Friday, September 29, 2006

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


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