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October 31, 2010

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Off the Mark, Teixeira

"My Dad wanted me to be a baseball player." - Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs in The Natural

Me and my girl went to Yankee Stadium recently. We got there early enough hoping to catch batting practice. We had seats in the lower level of right field. It was prime home run territory. Unfortunately there was no batting practice that morning. No big deal. We just walked out to Monument Park. It's like going to Cooperstown. Walking by monuments such as Lou Gehrig gives me chills every time. He was the first athlete to have his number retired in the history of sport. Then you have Don Mattingly, a more modern Yankee legend. Another first baseman and another number retired. Both won awards as the American League's Most Valuable Player. Both were considered to be among the very best in the game during their respective primes.

Since Gehrig and Mattingly there have been other first basemen to have had strong impacts for the Yanks. Tino Martinez looked dreadful when he first replaced Donnie Baseball but that was short-lived. Images of his grand slam in the 1998 World Series or clutch two-run shot in the 2001 Fall Classic will stay with me forever. When Tino's days were over Jason Giambi came to town. It was 2002 then, a year in which Giambi finished within the top five of the AL MVP voting the third straight year. His walk-off grand slam against the Twins on a rainy May night at the Stadium a year later still shows up on YES. Then in game seven of the '03 ALCS his two solo shots kept the Yanks close against Boston. Neither Tino or Giambi will ever have their jersey retired. They were like Paul O'Neill and Scott Brosius. They came in to put the puzzle together and win championships. They were clutch players. If they ever got booed, they are admired and remembered for coming through.

When the 2009 season began I thought for sure the next great Yankee first baseman had arrived. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe he has gotten lost in the shadows. Maybe playing for the same team and position as his idol is getting to be too much. Somehow, though, in the biggest city Mark Teixeira is flying under the radar.

Going into '09, Teixeira was the best position free agent available. The Yanks had already signed CC and AJ. They probably could have just gotten CC. Anyways, they shocked the baseball world when they signed Teixeira moments before he signed with the Red Sox. He was coming off a '08 season where he was a trade deadline sensation for the Angels. In 54 games he batted .358 with 13 homers and 43 rbi. Even though the Angels would lose in four games to Boston in the playoffs, he would bat .467. Cha ching. Freakish streaks like that are how guys like this get big paydays.

It hasn't all been bad for Tex since the Yanks signed him. He was on the team in '09 when they won the World Series. Aside from his line drive walk off against Minnesota in the divisional round, the guy was more about his defense. When you factor in his playoff performance with the Yankees along with the Angels in '08 his numbers are dreadful. He has batted .214 with three home runs and 14 rbi. This number would obviously be much less if you take away '08. Heck, against the Rangers in the '10 ALCS the guy went 0-14 with three walks. How has this guy NEVER gotten booed?

I've been at games the last two years where I have tried to enlighten fans around me about how misleading this guy's numbers are. I get laughed at like I am the clown behind home plate with price tags on his Yankee shirt. This guy continues to get a pass without a whisper of fans getting restless when he fails to come through consistently.

A-Rod won two MVP awards for the Yanks and got booed both postseasons of those years because he was the reason they got eliminated. Really? Just remember if you were one of the uneducated fools booing that A-Rod was reason #1 why the Yanks won in '09. Not Teixeira.

Now this season Tex is being praised for his 35 home runs and 96 rbi. Funny how his .248 average never hits the newstands. Oh wait. His .345 on base percentage is very notable. Who cares how much this guy walks? He gets paid to hit for a high average and be clutch. He may hit home runs and have a high rbi total but I don't remember too many of those bombs being in clutch moments.

Anybody who thinks this guy is an MVP candidate needs to check the stats. The real MVP on this team plays to the right of this bum with a big smile on his face. When was the last time you thought about Tex after a game with a big smile on YOUR face?

Dangerous Seats Available

"The whole world is falling apart." - Burt Young as Paulie in Rocky Balboa

When the Jets play the Giants Saturday night, it should be a friendly exhibition game. After all, it is just an exhibition game. The third of the usual four preseason games is usually when these two teams meet. This might be just another game for the players and coaches on the field. But for the fans at the New Meadowlands Stadium, there is nothing friendly about this game.

While the Jets and Giants will play in the regular season this year, this game is another way for both teams to prepare. The Jets are coming off another strong but heartbreaking campaign. The Giants, on the other hand, are facing question marks and uncertainty. The game this Saturday, though, is another opportunity for certain "fans" to start fights with people just because they like the "wrong" team.

Everyday on WFAN fans of the Giants call in and take shots at excited Jet fans. "You haven't won anything yet-stop talking!" This is a popular line. Jet fans try to fight back. "The Giants signed another guy nobody ever heard of." All of this is entertaining during a regular commute. The same words in person, however, will undoubtedly spark fist fights. But no matter how many fights break out, they will be taken care of in a timely manner and the unviolent fans can go back to watching the game. It's not like we are in California.

If you watch the news you have an idea about the problems in California. Gang violence continues to rise. A recent poll of the top 10 car theft cities in the U.S. included seven in California. Now they seem to have the most violent fans as well. The baseball world is still up in arms about the San Francisco Giant fan nearly beaten to death by two Los Angeles Dodger fans. One of the most famous sports rivalries never had things like that happen when both teams played in New York. Just last week the same state had a problem with another rivalry.

During a preseason game between the Raiders and 49ers, a scary scene broke out. In the stands! A straight up fist fight was going on for a good two minutes before any security took action. The 50 or so fans seated around the fight just watched like the fighters were in an octagon. When security finally showed up two assailants started walking away from the scene. One of them nonchalantly took his jersey off and tried to blend into the stands with his fellow fans. Then after the game a girl fight broke out in the parking lot. Again. More than 50 other fans watching like it was fight night and maybe half had their cell phones taking video hoping for youtube glory. It gets worse. Two other fans would get shot after another fight broke out. This is just sick and unacceptable behavior by fans of two bad football teams.

When I talked to my brother about this he made a good point. Garbage likes this makes you not want to go to away games where your team is playing. When it comes to football he and I get into heated debates as he is a Brady boy and I am a Jet believer. One of our recent debates on a beach got loud. But it was all in good fun. We do the same thing with Met fans or Red Sox fans when we go to games. We might even get into it with a Cubs fan just because. At the end of the day we want our team to beat your team. If at the end of the season our team loses, there is always excitement for the next season.

The sports world needs to get safer. For the longest time stories of fans this violent were usually only found in other countries. Two of the major four professional sports have taken black eyes the last four months. Hopefully the days ahead are the bright ones we used to long for. Images of victory parades in wall street. Checking to see if Sports Illustrated has your team winning it all. Others have more dangerous agendas...

"Some people just want to watch the world burn." Michael Caine as Alfred in The Dark Knight

Saturday, June 4, 2011

True Two

Everyone remembers their first game. Mine was a Saturday afternoon in July. The year was 1996 and the New York Yankees were in first place. It was Old Timers' Day in the Bronx and I was next to my Dad.

Seeing the greatest Yankees getting introduced was amazing. Joe DiMaggio was there to throw out the first pitch. Reggie Jackson hit a home run in the Old Timers' game. And there were two future Hall of Famers in uniform for the current Yankees that day. Derek Jeter was more than halfway through a season that would win him Rookie of the Year honors. Maybe everyone expected great things from the No. 2 overall pick four years prior. But out in the bullpen was a lanky young reliever named Mariano Rivera.

Almost fifteen years have passed since my first game. I have been to dozens more and the Yankees have been dominant. Perhaps the two biggest reasons have been Jeter and Rivera.

Everyone started bringing up this "Core Four" in '09. Andy Pettitte left for the Houston Astros after '03. Some say if he was there in '04 the Yanks don't collapse against Boston. As much as I love Pettitte as a fan, he brought back negative press and a steroid admittance. Jorge Posada, meanwhile, has been the epitome of a compiler from the day he got here. Think of the big hits throughout his career. Try to get to your thumb. It's not happening.

Jeter is starting to show his age. If anyone deserves a pass, though, it is the Captain. Sixteen hits is all that separates Jeter from 3,000 hits. No Yankee has ever achieved the feat. By the time his career ends, Jeter will be in the top 10 of career hits leaders. Of course this means an automatic entrance into Cooperstown. But Jeter has had a career full of memorable moments.

The first game I went to this season me and my brother were talking about Jeter in '06. Ten years after winning ROY honors, Jeter had his best season. Somehow Justin Morneau won the American League MVP. He was given 15 first-place votes while Jeter got 12. It just seemed Jeter carried the Yankees that season. When the playoffs began Jeter stayed hot. He was already 4-4 in game one against the Tigers in the eigth inning. There were deafening "MVP!MVP!MVP!" chants in the old Stadium. The new Stadium has never felt like the old one. This moment was the perfect example with Jeter in the batters box with one out. Then Jeter hit a bomb to dead center almost hitting the black seats. 5-5! Moments like this are why Jeter is not just another guy with 3,000 hits.

If Jeter is the Captain, Rivera might as well be the Pope. Since '96, Mo has earned the reputation as the greatest closer of all time. He has 573 career saves, just 28 shy of Trevor Hoffman's 601. Life after Rivera is starting to become a reality as every Yankee fan can see the writings on the wall.

Posada should be retiring soon. The Captain only has a few more years left. Rivera has to be close to the end, right? He has had some rocky moments this season but remains a force in all the land. As long as Rivera is the Yankees' closer they have an advantage nobody else does. Every closer in the league throughout Rivera's career has been better known for the times he choked than when he succeeded. Not Rivera.

If you want to feel the closest thing to the force Rivera possesses it is quite simple. Go to Yankee Stadium and hope he comes in the game. "Enter Sandman" starts playing almost as a cue for the game ending even though Rivera has not thrown a pitch yet. It was a better feeling in the old Stadium though. The bigger, more spacious new Stadium has sent the real fans to the land of "Far Far Away." We are still screaming but too much distance and empty seats separates us from the field. You'll get goosebumps, though, and be able to tell all your friends you saw greatness. The best closer ever.

The Captain and the "Pope" are still playing for the Yankees. This may be the twilight parts of their careers but the Yanks are still in first place with the "True Two" there through it all since 1995. There when it started. There when it will end. The world can't end as long as Jeter and Mo are on the Yanks.

As for my first game. The Yanks beat the Royals 5-4. Jeter was 2-4 with a run scored. Rivera pitched two innings where he struck out two, walked three, and gave up one hit while picking up his 20th hold of the season.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Manny Being Manny

Whenever I see a sports documentary it often brings up the question: "Where were you?" For instance, let's say you are watching one on the Yankee/Red Sox rivalry. Where were you when Aaron Boone took Tim Wakefield deep to win in '03? I was watching that game on a 13 inch screen in my dorm room. Here is a tougher one. Where were you when news broke about Manny Ramirez testing positive for steroid use in early '09?

When I got a call from a friend telling me Manny would forever be tainted it made me happy. Up until that point it seemed all of the well known guilty steroid users were Yankees. Look at Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, and Jose Canseco. Of course Canseco was a Yankee for ten seconds and put his 2000 World Series Ring on eBay. Yet every photo of him when he admitted to being a steroid user was him in pinstripes. Come on. He was a "Bash Brother" with Mark McGwire in Oakland. McGwire finally came clean last year. Nice try, Mark. Your career will always have an asterisk next to it. Barry Bonds remains like Clemens as he denies every accusation.

Why couldn't they be like Manny and fail drug tests? "Manny being Manny" must now include not being able to spoil drug tests. Rafael Palmeiro failed a test and then disappeared. He had no problem lying to Congress a short time before that. Manny served the suspension after getting busted in '09 and came back with a flurry for Dodger blue. I know one Dodger fan crazy enough to buy a Manny Dodgers jersey.  

For the longest time, Manny Ramirez was considered the best pure hitter in baseball. These were the years from when his career began in the mid-90's and stretched more than a decade. Comparisons to Ted Williams were not out of the question. Even though Teddy Ballgame never would have used the bathroom behind the Green Monster during a game, Manny was a rare talent at the plate.

As a Yankee fan I remember how good Ramirez was as an Indian. All I know is whether he had that or the Boston uniform on, he was a Yankee killer. He always seemed to hit a big home run against us. His pose at home plate drove me nuts. Sometimes he would hit the ball and stand at home plate long enough to see it clear the wall for a home run. Sure, it did not take long since many of his longballs were laser line drives. For some reason, though, the Yankees and other teams never went up and in on Manny. He always looked to be way too comfortable. Maybe that was why it was so easy for him to dominate the game through his prime.

Before being busted for steroid use in '09 this guy was a first ballot Hall of Famer. Too bad. As great of a player as Manny was, he simply does not belong in the Hall of Fame. When he failed a second test just days ago he told the MLB he would retire. Not even a press conference. The guy whispered he would retire and then disappeared. Where is the press conference? At least guys like A-Rod and Pettitte admit what they did. Then there are clowns like Clemens and Bonds who continue to lie. My favorite, though, are guys like Ramirez and Palmeiro. Their careers were set. Just walk away and get the call in five years. Then in six years I would walk by your plaque. Instead, they both failed tests which is an automatic no entry into Cooperstown.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Really Rangers?

What a difference a week makes. It was just a week ago that the New York Rangers were looking up in the playoff race. They were trying to go from seventh to sixth. That way they could potentially face off with the Boston Bruins when the playoffs began. Who wants to play the Washington Capitals? If the Rangers were to finish seventh their fate would be Alexander Ovechkin and the Caps in round one.

"Playoffs? You kidding me? Playoffs?" To quote the always bad coach Jim Mora is how Ranger fans feel today. Sure, they had a run of ten games where they went 8-1-1. But they picked a great time to lose against two teams with backup goalies in net. With just four games left and three points separating eighth to ninth place it is starting to feel like last year.

Even with Henrik Lundquist playing on the top of his game, the Rangers seem destined for an early vacation. Of the four remaining games, two are against conference contenders, Philly and Boston. The Thrashers and Devils will be tough tests also. Especially when you consider this fact. The Rangers can't score.

Two seasons ago they had the Capitals down 3-1 in the playoffs and wound up being eliminated. Their problem was the inability to score goals consistently. The Rangers' General Manager went out after that season and signed Marian Gaborik. He had a strong first season but the Rangers did not make the playoffs. Then this season, he has not even scored 25 goals and guess what? They still can't score and are dangerously close to not making the playoffs.

The Rangers have scored a combined five goals in their last five games. The Islanders beat them 6-2 last night. The Isles had nothing to play for. Their season has been over. Somehow, though, they played like the hungry team. The Isles have a pair of 30-goal scorers. When lines remain the same throughout the season it's easy to score goals. For some reason Ranger coach John Tortorella thinks by changing lines like underwear is a good idea. Have a bad shift? Benched. Take a bad penalty? Benched. Be on a line that scores in five straight games then go one without a goal? Have fun playing the next game with two new linemates. It's easy to win the Stanley Cup with Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier, huh coach? This clown can't even get through an after game press conference without being a douche to another beat reporter. Just because any ONE of those reporters could do a better job coaching does not mean you get to be a sarcastic (insert word here).

All of a sudden tomorrow's afternoon showdown in Philly is more than a must-win game. It is an opportunity to regain their playoff push.

"It's now or never..."

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Henrik for Vezina, Hart

"Henrik! Henrik! Henrik!" The chants were blasting through Madison Square Garden on a Thursday night in late March. The chant is as recognizable as one from the Bleacher Creatures. This one, however, usually starts up in Blue Heaven and makes its way down where a franchise's best goalie ever is currently at the top of his game.

Was Mike Richter overrated? It's possible. The guy was goalie of the 1993-94 Stanley Cup Champion team. He helped erase a fifty-four year curse in just his third season in the National Hockey League. Any objective Ranger fan will tell you, though, he was unreliable most of his career with the amount of soft goals allowed. Sure, he stopped Pavel Bure on a penalty shot. Two years before that he let Ron Francis blast one from the red line. That came in a series where the Rangers were up 2-1. Heck, they were winning 4-2 in the third when Richter let the puck get by him. That ultimately led to the Pittsburgh Penguins' second of two consecutive Cups. Yet Richter's number thirty-five jersey hangs high in the rafters at Madison Square Garden. Make room for another jersey. That one belongs to the Rangers' current goalie, Henrik Lundquist.

If there is any guy in the NHL underappreciated more than Lundquist please let me know. It is not like this is the first time he is making a name for himself on a big stage. Because of him, Sweden won the gold medal at the 2006 Olympics. With Olympic gold in his trophy case more hardware may be on the horizon for the Rangers' netminder.

Lundquist just blanked the Boston Bruins for his league-leading 11th shutout this season. Recently during an intermission on the Versus channel the genius analysts talked about Vezina contenders. The Vezina Trophy, by the way, is awarded to the NHL's best goalie every year. These guys named five goalies. None of those mentioned were King Henrik. Really?

The Rangers have played more games than any other team in the Eastern Conference and the 181 goals given up is the lowest total. They remain seventh in the conference so maybe their positioning is keeping voters from taking the King serious. You can argue that Lundquist be a finalist for the Hart Trophy and Vezina Trophy. The Hart is awarded to "the player believed to be most valuable to his team." Nobody in the NHL today is more valuable to his team than Lundquist is to the Rangers.

Lately there have been scary moments for Lundquist. All of the sudden opposing players are plowing into him, which probably has Ranger fans leading the league with near heart attacks. The team's top defenseman Marc Staal smacked Hank on the face with a rising slap shot. Thank goodness for goalie masks, eh? Maybe Staal can find an accurate slap shot someday. How can a guy that good have no accuracy?

There are just six games to go and every game's two points feel like playoff hockey. While the Buffalo Sabres hold onto eighth place and the Carolina Hurricanes try to break out of ninth, the Rangers are gunning for sixth. Maybe fifth. As the Blueshirts continue their push toward the playoffs, Lundquist will continue making noise. He has to. Without him playing the best hockey of his career, the Rangers would not be in the playoff picture.

Maybe this is the year Lundquist wins the Vezina Trophy. Or the Hart Trophy. He definitely deserves one of these awards. No Ranger goalie has ever won the Hart. Not since John Vanbiesbrook in 1985-96 has a Ranger won the Vezina. Before him there were just two other seasons where a Ranger was honored with the award. One came in 1971 and the other was in a more infamous year: 1940!

Ranger fans everywhere want to believe in this team. It is so easy to cheer for guys like Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky, and Brandon Prust to name a few. These guys are grinders. They do their job every game and expect their consistent gameplan to produce wins. This is not a team full of stars. Their one true All-Star is Lundquist. With him playing this well and this late in the season, why would you not want to believe? Maybe this is the year. The NHL, more than any other professional sport, is calling for its Butler to hoist the Stanley Cup.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

One week away. 

The Yankees will have their 2011 season underway. More importantly, fantasy baseball will be on the minds of stat geeks everywhere. You all know who you are.

To help prepare for my 12-team league, I am doing a mock draft. The problem is it is with 11 strangers who could know as much about baseball as Paris Hilton. I will go pick-by-pick strategy through the first six rounds and then get back to watching the Rangers hopefully win. Let me know if you agree or disagree with any of my commentary.

I have the seventh pick. I really want Robinson Cano. You wonder about taking Alex Rodriguez here also. But some guy took A-Rod fourth. Does he know something? Well I passed on Longoria, Braun, and Carlos Gonzalez to take Cano. He is the best second baseman in the game. It is the most shallow position in fantasy baseball. He should have more than 30 home runs and 120 runs batted in with a .320 average.

Second round. Good opportunity to take a stud starting pitcher. By stud I mean someone with last name Halladay or Hernandez. In THIS draft I could not pass up Doc Halladay. He has had injury problems in the past. But he has potential to win 25 games and strike out 200+ with a tiny ERA. When you get a guy this reliable, the next round to take a starter is not as close by as it would be otherwise.

Third round. This is when the best available player consists of several guys you can't really decide on. I took Adam Dunn. He is in the American League and should hit 40 home runs with a lot more RBI than he had with the Nationals. Guys on the White Sox actually get ON base.

Fourth round. Josh Johnson, Ubaldo Jimenez, and CC Sabathia are all available. I take Justin Morneau instead. Another first baseman. This guy is a former MVP well in his prime who hits for a high average and will mash the ball out of Target Field all year. Not bad for a Canadian, eh?

Fifth round. Like I mentioned earlier. Who are these guys in this draft?! Somehow Josh Johnson is still available. He won just 11 games last year but he struck out close to 200 with a 2.30 ERA. King Felix won the AL Cy Young with similar numbers. Look for more run support from the Marlins for Johnson. Halladay and Johnson on the same team in a 12-team league? Not bad at all.

Sixth round. I would name this team the NL East. I took Brian McCann here. Catcher is a position you want to have somebody good. He is a top five guy who is coming off a subpar year.


Monday, March 21, 2011

Knick Fan 4 Life

Waking up in the middle of the night and staring at a poster. That is the first thing that comes to mind when I think about the origin of my love for the New York Knicks.
A simple poster of Patrick Ewing used to hang in my room. This was one of a few souvenirs my father bought me the first and only time I saw the Knicks play at Madison Square Garden. The year we went was 1991. Unfortunately, David Robinson and the San Antonio Spurs dominated the entire game. Yet there was something to be said about being a Knick fan those days. The team was among the best in the Eastern Conference but you could never consider them with the elite teams. You could never say to another fan: “This is our year.”
The Chicago Bulls were in an elite class all alone. Maybe that is why Knick fans could only dream. Those nights when I would wake up would be results from having nightmares of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.  
The early 90’s were days when watching an entire basketball game seemed so boring. Boys wanted to play wiffle ball and manhunt outside. These were the days when the first Nintendo Entertainment System was flourishing so new units like the Sega Genesis were being built. Between video games inside and boyish fun outside, why would I want to watch the game of the week on NBC? That all changed at the end of the 1993 season when Jordan decided to retire.
Ewing was not alone. He had a strong supporting cast. There was his head coach Pat Riley. Other players on that team included John Starks, Charles Oakley, and Anthony Mason. You talk about a scary team. These guys played hard and they fouled even harder. The team was still in its prime with the brightest outlook since drafting our center from Georgetown. As Knick fans, this meant 1994 would be our year.
New nightmares ruined sleep patterns a year later. Waking up was from a new player and team causing nightmares for Knick fans everywhere. It turned out 1994 was the first of two NBA Championships for Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets. The first came at the expense of the Knicks. Fans of the blue and orange can tell you they did not see that loss coming.
Beating Pippen and what was left of the Bulls in the Eastern Confernece semi-finals was a success. But it took a full seven games. Anyone who thought the Bulls of 1991-1993 were all Jordan should look at that 1994 team. Even without the game’s best player, they went the distance against the favored Knicks. It was as unlikely as Rocky Balboa going the distance against Apollo Creed.
After getting by the Bulls Knick fans everywhere felt a huge sign of relief. Enter Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers. You talk about a rivalry out of nowhere. This was it. The Hoosier state and the mecca of basketball became two teams that shared hate. Rik Smits made so many shots it made Knick fans like me wonder if Larry Bird jumped into another body after retiring. But Miller was the guy nobody in New York liked. This is the guy who put his hands around his own throat toward Spike Lee metaphorically telling every Knick fan their team was destined to choke.  Images of him stealing the inbound pass and dropping another three remain with fans like me to this day. Regardless of how amazing Miller’s performance might have been, the Knicks were still able to get the best of them.
Seeing Ewing stand up on the scorer’s table at the Garden after eliminating the Pacers should not have been his career’s most memorable moment. Had he led the Knicks past the Rockets for the NBA Championship we would remember other images. Instead we remember being up 3-2 and having a chance to win it all. Starks had to have his worst performance, right? As it goes, winning that year was not meant to be.
With half of a decade gone and five more seasons left, Knick fans were still dreaming. If what happened with the Pacers looked ugly another new rivalry turned violent. The Miami Heat had a new coach which made them instant rivals. Riley leaving the Knicks for Miami was a head scratcher. This caused a showering of boos from the blue seats at the Garden his first game back. He was always a front-running coach. He won championships for the Los Angeles Lakers and left for the Knicks when the teams were going in separate directions. He had similar thoughts with the Heat as opposed to a Knick team he must have assumed would soon fade away.  Maybe that was why Knick fans could hate the Heat so quick. They had our coach.
Alonzo Mourning was another Georgetown center who was drafted originally by the Charlotte Hornets. The Heat had a knack for growing nobody and taking guys still in their prime from other clubs. Look at Riley. They also had a veteran point guard in Tim Hardaway. Throw in guys like PJ Brown and Dan Majerle you had a tough team. From 1997 through 2000 these teams waged battles in each postseason. The first came just a year after the Knicks new head coach found his spot.
Jeff Van Gundy was slowly becoming a respected coach around the league. He had these long droopy eyes and always had a Diet Coke on his side of the scorer’s table. He rarely spent any time sitting on the bench during big games. He paced with a cautious optimism at all times. Basketball is a game of runs though so who could blame him for his antics? Even though he didn’t look it, he had a swagger about his team. Ewing was still there but everyone else was gone. Now it was a team with Allan Houston, Latrell Sprewell, Marcus Camby, Larry Johnson, Chris Childs, and Charlie Ward. My father always said those days Ward was still the best quarterback in New York. He had been a star at Florida State University but knew he had to stick with basketball to go pro.
This was a new Knick team. But they played like the team played the first part of the decade. Houston had a knack for making big three’s like he was Starks. Camby husteled like Oakley with more offensive ability. Johnson was a tough dude like Mason was and could occasionally nail a clutch shot. Sprewell was a fire cracker with this intensified persona. He was a fan favorite.
The first battle with Miami in 1997 lived to its billing in Game Five. The Knicks were up in the series 3-1 but PJ Brown dropped a Knick after a free throw which caused a bench-clearing brawl. The rule of leaving a bench without being in the game was an instant suspension. The Knicks lost that game and lost the next two after having to play without some of their best players. The same thing happened when they met again a year later. This time the brawl was with the Heat’s game changer in Mourning. At one point Van Gundy was swinging on Mourning’s leg like a new shoe. But the Knicks got them back. A year later, the Knicks tried to break Miami’s hearts again.
In 1999 the Knicks were an underachieving team throughout and stumbled into the playoffs as the eighth seed. The Heat ran away with the number one seed. This meant in the opening five game series the bitter rivals would meet each other. After four games it was tied two games apiece. The fifth and deciding game in Miami was one of the last great games for Knick fans old enough to remember that game. Almost eleven years since that Sunday afternoon in Miami. It looked like the Heat had it won with 30 seconds left. Hardaway went to make a pass at the top of the key when Ward stripped him. Sprewell was there for the loose change. The Knicks called a timeout. Stevie Wonder must have drew the first play since no shots were taken and the Knicks nearly lost the ball. Down by one and less than five seconds to go, Allan Houston drove into the lane and threw up a mini prayer. It bricked off the front of the rim hit the backboard and dropped in. The ball went in like Scott Howard’s last free throw in Teen Wolf. There was still eight-tenths of a second left. The Knicks would win.
Still an eight seed, the Knicks knocked off the Atlanta Hawks the second round to set up a meeting with Miller and the Pacers. In the third game Johnson dropped a three when the Knicks were down as many and got fouled. The view of the Garden going nuts when that happened still gives me butterflies. That was as memorable as Childs running up to Johnson and telling him it meant nothing if he bricked the ensuing free throw. He made it to give the Knicks a 2-1 series lead. New York would go on to win the series in six games to be Eastern Conference Champions for the first time since 1994. Nobody thought 1999 was our year but that team had me believing.
The San Antonio Spurs stood in the way of the Knicks winning the NBA Championship. Unfortunately, it took them just five games to end the dreamy run of the 1998-99 New York Knicks. The first game I went to I saw Robinson and the Spurs beat my team so bad it made me sick. Really. I had that sick feeling again. But it was hard to think those days we would win soon. Our team was getting old.
Since that season, the Knicks made the playoffs three times. This season, in 2010, every Knick fan is dreaming LeBron James will take advantage of his free agency to rescue the Knicks. We need a miracle. We might have had so many of those in the late 90’s that the basketball Gods could not grant our wishes in the 00’s. This is the dawn of a new decade. The first season already gone, we will be okay without a miracle. What Knick fans like me really want is a King.

(written prior to LeBron James signing with the Miami Heat.)

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Megan Memories

Anyone who knows me understands how I feel when one of my teams loses a big game.

Megan and I lived in the same dorm my freshman year at Plattsburgh. We had common friends but never actually met. Then one day I saw an ad for jobs at Normandie Watersports, a summer camp in the Adirondack Mountains. The camp was famous for its name which provided water skiing, wakeboarding, jet skiing, and other water activities on Lake Champlain. Megan was hired as a water skiing instructor. I was hired as what K called me: "a landsports guy."

We were both counselors there. From the first day there when we actually met until now we have remained the best of friends. If anyone has stories about me after a loss, ask her!

The Jets had to win their last game of the 2001 season just to get IN the playoffs. They had to win at Oakland of all places. It took a last second field goal from John Hall for the Jets to win. Yes, he actually made some field goals those days. The good news was they were in the playoffs. The bad news was they were going right back to Oakland.

As fate would have it the Jet-Raider playoff showdown fell on a travel day. Saturday January 12th was when Megan was driving me back to Plattsburgh for the next semester. Classes were more than a week away. The life of an RA means loneliness. Try living alone on your floor for a while and tell me you don't hear things! Before that would happen, though, Megan and I headed north just as the game were underway. We got to Albany as the second half began. It was still a close game at that time.

Who am I kidding? It was 16-3 Oakland at the half. I am an optimist when it comes to my teams. I never think we are out of it until the game is over. Anything can happen. I knew we were getting the ball to start the third quarter. My positive thinking helped me see Wayne Chrebet catch a touchdown pass from Vinny Testaverde. Well, not all of it. There was a clown blocking the TV at the Outback we stopped at for dinner. Not a real clown. Just another guy who forgets TV's are on at bars so fans can watch their teams. Otherwise, why would they leave home?! Megan was laughing when I was getting mad at my obstructed view. I was still somewhat relieved it was 16-10 after three quarters. Back to the Jeep for the ride up north.

I don't know how we picked up a broadcast on the radio when we made it back to I-87. My luck was it was the Raiders broadcast. There is nothing worse than hearing a live feed of your team sent by the opponent. Talk about favortism. I heard the Jets score 14 points in the fourth quarter. 24-16 Jets, right? Not so much. The Raiders scored 22 in the same frame and won, 38-24. Season over. This was clear around Exit 30. The last hour of the ride I had no words. I could not believe another season was over. They could look so good and then the next week it's the opposite. Unfortunately for Megan she had the darkest ride to Plattsburgh with me in the passenger seat motionless. Always next year, right?

The Jets started next fall with a win. Then they were on a three-game losing streak when it was opening weekend for Sweet Home Alabama. Megan and I had first seen the trailer for this movie when we saw Blue Crush the previous summer. Previews gave us the opportunity for future movie dates. We always tried to go opening weekend.

It had to be the same weekend where the Yanks were facing the Angels in the American League Divisional Series. After winning a crazy game one, the Angels won the next two. The Yanks were on the brink as we went to the movies on Saturday October 5th.

Thank the world for a walkman! Yes, I went into the movie wearing a headset. The Yanks were up 2-1 going into the bottom of the fifth when the Angels put up an eight-spot. Byebye walkman. And byebye to another Yankee season. Making matters worse came the next day when the Jets lost their fourth straight. But I saw another great movie with Megan. For the record on the ride home I was talking THIS time. Always next year, right?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Football Family

When my sister, brother, and I saw Santa Claus one year we were taught to believe. While St. Nick asked us if we had been naughty or nice, he said: “…and tell your Dad to stop throwing your toys when the Giants are losing…” We all left the little red caboose in Warwick beaming and telling our Dad things like: “He must have been the real Santa!”

The New York Football Giants have always been my Dad’s favorite team. As much as he loves the Yankees, Rangers, and even the Knicks, the Giants have always had a special place within my Dad’s heart. Sitting with him during one game is all you need to fully understand his passion for the Giants. You would think this passion would trickle down to all three of his children and they would love the Giants as well. My big sister Kara followed suit. But for some odd reason Kevin and I went different ways.

As early as I can remember Ken O’Brien was the quarterback for the New York Jets. When I first learned this two things made me into a Jets fan. I had just seen 1986 fighter jet movies Top Gun and Iron Eagle. Knowing this team’s quarterback had the same name as me gave me another inkling about the Jets. These childish reasons propelled me to claiming the Jets off waivers and into my young gullible heart.

Kevin liked teams for odd reasons. One time he liked every team with the color teal in their logo. He had hats and jerseys of the Charlotte Hornets and San Jose Sharks for this reason alone. Here is another odd reason. The year was 1990. The Giants were four years removed from their Super Bowl XXI triumph and having another spectacular season. It was during this season Kevin learned about David Meggett, a third down specialist and kick returner for the Giants. Meggett became Kevin’s favorite player. A few years later, however, former Giants coach Bill Parcells was with the lowly New England Patriots. As many coaches do when they get with new teams, former players tend to get phone calls. Meggett was one of these phone calls and became a Patriot. The next thing we knew, Kevin was asking Santa Claus for a Drew Bledsoe jersey. I was asking Santa if the Jets would ever have a winning season again.

Football remains a daily conversation with my family. When Kara brought her husband Mike home for the first time we had yet another team to the list. Mike was then and remains a Packers fan. I say "was and remains" because he was also a Mets fan. That did not last very long. Still though, he was old enough to see Brett Favre win his only Super Bowl for Green Bay. Him and I went to the Jet-Packer game in 2010. Perhaps the most boring game to go to, the Packers won 9-0. Within another three months, Mike's Packers were in Super Bowl XLV. A couple weeks later, Kara was ordering the Super Bowl Champion hat and DVD for Mike. Lucky guy.

Looks like he has bragging rights for a while.

During the actual season it is so important your team wins each week. If they do, you feel safe from the family banter that takes place the next week. Think you can look to next week when your team has a tough loss? Think again. You get constant one-liner reminders about how much your team sucked.

When the season ends, though, we all get excited about the Rangers and Knicks. Since 1999 we have had few good memories with these teams. Good thing we all love the Yankees, huh? It is now less than two weeks from baseball season. But we'd be lying if we weren't more excited about another football season several more months away.

Who cares about the possible lockout? My Dad is STILL mad about the Giants' collapse against Philadelphia. Heck, if the Giants won that game the Packers never would have made the playoffs. Fortunately for Mike that did not happen. He is thinking about a repeat. Kevin is doing mock drafts to see how many studs the Patriots get next month.

As for me? Another season ended with heartbreak. It's not every year your upstart quarterback takes down the two best at his position in consecutive playoff weeks though. Here comes another season where after each win I will be asking myself: "Could this be our year?"

Monday, March 14, 2011

Lucky Charm

When Alex Rodriguez joined the New York Yankees one thing seemed odd. The World Series seemed to have gone away to a land far, far away. After all, they had won six out of eight American League pennants before he joined the team. But yet entering the 2009 season, the Yanks spent none of his first five years playng for it all.

They came close in '04 while they won a total of four postseason games the next three years combined. Making things worse came in '08 when the team failed to make the postseason for the first time since 1993. You can't count the strike year of 1994 because there were no playoffs. If there were, the Yanks would have been in them. Save that story for another day, okay? 

The last year of the old Yankee Stadium, in 2008, could not be pinned on A-Rod. But his first five years in pinstripes were the kind spoiled Yankee fans like me hoped to forget. In 2005 and 2007 he was the American League's Most Valuable Player. That was the first time a Yankee won multiple MVP awards since Roger Maris. What a coincidence that is. Yankee fans despised Maris the way many do today with A-Rod. The guy chased down Babe Ruth's single season home run record on top of those awards and he still got booed. Tough town.

When the Yankees won the American League East in 2009 the question remained: "Can A-Rod finally come through in October?" I got my answer in the second game of the divisional series against Minnesota.

The Yanks began their postseason with a game one win over the Twins in the new house, 7-2. I could not wait for game two. Unfortunately I had a date with a special girl. We had made plans to see Couples Retreat. When I got to the movie theatre I was listening to the game on the radio. It was the top of the eigth when the Twins broke a 1-1 tie to take a 3-1 lead. Oh well. The series will be tied, I thought.

The movie was a half hour old when I felt my phone vibrating. Then it vibrated again. And again. I had to be "that guy" and check my cell. My brother texted me A-Rod hit a two-run bomb to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth.

I felt like getting out of my seat and jumping up and down. It was like I just found out a two-hour delay turned into a snow day. Making things better I was watching with my dream girl who might have been my "Lucky Charm." I called her LC everyday after that. The stars kept aligning when we were together.

Shortly after getting a good night kiss that night my phone went off again. This time it was a co-worker telling me Mark Teixeira hit a game-winning home run in the bottom of the eleventh. What an amazing night. Anyone close to me knows I was all about A-Rod through all of his struggles in clutch spots. This was the year, I thought to myself on my way home. This was the year he would bring the Yanks back to Wall Street.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Heartbreak in July

Every Yankee fan remembers where they were when Aaron Boone took Tim Wakefield deep to clinch the 2003 American League pennant. Try asking every Yankee fan where they were when the Boston Red Sox captured back the momentum the following season. I am not talking about a game in the 2004 American League Championship Series, either.

It was a Saturday afternoon in July. I was at my friend's college graduation party. I knew the Yanks were in Fenway that day. As much as I wanted to be inside watching the game the weather was much too nice. Besides, why bother? A-Rod hit an eventual game-winning RBI single the night before in the top of the ninth off Keith Foulke. That was when us Yankee fans had every bragging right over the BoSox. The latest one was we traded for A-Rod, the guy they could not get. History was repeating itself. Or was it?

You didn't have to be old enough to know about Babe Ruth, Bucky Dent, Bill Buckner, or any other tale about Boston misery. Little did I know that the baseball universe was starting to throw a nasty changeup.

I was relaxing when some kid came running outside yelling: "A-Rod is in a fight!" Say no more. The lawnchairs flew and everybody was inside within seconds. He wasn't lying. Bronson Arroyo went up and way in on A-Rod. Next thing you knew Jason Varitek punched A-Rod with his catcher's mitt still on. It was a moment I knew would never be forgotten.

The game went on in the Yanks' favor and was 10-8 going into the bottom of the ninth. At this point I was on my way home from the party. I pulled into see my Dad's softball game. But as I parked the car Kevin Millar hit an RBI single scoring Nomar Garciaparra. Suddenly it was 10-9 with one out, one man on, and Mariano Rivera was on the mound. I was thinking: "you have GOT to be kidding me!"

Far and away, Rivera is the greatest closer of all-time. Even he had his blown saves though. Sometimes you could see the worse ones coming. They usually played out like a totally random series of unexpected events. Like a bad script. His most memorable included the '97 Divisional Series against Cleveland and the '01 World Series against Arizona.

Up came pesky hitting Bill Mueller. The count was three balls and one strike. The next pitch came and John Sterling started saying the magic words: "...that ball is high, it is far, it is..." From that day on the curse was fading. The dog days of being a Red Sox fan were ending.

Then came October. Somehow in the ALCS the Yanks went up three games to none over the BoSox. But even then I kept thinking something had to give. When Rivera walked Millar in game four, I started peeling off a commemorative 1903-2003 patch on my fitted hat I got a year before. In 2003, maybe the last bad year in Boston history. When Johnny Damon hit the grand slam in game seven the patch was gone. I still wear the hat with a glue stain.

Like Hans said in the original Mighty Ducks: "It's important to remember the past."

Saturday, March 12, 2011

One Grand Slam

Anytime Derek Jeter comes up with the bases loaded his career stats in that situation are shown. For a guy who is cruising to the Hall of Fame you would think, maybe by accident, he would have half a dozen grand slams. But the fact is he has hit just one. I was there.

The date was June 18th 2005. It was Military Appreciation Day and the Chicago Cubs were in town. A warm Saturday afternoon, I was there with my buddy Mike and his New York Mets Joe McEwing jersey. Don't ask. We were sitting 20 or so rows back in the upper deck of left field. We had an awesome view of an F-14 and F-16 do a fly over just before the first pitch.

Going into the bottom of the sixth the Yankees were up 3-1. Jorge Posada led off with a walk. Bernie Williams singled into center field. Tino Martinez struck out. Then a rookie by the name of Robinson Cano walked to load the bases for the Captain. I looked at Mike and said: "what a great time to hit his first grand slam."

Mike's response was classic when he said: "if he hits a grand slam I will leave the Stadium and wait for it to end outside!"

After three pitches the count was two balls and one strike. In came a fastball and Jeter hit a long line drive toward the 399 ft sign in left center field. It was not nearly as far as the old Yankee Stadium's gap of 465 feet. But it still kept the name "Death Valley." And this ball kept going. I followed the ball as it traveled over the fence. Home run. Grand slam! I wanted to throw my hat onto the field but I was much too far to reach. A packed house of 55,300+ went crazy. Think about it. It was a 3-1 nail biter and he made it a 7-1 laugher.

Almost halfway through his 10th full season Jeter picked a clutch time to hit his first grand slam. Already five and a half seasons have passed since then and no more grand slams have come for him. Maybe 2011 will see #2 for #2. Who knows? My money is on 3,000 career hits by June 18th 2011.