Who’s Next

I wish I felt as good about the pending answer to the question of “Who’s Next” that faces the New York Knickerbockers top brass on this Thursday morning as I do about the sunny weather I’m enjoying as I sit in Pasadena waiting for my next meeting to begin.  Or as I did when I used to listen to The Who’s hit album of the same name back in my teenage years.

But it is the Knicks, and there are so many variables that give me a stomach ache when I think about the team’s upcoming process for finding yet another head coach of this cursed organization. So rather than go too far down that specific rabbit hole (plenty of time to speculate on the “who” in the days ahead), here’s a few random thoughts (two NBA, one MLB) to think about on this sunny morning:

1. What did Jeff Hornacek do to deserve all this?  And I don’t mean the firing.  Mills and Perry were completely within their rights, and probably making the correct long-term call in taking Horny out last night/this morning. They need their own guy. And he was just a really poor fit for New York (and I truly don’t believe I’m exercising revisionist hindsight when I say that we all could see there was no chance of this ending well for him when he took the job a couple of years ago, on the heels of Steve Kerr clueing us all in to his excellent judgement by running from the job when everyone thought he was the guy).  Horny never had a chance of making this a success.

All Hornacek did during his tenure at the helm was display high integrity, honesty with players and the press and toughness befitting his outstanding NBA player career (take a hike Joaquin Noah), all the while dealing with Big Chief What’s-his-name; the umpteenth chapter of Carmelo’s primer on how to kill a head coach; a staff he only partially selected; and most recently devastating injuries to his two best players that cratered the glimmer of hope that had emerged early in the 2017-18 campaign. Guys like Horny belong on the sidelines somewhere in the NBA and I agree with Perry when he said at this morning’s presser that the fired coach will land on his feet.  Look for him in a smaller market having a big impact taking some unexpected team deep into the postseason in the not too distant future.  Atlanta?  Dallas? Orlando?

Sure, like most of us when we wake up following an unsuccessful venture, there are many things he could have handled better. But I’m left with the impression that this is the type of guy who is honest with himself on self-appraisal and I’m guessing he comes out of this stronger for the experience.  And as much as I hate “I told you so’s” — to my friend out there who happens to be a close bud of Horny’s — I told you to counsel him to run, not walk, from James Dolan back when news of his hiring first leaked out, lest a pox befall him and all those close to him.  A rare time SportsBro is sorry he was right. Good luck, Jeff!

2.  How the hell are the Cleveland Indians 7-5 this morning?  Is it too early to award Francona the Manager of the year Award (sorry Mickey Callaway, but we can credit Tito for your success, too, kinda, can’t we?)? Yes, this morning the Indians are sitting TWO GAMES OVER .500 after posting a lineup with the following batting averages last night against the Tigers:

*Lindor .184; Kipnis .109; Ramirez .146; Brantley .235; Encarnacion .146; Alonso .184; Gomes .179; Naquin .235; and Zimmer .188.  YIKES!

And this was AFTER they scored five runs in a win over the Tigers last night.  My gosh.  Yes, they have terrific pitching, and sure the AL Central is putrid, but still.  Buy calls on the Indians hitters RIGHT NOW.  They might win 110 this year (but here’s a guess that Indians fans are already sweating who their first round opponent might be in the playoffs — can anyone say Ohani and Trout??).  Yeah the weight of that piano-sized baton handed to them by the Cubs year before last may be feeling mighty heavy right about now in Cleveland.  Add to that the karma Gods must have been paying attention when the NBA rigged LeBron’s title in Cleveland two years ago with that WWE-inspired Draymond Green suspension.  The city of Cleveland may have won big on that one, but the micro-curse transferred to the Indians and it may take some time to get it lifted.  So here’s hoping the Indians and their fans enjoy the summer (maybe another consecutive games winning streak to celebrate that no one will remember by their annual October ouster?), and hopefully Tito and the staff stay intact into the postseason and bring home a title (especially if their playoff run includes a total annihilation of the Bronx Bombers along the way).

3. A reason to cheer for Carmelo?  Yup, I think so.  One of the members of my personal “Least Favorite All Time Starting Five” (stay tuned for that upcoming post), I didn’t like him in his one year at Syracuse (to this day he gets too much credit for carrying the Cuse to the title during his one and done Freshman year, when it was the seniors on that squad that were the differentiators), felt he was an irrelevant gunner during his time with the Nuggets, never making good teams better and ultimately killing his coach in the process, and of course watched him underperform on the big NY stage from Day 1, while deftly deflecting any blame and taking a couple more coaches out along the way.

But man, I can not agree more whole heartedly or respect and appreciate more deeply his view on Russ Westbrook’s shameless stat padding and rebound “stealing” that got him his second annual “season triple-double.”

To me, this accomplishment is about as irrelevant and and somehow less meaningful than Kobe scoring 60 in his last game as a Laker.  When BOTH teams on the court are overtly rooting on a particular stat-based outcome, the meaning is zero.  Less than zero.  Just bad for basketball, but in this mob-culture-like NBA present day, the average player genuflects to the LeBrons and Westbrooks out of fear of somehow alienating them and ruining their chance to latch on to some residual fame or benefit attached to riding their coat tails.  Give me a few more hard picks and pointed elbows during the game, and a little less of the group selfies among combatants only seconds after the contest concludes.

And while we are at it, give me Oscar Robertson’s seasonal triple-double as the gold standard forever.  Doing it before it is a “thing” is the real deal, and yes, I recognize rebounds were easier to come by in many ways back then. Still, the Big O did it exactly as Russ professes he is doing it today — in the context of being the best player on the court doing everything he can to help the team win.

Watching OKC’s supporting players pull up on every loose carom so Russ can grab it himself, thus enabling his quest for personal stats and the accompanying slot in the record books is shameless and hurts the game and those of us who cherish the stats that act as mileposts in the history of our fandom.  So way to go Melo, laughing out loud on court at his teammate’s selfish actions and correctly calling him out for what it is with the press — “stealing” another rebound while teammates and opponents all stand around hoping they somehow get captured in the ESPN video of the “historic” moment. Arrgghh.

Unfortunately, all that being said, Mr. Westbrook is both a freak and a force.  Maybe the best player in the league today (different than MVP, by the way). Bringing in Paul George was a brilliant move by OKC and he makes a much more complimentary and effective wingman to Westbrook than KD ever did.  The Thunder will be a tough out in the playoffs, and if they somehow face off with my hometown Dubs, I see them winning — easily.

That’s it for today.  Would love to hear your thoughts.

NY Sports Fan Grades

I’m terribly biased, but I do happen to believe that New York City boasts the best sports fans in the world.  Yes, a broad, bold statement, based on sentiment and lots of hometown exposure, and certainly not scientific, agreed upon or provable.  But hey, it’s my opinion based on my person sample size, so we will go with it. As an example, I read and see a lot on the news about the rabid nature of international soccer fans with the accompanying hooliganism, death threats, kidnapping, etc., so I suppose there is a whole extra gear beyond what we see here in the United States in the four major sports with respect to fanaticism, but factoring in that I’m not all that interested in soccer and have no firsthand experience in fans beyond our borders, we’ll stick only with the states. One-plus states adding in North Jersey, really.  Oh, and Long Island, which is more of a sovereign nation

When I think about what attributes constitute a great sports fan, I start with a deep knowledge and understanding of the game. Then add in passion (rabid passion even better), objectivity, a solid grasp of franchise history and key defining moments both good and bad. All that along with any unique characteristics that allow the collective group to stand out above and beyond the ordinary, run of the mill fan base, and we arrive at my definition of awesome.

Like most grading systems, this one will be both subjective and biased, with an emphasis on reinforcing all the stereotypes I’ve built in my own mind over nearly 50 years of rooting for (and against — yes, brace yourself Yankees fans) New York sports teams. So for instance, the elegant simplicity of “Let’s Go Mets” is without question a plus, while the whole Judge’s Chamber charade gets scored down significantly.  Likewise, I applaud the Islanders fans long-ago chant of “19-40” for both it’s effectiveness in cutting to the bone of their arch-rival Rangers fanatics, while also showing a tip of the hat to their knowledge of NHL history (bummer Messier had to come along and blow up what was the absolute best chant in the NHL back in ’94).

In deference to those Yankees fans who may elect to read this post in its entirety before deleting my blog for good, I’ll approach the list in alphabetical order, starting with:

Brooklyn Nets: About the only positive I can see in their move to Brooklyn a few years back is that it moves them to first in the alphabetical listing of New York sports franchises.  Gotta finish first in something, I suppose. They’ve been everywhere — Long Island, East Rutherford, Piscataway, the Meadowlands — and other than the Dr. J run of the ABA ’70’s, which precluded one of the most disastrous and shameless sell-offs of talent in professional sports history  (essentially casting a lifelong pox on the franchise that even the Jason Kidd-fueled run of the early-2000’s couldn’t erase), the Nets have been all about cellar dwelling. And they do the cellar big,  with not just poor but often league-worst type records.  The gypsy routine has made it hard for the fans to gel and pull together an identity.  No signs of that changing any time soon.  Grade:  D

New Jersey Devils: In the early-’90’s this franchise and it’s fans faced the potential of a dank future much like that of the Nets.  However, Lou Lamoriello, Scott Stevens and Martin Brodeur forged a complete 180 for the franchise, delivering multiple Cups to Exit 16W and as one would expect, the fans responded favorably.  However, three Stanley Cups, a model organization and annual title contention should engender a more rabid following, even in the current lean years, and the apathy of late doesn’t reflect well on the fans.  Not sure how I feel about the move to Newark and the Prudential Center, but it doesn’t seem like it’s helped in any way.  The team has also totally blown it by not playing up one of the all-time great urban legends — the Jersey Devil.  The fact that this exceedingly creepy and mysterious creature’s tale is basically unknown to most of their fans (and EVERYONE not from New Jersey) is a huge swing and a miss by their marketing department. Grade:  B-minus

New York Giants: Self-proclaimed gold standard of all New York sports fandom.  They are great fans, no doubt — passionate, knowledgeable, steeped in the history of a terrific franchise, tickets handed down from generation to generation.  But isn’t there just a touch of a smug feel to all of this?  I mean sure, it’s easy to feel superior when you play in a division that boasts barely-literate fans of the Eagles, Redskins and Cowboys, but the Maras didn’t invent the darn game for God’s sake. Not to mention that there’s this whole lack of clarity as to whether they belong to New York or New Jersey (and oh yes, it matters).  Add in the whole taking themselves too seriously vibe that permeates so many aspects of the organization (I’m sorry but I just didn’t care that much that Eli Manning’s streak was broken, or that Odell Beckam Jr. may need a talking to from the owner…).  Okay, maybe these are just nits, because the legacy of Kyle Rote Sr., Jim Lee Howell (great trivia answer, by the way, to the question “who was the head coach that had Tom Landry and Vince Lombardi as his defensive and offensive coordinators”), through Tittle, Gifford, Huff, Tarkenton, Spider Lockhart (had to include since he had one of the cooler names in NFL history), LT, et. al. make it hard to begrudge the collective pride of these terrific fans.  Grade: A-minus

New York Islanders: I lived on “the Island” for two years in 2004 and 2005.  Went to one game at Nassau Coliseum.  Against the Rangers. The Islanders were terrible at the time. Standing room only.  They won and the fans went absolutely batshit.  In a word, it was “awesome.”  Bring them back home to The Island from Brooklyn — now.  Grade:  B+ (only because I’m no longer a hockey fan — see Rangers section below)

New York Jets: Okay, full disclosure I’m a Jets fan.  My history as a football fan defies some of my own fundamental principals around franchise allegiances (and the hypocrisy of changing lanes past the age of 12), but what can I say?  J-E-T-S, JETS, JETS, JETS.  Living off the fuel of selling an organization’s soul to steal Super Bowl III from Unitas and the Colts, this group of fans gets after it every Sunday.  They’re crass, rude, uber aggressive and sometimes cross the decency boundaries, but they are also knowledgeable, realistic in the failings of the organization (and the fact that the curse probably will outlive all of us rooting today), and live and die by even the most seemingly inconsequential front office maneuverings (cue to those scenes of Jets fans absolutely losing their collective minds year after year back when the NFL held it’s draft in NYC — can anyone say “and with the 14th pick, the New York Jets select Jeff Lageman, Defensive End out of the University of Virginia”) of their beloved Gang Green.  Slight point deduction for the deification of Fireman Ed, but nobody’s perfect.  Grade: A-minus

New York Knicks:  DEE-FENSE! Why is it that the most severe of the nether rings of Dante’s Sports Fan Inferno are reserved for those that least deserve to be tortured?  The NBA fixes the damn 1985 draft lottery just to restore relevance to their dying New York basketball franchise and drops Patrick Ewing in our collective lap (yes “our” — I’m a Knicks fan if you haven’t guessed), only to see Michael Jordan come along and rip our heart out every year of Patrick’s prime (and then pass the baton to Hakeem Olajuwan for a year while MJ was off on his gambling-motivated baseball holiday). As a diehard fan, this one hurts me the most, mainly because my earliest memories of basketball are the spectacular three-finals-in-four-years, two-championship-winning Knicks of the early-’70’s.  The organ, the deafening chants, Willis, Clyde, Red (hell we even loved Dean Meminger and Harthorne Wingo!), nightly sellouts for the fans to enjoy a clinic on team-first basketball, only to give way to Starbury, Eddy Curry, Big Chief Triangle failing as an antiquated, overpaid team President and most fatally He Who Shall Not Be Named — yeah, James Dolan. It is hard coming to terms with the fact that 8-year-old me may be the last me to witness the Knicks win a title. Certainly can’t blame the fans.  Grade: A

New York Mets: C’mon we’ve got a jingle for gosh sakes! “Meet the Mets, meet the Mets…” (Yes, “we” — for those of you scoring at home, the Knicks, Mets and Jets share favored nation status among franchises in Sportsattic posts.) “East side, west side, everybody’s coming down…” The Mets were created to fill the void of the departed Giants and Dodgers but became so much more than that.  From Casey’s lovable losers to Gil’s Miracle Mets to the Tugger’s Ya Gotta Believe to Darryl, Doc, Kid, Mex and Davey’s swagger and 116 (counting playoffs and World Series) wins in ’86, the fans ooze uniqueness and character.  Another curse resides here though, as we all traded our collective souls to the baseball Gods as Mookie’s ball rolled down that first base line toward Billy Bucks that October night in ’86 (and oh by the way — I’d do it again tomorrow, even if does mean we’ll never get another parade). And now here we remain, through the mismanagement, bad trades (Nolan, Amos Otis and Singleton — even if it did get us Rusty in return), and last place finishes, we keep coming back for more, optimism always brimming.  We’re 4-1 this year, so clearly this is our year!  Grade: A

New York Rangers: Disclaimer here — hockey is the achilles heel of the Sportsattic arsenal of sports knowledge, history and opinions.  I’ve only been to two Rangers games, rooted against them from across the Hudson as a Devils fan during the ’90’s, and stopped following hockey (other than an occasional check of the standings — are the Devils actually in the playoffs this year?) after the league flushed an entire campaign during the strike season of 2004-2005.  All that being said, I have always admired the intensity and depth of Rangers fans from afar and if I reenter the hockey fan stratosphere one day, this could be my adopted team.  Grade: B+ (only because I’m not a hockey fan–see grade for Islanders above)

New York Yankees: The Evil Empire.  They are like rooting for the S&P 500. Or Mark Zuckerberg.  Too easy for their fans.  Has been for years — Ruth/Gehrig, Dimaggio/Dickey, Mantle/Berra/Maris, Reggie/Thurman, the Core Four…puh-lease?  Are you kidding me?  Try being a diehard when Willie Montanez and Steve Henderson are the big bats in the middle of your lineup, then we can talk! (Sorry, rantings of a scarred and bitter Mets fan.)  The sense of entitlement among the Pinstripe Faithful makes hating them easy for the rest of us.  Yes, I see all the banners, but Michael Kay and John Sterling alone take you out of the “A-grade” category.  Add in the obscene ticket prices in the lower bowl and the fact that you TORE DOWN the House That Ruth Built?  I’ll stop there, as there is a lot of fodder for future posts here and I need to keep some powder dry.  As my math teacher once said to me as I attempted to argue a grade during my senior year of high school — “it’s a C and you’re lucky to get that.”  Grade: C

Remember, subjective and biased, but also collectively the best fans in the world (or my world, anyway).

 

 

 

 

The San Fran Fan

Yesterday was the San Francisco Giants 2018 home opener.  It was the eighth Giants home opener since I became a resident of the Bay Area back toward the end of 2010, and the contrast versus the first one I was in town for was dramatic.  To be fair, the 2011 home opener was following the first World Series win in San Francisco Giants history, as well as the franchise’s first World Series win since Leo Durocher, Willie Mays and Dusty Rhodes led the 1954 NEW YORK Giants past the 111-win Cleveland Indians.  So you might say there was a bit of pent up energy among the San Francisco fan base.  Fair enough.

But man was 2011 something to behold.  I’ve been going to New York Mets home openers since the early ’90’s and there is always a special feel to the day.  Hope springs eternal, optimism is in the air, and for one day anyway, everyone is in first place.  The city of San Francisco on Opening Day 2011 was over the top and beyond all of that–times ten.  It was the circus coming to town, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in midtown Manhattan and Lollapalooza rolled into one.  Everyone, and I mean everyone (even the local cops methinks?) had the orange colors out and their cool SF insignia was adorned on everything from ties and cuff links to hats, scarfs, socks elevator banks and pants.  It seemed every third person was wearing one of those furry Panda hats (in honor of that repulsive, social deviant Pablo Sandoval) that in the years to come I would grow to despise (despite actually forking over $45 bucks one cold July night to buy one for my mother-in-law before a frigid, evening tilt against the hated Dodgers).  Bands were playing, and the sense of warmth as the entire Bay Area community came together in celebration of the Baseball Giants was actually pretty cool to experience for this transplanted New Yorker so used to blase, albeit hardcore and knowledgeable Mets and Yankees fans. (Can one be both blase and hardcore?  Yeah, that was us.)

Anyway, I can’t remember if the Giants won that day, but I know 2011 was one of their “off years” during that incredible run of even-year World Series titles of 2010, 2012 and 2014.  So now fast forward to yesterday, as 2018’s San Francisco home baseball season launched, and the differences were notable.  As far as contrasts go, I have to start with the fact that the Giants finished last in 2017.  “Dead-ass last” I believe is the technical term.  Everything that can go wrong for good franchises did.  All their core players seemed to grow old at the same time.  The bullpen sprung leaks everywhere and the ace, Madison Bumgarner, as beloved a face of the franchise, left-handed pitcher as you’ll find anywhere these days (with superhuman postseason stats to more than justify the reverence), missed almost all of the season after taking a header on a dirt bike on an off day early in the 2017 campaign.  However, like most opening day fans, the San Fran faithful were optimistic (if not a bit subdued) following an offseason of significant roster retooling (this skeptical New Yorker would point out that most of the new additions to the SF squad are has-beens currently being overpaid today for successful years in the past padding stats for other franchises — hello, Andrew McCutcheon —  but I digress), and rightly so.  Every baseball fan owns an inalienable right to optimism around the Home Opener.

The Giants lost to the Mariners (interleague matchup for a home opener, by the way, is pure trash — get rid of interleague play all together as far as I’m concerned and take the DH with it while you are at it), and it was a quiet, kinda sad fan base that boarded the Bart train home along with yours truly, heading back to the East Bay at the end of the day. If one wasn’t a baseball fan and aware that it had been the home opener, there was nothing noteworthy going on in the city to give away the occasion.  Dead-ass last will do that, and it seemed the locals had already begun to sink back into their 2017 funk. However, this stark contrast between 2011 and 2018 got me to thinking about how fans of different cities truly have their own collective personalities and styles.  Sometimes these fan bases mirror the attitudes of the cities or geographic regions themselves, but not always.

Since the Bart Train that represents my stream of consciousness is already heading down this track, let’s start with San Francisco fans.  To appropriately set the stage for my upcoming comments, let me reiterate that I’ve lived in the Bay Area for going on eight years now, and both consider myself and am totally considered by those around me to be  a “newcomer.”  I’m not certain when one converts to a local, but it must happen at some point in time, since basically everyone in San Francisco came from somewhere else. So with this caveat that I’m not “one of them,” but that I’m also not one of those bitter transplants we’ve all met that hates the local fans, here are some of my observations:

They aren’t shameless homers or front-runners, but boy do they like waving their pennants.  By and large the fans out here are solid in their knowledge.  The teams (Giants, A’s, Niners, Raiders, Warriors — leaving out Sharks here as there is an ongoing debate as to whether San Jose is officially part of the Bay Area — a topic that really doesn’t interest me that much, but will cause the Sharks to be excluded from this post) have rich histories with multiple championship banners (think Walsh 49ers, current Warriors, even-year Giants, Charlie Finley A’s in the ’70’s, Bash Brother A’s, Al Davis and the Silver Black, etc.), several near-misses (anyone else take pleasure in the fact that the polarizing, monstrous hat-sized Barry Bonds never won a World Series?) and the colorful characters that make up most of our fandom patchwork quilts of sporting memories.  During my time out here, the Bay Area has experienced an enormously successful run from all of their sports franchises.  The A’s had some surprisingly strong, low-budget teams make playoff runs, further cementing the genius of Billy Beane, the Giants had the aforementioned even-year dynasty, the Niners rode the Harbaugh wave (talk about polarizing) to a Super Bowl near-miss behind Colin Kaepernick (did someone say polarizing?), the Raiders almost got good a couple of years ago and now are shooting for one final good-bye run with Jon Gruden before departing for Vegas, and of course the Warriors.  The Dubs.  One dubious Draymond Green suspension (sure, the NBA was totally not playing favorites and didn’t want the TV ratings from extra finals games, not to mention the feel-good Cleveland Breaks the Title Drought headlines, yeah, right) from a sure three-peat in the NBA finals (and maybe a fourth this year, although it seems injuries and questionable bench signings of coach killers with nicknames like Swaggy P of all things, may cause them to fall just short this year), the Warriors have become Goliath in the NBA and the Bay Area fan bandwagon is so crowded right now that we should be able to hear the axle break at Oracle Arena all the way from out here in Walnut Creek.

So here’s my issue.  These fans just don’t win well.  At some point in time don’t you need to act like you’ve been there before?  I’ll give you an example.  For Christmas this year my Sportsattic family gave me four tickets to the Knicks annual sojourn west to play the Dubs in Oakland in January.  Forgetting for a minute that these may be the most obscenely overpriced sporting event tickets in the entire world right now (so bad that I sometimes border on rooting for a tech-wreck market decline a la 2000-2002 simply to bring ticket price levels back to the more acceptable overpriced level consistent with the rest of the league), I was excited to see the game.  Porzingis hadn’t blown up his knee yet (although the punk still sat out the game with a hangnail or something — poor 22-year-old needed a night off), so I thought it could be marginally competitive for a few quarters anyway.  Even without KP my Knicks led most of the first half before one of the Warriors’s patented third-quarter runs turned things into the romp the home crowd has come to expect as their nightly birthright.

As the Dubs lead expanded past 20 and a parade of Knicks I’d never heard of checked in and out of the game, the home crowd remained in a fever pitch on the edge of their collective seats.  At one point with a minute or so left in the third, Steph Curry (an eminently likable star, by the way) hit what felt like his 20th three-pointer of the game pushing the lead to what may as well have been 70 points agains the badly undermanned, not-very-talented, waving-the-white towel Knicks.  The crowd erupted like it had never before seen a three-pointer! And the celebration was genuine, with high fives all around, uncontrollable giggles of good fortune slobbered among bro-hugging young men — you would have thought someone had just announced to the crowd that world peace had been reached and that all concessions would be free for the remainder of the season based on their collective reaction.

And…it…is…always…that…way…

When good fortune hits the Bay Area home teams.  During the Giants runs to supremacy in 2010, 2012 and 2014 I was always shocked, not by the sellouts (lots of good teams pack them in when things are good), but by the fact that the stands remained packed for nine full innings at every home game.  No one leaves. And true to San Francisco lore, a lot of these were night games where it got damn cold (cue the fluffy Panda Hat purchases).  And if in the home half of some 8th inning a Giant jacked a two-run dinger, upping their lead from 6-1 to 8-1 off some no-name, number-76-on-the-uni, reliever just trying to get enough outs to get to the end of the game, the crowd would rise in unison and celebrate as though Bobby Thompson had just homered off Ralph Branca again, while simultaneously an announcement had been made that Joe Montana would be donning a fluffy Panda Hat and hanging out at the pub across the street buying beers and signing autographs for all interested (alas, many of the San Fran pennant wavers wouldn’t get that reference — the Thompson/Branca part, we ALL know and love Joe).  And God forbid the bedlam if the homer had been hit by Hunter Pence…smh…

So all in all, a good fan base.  Wouldn’t mind a little tempered enthusiasm when the rout is on, but that’s probably wishful thinking based on what I’ve seen these last eight years.  And despite my feelings on the matter, it definitely beats a disinterested fan base (hello Padres fans) or no fan base at all (didn’t we contract the Tampa Bay Rays twenty years ago?). Real fans make it fun, and let’s face it, winning makes everything taste a lot better.  For their sake, I hope the winning continues, because they ARE good fans (plus selfishly, happy locals make the Bay Area a better place to live and work for me), but just once, please skip the end zone celebration and just hand the ball to the ref.

 

 

Remembering Cleon

I’m a lifelong Mets fan.  Some may be exiting the blog based on that alone.  A diehard, long-suffering, pick an adjective fan of the other New York baseball club.  Two World Series titles since our inception into the league in 1962, as a poor man’s replacement for the beloved and recently departed Dodgers and Giants.

I was born in 1965 and my earliest memories are of games in 1970, so I missed the Miracle Mets season of ’69 and was still a couple years away from the Ya Gotta Believe year of ’73.  When I look back now, I realize I probably became a Mets fan because of that recent championship combined with the fact that the Yankees were in a prolonged period of irrelevance, that I would have enjoyed immensely if I had realized what was to follow in the ’90’s when my personal torture at the hands of the Evil Empire reached it’s pinnacle.

My favorite player was Tommie Agee.  Again, not sure why.  Tom Seaver was the star, and we all liked Seaver, but he was never my favorite.  Buddy Harrelson had his supporters, and young Nolan Ryan (yes, his trade will almost certainly be fodder for a future post) fascinated with the huge fastball and the occasional boxscore that included double-digit walks.  But Agee was my favorite.

And his running mate was Cleon Jones.  Agee in center, Cleon in left, and a rotation of Swoboda, Shamsky, Singleton and others rotating through right.  Much was spoken and written about how Agee and Jones were both from Mobile, Alabama.  Five- and six-year-old me envisioned them having walked to school together and in all likelihood sharing a bunkbed in their New York City apartment that must have been located right next door to Shea Stadium, as I understood the world back in the early-’70’s.  Agee hit home runs, had the famous World Series catches from ’69 that everyone talked about, stole bases and drank beer after the games in his undershirt as a guest on Kiners Korner.  He was easy to like and to this day his number 20 is my favorite in my Mets fan memory.

But what about Cleon? Other than the fact that I found it interesting that he threw left-handed and batted righty, I found him completely unremarkable.  I had read how he caught the final out of the ’69 series (a lazy fly to left hit by future all-time great manager Davey Johnson of the Orioles), and later in life learned that part of the remarkable Miracle Mets run of 1969 included Gil Hodges (Hodges is somehow beyond Davey in the pantheon of Mets managers — immortal?  Too much?  Nah, immortal is right.) pulling him mid-inning off the field after loafing after a fly ball, but beyond that only one thing now stands out about him as I look back on those days — and I blame the mustache.

First, though, to give credit where credit is due, the guy could hit.  He nearly led the league in ’69, hitting .340, which stood for a couple of decades as the best a Mets player had ever posted over a full season.  In ’71 he hit .319.  His home run and RBI totals were subpar for a middle of the order power guy, but always respectable given these were the Mets, who have spent my lifetime losing 3-2 games.  In the World Series of 1973 he led the Mets with 5 runs scored and hit .286 playing all seven games (and yes, Yogi gave the A’s that series by messing up his starting rotation, but we’ll save that for the future, too).  That .286 was second on the team only to Rusty Staub’s scorching .423 playing with basically one arm (another future post). Cleon came back in 1974 to hit .282 with 13 HR’s and 60 RBI’s as the primary starter in left field once again at the age of 32.

But back to the mustache.  The early-1970’s A’s were paid off by their eccentric owner, Charlie Finley, to grow mustaches to add a little old-time baseball panache to the once-moribund team.  When that team then went on their three-peat World Series run from 1972-1974 (beating us in 7 in 1973 — hello, Yogi), the whole mustache thing took on added significance.  It was the ’70’s, with bell bottoms, groovy swingers, Yankee pitchers swapping wives and apparently our Mets felt it, too.  If you take a look at the Topps 1975 baseball card series, previously clean shaven Mets like Gerry Grote, Bud Harrelson and Cleon all popped up with newly minted mustaches.  Cleon and his new mustache unfortunately took this whole embracing the Freedom ’70’s thing one step too far, and as 9-year-old me was pulling a stick of chewing gum off his new baseball card in May of that year, Cleon was getting arrested in St. Petersburg, FL for indecent exposure.  Turns out he had “fallen asleep” in a station wagon down there with a 21-year-old female acquaintance (with marijuana in her possession) when the police came upon him.  He was barefoot (the story he told cops was they met at a party and ran out of gas while driving her home — shocker that one didn’t fly), which triggered the indecent exposure charge, and boy did it make headlines.

The New York media was besides itself over it’s unexpected good fortune, and an unforgiving Mets ownership group (obviously warming up for their upcoming war with Tom Seaver that led to his banishment to Cincinnati — yes, another future post) fined Cleon $2000 (a lot of money, even for ballplayers, in 1975), humiliated him into a public apology and then tortured him by letting him rot on the bench until ultimately releasing him later that season after an altercation over playing time with Mets manager (and future Yoohoo pitchman) Yogi Berra.  He had a cup of coffee with the White Sox the following year, but he was done.

What happened?  Sure there’d been the red flag of the altercation with Hodges in ’69, but beyond that he was a model of consistency, with both his numbers and his just-below-interesting presence.  Had to be the mustache.  He was feeling it.  The sexual revolution of the ’70’s.  The near miss at a second World Series title in ’73.  The A’s were getting all the magazine covers and baseball Annie’s with their colorful unis and their mustaches and he had to get in the act.  And he did it so, so, so…poorly.  I mean, a station wagon?

So it really is a shame.  The guy was our first offensive “star.” One of a handful of guys that started on both of our first two World Series squads.  And when I think back all I remember is “indecent exposure.”  In a station wagon.  What a shame.

Cleon Jones Pic