Friday, March 14, 2008

Bronx Side Story: The Double Standard Against the Yankees

Once again: One standard for the rest of baseball, and another standard for the Yankees.

In effect, here's what happened in those two spring training games between the Yankees and the Tampa Bay Deviled Eggs:

Tampa manager Joe Maddon came came at Yankee manager Joe Girardi with a knife and cut him with it.

So Girardi shakes it off, and says, "That's not a knife." And he pulls out a dagger like the one Paul Hogan had in the movie Crocodile Dundee, and sticks it in Maddon's face, and says, "That's a knife!"

And Maddon says, "Waaaaah! No fair!"

Next, I fully expect whoever's running the Rays now to say, "Waaaah! The Yankees are rich! They can afford bigger knives than we can!"

As the great New York sportscaster Warner Wolf would say, "Come on, give me a break!"

Then again, there was a time when the Yankees would be the Norsfire thugs from V for Vendetta, and, in effect, say to the Red Sox, "Whatchya gonna do, huh? We've swept this place. You've got nothing. Nothing but your bloody knives and your fancy karate gimmicks. We have guns!" And in 2004, the Sox started saying, "No, what you have are bullets, and the hope that when your guns are empty I'm no longer be standing, because, if I am, you'll all be dead before you've reloaded."

All last season, Joe Torre was looking at the Sox as if he was saying, "Die! Die! Why won't you die?... (incredulously) Why won't you die?"

I love Joe Torre, but, as it was for Joe McCarthy once, as it was for Casey Stengel once, as it was for Billy Martin more than once, it was time to make a change.

It's about time the Yankees said, "All right, you guys wanna make it interesting? Let's make it really interesting."

Maybe a line from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid?

Kid Curry (Ted Cassidy): "Rules? In a knife fight? No rules!"
Butch (Paul Newman, kicks Curry in the balls, making him drop the knife): "Well, now that we've established that there are no rules, somebody yell, 'One-two-three-Go!'"

Just wait until the first Yanks-Sox brawl. Jason Varitek or somebody else will start a fight, and he'll get off completely, while the guy he punches will be suspended 5 games for being so uppity as to fight back.

Screw it. It's like West Side Story. Time for Joe Girardi and the Bronx Bombers to deliver a freakin' message. Call it Bronx Side Story:

Y'see, them other teams, they believes everything they reads in the papers and sees on ESPN about us cruddy Yankees. So that's what we'll give 'em! Somethin' to believe in!

Gee, Commissioner Krupke: Krup you!

Monday, March 10, 2008

Top 10 Worst Losses in New York Sports History

As you've surely noticed, I'm a Yankee Fan. As you've also surely noticed, I don't like either the Mets or the Red Sox.

As you've further surely noticed (yeah, I know, don't call you Shirley), Met fans like to say that, in the 2004 ALCS, the Yanks produced the biggest choke in the history of sports.

And, as you've once again surely noticed, Met fans are full of baloney -- either that, or they are so delusional they don't realize their own team has produced more genuine "chokes" in the last 10 years than the Yankees have produced in their entire 105-season history.

A loss is bad enough; a "choke" is worse. But what are the worst losses in the history of New York Tri-State Area sports? Which is the bottom of the barrel? Which one left fans feeling like there wasn't a hole available on the entire planet that was deep enough for them to want to crawl into?

I decided to try to quantify these heartbreaks/disasters/debacles. I made my rankings based on a number of factors:

* Was the local team expected to win?
* Did they have a lead and blow it?
* Was there a rivalry involved?
* Was it a blowout loss?
* How deep in the season was it?
* Were they expected to advance further than that?
* Are the fans still grumbling or sobbing over it, years or even decades later?
* Was there significant pre-event boasting by the New York team that lost?
* And, on the other side of that coin, are the other team's fans still rubbing it in?

At first, I considered eliminating matchups that were one area team against another, because it wasn't all of the Tri-State Area, including those who swallowed their pride enough to root for "the other team," watching their hopes, as well as those of that team's usual fans, go down in flames.

In the end, I decided that this was just not right, and had to include New York-New York, City-Long Island, or City-New Jersey matchups that were particularly painful for the losing team.

Finally, I tinkered with the rankings a little bit, because some of these just seemed more painful than the hard numbers I came up with suggested. I won't bore you with the specific stats.

Here are some particularly bad losses that didn't make the Top 10:

Yankees: 1960 World Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates
1963 World Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers
1964 World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals
1976 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds (all but forgotten in light of the wins the next two years)
1980 ALCS to the Kansas City Royals
1985 AL East to the Toronto Blue Jays
1995 ALDS to the Seattle Mariners (it was bad, but revenge was gained in 2000 and '01)
1997 ALDS to the Cleveland Indians (it was bad, but revenge was gained in '98)
2001 World Series to the Arizona Diamondbacks (the Yanks needed a couple of miracles to get that far, and some good guys who'd never won rings finally got them with the Snakes, so I can't say this one hurts as much)
2003 World Series to the Florida Marlins (and I still hate Jeff Weaver)

The 1955 World Series to the Brooklyn Dodgers doesn't make the cut as one of the worst losses, since it was hard to begrudge the Flatbush Faithful. They were never like Met fans or Red Sox fans. The Dodgers' '55 win would, however, make the Top 10 Wins, but that's a list for another time.

Mets: 1973 World Series to the Oakland Athletics
1998 Regular Season, the Division Title to the Atlanta Braves and the Wild Card to the Chicago Cubs
1999 NLCS to the Braves.

Giants (baseball): 1908 NL Pennant Playoff to the Cubs
1923, '36, '37 and '51 World Series to the Yankees

Time has dimmed all of those baseball Giant losses: It's not that those who suffered have healed, so much as that they've died and can no longer tell us about them. The '51 Series loss is different: Those who still live and treasure the Pennant tended to get over the Series loss rather quickly.

Dodgers: 1942 Regular Season to the Cardinals
1946 NL Pennant Playoff to the Cards
1947, '49, '52, '53 and '56 World Series to the Yankees
1950 Regular Season to the Philadelphia Phillies.

Giants (football): 1933, '41, '46 and '63 NFL Championship Games, and 1985 NFC Divisional Playoff, to the Chicago Bears
1939, '44, '61 and '62 NFL Championship Games to the Green Bay Packers
1958 NFL Championship to the Baltimore Colts (a.k.a. The Greatest Game Ever Played, though that's a title learned more than earned), and the '59 Title Game to the Colts as well
1978 Regular Season loss to the Philadelphia Eagles (a.k.a. the Miracle of the Meadowlands to the Delaware Valley, and the Joe Pisarcik Game around here, easily the earliest in the season of any of these contenders)
Super Bowl XXXV to the Baltimore Ravens
2002 NFC First Round collapse against the San Francisco 49ers (probably the single most embarrassing loss in Big Blue history, and I almost put it in the Top 10).

Jets: 1982 AFC Championship Game (the Mud Bowl) and 1994 Regular Season (Dan Marino's faked spike) to the Miami Dolphins
1998 AFC Championship Game to the Denver Broncos

Being a Jet fan means there haven't been that many Playoff appearances to provide such pain, so the Marino Faked Spike might be the one that burns the most.

Knicks: 1951 NBA Finals to the Rochester Royals
1952 and '53 NBA Finals to the Minneapolis Lakers
1969 Eastern Conference Semifinals to the Baltimore Bullets
1971 Eastern Conference Finals to the Milwaukee Bucks
1972 NBA Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers
1993 Eastern Conference Semifinals to the Chicago Bulls
1994 NBA Finals to the Houston Rockets
1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals to the Indiana Pacers
1999 NBA Finals to the San Antonio Spurs.

Nets: 1984 Eastern Conference Semifinals to the Bucks
1993 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals to the Knicks
2002 NBA Finals to the Lakers
2003 NBA Finals to the Spurs

Rangers: 1938 Stanley Cup Quarterfinals to the New York Americans
1950 Stanley Cup Finals to the Detroit Red Wings
1971 Stanley Cup Semifinals to the Chicago Blackhawks (losing Game 7 at Chicago Stadium after Pete Stemkowski's triple-OT goal won Game 6 at the Garden)
1972 Stanley Cup Finals to the Boston Bruins
1975 Stanley Cup Preliminaries, '81 Stanley Cup Semifinals, 1982 and '83 Patrick Division Finals, and '84 Patrick Division Semifinals to the Islanders
1979 Stanley Cup Finals and 1986 Wales Conference Finals to the Montreal Canadiens
1997 Eastern Conference Finals to the Philadelphia Flyers
2006 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals to the Devils -- known in the Garden State as "Justice At Long Last," and at the Garden as "We still beat you in 1994!" (Idiots. And people wonder why I say, "Rangers suck.")

Americans: 1929 Stanley Cup Quarterfinals to the Rangers
1938 Stanley Cup Semifinals to the Chicago Blackhawks (a series they almost won, and the closest the Amerks ever got to the Cup)

Islanders: 1975 Stanley Cup Semifinals and '87 Patrick Division Finals to the Flyers
1976 and '77 Stanley Cup Semifinals and '93 Wales Conference Finals to the Canadiens
1978 Stanley Cup Quarterfinals to the Toronto Maple Leafs
1979 Stanley Cup Semifinals, 1990 Patrick Division Semifinals and 1994 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals to the Rangers
1988 Patrick Division Semifinals to the Devils (the only postseason series ever between those two teams in 25 years of it being possible)

Devils: 1988 Wales Conference Finals to the Bruins
1991 Patrick Division Semifinals and 1999 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals to the Pittsburgh Penguins
1992 Patrick Division Semifinals and 1997 Eastern Conference Semifinals to the Rangers (who still suck)
1998 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals to the Ottawa Senators
2001 Stanley Cup Finals to the Colorado Avalanche
2004 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals to the Flyers

You got 9 current teams and several former teams, so you're gonna have your share of big wins, and you're gonna have your share of big losses. These are the 10 biggest losses, in descending order, and my reasons:

10. 1997 NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals, Knicks lose to Miami Heat. This ranks higher than any of the Knicks' losses in the NBA Finals, and their 1993 Eastern Semi loss to the Bulls. Why? Partly because of the brief rivalry with the Heat, which no longer exists, and only existed in the first place because of the Heat having as their coach and general manager ex-Knick coach Pat Riley, and the way he left the Knicks. Partly because of the fight that Knick fans think cost their team the series.

And partly because Knick fans think that this... was... the year. The year they finally would beat Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. This is an acute condition known as "Yeah, surrrre!" The Knicks were not going to beat the Jordanaires! No way in hell!

9. 1994 NHL Eastern Conference Finals, Devils lose to Rangers. From May 27, 1994 forward, any Devils fan with a parent or grandparent who was a Brooklyn Dodger fan -- myself included -- mentioned the name Bobby Thomson with no wiseassness, because of Stephane Matteau.

Unlike Ralph Branca 43 years earlier, Martin Brodeur was able to redeem himself -- many times over, in fact. But this game seemed to go on and on, and to end like that was wrenching. It hurt more than blowing the 3 games to 2 lead over the Avalanche in the 2001 Cup Finals, because who hates the Avs? Let me rephrase that: Who east of Detroit hates them?

Like the '01 Finals, this one featured a Game 6 loss at home at the Byrne Arena, and also featured the press absolutely slobbering all over themselves over a veteran star. In the case of Ray Bourque, it was understandable: 22 years of fine, often stellar, always clean play, finally winning the Cup.

In the case of Mark Messier, it was unwarranted: He'd already won five Cups with the Edmonton Oilers, and was a total thug. The Rangers won that Cup two days after the O.J. Simpson killings, and after that, if Messier had killed somebody -- not hard to believe for ol' Lex Luthor -- the NYPD would have given him an escort up the Thruway and the Northway, all the way up to the border. I despise him so much, and it hurt to see Scott Stevens -- a man who captained three Cup winners, one more than Messier and two more than Messier in the Tri-State Area -- have to go into the Hall of Fame with the Hair Club Team Captain (who's also a client).

But give the Devils credit: Instead of letting this crushing loss eat away at them, they used it as a stepping stone to a string that has now run as follows: Making the Playoffs in 16 of the last 17 seasons, 4 Conference Titles and 3 Stanley Cups, and seemingly always a threat for another sip from the Lord Stanley's Mug. It was a Friedrich Nietzsche game: By hurting but not killing them, it made them stronger.

8. 1981 World Series, Yankees lose to Dodgers. This was the end of the era, surprisingly brief in retrospect but loaded with drama, that began with the reopening of Yankee Stadium in 1976, and featured the revival of the Red Sox rivalry, the brief but nasty rivalry with the Kansas City Royals, Chris Chambliss' Pennant-winning homer, the George-Billy-Reggie love/hate triangle, Reggie's three homers, the Reggie Bar, Sparky and the Goose inventing the modern bullpen, Ron Guidry's 18 Ks, the '78 comeback, the Boston Massacre, the Bucky Dent Game, Graig Nettles showing those of us too young to remember Brooks Robinson how to play third base, Catfish's courageous pitching, the Captaincy of Thurman Munson and the game Bobby Murcer won in his memory, and the arrival of Dave Winfield.

A banner at the Stadium in Game 1 of the '81 Series told the story to that point: "Don't the Dodgers ever learn?" Apparently, they did, and for any New York fan -- including Met fans who would ordinarily never root for the Yankees -- this was a Series that just had to be won. It wasn't, for many reasons.

But when you're 11 years old going on 12, as I was, things like this just stick in your craw, sometimes long after your team has been revived. It doesn't hurt me as much as 1964 hurts Phillies fans, even long after the glory of their 1980 triumph, but they still let '64 define them. Moments like late October 1981 show those of us old enough to remember before Derek Jeter that Yankee Fans have been disappointed, for reasons that have nothing to do with Don Mattingly's teams.

7. 2006 National League Championship Series, Mets lose to Cardinals. The Cards won just 83 games, the fewest of any major league Pennant winner in the era of seasons of at least 154 games (since 1905), except for the 1973 Mets, who won 82. There was no way the Cards should have even won the NL Central, let alone the Division Series, and they certainly shouldn't have beaten the Detroit Tigers in the World Series; after all, the Tigers had swept the ALCS, while the NLCS was literally in doubt until the last out of Game 7, with the tying and Pennant-winning runs on base.

This awful loss came after Endy Chavez made a sensational catch that Met fans (so often ignorant of anything that happened in baseball prior to 1969 and thus dismissive of Willie Mays in 1954) call the greatest ever, preserving a tie. This after Yadier Molina hit a go-ahead home run through the ninth-inning raindrops off Aaron Heilman. Yadier isn't as good a hitter as his brother Benjie, or even as good as his brother Jose, both also catchers. This is like Al Pacino getting out-acted by Baldwin. Not Alec, not even William, or even Stephen, but Adam.

And then, with the runs that would win the Pennant already on base, who's standing at the plate? The big free agent signing, a man who got that massive amount of money for his postseason performance for the Houston Astros in 2004: Carlos Beltran. And what does he do? He takes a called 3rd strike, standing unmoving with the bat still on his shoulder. Right down the pipe. Met fans take it right up... uh, the nose with a rubber hose.

Come to think of it, a few members of the Flushing Heathen might have attached a hose to their exhaust pipe that night. And, in true Met fashion, forgot to turn the car on, thus allowing them to live to see another event on this list.

6. 1941 World Series, Dodgers lose to Yankees. No Yankee Fan would say the loss of the Series to Arizona 60 years later hurt as much as the 9/11 attacks. But the '41 Series took place right before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and for a lot of Dodger fans, they were equally devastating.

A lot of Dodger fans talked about "taking over New York." They had already surpassed the Giants, who were never more popular than the Dodgers again, not even in 1951 and '54; the rise of the Dodgers in the late Thirties and early Forties probably doomed them to move, or at least put them in position for Horace Stoneham's mismanagement to do so. Dodger fans just assumed they would take the Yankees down next, and be Number 1 in New York. And, oh yeah, Number 1 in the world. Slight detail.

But injuries to Billy Herman and Freddie Fitzsimmons, Leo Durocher messing up the pitching rotation, and Hugh Casey's curve (some said a spitball) that catcher Mickey Owen couldn't handle, leading to the 9th-inning Game 4 debacle and the Yank clincher in Game 5, made Dodger fans think that maybe the Great Depression hadn't really ended.

To his credit, Owen played another 8 seasons, established one of the nation's most highly regarded youth baseball schools, lived 64 years after the most famous passed ball of all time, and never ducked questions about it. If he ever let it bother him, he didn't show it in public. By contrast, Casey, already a heavy drinker, went on to blow another Series game for the Dodgers in '47, was out of baseball in '49, and, combining his pitching failures with alcoholism and an apparent broken love affair, killed himself in '51, 3 months before he and former teammate Ralph Branca would've had something to commiserate over.

5. 1988 National League Championship Series, Mets lose to Dodgers. For the first time, New York -- the National League part of it, anyway -- had their chance for revenge on Los Angeles and the evil O'Malleys. The Mets led 2 games to 1, and led in the 9th of Game 4, but Mike Scioscia (not a bad hitter but no home run threat) knocked one out off The Golden Child, Dwight Gooden. The Mets took it to a Game 7, but let Orel Hershiser beat them.

Think of how baseball history could have been changed, if the Mets had won this Pennant:

* Kirk Gibson is remembered as a Tiger.
* The Dodgers would have not won so much as a postseason series from 1981 to at least 2007, 26 years, 0-for-7. (As it is, they haven't won now in 20 years, 0-for-4, that once-proud franchise winning just one postseason game in that span.)
* The Mets would have their 2nd Pennant in 3 years, and if that banjo-hitting (except for Gibson) Dodger team could take the Oakland Athletics in 5, surely the Mets would've been able to beat them. That would give the Mets 2 crowns, and no reason not to expect more, since the Yanks last won one.
* I wouldn't now be able to write about The Curse of Kevin Mitchell.
* Maybe, somehow, the Mets make the right decisions -- on trades, on free-agent signings, on handling injuries (such as those of Gooden and Keith Hernandez), on getting substance abusers into real rehab (like Gooden and Darryl Strawberry).
* Maybe Hernandez, Gooden and Strawberry join Gary Carter in the Hall of Fame. (Or maybe not: Given full 20-year careers, Doctor K still wouldn't be eligible until 2009, and Straw would only now be going in.)
* And who knows if the Yankees would have been able to take New York back in 1996?
* Then again, if Hershiser doesn't win that '88 Pennant for the Dodgers, maybe the Cleveland Indians don't pick him up in '97, and he doesn't help the Tribe beat the Yankees in the Playoffs, and that's another Title for the Yanks.

Regardless, this loss was for the Eighties Mets what the '81 Series loss, also to the L.A. O'Malley Bums, was for the Seventies Yankees: The end of the dynasty that should have been, but wasn't quite.

And while the Seventies Yankees descended into tragedy (the death of Thurman Munson) and farce (George Steinbrenner's managerial musical chairs and free-agent busts), the Eighties Mets descended into true ugliness, to the point where a book about them, 20 years later, was titled The Bad Guys Won. They won the whole thing in '86. They couldn't even win a Pennant in any other year between '84 and '90, when they were at least the best team in the NL East.

4. 2007 Regular Season, Mets lose Division to Phillies and Wild Card to Colorado Rockies. This actually ranked behind the '81 World Series and the '88 NLCS on my rating system, mainly because it's so recent and it hasn't burned away at Met fans for eons, the way the '41 and '51 losses have for the surviving Dodger fans. But the scope of it is far more historic, so I had to tinker with the ratings a little bit.

Seventeen games to play. Seven-game lead in the NL East. And the 2nd-place team is the Philadelphia Phillies, who are known for having late-season and postseason collapses, not for benefiting from them.

And the Mets not only blew the Division, they missed the Playoffs completely. There was no 10-game losing streak, like the '64 Phillies against the Cardinals; or a last 7 games, like the '87 Blue Jays against the Tigers; or even a last 5 games, like the '98 Mets who needed to win only one of those to make the Playoffs, but choked completely.

But this was as bad as it has ever gotten in the regular season. The 1914 Giants against the Boston Braves, the '38 Pittsburgh Pirates against the Cubs, the '51 Dodgers against the Giants, the '69 Cubs against the Mets, the '74 Red Sox against the Baltimore Orioles, the '78 Red Sox against the Yankees, the '95 California Angels against the Mariners, the 2006 Red Sox against the Yankees? All of these regular-season collapses were bad, but unlike the '64 Phils, '87 Jays and '07 Mets, they didn't happen nearly as late in the season.

This was truly putrid. Yankee Fans like me, knowing we probably weren't going to win the AL East (and we didn't), but still had a great shot at the Wild Card (we got it), were laughing our Pinstriped asses off at this. But in the end, it wasn't funny. It was a truly repugnant display of September baseball ineptitude.

And we must never let Met fans forget it. Ever. Seven up with 17 to play, and they missed the Playoffs completely. Which makes it more humiliating, ultimately, than...

3. 2004 American League Championship Series, Yankees lose to Red Sox. As bad as this was, at least it was in the postseason. And, as bad as this was -- going from 3 outs away from an ALCS sweep, Pennant 40, and a celebration at our archrivals' beloved Fenway Park, to a Game 7 laugher we were never in and the Sox and their fans dancing at Yankee Stadium to end any pretense to there being a Curse of the Bambino -- it would have been 10 times worse to have lost to the Mets in 2000. Which brings us to...

2. 2000 World Series, Mets lose to Yankees. The reason I have to put this one ahead of the preceding, despite it actually ranking a bit lower on my scale, is that, although Red Sox fans are everywhere, you don't necessarily have to face them every day.

But if you're a Met fan living within New York City, North or Central Jersey, Long Island, the Hudson Valley, or the corner of Connecticut from New Haven to Greenwich that doesn't tilt toward New England, you face Yankee Fans every damn day. And you cannot possibly avoid it: You think of your team as the real New York baseball team. But the one and only time the two teams faced each other in the World Series, the Yankees and their fans danced on the field at Shea Stadium.

And it's not like Yanks-Sox: You don't get a new chance to avenge it every year. The regular-season "Subway Series" doesn't count as a chance to avenge 2000. You thought you'd get it in 2006 or 2007 if the Yankees did their part, or here in 2008, again, if the Yankees do their part. Newsflash: You will never get that chance, because you will never win another Pennant. The Curse of Kevin Mitchell is just too powerful. You had your chance in 2000, and you lost. And you will never get over it. Nor should you. You pathetic, deluded fans of New York's Other Team.

1. 1951 National League Pennant Playoff, Dodgers lose to Giants. When people as different as Alan Greenspan (the future Federal Reserve Board Chairman was 24), Larry King (the future talk-show host was then 17), Dick Schaap (the future journalist and sports-bio collaborator was also 17), Fred Wilpon (the future Mets owner was 16), Jack Newfield (the future journalist was 13) and Doris Kearns (the future historian was 8) could all say it was the most traumatic moment of their youth, that says something. King and Schaap called it the end of their childhoods. Doris Kearns Goodwin would say that of the Dodgers' move, and called Bobby Thomson's Shot Heard 'Round the World "the starkest memory of my childhood." They never truly recovered.

This is the sports loss by which all others in the New York Tri-State Area are measured. The fact that the Giants are now known to have cheated makes it worse. The fact that the Giants went on to lose the World Series to the Yankees seems not to have given any solace to Dodger fans, who faced the same fate in '41, '47 and '49; and would face it again in '52, '53 and '56, winning only in '55 -- the Giants also losing to the Yanks in '23, '36 and '37, winning only in '21 and '22.

October 3, 1951 is the benchmark, even as fans of another New York team celebrated, and fans of yet another were under no obligation to care.

Red Smith, maybe the best sports columnist who ever lived, wrote of it, in the New York Herald Tribune: "Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again."

Whether that meant the Dodgers finally reaching "Next Year" in 1955 or the team being stolen away two years later; whether it was the Giants shocking the world again in '54 or being stolen away with the Dodgers three years later; whether it was the Mets of 1969 or 2007; whether it was Aaron Boone in 2003 or the end of The Curse the very next year; whether it was Willis' two baskets or Starks' many bricks; whether it was Stephane Matteau beating the Devils or Jason Arnott winning the Cup for them...

So many wins, few as treasured as this; so many losses, none measures up to the depth of this. The people born before World War II, who chose to root for the Dodgers, and can remember this moment, will have the date 10-3-1951 tattooed on their hearts until they die.

Which, compared to what happened at 3:58 PM on that day, may not feel so bad.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Bobby Murcer for Monument Park

There were 2.1 million Americans who served in the Vietnam War. Only 1 of these played Major League Baseball: Roy Gleason, who grew up in Southern California, and played 8 games for his "hometown" Los Angeles Dodgers as a September callup in 1963, as an outfielder and pinch-runner. He came to bat only once, but hit a double down the left field line, and scored on a subsequent single. He was sent back to the minors in 1964, was drafted in 1967, was wounded in 1968, and was sent home. Although he was ineligible for the Dodgers' 1963 postseason roster due to the time of his callup, they gave him a World Series ring.

Due to the circumstances of his exit from the combat zone, his ring was left behind in the jungles. The Dodgers later gave him a new one, and, now a 65-year-old car salesman, he has been a spokesman for veterans.

Several other players served in the Vietnam era without being sent "in country." Bobby Murcer may have been the best of them.

*

He debuted with the New York Yankees in 1965, as a 19-year-old shortstop-turned-outfielder from Oklahoma -- which, naturally, caused someone to publicly call him "the next Mickey Mantle." Well, he wasn't. But he had a swing made for Yankee Stadium's short right field porch, and he had a good enough arm to be recruited as a quarterback by the University of Oklahoma. He chose baseball because of football's injury factor, and because baseball paid more then (and still does).

He missed the 1967 and '68 seasons in the service, and has said that it was well worth it, that he did a lot of growing up in the Army.

In 1969, with Mantle retired, Murcer became the new Yankee center fielder. Mantle had played the two previous seasons at 1st base, to ease the strain on his oft-injured legs, while Joe Pepitone, a great fielder at first, proved less than that in center. Pepitone went back to 1st, but his days in Pinstripes were numbered; that's a story for another time.

Murcer stayed there until the 1974 season, when the Yanks fell tantalizingly short of the Playoffs, knocking the Boston Red Sox out of the American League East race, but dropping a September doubleheader to the Baltimore Orioles caused them to finish 2 games back of the O's, the closest the Yanks had been to October since the 1964 Pennant.

Team owner George Steinbrenner apologized to Bobby, but traded him to the San Francisco Giants for Bobby Bonds. You might be familiar with his son Barry, but in his time, Bobby Bonds was one of the best players in the game, coming closer to being a 40-40 man -- 40 home runs and 40 stolen bases in the same season -- than anyone would be until, interestingly enough, Barry Bonds did it in 1996. (That was before Barry apparently began using steroids, but well after Jose Canseco had a steroid-aided 40-40 season in 1988, so that doesn't count anymore.)

To be traded even-up for Bobby Bonds was something of an honor, but Bobby Murcer didn't see it that way. He was absolutely heartbroken. And he hated Candlestick Park, whose winds messed up both his hitting and his fielding. And Bonds didn't work out for the Yanks, either, and after 1975 he was traded to the California Angels for Mickey Rivers and Ed Figueroa, a trade that worked out very well.

Murcer was traded to the Chicago Cubs, and enjoyed Chicago and Wrigley Field, with its passionate fans and close power alleys, much more. In 1979, the Yankees got him back, and he felt redeemed.

Then came that awful day when Thurman Munson's plane went down. Bobby and Thurman were close friends, and Bobby may have been the last teammate to see Thurman alive. At Thurman's funeral, on August 6, 1979, Bobby and Lou Piniella gave eulogies.

That night, the team (ironically) flew back to New York, played the 1st-place Orioles, and Bobby drove in all the Yankee runs, with a 3-run home run off Dennis Martinez in the 7th inning, and a 2-run double off Tippy Martinez (no relation) in the bottom of the 9th. It may have been the most emotional game in Yankee history, even standing up with the 2 9th-inning comebacks in the 2001 World Series after the 9/11 attacks.

The Yankees finally reached a postseason with Murcer on their roster in 1981, winning the Pennant, before falling to the Dodgers in the World Series. In 1983, Steinbrenner told Murcer, 37, he wanted to call up a hot young hitter from Triple-A, and needed to clear space on the roster. He said that if Bobby would retire as a player, he'd make him a broadcaster and give him a Bobby Murcer Day at the Stadium. Bobby agreed, and has been in the Yankee booth ever since, 25 years.

The hot young hitter? Kid from Indiana named Don Mattingly. It's strange how Bobby may have helped the Yankees more by leaving the field than by playing on it.

*

Bobby teamed with Phil Rizzuto until the Scooter retired in 1996, and took over Phil's role as the Yankee TV booth's storyteller-in-chief. He has also worked with, among others, Frank Messer, Bill White, Billy Martin, Tim McCarver, Tom Seaver, Paul Olden, Jim Kaat, Joe Girardi, and, currently, Michael Kay, Ken Singleton and Paul O'Neill.

Bobby has been a lot of fun, but he hasn't always been brilliant. In 1992, the Yankees went to Detroit to play the Tigers, who, at that point, were still talking about building a replacement for Tiger Stadium. What became Comerica Park would not open until 2000. And Bobby said, "The Detroit Tigers are very tough at home, especially when they play at Tiger Stadium." I still have it on tape. Where else were they going to play at that point, the Silverdome? The University of Michigan's field in Ann Arbor? (At the time, Derek Jeter was a newly-signed Yankee prospect, and a freshman at UM, although he never played there.)

Then came 1999, and the opening of Safeco Field in Seattle, the new home of the Mariners. No more Kingdome. Safeco has a retractable roof, and on the Yankees' first weekend series there, the roof was open and the sun was shining. And Bobby said, "Ah, gotta love that sunshine. Get that Vitamin C." Of course, it's Vitamin D. I thought McCarver was going to have a fit.

A few weeks later, I was at Fenway Park to see the Yankees demolish the Red Sox, 13-3. On my way out of the old ballyard, I managed to reach the home plate entrance, which is also the press entrance. It was dark, and, not quite looking where I was going, I bumped into somebody. I looked up, and it was Bobby Murcer! And Tim McCarver was with him.

That was a big thrill. Not as big as getting out of New England in one piece, with a Yankee cap on, in the middle of a Yanks-Sox Pennant race, but pretty big.

Around Christmas 2006, we who root for the Yankees were stunned with the news that Bobby had a brain tumor removed. After a year's worth of treatment, he was thought to be cancer-free. But last week, getting checked out for a cold (it seems the whole country has this cold, mine seems to be getting better), they did a full MRI on him just in case, and found a spot on his brain. The Yankee community freaked out; although he never became the Hall-of-Fame star everyone expected, Murcer is beloved around here.

We were told it could only be one of two things, and one was a new tumor. It turned out to be the other, scar tissue, and everyone associated with the team and everyone who roots for it is relieved.

Now 61, Murcer is fully expected to be in the broadcast booth on Opening Day, March 31, and to be there all the way through this final season of Yankee Stadium.

George and Hank Steinbrenner should do the right thing and give him his Monument Park Plaque on this year's Old-Timers' Day. He has spent 38 of the last 44 years on the Yankee payroll (40 of 44 if you count his military service), and while they won't retire his number (he wore 1 the first time around, retired for Billy Martin, and 2 the second time around, which will be retired for Derek Jeter), he deserves the honor of Monument Park while the Plaques are still in the Stadium he graced with his presence for so long.

George, Hank, it is time. While we still have time -- both with him and with Yankee Stadium. Please. Honor Bobby Murcer for all he has done for this team.

UPDATE: They didn't give him his Plaque in time. And they still haven't.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Restoring the Universe to Order: Top 10 Reasons

I went to the Prudential Center in Newark last night, and saw the Devils stink up the joint against the Washington Capitals. Martin Brodeur made a sensational stop on a breakaway shot by Alexander Ovechkin, who really is better than Sidney Crosby of Pittsburgh. But it was all downhill from there, 4-0.

I get home from that horrible display, and I find out that Johan Santana got rocked by St. Louis in his first Met appearance.

Way too soon to say "I called it" or "I told you so." Except the homer he gave up was by Juan "Steroids? No Habla Ingles" Gonzalez, who hasn't played in three years.

Not a good sign for the Flushing Faithful, but they had one advantage that the Devils (and the Knicks, who also looked horrible last night) didn't have: It doesn't actually count for anything. Too soon to say, "You gotta wonder... " rather than "You gotta believe!"

*

Not that this year's Yankees have proven anything yet, either, but it was good to see Hank Steinbrenner stick it to the Red Sox, calling the concept of "Red Sox Nation" what it is:

"'Red Sox Nation?' What a bunch of (crap) that is," he said in an interview with The New York Times' Sunday sports magazine Play. "That was a creation of the Red Sox and ESPN, which is filled with Red Sox fans. Go anywhere in America, and you won't see Red Sox hats and jackets, you'll see Yankee hats and jackets. This is a Yankee country. We're going to put the Yankees back on top, and restore the universe to order."

Not "restore order to the universe," the way that saying usually goes. "Restore the universe to order."

You tell 'em, Hank. Two Red Sox World Championships in four years, two since the last Yankee Title, after 86 years of frustration? That, as they would say on Star Trek, is a spatial anomaly.

*

Here's the Top 10 Reasons Yankee Fans Are Superior to Red Sox Fans, and why we need to restore the universe to order:

10. The corruption of Drew Barrymore. Yes, I know, Fever Pitch was only a movie. But I love Drew (one of the few blonde women I've ever had it bad for), so this one hurts. Because it didn't happen in real life, I can only put this one at Number 10.

9. "Sweet Caroline." You morons, Neil Diamond is a New Yorker! It's still a better song than "Dirty Water," though.

8. Fuzzy math. Two titles in four years doesn't top 26 in 87. Nor does it make up for none in 86. Nor does it erase the total, 26 to 7 -- or 26 to 8 if you count the fact that the New York Giants refused to play the Sox and the 1904 World Series was cancelled, yet never officially declared a forfeit. Not to mention the elevation of the 1967 and 1975 Red Sox ahead of the teams that beat them, the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds, respectively.

7. Whining about the Yankees' payroll. And their lack of "homegrown" talent. Take a look at your own team, Sox fans: Most of the contributors to the 2004 and '07 titles were obtained elsewhere, and got paid big dough. Only the Yankees have a higher payroll. If patriotism, as the old saying goes, is the last refuge of a scoundrel, "Yankee payroll" is the last refuge of a whiner. So often, you become what you hate the most. Red Sox fans, in this respect, your team has become the Yankees.

6. The way they treated Bill Buckner. For 18 years after committing the most famous error in baseball history, turning the already tied Game 6 of the 1986 World Series into the completion of a mammoth Red Sox loss, they forgave Buckner after the 2004 World Series.

XQZMe? What did Buckner do that had to be "forgiven"? The game was already tied, you stupid Chowdaheads! McNamara blew it! Schiraldi blew it! Stanley blew it! Buckner was a freakin' victim, you morons! Blaming Buckner for that loss is like blaming a speedbump's jostle of an ambulance for a gunshot victim dying! Honestly...

5. The silly, hypocritical claims of being good fans, as opposed to the way Yankee Fans act. They say a Yankee Fan threw a battery at Jim Rice at Yankee Stadium in 1981. A Sox fan threw a pocket-knife, blade extended, at Chris Chambliss at Fenway Park. This was in 1974, when Chambliss was new to the team, the Yankees hadn't won a Pennant in 10 years, and there hadn't been a Yanks-Sox race that came down to September since 1951! So they started it.

And Yankee Fans haven't embarrassed themselves the way Sox fans did in Game 4 of the 1999 American League Championship Series at Fenway. Yes, there was questionable officiating. But the game was 9-2 Yanks; blame your own team for screwing up, don't throw garbage onto the field.

Every time you hear Boston described as "The Athens of America," think about that scene, and ask, "What would Socrates do?"

4. The Martyr Complex. Or should that be "Mahtuh Cawmplex"?

* Oh, if only Tony Conigliaro hadn't been beaned in 1967, they would have won the World Series. Oh really? How do you know Bob Gibson wouldn't have shut him down like he did the other Sox?

* Oh, if only we hadn't been screwed on that interference call in Game 3 of the '75 Series. How about if you'd only hung on to a 3-0 lead at home in Game 7?

* Oh, if only the umps hadn't made so many bad calls in the '99 ALCS. How about if your team hadn't made 10 errors in five games and, except for Pedro, forgotten how to pitch?

It's New England against the world. Or, more accurately, the world against New England. News flash, guys: The world isn't out to get you. Then again, with how ridiculous you are, maybe it should be.

3. The Clemens hatred. As that noted Bostonian, Major Charles Emerson Winchester III of M*A*S*H, would have put it, Clemens' personality makes him obnoxious, but it doesn't make him the Judas Iscariot of baseball. Or the Alger Hiss, or the Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader.

(Then again, in that same dialogue, Winchester was threatened with prison if he didn't cooperate, and was told, "No more Boston, no more Symphony Hall, no more Red Sox," and he said, "Who cares about the Red Sox?" This episode was set in 1953.)

But Red Sox fans hated Clemens the way Brooklyn Dodger fans hated Leo Durocher after he was fired, and then hired by the arch-rival New York Giants across town. And fans of Leo's new team didn't have to read about how much he was hated on the Internet or see that hatred expressed on ESPN. Red Sox fans hate Clemens the way the Republicans hate Bill Clinton. Auburn fans hate the University of Alabama? Ohio State fans hate Michigan? Not like this. Not this much.

People, Clemens may have gone to Toronto (and then to New York) because of the Willie Sutton excuse: That's where the money was. Fine, we can all accept that.

But why did he leave? It wasn't up to him: The Sox didn't want him. "Twilight of his career." Whatever wrong Clemens has done, it wasn't his fault that he left Boston. At a time when you people still loved him -- even adored him! -- your team's management told him to get lost.

And it wasn't like it was in 1919 with Harry Frazee, who either had to get rid of Babe Ruth or cave in to his demands and lose all authority with the team: Dan Duquette and John Harrington had a choice, and keeping Clemens wouldn't have been a horrible decision.

And finally, with the new team of John Henry, Larry Lucchino and Theo Epstein now having shown you what a championship team looks like, maybe you should direct your ire at Duquette and Harrington. They blew it with Clemens. Once they did, Clemens' obligation to stay loyal to the Red Sox, and his obligation to stay loyal to you, was over. Live with that.

2. "Red Sox Nation." Hank's right, this is a joke. You know how many people are in New England? Massachusetts: 6.35 million. Connecticut, in the Counties that are Boston-oriented rather than New York-oriented (Hartford, Litchfield, Middlesex, New London, Tolland and Windham): 1.7 million. Maine: 1.27 million. New Hampshire: 1.24 million. Rhode Island: 1.05 million. Vermont: 600,000. Total: 12.2 million.

The New York Tri-State Area? New York City: 8.2 million, or 2/3rds as big as all of New England by itself. Long Island: 7.5 million. The Lower Hudson Valley: 2.1 million. The 2 New York-oriented Connecticut Counties (Fairfield and New Haven): 1.7 million. North and Central Jersey (everything from Interstate 195 on up): 5.2 million. Total: 24.7 million. Who's got the bigger "nation"?

To be fair, the NYTSA has 2 teams. So, just to humor the Flushing Heathen, let's presume it's an even split, and it's 12.35 million to 12.2 million. Still, advantage, New York. And we all know the Mets don't have as many fans as the Yankees.

But it goes beyond that: By seemingly always appearing in the World Series, in the Hollywood newsreels in the 1930s and 1940s, and on national TV in the 1950s and early 1960s, the Yankees were baseball to millions of people who didn't have a local team in the majors.

Red Sox fans claim that they get spread everywhere by people coming to New England to go to college, and then going back home as Red Sox converts. So I guess such institutions of higher learning as NYU, Columbia, Rutgers, Princeton, Seton Hall, Marist, Hofstra, and Yale -- which, by being in New Haven, is kind of like a Romulan Neutral Zone, if you'll indulge another Star Trek reference -- don't count? Sure, they do. (Yes, I know, Princeton is slightly closer to Philly than to New York, but it has direct bus service only to New York, and with the New Jersey Transit-to-SEPTA transfer at Trenton, the rail trip to New York is shorter.)

More than that, New Yorkers work for companies headquartered there, and end up transferred to other places, in ways that New England, not nearly the corporate giant that New York is, simply can't match.

You may see more Red Sox caps around the country now than Yankee caps, but, A, that's mostly kids, and grownups may not necessarily wear their team's cap all da time; and 2, it's purely a result of recent wins. Recall, it wasn't that long ago, people wearing Laker jerseys, and before that Bulls jerseys. Even in baseball, Braves caps outside the former Confederate States. You don't see too many of those anymore, except in videos by Atlanta-based rap acts.

The Yankees have the bigger reach. And the more fans. Sad to say, the best way to prove it is to win the whole thing again and make the fair-weather fans switch caps.

This is why the Yankees developed those "YANKEES UNIVERSE" T-shirts. Top that, "Athens of America."

And if there is a "Red Sox Nation," isn't it time we, in New York and New Jersey and that corner of Connecticut, started deporting people back to New England?

1. Being sorer "winners" than they ever were as losers. If losing made them special, winning made them, to use my mother's term, "especially special." If losing builds character, where is it now? Not in Boston, nor anywhere else in New England.