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The day has come.

The official countdown starts today. Eighty-one games left.

It’s Opening Day in New York City!

The venerable and much honored New York Yankees take the field at 1:05 p.m. EST against AL East opponent the Blue Jays.

Ben at River Ave. Blues has a story to tell you about his first Opening Day. I wish I had a chance to experience this myself.

Here’s to a great final season at The House that Ruth Built.  

I found this interesting piece in the April issue of National Geographic about the dwindling population of ash trees that supply thousands of bats used by professional players every year. Normally, I wouldn’t blog about this, but I found it ironic that of the four players featured in the picture, two are current Yankees.

ngmagbats.jpg

(click on the image to enlarge)

Now only if I could get my hands on a pre-made Jeter bat — and boast in my future family room:

“This is a pre-made Jeter bat. See how sleek the unshaven wood looks and how sweet the sound of the ball hitting the bat feels.”

Yeah, right.

It’s not often I will blog about the Red Sox. When I do, I will only do out of necessity. Today there were two pieces of news related to the Red Sox.

First came ESPN’s piece on how Red Sox Nation has become the new status quo in baseball. I’m not even going to bother commenting on this.

Secondly, Papelbon has again complained in the media about how low he is getting paid by the Red Sox this year. Jeff Louderback wrote a good piece in Sox and Pinstripes about this. I have to agree with what Jeff said here. I’m getting a bit tired of this Papelbon thing. He complained earlier this month (specifically in the press on March 4) about this. Now with the news that Joe Nathan has received a $47 million contract over four years, Papelbon felt entitled to complain again.

Nathan is tied with Rivera for the most saves in MLB since 2004, with 160. Papelbon is no where close to these two. However, I must point out that according to Baseball Reference, Nathan and Rivera have earned their fair share (but, I do think the contract that the Yankees gave Rivera was waaay overboard, but with Rivera’s stature, he’s entitled to some extra attention).

Papelbon is entering his third full season (he played in 2005, but did not earn any saves). In 2006 he had 35 saves in 59 games (68.3 IP). In 2007, Papelbon had 37 saves in 59 games (58.3 IP).

Nathan had 36 saves in 2006, in 64 games (68.3), and 37 saves in 2007 in 68 games (71).

In 2006 Rivera had 34 saves in 63 games (75 IP) and 30 saves in 2007 in 67 games and 71.3 innings pitched.

All three are measurable to each other. Factor in the years of experience in the majors for Rivera and Nathan, they have the edge over Papelbon. Remember — last year the Red Sox originally wanted to put him in the rotation, only to change their minds during spring training and put him back in the closer spot (vis a vis Joba Chamberlain).

I echo Jeff in his blog, Papelbon, please shut up and let your numbers do the talking. You will earn your due.

I don’t want to hear one more whine from Papelbon this season.

It’s spring training at Steinbrenner Field. Yankees Manager Phil Hughes is standing at the top of the dugout steps watching his Yankees take the field against the Taipei Islanders in the sixth game of the spring training season. The Yankees are 4-1 thus far this spring, and leading the Islanders in the bottom of the fifth, 5-1.

Hughes has his eye on the Yanks’ prized prospect, Billy Whitetail. Whitetail reminds him about a certain “Phil Phranchise” 35 years ago. Although the Yankees’ last World Series victory came seven years ago, Hughes and his rotation mates Cole Hamels and Joba Chamberlain produced five World Series championships in twelve years. After Hughes retired, he stayed within the organization, becoming the 23rd Yankee to have his jersey number retired. Hughes was hired immediately as a minor league manager, and worked his way up to become the 43rd manager in Yankee history.

Derek Jeter, the Yankees’ erstwhile statesman at 68 years old, has taken the clubhouse lead first inspired by Yogi Berra. Jeter is joined by three other Yankee mainstays from the dynasty years of the early 21st century — Alex Rodriguez, Jorge Posada, and Mariano Rivera.

Posada can be seen in the bullpen, sitting in his navy blue windbreaker, wagging his finger at the young double A prospect eagerly consuming each word thrown at him. A-Rod is talking and laughing with the Yankees’ hitting coach, Prince Fielder, and bragging about his 2010 season, which was his last big season on his way to hitting 792 career home runs.

Rivera sits up and walks to Hughes and speaks in his ear. Hughes nods and says something back.

On the field, the Yankees’ star outfielder Chance Wright just hit a double between the gap, bringing back memories of the sweet hitting Paul O’Neil, but with younger legs and a more powerful arm.

Up in the owner’s suite, Harold Z. Steinbrenner, Jr., looks at his general manager and cheers at the offensive play just made by Wright. Steinbrenner beams at the success the Yankees have continued to produce since the team was purchased by CBS in 1973.

Hughes smiles and looks over to his pitching coach and motions for the bullpen to warm up. “We’re killing the Islanders out there,” he says.

Such is the life of the Yankee franchise 35 years from now. After it was announced today in the NY Post that Graig Nettles had his cancer surgery postponed so he could attend spring training, it has been an annual event for the Yankees to have such iconic and veteran players come to serve as guest instructors and to share stories of the game. In years past, we’ve seen Don Mattingly, Reggie Jackson, Yogi, Nettles, and others come every spring. In my story above, I had Jeter, A-Rod, Posada, and Rivera make an annual appearance. That is the wish I hope I can have granted, and provided someday after I retire, I’ll find myself in Tampa getting my picture taken with these iconic Yankees.

Although not the official mid-point evaluation of Spring Training (I’m off by two games), the Yankees have played 18 of their 31 games scheduled for this spring before the regular season gets underway in two weeks.

I’m one of the fans who could care less about spring training, largely because the games do not benefit me, except for the chance to see younger players earn roster spots. That’s the only benefit I get from this. That, and seeing the players sweat under Girardi’s calisthenics.

After defeating the Red Sox today, the Yankees are 9-7 on the year. Again, records don’t mean much (except when noting that of the eight playoff teams last year, seven had a winning record during spring training), and the true benefit is evaluating talent.

Here are a list of hitters who have stood out this spring.

For starters, Shelley Duncan. No — I’m not picking him because of his hard slide into Iwamura (of Tampa Bay). Duncan has been a monster at the plate. He has hit .333 after a hot start. Also sizzling is A-Rod (.500), Cano (.429), Cabrera (.414.), and Giambi with a .333. Of all the names I mentioned Duncan and Giambi have a lot to prove this year. Both are battling for 1B and for playing time. Giambi has the edge because he makes opposing defenses align to the right side of the field every time he comes to bat. Duncan leads by example and his playing has been fueled by passion.

As for pitchers, again the same formula applies as hitters where spring training is a chance for pitchers to earn roster spots. Aside from our five projected starters (Wang, Pettitte, Mussina, Hughes, and Kennedy), we have three locks for the bullpen: Rivera, Chamberlain, and Hawkins.

Bruney stood out today with his fastball clocking at mid-high 90s. Billy Traber looks good at this point, and he’s a sorely-needed southpaw. Scott Patterson has been impressive also, pitching an inning or two and often earning a couple of strikeouts and not allowing runs or hits. Oft-maligned Farnsworth has been decent, but not great. Igawa continues to be a major disappointment, especially when given some flexibility in preparing himself during the first week of spring training. Note to the Steinbrenner family: No more fat toads. Only Yu Darvish.  I had been hoping for a good spring from Ohlendorf, Rasner, and Karstens. So far, only Rasner has done a decent job. Will Rasner earn a bullpen spot? Probably not, but he will be within shouting distance in Scranton-Wilkes Barre.

I definitely think our pitching is in better shape than the Red Sox. Look at what happened to Colon today.

The Yankees have 12 games remaining. Tomorrow against Virginia Tech, then three more games against Pittsburgh, two against Toronto, one against the whiny Rays, two against Philadelphia, one against Cleveland and to wrap up spring training, two against Florida.

Yankees should finish spring training above .500.

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