Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Another Great Vazquez Piece: The Times' Jack Curry

Resurgent in Arizona, Vazquez Puts Pinstripes Behind Him
Javier Vazquez never wanted this. He did not want to leave the Yankees, did not want to be unloaded on the Arizona Diamondbacks and did not want his baseball life to be disrupted. Vazquez adored the idea of being the future of the Yankees, even if the present had been sour.
But Vazquez knew the drastic change was coming last winter. Everyone knew it. George Steinbrenner, the Yankees' principal owner, longed to acquire Randy Johnson, and Vazquez had faltered during his first season in New York. So Steinbrenner considered him the perfect pawn.
Four and a half months later, Vazquez has adjusted to a new home, and his career has taken an interesting twist. Vazquez has slightly better statistics than Johnson does, and Arizona, which won 51 games last season, has a better record than the Yankees. The Yankees would have snickered at the mere suggestion of Vazquez's outperforming Johnson if it had not already happened.
"A lot of people go through slumps," Vazquez said. "I just happened to have mine at a bad time, the second half of last year and in the playoffs. But that year is over. I worked hard in the off-season to come back. Thank God, I'm pitching well."
After Vazquez sprinted and did agility drills in the outfield yesterday, he sat in the third-base dugout at Shea Stadium and actually spoke fondly about New York. He still owns a home in Closter, N.J., still considers several Yankees his friends and still studies the box scores. Right now, those box scores have Vazquez at 5-3 with a 3.65 earned run average and the erratic Johnson at 5-3 with a 3.99 E.R.A.
When Vazquez tried to determine why he was 14-10 with a 4.91 E.R.A. in 2004, he was stumped. Maybe he should have thrown more fastballs or tweaked his delivery or been more confident.
"You go through periods where you don't know what you're doing," he said. "You can't find yourself. You're not in a rhythm. Obviously, being in New York, it magnifies everything."
After rambling a little more, Vazquez said: "I just can't explain what went wrong. I'm past that now, though. I'm here, and I'm happy."
Before the Yankees traded Vazquez; pitcher Brad Halsey, who was brilliant with seven scoreless innings in a 7-0 victory over the Mets last night; catcher Dioner Navarro; and $9 million to Arizona, Vazquez called Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman to inquire about his tenuous status. Vazquez also told a Puerto Rican newspaper that the Yankees would rue it if they traded him.
"I still trust in my abilities, and if the Yankees trade me, they'll regret it," Vazquez told the paper, La Perla del Sur.
The Yankees thought enough of Vazquez to sign him to a four-year, $45 million contract extension after obtaining him from Montreal in December 2003. But the Yankees soured on him once they had the chance to add Johnson and, they thought, close the gap with the Red Sox.
Vazquez is 5-1 with a 1.92 E.R.A. in his last eight starts, prompting Arizona Manager Bob Melvin to call him unbelievable. Yankees Manager Joe Torre has not called Johnson unbelievable very often. Melvin said Vazquez is shrewd enough to not even ponder imitating Johnson.
"He realizes there's only one Randy Johnson," Melvin said.
Because Vazquez was dealt while he had a long-term contract, he can formally demand that the Diamondbacks move him after the season. If Vazquez makes the demand and the Diamondbacks do not trade him, he can become a free agent March 15.
Vazquez has been perturbed by speculation that he would definitely seek a trade, since he never wanted to go to Arizona. Although he acknowledged that he has said he would prefer to pitch on the East Coast, to be closer to his native Puerto Rico, he stressed that he would rather "be on a winning team here than a losing team on the East Coast."
But what about a winning team on the East Coast? If Vazquez continues to excel, he knows he could be attractive to several teams. While the Diamondbacks would surely not want to trade Vazquez, who turns 29 in two months, he could force them to do so.
"I talked to ownership when they made the trade, and they know how I felt and they know what my options are," he said.
As Mark Grace, a former major leaguer who is a television analyst with the Diamondbacks, heard Vazquez discussing New York, he playfully said: "Did he tell you how much he hated New York? He tells me that all the time."
Vazquez laughed at Grace's comments, waited and then said, "We've got great announcers, man."

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