Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A rare 1-2 punch from the Big Apple

Any list of the most-passionate baseball towns in America surely includes New York, a city that lives and dies with the Yankees and Mets and still boasts die-hard fans of the Dodgers and Giants more than 50 years after both franchises bolted for the West Coast.

Yet the list of native New Yorkers currently in the major leagues is shorter than the Soup Nazi's temper; only 27 players born in the Empire State appeared in a big-league game in 2009. Only 11 of them were pitchers.

It's not hard to understand, then, why Long Island's John Lannan and Staten Island's Jason Marquis are so excited to be joined at the hip in Washington for at least the next two seasons. Not only are two of New York's finest now teammates. They'll open 2010 as the top two starters in the Nationals' rotation.

So what's it like to play alongside a fellow native from the big city?

"Well, I always bust his chops," Marquis said. "Long Islanders claim to be from New York City. Technically, they're not. But I've got a lot of family members out there. My wife has a lot of family members out there. It's a similar mindset. Same type of background growing up. It's definitely nice to be around people from similar backgrounds and to have that comfortable feeling."

Lannan, 25, and Marquis, 31, had known each other only in passing until last week, when the two spent considerable time together during the Nationals' winter caravan and fan fest. The young left-hander emerged with a whole new appreciation of the veteran right-hander, the owner of at least 11 big-league wins each of the last six seasons.

"Just interacting with him these last couple days, you get the feeling he has been around winners," Lannan said. "We have had guys in the past who have helped me, but this kind of player always helps. And I think he's going to help me, along with the whole staff."

Though their pitching styles are somewhat different -- Lannan tries to paint corners with his high-80s fastball, Marquis tries to keep the ball on the ground with his low-90s sinker -- the two hurlers do share plenty of personality traits. Each is a no-nonsense, intense competitor who doesn't get fazed by much. Each relies more on pitching guile than pure physical talent. Each has a thick accent that immediately identifies his hometown.

Really, each could be considered a perfect stereotype for the typical New York ballplayer.

Marquis, who signed a two-year, $15 million deal with the Nationals in December, has more of a track record than Lannan, having previously pitched for the Braves, Cardinals, Cubs and Rockies. He was mentored by Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz in Atlanta, won a World Series ring with St. Louis in 2006 and last year earned his first All-Star nod with Colorado.

Marquis has spent most of his life in the baseball spotlight. At 13, he pitched a no-hitter for Staten Island's South Shore team in the Little League World Series, then led Tottenville High School to back-to-back New York City Public Schools titles, forever cementing his place in the city's sporting lore. Selected by the Braves in the first round of the 1996 draft, he spent parts of four seasons in the minors before making his big-league debut in 2000.

Yet Marquis has never forgotten his roots. He still lives in Staten Island, with his high school sweetheart Debbie and their three kids: Reese, Andrew and Alexis. And he wouldn't have it any other way.

"A lot of people in the game sometimes tend to forget where they come from, the roots they have that got them to where they were," he said. "I just feel like that's home for me. I love it there. I love how I was raised. I love the place I was raised in. To be grounded and be a part of a community that I've been a part of since I was 12 and helped me get to where I am today, I think there's something to be said for that."

Lannan, too, still feels a deep connection to his hometown of Long Beach. Though he spent part of this offseason sharing a Montgomery County apartment with teammate Craig Stammen, he recently moved back home and intends to stay there.

"Some people don't like leaving," he said. "And I understand that. I'm the same way. I don't feel like I want to leave, because I've got my family there, and that means the most to me. Jason's got three kids and a wife, and you can tell his family comes first."

At some point this spring, Jim Riggleman will have to decide which guy will get the nod for Opening Day, whether Marquis' pedigree has earned him the right to face Roy Halladay and the Phillies or whether Lannan's rising stature within the organization makes him the logical choice.

Either way, you get the sense these two native New Yorkers will be pushing each other to become better pitchers all season long.

"I was in his shoes once before," Marquis said. "I was fortunate enough to be around the likes of Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, Chris Carpenter, which really played an integral part in me getting to this point as a major-league pitcher. Any knowledge I can pass along, I've stored it in the memory bank and I'm willing to pass it down."

Said Lannan: "He's light-years ahead of me in what he's done in his career. The things I'm doing, he's said: 'Yeah, I used to do that.' I want to be where he's at. I want to win a World Series. I'm definitely going to learn from him."


Anonymous said...

Interesting read, Mark. I had no idea so few New Yorkers are in the majors.

Jim said... is so good to see you back reporting on the Nats. I look forward to a great season for your blog.

NatsGirl said...

Oh good! New and interesting Nats stuff to read. Clearly I am not visiting this site nearly enough. An interesting contrast between the two New Yawkas. I'd like to hear more about this friendly rivalry as the season progresses. I trust you'll keep us posted, Zuck.

sjm105 said...

great to read you again! good luck with the job thing and thanks for this. Looking forward to reading you no matter what.

Softball Girl said...

A 1-2 punch that should really be a 3-4. Baby steps I suppose.

Question for you Mark: Does the organization allow you the same access these days that you had with the Times?

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