Thursday, August 26, 2010

Go West, Young Man. Again.

Some of you might have noticed that my updates have been somewhat sparse lately, and I will plead your forgiveness by offering a few reasons why. You see, the month of August 2010 has been particularly busy for me, with work, weddings and travel galore. Also, the downtrodden Mets have left me with little to be excited about in sports beyond the start of Southampton's League One season and the run up to the Aussie Rules Football Finals, which Geelong should figure to impact rather heavily.

But y'all cats aren't necessarily interested in all that, though perhaps the coming start of Northwestern's college football season might excite you. Or maybe not. I'm sure my four readers would feign interest while I rambled about the Cats' prospects at a surprise Big Ten title or my Geelong Cats' prospects of a third premiership in four years, but I wouldn't want to make hypocrites out of all of you.

In any event, I will come clean and tell you all why this month has been so busy, and essentially, I will revolve it around my zany trip to San Diego to see the annual Comic-Con, and a trip I made two weeks ago to see my friends Dave and Caitlin tie the knot in Portland, Oregon. This would be the same Dave with whom I saw that magic moment for Ken Griffey Jr. last June. In between all of those events I've been juggling a typical work schedule, the precipitous downfall of my Mets, the impending start of the season for my Giants, the fact that Ilya Kovalchuk somehow still isn't under a contract that passes muster and my brother's impending nuptials this Sunday.

See how I slipped that in there? Eh? Eh?

That, my friends, is what we call burying the lead. Burying it after the jump is equally as bad, but you've got to entice the reader to keep on reading no?

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Elliott, Emmy-winning comedy writer, terrible movie enthusiast and newly minted comic book author, is getting hitched to his fiancee Danielle this Sunday in Sonoma, California, which means, I have to book it to the airport tomorrow morning for a flight to San Francisco that will mark my third trip across the country in five weeks.

Yep. That's right. The third time in five weeks.

Fortunately, this is no longer the era of covered wagons like you see to the left here, so my accommodations -- the newfangled "airplane" -- will get me to San Francisco in at least half the time.

Now, surely none of you really care all that much about my travel plans to my brother's wedding, beyond offerings of congratulations and curiosity over just how big a disaster my best man speech is going to be, but here's why it matters for this space. There will be baseball. West Coast Baseball. The Mets would not exist were it not for the California-bound relocation of the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers half a century ago, and because the actual Mets are, well, terrible right now, I will instead scope out the forbears of my favorite team who are much better than terrible and actually even in contention for what they call "a playoff berth".

We Mets fans may be unfamiliar with that concept these days, but I assure all of you, it actually exists.

And so, because I will be on the left coast, my sister, I, and a few assorted others will be attending this Monday's Giants-Rockies game at AT&T Park, and while this will not be a new experience for me -- I've been there twice -- it just may be my favorite. Two days later, if we can wake ourselves early enough to make the drive from San Luis Obispo, we will be in Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles to, at long last, knock the second oldest park in the National League off of my list. I'm awfully excited about the prospect.

Oh yeah. And my brother's getting married. That's pretty exciting, too. One of my best friends in college, Luisa Badaracco of my venture to Fenway and TD Garden fame, was at her sister's wedding three years ago when Clay Buchholz threw a no-hitter in his second career start for her Boston Red Sox. Will history repeat itself for my brother Sunday as the historically pitching-rich Mets finally get their first no-no? Well, the odds are a little slim, though this isn't the most unlikely thing I've banked on -- in High School I once told a teacher I'd have to miss a club meeting because I had Mets tickets and I liked their chances for a Perfect Game against the hapless Orioles. The Mets probable starter is R.A. Dickey, who already has a one-hitter under his belt in a surprising knuckleballing season that has him stunningly in the top ten of the NL's ERA chase. His foe -- the equally as hapless Houston Astros in the pitcher's haven of Citi Field.

The stars are aligned. You can pretty much take it to the bank.

On one last note, it was revealed this week whom the Mets will be visiting in 2011 for interleague play, which is always of great interest to me as I look to strike down stadiums on my quest. Despite much hub-bub that the Amazins would be visiting Minnesota's new Target Field, they will in fact be visiting Rangers Ballpark at Arlington and Comerica Park in Detroit. While I have already been to Comerica Park, the Texas Rangers are new on the list. Who's up for a road trip?

And that's all the news that's fit to print and a whole lot more that isn't in these parts. California beckons tomorrow, again, and the Kalan family will be changed forever. If I can keep my eyes open after crisscrossing the U.S. one last time this month, I'll be sure to tell you all about it next week.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Shot Heard Round The World

As a 16-year-old nerd in high school I once took a trek to the NAQT National Quiz Bowl Championships with my high school team. We were pretty good that year, winning the first of two state championships and every regional tournament we participated in with the exception of one in Princeton, which we lost to the eventual National Champions by half the value of one question.

I bring this up because the NAQT National Quiz Bowl Championships in 2002 were in Rosemont, Illinois, a town right outside of Chicago that has little import beyond its proximity to O'Hare Airport, and while my biggest memory from that was probably a Yankees-White Sox game at new Comiskey during which one of my clueless teammates continually clamored for Jason Giambi to "hit the moneyshot", it was almost decidedly more impactful on me because while waiting in O'Hare for my flight home, I purchased a book called "The Giants Win the Pennant! The Giants Win the Pennant!" -- a personalized retelling of the the famous 1951 National League Pennant Race as told by Bobby Thomson, the man who brought the thrilling chase to an end with his momentous home run off Ralph Branca.

That I own this book was the first thing that came to mind yesterday afternoon when I heard that Bobby Thomson had passed away at the age of 86. As I always say when someone passes away at that age, it's hard to be too upset when a man or woman dies in their mid-80s. After all, they had a pretty good run, they beat the odds, and in the case of Thomson, they experienced what must be one of the most incredible moments anyone can, a walk-off home run in the postseason to win a pennant and devastate your historic rival after closing an almost absurd 13 1/2-game gap in the standings from the summer. Thomson's life was a different breed than the rest of us, not just because he was a good baseball player, but because he created the signature moment for an entire sport in what was a solid but otherwise unremarkable career.

Bobby Thomson's pennant-clincher is almost undoubtedly the most famous home run of all-time, perhaps even the most famous moment in all of American sports.

Anyone who grows up a baseball fan in this country knows about the Shot Heard 'Round the World by the time they're 10 years old, regardless of when they were born. It is a seminal moment that rises above all others in the American pantheon, to the point that even someone who was born 34 years after the event occurred could be excited to receive a baseball signed by Thomson and Branca -- as I was. Interestingly, Branca and Thomson became good friends over the rest of their lives, almost by necessity as they would be forever linked by the event. Branca was among the first to express their condolences on Thomson's passing.

What makes this so wild to me is not that I was any sort of Giants fan. Not the baseball team anyway. I never rooted for them, I never saw them in the Polo Grounds and I never saw Thomson play -- though apparently both sides of my family rooted for the Giants before they headed west and a picture of my father in a Giants baseball uniform as a toddler is said to exist. But I know the sport, and I've done my reading on its history. Sports are full of strange wonderful moments like this and their is a peculiar type of void left when the player is gone. In a sense you feel like the game you loved lost something, but you're not exactly sure of how to handle it. After all, it's not like a player you have an emotional connection to because of your youth passed away -- say, Mike Piazza for instance -- or one of the truly all-time greats has met their end -- Ken Griffey Jr. for example. It's an entirely different sort of situation. In many senses we aren't so much mourning a man but a moment -- in this case, possibly the greatest moment the game has seen.

The game and time itself may not be erased from our collective memories until Branca or the rest of the men on the field that day have all passed on, but looking back on it now, there is little doubt that the game feels like it lost something. It was inevitable, sure, but that doesn't make it feel any less sad in an undefinable way that Thomson, the man who helped turn baseball into myth is no longer among us.

Perhaps I feel more connected to it because I read his book, which takes into account not just the race and the game, but Thomson's career after the fact as well. Interestingly, the most prescient thing I remember from reading it, which I did some months after purchasing it in the summer of 2002, is not the race itself, which saw the Giants make among the most remarkable of comebacks, but that much of the book talks about Thomson traveling with his wife, and the difficulties of finding a job with a new team in the later stages of his career. In short, what you find is that Thomson wasn't a mythic legend who was born to mash. He was just a regular guy, with regular problems and hopes. Over the course of his career he was more middling than he was Mantle. But he had that one moment. He was an average, normal person, who managed to accomplish something great when the spotlight was thrust upon him. He's a tale showing that average men can achieve greatness if provided the opportunity. And knowing that one has the ability to do great things regardless of not being the best there is, is, in some ways, entirely what baseball, and life, are all about.

Bobby Thomson gave us that message when he clocked Branca's pitch into the left field stands. Hopefully, that message won't die with him.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

It's a Great Time For All My Teams

When I perused my twitter feed this morning an interesting thought came to mind when I saw this tweet from @TheHappyRecap noting that of the four New York sports teams he follows, the one that had a starting wide receiver accidentally shoot himself in the leg while wearing sweatpants was probably the least embarrassing. Because I went to sleep fairly early last night, it was after this that I saw that Francisco Rodriguez had gotten himself arrested last night after apparently taking a swipe at his father-in-law at Citi Field following the Mets 6-2 loss to Colorado.

Man, I love this team.

With the Mets set to conclude their three-game set with the Rockies this afternoon, reports are coming out that K-Rod is still being held in police custody at Citi Field, and while I'm sure, in the long run, this incident will start to fade from memory, it brings up an interesting question of which team I follow, or perhaps in a larger context, which team in general, has had the most embarrassing history. The Mets are making themselves strong contenders with this latest dust-up piled on top of a litany of others -- The Wilpon-Madoff Connection, The Adam Rubin Incident, The Midnight Massacre of Willie Randolph, The Mo-Licious, Mark Corey being unable to handle his Pot, the Vince Coleman Firecracker Affair, that whole massive collapse in consecutive seasons thing, just to name a few -- but why stop there when I have plenty of other reasons to be embarrassed by the teams I dedicate so much of my time to?

Because make no mistake, the Mets have some strong competition.

No discussion can really start in this without the Knicks, who have put their fans through what might be the most embarrassing five years of sports mismanagement any organization has ever endured with the circus that was the Isiah Thomas era. Sexual harrassment scandals, players trading sex for influence and dealing two unprotected first round picks for career-long lazy wastes with a known heart condition are just a few of the highlights. It is not unusual for a sports franchise to suffer one or two black eyes, particularly ones that get magnified in the media spotlight of New York City, but few are so dramatic that they actually inspire fans to rally outside the team's arena in support of firing the man in question.

The only way to understand how Isiah Thomas could have been in charge of the Knicks for so long is to assume that he must have had some sort of dirt on completely inept Knicks owner James Dolan. How else could we explain the recently embarrassing news that New York was bringing Thomas back into the fold as a consultant just two years after he completed running the 'Bockers into the ground? Naturally this didn't go over well with most of the fan base, and fortunately for all of us, NBA bylines deeming the deal a conflict of interest with Thomas' day job as the head coach at FIU have saved us all from those best laid plans.

By comparison, the Giants' struggles with Burress and their stunning loss to close out Giants Stadium last season, or the Devils having the largest move in team history blow up in their faces are downright positive developments.

But, like I said, this isn't just about the joke-a-thons that are my favorite teams. The Jets, Rangers, Nets and Islanders, a team once nearly purchased by a man with no money, have all had more than their fair share of misery both on the field and off over the past few decades.

So as I sit here, I'm going to make a rare plea to my four readers and ask you to submit some comments and ideas. Of all the teams, not necessarily in New York, which has had it the worst?

If you're a pained, suffering fan, you'll know what to do.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Perhaps Elena Kagan Can Rule Fred Wilpon Unconstitutional

Some of you might have heard that the high court got a little bit of a makeover this week when Elena Kagan was confirmed and sworn in as the 112th Justice in the history of the United States Supreme Court. No one really knows just what kind of judge Kagan will wind up being -- her scant track record was probably one of the reasons the Obama administration thought she was a fit choice for easy confirmation and eventually sitting on the bench -- but I already like her. No this is not just because she noted when asked about the underwear bomber that, like most Jews, she was probably at a Chinese restaurant at the time.

Nuh-uh. I like Elena Kagan because, as I've mentioned before, we finally have someone to balance out Sonia Sotomayor and bring some Mets fandom to the highest court in all the land. In general, it's just nice to know that people have succeeded to great heights when they've suffered just like you have. I wonder if she, too, has cringed at nearly every back-breaking loss the Amazins have suffered this season, or been perturbed by the front office's inaction at the trade deadline that has rendered the team all but irrelevant this season.

And if she has, I have one request. Use your power.

Use your power to lean on the Supreme Court to rule Fred Wilpon's ownership of the Mets unconstitutional somehow. Please. I'm no legal scholar, but I'm sure there's a way to get the team back into the arms of either Nelson Doubleday or the Payson Family. Better yet, tell Mike Piazza and Tom Seaver to pool some resources and rescue the franchise, because it just might be in dire straights.

Need evidence? Here you go.

No, I don't think Omar Minaya has really done that poor of a job. This franchise doesn't get to within a game of the 2006 World Series without his orchestration and there have been some phenomenal finds he has made among other teams' discarded scrap piles. Finds like Endy Chavez, Angel Pagan, Damion Easely or R.A. Dickey. But for each of these great pickups there are just as many mediocre moves that simply waste space on the roster. People like Brian Schneider, Frank Catalanotto or Ambiorix Burgos. And then there are the huge financial disasters -- signings that haven't panned out like he'd hope, with millions being lost in the offing -- such as the wholly unnecessary extension given to Luis Castillo or the catastrophic decision to give Oliver Perez $36 million with no one bidding against you.

In fact, at this weekend's annual Sabermetrics Convention in Atlanta, it was determined that the franchise with the worst overall performance in the last decade relative to its payroll was, yup, you guessed it, the Mets.

So, with that kind of mediocrity given the resources poured into the team, to say nothing of the apparent lack of class displayed by moves such as firing Willie Randolph in the middle of the night, why is this man being brought back for another shaky season at the wheel of the ship? What could be the cause? The only reason that rationally comes to mind is that the Wilpons, ever mindful of their money, were not interested in continuing to pay Minaya while paying someone else to do the job. This has been one of the curses of the Wilpon ownership -- not that they refuse to spend frivolously, but that they refuse to make the sometimes necessary and expensive moves to improve the product on the field when they have the resources to do it.

And they do. This is a team that plays in the media capital of the world, has a brand new stadium where some tickets run up to $400 each for a regular season game, and that owns a highly profitable cable channel that allows it to appropriately price its broadcast rights. Yes, attendance is down this year and tickets have been easier to have than the Wilpons might have anticipated in their second season in Citi Field, but that is less a sign of disinterest than it is a symptom of the now fading recession and growing dissatisfaction within the fanbase over ownership that refuses to funnel money into areas of need.

The most obvious sign of this, recently, was the immediate acknowledgment that the Mets would not be in the hunt for Roy Oswalt simply because he was too expensive at an average of $16 million a year over the next two seasons. Instead, the perspective should have been, "We have a chance to control one of the best pitchers in the game through 2013, giving us a top two (Oswalt and Johan Santana), which would rival any in the game." Add into this that Oswalt's superb isolated pitching statistics have come in one of the most hitter-friendly parks in baseball, and that he would be moving to one of the biggest pitchers parks in the Majors, and the pursuit seems like a no-brainer.

Instead, the Wilpons pulled tighter the reins on Minaya, and Oswalt will spend the next three seasons dominating the National League for the Philadelphia Phillies. Seeing him and Roy Halladay for the next half decade is just what the doctor ordered right?

And so, Justice Kagan, I beg of you -- plead of you -- please allow some test case to reach the bench that lets you use your jurisprudence to re-energize the millions of Mets fans who suffer with this ineffective and apparently indifferent ownership.

When you're not making Jews everywhere proud by chowing down on some Pekking Duck on December 25th, you can do something to bring joy to half the city of New York. And maybe, just maybe, that ship will right itself.

(Ed note: I am well aware that Elena Kagan does not have the power, nor is it appropriate for her to use her position to change the ownership and front office of the New York Mets. But a Man can dream, damnit.)

Lastly, I've spent most of this morning watching Emmitt Smith's induction speech to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and the Mets' horrid debacle in Philadelphia. Add in the nonstop barrage of drums from the Dominican Pride Parade on Sixth Avenue right now, and you might not be too far off by assuming I'm stuck in my personal hell at the moment.

It has, however, given me the time to ponder two notes, which should probably have their own entries altogether, but, you know, I've got things to do, so I'll just point them out right now. First of all: Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith are, probably, the two greatest players of the 1990s. I don't think it's outlandish at all to make that statement. And they may just be the greatest to play their position. While Smith, the NFL's all-time leading rusher could face competition for the title from the likes of Jim Brown, Walter Payton or Barry Sanders, Jerry Rice is almost certainly the greatest wide receiver that has or, quite possibly, will ever play the game. Period. And they're going into the Hall together. Now, I can't remember every other Hall of Fame class off the top of my head, but I find it hard to believe any rivals this one in prestige, to say nothing of the other inductees, Floyd Little, Russ Grimm, John Randle, Rickey Jackson and possibly the greatest defensive mind of the game's modern era, Dick LeBeau.

The last thing I noticed, while watching the nonstop coverage on NFL Network this weekend was this: Emmitt Smith is the last of the Cowboys' star trio from their three-time Super Bowl Champion teams of the 1990s to be inducted in Canton. The others, Michael Irvin and Troy Aikman, were equally deserving of enshrinement. What was most remarkable to me about this, aside from how difficult it was, as a Giants fan, to choke down the vitriol during a three-way discussion the three held at Cowboys Stadium this weekend, was that they were all first-round picks in successive years. That means that in 1988 (Irvin), 1989 (Aikman) and 1990 (Smith) the Dallas Cowboys drafted a Hall of Famer, not just at all, but with their first round pick.

When has that ever happened for any other franchise in any sport? I'm willing to bet the answer is that it hasn't, and while there were many other pieces to that Cowboys dynasty in the 1990s, those were the big ones. And that they all arrived in Dallas the way they did is remarkable.

You don't need to be a Supreme Court Justice to figure that out.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Oh The Fates, Ye Be Cruel

Ok, let's be honest here. No one actually wants a championship ring so they can wear it. They're gaudy, heavy clunky things that attract way more attention than most people are comfortable with in their private lives and not always the good kind.

But they're also really, really cool to look at. Duh.

Who wouldn't want a championship ring of some sort, really? They're fun to show off and a sense of great pride if acquired through an actual accomplishment even if it spends all of its time in your safety deposit box. Of course some people just want them because of their value and will acquire them through whatever means they wish, which is surprisingly easy if you've got a big bank account.

Finding rings in eBay auctions (some more bizarre than others) isn't all that unusual, and seeing them randomly wind up in pawn shops isn't so rare either. Of course, sometimes the means aren't all that legitimate.

So I hear the questions. "Dave, why are you talking about this? You're never going to get a championship ring for yourself. You're just a wee wannabe sportswriter." True, this statement may be, but working for a team professionally has been a thought in the back of my mind from time to time, and regardless, having a championship ring of any sort would be pretty sweet, even if I had to keep it locked up at all times. A burden, sure, but one I'd love to have even if it were just for bragging rights, but either way, it's never been a prospect I've thought I'd have a real shot at or seriously entertained.

And then I came across this story.

Those Chicago Blackhawks were quite a fun team to watch this year, but as I've pointed out on more than one occasion, I was rather excited to see them win the whole shabang even if they weren't the New Jersey Devils. Ever since I worked as an intern for the Blackhawks during my senior year of college four years ago, I have had a soft spot in my heart for the Hawks, both as someone who has seen the inner workings of a professional sports franchise and as someone who still has friends in the organization. It is disconcerting to see that they still lost money this season despite partying with Stanley, but that is likely a remnant of the antiquated business practices of former owner Bill Wirtz, who famously refused to broadcast home games on TV. The team should turn a profit this coming season and be well on its way.

I was more struck by this part of the article, however:

"There's definitely no penny-pinching going on. Among those set to receive Stanley Cup rings next season include the team's interns."

They're giving rings to everyone. They're giving rings to interns. It's hard to play the what-if game here, but I think you all can see what I'm getting at here, which, essentially, is that, if I were four years younger, I would be getting some new hardware this summer.

I would have a Stanley Cup championship ring.

This is, of course, a very silly and abstract argument to make since being four years younger likely would have led me on an entirely different path through my life. That is probably pretty clear. Moreover, considering that Chicago finished last in its division the year I worked there, a title was hardly a plausible idea at the time. But it's still fun to dream and in my mind, I apparently came oh so close to bragging to all of my friends over a dramatically undeserved piece of jewelry.

So close, and yet so far away.

There is some better news however, which is that the tickets to my next planned venture have arrived. Now, it won't be the next unusual stadium I make my way to. My sister and I will likely be at the Giants-Rockies game in San Francisco on August 30th and there is a very slim chance that I might get to knock Dodger Stadium off the list on September 1st to make up for last week's near miss after my sister and I drive down the California coast.

But barring that, my next big trip will be to Indianapolis to see the quadrennial Manning Bowl with Dov Turner. The Giants visit the Colts once every eight years and with the next time coming on September 19, I will be there in the very last row of Lucas Oil Stadium to watch Big Blue spoil the AFC Champions' home opener after some banner raising fanfare.

Excited? You bet. I'll be sure to post a story once the trip is complete and with the Mets being a completely unmitigated disaster these days, I was happy to receive something to take my mind off the pain.

It may not be a Stanley Cup Championship ring, but today it will have to do.