Here’s how desperate the Braves are to score against Yankees pitching: Bobby Cox is inserting Keith Lockhart and Ozzie Guillen into the lineup tonight. Not exactly moves that will have David Cone shaking in his spikes.
Talent is the Yankees’ main weapon, but mystery is a nice bonus. Last night’s two pitching stars were Orlando Hernandez and Mariano Rivera. Hernandez, famously, came by boat or skiff or plankton from Cuba, trading one tyrant for another, escaping from that bearded ex-hurler Fidel Castro to work for the manicured ex-football coach George Steinbrenner. American scouts had seen Hernandez several times during international tournaments, but possessed nowhere near the amount of information they accumulate on the average Stateside prospect. “We thought, at best, El Duque would be a third starter for us, a back-of-the-rotation guy,” says general manager BrianCashman. “We didn’t project anything like this.” The Yankees’ scouting genius, Gene Michael, doesn’t claim any more clairvoyance. “He had a good body, he was a good athlete, and being a good athlete will cover a lot of mistakes,” Michael says. “But it’s really hard to take what a guy does in college or in the Pan American Games and say what he might do in the big leagues, against a totally different kind of hitter. We’d scouted El Duque, but we didn’t know what to expect at all.”
Rivera has provided a different kind of surprise. Michael recalls a sudden, weird jump in Rivera’s velocity several years back, his fastball traveling 95miles an hour after never previously rising above 88; this was about five years ago, and Rivera had briefly been up with the Yankees, and been hithard. Michael was seriously considering a deal to send Rivera and another Yankees minor-league pitcher to Detroit for David Wells. At first, Michaelthought the higher radar readings for Rivera were a mistake. When he confirmed the speeds with scouts for other teams, Michael had Rivera brought back up to the Yankees, so Rivera could start a game in Chicagoagainst the White Sox. “He pitches 8 1/3 innings, gives up two hits, strikes out 10,” Michael says. “After that I called the Detroit general manager and told him, ‘Well, Rivera’s out of any trade.’ Mariano’s never been able to explain why all of a sudden he threw harder. It just happened overnight.” Michael sounds like he still wants to figure out the secret, so he can pass it on to other Yankees minor leaguers.
Today’s festivities are enlivened by Biff Henderson and a camera crew from the Letterman show. Before John Rocker goes on camera, he tells the Letterman producer, “This better be some funny shit, ‘cause Conan’s had some really good stuff on me. He has a guy imitating me, who runs around flipping everybody off. Which is exactly what I’d like to be doing!”
Rocker’s answers for the Letterman people are funnier than Derek Jeter’s. That’s okay. Jeter’s plenty entertaining between the white lines. And ifthe Braves continue to hit as poorly as they did last night, Rocker is going to be the only thing they have to laugh at.
–7:45 p.m., October 24, 1999
The scene in the Yankees’ locker room in 1996, as they were about to leave Atlanta during the World Series, came flooding back to me tonight. The Braves had mashed the Yankees in the first two games at Yankee Stadium, then the Yankees stunned them with three straight wins here, the first on a gritty pitching job by David Cone, the second on a dramatic home run by Jim Leyritz, the third on precision pitching by Andy Pettitte. After that third win, the Yankees were packing their bags and looking around at each otheras if to say, Hurry, let’s get out of town before anyone realizes what we’ve done.
Tonight was totally different. The Yankees packed fast, but businesslike fast, just the way they played. These two games were simply reaffirmationsof the team’s machinelike superiority. Chuck Knoblauch was surrounded by reporters when Derek Jeter returned from the shower; Jeter glances atKnoblauch, who is natty in a three-button yellowish suit, and says, “Man, Chuck, you’re stylin’ for your interviews!” Knoblauch laughs and says, “Yeah, I’m lookin’ pretty good, aren’t I?” The whole team is looking pretty darn good.
If this was David Cone’s last performance as a Yankee, he ended it with a wonderful flourish, reaching back to fire one final fastball past Andruw Jones and end the seventh inning, having given up no runs and one hit. Two hours later, all of the Yankees are sitting on the buses that will take the team to the airport; even George Steinbrenner, plus the team translator,the masseuse, the private security guards, and the substance-abuse counselor, all are ready to go. Cone lingers in the locker room, extending his night, his complicated season, his Yankees career just a bit longer. “I’ve had the time of my life playing for the Yankees,” Cone says. “It’s been quite a year, hasn’t it?” Then he finally climbs aboard for a happytrip home.
–1:02 a.m., October 25, 1999