A Bunch of Lovable Winners

Ken Rosenthal recently wrote a piece on the great chemistry in the Dodgers' clubhouse, led by Joe Torre. I read the article, and it reminded me of what I've been saying to everyone I talk to all year..."I like this Yankee team." Like LA, the Yanks have a clubhouse that is full of fun-loving, dedicated, professional players. It reminds me of the teams of the late 90's. As I started reading The Yankee Years by Joe Torre and Tom Verducci, something stuck out to me. The book mentions that in 2002 after the Yanks were knocked out in the ALDS against the Angels he said "This is a different team." And, it was. From '96-'01 the Yanks were a teambuilt on hardworking guys who just wanted to win, their own stats weren't that important to them. As Jeter puts it baseball stats don't make much sense. A guy can hit a groundball to second, that moves a runner from 2nd to third, he can do that, do his job, and he doesn't get a "stat" for that. But the Yankee teams in the championship years would hit that groundball, they would do their job to bring home a W day in and day out. David Cone would fire up the clubhouse. Jeter would go out every at-bat expecting to get on base. Paul O'Neill would hurl bats after every loss, and was upset every time he didn't get on base, because he never wanted to feel like he let the team down. The Yankees were a team, not just a bunch of players. They were a team to whom the only stat that mattered was Wins.

From '02 to '08 we saw lots of players come in that didn't fit that mold. A few that come to mind? Carl Pavano, Kenny Lofton, Gary Sheffield, Randy Johnson, Raul Mondesi, and Kevin Brown. The Yanks weren't a team of grinders anymore. They weren't a team that loved to see their teammates excel. They were just a bunch of talented players, with many looking to just boost their own stats. But, over the past year we've seen Brian Cashman try to alter this mentality. We saw him trade away young outfielder Jose Tabata, who despite his skills had notable disciplinary issues. In return he acquired Damaso Marte and noted hard-working veteran Xavier Nady. X-Man hasn't exactly been the most effective Yankee on the field since his arrival, but he's been a great force in the clubhouse. It was X-man who collected the "grievances" for the Yankees' Kangaroo Court last month. Kangaroo Court, which the Yanks haven't had in at least a decade, consisted of the players filing complaints on everything from haircuts, to goofy plays in the field, to fashion choices. With Mariano Rivera as the Judge and jury of Johnny Damon, AJ Burnett, and Derek Jeter the Yanks had a private meeting full of laughs and $100 fines in a conference room at the new stadium.

Nady wasn't the only fun clubhouse guy that Cashman acquired. In November Cash traded for Nick Swisher. Swisher, who Journal News writer Peter Abraham would write hillarious anecdotes about nearly everyday in Spring Training and in April, has lightened to clubhouse considerably this year. After one of Wang's disastrous starts early in the year he encourage the team the next day. He's sported some crazy haircuts this year as well, which I'm sure he was fined for in the Kangaroo Court. Swish pitched an inning of relief early in the year with a grin on his face in a blowout game, he later compared the game to an etch-a-sketch, saying you have to just shake it off and start again. Swish plays good tunes in the clubhouse and keeps the team upbeat. Swisher, who was Oakland GM, Billy Beane's favorite prospect in recent years brings a fun, relaxed, but dedicated personality to the Bronx.

Then in December Cash goes out and signs CC Sabathia to a monstrous 7 year, $161mm deal. In the press conference during which CC was introduced to the press Michael Kay asked CC if it was true what the writers in Cleveland said, was CC the nicest guy in baseball? Sabathia chuckled and said something along the lines of "I don't know about the nicest, but I try to be a good guy." In spring training CC would take his teammates in trips up to Orlando to watch Magic games. He started the new custom of having all the starters go out and watch the day's starting pitcher warm-up in the 'pen offering encouragement and again promoting a sense of teamwork.

The other man introduced at CC's press conference was AJ Burnett. I was never a fan of Burnett before his signing, but it turns out he's a fine fellow as well. Burnett's learned a little from CC about being a leader this year. He hasn't been as vocal a leader, but he has a sense of pride in the pinstripes. A while back I read over at PeteAbe's blog that Swisher one day said something about how the Yankee uni's are tighter than the one's in Chicago, and Burnett piped up and said something along the lines of"You're not in Chicago anymore; you're a Yankee now." AJ has not once blamed any of his poor performances this year on anyone else, he shoulders responsibility for everything he does, which is a quality you have to respect.

Then later in December Cash brought in a first baseman who's commonly referred to as a professional businessman type. Mark Teixeira was brought up by a father who had been in the military, and his upbringing is visible in the way he handles himself on and off the field. He's been called a perfect Yankee as he has the skills, a professional demeanor, and a desire to win. His agent, Boras claims he has the "makeup of a CEO." He modeled his play off of Don Mattingly as a kid(can you think of a better role model? ). Tex isn't the fun-loving character that Swisher is, but he's the professional, educated, smart kind of player who doesn't make many slip-ups, won't be in the tabloids, and will always give 110%.

The Yankees aren't just the players they've acquired in the past year however. They still have some veterans from the championship years in closer Mariano Rivera, catcher Jorge Posada, starter Andy Pettitte, shortstop and captain Derek Jeter, and manager Joe Girardi who was a catcher under Torre , as well. Jeter is a quiet leader who lets his actions speak for themselves. He would be the definition of "leading by example." Jeet goes out and expects to succeed. Jorge is more vocal, a fiery leader. Posada has an ability to get the team fired up for an offensive rally, but he can also keep a pitcher calm on the mound as he calls the game from behind the plate. Mariano is arguably the best closer of all-time, actually scratch the arguably; he IS the best closer of all time, and his calm demeanor in which he never makes public comments that can be interpreted poorly defines his presence on the team. Mariano doesn't make mistakes. He just goes out there and does his job. Pettitte might be the only player to ever admit HGH use and still be a fan favorite. Pettitte owns up to his mistakes and is always trying to improve. Andy has a phenomenal postseason track record, couple that with his success in New York and you realize that Andy plays his own game, not letting others distract him from his work.

The Yankees have two other veterans who they've acquired in recent years that make up an integral part of the clubhouse culture. Those veterans would be Johnny Damon and Jose Molina. Damon is a little like Swisher. He has fun playing baseball; you can tell from his unsubsiding smile. Damon has a little bit of everything: he flashes some leather in left, hits for power, hits for average, has a decent eye at the plate, and runs fast. Damon's most widely known for being one of the clubhouse leaders on the 2004 Red Sock champion team with his caveman hair and beard. He came to New York, shed the hair and beard, but kept his fun loving demeanor. With the emphasis on money in the modern day game there aren't many players that go out there and have fun like Damon does. Jose Molina is one of three brothers catching in the majors (his brother Bengie is in San Francisco and Yadier is in St. Louis). When Jorge went down last year Molina filled in behind the plate phenomenally. Pitchers loved to throw to him. He has an arm, a glove, and a great sense of the game. Molina isn't a force when he's at the plate with pine in his hands, but when he puts on the mask he has to be one of the top 5 defensive catchers in the game today. Molina has developed a strong report with the pitching staff and when Jorge can't catch the starters don't need to worry about throwing to someone they aren't used to working with because Molina makes them feel comfortable, calls a good game, and can cover up mistakes with his glove work behind the plate.

Then there's the youth. The Yanks have seen more youngsters this year than in recent history. With players like Melky Cabrera and Robinson Cano who are still learning, but have big league experience, mixed with top prospect pitchers such as Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes, and grinder types like Brett Gardner, Francisco Cervelli, and Ramiro Pena the Yanks are starting to use their farm system wisely. Harold Reynolds talked about Melky on yankees.com recently, noting that Melky never complained about losing the center field job, he just worked his hardest until he won it back. Robby Cano wasn't the best example of dedication last year without Larry Bowa around to push him, but Robby worked with hitting coach Kevin Long during the off-season to fix his swing and develop more patience at the plate. Melky and Robby are inseperable, the baseball version of Cal Naughton Jr. and Ricky Bobby before the Jean Girard era. The two can shake and bake as they push one another to get better. Joba has had more big league success than Phil Hughes, but both are important pieces in the future of the Yankees. Hughes has started to learn how to handle the pressure of New York and he hasn't made any blunders with the media. Joba obviously had some trouble with his DUI last autumn, but he's been a fun part of the clubhouse otherwise. Joba is an incredibly emotional pitcher, as we can tell from his aggressive fist pumps that Aubrey Huff wishes he could do as well. However, Joba channels his emotions into succesful pitching rather than using them in a destructive way like Carlos Zambrano often does in Chicago. Joba has learned from the veteran pitchers on the staff and he goes out there to win. Joba is a feel good story as he comes from a troubled childhood with a mother who couldn't keep sober as he dealt with epidemics that affect numerous Native Americans in Nebraska. The people in his home town look to him as a role model, someone that can show their kids that they can too one day be successful with dedication. Cervelli, Gardner, and Pena all made the majors primarily because of their stellar defense, though all have shown(even Gardner) that they can handle themselves at the plate as well. Andy Pettitte was amazed at how well Cervelli could call a game, and everything we've heard about his prowess as a defensive catcher is true. With a rocket of an arm, fine glove work, and knowledge of the game Cervelli is much like Molina, a reliable target behind the plate. Gardner is a gritty, grind-it-out, old school player. Gardner has a good-eye at the plate, but no power. He makes up for that with his speed though, as B-Gard runs fast. He knows that when stealing a base, racing against the throw, if you ain't first, you're last. Gardner has tremendous range in center and as a player for whom expectations were never too high, Gardner makes the best of every game. He's a gamers, always looking to help manufacture a run, get on-base, get into scoring position, or make a big play. Gardner's time in the majors most likely won't be too long. He's not a strong enough hitter to stick around for 15 or 20 years, but he makes the best of each game. Pena's always seen high fiving in the dugout. He has hit much better than expected, and much better than Angel Berroa. Combine his bat with speed and defense and he's a valuable part of our team. Pena brings a young youthful energy to the club, with a focus on fundamentals that reminds other players that doing the little things right goes a long way.

There are other players on the roster, and there's always the drama that is A-Rod (no life-changing stories recently, what's going on media?), but this is a gritty club, a fun club, a dedicated club, a lovable club, a winning club. This clubhouse meshes well, the players are yet again beginning to look for wins, not the other stats. Sure, LA might have fine chemistry under Torre, but the Yankees have what might be an even stronger team component under Joe Girardi. We don't have to complain about Carl Pavano's ineffectiveness and breakable nature. We don't have to hear about Kevin Brown breaking his hand as he punches a wall. We don't have to hear Kenny Lofton tell us the Joe Torre's a racist (despite his father-like relationship with the biracial Jeter). We don't have to deal with steroid accusations toward Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield(sure there's A-Rod, but that's done now). We don't have Sidney Ponson being an unconditioned alcoholic waste of a roster spot. We don't have Randy Johnson isolating himself from the rest of the clubhouse and shoving cameramen in the face. No. We have a team of guys that we like to hear about. Guys that are fun to watch. Guys who give it their all. Guys who work together. Guys who win.

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