Friday, April 30, 2010

1995 NFL Mail Bag: The Seattle Seahawks

Football nerds like myself might have taken large note yesterday with the news that Seahawks left tackle Walter Jones announced his retirement after 13 seasons. The left tackle is one of the more unsung positions on the field, or at least it was until the widespread release of The Blind Side last year, but the Seahawks, upon the announcement that Jones was retiring, were quick to regard him as one of the greatest of all time. And given some obscure but no less valid statistics, they probably have a point.

After all, the man was called for holding nine times. In his entire 13-year career.

That's just plain nutty. Almost as nutty is the fact that, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the Seahawks have already retired Jones' No. 71, rather than simply waiting for the season opener or a nationally televised showcase at some point this year. Then again, considering that former Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren called Jones the greatest offensive player he ever coached -- and Holmgren coached Joe Montana, Steve Young, Brett Favre and possibly the greatest player of all time, Jerry Rice -- perhaps this type of thing is warranted.

The Seahawks wasted little time in Jonesing up their website, with direct links to both Washington governor Christine Gregoire's declaration of Walter Jones Day, and, my favorite part, a video of Walter Jones highlights. The highlights are my favorite part for the simple reason that I couldn't fathom how one can edit together a highlight reel for a left tackle that lasts three minutes and 22 seconds. And yet, somehow the Seahawks did it.

Given the retirement of, arguably, the greatest player in the franchise's history, today seems as good a day as any to open up the ol' mail bag and see what the Seattle Seahawks deemed appropriate to send my way back in 1995.

The package itself is a fairly nondescript envelope with a return address from Kirkland, Washington, which I found somewhat peculiar since it wasn't in... "Seattle". But It's hardly unusual for teams to hold main offices outside their actual home cities these days, so I ought not to get too worked up. What I did find somewhat unusual however, is that most teams will include some sort of description of their team's history, an informational magazine, a media guide or a yearbook.

Or at the very least a letter thanking me for my interest.

But the Seahawks, apparently, had no interest in those frills in 1995. Perhaps that's because they didn't have much of a history to boast about at the time. Seattle was seven years removed from its last playoff appearance and wouldn't get its next one for four more years. At the time the Seahawks had yet to appear in a Super Bowl, and their uniforms were still in that somewhat garish, blue, green and silver phase.

So as a result, I received no letters or historic recounts, but I did receive two very nice posters, one of which I was particularly excited about being legitimately autographed until that preconception was dashed this very morning. But more on that later. The first poster was a bold and proud declaration of the Seahawks as "The Defense of the 90's", which featured the always enormous Cortez Kennedy tackling some poor defenseless running back from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

This poster is awesome in kitschy fashion for a few reasons. For one, and most obviously, those uniforms sported by the tangerine bedecked Bucs are fucking great. So bad, they're good in retrospect, which is probably why the Buccaneers chose to break them out again this year for a few games in lieu of their regular tasteful duds. Another thing that catches my eye is the proud title of "The Defense of the 90's", which, for a few reasons, seems like a bit of wishful thinking.

For one thing, this poster was produced during the 1994 season, which you can note from the NFL 75th anniversary patch sported on the jerseys of both teams. It was worn all season by every team in the League. At that point, the Seahawks were in the midst of quite the playoff drought. In fact, they were 23rd in the League in total defense that season according to's statistics. The next season the Seahawks would drop to 25th. During the course of the 1990s, Seattle finished in the top ten four times and never higher than eighth. And while Kennedy, an eight-time pro bowler, is certainly one of the great defensive tackles of his era, the only other player of note on that defense, according to the poster itself, is Sam Adams, who was a rookie at the time, and while Adams would have a solid career, his best years came with the dominating defenses of the Baltimore Ravens in the early 2000s, with whom Adams would win Super Bowl XXXV.

So yes, "Defense of the 90's" might have been a bit of a stretch, though that goofy font is fun.

The other poster I received was an autographed shot of running back Chris Warren from Seattle's win over the Houston Oilers on December 11, 1994. Aside from knowing that I could win a free autographed football from Schuck's Auto Supply and KIRO 710 AM, I always thought this poster was awesome because from the day I got it I could have sworn it was actually autographed and not just printed on. I came to this conclusion, because, as best I could tell, the autograph itself appeared to reflect light in a way that was different from the rest of the poster, meaning it must be ink and not gloss.

Of course, this morning, my weekend house guest, Jessica Guerrero took a look at the poster as I was explaining to her my glee as if I were still nine years old, and she came to the conclusion that the autograph was actually printed like the rest of the poster. By her logic, there were no signs the poster had absorbed any ink nor any flawed inconsistencies that one would find in handwriting.

This was a disappointing revelation, as I had lived the last 15 years under the assumption that the Seahawks were one of the few teams to send me something of any real, appreciative value. Sure, Chris Warren is no Hall of Famer, but with three consecutive Pro Bowl appearances in the mid 1990s and 7,696 rushing yards to his credit, he is one of the more underrated backs of his time.

But alas, my possessing his real John Hancock was not meant to be. Somehow I will manage to strive on. It's nice outside, and it is Friday. Perhaps that will help. We can only hope.

In the meantime, I will simply just take solace in knowing that the Seahawks, despite their "Defense of the 90's", managed to go on to bigger and better things.

Happy Friday, everyone.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Welcome to Round 2

Yes, I know many of you would probably expect me to continue talking about the Mets, who, amazingly won their seventh in a row yesterday to stay atop the NL East by completing their first sweep of the Dodgers in 15 years. Exciting time are afoot in Queens, as New York takes its 1/2-game lead into Philadelphia this weekend for the first major challenge of the season. Of course, it would have been 1 1/2 games were it not for a late rally by the Phils in San Francisco yesterday, but I'm not looking a gift horse in the mouth.

First place is first place, even if April is still April.

But the more pressing an exciting news comes in the way of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which, after a wild Game 7 that saw the No. 1 team in the League blow a 3-1 series lead in the opening round, hits Round 2 tonight with no break whatsoever -- a rarity for the NHL. Instead Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus gets underway in San Jose tonight, with the rest of the second round following suit tomorrow and Saturday. These aren't exactly the matchups I was expecting, peculiarly the 4, 6, 7 and 8 seeds were the ones to advance in the Eastern Conference, and with no Devils and no Capitals getting in the way I can't possibly imagine a scenario in which Sidney Crosby and the Penguins don't get to the Stanley Cup Finals.

And a rematch with the Wings for the third straight year doesn't seem all that crazy either. But of course, that's why they play the games.

And to that end, here are my certain to be just as wrong as they were in the first round predictions for the second round of your Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Eastern Conference
(4) Pittsburgh over (8) Montreal in five games
(6) Boston over (7) Philadelphia in six games

Western Conference
(1) San Jose over (5) Detroit in seven games
(2) Chicago over (3) Vancouver in six games

Yeah, I'm willing to bet at least on of those doesn't turn out right, probably Boston and Philadelphia, which some of you may recall is a rematch of this year's Winter Classic, and while I make no secret of disdaining Philadelphia, my only real hope for the rest of the playoffs is that the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup.

Of course, knowing my luck in the playoffs so far, they'll probably get swept.

Lastly, I came across this news item on today stating that, according to a report by the Nielsen Company, the most hated team in Major League Baseball is... wait for it .... yep, just who you thought it'd be.

The Cleveland Indians.

Wait, what? A team that continually has its heart broken and hasn't won a World Series in 62 years is the most hated franchise in the sport? I see no way that this is feasibly possible. For one thing, I've had nothing but pleasant experiences seeing the Indians in person. For another, Cleveland isn't exactly a city that overwhelms you with its power and arrogance.

It's Cleveland, for heaven's sake.

And lastly, their mascot, Slider, is adorable. I mean look at him. As I told a friend earlier today, the only thought in my mind when I see him is to pinch his cheek and call him "Shookums".

Even that Roger Dorn, is kind of fun in his own assholish way. Now, I know the Indians lose some cache now that Pedro Cerrano has called it quits, but seriously, someone please explain to me what is eminently hateable about this team in anyway.

I'll buy you a cookie if you can convince me. Let the contest begin.

That's all for today. Enjoy the hockey.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

First Person To Pinch Me Gets Punched In The Face

Yes, some of you might have noticed something peculiar as you sat down on the porch with a mug of coffee and your freshly delivered copy of the New York Times this morning that by some peculiar miracle the New York Mets are in first place in the National League East.

Yeah, the Mets that all the doomsayers had losing 90 games. Those Mets. They're somehow atop the NL East this morning after a six-game winning streak, and today may be the only time they're in that place this season, so for the love of God don't shit on my parade.

I'm not sure how long, exactly this can be expected to last, given that the Mets had to win six games in a row to get here, my best guess is "not very", but it does bear reminding that the Mets haven't even played all that well during this streak, which was capped off by New York's first doubleheader sweep of the Dodgers in 39 years yesterday. In fact, last night's 10-5 whupping of L.A. was the first time the bats really broken out during the Mets' current hot streak, with most of the victories built on what has been a surprisingly solid pitching staff so far.

Stunningly, before the Dodgers scored in the fourth inning of the night cap, Mets pitching had racked up 20 consecutive scoreless innings. Sure, some of you might deride that by saying the Mets nearly pulled that off once this year inside of a single game, but the fact that Johan Santana still looks to be winning ball games despite a drop in velocity and Mike Pelfrey may have finally got it bears some notice. John Maine has been shaky and each Oliver Perez outing still feels like a tightrope walk two millimeters wide, but the bullpen, which has an ERA of 2.61 right now, has somehow managed to pull it out each time, to the tune of eight wins in New York's last nine games.

And in typical fashion, the one game the Mets lost in this stretch is the one game I attended.

Regardless, the lineup may finally be coming together. Jason Bay started driving the ball with a home run and a triple last night, David Wright drove in four runs on the day (and didn't strike out for the first time 13 outings in the second game) and Ike Davis continues to wow with three RBIs yesterday to complement his .980 OPS since being called up to the Majors 10 games ago.

Yes, I know, it is early. It's only April. And there is plenty of time for the Mets to collapse brutally once again or fade from the race before it even becomes a race. But for now, the Mets are winning games, and this team is a lot of fun to watch. The only thing that might make them more fun would be a music video to rival the glory of 1986.

Somehow I think the message of Doc Gooden giving something to a group of school children doesn't really resonate the same way today.

In any event, it'd be awfully nice if the Mets could keep winning into the summer because with the impending end of hockey season just six weeks away I may be lacking for distractions. The first round is set to end tonight with a Game 7 between the surprisingly feisty Canadiens and the somewhat less surprisingly lazy Capitals. Of course, the Capitals, being supremely talented and having won the Presidents' Trophy in a walk this year I still expect them to win, but the magic of a Game 7 is that we never really know.

What I'm far more intrigued by, however, is the second-round Western Conference match up between San Jose and Detroit, which won its own Game 7 last night, that gets underway this weekend. These two teams have a bit of a playoff history dating back to the Sharks' stunning first-round upset of the top-seeded Wings in 1994, and the experienced team that is Detroit, coming off two straight Finals appearances is a tall order for a Sharks team that has a habit of disappointing in the playoffs lately.

But what really makes this series interesting is what was pointed out on the outstanding Yahoo! Sports hockey blog Puck Daddy. This series will essentially be ideal fodder for us to make fun of the absolutely ridiculous Lorenzo Lamas and Debbie Gibson smash non-hit of 2009 Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus. The San Jose reference is obvious (They're the Sharks. Duh.), but the allusion to the Red Wings might seem abstract if you aren't familiar with the long-honored tradition of throwing octopi on the ice in Detroit.

The movie may not be an exact parallel for this series, but it does feature a major sequence in the Northern California Bay Area. Also, the trailer is, you know, hilarious.

I'll have some picks on what's going to go down in the second round ready for you tomorrow, though since I did so well in the first round, you may or may not want to believe me, but I'll be ready. Sort of.

In the meantime, settle in and enjoy tonight's Game 7, keep enjoying the Mets and don't send any incriminating facebook messages.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Ok, Maybe Just Urinating On Persistence Of Memory

I know Mondays are usually reserved for stories of visits to stadia past, I don't blame the five of you out there who read this regularly for being miffed that I'm taking a week off, but as I've said before there are only so many stories to fill the next three decades.

I'm going to take a week off once in a while to keep myself from running out of material. Particularly since I assume you're all distracted by that preview for tonight's Blackhawks-Predators game.

This week seemed like as opportune a moment as any to do so because I somehow neglected to discuss this particularly exciting news item from this past week. Yes, I had mentioned a few weeks ago my increasing angst over the NCAA's impending decision to expand the NCAA Tournament, with rumors flying high that the nearly perfect 64-team bracket would be forsaken in the name of a 96-team cacophony of increased revenues and confused office pools.

An expansion to 96 teams would have been awful for a number of reasons -- and I wasn't the only one who thought so -- but fortunately for anyone who loves college basketball or loves filling out their bracket according to which mascot they think is cutest, it won't be happening. Not immediately anyway. Instead the tourney will be expanding to a 68-team format, which is not ideal, but still the better option. And once again, I'm not the only one who thinks so. Of course, I already think the 65-team tournament we've been treated to since 2001 is a little silly anyway. While everyone adores the 64-team bracket, and rightfully so, the play-in game that pits the 64th and 65th teams in the field against one another is a worthless piece of television drudgery.

I don't think anyone bothers to watch what the NCAA calls the "Opening Round Game", and even fewer people think typical entrants like Coppin State or Morehead State have any chance of actually doing anything once they make it to the 64-team field. In fact, this game is so pointless that I'm fairly sure the only time I've watched it was when I was stuck in O'Hare airport my junior year of college. And I watch anything that can call itself a sport. Hell, as I write this, I'm staying up until 3 a.m. to watch and Aussie Rules Footy match between Geelong and Carlton FC.

And I was planning on it.

And yet, I've never been bothered to watch the Opening Round Game of the NCAA Tournament, and this expansion to 68 teams is likely to simply add three more such games -- one for each region -- to the mix. But I'm fine with this. I still think the play-in games are silly, and don't particularly plan on watching them, but the integrity of the rest of the tournament, which retains its basic structure, is still in place, and that is a massive sigh of relief to everyone from fans to reporters, who nearly universally disdained the idea of a 96-team setup.

Aside from avoiding the massive expansion, the new television contract negotiated by the NCAA also has one intriguing and overlooked benefit to its new deal. Lost in the discussion over the muted expansion is the fact that the NCAA's new 14-year $10.8 billion deal is not just with CBS, which has broadcast the NCAA Tournament since 1982, but also Turner Broadcasting System. This is, for the fans, an awesome development. Starting next year, the days of keeping CBS on the TV and hoping they might switch to the tight game that may make or break your bracket in the Dance's first round or being forced to watch out of market games on your computer will be long gone.

Instead, the first round will be broadcast on CBS, TBS, TNT and truTV. I haven't the slightest clue if I have truTV on my cable package, but I'm guess by next March I will. The benefit of this is obvious. Instead of waiting for the CBS control room to move its slow trigger finger, all 32 first-round games will be broadcast live across the four networks, meaning we can watch whatever game we damn well please. This might be the best development for college basketball fans since Dick Vitale.

What might even be more interesting is that starting in 2016 the National Championship Game will alternate between CBS and TBS, which must make this the first time the NCAA Men's Basketball National Championship Game hasn't been on basic network television -- a wild development in its own right.

Of course, we ought not to delude ourselves. For the NCAA, this whole deal is still about money. NCAA interim President Jim Isch stated in the press release announcing the deal that, “This is an important day for intercollegiate athletics and the 400,000 student-athletes who compete in NCAA sports... This agreement will provide on average more than $740 million annually to our conferences and member schools to help student-athletes in 23 sports learn and compete.” Now, if you do the math, were this contract actually distributed amongst those 400,000 athletes, each would receive $27,000 a piece, which isn't too shabby, but I'm guessing the vast majority of that money won't actually directly filter down to supporting the costs participating in college athletics. Someone's paying the piper. And someone's getting paid by the piper.

That said, the constrained expansion is a huge relief to most fans around the country, and on a personal note, I'm extremely relieved that making the tournament will still be an accomplishment. This was of particular importance to me because my alma mater, as I've noted before, is the only BCS school to never go dancing. Were the the tournament expanded to 96 teams, next season would likely spell the end to that drought -- Northwestern has made the NIT, which would likely be enveloped by the expansion, each of the last two seasons. However, making the Dance at long last would feel cheap to me if it came about only as part of an expanded field.

And guess what? The Northwestern players agree.

Or at least Kevin Coble does. Regardless, all of us can breath a deep sigh of relief, particularly if we pull for the Wildcats. Despite our worst fears, the integrity of college basketball's grandest event seems to be intact for at least one more year, with a major improvement to boot. The only negative that could come from this is if another Northwestern collapse drops them from the 2011 field and makes me wish we were, in fact in a 96-team Tournament so I could taste the Dance just once.

But hopefully that won't happen. Because if it does, I'll look like quite the hypocrite. 

And no one wants that.

Friday, April 23, 2010

An Annual Day Of Mourning

Since I started writing this blog about three months ago, today is the first time we've hit one of those yearly milestones where I find that a team I had such high hopes for will not be bringing home the ultimate prize this year. In the case of this year, the offending party is the New Jersey Devils, and for the fourth straight year, they will be setting up their spring tee times much earlier than I had anticipated.

Pardon me while I tear my clothing and cover all my mirrors.

Ok. Unless you're a Devils fan, this probably doesn't have the same impact for you, but considering New Jersey was challenging for the top seed in the East for a large portion of the season and then added one of the top offensive threats in the game in Ilya Kovalchuk, well, this is kind of surprising. But watching this team last night made a few things abundantly clear. For one, the offense was completely nonexistent and most of the players didn't seem to really care, with the exceptions of Dainius Zubrus and Zach Parise. The Flyers, despite being the No. 7 seed and needing a shootout on the final day to make the postseason, had taken five of six from the Devils during the year. They were confident, New Jersey wasn't, and it showed. For another, the Kovalchuk deal was a gutsy move, and for that GM Lou Lamoreillo deserves credit, but Kovy clearly didn't fit into this system and he had a nasty habit of trying to play Superman every time he touched the puck.

What makes this most irksome is that more questions will start to come up around Martin Brodeur not being a big-game goaltender anymore, which, if you watched, is complete hooey. Brodeur played phenomenally in Games 3 and 4, but was behind an offense that wracked up all of four even strength goals in the series. No goaltender can manage to win when his team is making Brian Boucher look like a Hall of Famer.

Lord, I hate Philadelphia.

As a result, I am far too emotionally distraught to put together my weekly 1995 Mail Bag post -- I know you're heartbroken -- but I will make it a point to put one up next week. It is worth noting that I still, technically, have a horse left in this race in the Chicago Blackhawks, who very well might wind up winning the Stanley Cup considering they have the talent to do so. While the Hawks were on edge this week, their win in Game 4 in Nashville last night has everything square with Game 5 at home. As I've noted before, I have a soft spot for the Hawks after my employment there in college.

But let's be honest. The Devils are my team. Always have been. Always will be. It's irrational to think your team will win a Championship every season, but it doesn't make it less distressing when you have high hopes. I suppose there's always next year.

The unfortunate thing about this is that the Devils' elimination marred what had been a fairly good night for me on the sports front. The Mets won their first series of the year -- a four-gamer at that -- by taking out the Cubs for the third time in four days, the Hawks regained momentum in their series and the NFL Draft provided endless entertainment for all four hours of its first round.

I was miffed to see both Rolando McClain and C.J. Spiller gone by the time the Giants rolled around at 15, but Jason Pierre-Paul is apparently expected to be a very solid defensive end, and I'm of firm belief that youu can never have enough of those, so I'm satisfied.

Other thoughts:
-- I can't tell if Josh McDaniels is very clever or trying way too hard to meddle with his multiple first-round deals that eventually netted him Tim Tebow. No one's arguing the intangibles Tebow brings to the table, but scouts unanimously had doubts on him before he changed his throwing motion for a reason. Also, it could make it awkward that everyone on the Broncos will need to be baptized before joining the team now.

-- The Rams made a large mistake in drafting for need over drafting for the best player on the board. I know everyone says Sam Bradford has the necessary skills to be an NFL quarterback, but he is coming off an injury, and I won't believe a Bob Stoops Oklahoma quarterback is an NFL prospect until I see it proven to me (Josh Heupel and Jason White, anyone?). Moreover, stud quarterback prospects come along every year. Game-changing defensive tackles don't, and you need to grab one when the opportunity presents itself, which leads me to...

-- I'd say the team that had the best first round, by far, was the Detroit Lions. Ndamukong Suh will give that defensive line an incredible presence when he has a year or two under his belt, and Jahvid Best adds a new dimension to an offense that already has a top flight receiver in Calvin Johnson and a good-looking quarterback prospect in Matt Stafford. Get this team an offensive line and it will be a force right when the Vikings and Packers start to see their windows close in the NFC North.

-- It won't be long until the 49ers once again rule the NFC West. Alex Smith may not be the most dynamic quarterback to have back there, but he did play well down the stretch. Take into account that the Niners have Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis and Frank Gore on the offense and add the two elite-level offensive line prospects they selected in the first round (Anthony Davis of Rutgers and Mike Iupati of Idaho) and they have the right pieces in place.

-- Minnesota would be smart to take Jimmy Clausen in the second round. That he has fallen out of the first is a gift to a franchise that is pinning its championship hopes on a man who may or may not play next year and may or may not decide if he is until August. If the Vikings don't grab him, I'd be stunned if Buffalo didn't early tonight.

-- Lastly, how have Mike Kafka and Corey Wootton not been scooped up yet? Seriously?

Ok, I'm done. Enjoy your weekends. It's time for me to forget about hockey for a few hours.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

With The No. 1 Overall Pick, The St. Louis Rams Select...

If the NFL schedule release is the start of when we really get to be bombarded with NFL news in the run up to summer camps and eventually the season, what takes place tonight might be the biggest event before the Saints and Vikings kick off on September 9th. Until the last few years, the release of the schedule was actually not the big television event the NFL has turned it into. Instead that major offseason moment came with the NFL's annual Entry Draft. It seems odd to me that the NFL would put two major events in such close proximity when the season is a good five months away, here we are. The NFL Draft is an annual feed for the football news addicts that can't get through the offseason without massive withdrawal.

Lucky us. Tonight we get our fix.

Yes, the NFL Draft starts tonight, which seems odd to say given that this is the first time ever that it has started both on a week night and in prime time. This has always been a Saturday day-long weekend affair, but now that the NFL has realized what ESPN knew for the past two decades -- the NFL Draft is a valuable television property that you can use to maximize ratings and thus rights fees by stretching it out -- we get treated to a first round Thursday night, the second and third rounds Friday night and the rest of the selection process stretching out all day Saturday.

It's a bizarre format, and frankly I always enjoyed spending a day plopped on the couch watching the selections. It was kind of like how Sundays in the fall are, but just with hundreds of players I didn't know very well, the bombast of Chris Berman, the way-too-enthusiastic intensity of Todd McShay and, obviously, Mel Kiper Jr.'s hair. The hair may have been the best part. Still, because I love football and because I'm a sheep, I will still be watching with all eyes keyed in on whom the New York Giants will be selecting with the 15th overall pick.

Of course, that moment in particular won't be happening until roughly two and a half hours in, but I will still be watching the prior picks to see what potential reaches are gone, what potential steals might still be on the board for Big Blue and what awkward moments we might get to see. Rumor has it Clemson running back C.J. Spiller might fall to the Giants at No. 15, which, potentially, would be a huge steal. At least in m mind. Most guesses though have the G-Men targeting Rolando McClain of Alabama to fill the void at middle linebacker. This would be fine too. The peculiar thing about it, though is that getting quite so wrapped up in everything and grading each pick immediately is, you know, pointless. Sure drafts can have major immediate impacts -- the 2007 Super Bowl Champion Giants got significant contributions from all seven of their draft picks that year, though that is rare -- but overall, the one thing most necessary to remember about drafts is this:

We have no idea what is going to happen with any of these players.
Really. We haven't a clue. And yet we watch anyway with some bizarre notion that our team's immediate fortunes will be changed by every pick they make, when, in fact, most players selected won't be impacting their teams for at least a season or two. Immediate impacts are rare by rookies in the NFL. Of course, it doesn't make it any less fun to think about.

As for me, I'll be watching tomorrow while I juggle that and, potentially, the end of the Devils' season as they fight to stay alive in Game 5 against Philadelphia. New Jersey does have two things going for it. For one, the Devils are home tonight. Not having to play in Philly is always helpful. For another, and far more importantly, the Flyers got word today that Jeff Carter, who had a three-point game in Game 4, and Simon Gagne, another dangerous offensive weapon, are going to be out at least for the rest of the series. This turns everythign completely upside down.

I believe in comebacks.

And speaking of believing in comebacks, I attended my first Mets game of the year tonight, and believing in comebacks didn't exactly bring it to pass in a rough 9-3 loss to the Cubs. Of course, the Amazins pulled within three in the eighth to make us feel as though we might actually have a chance, but ever the teases, that all went to hell when the Cubs score three in the top of the ninth to put it away.

Of course, it didn't help that it was colder than expected and the crowd was nearly gone by the final out, but seeing as this was my first visit to the park this year, it was still exciting to see both the new placement of the old Apple -- it now sits in a flower bed outside the stadium -- and the brand-spankin'-new Mets Hall of Fame and Museum. I felt like it was relatively well put together, though there was an abundance of different game-worn Mets jerseys which, while cool, are basically the same thing over and over again.

The highlights? For me the 1969 and 1986 World Series Championship trophies clearly go without saying as the most impressive items on display. The individual plaques for every Hall of Fame member are also pretty cool (though I wonder where the busts from Shea's Diamond club are), not to mention various other small Mets historical artifacts that provide intrigue. But the best thing there? That has to be the original Mr. Met outfit, which, for lack of a better word, looks awful.

And I still think it's awesome.

The game itself was mundane and vaguely disappointing, Ike Davis continued to rocket to stardom with a phenomenal catch over the dugout railing in foul territory. Of course, he also proved later in the night that he is awful agaisnt lefthanders. Hopefully that part changes. What I hope never changes is the character of the people you bump into on the subway ride back. I had to deal with one odd man, who misheard what I did for a living and assumed I was a writer for He took advantage of the moment to tell me that he was a great player who wouldn't make the pros because of a knee injury, but that "players play and writers write, you do what you do best."

And he insisted the way I should do what I do best was to take it from him and "put it in the column tomorrow" that Ben Roethlisberger would be traded before the Draft. When I told him that I would be incredibly surprised by this for a number of reasons, he kept insisting that I "put it in the column." I'm not sure why he was so convinced, I can tell you I'm not, but given that a) I don't have a football column to write and b) if I did, I'm fairly sure "some guy on the seven train" wouldn't be considered a solid source, well, I won't be writing that column.

If I'm proven wrong, and, well, I'm pretty sure I won't be, it won't take long to know. Like I said, I will be watching.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

An Extremely Necessary Distraction

Some of you are probably wondering why it's been a while since I've mentioned hockey. A whole week in fact. Well, I've mentioned it in my past few posts, albeit only in passing, and I could tell you about how thrilling nearly every series is so far or how nearly a third of the games have gone to sudden death overtime, but, you see, there is one series that isn't very close.

And it happens to be my series.

You see, seven of eight series are either tied or at 2-1 split so far, but the one series that isn't is between my beloved New Jersey Devils and the hated Philadelphia Flyers. After two rough games in Philadelphia marred by some iffy officiating, frustrating opposition goaltending and a bizarre decision to not play offense, you know, at all, the Devils suddenly find themselves coming home for Game 5 in a 3-1 deficit and on the brink of elimination.

What makes it so frustrating? Well for one, Martin Brodeur is quietly having one of his better postseasons in recent years. New Jersey's Game 3 overtime loss featured one of the best performances Brodeur has put on in his entire career, while Game 4 featured several spectacular saves, including one that could be on highlight reels for years to come. The other frustration is that Philadelphia has, in net, the immortally forgettable Brian Boucher, a man who has spent the past decade being a journeyman who, aside from one outrageously remarkable shutout streak while with Phoenix, has been thoroughly mediocre for most of his career.

And here he is making remarkable stop after remarkable stop. Of course, he hasn't had to make too many considering the Devils' offense hasn't felt like generating many chances. Perhaps what makes this all most bothersome is that I knew before the postseason began that of the Devils' first-round options, the Flyers were the one I was least interested in playing. And here we are.

Essentially, it feels like my clearly inferior nemesis is beating the shit out of me with the help of his prepubescent brother.

Then again, there are probably more embarrassing ways to lose in the postseason.

Fortunately, Tuesday night provided a distraction from the pain of this year's first round in the form of one of the many days football fans across the country wait months for. No, I'm not talking about that "Super Bowl" nonsense. I'm talking about a day when everyone still has hope for the coming season. I talk, of course, about the release of the 2010 NFL Schedule.

Now, for some of you, this merely gives you the excitement of knowing when your team is playing whom, but for me, the intrigue lies also in potential road games I will try to hit this year. In the case of 2010, likely targets are the Giants visit to Indianapolis on September 19, their visit to Houston on October 10 and their trip down the turnpike to Philadelphia on November 21. There is also some potential for a return trip to Lambeau on December 26, as well as a trip to Chicago that same day to see the Jets visit the Bears. Unfortunately, my hopes that Minnesota would be home during my potential visit to Minneapolis in October weren't fulfilled. The Vikings will be on the bye that weekend.

For those of you wondering how your team's slate looks, has a very cool breakdown of each schedule, replete with expected difficulty and total miles traveled, as well as a virtual map laying it all out. While I've had my misgivings about the Giants' schedule this year -- December is a brutal stretch with three division games surrounding trips to Green Bay and Minnesota, and it's the seventh toughest schedule in the League -- as Matt Mosley points out in his superb NFC East blog on, New York has back-to-back road games only once, the bye week doesn't come until Week 8 and the bye also comes before the Giants make that brutal cross-country trip to Seattle, which will provide some timely rest. That trip also happens to be the only one that will take them further west than Dallas.

Of course, it's too soon to really know how these schedules are going to break out. The NFL is as unpredictable as it comes when taking into account who will and won't be in the mix come November. And with the Giants not playing within the division until Week 7, there's plenty of time for them to build a cushion while the Eagles, Cowboys and Redskins bludgeon each other senseless.

Well, maybe not senseless, but once or twice anyway.

Of course, the NFL Schedule only lasts as a distraction for so long, and the NFL Draft, which starts on Thursday night -- the first time that's ever happened -- won't have quite as much staying power either. If the Devils don't turn it around soon, my only diversion will likely be the Mets, but, surprise surprise, the Mets have actually won two straight. (And three of their last four!) I know, small solace, really, but with a team that is expected to be among the dregs of the Majors, I'm taking what I can get for now, particularly since I think, when healthy, the Mets will actually be a fairly competitive team.

Don't worry, there's plenty of time for them to prove me wrong.

This gets more exciting when I point out that tonight I will be going to my first Mets game of the year, which is important for two reasons. A) I'll get to see the immortal Ike Davis for the first time. Davis shined in his debut on Monday, though his second outing was somewhat forgettable, but he is still considered the first baseman of the future, so I'm excited for my peak at what's to come. B) I'll finally get my first look at the completely revamped Citi Field, most notably its new Mets Hall of Fame and Museum.

If any of you are at the game, don't be afraid to say hi, and if the Mets can keep the winning ways up, maybe it'll actually provide a distraction from the fact that my Devils will be teetering on the edge of their season the next night. Of course, a 3-1 rally isn't impossible to come back from, as these two teams should know. And if you're looking for some sort of parallel between 2000 and 2010, look at who was in net both times. Martin Brodeur has been the Devils' mainstay for nearly two decades, but Philadelphia's crease has been a revolving door of names like Roman Cechmanek, Robert Esche and Antero Niittymaki. Bizarrely, however, the Flyer between the pipes for that collapse ten years ago?

Brian Boucher.

He may have been around the League and back since, but here's hoping history repeats itself.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Replacing A Monument

Originally written March 23, 2010.

It’s a dirty not-so-secret of mine that despite my masochistic dedication to the New York Mets, my parents are both Yankees fans. It helps that their early lives took place when only one Major League Baseball team was in New York, but in the case of my mother, it helps even more when you grow up with Archie and Jughead in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. My father grew up in the Westchester town of White Plains, and while his grandfather was an enormous New York Giants fans – a picture of my father as a toddler in a black and orange uniform is reputed to exist somewhere – by my father’s 7th birthday there were no New York baseball Giants. With nowhere else to go, he held fast to the pinstripes, though it should be noted that for years after I was born he continued wearing his White Plains High School Class of ’69 T-Shirt, which prominently featured a pennant of the Miracle Mets.

I grew up in a different world. While my father occasionally humored me by pulling for the Amazins my mother made no such ambivalence over her loyalty. That is not to say she didn’t appreciate my fandom. She and I went to dozens of Mets games together over the years, but she made no illusions. She pulled for the Bombers. That was that.

Considering her love for the Yankees, something seemed appropriate about the New Yankee Stadium opening on her 55th birthday, but when I attempted to buy us a pair of tickets, the prices were so high even I couldn’t justify it. And then a plan was hatched. Rather than take my mother to Opening Day at the Stadium for her birthday for what would have been at least $500 for nosebleeds, it seemed a far better idea to get better seats for far cheaper to the second game for not just her and I, but the entire family, with a dinner in the Stadium’s steakhouse beforehand.

Because apparently new stadiums have those things.

Unfortunately, the best laid plans of Mets and Yankees, as they often do, ran astray. After tickets were purchased for the Friday night game against Cleveland on April 17, 2009, the game time was shifted to a 1 p.m. start, which threw an awfully large wrench with my sister, brother and sister-in-law to be all working 9-to-5. My brother and his girlfriend would only be able to make it for dinner afterwards, while my sister would be late. All of this put the screws on three extra tickets that had to be dealt with.

With the date fast approaching, my mother’s close friend, Emily and her son Harry, who was one of my close companions for most of my childhood, took two of the tickets and the final one I managed to sell online – at a profit no less.

With the anxiety gone and the day here, I gathered myself on the subway to check out my 15th Major League stadium. My sister Stephanie would be meeting us at the stadium while my mother, Emily and Harry would drive in from New Jersey. I arrived early for my requisite picture taking, and as the subway pulls up near the park, it’s pretty hard to miss. Indeed it dwarfs the rest of the area, fulfilling an intended impression of massiveness. The building sits across the street from the Old Yankee Stadium, which, at the time of Opening Day for the new park was still standing, albeit eerily empty.

The pinstripes’ new home and the various plazas around it bustled, however, with many people playing tourist just like myself. The most noticeable external feature of the building is the limestone wall that surrounds it. While most new stadiums opt for the aged friendly feel of brick on the exterior, Yankee Stadium doesn’t want to be friendly. It wants to intimidate. It wants you to know that you are not walking into a baseball stadium. You are walking into a temple.

And for $1.5 billion, it ought to. That was the price tag for the building, at the time the second most expensive stadium ever built after the renovated Wembley Stadium in London. The $1.5 billion nearly went for naught after a construction worker, who was also a Red Sox fan, boasted he had put a hex on the new building by placing a David Ortiz jersey in the concrete while on the job. As I’ve said, with the exception of the Chicago Cubs, curses are silly, but sports bring out a peculiar anxiety in the masses, and fake or not, the threat of constantly playing on top of buried Red Sox paraphernalia was of deep concern not only to Yankee fans, but the club’s front office.

With the prospect of Hank Steinbrenner’s supremely expensive baby forever being tainted, construction was halted, concrete was torn up, and sure enough a ragged Ortiz jersey was found in the foundation. The jersey itself was donated to charity and while the worker claimed he had also buried a program and scorecard from the 2004 ALCS – he wouldn’t say where – anymore attempts at cursing the building were quickly proven to be fruitless as the Yankees won their 27th World Series in their first year at the park.

Of course, at the time I first showed up that was a ways off. Things hadn’t been hunky dory in the Bronx – the Yankees were coming off their first non-playoff season since 1995 – and it was important to open the pinstripes’ new home with a bang. They didn’t get it the day before. Cleveland beat the Yankees in their first regular season game there, 10-2. Not that this was the worst thing for me. Despite not being a Yankee fan, I still appreciate history, and the team’s home opening loss afforded us the chance to see the first win at the new home.

I took several pictures around the stadium’s external fa├žade. Its limestone was inspired by the original pre-renovation Yankee Stadium and it makes the building seem more fit for the National Mall in Washington than it does for the Bronx. It is, indeed a beautiful and impressive exterior. After rendez-vousing with my mother, Emily and Harry, there were more pictures to take before we finally entered.

Interestingly, the limestone walls are less a wall than an outer shell, which might explain why the plot of land the New Yankee Stadium covers is dramatically larger than the old one. Between the limestone walls and the seating areas is a huge, open, naturally lit area known as “The Great Hall”. While it is decorated with banners and signs echoing the club’s rich history, “great” seems like a bit of a dramatic adjective for a building that hadn’t actually had anything great happen in it yet.

But as the family Mets fan, who am I to argue?

Along the inside it seems as if every square inch of wall space has been set aside for some purpose to symbolize Yankee history, and when you reach the seating area, which continues to reinforce the franchise’s richness and importance, the full impression is complete. If the purpose of Citi Field was to provide you with an adorable, care-free family outing at the ballpark, the New Yankee Stadium’s aim was to impress upon you the grandeur of its tenants. And it pulls it off with flying colors, with the icing on the cake, and personally my favorite aspect, being the wonderful white frieze that crowns the upper deck.

The white fencing was a key characteristic of the original building when it opened in 1923, but when George Steinbrenner renovated the building in the mid-70s, select sections of the frieze were moved to the outfield while the rest of the stadium was bereft. In the decades since, the team acknowledged a mistake was made, and the frieze has since become a symbol incorporated into the franchise that is as ubiquitous as the interlocking NY. The frieze featured prominently in the stadium’s inaugural season logo and mini friezes adorn the top of each player’s locker.

The frieze was a reminder. It may be in a different place, but this was still the Yankees’ home. In fact, great lengths were made to ensure that the New Yankee Stadium was less a change for cash than an update necessitated by the wear on the old building. Of course, that cash did flow. In its opening season, seat prices ranged as high as $2,625 per seat for a regular season game. Unfortunately for the front office, the stadium opened in the midst of a recession and the embarrassment of empty seats behind home plate, as well as the bad press that came with such high prices while a segment of the fan base was seeking work, prompted the team to cut the cost of the most expensive seats in half.

Because $1,250 is clearly more affordable.

We were not sitting in those fancy chairs, nor in any of the other upper class clubs around the building. We sat in the northern reaches of the upper deck, but behind home plate. Perhaps what is most remarkable about the building is that when you sit in your seat it doesn’t feel like you’re in a different building. Certainly it feels newer, cleaner and, given the wider seats, roomier, but it still feels like Yankee Stadium. And considering the team went to pained extremes to ensure that, it makes sense.

The field itself has the exact same dimensions with the lone exception being a backstop that is now 20 feet closer. While the players must have felt as though they were at familiar environs, however, the stadium didn’t play like it. Perhaps it was the slightly different angle of the building or the vaguely different construction of the outfield stands, but as the Yankees would find over the next six months, baseballs flew out to right field at a stunning pace. Through 23 games at the stadium, 87 dingers would be clocked out of the yard. Right field itself was considered a major culprit, with heavy criticism levied by the media and the park being decried as a joke by some. Numerous wind studies were commissioned but as of the first year at the stadium no certain reason had been determined.

Tensions eased when the pace of homers slowed over the course of the season, but Yankee Stadium’s reputation as Coors Field East, would be firmly entrenched, and true to form, the Yankees won their first game at the new park that day by way of the long ball. A solo home run by none other than uber Yankee Derek Jeter in the 8th inning provided the margin of victory, with Mariano Rivera appropriately nailing down the save in the 9th. Jeter’s homer was the fifth by a Yankee that day.

Despite being stunned that the urinals were already dirty, and confused as to why the Yankees were showing H&R Block Provided Tax Tips on the jumbotron two days after taxes were due, the rest of the experience couldn’t be argued with. From the frieze, to the sightlines, to the hand-managed scoreboard along the outfield walls, the stadium feels like a cathedral, a place befitting the most decorated franchise in American sports.

And despite my own opinions of the Steinbrenner family, they got it right.

With our dinner reservations at NYY Steak in the right field corner waiting, we stayed in our seats while most of the fans filed out to the blaring Frank Sinatra. All the traditions remained to a T. We headed to the restaurant where Elliott and Danielle arrived for dinner and while I felt my porterhouse was slightly overcooked, the meal was a pleasant coda to my mother’s birthday. The restaurant itself doesn’t look over the field, but it does have a wall with the signatures of nearly every famous Yankee ever. In addition, my dessert, was a ball of ice cream topped with chocolate, toffee and a flaming shot of Bacardi 151 rum. They tell you the alcohol burns off, but that is a complete lie. It was the drunkest I’d ever gotten from dessert.

I was quite smug paying for the dinner with my New York Mets credit card, but given that I was going to be back the next day, that may not have been the wisest move. My stepmother had decided months earlier to buy tickets for herself, my father, my stepbrother Jake and I for a Saturday afternoon game, and while I wasn’t necessarily going to have the time to explore the stadium nearly as much, given that we were seated with the Bleacher Creatures I was sure to be entertained.

Fans who spend their days beyond the right field wall at Yankee Stadium are notorious for their dedication, rowdiness and enforced sobriety. Beginning in 2000, the Yankees had banned beer sales in the bleachers in an attempt to curb the wild behavior of its denizens, but this was tenuously overturned for the new building. While we would be in the right field bleachers, we were fortunate enough not to be in the almost comically ill-placed seats at the edge of the section that are next to a wall and as a result have the view of left field completely blocked. Those seats, did, however, provide a clear view of the most expensive seats behind home plate which were predictably empty while the cheaper sections were filled to capacity.

The Bleacher Creatures are noted for their first inning roll call. After each pitch they begin chanting one of the fielder’s names until he acknowledges them with a wave, which is met with a cheer, and each game they go through every man on the field. In addition to that heartwarming connection, however, they also live up to their reputation in amusing vulgarity. It became very obvious very quickly that I could be dominating the field were I playing a game of swear word bingo.

The group was emboldened by an early Yankee lead. Mark Teixeira hit a two-run homer in the first inning – to right field of course – and with two-time 19-game winner Chien-Ming Wang on the mound, surely it was a victory in the making. As Indians right fielder Shin-Soo Choo approached the plate with two men on, one fan in the rows in front of us yelled out, “You suck, Choo! You fucking suck!” Ever the classy gentleman, the bleacher creature’s comment was met with a three-run jack by Choo, putting the Indians in front.

Surely, an isolated incident.

Well before the inning was out Cleveland would string together 13 hits and 14 runs, the largest inning ever surrendered by the Yankees in their history. The frame created a number of records for the new building, and the eventual 22-4 loss for New York would be the third most runs ever allowed by the franchise. Remarkably, the first, second and fourth most runs allowed by the Yankees were all reaped by the Indians in a bizarre coincidence.

The early collapse created dissension among the bleacher creatures who were extremely displeased when one frustrated fan started chanting, “Jeter sucks!” There are certain lines you do not cross in Yankeeville. That particular fan tip-toed it ever so precariously. With the entire section’s ire raised, massive booing and grumbling commenced. One thing they did agree on, however, was that with a pitching change needed, right fielder Nick Swisher was the man for the job. Indeed, Swisher, was no pitcher. But as teams will sometimes have position players take in a few innings to spare bullpen arms in blowouts, Swisher had recently gotten his chance.

Five days earlier the Yankees were routed by the defending-AL Champion Tampa Bay Rays, and with arms at a premium, manager Joe Girardi put Swisher on the mound, where he responded with a scoreless inning, including a strike out of Gabe Kapler on a blistering 78-mile-per-hour fastball that made even Swisher laugh. With the Indians in the midst of their second-inning onslaught, cheers of “We want Swisher” rang from the crowd, but the right fielder was unlikely to come out again.

As he said after his 22-pitch outing in Tampa Bay, "I'm walking out of my professional career with a 0.00 ERA.”

With the result not in doubt, I seized the opportunity to check out one of the few areas of the park I missed the day before, the Yankees museum. Evidently I wasn’t the only person with this idea. When I left a line stretched hundreds of feet outside the doors. The museum features a heaping amount of impressive memorabilia from Thurman Munson’s locker, to Babe Ruth’s jersey, to Mickey Mantle’s cap, to several of the Yankees’ World Series championship trophies.

The literal centerpiece of the museum is a wall of autographed baseballs by nearly every man to have worn Yankee pinstripes from the legendary (Joe DiMaggio) to the forgotten (Woodie Held). While there is an impressive amount of items on display, the room itself is small, and I got the sense that they could have done more with it. After all, these are the Yankees, the most historic, successful, renowned franchise in the history of American sports. If the building befits their greatness, why doesn’t the museum, the place that is supposed to put all the accomplishments on display?

Perhaps I’m being picky. It is still worth the trip, particularly given that Monument Park closes well before game time each day. As I walked past the long line outside the museum and back to my seats, the game’s momentum, unsurprisingly, was still firmly behind Cleveland. The Indians had tacked on another run in both the third and fourth innings, but evidently it took until a three-run homer by Mark DeRosa in the fifth inning for fans to finally give up hope. After the 19th marker had crossed home plate, the stands slowly began to empty, as if that 19th run was the final one that had clinched it for the visitors and made a comeback impossible.

Surprisingly, perhaps out of a desire to look around the new building, my father and stepmother stuck it out until the end of the game, which I was fine with. It was a beautiful day and I make it a point not to leave early if I can help it. Good thing, too. Had we left, we would have missed the third go round of the “We Want Swisher” chant in the eighth inning.

As we and whatever fans left exited the stadium – and there weren’t many – there was laughter and disappointment. Sure these blowouts happen and most educated fans know you just have to let them go, but it was clear that after three games and one win in their new building, for many people this didn’t yet feel like home. They wouldn’t suffer the same malaise I did after visits to Citi Field, however. While the Mets collapsed brutally, the Yankees brought home their first title in nine years that November. With another trophy in tow, I’m sure the new residence felt plenty comfy.

And maybe that new trophy would spruce up the museum some.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Why I Love Baseball: Exhibit B

I try to make it a point to watch as many Mets games as I can during the year, which most seasons is a disastrous mistake. The jury is still out on whether or not 2010 will be as painful as some of its predecessors, but it's already provided plenty of interesting moments, and in all likelihood, the most interesting so far was yesterday in St. Louis.

I have seen some crazy baseball games in my life. But I'm not sure I've seen anything as crazy, wild, or absurdly enjoyable as the Mets' 2-1 win over the Cardinals yesterday in a 20-inning epic. In fact, I'm fairly sure I haven't since it was the longest game the Mets have played in my lifetime. But what makes early season epics like this one so much fun is not the triumph of victory so much as the amusing peculiarities that come about in the course of exhausting your bench, your bullpen and, yes your starting rotation.

To wit: Jerry Manuel used four fifths of his starting rotation in this game -- and only two of them as pitchers. While Johan Santana started and tossed seven magnificent shutout innings and Mike Pelfrey came on in the 20th for his first Major League save, John Maine appeared as a pinch runner in extra frames, while Jon Niese was a pinch-hitter. The game was so wild and crazy that by the time it ended no one seemed to remember that St. Louis starter Jaime Garcia actually was pitching a no-hitter at one point, having taken it into the sixth before the Mets finally got a base knock.

And the oddities don't end there. Here's a strange list of the peculiarities produced by the most fun game of the season as per ESPN, and the Star Ledger.

-- This was the fourth 20-inning game in Mets history and the fourth in Cardinals history. The Mets had been 0-3. The Cardinals were 3-0.
-- The game was scoreless for its first 18 innings, the first time that had happened in a Major League game since the Dodgers and Expos pulled it off in 1989, going 21 innings without a run on Aug. 23, 1989, according to STATS LLC. The Dodgers won that one 1-0 on Rick Dempsey's leadoff homer in the 22nd.
-- Having warmed up every inning from the 8th to the 19th, Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez estimated that he had thrown 100 warm up pitches before finally taking the mound for his first save opportunity of the season.
-- Rodriguez blew the save.
-- Rodriguez was the pitcher of record however, and after the Mets won it in the 20th, he got the win.
-- A closer won the game (Rodriguez), a starting pitcher saved it (Pelfrey) and a position player lost it (Cardinals outfielder Joe Mather).
-- Two position players took the mound for the Cardinals (Mather and utility infielder Felipe Lopez). While Lopez was pitching, Cards pitcher Kyle Lohse played left field.
-- The Mets won despite allowing a run in the 19th, and despite producing a total of nine hits in 20 innings.
-- Jose Reyes finally pushed the winning run across, with a sacrifice fly off Mather in the 20th. Despite getting the game-winning RBI, Reyes finished 0 for 7 at the plate, calling it "the happiest 0 for 7 I've ever had in my life".
-- Jeff Francoeur plated the game's first run with a sacrifice fly in the 19th.
-- Mather had not pitched competitively since his sophomore year of high school.
-- Tony La Russa, a man who is generally considered one of the best managers in the game also has a tendency to overmanage, which he did yesterday. La Russa began shuffling his lineup early, and his biggest mistake may have come in the top of the 11th inning, when he double-switched cleanup hitter Matt Holliday out of the game because he had been ill. This left the pitcher to hit after Albert Pujols for the next nine innings.
-- In maybe the craziest inning, the Cards put men on second and third with no outs in the 14th. Mets reliever Hisanori Takahashi struck out Skip Schumaker and Ryan Ludwick in succession, intentionally walked Pujols, then struck out pitcher Blake Hawksworth -- batting in Holliday's spot -- to end the threat.
-- The Cardinals also loaded the bases off Fernando Nieve with two outs in the 10th, but Alex Cora -- who entered the game having played four innings at first base in his 13-year career -- tumbled into the stands to make a highlight-reel grab of Holliday's foul pop to send it to the 11th.
-- The Cardinals left the bases loaded three times in extra innings, in the 10th, 12th and 14th, and couldn't score each time.
-- Angel Pagan, who scored the winning run on Reyes' sacrifice fly in the 20th inning, was 3 for 6; the rest of the Mets combined to go 6 for 55 (.109).
-- The teams combined to have 19 different men pitch.
-- The Cardinals were 1 for 18 with runners in scoring position, while the Mets were 0 for 7. The teams went 24-for-130 overall, and left a combined 35 men on base.
-- Of those 35, St. Louis stranded 22 runners, including 14 in extra innings.
-- David Wright and Jason Bay were a combined 1 for 13 with 7 K's.
-- St. Louis left the bases loaded in the 10th, 12th and 14th and stranded 22 runners, including 14 in extra innings.
-- Mets nemesis Yadier Molina, who forced a 20th inning by driving in Albert Pujols in the bottom of the 19th, caught the whole game and went 3 for 9.
-- Mather, who would wind up the losing pitcher of record, didn't even enter the game until he hit for Colby Rasmus in the 10th inning. He played center and third before taking the mound in the 19th for his first major league pitching appearance.
-- Mather became the first St. Louis position player to register a decision since Jose Oquendo got the loss in a 7-5 setback against Atlanta on May 14, 1988.
-- When Mather pitched it was readily apparent that he couldn't hit the strike zone to save his life, and the Mets, for some unknown reason, continued to swing the bat.
-- It was the Mets' longest game since they lost 4-3 to St. Louis in 25 innings on Sept. 11, 1974.
-- The game set five stadium records for the current Busch Stadium: most strikeouts by Cardinals pitchers (16), most strikeouts by opposing pitchers (19), most combined strikeouts (35), longest game by time (six hours, 53 minutes) and longest game by innings.
-- The last time two position players pitched in the same game in the Major Leagues was July 20, 1990, when Dave Martinez and Junior Noboa pitched for the Expos in a 12-6 loss in Houston.
-- When the Cardinals went 18 innings without scoring a run, it tied the longest scoreless streak by them in one game since the legendary Carl Hubbell pitched an 18-inning shutout for the Giants on July 2, 1933.
-- The last 20-inning game in the Major Leagues was two years ago to the day, April 17, 2008. Colorado beat San Diego in that game, 2-1, in 22 innings -- with current Cardinal Matt Holliday playing all 22 innings.
-- There were 652 pitches thrown. There were 159 plate appearances.
-- Pelfrey became the first full-time Mets starter to earn a save since Dwight Gooden did it on Sept. 19, 1989, against the Cubs.
-- Cardinals utility infielder Felipe Lopez may have been the most impressive performer on the day. The only hit he surrendered, bizarrely, came from Mets reliever Raul Valdes, who gave up a decisive grand slam to Lopez the night before and pitched to Lopez in the top of the inning. Valdes promptly was thrown out trying to reach second after the Cardinals' short stop overthrew first baseman Albert Pujols.
-- The game lasted six hours and 53 minutes, featured 46 players (including every Met except pitcher Oliver Perez), had 19 walks and 35 strikeouts.
-- The game had a grand total of three extra-base hits.
-- Supposedly, Jeff Francoeur was scheduled to pitch for New York in the 21st.
-- New York Times Sports Editor Tom Jolly reported leaving his home in the 10th to see a movie with his wife and returning in time to see the first runs scored.
-- Three NHL playoff games were played yesterday, with two of them going into overtime. The Mets-Cardinals game spanned all of them.

Make no mistake. This was a truly crazy and nutty game, with shades of the 2008 MLB All-Star Game that very nearly featured David Wright pitching and Scott Kazmir playing in the outfield.

And what might have been the absolute craziest, nuttiest, bizarre aspect of the afternoon? Two high school teams were scheduled to play on the field after the game. And they still did, as noted by Ledger writer Brian Costa, who reported that the game was 1-0 in the third inning before he left the stadium well after midnight. Cost did take a picture as evidence that the game was, in fact, being played.

The Mets and Cards are particularly lucky in that they won't be playing again until 8:05 tonight, having drawn the Sunday Night Baseball game on ESPN, so they may actually get to be well rested before first pitch. In the meantime, the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which have been phenomenal so far, particularly Washington's wild OT-winning rally over Montreal yesterday, are continuing this afternoon and I will be ready, wearing my brand new Zach Parise Christmas Tree jersey for the Devils pivotal Game 3 with Philadelphia.

Of course, if you're too tired from watching the Mets yesterday, well, I guess I couldn't blame you.

Friday, April 16, 2010

1995 NFL Mail Bag: The Houston Oilers

I'm sure most of you are bleary-eyed after staying up last night to watch Mikael Samuelsson's overtime winner in Game 1 of the Canucks-Kings series. Surely, the Stanley Cup Playoffs has you all rapt at attention. But if I can manage to bring back your attention and wake you up a hair, I just might do it with my latest 1995 NFL Mail Bag installment, and frankly, it's been too long.

This week, I recall the curious case of the Houston Oilers, who sent me no letter, no order form and no offer to join their kids club. The Oilers only sent me a copy of their 1994 NFL Yearbook, without any explanation.

What follows in the yearbook, which has a picture of the immortal Ray Childress on the cover, is an interesting journey through memories that trend the bizarre, the comical and perhaps most of all, the disappointing. I say disappointing, and I specifically note that Childress is on the cover, because Childress is a native of the state of Tennessee, and if you glance in today's NFL standings, you'll notice the Houston Oilers are nowhere to be found.

Two short years after I got my mail from the Oilers, owner Bud Adams pulled up stakes and took his franchise to the Volunteer State, where they now play as the Tennessee Titans. Yes, I know, over the course of sports history, teams move for one reason or another, but it's somewhat distressing to see a team with history as rich, and a place so important as the Oilers leave town.

The Houston Oilers literally changed American professional football in 1960. With the NFL being a tight group unwilling to accept overtures from business men across the country who wished to enter an expansion franchise into the league, Adams and late Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt banded together with six other men, who would come to be known as "The Foolish Club", to create a rival known as the American Football League. While the AFL experienced some hiccups in the early going, and was considered a second tier operation in comparison to the NFL, success soon came that would dramatically alter the game.

A decade later, the NFL had absorbed the new group, nearly doubling its size and laying the foundation for the AFC and NFC Conference structure we have today. While Adams and Hunt are generally considered the founders of the AFL, the Oilers hold an even more noteworthy spot in that they won the first AFL Championship in 1960. It's somewhat maudlin to see such an important franchise leave its historic home, though one might argue the franchise reached new heights in Nashville, when the Titans nearly won Super Bowl XXXIV, but flipping through the pages still manages to give me some laughs.

For one, the very first thing you see is an advertisement for Sony's Surround Sound television system. Normally I wouldn't think twice about this, but I thought it was extremely peculiar that in 1994, they didn't have flat screen TVs. Think about it. When was the last time you saw an ad for a tube television?

But quirky old ads aside, the most amusing thing in these old publications to me is always the stories that, with some hindsight, we can tell didn't quite pan out. In the case of the 1994 Oilers, the sad case of Cody Carlson seems to take the cake.

Carlson had spent the first seven years of his career backing up the legendary Warren Moon in Houston, but with Moon dealt to the Minnesota Vikings in the offseason, the article boasted that it was finally Carlson's time to lead the Oilers into their next period of glory. Of course, Carlson's Wikipedia page also notes that he's "best known for curling into a fetal position whenever he was hit hard," so you can probably see how this wound up. Carlson would be injured early in the season, and miss the remainder of the year. As an interesting coda, he retired after the team let him go following a coaching change.

That coaching change, however, is where things get interesting, as the Oilers promoted first-year defensive coordinator Jeff Fisher to head coach. This is interesting because 16 years later, Fisher is still in charge for the now Tennessee Titans, and he has arguably the strongest job security of any coach in the league after leading the Titans to multiple playoff appearances and an AFC Championship. It is also worth noting that of all the people in this yearbook, he's the only one who doesn't appear to have aged significantly. Sure a few years have been tacked on, but he certainly has fared better than most of the other big names in the front office.

In fact, Fisher may not only have aged the best, but he's also managed to keep his reputation fairly clean, unlike the rest of them. Adams certainly looks to have had a few run-ins with Father Time, but that hasn't prevented him from showing the spunk of a teenager recently. Still, a middle finger is probably less damaging than Kevin Gilbride, who might be most well known for getting into a fistfight on the sidelines with previous Oilers defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan.

Of course, both of them are eons ahead of blogosphere whipping boy Sean Salisbury, who had recently arrived in Houston in 1994 via Minnesota. Aside from being a bombastic and irritating TV personality, Salisbury came under scrutiny three years ago for supposedly showing off pictures of his penis on a cell phone while employed at ESPN -- a charge he recently admitted to. Why couldn't he have just been proud of how awesome his hair looks coming out the back of his helmet?

Other interesting things of note in these pages include the page of Hall of Fame lineman Bruce Matthews, who is referred as "the best offensive lineman in professional football", a charge I might have argued at the time, and the forgotten old-timey cheerleading troupe of the Lone Star State: the Derrick Dolls. The Derrick Dolls seem to have been lost to posterity in the franchise's move to Tennessee, particularly since I imagine they always played second fiddle to the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, but there is something about them that seems a bit more wholesome and not quite so overtly sexual and tawdry.

Or maybe that's just my hatred of the Cowboys shining through. But what can I say? I never claimed to be objective.

Also, and this must not be understated, throughout the magazine you get page after page of the old Houston Oilers Derrick logo. It was awesome then, and it was awesome this year when the Titans wore Oilers throwbacks for the AFL's 50th anniversay.

Speaking of uniforms, a bizarre moment in NFL fashion that will interest only me can be found in these pages. When the NFL celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1994, the League required each team to play in throwback uniforms at some point in the season, which led to some entirely awesome duds being strutted around. Interestingly, however, the NFL allowed you to alter your uniforms if you so wish, and the New York Jets apparently decided that their white helmets from Super Bowl III were no longer good anymore. The solution? Let's make them green! For two games! This is particularly odd since the team went with its old white helmets full time just four years later. The Jets were wearing green helmets at the time, but these peculiar buckets made their appearance once and once only, but you can find them in an advertisement in the Oilers yearbook.

Lastly, the joy ends when you get to the final pages of the yearbook. And that's because you are treated with an excited presentation for the stadium that will replace the aging Astrodome and keep the Oilers in Houston. The final page is title "21st Century Sports Facility Proposed by Oilers" and notes that it will be a first class building with a low roof that would save energy savings and create an intimate and exciting atmosphere. While baseball's Astros were not in the mix, the building expected an annual attendance of 3.5 million fans for NFL games, NBA games, concerts, college basketball and football and, and I find this the most interesting part, "44 NHL games". Apparently, the expectation was that Houston would be involved in the wave of 1990s NHL expansion, which, in hindsight seems like a potential disaster, despite the success of the Dallas Stars, but a quick google search shows that some are still looking to bring ice to one of the hottest cities in America.

Regardless the final page of the yearbook is a dour coda to an otherwise amusing trip to the past. Yes, the Oilers later got the expansion Texans, who look to have a bright future ahead of them, but something is classic about the derrick on the side of the helmet. You get the feeling that this team should never have moved. And more than anything else, reading through this simply made me wonder what could have been. In the meantime, I'll just have to be satisfied that my letter writing campaign left me with a little piece of football's past.