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“In the frozen grip of winter…”

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I had the great pleasure of meeting Hall of Fame broadcaster Jack Buck in 2001 when I was 14 years old.  I was an eighth grader, going into freshman year of high school.  My friend’s dad was his personal accountant and Buck had told my friend to “come say hello” whenever he made it to games that summer.  We only used that invitation once — didn’t want to be gnats — but that one visit is still fresh in my mind.

Buck and Mike Shannon would split innings sometimes; often it was a one-man booth.  Just two St. Louis landmarks, doing whatever they please and doing it remarkably well.

Buck was just wrapping up the bottom of the fourth inning.  The Cards were playing the Pirates for the 80th-or-so time that season.  He came up a couple of smalls steps toward where we were standing, in a tight lobby behind the old Busch Stadium announcer’s booth, and got a few notes from his son Joe as he strolled closer.  I don’t remember him being in bad health.  He seemed to be walking fine.

Buck shook my friend’s hand as I stood there deciding whether to be starstruck or embarrassed.  We looked a little out of place in the professional setting.  He said, “you boys hungry?” as he shook my hand, asked my name, and took us over to the press box grill.

Buck gave a quick nod to the man with the metal spatula and looked at us.  “Let me show you how to make a burger,” he said in that classic voice of his, a voice that made everything sound important, and good and worthy.  The man behind the grill tossed three patties onto the sizzling stovetop, then carefully made small cuts into the center of the meat.  “If you try to flatten it, you lose that juice,” Buck told us.  The man behind the grill agreed.  Grease is your friend at the ballpark.

Buck also grabbed a pack of Nutter Butters and poured them into a bowl.  Dessert.

We sat down at a table and I did my best to act confident, not shy.  “Pujols is awesome,” I efforted.

It was Albert’s rookie year.  And he was awesome.  “I can tell you, that guy has worked his tail off since spring training,” Buck replied.  Pujols would go on to hit 37 home runs that season with 130 RBI, winning National League Rookie of the Year honors by the ninth unanimous vote in baseball history.

Buck put mustard, ketchup and relish on each of our burgers at the table.  I was as picky as most teenagers and probably would have preferred a simple dollop of ketchup, but I wasn’t going to say anything. I was still fighting a feeling that we might be annoying a man at work.  No, a legend at work.

Buck asked my friend about his summer plans, he answered a few more Chris Farley Show-like questions from me and then he had to head back to the booth to call the bottom of the fifth.  Before he did, we snapped a picture and I asked him to sign my ticket stub.  I won’t ever lose those.

This portion of the baseball calendar always reminds me of Jack Buck, as strange as that might sound.  Beyond being a great broadcaster both on the radio and on television, he was a skilled writer of poetry.  Here’s a fitting excerpt for the January baseball fan from his poem “365.”

In the frozen grip of winter
I’m sure you’ll agree with me
Not a day goes by without someone
Talking baseball to some degree.

The calendar flips on New Year’s Day
The Super Bowl comes and it goes
Get the other sports out of the way
The green grass and the fever grows.

It’s time to pack a bag and take a trip
To Arizona or the Sunshine State
Perhaps you can’t go, but there’s the radio
So you listen-you root-you wait.

They start the campaign, pomp and pageantry reign
You claim the pennant on Opening Day

The Yankees are paying $86 million for a one-inning reliever

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OXON HILL, MD — The Yankees signing of Aroldis Chapman late Wednesday night came as something of a surprise. And the money — $86 million — was something of a shock. Yes, we knew that Chapman was going to break the bank and likely set a record as the highest paid relief pitcher in history, but seeing it in black and white like that is still rather jarring.

In the coming days, many people who attempt to analyze and contextualize this signing will do so by pointing to the 2016 playoffs and the unconventional use of relievers by Terry Francona and the Indians and Joe Maddon of the Cubs. They’ll talk about how the paradigm of bullpen use has shifted and how relief pitchers have taken on a new importance in today’s game. Chapman’s astronomical salary, therefore, will be described as somehow more reasonable and somewhat less shocking than it first seems.

Don’t buy that jive for a second.

Yes, Andrew Miller and, to some extent, Chapman himself were used unconventionally in the 2016 playoffs, but not long into the 2017 season we will see that as an exception, not the rule. And not just because Chapman showed himself unable to hold up to that level of use in the playoffs. It will be the exception because the Yankees have shown no inclination whatsoever to deviate from traditional bullpen usage in the past and there is no reason to expect that they will do so with Chapman in the future.

As you no doubt remember, the Yankees had Chapman, Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller for the first half of 2016. Such an imposing back end of a bullpen has rarely been seen in recent history. All of them, however, were used, more or less, as one-inning-a-piece guys and no real effort was ever made to break any bullpen usage paradigms or to shorten games the way many applauded Terry Francona for doing in the playoffs.

Miller pitched 44 games for the Yankees, totaling 45.1 innings. He pitched more than a single inning on only three occasions. Chapman pitched 31 games for the Yankees, amassing 31.1 innings. He was used for more than one inning only twice. Betances worked in 73 games, totaling 73 innings. On 11 occasions he pitched more than one inning.  It was unconventional for a team to have three relievers that good, but they were not, in any way, used unconventionally. Nor is there any reason to expect Chapman to be used unconventionally in 2017, especially given that Miller is not around and Chapman has shown no real ability to be stretched for multiple innings for a sustained period.

None of which is to say that having Chapman around is a bad thing or that he is any less of a closer than his reputation suggests. It’s merely to say that the Yankees paying Chapman unprecedented money for a closer should not be justified by the alleged new importance of relief pitchers or that changing role for them we heard so much about in the playoffs. Indeed, I suspect that that changing role applies only to pitcher use in the playoffs. And I do not suspect that this transaction alone pushes the Yankees into serious playoff contention, making that temporary unconventionality something of a moot point in New York for the foreseeable future.

It is almost certain that the Yankees are paying $86 million for the same one-inning closer Aroldis Chapman has been for his entire seven-year career. His contract may or may not prove to be a good one for New York based on how he performs, but don’t let anyone tell you now, in Decemeber 2016, that it’s better than you think because Chapman will somehow transform into a 1970s-style relief ace or something.

Report: Yankees sign Aroldis Chapman to a five-year, $86 million deal

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Update (12:02 AM EST): Rosenthal adds that Chapman’s contract includes an opt-out clause after three seasons, a full no-trade clause for the first three years of the contract, and a limited no-trade clause for the final two years.

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Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reports that the Yankees have signed closer Aroldis Chapman to a five-year, $86 million contract. Mark Melancon recently set the record for a contract earned by a reliever at $62 million over four years. Chapman blew that out of the water and many are surprised he didn’t fetch more.

Chapman, 28, began the 2016 season with the Yankees but he was traded to the Cubs near the end of July in exchange for four prospects. The Cubs, of course, would go on to win the World Series in large part due to Chapman. The lefty finished the regular season with a 1.55 ERA, 36 saves, and a 90/18 K/BB ratio in 58 innings between the two teams.

Chapman was the best reliever on the free agent market and, because he was traded midseason, he didn’t have draft pick compensation attached to him.

The Yankees don’t seem to be deterred by Chapman’s domestic violence issue from last offseason, resulting in a 30-game suspension to begin the 2016 regular season.