Monday Recap — Hail to the [???]? Hoops Title in Denver? Fear the Marlins?

With the NFL back front and center, and painful memories still lingering from SportsAttic’s ill-fated attempts at prognostication the last time NFL teams were suited up on the gridiron, we’ve decided to introduce the…

SportsAttic Monday Recap!

It’s based on the simple premise that it’s always easier looking into the rearview mirror than a crystal ball.

So each Monday we’ll take a look at a dozen or so stories from the prior weekend. Sometimes for excellence in action, more frequently for the absurdity associated with that action — be it NFL, MLB, NBA or really any important sporting event contested over the prior couple of days.

Welcome aboard and here we go!

*The unnamed Washington Football Team seemed appropriately irrelevant while falling behind the Iggles early yesterday. But not so fast! Despite the hapless franchise’s inability to even rename itself in a timely manner, they looked damn good storming back to an unexpected victory. And don’t think there weren’t more than a few choruses of “Hail to the Redskins” breaking out across The District, Virginia and Maryland yesterday afternoon. Too soon to declare the curse lifted? You betcha — Danny Snyder still owns this team.

*It’s easy to feel sorry for yourself if you are a fan of the New York Football Jets. Never even showing a sign of being competitive against the Buffalo Bills is painful, but is it worse than how Lions fans must feel today? I believe losing a game you should have won is far more painful than raising the white flag in the first quarter of the first game of the season. Yes, it’s a little like debating the worst possible ways to die, but then again, the Lions at least have some hope based on what we saw yesterday. The Jets? Not so much.

*It’s rare I feel sorry for an athlete who’s about to cash a check for millions of dollars, especially after blatantly choking a clear shot at the U.S. Open title, but poor Alexander Zverev. The guy flushed a two-set lead, and still had the match sitting there on a platter for him, his opponent barely able to walk as the fifth set tie-breaker began. But as painful as it was to witness one of the most god-awful choke moments in tennis history, his going to pieces during his runner-up speech actually moved me. Poor guy. Lucky for him there were only a couple of dozen people in attendance at Arthur Ashe Stadium. And probably even fewer watching on TV. But still…

*Speaking of the Open. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more poised 22-year-old than Naomi Osaka. After coming back from a set down to beat Victoria Azarenka in the finals Saturday, Osaka refused to bite as the announcer practically begged her to say something inflammatory regarding racial justice. Leading her down his desired road by referencing the social justice masks she’d rotated throughout the tournament, the classless MC asked Osaka what the masks made her think about. Osaka didn’t blink, instead redirecting and asking the oaf what it made him think about. And wasn’t that the point? Perfect and perfect. I’m a fan.

*Why did the Rams choose to sully the unveiling of what appears to be an awesome new stadium by rolling out the worst uniforms in the NFL? Redesigning their iconic helmet is a travesty, but then to compound that error with such plain and unimaginative jerseys? We just don’t get it?

*Gotta admit I loved Tom Brady on the keeper to punch in a TD on his first possession leading the Tampa Bay offense. However, I really loved the pick-six he tossed that helped bury the Bucs. And coach Bruce Arians laying him out for poor decision-making in the postgame presser? Nice.

*Can’t the Mets just forfeit the rest of their games? The pain is becoming too much to bear. The idea that we will miss the expanded playoffs and end up watching the Marlins play on is just so… so… well… so Mets.

*With the exception of the little matter of picking the Jazz to go all the way in our SportsAttic NBA Preview piece, we’ve really delivered the goods this postseason. If SportsAttic Nation can allow for a little revisionist history — say, sub in Denver Nuggets for Utah Jazz, as an example? — we’d be looking like goddamn Nostradamus right about now. Will the Clippers take the second half off for the third elimination game in a row tomorrow night, paving the way for a Denver title? I can’t imagine they will, but then again, I had the Nuggets dead in the water two weeks ago. That’s why they play the games!

*Has a team ever come up smaller than the Rockets did in their series against the Lakers? Who can blame poor Mike D’Antoni for taking his ball and calling it a career? How many more times will we be suckered by James Harden into thinking one of his teams has a chance to do some damage before affixing the “L” on his forehead and moving on? Name one time he’s come up big in a tight postseason spot. I’m waiting…

*Remind me never to pick the Vikings to win anything ever again. Is Kirk Cousins really that horrible a leader? Sure starting to feel that way, isn’t it? The difference between Cousins and Aaron Rodgers was so stark yesterday, it’s scary. If the two teams had switched QB’s at halftime, the Vikings would have come back and won big. No doubt about it.

*Still not used to the initials “LV” in front of the name “Raiders” (then again, they were in LA for 13 years and I never got used to that either). AtticBride asked me what will happen to all those diehard, demented Raiders fans in NorCal now that their team plays in Vegas. “Just travel, baby. Just travel.” I would recommend that law-abiding humans avoid the Vegas strip at all cost during Raiders’ home weekends once fans are allowed back in attendance. This will truly test the slogan “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”

*Is Odell Beckham, Jr. still on the Browns? Who?

*I guess Joe Burrow just found out a little bit about being a Cincinnati Bengal. Ouch.

*Anyone else think the Astros are hearing footsteps? Seattle? Yeah, the M’s are the only team left that could still send the ‘Stros home with no postseason in the top-heavy American League. Go Mariners — send those trashcan banging, buzzer-boys home!

*At least the Jets will get to pick themselves up at home next weekend against another winless squad. Oh, it’s the Niners? Never mind.

*If we set a precedent and let the Mets forfeit their remaining games in 2020, can we immediately apply the same policy to the Jets? And then the Knicks? Pretty please?

*Too bad there won’t be fans at tonight’s MNF “early” game. A real shame that the Steelers will lose the advantage of playing in front of 60,000 screaming, Terrible Towel waving, fanatics. Oh, it’s a road game for the Steelers? Yeah, I know. After watching the Jets debacle yesterday, it’s hard to believe that the Giants may be the worst team playing home games at MetLife Stadium this year, isn’t it? Get those season tickets on StubHub quick, Big Blue fans.

*I see Pete Wheeler injured himself pulling on his pants the other day. Lesson to the Philadelphia Phillies organization and their fans — you can take the pitcher out of the Mets, but you can’t take the Mets out of the pitcher.

*Not only would the Miami Marlins be in the playoffs if the season ended today, but they would be the five-seed in the National League, preparing to play the San Diego Padres in the first round. Maybe Derek Jeter isn’t the Michael Jordan of MLB owners?

*So the Big 10 is thinking they can start playing games as early as October? Hmmm… Would that have anything to do with the fact that the rest of college football didn’t melt after the Big 10 decided to cancel their schedule? And it certainly has nothing to do with missing out on their share of the still sizable amounts of riches available for those programs who do compete in 2020? Nah, this is all about the kids, right? Right??

There you have it — the first edition of SportsAttic’s Monday Recap. See you in a week.

Twenty Thoughts Across the World of Sports

A jam-packed night for sports fans! Our viewing options include MLB, the NBA Playoffs, the NFL’s opening night, NHL semi-finals, and the women’s semis of the U.S. Open.

Heading into the prime time hours, another lame showing by the Houston Rockets is making passing on The Association an easy call. And let’s face it, the MLB goings on won’t get interesting until the playoffs begin (besides, the Mets have the night off). So that narrows down our crowded field of options. The choices narrow further if you refuse, as I do, to watch the NHL on television.

That leaves me burning a hole in the “previous channel” button as I toggle between Chiefs-Texans in Kansas City, and Naomi Osaka versus Jennifer Brady in Flushing.

To appropriately honor the fact that our sports viewing choices have finally expanded beyond just the NBA and major league baseball, SportsAttic has decided it’s time to take a broader look at the current goings on in our (mostly) fan-less sports universe.

Here is the SportsAttic Top Twenty of thoughts and reactions regarding the current state of of affairs in our beloved world of sports.

  1. Mike Tyson is getting back into the ring, folks. And, exhibition or no, I will be pulling for him to land at least one solid right during his bout this weekend against Roy Jones, Jr. It’s funny how rooting interests can change over time. I don’t recall ever pulling for Tyson back when he was “the baddest man on the planet,” but I’m firmly on the Tyson bandwagon for this one. Call it an old guy thing. Knock Jones and his washed up ass out, Iron Mike — and score one for the over-50 set!
  2. Even when I followed hockey, I never rooted for the New York Islanders. But for some reason I find myself following their progress during this year’s NHL Playoffs. I’m a Lou Lamoriello fan from his days guiding the Devils, so I like that, plus I root for the Isles coach who got the shaft down in D.C. after only delivering their first-ever Stanley Cup to Caps fans. And then there’s the whole Long Island thing, and how Brooklyn is trying to steal away their civic pride and joy. If the Isles can come back from two down in the semis and advance, I may even tune in to a hockey game for the first time in about a decade.
  3. Why haven’t I heard of Jennifer Brady? She’s about to go down in three sets to Naomi Osaka in the semis of The Open, but taking Osaka to three tough sets makes this a statement match for the former UCLA star. Her serve comes in regularly over 110 MPH (and seem faster), and her forehand reminds me of Ivan Lendl back in the day. Another American woman to watch as we decide who will succeed Serena as the next great women’s champ.
  4. Patrick Mahomes (whose Dad was a Met for awhile, don’t forget) and Deshaun Watson are both newly minted $40 million dollar men (okay, Watson’s technically at $39MM, but let’s not quibble). It feels absurd even to type such a preposterous figure, but it always feels that way when a new compensation barrier gets blown through in a sport. Given the revenue and merchandising associated with these two young QB’s, in a couple of years we will look at these deals as wise investments by the Chiefs and Texans. I just hope they stay healthy. Amazing athletes and both a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
  5. I’ve heard more people defending Novak Djokovic than condemning him since he got DQ’d from this year’s U.S. Open. One of the worst arguments in his defense has got to be the one stating that he didn’t hit the ball that struck the line judge that hard. Really? If you’ve ever taken a surprise shot to the Adam’s Apple, you know that woman wasn’t overreacting. And if you’ve ever played against a hothead who likes to randomly swat balls in anger, you know it’s unnerving. The rule exists for a reason, and Djokovic has been a dick throughout the entire pandemic anyway. Good riddance, if you ask me.
  6. How awesome would it be if the Orioles eke out the final AL playoff spot right from under the Yankees nose?
  7. And even better, how about if the Orioles and the Tigers take the seven and eight seeds, and the Yanks and Astros both get sent home before the expanded playoffs even begin?
  8. And for the real MLB trifecta? You know it…here come the Mets! We wrap the regular season with a little run earning the final chair at the NL playoff table. Then the real games begin. Yes, we’ll sign up for that right now.
  9. It wasn’t enough that I had to eat crow and give Carmelo Anthony credit for swallowing his ego and fitting into the Blazers system while helping them make the playoffs? Now I’ve got to tip the cap to Chris Paul, too? What he did in OKC this year, and especially in the bubble, was nothing short of Herculean. I guess he’s not done after all.
  10. Speaking of OKC, what in the world had to happen for Billy Donovan and the Thunder to part ways? I was hoping we’d see Mo Cheeks take over in Philly, but can the Sixers really pass on Donovan?
  11. The Braves scored 29 runs the other night against the Marlins. Yes, they won. Amazing that isn’t even the most scored by one team this century. The Texas Rangers put a 30-spot on the Orioles back in ’07.
  12. When did Notre Dame join the ACC? C’mon guys, how are we supposed to take the college football season and Top 25 rankings seriously when we are missing power conferences?
  13. The New York Post previewed the Jets and Giants today and had both projected to finish at 7-9. Really? REALLY?? I think it is more likely they combine for seven wins. Taking all the action I can get that come the end of the season the combined win total for New York football (not counting the Bills) is closer to my call than The Post’s.
  14. Anyone else worried about Willie Mays? Bad things tend to happen in threes, and its been tough enough losing Tom Seaver and Lou Brock in one week. Stay out of all that smoke in the Bay Area, Say Hey Kid, we need ya!
  15. Great to see the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum getting some well deserved props during MLB’s Jackie Robinson celebrations. If you are ever in Kansas City, it is worth the investment of a few hours. And if NLBM President Bob Kendrick is in the house, chat him up on some of the baseball history associated with the fascinating and poignant exhibits — you will leave a better person.
  16. I’m beginning to worry that Aaron Judge may be this generation’s Pete Reiser (look him up, kids). That would be a real shame, even for us Yankees-haters.
  17. I like NBA superstars picking their own coach even less than I do them banding together to form super teams. That being said, I think Steve Nash will end up being an excellent choice in Brooklyn. And keeping the well-respected Jacques Vaughn as Nash’s lead assistant was the most significant takeaway from the entire press release.
  18. Who won the Kentucky Derby? They ran it, right? Worried I may have the exact same, hollow reaction when the Masters wraps up mid-November. Yikes…
  19. In case you wondered about how prescient SportsAttic prognostications can be — take a cautionary look at what happened to the Utah Jazz just minutes after we anointed them the likely NBA champs. They’d looked invincible after taking their commanding 3-1 series lead against the Nuggets, but we sure took care of that. With Sports Illustrated headed for the glue factory any day now, there may be a new sheriff suiting up in the sports jinx world.
  20. I’m getting a Cleveland Browns-preseason-2019 kind of vibe from the 2020 Buccaneers. Yeah, I know they have the GOAT and his jackass tight end, too. And there were already some pieces in place down in Tampa. And yeah, I like the Fournette signing, and they’ve got a pretty good coach. But still, they are the Bucs. Sign me up for 9-7 and a near-miss on a playoff bid.

There you have it — and now we can return to rooting on Serena Williams in her quest to finally tie Margaret Court’s record for most career Grand Slams. Serena is a wonder, and it would be great to have that kind of positive sports news to celebrate.

A Williams-Osaka U.S. Open final will be must-watch television.

(SportsAttic Note: See #19 above — as we prepare to hit the “publish” button I am stunned to see Serena has bowed out in three sets to Victoria Azarenka. You hearing our footsteps, Sports Illustrated?)

Tom Terrific

THIS IS A RE-POST FROM THE 3/7/19 SPORTS-ATTIC — RIP TOM TERRIFIC

Unknown

That’s how I’m going to remember Tom Seaver. Celebrating a championship with Jerry Koosman at his side.

Today’s news from the Seaver Family that the 74-year-old Hall of Famer is suffering from dementia and will be retiring from public life was certainly sad. Too young for sure, and made all the more painful as the New York Mets prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their 1969 Miracle Mets World Series title. A championship that would never have been possible if not for Seaver’s 25-7, Cy Young Award season that set the tone that winning time had arrived at Shea Stadium at long last.

He was our ace, The Franchise and Tom Terrific.

The first “official” Mets shirt I ever wore (a stylish, gray number I received for my 6th birthday), bore Seaver’s number 41 on its back. He was our answer to Gibson and Carlton. To Jenkins and Sutton. The high leg kick with the oh so deep follow through, resulting in his signature dirt stain on his uniform pant leg, as his knee scraped the mound pitch after pitch.

Like most of the classic strike out pitchers of the day, Seaver generated his power from those thick legs, driving his perfect mechanics (a Mets staple back in the day — you can see those sound fundamentals when watching old tape of Koosman, Nolan Ryan and Jon Matlack, too), culminating in a perfectly balanced landing, ready to field his position. He was flawless.

We knew his wife Nancy, and we hung on his articulate, postgame insights on Kiner’s Korner. He enjoyed taking his hacks at the plate, too, often helping his own cause with a key base hit, and good for a couple of dingers every year, which were certain to send Mets fans everywhere into delirium. Heck, the guy would even steal a base or two. Not to show off, but because he was a baseball player first. An athlete. And most importantly to Mets fans, he was ours.

He would go on to win another two Cy Youngs (and all Mets fans would argue Fergie Jenkins stole a fourth from him in 1971), make 12 All Star teams, and lead the National League in strikeouts five times.

Seaver set a baseball record for the ages back in 1970, when on April 22nd he concluded a shutout win over the Padres by striking out the final ten batters he faced. That brought his total for the day to 19, tying a record that Kerry Wood and Roger Clemens would one day break.

He was our first Hall of Famer, gaining induction on the first ballot with a whopping 98.8% of the vote, befitting his 311 wins spread out over 20 seasons. The woebegone Mets front office even managed to get one right, when they retired his number 41, placing it alongside Casey Stengel, Gil Hodges and Mrs. Payson above the Citi Field grandstand.

But there are three things I will always remember most about Tom Seaver — the two near-misses and the trade.

Qualls 

Unknown-2

He was soooo close. I was too young to witness this one myself, but every Mets fan worth his salt knows about Seaver’s dance with perfection on July 9th of 1969. The Mets were finally a good club in ’69, but still trailed the first place Cubs by a fair distance at this juncture in the season. Given the laughingstock nature of the Mets history up to that point, it was understandable that no one was ready to take them seriously as contenders. Seaver, the ultimate competitor, was determined to change the Mets’ losing culture.

In front of 59,088 screaming Mets fans, The Franchise faced and retired the first 26 Cubs who took a turn at bat against him that day. Ernie Banks, Ron Santo and Billy Williams all had no chance. Shea Stadium was pulsating with anticipation when rookie Jimmy Qualls pinch hit for the Cubbies with two outs in the ninth. It should have been a mismatch.

Qualls was a .250 hitter, and following his rookie year would only see 12 more major league at bats. But this was his moment, and the kid stroked a soft single into shallow left-center, ruining Seaver’s perfecto. Nancy Seaver had tears in her eyes after Tom concluded the one-hitter for a 4-0 Mets win. Our ace consoled her, reminding her that he’d just pitched a one-hit shutout over the division leader. The standing ovation lasted three full minutes.

And Qualls? It is written that the next time Seaver saw him on the field, he yelled, “Hey, you little shit, you cost me a million bucks!”  The Franchise.

Leron Lee

images.jpeg

What is it about backup outfielders mucking up Tom’s moments?

Nearly three years to the day after Jimmy Qualls had blooped a single that would stick with Mets fans forever, Seaver took another no-hitter into the ninth against San Diego. It was the 4th of July, 1972, and I was enjoying the summer between first and second grade when my dad called me in from outside because something important was happening.

He and my mom were watching the Mets game, and Dad explained to me what a “no-hitter” was. I was instantly enthralled by this new baseball information, particularly since Seaver was the pitcher about to make history. With one out Leron Lee strode to the plate. I knew exactly who Lee was, since I collected baseball cards, and proudly spouted off a slew of statistical information on the Padres outfielder to Mom and Dad as Lee settled into the batter’s box.

Lee had started his career in St. Louis as Lou Brock’s caddy, often complaining about how it seemed Brock only ever got “tired” and turned left field over to Lee on those days when the temperatures soared past 100 degrees and you had Seaver or Ryan on the hill for the opposition.

Seaver fooled Lee with a slider down and away, but Lee got just enough of his bat on it, pushing a single through the middle. End of no-hitter (although I learned shortly thereafter that there was also such a thing as a one-hitter). Seaver would earn that distinction when he induced a game ending double play out of the next hitter. Another close call for our ace, and maybe the biggest moment in the career of Leron Lee.

It turned out that 1972 would be Lee’s best year in the bigs, as he hit .300 with 12 HR’s for the Pads, but it was his at bat against Seaver that earned him headlines the following day. I’ll always remember pulling out the Newark Star-Ledger’s sports section that morning of July 5th, and seeing the headline, “Hey Tom, he hit a good pitch.”

That was Seaver to me as a kid. So much bigger than life that he was even on a first name basis with the newspaper!

The Trade

Unknown-3images-1  Unknown-4Unknown-5

The Mets had surprised a lot of folks in 1976 by going 86-76 under new manager Joe Frazier, and entered 1977 with talk of challenging for the division crown. But like the 2018 version of the Mets, the ’77 team quickly disappointed, and soon the only thing worth paying attention to was Seaver.

And unlike previous years when the team would sink to its accustomed also ran slot in the NL East and the summer months would be spent trying to project how many wins and K’s Tom Terrific would finish with by season’s end, in 1977 the unthinkable was making its way into the daily papers.

The Mets were considering trading The Franchise.

My family had returned to New Jersey from California the previous summer, so 1977 was going to be my first full year of being able to watch Mets baseball on Channel 9 every night since the early-’70’s. However only two months into this much-anticipated season, everything changed, and not in a way any of us Mets fans had anticipated or hoped.

I was too young to understand the feud between Seaver and villainous Mets President M. Donald Grant, or the newspaper politics within the New York tabloids that greased the skids for Seaver’s trade. All I knew at the time was that the only reason we had to watch the 1977 New York Mets had just been shipped to Cincinnati on June 10th for the equivalent of three boxes of batting practice baseballs and a dozen cases of scoreboard lightbulbs.

Or so it seemed.

Yeah, we all tried. I mean, we rooted for the blue and orange after all, but never in my life as a Mets fan had I been faced with cheering for a Seaver-less Mets squad. And now here we were. The Dark Ages immediately descended upon us.

The Reds sent us four young “stars” in return for the greatest pitcher in Mets history. Pat Zachry was supposed to be the future ace and Seaver replacement. Big shoes to fill, you might say. He actually showed some early promise, but then one day in a fit of anger after a poor outing, he kicked a dugout step, broke his foot, and was never the same.

Steve Henderson was billed as a future superstar and immediately inserted into the lineup as our starting left fielder. He had an odd batting stance that seemed cool at first, with his left leg jutting out in the direction of first base as he settled into an awkward crouch. “Hendu” hit .300 in his initial spin around the league and even clubbed a few long home runs, but then the league figured out that he couldn’t unscrew out of that weird stance of his with any hope of hitting a breaking ball. Hendu would go on to become a career backup outfielder (which was only appropriate given the connection between Seaver and backup outfielders noted above).

Doug Flynn was a sure handed utility infielder who would be given every opportunity to win the starting second base job. His glove was as good as advertised, but he barely hit his weight, and became a staple of the last place teams the Mets rolled out onto the Shea field for the balance of the ’70’s.

The fourth and final prospect included in the deal was young Dan Norman. He was a stocky, power-hitting outfielder, and came to town touted as the next George Foster. We all anxiously awaited his ascension to the bigs where he would undoubtedly replicate Foster’s prolific power. Unfortunately, despite the annual spring training articles from the Star-Ledger about how this was going to be the year Norman broke through, he never did. It hadn’t occurred to 12-year-old me that if Norman was really the next Foster, the Reds probably wouldn’t have included him in the deal.

(SportsAttic note: of course we all know that the Mets rectified the Norman/Foster comparisons a few years later by signing the “real” George Foster, who would disappoint us  immensely until finally being jettisoned early on in the ’86 championship season.)

Tom Terrific would go on to earn that elusive no-hitter as a Cincinnati Red (just like we all knew he would). And I couldn’t help but root for him as a Red, even celebrating when I would pull a Seaver baseball card out of a pack of Topps, the Tom Terrific smile staring back at me from underneath that unnatural, red Cincy cap. But unfortunately for Seaver, he’d missed the Big Red Machine years, and wouldn’t win another title with the Reds, or anywhere else, before he retired.

He wasn’t done with the Mets either, as we know all too well. We brought The Franchise back in momentous fashion for the 1983 season, as Mets brass tried to distract us fans from another last place squad. Of course, in typical Mets fashion, we lost Seaver again the following spring, the latest in a long line of colossal front office blunders. I don’t have the time, or stomach, to revisit that gaffe right now (just know it was bad, and led to Seaver wearing a White Sox uniform, of all things!).

Seaver closed out his illustrious career with the Red Sox in 1986. It would have been cool if he’d have faced his original club in that classic ’86 World Series, but real life doesn’t work that way, and besides, that was our moment. None of us would have liked to see Tom Terrific on the losing end of one our team’s greatest achievements.

So prayers and best wishes to the Seaver Family as they deal with the inevitability of life and our heroes growing old. The announcement said Tom will continue to spend time in his beloved California vineyard, and like number 41’s career itself, the family handled the message and their sadness with great class and dignity.

Tom Terrific won’t be on the field for the 50th anniversary celebration of the Miracle Mets 1969 title, and that’s too bad. But there would be no celebration at all if not for the pure excellence of The Franchise. We were lucky to have him and the memories of those years are indelible.

Unknown-1

 

The NBA — It’s Still FAN-tastic

download-3

It took the playoffs, but I’m back in.

I’m still struggling with no crowds, but Ernie, Kenny, Shaq and Chuck help. A lot. In fact, their NBA on TNT is frequently more entertaining than the actual games.

And the familiarity is slowly coming back, too. Kind of a muscle memory for fans. Here’s a few cases in point:

*It took me no time at all to renew my hatred for the Boston Celtics (however, I can’t help but enjoy Enes Kanter — the Knicks never should have let him go).

*I continue to root against LeBron James. Guys that try to manipulate one last ring rarely succeed. He’s not now, nor will he ever be, worthy of being included in the same class as Michael Jordan.

*Like everyone else, I’m fully onboard the Damian Lillard bandwagon (Oakland guy, and we have been on this one for awhile now, as hopefully SportsAttic Nation would attest). Coolest player in the NBA? Uh, yeah.

*The Knicks took one on the chin (again), dropping two draft slots last night. The Patrick Ewing Lottery Tax continues to be assessed. And you know at number eight we’ve got another draft bust headed our way.

*Kawhi Leonard is still a beast. Best all-around player in the league today. Hands down.

And there were surprises, too:

*Donovan Mitchell is a lot better than I thought (and I say that every time I watch him).

*Somebody pinch me, because I find myself rooting for Carmelo Anthony and appreciating the role he’s settled into for the Blazers. Didn’t see that coming.

*The Magic won their opener against the Bucks?? Quick — name two players on the Magic. Or their coach? I guess technically they are the “home” team every night, with most of the league sequestered in the Orlando Bubble, but still…

*I’m thoroughly enjoying Chris Weber doing color commentary for ESPN.

*The Mavs and Heat are both far better teams than I was giving them credit for prior to the season’s suspension.

With those quick observations serving as our backdrop, here’s SportsAttic’s picks for the remainder of the NBA Playoffs (and yes, I’m fully aware that Round 1 is already well under way, and yes, I’m totally comfortable accepting any advantages that provides my selections).

download-7  download-8

EAST Round 1

*Bucks over Magic, 4-1 — Too much of a talent differential here. Look for last night’s rout to be repeated three more times. But the wobble you saw from Milwaukee in Game 1 was real.

*Raptors over Nets, 4-0 — Yeah, not much of a stretch here. The Nets were a terrific story heading into the playoffs, but the Raptors are legit and then some, and the Nets have run out of steam.

*Celtics over 76ers, 4-1 — Game 3’s going on as I type this. The Sixers look like they may pull this one out, but even with Gordon Hayward hurt, the Celts have too much. Good bye, Brett Brown. Anyone know if Jeff Van Gundy likes cheesesteaks? Of course he does.

*Heat over Pacers, 4-2 — This is the only one I would have gone the other way on if I was picking before the Heat got out to their two-games-to-none series lead. Jimmy Butler in Eric Spoelstra’s system is one hell of a player, plus you’ve got to root for any team that has Andre Iguodala coming off the bench.

download-6   download-1

WEST Round 1

*Lakers over Blazers, 4-3 — This is the pick that really pains me. I SOOOO want to see the Blazers send the Lakers packing, and before Lillard hurt his finger last night, I was ready to ride the Portland bandwagon as far as it would take me. But the Blazers’ margin for error here is too thin to overcome a less-than-100% Dame, and AD (not LeBron) will find a way to lead the Lakers into Round 2. The wear and tear of a tough, seven-game series is exactly what LeBron didn’t need, though (and yes, that makes me very happy).

*Clippers over Mavs, 4-2 — Being a year away, plus an unlucky, first-round draw doomed Dallas this year. But man, this is a team on a steep rise if only their two European stars can remain healthy. The Clippers are loaded, though.

*Jazz over Nuggets, 4-3 — Anyone else noticing just how strong the Western Conference is? A lot of folks had Denver as their dark horse title contender. And right now the Jazz look like they will not just blow out the Nuggets, but can seriously challenge either L.A. team. What happened to this whole Donovan Mitchell-Rudy Gobert feud? And welcome back, Mike Conley — props for going home for the birth of your child.

*Rockets over Thunder, 4-1 — Chris Paul was a minus-36 in OKC’s 13-point loss last night. Minus-36! Paul was a nice story, pre-Covid, rallying the undermanned Thunder after everyone had given up on them when they sold off Russ. Not anymore. If Mike D’Antoni can get away with not having to rush back Westbrook for this series, Houston could be a sleeper in Round 2.

download-4

EAST Round 2

*Bucks over Heat, 4-2 — Pesky Miami will give Milwaukee fits, as the Bucks continue to search for the air of invincibility that marked their pre-Covid romp to the best record in the league. They’ll still be searching when this series concludes, despite advancing.

*Celtics over Raptors, 4-3 — I can’t wait for this series to happen. The Raptors are so well-coached, deep and balanced (not to mention the whole “we can do this without Kawhi” chip on the shoulder). But the Celtics have depth, too, plus the best player on the court in Jayson Tatum. Tatum will be the difference in a brawl of a series.

download-10  download-9

WEST Round 2

*Jazz over Clippers, 4-3 — Okay, let’s start by saying how much I hope I’m right, and these two squads get to meet up. Donovan Mitchell’s coming out party turns Game 7 in favor of Utah, and look for Paul George to disappear once again when his teammates need him most.

*Lakers over Rockets, 4-2 — No, Mike D’Antoni will never win a championship. The Lakers twin superstars are big men that can also do everything their smaller, opposing twin superstars do. And that will carry the day for L.A. in a wildly entertaining series over the Russ and Beard Show. D’Antoni deserves better, but joins Brett Brown on the unemployment line after this one.

download-5

EAST Finals

*Celtics over Bucks, 4-2 — Giannis is phenomenal, but this year’s NBA playoffs are rewarding depth and smart basketball over superstars. Hayward’s return proves too much as the Celtics just keep coming, and the Bucks go home knowing the virus cost them their best shot at a title before Giannis leaves for greener pastures.

WEST Finals

download-2

*Jazz over Lakers, 4-2 — Who ya got? The team with the two superstars, or the underdog that shares the ball and goes nine deep? I’m going with team ball over the superstars, and it will be wonderful having LBJ watch the finals from his couch for the second year in a row.

NBA Finals

*Jazz over Celtics, 4-3 — No, not a chance. There’s absolutely zero way I’ll ever pick the Celtics to win it all. And in this crazy NBA season that will go into the books as simply 2019-20, why not roll with the team that’s never won it all, over the franchise with 17 banners hanging from the rafters?

Yeah, the NBA is back. And while I hate that the season was disrupted the way it was, the parity that has emerged here in August showcases just how many interesting and talented teams populate The Association these days.

Congrats in advance, Utah Jazz!

download

 

 

 

 

 

What’s A Fan To Do?

download-2

I saw on my phone yesterday afternoon that the Mets were only down 4-0 in the fourth inning against the Nationals, so I went to the cable guide and was overjoyed to see it was being carried on FS1 here in California.

I needed a boost. College football was folding before my very eyes (although apparently Nick Saban is confident he can protect his charges from the virus if only given the chance over the course of a full SEC schedule), Mets pitcher Marcus Stroman had opted out earlier in the day, and I was still digesting the latest scumbaggery coming from the despicable Houston Astros (now let’s see — who’s more critical to a baseball team during a shortened, every game magnified season, the loud mouth bench coach, or the starting outfielder with the rocket arm?).

But before I could put my remote back on the coffee table, the Mets were down 12-0, and I wondered if that meant they’d fallen out of their tie for the eighth and final National League playoff slot (participation trophies anyone?) by dropping to 7-10 on the season. And for only the thousandth time in the last few weeks I was forced to ask myself which is worse, no baseball, or being regularly tortured in this House of Horrors 2020 version of a MLB season, by my favorite, dysfunctional ball club.

For those paying attention, the loss did indeed drop the Mets out of the eight-hole and into no-playoffs oblivion, but will the season even make it to its conclusion? Anybody’s guess, but let’s just say it isn’t looking so hot right about now. And a mercy killing at this point may be the best outcome all of us baseball traditionalists can hope for.

Here’s a few reasons why

*As of last night’s close, the San Francisco Giants had played 18 games this year, are 7-11, and if the playoffs started today, would be on the outside looking in. The last NL team currently qualifying for the postseason, the St. Louis Cardinals, had played a grand total of five games so far, due to game cancellations courtesy of the coronavirus (which may or may not have been spread throughout the clubhouse by an ill-fated casino visit by some subset of the St. Louis players). That’s a thirteen-game delta, which might matter less if we thought the games would be made up. Unfortunately many of them will not, and ultimately playoff participation will be determined by winning percentage (a huge plus for the legions of Marlins fans out there).

SportsAttic aside: Normally the saying “if the playoffs started today” is simply for speculative purposes. In our bizarro MLB 2020 season, who knows, they might just fire up the playoffs tomorrow. It’s all about the coveted TV revenue, remember?

*Of course, one way to make up the games is with the scheduling of many double-headers. Except this year, double-headers only go seven innings. Whaaa? Yeah, it took me awhile, too. I don’t even know who such a flagrant bastardization of the rules favors (teams with deep bullpens, I suppose — damn Yankees), but I know for sure I hate it. With a passion. I know, I know, we’re trying to protect the pitchers (so play 14 innings in one day as opposed to 9?), but let’s see how hard an organization is looking out for their ace when they find themselves two games out with three to play a month or so from now. Look for the ace to be out there every day until his arm falls off, especially since at that point it would be too late for said ace to opt out.

*Oh yeah, and that opting out thing. I know all this was “collectively bargained,” but the fact that a player can hang around and manipulate his service time before heading home for the balance of the season seems like a really shitty option to me. In Stroman’s case, he “earned” his service time without ever suiting up for an actual game in 2020. What happens when teams that are hopelessly out of it begin seeing players heading home once they’ve crossed their pre-determined service time bogeys? Hell, you may see me on the mound as the player-starved league wheezes toward the home stretch in late-September. (And for the record, I will wear a mask while on the mound, and will absolutely head hunt anyone in a Yankee uniform that dares dig in against me.)

*I do find it interesting that despite all the change currently taking place within our national pastime, the more certain things also stay the same. The Yankees are in first place and seem a clear favorite to make it to the World Series. It’s August and the Mets are on the wrong side of playoff qualification. So my annual rite of passage that finds me spending more time rooting against the Yanks than for the Mets has begun. Freaking clockwork.

What about the rest of the world of sports?

*I mentioned previously that it appears the priest has been called to college football’s bedside, so now we turn our attention to whether they can somehow come up with a spring schedule to salvage something. I’m for that, mostly because of the time and effort put forth by the players, who shouldn’t have to lose a year of their sporting lives because of this damn virus. It seems like every passing day brings us another example of something treasured being stolen from someone in all walks of life. Here’s hoping they can put on the pads by March.

*But isn’t it interesting that the NFL seems content to march toward their regularly scheduled season? Really? I don’t see how they expect to proceed based on what we are seeing from baseball right now (a bubble for the NFL doesn’t seem a viable option). Yet there they go, with players reporting and the league-approved opt out window now closed for the players. Anyone else conjuring up a vision of a young boy whistling through a graveyard? Nope. They won’t pull it off. Not a chance.

*I stopped watching the NHL closely when they flushed an entire season because of the players strike back in 2004/2005. But back when I cared about hockey, I was a New Jersey Devils fan. And of course our arch enemies across the river were the New York Rangers. And talk about sports fan muscle memory! I was shocked by the level of satisfaction I felt in reading about how the Blueshirts were swept out of the NHL play-in session (or whatever they’re calling their pre-playoffs), by Carolina last week. “NINETEEN, NINETY-FOUR—-NINETEEN, NINETY-FOUR!” Not quite the same ring to it as “NINETEEN, FOOOOORTY,” but it will have to do.

*Just channel-surfed by an NBA pillow fight between the Sacramento Kings and the New Orleans Pelicans on TNT. Oh boy… Looked like a Vegas Summer League matchup to me. It took me a week just to be able to figure out how to identify players now that their names get second billing at the bottom of the backs of their jerseys, but even being able to see the last names didn’t help me tonight. Who are these guys?

*However, speaking of the NBA, the best entertainment in town continues to be Ernie, Kenny, Chuck and Shaq, and their hilarious NBA on TNT segments. A priceless moment occurred the other day when Shaq accosted Chuck for his prediction that not only would the Portland Trailblazers make the playoffs, but that they’d oust the top-seeded Lakers. Relying on the tried and true “best defense is a good offense” strategy, Chuck countered by reminding Shaq of his own prediction that the Brooklyn Nets would win a playoff series this year. A prediction Shaq then enthusiastically reaffirmed back to Chuck on camera. Chuck then asked Shaq to name three Nets players currently active and playing for Brooklyn during the restart. Despite Ernie’s whispered hints of “Caris LeVert” and “Joe Harris,” Shaq didn’t have a clue, offering only a mumbled “Kevin Durant” and “Kyrie Irving” in response. But that million-dollar, jokes-on-us-all, Shaq grin made for some well-needed, old-fashioned, sports fan fun.

So yeah, despite the bubbles and the no-names, the opt outs and the bizarro rules, keep ’em coming. Keep rolling the balls out there as long as you can, good folks of the NBA, MLB, NHL and NFL. I’ll tune in, even when the Mets are behind 14-2, because we lived through the alternative, and it was way worse.

download-1  download

Say It Ain’t So, Yo

Unknown

I wonder if I’d feel differently if the Mets had begun the season 10-0, rather than their current 3-7?

When they won their opener (like they do pretty much every season) behind Jacob deGrom and a tie-breaking, two-years-in-the-making, home run from Yoenis Cespedes, I must admit I was feeling it. A little anyway.

Now? Not so much.

And not just because this Mets team we watch take the field is putting on display every flaw we have worried about for months now. Nope, I’ve thought a lot about this, and it’s bigger than just the customary pain of being a Mets fan.

I mean, what’s the better option here — no baseball to watch at all, or a truncated season with an absurd extra innings provision, and the despised DH in the lineup every game for every team, while your favorite squad twists a knife in your gut every night?

Answer: yeah, even in this Mets-nightmare, bastardized-rules version of a 60-game season, keep playing the games. Please.

But something’s missing. And I’m not just saying that because, try as I might, I can’t find the cardboard cutout I paid $100 bucks for in the stands when the A’s are playing at home.

I’ve been watching major league baseball games for over 50 years now (audible sigh). And not once in those 50 years have I ever been compelled to say “boy, if there weren’t fans in the stands, watching this game wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.”

Until now. The things we take for granted, ya know?

The Angels were playing at home yesterday afternoon, and in the bottom of the ninth, their catcher Jason Castro, absolutely crushed a fastball to the deepest part of the park. It caught the top of the wall on a line, before caroming back toward Astros centerfielder George Springer. Castro’s shot knocked in a run that tied up the game, which made me happy for several reasons:

  1. Any time something bad can happen to the Astros that could cost them a win, I’m in favor of it.
  2. In my new home, here in Southern California, the Angels are fast becoming my American League bandwagon club to root for.
  3. I really want to see Mike Trout make the playoffs this year, and given this absurd, 16-team, postseason format the regular season is wobbling toward, there’s a real chance, but the Angels need every win they can get.

Here’s the rub. Castro’s blast was met with crickets. The low hum of the piped in crowd noise in Anaheim isn’t programmed to explode if something positive happens for the home team. As best I can tell, it’s only purpose is to drown out the F-bombs coming from the opposing dugouts, but that’s beside the point.

What I’m driving at here is that the viewing experience during what should have been a moment of high drama, was badly lacking. It felt slightly less exciting than a spring training game. The Angels (doing a spot-on, west coast imitation of the Mets), stranded Castro on second, and the game progressed to extra innings.

And I turned off the game at that point, sickened by the announcers feigned enthusiasm about how this would be the first time the Angels got to try out the new extra innings format. Yup, the one with the go-ahead runner stationed at second. Yippee…

Yes, I’m a baseball fan, so I had to check Yahoo Sports on my phone later, and was happy to see the Angels had won the game (see reasons 1-3 above). But my heart wasn’t in it.

Meanwhile, 3000 miles away in Atlanta, the Mets showed up (contractually they have to, I suppose, but more on that in a second) in body only, going through the motions in losing once again to the Braves, while sinking deeper into last place (is anyone really checking standings?). It was clearly a dog-days-of-August effort, the only difference from prior years when the Mets have blatantly quit on their fans being that — yeah, that’s right — the season wasn’t even 10 games old yet!

It’s a familiar lament for Mets fans — whether it’s the agony of watching the bullpen flush a deGrom gem, or a huge lead built on the odd day the offense happens to show up — a pain we are all too familiar with, but willing to shoulder because there’s always the optimism of a better tomorrow whispering in our ear. That blind faith all too often gives way to the harsh realities of the following morning, though, when you root for the blue and orange.

And that’s why we all shook our heads in a synchronized, melancholy fashion, rehearsed over so many summers, when we got the news this morning that Yoenis Cespedes had no-showed for today’s game. We knew instinctively there would be no reasonable or rational explanation. We are the Mets after all, the franchise that blew up its 2006 World Series aspirations when our setup man got in a late-night taxi cab accident while searching for Cuban food.

GM Brodie Van Wagenen didn’t even try to sugar coat it with the press, before the Mets mercifully killed the Q&A with six reporters’ hands still in the air looking for answers. And then the Mets went out and rolled over again, barely competitive against a Braves team that will make this ridiculously wide-open playoff field largely due to the advantage of playing so many games against the New York Baseball Mets.

Say it ain’t so, Yo?

Wild boar chase? Golf cart accident? Fell off a horse? Calcium deposits on both heels that nobody knew about but would require season-ending surgery?

All we know for sure, as Mets fans, is that when the true backstory of this one comes out, it will be laughable, and beyond anything our imaginations could be capable of conjuring up. Sure, the Mets told us after the game that when the security detail went to Cespedes’ hotel to try and track him down, he was gone and his bags had been packed. And that his agent notified the team mid-game that the big slugger had decided to opt out of the season. But we all know there’s more. There’s always more when you root for the Mets.

Just wait.

Other observations around MLB at the 10-game mark:

*Did I miss where MLB decided that the Yankees would only play the downtrodden Orioles and Red Sox this regular season, as they tune up for playoff baseball?

*Did anybody else secretly wish that the Dodgers and Astros had been allowed to brawl to their hearts content the other night, after Joe Kelly threw at a couple of Houston hitters? I had a hard time deciding who to side with on that one, but wouldn’t have minded at all if a few haymakers had found their mark. In fact, I would have gladly forked over a $100 pay-per-view fee if I could have somehow been guaranteed that Justin Turner and Alex Correia would simultaneously connect with overhand rights, bloodying each other’s nose. A double-knockout worthy of the best Three Stooges reruns.

*I turned on an Indians-White Sox game the other day. No idea where the game was being played, but there was no one in the stands. The real question was, had there been no pandemic, would the attendance have been much different?

*Can somebody promise me if the season gets cancelled soon, it will still count as Pete Alonso’s sophomore jinx year?

*Whirling-Sterling (VA) Chris, the most diehard Expos fan I know, makes a compelling argument as to why the D.C. baseball club will once again contend for the 2020 title. Like I said, Chris’ argument is compelling, but the Baseball Gods don’t prescribe to logic. There is an enormous 2019 tab still to be paid by National fans everywhere, and it will be collected between now and October. Keep those 2019 highlight videos handy, Expos fans, this one’s going to sting.

*If the Marlins never make it back on the field, but aren’t officially DQ’d by MLB, does that mean they go in as one of the National League’s top seeds when playoffs come around? They’ve got a .667 winning percentage, folks. You can look it up.

*Poor Luis Rojas. For those of you wondering who that even is, he’s the lame duck Mets manager overseeing this calamitous 2020 campaign. A baseball lifer, Rojas needed at least a deep playoff run to stand a chance at returning in 2021, when the new Mets ownership group should be in place (God willing). Rojas could be a combination of Connie Mack and John McGraw for all I know, but based on what we’ve seen from his underachieving ball club, he has no shot. Not fair, but that’s the world of the New York Mets, Luis.

With this shit-show of a baseball season just getting started (and should it make it to the finish line, we can only imagine just how egregious the absurdities will have become), we need to harken back to Casey Stengel for some fundamental baseball wisdom to restore our faith in the grand old game:

“It’s a round ball, and a round bat, and you gotta hit it square.” 

Thanks, Casey, we needed that.

download

 

 

 

Top 10 MLB Opening Night Takeaways

download-3

We wake up this morning and look at the calendar. It’s late-July. Then we look at the baseball standings. The Yankees and Dodgers both won last night and are in first place in their respective divisions. Just as we suspected when spring training began back in February, right?

Not so fast…

Yeah, there’s a whole lot different about this 2020 baseball season, but ready or not, this new, speed-dating version of MLB has returned, and we’ve got games. And I’ll gladly take whatever this new season is over no baseball — not even close.

That’s our baseline, fellow baseball fans, here on the 24th of July (Happy Birthday, Mom!).

And yes, A-Rod still won’t shut up in the booth, and insists on doing all he can to make his every comment somehow be about him. And yeah, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred still looks like a psychopathic convict on a hunger strike. And yup, the sight of Gerrit Cole on the mound for the Yankees bums me out every bit as much as I suspected it would back when the Evil Empire signed him over the winter.

So all’s right with the world? Not by a long shot, no, but now that the games have begun, it feels awfully good to be able to put something out there that’s actually about live action (for the most part).

So here are the Top 10 SportsAttic Observations as we begin Day 2 of the 2020 baseball season:

download

  1. Gerrit Cole looked really good last night. I guess that shouldn’t be a surprise, since the last time we saw him in game action he looked really good then, too. But one hit over five innings (and yeah, he hadn’t even peaked yet, and appeared capable of going much deeper into the game if that storm hadn’t hit)? Against the defending champs? On the road? After the truncated spring training 2.0 period? And all he does is come out looking like the lead candidate for this year’s AL Cy Young? For us Yankees-haters in the audience, I’m afraid we can put away the idea that Cole might pull an Ed Whitson and shrink from the scrutiny the pinstriped spotlight has occasionally blinded others with. Oh well.

images  download  images

2. Even with DJ LeMahieu sitting out the opener, putting the finishing touches on his recovery from Coronavirus, that Bomber lineup looked more than formidable. But I’m sorry, when ESPN ran the mug shots of the Yankees starting nine last night, am I really the only one that thought Gary Sanchez and Luke Voit appear to be the human versions of the goons that used to work for the Hooded Claw, tormenting Penelope Pitstop during Saturday morning cartoon viewing?

download-3  download-2

3. Poor Anthony Fauci. It seems this guy can’t catch a break. As I went to sleep, the good doctor was getting raked over the coals on social media for his first pitch effort last night (and yeah, it was 50 Cent-esque). But c’mon, give the guy a break. First of all, he’s 79. And second of all, did you see how spry he looked chasing down the home run balls from Giancarlo Stanton and Adam Eaton in the first inning last night? Talk about every kids dream — only fan in the ballpark as the dingers start getting launched into the seats!

images-1  download-5

4. Despite my traditionalist leanings, I’ve been on board for the cardboard cutouts in the stands. That is until coverage shifted to Chavez Ravine last night, and the first ugly mug I’m forced to confront at Dodger Stadium is Tommy Lasorda. Even his cardboard doppelgänger can’t get enough of seeing himself on camera! How about a little Walter Alston to break it up for us, for crying out loud? Then again, one has to wonder if Dave Roberts’ cutout might do a better job bringing home a championship this year than the real life version the Dodgers continue to insist on bringing back every year as skipper. The window’s closing, Dodgers. Window’s closing…

download-5

5. The biggest winner in ESPN’s broadcast booth last night was the recently-canned Jessica Mendoza. In the sportscaster version of Joe Biden’s Presidential campaign, Mendoza didn’t even need to leave her basement to increase her popularity quotient. She won simply by letting the world see how bad A-Rod and the guy who’s name I can never remember (but I know he’s there because he’s another who refuses to shut up) were in the two-man booth last night. I can’t say I was ever a big Mendoza fan either, but I’d gladly welcome her back in A-Rod’s stead. No brainer — are you listening ESPN bosses?

download-4  download-1

6. I thought the Mets starting pitching issue back in February was one of too many starters and only five rotation slots? If that’s so, how in the world do I have to prepare myself for another season with Corey Oswalt on the hill every fifth day? Bring back Big Sexy — stat!

download-2  download-1

7. I thought the Yankees idea (embraced by the Washington Nationals) of having all players and coaches kneel while touching a long black ribbon in a show of solidarity and support for the Black Lives Matter movement, was a thoughtful way to participate in the fight for racial equality. And I give MLB props for the BLM stamp on the pitchers mounds, as well. It felt like a highly visible, appropriate acknowledgment of the desire for much needed change without overwhelming the game itself. But did Mookie Betts really need to drop to a knee during the National Anthem one day after getting his $65 million dollar signing bonus as part of his $365 million dollar extension? Yes, by all means use your platform to be a change agent, Mooks, but wasn’t that accomplished by the coordinated efforts of your teammates and peers that included Morgan Freeman reading a statement about equality over the loudspeaker prior to the anthem? Well, at least he removed his cap…

download-7

8. No, I don’t like expanding the playoffs to 16 teams. That’s more than half of all clubs getting into the postseason, folks. I know, the owners are worried about all that lost TV revenue the virus has cost them so far (God forbid it cause them to drop a peg or two on the next Forbes wealth ranking). Plus it will give the magnanimous billionaires a chance to assist the players in refilling their depleted financial coffers (yes, that’s tongue in cheek), but really? Do the division races even matter now? I know, I know, the top four teams in each league will get to play all three games (if necessary) at home in the first round of the expanded playoffs, but with no fans in the seats, how big an advantage is that really?

download-7

9. Then again, as a Mets fan, I’ll gladly sign up for the eighth-seed in the National League playoffs right now. As long as we can throw Jake deGrom out there in Game 1, there isn’t a division winner in either league that will look forward to taking us on. Ya gotta be in it to win it, and the expanded format just increased the odds of a very Mets-like championship in this bizarro 2020 baseball season.

download-6

10. Even in a losing effort, Max Scherzer is fun to watch on the mound. Nasty stuff still, even at this late point in his career, and his intensity is awesome. But despite Mad Max at the top of the rotation, has there ever been an easier defending champion to pick to miss the playoffs the following year than the 2020 Montreal Expos? Oops, I meant the Senators. Nationals? As if they needed one final reminder that the magic carpet ride of 2019 has ended in D.C., Juan Soto missing the opener after testing positive for the virus sure felt like an ominous sign.

And there’s still so much more to think about and consider as the rest of MLB launches today and tonight. Baseball is back, and here’s to not only the desperately needed distraction our national pastime provides, but to the hope that the season comes to a successful conclusion that coincides with either a vaccine, or some other clear evidence that the worst of this global pandemic is behind us.

We’d even put up with 60 games of Tommy Lasorda in the front row for that.

download-4

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Do You Handicap a 60-Game Baseball Season?

download-8  download-5

I was ready for the 2020 baseball season back in March. So damn ready.

I had my tickets to the Mets home opener locked down since the prior winter (looked like it would be deGrom versus Scherzer, too), and had bought a 10-pack of Angels games behind the first base dugout. From that vantage point I looked forward to witnessing the wonder of Mike Trout, live and in person, all summer and into the fall (not to mention Shohei Ohtani and Anthony Rendon).

The anticipation of the Astros upcoming shitshow — 81 road games amidst trashcan-banging, angry mobs — had me excited, and the spring injuries suffered by several key Yankees had me smiling.

Pennant races? I had those figured out, too, eager to see how my predictions would play out over the delightfully long, 162-game MLB season. For the record, I was going Yanks/Twins/A’s as division winners, with Astros-Angels for the Wild Card in the American League, and Mets/Cardinals/Dodgers winning divisions in the Senior Circuit, with the Braves and Reds in the play-in game.

Then a funny thing happened on the way to Opening Day…

And now here we are in late-July sorting through 30-man rosters, a bastardized extra innings format, and cardboard cutouts in the stands (full disclosure, you’ll see mine alongside Copper Springs Roddy in the Foul Ball Zone at A’s games if you look hard enough — if a foul ball hits your cut out, they send it to you! Yes, it’s the little things).

Yup, it looks like we are going to try this after all, folks. Come Thursday night, the 2020 Major League Baseball season will begin, and with any luck, will run clean through to it’s 60-game conclusion, sometime in October.

And that means it’s time to begin forecasting, even during these unprecedented times.

This shortened season is a whole different ballgame (pun intended) for those in the prediction business, but it seems to me there are three primary drivers that will ultimately factor into who emerges as playoff-worthy 60 games from now.

TALENT

download-4  download-6

Yeah, the talent factor doesn’t ever go away, whether it’s over 162 games or 60. And that’s good news for fans of the Yankees, Dodgers and Astros, where there seems to be the greatest collection of talent versus the balance of the league’s rosters. But if you think about it, there’s a lot of talent running through both leagues these days. You will find multiple stars dotting the rosters of the Mets, Nationals, Braves, Phillies, Reds, Cubs and Brewers, and I’m not even past the NL Central yet.

And that’s what makes handicapping a short season so challenging. Hot streaks, cold spells, injuries and opt outs (there’s a new term for us prognosticators) all will have their influence on pennant races. And those races will begin in earnest at the season’s halfway point in 2020 (which happens to fall around Labor Day in this new, bizarro world).

What we’re talking about here, folks, is the ultimate puncher’s chance. You could make an argument that over 20 teams have enough star power and fire power to make a run at the dance, which is why our next category will hold extraordinary importance in 2020.

LIGHTNING IN A BOTTLE (BAD CHEMISTRY)

This yin/yang category will ultimately separate the contenders from the pretenders in the upcoming, abbreviated season.

Think about this for a second — let’s say some middling team like the Arizona Diamondbacks gets out of the gates hot. Their new workhouse, Madison Bumgarner, feeling fresh and eager to justify his free-agency millions, offers to go on three days rest all year, and comes out firing bb’s. The D-Backs open 15-5, racing to a lead in the NL West before Dodgers fans have finished unwrapping their new Mookie Betts jerseys.

Should Arizona play .500 ball from there forward, they finish 35-25 (which equates to roughly 94 wins in a 162-game season). Such a record pretty much assures them a wild card slot, if not the division title outright. How many teams can give themselves hope with such a thought? Pretty much every team outside Detroit, Miami and Kansas City, if you ask me. And shit, if one of those three clubs comes out on fire? Who knows?

Uncharted territory, remember?

download-3

Which is why the teams with the most talent, who are expected to win, better be careful of the “yang” in this equation — that dreaded “bad chemistry” quicksand that can slow even the fastest of sprinters out of the starting blocks.

Has there ever been a team more primed to suffer a rough start due to bad chemistry and negative karma than the 2020 Houston Astros? If there has, I can’t think of it (okay, I can, but I try never to think about the 1987 Mets).

The Astros ride into the 2020 season universally despised around the league, with a new manager and GM in place, and their 2019 co-ace in pinstripes. Hmmm…better hope they don’t find themselves 14-16 down in Houston at the halfway mark.

And that leads us to our third factor, which is when a sprint breaks out during what we had expected to be a marathon of a baseball season, there will never be more importance placed on the shoulders of the manager and the front office.

LEADERSHIP

I happen to be a believer that the skills that make a baseball manager effective during the regular season are quite different than those that help a team win a competitive series in the playoffs.

If World Series were won on talent alone, the Royals would have won back to back titles in 2014 and 2015. But Ned Yost, a terrible in-game manager, was no match for Bruce Bochy in 2014, and the Giants won their third series in five years because of that mismatch on the top step of the opposing dugouts.

The following year, Yost caught a break when he looked across the diamond and saw his equal in mediocrity — Terry Collins of the Mets. The two field generals essentially cancelled each other out (although Collins earned the ultimate goat horns with the Matt Harvey debacle in Game 5), and the Royals won the title thanks to their superior talent.

download-3

Over the course of a regular season, a great manager may get a team a couple of extra wins, or a poor one may manage them out of about the same. Sometimes that means playoffs versus going home, but on a great team (say, the 2019 Dodgers, for example), the manager’s pros/cons are barely a blip on the chart of a regular season juggernaut.

But it’s a different story when the talent level evens out and the postseason rolls around. Now every strategic decision is magnified. And yes, Dave Roberts looms as about the only thing that could keep the Dodgers from another division title this year, when the shortened calendar will place a greater onus on the manager being a regular-season difference-maker.

Add to that the need for the front office to maneuver, deal and navigate through the minefield of injuries and illness we are surely about to witness, and organizational leadership will likely never play a greater role in the outcome of a single season than it will in 2020.

download-2  images

Fans in Tampa and Oakland should be feeling the optimism of that competitive advantage, thanks to their sound leadership teams. So should fans of the Evil Empire up in the Bronx. Teams where questionable or invisible leadership could cost a playoff berth? Once again Houston comes to mind, not to mention the epically unstable New York Mets.

With all of that as a backdrop, here are ten early conclusions we here at SportsAttic have drawn with Opening Day heading our way in a matter of days:

download-1  download-9

  1. The combination of Dusty Baker’s poor in-game managing skills, the void in the Houston front office, and the cloud of bad karma that’s been circling the Astros since last winter keeps the defending AL champs out of the 2020 playoffs.
  2. Dave Roberts has too much talent in L.A. to miss the playoffs, but once again will come up small in the postseason as the Dodgers miss their best chance to end their World Series drought.
  3. Aaron Boone’s ability to skillfully manage both his clubhouse and between the lines, coupled with the Yankees depth and supreme talent, will take the Bronx Bombers to the best record in baseball and the AL’s top seed come playoff-time.
  4. The second seed in the AL will go to the team with baseball’s second-best front office/field manager combo (and many would argue Beane/Melvin are, at a minimum, Cashman/Boone’s equals) — the Oakland A’s, who finally avoid the Wild Card game and come into October as AL West champions. 
  5. There will be a surprise, “lightning in a bottle” team that makes the playoffs in both leagues. Think Padres, D-Backs, Reds in the NL, and White Sox, Angels, Rangers in the AL. And at least one of them will come in as a division winner.
  6. Look for one team to be eliminated on the final day of the regular season, when they lose an extra innings game after the “inherited” runner on second scores the game-winner. Astros anybody?
  7. Yoenis Cespedes is crowned NL home run king, clubbing over 20 dingers during the shortened regular season, which secures him a huge free agent deal from some desperate AL club in the offseason. Look for that deal to go down in history as one of the worst free agent signings of all time.
  8. Joe Girardi’s ultra-intense style is made to order for the Phils during the “every game matters” 2020 regular season. Philly reaches and wins the NL Wild Card game, earning a date with the top-seeded Mets in the NLDS.
  9. The Rays, everybody’s darlings when the season was set to begin back in March, finish last in the AL East.
  10. The Minnesota Twins earn a Wild Card berth and advance, simply to restore some sense of order to baseball by getting blown out by the Yankees in the ALDS.

And here’s how they’ll finish–

AL East — Yankees

AL Central — White Sox

AL West — A’s

AL Wild Cards — Twins and Angels — Twins advance

NL East — Mets

NL Central — Reds

NL West — Padres

NL Wild Card — Dodgers and Phillies — Phillies advance

ALDS — Yankees over Twins; A’s over White Sox

NLDS — Mets over Phillies; Padres over Reds

ALCS — A’s over Yankees

NLCS — Mets over Padres

World Series — In a rematch of the 1973 Fall Classic, the Mets gain their revenge, winning in 6 games, with Series MVP Jacob deGrom victorious in Games 1 and 5, and earning a three-inning save in the clincher.

You heard it here first — Play Ball!

download-7

 

How’s a Sports Fan Supposed to Feel About All This?

download-1

It looks like baseball is on the way.

And basketball, and hockey, too. And for all intents and purposes, football season begins in July, too, nowadays. I’m just not sure how to feel about all this.

For many reasons.

We will begin with the easy one.

Some of my most deeply ingrained routines are being messed with here in a big way. I mean, Opening Day in late-July? NBA Finals over Labor Day Weekend? I’ve spent 50 years both reveling in, and taking comfort from, the seasonality of my favorite sports. Even during those years where we lost games (or seasons) due to some form of labor strife or other, the sports were true to their appointed months on the calendar.

This year started out much the same. Baseball gave us pitchers and catchers in February, and all was right with the world. The NBA was plodding through the dog days of their regular season with an exciting playoff tournament taking shape that would overlap with the early-season MLB games, thus providing the right amount of variety and relevance for fans of both sports. Who’d have guessed that only a few months later we’d find ourselves…

Where?

No major sports and a void the size of the Grand Canyon wreaking havoc on all sports fans on a daily basis.

The NFL? Somehow the NFL has managed through this global pandemic “relatively” unscathed. No easy task for a league that can fuck up the most mundane of topics — hey, what constitutes a catch these days, fellas? Preseason camps are getting ready to open, and fans or not, they appear determined to execute on their complete, 16-game schedule come hell or high water.

But here in 2020 — the year of the virus — NFL games will have company on the calendar from both their baseball and hoops brethren, as well as those that earn their living on skates. And I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t feel right.

To get to the core of what’s really bothering me, we can start with baseball.

Yes, the ridiculous, hair-pulling fight between the players and owners was embarrassing for both sides and ill-timed to put it mildly. But what’s emerged from their “agreement” as it pertains to my National Pastime is what is really doing a number on me. Because I’m a staunch traditionalist.

If you ask me (and unfortunately nobody does), there should be no Designated Hitter anywhere in Major League Baseball. I’ve sucked it up with the Junior Circuit flouting the natural order of baseball with their gimmicky use of an extra bat since the early-’70’s, but at least the National League has held the line. Now with this 60-game, farce of a season about to begin, we find a DH thrust upon us in both leagues.

That’s just the crack in the door fans of the DH have been waiting for, and with a new collective bargaining agreement coming our way in 2021, the days of Rick Wise hitting two dingers while throwing a no-hitter may never be seen again. And I’m sorry, but taking the bats out of the hands of pitchers sucks.

download

But wait, there’s more!

Are they really serious that extra innings games will now begin with a runner on second base? I guess they decided breaking the tie with a home run hitting contest was too cheesy? Good lord…

Maybe we can bring Charlie Finley’s orange baseballs out of hibernation, too, and use them for one hitter a game for each team. The manager gets to choose any hitter he’d like, in any situation. And if the orange ball gets taken out of the park, they award double the number of runs than would have scored if it had been a “traditional” home run.

download-7

Genius, I tell you.

Meanwhile, I’ve been applauding the NBA for it’s leadership within the world of sports up until recently. Commissioner Adam Silver acted quickly and with authority getting his players off the court and out of the virus’s way before any of the other major sports leagues decided to take action. So it seemed appropriate the NBA was first to come up with a plan to restart things this summer.

But not so fast…

First Kyrie Irving (who won’t even be in the Orlando “bubble” when games resume) tells his fellow players around the league that restarting the season will take attention away from the inroads being made in the areas of social justice and racial equality. And therefore, they should boycott a season’s resumption.

So Kyrie is worried about hurting the greater good, huh? Or is he just pissed that he’s injured (again) and won’t be a part of the restart. Add to that how his old frenemy LeBron stands a good chance of winning a title while Kyrie rehabs back in Brooklyn, and maybe we need to question his real motivation? Hmmm…based on all we’ve seen of Kyrie through the years, I’m going to wager that he is way more bothered by the prospect of watching LeBron win another title than he is motivated to reinforce peaceful protest.

images

And what of LeBron? Yes, when not instructing all co-habitants of planet earth on how to think and speak, LBJ is all for getting back on the hardwood. In fact, he counters Kyrie’s social justice argument with one of his own. The King believes that resuming the season will create a more visible platform for players to impact positive change toward racial equality, not hurt those efforts the way Kyrie believes they will.

Admirable? Perhaps, but could there be just a bit of self-interest influencing LeBron’s view? Like how the Lakers stand to be the top seed in the Western Conference if a season is completed? And that this could be his last and best chance to win a ring in a Lakers uniform?

Nah, not LeBron. Not when he has a history of sitting silently watching which way the wind blows on every important national issue, before grabbing the baton and taking his spot at the front of the parade once the lines of demarcation have clearly been drawn by others on social media.

Yeah, it’s all about LeBron wanting that ring.

And we’re not done, NBA. What’s this I see now about players substituting words or phrases concerning racial inequality on the backs of their jerseys in place of their last names when play resumes? C’mon guys, really?

Isn’t the idea of names on the backs of jerseys a fan experience thing? It’s always been done as a way of helping us keep track of who has the ball, or is involved in what activity over the course of a 48-minute game. In fact, those jerseys and their accompanying last names have become such a part of the league’s fabric that we even track which players’ jerseys are “best sellers” over the course of a given season?

Well pardon the skeptic in me, but is it even slightly possible that Commissioner Adam Silver, the owners, and the NBA Players Association may be looking to find alternate revenue opportunities to replace a portion of the money lost due to the pandemic?

C’mon kids, we know you already have the Kawhi Leonard #2 jersey at home, and it’s your most prized piece of NBA apparel. But now to complete the set shouldn’t you pony up another $200 for an official NBA-licensed Clippers #2 jersey? And this one, instead of saying “Leonard” on the back, now says “Equality?” Revenue drivers or change agents? You decide.

download-2

Alright, enough negativity. I’ll leave the rest for the Post’s Phil Mushnick. Because there is another side to this coin.

And that’s this — sports are coming back!

download-5  download-3

I saw that the Nationals and Yankees may be opening the MLB schedule. That means Max Scherzer and Gerrit Cole on the hill, and I’m already excited. I don’t even care if they both go three innings. From there I boomeranged right back into fan mode.

Yup, I’m already hoping that not enough time has passed for Aaron Judge to be fully healthy. And I’m organizing a pool with my friends where we all pick the name of the major leaguer most likely to be sidelined by the virus first. And of course I select Bryce Harper. Because, you know, we all hate Bryce Harper.

images-1  download-4

The DH? Yeah, I absolutely hate that, too. But let’s pencil in Yoenis Cespedes as league MVP right now, for leading the Mets to the division title (will there even be divisions?) with 30 dingers in 60 games from the blue and orange DH slot. Hey, if there’s gotta be a bastardized form of NL baseball being played, let’s at least have the Mets take advantage of it.

And speaking of the Mets (can you believe it’s taken me over 1200 words to get to them?), if there was ever a season made to order for a New York Mets success story, it is the virus-shortened 2020 campaign. For one, we always get off to a fast start, which has never been more important than this year with the abbreviated schedule. Two, in a year where everything is all f-ed up anyway, what better team than the Mets to lay claim to a World Series title. It’s karmic justice, right?

Too bad the Knicks can’t make such an argument and sneak into the NBA play-in tournament, too. Nah — check that — the Knicks are so bad that it’s probably better we just shut them down now and let them begin interviewing the 20 candidates they’ve “narrowed” their search down to in deciding on a new head coach for next season.

But I’ll root for Brooklyn, for sure. How cool would it be for the Nets to make a little noise in the postseason without either of their two big-ticket free agents lacing up a sneaker in the postseason?

Football?

I have to believe Roger Goodell is hard at work in that nicely appointed basement of his, doing his absolute damndest to find something that can blow up the upcoming season. The NFL survived the virtual draft, and even managed to make it must-see TV for many of us. And they finally appear on the verge of framing correctly that patriotism and peaceful protest for social justice and racial equality don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Hell, they’ve even figured out a way to undo the Evil Empire up in New England.

Yeah, there must be an enormous NFL fuck up hurtling toward us like a meteor any day now.

But as Chris Berman says, “that’s why they play the games.”

Okay, bring it on sports leagues — I’m ready.

download-6

 

Play Ball — You Guys Are Embarrassing Yourselves!

download-1

Am I the only one sick of the painful, back and forth negotiations between owners and players over whether we will see any baseball this season?

Didn’t think so.

As usual when these two sides square off, it will come down to how they divide up the money, and my best guess is the billionaires and the millionaires will both give just enough as time grows short to get us some semblance of a season started by the middle of July.

So, if we all know this is the likely outcome, why must we go through this awful dance, listening to jackasses from both camps posture on a daily basis, whining and pointing fingers, with the only real outcome being that both sides look like selfish assholes?

I wonder what Bert Shepard would think of all of this?

You’ve likely never heard of Bert Shepard, despite his retiring from Major League Baseball with a career E.R.A. of 1.69, which, if he had enough innings to qualify, would be an all-time record.

However, Shepard isn’t remembered for his E.R.A. He is remembered as being the only major league baseball player to ever appear in a game with an artificial leg.

Shepard was a minor league left-hander with a blazing fastball and a penchant for walking hitters. He did stints with, and was released by, both the White Sox and Cardinals organizations in the early-’40’s, before enlisting into the U.S. Army Air Force in early-1943.

He ultimately became a pilot, earning the rank of second lieutenant, and was stationed in Wormingford, England. On his 34th mission over Germany, Shepard’s plane was shot down by anti-aircraft fire. One of the shells hit him in the chin, knocking him out, and another tore through the bottom of his right leg. His plane crashed into the Hamburg ground at an estimated speed of 380 MPH.

download-2

German doctors amputated the leg eleven inches below the knee, and Shepard was sent to a prison camp in Meiningen, Germany. It was there Shepard met Dr. Errey, an imprisoned Canadian medic, who made Shepard an artificial leg. While a prisoner of war, Shepard first learned to walk on his new leg, and then taught himself to throw again on the wooden leg, using a cricket ball during exercise time in the prison camp yard.

In February of 1945, eight months after being captured, Shepard was part of a prisoner exchange and ultimately returned to America. He landed at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., where he was fitted for a new prosthesis. While at Walter Reed, Shepard was visited by the Undersecretary of War, Robert Patterson, who learned the former pilot had been a baseball player and wanted to resume his career. Patterson was close friends with the owner of the Washington Senators, Clark Griffith, and passed this information along.

Shepard received his new leg on March 10th, and four days later was in College Park, Maryland, for a tryout with the Washington Senators. Shepard always liked to tell people he was “lucky” that it was the right leg he’d lost in the war, since as a left-hander it was the left leg that he pushed off with while driving toward the plate. At the end of March, Griffith had seen enough to sign Shepard to a major league contract. Shepard would work on his control in exhibitions and on the sidelines, with the goal of being added to the staff later in the year.

He started a couple of exhibition games, including one against the Brooklyn Dodgers on July 10th to raise money for war relief, and General Omar Bradley pinned the Airman’s Medal on Shepard’s uniform in a pre-game ceremony. Shepard went out that day and only allowed one hit through the first three innings, before being relieved in the fourth.

On August 4th, 1945, his opportunity finally came. Washington manager Ossie Bluege brought Shepard in to mop up in the 4th inning, with the Senators down 14-2 to the Red Sox. He entered with the bases loaded and two down, and struck out the hitter to end the inning. He would go the distance from there, throwing the next five innings and allowing only one run on three hits.

After the game, Shepard had this to say about his outing:

“There was much more pressure on me than it seemed. If I would have failed, then the manager says ‘I knew I shouldn’t have put him in with that leg.’ But the leg was not a problem, and I didn’t want anyone saying it was.”

Unfortunately for Shepard, the Senators were involved in a pennant race, and Bluege was unwilling to use Shepard in any more contests. Shepard was released on September 30th, and with players beginning to return from active duty, he was unable to make the big league club out of spring training in 1946. The Senators asked him to be a part of their coaching staff, but his bug to play wouldn’t die, and Shepard requested to be sent to the minors to continue his career. He never made it back to the bigs, but the left-hander continued to take the mound and fire away in the minors for another seven years.

In short, Bert Shepard was a complete and utter badass.

One more note about Shepard.

In 1949, he signed to pitch and manage a team in Waterbury, Connecticut. He said the reason he wanted to manage was because “always before I’ve had a manager who was afraid to take a chance on me. Now it’s up to me. Every fourth day when I make up the lineups, that ninth man is going to be B. Shepard, pitcher.”

Shepard was so confident in his ability to pitch, that he even offered to play for $1 for the season. However he also requested to be paid $400 for every win that came with him on the mound. The team ended up signing him to do both jobs for $4000, but by August the club said they could no longer afford to pay him, and Shepard was released.

Now get this — the Waterbury players threatened to go on strike if Shepard was let go. Ultimately a players committee banded together with some local merchants and they raised enough money for Shepard to complete the season.

Bert Shepard was a total badass.

We bring up Bert Shepard now, because despite the fact that MLB has become a multi-billion dollar business enterprise, we’ve got to believe that at their core, at least a few of the owners, and most of the players are still “true” baseball folk. They’ve got to see the rampant destruction taking place as this ridiculous game of chicken goes on, don’t they?

Because baseball isn’t their game, it’s our game.

Baseball was played during the World War II years because the national pastime was deemed essential to keep up the spirits of the nation. Many of the biggest stars were sent overseas — the Yankees alone lost Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto, Tommy Henrich, and Red Ruffing for parts of seasons during the war — and doors were opened for players like Shepard and Pete Gray, the one-armed outfielder who hit .218 in 77 games for the St. Louis Browns.

Baseball was deemed necessary during World War II. It remains “essential” today.

So please, no more talk about what percentage of pro rated salaries should the players expect. And yeah, we’re all really tired of the owners crying poor over the lack of games, attendance, parking revenues and concessions. Quit the crying and get back to the negotiating table. And don’t leave without a deal in place.

The sad thing is, all this squabbling over how to divide up the MLB billions has overshadowed the discussion that ought to matter most right now. You know, the one about what protocols will be needed to keep the players and all those involved in the game safe and healthy as this global pandemic rages on?

Right, there’s bigger issues out here MLB, in case you haven’t noticed while doing your damndest to get as much of “yours” as you can.

Bert Shepard died a few days before his 88th birthday in June of 2008. I’m glad he’s not here to witness this embarrassing MLB shit show that is all about the money, when there is so much more to tend to in the world today.

Shut up and play ball.

download