, and threw 200 or more in 8 seasons.  He finished with 203 wins, a .644 winning percentage, a 3.98 ERA, and a 115 ERA+.  Oh, and don't forget the 4 rings.

The best thing about Andy, though, was that he was a gamer.  He always seemed to pitch his best games in the big situations where his team needed him the most, and even from his earlier days his managers had the trust and confidence in him to want him out there in those situations.  From outdueling John Smoltz in Game 5 of the '96 WS to win 1-0, to blanking the Padres threw 7.1 innings in '98, to dominating Seattle in 2 starts in the '01 ALCS, to winning the clinching Game 6 of the '09 ALCS against the Angels, and then following that up by pitching brilliantly in Game 6 of the '09 World Series on 3-days rest, Andy's career is littered with great performances put up in the biggest moments.  It's only fitting then that one of the best big game pitchers of his generation is the all-time leader in postseason wins.

After having him around for so many years and so many wins, it's going to be tough to start this 2011 season knowing that Andy won't be out there on the mound, flashing his trademark glare under the brim of his cap, and solidifying the rotation that could use his help.  But after his great career, and with all the time he has put in, Andy certainly earned the right to make his decision to step away.  The important thing is that he came back, got another ring, and ended his career wearing the same pinstripes in which he started it.

2) Mariano Rivera- If you're a regular reader of the blog, then you know that my allegiance to Mariano Rivera and his inhuman greatness knows no boundaries.  In fact, it probably borders on obsession.  And with good reason.  The guy is a machine.  He's incredible.  He has been incredible from the day he stepped foot in the Yankee bullpen and has never dropped off from the incredible level, although he has increased to "unbelievable" from time to time.

I'm going to skip the part where I rattle off all his numbers because, quite frankly, the post would become too long.  Instead I'll just link to Mo's Baseball Reference page so you can look through all his accomplishments and take everything in when you have enough time to devote to it.  I'll just mention this fact: in 139.1 career postseason innings pitched, Mo has a 0.71 ERA and a 0.766 WHIP.  Simply put, in the playoffs, when it matters most, Mo doesn't give up runs and he doesn't allow baserunners.  The guy is simply lights out.  He's "blindfolded in the dark" lights out.

And the craziest thing about Mo's career and career numbers is that he's done all of this with ONE PITCH.  ONE FUCKING PITCH!!!!  For 16 years, Mo has essentially been standing on the mound, pulling a Ham Porter and saying "here it comes, the cutter.  I dare ya..." and not only succeeding with it, but being the best at what he does of all time with it.  When the opening chords to "Enter Sandman" kick in at the Stadium and Mo comes jogging out of the 'pen, glove in hand, you know the game is over.

In the world of sports, people often call someone at the top of their game the "Michael Jordan" of whatever it is that they do.  In Mo's case, calling him the Michael Jordan of closers would be unfair.  It would be insulting.  Mo has maintained an unheard of level of success throughout his career, well into the age where he should be at least breaking down, if not retired.  Michael Jordan cannot say that.  When he was done, he was done, and it showed.  If anything, the fair comparison would be to say that Michael Jordan was the Mariano Rivera of basketball, and even THAT would be a stretch.  If you standardize everything in sports, the argument could be made that Mo is the best athlete at what he does in his particular sport of all time.  Nobody has dominated anything in any sport for as long as Mo has, and Mo has done it with the grace and professionalism that is rarely seen in sports today.  He is what every baseball player should strive to be like, what every athlete should strive to be like, and what every person should strive to be like.  And he is unquestionably one of the 5 greatest Yankees of all time.

2 last points on just how awesome Mo is.  1) He somehow managed to make "Enter Sandman," one of the most badass rock songs ever, that much better when it became his entrance music.  Just thinking about Mo coming out to that gives me goosebumps and I will never understand why TV networks, at least YES, don't stay on the air when he jogs out to give the viewers at home a few seconds to experience how cool it is.

2) He is the last player to be allowed to wear Jackie Robinson's league-wide retired # 42.  When MLB and Robinson's family respect you and what you do enough to let you and you alone wear that hallowed number, you know you're something special.

1) Derek Jeter- As much as I love to drool all over Mo, and I actually would physically drool on him if I ever met him, my all-time favorite Yankee will always be Derek Jeter.  No matter how old he gets, no matter how low his batting average dips at the end of his career, and no matter how many balls get by him at short, Derek Jeter will forever be the #1 Yankee in my book.

It's really quite simple.  Jeter's career with the Yankees has coincided perfectly with my career as a Yankee fan.  He was a rookie in '96, when I was 10-11 years old and just finally becoming smart enough to watch baseball and appreciate the skill it took to play the game.  As he became older and more mature and got better, I got smarter and started to recognize how good his numbers were, even before I grasped sabermetrics, for the position he played.  And now that I am mature enough to appreciate and understand every aspect of the game, I can look back on his career and say that, no matter how you cut it, overrated or underrated, in my mind Derek Jeter was one of the greatest shortstops of all time and one of the greatest Yankees as well.

And it's not just the numbers he put up and the championships he's won, it's how he's gone about doing them.  On the field, Jeter has always been one of the smoothest, sharpest players both at the plate and in the field.  His inside out swing to right field looks like something that nobody should be able to do that well and he makes it look like a reflex.  The jump throw from the hole at short on a line to first base to rob guys of hits is something I've never seen anybody else pull off consistently and Jeter makes that play 5-8 times a year.  Diminished range aside, he still turns 2 just as good as anybody in the game, and his overall poise, posture, and attitude while he's playing exudes just the right brand of "I got this" confidence that you want your captain and leader of your team to have.

Not to mention the fact that Jeter is a cool-ass dude.  He's lived up the NYC lifestyle, dated everyone under the sun, banged a list of chicks that would be the hands down best 1-9 batting order of babes in the history of ass getting.  He's been in commercials for all kinds of major endorsements, hosted SNL, been in movies, and done all of this without ever getting himself into trouble in the media or besmirching his gold reputation.  Simply put, Derek Jeter gets it.  He knows he's a celebrity, he lives the celebrity lifestyle appropriately, and he does it with class and dignity that very few in New York, if any, have ever been able to do.  Anybody who says they wouldn't want Derek Jeter's life is either a liar or an idiot or both.

As for me personally, Jeter has always been at the forefront of my Yankee fandom.  The first time I went to a game when he was playing, my first thought was "I get to see Derek Jeter play today."  Any time close games were getting into the late innings and the Yankees started a rally, my first thought was "just keep it going and get Jeter an at-bat."  Other than Wells' and Coney's perfect game celebrations and Mo's jog to the mound, the rest of my top 10 Yankee images would all be Jeter.  Him making the jump throw from short, him pulling off "The Flip" on Jeremy Giambi, him diving into the stands to catch the pop up against Boston, him jogging the basepaths with his fist raised after hitting the HR off of Kim in the '01 WS.  Him standing and delivering the speech to the packed Stadium after the final home game in '08.  He's an icon in New York City, an icon in NY sports history, an icon in Yankee history, and a sports god in my mind.

I've got more Derek Jeter baseball cards than I can count.  I've got posters of him, pictures of him.  The image of Jeter hitting the sign on his way out the tunnel on his final game at the old Stadium has probably spent the most time as my computer background than any other image.  When I was 14 and needed to pull off a last-minute Halloween costume, I threw my #2 jersey and a Yankee hat on and went as Derek Jeter.  It has been a pleasure to watch his baseball career unfold and to be able to write about it now, even just on a fan blog.  I'm glad he's back to finish his career in pinstripes because that's where he belongs.  And diminished skills or not, no matter how ugly the finish to his storied career gets, Derek Jeter has been, and will always be, my #1 favorite Yankee and favorite baseball player of all time.

So that's my list, people.  Maybe you agree, maybe you don't.  In any case, I hope reading this helped trigger some of your memories of your favorite players and favorite plays in Yankee history.  It was certainly more fun to write than the 10 Most Hated posts.  Feel free to take umbrage with my list or rattle off your own favorites in the comments section.

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