2002-07-13 / Sports

A Tale of Two Teams… A Look Back at the First Half of New York Baseball

Baseball Columnist
By Bryan Hoch

A Tale of Two Teams…
A Look Back at the First
Half of New York Baseball
Baseball Columnist

On the expressway that is Major League Baseball, the Yankees are the sporty red Corvette in the fast lane, cruising toward another World Series title with the top down and three pretty blondes giggling in the back seat.

Across town, the Mets could only be compared to a broken-down ‘85 Chrysler LeBaron, parked on the shoulder and spewing smoke into the air. If that’s the case, then manager Bobby Valentine is peering inside the hood and trying to figure out what the heck went wrong.

We’re halfway through the season now, having witnessed the embarrassing and frustrating All-Star Game tie on Tuesday evening, and our New York baseball teams appear to be headed in vastly different directions.

Rather than issue a mid-season report card for both teams (which would obviously end up with the Yankees earning an high grade and the Mets a low one) we thought we’d give a look back at the first half of the season in a kind of a different light. Without further ado, we submit for your perusal, the first annual Wave N.Y. Baseball Awards.

Biggest Surprise: Raul Mondesi, Yankees. It’s not for anything that Mondesi’s done on the field for the Yankees, but just the fact that he’s playing right field for the Bronx Bombers at the All-Star Break.

Talk about a Rodney Dangerfield complex – how badly does the former right field platoon of John Vander Wal and Shane Spencer feel right about now?

To be fair, Vander Wal (.276-3-16) and Spencer (.247-5-24) weren’t exactly lighting the American League on fire before the Yankees went out and lifted Mondesi from the Blue Jays for minor-league lefty Scott Wiggins. Certainly, though, they weren’t impeding the Yankees’ progress toward the postseason.

Try telling that to George Steinbrenner, who reportedly hollered and screamed after watching infielder Enrique Wilson butcher a fly ball in right field against the Mets and even suggested that the Yankees pull Paul O'Neill out of the YES Network booth right then and there to re-fit him in pinstripes.

No word on whether the Mets considered a similar deal with Tom Seaver, who now collects paychecks from WPIX, to bolster the bottom of the pitching staff.

Honorable Mention: Robin Ventura, Yankees. After stinking up the joint at Shea in 2000 and 2001, earning himself the nickname "LOBin" for the extraordinary number of runners he left on base, Ventura had nowhere to go but up. The Yankee mystique has done its work on Ventura, who currently ranks third on the team in home runs with 19 and second in RBI with 62.

Biggest Disappointment: Roberto Alomar, Mets. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be appropriate to select the entire Mets team for this award, so we’ve got to peg it on Alomar, whose performance has been nothing short of an Amazin’ letdown in his first season in New York.

Coming into the 2002 season fresh off of an All-Star year in which he hit .336 with 20 homers and 100 RBI for the Cleveland Indians, Alomar was the prize piece of the Mets’ offseason upgrade – a sure bet among risky acquisitions like Pedro Astacio and Mo Vaughn.

Touted as the greatest second baseman of this generation, we haven’t seen much to differentiate him from a guy like Carlos Baerga so far. Alomar has appeared hesitant in the field and displayed little confidence at the plate (what’s with all the bunting?), and already rumors are swirling that he doesn’t want to be in New York – something that Alomar, to his credit, has denied.

With Alomar holding the right to demand a trade after this season, the Mets might be best served to take up a team like the Los Angeles Dodgers on their interest in the future Hall-of-Famer and try to net a hot prospect or two. For whatever reason, it’s not clicking here.

Best Offseason Move: Jason Giambi, Yankees. We’d seriously like to know who the yahoos were that elected to boo Giambi in April at Yankee Stadium. No one seems to be admitting to it now.

After a slow start in pinstripes, the clean-shaven Giambi turned his season around with a game-winning grand slam in the bottom of the 14th inning against the Minnesota Twins on May 17, propelling the Yankees to an incredible 14-13 victory.

As to all the tears shed for the departure of Tino Martinez to St. Louis, it’s appropriate to comment that Giambi’s only leading the Yankees in batting average, home runs, RBI, walks and on-base percentage.

Giambi’s display of awesome power Monday at the Home Run Derby in Milwaukee was a great reminder of why he just might be the best power hitter in the Big Apple. He doesn’t look quite as cool now that he’s buzzed the heavy metal hairdo and elected to pitch deodorant on TV, but Yankees fans will take his performance all the same.

Honorable Mention: Pedro Astacio, Mets. When the Mets signed Astacio, all the talk was about the righthander having to battle a torn labrum in his pitching shoulder, but we’ve seen no ill effects of the injury that ruined his 2001 season. He and Al Leiter have teamed to be the club’s best starters and are the main reason they’re even able to sniff the .500 mark at this point.

Worst Offseason Move: Roger Cedeno, Mets. Cedeno’s a great base-stealer, as evidenced by his 55 swipes with Detroit last year and his total of 66 in 1999 with the Mets, but he’s been proof positive of the old adage that you can’t steal first base.

Expected to be the offensive catalyst at the top of the order, the Mets have resigned themselves to the fact that Cedeno just seems to be more comfortable hitting in the No. 7 position, much as he did when Rickey Henderson was the club’s leadoff hitter in 1999.

Unfortunately, he’s not even doing a great job there. Cedeno’s on-base percentage of .299 at the break is worse than both the percentages put up by struggling outfielders Jeromy Burnitz (.307) and Jay Payton (.321). All that, for the bargain basement price of $18 million over four years.

Honorable Mentions: Rondell White, Yankees. Don Zimmer, Yankees. White (.257-9-38) has managed to stay relatively healthy, an achievement for him, but he hasn’t produced all that much. Zimmer’s Preparation H ad is just disturbing and shouldn’t be watched by young children.

Best Debut Award (tie): Marcus Thames, Yankees; Jaime Cerda, Mets. It’s hard to imagine players marking up a better entrance to New York than this pair of rookies, both of whom earned their way onto SportsCenter the first time they set foot on a major league diamond.

Making his debut on June 10 at Yankee Stadium, Thames stepped into the box against one of the most dominating lefthanders of our time, Randy Johnson. The 25-year-old outfielder promptly smacked a home run on the first pitch he saw.

Cerda, a 23-year-old lefty who started last season in A-ball, was sent out on June 28 as a sacrificial lamb by the Mets in one of the most daunting scenarios we can think of – bases loaded, one out, Subway Series, Yankee Stadium. Displaying the guile and guts that have led some to compare him to John Franco, Cerda came out of it unscathed, retiring Robin Ventura and Jorge Posada on fly balls.

Then, for good measure, Cerda went ahead and struck out the side in the next inning, something he said he couldn’t even remember doing in Little League.

Biggest Waste of Money (tie): Jeromy Burnitz, Mets; Sterling Hitchcock, Yankees. Hitchcock is the poster child of why Major League Baseball needs some sort of salary reform.

Now that Orlando Hernandez and newcomer Jeff Weaver have both bypassed him on the Yankees’ depth chart of seven starting pitchers, the Yankees are essentially paying Hitchcock $12 million over two years to serve as a go-fer when Joe Torre needs a cup of coffee. It’s good work if you can get it.

Unfortunately, the Mets aren’t so lucky with Burnitz – they really need him to turn around his game if they hope to compete in the second half. When the Mets acquired Burnitz from the Milwaukee Brewers with two years and $20 million remaining on his contract, everyone expected a low average with a lot of strikeouts, but the flirting with the Mendoza line of .200 (he’s at .206 at press time) has been ridiculous.

The one thing you can say about Burnitz is that he’s giving 110 percent effort on the field. He’s missed just two of the Mets’ first 87 games and wants to break out of this funk just as badly as anyone.

*****

What does the future hold in store for New York baseball this summer? Mets fans, you’re not going to like our answer – despite the club’s recent history of torrid second-half runs, we see more of the same spewing from Shea for July and August.

Sure, anything’s possible, but already we’ve heard from one major leaguer that the Mets are being regarded as a group of individuals, just collecting their paychecks until the fall.

As for the Yankees, the only thing that can stop Steinbrenner’s Bronx dynasty from another playoff appearance would be the event of a player’s strike – something that unfortunately looks more and more likely by the day.


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