2004-03-12 / Sports

Inside Pitch

By Bryan Hoch
Inside Pitch By Bryan Hoch

Gary Sheffield winces after striking out in a pre-season game against the Toronto Blue Jays.   (AP Photo/David Kadlubowski).Gary Sheffield winces after striking out in a pre-season game against the Toronto Blue Jays. (AP Photo/David Kadlubowski).

The physical issues surrounding Gary Sheffield’s problematic right thumb are nothing new.

Caught on one of his better days last year at Shea Stadium, the mercurial slugger delivered an insightful and courteous interview, but drew away from the reporter’s handshake with the same speed at which he whips a bat through the hitting zone.

It wasn’t a matter of disrespect. It would have just been too painful.

Hid underneath a since-discarded Atlanta Braves uniform, Sheffield’s right hand was heavily bandaged and in the process of receiving electronic stimulation from one of the high-tech, high-priced pulsating gizmos that are kept under heavy lock and key in major-league clubhouses.

It’s an image that those around the Yankees are sure to become all too familiar with over the next few weeks – Sheffield guarding his throbbing digit, just hoping to conjure up the drive to subject it to a dozen or more painful hacks in each day’s action.

Sheffield was back in New York earlier this week, but it wasn’t a pleasant visit for the 35-year-old, who confirmed the worst – he’d reaggravated last season’s painful injury by attempting a diving catch last Saturday.

A ligament in Sheffield’s right thumb is torn and must undergo surgery at some point, which remains a very distinct in-season option for the Yankees slugger. Sheffield runs the risk of further inflaming the injury each time he performs any number of mundane baseball tasks; sliding at a wrong angle, for example, or being jammed by an inside fastball.

Without Sheffield’s bat in the Yan kees’ No. 5 hole for two to three months, the supposed second coming of the 1927 Murderer’s Row will certainly lose some of its intimidation factor. For the moment, Sheffield will give playing with pain the old college try.

He told reporters Monday that the thumb was "just a little sore" and that he would probably play through the injury if it were the regular season, although Yankees GM Brian Cash man’s reaction was decidedly more doom-and-gloom.

"I’m officially worried about (Shef field) now," Cashman told reporters, although he watered down those comments with a happier face during the next few days.

The Yankees have roughly two weeks worth of exhibition games left to figure out if Sheffield’s injury will be a burden to their roster before the club boards an express jet for Japan, where they’ll open the season with a Far East series against the Devil Rays.

On the one hand, nobody wants to see Shef field wincing in pain with each batting practice cut. On the other, his offensive performance didn’t exactly fold after suffering the original injury on July 10 of last season – Sheffield hit .333 with 17 homers and 62 RBI from the All-Star Break through the end of the schedule.

Inflamed thumb or not, there’s of course no guarantee that Sheffield will be able to perform to those same lofty standards in 2004. But for the mo ment, the man signing his $39 million paycheck sounds happy, and that’s always a good sign.

"Gary Sheffield is one tough cookie, an exceptional athlete and a leader with tremendous determination to win," George Steinbrenner said in a statement. "He will be a factor for the Yankees and I applaud his courage."

Pitch By Bryan Hoch

Chicago Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood will try to pitch his team into the World Series for the first time since 1945. (Reuters/Steve Schaefer)

BULLET This is the fall second season that we’ve all been hungrily anticipating, and as we learn each season, it’s a whole other ballgame when you get to October.

You needed to look no further for confirmation of this simple fact than Tuesday’s ALDS series opener between the Yankees and the Minnesota Twins. This was a matchup that the Yankees ruled supremely, taking 16 of the last 17 contests between the Bronx Bombers and the boys from the Metrodome.

Of course, as the laws of averages would insist, it was the Yankees who had their lunch handed to them on a beautiful sunny day in the Bronx, failing to get anything started offensively against impressive young hurler Johan Santana and a succession of relievers that arrived on the scene when Santana left after four innings with leg cramps (in a playoff game? OK, we guess).

Time constraints in publication prevent us from getting any more in-depth into this very exciting matchup, which went from about a "6" on the watchability scale to a "9.5" when the Twins, the Contraction Kids and baseball’s answer to David, took Game One from the mighty, Goliath-esque Bombers.

Since the Division Series was instituted in 1995, roughly two-thirds of the teams who have won the first game have proceeded onto the ALCS, numbers which surely aren’t ringing pleasant in the ears of George Steinbrenner.

"It’s different now," Yankees catcher Jorge Posada noted. "It’s just a different kind of ballgame. It’s a different atmosphere. It changes a lot of things; one pitch can win the whole series."

Or lose it. Joe Torre’s job was already being reported to be on thin ice before the Yankees floundered to open this series, and if Torre’s club should happen to be bounced out of the Division Series for the second consecutive year, that might just prove to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

BULLET New York fans are probably going to hate us for this one, but we are really, really rooting for that storybook Red Sox-Cubs World Series. That would set up a possible Game Seven of the World Series at Fenway Park, at which point somebody would have to come away with a championship – probably in a 23-inning affair or something like that.

There would be no greater storyline in baseball’s postseason. The Yankees winning it all for a 27th time? Yawn. Barry Bonds getting his first World Series ring? Well, nice for him.

The Sox and the Cubs are where it’s at. Baseball history meeting baseball’s present; the Citgo sign peeking over the Green Monster beyond Landsdowne Street and the ivy covering the brick outfield wall at Wrigley Field. Those ballparks are cathedrals that have been mimicked by the new craze of retro-stadia, but never duplicated.

And in a season when the Yankees have again shown themselves to be a coldly corporate winning machine, there’s something to be said about the warm blood and togetherness that heavy-hitting Boston has exhibited.

Sure, the Sox have had their divas, with Manny Ramirez disappearing for days on end with a sore throat and Pedro Martinez refusing again to speak to the Beantown media, but additions like self-described "dirtbag" Kevin Millar – who does a hell of a rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s "Born In The U.S.A." on the Fenway DiamondVision – have helped propel the Sox into their first postseason since 1999.

Clubhouse chemistry isn’t all that Boston’s growing. Sparked by the memory of the ‘93 Phillies, the boisterous NL champions who were led by scraggly, tobacco-chewing players like Lenny Dykstra, Darren Daulton and John Kruk (an overweight slob who later published a book, "I Ain’t An Athlete, Lady, I’m a Ballplayer"), Millar has encouraged his teammates to grow out their hair to redneck proportions.

"You looked at all of those guys that had the long mullets, which, as you guys can see, are coming back," Millar said. "I think we look alike, we play alike, and that’s what it’s all about."

BULLET The first three games of the NL Division Series between the Florida Marlins and the San Francisco Giants were scheduled to begin at 4:00 p.m. Eastern, which no doubt came as great news to managers Jack McKeon and Felipe Alou.

McKeon and Alou, you see, aren’t exactly new at this. They’re the oldest managing tandem ever to face off in a playoff series, with 140 years of experience between them.

"I think it’s a real plus for all of the senior citizens out there in the world," said the cigar-chomping McKeon, who turns 73 in November. "I realize now that regardless of your age, you can go out there and if you’re still capable of working, fight on, don’t give up."

Alou, in his first year at the helm of the Giants after years of torture in Montreal, is an absolute joy to watch. At age 68, Alou has seen it all in baseball, and isn’t shocked or worried by anything anymore – in fact, one colleague remarked that Alou’s postgame demeanor resembles that of a family elder at the head of the dinner table, trying to savor every moment of a full meal and unwilling to be bothered by any little distraction.

"I don’t really care how old we are. We all have hopes of doing something," Alou said in philosophical style.

E-Mail Bryan Hoch at bryanhoch@yahoo.com.

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