Thursday, March 31, 2011

Yanks Open 2011 With Win

My Grandma was from Queens, a Brooklyn Dodger fan from the 1930s to 1957, and a Met fan from 1962 to 2006. No, she didn't give up on the Mets, she got called up to the real major leagues, and now watches her favorite sports teams from the ultimate skybox.

She used to say, "It's not how good you are when you play good, it's how good you are when you play bad." In other words, can you find a way to win even when you struggle?

In football, she liked both the Giants and the Jets. She liked former Giant nemesis turned Jet coach Herman Edwards, the man who taught us all, "You play to win the game!" Grandma and Herm both understood: It doesn't matter if you're not at your best, you gotta try to win anyway.

This afternoon, at a damp, chilly but wonderful Yankee Stadium II, the Yankees opened their season against the Detroit Tigers, the franchise of Ty Cobb, Hank Greenberg, Al Kaline and Jack Morris.

Mike Mussina, a (hopefully) future Hall-of-Famer who pitched for the Yankees from 2001 to 2008, threw out the ceremonial first ball.

CC Sabathia, the Yankees' ace, was not sharp. He struggled in 4 of his 6 innings, but managed to get out of those jams without too much damage. Thanks to a home run in the 6th from Mark Teixeira, CC left with a 3-3 tie.

Apparently, Teix didn't get the, uh, message: Yankee 1st basemen are supposed to struggle to start the season. Don Mattingly always did, or so it seemed. So did Tino Martinez. So did Jason Giambi. And, in his 1st 2 seasons in Pinstripes, so did Teix. Not today, though: He hit a screamer down the right-field line, into the 2nd deck.

I noticed that new catcher Russell Martin received the Number 55 worn by Hideki Matsui from 2003 to 2009. I guess it was too much to ask for it be even "unofficially retired." But he got a hit, stole a base and scored on a sacrifice fly in his Yankee and American League debut.

In the bottom of the 7th, the Tigers brought in ex-Yankee Phil Coke to relieve. As Doris Kearns Goodwin, a Brooklyn Dodger turned Boston Red Sox fan, likes to say, "There's always these omens in baseball." As a Yankee, Coke was not it. The only reason he's had the chances he's had is that he's a lefthander. When I saw he was coming in, I knew, "We got this one."

No sooner had I typed that on Facebook than Curtis Granderson, who was a concern due to an oblique strain, strained the hell out of a Coke pitch. This Coke had more plop than fizz, and if you're a Tiger fan, you were not saying, "Oh, what a relief it is." This one soared into the 2nd deck in right as well, and unlike Teixeira's monster mash, there was no question that it would be fair. Granderson had a Coke and a smile.

That made it 4-3, Yankees. The Yanks scored another in the 7th and another in the 8th.

The Yankee bullpen pitched 3 perfect innings: The much-questioned Joba Chamberlain in the 7th, the newly-acquired Rafael Soriano in the 8th, the old standby Mariano Rivera in the 9th.

Final score: Yankees 6, Tigers 3. WP: Chamberlain (1-0). SV: Rivera (1). LP: Coke (0-1). Attendance: 48,226, near a sellout, although, clearly, not everybody decided to brave the weather. A lot of the You Paid How Much?!? Seats were empty. And, as Yankee broadcaster Michael Kay would say, the time of the game, a slightly unmanageable 3 hours and 2 minutes. (I hate it when the Michael Kay Threshold of 3 hours is crossed: If the Yankees won, then, obviously, the game was manageable!)

With the Yankees being the only American League Eastern Division team to play today, they are 1-0, and the other teams in the Division are 0-0. Therefore, the Yankees' Magic Number is 161: Any number of Yankee wins and losses by any of the other AL East teams adding up to 161, and the Yankees win the Division.

Is it arrogant to post the Magic Number at the end of Opening Day? Or is it just silly? As my 3-year-old niece Rachel, already a bigger Yankee Fan than I was at that age, would say, "That's silly! Silly Uncle Michael!"

(Disclaimer: Although I use the name "Uncle Mike" online, within the family, I'm officially "Uncle Michael." Just like my parents are no longer "Mom" and "Dad," they're now "Nana" and "Pop-Pop.")

Day off tomorrow, then the Yanks and Tigers have a 4:00 start on Saturday. A Fox Game of the Week? Oy, bring back the NBC Game of the Week and ABC Monday Night Baseball!

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Oh, and check out the link to today's Last Angry Fan. Sacrificing chickens? Like Dennis Haysbert as Pedro Cerrano in Major League?

At least they didn't try to steal Jobu's rum. "Is very bad to steal Jobu's rum. Is very bad."

Top 10 Things to Do In a Baseball Rain Delay

Are the Yankees going to play their Opening Day game, at the new Yankee Stadium against the Detroit Tigers, in 3 hours, as scheduled? I don't know, it's drizzling here in Central Jersey, 42 miles from The Stadium.

We may have a delay. Of a few minutes, a few hours, of an entire day. Tomorrow's weather report isn't looking too good, either.

Top 10 Things to Do In a Baseball Rain Delay

10. Call Your Mother. My mother would insist that I put this one on the list. But it's my list, so it goes at the bottom -- or is that the top?

9. Get a Snack. If you were already at the ballpark, or watching the game on television at a bar, this shouldn't be too hard.

8. Read a Newspaper. Read the game's best chroniclers, and catch up on the latest baseball gossip. Actually, if you want the latest...

7. Go On the Internet. Baseball message boards can exercise your mind -- if not always your wit.

6. Watch Another Game. In this era of satellite television, if one game is being delayed, or has been called off, there's almost certainly another one going on. As Jimmy Buffett would say if he's a baseball fan, "It's gametime somewhere." Your game delayed? Change the channel!

5. Read a Book. Preferably a baseball book. At the end of every chapter, check to see if play has resumed.

4. Tell Old Baseball Stories. The taller the tale, the better. If you're watching on TV, you might get this from the broadcasters. The beloved broadcasters who used to be players tended to be masters at this: Phil Rizzuto and Ralph Kiner in New York, Richie Ashburn in Philadelphia, Herb Score in Cleveland, George Kell in Detroit, Ron Santo and Jimmy Piersall in Chicago, Mike Shannon in St. Louis, Jerry Coleman in San Diego.

3. Play Baseball Highlights On Your DVD or VCR. Of course, you can only do this if the delayed game you were watching is on TV. If you're watching the Yankees on the YES Network, they will most likely show a Yankeeography.

2. Watch a Baseball Movie On Your DVD or VCR. Again, you can only do this if you were already at home, watching on TV. But in most cases, you'll pick one with, at least for a team you like, a happy ending -- a luxury you are not guaranteed for the actual game.

1. ... Well, this particular blog post is rated PG. You're going to have to use your imagination. But a woman who loves baseball? Her price is above A-Rod's.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Opening Day: When Everybody Is In First Place

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.
-- A. Bartlett Giamatti, "The Green Fields of the Mind"

Some of you knew Bart Giamatti as the Commissioner of Baseball, all too briefly in 1989, when the stress of the Pete Rose gambling scandal drove him to a heart attack and death at age 51; and, for 2 years before that, as President of the National League. Some of you may know that he was the father of actor Paul Giamatti.

Some of you may be aware that, before he was NL President, he was previously President of Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut, that often-fine, but often-troubled city that stands as a "Romulan Neutral Zone" between the New York Tri-State Area and New England.

Standing on the New Haven Green, surrounded by Yale campus buildings, churches, courthouses and stores, you can almost hear the echoes of the old Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds, Ebbets Field, and Fenway Park -- and even Braves Field, if you want to listen deeply enough.

Go 2 miles to the west of the Green, and you can watch the New Haven County Crosscutters of the Can-Am League, a league that, this season, includes the 2 teams based in Essex County, New Jersey: The Newark Bears (from 1999 until 2010 playing in the Atlantic League) and the Montclair State University-based New Jersey Jackals. The league also includes a new team, the Rockland Boulders, which will open its new ballpark in June in Ramapo, New York. Yale Field has hosted Yale baseball since 1926 and is one of the oldest ballparks still in use. From 1994 to 2003, the New Haven Ravens played there, in the Double-A Eastern League. I saw the Trenton Thunder play there twice, winning in 1995 but losing in 1999 (on the same day that David Cone pitched his perfect game). The West Haven Yankees played at a different park from 1972 to 1979, one which is now gone.

Go 1 mile to the south of the Green, and you'll be at New Haven Union Station, and on a weekend morning you can see fans getting on Metro-North to head south to New York for the Yankees or Mets, or on Amtrak to head north to Boston for the Red Sox.

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Bart Giamatti has often seemed right: Baseball does break the heart, many times. As a native of South Hadley, in Massachusetts' Berkshires, and a lifelong Red Sox fan, he knew that better than most. He wrote that passage on October 2, 1977, just as a season came to an end with the Yankees, trailing the Red Sox in the American League Eastern Division most of the season, finished 1st, with the Sox tied for 2nd with the Baltimore Orioles.

Exactly one year later, on October 2, 1978, came the Boston Tie Party and Bucky Dent. Giamatti's thoughts on that game are, as far as I know, unrecorded. Mine are familiar to anyone who knows me or has read this blog: As the great soccer player (and not-so-great manager) Kevin Keegan would say, I loove it, loove it.

But since I've broached the subject of soccer, particularly the English version, I'm reminded of another voice, that of Nick Hornby. In his screenplay for the film version of his book Fever Pitch -- which, of course, was made into a baseball-themed movie, one Yankee Fans would consider a horror film or a disaster flick because of the way it ends -- he writes eloquently of why we fans do the things we do:

Football has meant too much to me, and come to represent too many things... I've been to far too many games, and spent too much money, fretted about Arsenal when I should have been fretting about something else, and I've asked too much of the people I love. Okay, I accept all of that. Perhaps it's something you can't understand unless you belong... You're at the center of the whole world... The truth is, it comes again and again. There's always another season. You lose a cup final in May? Well, there's the 3rd round to look forward to in January. It's actually quite comforting, if you think about it.

I've rooted for a lot of teams:

* Arsenal Football Club since 2008 -- admittedly, a brief time in the history of a club that goes back to 1886, has won the League 6 times in my lifetime, including 3 "Doubles," won the FA Cup when I was 9, and would have thrilled me (and driven me crazy) to no end if I'd grown up 35 miles outside of London instead of 35 miles outside of New York.

* The New York Red Bulls since 1996, when they were started as the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, although I've only been going to games since 2009, with my belated, American-view-hindered discovery that soccer is NOT a hideously boring game that ends 1-0 if you're lucky, 0-0 if you're not.

* East Brunswick High School's sports teams since 1984, when I arrived as a student.

* The New Jersey Devils since 1982, Day One for them.

* The New Jersey Nets since 1977, when the once-and-future New York Nets moved from the Nassau Coliseum to the Rutgers Athletic Center, later to the Meadowlands Arena (under its many names) and now to the Prudential Center, presumably only as a 2-year way station until the Barclays Center opens in Downtown Brooklyn. Will I still root for them? Right now, I'm thinking 80-20 No, no matter who they bring in.

* Rutgers University's sports teams pretty much since I've been aware of them, probably also around 1977.

* And, of course, the New York Yankees, also since 1977, when I was first old enough to watch them on television and "get" the game.

I haven't felt it with Rutgers and the Nets as intensely as with the others. I still feel as though my Goonerdom is incomplete since I haven't watched Arsenal play live. And my NFL interest has varied, and the less said about me as a pro football fan, the better. I have watched the New York Giants and Jets with interest, but their refusal to change their names to "New Jersey" after moving here has led me to hold a grudge against both. That grudge has seriously diminished in the last few years, as the Giants did the world a favor by derailing the New England Patriots' bid to cheat their way to 19-0 in Super Bowl XLII, and my sister (I think because her office owns season tickets and has offered them to her) becoming a Jets fan, making me a Jet-fan-in-law, I suppose. (But her significant other is a Giants fan.)

But with the Yankees, the Devils and EBHS, I have belonged. I understand. I feel it.

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And there are few days when a fan feels it more than on Opening Day. It's the day when every team, whether they're a storied, wealthy franchise like the Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers or St. Louis Cardinals -- or a troubled, cash-struggling team like the Pittsburgh Pirates or Kansas City Royals -- can look at the standings and say, "See? We're all equal. Like all 30 teams, we're Number 1. And that's the truth!" And on Opening Day, that truth holds for a little while longer. And if you win on Opening Day, then it holds for another day.

For a lot of teams, that hope doesn't last long. For some, it dissipates within a week. For others, it lasts a little longer: There's usually at least one team that makes you look at the standings and say, "Where did they come from?" The manage to hold 1st place throughout April and into early May, and every once in a while they hold it into, inevitably, at some point before the All-Star Break, the wheels do come off, and they fall back into their usual mediocrity.

Still, every once in a while, there's a team that defies expectations. In 1967, the Red Sox started the season as, supposedly, 100-to-1 odds to win the Pennant, but they did. In 1969, nobody figured either the Mets or the Chicago Cubs would make a run at the NL East title, but they did; the Cubs went into a September Swoon, the Mets completed their Miracle. In 1991, the Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves both did a worst-to-first, and faced each other in an amazing World Series that took the Twins until the 10th inning of Game 7 to win. In 1993, the Philadelphia Phillies did the same, held off the Montreal Expos for the NL East title, outfoxed the Braves for the Pennant, and pushed a much better Toronto Blue Jays team to a Game 6 before falling.

Tomorrow, March 31, 2011, is Opening Day. Rain is being predicted for the Northeast, and games might not be played. Even if they are played, it might be cold.

No matter. To hell with what the groundhogs say: Spring starts tomorrow. As Bonnie Tyler would say, "Forever's gonna start tonight." And, as John Fogerty would say, "We're born again, there's new grass on the field."

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Hours until the Yankees' Opening Day: 16, tomorrow afternoon, at Yankee Stadium II, against the Detroit Tigers. Weather permitting, of course.

Days until the Devils play another local rival: Actually, they're playing right now, at home against the New York Islanders, and they're winning 2-0 after 2 periods. They host the Flyers this Friday night. It's appropriate that they would play the Broad Street Bozos and their fool fans on April Fool's Day. Their last regular-season game against a local rival is a week from Saturday, against The Scum at Madison Square Garden. Then they close the next day, at home against the Boston Bruins. The Playoff dream looks over for this season, the 1st miss in 15 years and only the 2nd miss in the last 22 (if you don't count the cancelled 2004-05 season, that is).

Days until the Red Bulls play again: 3, Saturday night, home to the Houston Dynamo.

Days until the next Yankees-Red Sox series begins: 9, a week from this Friday, at Fenway Park.

Days until the Red Bulls play another "derby": 10, a week from this Saturday, against the Philadelphia Union at PPL Park in Chester, Pennsylvania. They next play their biggest long-term rivals, D.C. United, on Thursday, April 21, at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in Washington. And they next play the team that SHOULD be their biggest rival, due to the whole New York-New England thing, the New England Revolution, on Saturday, June 11, at Red Bull Arena.

Days until the next North London Derby: 21, Wednesday, April 20, at White Hart Lane.

Days until Derek Jeter collects his 3,000th career hit: 76 (estimated to come on June 14). About 11 weeks.

Days until Rutgers plays football again: 155, on Thursday, September 1. Just 5 months. The game is home to North Carolina Central. Not UNC, a.k.a. Chapel Hill. Not N.C. State. North Carolina Central. They're in Durham, almost certainly set up as a black people's counterpoint to once-segregated Duke University in the same city. This is another chance for RU to play a historically black college (as we've recently done with Howard, Morgan State and Norfolk State), give them a huge payday, rack up a lopsided win, and hear their great band while booing our own usually good band for being inadequate by comparison. Keep in mind that, for TV reasons, most of Rutgers' game times, and even dates, are tentative.

Days until East Brunswick High School plays football again: 163, on Friday night, September 9, and the opponent and location are TBD.

Days until the Rutgers-Army football game at Yankee Stadium: 226.

Days until the next East Brunswick-Old Bridge Thanksgiving clash: 237.

Days until the last Nets game in New Jersey: 389 (estimated).

Days until the 2012 Olympics begin in London: 485.

Days until Alex Rodriguez collects his 3,000th career hit: 794 (estimated).

Days until Alex Rodriguez hits his 700th career home run: 916 (estimated).

Days until Super Bowl XLVIII at the Meadowlands: 1,039.

Days until Alex Rodriguez hits his 756th career home run to surpass all-time leader Hank Aaron: 1,536 (estimated).

Days until Alex Rodriguez hits his 763rd career home run to become as close to a "real" all-time leader as we are likely to have: 1,650 (estimated).

Sunday, March 27, 2011

U.S.A. 1-1 Argentina: Cold Night, Hot Game

Last night was 2 firsts for me: My first time inside the new Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, and my first time watching the U.S. national soccer team.

If I ever do either again, it will not be at the same time. Forget the fact that the huge number of Hispanics in the New York Tri-State Area almost made it seem like a road game for the U.S. -- a factor also in cities like Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston and Miami.

But the one thing everybody hated about Giants Stadium was the wind. The brand-new $1.6 Billion stadium having no roof at all, and a nasty wind swooping in off the wide Hackensack River and slicing through the concourses, turned it into a giant meat locker. I actually had to wear my U.S. national team jersey over my winter jacket. (Now I'm glad I got the XXL size.)

Let me get the most important thing out of the way, and say that the fans were great. The Argentines were loud and waved a lot of flags, but caused no trouble at all. And their legendary grilling prowess did something I thought impossible: It made the Meadowlands parking lot smell great.

The Americans got a little stroppy after some perceived bad calls by the officials -- only one of which was bad enough to upset me -- but nobody took it out on the visitors, at least that I saw.

The crowd was announced as 78,936, making it the largest paid attendance that's ever included me, and 3,630 short of capacity, although the place looked absolutely full, and the public-address announcer said it was a sellout. So the discrepancy is probably due to complimentary tickets.

Not surprisingly, there were a lot of fans in Barcelona shirts & other Barca-themed items, because of Argentina's Lionel Messi, who plays for Barca. Very surprisingly, there were at least a dozen people wearing Arsenal items -- myself not one of them, but it was so cold I wished on a few occasions that I'd brought a scarf.

I saw a couple each of Chelsea, Liverpool, and Manchester United (one fan had the green & gold Newton Heath scarf, one of these "Love United Hate Glazer" people, and I told him, "Nice Norwich scarf, pal!"). One fan wore an Everton shirt with Landon Donovan's name and Number 9 (10 for the U.S.), and there was a guy in a Fulham shirt with Clint Dempsey's name and Number 23 (8 for the U.S.).

A few Real Madrid items because of Angel Di Maria, a few Internazionale (a.k.a. Inter Milan) because of Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso, and several Argentine clubs I didn't recognize, along with the 2 that I would, the 2 giants of Buenos Aires, Boca Juniors and River Plate.

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In a way, this game was the exact opposite of a lot of Arsenal matches I've seen:

* The team in red (usually, the U.S. wears white or navy blue, this was the debut of the red shirt with the navy sash) looked very much overmatched by a team that was passing the ball around, as if toying with them. I got the feeling that, like Arsenal, Argentina could have turned it on and won this game easily any time they wanted to.... But they didn't.

* A big (in hype, at least) striker missed some easy shots. Messi was not "the best player in the world" last night. His dribbling is sick, and he can really pass, but he was 0-for-5 on shots. His shooting was so far off the mark that the U.S. goalie, North Brunswick, New Jersey native and Everton star Tim Howard, made none of his saves against Messi: None one of the shots was on target. It reminded me of Arsenal's Nicklas Bendtner -- even if Messi's height didn't (he's officially 5-foot-7, Bendtner's listed as 6-foot-3 1/2), nor his hair (although it was equally silly).

* A big star on the dazzling team got hurt -- or seemed to. Like a lot of Spanish and Hispanic players, Messi dives in order to win favor from the referees. On one play in the 1st half, he ended up rolling around like he'd been sprayed by shotgun pellets. There was a 3-minute delay (but only 1 minute of injury time was added), and a stretcher was brought out. Guess what: He got up, took a couple of minutes to shake it off, got back on, started the Argentina goal, and was still on at full-time. Diva twit.

* The overmatched team decided to get a little rough. There were no cards for Argentina, and 4 yellow cards for the U.S., and I have to admit that all but 1 were deserved. We made some good clean tackles, but also made a few that were rough, including a couple we totally got away with. It really was like cheering on a Dirty Northern Bastard team against an Arsenalesque one. I felt dirty.

* And, of course, the team that would have been happy with a draw was.

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Nonetheless, the U.S. should have lost this game 4-0. The Argies kept coming and coming and coming. I don't know what the possession percentage was, but if you told me it was 70-30 Argentina, I'd believe it.

It was only through heroic defending that the scoreboard did not show that we got shellacked. Even on the Argentina goal: Just before the half, Messi set up DiMaria, and Howard (easily the most popular U.S. player last night, though our being in New Jersey may have had something to do with that) ended up making 2 amazing saves; unfortunately, a 3rd was required, and before he had a chance to get up and grab the rebound, Cambiasso slam-dunked it in. The goal was no fluke, it was very well-earned.

I can't say that about our goal. The New York Red Bulls were missing half their roster due to international duty or injuries (including Thierry Henry), and one of them was Juan Agudelo, the 18-year-old Colombian-born, Barnegat, New Jersey (Shore)-raised Red Bull, who came on in the 2nd half for the useless Jermaine Jones, and took advantage of Argentine goalie Sergio Romero's inability to hang onto a Maurice Edu shot, and dinked it in for the equaliser.

After his goal, a photo was taken of Agudelo, sticking out his tongue. The model here is not basketball legend Michael Jordan, whom Agudelo is too young to remember well, but former Arsenal Captain Patrick Vieira, now running out the string with Manchester City.

After 40 minutes scoreless, I would have loved a draw; once Cambiasso scored, I began to beg for a draw. I think a lot of us were begging, and we got it. The place went mental: You'd have thought it was Donovan's injury-time winner vs. Algeria in the World Cup all over again, while the Argentines were stunned that they let in such a bad one. (Again, it was just like watching Arsenal... in reverse.)

The last 20 minutes were agonizing... and this game didn't count for a damn thing! But when the referee mercifully blew his final whistle, with 1-1 being the final score, the reactions were as I would have expected if you'd told me beforehand it would end in a draw: The Argentines didn't care, they knew it was a friendly and a night out and a chance to spend a weekend in New York City and environs; the Americans were overjoyed that they held one of the world's defining football nations -- and a much better team than their own -- to a draw.

Men of the Match: For the U.S., Howard, then Agudelo. Defenders Jonathan Spector (West Ham United) and Oguchi Onyewu (AC Milan) were great, Captain Carlos Bocanegra (St-Etienne) was awful in the 1st half but great in the 2nd, and even Donovan played a little defense. For Argentina, Gabriel Milito (like Messi, of Barcelona), then Cambiasso. Javier Mascherano (also Barcelona) was a pain in the ass, too. I just now realized there was no sign of Manchester City's Carlos Tevez -- is he hurt? He could have made a huge difference.

All I wanted was to not have it be miserably cold, and for my national team to not get embarrassed by one of the world's footballing powers. That wish, like the game itself, was a draw: The weather sucked, but the game was cracking. Not only did we not get embarrassed against a team that tried to make that happen, but we held our own, and protected our house. Nobody drank our milkshake.

No, U.S. soccer isn't there yet. But, as the song goes:

We're on our way!
We're on our way!
We'll hit the big time!
We're on our way!
How we'll get there, we don't know!
How we'll get there, we don't care!
All we know is that we're on our way!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Showalter: Fool On Jeter, Wise on Epstein

My favorite Yankee Fan's blog (not counting my own, of course) is Subway Squawkers, which is actually a co-production by a Yankee Fan, Lisa Swan, and a Met fan, Jon Lewin.

Lisa and I have gone back and forth over the relative merits of certain Yankees, particularly Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and former manager Joe Torre, who ripped A-Rod (and suggested that several players did as well) in his book The Yankee Years.

Prior to Torre becoming manager, the Yankee manager was William Nathaniel Showalter III, better known as Buck Showalter.

I will praise Buck at the end of this blog. Please be patient. For now, though, I must take him out to the woodshed.

Buck guided the Yankees through a difficult rebuilding season in 1992, and then in '93 guided them to first place in the American League Eastern Division in September, before falling off and seeing the Toronto Blue Jays go all the way. In '94, he had the Yankees sitting on top, 6 1/2 games ahead of the Baltimore Orioles and with the best record in the AL, when the Strike hit. In '95, despite all kinds of difficulties, he got them to the AL's Wild Card, before losing a thrilling, but ultimately gut-wrenching, Division Series to the Seattle Mariners.

That was the last turning point: George Steinbrenner, as he so often did, decided to pressure his manager by telling him to fire a coach or two. Showalter refused. George said either they go with you, or they go without you; but, either way, they go. Buck quit, and was hired as the all-purpose guy (field manager, general manger, director of scouting, you name it) for the startup Arizona Diamondbacks.

George hired Joe Torre, moved Gene Michael up, made Bob Watson the new GM. They made the trade that brought in Tino Martinez and Jeff Nelson from the Mariners. They made Jeter the starting shortstop. They made Mariano Rivera, whom Showalter did not trust in the Playoffs with disastrous consequences, the definitive setup man for closer John Wetteland (and, a year later, they let Wetteland walk and made Rivera the closer). They traded failed slugger Ruben Sierra for slugger Cecil Fielder. They let catcher Mike Stanley walk, a move that proved very unpopular, but that faded as soon as fans realized that new acquisition (now manager) Joe Girardi was a good catcher. And, of course, they let the beloved Don Mattingly walk, in favor of Tino.

Result: The Yankees won the 1996 World Series, and, with a little more tweaking by George, Stick and new GM Brian Cashman, built the dynasty that won the 1998, 1999 and 2000 World Series.

Buck went to Phoenix and built the D-backs from the ground up. Result: They won the NL West in only their 2nd season, 1999. An amazing achievement -- and still the only 1st-place finish Buck has ever had, unless you count the '94 Yanks (whose season, however awkwardly, did come to a conclusion with them in 1st at the finish). But the Snakes got embarrassed in the NLDS by the Mets, and missed the Playoffs completely in 2000. Buck was fired.

Bob Brenly, one of the many good-field-no-hit catchers who rode his brain into the broadcast booth, was hired as the new manager. Result: The Diamondbacks -- with a little pharmaceutical help from Matt Williams (proven), Luis Gonzalez (almost certain but as yet unproven) and Curt Schilling (so far, only suspected), beat the Yankees in an epic World Series in 2001.

Buck moved on to the Texas Rangers, where he won nothing. He went into the ESPN studio, and then, last season, was hired to manage the Orioles. The O's had the worst record in baseball at the time, 32-73. That's a 113-loss pace. Buck turned them around: They went 34-23 the rest of the way, a 97-win pace.

Does Buck know baseball? Well... sort of. This is his 4th team. He made the 1st 2 winners, but not champions.

We'll never know if Buck could have made the Yankees champions again if he and George could have swallowed their differences and held on for 1 more year. I'm guessing no, because he and his pitching coach, Mark Connor (one of the guys George wanted to dump), didn't see what Torre and his pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre saw in Mariano. I'm also not sure if he would have liked dropping Mattingly, his former minor-league teammate, for Tino. I doubt he would have liked the trade of Sierra for Fielder.

And would he have agreed, once Tony Fernandez got hurt in spring training, to make Derek Jeter the starting shortstop? Maybe... but maybe not.

Now, we have a story about Buck criticizing Jeter, who has won 7 Pennants and 5 World Series, is the only man to win the Most Valuable Player of both the All-Star Game and the World Series in the same season, has been cheated out of at least 2 regular-season AL MVPs (1999 and 2009), has a .314 lifetime batting average, has 5 Gold Gloves, has made the All-Star Game 11 times, and, barring injury, will, this season, reach 3,000 hits and become the Yankees' all-time leader in games played, surpassing Mickey Mantle's record of 2,401.

Now, the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States gives us freedom of speech. We can say whatever we want about whoever and whatever we want -- although that's not absolute. You can't shout "Fire!" in a crowded plac,e unless there actually is a fire. Things like that. And you can't lie about someone with the purpose of damaging their reputation -- when spoken, that's slander; when printed, that's libel.

And, as a good baseball fan (the Minnesota Twins) who should have been President of the United States, Hubert Humphrey, liked to say, "The right to be heard does not include the right to be taken seriously."

I know, I know, a fine line to quote in a blog. Go ahead, roll your eyes.

Here is what Buck Showalter said about Derek Jeter, as quoted in the April issue of Men's Journal and in today's New York Daily News:

<< "The first time we went to Yankee Stadium, I screamed at Derek Jeter from the dugout," the former Yankee manager told the magazine, according to The St. Petersburg Times.

"Our guys are thinking, 'Wow, he's screaming at Derek Jeter.' Well, he's always jumping back from balls just off the plate. I know how many calls that team gets - and yes, he (ticks) me off." >>

Really.

Since when is jumping back from a ball just off the plate against the rules?

Buck is a former Yankee manager. He should know full well the Yankees do not get very many calls.

Or did I miss all those warnings that Red Sox (and other) pitchers get for plunking Yankee batters, the same warning that Yankee pitchers get all the time?

Close calls at 1st base? "Tie goes to the runner"... unless the runner is a Yankee.

Home plate is 17 inches wide? More like 24 if you're a Yankee.

Well, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm getting carried away. After all, this is Buck Showalter we're talking about. He's a smart baseball man. After all, look at everything he's won, especially compared to Jeter:

Playoff Berths: Jeter 15, Showalter 2 -- 3 if you count the one the '94 Yanks would have gotten.

Division Titles: Jeter 11, Showalter 1 -- 2 if you count the '94 Yanks.

Pennants: Jeter 7, Showalter 0.

World Championships: Jeter 5, Showalter 0.

And let's not forget that 3 major league teams have willingly gotten rid of Showalter as manager. None has gotten rid of Jeter as anything.

Showalter has the right to criticize Jeter. And we have the right to tell him he's a fool for criticizing him for doing something totally legal.

I realize that he's managing the Baltimore Orioles, the team once managed by Earl Weaver. A name that was also used for the team that made John McGraw, a great third baseman in his playing days who then became the greatest manager of baseball's next era. Both the Earl and the Little Napoleon searched for any edge they could get, and this is what Buck is doing now.

But isn't that also what he's accusing Jeter of doing?

I could say, "Hey, Buck, win something, then you can criticize Jeter without looking like a fool."

Instead, I'll say, "Hey, Buck, wait for Jeter to do something illegal, then you can criticize him without looking like a fool."

*

So is Buck a fool? As his fellow Floridian, and his former fellow ESPN man, Lee Corso, would say, "Not so fast, my friend!"

Buck also had this to say, about the general manager of the Boston Red Sox, Theo Epstein:

"I'd like to see how smart Theo Epstein is with the Tampa Bay Rays' payroll. You got Carl Crawford 'cause you paid more than anyone else, and that's what makes you smarter? That's why I like whipping their butt."

Looks like Buck may still have some Yankee in him, sticking it to The Scum.

Let me be honest: Baltimore, for all its difficulties, is a great sports town. It's a very good baseball town. The Orioles, in spite of being mostly dreadful since Monica Lewinsky dominated headlines and not having won a Pennant since Ronald Reagan was considered a poor bet for a 2nd term, have one of the better histories in Major League Baseball.

For an entire generation, from 1960 to 1984, they were very solid; from 1964 to 1983, they were in the Pennant race nearly every season. They've won 6 Pennants since 1966, and the only other teams that can say that (or more) are the Yankees (11), the St. Louis Cardinals (7), the Oakland Athletics and the Los Angeles Dodgers (6 each). The Atlanta Braves' "dynasty"? Cincinnati's Big Red Machine? Over that same stretch, each has won 5.

For much of my youth, from 1977 to 1984, that fluky but amazing run in 1989, and again from 1994 to 1997, the O's were a winning team, always ready to mix it up with the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Detroit Tigers and (from the late '70s through the '80s, they were in the AL and good) the Milwaukee Brewers. I'm used to seeing the Orioles threatening for the AL East title. Don't forget, in 1996, the Yankees had to beat the O's for it, and then beat them again in the ALCS; in 1997, the O's beat the Yanks out for it -- and haven't appeared in the Playoffs since.

It remains to be seen if Buck Showalter can do in the 2010s what GMs Paul Richards and Frank Cashen (the future Met GM), and managers Hank Bauer (the ex-Yankee right fielder) and Earl Weaver, did in the 1960s; and what Larry Lucchino (now the Red Sox president) and manager Davey Johnson (the former Met manager) did in the 1990s -- build a Playoff team that just might (did the 1st time around, didn't quite the 2nd) win Pennants.

But Buck does know the game. Just not as well as he thinks he does.

After all, he has won 1 fewer Pennant than Alex Rodriguez. (Lisa will like that.)

(No, Lisa and I are not an item.)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Devils Made Me Buy This Jersey!

Rest in peace, Dame Elizabeth Taylor. You lived about 20 years after the tabloids began trumpeting your "brave last days." As much difficulty and nonsense as you went through, you maintained your class all the way to the end.

You so often took the opportunity to stand for something larger than yourself. You stood by the people you loved, even when most of us wondered whether they deserved it -- from Richard Burton to Larry King to Michael Jackson. And you thrilled millions for 60 years, from National Velvet to These Old Broads.

You were the Catherine Zeta-Jones of your day. Yes, that was a compliment.

*

Remember Flip Wilson? Clerow Wilson Jr. was from Jersey City, and was one of the premier standup comics of the 1960s. In 1970, NBC rewarded him for this by giving him his own variety show, The Flip Wilson Show, which ran until 1974. I'm just old enough to remember it.

Occasionally, he would mention his pastor, the Reverend Leroy. "You see, I belong to The Church of What's Happening Now." And Rev. Leroy would mention his wife's spending habits. Then he would do the voice, a voice he also used for other characters, including Geraldine Jones -- dressing in drag. He'd say, "I didn't want to buy this dress. THE DEVIL made me buy this dress!"

*

As you're aware, I am a fan of a certain hockey team, called the New Jersey Devils. They were named for the mythical Jersey Devil, a hideous creature that terrorizes the Pine Barrens of South Jersey -- which, if you know the Garden State's geography, is actually Philadelphia territory rather than in the New York City sphere of influence. So it's a dumb name, above and beyond the religious, anti-Christian implications. So I wish the team had another name.

I have a jersey of that team, with my name on the back. (I figure, players come and go, especially with general manager Lou Lamoriello trading good players to save money, the cheap bald twat; but he can never trade me.) Unfortunately, when I took it to a local sporting goods store to put the lettering and numbering on it, they screwed up, and it looks fake. This was not what I had hoped for.

I wanted to buy a real-looking jersey. I didn't want to buy THAT jersey. The Devils made me buy that jersey!

*

This season, the Devils got off to one of the worst starts in National Hockey League history. Heading into the Christmas season (or, as they call it in English soccer, the festive period), they were dead last in team points, 30th out of 30. They had lots of injuries (including their top offensive player, Zach Parise, who is finally on his way back), and legendary goaltender Martin Brodeur, who's about to turn 39, was suddenly looking old.

Then Lou Lam fired coach John MacLean, once one of the team's greatest players and still its all-time leader in goals (347). He brought back Jacques Lemaire, a Hall of Fame player for the Montreal Canadiens who coached the Devils to their first Stanley Cup, in 1995.

Despite his age, 65, Lemaire put his faith in kids, like right wing Nick Palmieri (21), left wing Matthias Tedenby (also 21) and defensemen Mark Fayne (23), Mark Fraser (24). He's also found trustworthy veterans in left wing (and fellow 1995 Devils hero) Brian Rolston (38), backup goalie Johan "the Moose" Hedberg (37), defensemen Henrik Tallinder (32) and Anton Volchenko (29), and the revitalized Patrik Elias (34 and playing like a Captain again) and Ilya Kovalchuk (27 and turning out to be worth the huge contract the Devils shoved at him).

It seemed to work. The Devils won 23 games, and got at least a point in 25, in a 28-game stretch. They had their fans, including me, thinking that a miracle run to the Playoffs might just reach completion.

But now they've lost 3 out of their last 4, all in regulation. This includes last night, against the Boston Bruins in Cheatertown.

The Devils are now 9 points out of the 8th and final seed for the Eastern Conference Playoffs, with 9 games to play. It looks like they're finished.

It was fun while it lasted, and it's given fans hope that the future will be a lot better than the immediate past. Especially since the defense has been helped: Andy Greene has finally come out of his shell, and Colin White, who we were counting on to be the tough-guy successor to legendary Captain Scott Stevens, is making far fewer mistakes.

Still, the replacement for Stevens was not found before he was needed. And while Brodeur has been less shaky, his successor does not appear to be on the way, either. Hedberg will be 38 on May 5, Brodeur 39 the next day.

Albany Devils starter Mike McKenna has been good at the hockey equivalent of Triple-A ball, but he's about to turn 28: If he was going to be a great NHL goalie, he would have reached the majors by now. The days when a guy can be stuck in the minors until he's that age are over: Johnny Bower, who starred for the minor-league Cleveland Barons in the 1950s, but didn't make his NHL debut until he was 29 and didn't stick as an NHL starter until he was 34 -- and then backstopped the Toronto Maple Leafs to their last 4 Stanley Cups, the last coming when he was 42 -- is not likely to be repeated in this day and age. (Bower is still alive, age 86.) McKenna's backup is Jeff Frazee, about to be 24, but he shows no statistical sign of being NHL-ready.

If the Devils can squeeze one more good season out of Marty, the 2011-12 season could be something special, especially if Lemaire, as he's suggested he might do, sticks around. But I'll feel a lot better if the next good Devils goalie is ready to step into Marty's skates. He doesn't have to be as great as Marty was from 1994 to 2010. I'll settle for regularly being as good as Sean Burke was in 1988, or Chris Terreri in 1992.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Saluting New York's Irish Sports Legends

Top o' the mornin' to ya, lads and lasses. I'm not one bit Irish meself (mostly Eastern European), but that won't stop me from doing a St. Patrick's Day-themed blog post.

I was going to do a Top 10 Irish Baseball Players, but, realizing just how much the Irish once dominated the game, that would have become a Top 100. So I'll simply salute some sons (and one daughter) of the Emerald Isle who played in the New York Tri-State Area and are in the major sports' Halls of Fame.

In baseball, there are:

* Yankees Miller Huggins, Joe McCarthy, Bill Dickey and Whitey Ford (though Paul O'Neill is not in the Hall of Fame, and almost certainly never will be).

* Met (before he was great) Nolan Ryan; New York Giants John Montgomery Ward, Michael Francis "Smilin' Mickey" Welch, Tim Keefe, Amos Rusie, Jim "Orator" O'Rourke, John McGraw, Joe McGinnity, Roger Bresnahan (a.k.a. the Duke of Tralee), George "Highpockets" Kelly and Bill Terry.

* Brooklyn Dodgers Larry MacPhail, Branch Rickey, Arky Vaughan and, reluctantly, Walter Francis O'Malley.

* Dodger and Yankee Willie Keeler.

* And Larry's son Lee MacPhail, who was a Yankee executive before succeeding fellow Irishman Joe Cronin as President of the American League.

Foley's NY, at 18 West 33rd Street, between the Empire State Building and Herald Square, and 2 blocks east of Penn Station and Madison Square Garden, calls itself "An Irish Bar with a Baseball Attitude." Owner Shaun Clancy has set up a display that he calls The Irish American Baseball Hall of Fame. (Notice, no hyphen.)

Among New York Tri-State Area football players, there aren't many. The Giants were founded by Tim Mara and run by him and his son Wellington Mara (whether current owner John joins his father and grandfather in the Pro Football Hall of Fame remains to be seen), and had Ray Flaherty. Fordham had the Maras  and George McAfee. The Jets? Well, they have very few HOFers of any ethnicity (Joe Namath is Hungarian), but their all-time leading scorer is placekicker Pat Leahy.

Basketball used to be loaded with fine Irish players, to the point where the 1st truly great professional team, in the 1920s, was a New York-based squad called the Original Celtics. Yes, they were called "Original" long before anyone knew the pro game would one day be dominated by the Boston Celtics – who, of course, were run by Englishman Walter Brown and a German-Jewish Brooklynite named Arnold "Red" Auerbach.

The Original Celtics had Nat Holman, who would later coach City College of New York (CCNY) to the 1950 NCAA and NIT Championships – the only such "double" that ever has or ever will be won unless the rules change; and Joe Lapchick, who went on to coach at St. John's and lead the Knicks to 3 NBA Finals in the early 1950s. Another early pro team from New York, the Brooklyn Visitations, had Queens native Bobby McDermott, who would later star for the Fort Wayne Pistons. CCNY's, and therefore Holman's, great rival was Howard Cann of New York University (NYU).

The aptly-named Edward S. "Ned" Irish was the founder and first general manager of the Knicks. Among the players Lapchick coached, at St. John's and/or with the Knicks, were the brothers Al and Dick McGuire: Al would later coach Marquette to the 1977 National Championship and become a broadcaster; "Dick the Knick" would become one of the Knicks' worst coaches, but then their best scouting director and help build the 1970 and '73 NBA Champions, the latter having former Cincinnati Royals legend Jerry Lucas.

Lapchick would be replaced at St. John's by Frank McGuire – no relation to Al or Dick – and, when Frank went on to greener (or, rather, bluer) pastures at the University of North Carolina (1957 National Champions), Lapchick would return.

And Frank McGuire, and then Dean Smith (no connection to New York, and I don’t think he's Irish) would coach Billy Cunningham, born in Brooklyn, raised in Long Beach, Island, who is not only the only coach to win both an NCAA and an NBA title, but, as far as I can tell, has more coaching victories than any human – male or female, living or dead, high school, college or professional. Unless you want to count the Harlem Globetrotters, but I think they more or less "coach themselves."

Among the other New York Tri-State Area natives in the Basketball Hall of Fame are Ernie Blood, who coached Passaic High School's "Wonder Five" to the longest winning streak in the history of U.S. high school basketball in the early 1920s; Brooklyn native Billy Cunningham, who later played for one of the Philadelphia 76ers' NBA Championship teams and coached the other; Chuck Daly, who briefly coached the Nets; Anne Donovan, a Ridgewood, New Jersey native who starred at Virginia's Old Dominion University, coached the WNBA's New York Liberty and now coaches Seton Hall University's women's team; NBA Commissioner J. Walter Kennedy of Stamford; and referees Pat Kennedy and David Walsh of Hoboken, and John J. O'Brien of Brooklyn.

The Hockey Hall of Fame is loaded with Irish-Canadians, but how many of them were involved in New York-area teams? The most important of all was, Lester Patrick, the man who built 3 Stanley Cup winners with the New York Rangers. (Don't laugh, the Rangers didn't suck back then.)

His sons, Lynn and Murray "Muzz" Patrick, played for that team, and also went into management; Lynn's son Craig Patrick is in the Hall, but didn't have much to do with the Rangers. Babe Pratt, Bryan Hextall Sr. and Neil Colville played for those Ranger teams and are in the Hall, but Neil's brother and teammate Matthew "Mac" Colville is not. Later Rangers who are would be Harry Howell and Lorne "Gump" Worsley.

Mervyn "Red" Dutton ran the New York Americans, and briefly served as NHL President. "Bullet Joe" Simpson played for the Amerks; however, in spite of his nickname, Amerks star David Schriner was a Russian whose family immigrated to Canada, and he was nicknamed "Sweeney" after a semipro baseball player in Calgary where he was growing up.

Of course, the man who built the New York Islander dynasty, Bill Torrey, is of Irish descent and is in the Hall. The only Devils players already in the Hall are English (Scott Stevens), Slovak (Peter Stastny) and Russian (Viacheslav Fetisov), and HOFers in waiting Martin Brodeur is French, and Scott Niedermayer is German.

There are a lot of Irish and Irish-American boxers in the Boxing Hall of Fame, but a surprisingly low number of them are from the New York area. The only ones I can think of off the top of my head are James J. Braddock, who went from Hell's Kitchen in Manhattan to the Hudson County docks to the heavyweight title from 1935 to 1937; and 1920s middleweight champion Mickey Walker, "the Toy Bulldog." Jack Dempsey, that era's heavyweight champ, was from Colorado, but did seem to get adopted by New York, as did the black Alabama native and Detroit-trained fighter Joe Louis (who, as the "Cinderella Man" stories don't tell you, ended Braddock's reign as champ rather painfully).

And, as an Arsenal fan, let me also salute the following Gunners: Republic of Ireland natives Liam Brady, David O'Leary, Frank Stapleton and John Devine; Northern Ireland natives Terry Neill, Pat Rice, Sammy Nelson, Pat Jennings; English-born Irish Gunners Bob McNab, Ray Kennedy, John Hollins, Lee Dixon, Andy Linighan and Martin Keown; and Scottish-born Irish Gunner Eddie Kelly. In spite of his first name, Gael Clichy is a black Frenchman, and is not from Ireland or of Irish descent.

*

So, Happy St. Patrick's Day, and, whether you're Irish or not, celebrate well, but not too hard.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

March 15, 1986: EBHS Sports' Greatest Day

Left to right: Frank Noppenberger (1984-88),
William "Dud" Tighe (1977-82), John Emery (1960-77)
and Robert "Bo" Henning (1988-2013). Between them,
these 4 men coached the boys' basketball team at
East Brunswick High School in all but 2 of its 1st 53 seasons.

March 15, 1986. An unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon in Central Jersey. It was the greatest day in the history of East Brunswick High School sports.

It’s been 25 years. That’s mind-spinning.

Darren Schulman became EB's 5th State Champion in wrestling (we've since had a 6th), taking the 123-pound title at Princeton University's Jadwin Gym. This capped a 31-0 season for him, only the 2nd undefeated State Championship season for an EB wrestler. (We've since had a 3rd: Lenny Cassidy went 27-0 in 1966, and Scott Kammerer went 32-0 in 1991.)

The match itself was no fluke: He beat (if I remember the name correctly) Darren Fagan of Middletown South, who was a junior, and came back the next year to win a State Championship in a higher weight class. New Jersey now conducts its State Tournament at the Atlantic City Convention Center.

The day was also to be the first appearance, in 25 years of trying, for East Brunswick in a Central Jersey Group IV Final in boys' basketball. The opponent was Franklin, which has usually been a Group III school. (Group IV is the highest enrollment classification in the State, usually everything from 1,000 students on up; EBHS then had about 2,000 students.)

The game was played at Bridgewater-Raritan High School East, or "Bridgewater East" or "B-R East." Since the reconsolidation of Bridgewater's schools, B-R West returned to being simply "Bridgewater-Raritan," and B-R East became Bridgewater-Raritan Middle School.

Picking a neutral site wasn't easy, as it had to be a school in Middlesex, Monmouth, Mercer, Somerset or Hunterdon Counties, that was not a Group IV school. (In the 1980s, EBHS often hosted Group III title games in boys and girls basketball.) But while Franklin is just 1 town over from Bridgewater, EB is 3 towns away. When I did the math later, I discovered the distance from my house at the time, about halfway between the Brunswick Square Mall and Bowne-Munro Elementary School, was 24 miles from the site.

I was 16, a junior at EBHS, and I couldn't drive: The legal driving age in New Jersey, then as now, was 17. And as for getting there with the help of public transportation... let's just say I had a better chance of getting a date with then-Sports Illustrated cover girl Kathy Ireland.

Did I do what any sane kid would have done, and say, "Forget it, I'll read the misspelling-ridden article in the Home News tomorrow"? Of course not. Those of you who've known me since then, you remember my nickname at the time: "Crazy Mike." That day, if I hadn't already, I earned it.

I found alternate transportation: I got on my bicycle. It took me 3½ hours. I ended up riding up Easton Avenue, past the Rutgers campus, getting lost in Bound Brook, and having to cross U.S. Route 22 without the benefit of a traffic light.

Those of you from North Jersey, who might not be familiar with Central Jersey: Route 22 is a lot like U.S. Route 46, only rural. This truly was crazy: I could have been killed. And it would have been all my own fault.

Anyway, I made it, albeit late. When I got there, the Bears were well behind. Franklin has usually been a good basketball school. It had already produced Rutgers star and NBA player Roy Hinson. We'd won the Greater Middlesex Conference Red Division title (this was the 1st year of the GMC, after the merging of the Middlesex County Athletic Conference with the smaller-school Bicentennial and Central Valley Conferences), and were 24-2. We had power in Keith Motusesky (1 of 4 siblings to star in EB hoops), height in Greg Berliner (who led us to the County Championship the next season) and Bill Zahn, a deadly corner shot from Tom Jaronski (if the 3-point rule had been in effect, Mot and TJ would have been All-State), and grit in Chris Brill and Chris Ciatto. (I know I've forgotten an important player or two, and I apologize.) But the Warriors were a dozen points ahead when I got there late in the 1st half.

Now, I'm not claiming credit for anything. Especially since head coach Frank Noppenberger, now EB's athletic director, has probably had to get his eyes checked for all the times he's rolled them at things that I've said over the last 25 years. Besides, he probably said something at halftime that made them come out like a house afire in the second half. As a Yankee Fan, he knows the saying of 1930s Hall of Fame pitcher Lefty Gomez: "I'd rather be lucky than good." Nopp knows it pays to be both lucky and good, and, as a basketball coach, he was both.

And so they did come out, and Franklin simply couldn't stop us. We went through them like a hot knife through butter. The buckets just kept pouring in. Defense? What defense? The only D was from us. When it was all over, it was East Brunswick 87, Franklin 69. A 12-point deficit became an 18-point win. What a spectacular performance. Suffice it to say, that court got stormed.

I did get a ride back to East Brunswick, with my bike in their trunk. I wish I could remember who gave me the ride. I know it was a girl, her father and her sister. It might have been Gina Terraciano, one of the cheerleaders, but I'm not sure. Whoever it was, I'm sorry I don't remember, but let me offer this belated thank you.

This is the sort of story you hear of fans of major league teams, or of European and Latin American soccer teams: "I couldn't miss this game. I just had to be there." I did it in high school.

Now, it seems, truly, crazy. But I was hardly the only person doing crazy things at 16, and this was about as nuts as I got back then.

Now? I tend to think things through first, to make them less crazy. After all, I'm not a kid anymore.

If I had to do it all over again? I would've borrowed the money and called a cab. Today, a taxi from the New Brunswick train station to the Somerset Patriots' ballpark, also in Bridgewater, is 30 bucks. So we're probably talking $45 from EB to the former B-R East. Back then, it probably would have been about half that. But it would have been safer.

Still, it could have been worse. After all, this was the peak period of British soccer hooliganism. If I'd grown up in England's Middlesex County, instead of New Jersey's – or, perhaps, like Fever Pitch author Nick Hornby, 35 miles outside London instead of 35 miles outside New York - it would have been far easier for me to get to both a local "football club" and one of the London powers such as Arsenal, Chelsea, West Ham or Tottenham. But it would also have made it easier for me to get "a right hiding" from one of those clubs' "firms." And that would have made such a venture beyond crazy. (Not to mention the mid-1980s was a down period for Arsenal – and knowing what I know now, I still couldn't have rooted for any of the others.)

I guess I was lucky to grow up where and when I did – and to survive it all, including my worst enemy: Myself.

But March 15, 1986 was still a great day. As John Cheever would have said, and as EBHS teacher Steve Michaud would have happily quoted, it was a day where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains.

And it was a day where teenaged lunatics in green jackets ride bicycles over the highways. Was it worth it to see the mighty mighty Bears win their 1st-ever Central Jersey Championship in basketball?

As they used to say on Laugh-In, "You bet your sweet bippy!"

We are... EB!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Red Sox Fans Can't Hide Their Lyin' Eyes

Did you know the Eagles' song "Lyin' Eyes" is about the Boston Red Sox?

You don't buy that, huh?

Well, the song did reach Number 2 on the Billboard chart in October 1975, a month when the Red Sox were in the World Series, complete with the legendary Game Six when Carlton Fisk did the Fenway Twist.

You still don't believe me?

Okay, check out the lyrics:

City girls just seem to find out early

The city, of course, is Boston.

how to open doors with just a smile.

Could be defined as charming the ticket vendors. Or maybe the scalpers.

A rich old man, and she won't have to worry.
She'll dress up all in lace and go in style.


The rich old man is Tom Yawkey.

But late at night, her big old house gets lonely.

Probably a townhouse on Beacon Hill. Or maybe a bed-and-breakfast in Allston.

I guess every form of refuge has its price.

Yes, even baseball.

And it breaks her heart to think her love is only
given to a man with hands as cold as ice.


Not sure who this could be – it's been a while since I posted this anywhere. I came up with this theory while Ted Williams was still alive, well before the infamous cold storage of his remains, so it didn’t refer to that. Maybe it was how Ted could be cold with the press. Or maybe it’s a husband, or boyfriend, who doesn't like baseball. In Boston, that’s a rarer thing than someone who admits to voting for that turkey Scott Brown.

So she tells him she must go out for the evening
to comfort an old friend who's feelin' down.


Johnny Pesky, perhaps?

But he knows where she's goin' as she's leavin':
She is headed for the cheatin' side of town.


Kenmore Square.

On the other side of town her boy is waiting
with fiery eyes and dreams no one could steal.


Damn, that's a great line. Being 1975, this boy cannot be Ted, or Harry Agganis, or Carl Yastrzemski, or even Tony Conigliaro. It’s got to be either Fisk or Fred Lynn. Being Boston and being 1975, there ain’t no way this white girl is going to make Jim Rice "her boy."

She drives on through the night anticipating,
'cause he makes her feel the way she used to feel.


She drives on, and on, and on, because, well, have you ever seen traffic in Boston? She may be pretty, but it ain't.

She rushes to his arms, they fall together.
She whispers that it's only for a while.


She knows the Sox will blow it in the end. The only times when they don't blow it is when they don't get close enough to blow it.

She swears that soon she'll be comin' back forever.

Someday, they will win the World Series. She’s sure of it. If only she knew...

She pulls away and leaves him with a smile.

If only she knew it was all a sham.

She gets up and pours herself a strong one.

In 1975, we're led to believe, Sam Malone was still pitching for the Sox, so she's not going to Cheers to get it poured for her. Maybe the Eliot Lounge, or maybe The Fours.

And stares out at the stars up in the sky.
Another night, it's gonna be a long one.
She draws the shade and hangs her head to cry.


More like it's gonna be a long off-season. Isn't it always?

She wonders how it ever got this crazy.

It got this crazy because some boy you liked said, "I like the Red Sox, how about you?" and you said, "Sure!" and none of your girlfriends said, "Wait a minute."

She thinks about a boy she knew in school.

Now, this could be Tony C, or Yaz, or Agganis.

Did she get tired or did she just get lazy?

We’re talking about the Red Sox, so this could go either way.

She's so far gone, she feels just like a fool.

No explanation necessary.

My, oh my, you sure know how to arrange things.
You set it up so well, so carefully.


She figures out how to drive to Fenway, where to park, how to get her tickets, when to get up and leave for… I don’t know, does Fenway even have women's restrooms?

Ain't it funny how your new life didn't change things.

Foreshadowing of finding out that what happened in 2004 and 2007 was fake? That they still haven't, really, won the World Series since 1918?

You're still the same old girl you used to be.

And you can't hide your lyin' eyes.
And your smile is a thin disguise.
I thought by now you'd realize
there ain't no way to hide your lyin' eyes.
There ain't no way to hide your lyin' eyes.
Honey, you can't hide your lyin' eyes.


So, what do you think? Is this song about the Red Sox?

Okay, Glenn Frey's from Michigan and a Detroit Tigers fan. But the words do seem to fit, don't they?

Maybe someday, I’ll tell you how "Stairway to Heaven" is about the 1969 Mets.

Maybe not.

*

UPDATE: On October 3, 2014, with the New England Patriots struggling and Tom Brady not getting the job done early in the season, the author of the blog Obnoxious Boston Fan suggested that David Bowie's 1st hit, "Space Oddity," is about the 2014 Pats. He makes an interesting case, although it's a lot funnier if you're not from New England.

Glenn Frey was the 1st member of The Eagles to die, on January 18, 2016. He was 67, had been suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, and the (legal prescription) drugs he had to take for it gave him colitis and bouts of pneumonia.

He died at Columbia University Medical Center -- the hospital built on the site of Hilltop Park, the 1st home of the Yankees. In 1904, that park's most famous game was played, as the Yankees (then known as the New York Highlanders) needed to sweep a doubleheader from the Red Sox (then known as the Boston Americans) to win the Pennant, but a Jack Chesbro wild pitch in the 9th inning gave Boston the game and the Pennant.

Granted, this was before the real Yankees-Red Sox rivalry began, and long before Frey, let alone rock and roll, was born. Still, it's one heck of a turn of events.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

In Defense of Babe Ruth: He WAS The Greatest Ballplayer Ever

King George the Babe

A few days ago, I concluded my piece on the Top 10 Yankee Right Fielders – and thus the entire project – by discussing the greatest Yankee of them all, the greatest baseball player of them all, George Herman Ruth Jr., born February 6, 1895 in Baltimore, Maryland; Boston Red Sox, 1914-19; New York Yankees, 1920-34; Boston Braves, 1935; Hall of Fame, 1936; died August 16, 1948 in New York, New York.

What can you say about Babe Ruth that hasn't already been rehashed a thousand times? Not much. But his historical reputation does occasionally need defending against certain canards. (If you saw The Natural, you're not only remembering Joe Don Baker as "The Whammer," but you may be asking, as Roy Hobbs did of Judge Banner, "What's a canard?" A fabrication. A lie.)

Let's examine said canards.

"Ted Williams was the greatest hitter who ever lived."

Of course, Ted was great. No one's denying that. But the greatest hitter who ever lived was Babe Ruth. Says who? Said Ted, in his 1995 book Ted Williams’ Hit List.

Ted's lifetime batting average was .344; the Babe's was right behind at .342.

Ted's on-base percentage was the highest ever, .482; the Babe is 2nd at .474.

Ted's slugging percentage was .634; 2nd to the Babe's, an all-time record .690.

Ted's OPS+ was 190; the Babe's is an all-time record 206 – in other words, Ted was a 90 percent better hitter than the average hitter of his time (1939-60), the Babe 106 percent better than the average hitter of his time (1914-35).

Notice also that, where Ted leads, the gaps are relatively small; but where the Babe leads, the gaps are noticeably larger.

By the way, have you ever realized that, as great as they were, neither Babe Ruth nor Ted Williams belongs to the 3,000 Hit Club? The Babe finished with 2,873 hits, Ted with 2,654. Though I suspect that, if someone had told the Babe that, one day, 3,000 hits would be considered a big deal, he would have found a way to get those last 127 hits – and it would've been a lot less uncomfortable than the attempt made by the fictional Stan Ross, played by the late Bernie Mac, in the film Mr. 3000.

True, Ted missed the equivalent of 5 years in 2 separate wars, serving as a Marine Corps pilot in World War II and the Korean War, limiting him to "only" 521 homers. The Babe registered for the draft in World War I, but was not drafted, so he didn't miss any time due to military service. But the cutting short of the 1918 season due to a Department of War order meant that he missed a month's worth of plate appearances. (That was the only season in which the World Series was played entirely within the month of September, ending on... September 11.)

And the Babe was mainly a pitcher for his 1st 4 seasons, so that probably cost him a few homers, resulting in "only" 714. Given those years back, Ted might have made it to 714, but the Babe might have made it to 763, which might still have him ahead of everybody, honest (Hank Aaron at 755) or otherwise (Barry Bonds at 762).

So if we're being honest, we should say that Ted was right: "The greatest hitter who ever lived" was George Herman Ruth Jr., and not Theodore Samuel Williams.

Speaking of the aforementioned Barry Lamar Bonds...

"Barry Bonds was a better power hitter than Babe Ruth."

For his career, Bonds' slugging percentage was .607 – far below the Babe and Ted, also behind Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx, and even behind the still-active Albert Pujols. His OPS+ is 181, which is enormous, but is also behind both the Babe and Ted. So if we're talking about career achievement, no, Bonds was not better than Ruth, and others were better than Bonds as well.

In the 5 seasons when his steroid use apparently truly manifested itself, 2000 through 2004, Barry had the following OPS+'s: 188, 259, 268, 231 and 263. The Babe's highest was 255 (in 1920). Taking the average of each man's 5 highest OPS+'s, Barry's was 245, the Babe's 236. But take the average of each man's 10 highest: Babe 224, Barry 216.

Babe Ruth was a better power hitter than Barry Bonds, and, unlike Bonds, Ruth did not take steroids – what Bonds took, it wasn't around in the Babe’s time, so the Babe couldn't have taken them.

"Willie Mays was the greatest all-around baseball player who ever lived."

People who say this usually cite Willie's defense, which is certainly a fair argument. I don't know of anyone who thinks that Babe Ruth regularly played right field better than Willie Mays regularly played center field. Though it should be pointed out that, as a former pitcher, the Babe had a great arm.

But the purpose of defense in baseball is to prevent runs from scoring. How spectacular you look while doing it (including running, the position of your glove, whether you lose your cap) is completely irrelevant. That's why some people thought Mays was a better center fielder than Joe DiMaggio: How many spectacular catches did Joe D make? Hard to say, since, unlike Willie, people didn't get a chance to watch him on TV every day; but also since he positioned himself better, and so he didn't have to run as far.

So if the purpose of defense in baseball is to prevent runs from scoring, who's going to prevent more runs from scoring: The best-fielding center fielder of his generation (possibly of any generation), or a great pitcher in any era?

In 1915, as a 20-year-old rookie, the Babe was probably the best lefthanded pitcher in baseball. In 1916, with Grover Cleveland Alexander pitching 16 shutouts in the National League, in the bandbox that was Philadelphia's Baker Bowl, the Babe was the best lefty in the game, and the best pitcher of either hand in the American League. In 1917, the Babe was the game's best pitcher, period. In 1918, pitching much less than he had in the preceding 3 seasons, he was still 13-7.

His ERAs in those 4 seasons were 2.44, 1.75 (leading the AL), 2.01 and 2.22. The Dead Ball Era, you say? You'd be correct, so let's look at ERA+ in those 4 seasons, to see him in comparison to the rest of the AL: 114, 158, 128, 122.

His career record was 94-46 – and that's in what amounts to just 5 full seasons on the mound, if you count his 4-game 1914 callup, his 17 trips to the mound in 1919, and the 5 scattered appearances he made for the Yankees from 1920 to 1933 -- in which he was hardly great, but he did win all 5.

Given 20 years of only pitching, even if you factor in an injury-plagued season or two and some weak years by his team (especially if he'd stayed with the Red Sox), and we're almost certainly talking about a 300-game winner -- and even if the Babe had stayed a pitcher, chances are the Lively Ball Era would have begun anyway, at some point during his peak years, so we're not talking about a guy racking up 300 wins against the slap-hitting and bunting game favored by Ty Cobb; he would have had to face Jimmie Foxx, or Lou Gehrig if Ruth hadn't gone to the Yankees, or Rogers Hornsby if he'd gone to the NL.

The Babe's career WHIP was 1.159 – great in any era. For a career, his ERA was 2.28, and his ERA+ was 122. That means he was 22 percent better at preventing runs than the average pitcher of the latter half of the 1910s.

Was Willie Mays a great defensive center fielder? Of course. Was he 22 percent better at preventing runs than the average center fielder of the 1950s and 1960s? With all due respect to the Say Hey Kid, don't make me laugh.

"Babe Ruth never played under today's conditions."

That's certainly true. The Babe never faced most of today's "trick pitches." He never saw a split-fingered fastball, or even its predecessor, the forkball. He never saw a knuckle curve or a slurve, rarely saw a screwball, and saw very few sliders or knuckleballs. But he did see a few sliders and knuckleballs. And, unlike today's hitters, he faced the array of "doctored" pitches that fell under the category of "spitballs" - on a regular basis until they were banned in 1920, and then from a few pitchers who were allowed to continue using them until they retired.

And if such a pitch had gotten away accidentally, the Babe would have been hit in the head with no batting helmet. (I can think of only one incident where the Babe was knocked out by such a pitch, but he apparently didn't miss much time on that occasion.) The Babe didn't have all that padding used by Bonds and David Ortiz, either. (Hmmmm, how come two of the worst steroid offenders seemed to use the most padding?)

The Babe never got on a plane, at least not during his playing days, and flew 6 hours from New York to the West Coast. But can you imagine the modern era's pampered players - Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Rickey Henderson come to mind - riding on a train from New York to St. Louis for 24 hours? Have you ever tried to get a good night's sleep on a train? I have, taking an Amtrak from Trenton, New Jersey to Chicago, and it's not easy - but that's a story for another time.

The Babe never played at night, when the ball is harder to see. But the ball is still easier to see at night, with modern stadium lighting, than it was at dusk when there were no lights to turn on. (In fact, the Babe's last game was on May 30, 1935 -- just 6 days after the Cincinnati Reds' Crosley Field hosted the 1st major league night game.) And, as I said, if he didn't see a pitch that was headed for his body rather than the plate, he took an awful chance.

Also, while the Babe wasn't always the fat man he's usually portrayed as, on those occasions when he was out of shape (much of the 1922 and 1925 seasons, and pretty much continuously from 1932 onward), he still had to play the outfield. He wasn't going to be moved to 1st base, thus forcing first Wally Pipp and then Gehrig out of the lineup. And there was no designated hitter in those days: Regardless of where he was put, he was going to have to think about his fielding as well as his hitting.

In fact, after his disastrous 1925 season -- disastrous both personally and, in comparison to his usual performance, in his hitting -- the Babe became the 1st major athlete, outside of boxers, to hire what we would now call a personal trainer, Artie McGovern, a former flyweight boxer who'd been recommended to him by Heavyweight Champion Jack Dempsey. He was one of the few who could afford it: In addition to Ruth and Dempsey, McGovern's clients included golfer Gene Sarazen, bandleader John Philip Sousa (who conducted the band at the opening of the original Yankee Stadium in 1923), and bandleader Paul Whiteman. (Ironically, McGovern died before the Babe, in 1942 -- but at age 54, which is slightly older than the Babe lived to be.)

But, in those days, athletes didn't lift weights. "You're gonna get musclebound!" was the cry, especially to football players. Granted, nobody else was in the kind of shape today's players are in, but in the Babe's time, nobody would let them get into that kind of shape if they were already close to it. Ever see how skinny Williams and Joe DiMaggio were early in their careers? Very few were big guys like Hank Greenberg.

The shocking thing is not that Babe Ruth put up Babe Ruth numbers, it's that he put up Babe Ruth numbers in the Roaring Twenties.

And the Babe's longest season, 1921, was 154, games plus 8 in the World Series (it was best-5-out-of-9 from 1919 to '21, best-4-out-of-7 ever since), for a total of 162. Today, if a player goes through the entire regular season, and then takes all 3 postseason rounds to the distance, we're looking at a maximum of 181 games. That's 3 more weeks worth of games than the Babe could possibly have played. Or, to put it another way: A typical season for Ruth would start around April 15, and end (if he reached the Series) around October 7, not quite 6 full months; a typical season today starts as March turns to April and ends as October turns to November, about 7 full months.

But, as I said, today's players have a better chance of getting into and staying in shape than did players in the Babe's time, so, under today's conditions, he probably wouldn't have gotten tired after 170 games.

And let's not forget, most of today's ballparks don't have 450-foot expanses in center field and the power alleys. Today, the longest distances in any big-league park are Fenway Park in Boston, the only surviving AL park from that era, and Comerica Park in Detroit, which both have a 420-foot marker. In the Babe's day, while there were several parks with very short right-field fences, including the then-new original Yankee Stadium, there were also a lot whose fences went way out, including said Yankee Stadium, whose center field was 490 feet when the Babe arrived and 461 feet when he retired. "The House That Ruth Built" wasn't entirely built for Ruth.

This is why baseball historian Bill Jenkinson titled his recent book The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs: He took the 8 ballparks the American League teams played in during the Babe's seasons, and compared their dimensions with the parks those same franchises play in today, found records of the Babe's homers (which direction, at what point they seemed to have landed), and decided that the Babe's 59 home runs in 1921 would have, in those same 8 teams' parks of today, including the surviving but much-shortened Fenway, would have been 104 home runs.

If you don't believe me, or Jenkinson, think of the current Yankee Stadium, Comerica Park, Cleveland's Jacobs Field, Chicago's U.S. Cellular Field, Baltimore's Camden Yards, the Oakland Coliseum, and Minnesota's Target Field; and compare those to the old Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds where the Yanks played until The Stadium opened in 1923 (short poles but faraway alleys and center), Tiger Stadium (then known as Navin Field), Cleveland Municipal Stadium (the fence would later be brought in from 470 to center to 410), Chicago's Comiskey Park, the Orioles then playing as the St. Louis Browns in Sportsman's Park (a short right field but 426 to center), the A's then playing in Philadelphia's Shibe Park which was 447 to center, and the Twins, then the Washington Senators, playing at Griffith Stadium were every fence except the right-field corner was ridiculously far away. Even Fenway brought center field in quite a bit, 505 to 420.

Those are the parks in which the Babe hit 708 home runs (with the last 6 coming in the NL in '35). How many would he have hit in today's parks? If we use the same ratio, 104/59 = 1.763, we're talking about 1,253 home runs. Good luck, Alex, Albert, Ryan Howard and Prince Fielder.

"Babe Ruth never played against black players."

This is a half-truth: While the Babe certainly never played in regular-season or postseason Major League Baseball games against non-white players, he played against them in plenty of postseason exhibition games, on what were called "barnstorming tours."

And don't think that Satchel Paige, Smokey Joe Williams, Rube Foster and the rest of the great black pitchers of the day, and the fielders behind them, such as Oscar Charleston and Judy Johnson, didn't try to kick their game up a notch when they played against him. And you know what? It didn't work: The surviving stats show that the black pitchers were no more able to stop the Babe from hitting than were the white pitchers.

Furthermore, while the post-1947 success of Paige, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, Minnie Minoso, Ernie Banks and Hank Aaron (all of whom played in the Negro Leagues before starring in the white majors) shows that the best of the Negro Leaguers could excel in the white majors, don't think for a moment that the average Negro League player of the 1930s would have been any more able to hit Lefty Gomez, Lefty Grove, Carl Hubbell, Dizzy Dean and Bob Feller than the average white player was; or that the average Negro League pitcher would have been any better than the average white pitcher was at stopping the Babe, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Foxx, Hornsby, Greenberg, Mel Ott and Joe Medwick. As the integrated majors have proven, there are black Americans and black Hispanics who can play just as poorly as white players.

So to say that the Babe did what he did because he didn't face black players on a regular basis is wrong. After all, Mays and Aaron, along with Hornsby and Stan Musial (who, like Williams, straddled the pre- and post-integration eras), were the greatest offensive forces in National League history (not counting the tainted Bonds), and do you really think they would have been any better if they'd faced only white men - or only black men?

After all, Ken Griffey Sr. was a very good player, but he wasn't as good as Ken Griffey Jr. What makes anyone think that Luis Tiant Sr. or Pedro (the Big Bull) Cepeda, both black Hispanics who starred in the Negro and Caribbean leagues, would have been as good in those leagues as their sons, Luis Tiant Jr. and Orlando (the Baby Bull) Cepeda, who starred in the integrated majors?

*

The arguments used against the Babe are compelling, but so are the counter-arguments. And those counter-arguments do nothing to diminish the greatness of the other contenders for the title of "greatest player (or hitter) who ever lived." Nothing the Babe did makes Ted Williams less of a great hitter. Nothing the Babe did puts Willie Mays or Hank Aaron in a bad light -- or Barry Bonds, for that matter. (He did that to himself.)

This is a man who, for 4 years, was as good a lefthanded pitcher as Randy Johnson; then, for 16 years, was as good a lefthanded contact hitter as Ted Williams and as good a lefthanded power hitter as Barry Bonds, and without steroids or any other post-1935 convenience.

Show me a player who can top that, and I'll call you a liar. Babe Ruth was the greatest baseball player who ever lived. Barring a serious change in the way the game is played - the kind of change the Babe himself helped to bring about - he will remain so for the rest of my lifetime, and probably also for the rest of yours.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Mets Face Fire Sale, Artest vs. Texter

Check this video out. Imagine, Ron Artest goes into the stands, "hits" a fan, and comes out looking better than the guy he hit. And not just because the guy got his coffee spilled all over him.

Never text and drive, and never text and "fan."

*

Joel Sherman of the New York Post wrote a column suggesting that, because Mets owner Fred Wilpon lost so much money in the Bernie Madoff swindle, he might have to hold a "fire sale," selling off the Mets' big stars, thinking that, even in a bad year, the Mets would still draw well.

I did the math: The Yankees and Mets, combined, brought in 6,325,545 fans in 2010, a bad year for the U.S. economy, and with high ticket prices. The Yanks had 3,765,807; the Mets, 2,559,738 -- a 60/40 split in favor of the Yankees. I suspect that this is the highest it's ever been in favor of the Yankees.

*

I can think of a few reasons for this, but it doesn't help that the generation that became Met fans because they were New York Giant and Brooklyn Dodger fans is aging. Many have died, many are old and ill, many -- as my Dodger/Met fan Grandma decided for the last few years of her life -- are far out in the Jersey, Long Island or Connecticut suburbs and don't feel like schlepping out to Flushing Meadow at their age, and certainly (especially if they were old enough to remember the Depression) not at these prices -- not just tickets, but Turnpike/Parkway/tunnel/bridge tolls and parking fees if you drive, bus/train/subway fares if you don't.

So they stay Met fans, but just watch on TV -- what are derisively called "armchairs" in English soccer, although at their age they deserve to not have their true loyalty questioned. That's probably the main reason why the attendance figures no longer reflect what is probably closer to a 55/45 advantage for the Yankees; certainly, it's not the nearly even split that it looked like in October 2000, during the only real "Subway Series" of the last 55 years.

(This old-age factor is probably also the reason why Miami and Tampa Bay still have teams, because they have the TV ratings boosted by the retirement communities; but also why their attendance stinks, because so many of their fans either can't get to the "ballpark," or just don't feel like it.)

It also doesn't help that the Yankees are in town, and have kept winning. I've checked the attendances of the Chicago Cubs and White Sox, and, in spite of the Sox finally winning a Pennant and a World Series in 2005, the Cubs still outdraw them nearly every season, but it's not by much, and the sizes of the ballparks don't really factor in (the AL park can outseat the NL park 44K-40K in Chicago, as opposed to 50K-41K in New York). When both teams, as in Chicago, are perpetual "losers," it's no big deal; but when one team is seen as a winner and the other as a loser, it's long-term bad news.

Checking the attendance figures of the other 2 metro areas with 2 teams doesn't help:

* The San Francisco Giants have a great new ballpark and are the defending World Champions, while the Oakland Athletics play in a terrible, inadequate football stadium and aren't very good at the moment. The Giants averaged 37,499 last season, the A's 17,511, less than half.

* The Los Angeles Dodgers and the, ahem, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim were both good teams last season, and play in old ballparks that have been made to feel new (the Dodgers through renovations, the Angels through getting rid of the football bleachers and giving Anaheim Stadium a baseball feel again). The Dodgers averaged 43,979 fans last season, which would be roughly Anaheim's capacity; the Angels averaged 40,134.

So the analogy with the Yanks and Mets, or with the Cubs and White Sox, doesn't fit here.

*

But it's not just that the Yankees have won and the Mets have lost, but it's, when the Mets have won, how they've won:

* They won the World Series in 1969, but it got called a "Miracle," as if it shouldn't have happened. Remember the movie Pulp Fiction? Hitmen Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent Vega (John Travolta) get shot at by a guy win a gun that Jules said was bigger than the guy holding it, who fired the full 6 shots at close range, and missed both men with every shot. (They then killed him rather easily.) This makes Jules start to think about the big picture:

Jules: Man, I just been sitting here thinking.
Vincent: About what?
Jules: About the miracle we just witnessed.
Vincent: The miracle you witnessed. I witnessed a freak occurrence.
Jules: What is a "miracle," Vincent?
Vincent: (thinks for a moment) An act of God.
Jules: And what's an "act of God"?
Vincent: When, um... God makes the impossible possible.

And then, of course, there's the 1977 movie Oh, God! where God is played by George Burns, and He says, "The last miracle I did was the 1969 Mets."

So the Mets winning the 1969 World Series was "impossible"? I don't think so. I've analyzed this here before, and I'm come to the conclusion that the reason they got in position to win that Series was because they were smartly building up their scouting and farm systems, focusing on pitching, defense and speed -- essentially, what the St. Louis Cardinals had been doing since the 1920s, and it usually worked for them.

The Mets also had that chance because of the opposition: While the Cardinals themselves, winners of the 2 previous NL Pennants, had fallen apart due to dissension, the Cubs were a player or two short of a title, and the teams that would dominate the NL in the 1970s -- the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Cincinnati Reds and the Los Angeles edition of the Dodgers -- were still in transition, and weren't ready to take over yet.

The reason the Mets beat the Atlanta Braves for the Pennant was that the NL West was relatively weak at the time. And the reason the Mets beat the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series is that Gil Hodges outmanaged Earl Weaver, who never got the O's to take the Mets seriously.

Were the '69 Mets lucky? Of course: Every team that wins the World Series, even the Yankees, does so with some luck. Was it a miracle? No. Unlikely, yes; a miracle, no.

* In 1986, the Mets winning the World Series was "inevitable," pretty much from the end of the 1985 season onward, and this bunch of party boys (much worse than was known at the time) was rammed down our throats by the media (sickening people with taste like yours truly), and they still nearly blew it -- against both the Houston Astros in the NLCS and the Red Sox in the World Series.

And they never won another Pennant, blowing the NLCS to the Dodgers in 1988, finishing 2nd in every other season from 1984 to 1990, and falling apart in 1991, not to contend again for 7 years while the Yankees built a new dynasty.

* In 2000, it was an exciting team, but their baserunning and bullpen practically handed the Series to, of all teams, the Yankees. The Mets had blown the Wild Card by losing the last 5 games of 1998, they fought hard but ultimately lost the 1999 NLCS to the Braves, won the 2000 Pennant but lost the Series as stated, and then it fell apart again.

* And they didn't follow up 2006, either. Do I really need to rehash that still-recent development? No, because, at the moment, I don't really need a laugh. Besides, it's not really all that funny. What happened in 2007, and then in 2008, was the opposite of what Karl Marx suggested: History repeated itself, but in this case, the first time was as farce, the second time was as tragedy.

*

The Mets won the '86 Series by beating the Astros and Red Sox. They blew the '98 Wild Card to the Cubs. They lost the '99 Pennant to the Braves. They lost the '07 and '08 Division Titles to the Philadelphia Phillies, and blew the '08 Wild Card to the Milwaukee Brewers. All teams which, not that long ago (in the cases of the Astros and Cubs, still are), were considered burdened by failure.

And that's what the Mets are now: Burdened with failure. The failure to keep their 1969-73 team together, leading to the years when Shea Stadium was "Grant's Tomb" while Yankee Stadium became a house of champions again.

The failure of the 1980s Mets to win more than 1 Pennant -- and it's now been 25 years.

The failure of the turn-of-the-21st-Century Mets to build on what they did achieve (2 NLCS berths, 1 Pennant) and their failure against the Yankees in the 2000 World Series.

And, most recently, the failure of the Mets to win the 2006 Pennant, when the Series was probably theirs for the taking, and following that up with 2 inexcusable September collapses and the disintegration of Omar Minaya's "Los Mets" dream.

Has it really been all that long since the Mets were associated with glory? Or even with mere competence? They are now Cubs East: Lovable losers. And this Madoff situation appears to be insuring that the 2011 season will begin with a cloud over the team, suggesting that there's no light at the end of the tunnel -- unless it's an oncoming train.

There is a way out of it, and it appears the Mets' brass is already taking it: Rebuilding, with attention to development at all levels. It worked under Hodges and Johnny Murphy in the late Sixties. It worked under Frank Cashen in the early Eighties. It worked again (to an extent) under Steve Phillips in the late Nineties.

It could work again... but it may take a few years. Fred and Jeff Wilpon fired Jerry Manuel as manager and Minaya as general manager, and hired Sandy Alderson as GM, who hired J.P. Ricciardi as his "special assistant," both of which appear to be good hires. Whether Terry Collins, Alderson's choice as manager, is a good choice remains to be seen.

Still, if I told you that your favorite sports team, assuming it was not now a serious postseason contender, was going to start over, and the next 2 seasons would essentially be lost, but the 3rd season would see them seriously contend, and that the next 7 to 10 seasons would see them remain in contention -- with no guarantee that any titles, trophies or cups were coming -- would you take it? Would you sacrifice 2 or 3 years, so that the next 7 to 10 years would be good? I would.

The Wilpons will make back the Madoff money through their various revenue streams. They don't need a fire sale, they need rebuilding, which is no shame. Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is not only a shame, it's "the classic definition of insanity."