Bombers' secret weapon
By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

I heard the Yankees had a Secret Weapon. Drove myself over to the Atlanta Braves spring training camp at Disney's Wide World of Sports to see his swing. Just to see how big of a secret it was. Maybe after I saw him, he'd stay a secret. Forever. Some phenoms are like that. Unphenomenal.

No, it wasn't Matsui.

Erick Almonte
The Yankees love Almonte. The bad news? He's a shortstop.
Matsui is no secret.

Besides, he wasn't there, anyway.

"Como se llama?" That revealing-on-many-levels question was asked of the Secret Weapon by a spavined old baseball photographer who's basically retired into a perpetual spring training. Still fast enough to beat me to the draw, though.

"Erick," said the big, tall, handsome Latino guy. Erick Almonte. He looked like a big leaguer, in spite of his big number, 60, Some guys are beyond numbers; you can look at them and tell.

"This a split-squadder?" I asked, using both American English and the lingo of spring baseball, a back door slider of a question to a young and hopefully bilingual man.

He nodded, said, "Yep," and started to swing.

Oligatory bunt. Then Almonte began to ride Willie Randolph's BP pitches, flicking out the bat like a snake's tongue, easy, languid flicks that produced line drives to all fields. Then he jumped out of the cage so Juan Rivera and David Post got in their swings, then he jumped back in, the hits now coming in low line drives off the outfield walls. Took the sound a second to get back to us. Boom. Bam. Then out again, then in, now lifting liners over the fence, home runs that start out making a shortstop bend his knees.

An impressed expletive burst from my lips. Rondell White, watching closely, looked over at me, raised his eyebrows, nodded, then shook his head and sighed. Baeball is full of conflicting signals like that, and you kind of have to know how to read them to get a jump, an edge. Big-leaguers (and those who write about them) are always looking for an edge, hence Ephedra.

Now you and I wouldn't give a second thought about never using Ephedra again, if somebody had keeled over and died behind using it. Big leaguers figure if they don't press that edge, somebody trying to take their job will. So there it is.

Rondell's good people, a fine big league player, too; his shot with the Yanks was killed by a busted-up finger that never healed last year; never could grip the bat, couldn't be Rondell -- .250 with 14 bombs ain't really Rondell. He knew he was gone, with Modesi and Bernie and Matsui slated in the outfield, and Rivera being more economical (Rondell makes five large) as a fifth outfielder/utilityman.

Rondell knew it was not personal. He'd bought the Yankee hype, loved playing with All-Stars like Posada and Jeet and Bern and Moose and Mariano and Clemens, and really had wanted to produce as a Yankee, but it didn't work out. But he had nothing had to say about Matsui or his potential for defensive disaster in the oceanic reaches of the outfield at Yankee Stadium. Rondell said nothing but good things about the mechanical consistency of Matsui's level swing, said he'd put up numbers. As for Rondell, we figured the National League, only question being where. He was traded to San Diego before you could say Trevor Hoffman, where he'll get the injured Phil Nevin's ABs. Better for Rondell to get his 500 ABs anywhere in the Show than be a Yankee and only get 200. In baseball, as in life, you can do far worse than San Diego. Dusty and the Cubbinis might be sorry they didn't find a way to get Rondell White from the Yankees, but then again, the Yankees pried a very good lefty pitching prospect from the Padres, as well as Bubs Trammell. Bubs don't know it, but he was the throw-in.

Rondell White
Much to the delight of Padre fans, Rondell has something to prove.
Rondell also left me with this impression: "He's serious, Erick Almonte," said the outfielder. "He's real serious."

This was the consensus among the Yankees, or the ones that I asked, and also scouts from the Tigers, Cardinals and Yanks that I shared lunch with later on. They agreed on nothing except Erick Almonte. Seemed like bad fiction. Another Almonte? Related to the kid who pitched and dominated Little League partly because he was too old?

By the time Erick Almonte finished taking his swings, I forgot to ask him. But I did nod, respectfully, the way one does to people who exhibit a special, manly, but curiously useless skill, outside of the sport. Unless you happen to be Joaquin Phoenix playing an insane Mel Gibson's brother in "Signs," and suffer a home invasion by a big green alien.

I swept my arm away from my chest toward him -- toward Almonte, I mean, not the alien -- palm down, effecting a smooth, sweet swing. He nodded and said, "Thanks," and then got ready for warmup tosses and the game. Got a knock, too, for two ribs, was in a 0-2 hole in that AB.

I liked him.

The scouts loved him.

Almonte, the Yankees Secret Weapon, is destined not to play in the big leagues, at least not for the Yankees, not at shortstop. Unless he can move to third or the outfield, when he makes the big leagues it'll be for somebody else, having been traded for more pitching, or as part of a negotiation when Cashman, Tom Hagen to Steinbrenner's Corleone, makes some other feeder club an offer they can't refuse.

Almonte played shortstop in the game I saw, to no great defensive effect either way, so maybe the question is moot. He was only at short bcause Jeter El Gato was playing in Tampa; Almonte played short because it was a split-squad game, and although Bernie, Ventura and Nick Johnson were in Orlando, the Yankees also were playing at Legends field in Tampa that day, so "naturally Steinbrenner's gonna keep Matsui and Soriano and especially Jeter over there, to draw fans, dough for him," said the spavined old shooter.

"Yeah," I said.

Your mind can wander during a spring training game, or any baseball game, which is why the general public tires so easily of it, particularly in these days of datastreaming.

But I am a hopeless convert and low priest of big league baseball. It is my kind of religion, along with basketball, football, boxing, track & field, Tiger Woods, Presbyterians, full Gospel choirs, and in a pinch, Methodist Espicopalians.

I grew up on big-league baseball in the sportswriting trade, and have traveled far and wide with it, have seen it take me a long way in turn. I know spring training is duty that puts the Super Bowl week to shame, that baseball travel is the best sports travel of all. Back when I did it, it was with the best, most gregarious group of guys and gals, on the beats back in the day with the Giants and A's. If you're living it, baseball is a pretty good life, and anytime you're around the game after that, you feel it, and feel it strongly. If you run up on an Erick Almonte, you evaluate on autopilot.

Derek Jeter
Here's a number to measure Derek's leadership: four rings.
I innocently asked some of the Yankees, Bern in particular, one question. Now, Bernie Williams was the best Yankee player by far before Jeter, let alone Almonte, arrived. Bern was the Yankee center fielder; in the years since DiMaggio and then Mantle, it became a mythic position. Along comes Jeter at short, and now older Yankee fans can't explain in words what he means to them. He's unilateral in his appeal. Some women, young and old, come to the game strictly for him, for the men who, to them, look good in their pajamas. From older white male Yankee fans to younger multi-culti fans of What or Who's Going On At This Moment, Jeter's appeal is strong; there is a Naturalness to him that knows no space or time or particular generation. He's Ballplayer.

Jeter's skills are more subtle than a Bonds, or an A-Rod. His is presence beyond the readily apparent, like faith itself, the evidence of things unseen.

He's even here when he's not here, like today, when we are supposed to evaluate the Yankees' Secret Weapon, trying to figure out if it's Hideki Matsui or Erick Almonte. Jeter is the real Secret Weapon. Apparently, he's become a mystery to Der Boss, who berated him this spring basically because he signs the checks, and therefore could. But it is Jeter, not Boss Steinbrenner, who wears a single digit number in the home pinstripes. For all Steinbrenner put into and got out of the Yankees, at the end of the day, he's only as big as his wallet, while Jeter is as big as the collective imagination.

So the question for Bernie was "if you had all the A.L. shortstops on your team, which one would actually play shortstop for you, and where would you put the others?"

Bern didn't think about it for very long. "Jeter at short, A-Rod at third, then probably Nomar at second base, him or Omar, and then maybe DH Tejada," Bernie said.

The other Yankees agreed. Some had Tejada at second and Nomar DHing, but they all had Jeter at short and A-Rod at third. Just to check this out, I asked this of a couple Braves, Chip Jones and Marcus Giles. They said the same. Imagine, a player like A-Rod is out there, possibly -- possibly?! -- the all-time best at his position, with the potential to break the home run record of Hank Aaron or Barry Bonds, who has the potential to win the Triple Crown in any given year, who fields his position as well or better than Cal Ripken Jr. in his prime -- and yet, the consensus among the big leaguers I checked was that you'd move him to third!

Admittedly, this says a lot for Jeter, yet it isn't a total value judgement of the ballplayers. If you had to pick one player to start a team, it would be A-Rod, hands down, with Barry Bonds second, remembering that Bonds is 39. But in the scenario we offered, A-Rod's offensive numbers are more in line with a power position like 5, and actually by playing third he could last longer. Some of it is a value judgement. You want Jeet in the pivotal defensive position on the field, except maybe on the day after his annual birthday party. Sit him that day, just to cut down on confusion, just to take the play away from Der Boss, just to let Jeet recover from the party, athough he had hardly needs the consideration. He is self-contained, built to last. Now I'm going to his birthday party, if invited, and tying one on, too. Why am I going? I've been to a Jeter birthday party before, and know what Steinbrenner is missing. Dime City. Plus.

Between Jeter and A-Rod, both can make all the plays but there's a certain je ne sais qua, a generalship Jeter has, made most clear by his back-handed relay toss to Posada from the first base line off an errant throw from Spencer against the As in the playoffs two years ago to get little Giambi at the plate, and thus beat the A's.

If you are a shortstop, you don't want to come up in the Yankees chain, even if you are a Secret Weapon with a sweet power swing and "The Natural"-like presence.

If you're Erick Almonte, you become a big third sacker with outfield tendencies, and just nod and say, "Thanks," when strangers offer you flattery that gets you nowhere.


Right now, a devilish little angel looking like John Travolta with the Vinny Barbarino hair and a three-day shadow is tapping me on the shoulder, whispering, nagging, saying, "Hey, you, Melonballhead Columnist, keep on writing this baseball crap, especially this reflective, essay-form, stream-of-stupidity baseball crap, and pretty soon, nobody'll ever hear from you again, or want to. Hey, listen up, nobody cares, McGraw, Rube, Mr. High Heat, Mr. Lord Charles; nobody watches baseball, nobody has the patience, them that do are just rooting for laundry, just like Seinfield said. The rosters are turned over every year, and it's too foreign now, and most of all it's too... damn ... slow ... zzz ..."

I almost talk back to this devilish angel on my shoulder. Actually, I do, then I fake like I'm talking into the headset of a hidden cell phone, so people won't think I'm nuts.

Miguel Tejada
Thanks for stopping by Miguel, don't let the door hit you on the way out.
I write on, even about baseball once or twice a year, and I hope that you, my longtime readers, fans and bushwhackers alike, give me a pass. I know you don't care for it, but I can't help it, I still enjoy big-league ball, like to work in its orbit at times. If you want to read the R-Dub baseball picks, go ahead. If you don't, ain't a whole lot I can do about it. Either way, I'm making them -- this is what I do. They are at least good enough to argue over, if you can find somebody else who cares enough about baseball to argue with.

AL East
New York Yankees -- The answer my friend, is not blowing in the wind, but stationed up the middle. Posada, Jeter, Soriano, Bernie. Doesn't get any better. They have issues closing, but when Contreras comes around, they'll pull away. It makes me sick, what's happened to the Orioles. I'm for exhuming Earl Weaver and bringing him back.

AL Central
Chicago White Sox -- The Curse of the Kirbino may strike the Twins this year; face it, they did it with mirrors and a good book on how to pitch Miggie in the playoffs, and because blithering nice guy Art Howe -- speaking of nuts -- didn't pitch Zito in the first game, instead letting him go on the last day of the season, two days before the ALDS.

AL West
Oakland A's -- Smart move by Billy Beane, not to sign Miggie long-term. Deserved MVP, but may have a little Mo Vaughn in him; may swell up in a bad way. The Twinks sure found his hole in the playoffs. If I could only keep Eric Chavez or Miggie, I'd pick Chavvie, too. Having said that, the A's still have Miggie this year, and the best rotation in the West, and Dye and Durazo can hit. The M's will miss Lou Piniella more than they know, the Angels will miss the Rally Monkey more than they know, although, on balance, I'd rather have Mike Scoscia, the best field manager in the division, no offense to Buck Showalter in Texas, and none taken, I'm sure, not if the Rangers can press the A's.

NL East
Atlanta Braves -- Tough call. Mets better, Phils better, but Braves also better; Hampton not better than Glavine over a career, but at this point better, and with something ro prove, and a chip. Russ Ortiz was Giants' best pitcher. Maddux. Look for Larry Bowa to want to kill somebody, anybody, sometime around August; no Scott Rolen to kick around this time. Thome can pole. Watch the Phils' Jimmy Rollins. Best SS in the NL. Which makes him fifth-best in ball.

NL Central
Chicago Cubs -- Just a bet on the come, pitching-wise. The Cubs have four live arms, under green heads; picked up relief help. Houston and Cards right there, except Houston may have rotation-depth problems. Love Oswalt's stuff and demeanor, but after him, eh. And you're depending on Jeff Kent not to cause abrasions in the clubhouse? Ohhh-keh.

NL West Arizona Diamondbacks -- You can't pick against a rotation including Unit, Schill and Submariner Kim over 162, although the Giants are verrry interesting.

One other thing:

"Bawnds. Barry Bawnds."

Always wanted to say that.

Why? I don't know. Ask my (not the) Angels.

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."





SECRET WEAPON

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