Three Base Hit — Cash, Paper Sawx and RelieverBall

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I know the Yanks aren’t trading Gleyber Torres, or probably not even Miguel Andujar at this point.  But can’t I please pick up the paper one of these days and see the Yankees have made a trade that actually had to hurt a little because of what they’ve given up in return?

Yesterday’s news that they picked up Zach Britton from the O’s got me excited to see who they had to give up to get him.  Britton was one of the few elite trade pieces remaining on the market now that Manny Machado has donned Dodger Blue. After all, before his achilles injury, Britton had been darn near near unhittable.  To get a guy of this magnitude had to mean at least Justus Sheffield would be heading to Baltimore, maybe Clint Frazier, too, right? Right??

The Astros were hot on Britton’s trail, and the Red Sox should have been if they are realistic about how this record-breaking season translates into postseason baseball (more on that in a second). But nope, just a few middling prospects, none of whom will likely ever find themselves representing the great city of Baltimore in a future All Star Game, leave the Yankees’s stocked minor league system in getting this deal done.

The trade got me to (begrudgingly) thinking about the genius of Yankees GM Brian Cashman. And how his maneuvering may bring us baseball fans a postseason like we’ve never seen before. Here’s three quick points that expand on why I see it this way:

  1. It pains me to admit that Brian Cashman really is that good.  (Once again I feel the need to underscore the degree of urgency involved in ensuring that the Mets don’t engage with him on a deal for Jacob deGrom.)  Years ago it was easy to dismiss Cashman as simply a mouthpiece, potential patsy and whipping boy for Big George, ready to take the fall if something didn’t work out, but never the true architect of the Bombers extended runs of MLB supremacy. Behind the scenes we all knew Gene Michael was the real brains pulling the strings to bring the Steinbrenner Family title after title. However Stick has been gone awhile now, and you can argue that Cashman has deftly redesigned the Yanks using way more than just the Steinbrenner fortune. From the farm system’s depth to the solid fundamentals on display in the field daily throughout the organization, to the professionalism between the base paths and in interacting with the media, there’s a “Yankees Way” kind of thing going on under Cash’s leadership (give me a minute here, as I’m weeping just a bit).  Think about it.  What has he gotten wrong in a big way in the last few years? Neil Walker? C’mon, Walker’s a flea that can’t even be considered a disaster just yet, despite his poor 2018.  Brandon Drury? Hell, he’ll probably find a way to come up big, a la Jim Leyritz in ’96, at some key postseason moment this fall, making all the NY press corps giddy with the chance to write the feel good “migraine to hero” articles on a postseason off day. The Britton move was classic Cashman.  Not only does it bolster an already deep (but in process of being overworked by neophyte manager Aaron Boone) bullpen, but it lands a crushing blow to the solar plexus (wrestling reference for all you WWE fans out there) of their two closest competitors in the AL — Boston and Houston. And for his next trick, Cash will  pick up that additional starter we all know he’s going to get — Wheeler or Happ or Hamels — and whoever it is will then find that annual Bronx Fountain of Youth and deliver down the stretch.  Makes me sick as I tip my hat to the Bombers’s GM. I sure hope the Mets are taking notes as they prep for yet another GM search this winter as their quest continues to identify someone (anyone?) that can change the disastrous trajectory of the blue and orange. Somehow, though, I’m guessing the Wilpons are otherwise occupied.
  2. And this brings me to the Sawx. Sorry Red Sox fans, but you are this year’s 2001 Seattle Mariners in the making (you remember those 116-win Mariners, don’t you? Right, neither does anyone else. They didn’t win the Series. Nuff said.). The Paper Sawx are putting together a logic-defying regular season, that barring collapse should result in north of 105 wins. Yet when I look deeply at this team, I see some enormous red flags. Beyond the obvious one — that World Series winners don’t usually look back and see their best baseball played in May, June and July — I see a team constructed for regular season greatness but ripe for a first-round takeout come playoff time. Maybe not in the first round (although depending on who they play, I’m not ruling that out), but certainly in the ALCS. When I look at the Boston every day lineup, I see Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez mashing at historic clips with no reason besides injury for us to expect them to slow down, but no one really scares me after those two guys.  It’s not to say there isn’t talent in the lineup, as they can hurt you from literally every spot 1 to 9, but that’s while feasting on a lot of out of contention, subpar teams, and number 3, 4 and 5 starters.  Teams and pitchers they aren’t going to see in October. On the pitching staff side, who besides Chris Sale strikes fear into the opposition? Does anyone in Beantown really trust David Price to come up big in an important spot? Nathan Eovaldi?? C’mon. And the pen? Yes, we all know Craig Kimbrel is an outright stud, but even studs tend to wear down when called on too frequently in a short series (hello  2016 and 2017 Andrew Miller). That’s why Britton would have been such a critical pickup if they really think they can fend off the Yanks in a five-game ALDS. If I’m a Boston fan (thankfully I’m not), I’d fear that the front office may be reading press clippings and annualizing out win totals along with the pennant-waving Boston press corps. I’m going to call out a record of 112-50 right now, as the Sawx shatter the franchise all-time total for wins. And all that will bring them is a best of five series with the Yankees as their reward (unless my prayers are answered and Manaea throws that no-hitter in the Bronx in the wild card game, that is!).  How confident will Bosox fans be heading into a short series with the Bombers? Especially when they see how Cash has instructed Boone on how he wants the Yankees retooled pitching staff deployed in the ALDS — this is where things get really interesting.

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3. “RelieverBall.” I kinda hope I’m coining a phrase here, because it’s what I see coming this October to a Northeast ballpark near you. While my pal Geno accurately points out that teams have ridden outstanding pens to World Series glory in past years (he cites the 1990 “Nasty Boys” Reds and the Royals of 2015 as two examples), I believe Mr. Cashman may have something so extreme planned for this year that we will all find ourselves mesmerized. Picture this four-man Yankees rotation heading into the playoffs — Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, C.C. Sabathia and Sonny Gray (or insert late-July starter Cashman is certain to pick up in the next six days in Gray’s place). Let’s assume for a second  Severino reverts back to his April/May/June Cy Young form and delivers a seven-plus inning gem in a Game 1 (or better yet, for this example, he bests a valiant Sean Manaea and an otherwise overmatched A’s squad in the Wild Card Game). Then throw out the traditionalist mold, as out trot the “other pinstriped starting pitchers.”  Tanaka, Sabathia and J.A. Happ (I’m going with him as their deadline pickup) will have the shortest collective leash of any starting rotation (sans Severino) in baseball history.  All Boone will ask for from this group is two or three innings of keeping it close, while his collection of behemoth maulers pound away at the opposing hurler matching the opposition’s offense dinger for dinger as they take an early lead.  Then RelieverBall begins. So let’s envision two outs in the third and two runners on as we  wave goodbye to Tanaka, and here comes Jonathan Holder. He give us two scoreless and hands the baton to Chasen Shreve to get the last out of the fifth.  Then David Robertson and Betances get us to the 8th and here comes Britton and his mid-’90’s sinker that feels like a croquet ball when connecting with some unsuspecting lumber.  RelieverBall concludes with Chapman and his 102 MPH, left-handed gas closing things out, and we’ll see you in Game 2. Anything beyond two innings from a starter is gravy for Boone and Cashman, and with guys like Holder, Robertson (who’d be a premier closer for most MLB clubs) and Tommy Greene capable of giving you multiple innings every time out plus the liberal allotment of postseason off days, you may not see a single Yankee starter go the five innings necessary to earn a win. I realize it’s only July, but RelieverBall is going to run the table right through a five-game World Series victory over the Dodgers. And then another Yankees parade. Yippee.

And then, when the time comes to hand out the World Series MVP in the champagne-soaked Yankees locker room, as the clock hits midnight and the calendar nears Halloween, for the first time ever it will be awarded to someone not on the active roster.  Brian Cashman, ladies and gentlemen. Take a bow.

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deGrom For Judge — Would You Do It?

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It’s trade deadline time! The Manny Machado swap got those deal juices flowing. In addition to my relief that Manny’s not going to the Yankees, I was happy to see him join the Dodgers and somewhat even out the balance of power chasm between the Senior and Junior Circuits. More on that in a minute.

I was in New York City this week, and found it amusing that with the Yankees on track for 106 wins, their fans are nonetheless quite uncomfortable.  Of course that didn’t deter them from jumping on us Mets fans at every opportunity (yeah, let’s hear “my condolences” one more time when I’m introduced as a Mets fan, yup it’s as funny as the first time I heard it, yup). I digress.

Most of the Yankees fans’ discomfort comes from their need for a starting pitcher, and of course despite being absolutely awful, that’s an asset the Mets possess in abundance. Inevitably the baseball conversation would turn to the Mets unwillingness to trade one of their two aces, Jacob deGrom or Noah Syndergaard, across town.

Forget for a minute that we Mets fans have zero confidence in the current Three Tenors setup in the General Manager’s office that is charged with  making baseball decisions for the balance of our season. Most of us would simply like to see Jake and Noah stay in Mets blue and orange for a few more years. Then we can pray to the heavens that there’s a present-day version of Frank Cashen out there somewhere we can hire as GM this winter who can begin to surround their golden arms with some talent.

So for fun, and because I wanted to gauge just how deep runs the level of desperation in Bombers Fans, I would throw out the following question, “Okay, if we offered deGrom to you even up for Aaron Judge, would you do it?”

I posed this question at least five different times, in different settings, to legit, knowledgeable Yankees fans, and the response was pretty much identical every time.

Start with a long pause. Follow that with a look of consternation consistent with someone dealing with intense inner turmoil, or maybe bad gas.  A protracted look down at the shoes, then up to the sky (maybe God has the correct answer), a sideways glance at a buddy, who’s also looking at his shoes at this point, followed by a guttural, desperate “Nooooo.” Followed by extended exhale.

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This is reason number one why I’m so relieved that Machado didn’t land in the Bronx. It seems prior to that Dodgers trade being consummated, that most Yankees fans were rooting for Machado to join the pinstripes because that way, if no starting pitcher were to arrive at the deadline, they could still bludgeon their way to a World Series title. After all, they’d have literally rolled out the 2018 version of Murders Row every night if Machado was playing third and hitting cleanup. Not so fast.

With Machado in Dodger blue, it means that the Yanks everyday lineup is what it is for the balance of the 2018 campaign (not that any Mets fan wouldn’t kill to have this problem to worry about, but that doesn’t mean that Yankees fans aren’t still shifting uncomfortably in their seats as the deadline approaches). So with Manny a National Leaguer, now the need for a starting pitcher in the Bronx is greater than ever.

Faced with alternatives like the suddenly line drive prone J.A. Happ and the ancient Cole Hamels (who I’m pretty sure won a World Series in the Dead Ball Era with the Phils), it explains the worried expression on the faces of Bombers fans as their deficit to the Sawx grows to 4 1/2 games (or more, since as I type this the Mets just won game 1 of this latest reincarnation of the Subway Series at Yankee Stadium).

So why not hit them while they are mired in this dilemma? Just give us Judge and you can have your starter.  Not just any starter, but Jacob deGrom, maybe the majors’ best in class thus far in 2018. “Nooo,” the response rises from deep in their belly, but they want to say yes. You can feel it. They really do.

Which, of course, is why I couldn’t just leave it at deGrom for Judge. This is about as much fun as a Mets fan can have these days (short of a sweep in the Bronx this weekend, that is).

“Okay, so you won’t give up Judge,” I’d acknowledge, “how about Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird for deGrom?” No hesitation here — not once — “Yup, I’d do that deal,” said every Yankees fan I queried.

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The general consensus was that Sanchez’s future is as a DH, he’s out of shape and even though he can hit and has a rifle for an arm, they could get by with Austin Romine and Higashioka handling the catching duties the rest of the way.  There was even less hesitation about including Bird in the deal, as his recent injury history and slow start in 2018 has relegated him to persona non grata among Bombers fans.

The consistency of their affirmative responses along with their haste and certainty, led me to believe that I hadn’t asked for enough, so I threw out there “What if you had to throw in Clint Frazier? Would you still do the deal?” Only a slight hesitation accompanied the idea of parting with one of their most prized minor league assets, and just like that the answer was “yes,” again, every time.

I’ve arrived at several conclusions out of these dialogues that helped distract me from the Mets having more losses before the All Star break than at any other time in their history:

  1. Yankees fans are right to hold onto Judge.  He could be another icon along the lines of Derek Jeter (God forbid), and you just can’t give him up for a 30-year-old pitcher who’s already had Tommy John surgery once. Even a starter as awesome as deGrom has been this year.
  2. They are also right not to care about Clint Frazier. You put him in a Mets uniform and he’ll contract whatever skill-draining disease that has afflicted Michael Conforto and Jay Bruce this year. My guess is that as a Met, Frazier would one day have lifetime statistics that look similar to those of Ron Swoboda (meaning a middling fourth outfielder that never reached his potential, even if he did make an incredible catch in the 1969 World Series).
  3. Yankees fans are lucky to have Brian Cashman making their deals, as a good GM is worth his weight in gold (for examples of bad GM’s, see Mets, New York), and he will figure this out for them before the deadline and the Yanks will be just fine (doesn’t mean I won’t still be rooting my heart out for them to finish second in the east and then get no-hit in the Wild Card game by Sean Manaea and the A’s).
  4. An added “oh by the way” is that I hope the Mets owners have forbade the Three Tenors masquerading as Mets General Manager these days from even speaking to Cashman, let alone attempting to make a deal with him.  Talk about a mismatch! It makes me nervous just thinking about the spare parts Cashman will sell back to us for the starting pitcher he covets.
  5. Bird as a Yankee may still end up with career stats that resemble Will Clark’s, but if he were to move to Queens and put on a Mets uniform he’d immediately snap his achilles tendon slipping in the shower and then break both wrists trying to cushion his fall. We don’t want him either.

Now back to Machado for a minute. I don’t care for the Dodgers.  It’s not a Yankees-intensity type of dislike, but I really don’t like them much, except under certain circumstances (like if they played the Yanks in the World Series). But I am declaring them the National League’s only chance of winning the World Series this year.

The American League is flat out loaded. I can make a strong case for any among the Astros, Red Sox, Yankees or Indians (nice deal picking up Brad Hand, Tribe!) being crowned champs come October. Prior to the Machado deal, when I looked around the National League I saw no one capable of even competing with any of those four AL powerhouses.

The Expos may not even finish .500 (yes, they are such under achievers right now that I won’t even honor them by calling them the Nationals). The Cubs seem like they should be so much better, but there are holes everywhere I look. The starting rotation after Jon Lester (who’s almost as old as Cole Hamels at this point, isn’t he?) is paper thin, the pen scares the heck out of me (and now Morrow is DL’d), and nearly two years after the fact they seem like they are still trying to sleep off the hangover of the 1908 Curse-breaking title they won back in ’16.

Does anyone really think the Braves or Phillies are legitimate World Series contenders? Puh-leazzzzze. Diamondbacks or Brewers? Next. The Giants? I still see them finishing with 70-something wins, and I’m not even including the Rockies in this conversation, because, well, they’re the Rockies.

That leaves the Dodgers (and another quick aside — who is this Max Muncy kid? The A’s really had him and gave him up??). If Kershaw is healthy (yeah, a pretty big if) and Jansen is right, they have the cornerstone pieces in place with that every day lineup to trade punches with the big boys of the AL in a seven game series. They probably need to make one more deal for a starter (doesn’t everyone except the Astros?), but inserting Manny Machado in the middle of that lineup was a true game changer for L.A. Bring on October baseball.

We’ve got 11 days to go before the deadline passes, so we will learn a lot about haves and have-nots during this time. And it should be a lot of fun, too, as the wide open NL and top-heavy AL almost demands that no fewer than 10 teams will need to make a significant move or otherwise risk disappointing their fans and deflating their clubhouse. Desperation leads to lots of deals, and lots of deals make for an intriguing end of the summer.

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Which is why the Three Tenors should move Stephen Matz and Zack Wheeler and feed into the desperation. That same desperation I saw in the eyes of those Yankees fans this week.  If only we could trust the competency of Ricco/Minaya/Ricciardi (yikes, did I really just type “Minaya”?).

But of course, we’re the Mets, and we won’t get it right. We all know it. So we’ll probably get Clint Frazier in return for Matz and Wheeler, and those nasty concussions the young redhead has suffered this spring will turn into a prolonged problem exacerbated by the incompetent Mets medical staff. Meanwhile Matz and Wheeler will likely each win a World Series game in pinstripes (and Matz will probably even jack a homer in the NL park).

And that’s all okay, because Machado’s a Dodger. And the Yanks won’t get deGrom. All good news coming out of the break. So now — Let’s Make A Deal — it’s Deadline Time!

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So You Want To Go To Los Angeles, Do You?

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All hail the true King!

As I’ve mentioned before, this NBA offseason has me practically giddy with all it’s drama and unexpected developments. The other night when I first saw the Kawhi to Toronto rumors, I thought, “Nah, it can’t work with the salaries, plus there isn’t anyone Toronto would give up that Pop would want back.”

Not so fast. I forgot this was Greg Popovich we were talking about. Actually to clarify, this was Angry Greg Popovich we were talking about. And he wasn’t about to let a flea named  Kawhi Leonard hold him and his gold standard franchise hostage.

Yup, the same Kawhi Leonard that was made by Greg Popovich. The same Kawhi Leonard who played all of nine games for Pop and his Spurs last year. The same Kawhi Leonard who ignored pleas from the organization and teammates to try and suit up and help them down the stretch, dismissing their cries for help. And the same Kawhi Leonard who on top of all that had the audacity to insinuate that somehow it was the Spurs who had caused and exacerbated both the injury and the slow healing process.

And now Kawhi Leonard was going to dictate to Pop where he would play this year? I don’t think so. Pop did the superficial dance with the Lakers, knowing full well that the salary cap mismatch and lack of a reasonable return would make a deal there near impossible. But even if that had not been the case, there’s NO WAY Pop was sending Leonard to the Lakers. Really? So he could watch him team with LeBron and torment San Antonio’s loyal fans all next year, and perhaps for years beyond?

Nope, Pop needed to send a message, and boy did he send a strong one.

“I’m sorry, Kawhi, did you say you wanted to play in Los Angeles? Oh, my bad, I just traded you to Toronto. And not only that, but I got their best player in return for you. Don’t forget your parka and don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out of town. Ingrate.”

The headlines about Kawhi not being happy? You bet your ass he’s not happy. And I couldn’t be happier. After all, given the choice between Kawhi being happy and SportsAttic receiving yet another gift of intriguing joy this incredible NBA offseason, we’re going with Unhappy Kawhi every time!

North of the border it is for Mr. Leonard.  I’m sure the sub-zero temperatures will be ideal for him to heal that bum leg of his that cost him pretty much all of 2017-18, not to mention his reputation as a good teammate and supposed Top 5 talent in the league.

Now he’ll get to spend his walk year trying to reestablish that Top 5 handle (SportsBro Note — he was never a Top 5 guy. Pop and the Spurs system only made it appear that way. An absolutely great defender and much improved offensive player, but let’s see how it all works now, surrounded by that band of postseason underachievers that got their Coach of the Year winner fired less than 60 days ago) north of the border.

I’m thinking this attempt at a power play just cost Leonard $60 million in free agency dollars next summer. Isaiah Thomas to the Nuggets 2.0, anyone?

Because, you see, you just don’t mess with Greg Popovich.  There’s a reason he’s revered around the league by everyone from fellow coaches like Steve Kerr, to the big stars like  LeBron, and down through the end of the bench wonks who will gladly leave money on the table for a spot on his roster. He is the man.

And we are only scratching the surface of Pop’s bad-assery on this deal, too. Because not only did he sink the sock full of nickels into the back of Kawhi’s head by sending him off to Raptor-land, but he actually strengthened the Spurs while he was at it. This is why Pop is in a class by himself.

In the league where it’s understood that to make a title run you need multiple stars, building your team around DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge (and don’t think Aldridge didn’t just  pucker up a bit himself remembering his own temper tantrum last season, as he watched Pop unleash his fury on Kawhi) is a solid first step.

Then you add in Pau Gasol and a lot of athletic young talent on the Spurs roster and all of a sudden I’m thinking San Antonio may be relevant and dangerous again in the West.  And if not necessarily this year (call them a five or six seed that no one wants to face come next April, methinks), they’ve now got building blocks to go recruit that third star next summer from an upcoming free agent class that literally the entire league is drooling over.

Okay, and we’re still not done throwing rose petals at Pop. Sit back and admire how deftly he extricated himself from franchise icon Tony Parker in the most gracious and classy manner possible.  No sulking and feuding from a guy who’s diminished talents are recognized by everyone (except Michael Jordan apparently). Nope, simply a professional parting of the ways and lots of mutual respect.

So there’s Pop wishing Parker all the the best as he limps off to end his career wasting MJ’s money in Charlotte.  And the soon to be retired Manu Ginobili will likely be more visible than ever going forward for the Spurs, both as a local goodwill ambassador in San Antonio, as well as consigliere to Pop, helping identify and sign top international talent. I’m telling you, the guy’s a maestro.

Lastly, he’ll now settle in and deal with DeRozan’s disappointment over being sent packing by the Raptors. By the time the two of them have finished whatever rare bottle of cabernet Pop uncorks for the occasion, DeRozan will be all in on the Spurs system and ready to rock in his new home.

Pop is amazing and awesome. Pop is smart, appropriately sarcastic, and funny. Pop is sophisticated and shrewd.  World class and best in the business. What more can we say?  He’s simply The King!

 

 

 

Is it Indian Ball or Over The Line?

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It’s a hot California afternoon.  Low-90’s, with a slight breeze and only a few clouds. It’s like so many July California afternoons I enjoyed as a kid. Fighting off boredom we’d pick a sporting event to pass the time (those were the days when the kids were shooed outside in the morning and came home when it was dinner time — no play dates or anything resembling organized activities, thank you) — tennis, hoops, even badminton. At some point, though, it would always lead to grabbing my mitt, a bat, and a ball.

Most of the time it was just me and my best friend Ray from down the street, so with the inability to field full 9-on-9 squads we would resort to Over The Line. It was an abridged baseball game that only required a bat, a tennis ball (more on that later) and a cul-de-sac with a clearly delineated curb at the end to serve as the de facto centerfield wall validating our many home runs. You could play with a group of kids, but the beauty of Over The Line was that all you needed was two ballplayers for a full fledged major league contest to break out.

It would not be a stretch to estimate that from that first toss of the ball in the air back in the summer of 1972 (for play to commence, you could hit it out of the air or let it bounce, but you were your own pitcher) until my family relocated east in July of 1976, Ray and I played 500 or so of those full, nine-inning matchups (and that is a conservative estimate).

Over The Line became an integral part of our lives. This was as professionally done an experience as a couple of 7-year-olds (almost 11 by the time our era was winding down in ’76) could muster — each hitter was announced PA-style, hand written lineup cards. The lineups were typically selected based on that day’s favorite teams, often copied right out of that morning’s L.A. Times. More often than not, though, lineups were fueled by the latest star that emerged from a pack of Topps baseball cards picked up at the local store.

There were clearly defined rules and a system to determine if a tennis ball, once struck,  was fair or foul (more cul-de-sac boundaries), as well as to confirm if a ball was a single, double, triple or an out.  Homers were easy, as they simply needed to cross the far curb in the air, but in our own personal wrinkle, we would call it an out if the fielder ran it down, even if you ended up smack in the middle of the Ludwick’s flower garden, which was actually where the middle of the imaginary bleachers would have been located in our fantasy ballpark.

The use of a tennis ball was our concession to the neighbors understandable distaste for line-drive doubles crashing into the passenger door of whatever vehicle happened to be parked in fair territory (thankfully the car alarm hadn’t been invented just yet). We would meticulously track each batter’s results, and it was an offense-dominated game, with the scores regularly reaching the twenties.

Not surprisingly, I almost always chose the Mets as my squad, a decision rewarded by my favorite team’s surprise 1973 pennant on the last day of the season (“Ya Gotta Believe”). That allegiance then morphed over to the A’s as their 1970’s dynasty grew.

But Over The Line allowed the entire baseball world to become the 8-year-old fan’s oyster. I clearly remember a lengthy run with the San Francisco Giants for no other reason than I thought the 1973 Topps card of young centerfielder Gary Maddox was the coolest one I’d ever seen.  And that Giants outfield of Maddox, fellow young star in the making Gary Matthews in left, and Bobby Bonds in right made for an awesome middle of the lineup. Ray would counter with the A’s or Dodgers (the summer of ’74 and the nightly power displays from Jimmy Wynn and Joe Ferguson often triggered Ray’s lineup card the following afternoon) or maybe the Lynn/Rice Red Sox of 1975.

And it didn’t always have to be the stars featured in one of our lineups. I had a solid run with the Indians the summer between third and fourth grade, when my favorite card had transitioned from Maddox to the one and only Tom Ragland, a second baseman who didn’t last long in MLB. But that didn’t keep Ragland from achieving immortality with a couple of 5-for-5, three-homer afternoons in the Glendora Over The Line circuit.

When my family relocated to New Jersey as the rest of the country celebrated the July 4th bicentennial I brought Over The Line east with me. On my arrival I was shocked and dismayed to learn that no one in New Jersey had ever heard of Over The Line. Yet there was something the Jersey kids called Indian Ball that played by essentially the same rules.  I immediately embraced my old game with the new name, and the lineup cards  evolved as my broader sense of the game’s history did, to include a franchise’s All-Time,  All Star teams.

Now I’d fill out a lineup card for the Mets with Tommie Agee in center and Steve Henderson in left (Hendu was the best guy we got back from the Reds in the Seaver trade — nuff sed). Right field was either Art Shamsky or Dan Norman (a platoon, of course, as I waited patiently for Norman to evolve into the next George Foster, as the Mets brass promised he would following the Seaver fleecing). Norman never did amount to anything, but we did get the real Foster a few years later (when most of the thunder had drained from his big bat).

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My trip down nostalgia lane and old memories of Over The Line got me to thinking about the differences between how sports were delivered to us kids on the separate coasts of the country back in the early to mid-70’s.

Grade school in New Jersey was much more structured, and included regular gym classes. In those classes we would learn the fundamentals around the major sports of football, baseball and basketball. We had one recess a day, which followed lunch, and almost always involved picking teams for a hotly contested game of kickball.

When I arrived in California as a newly-minted second-grader, there was a lot less structure, and the games the kids played seemed to change daily. Notably, there was no formal gym class at my California grade school, but perhaps to offset that, there were several recesses every day. One in the morning, one after lunch and an additional one in the afternoon. (I feel like there was also a fourth in there somewhere, but for the life of me I can’t imagine when that would have been fit in to a school day.) And those recesses revolved around two enormous play areas — one blacktop and one grass — which included a couple of backstops and diamonds for baseball or kickball.

Perhaps the most stark contrast between the two coasts was in how kickball was played. The game’s rules were identical, but the delivery of the ball from pitcher to kicker/batter  said everything we need to know about the approach to life on each side of the country.

In New Jersey, an inordinate amount of time and energy was expended by both teams screaming at one another, complaining about the opponent’s horrific pitching and poor  delivery of the ball. The pitcher would purposefully deliver unacceptable offerings that included changes of speed, spin, bouncing and generally doing everything the pitcher could to handicap the poor kid trying to kick the ball. The end result was a lot of squibs and shanks off the side of the kicker’s foot and low-scoring games.

To my amazement, in California I witnessed the batter/kicker, as he approached home plate, call out to the pitcher the type of delivery he preferred. “Slow roller,” “baby bounces” or even lowering one’s hand to a certain level to indicate how high a bounce the kicker desired on the upcoming pitch was the norm.  And the pitcher complied! The collegial nature of this part of California kickball was so incredibly foreign to me. There were still plenty of the usual fights once the game was on, but they rarely focused on how the ball was delivered to the kicker. Simply amazing.

Hence, the scores were higher, the balls kicked much further and the action much more free flowing (it also didn’t hurt that soccer was a regular sport in Glendora, CA, but had not yet arrived in Morristown, NJ, so the kicking in general was of a much higher caliber  among the California kids). So this distinct stylistic difference in kickball got my immediate attention. But there was more.

There were literally dozens of games I’d never witnessed at all. The most popular among the pavement games was Four Square (not to be confused with it’s kissing cousin, Two Square). For some reason beyond my comprehension, the girls seemed to own the Four Square arena.  It wasn’t unusual for three close girlfriends to lock down a four square game and summarily dismiss, one by one, whoever the new number four player was that emerged from the long line of kids waiting their turn. As I look back now, it was the precursor of LeBron and Chris Bosh joining D-Wade in Miami and forming their super team. Was it fair? Of course not, but recess had it’s own rules.

Many of the beaten boys would leave the world of Two Square and Four Square to the girls’ dominance and gravitate to their own, boy-dominated activities — Long Ball on the pavement and Three Flies Up out in the field.

Long Ball is a tough one to describe, but basically involved a mano-a-mano competition of one boy racing up the pavement court to a mid-line and whipping a soccer ball sized, rubber playground ball, sidearm style, as hard as he could at his opponent, stationed twenty yards or so away on the pavement.  The opponent had to field the skidding ball into the body cleanly (a bobbled drop or clean miss relegated you to the back of the line, which was usually close to the length of the Four Square line) and then race back up to the center line and whip the ball back at their opponent, who was madly scrambling back into receiving position.

It doesn’t seem all that original or creative as I type it today, but Long Ball was hard core, down to business competition.  You could spend an entire recess rotating in and out of that line and the time just flew by.

Of course, if you took one too many rubber balls off the forehead while getting bounced off the Long Ball court, you could always dejectedly wander out to the rugby scrum gathering awaiting the next offering of Three Flies Up. True to it’s name, Three Flies Up involved one lucky kid perched on a small hill, booting towering fly balls to a waiting group of classmates who fought one another for all they were worth in an effort to pick one out of the air. While going for the ball, all forms of hair pulling, eye gouging, pushing and shoving went on, as the combatants did everything humanly possible to distract one another and cause a drop.

Once one of the kids in the scrum had caught three fly balls out of the air they got to triumphantly take their turn atop the hill.  Great fun, indeed (writers note — the way to win Three Flies Up was to position yourself a couple of yards behind the scrum, and wait for the inevitable tipped ball as the group recklessly collided and tackled one another in pursuit of the kick).

While on the subject of recess, the value of these red, rubber recess balls can’t be overstated. At the beginning of the school year each classroom was gifted two new balls for use at recess. There was an important first day of school ritual where the class number was printed in “indelible” black magic marker on each ball to allow for easy identification.  It was an unwritten code that every kid in that class had a responsibility to protect and return said ball to the classroom following every recess.  Of course, one good Long Ball session would erase the “indelible” marker, and thievery ensued.

Clandestine missions where two or three kids would sneak off to steal back the lost red ball (it was the older kids that always seemed to end up with all the balls, surprise, surprise) became a post-recess rite of passage.  It wasn’t uncommon for fist fights to break out over ownership and the intrinsic value of these disappearing spheres would grow exponentially over the course of the school year. A 1970’s version of the Bitcoin bubble phenomenon.

Most of the California recess games ran in phases. You might go a solid month playing five on five tackle football, the chant of “one Mississippi, two Mississippi” filling the air from would-be pass rushers (it was always tackle, by the way, even though the recess monitors strictly forbade it, but flag or, god forbid, two-hand touch, just didn’t cut muster with us rugged 9-year-olds), and then on a dime, no one was playing football anymore, but Dodgeball was the new rage.

And this was Dodgeball 1970’s style.  Total survival of the fittest.  The face wasn’t off limits in those days, it was the target. Legends were made hurling that familiar red ball at high rates of speed. The intended target usually being kids a grade or two younger, with bonus points for making someone cry or breaking a pair of glasses. Good clean fun, right? And then one day the Dodgeball area would be empty and everyone would be found milling around in the tucked away rectangular section of the field where Snake In The Grass was played.

Snake In The Grass was a rather primitive pursuit whereby one unlucky kid began on the ground on all fours. The game kicked off with this poor lad crawling around a staked off area that was about 10 yards long by five yards wide (usually attempting a hissing sound, in an effort to simulate the dreaded snake, thus making himself seem scarier to the 10 or so other participants), while the other players ran around and over him hoping to avoid capture.

The first designated “snake” had to tackle one of the other players from his position on the ground, and when successful, the two of them became snake teammates (more hissing). The tackling would become more efficient as more kids took their place on the ground, as two could corner their prey more easily, speeding up the pace of the game to where “the winner” was the last boy standing, having successfully avoided the tackling of what ultimately became an entire gang of 8-year-old, hissing snakes.

Another nostalgic aside from those days.  In third and fourth grade at Bidwell School in Glendora, the pant of choice for almost all of our moms was the old “Tough Skin” brand of synthetic jeans.  Anyone who remembers those uncomfortable pants that bordered on painful (the simple act of bending one’s knees could result in pinches and cuts from the hard, stiff, unnatural material), probably also remembers the “reinforced knees” designed to make these inexpensive pants last longer.

Well the reinforced knees were goners after a couple of days of Snake In The Grass multiplied by three or four recesses a day.  Showing up at home with my yellow Tough Skins (they came in every color!) torn at the reinforced knee with grass stains covering the entire front always brought a pained look to my mother’s face.

But I digress.

When my family moved back to New Jersey I was never to see any of these games again. It was back to formal gym class, with the season dictating whether the recess pickup game after lunch was football, baseball or basketball.

Indian Ball replaced Over The Line and the other neighborhood games of choice included the more well known Capture The Flag and Kick The Can. Oh, and don’t forget street hockey and pond hockey, both of which I was ill-equipped for, having never learned to ice skate.  During those years where my New Jersey friends were first lacing up their ice skates as a way of forgetting how cold the winter months were, I was in Southern California.

At that time, the NHL in SoCal was limited to the L.A. Kings (pre-Gretzky), and barely got noticed because the Lakers and UCLA hoops dominated the winter sports season. Those of you wondering why hockey gets the short shrift here at SportsAttic, there’s your answer.

My final question on the subject today is, what’s become of these California sports? Did Long Ball go the way of the dinosaur? Who’s up on the hill owning the Three Flies Up competition? Do the girls still reign supreme over the boys at Two Square and Four Square? I know Dodgeball has been incredibly watered down (maybe even outlawed in some school districts I kinda recall hearing?), and while I’m sure kickball is still around, can you still request “Baby Bouncies” and have that request honored?

Bidwell School doesn’t even exist anymore, having been converted to a church many years ago. But do California kids still enjoy all those recesses here in grade school? The mysteries go on and on and I may never get my answers, but all I need to be transported back to that simpler time is to see the Gary Maddox (best sideburns in the majors) baseball card from back in third grade.

In a flash I’m back with Ray, destroying some unsuspecting neighbor’s decorative ivy in search of a tennis ball that went foul and was swallowed up by that horrid ground cover. And then the poison ivy and poison oak that followed! That’s an unpleasant summer memory we’ll leave for next time.

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Carmelo to Houston — “Helllooo, Newman”

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I just know there’s an analogy here. So I’m going with Seinfeld.  Work with me here. Because, you see, James Harden is our star. He’s the “Jerry” of the Houston Rockets for purposes of my analogy, which makes Chris Paul our “Kramer”  (a bitter, unfunny “Kramer,” but keep working with me please). The way I see it, Paul’s “Kramer” is just about to show up in Harden’s (“Jerry’s”) apartment with his horrible, third-wheel of a buddy, Newman, in tow.

You starting to get it now? Yup, Carmelo Anthony is “Newman.” And my guess is if this plays out the way everyone in the NBA seems to believe it will, by Thanksgiving at the latest, Harden will be doing his best “Hello, Newman” imitation through gritted teeth, every time Carmelo misses another shot that should have been The Beard’s. And it’s going to happen a lot. I can’t wait.

This offseason just keeps getting better and better. As I stated a week or two ago, the Rockets are already the biggest “short” in the NBA heading into the 2018-19 season.

Now add in a Top-5, All-Time Coach Killer, badly past his prime and unwilling to admit it. A guy who even in his All Star years didn’t play defense, and sent Rockets head man Mike D’Antoni babbling incoherently off to the asylum the last time their paths crossed (seems like eons ago). That was in New York, and we all see the aftermath of that disaster today, as the Knicks try to crawl out from under the wreckage left behind. Yes, sign him guys, sign him! Carmelo Anthony, that missing piece to a championship run. Uh huh.

Harden has got to be shaking his head wondering what he did to deserve this. And poor D’Antoni! He must want to punch smug OKC coach Billy Donovan in the mouth right about now. Please, Adam Silver, don’t let Anthony sign with the Heat, please! This will simply be too much fun watching and waiting to see who loses their mind first — Harden, D’Antoni or Paul. And the best part may just be knowing that Harden and Paul will try to act like everything’s okay, and that they are totally cool with ‘Melo as their franchise spirals recklessly toward first-round elimination.

Yes, this is the modern NBA, where street cred and off the court relationships matter. God forbid anyone says out loud what they all know — that ‘Melo has nothing left. Or that no one really wants him joining their team anymore. Paul made the mistake of floating the idea of forming his own super team (one that would include ‘Melo) at a wedding in New York some years back. He was no doubt drunk with emotion (and way too much Cristal). Careful what you wish for, Mr. Paul.

Which brings to mind another analogy.  Isn’t ‘Melo that friend that overhears wasted plans being made by you and your buds about taking a road trip to the beach the next day? One of those classic “good idea at the time” discussions that often take place around two in the morning, when everyone is trashed?

And the one guy nobody wants coming along shows up in his swim trunks with his surf board tucked under his arm bright and early the next morning as you and your buds try to shake off the fog of your massive hangovers.

Envision LeBron, Harden and Paul trying to shake off their near-championship hangovers when they see ‘Melo strolling up the driveway. They all look at each other trying to remember who the asshole was that invited this guy.

And then as ‘Melo bounds through the door, LeBron is that quick thinking friend who does the “oh man, sorry Dawg, I just got a text from the kids and I’m supposed to be meeting them at the park — you guys have a great time without me” escape routine and dashes out the front door as Harden glares at Paul and seethes in silence.

Of course The Beard doesn’t want to overtly hurt the feelings of his friend’s friend, who also seems to be tight with The King of the league, so next thing you know ‘Melo is calling “shotgun.” Okay, a bit of a stretch perhaps, but here’s guessing you’ve all found yourself in one of those awkward beach outings with the uninvited guest no one wanted to be there. Welcome to Houston, Mr. Anthony!

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And as the three soon-to-be-teammates sit in bumper to bumper traffic on the way to the beach (listening to Carmelo recount for the thousandth time how he led Syracuse to the National Championship once upon a time), Paul and Harden get a text from LBJ. No caption, just the picture above.  If Carmelo Anthony comes to Houston, lower my bid on the Rockets to 49 wins and a number four playoff seed (behind LeBron and the Lakers).

Also, while on the subject of this glorious NBA offseason, how bad must it be if you are one of those “other” franchises?  I’ve previously covered the embarrassment of my Knicks making their offseason splash by signing THE Mario Hezonja. But there’s plenty of embarrassment to go around for the NBA also-rans these days.

The other day I saw a deal announced. The Orlando Magic, Chicago Bulls and Charlotte Hornets completed a three-way trade featuring Bismack Biyombo and Timofey Mozgov. Really? It doesn’t even matter who went where.  If the Magic announced tomorrow that they were forfeiting every game on their 2018-19 schedule would anyone notice? I know, they drafted the Bamba kid out of Texas.  Some think they make the playoffs this year. Okayyy… and then? I mean, someone has to be the 5th through 8th seeds in the Eastern Conference playoffs this year, why not the Magic? The Pistons? Ugh. It really doesn’t matter.

If you aren’t the Warriors, Rockets, Thunder or Lakers in the West, or Celtics and Sixers in the East, right now you are an irrelevant NBA franchise. That is, unless you have a big piece that could be traded to one of the franchises that matter.  The Blazers had a few minutes of relevance the other day because their best player, Damian Lillard, said he wasn’t unhappy being in Portland. What an endorsement!

The Spurs are dead as a doornail. A once-proud franchise with an all-time great coach, yet they only matter right now because Kawhi Leonard is disgruntled and likely to be traded to a team that does matter.

A couple days ago San Antonio issued an announcement about Tony Parker that I caught flashing across ESPN.  I assumed that meant he must have retired, since, after all, Parker’s like 70-years-old now, isn’t he? Then I saw yesterday that Charlotte just signed him for TWO years! And $10 million! Talk about throwing money away. And it won’t mean anything to them. He won’t improve attendance or make them better on the court. But I guess MJ felt left out and needed to make a deal.

Kind of like the Zach LaVine intrigue the other day.  Huh? Zach LaVine and intrigue? Yup, Zach LaVine actually got the Kings to give him an offer sheet of $80 million over four years. OHMYGOD! Well, then again, this is Sacramento we are talking about. And then the Bulls matched it (flash to smiling LeBron text again)! It won’t make a lick of difference to the playoffs or to next season, but it does once again cement the Kings as the most poorly run franchise west of the New York Knickerbockers. Their poor fans must be so elated that the Bulls out-blundered bungling Kings GM Vlade Divacs, saving them from yet another disastrous decision that would further bury their cursed franchise.

And we haven’t even gotten into Dwight Howard going to D.C. to join forces with John Wall and Bradley Beal yet, have we (smiling LeBron meme one final time)?  Yeah, just what the Wizards needed to put themselves in position to compete in the depleted east. Not. How ’bout another bad locker room guy who regularly points the finger of blame at his teammates and has become a pariah in multiple cities in recent years? Sure, bring him in! When you already lead the league in bad attitudes underperforming their talent levels, what’s one more chair at the table?

Maybe the plan in our nation’s capital is to force Wall and Beal to put aside their differences and band together against arguably the most disliked guy in the NBA? Don’t know, but there’s gotta be a reason to bring in Dwight Howard, right?

Like I said, I’m loving this offseason! Now can we just keep Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson healthy through the Summer League? I know it’s only been two games (yes, I’m that desperate for positive signs), but these guys look for real and I’m anxious to see them at the Garden in the fall. However, they are still the Knicks, so when all else fails…

Hello, Newman!

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Three Point Play — Lance, Boogie and the West

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Apologies to all the NBA doomsayers out there, but I just love what’s going on in the league right now! Forgetting for a minute that LeBron is an entitled whiner who doesn’t make the teammates around him better (the biggest difference between he and MJ, for those still pursuing that debate), let’s take a step back and think about what he’s orchestrated here, because it is pretty darn cool.

And while we’re at it, let’s think for a second what it does to the NBA West landscape heading into the 2018-19 campaign, since we all know the Western Conference Finals will be the de facto championship series next June.

It can all be summed up in three (relatively) brief points:

Showtime is back! Let’s face it, The King could have gone anywhere. There were Super Teams already in place looking for “All Time Greatest” status by figuring out a way to bring LeBron on board.  I’m talking Rockets and Dubs here. They could have figured it out financially, and the screaming from the rest of the league would have been louder and longer than when LBJ first constructed his Super Team down in Miami with all that ridiculous, self-congratulatory pomp and circumstance back in 2010.

Instead, this time he took the tougher road. You might even call it the knucklehead road. That’s partly what makes this so much fun. And absolutely awesome for basketball. First, the Lakers relevance has been restored, which is important for the league. An added benefit is that LeBron’s arrival should mercifully send that sideshow idiot, LaVar Ball, back into the shadows (let’s hope). Second, despite all the attacks on how odd the roster additions have been since James signed on, there’s little doubt the Lakers will be a playoff team. And a dangerous one.

Rajon Rondo was a superb signing. He still has a year or two left as a premier point guard and won’t get worn down by too many regular season minutes because he has Lonzo Ball to mentor (and split time with) for the first 82 games. And Rondo is at his best when the playoffs roll around (just ask the Blazers).

Say what you will about those guys not being good shooters, I don’t think it matters that much.  Somehow due to his dad’s outsized personality, we’ve all sort of forgotten that Lonzo was considered “can’t miss” a year ago in the draft and actually had a solid rookie season. Now with a year under his belt and Rondo to learn from (not to mention The King), look out. Come next spring, those two will be a deadly pair going against either  Steph or James Harden. In a seven game series, Rondo can take on either of those guys straight up and not be at the extreme disadvantage most average NBA guards experience. And we haven’t even mentioned Kyle Kuzma yet. That kid can play, too. And shoot it.

Now what about Lance Stephenson? I thought LeBron hated this guy? More genius from The King if you ask me. Think back to your playground days. Every one of us had our “personal tormentor” version of Lance Stephenson. The guy who relished lining up against us and we hated having to deal with. The one guy that could always throw us off our game, got up for us every time we walked on the court, had no fear, and would just never shut up. We couldn’t stand that guy. That is, until we figured out how to make him a teammate and let him work his evil magic on our opponents. Yeah, we loved him then.

LeBron has essentially brought in his own goon and personal body guard in Stephenson. Come playoff time look for good ole Lance to go headhunting for Draymond Green. Priceless.

And don’t think JaVale McGee doesn’t know a thing or two about how to exploit whatever slight weaknesses may exist up north in the Bay Area. Yeah he’s goofy, and occasionally misses badly on breakaway dunks, but he’s also athletic, can run and super long. He will fill another role LeBron has on that white board of his that you know has to exist somewhere in a dark corner of one of The King’s mansions.

Adding to this present day Showtime fun will be the huge, public love-fest and reconciliation between McGee and Shaq (is opening night at Staples Center too soon for the guffaws to begin for these two 7-footers with the outsized personalities?).  Look for the Lakers to reclaim their spot as the sport’s most entertaining franchise (remember, entertaining doesn’t mean best).

The key intangible I see in the three recent Lakers signees is that they all are their own men. They are unlikely to wilt under the intensity and pressure of being LeBron’s teammate. If you think about LBJ’s recent Cleveland teams, Kevin Love never really got right under that bright spotlight, and people like George Hill and Larry Nance Jr. just had no shot.  The guys that thrived as Cavs were the ones with no conscience, like J.R. Smith and, of course, Kyrie. Those are the kind of guys we now see filling out the Lakers roster for the upcoming season.  It’s a great combination of win-now veterans to allow The King to compete right away, while not mortgaging the future as he builds his dynasty.

I see this Lakers squad as no worse than a 48-34 fourth-seed in the west.  And the team that no one will want to face in a playoff series. Start the Lakers off with Portland or the Spurs in the first round, and then watch them move on to whoever owns the top seed in Round 2. This is going to be a lot of fun.

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And the Rockets won’t be that Top Seed. The fact is, they’ve just taken their best shot at the holy grail and it wasn’t good enough. First of all, Chris Paul can officially embrace the late-career slide that all point guards experience come a certain age. He’s getting up there (33) and clearly losing a step. A small guy that relies so heavily on speed and quickness can’t recover from having that slowly sapped away by Father Time. Yes, Paul’s  smart, and mentally tough, and was finally part of winning a couple of playoff series last season, but wait, did you hear that?

The murmur you hear off in the distance is called locker room whispering. I can’t imagine how there isn’t at least a little bit of the old Houston stink-eye being directed at the “floor general” who couldn’t muster the ability to join his teammates for the two most important games of any of their careers.

I only hope every one of them has watched the tape of Willis Reed limping out for Game 7 in 1970 on one leg to understand how real leaders respond to adversity. Line up for tipoff, Chris? Put your uniform on at least? I still can’t get over that.  And I’m not out tens of thousands of dollars and a championship ring due to his inability to take one for the team. So if it still eats at me two months later, how are Paul’s ring-less teammates coming to terms with it all?

In the world of finance they call a stock likely to go down in price a “short.” To me, the 2018-19 Houston Rockets are the biggest short I’ve seen in a long time. James Harden was healthy and near-perfect this past season.  Can we really expect him to repeat that in 2018-19? As mentioned, Paul is on a steep decline.

And last year all the Houston role players managed to stay content (at least publicly), while restricted to a three-square-foot radius of hardwood in Mike D’Antoni’s unique offense. There they waited patiently for the occasional pass from the two stars so they could hoist up a three.  And the best and most selfless of those role-players, Trevor Ariza, signed with Phoenix as a free agent. Hmmm.

Clint Capela probably returns to Houston, and he is a beast, but it won’t be enough for the Rockets to reclaim their top seed. Pencil them in for an uninspiring 54 wins and the number two or three seed, followed by an early playoff exit. And as they walk dejectedly from the floor next spring, look for Chris Paul, with that look of disgust that seems permanently embedded on his face (except in those maddening insurance commercials of his), to be pointing the accusatory finger of blame at his teammates. Playoff losers once again. Short the Rockets.

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The Warriors remain the team to beat, but it is NOT a lock. I’m sorry, but as much as I like the Javale McGhee signing by the Lakers, I absolutely LOVE the Boogie Cousins counter punch from the Dubs. And this is not me doing the happy Snoopy dance like the rest of the Bay Area parade goers. .

Mostly I like it because of the “Eff me??? No, EFF YOU!!” haymaker landed by Warriors GM Bob Myers and the rest of the Golden State front office, as they emphatically took back the headlines from the Lakers.  It was a total power move to remind everyone who’s the boss. Here’s the thing, though — I believe matters are far more fragile in Oakland than meets the eye.

Steph Curry turned 30 a few months ago.  KD turns 30 in September and Klay Thompson will be 29 a few months after that.  Andre Iguodala will be 35 in the coming season, and we all saw the difference in this franchise with him healthy and contributing on the floor, as opposed to when he’s hurt and in civilian clothes on the bench. All of those guys had various injuries sideline them at different times this past season, and in Curry’s and Durant’s case there is a history of injury problems dating back to their early years.

Dynasties always seem like they will last forever, until they don’t. Age and injury are the culprits just about every time. I’m not ready to declare the Dubs dead, but they nearly didn’t make it out of the West this past season (everyone seems to have forgotten that), have a thin bench with little in the way of young talent likely to make a significant contribution this coming year (the curse of poor draft positions year after year), and their headline acquisition is coming back from rupturing his achilles tendon.

Which brings me to Boogie Cousins. He happens to be one of my favorite players in “The Association.”  He’s incredibly talented, emotional, funny at times and a complete enigma.  Is he a coach killer? Or a victim of being drafted by the Sacramento Kings and never escaping their circus-like atmosphere? Can he win on the big stage and meld his considerable skills into a team setting? Everyone seems to be saying the experiment of teaming him with Anthony Davis in New Orleans was a failure.  I’m not sure I agree with that, as the team was winning when Boogie went down, even if the Pelicans did seem to gel and pick up speed in his absence for their late season playoff push.

However, mainly I’m fascinated to watch this all play out in the Dubs’s final year in Oakland (this is sadder news than most realize, by the way). Recovery from an achilles injury can sometimes take two seasons for the player to get back on track.  Cousins only signed for one, and there’s a reason he saw only tepid interest before catching the Warriors eye. So Boogie signed the “show me” one year deal, thus enraging the entire NBA fandom over the perceived “rich get richer, super team” phenomenon taking place in Golden State. Again, I applaud him. He’s rolling the dice he recovers, contributes to another championship by the bay, and changes the narrative on his career to date.  Good for you, Boogie, I applaud the risk taking, but there is risk all around on this one.

Because there remains only one basketball for the Warriors to share.  Things occasionally got  dicey for Steph and KD these past two seasons as they worked to figure out each others yin and yang. Now that picture gets all the more complicated with Cousins joining the band. The one thing I’m certain of is that it will be fascinating to watch play out.  Steve Kerr has his motivational work cut out for him to keep so many stars engaged and not believing the enormous hype and daily reports of their Three-Peat being a foregone conclusion.

And don’t think LeBron won’t be happy to just glide along behind them. Lay low, allow his teammates to settle into their roles with the goal being to peak at the right time heading into the postseason. Let the press clippings roll up north and the overconfidence build. In my view, it will be a repeat of LeBron versus the Dubs in this year’s “Finals Before the Finals.” And I’m not ready to bow down and give this one to the Warriors just yet.

There’s still a few months until the season begins, but I’m ready right now. The Summer League doesn’t cut it for me, so I’m glad we’ve got all this roster maneuvering going on in the West to keep me from lamenting too much over the disastrous state of the Knicks.

Yeah, I almost made it to the end, with only the Willis Reed reference giving away my warped  allegiances. But the pain is too great. I mean, did we really decide to make our own splash into free agency via the addition of the one and only Mario Hezonja? Yes, well they tell me he’s tall. Okay. And he was a lottery pick a few years ago.  Uh huh. He’s a stretch-the-floor European who hasn’t shown he can hit threes yet. Terrific. He’ll fit right in with Emmanuel Mudiay and Frank Ntilikina as they jostle for position as the cover story five years from now when the “NBA Biggest Draft Busts” articles are being written.

Good for you, LeBron. And thanks for the distraction.

 

 

Midseason MLB — The Start of Something Historic?

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With all due respect to Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Clemens, Kershaw and any other pitcher you want to throw out there who has been overwhelmingly dominant for a full MLB season, the two greatest pitching campaigns I’ve ever witnessed were authored by Ron Guidry in 1978 and Dwight Gooden (he wasn’t Doc yet) in 1985.

I got to thinking about this while watching ESPN’s Sunday feature game the other night between the Yankees and Red Sox. Forgetting for a minute the complete no-show by David Price and the pounding Aaron Hicks (Hicks? C’mon, this is just getting unfair at this point) and the rest of the Bombers put on the Sawx to take the rubber game of the series, I’ve gotta spend a minute on Luis Severino.

This next topic is going to be hard for me, so I ask for your patience. First, I’m still trying to shower off the shameless flow of rose petals heading Severino’s way from that disastrous threesome in the announcers box that ESPN chooses to torture me with weekly.

I know that it’s tough filling air time during a blow out, but someone please tell A-Rod to shut up. Jessica Mendoza is the only marginally tolerable one in the booth, and it is getting increasingly painful to hear A-Rod talk over her, repeating points Mendoza’s made only seconds earlier, with his statistical minutiae that’s clearly being fed into his ear piece by some 22-year-old intern in the studio. One more time, shut up A-Rod! Take the booth down to two and send A-Rod packing. The viewer’s experience would improve exponentially.

But I digress, as I procrastinate in leading up to my painful admission. Here’s the hard part. As much as I want to dislike and dismiss Luis Severino, I’m becoming more and more concerned we are watching something special take shape. The kid improved to 13-2 the other night, lowering his ERA in the process to 1.98 and raising his strikeout total to 138.

We are roughly at the midpoint of the 2018 baseball season, which allows me the joy of “annualizing” results and drawing conclusions. Based on the simple mathematical calculation of “times 2” (simple math is the only kind I can stomach, and after the midpoint of the season passes, the annualization of stats gets much more complex for those of us who prefer words to numbers). So take a look at what Severino could be in the process of producing in a projected full 2018:

I see 25-26 wins. 250-300 K’s. A sub-2 ERA. Oh yeah, and he’s barely 24. Add to that the fact that he seems to have a stopper’s makeup and the classic Seaver-esque build (look at that lower body and how he derives effortless power from his legs) and we could be seeing the beginning of an all-time great career.

(I need to pause a moment to compose myself here.  After all, do you have any idea how many years I impatiently waited for Mariano Rivera to lose it the way all relievers eventually do? And of course he never did.  TODAY he could come out of retirement and be the best arm in the Mets bullpen. And waited for that damn Jeter to retire? And now I’ve got Judge and Torres and Andujar and Severino and and and… — it really isn’t fair, I tell you!)

Back to Severino and those two all-time campaigns I saw up close as a kid/young adult.

Let’s start with Guidry. He went 25-3 in 1978. He had a 1.74 ERA and 248 K’s. He threw  273 innings (the most of his career) at the age of 28 (it had taken him a lot longer than Gooden or Severino to harness his stuff in the minors). Plus, he was an absolute stopper, single-handedly keeping the Yanks within spitting distance of what appeared to be an unstoppable, juggernaut of a Red Sox team destined to run away with the division, while the rest of the Yankees staff battled injuries and ineffectiveness.

If you use the annualization exercise, Severino is tracking toward this type of Guidry-’78 season.  And the scary part is the kid seems to be getting better as this season progresses. But perhaps the better comparison for Luis in 2018 is Gooden’s incredible 1985 season at the tender age of 21.

Dwight (not Doc) was 24-4 that year, with a 1.53 ERA and 268 K’s over 276 innings. His motion was effortless and as hard as he threw his heater, we all loved the way he broke off that devastating 12-to-6 curveball even more. He didn’t lead the Mets to a title that year the way Guidry had in ’78, but that had more to do with a young and not quite ready Mets staff as well as a Cardinals team playing impeccable ball wire to wire than anything to do with Gooden’s other worldly performance.

Again, swallowing hard, I have to consider what 2018 looks like for Severino if he actually keeps getting better in the second half.  It is difficult to imagine how he will lose another game this year, what with that lineup around him and the lockdown pen waiting in the wings. Is it crazy to think 30 wins if he runs the table? Yeah, probably, but that is the fun of this time of year and the “what if” games we can play.

As much as I hope the Yanks finish second (by a game) to Boston this year (and have to spend Severino in the season’s second to last match up — earning his 29th win in my fantasy world of midseason annualization) and then bow out in the one-and-done AL Wild Card game (to the A’s perhaps? More on that later, too), it will be a blast watching Severino’s numbers pile up as he continues to construct his legend.

By the way, I do know how dangerous it is to bet on the sustained excellence of young pitchers.  Both Guidry and Gooden never repeated the magic of ’78 and ’85, for vastly different reasons.  In Guidry’s case, his late start in the bigs, coupled with his small stature, violent left-handed motion and heavy workload in the late-’70’s, ultimately took it’s toll. He still won 20 twice more in his career, plus campaigns of 18 and 17 wins along the way, but ’78 was his gold standard. It won’t soon be forgotten by those of us who remember that awesome summer.

Gooden never would get to the 20-win mark again for all the tragic reasons that have been so well chronicled through the years.  He did enjoy seasons of 19, 18 and 17 wins as he battled his demons in future years, but never came close to that sustained magic of 1985. He ultimately would retire with 194 lifetime wins, a total that all of us who imagined what was possible in his early years consider a massive disappointment and underachievement.

Other observations from the boxscores and standings at the season’s midway point:

Surprises

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*Can someone tell me where the aliens have stashed the “real” Nick Markakis? You want to understand how the Braves are in first place, start with a quick look at his video game-like statistics.  As of right now, Markakis is on track for 208 hits and 112 RBI’s. And he’s hitting .326 for gosh sakes! This is a guy I had categorized as one of those solid, middle of the lineup bats that populate the rosters of also-rans. Not so fast.  He’s enjoyed a terrific career to date, with over 2100 hits and a couple of 100+ RBI seasons early on with the O’s. He’s a true pro, but he’s never been an All Star, going to be 35 in November, and appeared to have left his best days behind him.  I simply don’t see how he doesn’t taper off as the effects of August’s dog days take hold. Stay tuned.

*Are the A’s really on track for 90 wins? Quick, name three players on their roster. Thought so. Credit to Billy Beane, but he may have been too good with his usual offseason, bargain basement pickups when he constructed this season’s squad.  Beane is the best in the business at putting together the type of team that is just good enough to keep fans coming to the park without ever teasing at contention. Normally he’d be looking to fleece his colleagues of young talent at the trade deadline right about now, as he unloaded roster spots that could help some contender. This year though, he’s the contender.  What will they do? I really have no clue on this one, but it will be fascinating to watch. Meaningful baseball in Oakland this summer? I’ll take it! While we are on the subject of the A’s and young stars, take a look at Matt Olson.  Between 2017 and now he’s played 144 games and has hit 42 dingers. The kid has real power. Look for him to be one of the keepers as Beane figures out how he can make these guys contenders next year.

*As surprising as it is to see the A’s on track to approach 90 wins (not a misprint), it may be even a greater shock to see the Tampa Bay Rays hovering around .500. It seems like they run out some young reliever I’ve never heard of every night as the game’s starting pitcher.  There is absolutely zero star power in the everyday lineup. But they, along with the Reds and maybe even the Marlins, will be tough late-season matchups for those clubs fighting to sneak into the postseason.

*Who is Eugenio Suarez? At the beginning of the year it looked like the Reds were headed for demotion to Triple-A. Now they seem to be playing aggressive, winning ball with absolutely nothing to lose, while beating up on all the big kids in the National League.  I’m looking at their box score the other day and I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never even noticed Suarez.  And all he’s doing is annualizing at .300+ with 30 dings and 120+ RBI’s. Hmmm. He had good, but basically unremarkable years in 2016 and 2017 (thank you baseballreference.com) and apparently is now putting it all together in front of a smattering of diehard fans in Cincy.  Will Suarez revert to the mean or keep it up? Don’t know, but right now the Reds definitely look like one of those teams that could really mess up a contender’s September (be careful, Brewers, I’m thinking of you).

*How do the Padres have a closer on track for nearly 50 saves?  Can they even win that many games in total this year? Yes, they are improved, and they have the up and down NL West to pad some wins for them, but Brad Hand is quietly putting up terrific save stats and is another one I never hear about. Could he be in Houston by August 1? To me, bullpen depth is the only thing that could derail the ‘Stros from an ALCS showdown with the Yanks, so let’s make a deal.

*On the subject of closers, another unfamiliar name doing even more than Hand is Seattle’s Edwin Diaz.  He’s on track for 60+ saves for crying out loud! Want to know how the heck the Mariners are staying in the Wild Card hunt with Robbie Cano suspended, look no further. K-Rod’s record of 62 saves from back in ’08 could be in real jeopardy here if the M’s can keep up their winning pace in the second half (doubtful IMO, but just sayin’).

Not A Surprise But Pretty Cool Anyway

*Okay, I guess Jose Ramirez is for real. Tracking at 48 homers and 110 RBI’s right now for the puzzling, inconsistent Indians. We talk a lot about Jose Altuve and the pop he has for a “little guy,” but hey, Ramirez is listed at 5’9 and 165.  And he’s only 25, too.  Has there ever been a time in MLB history when there has been so much talent across the league age 25 and under? Good times.

*Is the 300 strikeout season coming back into vogue? If you use my patented “times 2” approach, currently there are four starters tracking for 300 K’s this year.  Scherzer and Sale could both approach 325, and it’s certainly no surprise to see them atop the leader board, but number three and four are Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer.  Both could top the 300 K mark based on their first half trajectory, and I wouldn’t have put either of them in this company when the season began. Will it last?  My hunch is both of those guys come back to earth, hard, in the second half.

*By the way, two stats not returning to the forefront of MLB any time soon are the shutout and the complete game.  Currently the MLB clubhouse leader for shutouts at the midway point has exactly 1. Two CG’s paces both leagues as the babying of starting pitchers continues.  I know it’s a different time, but still… Another lost art is the stolen base. There isn’t a player on track for even 50 this year, which seems to me to be a missed opportunity given the athleticism of the players trotting out there every day.

*Let’s give J.D. Martinez his due.  Annualized at 50 HR’s and 130 ribbies, he actually has a legit shot at the Triple Crown. He’ll need teammate Mookie Betts to cool down at some point this year, which by the looks of it is unlikely, but ya never know. And the Sox almost didn’t sign J.D. if I recall correctly? Wow.

Two Final Footnotes

*I made it down to Tampa back at the end of March for the second game of the season. It was the final stop for me to complete my goal of seeing at least one game at every major league ballpark (that goal will become incomplete again next year when the Rangers move into their new park, but for now I’m kind of digging the accomplishment). However, the interesting thing to me from that night was the pitching matchup of David Price versus Blake Snell.

I was psyched to see Price, as I was curious to get a sense of what he had left. I didn’t know much about the other lefty that night, Snell. Price actually pitched well enough that evening under the dome (albeit against what appeared to me to be one of those “Quadruple A” lineups thrown together by the rebuilding Rays), but the real story was Snell. Yet another guy I’d only read about as having a “good arm” and “potential.”

I came away from that night believing that Snell belongs at the front of a contender’s rotation, and he’s kept it up, currently tracking at 20 wins (again, for that shocking .500 club in Tampa, whose manager, the one and only Kevin Cash, would get my midyear vote for Manager of the Year) with a 2.24 ERA. We all know the Yanks are going to pick up a starter before August 1st. Here’s hoping that the Rays avoid the dreaded inter-division trade and either hold onto Snell or package him to someone that can take down the Bombers come October (Indians, anyone?).

*Last and most certainly least.  Today’s New York Post online has an article speculating that the Reds are about to consummate “Part 2” of their strategy pertaining to Matt Harvey.  Part 1 was giving up spare part, oft-injured, back up catcher Devin Mesoraco to the Mets to acquire Harvey (although I must say I like Mesoraco and hope the Mets hang onto him). Part 2 was to “fix Harvey” and repackage him in a deadline deal for superior prospects.  Harvey has alarmingly begun to turn things around in his last few starts and now it appears the Reds are sitting pretty with him as a trade asset heading into July. In the Post article, they speculated on Washington being the likely trade partner for the Reds when the time comes.

Here’s the question for my fellow Mets fans — which would hurt more, seeing Harvey winning multiple postseason starts for the Yankees or the Nationals?

We all know it’s coming, right? Heck, he may even throw a playoff no-hitter to rub a little more salt in our collective Mets-fan wounds. Personally, as much as I’d hate seeing him help the Nats, I simply can’t stomach the idea of him becoming the answer to Brian Cashman’s rotation dilemma in the Bronx. Thoughts?

Happy 4th of July to all! I’ll be enjoying the holiday watching the A’s in Oakland — bring on the Yankees in that wild card game!

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