Rivals in Exile: Early Concerns

Alex Belth doesn’t live in Rochester, NY, but he is a diehard Yankees fan and he fills in for the vacationing Larry Mahnken to discuss the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry with Ben Jacobs.

Ben Jacobs: After an off-season of wondering what the reaction to this Yankees team would be like when the games started, we finally found out last week. New York lost one game to the Devil Rays and suddenly some people were calling the second game a must win, or at least asking whether or not it was.

Now, we all know that “must win” is probably the most over-used phrase in sports. In my opinion, a game is only a “must win” if a loss in that game means your chances of moving on to the next level — the playoffs, the next round, whatever — drop to near impossible.

Under no circumstances could the second game of the season, in any sport if you ask me, be considered a must win game. In the 162-game marathon that is the baseball season, it’s beyond ridiculous to even suggest that it might be a must win.

And having said that, can you imagine what the media reaction would have been had the Yankees not won? The Yankees would have had to talk for an entire week about the fact that they couldn’t even split two games with the lowly Devil Rays.

I don’t know if it will affect the team at all, but it just gives you some idea of what things will be like this year. The media seems to love being negative, especially regarding the Yankees, and you’ll hear all about it every time they lose two, three or, heaven forbid, four games in a row.

I know Larry doesn’t think pressure or negative press or any of that could possibly affect this team, but I’m interested to hear what you think. I’m no professional athlete, but I know it would bother the heck out of me.

If you think about it, the best you could reasonably hope for would be that the Yankees will win 65-percent of their games. That would give them 105 wins, which would obviously be excellent. Now, imagine you have a job where you’re expected to do something successfully 65-percent of the time.

How annoying would it be to have everybody ask what’s wrong if your first attempt one day is unsuccessful? Would it bother you to have somebody hanging around waiting for you to be unsuccessful on three straight attempts so they could ask what’s wrong?

Or do you think I’m just trying to come up with things that could go wrong in New York because I’m worried about all of the injuries in Boston?

Alex Belth: The histrionic reaction from the New York media after the Yankees lost the season opener was to be expected. We’re going to see a lot more of that kind of thing throughout the season. It comes with the territory, and it’s hard to take seriously. New York is a town that lives by the motto: “What have you done for me lately.”

It’s not only the papers, either. On Friday evening, a security guard at my office who roots for the Yankees, rolled his eyes and said to me, “What’s up with A-Rod? He’s one for nine!” “Relax,” I scolded him. “It’s been two games. Get a grip on yourself, dude.”

Since there are a good deal of Yankee fans who believe that their team is entitled to win, they don’t know how to react when they lose. I usually find their lack of patience comic. Come July, I’ll simply find it irritating. What is frustrating is that this kind of temperament is completely ill-suited for baseball, where failure is the name of the game.

But I don’t think that the pressure of the fans or the media will overly effect the team (not unless they lose seven out of ten). It is part of what you bargain for when you play in New York for the Yankees. It’s nothing personal. You get jeered when you struggle and cheered when you play well.

I think that most of these guys can block out the negativity. Heck, I think a guy like Sheffield courts it, and thrives on it in the same way that Ted Williams once did. Jeter and Williams and Rivera are unflappable. The one guy I can see getting into the soup with the media is Rodriguez. He seems just insecure enough to let his mouth get him into trouble. But overall, Joe Torre‘s teams do not get rattled by the press. Guys like Mondesi, and maybe Kenny Lofton this season, can bark all they want. If they go too far, they’ll be gone.

Although, the Yankees could be challenged if they get hurt and start losing. And a Balco bomb could drop on them at some point this summer too. But let’s face it: the Yankees are expected to win every year. Just because they are really expected to win this year, doesn’t really make it any different from any other year in Boss George’s universe.

But the Yankees aren’t the only ones in this boat. If the Cubs don’t make it to the World Serious I think many people would be disappointed, and the same can be said for the Red Sox. The fact that it is just so obvious with the Yankees, doesn’t make it any less real for Boston or Chicago.

After all, Steinbrenner will hoot and holler to his heart’s content if they lose; that’s business as usual in New York. No sweat. And even though it would be a let down if the Yankees missed the playoffs, or were bounced in the first round, well, as a Yankee fan I can still rest easy knowing how much success they’ve had since the strike in ’94.

Sox fans can’t say the same thing. I sense that Red Sox fans feel more and more desperate with each passing year. God knows the media in Boston is just as over-the-top as their counterparts in New York. Luckily for you, your team is getting better and better with each passing year.

I think Boston’s ownership feels the pressure, and I think it’s a good pressure. The Yankees have raised the bar; Henry and Co. have accepted the challenge. The Yankees have been dethroned as World Champs three years and running now, but they still rule the American League East. It’s interesting that, in some regards, the Sox have tried to out-Yankee the Yankees.

Some Yankee fans snicker to themselves, knowing that this is a losing proposition for Boston. But I’m not so sure. The Sox seem to know what they are doing.

Like the Yankees, I think that they are as potentially as vulnerable as they are potentially dominant. The injury to Garciaparra would worry me simply because he’s been hurt before. I’m not exactly sure how badly Nixon‘s absence hurts the team. Perhaps you could give me your take on that. As for Martinez, I’ll believe he’s “losing it” when I see it happen over the course of a full season. Pedro getting rocked in a spring training game doesn’t faze me much, no matter what the scouts are telling reporters.

Let me ask you: How worried are you about the Red Sox injuries?

BJ: I agree with you completely about Martinez, he doesn’t concern me at all at the moment. It’s like the little boy who cried, “Wolf!” When he keeps doing it and you never see the wolf, you tend to stop worrying about it. For me, it’s not even just spring training. Pedro getting rocked early in the regular season doesn’t really worry me too much either at this point.

Two years ago, Martinez gave up eight runs (seven earned) to the Blue Jays in three innings on nine hits and two walks in his first start of the season. He finished the season 20-4 with a 2.26 ERA in 199.1 innings.

Last year, Martinez gave up 10 runs (all earned) to the Orioles in 4.1 innings on nine hits and four walks in his third start of the season. He finished the year 14-4 with a 2.22 ERA in 186.2 innings.

So, even if Pedro gets lit up once or twice this April, I won’t be overly concerned. As long as he finishes the season with Pedro-like numbers and doesn’t miss too much time, that’s all that’s important.

The reason Garciaparra’s injury worries me isn’t that he’s been hurt before. Anything that will keep him out until May is serious enough to worry me all on its own. From the sound of things, he just needs to sit out until May and let it get better and then he’ll be fine for the rest of the year.

If that’s true, then I think the Red Sox can get by just fine without him. However, if it gets closer to May and he still isn’t ready to come back, the Red Sox may start having trouble. Of course, my concerns about Garciaparra are heightened by the fact that he’s my favorite player. I was already antsy because this might be his final season in Boston, and now his appearance this season has been delayed by at least a month.

The loss of Nixon isn’t as big a deal to me because I think Gabe Kapler is good enough to replace him for a month or two. If Nixon’s injury lingers all season, it will probably cost the Red Sox offense a significant number of runs. But if he’s back and healthy by the end of May, I don’t think this injury will ultimately have much of an impact on Boston’s season.

I think most of the worries about the Red Sox injuries stem from the pessimistic nature of many Red Sox fans. What if, as soon as Garciaparra and Nixon and Byung-Hyun Kim have returned from their injuries, somebody else goes down for a month or two? What if, with all of the talent Boston’s assembled, the Red Sox never have all of their stars on the field at the same time this year?

Speaking of the pessimism of Red Sox fans, I think the pressure facing the Red Sox is much different from what the Yankees have. Boston doesn’t have win-every-game pressure, it has how-are-you-going-to-blow-it-this-time? Pressure. So, while the Yankees have to deal with pressure the entire season, Boston doesn’t have any pressure until it gets to a point in the season where they could screw things up.

Or at least, that’s my theory. Anyway, we’ve talked enough about pressure and injuries this week. Since there have been some actual games played, let’s talk about some actual results. What happened in the two games in Japan that pleased you the most? And what happened that worried you the most, even if it is early?

AB: A few final thoughts on pressure and injuries… I appreciate your predicament as a Nomar Garciaparra fan. It’s awful when your guy is hurt. I think Nomar is great, all high-strung and twitchy; my cousin Gabe said Nomar is a soccer player playing baseball. When he fields a ball, I sometimes get the feeling that he wants to kick it as much as catch it and then throw it.

The kind of protective — instinctive — worry that you have for Nomar is the same kind that I have for Bernie Williams. I also think that when Nomar gets back he’ll be great. The question is: will Nomar turn into Grant Hill? You know, just be one of those guys who ends up getting hurt for the second half of his career. He’s been hurt before. I think he can overcome it for sure, but whether or not he’ll do it, I don’t know. Can’t really call it.

Nixon will be back and be fine. He’s not great, but he’s pretty good, and he’s Mr. Red Sox as far as I’m concerned.

You hit the nail on the head showing how Pedro’s slow starts haven’t meant dick. You know what a great word for Pedro is: ridiculous. The guy is completely ridiculous, and in so many ways.

As to the Yankee-Red Sox media comparisons, you wrote that the Yankees have “win-every-game pressure,” while Boston “has how-are-you-going-to-blow-it-this-time?” pressure. This is spot on, but I think you are talking about two sides of the same coin. Doesn’t mean that the Boston media coverage isn’t as intense on any given day as their counterparts in New York, they just have the opposite angle. This holds with with fans too. Yankee fans and Red Sox fans have different sensibilities to the extreme, but both want the same thing: they want to their team to win the World Serious. Every year. That’s the wish. Isn’t it?

Further, you wrote, “So, while the Yankees have to deal with pressure the entire season, Boston doesn’t have any pressure until it gets to a point in the season where they could screw things up.” I think there is some inherent truth to this statement, but I don’t completely buy it.

Red Sox players live with the pressure of playing for the Red Sox all year round. Those players feel the collective burden of what the team history is all about, man. The pressure of finally winning it all in Boston is a big time thing, and those guys know it. If they win it in Boston, they are famous forever. For-fuggin-ever, bro.

You know the players can’t get away from it. And that’s a kind of pressure of expectation that the Yankees don’t quite have in the same way. For the Yankees it’s just like: Sun rises in the east, sets in the west, Morning Sam, Morning Ralph, Yankees win, everything is right in the world. It’s what’s supposed to happen.

The Sox just so happen to have a good collection of professionals and odd balls who have been able to handle the pressure pretty well. Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez have proven to be pretty classic Sox. The catcher and the injured right fielder are great Red Sox. David Ortiz is a George Scott-Luis Tiant-level classic, and whoever named him the Cookie Monster should be given an award.

After all bro, how many games did the Sox come from behind and win last season? It seemed like it happened at least twice a week. I wonder if this year’s Sox will be the same group of pugnacious bastards we saw out of the Sox in 2003? If they are, they’ll be plenty tough.

As for the Yankees, there was nothing that discouraged me about Japan. OK, one complaint? The game was on at 5 in the a.m. Yo, they are killing me, kid. Then Mussina and the pen got bombed in one game, so what? It’s going to happen. And with Mike Mussina, it’s probably not going to happen too often. So it didn’t turn out how everybody — in New York, at least — would have liked. Tough luck.

What worries me the most? Nothing much right now. Of course, the constant concern is guys getting hurt. The Yanks have an old team. These guys are going to get hurt and go down over the course of the season. You just hope it’s not too many guys all at the same time, at the end of the season. I don’t worry about Kevin Brown getting hurt this year: I know he’s going to get hurt. I just hope it happens sometime between now and August, so long as he’s good to go come late September, early October.

The other obvious concern is the spector of the Balco investigation. Giambi and Sheffield could attract a lot of heat this summer, fairly or unfairly. The Yankees would be tested, and guys could get snippy, but I think they’d go out and perform on the field. Giambi is the one to watch. He’s jittery, and the guy just acts like he’s fibbing about something. He could spaz out in a tough spot eventually, but I don’t think it would effect the Yankees in winning games.

Want to know what pleased me the most? Well, it’s a couple of things, really. First and foremost is that Kevin Brown was a nasty dick like he usually is, and he pitched a solid ball game. That gives me a lot of pleasure. I like it because I think Brown is more of a badass then Clemens was. Clemens is a bull, but he’s a workout guy, a football guy. With Brown you just see Nasty McNasty, a dirty sombitch. Doyle Alexander, in my eye. This guy is rough. He’s as tough a pitcher as the Yankees have had since David Cone. At 39, Brown still throws hard, and it is flat-out uncomfortable for batters to hit againt.

Giambi hitting a homer on opening day gave me joy. I love Giambi, hope he has a great season. Gary Sheffield being 3-for-5 with a bunch of walks has given me much pleasure too. But in terms of Yankee theater, I think that Godzilla Matsui homering in front of his home crowd — including his folks — was the highlight of the trip. This guy is really starting to make a deep impression on the other Yankee players, I think. His reputation as a “clutch” guy has taken root with the Yankees. Matsui got that big-time double off Pedro in Game Seven of the ALCS last year, but I think this Japan trip has cemented it. He’s bonafide.

I can’t wait to see Javier Vazquez pitch his first game as a Yankee, and of course, I can’t wait to see Bernie back as well. You know, if I could wish a good season for anyone, it’d probably be Bernie (or if not, Mariano). I could see Rodriguez struggling for awhile, going that route. He’s going to have to earn his stripes and pay his dues. He’ll hear the boo’s in no time, you know that. But he’s going to be great too, and I can’t wait to see it with my own eyes.

I’ll be watching the Sox-O’s game on-and-off tonight, but I will not root for Pedro to get pounded. It’s an omen of bad things to come for the Yanks and the rest of the league — even though the Yankees have historically faired well against Pedro. You know that can change on a dime. In fact, maybe he should pitch a two-hitter, and shut ‘em out tonight. Spoil Miggy‘s debut. Maybe that will be the sign that Pedro’s finally through.

Nah, I’ll just root for the Sox to lose. I don’t care who, what, where, when or why. But I’ll be happy for you if the Sox should win, so enjoy it.

BJ: Well, you got your wish, and now the Red Sox and Yankees have each spent one day with the worst record in all of baseball. It would have been nice to get a win, but this loss was more annoying than concerning.

The offense, missing Garciaparra and Nixon, was only able to produce two runs. However, I think I’ll be pretty happy if they get 19 baserunners every game. They left 14 runners on base, grounded into two double plays and lost a runner on a caught stealing. It would have been nice to see more than one extra-base hit, but ultimately I think the offense was just unlucky tonight.

And Pedro may have taken the loss, but he only had one bad inning and four of the seven hits he allowed could legitimately be called lucky. He struck out five, walked one and seemed to be able to increase the velocity of his pitches when he needed to.

So, the Red Sox have a loss in the books already, but I hardly think it portends dire times. I do, however, have the feeling that I always have after a Boston loss: the next game can’t get here soon enough.

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