Thursday, May 17, 2012

My 1,000th Post: Top 10 Events That Defined This Era

On Wednesday, September 26, 2007, I began this blog, with a post titled "The Big Premiere." The 1st post wasn't long. Here it is, in its entirety:

I'm way behind the times. It's taken me this long to get a blog going. Anyway, here I am.

This blog will contain analysis intended to be serious, jokes intended to be funny, and maybe a surprise or two. As Ed Koch, former Mayor of New York (a man I won't normally quote, since I stopped liking him years ago) would say, "If you agree with me on nine out of twelve issues, that's good. If you agree with me on twleve out of twelve, there's something wrong." It would mean you're not thinking for yourself.

This blog is dedicated to the past, to my grandparents, George and Grace, who taught me to love the games, and that you don't have to be high-class to be classy; in fact, many who claim class have very little.

And dedicated to the future, to my nieces Ashley and Rachel, and hopefully to any cousins they might have, and to their mother, whoever she turns out to be. She doesn't have to be a Yankee Fan, she just has to be able to put up with one. In other words, built like Cindy Crawford but rooting for the Mets or Red Sox, out; built like Rosie O'Donnell but rooting for the Yankees, worthy of consideration.

Anyway, someday, Ashley, Rachel, and the hoped-for child (or children) of my own will be able to read this blog. So I'd better make it good, because chances are, they'll be at least as smart as I am. At least.


And now, here I am, with the 1,000th post on this blog.

As far as I know, there's no Internet Hall of Fame, which means I don't have to donate my keyboard, as I would have to send the ball or my bat to the Cooperstown Hall if I'd just gotten my 3,000th hit.

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Many things are as they were then, 4 1/2 years ago. But a few things are different.

For one thing, out of the 11 teams in the Tri-State Area -- counting MLS' Red Bulls and the WNBA's Liberty -- 8 are no longer playing in the same building: The Yankees and Mets built new ballparks, the Giants and Jets built a new stadium, the Devils built a new arena, the Red Bulls built a new stadium, the Nets are about to finish their new arena, and the Liberty are sharing the Prudential Center with the Devils (and for 2 years shared it with the Nets) because the biggest parts of the renovation of Madison Square Garden are during the summer, so as to disrupt the Knicks and Rangers as little as possible.

(If you're wondering why I'm not gloating about last night's Devils win over the Rangers at the Garden last night, it's because the occasion of this post demands something else.)

When I started writing this blog, the Yankees were a team of close but no cigar, with Alex Rodriguez still seen as a choke artist; the Mets were in the middle of the greatest collapse any Tri-State Area team ever has; the Giants looked like they would struggle to make the Playoffs, but ended up winning the Super Bowl; the Jets were defending AFC East Champions, but pretty much an afterthought, certainly not media darlings like they became under Rex Ryan; the Knicks hadn't won a Playoff game since 2001, and that only ended last week; the Nets were a lame-duck franchise, and would remain so until a month ago) and I had only begun to embrace soccer, but not the Red Bulls, and Arsenal were still only a name to me, not a club I knew anything about, much less loved. In fact, if you'd mentioned the name of the man now at the center of attention there, I would have said, "Robin van Persie? What kind of a sissy name is that?" (Hint: He's no sissy.)

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Here are the 10 events, in chronological order, that have defined the era for me, sports-wise. (I've left out the East Brunswick High School football team's 2009 State Championship, because hardly anybody else reading this is an EBHS graduate and won't care.)

1. October 5, 2007, Jacobs Field, Cleveland, Ohio: The Bug Game. Maybe the Yankees still would have lost the 2007 American League Division Series to the Cleveland Indians if they had won Game 2 at Jacobs Field. (Sorry, Flo, I love your commercials, but I'm still not calling it "Progressive Field.")

But when Joba Chamberlain got covered by those "Lake Erie midges," really, that was the beginning of the end for him. He'd never blown a major league game yet, or gotten hurt. Although the Yankees won Game 3, they went out meekly in Game 4, and Joba's never been the same. To paraphrase what a hockey writer once said about Eric Lindros: This wasn't the next Mo, and it wasn't the next Goose -- it wasn't even the first Joba.

2. October 27, 2007, Newark, New Jersey: The Opening of the Prudential Center. The Devils finally had a decent arena to play in. While the Meadowlands was host to 3 Stanley Cup Championships, 2 clinched on home ice, it had lots of problems. (Still does, but those are not the Devils' problems anymore. Nor the Nets', nor Seton Hall's.) The Devils lost the opener, 4-1 to the Ottawa Senators, but of all the area's teams, none (except maybe the Red Bulls -- see below) have had such a jump in terms of venue quality.

3. Fall 2007, Yankee Stadium I, Bronx, New York: The Worst Yankee Off-Season. First came the Steinbrenner brothers, possibly acting on the orders of their invalid father George, lowballing Joe Torre. To say that Torre had to go is defensible; to have insulted his accomplishments like that is not. Then came the A-Rod saga. I said let him go. Let him twist in the wind. See if anyone else wants to pay him what he wants. No one did. And still the Little Steins gave him a raise.

Finally, there was the Mitchell Report. George Mitchell, a former Senate Majority Leader and a member of the board of directors of the Boston Red Sox, the Yankees' most hated rivals, issued a report on steroid use in baseball. It pretty much said that several members of the 1996-2007 Yankees were guilty of steroid use and the team's accomplishments over that period should be cast into doubt; while letting the Sox off the hook.

Nowhere in that report was it mentioned that David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez, the two biggest reasons that the Red Sox won the 2004 and 2007 World Series, had failed steroid tests. Suddenly, being a Yankee Fan was like being a person who still believed in O.J. Simpson's innocence: You were among the lowest of the low.

4. February 3, 2008, University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Arizona: Super Bowl XLII. Boy did the Tri-State Area need this. Even if you were a Jet fan, and predisposed to hate the Giants, you needed this -- especially since Jet fans have come to hate the Patriots almost as much as Yankee Fans hate the Red Sox.

The Patriots had been talking about going undefeated. The national media, in particular ESPN (or, should I say, "NESPN") was pretty much assuming it would happen. A book celebrating the undefeated season was ready to be shipped to bookstores that night.

There is an intersection near my house, where State Route 18 and U.S. Route 1 come together. It's not a "traffic circle," and never was (a lot of New Jersey's old traffic circles have since been replaced by "grade-separated interchanges"), but it's officially called Brunswick Circle. I like to call it Patriot Circle. Because it's 18 and 1.

5. Fall 2008, Nevada Smith's, New York, New York: Welcome to Football, Mate. Having seen, during the 2006 World Cup, that the actions of the fans was as much a part of the experience of soccer as the game itself, I decided it was about time to see if, no kidding around, they were on to something.

They were. After seeing a few games in the Euro 2008 tournament and preseason games leading up to England's 2008-09 Premier League season, I began to see the similarities between hockey and soccer: Soccer began to look like hockey on grass to me. And Nevada Smith's, the 3rd Avenue bar that was then home to most of the area's "supporters' clubs," was the place to be in the Western Hemisphere to see a major match on TV. Or even a minor one.

The London club Arsenal reminded me a lot of the Devils: Red shirts at home; an amazing new stadium; a superb, somewhat mad goalie (Jens Lehmann); a great defense with an offside trap (you may have seen it demonstrated, sort of, in the film The Full Monty); skilled passing and big goals. There was an arch-rival in blue that spent a lot of money with little to show for it (Chelsea, standing in for the Rangers), and another nearby rival that had a long-ago past when they were great, but had been mostly pathetic since then (Tottenham, although in manner and style Tottenham fans are a lot closer to Flyer fans than Islander fans). And there have been 3 recent league championships (in Arsenal's case, 1998, 2002 and 2004).

But eventually, there were less appetizing similarities that began to kick in: Cheap ownership, the occasional defensive collapse (perhaps a failure of courage, known as "bottling it" or "having no bottle" in England), big-game failures, and frequent roster turnover.

There were differences, too: The Devils are celebrating their 30th Anniversary in 2012, while Arsenal just celebrated their 125th. For all their resemblances to Chelsea, Ranger fans are as filthy, as drunken, and occasionally even as violent as Tottenham fans. And while the Devils have changed head coaches 13 times since September 1996, Arsenal have had just one manager (combined field boss and GM) since then, Arsene Wenger.

As a result of watching English soccer, I have adopted its lexicon. Cheering on my team has become "Come on you Reds!" The enemy is "The Scum" (a term I also for the Red Sox and my old high school's arch-rivals). A bad player on my own team is a "useless bastard." An evil person is a "cunt," and one that is merely annoying is a "twat." (Not to be confused with a "pussy.") And I've made up songs for individual players the way English "geezers" do. (A geezer isn't an old man, he's a hard man.)

Fans of other clubs call me a "gloryhunter" for choosing Arsenal. Some of these are fans of Manchester United and Chelsea -- themselves, gloryhunters. Some of them are Tottenham fans -- who can never be called gloryhunters, since their hunt always comes up empty. They also point out that Arsenal haven't won a title since the 2005 FA Cup, now 7 years past. You mugs can't have it both ways.

But have other Arsenal fans accepted me -- both those from England that I meet online, and those who took up the cause here? For the most part, yes. As Arsenal fan and author Nick Hornby said in Fever Pitch: "If you put in the hours, you're accepted, without question, into a new family. Except, in this family, you all care about the same people, and hope for the same things. What's childish about that?"

6. September 21, 2008: The closing of the old Yankee Stadium. Aside from not mentioning Joe Torre in the accompanying videos, the pregame ceremonies couldn't have gone much better, although there were some people (including Torre) who were working elsewhere in baseball and couldn't make it. And, unlike the Mets, the Yankees closed their old stadium with a win. But it still broke my heart to see it go.

7. May 16 to November 4, 2009, Yankee Stadium II, Bronx: Title 27. It began with a series against the Minnesota Twins in which the Yankees had 3 walkoff wins, and the birth of the "cream pie in the face during the postgame interview" celebration. It continued on July 30 with the revelation that Ortiz and Ramirez had flunked steroid tests. Shortly after that, the Yankees began a run of 8 out of 9 games beating the Red Sox.

It climaxed with the first Pennant of the A-Rod era, and ended with Game 6, in which Hideki Matsui had the game of his life (in what turned out to be, thus far, his last game as a Yankee) when he took Pedro the Punk Martinez deep. (Someday, I'm going to have to do a post of my 10 favorite home runs.) As Hank Steinbrenner said, not that order was restored to the universe, but that the universe was restored to order.

8. Spring and Summer 2010, Harrison, New Jersey: The First Season of Red Bull Arena. It opened with a friendly against Santos, the Brazilian club that produced Pele. It included a friendly with Italian giants Juventus, and the New York Football Challenge, featuring English clubs Tottenham and Manchester City and Portuguese club Sporting Lisbon -- due to the large Portuguese community in the Newark-Harrison-Kearny area. And it moved along with the signing of Arsenal legend Thierry Henry.

Whereas the Red Bulls (previously the New York/New Jersey MetroStars) had been playing in front of 60,000 empty seats at Giants Stadium, now they were playing in a proper venue for their sport, and coming close to selling it out every game. And whereas they had been a losing team, now they were a Playoff team.

9. March 26, 2011, MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, New Jersey: USA vs. Argentina. Every soccer fan should see his national side play at least once. This was my once, so far. It was also my first visit to what was then still called New Meadowlands Stadium.

Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain did not play for Argentina. But Lionel Messi, Javier Zanetti, Gabriel Milito, Javier Mascherano, Angel Di Maria and Ezequiel Lavezzi did. Incredibly, the U.S. defense held against all of them, even Messi, whose sensational dribbling allowed him to get off 5 shots, but no goals. Esteban Cambiasso, on the other hand, did score, and it was 1-0 Argentina at the half.

But Juan Agudelo, the Colombia-born forward of the Red Bulls, not yet 18 years old, tied the game in the second half. The game ended 1-1, and while the final score flattered us, we did play a sensational defensive game, led by New Jersey-born goalie Tim Howard.

There were 2 things I didn't like: There seemed to be as many fans rooting for Argentina as America -- not all of them Argentine, but all of them from Latin American countries, including Mexico -- and it was a cold night. $1.6 billion to build the new stadium, and they couldn't fix the biggest problem with the old one, the wind.

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There was one more event, whose date I've already forgotten. It was sometime in August or September 2009, shortly after my nieces had their 2nd birthday. My mother and I were showing them how to play baseball in the backyard. At one point, I pointed to a spot beyond the fence, just like Babe Ruth supposedly did in the 1932 World Series. And when Mom/Nana soft-tossed to me, I hit the ball over the fence.

About 200 feet.

The girls were impressed. And they jumped up and down and went, "Yayyyy!"

Then again, they're impressed by a lot of things I do, which people above the age of 5 would not be impressed by.

Someday, they'll see me for what I really am: A flawed grownup. Just as my sister (their mother) and I came to see our parents.

But then, every so often, our parents fail to see us as grownups at all. And not just because I occasionally (okay, frequently) lose my head over the Yankees, or the Devils, or Arsenal, and my sister does over the Jets.

But sports makes men out of boys, and allows men to become boys again.

As Hornby says, "Perhaps it's something you can't understand, unless you belong."

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