Saturday, January 26, 2008

Inside the Hottest Rivalry in Baseball...

It's always shocking how much of the Boston fan base actually lives in or around the New York area, and on this night it was no different.

Upon his introduction as the youngest General Manager to be hired in Major League Baseball, Theo Epstein supporters in the mixed crowd showed their appreciation with applause and cheers. This, of course, was followed immediately by boos from the rest of the crowd. The feel was a bit different as Yankee General Manager Brian Cashman was introduced, the applause heavily outweighed as the crowd seemed to be about 70/30. The atmosphere alone was enough to feel that it was going to be a good night for the Distinguished Lecturer Series at William Paterson University.

The crowd settled down for the playing of the National Anthem followed by the lecture, led by moderator Kevin Burkhardt. Burkhardt is an alumni of William Paterson University, now working at SNY as the field reporter for the New York Mets. The three sat around a table and talked baseball.

Brian Cashman, 40, was hired as GM of the New York Yankees in 1998. He won the World Series in his first three seasons, the first GM to ever accomplish that. He is the longest tenured General Manager under current owner, George Steinbrenner

Theo Epstein, 34, was hired as GM of the Boston Red Sox in 2002. He became the youngest in the history of baseball and has won the World Series twice during his campaign. Widely credited with helping to end the 86-year "Curse of the Bambino."

Some mild laughter was peppered through the beginning of the night as Epstein commented on the type of relationship the two have. 

"You talk trades with 28 other GM's," said Epstein. "Not with each other though."

Burkhardt discussed how both of the men began their careers as interns and worked their way up to where they are now. He asked Cashman to comment on how he got to where he is.

"I played college baseball at Catholic University," said Cashman. "My dream was to play in the big leagues. I began as an intern and I was going to go to law school, but luckily people kept getting fired and opportunities kept opening up," Cashman said. "I always said I never wanted to do that job, but it was the opportunity of a lifetime."

Cashman credited Gene Michael for teaching him to fight for what he thought was right. He claimed he had chances to leave, with other teams seeking him out, but his loyalty to the Boss helped him to stay put. Upon his staying with the Yankees, he expressed that he wanted to go back to basics, staying away from the dangerously expensive game of free agency. 

Cashman claimed he wanted to build from within as they had during their championship runs in the late '90s, causing an uproar of applause from the Yankee crowd. 

"My strong recommendation is that we stick with our young pitching staff and keep it in-house," Cashman said as the crowd responded with erupting applause. "That's my recommendation, and we've fought hard taking one step back to take two giant steps forward. There might need to be some sacrifices made," Cashman said. "If we need to have a rebuilding year, we will have to be patient and look to the future, which is bright. I credit Tom Coughlin for doing that now."

Epstein then commented on the building for the future concept. 

"Fans always have an opinion, sometimes they're right," Epstein said. "But they don't look to the future most times. What we try to do is just make everyone happy in October, because if they're happy it means we're happy."

You could tell these two men are genuine friends as they spoke with each other, bringing a sense of humanity to a rivalry that hasn't seen much of it in the past. Burkhardt went on to ask how the rivalry affects how they do their job. 

"In the past, the Red Sox were too worried about what the Yankees were doing," said Epstein. "When I came in I said let's forget about the Yankees, let's build something that is going to make sense for us, ignoring New York. Every now and then I'll do something and realize (Cashman) blocked me or something. Bottom line, we're going to play them 19 times a year, they're going to be competitive, so I just assume they're going to win 100 games and make the playoffs."

Cashman was next asked to share his favorite moment between these two teams. 

"One thing that I'm particularly proud about was after the series in '04, we opened up the next year on opening day in Boston. We had to watch them get their rings and raise their flag," said Cashman. "Joe Torre and I discussed that there is a right way to win, and a right way to lose and we demonstrated the right way to lose-although I never want to go through that again."

"We noticed that and really appreciated it," said Epstein. "We know what the Yankees stand for and it was a good gesture. Getting back to the question, when Aaron Boone hit the walk-off in '03, it looked like just another chapter of the Red Sox series of demise. But we grew stronger from spring training on and turned the tables in the same building 365-days later."

The two talked a bit about the Mitchell Report and names came up such as Bonds and Clemens. Both chose to avoid these types of questions for the time being because there isn't any concrete evidence yet to have a truthful opinion worth saying. 

Burkhardt then asked Cashman about Joe Girardi and the challenges he will have to face for the upcoming season.

"This team has been used to a certain way for a long time, said Cashman. "But the biggest thing is going to be the players who recognize him as a player will now have to recognize him as a manager. Joe Girardi is a methodical, he was a championship player. He is tough and dedicated to winning. I am looking forward to the fans being able to see how Joe Girardi the manager reacts in certain situations." Cashman followed this with another crowd-roaring statement: 

"We are a fine wine ready to come to taste," said Cashman. "We believe we have a championship caliber club."

This concluded the discussion portion of the night, which was followed by Q & A. Two lines formed in the aisles with anyone who wanted to ask a question given the opportunity to. 

Someone ahead of me asked if Cashman was regretful about the way things played out with longtime Yankee Bernie Williams. He said he didn't regret it and that towards the end of his career, Bernie's musical career took away from his focus on baseball. He said keeping him in 2006 was a mistake but he gave him a contract because of his history and who he was. Cashman explained how Joe Torre tried to get Williams into the game too much also because of who he was. He claimed he had nothing to offer coming off the bench and needed to be an everyday player to get into a hitting groove. 

Don Mattingly was also a topic during the questioning. Cashman simply said the best man was hired for the job, it wasn't a popularity contest. He recognized Mattingly's esteemed Yankee career but claimed that Girardi's one year in Florida outweighed Mattingly's resume. 

As I waited on line and listened to many questions, Cashman's World Series ring caught the light and shined in my eye. I decided I was going to ask him which ring he was wearing and why.

As he was answering another person's question he mentioned he was wearing his ring from 2000, so I reverted back to my original question. 

As I stepped forward to the microphone, my mouth became very dry and my hands began to shake, I was actually going to speak directly to the General Manager of the New York Yankees. The spotlight shined on me and Kevin Burkhardt signaled for me to ask my question, I swallowed hard and before I knew it, I was halfway through the question. I asked Cashman how they were going to fill the fifth spot in the rotation and if there was any frontrunner heading into spring training. He told me that the Yankees are better prepared for the injury bug this year. As of now they have seven or eight possible starters (Pettitte, Wang, Hughes, Mussina, Chamberlain, Kennedy, Igawa, Karstens) and that it comes down to who is throwing the best during spring training and who they feel should occupy the starter role. Cashman also commented on Joba Chamberlain's innings restriction, claiming he may end up in the bullpen as Mariano Rivera's set-up man sooner than later.

It was truly a special night that I won't soon forget. 

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Championship Weekend

Patriots over Chargers

There have been some recent gripes between San Diego and New England, but the Patriots have come out on top for the most part, as the Chargers have won their first playoff games since 1994 to get here. We all know about the Patriots undefeated season, and without dissecting it too much, I still cannot bet against them. 

Philip Rivers is a game-time decision, while LT and Antonio Gates will both play. Gates is claiming that he is in more pain today than he was last week, but will still reportedly get out there today in New England.

Bottom line: Patriots probably cover the two-touchdown spread.

Packers over Giants

The magic ride ends at the (Boomber voice) Frozen Tundra at Lambeau Field for the G-Men. Eli Manning has never been to Lambeau, and with the overwhelming atmosphere, and the projected 2 degree weather at gametime, it will be tough to succeed. 

Giants fans that I've talked to have claimed that they are so confident in Eli Manning that when he throws it down the field, they no longer hold their breath. I do not believe them. 

Today is the day for Eli to prove himself. If the Giants lose, but not at the direct cost of Eli Manning, maybe he is actually turning a corner. Only time will tell, can't wait for these games.

Last Weeks Record: 3-1
Overall Playoff Record: 6-2

Super Bowl Prediction: Green Bay vs. New England