Postcards from Yankees camp
TAMPA, Fla. -- There are these moments of hyperbole, when three different networks televise a Friday night game against the Red Sox in which the first pitch is thrown out by Richard Gere ... and little-known Boston players Jose Iglesias, Juan Carlos Linares and Oscar Tejeda proceed to throw six hits into baseball's most vaunted rivalry. Those moments don't happen in Port Charlotte, Fla., or Kissimmee, Fla., because the Yankees aren't there, and in many ways, they are interruptions to the repetition and routine that is Spring Training.
So the best way to get back to all my Yankees friends is writing postcards. Now, they could see that Bartolo Colon can still throw that 93 mph two-seamer and paint the corners, and that he might hold up for a half-dozen starts. And they can see that Mark Teixeira is healthy. Fine. So here are my eight postcards from Steinbrenner Field and Dale Mabry Boulevard:
1) So it became a faux pas that TV cameras captured Cameron Diaz feeding Alex Rodriguez popcorn, then someone made up a story he was mad at CBS? His daughters liked it so much that they now feed him popcorn.
There is a lot that can be said about A-Rod. Does he like the attention? Yes. Does he need to be liked? Yes. But having watched him since 1995, I can say I've never seen him fail to hustle. He is a workaholic. As one Yankees official points out: "No one's ever heard him criticize anyone else or talk behind a teammate's back."
And, most of all, that requirement to be liked makes him a valued leader and mentor to the young players. Robinson Cano credits Rodriguez with his leap to the game's elite. "Alex really enjoys constantly working with the young players," says hitting coach Kevin Long. "As he's matured, he's developed a tremendous sense of the game, and he's really good at passing it on. For all the image, there's a tremendous leadership that he clearly loves passing on to the young players."
2010 Spring Training - Major League Baseball
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This spring, A-Rod has been blown away by 20-year-old left-hander Manuel Banuelos. "He's absolutely special," Rodriguez said right away. "His stuff is really good -- 93 to 95, good curveball, change. But he knows how to pitch. And watch how he squares up on the mound. He's not afraid, he's very smart." Indeed, the 5-foot-10 kid reminds one of a young Johan Santana, with a better curveball but a changeup that is still a work in progress away from Santana.
Rodriguez insists on telling Banuelos' story. "You should know the kind of kid he is," says A-Rod. "He was making $600 a month last year and sending $350 of it home to his mother and grandmother, who are poor. He cares about them, not himself. He'll be a favorite of yours for years."
This past winter, he got to know 21-year-old Red Sox shortstop Iglesias, took him under his wing and introduced him to Rodriguez's trainer and program.
Rodriguez will forever be a lightning rod because he is such an identifiable public figure, but whether it's Long or Cano, Joe Girardi or Brian Cashman, his leadership factor has become a huge part of the DNA of this Yankees team since it won in 2009 and "A-Rod became a Yankee."
And there are worse ways to be fed popcorn than by Diaz.
2) So much has been made of Derek Jeter's work with Long on changing his stance he was asked if he were going to hit left-handed this season. "You'd think so," he replied.
All Jeter and Long did was to get him straighter toward the pitcher and eliminate his front leg kick. Essentially, with two minor changes, Jeter has become Paul Molitor, and that is high praise.
"He hasn't changed his routine at all," says Long. Jeter does all the same drills every day. He uses the same weight bat he has since he reported to rookie ball. One National League scout predicts Jeter "will hit .310 the way he's set up in this approach." The fact that Jeter is dead set on proving a lot of people wrong after criticism -- and some of the tone of his contract negotiation -- won't hurt him.
3) Going back over the 20 years of Baseball America's top 100 prospect lists, one finds that two years in a row Ruben Rivera was rated higher than Jeter. "We signed Ruben Rivera," says Gene Michael, "because Mariano -- who was just a kid in low A -- kept telling us that he had a cousin named Ruben who had as much athletic ability as anyone in the game. So Mariano was our scout. And he did have that kind of ability." Hey, Ruben Rivera enabled the Yankees to get Hideki Irabu from the Padres.
4) Joba Chamberlain looks as if he's throwing close to the way he did when he came up -- clean delivery, fastball life, a lot better than last season.
5) It is a shame that Francisco Cervelli is out for a month with a broken foot. But Russell Martin seems renewed, and Girardi and Tony Pena rave about Jesus Montero's improvement behind the plate. "Montero has worked very hard at improving his flexibility, and it's paying off," says Girardi. "He's totally different behind the plate because he's moving so much better."
"I've said for a year that this kid would be an everyday catcher who puts up huge numbers," says Pena. "He's worked tirelessly at all the drills we try to put him through, and he keeps getting better. There's no doubt he can catch every day in the big leagues and do a really good job. He's going to hit a ton of home runs, too."
6) Speaking of players on a mission, not only is A.J. Burnett throwing very hard, he's remembering some of the stuff that was said and written about him during his second-half problems of 2010. "I've got a lot to prove, and I'm going to do it," says Burnett, an exceptionally nice guy who finally may have developed a necessary chip on his shoulder.
7) Teixeira funds a scholarship for a baseball player at Georgia Tech every year, and says, "I'm trying to get a lot of the alumni to do that." Teixeira funds programs in Brooklyn. He is very involved in his own foundation.
"We owe Georgia Tech a debt of gratitude for what we got out of college," Teixeira said. One fellow Yellow Jacket has similarly helped. Kevin Brown knew DeAndre Smelter from helping out coaching a high school team in Macon, Ga. The NCAA essentially keeps lower-income kids from playing college baseball by limiting programs to 10 1/2 scholarships, so Brown took matters into his own hands. Smelter could not have afforded Tech despite his immense athletic baseball skills. Brown wanted him to go to college, so he's paying for Smelter's four years of college.
8) Now, imagine a 20-minute lunchtime conversation with Hank Steinbrenner on five-string open guitar tunings. Steinbrenner is a music and guitar aficionado who knew that Keith Richards wrote and played dozens of Stones songs in those five-string opening tunings, which he learned from Gram Parsons, among others. In fact, Hank can tell you which open tuning key Richards used on each of his songs (Steinbrenner's favorite is "Can't You Hear Me Knocking"), although his current guitar study is playing Van Halen.
Steinbrenner sponsors an inner-city New York baseball program called "Hank's Yanks." Told that the Boston Astros of the South End Baseball Program -- the largest free program in the country thanks to the nonprofits and assiduous volunteers -- won an 18-and-under AAU program last summer, Steinbrenner has already begun investigating a way to have Hank's Yanks and the Boston Astros play home-and-home games at Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium.
Gram Parsons and Hank Steinbrenner in the same sentence.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.