God Returns to First

Notes from the grapefruit league, Yankees edition

The Yankees' Legends Field in Tampa is across the street from the Buccaneers' Raymond James Stadium, on the modestly named Steinbrenner Drive. The Boss, reportedly in failing health, was nowhere to be seen during my stay, but his fingerprints are still all over the spring-training facility ?—a low, wide-open, manicured park with a capacity of just over 10,000, usually sold out. The Yankees' retired numbers—from Martin (1) through Guidry (49)—are arranged with plaques in a mini Monument Park out front. While I don't know if the man-made pond located next to the stadium was his idea, its resident swans seem like a Steinbrenner touch.

The team, though, has been largely made over in the image of General Manager Brian Cashman, who's nursing the organization off its aging-big-name-free-agent addiction and resuscitating the farm system. But the Yankees still kicked off spring-training in high, Bronx Zoo–style: A-Rod declared that his friendship with Jeter had dropped to room-temperature, Mariano Rivera contemplated leaving as a free agent next season, and Bernie Williams declined a minor-league contract. Things have since calmed down a bit. But the blessing and curse of the Yankees is that there's always something.

—Prodigal lefty Andy Pettitte is only 34, but he came back from his three-year stint in Houston with a significant splash of gray hair. What the hell happened to him down there in the Sunbelt? I blame Roger Clemens.

In any case, Pettitte's simulated start last week was one of spring training's more surreal moments: Pettitte on the mound, Jeter and A-Rod fielding behind him, and current bench coach Don Mattingly (better known to Yankee fans my age as "God") playing first base. "Dude, don't get hit," Pettitte told Donnie Baseball before the game. "Just get out of the way of it."

The rest of the field was manned by minor leaguers, many wearing numbers that induced double-takes in the press box: 51 (soon to be retired for Bernie Williams), 6 (Joe Torre), 41 ("When did Miguel Cairo become white and left-handed?"). First-base candidate Andy Phillips was every third batter, because he'd missed a week of camp to be with his mother while she recovered from a serious car accident. He went 2 for 9 in four innings. "[Pettitte] threw some quality pitches," Phillips reported, including his cutter. "I'm just glad I didn't hit any into my ankle. Usually that's the case."

—The Yankees' young Taiwanese ace, Chien-Ming Wang—now entering his third season—still isn't what you'd call a chatterbox. But his English seems to have improved significantly since last year. He didn't take classes, he says, but learned from "just talking to teammates—and watching TV. Movies." Wang seems poised to pick up where he left off, with a 2.57 ERA in 14 spring innings.

—So you thought it was too early to get excited about Met first-base prospect Mike Carp, age 20? Meet Yankee Jose Tabata, a young Venezuelan outfielder who raked the ball for a .462 average, a .563 on-base percentage, and a .692 slugging percentage—despite being only 18 years old—making him the buzz of Steinbrenner Drive. Of course, that was in all of 13 at-bats. "He's just a baby," Torre kept saying, and he's right. But I don't know too many babies with an arm like that.

Tabata was reassigned to the minor league camp last week. As I watched him clean out his locker, I tried to capture the mental picture for later retrieval—in case, in 2011 or so, he's named to the All-Star team or hits a game-winning homer in the playoffs. The image of him stuffing uniforms into a duffle bag could make a nice story lead one day . . .

—Phil Hughes, the 20-year-old pitcher and projected No. 1 starter, was returned to the minors on Wednesday after a few rough spring outings. "I got a lot of good things out of it," he said of his stay. Yankee fans have begun talking about Hughes as if he'll be healing the sick and turning water into $7.50 beers when he finally arrives at the Stadium. But while he didn't quite dazzle with his pitching this spring, he did impress with his maturity. "He just seems very responsible," said Torre, "especially with all the attention he's gotten." And either he's naturally savvy about the press, or the Yankees crack PR team has already taught him well, because he uttered all the proper sentiments about knowing his place, working hard, trying his best, and learning from the experience —all with a side order of eye contact and a firm handshake.

—A-Rod's words always seem to speak louder than his actions, but he is hitting .324 with a .435 on-base percentage (though, as of this writing, no homers). He takes a staggering amount of batting practice every day, both on the field and in the indoor cages under the stadium. No one ever accused him of being in less than peak condition, but this year jumpy young pitchers should probably avoid looking at his arm muscles. The guy has pythons.

Jeff Karstens, who started six games for the Yanks as a rookie last year, may be having the best spring of any Yankee pitcher. He looked absolutely terrific against the Twins last week. Well, actually, he looked 15, but he pitched great. He may still start the year in AAA Scranton, but he has an outside shot at replacing the so-far uneven Japanese import Kei Igawa or Carl "All the Jokes Have Already Been Made" Pavano.

—Torre stressed yet again that he'll only use Mariano Rivera for the ninth inning, to protect his arm. But he also made it clear that this was his call, not Mo's. According to Torre, Rivera's response was: "I understand what you're doing, boss. But when you need me, I'm ready." Of course. The Yankees' bullpen is shaping up impressively, but watching a mere mortal struggle to get out of the eighth inning while Rivera looks on from the pen . . . well, it's unfortunate that Yankee Stadium cuts off beer sales after the seventh-inning stretch.

—I'm sure that parts of Tampa are lovely. But the area surrounding the La Quinta Hotel on West Gandy Boulevard —where I stayed —is not one of them. Neighboring businesses include a pawn shop, a check-cashing place, Woody's auto-repair garage, and a Hooters. I don't think any of the players are staying here. Anyway, it's certainly been interesting, and at times exhilarating, but after two weeks I'm more than ready to head home to Brooklyn, craving vegetables and other food you can't find in a ballpark, my own bed, my dog, and, you know, the presence of other women. Seriously, I'm not particularly girly, but at this point I just want to get a manicure, rent Pretty in Pink, and talk about relationships.

It's time for games that matter—you can tell because half the press box (to say nothing of the team) is more focused on March Madness than anything happening on the field after the fourth inning. Sure, the fans at Yankee and Shea stadiums may be a little crazy sometimes, or irrational, or even cruel. But spring-training rooters—with their advanced median age and reluctance to play loose with their blood pressure—make me pine for the intense borough crowds. Relaxed atmospheres make me nervous. And if there's not a single fistfight in the stands, I don't see how you can call it a Yankees-Red Sox game.

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