Tuesday, March 27, 2012

How to Be a Yankee Fan In Tampa Bay - 2012 Edition



Remember when I did those travel guides for fans making road trips to watch the Yankees?

Well, don't look now, but... The 2012 Major League Baseball season is only 10 days away! For the Yankees, at least: They open on Friday afternoon, April 6, against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida.

This season, I am NOT going to wait until just before the series start to post these, so that, if you decide to go, you'll have these ready beforehand. You might even save money on airfare. In fact, I'm going to do as many of them as I can as early as I can.

So I begin with the opening series.

Disclaimer: While I have been to Tampa and St. Petersburg, having relatives in the area, this was a long time ago, before Major League Baseball put an expansion team in the area, and even before the Florida Suncoast Dome, later the ThunderDome and now Tropicana Field, was built.

So this is not based on firsthand knowledge. But, in case you want to go, I want to help.


Before You Go. While the games will be indoors, you'll still have to get around, so you should know about the weather.

Florida usually has rainy springs, and you can expect daytime temperatures to be in the mid-70s to the mid-80s, and evening temperatures to be in the 50s or 60s. So bring an umbrella.

As the series gets closer, you can check the weather online at the websites of the Tampa Tribune (http://www2.tbo.com/) and the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times, http://www.tampabay.com/).

Getting There. It is 1,136 road miles from Times Square in Manhattan to downtown Tampa, and 1,167 miles from Yankee Stadium in The Bronx to Tropicana Field in St. Pete. Sounds like you’re gonna be flying. But it's expensive: $664 each way -- $1,318 round-trip.

And you won't be taking the train, either: This will be Easter weekend, and Amtrak's trains to Florida are already sold out. And the Yanks' next trip to Tampa Bay will be another holiday bloc: July 2, 3 & 4. A Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

Tampa’s Amtrak station is at 601 N. Nebraska Avenue, and you’ll need a bus to get across the bay to St. Petersburg. Amtrak’s Silver Star train leaves Penn Station at 11:02 every morning, and arrives in Tampa at 12:34 the following afternoon. That’s right, 25½ hours. Which means, if you’re seeing all 3 games of the 4th of July week series, you’d have to leave on Sunday morning to arrive shortly after noon on Monday, and leave at 5:17 on Thursday afternoon to make it back to Penn Station at 7:18 on Friday night. Round-trip, $296.

You can get a Greyhound bus out of Port Authority at 11:00 Thursday morning and be in St. Petersburg by 5:15 Monday afternoon, giving you time to get to the game (and maybe even a hotel in-between). You'd leave St. Pete at 6:20 PM on Sunday. That includes changing buses in Richmond and Tampa. Round-trip, $331.

Greyhound's St. Petersburg station at 180 9th Street North, a 5-block walk from the Tropicana Field. The Tampa Greyhound station is at 610 E. Polk Street, 4 blocks from the Amtrak station. To get from either to the Trop without a car, you'll have to take the 100X bus to Gateway Mall, then transfer to the 74 bus. It will take an hour and a half.

If you do prefer to drive, see if you can get someone to split the duties with you. Tropicana Field has an official address of 1 Tropicana Drive. It is bounded by 1st Avenue South on the north (Central Avenue, St. Pete’s north-side divider, is 1 block north), 16th Street South on the west, Stadium Drive on the south, a service road and a creek to the east.

Essentially, you’ll be taking Interstate 95 almost all the way down, turning onto Interstate 10 West at Jacksonville and then, after a few minutes, onto Interstate 75 South. Taking that into Tampa, you’ll soon go onto Interstate 275, and cross the Howard Frankland Bridge – known locally as “Frankenstein” and “the Car-Strangled Spanner” – over Tampa Bay and into St. Pete. Take Exit 23B onto 20th Street North, and it’s just a matter of blocks until reaching The Trop at 16th Street South and 1st Avenue South.

It should take about 2 hours to get through New Jersey, 20 minutes in Delaware, an hour and a half in Maryland, 3 hours in Virginia, 3 hours in North Carolina, 3 hours in South Carolina, 2 hours in Georgia, and a little over 5 hours between crossing into Florida and reaching downtown Tampa. Given proper 45-minute rest stops – I recommend doing one in Delaware, and then, once you’re through the Washington, D.C. area, doing one when you enter each new State, and then another around Orlando, for a total of 7 – and taking into account city traffic at each end, your entire trip should take about 26 hours. Maybe you can do it in 24 if you speed and limit your rest stops to half an hour each, especially if one of you drives while the other sleeps, but I wouldn’t recommend this.

Tickets. Despite being one of only 3 teams to have been in the postseason in 3 of the last 4 seasons (2008 and '10 AL East Champions, '11 Wild Card -- the Yanks and the Phils are the other 2), the Rays averaged just 18,878 fans per home game last season, 29th out of 30, ahead of only the Oakland Athletics. The previous season, which was not only a worse year in the national and regional economy than this one, but also proved their '08 Division Title was no fluke, they averaged just 22,758. This is disgraceful support of a winning team.

So, even with all the ex-New Yorkers and ex-New Jerseyans in the Tampa Bay area, you can probably show up at the Trop on the day of the game and get a decent ticket.

Yanks at Rays is classified as a "Diamond Game," although the club has kept its prices from last season. Lower Boxes (infield) are $70, Baseline Boxes (corners) are $39, Outfield seats are $27, Press Level are $50, Upper Boxes are $23, and Upper Reserved, including the left field Party Deck (a.k.a. The Beach) are $19.

Going In. Although the locals -- the ones who are not transplanted New Yorkers or New Jerseyans, anyway -- really, really hate the Yankees and Yankee Fans for repeatedly "taking over their ballpark" (as if it were much of a prize), they will not fight you. Aside from the occasional brawl between football players in the "hate triangle" between the University of Florida, Florida State University and the University of Miami, there is rarely violence at sporting events in Florida.

Gate 1, the Rotunda, is at the northeast corner of the stadium, dead center field. Gate 2 is at 1st base, Gates 3, 4 & 5 behind home plate, and Gate 6 at 3rd base. Gates 1 & 4 are Will Call pickup areas. However, unless you're a season ticket holder (and, being a Yankee Fan, you're not), the only gate by which you can enter is Gate 4.

Current seating capacity is 42,735, but that doesn't give the Trop an "intimate setting." Like the hardly-mourned Kingdome in Seattle, the high, gray roof gives the stadium the look of a bad mall. Those "catwalks" around the rim don't help. And that awful field -- one of the few ever, and the only one now, to have a dirt infield with the rest of the field being artificial turf, instead of just dirt cutouts around the bases -- may make you nostalgic for Giants Stadium's awful experiments with real grass. But the seating design itself may look familiar to you, in shape if not in color: It was copied from Kauffman Stadium (formerly Royals Stadium) in Kansas City. Don't look for fountains in the outfield, though: That would be too classy for this joint.

The Trop may turn out to be the last ballpark built with the bullpens in foul territory, which was really a bad idea. It is also, with the Minnesota Twins having finally gotten out of the damn Metrodome, currently the only non-retractable domed stadium in Major League Baseball, with Houston, Milwaukee, Phoenix, Seattle, Toronto, and the new Marlins ballpark about to open in Miami having retractable roofs. (Of those, only Toronto still has artificial turf. Cold in Canada? I guess they never heard of Green Bay: Lambeau Field has real grass.)

Yes, that is a pool in center field, which is reminiscent of the one in right field in Phoenix. No, it is not for people. They have a live cownose ray in there. No, I'm not kidding. It's called the Rays Touch Tank, and while they do let people touch the ray (very carefully), it is not the kind that killed "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin, so you can relax. If you're into that sort of thing. I am not.

Food. Whatever I say about this ballpark being bad, I cannot fault it for its food, which reflects the Tampa Bay region's Spanish and Hispanic heritage. Cuban sandwiches, featuring freshly sliced ham, pork, and Genoa salami on toasted Cuban bread with Swiss cheese, pickes and mustard, are sold throughout the stadium.

Stands for Everglades BBQ serve barbecue-themed items. The right field concession area has a Checkers burger stand. Both the First Base and Third Base Food Courts have stands for Papa John's Pizza.

The First Base court has the Del Ray Cantina, a full-service bar specializing in tropical drinks, and the Third Base court has the similar Oasis Bar and the Outback Steakhouse Food Court -- in recognition of Outback's Tampa headquarters and the NFL Buccaneers' hosting of the Outback Bowl, which was known as the Hall of Fame Bowl when it was held at the Bucs' old stadium. The thought of having an Outback Steak appeals to me -- especially since I watched the first 5 innings of the 2009 World Series clincher at the Outback at 56th & 3rd on the East Side -- and the idea of having a Bloomin' Onion at a ballgame, while hardly healthy, also has, pardon the pun, appeal.

Oddly, considering the stadium's name, there is no juice bar.

Team History Displays. Stop laughing. The Rays do now have some history. The area could have had more, but near-miss moves by the Chicago White Sox for the 1989 season, and the San Francisco Giants for the 1993 season, and seriously considered moves by the Minnesota Twins in the 1980s, and the Houston Astros and the Seattle Mariners in the 1990s, all fell through.

(Can you imagine the Yanks and Tampa Bay Mariners -- the region's nautical heritage means they wouldn't have had to change the name of the team -- being AL East opponents? All the Jeter and A-Rod comparisons? Plus all those times having to face Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, Randy Johnson and Ichiro Suzuki?)

The Rays' Division Title banners are to the left of the center field scoreboard and "K Counter" on a small wall. So is the Number 12 they retired for Tampa native Wade Boggs, who played the last 2 years of his career (1998-99) with the Rays and got his 3,000th career hit at the Trop -- in spite of not really being a slugger, he was the first member of the 3,000 Hit Club to join it with a home run. (I seem to recall there's since been another... ) Jackie Robinson's universally-retired Number 42 is also there.

But the stadium's big feature, history-wise, is the Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame. It was moved to the Trop after its original facility in Hernando, Florida (the town where Ted lived the last few years of his life), went bankrupt. It houses a statue of Ted, exhibits on his careers both with the Boston Red Sox and the United States Marine Corps (serving in both World War II and the Korean War), and the monuments to the members of the Hitters Hall of Fame, complete with memorabilia. Ted did not induct himself into his own Hitters Hall of Fame, and was inducted in 2003, the year after he died. The museum is open during game days, opening at the same time as the park and closing after the seventh inning with the concession stands. Admission is free, and the museum is open to all ticketholders.

Stuff. The main Team Store is located in Center Field Street near Gate 1, and is open during Rays home games and special public events. Additional merchandise locations and novelty kiosks are open throughout the stadium during all home games.

As you might guess, having been to one World Series (and lost it) thus far, the Rays don't have team history videos on sale. But there have been a few books written about the Rays, and they may be available at the Trop. Most notable, probably, is The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First, by Jonah Keri.

During the Game. You may notice these things at a Rays home game:

"The Happy Heckler" is a fan by the name of Robert Szasz, a Clearwater real estate developer. He has season tickets near home plate, and is known for his rather boisterous heckling. He is so loud that he is clearly audible on both TV and radio broadcasts. Of course, that's possible because the Rays get small crowds, so individual fans can be heard, much as Cleveland phone-company worker John Adams could be heard on his drum all the way out in the bleacher of Cleveland Municipal Stadium when he was surrounded by 65,000 empty seats, less so now that the Indians are in Jacobs Field and drawing much better. Szasz is considered an "ethical" heckler, heckling opposing players only based on their play, and never throwing personal insults. Despite this, he has drawn the ire of some opposing players.

Just as the Yankees have Bleacher Creature Milton Ousland and his cowbell, and the Mets have Eddie Boison, with "COW-BELL MAN" and the Number 15 on his Met jersey, the Rays have cowbells as well. It was originally a promotional idea thought up by principal owner Stuart Sternberg, who got the idea from the Saturday Night Live "More Cowbell" sketch. Since then, it has become a standard feature of home games. Like the Happy Heckler, this is an annoyance.

The most famous proponent of the cowbell is Cary Strukel, who is known as "The Cowbell Kid." Strukel can be seen at most home games sitting in right field and wearing some kind of costume, typically topped with a neon colored wig or Viking horns. The cowbells are rung most prominently when the opposing batter has two strikes, when the opposing fans try to chant, and when the Rays make a good play.

The Rays do not have a regular song to sing after "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the 7th inning stretch, and don't have a regular postgame victory song. They do, however, have a mascot, Raymond (at least the name makes sense). Not a ray -- manta, sting- or otherwise -- he is a furry blue creature wearing a large pair of sneakers and a backwards baseball cap, completed with a Rays jersey. He is described officially as a "seadog," and bears a physical, though not in color, resemblance to Slider, the mascot of the Cleveland Indians.

After the Game. Downtown St. Petersburg is not an especially high-crime area, and, as I said, Rays fans do not get violent. You might get a little bit of verbal if you're wearing Yankee gear, but it won't get any worse than that.

There aren't a lot of interesting places to relax with a postgame snack and drinks near the Trop, although Ferg's Sports Bar & Grill, at Central Avenue and 13th Street, a 10-minute walk from the dome, is described by one source as "a popular haunt right after a game, for the Rays fans and Rival fans alike."

As for local bars that are considered New Yorker-friendly, "Legends Sports Bar, Billiard, Hookah and Grill" is the home of the New York Giants Fan Club of Tampa Bay. But it's at 1339 E. Fletcher Avenue, on the north side of Tampa, 31 miles from the Trop. The home of the New York Jets Fan Club of Tampa Bay, Peabody's Bar & Grill, is similarly far away, at 15333 Amberly Drive on the north side of Tampa, 35 miles.

Sidelights. The Yankees' spring training home, George M. Steinbrenner Field (formerly Legends Field), is at Dale Mabry Highway and Tampa Bay Blvd., across from the home of the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Raymond James Stadium. (Raymond James is a financial holding company, not a person native to Tampa who deserved the naming rights.) A copy of the statue of George that's in the lobby of Gate 4 of the new Yankee Stadium is outside GMS Field (a.k.a. "The Boss").

North of Raymond James was Al Lopez Field. (Lopez, a Hall of Fame catcher and manager, was a person native to Tampa who deserved the naming rights.) There's now a park (not a ballpark) there named for Lopez, with a statue of him.  North of that was the Buccaneers' first home, Tampa Stadium, known as The Big Sombrero because of its weird shape. The Giants won Super Bowl XXV there. The entire group of current and former stadium sites is north of downtown Tampa, near the airport. Take the 30 bus from downtown to the 36 bus to the complex.

One of the legendary homes of spring training baseball, Al Lang Field (now Progress Energy Park), named for the Mayor who promoted St. Pete as a spring training site, is at 1st Street SE & 2nd Avenue S., 2 miles east of the Trop, in downtown St. Pete on the shore of Tampa Bay. Spring home of the Yankees from 1947 to 1961, the Mets from 1962 to 1987, and the St. Louis Cardinals from 1947 to 1997, it is no longer used as a major league spring training or Florida State League regular season facility. In fact, the new Rays ballpark was supposed to be built on the site, but they haven't been able to get the funding, so Al Lang Field remains standing. It is the home of the new version the Tampa Bay Rowdies, in the new version of the North American Soccer League, the second division of North American soccer. Bus 100X to Bus 4.

The Tampa Bay Times Forum, formerly the Ice Palace, home of the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning (currently in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Bruins), is at 401 Channelside Drive in downtown Tampa, near the Convention Center, the Tampa Museum of Art, the Tampa Bay History Center, and a mall called Channelside Bay Plaza. They're a 15-minute walk from the Greyhound station, or 5 minutes on the Number 8 bus.

This should provide you with a couple of non-sports things to do in the Tampa Bay region. And, if you want to go there, Walt Disney World is 70 miles up Interstate 4, an hour and 15 minutes by car from downtown Tampa.

Oh, and, get this: As New York is known as the Big Apple, Tampa likes to call itself the Big Guava. In the words of the immortal Jack Paar, I kid you not.

*

So, if you can afford it, go on down and join your fellow Yankee Fans in taking over the Rays' stadium. Let's just hope the Yankees' bats and arms are as good as their fans. We need to make a statement against these guys. Tell them, as Cameron Frye (Alan Ruck) said in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, "You'd better mind your P's and Q's, buster, and remember who you're dealing with!"

Monday, March 26, 2012

Bert Sugar, 1937-2012



Bert Randolph Sugar died yesterday at the age of 74. That stinks, worse than any cigar he ever smoked.

Bert was born in Washington, D.C., and attended the nearby University of Maryland. He earned an MBA and a Juris Doctor from the University of Michigan. Those of you who knew about him before, really, can you imagine Bert as a businessman? Or a lawyer? Or... an advertising executive?

Yes, he was an advertising executive. He worked in the industry until 1969, when he heard the Boxing Illustrated magazine was up for sale. This gave him a chance to connect with "the sweet science," his first love. This led to him becoming, if not the last of the old-time wiseguy sportswriters, then a very good approximation of what they were.

He edited Boxing Illustrated, The Ring (a.k.a. the Bible of Boxing), and Boxing Illustrated again.

He wrote over 80 books, mostly but not limited to boxing and its history. Probably the best known is an anthology of his writing, Bert Sugar On Boxing. He was the ghostwriter for the autobiography of 1960s light heavyweight champion Jose Torres. He was called "The Greatest Boxing Writer of the 20th Century" by the International Veterans Boxing Association. He also co-wrote a biography of Harry Houdini with magician James "The Amazing" Randi.

In 1995, Bert published The 100 Greatest Athletes of All Time. His choice for Number 1 was Jim Brown, because he believed Brown to be the greatest performer ever in the history of two different sports: American-style football and lacrosse. While the choice of Brown as the greatest football player ever was backed up by The Sporting News in its 100 Greatest Football Players poll in 1999, I'm not sure how he came by the idea of who the greatest lacrosse player ever was. Maybe he found film of Brown playing the sport at Syracuse University, and looked up lacrosse experts to see who else was great in that sport.

Bert also appeared as himself in several boxing-related films, including Night and the City, The Great White Hype, and the last Rocky film, Rocky Balboa.

Whenever a documentarian needed a boxing expert, Bert was the go-to guy, with his knowledge of the sport's past and present matched only by his personality, aided by his ever-present hat and cigar. Ken Burns interviewed him for Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. Bert also discussed Johnson and several other fighters as a panelist on ESPN Classic's 1996 feature Fights of the Century.

That special first aired right before the first fight between Mike Tyson -- still considered invincible despite his 1990 loss to James "Buster" Douglas -- and Evander Holyfield. A year earlier, when Holyfield lost to Riddick Bowe for the 2nd time in their 3 fights, Bert went on WCBS-Channel 2's Sunday late-night sports wrapup show, and said that, though he was just 33 at the time, in boxing terms, "Holyfield is a very, very old man."

A year later, not only had Bert changed his tune, but he was perhaps the only boxing expert to believe that Holyfield had a chance against Tyson. He went on the same show afterward, and was asked, "Were you shocked by Holyfield winning?" He said, "Shocked, no. Surprised, yes... I knew Holyfield had the fight won at the end of the first round." He suggested that Holyfield would have studied the Tyson-Douglas fight and realized that the reason Douglas won was because he wasn't afraid of Tyson, thus taking away Tyson's greatest weapon: Fear. This, of course, would be backed up by Holyfield-Tyson II and Lennox Lewis' destruction of Tyson, which Bert seemed to predict: "Buster Douglas was a blip on the radar screen. This is the end of the Tyson legend. 'The Baddest Man On the Planet' ain't, no mo'!"

But all great boxing champions -- Rocky Marciano and the more recent Joe Calzaghe, so far, being exceptions -- must eventually hit the canvas, fighting an opponent they cannot beat. For most boxers, it's not so much a man as Father Time. For Bert, it was an opponent he thought was such a close friend: Cigars. He had battled lung cancer for a few years, and died yesterday. He had lived in Chappaqua, Westchester County, New York. He had been married for 62 years, and had a son, a daughter, and 4 grandchildren.

But he was a winner. And as a storyteller, he is still, the undefeated, the undisputed, heavyweight champion of the world.

Mel Parnell, 1922-2012



Mel Parnell died last week. He was one of the best pitchers of his time. Unfortunately, that time was the beginning of the TV era really began, and he arrived in the majors just after his team won its last Pennant for a generation, so we haven't seen endless replays of his performances.

Melvin Lloyd Parnell was born in New Orleans on June 13, 1922. His quick rise through the minors was interrupted by serving in World War II, but in 1946 he went 13-4 with a 1.30 ERA for the Scranton Red Sox. The Boston Red Sox ran away with the American League Pennant, winning a club-record 104 games, so there really wasn't a place for him on the big-league roster. But the next season, the Louisiana lefty couldn't be ignored, and was called up. The Sox finished a distant 3rd, but Parnell showed he could make it.

(The Scranton Red Sox and their neighbors, the Wilkes-Barre Barons, would later have their names combined when the Phillies put a farm team in a stadium in between the two cities: The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons. That team is now the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees, the Yanks' top farm club.)

In 1949, as the Red Sox battled the Yankees for the Pennant, Parnell went 25-7, leading the AL in wins, complete games, innings pitched, and fewest home runs per 9 innings. Teammate Ellis Kinder went 23-6, while Vic Raschi of the Yankees went 21-10. But, had there been a Cy Young Award at that time, Parnell probably would have won it. Still, the season ended badly for the Sox, as it came down to the last 2 games at the original Yankee Stadium, where winning either game would have gotten the Sox the Pennant: Parnell didn't have his good stuff in the Saturday game, and Kinder may have been pulled too soon in the Sunday game, and the Yankees won both games.

Throughout his career, Parnell wore Number 17, and played only for the Red Sox. He started for the AL in the 1949 and '51 All-Star Games. He went 21-8 in 1953 despite a seriously weakened Red Sox team -- Kinder, Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky and Vern Stephens were all gone and Ted Williams missed most of the season serving in the Korean War. But a torn muscle early in the 1954 season ruined him, and before he turned 32 he was more or less done. He pitched a no-hitter in 1956, but that would be his last season, retiring at 34.

Parnell returned to his hometown and managed the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern Association, then managed in the Red Sox' system, before becoming a broadcaster for them.

On October 1, 1967, the last day of one of the most amazing Pennant races in baseball history, the Sox needed a win over the Minnesota Twins (or else the Twins would have been in the same position) and a loss in either half of a doubleheader by the Detroit Tigers (or else the Tigers would have played the Red Sox-Twins winner in a one-game Playoff) to win the Pennant. As Jim Lonborg got Rich Rollins to pop up to shortstop Rico Petrocelli for the last out -- with the Tigers not yet having started their nightcap, therefore no one in Fenway Park yet knew for sure whether the Sox would actually clinch the Pennant that day -- Parnell had the call on Boston's Channel 5, then WHDH, a CBS affiliate (now WCVB, on ABC):

Little soft pop-up...Petrocelli will take it...he does! The ball game is over! The Red Sox win it! And what a mob on this field! They're coming out of the stands from all over!

In 1981, Terry Cashman mentioned Parnell is his musical look at the game in the 1950s, "Talkin' Baseball" -- better known by its chorus of "Willie, Mickey and the Duke." Of the 1950s stars mentioned in the song, only Yogi Berra, Stan Musial (just "The Man") in the song, Don Newcombe ("the Newk"), Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson (the "one Robbie... coming in") and Ralph Kiner are still alive.

In 1997, Parnell was elected to the Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame. He had been battling cancer for years, before dying last Tuesday at age 89.

Should he be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame? No. His career record was 123-75, for a winning percentage of .621. His ERA was 3.50 and his ERA+ was 125. His WHIP was a bit high, 1.411. Baseball-Reference.com has him at 44 on its HOF Monitor, where a "Likely HOFer" should be at around 100; their HOF Standards have him at 18, when the "Average HOFer" is at 50. That injury in 1954 may have ruined his chance at Cooperstown.

But he is still the winningest lefthander in the 111-year history of the Red Sox franchise. It's a bit of a disappointment for fans of that team that he was never a player on a Pennant winner -- but he'll forever be connected to the 1967 Pennant, the most revered moment in the team's history until 2004.

Friday, March 23, 2012

MLB Teams Ranked by Facebook Likes

No surprise about Number 1. Or Number 2. Or Numbers 3, 5, 7 and 8. Number 4 was a slight surprise, but then San Francisco is a big market, and they did win the World Series just a year and a half ago. Number 6 wouldn't be that high if they hadn't won 2 straight Pennants and come within 2 outs of winning last year's World Series. (Twice. Cough-choke-cough.)

I'm a little surprised at how high the Tigers and White Sox are, and how low the Dodgers and Mets are. But the weaker teams? I thought the Orioles and (due to being the only team left in Canada) the Jays would be higher.

This means the only teams with more than the Yankees are NBA teams: The Lakers, the Celtics and the Bulls.

1 New York Yankees 5303 (Overall, AL & AL East Leader)
2 Boston Red Sox 3471 (AL Wild Card)
3 Chicago Cubs 1566 (NL & NL Central Leader)
4 San Francisco Giants 1353 (NL West Leader)
5 St. Louis Cardinals 1215 (NL Wild Card)
6 Texas Rangers 1203 (AL West Leader)
7 Philadelphia Phillies 1167 (NL East Leader)
8 Atlanta Braves 1079
9 Detroit Tigers 946 (AL Central Leader)
10 Los Angeles Dodgers 941
11 Chicago White Sox 846
12 Minnesota Twins 737
13 Milwaukee Brewers 560
14 New York Mets 542
15 Cincinnati Reds 516
16 Cleveland Indians 500
17 Seattle Mariners 471
18 Colorado Rockies 442
19 Los Angeles Angels 437
20 Tampa Bay Rays 402
21 Houston Astros 401
22 Toronto Blue Jays 397
23 San Diego Padres 363
24 Baltimore Orioles 342
25 Pittsburgh Pirates 310
26 Oakland Athletics 302
27 Kansas City Royals 278
28 Miami Marlins 237
29 Arizona Diamondbacks 233
30 Washington Nationals 136

NFL Teams Ranked by Facebook Likes

Not a lot of surprise here, including the fact that the NFL's teams generally -- the Lakers being an exception -- have a lot more fans on the average than the NBA's and the NHL's. Although I thought both "New York City teams", the one remaining New York State team, the Bills, the Redskins and the 49ers would be higher.

1 Dallas Cowboys 4541 (Overall, NFC & NFC East Leader)
2 Pittsburgh Steelers 4223 (AFC & AFC North Leader)
3 New England Patriots 3399 (AFC East Leader)
4 Green Bay Packers 2842 (NFC North Leader)
5 New Orleans Saints 2567 (NFC South Leader)
6 Chicago Bears 2315
7 New York Giants 2113
8 Philadelphia Eagles 1677
9 Indianapolis Colts 1592 (AFC South Leader)
10 Oakland Raiders 1504 (AFC West Leader)
11 Minnesota Vikings 1300
12 New York Jets 1297
13 San Francisco 49ers 1227 (NFC West Leader)
14 Denver Broncos 1184
15 Miami Dolphins 1114
16 San Diego Chargers 1076
17 Baltimore Ravens 998
18 Washington Redskins 889
19 Atlanta Falcons 734
20 Detroit Lions 711
21 Seattle Seahawks 671
22 Kansas City Chiefs 594
23 Cincinnati Bengals 570
24 Houston Texans 569
25 Cleveland Browns 544
26 Tennessee Titans 462
27 Arizona Cardinals 445
28 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 434
29 Carolina Panthers 433
30 Buffalo Bills 369
31 St. Louis Rams 296
32 Jacksonville Jaguars 253

NBA Teams Ranked by Facebook Likes

Not at all surprised by the top 6... and even less surprised by the one at 30. Maybe this fall, when they're officially the Brooklyn Nets, they'll gain, and Charlotte -- like Indiana in a great region for high school and college basketball but not pro -- will be last.

Remember: Multiply the number by 1,000. In other words, the Lakers don't have 12,000, they have 12 million.

1 Los Angeles Lakers 12587 (Overall, Western Conference & Pacific Division Leader)
2 Boston Celtics 6306 (Eastern Conference & Atlantic Division Leader)
3 Chicago Bulls 5673 (Central Division Leader)
4 Miami Heat 5220 (Southeast Division Leader)
5 New York Knicks 2315
6 Dallas Mavericks 2072 (Southwest Division Leader)
7 Orlando Magic 1341
8 San Antonio Spurs 1132
9 Oklahoma City Thunder 932 (Northwest Division Leader)
10 Cleveland Cavaliers 850
11 Denver Nuggets 773
12 Phoenix Suns 691
13 Houston Rockets 496
14 Detroit Pistons 418
15 Portland Trail Blazers 374
16 Golden State Warriors 327
17 Toronto Raptors 324
18 Utah Jazz 318
19 Los Angeles Clippers 264
20 New Orleans Hornets 235
21 Philadelphia 76ers 233
22 Atlanta Hawks 225
23 Milwaukee Bucks 203
24 Sacramento Kings 197
25 Minnesota Timberwolves 188
26 Memphis Grizzlies 150
27 Indiana Pacers 150
28 Washington Wizards 145
29 Charlotte Bobcats 104
30 New Jersey Nets 32

NHL Teams Ranked by Facebook Likes

Number at right in thousands. I'm only slightly surprised by the top 10: I figured both the ancients of Canada, the Habs and the Leafs, would have a lot more than that.

1 Detroit Red Wings 1230 (Overall, Western Conference & Central Division Leader)
2 Boston Bruins 1156 (Eastern Conference & Northeast Division Leader)
3 Pittsburgh Penguins 1133 (Atlantic Division Leader)
4 Chicago Blackhawks 1088
5 Montreal Canadiens 959
6 Philadelphia Flyers 751
7 Vancouver Canucks 724 (Northwest Division Leader)
8 Toronto Maple Leafs 572
9 New York Rangers 520
10 San Jose Sharks 446 (Pacific Division Leader)
11 Washington Capitals 443 (Southeast Division Leader)
12 Colorado Avalanche 354
13 Buffalo Sabres 315
14 New Jersey Devils 264
15 Tampa Bay Lightning 237
16 Edmonton Oilers 213
17 Los Angeles Kings 203
18 Calgary Flames 185
19 Anaheim Ducks 182
20 Minnesota Wild 159
21 Carolina Hurricanes 158
22 Winnipeg Jets 156
23 St. Louis Blues 155
24 Dallas Stars 151
25 Ottawa Senators 128
26 Nashville Predators 104
27 Phoenix Coyotes 85
28 Columbus Blue Jackets 71
29 Florida Panthers 69
30 New York Islanders 62

For shame, Islander fans!

Pat Robertson: Not an NFL Expert



The Rev. Marion G. "Pat" Robertson operates out of Virginia Beach, part of the "Hampton Roads" area of southeastern Virginia, which includes Norfolk.

This is the largest metropolitan area in the United States that has no major league sports teams whatsoever. The largest teams are the Norfolk Tides, the former "Tidewater" farm team of the Mets, now the Triple-A club of the closer Baltimore Orioles; and the women's basketball team at Old Dominion University, which is far more successful than ODU's men's team.

Robertson founded and runs Regent University in Virginia Beach, but the school is not exactly known for sports success.

*

Having previously said that he could steer hurricanes away from the Hampton Roads area, and that Hurricane Andrew (1992) was God's punishment for the sinfulness of Miami (I guess he didn't consider Hurricane Hugo, 1989, to be punishment for South Carolina), and that the 9/11 attacks were punishment for New York for wickedness and America in general for homosexuality, abortion and feminism, now, Pat Robertson has weighed in on football.

He thinks the Denver Broncos should not have signed Peyton Manning and then traded away noted evangelical Christian Tim Tebow.

Apparently, Robertson is unaware that Manning has given contributions to several Republican candidates, including George W. Bush.

So has John Elway, Mr. Denver Bronco, who took a big role in convincing the Broncos to bring Peyton in.

In other words, the Broncos got rid of an evangelical quarterback who has done very little in the NFL, and brought in a conservative quarterback who has accomplished more than 99.9 percent of all the quarterbacks we'll ever see.

Pat Robertson knows less about football than he does about the teachings of Jesus.

Here's a link to the story in USA Today.

http://content.usatoday.com/communities/gameon/post/2012/03/pat-robertson-thinks-a-peyton-manning-injury-would-be-just/1#.T2z8A8WPV_c

*

A Democratic Twitterer asked if Tim Tebow’s contract has a “Rapture clause.”

I'm from New Jersey. I've been watching the New York Jets all my life. Considering that he’s now with the Jets, Tebow would be better off with a rupture clause!

Mets Don't Need a Miracle: They Need Rebuilding



Thanks to Paul Sullivan of the blog "Sully Baseball" (see link to the right) for inadvertently inspiring this post.

In 1978, after Graig Nettles caught a Carl Yastrzemski pop-up to win the Bucky Dent Game (or, as I prefer to call it, the Boston Tie Party) for the Yankees, the Red Sox slunk back into their dugout, and the looks on their faces said, "We can't beat these guys, we're NEVER gonna beat these guys."

Well, in 1979, the Red Sox won 91 games, 2 more than the Yankees, who fell apart. They DID finish ahead of those guys, although well behind the Orioles who ran away with the AL East. If those Sox had a better attitude, who knows?

Whereas in 2003, when Aaron Boone hit that Pennant-winning home run, Sox right fielder Trot Nixon walked back into the dugout and slapped the Gatorade cooler off the bench. Message: "This is unacceptable."

I only noticed it after the fact of 2004, when I engaged in that classic defeated fan's activity of playing back his team's last great highlight. But in hindsight it was important: The Sox decided to stop accepting defeat, especially to that team, and did something about it. Had they failed, it would still have been worth the effort -- but it succeeded.

As Yogi Berra might have said, if he'd thought of it before I did, "When you accept losing, you accept losing."

*

Someone on the Mets -- it could be David Wright, it could be Johan Santana, or it could be now-broadcaster Keith Hernandez coming in to give a pep talk -- needs to tell them, and by "them" I mean the Wilpons, "Losing is unacceptable." Rebuilding takes time, but it can be worth it.

It's not like cutting payroll to save money, knowing it will sabotage your team, thus "losing on purpose," which gets players banned from baseball for life but gets owners hailed by their fellow owners for "a sound business model."

Committing to a youth project, and only getting that big free agent when you've gotten to within 1 or 2 players of a Pennant, is an honorable thing. Sacrificing 2 or 3 bad years so that the next 5 to 10 will be good years is a good trade.

The Red Sox should do it, too, since the Yanks and Rays are likely to be the top 2 teams in the AL East for the next 3 years, at least until Jeter and Rivera are both retired and the Rays slash payroll again.

But the Sox have the advantage of a higher base from which to start than the Mets. They don't have nearly as far to go. Who knows, they might even get lucky and get back into it this year. Not that I want them to, but it could happen. Certainly, with all the bad luck they had in September of last year, they could use some good luck. (I know, it's the Red Sox: They and good luck are usually strangers.)

The Mets? Forget 1969: They need a real "miracle" to win this year. But if they do the right thing, for once, they can build a contending team for 2014 or '15.

There is precedent, right here in New York. And I won't have to go back as far to Ye Olden Days when there were 3 teams in the City:

* The Mets got off to an awful start in their history, but once the draft started in 1965, they were able to build their farm system to the point where they won the World Series in 1969.

* The Yankees did it from the time George Steinbrenner bought them in 1973, kept it going through the mid-1970s, and won the Pennant in 1976 and the World Series in 1977 and 1978.

* The Mets did it after Fred Wilpon and Nelson Doubleday (whose example only grows in his absence) bought the team in 1980, and by 1984 they were contenders and, with the trade for Gary Carter added to that of Keith Hernandez and the promotion of fine young players from their farm system, were ready to go for the Pennant in 1985 and win the whole thing in 1986.

* The Yankees bottomed out in 1990, but Gene Michael rebuilt the team (with help from the absence of the suspended Steinbrenner), and the Yanks were contenders again by 1993 and World Champions again in 1996.

* The Mets hit a bottom of solid rock in 1993, but a rebuilding project was started. In 1995 they finished tied for 2nd. In 1997 they could see the Wild Card. In 1998 they came within 1 game of the Wild Card. In 1999 they got it and came within 2 games of the Pennant. In 2000 they won the Pennant.

* The Mets then declined, but after finishing last in 2002 started over, and were contenders by 2005 and within 1 lousy little stinking run of the Pennant in 2006. It turned out that Omar Minaya's "Los Mets" idea was a dumb idea, and that this was a false dawn -- but there's lessons in how, not just whether, to rebuild.

Rebuilding is hard. And it can feel very long. Especially in baseball, where there's a game nearly every day for 6 months and the seasons seem so much longer, and the results play out over that entire span, piece by piece. The legendary sports columnist Frank Deford once figured out why his hometown of Baltimore loved the Colts more than the Orioles: Because a Colts game was once a week, an event; while the Orioles were something you dealt with every day, like marriage or work.

Most people who read this blog are Yankee Fans. Well, if you're old enough to remember the last-place finish of 1990, and the accompanying Steinbrenner disgrace, try to remember what that felt like.

Now imagine that a DeLorean pulls up to you, and I step out, and tell you that I've come from the year 2012. And I tell you that 1991 and 1992 will be hard years, but in 1993, the Yankees will be contenders again. And that in 1996, we will win the World Series again. And that we will make the Playoffs every year but one from 1995 to at least 2011. And that this will include 7 Pennants.

Remembering who you were, and how you felt, at the time... would you have taken it?

If the situation were reversed, and it was you coming out of the time machine to tell it to me, you bet your Pinstriped ass I would have taken it!

Of course, I would have asked for proof. And handing me a DVD of the World Series highlight films from those years wouldn't have helped, since we didn't have DVD players in 1990.

But ask a Met fan from 1962 if he would have taken 1969 to '73. Ask one from 1980 if he would have taken 1984 to '90. Ask one from 1993 if he would have taken 1998 to 2001. And ask one from 2002 if he would have taken 2006. He'd probably say yes.

Can the Mets contend from 2014 to 2020? If you are a Met fan, would you accept 2 losing seasons to get those good 7? It's not like you'd be throwing '12 and '13 away; good work would be getting done.

Met fans have used the world "miracle" many times. Well, remember Pulp Fiction?

Jules: "What is a miracle, Vincent?"
Vincent: "An act of God."
Jules: "And what is an act of God?"
Vincent: "An act of God is when God makes the impossible possible."

It's not impossible. But neither is it an act of God. It must be many actions of many men.

I know, I know: In another movie, Oh, God!, George Burns, playing said Divinity, said, "The last miracle I did was the 1969 Mets."

It's not a miracle. It's hard work. More importantly, it's smart work. If there's anything that the simultaneous examples, these last 20 years, of the Yankees and the Mets have proven, it's that it's not how much you spend, but how well.

Time for the Mets' brass to work smart. And the players they bring in, and the players they already have, to work hard and smart.

Yes, the club is going to be financially strapped for the near future.

But winning means increased income.

Do I want the Mets to win? No, I don't. I still hate the Mets.

But it is better for the New York Tri-State Area to have two good, entertaining baseball teams.

Act of God? The First Commandment of Team Sports is, "Thou shalt not allow thyselves to become boring." The Mets, as currently constituted, are weak, irrelevant, and boring.

Weak? Back to Pulp Fiction: The Mets are the weak, and Fred Wilpon is the tyranny of evil men.

While Sandy Alderson is trying, real hard, to be the shepherd.

Or, as Chuck Berry put it, "'C'est la vie,' said the old folks, which goes to show, you never can tell!"

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Tim Tebow? On the J-E-T-S-Jets-Jets-Jets?!?



This is one for the What-the-Hell File.

Tim Tebow? The new Christian gentleman of sport?

In New York? The ultimate "What have you done for me lately?" town?

It's not going to be like Jeremy Lin: As popular as Lin has gotten, he's not The Man on the Knicks. Carmelo Anthony is. He's not even the man The Man counts on, that's Amare Stoudemire. If Lin has a bad game, so what? There are two All-Stars who can pick up the slack.

In football, if the quarterback has a bad game, the team usually loses, and the quarterback gets raked over the coals.

Putting Tebow in New York will be like putting a two-month-old kitten in a junkyard. With a junkyard dog. And I don't mean Hercules from The Sandlot, either: I mean "The Beast" that Smalls and the gang thought Hercules was!

Of course, that film had a character nicknamed "Benny the Jet" -- and it took place in 1962, long before Reginald Dwight become Elton John, let alone recorded "Bennie and the Jets."

Buh buh buh Bennie and the Jetssssssss. Dink, dink, did-ink, DONK!

*

I don't get it. Why are the Jets getting Tebow? There are a lot of teams that need a good quarterback, but the Jets aren't one of them. They have Mark Sanchez.

Is this move supposed to scare Sanchez into fighting for his job? A fat guy who can't throw? Is going to intimdate a USC quarterback? Who took the ever-lovin' New York Jets, of all teams, to 2 AFC title games? Who's already beaten Peyton Manning in Indianapolis, Philip Rivers in San Diego, AND Tom Brady in Foxboro? All in January? Okay, he hasn't beaten Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh in January yet... But neither has Tebow. And Sanchez HAS beaten Brady in Foxboro in January; Tebow hasn't done that in any month.

Yes, yes, I know: Tebow has beaten Sanchez and the Jets in December. Well, guess what: Tebow is ON the Jets now, and if he plays against the Denver Broncos, he won't be opposing Tim Tebow. He'll be opposing Peyton Manning.

In today's Washington Post, Tracee Hamilton titled her column, "Tim Tebow and the Jets: What could possibly go wrong?"

It's the Jets. It's Murphy's Law: Anything that can go wrong, will.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Mets "Win" -- In Court If Not On the Field



So the Mets have settled with Irving Picard, the trustee in the Bernie Madoff case, agreeing to pay $162 million. One million dollars per game. And they don't have to make the first payment for a while.

I used to work for a lawyer, who told me, "A bad settlement is better than a good verdict." Translation: Better to put a quick end to it than to keep the story in the papers (or electronic media such as TV, radio and the Internet).

So, by that standard, this is a win for the Mets. Can this be called a win by any other standard? Yes: They could have had to pay a lot more.

Mets owners Fred and Jeff Wilpon could have been found to have been "willfully blind" to the scheme of Freddy Skill Sets' old pal Bernie Made-Off.

Damn, but that sounds like a line from a Mob story. Not that there's any such thing as the Mob. (Hey, I may be crazy, but I ain't stupid. I'm from North Jersey, I know the score.)

Anyway, being found willfully blind would have meant they were purposely negligent, and that would have been a major league ouch to the Wilpons, and could have thrown the Mets into something that would make their current bad situation look like a night out at the Bada Bing. Or, should I say, at Finn MacCool's in Port Washington, Long Island, the "local" of many of the juvenile delinquents on the '86 Mets.

Someone said that the Mets have cut $50 million in payroll coming into this season, and that this is an all-time North American sports record. I don't know if that's true, then the Mets will have gone from around $120 million in 2011 (7th in the majors behind the Yankees, Philadelphia, Boston, Anaheim and both Chicago teams) to around $70 million in the season about to begin (which would have ranked them 20th, ahead of only Washington, Miami, Arizona, Pittsburgh and San Diego in the National League -- and the Marlins are definitely spending more this season, and not just on Jose Reyes).

*

Met fan blogs, including some you can check to the right (Subway Squawkers, Faith and Fear in Flushing, and Metstradamus) are getting all gloom and doom, acting as though the 2012 season is already a lost cause -- and, with further constraints, maybe more seasons.

Far be it for me to make the Flushing Heathen feel better, but...

At least now, Met fans can, in all good conscience, give the players a break. These cheap players, who were not first-choices by the club, and are not at their own first-choice club, will be doing the best they can. So will the manager, Terry Collins, who will not be expected, at least not immediately, to make chicken salad out of chicken feathers. (Or so to speak.)

So the players and the manager will be off the hook. No pressure at all.

But the Wilpons -- and, to a lesser extent, general manager Sandy Alderson, who arrived well after the fact and is not at all to blame for getting the team into the Madoff mess -- will be under pressure to try to make things better from 2013 onward.

Face it: The Mets are now free from the pressure of trying to take the New York Tri-State Area back from the Yankees, who have held it since 1993. Unlike a certain team that I shall call The Scum, the idea of competing with the Yankees for attention and money is, beyond any doubt, ludicrous. (Not that the aforementioned Scum had to do so on a local level, as the Mets have tried to do, with occasional success, for 50 years now.)

The Mets' goal, as a franchise, should now be to get themselves competitive again.

Because, to be completely honest, it's possible. Look at the other 4 teams in the National League Eastern Division:

* The Philadelphia Phillies have won the Division the last 5 years, but they're not quite what they once were. True, they still have 3 probable future Hall-of-Famers in Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins -- and that's just in their infield. They've also got Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and the overrated but nasty Cliff Lee in their rotation. But they've lost some key cogs, including closer Brad Lidge, Jayson Werth, Ryan Madson, the elderly but spry Jamie Moyer, and now-Yankee Raul Ibanez. They've replaced Lidge with Scum closer Jonathan Papelbon -- and if you think he often got hit hard in that little green pinball machine in the Back Bay, wait until you see him get lit up like a pinball machine (or, should I say, like an ATM) at Citizens Bank Park. The Phils have actually declined each year since 2008: Won the World Series, lost it to the Yankees in 2009, lost the NL Championship Series to the San Francisco Giants in 2010, lost the NL Division Series to the St. Louis Cardinals last year. At this same rate, they'll win only the Wild Card and lose in the NLDS, and then next year miss the Playoffs completely. Okay, it doesn't necessarily work that way... but it could.

* Does anybody really fear the Atlanta Braves? They won 91 games in winning the Wild Card in 2010 and 89 last year, but the collapse of the former Boston team was almost forgotten in the wake of the tumble of the remaining Boston team (the aforementioned Scum). According to Baseball-Reference.com (a website which is your friend, whether you know it yet or not), their "Pythagorean W-L" was 85-77, meaning that, having won 89, they actually overachieved by 4 games compared to what their runs scored to runs allowed ratio would have suggested. Chipper Jones turns 40 in a month. Dan Uggla has morphed into Dave Kingman: A career-high 36 homers, but 82 RBIs is too few for that many homers, and he batted just .233 and struck out 156 times -- 2 under his average! Five out of their 8 nonpitcher starters batted under .270 and only Freddie Freeman batted over .275. With Derek Lowe having moved on, their ace is Tim Hudson, who will be 37 in July. If closer Craig Kimbrel gets hurt, the Braves are in serious trouble.

* The Miami Marlins, having not just changed their name from "the Florida Marlins" but moved into a retractable-roof stadium on the site of the Orange Bowl, far closer to downtown, have decided to go for it, spending like mad the way they did in 1997 and 2003 (their only 2 postseason years to date), adding, among others, Jose Reyes, the man who, as much as anyone, was the symbol of the Mets from 2006 (with Mike Piazza having left) until the end of last season. I don't know if the Marlins are going to replace the Phils as Division Champions -- even in their '97 and '03 World Championship seasons, they were Wild Card winners, they've never finished 1st, a distinction even the Expos/Nats have been spared -- but if they don't win it this year, it could be another selloff, as happened after their 2 titles. As Dave Rosenbaum put it in the title of the book he wrote about the '97 Marlins put it, If They Don't Win It's a Shame.

* The Washington Nationals have Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, Mike Morse, Danny Espinosa, Laynce Nix, a rehabbed Stephen Strasburg, an aging but still effective Livan Hernandez, Jordan Zimmerman (no relation to Ryan), and Drew Storen and Tyler "the Ex-Yankee" Clippard out of the bullpen. Bryce Harper, still only 19, will start the season in Triple-A, but he could be as good as everyone (especially himself) thinks he is. If the Nats can get one more reliable starter, they could be in position to be, instead of the Braves or the Marlins, the team that succeeds the Phils as the NL East power. But they're hardly there yet.

So there is room for Met fans to hope.

But it may be quite a while before "The Magic Is Back." For the Mets to be over .500 this season, now THAT would be a "miracle."

*

Hours until Arsenal play again: 19, at Goodison Park in Liverpool against Everton -- the other Liverpool club, or, as I prefer to call them, the Other Scousers.

Days until the Red Bulls play again: See below.

Days until the Red Bulls' home opener: 5, on Sunday afternoon, March 25, at Red Bull Arena, against the Denver-area-based Colorado Rapids.

Days until the Devils play another local rival: 14, 2 weeks from tonight, against the New York Islanders, at the Prudential Center. The Devils lost 4-2 to The Scum at The Garden last night, and that's the last time they play each other in the regular season. Nor will the Devils and Flyers play each other again in the regular season. The Devils could meet either team in the Playoffs.

Days until the Yankees' Opening Day: 17, on Friday afternoon, April 6, at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg against the Tampa Bay Rays. Under 3 weeks.

Days until the Yankees' home opener: 24, on Friday afternoon, April 13, against the Whatever They're Calling Themselves This Year Angels of Anaheim.

Days until the next Yankees-Red Sox series begins: 31, on Friday night, April 20, at Fenway Park in Boston. Just 1 month.

Days until the Red Bulls next play a "derby": 32, on Saturday night, April 21, vs. DC United at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in Washington. They next play the New England Revolution the following Saturday afternoon at Red Bull Arena, and the Philadelphia Union on Sunday afternoon, May 13, at PPL Park in Chester, Pennsylvania.

Days until the last Nets game in New Jersey: 34, on Monday night, April 23, against the Philadelphia 76ers, at the Prudential Center. Just 5 weeks before New Jersey no longer has an NBA team.

Days until the U.S. National Soccer Team plays again: 67, Saturday night, May 26, against Scotland, at EverBank Field in Jacksonville -- formerly known as Jacksonville Municipal Stadium and Alltel Field, home of the NFL's Jaguars. Under 10 weeks.

Days until the 2012 Olympics begin in London: 129 (July 27). A little under 4 months.

Days until the next North London Derby: Unknown, as the Premier League announces its schedule for the upcoming season on the 2nd Friday in June, and the new season always starts on the 2nd Saturday in August -- meaning that the next Arsenal-Tottenham match can't be any earlier than August 11, which is 144 days (under 5 months) from now.

Days until Rutgers plays football again: 165, on Saturday September 1, at the Superdome in New Orleans against Tulane University. Not exactly a rivalry game, although Tulane was founded by a Princeton man. And thus will begin the Kyle Flood Era. Good luck...

Days until East Brunswick High School plays football again: 178, on Friday, September 14, opponent and location to be determined. Under 6 months.

Days until the 2012 President election: 231, on Tuesday, November 6. Register to vote... and on November 6, vote!

Days until the next East Brunswick-Old Bridge Thanksgiving clash: 247. Just under 8 months.

Days until Alex Rodriguez collects his 3,000th career hit: 487 (estimated around July 20, 2013). Just 16 months.

Days until Super Bowl XLVIII at the Meadowlands: 684 (February 2, 2014).

Days until Alex Rodriguez hits his 700th career home run: 757 (estimated).

Days until Alex Rodriguez hits his 756th career home run to surpass all-time leader Hank Aaron: 1,592 (estimated).

Days until Alex Rodriguez hits his 763rd career home run to become as close to a "real" all-time leader as we are likely to have: 1,626 (estimated -- estimating 28 home runs a year, he should get it late in the 2016 season, maybe around September 1, at age 41).

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Return of the Hooded Hawk



In 1987, I attended my first Old-Timers' Day at Yankee Stadium -- the original, but post-renovation, Stadium.

It was a surreal experience. The Yankees lost the regular game to the Chicago White Sox, 5-2, in 15 innings, complete with organist Eddie Layton playing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" in the 7th and 14th inning stretches. Ron Guidry started, and struck out 14, but didn't get out of the 7th inning. Willie Randolph, the other remaining player from the 1977 and '78 World Championship teams, also played in the game.

But most of the other players from the Title 21 and Title 22 teams were either playing in the Old-Timers' Game, or unavailable. Lou Piniella was the Yankee manager at the time. Chris Chambliss was a Yankee coach. Bucky Dent was managing in the Yankee farm system. Mickey Rivers, Ed Figueroa and Sparky Lyle were on hand. Reggie Jackson was wrapping up his career, back in Oakland, while Goose Gossage was pitching in San Diego. Thurman Munson, of course, was dead -- but would have been only 40 years old.

From the pre-renovation period, Hall-of-Famers Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford were there, as was not-yet-Hall-of-Famer Phil Rizzuto, although Joe D wore a suit instead of a uniform. Yogi Berra was still feuding with George Steinbrenner and refused to come back. When I saw Mickey limp onto the field, it was surreal. Not that I hadn't seen Mickey before -- he came to Phil Rizzuto Day 2 years earlier, and I was there -- but that this was the first time I had ever seen a Yankee, in person, wear Number 7. I was thinking, "Hey, you can't wear that number, only Mickey Mantle can -- oh, that's right."

Weirder than seeing my childhood heroes as "Old-Timers" was seeing one of them looking like he could still play. Jim "Catfish" Hunter had retired at age 33 due to a bad shoulder. In 1987, he was 41, one of the youngest inductees in the Hall of Fame's history, and he pitched in the Old-Timers' Game. It was like he'd never left: He was painting corner, nibbling, getting guys to chase pitches as if it was his all-too-brief 1978 second-half comeback -- or his mid-1970s glory days with Oakland -- all over again.

Sadly, I never saw him pitch again. He still came to Old-Timers' Day, but the next time I went was in 1994, and he didn't pitch. Then he became the 2nd Yankee legend to develop Lou Gehrig's Disease, and died in 1999.

*

Another surreal experience came in 2009, the first Old-Timers' Day in the new Yankee Stadium. Joe D, Mickey and the Scooter, as well as Thurman and Catfish, were gone. But Yogi had come back, and Whitey was still coming, and Reggie and the Goose were now full-fledged Hall-of-Famers. And the late Seventies players I loved so much were now in their 50s and 60s, and some looked like very old men. Although, to be fair, it was said of Rivers that he always walked like an old man, but ran like a scared rabbit.

But now the Yankee stars of the 1996-2003 dynasty, some now in their 40s, were "Old-Timers," even as Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada were still playing. Aaron Small came out, he of the 10-0 record in the 2005 regular season (and 0-1 in the postseason), who was out of baseball within a year. He was 38. Younger than I was. Homer Bush was introduced. Basically a pinch-runner on the '98 World Champs, he was the other guy in the David Wells for Roger Clemens trade, and finished his career with a brief return to the Yankees in 2004. He was also 38. Shawn Chacon was introduced. Like Small, he had a good 2nd half for the Yankees in '05 but was released in '06. He had just retired. He was... 31. Nope, that's not a typographical error (or even a clean base hit): He was an "Old-Timer" at age thirty-one!

Mike Mussina started the Old-Timers' Game. He was 40, and had just retired, after his one and only 20-win season. He should have been dazzling the old men with his curveball. Instead, he had nothing. I mean he had bupkis. Guys in their 60s were hitting him as if drinking from the fountain of youth. Joe Pepitone stroked a double up the gap off him, and might have stretched it to a triple if he were a little younger than 68. (At least he was now wearing a smaller toupee that fit under his cap, instead of that giant guido hairpiece he frequently wore to Old-Timers' Days, so he was more aerodynamic.)

Boy, did Moose pick the right time to retire. Some players don't; DiMaggio did, Mantle didn't.

David Cone, then 46 and 6 years into retirement, came out to relieve Moose, and got out of the inning, looking like he'd never left the game. He -- wait for it -- pitched like it's 1999.

*

Andy Pettitte decided to retire after the 2010 season, in which he was 11-3, with an ERA of 3.28 and an ERA+ of 132 -- meaning that, at the age of 38, he was 32 percent better at preventing earned runs than the average pitcher in the major leagues.

The Yankees didn't really miss him in the 2011 regular season, winning 97 games and taking the American League Eastern Division by 6 games, with a starting rotation of CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and, depending on which of the 4 was injured at any given time, 3 out of these 4: Phil Hughes, Ivan Nova, Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia.

But in the AL Division Series against the Detroit Tigers, Garcia didn't have his best stuff in Game 2, CC didn't pitch well in Game 3, the troubled A.J. (in what turned out to be, unless he returns, his last game as a Yankee) came through big-time in Game 4 (don't be fooled: 6 of the 10 Yankee runs came after he left), and then Nova, after winning Game 1 in relief after CC got hurt, got hurt himself in Game 5, with Hughes not being much better.

We can argue that, by using 7 pitchers, including 3 starters, in Game 5, manager Joe Girardi really futzed up the Yankee staff in that series. So maybe an available Pettitte would have been misused.

But a 39-year-old Pettitte, only slightly declined from the 38-year-old version, would certainly have been a step up from what we had.

*

Now Andy has signed a minor-league contract with the Yankees. Clearly, it's not about the money: If it was, he wouldn't have put himself in a position to start the season in the minors (and he almost certainly will, because spring training is closer to its end than to its start).

With A.J. traded and Colon released, and Hiroki Kuroda and Michael Pineda brought in, if Andy does not make it all the way back to full starterhood, the rotation will be CC, and then 4 of these 5: Hughes, Nova, Garcia, Kuroda and Pineda, with Joba Chamberlain, now apparently reserved for the bullpen, as a possible emergency starter should there be multiple injuries. If Andy does get called back up to the majors, he'll have to push out one of those 5.

Andy will be 40 on June 15. Does he have anything left?

I hope so. No pitcher, except Mariano Rivera, has appeared in more games with me watching from the stands, and no pitcher, not even Mo, has thrown more pitches with me in the ballpark.

But as much as baseball is about sentiment, the New York Yankees are about winning. Clearly, the organization thinks Pettitte can still win.

The Hooded Hawk is back, and he has brought that stare. Can he bring back the form that won 240 games in the majors -- 203 for the Yankees and 37 in his brief sojourn in Houston -- plus a record 19 in postseason play (all but 1 for the Yanks)?

Stay tuned.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Split Sunday



Yesterday was a split day for yours truly. The Devils won, the Red Bulls lost, and the Yankees split their squads and got one win and one loss.

The Major League Soccer season opened on Saturday night, and the New York Red Bulls started yesterday afternoon, away to FC Dallas (formerly the Dallas Burn), and quickly fell behind, 1-0. They allowed a 2nd goal before a comeback pulled back only 1, losing 2-1. According to the guys following the game on Twitter (yes, I'm on Twitter, but under my real name, not "Uncle Mike"), the Red Bulls never looked like winning this game.

Not good. And the Yanks' spring training split, well, as the late, great (and sometimes grating) manager Billy Martin would have said, "It's an exhibition game, George, it doesn't mean anything!"

Besides, I had bigger fish to fry: The Filth.

That's short for the Philadelphia Flyers -- not to be confused with The Scum, a.k.a. the New York Rangers.

Speaking of whom, it was also a split day for Madison Square Garden. A day after the Big East Conference Tournament Final, the Knicks hosted the Philadelphia 76ers. And got beat badly. Perhaps not on the scoreboard, 106-94 -- but the Sixers have been terrible the last few years, and Knick fans were talking big, with Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire having been joined by Jeremy Lin. Losing to the current Sixers at home, for Knick fans, was cruel and Lin-usual punishment.

The Garden grounds crew had just 4 hours to convert The World's Most Famous Arena from basketball to hockey, and not just any hockey, but what English soccer fans would call a "derby": Rangers vs. Islanders. The home fans were a lot happier about this one: The Isles blew leads of 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2, as the Rangers won with a Marian Gaborik goal with 10 seconds left in overtime.

*

Meanwhile, with financial and scheduling conflicts momentarily out of the way, I finally made it to my first NHL game of the season, with my mother having gotten a great ticket deal in the mail. We sat in Section 122, with a new fan club, "The Diablos," going nuts, but also with a lot of Flyer fans around us.

Fortunately, the ones sitting next to us were older and mostly calm, and, for the most part, everybody behaved themselves.

The game was a sloppy one. The first period was awful, and despite good saves by both Martin Brodeur and Flyer goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, neither side looked like they deserved to win. Then, in the last minute of the period, Braydon Coburn committed a typical (or at least old-school) Flyers penalty, slashing. Patrik Elias scored a few seconds later, and the first period ended One-Nil to the Jersey Boys.

The second period wasn't much better. Both teams showed a little more life, but it ended still 1-0. Just 16 seconds into the third period, Flyer sniper Claude Giroux tallied, and the game was tied.

My mother thought her infamous jinx, dating back to the early Sixties when her high school's football team only won when she didn't go to the games, was back. She offered to head to the bathroom, or to at least cover her eyes so she couldn't see the Devils.

She needn't have worried. The Flyer defense collapsed, and the Devils took advantage. Anton Volchenkov, the big Muscovite defenseman, gave the Devils the lead at 2:45. Then he and Maxime Talbot got into it, leading to offsetting penalties and a 4-on-4, and Ilya Kovalchuk scored his 30th goal of the season. Captain Zach Parise put the icing on the cake with his 28th with about 6 minutes to go.

Final score, Devils 4, Flyers 1.

So I was focused on 4 games: 2 by the Yankees (only possible in spring training), 1 by the Devils, 1 by the Red Bulls. And won 2 of them.

Good thing 1 was the one I actually paid to see!

*

Hours until Arsenal play again: 6, home to Newcastle United.

Days until the Devils play another local rival: 1, tomorrow night, the 2nd half of a home-and-home against the Flyers, at the Wachovia Center in Philly. The next game against The Scum is next Monday night, at The Garden. The next game against the New York Islanders is Tuesday night, April 3, at the Prudential Center.

Days until the Red Bulls play again: 5, this Saturday night, at Real Salt Lake.

Days until the Red Bulls' home opener: 13, on Sunday afternoon, March 25, at Red Bull Arena, against the Denver-area-based Colorado Rapids. Under 2 weeks.

Days until the Yankees' next Opening Day: 25, on Friday afternoon, April 6, at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg against the Tampa Bay Rays. Under 4 weeks.

Days until the Yankees' home opener: 32, on Friday afternoon, April 13, against the Whatever They're Calling Themselves This Year Angels of Anaheim. Just over 1 month.

Days until the next Yankees-Red Sox series begins: 39, on Friday night, April 20, at Fenway Park in Boston.

Days until the Red Bulls next play a "derby": 40, on Saturday night, April 21, vs. DC United at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in Washington. They next play the New England Revolution the following Saturday afternoon at Red Bull Arena, and the Philadelphia Union on Sunday afternoon, May 13, at PPL Park in Chester, Pennsylvania.

Days until the last Nets game in New Jersey: 42, on Monday night, April 23, against the Philadelphia 76ers, at the Prudential Center. Just 6 weeks before New Jersey no longer has an NBA team.

Days until the U.S. National Soccer Team plays again: 75, Saturday night, May 26, against Scotland, at EverBank Field in Jacksonville -- formerly known as Jacksonville Municipal Stadium and Alltel Field, home of the NFL's Jaguars. Under 11 weeks. Their last game was their first victory ever over Italy, 1-0 on a Clint Dempsey goal, in Genoa.

Days until the 2012 Olympics begin in London: 137 (July 27). A little over 4 months.

Days until the next North London Derby: Unknown, as both contests have been played already (2-1 to The Scum at White Hart Lane, 5-2 to The Arsenal at New Highbury). The Premier League announces its schedule for the upcoming season on the 2nd Friday in June, and the new season always starts on the 2nd Saturday in August -- meaning that the next Arsenal-Tottenham match can't be any earlier than August 11, 152 days (5 months) from now.

Days until Rutgers plays football again: 173, on Saturday September 1, at the Superdome in New Orleans against Tulane University. Not exactly a rivalry game, although Tulane was founded by a Princeton man. And thus will begin the Kyle Flood Era. Good luck...

Days until East Brunswick High School plays football again: 186, on Friday, September 14, opponent and location to be determined. About 6 months.

Days until the 2012 President election: 239, on Tuesday, November 6. Register to vote... and on November 6, vote!

Days until the next East Brunswick-Old Bridge Thanksgiving clash: 255.

Days until Alex Rodriguez collects his 3,000th career hit: 495 (estimated around July 20, 2013). About 16 months.

Days until Super Bowl XLVIII at the Meadowlands: 692 (February 2, 2014). Under 23 months.

Days until Alex Rodriguez hits his 700th career home run: 765 (estimated).

Days until Alex Rodriguez hits his 756th career home run to surpass all-time leader Hank Aaron: 1,600 (estimated).

Days until Alex Rodriguez hits his 763rd career home run to become as close to a "real" all-time leader as we are likely to have: 1,634 (estimated -- estimating 28 home runs a year, he should get it late in the 2016 season, maybe around September 1, at age 41).

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Top 10 Possible Peyton Manning Destinations



The Indianapolis Colts -- or, rather, their crocodile-tears owner, Jim Irsay -- have released Peyton Manning.

Yeah, Jim cried during the press conference. Bullshit: He valued the money that he could save more than he valued the man who made the Colts the most beloved sports team in the State of Indiana (after the collapses into mediocrity of the post-Lou Holtz Notre Dame, the post-Bobby Knight Indiana University, and the post-Reggie Miller Indiana Pacers), and made him something other than the son of the son of a bitch who moved the Colts out of Baltimore.

Can you imagine what a god Peyton would be in Baltimore, which has always been a football town first, if the Colts had stayed? It would be, "Cal who?"

There is some sense to the move: The Colts, in Peyton's injury-wiped-out season, went 2-14, and have the top pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. They seem almost certain to draft one of two sensational-looking quarterbacks: Andrew Luck, the latest in a long line of great Stanford University quarterbacks that has included Jim Plunkett and John Elway; or Robert Griffin III, the big but quick Heisman Trophy winner from Baylor University.

I haven't seen much of Luck -- I've seen more of people talking about him, about how wonderful he is as both a player and a person, than I've seen of him playing -- but I saw Griffin lead Baylor to their first-ever win against the University of Oklahoma, and I was tremendously impressed. RG3 just turned 22, he has his bachelor's degree in political science (but can't become President because was born in Japan, the son of 2 U.S. Army Sergeants stationed there in 1990), is pursuing a masters in communications), has handled the interviews I've seen very well, seems not just smart but mature, and, based on what I've seen (admittedly, not nearly as much of Luck as of Griffin), Griffin would be my first choice.

But it sure looks like the Colts are going to draft Luck. The 2nd pick belongs to the St. Louis Rams, who already have Sam Bradford, a former Heisman Trophy winner from Oklahoma who has already led them to the Playoffs once and certainly should not be given up on. The 3rd pick belongs to the Minnesota Vikings, who seem committed to Christian Ponder. So it seems unlikely that Manning (or the Luck/Griffin 2nd choice) will go to any of those.

The next available quarterback is likely to be... Ryan Tannehill of Texas A&M. I haven't paid as much attention to college football these last few years as I used to, and that includes not having seen the annual Thanksgiving weekend clash between Texas and Texas A&M. So I have no idea how good Tannehill is. But he certainly hasn't been hyped to the level of Luck and Griffin.

Of course, teams can trade draft picks. But, barring that, here are my choices for the...

Top 10 Possible Peyton Manning Destinations

10. Kansas City Chiefs. I'm actually seeing Internet "whispers" about the Chiefs going after Manning, which does make some sense: They went from AFC West Champions to 7-9 in one year, and Matt Cassel isn't exactly an inspiring quarterback. The Great Plains loves its Chiefs, and there is precedent: They got Joe Montana after the San Francisco 49ers let him go, and he got them to within a game of the Super Bowl.

The AFC West is wide-open at the moment, with the San Diego Chargers in disarray, the Oakland Raiders still in their transition from the ownership of the late Al Davis, and the Denver Broncos still in position to wonder if Tim Tebow is enough to get them to the promised land. Might the Chiefs get Manning to close the deal that Montana couldn't quite close?

9. Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jags have the 7th pick, so they're almost certainly not going to get either Luck or Griffin. They seem committed to Blaine Gabbert, who had a rough rookie season last year, but, let's be honest: If you CAN get a Peyton Manning, you'd prefer to have people asking in 5 years, "What's a Blaine Gabbert?" (I know, I know: If Gabbert turns out to be a great one, in J'ville or elsewhere, I'll sound pretty silly for saying that. But, for the moment, it's the name Blaine Gabbert that sounds pretty silly.)

8. Cleveland Browns. The Browns have the 4th pick, but they already have Colt McCoy and the veteran backup Seneca Wallace. They need a boost, and can you imagine how big Manning would become if he led the Browns to the first World Championship they -- or any Cleveland team -- have won in 48 years? Since December 27, 1964? The Browns could trade up, which might send McCoy elsewhere.

7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs have the 5th pick in the draft, and don't presume that they are completely committed to Josh Freeman. Freeman looks good, in spite of a difficult, injury-riddled season for the Bucs.

But they just hired Greg Schiano as head coach, and as the man who built Rutgers University into a respectable (if not great) football school, Schiano proved, among other things, that he doesn't exactly have patience for quarterbacks. Unless he asks general manager Mark Dominik to trade up in the draft, he may ask owner Malcolm Glazer to open the vault for Manning. And since Glazer has shown his willingness to splurge (ask fans of Manchester United, the soccer team he also owns, who hate him for having saddled them with a debt bomb but ignore the 4 Premiership titles and the Champions League they've won with him as owner), there is a chance that Manning could be wearing the Red & Pewter in 2012.

6. Seattle Seahawks. The 'Hawks have the 12th pick, and currently have Tarvaris Jackson and Josh Portis as quarterbacks. Jackson is 28 and his career record as a starting quarterback is 17-17. Portis will be 25 when the season begins and has never taken an NFL snap. The 'Hawks need something better, and may want to trade up.

5. Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins have the 8th pick in the draft, and have Matt Moore (not to be confused with their 1980s tight end Nat Moore) and Pat Devlin, plus J.P. Losman as an unrestricted free agent. Losman was a flop in both Buffalo and Miami, Moore will be 28 and only last year did he get regular NFL snaps, and Devlin has yet to take any. Could Manning "take his talents to South Beach"? Okay, Sun Life Stadium (or whatever corporate name Joe Robbie Stadium has this season) is 10 miles inland... but Manning can live wherever he likes in South Florida, and that stadium IS the one where he won (so far) his one and only Super Bowl.

4. Arizona Cardinals. This franchise has had just one quarterback, Kurt Warner, who has been both consistently good and consistently healthy in the last 30 years. If you have Playoff hopes, do you really want them to rest on the arm of Kevin Kolb? Also, he’s coming out of the Midwest, and lots of old Midwesterners go to Arizona when they get old: Warner, Bob Uecker, Michael Wilbon. (Joke.)

3. New York Jets. The Era of Big Mouth may be over if Rex Ryan can't build another Super Bowl contender in 2012, and Rex may decide that Mark Sanchez, at least at the moment, isn't working out. He could bring Peyton in as this year's starter, so that Sanchez can learn how to be a winning quarterback. Who knows, if Peyton lasts 2 years... Super Bowl XLVIII... at the Meadowlands... Could it be Jets vs. Giants? Manning vs. Manning? Peyton vs. Eli? Don't forget, for the moment, Eli has more rings than Peyton (2 to 1).

2. Washington Redskins. Right now the 'Skins have 2 quarterbacks on their roster: John Beck, who'll be 31 when the season begins and has started a grand total of 7 games, none of them victorious, over 2 separate seasons over 5 years; and Jonathan Crompton, who'll be 25 and has never thrown a professional pass. They have Rex Grossman, who is listed as an unrestricted free agent, and who is one of the most mocked quarterbacks of recent times, and was such even as he got the Chicago Bears into Super Bowl XLI in 2007 (where they lost to Peyton and the Colts). That the 'Skins are even considering letting Rex go when all they have in-house is Beck and Crompton, when signing Manning is no shoo-in, and when the draft, as always, is a crapshoot, shows just how little confidence they have in Rex.

Daniel Snyder bought the Redskins in 1999. They made the Playoffs that year as NFC East Champions. In the 12 seasons since, they have made the Playoffs twice (2005 and '07), won a grand total of ONE Playoff game, and have not won the NFC East despite it being a 4-team division from 2002 onward. The last 3 years, the Redskins have been 4-12, 6-10 and 5-11. And they have the 6th pick in the draft, which means that both Luck and Griffin are likely to be gone by then. So the Redskins need a better quarterback than the one Tannehill currently looks like he'd be.

Say what you want about various politicians, but, right now, no one is more hated by residents of the D.C. area than Snyder. He needs a winner. He needs it badly. Manning may be his shot. We know Snyder is willing to pay big bucks for famous and accomplished players. It hasn't worked out yet. Maybe Manning is the one that will.

1. Hollywood. No, I don’t mean an as-yet-hypothetical team to be moved or expanded into Los Angeles. I mean the movies. Football-themed movies usually don't do great, but they usually make a profit. Peyton has the looks, he has the charisma, and unlike a lot of actors who've played athletes, he'll look like he knows what he's doing, both in the locker room and on the field. And he is a lot closer to the age that Roy Hobbs was supposed to be than Robert Redford was when he played him; can you see a remake of The Natural with Peyton in the role? (Maybe not, he'd look weird playing baseball. Especially batting lefthanded.)

Monday, March 5, 2012

Method to Bobby V's Madness?


Bobby Valentine, the former manager for The Other Team who's now managing The Scum, recently made some, shall we say, interesting comments.

He said, last Tuesday, that Derek Jeter didn't need to make his famous "Flip Play" during the 2001 American League Division Series.

He also fondly recalled when Varitek "beat up" Rodriguez in 2004 during a confrontation between A-Rod and the Boston catcher.

More like Varitek shoved his mitt in A-Rod's face, while keeping his own face protected by his catcher's mask. Much like former Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee once said that the Yankees "fight like hookers swinging their purses." Purse is on the other shoulder, ain't it, Spaceman?

The day after these Valentine comments, A-Rod had the perfect response (something he's had difficulty with in the past but he nailed it here):

I'm not going to win many battles here when it comes to words, especially against Bobby. But I will tell you this: I've got my new press secretary that should be landing in the next couple days - Reggie Jackson - so I'll let him handle that.

Uh-oh. When it comes to making a statement, give Reggie an inch, and he'll take a light-year. Bobby V cannot handle, as Mr. October would say, "the magnitude of me."

Jeter's response?

I don't know Bobby well enough to tell you what he's trying to do. I don't know what to tell you. ... I'm indifferent.

In other words, Jeter was saying one of two things, either...

1. "Valentine can say whatever he wants, I don't care." Or...
2. "Who the hell is Bobby Valentine?"

As another reporter put it, "Instead of discussing his pitching staff, the health of his players, the Sox lineup, who is going to start in the first pre-season game and the potential holes in his roster, he chooses to spit random nonsense about a play that took a few seconds and happened 11 years ago. Does anyone else think this guy has some kind of baseball Tourettes Syndrome?"

*

As often as Valentine seems dumb, there is a method to this particular madness. The focus of the Boston media, that part of the New York media interested in the rivalry, and that part of the national media interested in the rivalry, is now on him, and thus they are more likely to leave his players alone.

This was a favorite tactic of Casey Stengel: Get the media to pay attention to you, and they won't be asking where Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford were last night.

So was this smart on Valentine's part? In the short term, oh yeah. Nobody's asking whether the big fat cheating liar David Ortiz has one more good year in him, or whether Carl Crawford will live up to his big fat contract this season, or whether the Sox' patchwork starting rotation will hold up over 162 games, or whether there will be an adequate successor to the closer role held these last 6 years by Jonathan Papelbon.

Incidentally, I think Paps made a huge mistake going to Philadelphia. Not that the Phillies aren't a great team. But if Paps thinks he had problems pitching in Fenway, then he is going to get lit up like a pinball machine in Citizens Bank Park. He's going to have the Philly Phaithful wishing Brad Lidge had been kept. He may singlehandedly end the Phils' streak of 5 straight National League Eastern Division titles. (Not that the Mutts would benefit, most likely it would be either the Braves or the Marlins.)

But in the long term, Bobby V may regret making himself the focus. The two hottest managerial seats in the majors are those of the Yankees and the Red Sox -- have been for the better part of 40 years, even (sometimes especially) when either or both teams were not in contention.

He seemed to have fun playing with the New York media. Well, the New York media knew him, from his days as a Met player.

The Boston media, the New England media, they only knew him as a faraway guy, or as an occasional visitor during Interleague games between the Sox and Mets, and before that while he was managing against the Sox for the Texas Rangers -- a job which, until they started winning Pennants 2 years ago, had hardly any pressure.

The pressure is on Valentine now.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Top 10 NBA Players Ever (Wilt 100 at 50)



March 2, 1962, 50 years ago today: A National Basketball Association game is played at the Hershey Sports Arena, nearly 100 miles west of Center City Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia Warriors, one of the NBA's best teams, hosted the New York Knickerbockers. Marv Albert, then studying broadcasting at Syracuse University and soon to become the radio voice of the Knicks, likes to say that, in those days, the NBA had 9 teams, and the sole purposes of the regular season was to eliminate the Knicks from the Playoffs.

The arena, built in 1936, still stands, near the Hersheypark theme park, and is now known as the Hersheypark Arena. It's best known for this game, and is also known as the home of the minor-league hockey team the Hershey Bears (who have since moved to a new arena nearby), and the longtime home of the Pennsylvania high school wrestling championships (since it's close to the State capital of Harrisburg). The arena seats 7,286, but only 4,124 attended, 56 percent of capacity.

The Warriors, who would move to San Francisco the next season (and in 1971 across the Bay to Oakland, taking the name "Golden State Warriors"), defeated the Knicks, 162-147. For over 20 years, this was the highest-scoring game in NBA history.

Of those 162 points, 100 were scored by Wilt Chamberlain, the 25-year-old 7-foot-1 superhuman from West Philly.

The old record was 78, done by Wilt himself. Aside from this game, that figure has been topped only once, recently by Kobe Bryant with 81. But in 1962, there was no 3-point shot, and, as far as I know, no study has been done of this game to see how many points Wilt would have had if the 3-pointer had been in effect.

This would have been easier if there was a surviving TV broadcast or film of this game, but there isn't one. The Warriors didn't have a local TV contract. The Knicks did, but most of the New York stations' sports guys were in Florida to cover the spring training camps of the defending World Champion Yankees and the newborn Mets. All we have is a scratchy recording of the radio broadcast done by legendary Philly announcer Bill Campbell, which reveals that the fans were chanting, "Give it to Wilt!" and the Warriors were obliging, giving up easy shots for themselves so Wilt could get the 3-digit milestone. He did so with a rather unemphatic dunk with 46 seconds left on the clock. The fans stormed the court, but, contrary to legend, the surviving broadcast proves that, after a 9-minute delay, the game was completed.

Wilt scored 23 points in the 1st quarter, 18 in the 2nd to make 41, 28 in the 3rd to make 69, and 31 in the 4th to make an even 100 -- which, being a round number, does stand out more than if he'd gotten 101 or 102. He attempted 69 shots from the field, made 36, took 32 free throws and made 28 -- belieing his legendary difficulty with free throws. All except most free throws attempted were records that still stand (and Wilt already had that record, which still stands). Richie Guerin scored 39 for the Knicks, but nobody noticed.

When asked about the unbelievable total, Wilt noted that he averaged 50 points per game that season. "So it was like doubling my average," he said, as casually as if he'd been averaging 25 and had scored 50. He considered his record (which still stands) of 55 rebounds in a game better, because it was against the World Champion Boston Celtics and their great center, Bill Russell. (However, the Celtics rendered that record dubious by winning the game.)

The attendance of 4,124 belies the fact that thousands of people told Wilt that they were there at the game. Some said they were at the Spectrum -- which wasn't built until 1967. Some said that they were at "the Convention Hall" -- the main building of the Philadelphia Civic Center complex, which served as the main home of the Warriors from 1946 to 1962 and then for the 76ers from 1963 to 1967. Some said that they were at "the Arena," meaning the Philadelphia Arena, which stood in West Philly across from the ABC studio where American Bandstand was once taped, and was last used, sports-wise, by the short-lived Philadelphia Blazers of the World Hockey Association in 1972-73. And some said they were at the old Madison Square Garden that night, thinking the game wasn't in Philadelphia (they were right), but in New York (they were wrong). If they said that, Wilt would ask, "You were at the Garden that night? How did the Rangers do?" (They were not scheduled to play that night.)

Before his death in 1999, Wilt said in a number of interviews that Hershey Arena must have held 100,000 people, to accommodate all the people who said they were there that night. Bobby Thomson said pretty much the same thing about the Polo Grounds, which was filled only to a similar capacity when he hit his "Shot Heard 'Round the World in 1951: 34,320 out of 55,987, or 61 percent.

What Red Smith of the New York Herald Tribune said about that home run could apply equally well to Wilt's 100-point game: "Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again."

*

That 1961-62 season, Wilt averaged over 48 minutes per game -- because he'd played all but 8 minutes of every game, including overtime. And he never fouled out of a game -- not that season, not ever, shocking for a big man. He averaged 50.4 points per game.

That same season, Oscar Robertson, then playing for the Cincinnati Royals, averaged what we would now call a triple-double: 30.8 points, 11.4 assists and 12.5 rebounds per game.

And both men did it in a 9-team league, much more balanced than the 23-team league I grew up with and the 30-team league we have now. The competition was tougher. Even from the league office: The league widened the lane to make it tougher for Wilt to score. It didn't stop him.

Top 10 NBA Players Ever

10. George Mikan, center, Minneapolis Lakers, 1947-54.
Bob Ryan, the great Boston Globe sports columnist, grew up in Trenton, New Jersey, and thus had a great opportunity to watch the Warriors and their opponents in the Wilt years, and as a result, he probably knows more about the NBA and its history than anyone who's never been actively employed by an NBA team -- and more than all but a few who have been. On a 1996 ESPN panel, seeking to determine the greatest NBA team ever after the Bulls won the title with a record 72 wins, he was asked about the players in the early days of the NBA, and he suggested that the 1954 institution of the 24-second shot clock, designed to stop Mikan and the Lakers, who'd won 5 of the last 6 titles, not only worked, but changed the game completely.

"I'm not going to kid you," Ryan said about the effect the shot clock had on the game. He cited the star of the NBA's first Champions, the 1947 Warriors: "I don't think Jumpin' Joe Fulks makes it in today's NBA, except maybe as a 12th man. George Mikan? A good backup center. Deserved every accolade he got in his time, but, now? He's Greg Kite with a hook shot."

But Mikan did dominate the first decade of the NBA. So much so that this famous photo of the old Garden's famed marquee shows that he, rather than his team, was the drawing card. It doesn't say, "Knicks vs. Lakers," or even "Knicks vs. Geo. Mikan." Mikan got top billing, over even the home team.



9. Shaquille O'Neal, center, multiple teams but best known for the Los Angeles Lakers, 1992-2011. Shaq turns 40 next week, and while his inclusion in the NBA's 50th Anniversary 50 Greatest Players was met with disbelief in 1997, it cannot be disputed now, 15 years and 4 titles later. For good, and for excess if not necessarily for ill, he defined an era, more so than his ex-teammate Kobe Bryant, more so than Tim Duncan, more so than, thus far, LeBron James (who doesn't come close to making the Top 10, or even the Top 20). George Mikan (1947-56, Bill Russell & Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson & Larry Bird, Michael Jordan: These men defined eras in the NBA. So did Shaq.

8. Jerry West, guard, Los Angeles Lakers, 1960-74. He has arguably had a greater impact as an executive, the man who built the Laker dynasties of 1980-91, 1999-2004, and 2008-present. But he remains the greatest shooter in NBA history, in spite of being relatively short (6-foot-2), and was so popular that not only was he the first Laker to get his number retired (44), but a photo of him dribbling lefthanded became the NBA logo.

7. Julius Erving, forward, New York Nets and Philadelphia 76ers, 1973-87. People who say that Magic and Larry "saved the NBA" starting in 1979 are idiots. The NBA was not in dire straits, except maybe with the way it was covered on TV. And there were already some great stars in the league. Kareem. Bill Walton. Elvin Hayes. And the man known as Doctor J.

Like a lot of great scorers in other sports (including hockey and soccer), Erving became a better defensive player as he lost a step on offense. But that step he lost was one that most players will never have. He could have shaved his head instead of having one of the greatest Afros (or should that be "Afroes"?) ever, and he still would have been one of the five coolest men in the world. How many human beings, let alone basketball players, have ever moved like Doc?

6. Bill Russell, center, Boston Celtics, 1956-69. Sport's ultimate winner. He led the University of San Francisco to back-to-back National Championships, part of a 60-game winning streak that was the longest in college basketball history until UCLA broke it with an 88-game streak in 1971-74 (after Lew/Kareem, but including Bill Walton). He led the U.S. team, including his USF and Celtic teammate K.C. Jones, to the Olympic Gold Medal in 1956. Then he played 13 seasons with the Celtics, getting into 12 Finals and winning 11 of them -- the last 2 as not just player-coach, but as the first black coach in major league sports history. (Unless you count the NFL, in its first days, as "major league": Look up a man named Fritz Pollard.)

Those 11 World Championships have been matched in North American sports only by Henri Richard of the Montreal Canadiens. The record in baseball is 10 by Yogi Berra; in football, 6, by Forrest Gregg and Herb Adderley, teammates on 5 titles in Green Bay and 1 in Dallas. The reason the Celtics won all those titles, beating Wilt's Warriors, Wilt's 76ers, and the Lakers of West and Baylor and eventually also Wilt, is that they were a more balanced team. But also because, like Jordan but unlike Wilt, Russell was a cutthroat. I'm not saying he cheated (this wasn't the current era of Boston sports), but he took pleasure in beating an opponent. I've seen pictures of Wilt where he looks like he's trying to find out if looks could kill, but that really wasn't his personality. It was Russell's.

5. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, center, Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, 1969-89. The man originally named Lew Alcindor was the most accomplished player in the history of college basketball, winning the National Championship and the tournament MVP all 3 years he was at UCLA, going 88-2. He helped the Bucks win what is still their only title in 1971, then, preferring to live in a more culturally-advantageous city, demanded a trade to either his hometown of New York or his college town of Los Angeles. He was sent to the Lakers and, along with Magic, led them to 5 titles.

Kareem remains the NBA's all-time leading scorer, surpassing Wilt's old record of 31,419 career points by 7,000. At the age of 38 (1985), he was still one of the top 3 players in the game; at 40, he was still one of the top 5. Although his reticence and his intellectual pursuits (he has always been a student of history, music and religion, even before his conversion to Islam) rendered him an enigma in the eyes of the media, he has opened up a bit in recent years, and is truly one of the most interesting people alive today.

4. Oscar Robertson, guard, Cincinnati Royals and Milwaukee Bucks, 1960-74. The Big O has often been called the most complete player in NBA history. For years, until Magic and then John Stockton, he held the NBA career records for most assists and most steals. Although the 1960s Royals (forerunners of the Sacramento Kings) had Oscar, Jerry Lucas and Jack Twyman, the closest they ever got to a title was losing to the Celtics in the 1964 Eastern Conference Finals. Oscar finally won a title in 1971, with the Bucks, with young Lew as a dominating center and a much more balanced team than Oscar had in Cincy.

3. Earvin "Magic" Johnson, guard, Los Angeles Lakers, 1979-91, with a brief comeback in 1996. Whereas Jordan inspired his teammates through cold stares and fear, Magic made them better through joy and trust. That he was able to play center despite being 6-foot-9 (which wouldn't have been a big deal 20 years earlier but was at this point) in Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals, filling in for such a talent as Kareem, on the road against a team as tough as that era's 76ers, and score 42 points and lead his team to victory, at the age of 20, shows his completeness and his leadership even then.

Even before illness forced him to stop playing, he was investing the money he'd made from playing, putting it into inner-city businesses and becoming the kind of job creator the Republicans like to talk about, but who haven't been creating many jobs the last few years. Magic built a business empire that has grown exponentially in the 20 years since. Shortly before he announced his forced retirement, right after Jordan had won his 1st title, I saw an interview with Magic in his office at his company, where he said, "If Michael was doing what I'm doing, he really would own the world."

By the way, you'll notice that I do not have Larry Bird in this Top 10. It's not to spite New England sports fans. I simply believe that there have been at least 10 players in the league's 65-year history that were better. In fact, I don't even think Bird was the greatest-ever Celtic forward, and I don't mean that he's been surpassed by Paul Pierce. I give that honor to John Havlicek, who I probably would've included in this Top 10, except, at this point, I had to get Shaq in.

2. Michael Jordan, guard, Chicago Bulls, 1984-98. That 2001-03 comeback with the Washington Wizards shouldn't diminish his legacy: 6 NBA Titles, Finals MVP in all of them, great defensive player too. Put it this way: In Game 5 of the 1998 NBA Finals, at age 35, he had the flu, and had to play the Utah Jazz, the team with the best defense in the league, in Salt Lake City at altitude. And he scored 38 points and led his team to victory. When you or I have the flu, the only thing we usually feel like doing is dying.

1. Wilt Chamberlain, center, Philadelphia-San Francisco Warriors, Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Lakers, 1959-73. At the NBA's 50th Anniversary celebration at the 1997 All-Star Game, the 50th Anniversary 50 Greatest Players were announced, and, in the locker room beforehand, Jordan was telling people that, in spite of all the talent in that room, he was the greatest ever. Wilt walked over to him and said, "Michael, my man, when you played, they changed the rules to make it easier for you. When I played, they changed the rules to make it harder for me. And it didn't work." And Wilt walked off. Game over.

True, Wilt won only 2 titles, but, both times, with the '67 76ers and the '72 Lakers, they broke the established NBA record for wins in a season. True, the '96 Bulls broke the '72 Lakers' record... but if you had a time machine, and brought the '96 Bulls back to play either the '72 Lakers or the '67 76ers, who was gonna guard Wilt? Wilt would have completed teaching Jordan the lesson.

Oh, and, by the way, that first title Wilt won? With a team often considered the greatest in NBA history? That was the first season he played in which he didn't lead the NBA in scoring. The next year, he led it in assists, the only center ever to do so. Jordan never led the league in assists, or rebounds, like Wilt did.

A generation whose template is Jordan needs to know: Wilton Norman Chamberlain of Overbrook, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is the greatest player the game of basketball will ever see.