March 09, 2008
Idle Hands Are the Devil Rays' Playground
You can only strand dozens of reporters in Florida with no real news to cover for so long before they will, out of sheer desperation, latch onto the first vaguely controversial thing they can find; it took a while this year, but the Yankees finally have their first good and meaningless spring training kerfluffle. (Unless you count Kyle Farnsworth mouthing off about Joe Torre, but I refuse to dignify that with the term "kerfluffle", because seriously: until you get your ERA down from 4.8, nobody wants to hear it).
So: Tampa Bay Devil (yeah, you heard me) Rays minor leaguer Elliot Johnson ran over Yankees minor league catcher Francisco Cervelli in a play at the plate, and Cervelli ended up with a fractured arm. Joe Girardi was upset that Johnson played so aggressively, risking injury, during a meaningless spring training game; then Devil Rays manager Joe Maddon got defensive. Now everyone's favorite gerbil, Tampa adviser Don Zimmer, who does not take kindly to this soft, newfangled, try-not-to-maim-your-opponent style of wussy-ball, has criticized Girardi. And the Yankees are muttering vaguely about payback. Betrayal! Violence! Revenge!
Well, if by "betrayal" you mean "Zim being a little grouchy," and by "revenge" you mean "drilling some no-name Devil Rays prospect in the ass with a fastball in a ST game". So you probably don't need to buy the movie rights just yet. Though I actually wouldn't mind a Yankees-Devil Rays rivalry, since if you have to watch Tampa play 18 times a year, those games might as well have a little added spark -- yes, this is the year everybody's picking Tampa to not suck, and I understand the logic, but I'll believe it when I see it.
That said, this particular mini-controversy is completely silly. The Rays player, Johnson, wasn't trying to hurt anybody; he only had a fraction of a second to decide what to do, he's trying to impress his coaches, he went for it. I think it was dumb, because you really should go out of your way not to injure anyone in March, but I can see how it'd happen. (The Twins' Ron Gardenhire, official Manager I'd Most Like To Have a Beer With, agrees with me, or rather I agree with him, because Ron Gardenhire is a wise and sparkly-eyed little baseball elf).
There was no malicious intent on Johnson's part, so far as we know, and there's no need to "retaliate" -- this isn't Clemens-Piazza here, no one threw at anyone's head. These things happen, and frankly, while this may sound callous, the Yanks should just be counting their lucky stars it wasn't Jorge Posada.
Meanwhile, I've been thinking a lot about El Duque's proposed new delivery -- he's trying to lower his iconic leg kick in an effort to keep pressure off his bunion. Yes, I just admitted to thinking a lot about a middle-aged man's bunion; leave me alone.
While there are many, many people involved in this process -- El Duque himself, Willie Randolph, Rick Peterson, etc -- who know vastly more about changing deliveries than I do, it still strikes me as something of a harebrained scheme. And it's a little poignant, because the sky-high leg kick has become such a part of Hernandez's legend; I used to* try and imitate it when I threw the ball for my dog. It's hard to imagine him being the same pitcher without it.
But the more I think about it, the more this attempt by El Duque actually fits. After all, he didn't start drawing his knee up to his ear because it looked cool; he did it because it confused the hell out of batters. Hernandez is constantly switching speeds and arm angles just to gain a slight deceptive edge, and vanity is not one of his concerns, hence the eephus pitch. So it makes sense that when things aren't working, he's willing to experiment -- to try anything, really, however odd or unlikely.
If he's not already using a little dab of Vaseline on the ball from time to time, maybe it's time to start... after all the steroid scandals, that sounds downright wholesome.