Oct 29

TALKIN’ BASEBALL: Game #2; Martinez no fool.

GAME 2: Martinez vs. Burnett

GAME 2: Martinez vs. Burnett

Don’t think for a minute Pedro Martinez didn’t know what he was saying the other day at his Yankee Stadium press conference. If the topic of his brawl with former Yankees bench coach Don Zimmer in Game 3 of the 2003 ALCS at Fenway Park wouldn’t have been asked, Martinez, no doubt, would have raised the issue. VIDEO

It has nothing to do with dissing the Yankees, but getting himself motivated. Martinez is one of those athletes who seeks the outside motivator. To be taunted tonight in Game 2 – “who’s your daddy?” – is what he lives for. Martinez relishes being booed. He has a me-against-the-world mentality.

THE BRAWL: One of Pedro's Greatest Hits.

THE BRAWL: One of Pedro's Greatest Hits.

Yesterday was for show, for fueling his competitive juices. Martinez is no longer the dominating figure who could back up the bravado with performance. Martinez is no longer the Cy Young Award winner who, when asked about the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry, said: “I’m starting to hate talking about the Yankees. The questions are so stupid. They’re wasting my time. It’s getting kind of old … I don’t believe in damn curses. Wake up the damn Bambino and have me face him. Maybe I’ll drill him in the ass, pardon me the word.”

Just as he gets by more on guile than his fastball on the mound, Martinez isn’t in position to boast anymore, so he played the misunderstood, scorned role. It’s how he built his competitive fire for Game 2 tonight when he starts against A.J. Burnett with the objective of giving the Phillies a 2-0 games lead and a grip on the World Series when it heads to Philadelphia Saturday.

Phillies manager Charlie Manuel tabbed the mercenary Martinez because of his ability to handle the pressure of Yankee Stadium. Martinez played his relationship with Yankees fans for all it was worth.

“I don’t know if you realize this, but because of you guys in some ways, I might be at times the most influential player that ever stepped in Yankee Stadium. I can honestly say that,” Martinez said. “I have all the respect in the world for the way they enjoy being fans. Sometimes they might be giving you the middle finger, just like they will be cursing you and telling you what color underwear you’re wearing.”

Martinez also used the Zimmer brawl to his advantage. He said regrets the brawl and deflected blame by saying it wasn’t his fault, conveniently forgetting the fastball that hit Karim Garcia. That game also featured the snapshot of Martinez jawing with Jorge Posada while pointing his finger to his head. Martinez’s version was he was telling Posada to think, that he wasn’t throwing intentionally at the Yankees.

The Yankees’ version is different, saying he was warning Posada of what might happen next.

“It was an ugly scene,” Martinez said. “Zim charged me and I think he’s going to say something, but his reaction was totally the opposite, (he) was trying to punch my mouth and told me a couple of bad words about my mom. I just had to react and defend myself.

“It was something that we have to let go kind of, and forget about it, because it was a disgrace for baseball. Even though it wasn’t my fault, I was involved in it, and it’s one of the moments that I don’t like to see. I don’t like to see it because I’m not a violent man.”

Zimmer told reporters “Pedro is full of crap.”

MARTINEZ: Renewing acquaintances

MARTINEZ: Renewing acquaintances

To get the crowd fired up against Martinez, as if motivation was needed, it would have been interesting if Zimmer was on hand to throw out the first pitch. That’s my theatric side, but I know it wouldn’t happen.

Then, in an orchestrated gesture to avoid bad mouthing the Yankees, Martinez laid it all on the media, saying the New York press used and abused him. He spoke of how none of the media ever broke bread with him and got to know him a man, as if that were ever a possibility.

Scorned in the Bronx, Queens loved Martinez during his four-year, injury-plagued tenure with the Mets. Martinez was disappointed in not being offered the kind of contract he wanted with the Mets, but in the end walked away with $53 million. Martinez went 15-8 in 31 starts his first year with the Mets in 2005, but won only 17 games and made just 48 starts over the next three seasons.

Of course, beating the Yankees tonight also acts as a reminder to the Mets they made a mistake – in Martinez’s mind – for letting him go. The Yankees, the Mets, the press, Zimmer, the crowd, yes, Martinez will use them all to prepare himself psychologically and emotionally for tonight.

“I’m excited,” Martinez said. “I’m going to prepare, yeah, maybe, as another game, but deep down I know what it’s about. I know how real it is, and I don’t want to change it.”

Oct 27

Pedro gets the ball in Game #2

There wasn’t much surprise to the announcement when you consider some of the variables. Pedro Martinez will start Game 2 in New York because, 1) he’s pitched better than Cole Hamels recently, 2) he used to pitching in hostile Yankee Stadium, and 3) Hamels pitches better at home than on the road.

Martinez pitched seven shutout innings in a no-decision to the Dodgers in Game 2 of the NLCS. He is 8-4 with a 2.95 ERA in 16 regular-season starts and 0-1 with a 5.40 ERA in two postseason starts at Yankee Stadium while with Boston. The most memorable of those games was Game 7 in 2003 when Grady Little stuck with him in the eighth inning with a three-run lead. The Yankees tied it and eventually won on Aaron Boone’s homer.

MARTINEZ: Money pitcher gets the ball in Game 2.

MARTINEZ: Money pitcher gets the ball in Game 2.

Undoubtedly, there will be the “who’s your daddy chants,” in reference to a statement Martinez made about the Yankees being his daddy.

Martinez vs. the Yankees is one of the more intriguing storylines of this World Series, made so because the veteran pitcher is a grinder and the expectations are of a close game. And, in the Series, you’ll always take close because you never know what might happen. Back then, the Red Sox were snake bit by the Yankees with the Curse and all, but there’s none of that with the Phillies.

“He’s been in the big moment, and I think that his performance the other day in Dodger Stadium, how good he pitched, he deserves another chance to go back out there,” Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said of Martinez. “I think he’s still got quite a bit left. I was watching those playoff games that he pitched in [for the Red Sox]. I noticed his velocity on his fastball was sitting at like 87 to 91 mph.

“He was even better than that over there at Dodger Stadium. He knows how to pitch. He uses all of his pitches. His command is absolutely outstanding. He doesn’t rely on throwing the ball by people anymore. He’s a pitcher.”

While it is true Martinez has pitched well for Philadelphia, it must not be overlooked he’s worked a minimum of innings and is fresher than he normally would be this late in the season. To look at Martinez’s success it is easy to say the Mets made a mistake, but it must be remembered, 1) he did have an injury history with the Mets, 2) Martinez did not want to come back in the secondary role he eventually settled with in Philly, and 3) the Mets had expectations from their rotation that never materialized.

I thought the Mets did the right thing with Martinez in not bringing him back. It was time to move younger, but who knew Maine, Pelfrey and Perez would all hit the skids for one reason or another?

As well as he pitched for the Phillies, the full season work load will still be a question when he goes on the free-agent market this winter. Martinez has given indications he wants to continue, but should he pitch well in the playoffs and the Phillies win, he might find it a good time to call it quits when he’s on top.

Oct 04

METS CHAT ROOM: Game #162; A sadness about the day.

In each of the past two seasons, the Mets faced their season finale with hope and a definable tension. The Mets would either extend their season or see it end in a frustrating ball of fire. They flamed out both in 2007 and 2008 to suddenly face the winter.

There’s none of that today.

This afternoon at Citi Field comes the official death of a season long since dead. It is a parent or relative who succumbs after a long illness. There’s almost a sense of relief at the death, that most of the grieving has been done and it is time to for a new chapter.

The end of a sports season marks a passage of time, and like many passages there’s a sadness because it represents unfulfilled dreams and the leaving behind of something special. There’s nothing quite as sad as the death of dream.

MANUEL: He didn't inspire.

MANUEL: He didn't inspire.

Despite how each of the last two seasons ended, there was hope and optimism this spring in Port St. Lucie. This was Jerry Manuel’s first full season as Mets manager and with it a return of hope this summer would be different.

There was attention paid to fundamentals, which was to provide a security blanket that even if there would be no power the team would somehow score, and with their pitching that would be enough. Surgery was to have healed John Maine’s aching shoulder and Mike Pelfrey would continue his progress.

Most importantly from a pitching perspective, the bullpen, the Achilles heal the past two years, was fixed and was to be stronger with Francisco Rodriguez than it ever was with Billy Wagner.

PELFREY: He took a step back.

PELFREY: He took a step back.

Offensively, Carlos Delgado was back hitting home runs and Daniel Murphy was to be the answer in left field. David Wright and Jose Reyes, the homegrown part of the core, were to get better. Carlos Beltran would simply produce as usual.

The Mets entered the season with a chip on their collective shoulders after Cole Hamel’s choke comments. Yes, this was to be a turnaround season for the Mets, and it was going to unfold in a brand new home.

It didn’t happen that way.

The seasons of Maine, Pelfrey and Oliver Perez were a combination of ineffectiveness and injury, and injury also caused the unraveling of the bullpen. Bobby Parnell was good and bad in a variety of roles, and it remains to be seen whether his psyche is a permanent casualty. Rodriguez was not as good as advertised, and those who accepted his signing with caution were unfortunately rewarded in perhaps being right. We do not know how healthy he is and who doesn’t anticipate unsettling offseason news?

Of all the injuries, losing Reyes was the most harmful as it took away the team’s offensive catalyst. What should have been a few days on the bench turned into a lost season. It’s still not over for Reyes as he faces surgery and an uncertain recovery program.

WRIGHT: Was off before the beaning.

WRIGHT: Was off before the beaning.

Beltran and Delgado were lost for large chunks of time, as was Wright’s power stroke in a frustrating twist. Wright was never with us mechanically this season from a run production standpoint, but somehow he managed to hit over .300. He also managed to strike out over 130 times. He faces a long road in trying to become the player he once was. As far as Delgado is concerned, well, we’ll never see him in a Met uniform again.

Unless the Mets hit five home runs today, they will be the only team in the major leagues to hit less than 100 homers this season. And, about those fundamentals that was supposed to keep the team afloat? We didn’t see them and that is a reflection on Manuel.

There have been several crushing defeats this season, with the first being Murphy’s dropped fly ball in Florida that cost Johan Santana a game. It also represented the failure of Murphy as an outfielder. Only after Delgado was injured did Murphy find a defensive home, and even then he was tenuous.

There were others.

Luis Castillo’s return as a productive offensive player was tempered by his poor defense, with the dropped pop-fly at Yankee Stadium the signature loss to this season.

REYES: The injury that hurt most.

REYES: The injury that hurt most.

The Mets also lost a game on Sean Green’s wild pitch in Philadelphia, a sign the bullpen wasn’t quite fixed. There was also the game in which they blew a five-run lead to Pittsburgh and Rodriguez’s disastrous five-run ninth at Washington. Rodriguez blew seven save opportunities, but was forever pitching on the edge. For good measure, twice in one week the Mets lost games on late-inning grand slams.

No, the bullpen is not fixed.

However, to me, the game that summed up the wreck that was the Summer of 2009 was Ryan Church’s failure to touch third base in Los Angeles. Physical errors happen. But, this was a mental thing. Stepping on a base is as simple and fundamental thing a player can do in the sport and the Mets couldn’t even do that right.

All that misery comes to an end this afternoon at Citi Field. The Mets will try to end their season with a sweep with a win. A win in each of the last season finales could have meant October fun. If they get it today, it will be hollow as winter will still come.

Sep 14

The key issues remaining for the Mets

The Mets have made it clear they are thinking toward next season with their decisions to activate Carlos Beltran and John Maine from the disabled list. As this disappointing year draws to a close these are some of the key issues remaining that need to be addressed.

1) John Maine proving he’s healthy over the next three starts?
My take: This is a key domino because it dictates in large part what the team does in the off-season.

MAINE: Needs to close strong.

MAINE: Needs to close strong.

2) Jose Reyes being activated from the disabled list?
My take: With how long it has taken him and talk of surgery, Reyes playing can only lead to bad things.

3) Carlos Delgado being activated from the disabled list?
My take: I don’t think he’s coming back, so no, especially if they are still high on Daniel Murphy at first base.

4) Mike Pelfrey putting several consistently good starts together?
My take: It would be good for his self-confidence, which right now has to be close to rock bottom.

5) David Wright regaining his power stroke?
My take: I think Philadelphia was a start. He’s had such a streaky season. I’d like to see him go long at Citi Field to get that out of his head.

6) Francisco Rodriguez being healthy and not making every save an adventure?
My take: He hasn’t pitched to expectations, especially after that game at Yankee Stadium when Luis Castillo dropped the pop-up. Something isn’t right with him.

7) Angel Pagan getting a clue on the bases?
My take: If it hasn’t happened now, it won’t the rest of the way. If he’s to contend for the left job next year he has to be smarter, both in the field and on the bases.

8) Daniel Murphy improving at first base?
My take: Important, because if they are confident in Murphy that’s one less thing on their plate this winter.

Aug 02

Remembering Munson

This is a Mets blog, but it is also a New York baseball blog. Today marks the anniversary of the tragic death of Yankees captain Thurman Munson, who was killed 30 years ago today in a plane crash near Canton, Ohio.

I once spoke with his widow, Diana, about their life together and that tragic day. I hope you’ll post your remembrances of Munson.


It was one of those bitter cold days. The kind where the wind whips your face, where your fingers ache and even your eye lashes hurt.

Diana Munson doesn’t remember the year, but recalls the afternoon when she and her husband, Thurman Munson, the captain catcher of the New York Yankees, were running errands in Manhattan and drove into a gas station.

“The guy wouldn’t come out, so Thurman got out and started pumping the gas,” Diana said. “He was wearing jeans and a flannel jacket and boots – kind of a typical Ohio guy out of place in New York at the time.”

Diana sat in the car as her husband pumped the gas and a car pulled in behind theirs.

“I remember, the guy said, `Hey buddy, when you’re done with that fill this one up,’ ” Diana said. “If he only knew who he was talking to – he never would have believed it. The cutest thing about this story is he filled it up for him.”

MUNSON: Always in motion.

MUNSON: Always in motion.

Diana Munson’s voice paused, it softened, it became reflective.

“Those are the things about him that I just loved,” she said. “It’s one of my favorite stories about him. I think about that a lot.”

Her memories are more frequent now as she is reminded of the cruelest day of her life – on August 2, 1979, her husband was killed in a plane accident near their offseason Canton, Ohio, home. It was a Thursday, an off day for the Yankees, and Munson was practicing take-offs and landings in his twin-engine Cessna Citation.

Later that day, he was to meet her at an office to sign papers dedicating “Munson Street” in a nearby housing development. However, Munson was always busy and for him to be running late wasn’t unusual. Diana dismissed it and went to the grocery store and continued home.

“I was unloading the groceries and the people from the airport came to my house,” Diana said, her voice trailing to a whisper.

“Nothing has ever compared to it in my life,” she said of the chill – far more numbing than the one she experienced that day in New York – that ran down her spine.

“I’ve lost lots of people in my life, but it was the way that it happened. You’re not supposed to lose someone who is that young. You’re not supposed to lose someone on a beautiful day … not in the middle of baseball season. Thurman was the best father that I had ever watched. Looking at those little kids and knowing what they were about to go through just about killed me.”

Within minutes, the news was on the wire.

MUNSON: Always clutch.

MUNSON: Always clutch.

Yankees reliever Goose Gossage was getting dressed for a night on the town when he got the call from owner George Steinbrenner. Bobby Murcer was “stunned when I heard the news … I cried a lot at that time.” Yankees first baseman Chris Chambliss was driving with his wife when he heard the news on the radio.

Dodgers manager Joe Torre, then manager of the Mets, was in the dugout when the message flashed on the scoreboard.

“It was up on the board,” Torre said. “Just shock. Lee Mazzilli was in the batter’s box. He got out of the box and looked at me, `What do I do?’ It was such an eerie sensation.”

That sensation has never left Diana Munson, but, “it took me a long time to come to peace with this.” Her memories of Munson and the life they shared have softened. Some – like the one at the gas station – have aged like a fine wine.

She remembers a thoughtful husband and loving father to Tracy, Kelly and Michael. Sometimes, she remembers that Munson considered quitting flying. That’s not so pleasant … it gnaws at her. She remembers when she first knew she was going to marry him: “I was 10 years old at the time and I wrote Mrs. Thurman Munson on my notebook.”

Murcer and Gossage recalled Munson’s work ethic, and Diana remembered him getting up at 6 in the morning to caddy at a golf course, then cut lawns before going to baseball practice. She recalls the three-sport star at Canton’s Lehman High School, and that he loved real estate and listening to Neil Diamond.

“My poor children knew every Neil Diamond song before they knew their nursery rhymes,” she said.

She remembers his laugh – “always the loudest one in the room,” she said – and the time he drove to a Brooklyn church from Canton in a snowstorm for a Christmas party to distribute toys to underprivileged children. Munson brought with him the Yankees fine money for that season, nearly $5,000.

She remembers for months after his death receiving letters from charities, thanking her for Munson’s generosity. “Believe it or not, there were many that I had never heard of,” she said. “But, that was like him. He never did it for the recognition, he did it for right reasons.”

Sometimes, her memories, like at Old Timer’s Games, drift to the days when Munson was a special baseball player.

The public memories of Munson are of a gruff, grouchy, squat catcher. They are of his feuds with Reggie Jackson – “The straw that stirs the drink” – and Carlton Fisk, the taller, thinner, chiseled catcher for the Boston Red Sox.

The Yankee championship teams of 1977 and 1978 were loaded with stars – Jackson, Chambliss, Graig Nettles and Lou Piniella – but Munson was captain. He was a six-time All-Star and the Most Valuable Player in the American League in 1976. He hit .512, .320 and .320 again in his three World Series appearances. He was the 1970 Rookie of the Year and hit over .300 five times.

Nothing meant more to him than being a Yankee captain.

“He loved the Yankees. His heart was a true Yankee heart,” Diana said. “He didn’t want to be captain because whenever you single yourself out like that you feel like you’re not as much a part of the team. He was uncomfortable with that, but at the same time he was so proud of that.”

Munson was the real straw in the drink.

“He was the leader on those teams and everybody knew it,” Murcer said. “We all looked up to him because of his toughness and his ability to produce in the clutch. He had such an uncanny ability to come through when the pressure was on.”

Years later, current Yankees manager Joe Girardi saw for himself when he was channel surfing when on his screen popped the unmistakable image of Yankee Stadium.

“It was Classic Sports, and they were showing the Kansas City game,” Girardi said of the pivotal Game 3 of the 1978 American League Championship Series.

“I’ve heard a lot about that game and what he did. I wanted to see how he played so I kept watching.”

The series was tied 1-1 and the Yankees trailed 5-4 in the eighth inning when Munson – not normally known as a power hitter – crushed a line-drive, two-run homer off Royals reliever Doug Bird to give the Yankees a 6-5 victory.

Munson was named Most Valuable Player in the series and the Yankees went on to beat Los Angeles in six games in the World Series.

Hall of Famer George Brett played in that game. His Royals and the Yankees were one of baseball’s hottest rivalries in the 1970s.

“We hated the Yankees,” Brett said. “But we also respected them – and we all respected Thurman. He was so tough in the clutch and we feared him because he usually came through. However, the thing I’ll remember most about Thurman wasn’t that home run, but of something that happened in a fight we had against them.

“I slid hard into third base and Nettles and I started shoving each other. The benches cleared and it got real ugly. I remember being on the ground and Thurman was on top of me. I thought, `Uh, oh, he’s going to crush me,’ but all he did was whisper in my ear, `Don’t worry George, I won’t let anything happen to you.’ ”

Diana Munson said she gets sad when she returns to Yankee Stadium because it’s a reminder of what was and what could have been. The feelings are a mix of pain and pride when she sees Munson’s locker that remains intact in his honor.

When the fans cheer her, they are cheering their memories of her husband as a Yankee. She loves the Brett story, because it’s an appreciation of the man she loved – and always will.