Friday, October 8, 2010

Top 10 Best Coaches In New York Sports History

Yankees 5, Twins 2. Two wins down, nine to go. Title 28 looking very possible.

The Devils open the season tonight at home against the Dallas Stars. Will they seriously contend for the Stanley Cup this season? I don't think so. Since Scott Stevens retired, the Devils haven't had that "Thou Shalt Not Approach Our Goal" attitude. Neither Colin White nor Paul Martin has been the answer. We need that sentry ready to protect our zone, with The Shoulder if need be. Anybody? Anybody? Bueller?

The top line will be Ilya Kovalchuk, Travis Zajac and Zach Parise. Hmmmm... Zajac, Ilya, Parise? The ZIP Line!

If Rutgers beats Connecticut tonight On The Banks, I will be shocked... but pleased.

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Top 10 Best Managers & Coaches In New York History

Eligibility: Has to be with a major league team. If I go to colleges, that means I have to go out to the suburbs and consider Rutgers, Princeton and Army... and they really don't feel like "New York teams." So, sorry to Clair Bee, Nat Holman, Howard Cann, Joe Lapchick, Frank McGuire and Lou Carnesecca. And I won't even consider a manager/head coach unless he won at least one World Championship in his sport.

Honorable Mention to those New York Tri-State Area head coaches who didn't make this list despite winning World Championships: Miller Huggins, Yankees, 1923, '27 and '28; Bucky Harris, Yankees, 1947; Ralph Houk, Yankees, 1961 and '62; Davey Johnson, Mets, 1986; Earl Potteiger, football Giants, 1927; Steve Owen, football Giants, 1934 and '38; Jim Lee Howell, football Giants, 1956; Tom Coughlin, football Giants, 2007; Frank Boucher, Rangers, 1940; Mike Keenan, Rangers, 1994; Jacques Lemaire, Devils, 1995; Larry Robinson, Devils, 2000; and Pat Burns, Devils, 2003.

Dishonorable Mention to Leo Durocher, Dodgers 1938-48 and Giants 1948-56. True, he led 2 New York baseball teams to Pennants -- something only Yogi Berra has also done -- and helped the restore the Dodgers from a joke franchise into a powerhouse. But that was much more due to the maneuverings of executives Larry MacPhail and Branch Rickey. And we know that Durocher cheated to get the Giants the '51 Pennant. To say nothing of how he turned coat from Dodgers to Giants. That was simply not done. Besides, there was only room for one libertine New York baseball manager on this list.

10. Billy Martin, Yankees 1975-88 (on and off). He was an alcoholic, a womanizer, a free-spender, an umpire-baiter, a lunatic and a paranoiac -- everything Leo the Lip was. But Billy the Brat had less to work with. True, he had Reggie Jackson -- against his will -- but he never had a Willie Mays.

And he still led the Yankees to the 1976 Pennant and the 1977 World Championship. With one more good starter, who knows, he might've gotten the Yankees at least the Division Title in 1985. The relationship between Billy and Yankee owner George Steinbrenner has been likened to that between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton: They couldn't live with each other, but neither could they live without each other. Who knows what Billy could have done if George had simply let him manage.

9. Gil Hodges, Mets 1968-71. He only managed 4 seasons, and only once in his career (including his earlier managing job with the Washington Senators) did he ever win more than 83 games in a season. But that was in 1969. A "miracle"? Not with Gil Hodges around. It shouldn't shock anyone that the even-tempered Hodges outmanaged the hotheaded Earl Weaver in the 1969 World Series.

Gil died of a heart attack, on the eve of his 48th birthday and the 1972 season. I wonder how Met history might have been changed had he simply still been alive on June 15, 1977 (he would've been just 53), and had been able to protect Tom Seaver from M. Donald Grant. Maybe it wouldn't have made a difference, because, once Mrs. Payson was no longer around to protect anyone, Grant probably would've fired Gil anyway. Face it, if he could trade Seaver...

8. Joe McCarthy, Yankees 1931-46. They called him "a push-button manager," and the fact that he inherited Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey, Red Ruffing and Lefty Gomez prevents him from rising higher on this list. Then again, Marse Joe always knew which buttons to push. The Yankees won the Pennant under his leadership in 1932, '36, '37, '38, '39, '41, '42 and '43, winning the World Series in all by '42. Seven World Series: No manager has ever won more. In postseason play, his teams were a whopping 29-10, including sweeps in '32, '38 and '39.

7. Joe Torre, Yankees 1996-2007. Another "push-button manager"? Unlike pre-1969 managers, Joe had to through not just one round of postseason play, but two; and unlike 1969-93 managers, he had to go through not just two rounds, but three. He won 17 postseason series, more than any manager ever. (Bobby Cox? 12.) He was 17-8 in postseason series and 76-47 in postseason games. He won 6 Pennants and 4 World Championships. And he raised the Yankee legacy higher than anyone had before. Sure, some of his moves (particularly with pitchers) seemed baffling, especially later on in his career. But "Clueless Joe"? As Joe McCarthy would have said, "My God, man, you were never that!"

6. Lester Patrick, Rangers 1926-39. The Rangers' head coach for their first 2 Stanley Cups (1928 and '33) and general manager for their first 3 (add 1940), he built the team that boxing promoter and Madison Square Garden big kahuna George "Tex" Rickard founded. (Again, "Tex's Rangers.") The Silver Fox had already been a sensational player, as had his brother Frank Patrick, but both men -- sometimes together, sometimes not -- made their biggest marks in suits rather than sweaters.

His greatest achievement came in Game 2 of the 1928 Stanley Cup Finals, when Lester, at age 44, had to substitute for his injured goalie Lorne Chabot. He volunteered, having played the position only once in his life, and not having played at all in 12 years (he had been a defenseman), and he allowed just 1 goal as the Rangers beat the Montreal Maroons in overtime and went on to win their first Cup.

He stepped aside for his former best player, Frank Boucher, and watched as Boucher led them to the '40 Cup. Put it this way: The Rangers didn't win a Cup without either Patrick or Boucher being involved until the franchise was 68 years old. But as glorious as Patrick's career was, he wasn't the best hockey coach in Tri-State Area history. That would be...

5. Al Arbour, Islanders 1973-94. Arbour, who had been a pretty good player as well, took a 2nd-year expansion team, got it to the Stanley Cup Semifinals in only their 3rd season (beating the Rangers in the process), and built a force that dominated the division then named for Patrick from 1978 to 1984, eventually reaching 5 straight Cup Finals and winning 4 straight Cups -- in each case, still a unique achievement for an American hockey team. From April 1980 to May 1984, he won 19 straight postseason series -- a record for any coach, and for any team, in any sport, anywhere in North America.

He stepped aside after the 1986 season, but came back 2 years later, and in 1993 got them back to the Conference Finals. Put it this way: Under Arbour as head coach, the Isles have won 31 postseason series; with all others, they've won 1. Having coached 1,499 NHL games, on November 3, 2007, at the request of Islanders coach Ted Nolan, Arbour returned to coach his 1,500th. At age 75, he became the oldest man ever to coach an NHL game. The Islanders beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 3–2, giving Arbour his 740th win. The 739-win banner honoring him was brought down from the Nassau Coliseum rafters, and was replaced with one with the number 1500. More even than Denis Potvin, Al Arbour, now 78, is the New York Islanders.

4. Bill Parcells, Giants 1983-90, Jets 1997-99. He didn't just win games, he saved the reputations of franchises. Both the Giants and the Jets were jokes when he stepped in. He got the Giants to win Super Bowls XXI and XXV, stepped aside for health reasons, took the New England Patriots job (oh, yeah, there's a job for a man with a heart condition -- but he hasn't had heart trouble since), got them into Super Bowl XXXI (but didn't win), and then saved the Jets from the 4-28 Rich Kotite disaster, getting them to the 1998 AFC Championship Game -- and they were leading John Elway and the Denver Broncos at the half at Mile High Stadium. The Broncos' talent won out, but the Big Tuna had brought Gang Green back from the abyss, as he had with Big Blue.

3. Red Holzman, Knicks, 1967-82. Boston Celtics fans will say that their own Red Auerbach was the coach who invented modern pro basketball, but then, Auerbach was also the general manager who got the players, not just the coach who led them. Not having that kind of control, Red became the model for all NBA coaches who followed him. Before him, the Knicks had been 0-for-3 in NBA Finals. With him, they won 2 out of 3, beating Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and the Los Angeles Lakers in 1970 and '73, losing to the Lakers in '72. Keep in mind, the Knicks were the last of the "old" New York teams to win a World Championship; even the Mets and Jets, less than 10 years old at the time, had beaten them to it. That's what made 1970 so special. In '73, on the way to the Finals, they became the first team ever to beat the Celtics in a Playoff series Game 7 at the Boston Garden.

A very good player in the 1940s and '50s who understood teamwork like few coaches ever has, he taught it to his players, leading with respect rather than fear like a Vince Lombardi would. He made a work ethic something to embrace rather than something to consider drudgery. And still, his teams added sizzle to their steak. The 1970 Knicks, along with the 1955 Dodgers and 1969 Mets, are probably one of the 3 most beloved single-year sports teams in the City's history.

2. John McGraw, Giants 1902-32. More even than Connie Mack, the Little Napoleon was the defining baseball manager of the first third of the 20th Century. A star third baseman in the 1890s, he took his win-at-any-costs attitude to the Polo Grounds and turned the baseball Giants from the worst team in the majors at that point to the best in just 2 years. He won Pennants in 1904, '05, '11, '12, '13, '17, '21, '22, '23 and '24 -- the only National League manager to win 4 straight, and one of only 2 to win 3 straight and he did that twice. He won the World Series in 1905, 1921 and 1922.

1. Casey Stengel, Dodgers 1934-36, Yankees 1949-60, Mets 1962-65. A former player of McGraw's, the Ol' Perfesser didn't do too well managing in Brooklyn. Nor in his next job, with the Boston Braves. He missed a few games after he was hit by a cab, and a Boston sportswriter named the driver as the man who did the most for Boston sports in 1943. Casey had a young Warren Spahn at the time, and had Spahn at the end of each man's career with the 1965 Mets. Spahn said, "I'm the only man who played for Casey both before and after he was a genius." And no matter what kind of genius he was, he could do nothing with the early Metropolitans, except promote them and make them lovable losers: "Come and see my Amazin' Mets! I been in this game 100 years, but they've shown me ways to lose I never knew existed before!"

But while he brought fans to the Mets, he brought championships to the fans the Yankees already had. They were in a transition when he arrived in 1949, with the stars that Joe McCarthy managed starting to age -- and some of them, such as Joe DiMaggio, Tommy Henrich and Phil Rizzuto, didn't exactly like him or his managing style. But he got his own guys in: Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Billy Martin, and, of course, Mickey Mantle. Remembering McGraw's platoon style, lefty hitters against righty pitchers and vice versa, he had guys who were starting half the time and pissed off at him the other half, so they were always trying to prove him wrong by playing great when they did play -- thus proving both sides right.

He managed 12 seasons, won 10 Pennants to tie McGraw's record (and break Mack's AL record), and won 7 World Series to tie McCarthy's record. He won the World Series in 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952 and 1953, the only MLB team to win 5 straight. He won the Pennant in 1955, the Series in 1956, the Pennant in 1957, the Series in 1958, and the Pennant in 1960 before being fired, allegedly due to his age (70, although others have managed that long, and well, including Torre.)

As Newark Star-Ledger columnist Jim Ogle said, "Well, the clown did pretty well. He won 10 Pennants in 12 years, and he made the Yankee legend and mystique grow volumes." More than at any other time in their history, under Huggins, under McCarthy, under Houk, under Martin, even under Torre, these were "the lordly Yankees."

Was Casey Stengel the greatest baseball manager ever? The greatest game boss in New York sports history? That's my opinion. The facts to support this opinion? As the man himself would say, "You can look it up."

Joe Girardi, Tom Coughlin, Rex Ryan, Mike D'Antoni, Avery Johnson, John Tortorella, Scott Gordon, John MacLean (who debuts as Devils coach tonight), and whoever replaces Jerry Manuel as Met manager... You're on the clock!

1 comment:

Lisa Swan said...

Eh, Billy Martin was pretty crazy. The fact that he had to be threatened with being fired in order to bat a Hall of Famer like Reggie Jackson cleanup was just flat-out crazy.

Would he have been better if Steinbrenner didn't meddle? Not in that case. And Billy was great at turning a team around, but not so great for the long term. (His first stint with the Yankees was the longest he lasted anywhere!)

And I would actually put Torre a littler higher than you, but end his "good term" circa 2003!