Play Ball — You Guys Are Embarrassing Yourselves!

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

Didn’t think so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One more note about Shepard.

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

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

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

Bert Shepard was a total badass.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shut up and play ball.

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Sports World Nostalgia — Where Were You Then? The ’70’s

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There’s an enormous void.

Given the tragedy that has struck so many during this pandemic, it feels trivial to complain over the elimination of all sporting events while we search for a way to return our world to normal. But the void is real. We miss our sports and all they bring to us in the way of entertainment, distraction and joy.

However, if there is a silver lining to the dearth of daily sports programming on the tube, it’s that those of us with a bent for nostalgia are getting some unexpected relief as the networks replay fun and exciting games from years past.

My Mets fan buddies back east have been reveling in replays of the postseason runs of 1969 and 1986. Angels fans here in SoCal have been getting a steady diet of vintage hardball from their championship season of 2002. And do we need to further reinforce the hype surrounding MJ and the Bulls teams of the ’90’s? The Last Dance concludes tonight, right? Promise?

Of course, trying to come up with glory days for certain franchises can be more difficult. For example, the other day as I surfed the channel guide out here, I came upon a replay of the 1974-75 NBA eastern conference semifinals between the Washington Bullets and the Buffalo Braves. Why was this relevant to west coast hoops fans? Well, the Braves were the precursor of the current-day Clippers, and since there isn’t much postseason glory to harken back to for fans of the Clips, we had to travel in time all the way back to the mid-’70’s, when the Clippers played their games in Buffalo, New York.

And it was one hell of an enjoyable journey. First of all, we had Brent Musburger calling the game, with the Big O, Oscar Robertson (in full ’70’s splendor with an open neck shirt and maroon sports coat) doing the color commentating. Honestly, I’d forgotten just how good that Braves squad was. Ernie Digregorio (who sat this one out with an injury) was the Buffalo point guard, and the NBA’s consensus fastest man, Randy Smith, was coming into his own as a talented, two-way shooting guard. Garfield Heard was a beast on the glass, with much better offensive moves around the basket than I remembered. And I’d totally forgotten Buffalo had picked up Jimmy McMillian from the Lakers, but there he was, firing away every time he got his hands on the ball.

Dr. Jack Ramsay was stomping around the Buffalo sideline, cursing like a sailor, rolled up program in hand. He’d implemented a fast-paced system built around superstar Bob McAdoo, and the Braves could score in bunches. And man, was McAdoo good. So good that it almost made me understand how the Knicks could have crippled their franchise for years to come when they acquired him a few years down the road. Big Mac’s battles against the uber talented (and often ignored in comparison to other big men of the ’70’s) Elvin Hayes — The Big E!!– was worth the price of admission. Phil Chenier, Wes Unseld and Kevin Porter on the Bullets side of things made this two hours of awesome entertainment.

The real point here, though, is that we are left to ponder “where were we then” when these grainy gems pop up on our screens. During the era when the Bullets-Braves game was played, nine-year-old me was probably shooting baskets in the driveway of my Glendora, CA home. I was no doubt ignoring what was going on in the NBA back east (the Knicks fall from grace was just beginning, but certain not to last very long…) and wondering how the uninteresting Warriors, led by that selfish gunner Rick Barry, could somehow be emerging as favorites out west.

It got me thinking back to the 1970’s, and other memorable sporting event moments of my youth, from a “where was I when that happened” perspective.

I’m guessing all sports fans have their personal list of most meaningful and memorable events, the ones that really left an imprint. The years may have faded out the specifics and details, but the headlines live on deep inside us. While we wait out this interminable slog toward some form of professional sports resumption, it is nice to be able to escape for awhile — to sit back and think back — and construct our lists of the sporting moments that have stayed with us all these years.

Here, in chronological order, is mine, focusing on the decade of the ’70’s — SportsAttic note: for the purpose of this exercise, I’m leaving out the obvious, such as Buddy Harrelson kicking Pete Rose’s ass in the ’73 NLCS and Reggie’s three dingers in the ’77 series, since they’ve already gotten plenty of coverage from prior SportsAttic posts:

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  1. “The Game of the Century” — Nebraska vs. Oklahoma in Norman, OK — 11/25/71

Alabama QB Pat Sullivan won the Heisman Trophy in 1971, but the two best players on the two best teams were flanker Johnny Rodgers of Nebraska and tailback Greg Pruitt of Oklahoma. Rodgers had caught 57 balls for 956 yards and 11 TD’s that year — off the charts numbers when you consider the ground and pound style of the Cornhuskers back then, and six-year-old me considered him the greatest college football player of all time. Period. Pruitt was no slouch though, gaining 9.5 yards per carry for the Sooners back in ’71. The build up to this game earned it the cover of Sports Illustrated, and the game didn’t disappoint. It was a night game, and I didn’t make it anywhere near the end, but all I needed to see was Rodgers take the first punt of the game 72 yards to open the scoring, and all of my opinions about the utter greatness of the receiver who would win the Heisman in 1972 were confirmed. It didn’t matter that Nebraska fullback Jeff Kinney scored the next four TD’s for the Huskers, including the game winner late, because to me this was all about Rodgers besting Pruitt. Anyone else remember this one? I took in the action from a very ’70’s family room sofa in Convent Station, NJ. How ’bout you?

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2. The NFL’s “Longest Game” — Miami Dolphins vs Kansas City Chiefs in Kansas City — Christmas Day, 1971

Easy to understand why this one remains lodged in the old memory banks. My sixth Christmas was spent at my great-grandmother’s apartment in Bronxville, NY. It was there I first heard the term “sudden death,” and was instantly fascinated with how a term I understood in its literal context could be applied to a football game. This one never should have gone to OT. Jan Stenerud missed a 32-yard field goal attempt that would have won it for KC in the final seconds of regulation, and then had a 42-yarder blocked in the first OT. Miami would then miss a 52-yarder, also in the first OT, before Garo Yepremian (funny how this little guy showed up in so many early NFL memories for me) redeemed himself and mercifully ended it in OT number two. There were 13 future Hall of Famers involved in this matchup, but it was obscure Chief Ed Podolak’s day — 350 total yards amassed on the ground, in the air and returning punts and kickoffs. I would replay in my mind Lenny Dawson going deep to Otis Taylor for years after that one. What a game!

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3. 1972 Summer Olympics — USSR vs United States 9/9/72 — Munich, Germany

I was back on the couch in that Convent Station, NJ family room for this one. What I remember most is my father’s extreme, visceral reaction as the United States was blatantly robbed of a gold medal in front of the entire world. This was back before USA Basketball turned olympic hoops into a farce by including pros and creating the Dream Team. As it was explained to seven-year-old me back then, the coolest part of olympic basketball was that our amateurs took on pros from around the world and still won every four years. In fact, the USA had collected all seven gold medals awarded since hoops became a part of the games (with the USSR frustrated by only silver for the prior five of them). Despite a chippy and hard fought game that included the Americans’ top scorer getting ejected early in the second half, and a mugging of Doug Collins as the clock wound down where no technical was called, Collins somehow dusted himself off and hit two free throws that should have ended the game with another gold medal for Team USA. Not so fast. A blatant disregard for scoreboard operation, the rulebook, and player substitutions gave the USSR three tries at a full length desperation inbounds pass. Long-armed, 6’11 Tom McMillen was even moved six feet from the baseline by the refs to better facilitate the USSR’s third try at winning the game. And yup, that one connected, giving the USSR the gold and my dad a near-coronary.

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4. The Bruins streak comes to an end — UCLA vs Notre Dame, 1/19/74 — South Bend, Indiana

My family moved to Southern California in the early-’70’s, at the height of UCLA Basketball’s dominance. The Bruins, under the leadership of the legendary John Wooden, won seven straight national championships and 88 consecutive games (72 of the 88 by double digits!) heading into their January matchup with the second-ranked Fighting Irish. The streak was at 1092 days and counting, and eight-year-old me had no reason to think it would ever end (UCLA had not lost a basketball game the entire time my family had lived in the state of California). Especially since that day Bill Walton was returning, having missed the previous three games with a bad back. Notre Dame had a terrific team, featuring Adrian Dantley and John Shumate, but in addition to Walton, UCLA put out a lineup that included future NBAers in Keith Wilkes and David Meyers. To this day, this UCLA hoops fan believes they should have won that one in South Bend, too. As time was running out, Walton missed a short turn around off an inbounds pass, and the Bruins had two more cracks at it, including a missed Meyers tip-in that I still can’t believe didn’t go down. Shumate finally pulled down the rebound for the Irish, launching the ball toward the rafters — the streak was over.

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5. The “Anthony Davis Game” — USC vs Notre Dame — The Coliseum/Los Angeles, CA —  11/30/74

Southern California sports fans gained some measure of revenge against their tormentors from South Bend later in 1974, when the best USC football team ever assembled hosted the Fighting Irish at The Coliseum. The Trojans were loaded as they were for most of the ’70’s, but it was always about the tailback at USC. In 1974, that tailback was Anthony Davis, and he was having an unbelievable year — one that should have led to him taking home the Heisman Trophy. To my utter disbelief, the Trojans fell behind 24-0 in the first half, and it appeared their national title dreams were in the process of being dashed in a rout at the hands of one of their biggest rivals. But just before halftime, Davis returned a kickoff from his own end zone, taking it all the way (fun fact — Davis averaged 42.5 yards per kickoff return in 1974). The extra point missed, but the Trojans didn’t look back on their way to scoring 55 unanswered points. Most of the 55 came on the back of the spectacular Davis, who produced one of the most prolific performances in NCAA football history. Those 55 points  came in only 17 minutes of play, absolutely destroying the Golden Domers. But for Davis, the performance was a little too late. Back in those bygone days, the Heisman voting deadline was prior to the end of the regular season, so voters didn’t get to factor in Davis’ performance against Notre Dame, and the trophy went to Ohio State’s Archie Griffin in yet another travesty of justice. This contest was viewed in the family room of another very ’70’s home located in Glendora, CA. Where were you the day Anthony Davis went wild?

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6. Chris Chambliss Game Winner — New York Yankees vs Kansas City Royals, ALCS Game 5 — 10/14/76 — Yankee Stadium

It’s hard to imagine there was a time when this lifelong Mets fan actually liked and rooted for the New York Yankees, but that was the case back in 1976 when the Bombers returned to the postseason for the first time in my lifetime. The Yanks of ’76 were a likable ball club that had been constructed by a combination of smart trades that brought players like Mickey Rivers, Ed Figueroa and Lou Piniella to the Bronx, and free agency (Catfish Hunter). The ’76 ALCS began an epic rivalry that would last much of the next decade between the Yanks and Royals, and the  teams were always evenly matched. This one appeared to be heading toward an easy clinching party for the Bombers, when Figueroa (working on three days rest) coasted into the 8th up 6-3. But Billy Martin lifted him after giving up a leadoff single, and before you could say Grant Jackson (really, what was Martin thinking), George Brett tied things up with a three-run homer that nobody other than Brett remembers to this day. That’s because in the bottom of the ninth, the Yanks strong, silent first baseman, Chris Chambliss, turned on Mark Littell’s first pitch and launched his game-winner (we didn’t call them walk-offs back then). As an added element of excitement for 11-year-old me, watching in yet another very ’70’s family room, this one in Morris Township, NJ, Chambliss was unable to make it completely around the bases. The delirious crowd had stormed the field and an ugly scene unfolded. My last memory of that night was seeing the burly Chambliss turn into a fullback, bowling over fans as he ran for his life into the Yankees dugout. I worried that Chambliss’ not touching home plate could constitute a forfeiture, but was reassured when I read in the next day’s Star-Ledger that they’d brought him out later to ceremoniously touch the ground where home plate had once been (a lucky fan had taken off with the actual plate).

So there’s your view into the nostalgic vault of AtticBro’s 1970’s sports world head. Let’s hear from SportsAttic Nation — when you think back on your most meaningful sports memories from the decade of the 1970’s, what comes to mind?

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MJ Delivers Pain Anew Thanks to The Last Dance

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Yeah, I watched it, too.

I wasn’t going to, and didn’t really want to, but there is such a dearth of original sports programming on the tube right now… I felt as though I had no choice.

ESPN’s The Last Dance aired Sunday. I knew it would be painful, but didn’t think it could compare to the agony experienced, courtesy of Michael Jordan, the first time around. I was wrong.

Because Michael Jordan was then, and remains today, the enemy. And Scottie Pippen will always be his overrated sidekick. And Phil Jackson is still the gangly, sanctimonious blowhard, who without MJ would never have risen beyond the ranks of quirky assistant coaches.

Some context here.

I started out a Michael Jordan fan. Liked him at Carolina, and had nothing against him when he joined the moribund Chicago Bulls for the 1984-85 season. The Bulls had never been a rival of the New York Knicks, and at that time there was no reason for concern over what the future might hold. As good as MJ was right from the get-go, many fans (including this one) regarded him as a helluva scorer who was incredibly entertaining to watch, but unlikely to ever win big. Because the scorers never did (see Wilkins, Dominique; or McAdoo, Bob).

When the Bulls faced the Celtics in the playoffs back in ’86, I enjoyed Michael’s coming out party like the rest of the country. I took particular delight in seeing him make what was, in my opinion, the best Celtics team ever assembled, sweat a little during their opening-round victory. It was the Celtics who still occupied prime head space when it came to Knicks fans and their NBA arch enemies, and we knew our time was coming with Bird & Co. showing signs of getting old.

For Knicks fans, our fortunes had begun to change during the postseason a year earlier, when we came out of the draft lottery with the first pick and Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing on the way.

Now the seven-foot Ewing was exactly the kind of player that carried a franchise to multiple titles, like Bill Russell had in the ’60’s, and Abdul-Jabbar more recently. When Rick Pitino came to town and began to change our losing culture a couple of years later, aided in large part by the enthusiasm of a young Mark Jackson at the point, the Knicks’ future appeared bright.

SportsAttic Note: It seems unfathomable looking back today, but between the 1987-88 season — Pitino’s first in New York — and the 2000-2001 season — one year after Ewing’s last in New York — the Knicks made the postseason fourteen years in a row, including two appearances in the finals, and another two conference finals. Yes, the New York Knicks!

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Pitino implemented a frenetic, high-pressure defensive system that featured a lot of full-court pressing, and surrounded Ewing with a bunch of raw, three-point shooting youngsters, and they rode that model to a 52-30 record and the 1988-’89 division crown. They swept the 76ers out in the first round in three straight (including a classless scene where they somehow found a push broom and brought in out onto the Philly floor when Game 3 had concluded) and moved on to the conference semis to face Michael and the Bulls.

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The Bulls had won 47 games during the ’88-’89 season, and upset a 57-win Cavaliers team in the first round, with Jordan breaking hearts all across Cleveland with his jumper (The Shot) to win the deciding Game 5 over an outstretched Craig Ehlo — a moment that is certain to be captured in an upcoming episode of The Last Dance.

Still, the Knicks were division champs, and the Bulls entered the playoffs a seven-seed. We all knew Jordan was a force, but felt Chicago would simply be a stepping stone to the conference finals once Pitino figured out how to stop the Bulls only threat. Not so fast. The Bulls came into Madison Square Garden and stole home court advantage in Game 1 behind 34 points from Jordan, and in doing so sent a message to us Knicks fans that we had a real problem on our hands.

In the next three Bulls wins (they bounced out the Knicks in six games), Jordan went off for 40, 47, and 40 points, and that was the last we saw of Rick Pitino on the Knicks bench. The Bulls and MJ didn’t get past the Pistons that year or the next, allowing us haters our final shot at MJ, saying that as spectacular as he was, he wasn’t a star that could win the big ones.

Not…so…fast.

I really can’t go much further on this topic, because the mere mention of Charles Smith makes me go into convulsions (GO…UP…STRONG…WHAT…THE…FUCK???), but suffice it to say that decade of the ’90’s was a challenging one for the Knickerbockers and their fans.

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Pat Riley came along and instilled a toughness, defense, and character that had been missing since the ’70’s, and again we felt our time was near. An assortment of talented players, full of personality and fun to watch, were uncovered by Riles — gritty guys like John Starks and Anthony Mason — and with the early-’90’s upon us, every year felt like it would be the year for the Knicks to return to past glory.

The year where we finally would send Michael Jordan home.

We certainly had our moments, but when the final results were tallied, all we really had to show for our run of success was a deep hatred of MJ. Yeah, we hated Michael, and for good measure we hated his selfish, always-whining toady, Scottie Pippen. We even extended our hatred to the entire city of Chicago, and that ref-baiting, fake-intellectual coach of theirs — Big Chief Triangle (thank you, Jeff Van Gundy).

Charles Smith (Riles! Why was Smith in the game at such a crucial moment? Why?) cost us our best shot to put the sneaker on Michael’s throat in ’93. Then, during Game 7 of the ’94 finals, Starks picked a terrible time to go ice cold, and compounded matters by steadfastly refusing to pass to any of his teammates. A year later there was the missed finger roll by Patrick that sent Indy to the finals, when we all knew 1995 had to be our year.

MJ had given us a two-year window to claim a title while he swung and missed badly at curveballs, and we had come up empty.

And now Michael was back. The GOAT put together another three-peat beginning in the ’95-’96 season, and that run concluded with the film crew on hand putting together much of the footage that The Last Dance is built around. By then Patrick was on the down slope of a magnificent (ring-less) career, and injuries were starting to become a recurring problem for our star.

The Big Fella missed the finals in ’99 (note that Jordan left the Bulls twice during the Knicks 14-year playoff streak, and each time New York made the finals the very next season), leaving us defenseless against a Spurs squad that boasted both a young Tim Duncan and The Admiral, David Robinson. And while there was one more conference finals loss to come against the Pacers during Patrick’s last year as a Knick, Michael had essentially ripped our hearts out over a decade when we had the best Knickerbockers teams of my adult life on the floor, and number 33 jumping center.

And I know, we Knicks fans aren’t the only ones that can look back on those days ruefully. Charles Barkley sits in his TNT studio without a ring today in large part thanks to MJ’s dominance. Karl Malone and John Stockton sit at home, also ring-less. There are more.

I was lucky enough to catch Wilt Chamberlain toward the end of his career. And Kareem from the beginning of his. Magic and Bird at their best were always contenders, too. But Michael Jordan was the best I’ve ever seen — the one and only GOAT.

The pain remains real, watching him all over again. But at least there is the silver lining in knowing that the younger generation of hoops fans can finally gain some understanding as to why us old guys laugh and shake our heads when they claim LeBron James is the GOAT.

It was and is Mike. And it really isn’t close.

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Willie, Rickey and The Duke? All-Time New York Mets Starting Lineup

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When Mets fans choose among the franchise all-time greats, we don’t have the luxury of waxing poetic over whether we want Mantle or DiMaggio as our starting centerfielder. No, our debate is more along the lines of who ya got at second? Felix Millan or Edgardo Alfonzo? (For the record, the correct choice is Millan.)

Then there is that difficult dividing line one must cross when constructing all-time teams — the line that forces fans to choose between “best” and “favorite.” For instance, if we consider “body of work while playing for the New York Mets,” our “best” centerfielder would be Mookie Wilson. Favorite? That’s a deep, personal conversation for every Mets fan, but for me, it will always be Tommie Agee.

These last several weeks in lockdown, bemoaning a barren sports landscape, have given those of us who think about such things time to ponder a myriad of all-time starting fives, defensive lines, batting orders and starting rotations. To shake things up a bit, and out of deference to the Mets historic knack for trading all-time greats before their prime, or acquiring legendary names long after, SportsAttic has decided to put together the New York Mets All-Time Lineup — consisting of the best major leaguers to ever don a Mets uniform, (and this is the important part) regardless of how long their stay may have been in Queens.

So here we go (and yeah, we’ll start in the deep end of the pool, with the near-impossible decision surrounding three Mets Hall of Famers — yes, you read that right):

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CATCHER: It’s hard to pick a starting backstop when you have three hall of famers to consider. But that’s our task leading off here, and choosing between a three-time MVP; The Kid, who was synonymous with our most recent World Series champion; and the man who delivered the 9/11 game-winner, is the Rubik’s Cube of Mets puzzles. However, the rules say we have to make a pick, and we’ll go with Mike Piazza. Yogi gets DQ’d for all those years in pinstripes (not to mention managing us out of the ’73 World Series), and while the heartstrings cry out for Gary Carter and his unabashed enthusiasm that introduced us to the curtain call, Piazza’s sustained excellence at the plate just edges out Kid in the closest call we have at any of our positions. Winner: Mike Piazza

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FIRST BASE: This is another close one, and not because we have stars in our eyes over all those juiced-ball dingers Pete Alonso hit last year. At first blush this was a dead heat between Gil Hodges and Keith Hernandez. Like Berra, Hodges was a fading New York hero brought to Shea way past his prime to try and sell tickets on those lousy early editions of the Mets. While his time as a Met was brief and undistinguished (as a player, anyway), his career body of work is borderline Hall of Fame, and that’s before we consider his outstanding glove. Speaking of gloves, our beloved Mex was the gold standard for guys my age when we look back on iconic Mets stars of the past. The dilemma here is that there’s an actual Hall of Famer here we have to consider, Eddie Murray. Murray is a member of the elite .300/500 club, and like Mickey Mantle, did it as a switch hitter. While we may not consider him in the class of a Hernandez or Hodges when it comes to the glove, his career fielding percentage actually slots in exactly between Hodges’ .992 and Keith’s .994 (yeah, stats guys, Murray threw around the leather at .993). So who’s the pick? Well, it’s my list and I’m passing up Murray, who was surly and underwhelming during his two years at Shea, and going with Keith. Winner: Keith Hernandez

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SECOND BASE: It is so much fun to harken back to the days when Millan seemed like he was choking up all the way to the bat’s label while hitting second for all those lovable Mets teams of the early- to mid-’70’s. Or shake our heads in retrospect at Fonzie’s power numbers hitting third for Bobby V.’s contenders around the turn of the century. But this one really isn’t close. Yeah, Roberto Alomar was an enormous bust as a Met, but his Hall of Fame career as one of the best second baseman in the game overrides the disappointment he dished to us all when he arrived in New York amidst much hoopla. Winner: Robbie Alomar

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SHORTSTOP: As tough as our choice behind the plate may have been, the selection for shortstop on our All-Time is that easy. Has their ever been a more exciting home grown star for the New York Mets than Jose Reyes? He was the type of player you came to the ballpark to watch, be it in the field, on the bases or at the plate. A Reyes triple up the alley was worth the price of admission and always concluded with the signature chant — Jo-zayyyy, Jose, Jose, Jose… He won a batting title, led the league in steals and triples multiple times and came within a Beltran-called-strike-three of leading our ’06 squad to the World Series. Winner: Jose Reyes

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THIRD BASE: At first this one felt like a no-brainer, too. The Mets dearth of quality third-sackers (Wayne Garrett, Mike Cubbage, Joe Foy, Bob Aspromonte, Lenny Randle, etc.) over the years was part of the Mets quirky history up until Captain America came on the scene. Manning the left side of the infield with Reyes, David Wright was our answer to Derek Jeter across town, and appeared to be Cooperstown-bound. That was before a new stadium with impossibly deep and high outfield walls robbed him of his power numbers, though, and then injuries took care of the rest. So this choice was as easy as Reyes at short, right? Not so fast. There was a pretty fair third baseman by the name of Ken Boyer the Mets brought on board in 1966 — once again to much fanfare. Like Berra and Hodges before him, his track record with his former team didn’t translate into results at Shea. But check the numbers, Boyer was nearly an equal of Wright’s when we look at all-time stats, and most who saw him play would argue Boyer was the far superior third baseman. To further complicate matters, don’t forget about the converted Atlanta Braves catcher, who became a league MVP at third after being traded to St. Louis for Orlando Cepeda, and would one day become the only player-manager in Mets history. Joe Torre showed up in blue and orange in the mid-’70’s (you guessed it, right after his best years were behind him), and immediately regressed in skills so markedly that we felt like we had another Jim Fregosi on our hands. One could make a solid case that Torre was the most accomplished third baseman of the bunch, but again, it’s my list and Wright is the pick. We’ll leave Torre for Yankees fans to deal with when choosing between he and Casey for the Bombers’ all-time manager’s spot. And Boyer? Well, he was only a Met for a year and a half, and David was, well, Captain America. Winner: David Wright

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CENTERFIELD: Say Hey. Nuff said (although much love to my boyhood favorite Agee, not to mention Mookie, Nails and the first ever batter in Mets franchise history — Richie Ashburn). Winner: Willie Mays

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LEFT FIELD: The sentimental choice here is Cleon Jones, for his spectacular 1969 campaign when he led the league in hitting for most of the season (he finished third) and caught Davey Johnson’s fly ball to conclude the most unexpected World Series win in MLB history). But Rickey says don’t forget about Rickey. Yeah, Rickey may have concluded his blue and orange tenure playing cards in the clubhouse while his team was engaged in an extra-innings fight for their playoff lives on the field, but this one is nearly as lopsided as going with Mays in center. Winner: Rickey Henderson

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RIGHT FIELD: Oh, dilemmas. If we go strictly on stats as a right fielder, Bobby Bonilla is the choice (egads!). Of course, there’s no EFFING way we EVER let Bonilla back in the house (it’s bad enough dealing with “Bobby Bonilla Day” every year when his deferred money pays out). And revisiting the Bobby Bo years is unnecessary when the franchise’s all-time home run king once owned right field at Shea Stadium. Straw was our first truly GREAT homegrown position player, and for an eight-year stretch beginning with his Rookie of the Year campaign in ’83, it appeared he’d also be a sure-fire Hall of Famer. But similar to those incredibly talented Mets teams he was a part of in the ’80’s, so much more was expected due to all the physical gifts Darryl Strawberry possessed. Meanwhile, remembering that we are measuring all-time greatness for those who wore a Mets uniform at some time during their career, there was another Mets right-fielder who would one day be enshrined in Cooperstown by the name of Duke Snider. Indeed, The Duke was even captured in song as the third of the holy trinity of 1950’s New York centerfielders, when he’d put up huge numbers for those excellent Brooklyn Dodgers clubs of the day. And check the old scorecards — Duke played 293 career games in right, including 63 for our 1963 New York Mets. Add to that the fact that Duke Snider was AtticMom’s favorite player as a little girl growing up in the ’40’s,  and Darryl comes up just short. Winner: Duke Snider

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STARTING ROTATION: An absolute embarrassment of riches to choose from as we assemble our all-time New York Mets rotation. Of course you have to start with The Franchise, Tom Seaver. And with Tom Terrific as our ace, we can add a little bit of everything to the mix. There’s one Hall of Famer we got rid of before he became immortal — say hello, Nolan Ryan! And another HOFer we acquired long after the magic had begun to erode. Yup, Warren Spahn and his 363 career wins donned the blue and orange for the first half of the ’65 season, and from the looks of the picture above, it must have been right around Spahnie’s 50th birthday. Throw in Pedro Martinez, who kickstarted our brief return to respectability during the mid-2000’s when he elected to sign with us as a free agent. Now you are four-fifths of the way to the best rotation ever assembled. Over their storied history, the Mets actually had a fifth future Hall of Famer toe the rubber at Shea, when Tommy Glavine anchored the staff following his time as co-ace down in Atlanta. And Glavine’s 300-plus wins make for a damn strong pedigree, but when it comes to an all-time Mets rotation, can we really move on without at least even discussing Doc Gooden? No, Doc’s all-time stats aren’t in the same league as his HOF mound mates, but for one magical season back in 1985, there’s never been a more dominant New York Mets starter. Like his frenemy Straw, so much more was expected of Gooden than came to pass, but if we’re picking between Glavine in his prime versus 20-year-old Doc for one start? Yeah, sorry Tommy. Winners: Seaver, Ryan, Spahn, Martinez, Gooden

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BULLPEN: We decided to go with one lefty and one right-hander to complete our all-time Mets squad with a lockdown bullpen, for those rare instances when one of our vaunted, all-time starters couldn’t finish what they’d begun. Both bullpen slots created selection challenges for very different reasons. Start with Jesse Orosco. Jesse throwing his glove in the air before jumping into Gary Carter’s bearhug following Game 7 of the ’86 Series will forever be burned into the memory of many a Mets fan. Orosco was far from dominant, but during his time with the Mets was usually effective, and occasionally even touched elite. He then went on to set the record for most games pitched in MLB history, the only hurler to ever cross the 1200 appearance barrier. Yeesh! But did Orosco ever truly touch us Mets fans the way two other lefty relievers did? There’s “Ya Gotta Believe” Tug McGraw, and Brooklyn’s own Johnny Franco to consider here, and while Franco may have boasted slightly better stats as a Met than Tugger, we’re still going with McGraw in another photo finish. The righty? There have been few right-handed closers in Mets history who make fans light up when thinking of their time on the hill at Shea or Citi. Whether it’s Armando Benitez unable to close the door in Game 1 against the Yanks in 2000, or Jeurys Familia getting hung with three “L’s” against the Royals in ’15, either big man elicits more groans than happy memories. Ron Taylor was the main fireman back in ’69, but we rarely think about Taylor when looking back on our all-time great relievers. Again, though, we have to factor in that we can choose from those who rose to prominence elsewhere, part of the long list of prospects given up on by the Mets before their time had arrived. Under that rationale, the list improves dramatically, and we land on Jeff Reardon. You remember Reardon, right? The bearded setup man (to Neil Allen for crying out loud!) we chose to send to the Expos for a washed up Ellis Valentine? The same Reardon who went on to become number ten on the all-time saves list? Yeah, that Jeff Reardon. Honorable mention to Rick Aguilera, who had slightly inferior career stats to Reardon, but was his equal when we consider talented young arms we traded away. Winners: Tug McGraw and Jeff Reardon

So there you have it. Painful at times, but all Mets, for all time. Cue the song — We’re Talking Baseball…Willie, Rickey, and The Duke…

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10 Quick Sports Thoughts for a Friday Afternoon

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How about a quick break from whatever you may be doing during our national timeout? No heavy lifting here, folks, just random thoughts on the world of sports with no (okay, only a few) references to the Coronavirus. Here we go with a quick Top 10:

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  1. So sad to hear Curly Neal passed away. Is there an aging hoops fan out there that didn’t romanticize the Harlem Globetrotters growing up? I think not.
  2. I’m seeing a lot of Top 5 posts on social media regarding NBA greats. I almost always disagree with the selections, especially when the one doing the posting is a young NBA star (can somebody please introduce Trae Young to YouTube?), who’s grasp of league history only goes as far back as Michael Jordan. So to set the record straight once and for all, here it is — All-Time NBA Top 5 — Wilt, MJ, Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird, Kareem (disclaimers — I just missed Bill Russell growing up, so he’s off the board, will never include Havlicek or West on general principal — Larry Legend was hard enough — and feel like LeBron is a near miss — call him the sixth man). All-Time New York Knickerbockers Top 5 — Patrick Ewing, Willis Reed (we’ll play him at power forward, like when he was a rookie), Clyde Frazier, Earl the Pearl (was tempted by both Dick Barnett and Alan Houston here, but stuck with Monroe) and Anthony Mason (we need an enforcer, and I take Mase’s defense and ball handling over Oak — barely).
  3. Who is Sam Darnold going to throw to this year? Better pick a wide receiver early and get it right, Jets.
  4. Why is LeBron James so dead set against resuming the season without fans present? We will be watching, King. I promise.
  5. Whenever I hear about the virus striking someone famous that I also happen to admire, I can’t help being thrown for a major loop. Hearing today that Doris Burke tested positive really made my knees buckle. Get well soon, Doris, we need you.
  6. As much as I can’t stand the Yankees, I am a fan of Aaron Judge. But I’m starting to worry we may have another Pete Reiser on our hands (look him up, kids). Credit to Aaron Boone for debunking the absurd idea of making Judge a first baseman to protect him from further harm. Disregard the mammoth homers, the guy is fun to watch play right field (better than Mookie Betts — apologies to Geno the Sawx Fan).
  7. Everybody forgets how big a guy Muhammad Ali was, especially for a fighter known to “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” Do yourself a favor during our national lockdown, and watch the incredible sports documentary, “When We Were Kings,” about the Ali-Foreman bout in Zaire back in ’74. We all remember Big George Foreman as this epic giant, but there is Ali, staring down Big George eyeball to eyeball. Ali weighed in at 216 pounds for that fight, spread out over his 6’3 frame. A big heavyweight for the day. How would The Greatest fare against today’s heavyweight champ, Tyson Fury, a true monster at 6’9 and 285 pounds? Ali would knock him out ten times out of ten. And I happen to like Fury, that’s just how good Ali was (and how far today’s heavyweights have fallen).
  8. I wonder if Noah Syndergaard will post more shirtless photos on Twitter during his 15-month rehab from Tommy John surgery? I suppose these days we should expect all power pitchers to experience TJ surgery at some point in their career, but c’mon! Only the Mets can find a way to lose arguably their most popular pitcher while the sport is on hiatus, and then manage to anger the country’s entire population by publicly sending him in for his surgery during a pandemic. LFGM.
  9. What would I think if I was an NFL General Manager in search of a starting QB, and all I had to choose from was Cam Newton, Jameis Winston and Andy Dalton? Well, I’d probably think a lot of things, such as (in no particularly order ) — How do I feel about going 7-9 this year? Is going 7-9 that much better than signing none of the three and going 4-12? Which is worse, letting Winston kill me slowly with 30 picks at critical, game-changing moments, or having to deal with Newton’s ridiculous press conference outfits as the losses pile up week after week? Has there ever been a successful, red-haired QB in the NFL (spoiler alert — nope)? When was the last time I updated my resume? Is ESPN hiring?
  10. And finally… Top 5 Worst Professional Sports Franchise Owners Today — 1. James Dolan; 2. Daniel Snyder; 3. Fred Wilpon; 4. Mark Davis; 5. Michael Jordan. Let the record show that MJ made two SportsAttic Top 5 lists today — an accomplishment truly worthy of a GOAT.

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Three Yards and a Cloud of Dust — The Distraction of Football, Hello to Free Agency, and Brady

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This time of year is usually dominated by March Madness, with the NFL playing a distant second fiddle, entertaining gridiron die hards only, with its combines, free agency and the draft.

Not so in 2020. Speaking personally, I don’t know that I’ve ever been so dialed in to the early days of football free agency. And not just because the GOAT is leaving the Evil Empire while we Jets fans play the role of the freed munchkins in the Wizard of Oz (“ding-dong, the GOAT is gone…”). Nope, we sports fans needed something, and the NFL has scratched an itch of pandemic proportions.

Now I can actually go to my NY Post app, press “sports,” and get something other than coronavirus-related accounts of minor leaguers at Yankees camp getting diagnosed. Or KD and three other Nets suffering the same fate. Or speculation on when/if the NBA will pick up the season again, or when MLB may deem it safe to roll out Opening Day, or, or, or (enough already — I can’t get away from this topic, and it’s even saturated my sports pages).

But that’s right, there’s real sports stuff going on again, folks. And I, for one, needed NFL free agency bad. So with that as our backdrop, we’ll dive into a quick turn of Three Yards and a Cloud of Dust, focusing today on real pigskin happenings that should impact a season I damn sure hope we all get to witness in its entirety come the fall.

There is a page on Twitter (Or do they call them sites? Handles?) called Super 70s Sports that makes me laugh out loud at least once a day. This afternoon they had a two minute video clip from the beginning of a 1978 Monday Night Football game between the Bears and Vikings. Man, I was ready to put the pads on and stick a hand in the dirt right there. The video began with shots of Walter Payton’s record-setting, 275-yard game against Minnesota the prior Thanksgiving, before rolling into some grainy Fran Tarkenton footage, all the while narrated by the voice — Howard Cosell — synonymous with MNF and the NFL for those of us who grew up during that time. Cue the goosebumps.

The pre-game clip had some funky graphics typical of late-’70’s television, featuring forward-thinking design work, that included a team by team population of the TV screen featuring every NFL helmet and their proud logo of the day (bring back the Houston Oilers — please!). Yeah, I’m ready for some football.

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Which brings me to free agency. The New York Football Giants are spending some of their hard-earned salary cap money this offseason to try and salvage  a little self-respect for the franchise. And while we should all be forgiven if our confidence in GM Dave Gettleman is shaken following these last few years of questionable decisions (and franchise-tagging Leonard Williams did nothing to lessen our concerns), it is fun to speculate in our heads over whether or not new Gints head man Joe Judge is going to be the next innovative young NFL leader, or just another consolation prize hire by Big Blue who’s in way over his head.

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And across the MetLife Stadium parking lot, Gang Green made a couple of signings themselves. Nothing to the level of Le’Veon Bell a year ago, but the type of below the radar additions that hopefully begin to shore up the needy infrastructure on both sides of the ball for the Super Bowl-starved franchise.

We Jets fans must assume new GM Joe Douglas will address the glaring need for a game-breaking receiver in the upcoming draft, which seems loaded with quality wideouts more than capable of hauling in passes from Sam Darnold for the next ten years or so. Meanwhile, one can’t help but wonder what the whispering campaign is out there that is keeping teams from signing speedster Robbie Anderson (hmmm — questionable character, some drop issues and a reputation for sloppy route running? Anyone? Anyone?)? Yeah, all solid, true football stock for us fans to pick over with our sports cupboards otherwise bare.

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And there remain a few big free agent chips yet to fall, so this NFL diversion remains far from over. Jadeveon Clowney remains available, and sure should sound appealing to either New York football club, not to mention about a dozen others. Twenty million per year? Call it a million a sack for Clowney’s services, and yeah, most teams (and especially their fans) would sign up for that right now.

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There are also still some intriguing QB’s floating around. Cam Newton? Jameis Winston? It says here that one of those guys ends up a Patriot this season, giving Bill Belichick the chance to cement his legacy as the Head Coaching GOAT by winning one more ring with a new guy behind center, and a completely revamped style of play. Stay tuned, folks.

And oh yeah…speaking of QB’s…

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Well Tommy Boy didn’t waste any time, did he? Tampa Bay? Really? I’m sure no state income tax was a nice draw. And those stud receivers he inherits from Winston will certainly look wonderful when TB12 walks into his first unfamiliar camp in twenty years.

But c’mon. None of us really thought he’d go to Tampa, did we? I know, he had $30 million reasons to make the choice he did, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that there isn’t a lack of cashflow in the Brady/Bundchen household. Personnel and playbook control? Inside knowledge that there are a couple more big-ticket playmakers on the way to solidify the Buccaneers D? There’s gotta be more to this one somewhere, but only time will tell. And that’s what makes this story so much damn fun!

In the meantime, more entertaining articles will be heading our way, chronicling  Montana the Chief and Namath the Ram, all adding some level of historical context and nostalgic memories for us fans so in need of the distractions the world or sports has always provided us.

So thank you, NFL, for stepping forward and filling our entertainment/distraction void at a time when we really needed you guys.

Are we ready for some football? Hell yeah.

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Sports World Villains of our Youth

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Well, it looks like we have some time on or hands, sports fans.

For the foreseeable future we will all have to make due with the ongoing highlight reel of our mind’s eye. The loop that takes us from one memorable sports moment to the next as we replay our personal histories as sports fans. From Ali to Namath to Seaver and the Fraziers (Clyde and Joe). From Borg and Evert to Henry and Say Hey. The heroes are the easy ones for us to remember.

But for every hero of our youth, there were always villains. The foils to our stars, who showed up just to spoil our celebrations, while knocking the players we idolized down a peg or two, teaching young fans about life through lessons on the hardwood, ice and fields of play.

So who were those athletes you chose to hate and why?  With literally everything else in the world of sports currently being canceled (yeah, I know, postponed), we decided to take a deep dive back in time and remember those we loved to hate while growing up.

Basketball

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My sports fan memory goes back to the year 1970, which for a New York sports fan was about as fantastic a time as we’ve ever known. The New York Knickerbockers were the center of the basketball universe with their “hit the open man” approach to offense and suffocating team defense. The Knicks would win titles in 1970 and ’73, and reach the finals in ’72, an incredible run of championship caliber basketball (yeah, the Knicks!) that would spoil and trick us young New York hoop fans into believing this was how the NBA was supposed to work.

For me, Knicks basketball revolved around number 10, Walt “Clyde” Frazier. Clyde was the epitome of cool, and led the Knicks to those first two titles in franchise history, each time over the superior-on-paper Los Angeles Lakers. What made those victories even sweeter, was seeing Clyde win out over The Logo himself, Jerry West. West was just so damn tough. He didn’t give an inch to Clyde on defense, and seemed to hit every big bucket the Lakers needed down the stretch. Oh how I grew to hate Jerry West and his consistent excellence for trying to deny me my titles during my formative years as an NBA fan!

The championship team of 1969-70 was sent home the following year by the hated Baltimore Bullets. The ’73 champs were supplanted in 1974 by the despised Boston Celtics. For a young fan growing up, any matchup pitting the Knicks and those two arch rivals was appointment viewing (or frequently appointment listening, via the transistor radio I would sneak with me to bed at night).

While I developed a deep dislike for every player on the Celtics, the ugliest face of Boston for me always belonged to JoJo White, Clyde’s frequent matchup as a scoring point guard. White was nowhere near as cool as Frazier, and to my dismay shared the same jersey number 10, which seemed like sacrilege at the time (uniform numbers were really important to me as a young fan, you?). More often than not, White would match Clyde’s 20 points and six assists, and play a tough man-to-man D against my favorite player. God, I couldn’t stand JoJo White. And when you teamed up JoJo with John Havlicek, Dave Cowens, Don Nelson and Paul Silas, well, the Celts were really that good. And that only made me hate them more, not to mention suffer even deeper cuts when they beat us, as they all too frequently did.

If you took off driving in the other direction and went south on I-95, there waited the gritty Bullets, tough like the city they played in, and the team name that would be banished by the league a couple of decades later.

My second favorite player (favorite player lists could often go three to five deep, especially after Earl Monroe came to New York) on those legendary Knicks teams was our captain, Willis Reed. The wars he waged against the Bullets’ center, a long-armed, rebounding machine named Wes Unseld (who to this day possessed the best outlet pass I’ve ever seen) were epic and remain indelibly etched into my brain. Unseld didn’t score much, although his hook shot was hard for Willis to defend, and when the Bullets sent the Knicks home on the way to their finals date with Lew Alcindor and the Bucks in 1971, I cried (and swore to hate those dastardly Bullets to the end of my days).

Football 

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On the gridiron, the Jets were recent Super Bowl champions when I took up residency on their bandwagon back in 1970, and although I had missed out on the greatest moment in Gang Green history, there was still plenty of momentum remaining to attract new Jets fans as the ’70’s rolled around.

Of course most of our enthusiasm revolved around Broadway Joe, but as my NFL fandom was taking shape, Namath was becoming  less and less of a game-changer. Too many punishing hits and a lack of mobility sent him to the sidelines with a variety of injuries during my early years rooting on the Airplanes.

The frustration of not having our best player under center week in and week out was only exacerbated by coinciding with an incredible run of dominance by a division foe (sound familiar?) who seemed to sweep us every year (yeah, this does feel familiar), and were a near annual participant in the early Super Bowls of my youth (yeesh, enough already).

Yeah, the Miami Dolphins felt nearly unbeatable (and in ’72 they actually were), led by their future Hall of Fame head coach (here we go again). Yet the one I reserved my greatest enmity for was their QB, a teal and orange, number-12-wearing knockoff (there go those uniform numbers again — to me, only Joe Namath possessed enough cool to truly deserve to wear the vaunted number 12) who went by the name of Bob Griese.

As Dolphins QB, Griese was way too chipper and perfect (here comes the deja vu all over again) for my liking — always smiling, with the weird last name that was so easy for grade school kids to make fun of. And if all that wasn’t enough, he even had that awful Vitalis commercial that played at every station break, where he magically transitioned from a “wet-head” to the “dry look,” with the tagline he shamelessly spat at all of us out in TV land — “but they are still going to call me Griese.” Yeah, I hated Bob Griese.

Oh, and while still harboring dark thoughts over Namath’s injuries and the accompanying missed opportunities, honorable mention here goes to Mike Lucci. Lucci was a solid, unspectacular middle linebacker for the Lions who had the audacity to intercept a Namath preseason pass one year, leading to Broadway Joe separating his shoulder making the tackle on the return. Oh, how I hated Lucci for that inexcusable transgression, immediately yanking his trading card from the shoebox marked “football,” and drawing black eyes on the front of the card (a seven-year-old’s equivalent to leaving a severed horse head in his bed) before mutilating the card beyond recognition. Yeah, pox on you to this day, Mike Lucci.

Baseball

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No surprises here, right folks?

You don’t go picking a fight with Buddy Harrelson (Buddy Harrelson!), who you outweigh by like a hundred pounds, and get away unscathed when it comes to a young Met fan’s eternal dislike.

The Mets were on their way to an unexpected World Series for the second time in five years (it is somewhat surreal typing these sentences describing the abundance of championships played in and won by the Knicks, Jets and Mets back in the early-’70’s, by the way), upsetting the heavily favored Reds (who’d taken Oakland the full seven in the previous year’s Fall Classic), when Pete Rose barreled into Buddy at second base and all hell broke loose. Buddy even managed to land a couple of shots before the burly gambler with the soup bowl haircut took him down as both benches and bullpens emptied.

Maybe the most memorable part of the whole scene was the fans in the left field bleachers at Shea Stadium showering all forms of garbage upon Rose when he took the field in the bottom of the inning. For young AtticBro, panic set in, thinking somehow this completely justified uprising by the Mets faithful could cause us to forfeit the game, losing our ticket to the World Series. However, cooler heads prevailed — in the form of Yogi Berra and Willie Mays walking out to the warning track in left, where they politely urged the fans to let the game go on without interruption, no matter how blatant Mr. Rose’s scumbaggery had undoubtedly been.

It was unquestionably Yogi’s finest hour as Mets manager, even if all of us did wish that the whiskey bottle that had whistled by Rose’s head moments before had found its mark.

Hockey

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Yes, there was a time when hockey mattered to AtticBro. Remember, this was North Jersey in the early-’70’s. Being a hockey fan was something of a requirement, and with the wave of titles flowing through New York sports, six-year-old me simply expected that the Rangers would be taking their turn and hoisting the Stanley Cup in 1972.

That Rangers squad was one for the ages, with Jean Ratelle centering a deadly line with Rod Gilbert and Vic Hadfield on the wings, while Brad Park anchored the defense in front of the tremendous goaltending tandem on Eddie Giacomin and Gilles Villemure. But a funny thing happened on the way to the parade, when a villain showed up so nefarious that he damn near ruined the Rangers franchise for the next twenty years.

Bobby Orr may be everybody’s favorite defenseman, but to me he was the guy that broke my heart and stole my NHL Championship. Years later I picked up a signed black and white photo of Orr’s famous, celebratory leap after clinching his first Cup in 1970, because it is such an incredibly cool sports photo, but hell, I still hate him.

Honorable Mention

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Over the years the villains have become too many to count. Larry Legend and Michael Jordan tag-teamed my Knickerbockers for the better part of two decades, ensuring that the highlight hoops moment of my life as a young adult would remain winning the lottery to draft Patrick Ewing, not a Ewing-led championship.

And pugnacious Billy Martin’s booze-fueled rants, antics and circus-like firings/hirings with George Steinbrenner facilitated my growing contempt for the Bronx Bombers as the ’70’s gave way to the ’80’s.

Nor should we forget Ilie Nastase, who ushered in an unexpected, WWE-like bad boy character onto the tennis scene in the mid-’70’s, making it easier for us all to later despise Super Brat John McEnroe and the many petulant tennis stars that would follow in their wake.

And finally, who can forget big-mouthed Dexter Manley? Manley was the face of all of those overrated Redskins teams that nearly ruined football for me during my college years down in Virginia (hey, if there’s a players strike in the NFL, pencil in those Redskins for a Super Bowl title). Give Manley credit though, the man knew how to get to the quarterback (and oh did he own the Giants’ Brad Benson), but that just made us all hate Manley with even more fervor.

The parade of evil doers will continue well past our time and into the tapestries of forever sports memories currently being woven by our kids and grandkids. Stand by, watch, and enjoy as their rooting interests are cemented and superstars chosen for  unbridled adoration through the ages.

It’s yet another aspect of what makes the world of sports so much more for us than a program we watch for a couple of hours on the television. It’s part of our history, our life, our identity. And that’s why it’s so much darn fun to kill a little time thinking back, occupying the mind with those memories, still vivid despite the passing years, from when our heroes fought off the villains.

We can all benefit from a pleasant distraction or two right about now, can’t we?

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Ten Thoughts and Five Predictions Around the World of Sports

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Early March is an interesting time for sports fans.

March Madness is coming fast, but we haven’t gotten into the big tourneys yet, so we have time before all-encompassing bedlam hits.

The NFL is distant in our rearview mirror, and we haven’t fully engaged free agency and the draft just.

Basketball is in its dog days, limping through schedule-filler following their All Star break, and still not near enough the playoff stretch run to keep our interest. And besides, the teams that matter have been locked in for months.

Baseball? Which scandal do we want to address first? Sign stealing in 2017 is too easy. How about doctoring baseballs? Or one of the most notorious steroid cheats in the history of the sport now being the headliner in the Sunday Night Baseball booth? Or all kinds of funky future playoff scenarios being bandied about in the press that no one in MLB with a say will comment on (although I am in favor of ditching the one-game play-in wild card idea).

And yeah, I know, there’s probably interesting things going on in hockey, but I’m still not paying attention to the ice.

In an attempt to fill this fluky void in the sporting schedule, SportsAttic goes around the word of sports, offering ten thoughts for the sports fan’s consideration. Let’s begin.

  1. Yeah, I’m still pissed off at the whole disgraceful Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal, but if we are in the business of silver linings, at least it was the Yankees that took the biggest hosing (we are counting 2019 as well here, folks, as I remain unwilling to buy that Altuve wasn’t on the wrong side of some scum-baggery when he hit that walk off against Chapman). Honorable mention hosing goes to the Dodgers, which also doesn’t bring tears to my eyes. Yes, the bitterness of Mets fans knows no bounds.
  2. I turned on the XFL last weekend and was blown away by the quality of play being far better than anticipated. Some of the quirky ideas, like how they are handling kickoffs and making the extra point more interesting I liked, too. Way back when (the ’80’s) I was a diehard USFL fan for a few years, and felt like there was a cool place being carved out for football in the spring (until Trump blew up the league). So I’m cautiously placing a toe on the XFL bandwagon and will absolutely tune in again.
  3. Speaking of off the beaten path team sports, I happened to attend a World Team Tennis event last weekend. I think the WTT must be experienced in person for the full effect to work for most fans, but I believe even non-tennis fanatics could have some fun here. Lots of music (which takes some getting used to, but ultimately works) and fan interaction, but maybe the best part was that even the “names” on the court seemed to be having fun. In fact, I’m pretty sure I saw a self-effacing smile flash across the visage of that all-time ice princess, Maria Sharapova. The team format is a significant departure (in a positive way) from the traditional hand to hand combat of the sport, and the crowds are small, so fans are close to the action. Highly recommended for folks looking for something different to do with the kids or grandkids.
  4. I am totally caught up in the “where will Tom Brady go as a free agent” storyline. Will we have Johnny Unitas as a Charger and Joe Namath as a Los Angeles Ram? Or will it be…oh, that’s right, there isn’t an example where the aging superstar QB changed franchises and came away with a Lombardi Trophy. Think about it — Favre, Montana, Manning. Oh shit, Peyton Manning. There goes that theory. Anyway, I still consider Brady’s free agency to be the most interesting plot for us to follow this offseason.
  5. And how will we handicap the Pats sans Tom Brady? You can’t help but wonder how much of the genius of Bill Belichick comes from having the GOAT under center. The one year Brady was out hurt? No playoffs for New England. Who was the QB when Belichick coached the Browns? Exactly.
  6. Zion Williamson is the biggest story in The Association right now. Seems like he’s on TNT or ESPN every night. Spoiler alert — the Pelicans still suck, folks. Full stop. Here’s a vote for Memphis as the eight seed out west, and Ja Morant getting his first taste of playoff action under the bright lights in Los Angeles. Williamson is putting up superstar numbers nightly, but I’m not ready to anoint him the next game-changing young star. Let’s see him stay healthy for a full season and make the supporting cast around him better (yeah, like MJ used to) and then we can talk.
  7. I’m glad Steph Curry is back. It would have been easy for he and the Warriors to decide to just shut it down for the year, saving him to come back refreshed next season, along with a lottery pick and his Splash Brother, Klay. But would that have been fair to the fans? Right, it wouldn’t have, especially considering the top dollar those fans are dropping at every home game in their new arena to watch lousy basketball. So bringing him back now was the right thing. Props to the Dubs and Curry for stepping up.
  8. I’m a Mets fan but if the over/under for Pete Alonzo homers in 2020 is 35, I’m taking the under. Between what I suspect will be a slightly less juiced baseball, and some level of sophomore jinx in the form of the rest of the league having the offseason to analyze how to attack him, I just can’t envision MVP numbers coming from the Polar Bear. Even so, I’ll sign up for 32 with 90+ ribbies right now, and putting those kind of stats in the middle of what should be a strong orange and blue lineup? Yeah, that will be just fine.
  9. I was never going to watch another professional fight. Turns out never is a really long time. Nothing beats the hype associated with a legit heavyweight title fight. And it seems like we hadn’t had one of those since the days of Evander Holyfield. Well, Tyson Fury taking on Deontay Wilder completely sucked me in, and it was the first time in forever that I can say the pay per view spend was more than worth it. And yeah, Fury is the real deal. Enormous human being, with good footwork and exceptional, technical boxing skills. There’s never been anything like this guy. And a showman on top of that (singing American Pie in the ring after the fight normally would send me racing for the remote to change the channel, but the big Brit is totally fucking likable). I hope his reign is a long one.
  10. Time to eat a little crow. Carmelo Anthony has been a productive, below the radar contributor to the Blazers since his signing earlier this season. Coming off the bench after sitting out a year, he’s done whatever’s been asked of him and done it well, while respecting that Portland is Damian Lillard’s team. Didn’t expect it, and never thought I’d hear myself saying this, but if Memphis falters, I wouldn’t mind seeing ‘Melo and the Blazers sneak into the playoffs as the eight seed.

Added Bonus — Five Predictions Certain to Happen

  1. Seton Hall wins the NCAA hoops title.
  2. Brady ends up a Charger, and they win 10 games and make the playoffs.
  3. Pats go 9-7 and don’t.
  4. Fury knocks out Wilder again in the rematch in July.
  5. The Bucks get to 70 wins, but lose in the finals to the Lakers.

Enjoy your weekend sports fans!

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Three Base Hit: Cheating in Baseball, The Asterisk, and a 2020 Subway Series

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In his classic book, Nice Guys Finish Last, Hall of Fame manager Leo Durocher describes how he used to file his uniform belt buckle to a razor’s edge.

Then, when he’d visit the mound to speak to his pitcher at a key moment, he’d take the ball from the hurler and rub it in his hands while he discussed his desired strategy. When the mound visit was complete, Leo would hand the ball back to his pitcher and say “it’s on the bottom, buddy,” before returning to the dugout. A little extra movement on a fastball thanks to Leo’s scuff? Durocher viewed that as gaining an edge anywhere he could. Or was it cheating?

The Lip managed three teams to the World Series, winning one. He was also the shortstop and captain of the St. Louis Cardinals’ beloved Gas House Gang, World Series winners of 1934.

In the late-1950’s, journeyman long reliever Jim Brosnan wrote The Long Season, the first diary-approach to a year in baseball. The narrative takes place as Brosnan toils through the 1959 baseball season, first with the Cardinals, and then after being traded midyear, as a member of the Reds.

Among many tales, Brosnan tells of running into his old pal Ernie Broglio under the stands prior to a Cardinals-Reds matchup. Brosnan and Broglio, teammates and fellow Cardinals pitchers earlier that season, embrace and then make a pact that they’d only throw each other meaty fastballs when they batted against each other that afternoon. Cheating the game, or old fashioned baseball rhetoric (Brosnan does admit that when he first came to the plate that day, Broglio was scuffling and all Brosnan saw from his old friend were nasty curve balls)?

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Jim Bouton wrote Ball Four, chronicling his time as a reliever with the expansion Seattle Pilots during the 1969 season. In it, he shares stories from his days raising hell with Mickey Mantle and the gang as a Yankee in the early-’60’s, which earned him pariah status around the league once the book was public.

Much of Bouton’s tome takes place during the lazy hours spent lounging in the Seattle bullpen, where the reader gets a glimpse into the mundane, often hilarious goings on of professional ballplayers. During one middle-innings conversation, Bouton reports how Diego Segui retires the side with the aid of a spitball, and that the consensus among the Pilots relief corps was that Segui had retired the hitter with a “good pitch.

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Spit balls, or baseballs doctored in any fashion, are against the rules of MLB. Yet Gaylord Perry achieved legendary status as “crafty veteran” in large part due to his reputation for applying foreign substances to baseballs over the course of his Hall of Fame career. In other words, this 300-game winner’s most noteworthy characteristic upon induction into Cooperstown was being a cheater.

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Toward the end of the 1973 season, Henry Aaron was zeroing in on Babe Ruth’s all-time record of 714 career home runs. A New York reporter asked the ever-quotable Tug McGraw how he would feel if he were on the mound with Aaron one homer away from immortality. McGraw’s too-honest answer was that it might be kinda cool to just “groove one for history.”

That answer earned Tugger a meeting with Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn to ensure that no such grooving would take place should McGraw and Hammerin’ Hank face off with history at stake. Kuhn was concerned about protecting the “integrity of the game.”

Now before everyone gets all worked up, this is not a lead-in to excusing the Houston Astros’ sign stealing scandal that is sucking up all of the air in Florida and Arizona as pitchers and catchers report to camp. However, I do have a question. Would we all be this exercised over Houston’s cheating if they’d done a better job of accepting their blame and doing a legit mea culpa for their sins as an organization?

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It seems to me that Houston’s organizational jack-assery is adding gas to this dumpster fire every day. Owner Jim Crane’s much-maligned press conference the other day being the rotten cherry added to the top of this shit-sundae for the team that is now easily the most despised in all of professional sports.

But it goes beyond the tone-deaf Crane. Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and other Astros stars behaved like entitled and over-privileged frat boys throughout their now tainted World Series run of 2017. They only built upon that arrogance over these past two seasons, culminating in a run that came perilously to a second tarnished World Series victory in 2019. After denying and ignoring all charges these last few months, their hollow apologies today come off as scripted and insincere.

And now the baseball world is free to react with enraged impunity, leading to daily doses of vitriol heading in the direction of southeast Texas from every corner of the league. From the sounds of it, Houston is the only franchise that’s ever done anything illegal to influence on-field success. Or so it seems, based on the reactions coming from the training camps of their rivals.

But with one colossal misstep closely following another, Houston certainly has shown their moral compass is far more broken than any other franchise, perhaps in the history of the sport. Thus the beatings will continue.

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Like many baseball fans, I’ve now added Cody Bellinger to my list of favorite players, not because of his five-tool skillset that earned him the MVP last year, but because of his eloquent blistering of the Astros and the sainted Altuve when asked about Houston’s scandal the other day.

However, a couple of lockers down from Bellinger stood Justin Turner, the clubhouse leader of the outstanding Dodger clubs that have consistently fallen short of a title these last few years, most notably at the hands of the caught-cheating Astros in 2017.

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All Mets fans remember Turner as a light-hitting utility man during his time in Queens, who we now see putting up power numbers nobody in their right mind could have envisioned if you saw him perform early in his career.

That Turner is thirty pounds of muscle heavier today than he was as a Met rarely gets called into question. Yeah, maybe his discovery of a power stroke and the accompanying tens of millions of dollars in compensation he’s earned as a result, were truly because he was taught to uppercut the baseball by former Mets teammate Marlon Byrd. The same Marlon Byrd who, drumroll please, was suspended for steroid use in the very year he took Turner under his wing and helped him retool his swing. Hmmm…

So what do we do? As fans, the easy thing to do is sit back and enjoy this disastrous public relations ride the Astros are suffering through, and revel as they make bigger asses out of themselves with every choked response to a question about the sign stealing scandal. We can look forward to beanballs heading in their direction, knowing every team on the Houston schedule will approach even the most meaningless, dog days of August matchup as though it were Game 7 of the World Series.

But is it worth crying to the heavens hoping for Houston’s ill-gained 2017 World Series title to be vacated? No, because it’s just not going to happen. Remember, this is the league that juiced its baseballs to absurd levels a year ago, and denied it was happening all season long, despite their own players complaining about the alarming number of homers being allowed. Meanwhile, even the most casual fans among us shook their heads over seeing routine fly balls carry out of every ballpark with sickening regularity.

Will Commissioner Rob Manfred go back and bend to the public outcry and start suspending the Astros players implicated in the scandal? Of course he won’t. That question falls into the “asked and answered” basket, the primary reason being that Manfred wants nothing to do with such an ugly can of worms.

I mean, how would he handle issues such as the Astros’ late-season call-ups in 2017? Or the Astros pitchers? Or those that simply swear they weren’t a part of it? Not to mention that painfully obvious video of Altuve warning his teammates not to strip his shirt off after his ALCS-ending walk-off homer back in October. A promise to his wife? Or was it an unfinished tattoo? Or both, sure, that makes sense. Oy vey.

Nope, there won’t be suspensions, so your best bet is to just enjoy the “punishment” of Houston’s public scorn as Altuve, Bregman, Correa and others continue to prattle on about “moving forward” while their peers around the league take shots at their integrity and manhood, and denigrate every accomplishment earned by the Astros clubs of the past three seasons.

What about an asterisk on that 2017 World Series title if MLB is unwilling to expunge, you say? Wellllll…

That leads us to part two of this MLB Three Base Hit.

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Growing up, the numbers 714 and 60 were sacred to me as a fan of our National Pastime. Because they were The Babe’s numbers. Baseball started to matter to me during the 1970 season, one year too late to partake in the Miracle Mets 1969 title, but with most of those Amazin’ heroes still on the Shea Stadium field every day.

Only nine years prior to me beginning a lifelong love affair with the game of baseball, a power-hitting outfielder had caught fire in the Bronx and hit 61 home runs to eclipse The Babe’s single-season home run mark. Roger Maris won his second consecutive MVP following that 1961 campaign, and his career-defining achievement in the area of home run hitting was rewarded with its very own asterisk in the official MLB record book.

Why? Because Maris’ home run record had been set during a 162-game season, while Ruth had established his standard when the regular season concluded at 154 games.

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I would argue that the only reason I know what an asterisk is today, is because of that decision made back in 1961 by MLB Commissioner Ford Frick. We can debate all day long if Frick’s decision would have been the same if Maris’ more popular teammate (and home grown Yankees hero) Mickey Mantle had been the one to top The Babe, but Mantle ended the year with 54 round-trippers, and Roger Maris became the new, asterisk-attached, home run king.

One of the cooler baseball debates that raged throughout my formative years, into my teens and the decade of my twenties, was whether Maris’ accomplishment deserved that asterisk. Then a funny thing happened to baseball and many of its most hallowed records following the strike-shortened 1994 season. Several of the game’s biggest stars returned to the field noticeably bigger, and with homers flying off their bats at a record pace.

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We smiled and rejoiced in the goodwill created by the Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa chase to 61 dingers in 1998, and were touched when McGwire celebrated with his young son when Maris’ record came down. Maris’ family was even flown in to see the record fall, and baseball reaped all the PR rewards of the feel good story. But this one didn’t end well. Sixty dingers became the new forty, and other unnaturally large sluggers began to take aim at what once was a legendary level of home run hitting, considered by many unlikely to ever be reached again.

We all know where this one ended up, with a jealous Barry Bonds deciding to juice his already superior skills in an effort to surpass Big Mac, Sosa, and all the others who’d turned the ’90’s into a full on Home Run Derby.

So now I suppose the single season HR record is 73? I could look it up to confirm, but I’m really not that interested anymore. Because the number, whatever it is, is tainted, just like Bonds career home run record total of 762 is tainted. You can’t find many baseball fans outside of the Bay Area that feel good about either of those records today.

And nobody talks about Maris’ asterisk anymore either.

Bonds and his steroid-cheat brethren remain on the outside of the Hall of Fame looking in (at least for now), and there is some satisfaction in that, but there are no asterisks on any of the steroid-enhanced records. And there won’t be. In fact, in time Bonds and fellow cheat Roger Clemens will likely take their place in Cooperstown (SportsAttic aside — will their Hall of Fame busts have sculpted, oversized heads in honor of how they finished their baseball careers?), and the game will go on.

Just like the 2017 World Series champion will continue to be listed as the Houston Astros. No asterisk, no vacating the title, just acknowledgement that it happened, while MLB plays the long game waiting for its fans to “move forward.” Sound familiar? It should, because “move forward” is what everyone in Houston is asking us to do right now during those painfully staged, over-rehearsed press conferences on the sign stealing scandal.

And will we move forward? Yeah, we will, because we are baseball fans, and today’s scandal will become tomorrow’s folklore (Shoeless Joe Jackson, anyone?). Why does it happen that way? Three words:

Pitchers and catchers.

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And that’s where we will end today’s MLB Three Base Hit segment.

The ballplayers are back in camp. For this Mets fan, Agee, Seaver, Harrelson and Koosman have been replaced by Alonso, deGrom, Conforto and Syndergaard. But that orange, interlocked NY insignia on the royal blue cap remains the same as the one I fell for back in 1970. And I’ll be there at Shea (yeah, I know, but I still call it Shea) when the Mets take the field at the end of March for our 2020 home opener.

Right now, in February, baseball fan optimism is at its most delightfully illogical zenith. Especially in New York City, where one set of fans is already parade-planning, after stealing (no pun intended) the AL’s best pitcher from those cheating bastards down in Houston (guess what folks, Gerrit Cole had no idea about any of this sign stealing stuff, because, you know, he’s a pitcher, and, you know, didn’t get to Houston until 2018, and, and, and…).

And as if Yankees fans needed more reasons to smile, their arch-rivals up in Boston just traded their best player to the Dodgers, and appear to be in a level of disarray usually associated with the other New York baseball club.

What of that other New York franchise, you ask? Well, here in mid-February there is really only one reasonable conclusion to be drawn about the blue and orange. And that is that the Mets will be representing the Senior Circuit in the 2020 World Series, where they will take down the Bronx Bombers, evening the all-time ledger in Subway Series between the two clubs at one apiece.

Sure, I’m an unapologetic homer, but this isn’t as preposterously far-fetched (remember, February is the month of unreasonable optimism) as it may appear at first blush. The Mets are loaded with talent. Probably the best every day lineup they’ve put on the field since that cheating demon, Carlos Beltran, watched strike three go by with his bat on his shoulder to end our 2006 title dream. On paper, the bullpen could actually be one of the NL’s best (I know, cue the laugh track), if only their top relievers bounce back after horrendous years a season ago (the way relievers sometimes do, I might add).

But it is the starting rotation that makes the New York Mets the team nobody will want to face come October, just like the Washington Nationals were last fall. In fact, while everyone is rushing to anoint the Dodgers as the only team capable of possibly derailing title number 28 up in the Bronx, can anyone really take a hardline stance against a Mets team that will throw deGrom and Syndergaard for four starts in any seven-game series?

Yes, they are still the Mets, so all of these projections must be made through the lens of “if something shitty is bound to happen, well, it probably will” (wild boar chases star outfielder? I mean, you can’t make this stuff up), but if you took the Mets collection of talent and inserted it onto any other run of the mill ball club’s roster, say the Orioles or the Padres as an example, wouldn’t you have to view them as title contenders?

Put it in the books, folks. Your 2020 World Series will conclude with Jacob deGrom taking down Cole in Game 6 at Yankee Stadium, and the Mets will raise their championship trophy while celebrating on their crosstown rival’s infield.

Play Ball!

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Hope for New York? Despair in Brooklyn? Around the NBA for a Pre-Trade Deadline Roundup

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Anyone else not surprised that the Brooklyn Nets are worse this year with Kyrie Irving in the fold?

Now, is it Kyrie’s fault that the Nets are five games under .500 nearly two-thirds of the way through the schedule? No, just like it wasn’t Kyle Shanahan’s fault the Niners blew a fourth quarter lead in the Super Bowl. But like Shanahan, when it’s your face associated with the success of a franchise, you will shoulder more than your fair share of the blame when things don’t go as planned. And yes, the background noise you hear right now is laughter emanating from all those Boston Celtics fans out there.

So this is now two franchises in a row that have taken a step back after adding Kyrie’s star power to its roster. Irving was a necessary evil if the Nets were ever going to convince Kevin Durant to come to Brooklyn, but let’s take a quick inventory of what we’ve seen so far, fifty games into Kyrie’s Brooklyn career:

*the Nets’ selfless play, help defense and ball movement that earned them an unexpected playoff spot a year ago, have all taken notable steps backwards since Irving arrived and disrupted last season’s successful rotation

*the injury bug continues to haunt Irving (along with accompanying whispers around how badly he really wants to be on the court when everything isn’t going his way), with him already missing 29 games this year (and counting)

*he’s gone public saying that the Nets need more stars to bolster his quest for a title in the borough, choosing not to comment on how much money Brooklyn spent on he and KD this offseason, not to mention their pal DeAndre Jordan

Despite all that, the Nets are still likely to find a way to make the playoffs this year, and the guess here is they will do it with roughly the same 42-40 record as they posted a year ago, which should be good enough for a seven seed. If you look at the standings today, that probably means a matchup with Toronto, Boston or Miami (or Philly should they ever figure out how to get their act together).

Brooklyn is the team nobody wants to face in a short series, in large part due to the explosive nature of Kyrie, but a repeat of a year ago (low playoff seed and first round elimination) can’t be what Sean Marks and the Nets brain trust had in mind when they broke the bank last July. Stay tuned.

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Moving across the river, the Knicks continue to surprise us in a stealth manner with the occasional good decision. Replacing the all-talk, no-results Coach Fiz with the understated, hoops-lifer Mike Miller was the team’s first good decision a couple months back.  Now they’ve built on that unexpected momentum by taking the gun out of team President Steve Mills’ hands before he could shoot the Knicks franchise in the foot yet again with poor trade-deadline decisions.

The shit-canning of Mills was way overdue, and leaves all of us in Knicks Nation with a cleansed feeling today. However, lest we forget, these are the Knicks, so who’s to say that we won’t wake up tomorrow to see the return of Isiah Thomas as President of basketball ops at The Garden. Yes, my skin is crawling as I type those words, but we all have learned to expect the worst buffoonery imaginable when it comes to Knickerbocker decision-making.

All we Knicks fans can do is hope the good decisions continue; the draft assets remain in house (as opposed to being traded for DeAngelo Russell or Andrew Wiggins, or some other disastrous, headline-grabbing type of bad deal); and ultimately a capable basketball man is put in charge to right this sinking (sunken?) ship. A tall order? Yes, but it beats reading about Mills digging our hole even deeper after getting taken to the cleaners at the trade deadline once again by the more competent execs around the NBA.

More NBA thoughts:

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A quick round of applause to Mike D’Antoni, James Harden and Russell Westbrook for making it work thus far down in Houston. Despite there only being one basketball in play at a time, the Rockets are still winning, and both The Beard and Russ are filling up box scores at alarming rates. But can this Houston team win a playoff series as currently constituted? Nope. If the playoffs started today, they’d be on the road heading to Utah. It would be a pleasure to watch the team-oriented Jazz broom Houston out of the first round without breaking a sweat, although a bit sad that D’Antoni’s distinguished coaching career would in all likelihood come to an end with such an outcome. And that is  exactly where this Rockets club is headed once the regular season concludes, so until then sit back and enjoy that prolific backcourt.

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Speaking of the Jazz… They’ve cooled off a bit of late after that scorching run that made the league take notice. Their 18-4 home record remains the best in the Western Conference, and is a compelling reason to expect them to, at a minimum, survive their first round playoff matchup and advance to what could be a date with LeBron and AD out west. Utah is really good. Period. A final four in the west that includes the L.A. favorites, plus Denver and Utah would provide us fans with incredible hoops entertainment this spring.

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And what of those Los Angeles favorites that share a home at Staples Center? I mean, who ya got? With 30 games or so remaining in the regular season, I believe it is fair to say that the L.A. club that enters the playoffs healthiest will be the prohibitive favorite to win it all come June. LeBron clearly has something to prove, and with AD shining alongside The King’s greatness, it is hard to take a strong position against the Lakers as our next NBA champion.

But then you remember how unstoppable Kawhi was last postseason. With Leonard leading the way, along with Paul George’s two-way game, strong supporting players and solid depth, not to mention Doc Rivers at the helm, it makes betting against the Clips a dicey proposition. It will all come down to health, folks, and right now the battle of L.A. is too close to call.

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If you were starting a team right now and could pick any point guard in the league, do you take Damian Lillard or Ja Morant? If you are a “win now” franchise, you have to go with Lillard, who’s once again tearing it up for a Blazers team with zero shot at winning a title (and as of now looks hard pressed to even make the playoffs).

If you are building a future dynasty, Morant sure looks like the real deal, and by far the best player to come out of last year’s draft. The fact that Morant has led the Grizzlies to the number eight seed in the loaded west is nothing short of miraculous, and even if that means a quick, round-one departure come playoff time, the experience garnered by this young Memphis squad will prove invaluable.

SportsAttic Aside — for what it’s worth, I’d take both Lillard and Morant over Kyrie Irving, and not even have to think about it. Just sayin’.

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Speaking of making picks, if you had to decide who’s fast start to the season was a bigger mirage, the Heat or the Mavericks, which team would you point at? And maybe throw OKC into the equation, too, since most of us had the Thunder in full on tank mode for the foreseeable future after the Westbrook trade.

As for Miami or Dallas, I have to go with Dallas as most likely to come back to the pack. Certainly the Luka Doncic injury factors into my selection, as well as the fact that it remains to be seen if the Mavs can ever can get it together to the point where both Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis can thrive on court at the same time. But the real difference maker here lies in strength of conference.

Miami’s start has defied common sense when you look at their roster. Yes, Jimmy Butler has been beyond what anyone could have reasonably expected, a stud on both ends and a leader as well, but Miami also gets to feast on all those Eastern Conference bottom feeders, making a full on collapse in South Beach less likely.

Meanwhile the Mavs (and the Thunder) must maintain their winning pace in the rugged west. When Doncic gets back will he be the same player we saw through the season’s first half? Can Porzingis stay healthy and in the lineup? A “no” to either of those questions sends Dallas spiraling toward a .500 record and a scrum for the 8th seed (they are in the six-hole currently).

In the east, the poor competition should allow Miami to hang in the high-40’s to low-50’s range for wins, even if they do suffer the reversion to the mean many predict after their off the charts start. OKC? Same challenge as Dallas, and add to that the question of whether anyone really expects Chris Paul to make it through this season without missing significant time to injury. CP3 has only missed one game thus far. Can it continue? Doubt it. Look for the Thunder to end up battling Portland for the final playoff slot in the west.

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And while we marvel at Miami’s rise to the top of the east, whether it is due to poor competition or not, can we also take a minute to ask what the heck is wrong in Philly? How can a roster this loaded be sitting as the current six seed, looking up at the likes of Indy and Miami? Well, one may begin to conclude that there is a coach-killer or two lurking in the Sixers locker room. Barring a strong finish to the season and a run to the conference finals at a minimum, look for either Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons to get moved in the offseason, with an entirely retooled roster awaiting the new head coach when 2020-21 rolls around.

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And now one final existential question — what is the value of a high-scoring star on a bad team? I found it interesting this week to hear such whining about not earning an All Star bid coming from Bradley Beal (and his girlfriend — never a good look BTW) and Devin Booker. The league has built its brand around the marketing of its stars, and in a stats-driven league, there will be many deserving, quality names propped up by their showy numbers for voters to consider every year. The reality is that  quite often the All Star tie-breaker will be how valuable is the player to their team, and are they a winner who makes those around them raise their level of play?

That last data point would explain Beale being left off the East this year, and Booker’s exclusion out west. Both are great players and regulars on SportsCenter night after night, while we watch their teams takes another bad loss on the chin.

And if the team does matter, then what about Trae Young’s starting nod? Based on the amount of airtime he gets on the highlight reels, he appears to be the next “next big thing,” yet the Hawks keep losing. And losing. And losing.

Currently Atlanta is playing to a .255 winning percentage despite Young’s 29/4/9 stat line. Yes, the Hawks roster is abysmal, and also yes, Young is well worth buying a ticket to see. But All Star starter? The Wizards are only slightly better than Atlanta, winning at a .347 clip, with Beal weighing in at 29/4/6 (nearly identical stats to Young). And the Suns are the best of these three terrible teams, currently ten games under .500 (their best start in years) with Booker at 27/4/6. All tremendous players and scorers, but none of whom can be called winners yet. Ever? Time will tell.

All Stars? Only Trae Young. Go figure.

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