My book ‘The Next Yankees Era: My Transition from the Core Four to the Baby Bombers’ debuts next week. The book details my life as a Yankees fan, growing up watching Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Bernie Williams through my childhood and early adulthood and the shift to now watching Gary Sanchez, Luis Severino, Aaron Judge, Greg Bird and others become the latest generation of Yankees baseball.
The book will be available for purchase online next week as an ebook, but in the meantime, here’s an excerpt from the book.
AL WILD-CARD GAME
BR-ETT GARD-NER, CLAP CLAP, CLAP CLAP CLAP … BR-ETT GARD-NER, CLAP CLAP, CLAP CLAP CLAP
Roll Call had just gotten underway in a raucous Yankee Stadium and I was yelling in unison with the rest of the right-field bleachers, trying to clap without spilling my freshly poured Coors Light all over myself. And then it happened.
I sarcastically laughed, but there was nothing funny about Brian Dozier’s fly ball to left field, which barely reached the seats for a leadoff home run in the AL Wild-Card Game. I was stunned more than upset, though I was very upset.
Luis Severino had come out throwing hard. His first pitch of the game was a 100-mph fastball for a called strike to the right-handed-hitting Dozier. His second pitch was a 99-mph fastball low and away. His third pitch was a 91-mph slider way outside. His fourth pitch was another 91-mph slider barely outside. Three straight balls had put him behind Dozier 3-1, and everyone knew Dozier was going to be challenged with the fastball again. Dozier was challenged at 99 mph and he didn’t miss it.
There was just over an hour left until the 2015 trade deadline and the Yankees had to do something. Yes, the Yankees held a six-game lead in the AL East on July 31, 2015 in a season in which they weren’t expected to be competitive, but they needed to make a move to hold that lead over the final two months. Up until that point, the only player the Yankees had acquired was Dustin Ackley (and what an acquisition that turned out to be) while the Blue Jays went out and traded for seemingly everyone and anyone who was available.
I was on a Metro North train from Manhattan to Connecticut to visit my parents for the weekend when the news broke that the Yankees had called up Luis Severino with the deadline about to expire. After eight starts in Double-A, Severino had gone 7-0 with a 1.91 ERA in 11 Triple-A starts to earn the call. He had been talked about as potential front-end starter, someone with true No. 1 or No. 2 potential, and the Yankees were finally ready to show off their future as an answer to both their need for starting pitching and the Blue Jays’ deadline acquisition of David Price.
In a move the Yankees never would have allowed in the previous 15 seasons, the 21-year-old Severino made his Major League debut on Aug. 5 against the Red Sox. He pitched well, going five innings and allowing one earned run on two hits and no walks with seven strikeouts, and finished the season with a 2.89 ERA over 11 starts. He was a breath of fresh air for an organization that hadn’t developed and kept a real difference-maker since Andy Pettitte. For a team that had spent almost two decades overpaying for free agents and trading for other team’s failed prospects in search of starting pitching, the Yankees finally had a homegrown product.
Severino was my pick to start the wild-card game against the Astros, or at least be part of the formula in the game. After it was decided Masahiro Tanaka would start the game, the only four people I wanted to touch the ball in that game were Severino, Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller. Unfortunately, it didn’t matter as the offense couldn’t do anything against Dallas Keuchel.
Severino was rightfully given a rotation spot for 2016 and pitched himself off the team after his May 13 disaster against the White Sox (2.2 IP, 7 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 4 BB, 2 K, 1 HR). That performance dropped him to 0-6 with a 7.46 ERA in seven starts and he went to Triple-A until the end of July. When he returned, he allowed one earned run in 8 1/3 innings out of the bullpen and was given a chance to start again, but after allowing 12 earned runs and 16 baserunners in eight innings, it was back to Triple-A. When he returned as a September call-up, it was as a reliever. And once again, as a reliever, he was dominant, allowing one earned run in 15 innings.
Severino’s weird 2016 season gave way for all of the idiot Yankees fans to start to call for him to be a reliever, completely disregarding what he did in 11 starts in 2015 and only focusing on nine starts in 2016. Those fans are likely the same ones who now call for Austin Romine to start over Gary Sanchez when Sanchez slumps, as if 2016 and 2017 Gary Sanchez never existed, and also as if 2011-2017 Austin Romine never existed. Thankfully, the Yankees front office is more intelligent than most fans and stuck with Severino as a starter. And thankfully, Severino reached out to his idol Pedro Martinez to teach him how to harness his stuff and dominate, so that 2016 would never happen again.
Severino went back to his pre-2016 self in 2017. He pitched to a 2.98 ERA with 230 strikeouts in 193 1/3 innings and was named an All-Star for the first time. He gave up two earned runs or less in 20 of his 31 starts, and most importantly, the Yankees went 20-11 in those starts. He had silenced his critics and the many fans who wanted him to become the team’s next closer rather than the team’s next ace, though it’s hard to find anyone who will admit to having that perspective now. The former face of the Red Sox pitching staff had created the face of the Yankees pitching staff, and in turn, helped build one of the best pitchers in the league.
Many times money and owed money makes roster and lineup decisions for the Yankees, but despite having CC Sabathia and his $25 million for 2017 and Masahiro Tanaka and his $22 million for 2017, money wouldn’t decide who would start the one-game playoff.
Severino had become the Yankees’ ace, and was rightfully given the ball for the wild-card game.
I did my best to shake off the leadoff home run and pretend that the Twins scoring three runs on three innings off Severino just 13 days prior in what was his shortest start of the season meant nothing. I quickly tried to change the stunning negative into a positive. The Yankees weren’t going to win this game 1-0 anyway. That’s what I told myself to keep the pain that had been building for the last five years — since I stood in the same spot for Game 1 of the 2012 ALCS when Derek Jeter broke his ankle, ending that season and the Yankees’ most recent chance at winning the World Series — from making me cry. Joe Mauer popped up to Todd Frazier in foul territory for the first out of the inning, and I started to feel better.
I didn’t feel better for long. A seven-pitch walk to Jorge Polanco was followed by an Eddie Rosario two-run home run. The game was four batters and less than nine minutes old and the Twins were up 3-0 with one out in the first and Severino’s pitch count at 17.
I wanted to throw up. Had I already eaten the Yankee Stadium bucket of chicken sandwich sliders and fries, I would have. But luckily all that was in my stomach was a couple sips of Coors Light, so only dry heaving was on the table.
I was now sitting down with my head in my hands staring at my feet as Eduardo Escobar lined a 1-1 pitch to left-center for a single. Still seated and acting as though I was done watching while still peering in for each pitch, I looked between the two people standing in front of me as Max Kepler rocked a line-drive double down the right-field line on the ninth pitch of his at-bat.
Joe Girardi raced to the mound as if he tried the Stadium chili fries and needed to get back to the clubhouse. The Yankees manager moved faster than Escobar had going first to third on the Kepler double, wanting Severino out of the game as quickly as possible.
Severino walked off the mound to the type of boos his mentor Martinez used to walk off the Stadium mound to. I didn’t participate in the Bronx cheer for the 23-year-old righty. Not because I was focused on breathing and making sure my heart didn’t stop, but because Severino had been the team’s best pitcher all season and six batters wasn’t going to change that. Without Severino, the Yankees wouldn’t even be in this game, and so I wasn’t going to join in with the idiots booing the best thing to happen to the team’s starting pitching since Pettitte 22 years ago. I just wanted Severino to have a chance to redeem himself against Cleveland. But with runners on second and third and one out, and three runs already in, the possibility of that was on life support.
I wanted to cry, and if I were at home watching I might have. But sitting in the middle of the right-field bleachers I wasn’t about to start tearing up. Fifteen minutes ago, I had been trying to lose my voice during Roll Call with an ice cold beer in my hand while visions of playing the Indians with house money danced in my head. Now I was asking myself if I even like baseball and if the six-month, 162-game seasons were worth following anymore. As Paul Olden announced Chad Green into the game, I sat calculating the amount of hours I had wasted in 2017 watching and listening to games and writing, talking and reading about this team. My girlfriend Brittni, a Dodgers fan, whose team had avoided a one-game playoff by winning 104 games, tried to console me. There’s plenty of time! it’s only the first inning! But I didn’t want to hear it.
I should have known better. In three days it would be the two-year anniversary of me sitting in the same spot for the Yankees’ previous wild-card game, watching Dallas Keuchel run through the Yankees lineup like Cliff Lee 2.0. At least that result had been expected. Keuchel made two starts in 2015 against the Yankees, going 2-0 and pitching to this ridiculous line: 16 IP, 9 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 21 K. So when he pitched six shutout innings en route to a 3-0 Astros win, it wasn’t exactly a shock. That’s not why I should have known better though. I should have known better because after beating the Twins in four games in the 2003 and 2004 ALDS, and after sweeping them in the 2009 and 2010 ALDS, they were due. So of course they would cash in their long overdue postseason success against the Yankees in a game that shouldn’t even be happening.
The five-team wild-card format implemented in 2012 has hurt the Yankees more than any other team in baseball. It gave the Yankees false hope in 2013 and 2014, keeping them close to contention long enough that they didn’t sell at the deadline, only to fall short of the second wild card both times. In 2015, the format prevented the Yankees from reaching the ALDS even though they were the AL’s best non-division winner. Under the pre-2012 format, the Yankees would have reached the ALDS following their regular season performance, but instead they faced their ultimate kryptonite in Keuchel. And again in 2017, it had screwed them over. Here they were, a 91-win team facing the 85-win Twins in a one-game playoff. And here they were, six batters into the game and trailing 3-0.
Severino had left the game a mess. Not the kind of mess where your dog has an accident on the living room rug, but more like the kind of mess where you have a party at your parents’ house and your friends use their bedroom as a brothel, their kitchen as a tailgate and their dining room as a drug den. Instead of coming home to find a clogged toilet, some used condoms that didn’t end up in the trash can and hundreds of empty beer bottles, Green was entering the game in the first inning with Kepler on second and Escobar on third with no outs and three runs already in. I guess they’re the same thing.
I had gone through the first four of the Five Stages of Grief from the time the bullpen door opened until Green threw his last warmup pitch. “Acceptance” is the final of the five stages and as Green came set on the mound to face Byron Buxton, I had reached it: realizing that the 2017 season was going to end the way 2015 had, knowing that I would have to wait another year to try to the end the soon-to-be eight-year World Series drought.
The bullpen would have to get 26 outs and the offense would have to score at least four runs off Ervin Santana and Twins pitching to keep the season alive. At this point in the game, the Twins had an 81 percent chance of winning, but in my mind, it was even higher.
Thankfully, Green did what he had done all summer, blowing a 2-2 fastball by Buxton for the second out of the inning as the Stadium started to get back into it for the first time since the fifth pitch of the game when Dozier went deep. The idea of “OK, if Green gets out of this without anymore damage, things are looking up!” crept into my mind, but I remained cautious as a two-out base hit would mean two more runs and likely mean me in the back of the ambulance parked underneath the Stadium.
After Jason Castro fouled a middle-middle 1-2, 97-mph fastball back, which caused my heart to momentarily sink, Green blew a 98-mph fastball by him to end the inning.
On Oct. 10, 2005, I was sitting on my friend’s couch in Boston watching Game 5 of the ALDS between the Yankees and Angels. I had been at the Stadium the night before for Game 4 and the Yankees’ 3-2 comeback win to extend their season and force a Game 5 in Anaheim. Game 4 ended at 11:09 p.m. in the Bronx and Game 5 was set to begin less than 21 hours later on the other side of the country. Rain had pushed Game 4 back a day, so there was no travel day for the Yankees and Angels, and there was no travel day for me to get back to college with Columbus Day weekend ending.
The Yankees didn’t score in the first inning in Game 5, but with a pair of singles from Derek Jeter and Gary Sheffield, they had made soon-to-be 2005 Cy Young winner Bartolo Colon work as he threw 17 pitches in the frame.
Robinson Cano led off the second against Colon and on the seventh pitch of the at-bat, Colon was injured and removed from the game. Needing 24 outs from his bullpen, Mike Scioscia turned to 22-year-old rookie Ervin Santana.
Santana was a starting pitcher. He had made 23 starts for the Angels in the regular season after making 84 career starts in the minors. He had only ever pitched in relief once, and that was as an 18-year-old in Rookie ball in 2001 — his first professional season. He had finished the regular season strong, going 5-1 in his last seven starts and pitching to a 1.62 ERA, but he hadn’t pitched in over a week, and here he was, making his postseason debut in a winner-take-all Game 5 in a role he had performed one time in 133 games.
Three pitches later, Cano was on his way to first with a 10-pitch walk and I immediately started to think about facing the White Sox, who had swept the Red Sox in three games, in the ALCS. Santana looked not only young, but like a nervous wreck on the mound. He had been thrust into an unenvious situation in the biggest game of his life.
With Cano on first, Santana fell behind Bernie Williams 2-1. On the fourth pitch of the at-bat, Cano, who has never been fast and, who at the time, had stolen one base in his career on four attempts in 132 regular-season games, took off for second with Santana looking ready to walk the ballpark. Cano’s inexplicable decision led to an out, giving Santana and the Angels an enormous break.
Williams followed Cano’s 10-pitch walk with a 10-pitch walk of his own. Instead of first and second and Santana at 13 pitches with no outs, it was just Williams on first with one out.
Jorge Posada walked on four straight pitches and instead of bases loaded and Santana at 17 pitches with no outs, it was just first and second with one out.
Despite Cano’s or the dugout’s baserunning blunder, the Yankees did make Santana pay. Bubba Crosby grounded a single to right field to score Williams and move Posada to third, and Jeter drove in Posada with a sacrifice fly to right. The Yankees had an early 2-0 lead and Santana had thrown 26 pitches in the inning with Alex Rodriguez coming to the plate. Crosby stole second with Rodriguez up, but after an 11-pitch battle, Santana struck out Rodriguez to end the inning. It was 2-0 Yankees, but it felt like it should have been more and it could have been much more.
Garret Anderson led off the bottom of the second with a home run off Mike Mussina. Bengie Molina walked before Darin Erstad struck out and Juan Rivera popped out to second. With two outs and Molina on first, Mussina lost Steve Finley on a full count to bring up Adam Kennedy with first and second and two outs.
Bubba Crosby had started Game 1 of the series in center field for his defense, forcing the 37-year-old Bernie Williams to designated hitter. Joe Torre had gone back to Williams in center field for Games 2 and 3 and then again to Crosby in Games 4 (Ruben Sierra hit for him in the seventh inning and Williams took over for in center field in the eighth) and 5. The 29-year-old Crosby was in center field for Game 5 for his legs and Torre most likely told him to go get anything and when Kennedy hit a fly ball to right-center field, Crosby did just that.
Kennedy made good contact on the first pitch from Mussina and the combination of Kennedy’s star-gazed expression and slow bat release coupled with Mussina not wanting to turn around and see where his pitch was headed initially made me think it was a three-run home run. But when the camera switched to the outfield, Joe Buck let out a monotone, “In the air to right-center field,” and it seemed as though Kennedy’s drive would die on the warning track.
Buck continued, “Crosby on the move …”, and as Crosby approached the wall and the San Diego Zoo ad just beyond the 370 marker on the Angel Stadium wall, Gary Sheffield quickly grew closer and closer to Crosby.
“He’s there …”, is what Buck said of Crosby, but as “He’s” came out of Buck’s mouth, Crosby and Sheffield collided. Both outfielders lost their hats in the collision, with Crosby falling on his right side and Sheffield falling on his back. Crosby sprang up and raced to the ball that had rolled toward center field, throwing it into the cut-off man Cano as quickly as he could, but not before both Molina and Finley would come around to score on what was scored a triple. The Angels led 3-2.
Leading by one in the third, Santana settled down to pitch around a one-out Jason Giambi single. After Mussina allowed two more runs in the fourth, the Angels’ lead grew to 5-2, giving the Angels’ rookie right-hander three runs to work with.
In the fourth, Santana induced three groundouts from Williams, Posada and Jeter, not allowing a two-out bunt base hit from Crosby to do amount to anything.
Torre, feeling the pressure of the 2004 ALCS collapse and the rumors that this would be his last season as Yankees manager unless it resulted in a World Series win, had turned to Randy Johnson to get the third out of the fourth and he was back on the mound for the fourth. The Yankees traded for Johnson six months too late, but after not landing him at the 2004 deadline, they landed him to avenge the 2004 disaster. The Yankees wanted Johnson for big games, the kind of games he won against them in the 2001 World Series, and in finally landing him, they expected the regular season to just be a formality leading up to games like Game 3 of the 2005 ALDS against the Angels.
Johnson was awful in Game 3, allowing five earned runs on nine hits in just three-plus innings of work. He was booed off the same Yankee Stadium mound I helped cheer him off of on Apr. 3 on Opening Night in a season-opening 9-2 Sunday Night Baseball win over the Red Sox in which he went six innings, allowing one earned run against the defending champions. Now a little more than six months after he made his way to the Yankees bullpen at Yankee Stadium to warm up on Opening Night to loud RAN-DY JOHN-SON, CLAP CLAP, CLAP CLAP CLAP, cheers, he was trying to hold the Angels at 5 and give the offense a chance to come back so he could have a chance to redeem himself in the ALCS.
The 41-year-old version of the Big Unit retired the side in order in the fourth and with 15 outs left in their season and the heart of the order due up, the Yankees had their best chance to break through against Santana.
The third pitch of the fifth inning hitRodriguez and Jason Giambi jumped on the next pitch from Santana, singling to right field and moving Rodriguez to second. With first and second and no outs and Santana at 68 pitches through three-plus innings of work, the Yankees had Sheffield, Hideki Matsui and Cano coming up with a chance to get back in the game.
Sheffield flew out to left, Matsui popped up to first and Cano struck out swinging, and just like that there were 12 outs left in the season.
In the sixth, Santana worked a 1-2-3 inning, needing just nine pitches to retire Williams, Posada and Crosby. A leadoff home run from Jeter in the seventh, closed the gap to 5-3, but Santana got Rodriguez to ground out to short, ending his night and postseason debut.
5.1 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 2 BB, 2 K, 1 HR.
It wasn’t Roger Clemens or Curt Schilling in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, but for a 22-year-old making his postseason debut, in a role he had no Major League experience in and virtually no experience at all in, it was a very solid and respectable performance. And when the Yankees were unable to come back against Kelvin Escobar or Francisco Rodriguez, Santana earned the win to send his team to the ALCS.
It wasn’t just Ervin Santana settling down that led to the series loss for the Yankees. Three errors and three unearned runs lost Game 2 for the Yankees. Randy Johnson lost them Game 3. A combination of Cano’s stolen-base attempt, Mike Mussina being bad in a big spot and not getting through three innings, the Bubba Crosby-Gary Sheffield collision and leaving 13 runners on base cost them Game 5. And I will always remember Game 5 for the collision, but after that I will remember it for Santana not succumbing to the pressure in a winner-take-all game.
Santana is no longer a scrawny, 22-year-old kid with a 133 2/3 Major League innings to his name pitching for his team’s season. He’s once again pitching for his team’s season, but he’s now 35 years old with 149 career wins, 13 seasons in the majors and nearly $100 million in career earnings. As he throws his warmup pitches, all I can think about is Oct. 10, 2005 and waiting for him to implode to send the Yankees to the ALCS, but he never does.
Give me a walk over a hit when needing a rally. When the Yankees are trailing by three runs in the ninth inning of a game, I would rather have the leadoff hitter walk than hit a solo home run. A walk sets a rally in motion, rattles the pitcher and gets the crowd going. A solo home run in that spot allows the pitcher to shake it off and reset as if nothing happened. No, statistically it doesn’t make sense, but a leadoff walk to start a rally brings the human element into the game, and that can’t be discounted.
Had Brett Gardner led off the bottom of the first inning with a solo home run, maybe that’s the only run Santana gives up the entire game. He had been given a three-run lead before he ever threw a pitch, so challenging Gardner right away and forcing him to beat him and giving up a home run in the process wouldn’t have been a big deal. Sure, it would have caused the Stadium siren to turn on and the crowd to cheer, but Santana would have been able to say he challenged Gardner and got beat. But to be given a three-run lead before you throw a pitch and then to walk the leadoff hitter and awake a Yankee Stadium crowd looking for any inkling at all to get excited, well, that’s where the game changed.
Gardner worked a six-pitch walk to start the inning and Judge drove a line-drive single to center field on the seventh pitch of his at-bat as Gardner coasted into third after taking off on the pitch. Gary Sanchez got jammed on 1-2 fastball and popped it up to Castro, who nearly tripped in the Yankees’ on-deck circle. With Gardner on third and Judge on first, the Sanchez pop-up felt like a missed opportunity and I started to think back to the second inning of Game 5 of the 2005 ALDS.
Didi Gregorius taking over for Derek Jeter at shortstop in 2015 went about as well Nick Johnson taking over at designated hitter for Hideki Matsui following Matsui’s 2009 World Series MVP performance. Between the early-season baserunning and defensive miscues and him batting .215/.276/.289 with two home runs and 11 RBIs through June 1 of 2015, I was done with Gregorius. Shane Greene, who he was traded for, was thriving for the Detroit Tigers, and I was on board with Cincinnati, who gave up on Gregorius in December 2012, and Arizona, who gave up on him two years later.
Gregorius worked his way back to respectability in 2015, finishing the season at .265/.318/.370 with nine home runs and 56 RBIs and then broke out in 2016 at .276/.304/.447 with a career high 20 home runs, and I apologized to him (on Twitter) for wanting to reverse the Greene deal. This regular season, he improved again, batting .287/.318/.478 with 25 home runs and 87 RBIs, becoming a fan favorite for his TV, Stadium big screen and social media personality, and he stepped into the box against Santana with a chance to get the Yankees back in the game.
After sitting in the right-field bleachers for 95 percent of the games I have attended at the Stadium (on both sides of River Ave.), my eyes have grown accustomed to the perception from behind the right fielder, so when I sit anywhere else, the view takes a few innings of getting used to. I don’t want to say when I sit elsewhere that I become those fans (or John Sterling or Michael Kay) that think every ball in the air has a chance to get out, but for the first inning or two, I feel like someone trying to drive on the right side of the road.
The beauty of sitting in right field, other than having the best depth perception on balls in play and knowing if those fans cheering for any ball in the air have a right to be cheering, is when those big moments come your way. When the bleachers become a party. I desperately wanted the bleachers to become a party. I wanted a beer shower. I needed a beer shower.
Gregorius’ body language said it all before his bat could fall to the ground following his quick-wristed and concise flip of it, and my eyes and their years of judging fly balls from this vantage point let my brain know what was happening and where the ball was headed.
Gregorius had turned around Santana’s 23rd pitch of the inning — a 96-mph, full-count fastball — and the white dot that started 400 feet away grew larger and larger and larger until it looked like a beach ball, flying into Section 102 in right field. I went wild. I had missed this feeling. I hadn’t had this feeling in over five years since Raul Ibanez’s game-tying two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth of Game 1 of the 2012 ALCS went out to right field, and 20 minutes earlier, I thought it would be at least another year until I would have that feeling again.
Tie game. A new game. New life.
It began to rain beer in the bleachers, as I high-fived and embraced strangers, completely thankful that Shane Greene was no longer a Yankee. I felt like I drove for 22 hours straight and then ran a marathon and then biked from New York to Los Angeles, and it’s only the bottom of the first inning. I had to take a piss when I left Billy’s before the game and that was at 7:30. It was now 8:52.
Gardner homered in the second to give the Yankees a 4-3 lead, but the Twins tied the game in the third after Green loaded the bases with one out to give way to David Robertson. Greg Bird singled in a run in the third and then Judge hit a two-run home run in the fourth and the Yankees never looked back.
Santana lasted two innings, allowing four earned on three hits, two of which were home runs, and two walks. He had a chance to escape the first inning like he had escaped that second inning 12 years ago, but unlike the 2005 Yankees, the 2017 Yankees didn’t let him off the hook.
Max Kepler took a beating from the fans all night in right field, the way he would have on the other side of River Ave., and after three hours and 51 minutes (most of which came in the first inning), the Yankees were going to the ALDS, and I was elated.
The last four seasons had given me time to reflect on taking the ability to reach the ALDS for granted from 1996-2012 (minus 2008, but that’s what happens when Darrell Rasner and Sidney Ponson make 21.6 percent of your team’s starts), and I wasn’t going to do that again. The Yankees were headed to Cleveland to face arguably the best team in baseball and a team that won 22 consecutive games in August and September. They were headed there with their ace’s confidence in question, a beaten-up bullpen and a postseason-inexperienced lineup, but I didn’t care. The Yankees were back in the postseason, the real postseason, and that’s all I cared about.