Friday, September 29, 2006

Even Todd Pratt's walkoff homer didn't yield a world title.

New York, New York — a Championship Town?

From "Play's theThing," Woodstock Times, September 28, 2006:

Isaac Thorn was a guest columnist for this installment of “Play’s the Thing.”

Out in the red states, when the term “New York Sports Fan” is applied to some newcomer or interloper, like this former Saugertiesian, people think of George Steinbrenner’s fists full of rings and Gotham’s seemingly annual Canyon of Heroes ticker tape parade.

Arrogance, boorishness, and a God-given sense of entitlement form part of the profile too. This unflattering portrait is not born from nothing. West of the Hudson, folks understand that the Yankees could crash into the side of a mountain this winter, and Brian Cashman would crawl from the wreckage and begin retooling the roster with such speed that they’d still at least win the AL East in 2008.

If the New York Sports Fan’s preferred club doesn’t win every year, the rest of the country presumes that this privileged individual may simply leap to another team in search of better results: from the Giants to the Jets, from the Knicks to the Nets, from the Rangers to the Devils or Islanders; this year, maybe even from the Yankees to the Mets.

It is not this way, of course, and never has been—ask your grandpa if any Brooklyn Dodgers’ fan, even in the wilderness years, ever thought to root instead for the Giants or, most unimaginably, the guys in pinstripes. For those present and former New Yorkers who are not Yankee fans, being lumped in with them is beyond irritating.

Flushing or the Bronx: it’s the stereotypical sibling rivalry, and the Yankees have a later bedtime and are allowed to watch movies the Mets are not.

You can see the differences in playoff preparation.

While the Yankees (who have made a fine art of playing their best ball when the margin for error is slimmest) intimidate their playoff opponents, the Mets seem to exude palpable jitters heading into the postseason. As the Yankees sharpen their claws and wait eagerly for the fight, the Mets seem to be fumbling through their pockets, making sure everything is in its perfect place and no detail has been omitted.

Although the Mets have dominated their division more than any other team this year, they are hung up on legitimate issues such as Pedro’s health, and determining who else will toe the mound for them next month. It’s been a long time since the Mets won a World Series, and I have the McDonalds Roger McDowell souvenir cup to prove it.

Twenty years have gone by since the Mets had such a highly successful and revered squad. Today’s Mets understand it could be another 20 before such an opportunity presents. Some of the top talent is young — notably Reyes, Wright, and Delgado — but on a team that was built to win pronto, perilous age is everywhere else.

For those who find no joy in the Yankees World Series run of the recent past, it has been quite a while since a New York team made us a part of a championship celebration. Even New York teams that make the postseason rounds have a “we’re just happy to be here” look on their faces.

The Rangers’ Stanley Cup victory in 1994 was a notable exception and Mark Messier’s guarantee was unforgettable, but it would resonate more with people today had the Rangers not missed the playoffs and the NHL had not nosedived in popularity during its whack sabbatical. While the Islanders have been awful since the 1980s, the Devils have been undeniably formidable and undeniably boring, even to those who wander into the Jersey swamps to see them play.

The last time the Knicks won a title people were wearing powdered wigs to Madison Square Garden. People will probably be wearing powdered wigs again by the time they win another. For the record, the last Knick championship squad (and only the second in a franchise history that dawned with the NBA itself) came thirty-three years ago. Yes, they made it to a Game 7 against Houston in 1994 but only by dropping Game 6. And then they played as ugly a finale as they played most nights last year.

Allan Houston’s buzzer-beating leaner (and the friendliest bounce off the rim in NBA history) was the start of a captivating playoff run in 1999, as the Knicks became the first eighth-seeded team to win a series, but by the time they clashed with San Antonio in the Finals, it was apparent they had no chance of beating them. What has happened (and not happened) with the franchise since reads like a cross between mythology and a bodice-ripping romance novel, with more deceit and undersized power forwards than victories. The Nets? Their next championship will be their first one, unless we go back to the red-white-and-blue days of the ABA, when Dr. J. led the Nets to two titles.

Like the Knicks and the Mets, the Jets were world beaters in 1969. Unfortunately, the days of Broadway Joe are long gone. Today’s Jets fans are as likely to remember Namath for his drunken attempt to get a kiss from Suzy Kolber as they are his Super Bowl III victory. With Curtis Martin headed to the scrap heap, a rebuilding process has begun.

The Jets are playing some inspired football these days, confounding the pundits by not opening the season 0-3, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see them make the playoffs coming out of the shaky AFC East. If they do make it, they will be sent packing in the first round.

Sure, the Giants won two Super Bowls during the Parcells years. Sure, they played in one just a few years ago. And yes, we remember Baltimore wiping the field with them and Kerry Collins looking like he’d rather be anywhere in the world ... oh, wait, maybe we should exclude Oakland and Tennessee ... than facing that Ravens defense

But let’s be honest about the current crop. With a defense that can’t stop anyone on third and long, they aren’t going anywhere near a championship game.

If we really want to stretch the definition of a “New York Sports Fan,” we could look towards the Canadian border. The Bills managed to play in four consecutive Super Bowls without winning one. It matters not how thoroughly shellacked they were in three of their those appearances, it just shows how possible it is to come close but never win.

That said, these are anxiety filled days for those who detest nothing more than the prospect of another championship for the Bronx. Because that’s the way things look to go. Give this year’s edition credit: they have overcome more injury problems than any Yankees squad since 1949, when Casey Stengel was their new manager.

The Mets improbable run of 2000 mirrored that of the 1999 Knicks in many ways. After clinching a playoff berth with a one-game playoff victory in Cincinnati, the Mets bulldozed their way to the World Series, where they were flattened by the Yankees in five games. Some might remember Armando Benitez’s implosion, or Timo Perez celebrating what he thought was a Todd Zeile home run only to be thrown out at home plate when the ball hit the top of the wall and stayed in. Mets diehards still say that if Timo had only run the bases the way any Little Leaguer would have known to do, the Mets would have won Game 1 and the whole Series might have swung their way.

Baloney. Roger Clemens’s splintered-bat toss in the direction of Mike Piazza summed it all up. When Clemens threw that bat, he was basically saying, “That’s why you haven’t won a title since ’86!”

The Mets have a complicated postseason ahead of them, knowing that the likelihood of meeting up with their cross-town rivals is relatively high. It is hard to debate that a World Series victory over the Kings of October would do for the Mets almost as much as a seven-game win in 1955 legitimized the Brooklyn Dodgers as an all-time great team.

Alas, it is also hard to debate that the Mets could be looking ahead to the World Series showdown so much that a scrappy wild-card team eliminates them in the first round.

So, while the Mets coast through these last few games of the regular season, they certainly see the tightrope walk ahead of them. Watching Pedro Martinez struggle in his rehab starts makes the rope seem to waver in an unpredictable wind, and there isn’t much time left to steady it. When — or if — Pedro toes the mound in Game 1 of the Divisional Series, it is equally likely that he will throw a shutout or not make it out of the fourth inning.

Either way, it is too late now to do anything but hope for the best, and great teams aren’t made by hoping they win; they know they will.

Soon we will see if Willie Randolph’s years beside Joe Torre showed him how to keep his players calm in the most stressful part of the year, and which team’s fans will be left wondering what could have been.

Regardless of the outcome of postseason play, the difference in psyche between the two teams and their legions of fans is distinct. Until the blue and orange confetti starts raining down into the Canyon of Heroes, the drought persists.

--Isaac Thorn

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Forest Hills when the grass was real.

September Song of a Sports Slug

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, September 14, 2006:
September is the best month. Summer’s heat is spent, winter’s chill is distant, and a man of a certain age can breathe deeply of the crisp air and see sharply in the long-rayed light.

Bookish sorts embrace the cold months, when the demands of the outside world, including friends and relations, may be put off without giving offense. Schoolchildren will tend to prefer summer, with its hiatus from learning and restraint. Young adults are energized by spring, with all its promise, but for those who recognize the seductive glimmer of hope, April may indeed be the cruelest month.

For the football devotee, the training camps of July and August set the mind to racing with transaction rumors and cattle-call tryouts euphemistically called preseason games. The baseball fan’s heart lifts with the Capistrano-like migration of ballplayers to Florida or Arizona in February, and there is nothing in all sport like the deep gratitude one feels for Opening Day.

But September is the most strangely Saturnalian time for sports fans of all stripes. As the weather energizes, the television enervates, yet the lure of the latter will prevail. Tennis and golf are in swing and football is in full flourish. Baseball’s pennant races make every night’s results count. Hockey and basketball warm up for the winter. A man could watch, read, care about all of it, without leaving his armchair.

He would go crazy, of course, if he were not previously certified so. While a rational person would choose to be out of doors in these last weeks before sweater weather takes hold, a sports slug will draw the blinds and reach for the remote. That’s what I did last weekend and, as much fun as I had with the Jets and Mets and Giants and Yankees and Federer and Sharapova, I feel worn out and bleary-eyed. Did I mention Notre Dame and Ohio State?

I won’t pretend that I haven’t done this before. The vice grips me each September, when I willingly suspend my disbelief in the prospects for our local football teams and pretend that I like tennis at night on artificial surface with space-age rackets as much as I used to enjoy Rosewall and Laver, wielding wood, on the sun-dappled grass of Forest Hills. I watch the Mets play meaningless games in September as they proceed inexorably to the postseason just as I watched them play meaningless games in previous Septembers on their way to inconsequence. I fret over which of the football Mannings will win the Sunday night matchup, just as the junior account executives at NBC hoped I would.

In September I am the willing victim of the sports gods, gladiators, geeks, and gurus. I return to the emotional landscape of my youth, when caring intensely about sport — not only the outcomes but every detail of every play — enabled me to shut the world out and my self in. This was neither singular nor profound: escapism is a time-honored pursuit, and not only of solemn children. Men who are crazy about sports and wouldn’t miss an “episode” of ESPN Sports Center will deride women for their devotion to Project Runway or romance novels. Of course the aim is the same for both genders: not merely to be entertained but also to escape life’s cares ... to be for a while what your parents used to call you: irresponsible.

At the ballpark or before the tube, common people with dim knowledge of the demands upon professional athletes exert an imagined perspicacity to offer opinions on the merits of a coach’s strategy, the wisdom of a player’s maneuver, or the prospects for victory if only their feelings could be telepathically communicated to those in charge. “By taking militant sides on matters of which we have no firsthand knowledge,” John A. Kouwenhoven wrote in a different context, “we satisfy a deep need to feel like responsible citizens without really having to be responsible.” Sport allows us to mind other people’s business and let slide our own.

Despite evidence of a religious revival in some sections of our fair country, in red states or blue the real opiate of the masses is sport. It lets us guys retreat into our shells more or less happily if we are alone and, if we travel in packs, mumble incantations indecipherable to most women and emit tribal whoops that make us feel like, well, players. Sport forms our religion, offers us places of worship at home and away, and provides sanctuary wherever we are.

For children, sport offers a sometimes frightening peek into adulthood; for adults, it offers a fleeting recall of youth or a passive-aggressive relapse into childhood. Maybe it is too harsh to see potty-training resistance where nothing more is intended than a few hours’ relaxation. Maybe baseball is just about baseball, and football just about football, and maybe they are both just games. I don’t think so. Sport is ritual on both a personal and a communal plane. It is full of magic and mumbo-jumbo — that is what explains its grip. And that is why I love it, why it has never failed me.

So what sanctuary do I seek each September as I indulge in my weekend-long orgy of voyeurism? I haven’t figured that out yet; the object of my recoil may be ever shifting, or it may stay the same. All I know is that it feels good to retreat from the world, to step back into my self, and maybe to step back in time, connecting with the boy I once was and surely still am. I feel good about my lost weekend, but also lazy, irresponsible, a bit dirty and a lot guilty.

Sports slug or sports slut, I may be counted on to draw the blinds again next September on the weekend when the NFL, MLB, the U.S. Open and college football call to me.

--John Thorn

Friday, September 01, 2006

MLBAM/MLBPA played legal canon ball and lost. This 1948 photo of Hugo Zacchini might have been an object lesson.