The Weekly Comebacker: The baseball week in review
The Week That Was in Baseball: November 22-28, 2010
Derek Jeter: Off-Broadway? The Unlikeliest Final Stops of Star Players
Who's Hisashi Iwakuma and Why Does He Want $125 Million? Toronto for Manny?

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Chained in Pinstripes?
Derek Jeter might as well face it: Once a Yankee icon, always a Yankee icon. Babe Ruth never looked at home in a Boston Braves uniform. Mickey Mantle never bothered looking elsewhere, Lou Gehrig never got the chance, and Joe DiMaggio and Yogi Berra looked positively goofy as bench coaches for, respectively, Oakland and Houston, during baseball’s rainbow revolution of uniforms during the late 1960s and 1970s.

Many assumed that negotiations for a new Yankee contract for Jeter would be a slam dunk; Jeter has become as iconic as the great names immortalized in Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park, is immensely beloved in the Bronx and is on the brink of his 3,000th hit—and, at age 35, might even have a shot at 4,000. But Jeter’s production slipped this year; he hit a career-low .270, and although he committed just six errors—resulting in a career-best .989 fielding percentage—his diminishing number of total chances while playing shortstop over the last five years suggests that his range is eroding.

Combine that with Jeter’s age (he turns 36 next June), and the Yankees are less willing to continue paying him the nearly $20 million he’s made annually over the last decade. So they’ve set the bar with a three-year offer at $15 million per season, a package they feel no one else would care to match. Jeter’s camp isn’t happy; they want more years and more money, though how much remains a mystery outside of the negotiating room. (Jeter’s agent, Casey Close, did deny a New York Daily News report that he was demanding $150 million over six years.)

This past week, as Close and Yankee general manager Brian Cashman barked at one another through the media over Jeter, the Yankees took a calculated risk: They told reporters that if Jeter wants to look for a better deal elsewhere, he has a right as a free agent to do so. The Yankees are well aware that Jeter has much emotional equity invested in the team (and vice versa), and they’re guessing that other teams are aware of this as well. So, would seeing Jeter in the uniform of the Boston Red Sox or San Francisco Giants look too awkward for all parties involved? The Yankees are betting that the answer is yes. We’ll see just how addicted Jeter is to pinstripes.

Home Writers' Advantage
The AL MVP voting broke the way we expected this past week, with Texas’ Josh Hamilton taking the honor. What was interesting to see was how the vote broke down; both writers from Detroit gave first-place votes to the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera, the runner-up; the other three first-place votes for Cabrera came from writers located in AL Central cities. The lone first-place vote not slotted for Hamilton or Cabrera came from Canadian Press (Toronto) writer Shi Davidi—who picked the Blue Jays’ Jose Bautista.

In the NL, meanwhile, Joe Strauss of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch kept Cincinnati Joey Votto’s from earning a unanimous 32 first-place votes for NL MVP by picking the Cardinals’ Albert Pujols at the top of his ballot.

Nice to know that objectivity is alive and well in baseball.

The Orient Excess
Hisashi Iwakuma thinks he’s the next Roy Halladay. The Oakland A’s, who won the exclusive right to negotiate with the Japan Pacific League right-hander, think he might become the next Halladay, too—but first, he needs to prove it. These two trains of thought left the two sides, well, an ocean apart. The A’s have initially offered Iwakuma $15 million over four years; Iwakuma wants $125 million over seven years. (Actually, Iwakuma’s budget demand is on par with that of Barry Zito, who’s bound to be evoked by any pitcher, good or bad, negotiating a new contract.)

Iwakuma has been stellar for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, going 44-19 over the last three years, but with all due respect to the other side of the Pacific, the Japan leagues are not the majors as we know it here in America; Iwakuma’s stats are even classified on under “Minor Leagues.” What Iwakuma needs to do is go two years at a modest fee in Oakland, and if he indeed shows he’s every bit as valuable as he believes, then he can move on and seek a nine-figure deal while he’s still young.

When All Else Fails, There's Japan
While Iwakuma and his reputation is attempting to make it on this side of the Pacific, an American pitcher who once held high hopes headed to the other side with one major league win to show for over eight professional seasons. The Pittsburgh Pirates made Bryan Bullington the number one pick in the 2002 MLB draft and gave him a $4 million bonus, but the right-hander from Indianapolis bounced around the minors and could only scrape the major league level with the Bucs, and unsuccessfully. Cleveland and Toronto gave him shots and didn’t like what they saw, either; Kansas City, starved for pitching, gave Bullington his most extended time at the major league level this past season and, outside of a gem of a performance on August 15 when he threw eight shutout innings against the New York Yankees, was his usual horrible self. So now he’s exporting himself to the Hiroshima Carp. Great, just what Hiroshima needs: Another bomb from America.

Past Tense
The New York Mets hired Terry Collins as their new manager this past week, which came as a bit of a surprise to former Met infielder Wally Backman, who was also in the running for the job. “I really thought I won them over,” Backman told the New York Daily News, “I came out of each interview thinking it had gone better than the one with the Diamondbacks when I got the job there.” That last comment came as a head-scratcher for those who understandably forget that Backman was the manager at Arizona about six years ago, but only for a few days; he was quickly let go when it was learned that he never told the Diamondbacks that in the five years before his hiring, he had been arrested twice—once for DUI, the other for a fight involving his wife and one of her friends—and had also declared bankruptcy after failing to pay, among many others, the IRS.

Backman has been an outstanding manager in the minors, which undoubtedly led to his interview with the Mets, but in the end it was the rap sheet, not the stat sheet, that counted.

Tanned, Recovered and Ready?
Several teams are interested in seeing if Jarrod Washburn has anything left. The 36-year old southpaw was last seen pitching for the Detroit Tigers, where he was abysmal (1-3, 7.33 ERA in eight starts) in a late season tour of duty following a trade from Seattle—where he was 8-6 with a 2.64 ERA. All of this was followed up by knee surgery, which further scared away potential employers for 2010. Now Washburn, with a 107-109 career record, says he’s been contacted by several teams and seems to be the most excited about the possibility of playing for Milwaukee, not so much because it’s close to his current home but because the Brewers’ new manager is Ron Roenicke, who Washburn seems to think the world of from his days teamed with him at Anaheim.

Home For Good
Hall of Fame broadcaster Jon Miller, let go from ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball booth a few weeks ago, turned down an offer to continue working with the network doing the Sunday games via radio. ESPN’s loss will become the San Francisco Giants’ gain; for the first time since joining the Giants in 1997, Miller will work all 162 games for the team in 2011, mostly on radio.

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The Comebacker’s Greatest Hits
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How Did I End Up Here?
To many of us, you could almost imagine the sight of Derek Jeter being born in pinstripes. That’s why it would look so strange, so weird, to see him play in a different uniform should he and the New York Yankees fail to reach an agreement on a new contract. If it were to come to that, Jeter would join the short list of famous players seemingly joined at the hip with their primary team—yet finished their careers in a strange land, far, far away:

Babe Ruth. The most iconic Yankee of them all played his one year for the Boston Braves in 1935 only so he could get the chance to manage at the big league level, a desire the Yankees refused to give him but promised by the Braves. The Sultan of Swat became the Sultan of Squat in limited time for a horrendous (38-115) Boston team, and it would have been a complete disaster had it not been for one last thunderous display in which he blasted the last three home runs of his career in one game at Pittsburgh. Worse, the Braves never made good on their promise to let Ruth manage.

Hank Greenberg. After a bitter preseason salary dispute in 1947, the life-long Detroit Tiger was traded to Pittsburgh, where his stay would be a short one; even with the Pirates moving in the fences at voluminous Forbes Field to accommodate his arrival, Greenberg’s production declined and, at age 36, decided to pack it up and work in the front offices. Greenberg’s brief time in Pittsburgh was not a total loss for the Bucs; he was critical in helping a young Ralph Kiner emerge as a premier slugger.

Jackie Robinson. The legendary Brooklyn Dodger couldn’t bear the thought of putting on the uniform of the archrival New York Giants, so he never did; at age 38, Robinson decided it was time to quit rather than accept a trade to the enemy.

Duke Snider. Another of Brooklyn’s famed Boys of Summer who, unlike Robinson, swallowed his pride in 1964 and accepted an assignment to the Giants, now located in San Francisco. (His road to the Giants took him through New York, where he played one year for the Mets.) Snider’s immense power numbers were left behind in Brooklyn and his one-year stay in San Francisco (.210, four homers in 91 games) was as frustrating as his time as a Dodger in Los Angeles.

Warren Spahn. When age finally caught up to the ageless 363-game winner in 1963—he went from a 23-7 record in 1962 to 6-13, and his ERA doubled to 5.29—the Milwaukee Braves figured the most appropriate place for Spahn to resettle would be the infant New York Mets, still losing badly under manager Casey Stengel. Spahn doubled as pitching coach but couldn’t save himself; he won four of 16 decisions and was dealt at midseason to the Giants before retiring at age 44. 

Eddie Mathews. It was an odd sight to see the slugger who began his career in the archaic trenches of Boston’s Braves Field finishing out his career in the futuristic Houston Astrodome, but that’s where Mathews found himself in 1967 after 15 years with the Braves. A power decline that began with the Braves (not even the homer-happy confines of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium could save him in 1966) continued with the Astros for Mathews, who was traded late in the year to Detroit, where he finished off his career a year later.

Juan Marichal. Los Angeles Dodger fans couldn’t believe their ears when they heard, in 1975, that Marichal—the former Giant ace who ten years earlier became an unforgiveable villain for beating up Dodger catcher Johnny Roseboro with a bat—had signed as a free agent to play for the Dodgers. (Imagine Nancy Pelosi turning Republican.) Roseboro, by now retired, had to plead with Dodger fans to accept Marichal, and they did—but the 38-year old pitcher had nothing left and was released after two unimpressive starts.

Ron Santo. The beloved Chicago Cub, at age 34, became the first player in 1974 to refuse a trade (to the California Angels) citing the five-and-ten rule—five years’ experience for one team, ten years overall—recently enacted under the new collective bargaining agreement. Santo instead accepted a move to the crosstown White Sox because it would allow him to stay “home.” His one year on the South Side was terrible; with Bill Melton already stationed at third base, Santo was given the designated hitter role and hated it, batting .221 with just five home runs in 117 games. He retired after the season.

Harmon Killebrew. After experiencing a significant decline in production as he entered his late 30s, Killebrew was released by the Twins—the one and only team he played for, over two decades—and took on a designated hitter role with the Kansas City Royals in 1975. Killer looked soft in powder blue uniforms playing on artificial turf and in front of sparkling water displays, hitting just .199 with 14 homers over 106 games in what would be his final season.

Joe Morgan. Although best remembered as a Cincinnati Red, Morgan never looked odd playing elsewhere in the NL with stops in Houston, San Francisco and Philadelphia. But at age 41, Morgan skipped over to the AL in 1984 and gave it one more try for the Oakland A’s; he looked as uncomfortable on the field (.244 average) as he did in the kelly green and gold uniforms of the A’s.

Toronto Manny Leaf?
Manny Ramirez needs a team. The Toronto Blue Jays need some swagger to go with their budding talent that impressed this past season. Sounds like this could be a match made north of the border.

There has been chatter in Toronto over a possible signing of the mercurial Ramirez, and as much as the Jays are likely fighting their basic instincts over bringing him on, baggage and all, there is a potentially big upside to such an acquisition. First, a productive Ramirez means a boost at the box office, an improvement the Jays (25th out of 30 MLB teams in attendance) badly need. Second, his presence might force some respect for Toronto upon the rest of the hugely tough AL East, which currently boasts three significant, star-studded beasts (Boston, New York and Tampa Bay). And third, Ramirez could add some significant pop to an already powerful (albeit inconsistent) offense. Of the few AL teams rumored to be interested in Ramirez (forget the NL; Ramirez is strictly DH material as he nears 40), Toronto makes the most sense as his next destination.

Farewell to Tom and Danny
Two former major league pitchers passed away in the last week. In Palm Beach, Florida, Tom Underwood succumbed to pancreatic cancer a month shy of his 57th birthday. Underwood pitched 11 years in the majors for six different teams, including four years with division-winning teams: The 1976-77 Philadelphia Phillies, the 1980 New York Yankees and the 1981 Oakland A’s. (Neither team made it to the World Series.) Underwood was 86-87 with a career 3.89 ERA.

Also passing away was Danny McDevitt, whose major league experience was brief (six years, 21 wins in 155 appearances) but has a unique place in baseball annals as the man who started and finished a five-hit shutout of the Pittsburgh Pirates on September 24, 1957—the last game ever played by the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field, before their move to Los Angeles. It was one of four career shutouts for McDevitt, who died of unknown causes at age 78.

Maybe Kim Jong-Il Subscribes to the MLB Network
Last week we noted that Cleveland outfielder Shin-Soo Choo was freed of his commitment to serve in the South Korean military. Nice timing, Shin-Soo…

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