When I first saw the title of this article, I thought Lupica was reduced to writing about butt cheeks, lol
Spencer has never been a favorite of mine, but I feel for the guy -- he's caught a tough break....his attitude seems much better too, and I hope he gets his stroke back because he could really strengthen our bench when he's ready...
Spencer's Left Behind
Stuck in minors, wants another swing
by Mike Lupica
He waited his turn in the minors while the phenoms passed him by, one after another. Shane Spencer was never the hot kid. He was never an untouchable. He was never mentioned in trades when the Yankees talked about putting together a package of kids and bringing in another big name. He was never somebody to watch, until September of 1998, maybe the most magical Yankee season of them all. Then Shane Spencer started hitting home runs for one magical month. And suddenly he was part of perhaps the greatest baseball team of them all. Finally, after all the years of waiting, he was somebody to watch.
There was even the day at the Stadium, in September, in the home run season of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, when they put McGwire's total on the scoreboard at the Stadium, and Sosa's, and underneath was Shane Spencer, who was on this crazy home run hot streak of his own, hitting seven home runs between the 18th of September and the 27th; who had come out swinging when he finally got his chance.
"I was what they called an organizational player my whole career," Spencer was saying the other day. "And then I was something more."
There were two home runs against Texas in the playoffs, the one in Game 3 giving the Yankees their sweep and putting them in the second round. Darryl Strawberry had been diagnosed with cancer, and maybe those were Darryl's home runs Spencer hit against the Rangers. Spencer was 26, old for a rookie. He had waited a long time to make swings like these for the Yankees.
He ended up back in the minors the next season. There was even a scare with an irregular heartbeat. But by last season, he was the starting left fielder for the Yankees on Opening Day. He hit another home run, this one to beat the Angels. The Yankees were going for three World Series in a row and four in five years, and if Spencer wasn't a star, he was a part of it. He was one of them.
And for now, maybe forever, he is not. It was not cancer that took him out of play, gave somebody else his spot and his swings. Just a moment in the outfield at Shea Stadium, on a Sunday night in July, on a sore, stiff right knee he had hurt a few days earlier, running into the left field wall at Yankee Stadium. Spencer was hitting .282 at the time. He had nine home runs in the Yankees' first 73 games, with 40 RBI. It was the night before the All-Star break. He would take those numbers and take a few days off and come back strong for the second half.
Then Melvin Mora, the leadoff batter, hit one to left. Shane Spencer started to make his move for the ball and felt his right knee explode. The injury is known as a torn anterior cruciate ligament. The shorthand is a torn ACL. It is a much longer story than that, sometimes one that changes the rest of your baseball life.
"The knee had blown up after I hit the wall the week before," Spencer said. "They looked at it, but they couldn't see anything. Maybe there was a tear already. I remember thinking as I was warming up that night that I couldn't get it loose. Then Mora hit that ball. I planted, started to turn, and my knee just snapped."
That was 11 months ago. When the Yankees go into Shea Stadium to play the Mets in a couple of weeks, Spencer will still be with the Columbus Clippers, where he is hitting in the .230s, with three home runs, trying to show the Yankees he can come all the way back, that he can still play the outfield and swing a bat the way he did before he got hurt. Even though his friend Chuck Knoblauch is the Yankee left fielder now. Even if the Yankees have moved on without him.
Spencer says he watches Yankee games when they are on in the Clippers clubhouse. He says he has taken an apartment in Columbus that is five minutes or so from the ballpark. He thought he had left Columbus and the minor leagues behind for good by last season, when he had a starting job with the Yankees. Then something snapped. Then David Justice was a Yankee on his way to hitting 41 home runs and Alfonso Soriano was coming fast and Knoblauch couldn't get his throwing problems straightened out at second base.
"I'm coming back," Spencer said. "I believe I'm gonna find my swing and get back there to Yankee Stadium. I know I'm not gonna get my old job back in the starting lineup. I just want Joe (Torre) and the rest of them to know that I can still play the outfield, that I'll be happy to do whatever job they want me to do. I'll fill in for somebody. I know this is a tough break, but I've seen guys like Darryl face a lot tougher. But I didn't quit before and I'm not gonna quit now. There's nothing I can do about what happened to me. But I'm gonna believe they still want me until somebody tells me they don't."
The right knee was not right in spring training. It is Spencer's back leg. He could not plant. He had been told it would take him a full year to recover. Spencer was sure he could do it faster. He had wasted enough time in his career already. But he was not ready. The Yankees decided Soriano, the kind of phenom who had always passed Spencer by, was going to be the left fielder, ready or not. Then Soriano switched with Knoblauch. The Yankees moved on. Spencer moved back to Columbus.
When he started playing, he didn't get a hit in his first 20 trips to the plate. He is doing better now. He says the home runs will come. He is just happy to be playing ball again, even if it is a long way from the Stadium.
"Today's the best day I've felt," Spencer said on Tuesday, after resting the knee the day before. "I'm getting myself into game shape."
He paused, and in the background you could hear voices in the Clippers clubhouse as the baseball day, another in the minors for Shane Spencer, began in the late afternoon.
"I'm a realist," he said. "I know the Yankees are winning. I know this isn't gonna be easy. Nothing ever was for me. I just tell myself I'm gonna come back stronger and better. I look down the road and see myself back in a Yankee uniform. That's all I want, to be healthy and to be a Yankee again. And if that doesn't happen, I just want to be healthy."
He spent all those years in the minors, an organizational player waiting his turn. Spencer had to wonder if the game was passing him by. Now he has to wonder if it is happening to him again. Maybe he already knows. Either way, he waits his turn again.