Science still hasn't developed a way to stab someone over e-mail, so last Sunday, Bill Simmons did the next best thing: "I'd like to get the band back together," he wrote, and I felt an immediate, sharp pain in my gut.
"The band" was me and his friend JackO. We're both Yankees fans, and Simmons wanted us to send some e-mails back and forth previewing the season. The last time we did this was during Game 5 of the ALDS, when the Yankees' season ended in a loss to Detroit. The result should have given Simmons all the schadenfreude he needed for the next decade or so, but now he wants us to do it again. The jinx potential is very high here, but now the stakes are an entire season rather than a single game. I couldn't say no, but my sentiments basically lined up with JackO, who had the best possible response: "I'm available, but if something bad happens to a key Yankee, then I'm taking you trampolining, Simmons."
Shane: Here we are again. The Mastermind has set us up for another heartbreak. On principle, both us should have refused. The problem is that he signs my checks, and I guess you're bound by friendship or a blood oath or compromising photos. Come to think of it, Simmons has photos on my end too, so I'm doubly screwed. Never trust a Craigslist ad in which the girl says she's "super into unknown sports writers." The girl always works for Simmons, and the camera is never there "just to heighten the experience."
So we're backed into a corner and forced to jinx our team for an entire season. But this time, I'm calling the reverse jinx. I'm calling the double Yankee backward mojo, which I'm pretty sure was last used in the DiMaggio era.
I've got two pessimistic thoughts to start us off.
1. This Joba Chamberlain stuff worries me. Injured on a friggin' trampoline? Not that I should be surprised. I mean, if someone came up to you one day and said, "Quick, which MLB player just got hurt by bouncing on a rusty, dilapidated trampoline?" You'd go "Joba Chamberlain" and then head out to lunch, right? I know Joba's injury doesn't bury the Yanks, but you and I are superstitious people, so consider this: I just watched the North Carolina basketball team get submarined by one crazy injury after another as a potential title run turned into a bad Elite Eight loss. And it all started last summer, with a fairly innocuous ACL injury to the sixth man, Leslie McDonald. "No big deal," everyone said. But that was the beginning, a terrible omen for what became a devastating year. I'm worried that this is the first drift of the injury avalanche, a la 2008. "It all started on a rusty trampoline imported from Nebraska "
Also, who else but Joba would have to call a press conference to clarify that he didn't suffer massive life-threatening blood loss from an ankle injury?
JackO: Hi, Shane. Good to talk with you again except it's not, because the last time we did this, it ended badly for the Yanks. But what can we do? You're bound to Simmons by employment and his secret stash of "troubling" photos and I'm forced to do his bidding by the even more binding requirements of the little-known Holy Cross chapter of Skull & Bones. So here we are with the hope of a new season before us, an improved pitching staff, a new A-Rod rebuilt through the power of German engineering, and the power of the double Yankee backward mojo! Not even this e-mail exchange can derail the Yanks from championship no. 28!!
Ugh, Joba. Poor Joba. It's the most freakish of freakish injuries. Damn near killed by a trampoline. If there's anything we've learned from Joba's plight and Andy Pettitte's return, it's this — spending time with your family is overrated. Andy retires to spend more time with his family and what happens? One year later, he's calling the Yankees, begging to sign a minor league deal. Now Joba decides to spend time with his son at the trampoline park and look what happened to him. Hopefully Mark "I can't play tonight because my wife is having our third kid" Teixeira learns from this. Also, let this be a lesson to anyone debating whether to go out with his buddies or listen to his conscience and stay home with the wife and kids. (Just kidding, honey. I didn't mean any of that. I'll be done with the dishes in a minute, just as soon as I finish this e-mail.) Let's just move on
Shane: As someone getting married in August, I'd like to thank you and every other married man in the world for the hope and inspiration you give me that the rest of my life is going to be full of happiness and joy. Can't wait! But you're clearly right, baseball players need to stop hanging with their families. We don't pay you to be happy and fulfilled, fellas. This would never have happened if Georgie Boy Stein-Stein were still alive.
JackO: Congratulations on the impending nuptials! And good work scheduling it for August, so you're past the trade deadline and free for the postseason and football. Nice job. You'll be happy being married and having a family. It's really, really great!! (That, plus some flowers, should help my wife forget my earlier commentary.)
Shane: What about Seattle? Do we trust them? I'm thrilled to have Michael Pineda, and all the metrics indicate that he's going to kill it for us. But man, the Mariners have just been screwing the Yankees left and right over the last decade. (Still smarting over the Cliff Lee saga, which felt like money in the bank at the time until I went to see a Mets game that night and suddenly he was with Texas. I blame myself.) I'm waiting for the news that Pineda has some kind of pituitary disorder that will make his arm swell up to the size of CC Sabathia's leg just in time for the playoffs. Seattle is poison.
And now that the negatives are out of the way holy shit, we have Pineda! Andy's back! The offense is healthy and we're going to score 150 more runs than the nearest competition! Considering all the good news, my only real question to you is this: Which Yankee makes the last out in Game Four of the World Series to clinch no. 28?
JackO: Seattle. Damn, I hadn't thought about how much Seattle has hurt the Yankees over the years. You didn't even mention the legendarily bad (from a Yankees perspective) Jay Buhner-for-Ken Phelps trade or the fact that the Mariners eliminated the Yankees in 1995 in the Divisional series after the Yanks had won the first two games. That was the Yankees' first return to the postseason after 14 years in the wilderness and Donnie Baseball's first taste of the postseason, and it was all ended by Seattle.
Now I'm worried. Double Yankee backward mojo. Double Yankee backward mojo. Double Yankee backward mojo. Ahhh, better. Look, Pineda's young and highly regarded. Simmons couldn't stop raving about him after the trade happened, and he watched him pitch a ton because he was on one of his 48 fantasy teams. The fact that he showed up to camp overweight and could barely break 90 on the gun is no cause for concern yet. Plus with Andy back, their pitching rotation has amazing depth, so not even Seattle's dark arts can hurt them.
I predict that out no. 27 for championship no. 28 will be a Mariano strikeout. He will then immediately announce that contrary to rumors of retirement, he's going to sign a new 10-year contract. Wow, I really like this double mojo thing.
P.S. I'm sorry about your Tar Heels, but if you're looking for Yankees-related college basketball comparisons, look no further than Kentucky. UK has won seven NCAA championships. The last six of those (dating back to 1949) have been followed in the same year by a Yankees World Series title. This even occurred in strange years like 1978 and 1996, when the Yankees came out of nowhere. This year, Kentucky is clearly the team to beat in the Final Four, so if history is our guide, we will be very grateful to Wildcats coach John Calipari, his shady recruiting practices, and Ashley Judd come October.
Shane: Please don't be sorry about the Tar Heels — I'm a Duke fan. Having a front-row seat to their demise was interesting. Although I have to admit, actually writing about these teams and following them all season has the unfortunate effect of dimming my natural loyalties. I found myself actually feeling bad for guys like Kendall Marshall. That kind of sentiment would have made me force a friend to put me out of my misery with a pistol about 10 years ago, but now? I find myself lacking the Holy Cross Skull & Bones evil mastermind abilities of maintaining my allegiances at the same extreme level.
Great, great call about the connection between Kentucky national titles and Yankees championships. Go 'Cats! (Seriously, kill me, imaginary friend from 2002.) I've got another one for you: Did you know that the last eight Yankees titles have come while Democrats were in the Oval Office? That goes all the way back to Kennedy. We've got titles under JFK, Carter, Clinton, and Obama. Meanwhile, we've never won while Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush, or Dubya were in office. I actually discovered this sitting at my boring cubicle job during the 2009 season, and then Ari Fleischer, Bush's former press secretary, actually wrote about it in The New York Times, totally stealing my thunder. Thank God I have a forum like Grantland to set the record straight — that was me, Ari. That was me. You stole the idea from my brain. Anyway, the point is that we have at least one more year with Barack Obama at the helm, so we're free from the Republican curse.
Also, did you know that since 1918, the Red Sox have only won a World Series with George W. Bush as president? And that Curt Schilling, the hero of 2004, campaigned for him? Make of that what you will, largely young and liberal Grantland audience.
JackO: As a die-hard Republican, I'd like to thank you for reminding me of that Yankees-success-with-Democrat-presidents thing. I had almost forgotten. Now we're even for that Carolina-Duke mistake. At least it gives me something to look forward to before Nov. 6. Also, it makes me happy to think how conflicted winning two titles during the Bush administration makes deep-blue Massachusetts feel. Good times. Good times.
Shane: Should I talk about actual players and stuff? Is the Jeter still on our team?
Nah, screw it. I want to ask you about Joe Girardi. Here's a guy who won the World Series in his second year with the Yanks, and yet in my experience, a really high percentage of people just hate him. Like, despise him. My stepfather — who, granted, is not the most level-headed member of a fan base not known for its patience or long-term gratitude — began calling for his head about 20 games into the 2010 season. But even reasonable fans seem to have serious problems. The main complaint I hear is that his neurotic energy makes the team tense (what?), and that he relies too much on the statistical matchup book he keeps in the dugout. Which I guess means that he doesn't manage by feel, and is prone to unnecessary (and harmful) pitching changes.
So what's with the Girardi hate? I know we've seen some questionable calls in the playoffs, and maybe even a blown game or two, but overall I'm happy with the guy. He's mild-mannered, for the most part, and he seems like the kind of guy who will never piss off any of the players or inspire clubhouse dissent. I'm already excited to see how everything implodes in Boston under Bobby Valentine, a guy who's never had a bullshit thought he won't vocalize, and I'm happy Girardi is our guy. Your thoughts? Does he get in his own way too often?
JackO: I've never been able to understand the level of animosity directed toward him. It's not like he's completely inept, yet people really seem to dislike him. Some of it is probably resentment because he got the job over Mattingly, who was the most beloved Yankee of the pre-Jeter years. Some of it is probably his demeanor — the buzz cut, the binders and computers. And some of it probably comes with the job. Baseball fans realize that while they may criticize players, they know deep down that they can't play the game as well as the players can, but EVERYBODY who watches baseball thinks that they could actually manage, so everyone has an opinion and that opinion generally is that the manager sucks. That's magnified in places like Boston and New York.
I like Girardi though — I think he does a good job and you can't really argue with the results. The more interesting dynamic for me is what is was like for him going from playing with guys in the clubhouse to managing those same guys. Going from teammate to boss had to be awkward. Fining guys, making them do conditioning drills, and benching them when you used to hang out with them had to be weird. Kind of like being a substitute teacher — probably a lot of laughing in his face and "Shut up, Joe" snickering. Given all that, winning a World Series in year two was pretty remarkable. I much prefer him to Rex Ryan-esque Bobby V., even if Girardi has yet to invent any kind of sandwich.
Shane: OK, this being a season preview and all, we should probably talk about the players. First thing: the dreaded leadoff hitter debate. It looked like a slam dunk about halfway through last season, and then Derek Jeter came back from the calf injury and looked like the old Jeter. He ended up with a higher OBP than Brett Gardner, a way better average, and even a few stolen bases. Obviously, you can't bat Jeter second because he hits into too many double plays, so the options are basically first or ninth.
What's your take on this? Platoon based on the pitcher? Keep him up? Send him down? From the spring training games, it looks like it's Jeter's job to lose, but I can't help thinking that Gardner at his best is the way to go, if only for the steals. Plus, batting Gardner ninth and Jeter first is still putting Gardner at risk of falling victim to the Jeter infield grounder scourge. To me, the whole thing depends on Gardner's early production, but I imagine Jeter's status (ego?) factors in as well.
JackO: Jeter leads off — no question about it. If there were a vast difference in production with Gardner leading off, then it would be more open for debate, but with Jeter's numbers in the second half being really good and his status with the team, he basically gets to make the call and he prefers to lead off. Plus, there's no way they'd ever bat him ninth (too much of a slap in the face), and you're right about his propensity to hit into double plays, so he's got to lead off. He'll lead off and play short as long as he wants unless his game completely falls apart — he's earned the right to make the call.
Shane: As for the rest of the offense, I'm just supremely confident that it will be the best one in baseball in terms of run production. That's never been the problem, which is why I didn't mind saying goodbye to Jesus Montero. The bats will be there. Instead, here are my worries:
First, does A-Rod have another classic A-Rod season in him, or are we on the downswing? I'm weirdly optimistic about this one, considering how hard he works and his natural talent. But come on, optimism is stupid, right? He's definitely going to have a bruised hip that turns into a hip pointer that turns into gout that turns into gangrene, right? Out for four months, back in time for the playoffs, forgot how to swing a bat?
JackO: The old A-Rod would definitely have developed gangrene, but fear not. This is the new, improved A-Rod with the latest in German engineering coursing through his veins. Nothing can stop him now! Actually, who knows? He's looked good in spring training and seems to be swinging the bat well, but at this point nothing about A-Rod would surprise me. This offseason alone, there have been stories about him bringing his own special (German?) food to restaurants, allowing his niece to run up a $17,000 bill on his AmEx card — then demanding a refund, and too many stories about romantic excursions with his former pro-wrestler girlfriend to count. He could hit .330 with 40 HRs or he could appear on SportsCenter serenading Jeter with "Zou Bisou Bisou." I can't predict anything with him, so I'm just going to sit back and (hopefully) enjoy the ride.
Shane: Once we get to the playoffs (did I just skip ahead 162 games? Yup), is there any hope of Teixeira and Nick Swisher being any good, or are they just lifetime chokers? What about A-Rod? Was 2009 an anomaly, or can he have another great October?
JackO: Good, we've skipped to the playoffs. That was easy. The regular season can be such adrudgery. No, even backward Yankee mojo can't save the playoff performances of Tex and Swish. We just have to hope the rest of the offense can carry the day. Luckily, with Robinson Cano, Grandy, and yes, A-Rod, I think they can. I think for the playoffs, the Germans can fly to the Bronx, so A-Rod should be fine.
Shane: Defensively, the left side of the infield worries me. Jeter is essentially a statue at this point (and not one of the fun ones that comes to life and gets violent), and A-Rod is old at best, and might develop hip gangrene at worst. Should we just move Cano to directly behind second base and let Teixeira cover the entire right side?
JackO: No need to dwell on trifling matters like infield defense. CC and Pineda are strikeout pitchers, so there's no need to worry about fielding what hitters can't hit. (This ridiculous overconfidence that we seem to have will either turn out to be wonderfully prescient or blow up in our faces. Let's just move on before I have too much time to think about it.)
Shane: What about the catcher? Is Russell Martin enough defensively?
JackO: I like Russell Martin behind the plate. He's Canadian, so he brings a hockey-life toughness to the position, which I enjoy.
Shane: And the pen? Am I crazy to feel pretty good even with Joba out?
JackO: The bullpen is very good. They have the greatest closer in the history of baseball, who is allegedly getting older but is seemingly ageless. As Yankees fans we have no idea how spoiled we've been with Mo. We're going to realize that after he retires, but hopefully we won't have to deal with that pain for a while longer. Setting him up, they have Soriano and Dave Robertson, who is very solid. (Even if he always does seem to make things more interesting than they have to be, by walking the bases loaded, for example.)
It would be nice to have another lefty to go with Boone Logan, but he's capable enough in a limited role. The bullpen would be amazing if they could count on Joba to come back but after Tommy John and his ankle, but I'm not sure that's realistic. Every description of an "open ankle dislocation" that I've read is followed by the warning "Don't Google it" because the pictures are so gruesome. So I'm not sure that's something that you're coming back from quickly. Damn you, trampoline. Even with that, I'm confident in the pen and won't be nervous if they're called upon in a big situation.
Shane: Some happy thoughts to end on:
1. How great is it not to have A.J. Burnett on the team? I still worry that Pittsburgh is too close to Scranton, and he'll somehow mess up our minor leaguers, but having him off the roster is like coming home to find that the poison you gave an annoying pet actually worked. (Wait, what?)
2. I feel 100 percent confident that Pettitte will deliver an absolute gem in the playoffs. A classic smoke-and-mirrors performance, hopefully against the Rangers, and everyone in New York will go nuts. I prefer not to quantify that prediction with any statistics.
3. Yanks and Phillies meet in the World Series with the same result — good guys in six.
JackO: I'm glad that the Yankees are now an A.J.-free zone. Although I must admit, I felt a little bad for him. He seemed to enjoy being a Yankee with the pies in the face stuff. He brought some life to them that they were missing for a long time. Of course that was overshadowed by his horrific, horrific pitching, but still, it has to be tough to go from the Yanks to the baseball equivalent of Siberia. (No offense to Pittsburgh — I've been there and enjoyed it, but they haven't been relevant to the baseball world since Barry Bonds weighed 160 pounds and could barely bench-press his bat.) Then he gets to Siberia, and promptly breaks his face attempting to bunt. Talk about adding insult to injury. Hopefully, he can look at his 2009 World Series ring and his towel full of shaving cream and remember the good times.
I definitely predict a gem from Andy in the postseason, saved by Mo, with a game-winning RBI from Jeter. Maybe Jorge can throw out the ceremonial first pitch beforehand and the Post can run a "CORE FOUR-EVER" headline the next day.
I like your prediction, I'll second that. But as long as we're dreaming big, why give the Phillies two games? Get the brooms ready — it's going to be a sweep!