By Jim Caple
Page 2

The Yankees are off to such a bad start that world renowned opera tenor Ronan Tynon has begun singing "Take This Job and Shove It" during the seventh-inning stretch.

When the Yankees traded for Alex Rodriguez in February they were so certain he would secure them another title that handed out 2004 World Series championship rings on Opening Day. Even after scoring 10 runs on Tuesday, the Yankees have the lowest batting average and lowest OPS in the American League. The Yankees are two games below .500, in third place, four games out of first despite a payroll so large even George Bush probably thinks it should be taxed.

It got so bad when the Red Sox completed the sweep at Yankee Stadium that New York's great fans actually booed Derek Jeter, which I think they followed up by spray-painting graffiti on the Statue of Liberty. The individual statistics were so grim that the people running the scoreboard graphics were reduced to pointing out the spring training averages and other meaningless accomplishments for some players.

Jose Contreras always rewinds his videotapes before returning them to the store.

And then there's Rodriguez. He orchestrated a trade out of Texas so he could play for a champion and yet one month into the season, the Rangers are in first place and the Yankees are closer to last than first. When he stepped to the plate with a .239 batting average Sunday, a friend tells me, the YES broadcasters described it as "a very respectable .239."

This represents a slight lowering of the bar for what was originally expected from the 2003 MVP. But it's just one example of New York's altered expectations and standards brought on by the terrible start. For example, YES broadcasters are now saying that:

Gary Sheffield's one home run is "not too shabby, considering."

Kenny Lofton's four hits are "nothing to sneeze at."

A-Rod's six RBI are "completely satisfactory and well within the statistical mean."

Bernie Williams' .172 average is "an aberration that demonstrates the limits of modern mathematic applications."

Mike Mussina's 1-4 record and 6.55 ERA is "a meaningless illusion, a sleight of hand, a funhouse mirror distortion of reality."

Jason Giambi's .211 average is "a statistic calculated by an idiot signifying nothing but jealousy of the Yankees' 26 championships."

Contreras' 10.64 ERA is "a vast conspiracy of the military industrial complex, the liberal media and the Mets."

And Jeter's 0-for-28 slump is "a blatant fabrication, a libel, a tasteless smear on the character of one of the greatest players in history."

While the Yankees lower other standards -- they've decided to start hoisting pennants for fourth-place finishes, plan to retire Jeff Weaver's number this summer and have commissioned a Horace Clarke plaque for Monument Park -- the rest of the baseball world is absolutely delighted. The Yankees are under .500, their fans are booing Jeter and despite their absurd payroll they have a worse record than the Brewers. And best of all, George Steinbrenner is silently stewing, ready to erupt at any moment like Mr. Creosote in Monty Python's "The Meaning of Life."

Oh, I know. It's still April, still extraordinarily early in the season. And undoubtedly, the Yankees are going to improve. Jeter isn't going to go hitless the rest of the season, Mussina is going to straighten himself out and Sheffield is probably going to hit another home run. But the first month of the season has shown that the Yankees aren't unbeatable. Their defense isn't anywhere near as good as it's been in the past. The starting rotation has serious questions. And they are very old (actually, I think the reason they're slumping so badly is that they've stopped watching game videos in favor of watching "Murder, She Wrote" reruns).

Yankees fans will undoubtedly tell us to enjoy this while we can.

OK then. We will. We definitely will.

Oh! everywhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing everywhere, and everywhere hearts are light,
And everywhere men are laughing and everywhere children shout;
There is joy everywhere, even in Mudville. The mighty Yankees are striking out.

If you need someone to root for, meet Joe Gannon.

Gannon is a 31-year-old pitcher from Buffalo and one of the great stories in pro ball. He's had jobs as a corrections officer, Catholic school P.E. teacher and bartender. While a student at Canisius College years ago, he worked as a bullpen catcher for Triple-A Buffalo, earning $50 a game. He learned the knuckleball while Tim Wakefield was pitching there, and threw it well enough in summer leagues that the Tigers finally gave him a tryout in 2001. After pitching with independent teams in New Hampshire, Allentown and Welland, he got some tips from Phil Niekro two winters ago and got an offer from the Orioles to go to spring training this year.

And now he's with Baltimore's Triple-A team in Ottawa, just one step from the majors.

"I would not have been able to do this without growing up in South Buffalo," he told the Buffalo News. "No matter what happens -- if I go 0-20 with a 10.00 ERA -- I'm still Joe Gannon from South Buffalo. I'm still the kid down the street, the little punk, or the guy that picked on me when I walked in a bar. I'm still that guy.

"Once the season is over, I'm going back to bartending. Especially on Sundays. I can't miss those Bills games."

You've got to love a guy like that.

Unfortunately, the knuckler can be a tricky pitch even for the most skilled at it, and Gannon showed that against his hometown team when he walked a club-record 12 batters and threw four wild pitches (and prompted four passed balls as well) in just three innings on a chilly night last Friday (another batter struck out but reached first base on a wild pitch). Gannon's line:

3 IP, 2 H, 9 R, 9 ER, 12 BB, 2 K

Well, you have good days and you have bad days. But hang in there, Joe. We're all pulling for you.

At last glance, Sean Casey had 11 hits during Jeter's hitless streak. ... Tim Hudson needed fewer pitches (86) to throw a complete game April 10 than Seattle's Gil Meche (87) and Baltimore's Matt Riley (93) each needed to throw three innings Tuesday night. ... Amazing Barry Bonds stats of the week: Barry has a .692 on-base percentage, a .478 batting average, a 1.174 slugging percentage and 32 walks in San Franicisco's 21 games. ... Greg Maddux went 11 years, six months, and 22 days between victories in a Cubs uniform. ... The Expos have endured many humiliations over the past few years but nothing may have been worse than the half-hour introductions at the home opener Friday night in Montreal. Using a "Survivor" theme, the club had each player arrive in right field in a replica war canoe, then grab a tiki torch and trot onto the field while a man in a sumo robe and woman in a halter top pounded drums amid fake palm trees. The Expos, by the way, were home for exactly three days in April, squeezed between trips to Puerto Rico, Philadelphia, New York, San Diego and Los Angeles. Less than 7,000 fans showed up last Saturday to see them play, which is hardly surprising give how poorly Major League Baseball has treated them. ... Congratulations to Matt Thornton, the former Mariners first-round pick, who was called up this week. The Mariners must have been impressed by how easily he struck out a certain columnist during Page 2's Ultimate Athlete series. ...


"I would declare war on the Cubs. I would schedule all night games. I would never have a day game, pointing out the fact that we have to work on the South Side."

-- Mike Veeck, in the Chicago Tribune, on how the White Sox should try to boost attendance

Jim Caple is a senior writer for