Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Top 10 Greatest New York Yankees



Well, how about that? I actually got this project finished before February was torn off the calendar.

Right, who has a calendar like that anymore?

Honorable Mention to the figures in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium who are not otherwise on this list: Red Ruffing, Lefty Gomez, Allie Reynolds, Elston Howard, Roger Maris, Thurman Munson, Ron Guidry, Reggie Jackson and Don Mattingly. (Think about those names, and one how many teams' Top 10 they would make.) Also to managers Miller Huggins, Joe McCarthy, Casey Stengel and Billy Martin (but not, as yet, Joe Torre); general manager Ed Barrow; owners Jacob Ruppert and George Steinbrenner; broadcaster Mel Allen; and public-address announcer Bob Sheppard. (The 3 Popes who delivered Mass at the old Stadium, as the old joke goes, may once have been Cardinals, but they were not Yankees, or even Yankee personnel.)

Also to Hall-of-Famers not in the Top 10 or Monument Park: Clark Griffith, Jack Chesbro, Willie Keeler, Frank "Home Run" Baker, Earle Combs, Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock, Tony Lazzeri, Joe Gordon, Johnny Mize, Enos Slaughter, Jim "Catfish" Hunter, Rich "Goose" Gossage, Dave Winfield and Wade Boggs. And, if you count this player as a broadcasting HOFer, as the Hall (sort of) does, Tony Kubek. And broadcaster Walter "Red" Barber: Though better known for calling the Dodgers (1939-53), he was actually with the Yankees for nearly as long (1954-66).

Also to guys who should one day get into either of the preceding 2 categories, but are not in the Top 10: Bobby Murcer, Bernie Williams, Paul O'Neill, David Cone, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Tino Martinez, Mike Mussina, Hideki Matsui, Robinson Cano, CC Sabathia, and, yes, Alex Rodriguez. (Hey, if I can admit it... )

And, just because I feel like it, also to "Ol' Reliable" Tommy Henrich, Hank Borowy (from my original hometown of Bloomfield, New Jersey), Mel Stottlemyre, Roy White, Albert "Sparky" Lyle, Sweet Lou Piniella, Chris Chambliss, Willie Randolph, John Milton "Mick the Quick" Rivers, Russell "Bucky" Dent, Jimmy Key, Jim Leyritz, John Wetteland, Joe Girardi, Scott Brosius, Aaron Boone, Johnny Damon, Nick Swisher, and every single Yankee Fan out there. And to the old Yankee Stadium (1923-2008).

10. Phil Rizzuto, Number 10, shortstop, 1941-56, then broadcaster 1957-96. Statistically, my selection of the Scooter is ridiculous. But it's my list, and how can you leave off someone who was a faithful servant of the same club for 56 years? Not even Connie Mack could truthfully make that claim. If you count the time from his retirement until his death, it was 67 years. Two-thirds of a century? Holy cow, what that huckleberry did, that's unbelivable.

9. Bill Dickey, Number 8, catcher, 1928-46. For a long time, he was considered the greatest catcher ever. And, in all but name, Lou Gehrig's best friend on the team succeeded him as Yankee Captain.

8. Edward "Whitey" Ford, Number 16, pitcher, 1950-67. The all-time leader in most starting pitcher categories for the Yankees, he won an unsurpassable 10 World Series games, is the all-time leader in winning percentage for pitchers with at least 250 decisions, and no starting pitcher in the post-1920 Lively Ball Era has a lower ERA.

7. Lawrence "Yogi" Berra, Number 8, catcher/left fielder, 1946-63. "Bill Dickey is learning me all his experiences, he said, and the apprentice surpassed the master. 14 Pennants, 10 World Series wins, both records. 3 MVPs. I could go on and on about what this man has meant to baseball in general and the Yankees in particular. After all, it ain't... you know...

6. Mariano Rivera, Number 42, pitcher, 1995-present. Most likely, 1995-2012. Enjoy the all-time saves leader and the greatest relief pitcher ever while you can, before he truly heads "off to Never Never Land."

5. Derek Jeter, Number 2, shortstop, 1995-present. I could talk about the great defensive plays, or any number of the 3,000-plus hits he's gotten in regular-season and postseason play, including the fact that he pretty much clinched the only Subway Series most of us will have ever seen on the first pitch of Game 4. Let's put it this way: Having dated Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez, Jordana Brewster, Jessica Alba, and Minka Kelly (with whom he seems to have reconciled), which means that Lou Gehrig is no longer the only Yankee Captain who could claim to be "the luckiest man on the face of the Earth."

4. Joe DiMaggio, Number 5, center field, 1936-51. Below Mickey? Yes, Mickey was a better hitter, and not that far behind the Yankee Clipper as a fielder. But Joe D. was the symbol of baseball for the World War II generation. "I'd like to thank the Good Lord for making me a Yankee." So would I.

3. Mickey Mantle, Number 7, center field, 1951-68. If Joltin' Joe was The Man for the radio generation, Mickey was it for the first television generation. Men now collecting Social Security still smile, or get tears in their eyes, or both, when talking about him. He might have been the last player in the major leagues to truly be a mixture of man and myth -- especially since we've seen the crashing and burning of Pete Rose and Mark McGwire.

2. Lou Gehrig, Number 4, 1st base, 1923-39. When they made a movie about him, they got the great Gary Cooper -- who'd never played baseball before, and didn't sound like him, but did look a little like him. They called it The Pride of the Yankees. For no player has that oft-used title been more true.

1. Babe Ruth, Number 3, right field, 1920-34. If you gotta ask why, you're reading the wrong blog.

Top 10 Greatest New York Mets



Am I, a Yankee Fan who despises the Mets, qualified to say who the Top 10 Mets are? Well, if I'm not, who's gonna stop me? Met fans? They don't even read this blog!

Honorable Mention to Ed Kranepool, still the team's all-time leader in games played, at-bats, hits and runs.  He even gave his name to one of the more popular Met fan blogs: The Eddie Kranepool Society.  You know, the guys who refer to the Yankees as "The Highlanders," the way some dimwit Tottenham fans still refer to Arsenal as "Woolwich." (UPDATE: In 2012, David Wright surpassed Kranepool as their all-time leadier in hits.  And yet, even with that, I can't yet put Wright in this Top 10.  Nor Jose Reyes.)

Honorable Mention also to the members of the New York Mets Hall of Fame who are not otherwise mentioned here (Kranepool is also a member): Owner Joan Payson, benefactor William A. Shea, managers Casey Stengel and Davey Johnson, general managers George Weiss, Johnny Murphy and Frank Cashen; 1st baseman-manager Gil Hodges, shortstop Bud Harrelson; outfielders Rusty Staub and Mookie Wilson; catcher Jerry Grote, pitchers Tug McGraw, and broadcasters Lindsey Nelson, Bob Murphy and Ralph Kiner.  Also to broadcasters Tim McCarver, Steve Zabriskie, Gary Thorne and Gary Cohen, although they are not yet in the team's Hall of Fame, although McCarver has now been honored by the Cooperstown Hall.

10. Tommie Agee, Number 20, center field, 1968-72. He was the only Met to hit at least 20 homers or have over 75 RBIs on the 1969 Mets.  His 2 amazing catches in Game 3 of the World Series saved the "Miracle." Earlier in the year, he hit the only fair ball into the upper deck of Shea Stadium.  Not an easy feat, not so much because of the distance involved but because Shea's decks didn't extend very far into fair territory.

9. Cleon Jones, Number 21, left field, 1963-75. His .340 average in 1969 was a Met record until 1998. He also caught the last out of the World Series, something no other Met has ever done. (The other one ended with a strikeout.)

8. John Franco, Number 31 (later 45), pitcher, 1990-2004. The Brooklynite remains the all-time major league leader in saves by a lefthanded pitcher, with 424, 276 of them as a Met, making him 2nd on New York's all-time list behind Mariano Rivera. He is also one of only 2 Mets ever to save a World Series game. (The other is Jesse Orosco in Game 7 in '86; the Mets' other 7 wins in Series games were achieved without saves.)

7. Jerry Koosman, Number 36, pitcher, 1967-78. Winner of Games 2 and 5 of the 1969 World Series -- making him the only Met pitcher to win 2 Series games. The first Met lefty to win 20 in a season. Won 222 games, 140 as a Met. Struck out 2,556 batters, 1,799 as a Met. Let's not think about the recent stories involving him.

6. Darryl Strawberry, Number 18, right field, 1983-90. 1983 NL Rookie of the Year. Hit 335 home runs, 252 of them as a Met, making him the club's all-time leader. Towering drives. Swagger. The slowest home-run trot this side of Mel Hall. The 1986 World Championship. And... Well, there was the 3 World Series he won with the Yankees...

5. Dwight Gooden, Number 16, pitcher, 1984-94. In those first 3 seasons, Met fans told us he was the greatest pitcher in the world, and would become the greatest pitcher of all time. And then... Let's be honest here, he also had injury problems.  It wasn't just the drugs and the drinking that derailed his career: Even if he had been clean and sober, he might not have had the 300 wins or the 3,000 strikeouts that seemed his destiny in those first 3 years.  But he did pitch a no-hitter and win the World Series in 1996. With the Yankees. Then helped the Yankees win the Series again in 2000, including winning an Interleague game against the Mets at Shea.

4. Mike Piazza, Number 31, catcher, 1998-2005. The most overrated player of his era. He was NEVER "the greatest-hitting catcher ever." Nor was he a player capable of playing the position of catcher. Nor was he ever a World Champion. But, hey, it's not like he was a steroid user, was he... ?

3. Keith Hernandez, Number 17, 1st base, 1983-89. Team Captain? Gold Glove-winning first baseman? .300 hitter? 1986 World Champion? Broadcaster? Ladies man? Seinfeld guest star? Who does this guy think he is? "I'm Keith Hernandez!" And yet, he's not in the Hall of Fame.  What are they holding against him? Is it the ego? Is it the drugs? I don't know.

2. Gary Carter, Number 8, catcher, 1985-89. I said a bit about him a few days ago when he died, but I'll say this again: Even more so than Mex, Straw or Doc, he was the man who made them winners.

1. Tom Seaver, Number 41, pitcher, 1967-77, with a return in 1983. The symbol of the Mets in that generation, so it's no surprise that he was known as "The Franchise." When he won his 300th game, for the Chicago White Sox over the Yankees at the old Yankee Stadium in August 4, 1985, with me sitting in the right-field boxes in Section 35, I wasn't happy about losing, but I couldn't help myself from standing up and tipping my cap to an old master.

I'll let the symbol of the Yankees in that generation, Reggie Jackson, have the last word about Tom Seaver -- Mr. October talking about Tom Terrific:

"Blind people come to the park, just to listen to him pitch."

Top 10 Greatest Brooklyn Dodgers



I had hoped to get this all-time teams for all the New York Tri-State Area major league teams project done before February ends. Looks like that's not going to happen.

*

The Dodgers played in Brooklyn from 1883 to 1957 -- in 1883 in the Eastern League, 1884 to 1889 in the American Association, and from 1890 onward in the National League.

As the team of the City that, in an 1898 referendum to create "Greater New York", became a Borough (and was easily the closest vote of the 5 Boroughs), and didn't always like it, the Dodgers became the living embodiment of Brooklynites' contradictory desires of wanting to belong to the big City but also their anger at it. They became something romantic, whether good (1916-24, 1939-57) or bad (in between those eras).

Brooklyn, to this day, considers itself both part of New York City and separate from it. My grandmother, born in Brooklyn and growing up in Queens as a Dodger fan, confirmed something I once read in a book: That people going from Brooklyn to Manhattan on the Subway considered it "a major border crossing." (Could have been due to the heavy immigrant population in the Borough, who may have crossed European borders in those days before the Eurozone.)

So the Dodgers became something special, and the Dodger-Giant and Dodger-Yankee (in the World Series) rivalries became the American equivalent of English soccer "derbies." This is why the 1951 loss in the NL Playoff to the Giants is still the most painful defeat in the history of New York sports -- although that distinction should go to the Mets' loss to the Yankees in the 2000 World Series.

That's the most painful defeat. The most painful loss was the move of the Dodgers to Los Angeles by owner Walter O'Malley, who can be retroactively nicknamed Lord Waltemort. The details have been discussed in previous posts on this blog, and will be again.

Although, as a Yankee Fan, back then I probably would not have liked the Dodgers, this time, I come to praise them, not to bury them.

If we were to include the Dodgers' honors with the Mets, it would read as follows:

National League Champions 1890 1899 1900 1916 1920 1941 1947 1949 1952 1953 1955 1956 1969 1973 1986 2000. 16 Pennants.

World Champions 1890 1899 1900 1955 1969 1986. 6 Titles.

Still well behind the Yankees, but more than most teams have done.

Top 10 Greatest Brooklyn Dodgers

Honorable Mention to Dodger Hall-of-Famers who didn’t make this list: Willie Keeler, Joe Kelley and Billy Herman; managers Wilbert Robinson, Leo Durocher and Walter Alston; team presidents Larry MacPhail and Branch Rickey; and broadcasters Walter "Red" Barber and Vin Scully. And, while he's not in the Hall of Fame, team owner and ballpark builder Charlie Ebbets. (Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale debuted with the team while it was in Brooklyn, but didn't become Hall of Fame quality until after the move.)

The toughest call was Keeler, who played 4 seasons with the team in its Superba days (1899-1902) and 1 before that when they were the Bridegrooms (1893). Although he was still a pretty good hitter with the Highlanders (forerunner of the Yankees) up until 1908, thus sort of bridging the gap between the 19th Century and 20th Century rules, he just wasn’t a Brooklyn player for long enough. Too bad, because he was a Brooklyn native. If I were doing the top 100 New York baseball players, I’d have to combine what he did for the teams later known as the Dodgers and the Yankees, and he’d probably be in the top 30.

Also Honorable Mention to Floyd "Babe" Herman, who wasn't with the Dodgers for as long as people seemed to think, but, in spite of his fielding difficulties -- he once angrily denied having ever been hit on the head by a fly ball, but when asked about being hit on the shoulder said, "That doesn't count" -- was a great hitter. Phil Rizzuto, born in Brooklyn and grew up a Dodger fan in Queens, said that Herman belongs in the Hall of Fame. He had a case.

Also, Honorable Mention to the players profiled in The Boys of Summer, the 1972 book written by Roger Kahn, the Brooklyn native who'd been the Dodgers beat writer for the New York Herald Tribune in 1952 and '53. In addition to those in the Top 10, there were Elwin "Preacher" Roe, Billy Cox, Joe Black, Clem Labine, Andy Pafko and George "Shotgun" Shuba.

Also, Honorable Mention to the 2 men without whom the one and only Brooklyn World Series win would not have happened: Pitcher Johnny Podres and left fielder Edmundo "Sandy" Amoros.

And let me note that the Dodgers retired no numbers until June 4, 1972, when, in a ceremony at Dodger Stadium, they retired Jackie Robinson's 42, Roy Campanella's 39, and Sandy Koufax' 32.

10. Carl Furillo, Number 6, right field, 1946-57. (Actually 1946-60, but I'm not going to include these players' Los Angeles service in their qualifications for this list.) The Reading Rifle not only had one of the best outfield arms of all time, but was so good with the glove that he never allowed a single ball to hit the "HIT SIGN WIN SUIT - ABE STARK, BROOKLYN'S LEADING CLOTHIER" sign at the base of the right-field scoreboard at Ebbets Field. Told that Furillo had saved him a lot of money, someone told Stark to give Furillo a free suit. He did. Stark's sign made him so famous that he was elected President of the City Council in the Fifties and Borough President in the Sixties.

Furillo was also a really good hitter, batting .344 to win the 1953 NL batting title, 7 times driving in at least 88 runs, and posting a career OPS+ of 112.

9. Burleigh Grimes, Number 37, pitcher, 1918-26. (Wore the number as Dodger manager, 1937-38.) The last legal spitballer (with the Yankees in 1934), he won 270 games in the major leagues, 158 for the Dodgers, including 4 20-win seasons. He helped the Dodgers win the 1916 and 1920 Pennants. He's in the Hall of Fame.

8. Don Newcombe, Number 36, pitcher, 1949-57. (Actually 1949-51 and 1954-59, as he missed 2 seasons due to military service and remained after the L.A. move.) The native of Jefferson Township, Morris County, New Jersey played with Monte Irvin and Larry Doby on the 1946 Negro League Champion Newark Eagles. He was the first black pitcher to be a regular starter in the majors and the first to start a World Series game. World Champion with the Dodgers in 1955, going 20-5 and hitting 7 home runs. First-ever Cy Young Award winner and NL MVP in 1956, going 27-7 -- only 3 pitchers since have matched those 27 wins (Denny McLain's 31 in 1968, Steve Carlton's 27 in 1972 and Bob Welch's 27 in 1990).

Missing nearly 3 years due to the Korean War, and heavy drinking, cost him his chance at the Hall of Fame -- he had his last good season at age 33 and was out of the majors a year later -- but he did win 149 games against just 90 losses for a fine .623 winning percentage. Career ERA 3.56, but an ERA+ of 114. Career WHIP a nice 1.203. He later quit drinking and became a substance-abuse counselor. Now 85 years old and living in the Colonia section of Woodbridge, Middlesex County, New Jersey, he, along with Carl Erskine, is one of the last 2 men to turn to for doing interviews about the Brooklyn "Boys of Summer." His son Donald Jr. briefly played in the Dodger organization in 1984.

7. Harold "Pee Wee" Reese, Number 1, shortstop, 1940-57. (Actually 1940-42 and 1946-58.) The only man to bridge all the Pennants the Dodgers won from 1921 until the 1957 move: 1941, '47, '49, '52, '53, '55 and '56. He was the Captain from '49 onward, and arguably the most beloved Dodger. Jackie Robinson never would have made it if this Southerner (Louisville, Kentucky) hadn't stood by him in his darkest hour. Pee Wee is well deserving of his place in the Hall of Fame, of the retirement of his number, and of getting to field the last out (a ground ball hit by Elston Howard) on October 4, 1955, to get Dem Bums the out that clinched a World Series win for the one and only time.

And let me dispel a legend: Yes, it's true, Pee Wee was in the Boston Red Sox' minor-league system (his hometown Louisville Colonels were their top farm team in 1939); and, yes, it's true, Red Sox manager Joe Cronin had him traded while he, Cronin, was still the starting shortstop. But if Cronin saw Reese as a threat to his own (playing) position, why did he not trade away Johnny Pesky, who turned out to be an All-Star? Whatever you want to say about Cronin (and he was no angel), getting rid of Pee Wee Reese was not one of his mistakes, because Pesky was a very good player.

6. Gil Hodges, Number 14, 1st base, 1943-57. (Actually 1943 & 1946-61.) They don't let guys into the Hall of Fame by combining their achievements as player and as manager; if they did, it would be insane to keep out an 8-time All-Star who also managed the New York Mets to a World Series win. He hit 370 home runs at a time when very few players had hit more than that. He won Gold Gloves in the first 3 seasons in which they were awarded, meaning he probably should have won 7 or 8 more. To put Hodges into modern terms, he was Keith Hernandez without the ego.

5. Jackie Robinson, Number 42, 2nd base, 1947-56. If we put aside the pioneers of the game, the 2 most important players in the history of baseball were Jackie Robinson and Babe Ruth -- without whose contributions baseball might not have become a grand enough stage on which to attempt Branch Rickey's "great experiment." Once on that stage, Jackie became a symbol of determination, courage, and brotherhood.

The story of Jackie Robinson the trailblazers is familiar, but what about Jackie Robinson the player? He was damn good: A .311 lifetime batting average, a 131 OPS+, and his 1,518 career hits in 10 seasons (and only enough games to add up to 9 full) means that, had he been allowed a full career (assuming that, had American work life already been fully integrated, he would still have wanted to play baseball, which is by no means a given), he would have had a good shot at 3,000 hits. He stole 197 bases in those 10 seasons, and what might not be possible to calculate with any accuracy is how many added bases and runs he led to by threatening to steal and making pitchers nervous and causing walks and balks. Jackie is often said to have brought the Negro League style of play into the majors, so he changed how the game was played, not just by whom.

And he helped the Dodgers win 6 Pennants (and very nearly 2 others) and the 1955 World Series. (Not now, Yogi.) Putting him at Number 5 on this list seems a little low, but then, this is based on on-field performance rather than cultural significance, he did play "only" 10 seasons, there is significant competition. To wit...

4. Arthur "Dazzy" Vance, Number 15, pitcher, 1922-32, with a brief comeback in 1935. Like Koufax, it took him a while until he found his control, but, when he did, wow.

Before his 31st birthday, his major league won-lost record was 0-8. (This included 0-3 with the 1915 and '18 Yankees.) After he turned 31, he was 197-132. Pretty strong. He might have been the fastest pitcher of the Roaring Twenties, his fastball "dazzling" hitters and giving him his nickname. His career ERA+ was 125. Seven straight years, 1922-28, he led the NL in strikeouts, in 5 leading the entire majors, eventually fanning 2,045 batters in a career that essentially lasted 15 full seasons. Had there been decent pitching coaches back then, he could've been the first NLer to top 3,000. (It would take until 1974 for that to happen, with Bob Gibson.) And he did this for a Brooklyn team that only twice in his 11 seasons with them finished higher than 4th (2nd in '24 and 3rd in '32). Imagine if he'd had the Yankee, or even the Giant, bats behind him. As it was, he lived long enough to be elected to the Hall of Fame.

3. Roy Campanella, Number 39, catcher, 1948-57. Three NL Most Valuable Player awards. Eight All-Star Games. 242 home runs in a career shortened to 10 years by the color barrier at the front (though he excelled for the Negro Leagues' Baltimore Elite Giants, even at age 16) and a paralyzing car crash at the back (though he was already starting to fade and the starting catcher position was beginning to be given to John Roseboro). After Jackie Robinson, the 2nd black player elected to the Hall of Fame. "Baseball is a man's game," he supposedly said, "but you have to have a lot of little boy in you, too."

2. Zack Wheat, pre-number era, left field, 1909-26. Collected 2,884 hits, 2,804 of them with Brooklyn, still a Dodger record (even if the team was known as the Robins, for manager Wilbert Robinson, for most of Wheat's time in the Borough). Batted .317 lifetime, with an OPS+ of 129. Not really a Lively Ball Era player, only 132 home runs, but 476 doubles and 172 triples. Played 19 MLB seasons, in 18 of them batted at least .284, in 16 at least .290, in 11 at least .312, in 8 at least .320, and in 1923 and '24 batted .375 each time. (Only won 1 batting title, with .335 in 1918, but part of that was due to Honus Wagner early on and Rogers Hornsby late.)

Apparently, he was a great fielder, too: In 1917, Baseball Magazine had this to say: "What (Napoleon) Lajoie was to infielders, Zach Wheat is to outfielders, the finest mechanical craftsman of them all... Wheat is the easiest, most graceful of outfielders with no close rivals." It's kind of funny that, in their Forties and Fifties glory days, the Dodgers were mocked for never finding a permanent left fielder, yet the man who might have been their greatest ever player -- as well as the man who finally cinched the Series for them, Sandy Amoros -- was a left fielder.

But Wheat might not have been their greatest player. I think this man was:

1. Edwin "Duke" Snider, Number 4, center field, 1947-57. (Actually 1947-62.) One of the great ironies of North American sports history is that, while the greatest of all Los Angeles Dodgers, Sandy Koufax, was from Brooklyn but didn't find his control until after the move, the 2 men often cited as the greatest Brooklyn Dodgers, Robinson and Snider, were both from Los Angeles. (Well, Jackie was born in Georgia and grew up in Pasadena, while the Duke was, I swear I'm not making this up, straight outta Compton.)

Snider hit 407 home runs. Today, there's some real donkeys with more than that, but, when he retired in 1964, the only ones with more were Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams, Mel Ott, Willie Mays, Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial, Eddie Mathews and Mickey Mantle. His 389 homers in a Dodger uniform is still a franchise record, regardless of coast; Eric Karros is the L.A. leader with a mere 289. Duke's lifetime batting average was .292, and 8 times he hit at least .300. His career OPS+ was a whopping 140. He wasn't as good in center field as Mays, but he was roughly as good as Mantle.

And that brings up the inevitable question of the three New York center fielders: Willie, Mickey, and the Duke. Who was better? Looking at their career stats, it seems silly to put the Duke into the equation; it's got to be either the Say Hey Kid or the Mick, not the Duke.

And yet...

Mickey and Willie entered the majors in 1951. Duke was in his 5th full season. Makes sense, he was 5 years older:

* Edwin Donald Snider, born September 19, 1926 in Los Angeles.
* Willie Howard Mays Jr., born May 6, 1931 in Westfield, Alabama.
* Mickey Charles Mantle, born October 20, 1931 in Spavinaw, Oklahoma.

If you look at what they did while all 3 were together, the case for the Duke gets a lot better:

* In 1951, Willie had a sensational rookie season, while the Duke a pretty good season, and Mickey struggled and got sent down to the minors before regaining his stroke and keeping it for a generation. Willie 1st, Duke 2nd, Mickey 3rd.

* In 1952, Willie was drafted into the Army early on, and missed most of the season. The Duke's stats went down a little. Mickey, still only 20 until right after the World Series, had a little bit better year. Mickey 1st, Duke 2nd, Willie 3rd (not that it was his fault).

* In 1953, Willie was still in the Korean War, but the Duke bounced back with a season in which he led both leagues in slugging percentage and OPS+ (not that the former was then mentioned much or the latter, well, at all). Mickey's season was more bark than bite, as some of his 21 homers were of the variety that came to be called "tape measure" due to their distance, hitting shots that were contenders for the title of longest ever hit in Washington, Philadelphia and St. Louis. But he didn't have as good a season as the Duke. Duke 1st, Mickey 2nd, Willie 3rd (again, through no fault of his own).

* In 1954, Willie returned with his best season, a batting title and a World Championship. The Duke had a sensational season, but not quite as sensational as Willie's. In spite of the Yankees not winning the Pennant for the first time since he arrived, Mickey had his best season yet, but not as good as the other two. Willie 1st, Duke 2nd, Mickey 3rd.

* In 1955, the Duke had his best season, and not just because the Dodgers finally went all the way. I don't want to say Campy didn't deserve the MVP, but the Duke led both leagues in RBIs and he, as much as Podres, was deserving of being named MVP of the '55 Series. Willie had another great year, and Mickey finally began to not just hit the tar out of the ball, but do so with consistency. Great year, but not as good as the other two. Duke 1st, Willie 2nd, Mickey 3rd.

* In 1956, Mickey came into his own, winning the Triple Crown -- in fact, becoming the last player to date to lead both leagues in all 3 categories. The Duke had another great year, leading the NL with a career-high 43 homers. By almost anybody else's standards, Willie had a great year, but not as good as the other two. Mickey 1st, Duke 2nd, Willie 3rd.

* In 1957, the last season of all 3 teams in New York, Mickey won another MVP had batted .365, a figure neither Willie nor the Duke ever approached (in fact, no New York-based player has since). The Duke was still quite productive; his tailoff in 1958 can be attributed to going from the cozy confines of Ebbets Field to the misshapen field at the L.A. Coliseum, but he still had 88 RBIs in leading what was now his hometown team to the 1959 World Championship and a .296 average in 1961. It was only with the move to Dodger Stadium in 1962 that he really began to slow down, at age 35/36, and he was gone 2 years later, playing, ironically, at the Polo Grounds for the Mets and then closing with the Giants. Willie had another really good year, but not quite up to the standard that was being set by New York center fielders; he didn't really have a subpar year until 1969 and was still pretty productive until 1971 when he was 40. So, in '57, Mickey 1st, Duke 2nd, Willie 3rd.

Willie: 1st, 3rd, 3rd, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 3rd; average, 2.29.
Mickey: 3rd, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 3rd, 1st, 1st; average, 2.00.
Duke: 2nd, 2nd, 1st, 2nd, 1st, 2nd, 2nd; average, 1.72.

Surprise! Granted, this takes into account Willie's 2 missing seasons, but even if you count only '51, '54, '55, '56 and '57, the Duke still holds his own, no worse than 2nd each time.

If this Duke wasn't quite a king, he was certainly no bum.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Top 10 Greatest New York Baseball Giants



The team now known as the San Francisco Giants played baseball in New York City from 1883 to 1957. Until the Yankees won their 7th World Series in 1938 (beating the Giants), the Giants were the most successful team in the history of Major League Baseball. When they moved in the fall of 1957, they were still the 2nd-most successful team in the history of Major League Baseball.

And yet, today, they are all but forgotten. Not hard to understand: If you saw your first baseball game at the age of 7, then the youngest fan of the Giants, or the Brooklyn Dodgers, is now 62 years old. To most people younger than that, the Giants really come down to 2 games: Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World" to win the 1951 National League Pennant, and Game 1 of the 1954 World Series, with Willie Mays making "The Catch" and Dusty Rhodes winning it with a pinch-hit home run -- and even Rhodes' homer sometimes gets lost in the after-the-fact hoopla over Mays' catch.

It also doesn't help that, while the Dodgers had former New York Herald Tribune Dodger beat writer, and Brooklyn native and Dodger fan, Roger Kahn to write The Boys of Summer in 1972, just as the 1950s nostalgia wave was taking off. Nobody wrote a similar book about the 1950s Giants, who did win 2 Pennants and a World Series.

And that's not fair, because the Giants were far, far more that Thomson's homer, Mays' catch and Rhodes' homer. So much that Greg Prince, author of the blog and book Faith and Fear in Flushing has declared the Giants, rather than the Brooklyn Dodgers (in spite of their "Daffiness Boys" and heartbreak similarities), to be the true precursor to his beloved Mets. Which makes some sense, since the Mets share the orange "curly-Q'ed" interlocking NY, and the Polo Grounds (their home for their first 2 seasons, 1962 & '63), with the Giants.

If we were to include the Giants' honors with the Mets, it would read as follows:

National League Champions 1888 1889 1904 1905 1911 1912 1913 1917 1921 1922 1923 1924 1933 1936 1937 1951 1954 1969 1973 1986 2000. 21 Pennants.

World Champions 1888 1888 1905 1921 1922 1936 1954 1969 1986. 9 Titles. (You can't count 1904: The Red Sox were willing to play a World Series, the Giants refused.)

Still well behind the Yankees, but a far more respectable record.

So here we go.

Top 10 Greatest New York Baseball Giants

Honorable Mention to Hall-of-Famers George Davis, Roger Bresnahan, Fred "Rube" Marquard, Dave Bancroft, George “Highpockets” Kelly, Ross Youngs, Freddie Lindstrom, Johnny Mize (didn't play with the Giants long enough to qualify for this list) and (at the beginning of his career) Hoyt Wilhelm, and managers John McGraw and Leo Durocher.

I’m also giving Honorable Mentions to 19th Century Giants Roger Connor, Buck Ewing, John Montgomery "Monte" Ward, Tim Keefe, Jim “Orator” O’Rourke and Smilin’ Mickey Welch. They may have played a very different game, one not really comparable even to the game played by the Mathewson generation, but they were still among the best players of their time, and they are still in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Johnny Mize was only a Giant for 4 full seasons (interrupted by 3 years of World War II service), so I can’t count him here.

Oh, why not: Further Honorable Mentions to Bobby Thomson and Dusty Rhodes. And to Sid Gordon, a Jewish kid from Brooklyn who starred for the Giants in the 1940s and the Braves in the 1950s, and famously (in 1948) became the only Giant ever to be given a "day" in his honor at Ebbets Field by the Dodgers. But Dishonorable Mention to Sal Maglie: Great pitcher, nasty human being. (My Grandma was a Dodger fan, and there was no player she ever hated more than Maglie, with plenty of reason.)

10. Larry Doyle, pre-number era, 2nd base, 1907-20, with a brief stopover with the Chicago Cubs in 1916-17. Not in the Hall of Fame, but twice led the NL in hits. In 1915 led the NL in batting average, hits and doubles (with 40). Batted .290 lifetime (.292 with the Giants). Helped the Giants win 3 straight Pennants, 1911-13, and nearly an earlier one in 1908 (the Fred Merkle season). Received the Chalmers Award, an early version of the MVP, for the NL in 1912.

Supposedly once told the press, "It's great to be young and a Giant." At the time, a very justifiable statement, as the Giants were then the kings of New York sports. He was 19 when he made his Giant debut, 33 when he made his farewell, and 87 when he died in 1974 at Saranac Lake, New York -- the same town where his former teammate Christy Mathewson died nearly half a century before.

All others on this list are in the Hall of Fame.

9. Travis Jackson, Number 5, shortstop, 1922-36. Had a .291 lifetime batting average, and bridged the 1922 and ’33 World Championship teams. Holds the record for longest time waiting to get into the Hall of Fame, and still living to get in: First eligible (under the rules then in effect) in 1938, and was elected in 1982 -- 54 years.

8. Frankie Frisch, Number 3, 2nd base, 1919-26. Came from The Bronx, and attended the Borough's Fordham Prep and University, so nicknamed the Fordham Flash. The best 2nd baseman in the game in the Roaring Twenties, he helped the Giants win the 1921 and '22 Series and the '23 and '24 Pennants.

But after the 1926 season, was shockingly traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for Rogers Hornsby, still one of the most celebrated trades in baseball history. (It was while he was with the Cards that uniform numbers came into vogue: He wore 3 with the Cards, not the Giants.) The trade benefited the Cards a lot more than the Giants: Hornsby didn't get along with McGraw any more than Frisch did and was traded a year later; while Frisch eventually became the Cards' player-manager, leading the "Gashouse Gang" to win the 1934 World Series and nearly 3 other Pennants.

He is justifiably in the Hall of Fame, but his presence, and that of teammate Bill Terry and a couple of friendly sportswriters, on the Veterans' Committee led to the election of several of his Giant and Cardinal teammates who many consider to be unworthy. Some fans use the term "the Frisch Five" to refer to his beneficiaries, although the list is not definitive: Among those included are Giants Marquard (I think he belongs, barely), Youngs (he belongs), Bancroft (borderline) and Highpockets Kelly (doesn't belong); and Cardinals Jesse Haines (borderline) and Charles "Chick" Hafey (belongs).

Between ending his managing career and being on the Vets' Committee, he was a Giant broadcaster, famous for his exclamation, "Oh, those bases on balls!" He had a heart attack in 1956, and that not only ended his broadcasting career, but started that of his fill-in, who'd recently been released by the Yankees: Phil Rizzuto. Frisch managed to live on until 1973, however, and died as a result of a car crash, not a heart attack.

7. Joe McGinnity, pre-number era, pitcher, 1902-08. Only played 10 seasons in the major leagues, the minimum for Hall of Fame qualification (barring special cases, such as the man at Number 6 on this list). But his 246-142 record is phenomenal no matter how long he pitched -- and, on any given day, he could pitch long. Five times, he pitched and won both ends of a doubleheader. This would seem to be the source of his nicknames "the Iron Man" and "Iron Joe," but he claimed he got them from working in a foundry.

Six times, he won at least 26 games in a season. The Dead Ball Era, you say? True, but he also won at least 28 games 4 times, and at least 31 twice. His career ERA+ was 120, meaning he was 20 percent better than the average pitcher of his time and preventing earned runs, so his Cooperstown status is very much legit. Got a late start in the majors (didn't debut until he was 28), so it's not like he burned out after only 10 years (he retired at 37). Sticking with the Giants, he worked for McGraw as, technically, the first pitching coach in baseball.

6. Monte Irvin, Number 20, left field, 1949-55. Born in Alabama but grew up nearby in East Orange, New Jersey. Teammate on the mighty Newark Eagles of the Negro Leagues with Larry Doby, another guy born in the South (South Carolina) but grew up in North Jersey (Paterson).

By 1943, when he'd gone into World War II, he was already being talked about as, potentially, the man who would be allowed to break the color barrier in what was then called "Organized Baseball." He and Hank Thompson became the Giants' first black players, both making their big-league debuts on July 8, 1949. (Appropriately enough, at Ebbets Field. The Dodgers won, 4-3, and while neither got a hit, both drew walks. Technically, Thompson was the first, since he was in the starting lineup and Irvin was a pinch-hitter.)

In the Giants' 1951 Pennant season, he batted .312 and led the NL with 121 RBIs, and was 3rd in the MVP voting behind Roy Campanella and Stan Musial. (Teammate Maglie was 4th, and Dodgers Preacher Roe and Jackie Robinson were 5th and 6th.) In Game 1 of the World Series, he stole home plate; unlike Robinson, who did the same in Game 1 in 1955, he was clearly safe, and, also unlike Robinson, his team won the game -- but, also unlike Robinson, his team ended up losing the Series. That would not be the case in 1954.

Irvin is now 93 years old, and is the last living player in the Hall who got in on the basis, either full or partial, based on what he did in the Negro Leagues. (He played only 9 major league seasons, plus one more in the Pacific Coast League.) The Giants retired his number, even though he never played for them in San Francisco.

5. Willie Mays, Number 24, center field, 1951-57. Why so low? Because he only played 5 full seasons for the New York edition of the Giants. (He spent most of 1952 and all of '53 in the U.S. Army, serving in the Korean War.) But while the most productive part of his career was in San Francisco, it can be argued that his 2 best seasons were in New York, 1954 and '55.

The debate over who was better, Willie or Mickey Mantle (or even, for those slightly deluded Dodger fans, Duke Snider), will continue forever. On May 6, Willie will turn 81, and, sadly, he's the last survivor of the trio of New York center fielders cited in Terry Cashman's song "Talkin' Baseball," better remembered as "Willie, Mickey and the Duke."

4. Bill Terry, Number 3, first base, 1923-36. Supposedly, Memphis Bill was playing for the Toledo Mud Hens of the American Association, when John McGraw was impressed by him and said, “How’d you like to play for the New York Giants?” Terry said, “For how much?” Shocked by the young man’s audacity, McGraw kept the offer.

Good choice, since Terry batted .341 lifetime, including .401 in 1930, making him still the last National Leaguer to bat .400 in a season. Helped the Giants win the 1923 and ’24 Pennants and the ’33 Series. His number was retired, and he’s in the Hall of Fame. When McGraw retired in 1932, Terry was named player-manager, and managed them to Pennants in ’33, ’36 and ’37.

3. Carl Hubbell, Number 11, pitcher, 1928-43. The first National Leaguer to have his number retired, King Carl won 253 games, including 24 straight over late 1936 and early ’37 – making his other nickname, the Meal Ticket, easily understandable. Led the Giants’ staff to the ’33 title and the ’36 and ’37 Pennants, and is still best known for the ’34 All-Star Game at the Polo Grounds, where he struck out 5 straight fellow future members of the Hall of Fame: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin.

Although Christy Mathewson threw the pitch first (calling it the "fadeaway"), Hubbell made his name (and, eventually, a twisted wreck of his left arm) by throwing the "reverse curveball" or "screwball." But, unlike the later New York pitcher who threw the pitch, Tug McGraw of the Mets, he was no screwball above the neck: He was one of those intellectual pitchers such as later New York National League hurlers Carl Erskine, Sandy Koufax, Tom Seaver, Ron Darling and Orel Hershiser. At a time when the best righthanded pitchers in the world were Dizzy Dean and Satchel Paige, the best lefties were Lefty Grove and Hubbell.

2. Mel Ott, Number 4, right field, 1926-47. Made his major league debut at age 16, and until 1966 (surpassed by Mays) was the NL’s all-time home run leader with 511. True, he had that short right-field fence at the Polo Grounds, but he still had a .304 lifetime batting average, 2,876 hits, and 1,860 runs batted in, so it couldn't have been ALL about that 257-foot RF pole. He missed the first All-Star Game in 1933, but was selected to the next 12. Hit more home runs in one city than any other player, 348 in New York (at home or at the Dodgers’ home of Ebbets Field). Number retired, Hall of Fame.

Succeeded Terry as Giant manager, although he was fired in 1948, in favor of Leo Durocher, who famously said, “Look at Ott, he’s a nice guy and they’ll finish 8th for him. All nice guys and they’ll finish 8th.” With 8th place then being last, this was turned into Durocher’s signature phrase, “Nice guys finish last.” Well, Ott (though killed in a car crash at age 49) lived long enough to see his HOF election, while Durocher did not.

Sadly, Ott in 1958, Frisch in 1973, and Hubbell in 1988, were all killed in car crashes. But the fate of the player at Number 1 on this list was worse.

1. Christy Mathewson, pre-number era, pitcher, 1900-16. Before Matty, most ballplayers were thought of as uneducated hicks (if they came from a farm or a small town) or nasty Irish hooligans (if they came from a city). "Big Six" was a graduate of Bucknell University (where he also played football and the stadium is named for him), and was New York's first "thinking man's pitcher" and baseball's first true "clean" idol.

In addition to his fadeaway/reverse curve/screwball, he had one of the fastest fastballs of his time, a great curveball, and a troublesome "slow ball" (today we would call it a changeup). He might have had the best "stuff" in baseball history, and was renowned for his incredible control. He won 373 games, tied with Grover Cleveland Alexander for 3rd all-time and 1st in the NL. His career ERA+ was 136, and he struck out 2,507 batters, 2nd only to Cy Young at the time he retired. In the 1905 World Series, he shut out the Philadelphia Athletics 3 times, a feat never repeated in Series play. With him, the Giants won 5 Pennants and nearly 3 others.

Sadly, he went into the U.S. Army in World War I, and, during a training exercise, Captain Mathewson got a lungful of poison gas. Shortly thereafter, he fell victim to the 1918-19 worldwide Spanish influenza epidemic that ended up killing twice as many people as the war. His lungs already severely weakened, he later developed tuberculosis, and was sent to the health spa at Saranac Lake, New York (closer to Montreal than to Albany, let alone to Manhattan), where he died in 1925, at only 45. His son fared even worse as a result of his military service: An Air Force pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Mathewson Jr. first crashed and then, in a separate incident, was horribly burned in an explosion at an Air Force base in 1950, aged only 43.

Christy Mathewson might just have been the greatest pitcher of all time. In one way, we can say he was the Pitcher of the Century: He made his major league debut on July 7, 1900, and on October 25, 1999, during the World Series, he was announced as one of the pitchers on the Major League Baseball All-Century Team, voted there by fans even though he pitched his last game 83 years (5/6th of a century) earlier. In 1936, much closer to his time, he got the most votes of any pitcher in the first Hall of Fame election, thus making him the first pitcher elected.

Top 10 Greatest New Jersey Devils


I really wanted to get this top-10-players-for-all-area-teams project done in February. Good thing this is a leap year.

Last night, the Devils lost to The Scum. Martin Brodeur stopped 14 shots, but one went in, before he was pulled for an extra attacker in the last minute and the Broadway Boozehounds got an empty-netter.

The Devils have been around for 30 years now. They have history. They have great moments. They have Hall-of-Famers. They have retired numbers. They have banners. They have 3 Stanley Cups in the last 17 years -- as many as the Rangers have in the last 82 years, and more than the Flyers have in their entire 45-year history.

So here's the 10 greatest, in the opinion of this fan of the Mulberry Street Marauders (made up a Facebook page with that title).

Honorable Mention to members of the Hockey Hall of Fame who played for the Devils, but didn’t get elected on the basis of their Devils’ service: Peter Stastny, Viacheslav Fetisov, Doug Gilmour, Joe Nieuwendyk and Igor Larionov. And to Jamie Langenbrunner and Brian Rafalski, not yet eligible for the Hall but will probably fit into this category.

Also to coaches Jacques Lemaire and Larry Robinson (both elected as Montreal Canadiens players before becoming Devils coaches), to general manager Lou Lamoriello (who does still piss me off with his cheapness-inspired transactions), and to broadcaster Mike “Doc” Emrick.  (UPDATE: Lamoriello was subsequently elected to the Hall of Fame.)

Also to Brian Gionta, whose 48 goals in the 2006 season are a team record, and who, despite being just 5-foot-7 (if that), got picked on by the 6-foot-9 Zdeno Chara (then of the Ottawa Senators), and held his own for a full minute before the referee separated them. (I was there, I saw it.) And to Sean Burke, whose 1988 heroics helped give us our first Playoff run.

And to Jim Dowd, of Brick, the only New Jerseyan to play for the Devils and the only New Jerseyan to play for a Stanley Cup winner. And to Stephane Richer, who always seemed to score against the Rangers, including the overtime winner in the first NHL game I ever saw live (December 23, 1992 at the Garden) and on Seinfeld (the episode where David Puddy wears a BRODEUR 30 jersey and paints his face).

And to the 3 men who scored what amounted to the Cup-winning goals: Neal Broten (also a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team that won the Gold Medal, and whose brothers Aaron and Paul also played for the Devils), Jason Arnott, and Mike Rupp (who didn’t do much else in a Devil uniform). And to Sergei Brylin, the only player to play on all 3 Devil Stanley Cup teams who does not otherwise make the Top 10.

And to Ken Daneyko, who, though his Number 3 is retired and was a Devil for 20 years and a member of all 3 Cup teams, was never really a great player. Also to Glenn Resch, a.k.a. Chico and Gomez Addams, awful goalie but fun broadcaster – the Joe Garagiola of hockey, if you will.

And to Dr. John McMullen and Governor Brendan Byrne, who got the team here, and to Jeff Vanderbeek and Newark Mayors Sharpe James and Cory Booker, who got the Prudential Center built and made the Devils a grown-up team in a way even the 3 Cups never really did.

And to all those fans who recognize that, if you live in New Jersey, and are too young to remember the Rangers' Sasson jeans commercial, you are supposed to be a Devils fan, not a Ranger fan. Especially all those Crazies in Section 233.

Dishonorable Mention to Scott Gomez, great player but a traitor who crossed over to the Dark Side.

10. Bruce Driver, Number 23, defenseman, 1984-95. He was the Captain for one season, before Scott Stevens arrived, but willingly gave up the C the next season. He, Danno and Johnny Mac were in the organization, if not at the major league level, at the beginning, and were still around for the 1995 Cup, whose clincher was his last game for the club. He then signed as a free agent for the Rangers, but I forgive him, as he was, up to that point, the best defenseman in Devils history. He now coaches the girls' hockey team at the Morristown-Beard Academy, and won the State Championship and Coach of the Year in 2007.

9. Bobby Holik, Number 16, center, 1992-2002 & 2008-09. He was big: 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds. He was mean: He centered the Crash Line with Randy McKay and Mike Peluso. And he was good: 326 goals, 202 of them for the Devils. He helped us win 2 Cups, and didn't take any crap from anyone.

8. Kirk Muller, Number 9, left wing, 1984-91. Oh, how it infuriated us when "Captain Kirk" was traded to the Canadiens! He and goalie Sean Burke were the face of the franchise in that 1988 run to the Conference Finals. The trade looked even worse when Muller became a key part of the Habs' 1993 Cup win. But we got Richer and Tom Chorske in that deal, and we wouldn't have won the '95 Cup without them.

It also didn't help that, with one more loss and one more Pittsburgh Penguin win, the Devils would have had the first pick in the 1984 Draft, and gotten Mario Lemieux. But let's be honest here: If we'd had Lemieux, we probably never would have had Brendan Shanahan; if we'd never had Shanahan, that "trade" with the St. Louis Blues wouldn't have happened, and we wouldn't have gotten Scott Stevens. Sure, we might've won the Cup in 1988, but would we have won in 1995? 2000? 2003? I don't think so.

As for what Muller did for the Devils, he was really good on offense and defense, providing toughness and 185 goals in 7 years. He's now the head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes.

7. Claude Lemieux, Number 22, right wing, 1990-95, with a brief return in 2000. There's a difference between a "goon" and a "pest." A pest is a fighter who actually does have the talent to play in the NHL beyond simply fighting. Claudie, along with Theo Fleury, was the embodiment of pestiness.

In spite of his cheap shots (and, often, his subsequent "turtling"), he's my favorite hockey player of all time. Why? Because he scored goals, because he didn't take any crap, and because he seemed to save his best games for the Rangers and Flyers. His goal with 44 seconds left in Game 5 of the 1995 Eastern Conference Finals, a 65-foot knuckleball that Ron Hextall still hasn't seen, pretty much won that series for the Devils and remains my favorite goal ever, even ahead of Jason Arnott's 2000 Game 6 overtime Cup-winner.

Claudie is one of only 10 players to win Cups with 3 different teams (1986 Canadiens, 1995 & 2000 Devils, 1996 Colorado Avalanche). He scored 379 NHL goals, and that's not counting the 13 he scored in the 1995 Playoffs that made him the first Devil to receive the Conn Smythe Trophy as Playoff MVP.

So if you're a Detroit Red Wings fan reading this, and you still hate Claudie for what he did to Kris Draper while with Colorado in 1996, I understand, but I still love the guy. Interestingly, when Budd Lynch introduced Claudie before Game 1 of the 1995 Finals, nearly a year before the unwarranted hit on Draper, Claudie still got the hell booed out of him, since he was already known as a dirty player.

6. Zach Parise, Number 9, left wing, 2005-12. The son of Jean-Paul Parise, who scored one of the biggest goals in Islander history (ask a Ranger fan about that at your peril), the current Devils Captain will probably end up as the team's all-time leading scorer. In spite of missing nearly the entire 2010-11 season, he already has 186 career goals and 207 assists. Although the Devils got beat by the Senators in the Conference Semifinals, Zach scored 7 goals in the 2007 Playoffs.

And his goal with 24 seconds left in regulation sent the 2010 Olympic Gold Medal game to overtime, before Sidney Crosby scored to give Canada the win over the U.S. (While J.P. Parise was born in Ontario, he was an assistant coach with the Minnesota North Stars while Zach was born in Minnesota and thus plays for the U.S.) If he helps the Devils win a Cup, and helps the U.S. win a Gold Medal in 2014 or '18, Zach could become one of the biggest heroes in American hockey history -- and move well up this list.

(UPDATE: Lou Lam didn't try to sign Zach to a new contract, and he signed with his home-State team, the Minnesota Wild.)

5. John MacLean, Number 15, right wing, 1983-97. He came with the team out of the bad old days, and his goal in overtime on the last day of the 1988 season clinched the team's first Playoff berth. He then came up with big goals in the series wins over the Islanders and the Washington Capitals. An injury turned him from a sniper into a defensive forward who could still score a little, much like Steve Yzerman. He was still a big contributor at the time of the 1995 Cup win, and when Scott Stevens took the Cup as Captain, the first man he handed it to was MacLean, who then handed it to the other two guys who'd been there almost since the beginning, Driver and Daneyko.

Until recently, he was the team's all-time leading scorer, with 347 of his 413 goals and 354 of his 429 assists coming with the Devils, for 701 of his 842 career points. After coaching through the Devils system as minor league head coach and major league assistant, his tenure as major league head coach, early last season, was a disaster, though hardly all his fault. He now assists Kirk Muller, his former linemate in East Rutherford and Dallas (with Guy Carbonneau, they were "the Grumpy Old Men Line"), with the Hurricanes.

4. Scott Niedermayer, Number 27, defenseman, 1991-2004. Recently became the 3rd Devil, after Stevens and Daneyko, to have his number retired. (All defenseman, perhaps typical of our "trap" team.) He will be eligible for the Hall of Fame next year, and why not? A member of 4 Stanley Cup winners -- 3 with us, 1 as Captain of the Anaheim Ducks (alongside his brother Rob, who later came to us). Scored 172 goals and had 568 assists -- pretty good for a defenseman. Helped Canada win Olympic Gold Medals in 1992 and 2010. Named to 6 NHL All-Star Games (3 with the Devils). Named Captain after Scott Stevens' concussion that led him to retire.

3. Patrik Elias, Number 26, left wing, 1996-present. Has now surpassed MacLean's team records for points (has 874 at this writing), goals (354) and assists (520). Member of the 2000 and '03 Cup winners. Former Captain. Turns 36 in April, but has missed only 1 game this season and only 1 last season, and is averaging a career-most 20 minutes and 20 seconds per game this season (he's never topped 19 minutes before), so it looks like he's going to remain productive for a while.

2. Scott Stevens, Number 4, defenseman, 1991-2004. Not quite the greatest player in Devils history, but, beyond any question, the most important. Before his arrival, the Devils were pretenders. He made us contenders, then Champions, 3 times over.

Once a brawler, and a pain in the ass to the Devils, for the Washington Capitals, he became a pain in the ass FOR the Devils. Ever heard of "the cold shoulder"? Scottso was Mr. Cold Shoulder. Vyacheslav Kozlov in the 1995 Finals. Paul Kariya in the 2003 Finals. And, most notably, Eric Lindros in the 2000 Conference Finals. Even Flyer fans, who love great hits whether they're clean or not, admit that it was a great, and clean, hit.

But Scottso was not just a thug. He was a great player, a defenseman with over 900 career points (196 goals, 712 assists). He was awarded the 2000 Conn Smythe Trophy. His career plus/minus rating is 393, including a whopping 53 in 1993-94. And he Captained 3 Stanley Cup winners, something that is true for only 6 other living humans (George Armstrong, last with the '67 Leafs; Jean Beliveau, '71 Habs; Yvan Cournoyer, '78 Habs; Denis Potvin, '83 Isles; Wayne Gretzky, '88 Oilers; and Steve Yzerman, '02 Wings). It should be no surprise that he was the first Devil to get his number retired, and the first Hall-of-Famer to be identified primarily with the club.

1. Martin Brodeur, Number 30, goaltender, 1992-present. Is there another NHL team whose greatest player ever is a goalie? Along with his idol Patrick Roy and Terry Sawchuk, Marty is on the short list for the title of Greatest Goalie Ever. (In this sport, anyway.)

Sawchuk's records of 447 wins and 103 shutous were once thought of as unbreakable; Marty now has 647 wins (although Roy got to that record first) and 117 shutouts -- plus another 99 wins and 23 shutouts in the Playoffs. Seven times, he played the most minutes in goal in the NHL, 9 times the most wins, including a League record 48 in 2006-07. As of last night's game, he's played 69,056 minutes in goal -- that's 1,151 hours, 48 days, nearly 7 weeks.

The last remaining player who won all 3 Cups with the Devils, he should have won the Conn Smythe Trophy in both 2000 and 2003. Seriously, in 2003 he had 3 shutouts in the Finals, something that had only been done once before and never since, and they give it to the goalie of the losing team (Jean-Sebastien Giguere of the Ducks)?

He turns 40 on May 6, but he's still averaging just 2.5 goals per game. He's no longer the best goalie in the league, maybe not even one of the top 5, but he's still got it. Ranger fans call him "Fatty," but Devils fans still say, truthfully, "MAR-TY'S BET-TER!"

Monday, February 27, 2012

Top 10 Greatest New York Rangers


Yesterday, Arsenal came from 2-0 down to throttle their North London rivals, Tottenham Hotspur, and put Spurs back in their place: "Forever in our shadow."

Or, as they would say over there, "5-2! We beat The Scum, 5-2! We beat The Scum, 5-2! We beat The Scum, 5-2!"

Over here, tonight, it's Good Guys vs. Scum, as the Devils go to Madison Square Garden to face the Rangers.

There was a time when the Rangers were NOT The Scum, and didn't even suck. When did that change?

Some people think the turning point was on April 11, 1975, when the Rangers were shocked in the Playoffs by the third-year expansion team out on Long Island. Suddenly, the Rangers weren't just an unlucky team that hadn't won the Stanley Cup in 35 years. They weren't even the best team in their own metropolitan area anymore.

The following season, Ranger management began a purge, dumping longtime head coach and general manager (and former Ranger goaltender) Emile "the Cat" Francis, and trading away two of their most popular players, center Jean Ratelle and defenseman Brad Park, and lesser-known defenseman Joe Zanussi, for Boston Bruins center and Captain Phil Esposito and defenseman Carol Vadnais. And, most notoriously, traded beloved goalie Eddie Giacomin to the Detroit Red Wings, who just so happened to be the Rangers' next opponent, and the Garden rang out with chants of, "Ed-die! Ed-die! Ed-die!" all night long, with Giacomin's every save being cheered, and the Wings' 6-4 win being greeted with a standing ovation.

As the Islanders got more successful, things went from bad to worse for Ranger fans -- and I don't mean getting Esposito, who was still a sensational player, and Vadnais, who gave them a toughness they needed.

I'm talking about February 25, 1979, when Ulf Nilsson, along with Anders Hedberg poached by the Rangers from the World Hockey Association Champion Winnpeg Jets, was crashed into the boards by Denis Potvin, the Isles' Hall of Fame defenseman and Captain. To hear Ranger fans tell it, it happened during the epic Stanley Cup Semifinal series between the teams later that year, and Nilsson never played again, and because of that, the Rangers lost the Finals to the Montreal Canadiens, forever justifying the chant that still rings out of the Garden's uppermost ring, the 400 Level, formerly known as the Blue Seats: "Potvin sucks!"

In truth, the hit happened in the regular season. It was a clean hit, Nilsson himself has always said so, and the referee gave no penalty on it. The Rangers beat the Isles in the Semis without Nilsson, and he did return for the Finals, and while the Rangers did win Game 1, that Canadiens team was one of the best ever, and a fully healthy Nilsson was never going to turn the tide in the Broadway Blueshirts' favor. Esposito, who says that he, himself, took the hardest hit of his career from Potvin in that same season, and says his back was never the same, has said, "Get over it, already." The chant is still produced every Ranger home game.

Then the Islanders won the next 4 Stanley Cups -- I've been to the Nassau Coliseum a number of times for Devils-Islanders games, and I've seen a car in the parking lot with the New York license plate "4 STAN" -- and that was more Cups in 4 years than the Rangers won in their first 67 years of existence. The Islander fans chanted, "NINE-teen-FOR-ty!" What could Ranger fans do, except hope their team finally won a Cup, and chant, "Potvin sucks!"

Then the Rangers finally did it, ending the 54-year drought, and beating the Islanders (and, uh, the Devils) along the way. But the Devils won the Cup the next year, and 2 more in the next decade. Today, the Rangers are, again, Number 2 (in so many ways), but at least they're ahead of the Islanders, who may not even be in the Tri-State Area at some point in the next few years, and are pretty much now reduced to "Rangers suck!" chants -- which, while true, don't help them much.

*

What would I have done in hockey if there had never been a New Jersey Devils? I don't know. Most likely, I would have drifted over to the Rangers, because Long Island is such a pain in the ass to get to from New Jersey. Or maybe I would've rooted for some faraway team. I certainly wouldn't have gone down the Northeast Corridor and rooted for the Philadelphia Flyers. Even before I became a Devils fan and started hating the Rangers, I hated the Flyers.

But the Rangers do have a long history, rich with big moments -- if not with glory.

Top 10 Greatest New York Rangers

Honorable Mention to those Rangers who are members of the Hockey Hall of Fame, but not on this list: Goaltenders Chuck Rayner and Lorne "Gump" Worsley; defensemen Ivan "Ching" Johnson, Earl Siebert, Art Coulter, Walter "Babe" Pratt, Edgar Laprade, Allan Stanley, Harry Howell, Bill Gadsby and Brad Park; left wings Frederick "Bun" Cook, Lynn Patrick, Bryan Hextall and Jean Ratelle; right wing Mike Gartner; centers Clint Smith, Neil Colville, Buddy O'Connor and Phil Esposito.

Also to these men who are in the Hockey Hall of Fame in the "Builders" category: General manager and coach Lester Patrick, general manager and coach Emile Francis, team presidents John R. Kilpatrick and William M. Jennings, coach Roger Neilson, and broadcasters Winn Elliott, Marv Albert, Sal Messina and John Davidson, who was also a fine Ranger goalie. And to Mike Keenan, who, while not in the Hall of Fame despite coaching 3 different teams to 4 Stanley Cup Finals, is the only living human to have coached the Rangers to the Stanley Cup.

All but two of the players listed below are in the Hall of Fame. There are no active, or even recently retired, players on this list. And all but Numbers 8 and 7 have had their uniform numbers retired -- although not necessarily in their own honor/memory.

10. Adam Graves, Number 9, left wing, 1991-2001. He gets called "a good guy" and "classy," which means people forget how he broke Mario Lemieux's wrist in 1992. But he scored 52 goals in the 1994 Cup season, among the 329 he scored in NHL play. But he has not been elected to the Hall of Fame.

9. Eddie Giacomin, Number 1, goaltender, 1965-75. He was fun. He was great. And he was tough. Legend has it that there was a game with the Chicago Blackhawks, and Bobby Hull was shooting, lost his balance, and his skate sliced right through Giacomin's catching glove and cut open his hand. Giacomin skated off the ice, had the hand stitched up, and got back in the net and the Rangers won.

When he was traded in 1975 after 10 years of sterling service, including holding off the Big Bad Bruins for 5 games before falling in Game 6 of the 1972 Stanley Cup Finals, it was the most despised trade in Ranger history. After Gilbert, he was the 2nd Ranger to have his number retired.

8. Bryan Hextall, Number 12, left wing, 1936-48. Two of his sons and a grandson all played in the NHL, and today he's probably best remembered for his grandson, the tempestuous goalie Ron Hextall. But until Mark Messier on June 14, 1994, he was the last man to score a Stanley Cup-winning goal for the Rangers, in overtime of Game 6 against the Maple Leafs on April 13, 1940.  (The photo above shows him shaking hands with head coach Frank Boucher afterwards.) At a time when an NHL season was 48 games, he scored at least 20 goals in 7 seasons, including 6 in a row (1939 to 1944).

7. Bill Cook, Number 5, right wing, 1926-37. Like his brother Frederick "Bun" Cook and Frank Boucher, he was an original Ranger who made it to the Hall of Fame, and together they formed a forward line with the brothers (Bill on right wing, Bun on left wing) flanking center Boucher. At first, the line was called the A Line, after the A train subway that went under 8th Avenue past the then-new "old Madison Square Garden." As the Great Depression set in in 1930, people began calling it the Bread Line. But the Rangers were (don't laugh) a symbol of success, and even class and sophistication at the time.

In 1933, Bill was, for the 2nd time, the NHL scoring champion (they didn't yet give the champion the Art Ross Trophy), and captained the Rangers' 1933 Cup-winning team. He later briefly coached the Rangers in the early 1950s. Bun Cook became a minor-league coach, and his 636 wins are an American Hockey League record.

6. Andy Bathgate, Number 9, center, 1953-64. He was on the cover of the January 12, 1959 issue of Sports Illustrated, which asked if he was the greatest Ranger ever. As you'll see on this list, not quite, not even at that point. But he was the first New York hockey star of the television era. In 1964, the Rangers traded him to the Toronto Maple Leafs, where he helped them win their 3rd straight Stanley Cup, the only one he ever won. In 2009, his Number 9 (already retired for Graves) was retired, along with the Number 3 of his teammate Harry Howell, and both were on hand for the ceremony.

5. Mark Messier, Number 11, center, 1991–1997 and again 2000–2004. Why only 5th? Longevity: Six good years, three of them great, but his second go-around, he was pretty much just killing time.

But his first go-around is the most important tenure in the post-World War II history of the club, including the 1994 Stanley Cup, the 1992 President's Trophy for best overall record in the League, and the 1997 Conference Finals. His acquisition, after he'd helped the Edmonton Oilers win 5 Stanley Cups (the last, without Wayne Gretzky, or Paul Coffey, or Jari Kurri, and with Bill Ranford as starting goalie instead of Grant Fuhr, as Captain), was the message that the Rangers were dead serious about ending the Curse of 1940.

Anything less than a Cup would have been a spectacular failure. In other words, if the Vancouver Canucks had scored one more goal in regulation in Game 7 of the Finals, and then won in overtime, Ranger fans could have taken Messier downstairs into Penn Station, and literally run him out of town on a rail.  But they won, and for that, he will always be the biggest hero in the club's history -- though not its best player. And, remember: He's not only the Hair Club Team Captain, he's also a client!

4. Rod Gilbert, Number 7, right wing, 1960-77. Still the Rangers' all-time leading scorer, their all-time leader in games played, and the first player of any Tri-State Area hockey team to have his number retired. Never won a Cup, though, never getting closer than the 1972 Finals, which the Rangers lost to Boston. Until the 1994 Cup, he was probably the all-time most popular Ranger, too -- even more so than Giacomin.

3. Mike Richter, Number 35, goaltender, 1990-2003. He's the one on this list who's not yet in the Hockey Hall of Fame, which makes no sense, since even an Islanders or a Devils fan has to admit that he's the greatest hockey goaltender the United States of America has ever produced. The 1994 Stanley Cup, the 1996 World Cup, his uniform number retired, the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, and the Lester Patrick Award for service to hockey in the U.S., and except for Messier and possibly Leetch, probably the most popular Ranger of all time. He's been eligible for THE Hall in Toronto since 2006. What are they waiting for?

2. Brian Leetch, Number 2, defenseman, 1987-2004. In 1994, he became the first non-Canadian to win the Conn Smythe Trophy for Playoff MVP. In spite of all of Messier's heroics that season, Leetch deserved it. In 1996, he was the biggest factor in the U.S. team winning the World Cup (formerly the Canada Cup) for the first time. He wasn't the longest-playing Ranger, but he was the one who played the best for the longest.

1. Frank Boucher, Number 7, center, 1926-37, with a brief comeback in 1944 due to the wartime manpower shortage.  Centering the Bread Line on the 1928 and '33 Cup winners, he was right up there with Howie Morenz, King Clancy and Eddie Shore as one of the best players of that era. He scored 160 goals with 263 assists at a time when the NHL season was just 48 games long. Evelyn Byng, wife of the Governor-General of Canada, donated a trophy to be awarded to the NHL's "most gentlemanly player." Boucher won the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy 7 times in 8 years. Lady Byng was so impressed that she gave him the trophy outright, and donated another trophy to the NHL.

In 1939, Lester Patrick left the head coaching position to concentrate on being general manager, and Boucher, who'd been coaching the Rangers' farm team, the New York Rovers, was named head coach and took them to the Cup. (In the photo above, Boucher, in the overcoat, is congratulating Bryan Hextall on his Cup-winning goal.) In other words, in their entire history, only once have the Rangers won the Stanley Cup without Frank Boucher being directly involved. Aside from Patrick and Tex Rickard, Boucher is the most important figure in the club's history.

He also succeeded Patrick as general manager in 1947, and built a team that almost won another Cup in 1950, but lost Game 7 in overtime to the Red Wings. He died in 1977, at age 76. In spite of all his achievements, his number has not been retired for him. Number 7 is hung in the rafters at The Garden, but it's for Rod Gilbert. Boucher has been virtually forgotten.  He was last a Ranger starter 75 years ago, but you should still know his name.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Top 10 Greatest New York Islanders


Continuing my series of the top 10 players in each of the Tri-State Area teams' histories.

Tonight, the New Jersey Devils host the Vancouver Canucks, defending Western Conference Champions, who last night ended the Detroit Red Wings’ record 23-game home winning streak.

And the New York Rangers and New York Islanders face off at the Nassau Coliseum in perhaps the NHL’s nastiest rivalry, one that English soccer fans would call a “derby.”

From 1975 to 1988, the Islanders were a superb team. From the first round in 1980 until the 1984 Finals, they didn’t lose a Playoff series. They are the only team besides the Montreal Canadiens to win 4 straight Stanley Cups in the NHL era, and the only team besides the Canadiens to win at least 3 straight Cups since 1964. They won as many Cups in 4 years as the Rangers have won in 86 years – and 1 more than the Devils have won in 30 years.

But in 1988, the Devils beat the Isles in the Playoffs – the only time the 2 nearby rivals, whose fans nonetheless share an intense and justified hatred of the Rangers, have ever met in the postseason. Except for a run to the Conference Finals in 1993, the Isles haven’t done much since. The Isles haven’t made the Playoffs in 5 years, and haven’t won a postseason series in 19 years.

But they have had their moments.

Top 10 Greatest New York Islanders

Honorable Mention: John Tonelli, Number 27, left wing, 1978-86. One of the guys who turned a young team with a lot of promise into an all-time great team. His hat trick to bring the Isles back from 3-1 down to the Pittsburgh Penguins to win a deciding game kept their Cup run alive.

Honorable Mention: Pierre Turgeon, Number 77, Center, 1991-95. Injuries kept him from being one of the top players of his era, but what he did for the Islanders in that '93 Playoff run, including scoring the Game 7 overtime winner against the Washington Capitals (and then getting sucker-checked by Dale Hunter) will live for as long as there are hockey fans on Long Island.

Honorable Mention also to general manager Bill Torrey and head coach Al Arbour.

10. Brent Sutter, Number 21, Center, 1980-92. Not the best of the 6 Sutter brothers of Viking, Alberta to all play in the NHL (a 7th brother didn't quite make it), but a pretty good one, certainly better than his brother and Isle teammate Duane. He arrived during the championship years and fit in seamlessly as a plugger, scorer, tough guy. He had the daunting task of replacing Denis Potvin as Captain, and did so for four seasons before being traded to the Chicago Blackhawks.

9. Bob Bourne, Number 19, Center, 1974-86. Didn’t stand out in the regular season, but did when it counted. He had 74 points in the 74 playoff games during the four-year Stanley Cup run. Only Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy had more.

8. Bobby Nystrom, Number 23, right wing, 1972-86. A pretty good player, not really a great one, but he'll always be remembered for May 24, 1980, taking a Tonelli pass in overtime of Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals and sending the Nassau Coliseum into a frenzy.

7. Pat LaFontaine, Number 16, center, 1983-91. He starred for the Buffalo Sabres, who (unlike the Isles) retired his number, before concussions shortened his career, before a brief comeback attempt with the Rangers. Despite hanging up his skates at age 33, he scored 468 goals and 1,013 points, and his 1.17 points per game is the best of any American-born hockey player.

6. Clark Gillies, Number 9, left wing, 1974-86. Before the Isles could get good, they had to get tough, in an NHL dominated by Boston's Big Bad Bruins, Philly's Broad Street Bullies, and some tough guys on the Rangers. Gillies was the answer, but he was no mere goon: He could actually play, scoring 319 goals in his career. He was much more of a Claude Lemieux type than a Tie Domi.

5. Butch Goring, Number 91, center, 1980-85. Brought in for the 1980 stretch drive, his acquisition is the most important in club history. Taking 91, the reverse of the 19 he wore in Los Angeles, because Bryan Trottier had 19, he was the final piece of the puzzle, turning a team that couldn't win the big one into a team that won all of them.  Since so few players will ever wear such a number, the Isles should retire it.

4. Billy Smith, Number 31, goaltender, 1972-89. Sure, he was a punk. But until Martin Brodeur, there was never a better goalie in the history of Tri-State Area hockey than Battling Billy.  No, not Gump Worsley.  No, not Eddie Giacomin.  No, not Roy "Shrimp" Worters of the old New York Americans.  Smith was a great one, especially in the postseason.

3. Bryan Trottier, Number 19, center, 1975-90. There was something of a smugness to him. But he earned it. He actually won 6 Stanley Cups, getting 2 more at the end of his career, with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and he wasn't just along for the ride, either: He was still contributing. But it's his Uniondale contributions that will be remembered first. He may have been the best passer in the league in his time (at least, outside of Montreal).

2. Mike Bossy, Number 22, right wing, 1977-87. A back injury cut short one of the most spectacular careers any hockey player would ever have. He was just the 2nd player, after Maurice Richard, to score 50 goals in a season’s first 50 games.

1. Denis Potvin, Number 5, defenseman, 1973-88. He was a star in junior hockey with the Ottawa 67s, and was taken by the 2nd-year expansion Islanders as the first pick in the 1973 Draft. He was supposed to be the Isles’ Bobby Orr. He was more than that: He was enough of a star and enough of a leader so that, to extend the Bruin analogy, he was both their Orr and their Phil Esposito.

He remains the only man to Captain a New York Tri-State Area team to 4 Stanley Cup wins. In 1979, he became the 2nd NHL defenseman, after Orr, to score 30 goals and 100 points in a single season. At the time of his retirement, he was the NHL’s leader in career goals and points by a defenseman.

And, for the record, even Ulf Nilsson, the Ranger he injured in an infamous 1979 regular-season collision, has said it was a clean hit. Therefore, when Ranger fans shout, “POTVIN SUCKS!” they are being idiots. Since retirement, he has been a broadcaster, first for the Florida Panthers, now for the Ottawa Senators. For a time, his brother Jean Potvin was his Islander teammate.

Torrey, Arbour, Potvin, Bossy, Trottier, Smith, Gillies and LaFontaine are in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Potvin, Bossy, Trottier, Smith, Nystrom and Gillies have had their numbers retired; Torrey is represented in the rafters of the Nassau Coliseum by a banner with a bowtie, which he always wore; and Arbour is represented by a banner with the number of games he coached, 1500.

If the Islanders do move sometime in the next few years, because they can't get a deal to replace, or to at least adequately renovate, the Nassau Coliseum, it would be a shame. But they'll always have those moments in the late Seventies and through most of the Eighties, especially in the early Eighties when they were one of the very best teams the game of hockey has ever seen.

UPDATE: Later in 2012, it was announced that they will move to the Barclays Center in downtown Brooklyn for the 2015-16 season, after their lease in Uniondale runs out.  Not culturally, or politically, but geologically, Brooklyn -- and Queens, too -- are part of Long Island.  So the name still works.  And, unlike with the Coliseum, you can take the Long Island Rail Road directly to the Barclays Center, as it's across the street from the Flatbush Avenue Terminal.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Baseball Is Better Now Than It's Ever Been

Spring training is underway. Pitchers and catchers, and fitness obsessives, have reported to their camps in Florida and Arizona.

This is a far cry from the old days, when the purpose of spring training was to get players in shape. Because, in the reserve clause era, up until 1975, lots of players needed off-season jobs to make ends meet. Since then, they’ve had the time to work out instead of work at a “real job.” So, for the most part, they’re already in shape when spring training starts; so they’re in even better shape when Opening Day rolls around.

This is one reason why baseball is better now than it has ever been. Another reason is that it’s more competitive. The late anthropologist and baseball fan Stephen Jay Gould once decided to figure out why there are no more .400 hitters. He decided that it was because pitchers had gotten better, and hitters had, too. The best players of the 1980s, when he wrote an essay on the subject, were no better than the best players of the 1920s, when there were still .400 hitters; but the average player was better. For this reason, there were, on the average, better pitchers, so they could stop the better hitters from batting .400; but there were also better hitters, so there were fewer hitters batting under .200.

This would not seem to be the case with pitchers: There are fewer pitchers with ERAs under 3.00 and many more with ERAs over 4.00, and even a 5.00 isn’t seen as a disqualifier. But that’s because the hitters have progressed farther than the pitchers. Which merely makes the best pitchers even more of a valued quality. What Connie Mack said around 100 years ago, that pitching is 75 percent of baseball, still holds true. We’ve also heard that good pitching beats good hitting, thus the best pitchers are probably more important now than they’ve ever been.

The talent pool is also wider than it’s ever been. Up until 1900, most Major League Baseball players were from the Northeast and the Midwest, where the teams were. Within 10 years, Southerners such as Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker and Shoeless Joe Jackson had come to the forefront. By 1930, players from the West Coast were becoming stars. Still, up until 1947, you had to be a white male to play in the majors; any Hispanic players who made it were unquestionably white, such as the Cuban pitcher Adolfo Luque and the Puerto Rican outfielder Luis Olmo. Branch Rickey brought in Jackie Robinson, and the color barrier was broken. In the 1950s, black Hispanics came in. By the mid-1990s, Asians arrived. Now, we even have South Americans and Australians.

Face it, when people like Chris "Mad Dog" Russo say baseball has to contract, they're idiots. There's enough players available that MLB can expand from 30 to 32 teams. There are, in the baseball-playing countries of this world, 800 men capable of playing the game at the major league level. Who knows, one day, there may even be women in the game.

The players are better. The ballparks are better. With instant replay (if only for home runs), even the umpires are getting better. Baseball is better now than ever.

Except for the ticket prices.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Top 10 Sports Illustrated Cover Jinxes



Jeremy Lin is on the cover of Sports Illustrated for the 2nd week in a row.

Uh-oh. If you’re a Knick fan, this is trouble. It’s “The Dreaded SI Cover Jinx!” (Yes, it must always been written like that, as a mark of respect, much like “The Curse of the Bambino” – which, since we now know the Red Sox cheated, has been revealed to still be in effect.) In the immortal words of Harrison Ford, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this!”

Who was on the cover of SI right before the recent Super Bowl? Tom Brady, not Eli Manning or any other Giant. Who won? You know damn well who won.



And, as a Yankee Fan, I can never forget this one. In 1987, after the Mets won the World Series the year before, Darryl Strawberry looks like nothing is going right for himself or the Mets, while Don Mattingly looks determined to get the Yankees back to the World Series.



Instead, right after this, Willie Randolph got hurt, Dave Winfield went into a slump, and it was the Mets who got closer to the Playoffs than the Yankees. (No wild card in those days.)

Granted, the Jinx is not a gurantee of failure or tragedy. Michael Jordan has been on the cover the most times, 57. This breaks the record once held by Muhammad Ali, with 38. Next is Tiger Woods, with 24. And which team has the most covers? Far and away, the Yankees, with 71. The next-best team is the Los Angeles Lakers, with 67. The football leader is the Dallas Cowboys, with 48.

On the other hand, Jordan’s father was murdered, his marriage has broken up, and he’s been a failure as a team owner thus far. Ali has battled Parkinson’s disease. Woods has screwed up both his personal and his professional life. And the Yankees, Lakers and Cowboys, as franchises, have all had serious difficulties.

This is what Arsenio Hall – and as a native of the Cleveland suburbs, he would know about sports jinxes – would call, “One of those things that makes you go, ‘Hmmmm…. ’”

Top 10 Sports Illustrated Cover Jinxes

10. July 30, 1984: THE MAN OF STEEL. Jack Lambert, the gap-toothed Hall of Fame linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, was mean. How mean? His former teammate, the memorably-nicknamed Mean Joe Greene, said of Lambert, "He's so mean, he don't even like himself."



Early in the season, Lambert's career would end with an injury. One hardly befitting his legendarily tough status: "Turf toe." He deserved better.

9. September 26, 2005: PHILADELPHIA STORY: Brotherly Love? The Soap-Opera Eagles Come Together and Win Big.



That was in the 2004 season, when the Eagles, with the pass combination of Donovan McNabb to Terrell Owens, won the NFC Championship Game, after losing the last 3. But the 2005 Eagle season was one of the biggest disasters in NFL history, making the 2011 Eagle season look tame by comparison. In the end, T.O. had to go, and D-Mac has never won a Super Bowl.

8. June 20, 1988: DON'T COUNT ME OUT. That was boxer Michael Spinks' message as he prepared to unify the heavyweight title against Mike Tyson. The fight lasted 91 seconds, as Tyson knocked Spinks out. Spinks never fought again.



7. January 16, 1984: BRING ON THE RAIDERS! The words seem to be coming right out of the much-exercised mouth of Joe Theismann, the quarterback of the defending Super Bowl Champion Washington Redskins. The 'Skins got slammed by the Raiders, 38-9.



Later in the year, on September 3, Theismann was on the cover again, with tape over his mouth. Sure enough, he got himself and the 'Skins jinxed again, as they lost to the Miami Dolphins, and that loss got put on the cover.



6. April 6, 1987: INDIAN UPRISING: Believe it! Cleveland is the best team in the American League! The Tribe had put up their best season in 20 years the season before, and Joe Carter and Cory Snyder were put on the cover.



The Indians ended up losing 101 games, leading to, among other things, manager Pat Corrales getting fired. Corrales was quoted as saying, "Sports Illustrated isn't getting my hitters out. Sports Illustrated isn't hitting my pitchers." You'd think, having been a member of the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies, Corrales had already seen enough baseball misery. (He's now a coach with the Washington Nationals, so maybe he hasn't!)

5. November 18, 1957: WHY OKLAHOMA IS UNBEATABLE. The University of Oklahoma football team had a 47-game winning streak, still a record in major college football. They'd won the last 2 National Championships. They hadn't lost a game in 4 years.



They lost their very next one, to Notre Dame. In spite of 2 previous accidents (one paralyzing, one fatal), this cover, combining the word "unbeatable" with a surprising upset (Notre Dame, which had also given the Sooners their last loss and gone on to win the 1953 National Championship, was not nearly as good in '57), put the idea of the Jinx in SI readers' minds.

4. January 31, 1955: No headline. Skier Jill Kinmont is on the cover, the first woman so featured. Shortly thereafter, she was paralyzed and nearly killed in a ski crash. She was only 19. She was portrayed by Marilyn Hassett in the film The Other Side of the Mountain, and died earlier this month, just short of her 76th birthday.



3. May 26, 1958: INDIANPOLIS: PREVIEW OF THE '500.' The cover shows young driver Pat O'Connor. Four days after the date of the issue, the race is held, and he is killed on the very first lap.



2. May 28, 1956: BOB SWEIKERT: KING OF THE BRICKYARD. Sweikert had just won the Indy 500. Less than a month later, he was killed in another race.



1. February 13, 1961: LAURENCE OWEN, America's Most Exciting Girl Skater. Despite the name, she was female, and only 16 years old. She was expected to follow in the footsteps of U.S. skating legends Tenley Albright and Carol Heiss. Just 2 days after the date on the cover, a Boeing 707 carrying the entire U.S. figure skating team crashed just before its destination of Brussels, Belgium. There were 73 deaths, including all the skaters and all their coaches.



*

One thing I should mention: For the most part, the Swimsuit Edition cover models seem to be immune from The Dreaded SI Cover Jinx. Granted, not all of them have avoided pain and tragedy. But most became as famous as they wanted to become, and all of them, as of Kate Upton's 2012 appearance, are still alive.