Yankees Get Run For Their Money
Mark Teixeira might be in his first season with the New York Yankees, but the first baseman has quickly learned who's "The Boss."
When principal owner George Steinbrenner made a surprise visit to the team - his second this season - before a victory at the Tampa Bay Rays last week in St. Petersburg, Fla., Teixeira knew exactly how to respond.
"We owe everything to 'The Boss.' He's why we're all here," Teixeira says. "I told him I'm having a great time and thanks."
Steinbrenner and his sons, Hank and Hal, who run the team, can say, "You're welcome." For now, at least.
The Yankees lead the American League East at the latest point in a season since winning the division in 2006, and a big reason is the offseason investment of $423.5 million in three players: Teixeira and pitchers CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett.
"It's incredible how important these guys have been," Yankees left fielder Johnny Damon says. "I feel like they've been worth about seven or eight games apiece."
Unlike some of their high-priced predecessors, each player says he has had no problem getting comfortable with the intense scrutiny or high expectations that come with playing in New York. That pressure will get ratcheted up starting today when the Boston Red Sox come to town for a four-game series.
The Yankees, with a 1-game lead on the Red Sox entering play Wednesday, will turn to Teixeira, Burnett and Sabathia - the latter two are the scheduled starters Friday and Saturday - for what could be a key point for two teams that have exchanged the division lead five times since May 24 and have never been more than five games apart.
In addition, the Yankees are winless in eight games against the archrival Red Sox this season and, with 10 games remaining, they are trying to avoid a season series against Boston comparable with 1973 (4-14) or 1912 (2-19).
Break from the past
The Bronx is filled with many examples of high-profile, highly paid free agents who flamed out under Yankee Stadium's bright lights, and in recent times they have been pitchers:
Right-hander Carl Pavano, who signed a four-year, $39.9 million contract in December 2004 but struggled with injuries and went 9-8 with a 5.00 ERA in 26 starts over the life of the contract.
Righty Jaret Wright, who signed in the same offseason for $21 million over three years and went 16-12 with a 4.99 ERA in two seasons before being traded.
And reliever Kyle Farnsworth, who took a three-year, $17 million deal before the 2006 season and was 6-9 with a 4.33 ERA in two-plus seasons.
Sabathia, 29, and Burnett, 32, are distancing themselves from that part of the team's infamous history. Only three AL pitchers have more than Sabathia's 11 victories, while Burnett's 10 tie him for ninth in the league. And their ERAs - 3.89 for Burnett, 3.95 for Sabathia - put them in the AL's top 25.
"It's gone very well," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman says. "When you play a three- or four-game series as a visitor in Yankee Stadium, it's a nice weekend. It becomes that much more difficult to perform when the Yankees commit the kind of money it takes to add these players."
Each pitcher is 0-1 against Boston, and they have combined to allow 17 runs in 14 innings. It's that inconsistency that has Sabathia and Burnett dissatisfied with their seasons.
"It's annoying," says Sabathia, who signed the most lucrative contract for a pitcher in history with a seven-year, $161 million deal. "My command has been off since before the All-Star break. I've been getting away with a lot (of mistakes)."
Burnett's deal, after exercising an opt-out clause in his contract with the Toronto Blue Jays, is for five years and $82.5 million. He sees Year 1 as a work in progress.
"I could be way better," the 10-year veteran says. "I'm throwing decent. I haven't had a game yet when I had a good fastball and a good curveball. . . . I'm quite the perfectionist."
Burnett went 8-2 with a 2.08 ERA over 11 starts before allowing seven runs in 4 innings Saturday against the Chicago White Sox. Sabathia says he was more satisfied after his last effort, an 8-5 victory Sunday at Chicago.
Maybe that's because it's August. In Sabathia's eight-plus-year career, he is 51-20 after Aug. 1 compared with 77-60 before. His ERA over the final two months of seasons is 3.08 and 4.00 the rest of the year.
Wealth spread around infield
Teixeira is getting $20.6 million this year as part of his eight-year, $180 million contract. Two of the three players in the majors making more this year are in the same infield, third baseman Alex Rodriguez ($33 million) and shortstop Derek Jeter ($21.6 million). The other is Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Manny Ramirez at $23.8 million.
"You play the Yankees, and you look around the infield and think, 'Geez, I should be asking for autographs,' " says Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, the 2008 AL MVP. "It makes it fun to play against them."
The eight consecutive losses to Boston notwithstanding, for the most part the new Yankees have escaped the wrath of fans. Teixeira, a slow starter whose .249 career batting average in April is by far his worst for any month, heard boos as the Yankees fell 6 games out of first place six weeks into the season.
That's also about the time Rodriguez returned from hip surgery to bat behind Teixeira. The Yankees are 51-26 since Rodriguez came back May 8, and Teixeira has improved his batting average from .198 to .285 with 22 homers and 63 RBI.
"I wasn't worried," Teixeira says. "I know the person I am, and I know the player I am. I know the Yankees are the top organization in sports, and they're expected to be good every year."
Damon, who signed a four-year, $52 million free agent contract before the 2006 season, says Teixeira, Sabathia and Burnett have benefited from coming to New York at the same time, thus sharing the attention.
"It was different for me, especially given the circumstances" of coming from the archrival Red Sox, Damon says. "I really tried to lay low."
Teixeira is locked in as a Yankee for longer than anyone else on the roster other than Rodriguez, whose 10-year, $275 million deal runs through 2017. He knows he is in position to become a face, if not the face, of the Yankees, and he's not shying away.
"I definitely have to do the job off the field, too," he says. "There's a transition period. You have to hold yourself to a higher standard."
Still, some Yankees become icons, most notably Jeter among current players. He'll be 36, compared with Teixeira, who is 29, when his current contract ends after next season.
"It's a lot easier for him knowing he's going to be here a long time," Jeter says. Could Teixeira at least partially fill his off-field role? "Man, I don't even think about that," Jeter says. "You have to go year to year around here. That's one thing you learn."
Keeping it loose
Burnett says the clubhouse dynamics have been a pleasant surprise. As an opponent he would watch how the Yankees performed with a businesslike efficiency. He wasn't sure if they were having fun.
"I wondered about some guys," Burnett says.
"Teams get labeled," Jeter says. "The perception might be that the clubhouse was no fun. It's something that gets out there, and people run with it. But they don't see everything."
What Yankees players are careful about is toning it down when the news media are around - except for the corner occupied by Damon and outfielder Nick Swisher, another newcomer who was acquired in an offseason trade with the White Sox.
Swisher has a verbal barb for anyone at any time. He'll drop comments over the shoulders of players doing interviews. Nobody is safe.
"This team needed a guy like him," Damon says. "Every team needs a couple of guys like that."
And any team could use players the caliber of Teixeira, Sabathia and Burnett. But can they put the Yankees back into a World Series, which the storied franchise hasn't won since 2000?
Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon, whose team reached the 2008 Series, says the newcomers help the Yankees emulate the Rays' pitching-and-defense formula of last year.
"They have the pitching to sustain being hot when you have to win that 2-1 or 3-2 game when you're not hitting," Maddon says.
But it's also not easy when you know everyone, including The Boss, is watching.
Steinbrenner no longer is in day-to-day control of the team because of failing health (he was in a wheelchair for the game in St. Petersburg), but these are still the Steinbrenner Yankees. His sons have maintained Dad's win-at-all-costs approach as they play for an 11th consecutive season with baseball's highest payroll.
"I'm not going to lie," says Burnett, who played seven seasons with the Florida Marlins and three with Toronto. "I look down and see my legs covered in pinstripes, it stops me sometimes. But this is the best time I've had in baseball."