First Pitch: The Mark of Zoilo

NEW YORK -- In the ninth inning of what would become a 3-1 Yankees loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, Zoilo Almonte, a rookie outfielder with all of five major-league games on his resume, stood frozen as a changeup from Fernando Rodney, one of the league's premier closers, sailed past him for strike three.

And from the seats just below the press box, a lone voice rang out: "Send him back to the minors!"

Hopefully, the man was joking and thankfully, no other anguished voice joined the chorus, which makes perfect sense when you realize Almonte has had seven hits in his first 12 big-league at-bats for a batting average of .583, an on-base percentage of .643 and a slugging percentage of 1.000.

Minuscule sample size, of course, and no one is suggesting Almonte can keep this up all year, or even all week (although I did jokingly ask him if he could after the game).

But what Almonte has demonstrated in his first week as a Yankee is that the common perception Yankees fans are star-obsessed and unwelcoming to young and unproven ballplayers is an absolute load of bunk.

Certainly, it helps that Almonte went 3-for-4 with a home run in his first start Friday night, and that he had an RBI single in Saturday's come-from-behind 7-5 win, and that on Sunday, when the Yankees' bats once again went cold, Almonte twice gave them scoring opportunities with doubles in the fourth and sixth innings.

For this weekend at least, there was a palpable buzz in the crowd whenever he came up, a feeling in an otherwise dispirited fan base, discouraged by a never-ending procession of injuries and the realization that the age on this roster may be too much for the team to overcome, that here was a player who might be able to change things

Of course, Yankee Stadium has had that feeling about other young players before, for Kevin Maas and Shane Spencer and most recently, Joba Chamberlain. Even this season, there was some buzz around David Adams, but that dissipated as the young third baseman's weaknesses were exposed on an almost daily basis.

The point is not that Almonte will turn out to be different from any of them, or even that he will turn out to be the same.

The point is that he shows us that the Yankee Stadium fan base will respond to a guy even if they don't know his name, or couldn't pick his face out of a lineup. All they need to see is ability and possibility, the possibility that all will not be lost after Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte are playing in nothing but Old-Timer's Games.

The conventional wisdom is that you can't rebuild in New York, and certainly not at Yankee Stadium, not at these prices. And that may be true of the inside-the-moat crowd, the ones who come to see and be seen, the ones who have not been seen much this season because in their eyes, without Jeter and A-Rod, there really is nothing more to see here.

But the real fans have seen Almonte, and have recognized that for as long as it lasts, he has been worth seeing.

There's a message in there somewhere for Yankees management. They're the ones who love to say that no one player is bigger than the game -- and then repeatedly empty their wallets in pursuit of players who think they are.

The truth is, people who like and understand baseball, like and appreciate players who play winning baseball.

And it doesn't matter what their names are or how many decimal places are on their paychecks.

QUESTION OF THE DAY: Would you pay to see a "no-name" Yankees team that wins? Or do you need big-name, big-money stars to bring you to the ballpark? Let us know in the comments section.

UP NOW: Mike Mazzeo and I were all over yesterday's Old-Timers Day game with the Rays. Mazz has the scoop on the legends game and why Mariano Rivera would prefer not to start this year's All-Star Game. I've got a column on the brewing controversy in the Yankees starting rotation.

ON DECK: The Yankees are off today before embarking on a 20-day stretch of games leading to the break. Andrew Marchand and myself will be working the off-day angles, so check in all day long. And as always, thanks for stopping by.