Thursday, January 1, 2015

New Year's Resolutions for the New York Teams

New Year's resolutions for 2015, for all the major league (or pretenders to such) sports teams in the New York Tri-State Area:

New York Yankees: Pick a strategy and go with it. Either go all-out, spend what's required, shore up what's been injured, and go for Title XXVIII in MMXV; or scrap it, phase out the old and/or injured (including eating what remains of Alex Rodriguez's Contract From Hell), go young, and admit that it's going to take 2 or 3 seasons to get back to the World Series. If you freely admit that, the fans will understand. But don't string them along.

New York Mets: Make a trade for a big name. Show the fans that you're at least trying to do the 2 things they most want you to do: Win, and take New York back from the Yankees.

Yes, it could fail. After all, you had Mike Piazza for 8 seasons, and won a grand total of one World Series game. You had Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine, Billy Wagner, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado, Jose Reyes and David Wright, and played in a grand total of no World Series games. But the reason that Met fans had so much hope in 2006, '07 and '08 is because it looked like the team knew that winning a Pennant was possible, and it was being pursued with a full heart -- which is what the Yankees have always done, at least since the dawn of the Steinbrenner Era, even if they didn't always know how to go about it.

You're afraid of how much money it will cost? Here is what big players have always done for the Yankees: Sell merchandise. Replica jerseys, T-shirts, posters, lots of things. You will get that money back. The fans will see, "Hey, they're serious again!" and open their wallets. It's not like the conservative-caused economic crash and subsequent Great Recession that (along with Bernie who Madoff with so much of the Wilpons' money) wrecked the team's finances is still on. The economy is better. There's a lot of Met fans in Manhattan, on Long Island, in North and Central Jersey who are worth a few bucks, and are willing to spend it in what they believe is a good cause. Give them the cause. Even if it fails, they will appreciate the effort. After all, they despise Glavine for not being "devastated" after that disastrous 2007 finale, but they don't hold it against Reyes that he never won anything except a single NL East title.

New York Giants: Shore up the defense. If you truly believe that "Defense wins championships," and the last 5 Giant titles (1956, '86, '90, 2007 and '11) certainly provide compelling evidence for that, then recognize that injuries on defense doomed you. It wasn't Eli Manning: He completed 63 percent of his passes and had 2.3 touchdowns for every interception (30 to 14). It wasn't the running game: Andre Williams and Rashad Jennings combined for 1,360 yards. (Okay, another good running back would help, but it's not a top priority.)

But while Jason Pierre-Paul played in all 16 games last season, Prince Amukamara only played in 8, Devon Kennard and Jacquian Williams 9 each, and Mathias Kuwanuka 11. In case you have another rash of defensive injuries, you need guys who can step in and keep it going.

In 2014, you allowed 40 points to Indianapolis, 38 to Seattle, 35 to Detroit, 34 and 27 to Philadelphia, and 31 to Dallas twice. Granted, all of those teams but the Eagles made the Playoffs (and they almost did), but a Playoff team plays up to the level of other Playoff teams; a losing team doesn't. In 2014, the Giants didn't. Until you get the guys who can stop the NFL's (or at least the NFC's) best offenses, you're not going to be playing Giant Football -- "smash-mouth football," Parcells liked to call it.

New York Jets: Get a head coach who believes in getting the job done first and talking second. You're halfway there: You got rid of the coach whose belief was the other way around. And you dumped the bad general manager, too. But the next hire in each job is crucial. In each case, it has to be someone who understands that, barring a fortuitous series of events (in other words, several -- football does not lend itself well to one-season "miracles"), the Jets won't go from 4-12 to a Playoff team in 1 year. This is a 2-season, maybe a 3-season job.

Build carefully. You're not going to get it done in 2015 anyway, so you may as well get a quarterback who will be ready to compete in 2016 while Geno Smith still has the job. This way, if he does anything better than 6-10, it'll look like he wasn't the problem, Rex Ryan was. Build up the defense: As with the Giants, that's always been the hallmark when the Jets have been good. Face it, they tend not to have great quarterbacks: Even Joe Namath was just slightly over 50 percent in his career completion percentage, and the Jets managed to reach AFC Championship Games with Richard Todd, Vinny Testaverde and Mark Sanchez. It was defense that really won Super Bowl III (the Jets only won it 16-7, you know), got the Jets to within a game of Super Bowls XVII and XLV, and within a half of Super Bowls XXXIII and XLIV.

The current rumor is that the new head coach will be Doug Marrone. Based on what we know now, this wouldn't be a terrible hire. A Tri-State Area native, he was born in The Bronx and went to Herbert H. Lehman High School there. An offensive lineman, he briefly played in the NFL and the World League of American Football in the early 1990s. He served on the staffs of college football heavyweights Georgia Tech and Tennessee, before becoming head man at Syracuse, getting them to win 2 bowl games. The last 2 seasons, he coached the Buffalo Bills, and almost got them into this season's Playoffs.

Granted, he could blow up on them -- I thought Rich Kotite was a bad choice, but based on what he'd done in Philadelphia, I don't think anyone imagined he'd go 3-13 and 1-15 -- but, right now, Marrone is not a big name with a big mouth; so, if it does go wrong under him, it won't be as big a disappointment as the 2011-onward Rex collapse was. After Rex, the Jets could use a little boring competence.

New York Knicks: Trade Carmelo Anthony. Get what you can for him. A team that thinks it needs just one more piece of the puzzle to win it all this season might take a chance on him. But right now, he's the biggest name on a team that stinks -- and he's providing much of the odor, with his attitude and his failures in the clutch. Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher both know that you win with a team, not a "14-and-1" (to adapt ex-Met GM Steve Phillips' long-ago swipe at A-Rod to the NBA).

This will be a signal that the rebuilding has begun, and that the future might not be that far away. Sometimes, a sports team needs "addition by subtraction." As Michael Wilbon of ESPN would say, Melo is in a gots-to-go situation. (Note: I don't know if Wilbon agrees; I'm just borrowing his expression.)

Brooklyn Nets: Decide that the future is now. Kevin Garnett is 38, and this might be his last season to be able to seriously contribute to a postseason run. Get a warm body at the trading deadline (not Carmelo -- besides, the Knicks wouldn't make that deal), and go for it. If you even get as far as the Conference Finals, while the Knicks are still bottoming out, you may well, for the first time ever (even in the 2002 and '03 NBA Finals, the then-New Jersey Nets didn't), take New York away from the Garden Gnomes.

New York Liberty: Remind the Tri-State Area that you, and the WNBA, still exist. Advertise yourselves as the best basketball team in town -- because, if the Nets fall apart and the Knicks don't get better anytime soon, you might be!

Okay, you people who run the team on behalf of the Madison Square Garden Corporation will never advertise yourselves that way -- it would undermine the Knicks, who (despite not having won a title in 42 years, reaching the Finals in 16 years, and the Rangers being defending Conference Champions) are still The Garden's signature team -- but you can't tell me there aren't women, girls, and even a few boys and grown men who would like to see an inexpensive professional basketball game played by a good home team during the summer, especially on nights when their favorite baseball team is on the road and they really don't want to see the other team. Face it, if you're a Met fan, what would you rather do: Pay $75 to watch Alex Rodriguez pop up for the Yankees, or pay $20 to watch Essence Carson hit a few baseline jumpers for the Libs?

The Libs are a decent team. They only missed the Playoffs last year on a tiebreaker, and were only 4 games behind the Eastern Conference regular-season Champions, the Atlanta Dream. The team that beat the Libs out for the 4th spot in the East was the Chicago Sky, and they managed to upset the Dream and the Indiana Fever to reach the Finals, before falling to the Phoenix Mercury.

So use MSG Network and MSG Plus to advertise the heck out of the team. Follow the Nets' path, and put up big billboards. Remind people that this is good entertainment. Remind them that it's cheap. Remind them that these women can play and that they look good. And then remind them of how they need to see good basketball in the wake of how bad the Knicks are.

New York Rangers: Considering their current hot streak, it would appear that the Rangers don't need to make a New Year's resolution -- especially one suggested by me, given my absolute hatred of them and their fans.

Look, we all know the Broadway Blueshirts will fail in the Playoffs. It's not a question of if, only of how, when, and against whom. So knowing how to address their problems is tricky. They're half-predictable (they will screw it up, somehow), and half-unpredictable (we don't know that "somehow" yet).

But there's one issue that's better settled sooner rather than later: Settle the arena issue. If you want to keep playing at the current Madison Square Garden, which you just spent skatey-eight gazillion dollars renovating, find a way to get The City of New York to change its mind and let you stay beyond your current lease. If you don't think that's worth the effort, make the best deal you can with The City, and get the 5th Madison Square Garden planned, so that all the necessary paperwork can be done in 2015, and construction can begin, and, when you (and the Knicks, and the Liberty) absolutely have to be out of the big cylinder at 32nd Street and 7th Avenue, Garden V is ready to go.

You and the Knicks are the only Tri-State Area teams whose venue issue is not settled for the foreseeable future. So unless you want to spend a season or 2 playing in the Meadowlands Arena or, God forbid, the Nassau Coliseum, get it done.

New York Islanders: Downplay expectations. Yes, you're doing well at the moment. But you're not the best team in the Tri-State Area. As much as we both hate to admit it, the hated Rangers are. Don't let your fans let their imaginations run away with them.

You will probably make the Playoffs. You may even win a round. But 2015 will not be 1980, when you were not favored to go all the way after a couple of terrible disappointments, and finally did; or even 1993 when you last reached the Conference Finals. It can, however, be 1978, a stepping-stone to bigger things. Encourage hope, but not yet pie-in-the-sky thoughts. Then, in the offseason, assess your needs, and address accordingly.

Start with the goalie: Jaroslav Halak is, at best, the 4th-best goalie in the Tri-State Area, behind Cory Schneier, Keith Kinkaid and Henrik Lundqivst (not necessarily in that order). If he's your backup, you're in decent shape; if he's your starter, don't expect to see the Stanley Cup anytime soon.

New Jersey Devils: Get younger. Jaromir Jagr, Patrik Elias and Dainius Zubrus are doing all right, but they're old. So is Bryce Salvador, and he wasn't all that good when he was young. Marek Zidlicky, while still capable of the odd goal, is no longer a quality defenseman. Scott Gomez is a nice redemption story, but he's not going to be part of a long-term solution. And Andy Greene may only be 32, but he plays more like he's 36.

Don't tank in order to get one of the 2 guys that are being talked about as the first 2 draft picks. But rebuild. Call up the kids from Albany. See what they can do. This is not "losing on purpose," this is experimenting in order to find a winning solution.

You're not going to make the Playoffs as currently constituted, even with having already made the most crucial decision of all, firing head coach Peter DeBoer. Whether the current 2-headed coach of Adam Oates and Scott Stevens (or 3-headed, if you count Lou Lamoriello) will get anything done this season remains to be seen. But I'd rather miss the Playoffs by 5 games with trying something new than miss them by 1 game with trying the already-failed. And if the kids manage to get us in anyway, even if we get throttled in the 1st round, it's an unexpected bonus. Either way, it will be an emotional boost, and Devils fans will be energized for 2015-16.

New York Red Bulls: Replace Thierry Henry. I know, he can't be replaced. But bring in a big name from elsewhere who will bring in the fans. Shawn Wright-Phillips and Tim Cahill, who are still here, won't be that guy. But you're going to need to bring in that guy, or else Frank Lampard and David Silva will peel of casual fans from you and send them to NYCFC. You've worked too hard to be one of the best teams in Major League Soccer to allow yourselves to become the 2nd-biggest soccer team in the Tri-State Area.

New York City FC: Be inclusive. Already, there are people taking shots at you online for your ownership, the royal family of Abu Dhabi, which has an appalling civil rights record, including anti-Semitism and slave labor -- not to mention their connections to OPEC, poisoning the planet and helping to wreck our economy in the 1970s and '80s.

Your "Five Boroughs, One City" campaign was good -- but it hasn't displaced the Red Bulls as the top team in the Area, as they're still Three States, One Metro. But you're playing in Yankee Stadium: Act like it, show the Yankees' kind of outreach. And you call yourself "New York City": Act like it, welcoming people of all races, all religions.

Sign Yossi Benayoun, the greatest player Israel has ever produced, from Maccabi Haifa: He's a Premier League veteran, his name is known, and, while he's going to turn 35 early next season, he's probably got enough left in him to play at the MLS level.

And accept that, no matter how much money your owners have, your chances of winning the MLS Cup in your 1st season are not good -- and your chances of taking a significant number of fans away from the Red Bulls aren't much better. You'll be much better off going after the new fans the sport created in the wake of last year's World Cup. You can't take people who've supporting the old team since they were the MetroStars, chanting and freezing their asses off in windswept Giants Stadium, away from the Red Bulls. But you can take the people who know the names of Landon Donovan and Mix Diskerud, but not necessarily those of Luis Robles and Dax McCarty.

Go for the new fans created by the World Cup, as MLS as a whole did when the World Cup was here in 1994. Worry about the Red Bulls' players when you play them, not about their fans now.

New York Cosmos: Change your name. You are not playing in front of 70,000 people at the Meadowlands, and you're not in the top league of North American soccer (even if your league is named, as was that of the old Cosmos, the North American Soccer League). You are playing in the secondary league, in front of 5,000 fans in a 12,000-seat Division I-AA football stadium (Shuart Stadium at Hofstra University) in a place so desolate that the Jets (with their offices and practice facilities formerly across the Hempstead Turnpike) have already abandoned it, and the Islanders (also across the Turnpike) are about to. Raul, the Real Madrid legend now 37 years old, plays for you; Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia never did.

In their early days as the MetroStars, the Red Bulls had Roberto Donadoni and Lothar Matthaus, both genuine soccer legends in Europe, as a continued Cosmos might have obtained. But they have never pretended to be a continuation of the old Cosmos, who won 5 titles in the old NASL.

True, 3 of the better teams in MLS carry the names of old NASL teams: The Seattle Sounders, the Portland Timbers and the San Jose Earthquakes. There would have been nothing wrong with the new Cosmos trying to revive memories of the original team.

But they are nothing like the Cosmos of the Pele years, 1975-77; or even of the immediate post-Pele years, when they were still title winners (1978, '80 and '82) or at least contenders. They are still dithering on getting a pro-quality stadium built in The City (or at least adjacent to it, as their option for a stadium next-door to Belmont Park would be). Having Pele and Eric Cantona on their letterhead does not make them the North American soccer champions of 1972, '77, '78, '80 and '82. (And Cantona has left that position, anyway.)

And their greatest cockup (to use a term popular in English soccer) was in not getting into MLS when they had the chance. Now, there are 2 teams in that league officially labeled "New York." And if the CosFauxs thought that beating a decidedly 2nd-string Red Bulls team in the 2014 U.S. Open Cup (and then losing in the very next round) made them Number 1 in the Tri-State Area, then they were fools; they are now, irrevocably for the time being, Number 3.

They have the name of the old team. They are playing in one of the old team's former stadiums. They are wearing copies of the old team's uniforms. They have representatives of the old team in their front office. But they are not the old New York Cosmos, and should stop pretending to be. In the immortal words of Paul Simon, "Who do, who do you think you're foolin'?"


As for myself, what are my New Year's resolutions? To get a new job and restore my finances; to continue teaching my nieces (now 7) what I know about sports, as they are eager to learn; and to not let defeats, in life as well as in sports, get to me so much.

I'm too old for that last one.

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