Matt dying to be a Yankee

February, 25, 2013
2/25/13
5:30
PM ET
SARASOTA, Fla. -- The Yankees have one outfielder who will miss the first five weeks of the regular season with a broken arm. They have another who persists, despite his manager's threats and pleadings, in going headfirst into first base even though he busted his thumb doing it a couple of years ago.

And they have a third outfielder who pulls dangerous plants out of the ground with his bare hands.

It's a good thing there are a dozen outfielders in camp this year even without Curtis Granderson, who will be out until May since getting hit by a J.A. Happ fastball in his first -- and only -- spring training at-bat on Sunday.

[+] EnlargeMatt Diaz
AP Photo/David J. PhillipMatt Diaz is 0-for-6 so far this spring.
Brett Gardner gave a tantalizing taste of what the Yankees' offense could be like this season with three hits, two of them infield singles, one of them a perfect bunt. He also left behind a potential nightmare for Joe Girardi when he dove into first base on his first at-bat of the game, and narrowly missed having his hand stepped on by Orioles first baseman Chris Davis.

But the most gruesome picture of all was painted by Matt Diaz, who told the story of the thumb injury that robbed him of the final six weeks of last season.

Seems Diaz, a Lakeland, Fla., native, likes to do his own yard work and one day decided to pull some palm fronds -- those are the giant leaves the servants use to fan Cleopatra with in old movies -- out of the ground. With his bare hands. This happened back in 2006, and by 2009, the stabbing pain in his right thumb whenever he batted became too much, so he went in for surgery, which did not solve the problem.

By last August, he began noticing a strange substance oozing from his right thumb, and wound up in surgery again.

"There was a pus coming from the inside out," he said. "It was pretty awesomely disgusting when I'd get jammed by a pitch. So they cut my thumb open from top to bottom, searched in there and found four splinters that were sticking in the nerve."

Turns out they were splinters from the palm frond Diaz had yanked out six years earlier.

"I now hire a lawn man and I wear Kevlar or leather gloves when I go outside," he said.

Diaz, who turns 35 on Sunday, was signed to compete for a backup outfield spot but is now a Very Important Yankee, one of two veterans vying for the starting left field job at least for the first five weeks of the season until Granderson returns. He and Juan Rivera, who played left in Monday's 5-1 loss to the Orioles at Ed Smith Stadium, are the frontrunners for the job, although Joe Girardi said youngsters Mekly Mesa, Zoilo Almonte and Ronnier Mustelier will get looks, too.

"One of the reasons they bring guys like me into a camp like this is to add depth," said Diaz, who batted .222 with two HRs and 13 RBIs in 51 games for the Braves last year. "If they choose to give me that job, of course I'd love it. I'd love the opportunity, but there's 43 home runs we need back soon."

Diaz is a realist -- in 10 major-league seasons, he has never been an everyday player and has never played more than 95 games in left field in any season -- but also a guy who just seems happy to be a Yankee after spending the last seven seasons in Atlanta. He said he and his son "prayed for Grandy last night, because we need him back."

Diaz's first two games as a Yankee weren't great -- on Monday, he went 0-for-3 as the DH, including a double play, and stranded five runners; on Saturday he was 0-for-3 as the left fielder -- but his impression of the club so far has been positive.

"When you play against the Yankees, you want to think that these guys are pompous because they expect you to know who they are because there aren't names on the back," he said. "But within three days of being at camp I realize why there's no names on the back. It's really not about anyone's name on the back, it's all about the name on the front."
Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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TEAM LEADERS

WINS LEADER
Masahiro Tanaka
WINS ERA SO IP
13 2.77 141 136
OTHER LEADERS
BAJ. Ellsbury .271
HRB. McCann 23
RBIB. McCann 75
RB. Gardner 87
OPSB. Gardner .749
ERAH. Kuroda 3.71
SOH. Kuroda 146