Awarding a Memorable First Half

Four days without Yankees baseball in the middle of the summer feels like an eternity. The Home Run Derby was as boring as always, and if the Yankees are to defend their title this fall, they are going to have to do it without home-field advantage thanks to the loss in the All-Star Game.

With the Yankees returning home on Friday for a three-game series with the Rays, anyone in attendance on Friday night or Saturday afternoon for Old Timer’s Day should be prepared for a five-alarm gongshow. I was at Yankee Stadium on August 13, 1995, the day that Mickey Mantle died, and literally every nine minutes another crazed fan with a No. 7 painted on their chest was running around the Yankee Stadium field to honor Mantle. With the passing of both George Steinbrenner and Bob Sheppard, I wouldn’t be surprised if that memorable day isn’t replicated this weekend with first place in the AL East on the line.

Even though the Yankees are in first place, are 56-32 and have the best record in baseball, it didn’t start to feel that way until recently. Maybe it’s just me, but for some reason I still feel like the Yankees are just beginning to click on all cylinders, and can possibly even play better than they have over the last few weeks.

In honor of a successful first half for a team notoriously known as slow starters and strong finishers, I felt it was only right to hand out midseason awards to those Yankees deserving of one. These aren’t your standard Baseball Writers Association Awards, and not every Yankee came away with something. Luckily for those that didn’t receive one, there is a lot of baseball left for the Yankees in 2010.

The Entourage Award for “Wishing Something Was As Good As It Used To Be”
The same reason I keep tuning into Entourage even though it’s been going through a gradual demise for well over a year is why I am still holding out hope for Joba Chamberlain. I remember Entourage for its Season 1 and Season 2 greatness and not its recent year-plus run of horrible storylines and unrealistic writing, the same the way I remember Joba for his 2007 dominance and the way Joba Mania took over the Bronx three summers ago.

I have seen how great Joba can be, even if it was three years ago, and I know deep down somewhere beneath the cocky behavior and unaccountable attitude is the high-90s fastball and the slider that once shut down the American League. Right now Joba is the weakest link of the important players on the team and right now, a reliable Joba is the last piece to the puzzle that will make the Yankees complete moving forward in their quest for No. 28.

I need a setup guy I can trust and I need Joba to be Reliever Joba and not Starter Joba. But more importantly, I want Joba Mania back and I want to be able to trust the bridge to Mariano.

The Jim Joyce Award for “Doing A Job That No One Should Know Your Name For”
Unless you are a devoted follower of a major league team, there is no reason for you to know the third base coach’s name. Half of their job is to give signs and decide whether or not to send or hold runners home, and the other half of their job is to be the manager’s buddy and be a good time on road trips. They are essentially given a free pass to be part of a major league team, to have a job in the bigs and to hang out with their friends from their playing days. As long as they don’t screw up, no one really pays much attention to them, and that’s a good thing. More and more people are beginning to know Rob Thompson’s name, and that’s a bad thing.

There have been a few occasions this season where Thompson has gotten a runner thrown at home with no outs in an inning (I have been present for two of them), and he nearly ruined my celebration of our nation’s birthday on the Fourth when he got three Yankees tagged out at home in one game (I am still waiting to find out from the Elias Sports Bureau if three Yankees have ever been thrown out in the same game on the Fourth of July on a Sunday when the Yankees are playing the Blue Jays).

I will let Thompson’s first-half blunders slide because the Yankees are winning despite his incompetence and because he seems to be friends with Joe Girardi and really because he looks like Michael Scott. I am just hoping that Thompson doesn’t send someone at the wrong time in the wrong game over the final 74 games of the year.

The Michael Jackson Award for “Smoothest Transition From Home-Run Swing To Home-Run Trot”
This was a tossup between A-Rods patented “flip the bat … hop … stare into the Yankees dugout” and Robinson Cano’s version of the Moonwalk. In the end I had to give it to Cano.

No one could pull off that leg kick into a 360 spin into the moonwalk into the toe stand the way MJ could, and as of now, no one can pull off what Robinson Cano does at the plate following a home-run swing. There is no smoother player in the league when it comes to hitting a no-doubter and making a cool and perfect exit out of the batter’s box than Robinson Cano. In April, I wrote:

“I was waiting for the few notes of “Billie Jean” to come across the Fenway PA system when Robinson Cano hit his solo home run on Tuesday, as he swung, made contact and dropped his bat like it was on fire all in one smooth, flawless motion before gliding out of the box.”

… and it never gets old.

I would have liked to see Cano’s home-run antics on Monday night during the Home Run Derby, but not at the price of ruining his swing for the second half. My preseason pick for MVP from the Yankees continues to make me look smart.

The Seaside Heights Award for “Most Emphatic And Excessive Fist Pump”
After hanging onto this award for three years, Joba Chamberlain has surrendered it to Francisco Cervelli in a unanimous decision, mostly because Joba hasn’t had much to fist pump about all season.

Cervelli’s energy has been exerted through his right hand on clutch strikeouts and two-out RBI hits. No Yankee has cut through the air with their first as violently since Brien Taylor on that forgetful Florida night.

Are Cervelli’s antics over the top? Maybe, but I don’t care. I have grown immune to unnecessary celebrations in professional sports for the most part, and it’s not like Cervelli is going nuts after a one-out save in a three-run game like Francisco Rodriguez does. And it’s not like he is running around the infield grass after throwing a complete-game despite being 15 games back in the AL West like Felix Hernandez did on Saturday night. I’m all for Cervelli and his enthusiasm. I hope to see a lot more fist pumps from him in the second half.

The Gordie Howe Award for “Still Competing At The Highest Level Despite Your Age”
Last week on Twitter, someone wrote, “Is this Mariano Rivera’s best season ever?” I am beginning to think the tweet was a rhetorical question since I’m pretty sure it is his best year. You certainly can’t overlook what he did in 1996 as the setup man, but in terms of his 14 years as a closer, his numbers this season can go toe to toe with any of his other years.

Seriously, look at these numbers: 34.1 IP, 16 H, 6 R, 4 ER, 6 BB, 33 K, 1 BB, 1.05 ERA, 0.641 WHIP.

I am starting to think Mariano wasn’t kidding when he told the crowd following Game 6 of the World Series in November that he would be pitching for another five years. I am actually beginning to wonder if he will still be closing games when he is 50, and at this rate I don’t see why he won’t be.

While other closers appear to be breaking down (K-Rod, cough, cough) and losing their invincibility factor (Papelbon, cough, cough), Mariano just keeps on doing what he has been doing since 1997: saving games for the Yankees.

The LeBron James Award for “Becoming The Complete Opposite Of What You Are Known As”
Over the last few days, the LeBron James and Alex Rodriguez comparisons have taken over sports. In some ways I agree, but there needs to be some clarification with these comparisons because LeBron James isn’t becoming Alex Rodriguez. Rather, 2010 LeBron James is becoming 2004 Alex Rodriguez, and there is a big difference.

Prior to last week, LeBron James was the NBA’s golden child, but in one hour on TV that all changed. LeBron produced a two-out rally against himself by becoming a villain, tarnishing his image and destroying the brand he had carefully crafted since being drafted by the Cavaliers. Here was the face of the league, talking in the third-person and playing the part of the biggest scumbag in the NBA. It was the complete opposite of what LeBron James had been for the last seven years.

Now we have 2010 A-Rod, which really has been an extension of Fall 2009 A-Rod. Since last October, A-Rod has become the most clutch player in all of baseball, he has shed the “perennial loser” tag he has carried with him his whole career and has even started to rebuild the image he erased when he admitted to steroid use and being naïve and playing in a culture in Texas where steroids were as common in the clubhouse as short brunettes are in SoHo. There was A-Rod on Monday night, talking baseball with Chris Berman, Joe Morgan and Bobby Valentine during the Home Run Derby and presenting himself in a light in which he could have been perceived all of these years if he didn’t make such poor choices.

A clutch Alex Rodriguez for Yankees fans to love and a personable Alex Rodriguez for baseball fans to begin to like. Who would have thought?

The Clark Griswold Award for “Taking A Summer Long Vacation”
I’d like to think that A.J. Burnett thought he was on vacation during the month of June because if he was actually trying to get people out, then we have a serious problem. According to Michael Kay, Burnett had the worst statistical month in Yankee history, and I didn’t check the numbers, but I sat through all five of the eye-gouging performances and I will just take Michael’s word for it.

Burnett was 0-5 with an 11.35 ERA in June. Not even Tim Redding or Chase Wright or Sidney Ponson or Darrell Rasner could have imagined putting up those kinds of numbers. But here is the Yankees’ so-called No. 2 starter, making $16.5 million a year and $500,000 a start losing every single time he went to the mound for an entire month. Simple mathematics tells us that Burnett made $2.5 million in June. Not a bad payday for a guy who literally did not show up to pitch one single time for 30 days.

As much as my distaste has grown for A.J. Burnett over the first three months of the season and as much as Sweeny Murti probably wants me to stop badgering him about Burnett, the Yankees need him to pitch well.

The Joe Morgan Award for “Not Doing Your Homework For Your Job”
So the Yankees front office not only thought that it was a good idea to let Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon take off, but they also thought Nick Johnson would be a perfect No. 2 hitter and that Chan Ho Park would be a solid jack-of-all-trades out of the bullpen. I mean any time you can get a 37-year-old reliever with a 5.79 ERA in the AL before 2010, you have to do it, right? Excellent work, boys!

All you need to know to about Chan Ho Park is that he has appeared in 21 games this season and he has allowed earned runs in 11 of them. And in the 21 games Park has appeared in, the Yankees are 9-12.

The fact that Chan Ho Park is still in the majors is a bit disturbing. The fact that he is on the Yankees, making $2 million and was given a guaranteed roster spot out of spring training is disgusting.

Before the Yankees went to L.A. to play the Dodgers, Sweeny Murti told me this:

“Park’s guaranteed roster spot was just the result of getting him at an affordable price when a non-roster invite wasn’t going to be enough to get him. He pitched well in the World Series and that may have fooled the Yankees. It wouldn’t be the first time (see: Carl Pavano). The stuff he had in the World Series is not what he’s had so far. He’s really only had one good stretch for them this year and it came in the low-leverage situations I mentioned before. One scout who saw Park pitch a lot last year told me that’s how the Phillies got the most out of him last year and it was a bad job by the Yankees not to recognize that.”

No one really believed Joe Girardi in June when he kept telling the media that A.J. Burnett had good stuff, and no one believed him earlier this season when he said he didn’t skip Javier Vazquez a second time because Vazquez was pitching bad. As fans, we let things like that slide because Joe is supposed to stick by his players, be loyal to them and back them up. But when Joe Girardi sits there and tells the media that he believes in Chan Ho Park, it’s embarrassing for him and for me as a Yankees fan.

In the very near future, I am certain that Park will no longer be a Yankee, and that will be a glorious day … as long as it doesn’t mean that Boone Logan will be once again.

The Marc Summers Award for “Most Yankee Stadium Pies To The Face”
In the late innings at home, Marcus Thames has been like a contestant on “What Would You Do?” With a two-run walk-off bomb off Jonathan Papelbon in May that made an identical flight path to Aaron Boone’s 2003 shot and a walk-off single against the Blue Jays on The Fourth of July, Thames has been the only Yankee to take an A.J. Burnett pie to the face this season.

I always liked Marcus Thames given his unique story from his first at-bat in the majors for the Yankees bank in 2002, though my liking for him waned in 2006 when he was a member of the Tigers team that upset the Yankees in the 2006 ALDS. But I was happy that Yankees got him back to represent the biggest bat off their bench since Ruben Sierra was swinging from his heels on every pitch from 2003-2005.

Right now, Thames is the only true bat on the Yankees bench that includes Ramiro Pena, Francisco Cervelli, Colin Curtis and Kevin Russo. If the four of them had a Home Run Derby, it might last eight days before someone poked one out. Actually an Extra-Base Hit Derby between them might last that long.

I think the Yankees will be in the market for another bat at the All-Star break since Thames currently represents the only true threat for them. And with Nick Johnson using his free time to concentrate on his Farmville farm, who knows when he will be ready to rejoin the team? Not that I am hoping he rejoins the team.