Wednesday, April 23, 2003

Memory Lane
If any granule of consolation can be found in the piteous, limping start out of the gates for the Mess it might be the 30 year old memory of the 1973 Mets. Failing that, the daily narrowing of hope into a spiritual myopia will become inescapable, the losses will mount a progressive, fatal disease and the ride home on the #7 train from Shea will become an exercise in reflective misery.

The current issue of the Mess is a team unable to emerge from the psychic depths in which they writhe, springing more holes than Melville's Pequod, sinking fast, from Roger Cedeno's tumultuous, spasmatic fielding in center field, to Mike Piazza's two hop throws to second base, either 10 feet wide to the left or to the right, to Armando Benitez's emotionally fragmented disasters from the bullpen.

The $120 million payroll has resulted in an 8-12 record so far, four games behind the Expos from first place. For all the hand-wringing, it isn't implausible that the Mess might right themselves in time and with no NL East team assuming a commanding role in the division yet, whatever early season wallowing they appear to have hitched themselves to, it doesn't spell an insurmountable burden. They are fortunate in fact. If they were in the AL East, they'd already be 9 games behind the Yankees.

The 1973 Mets were in last place in the six-team National League East, 11 1/2 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals on August 5th. For the current Mess, this would spur a pale, caustic finish with rampant speculations on what sort of disasters Steve Phillips could add to his growing list of failures before he was finally shoved out of Gotham and back to baseball obscurity where he belongs.

But the 1973 Mets, the "Ya Gotta Believe" team rallied, winning 29 of its final 43 games and fortunately for them, no team ran away with the division. Yogi Berra's club rallied from last place by going 18-14 in August, 19-8 in September and 1-0 in October to win the division title on the last day of the season. They finished with an 82-79 record, 1 1/2 games ahead of the Cardinals.

82 victories is not going bring a division title in the NL East this season.

Moreover, for the Mess, 82 victories at this point would require a Herculean transformation from sad sacks to believers which, to date, they have given no indication they are capable of. In the first 20 games of the season the Mess have shown a greater inclination toward mediocrity than mastery. While they flounder on the field, they have become artful in their ability to emit half-hearted enthusiasms for the potential of the future. They are well-versed in the pollyanish double-speak of those who understand the futility of their destiny. But the desperation is beginning to taste like a familiar meal. Stale, cold leftovers from the season before; the same unheated lack of clutch hits, the rubbery gristle of shoddy fielding, and the unpalatable breakdown in simple fundamentals.

In short, the "ya gotta believe" slogan of the 1973 Mets is translated by the current Mess into something along the lines of "what kind of fool am I?". There are no miracles on the horizon. Only the painful, daily gashes of reality poking through the thin flesh of hope.

The '73 Mets had NL Cy Young Award winner Tom Seaver anchoring the rotation with a 19-10 record and a league-leading 2.08 ERA and 251 strikeouts in 36 starts. The Mess have a competent duo in Glavine and Leiter. But the '73 Mets also had Jerry Koosman (14-15, 2.84), Jon Matlack (14-16, 3.20), George Stone (12-3, 2.80). The Mess have nothing better than question marks to round out their rotation. Tug McGraw, much like Armando might hope to emulate, struggled as a closer in the first half of the '73 season but finished strong and was an integral part of their reformation.

The '73 Mets weren't fast. Their leading base stealer was third baseman Wayne Garrett, who stole six bases all season. The Mess have six stolen bases to date, half of those coming from Cedeno, whose enemic hitting and ghoulish play in the field has resulted in an off and on benching.

Second baseman Felix Millan, who was acquired in the offseason from the Atlanta Braves, led the '73 Mets with a .290 batting average, 82 runs and 185 hits. Outfielder Rusty Staub topped the Mets with 76 RBIs and first baseman John Milner was the team leader with 23 homers.

It's impossible to see where the Mess will begin to show some life at the plate. Their power is sporadic and unpredictable. They add another link in the chain of weak hitters infecting the lineup every night. Piazza is beginning to appear as though he's woken up out of his early slumber but beyond him, their two best power hitters are Burnitz, now injured, and Tony Clark, making a mark as a pinch hitter but proving otherwise unworthy of daily appearances in replace of Fat Mo.

The first thing the Mess should do at this point is bring up the phenom, Jose Reyes. People pissed and moaned about his lack of pitch selection in Spring Training, but the current shortstop, Rey Sanchez, is suffocating at the plate with a .129 batting average. Surely Reyes can do better than .129 and even if he can't, he brings flash and speed and the kind of youthful enthusiam that the currently moribund Mess sorely lack.

The next thing to do would be to put the best defensive team out on the field as possible. The current defensive liabilities are not hitting well enough to justify their presence in the lineup not to mention the dread the pitching staff feels every time a ball is hit. While the Mess aren't hitting, at least they can put guys out on the field who can keep the score close by not artificially inflating every deficit with each subsequent bonehead fielding debacle. It's no fun wincing when a fly ball is hit to center field. Cedeno should be relegated to a pinch-runner's role.

As for Armando, the diaphanous Dominican with the delicate emotions, there isn't much to hope for. You might be able to trick him into believing he is merely suffering from a slight mechanical breakdown which he can work through in a role other than closer while auditioning the rest of the bullpen to replace him. There are jackals lusting for the return of John Franco, the 42 year old former closer coming off of Tommy John surgery who thinks he'll be ready in a month. Why not cast your pennies of hope over your back into the Trevi fountain, or rub magic bottles and hope the mythical genie of closers pops out of one of them? If Armando doesn't recover, the bullpen is shot and the season will morph into a sad series of failed, unhappy endings.

It may turn out that memory lane will be the only lane Mess fans can rely on if they want to sniff the saga of success.


I'll be leaving tomorrow for a two week celebration in Holland devoid of NFL draft coverage, the misery of the Mess, the NHL and NBA playoffs. It will be a nearly unbearable void but hopefully, I'll stumble through it somehow. By the time I return, I fully expect a Mess team firmly in first place, the Jets to have landed Andre Johnson in a blockbuster draft day trade, Milwaukee to have eliminated the Nets, and the New Jersey Devils beating on the Flyers in the Eastern Conference finals. If none of it happens, I'll settle for a cold beer and a hot massage.

Thursday, April 17, 2003

Attack of The Killer Drunks

"By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest. -- Confucius

Although it pales in comparison to the Attack of the 50 Foot Chicken, the attack on umpire Laz Diaz by Eric Dybas of Bolingbrook two nights ago was the apogee of the increasing problem of not only keeping fans off of the baseball field, but of preventing them from attacking players, coaches and umpires when they get there.

Monday, April 14, 2003

Meet The Mess
"The future ain't what it used to be." --Yogi Berra

The optimists are hanging on by their fingernails. One by one, the rational mind can no longer rationalize the possibilities of World Championships, inching into wildcard berths or even a .500 season. The rational mind must begin to realize that this fiasco of a baseball team should, in all truth and clarity, be renamed. Ladies and gentlemen, meet your 2003 New York Mess.

Thursday, April 10, 2003

So Drop Dead Already
"If I drop dead right now, our position will not change on this issue," Hootie Johnson, Chairman of Augusta National, on the eve of a Masters.

I'll admit right off the bat, other than the existence of Elin Nordegren, the Swedish model girlfriend of Tiger Woods and the fact that it can be as frustrating to play as it is boring to watch, I don't know hoot about golf and don't usually care to. However, the shrill media coverage about the lack of female members at Augusta has finally caught my attention.

Monday, April 07, 2003

Armando The Awful

Wow, was this the pennant race already? I must have overslept. This sounds like a September, or maybe an October story: Mets have a 5-4 lead, three outs away from victory. Armando Benitez comes waddling in from the bullpen to seal the victory and instead, we get a loss and enough drama to fill a few Greek plays.

The farcical meltdown began well into the third batter of the inning, Vladimir Guerrero. Benitez had already started the inning off by ceding a single to a Mets castoff, Endy Chavez. Jose Vidro is miraculously retired and then came Guerrero. On the second pitch, Guerrero took a savage swing and missed but the savage swing itself was some sort of derailing challenge of manhood to Armando who then proceeded to walk Guerrero to put men on first and second as the boos began to filter through Shea with Jeff Liefer, a lifetime .250 hitter coming to the plate.

Armando quickly falls behind in the count, 2 balls and no strikes. His command was not sharp. He bounced several splitters and sliders and was up and in a bit with the fastball but finally, he manages to get the count full. By now, everyone on planet Earth knows what is coming next, even Liefer, facing Benitez for the first time:

"It was a fastball," Liefer said. "I was looking for a fastball the whole at-bat. That's his best pitch that he can throw for a strike. I was just trying to layoff his other stuff that's tough to lay off a lot of times. Once I got to 3-2, I knew he was coming with a fast ball and I put good wood on it."

"He hit my best pitch," Benitez said of the 97-mph fastball, to Liefer. "I'm behind in the count, I have to come and throw a strike."

We could flash back to the blown Game 6 of the 1999 NLCS against the Braves. Or perhaps the 2000 Subway Series, his walk of Paul O'Neill that blew Game One. J.T. Snow's home run in the first game of the NLDS in 2000. Pat Burrell, on three different occasions. The horrific blown leads against the Braves, twice down the stretch in 2001 that cost the Mets a playoff spot. The list goes on and on and while Armando has compiled the best save percentage (90.7) of anyone in baseball during the previous three years, there is a hideous disclaimer and that is Armando can't get them out when it counts.

That's why I thought I'd fallen asleep and woken up in the middle of the pennant race because this is evidence of the vintage Armando choke hold on himself that he can't seem to break when the games really count.

And frankly, it isn't such an unforgiveable deed so early in the season. After all, he'd saved the two games prior to this one. But then in true Armando style, he made matters worse by whining like Joy Behar on a bad hair day:

"What bothers me is I save two days in a row and I sit down by my locker and nobody comes to me, nobody talks to me," Benitez sniffles. "Sometimes we have to be fair and see that what I'm doing is sometimes good. It's not fair."

Listening to Armando whimper: the unloved Armando, the underappreciated Armando, the menstruating and irritated Armando, one begins to understand the root of his problems, the cause of his frequent bouts of choking, his inability to do the job when it counts. He simply doesn't understand the nature of his job as a closer.

John Franco, the Met vet who has saved 422 games in his career and knows a thing or two about what it's like to be a closer, likened being a closer to "being like a field goal kicker. You
make 12, 13 in a row, then you miss one and that is the one people want to know about."

And he's right. Some people can handle the pressure, understand the reality of being ignored except when you fail. It isn't fair. But the position calls for the ability to let that patent unfairness roll off your back. Armando can't because he doesn't have the emotional stoicism to handle it. And that's why when the game is on the line and the game actually counts, Armando has a well documented history of failing. He tightens up, he gets wild, and then he tries to overcompensate with his fastball that all the world knows is coming.

I said it all winter and I said it over and over again this spring: Armando should be traded before it begins to finally sink in throughout the rest of the league that he is damaged goods, a man who can't handle the pressure of a high-stakes game and come out the winner more times than not.


The Detroit Tigers became the first team in 40 years to start 0-6 in consecutive seasons, finally relieving the NY Mets of '62 and '63 of that humiliation. After last season's embarassing 0-11 start, the Tigers have begun this sesaon by getting outscored 36-6 so far. It begs the question as to whether or not they should switch places with their Triple A Toledo Mudhens farm club who are 2-2 so far this season.

One week into the season, which is more surprising:

1. The disasterous start of Greg Maddux, who is already 0-2 with a 11.00 ERA.
2. The unforeseen 5-0 start of the Kansas City Royals out of the gate, the first ever to do so after a 100 loss sesaon.
3. Shea Hillenbrand going from the trading block to knocking in 15 runs in the first 7 games of the season.
4. The 5-1 start of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
5. Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling winless after both having pitched two games.

One week into the season, which is least surprising:

1. Junior going down to injury.
2. The Detroit Tigers 0-5 start and already 5 1/2 games out of first place.
3. Jose Hernandez has struck out 9 times in his first 22 at-bats putting him on pace for a record-shattering 243 strikeouts for the season.
4. Opening week attendance down nearly 10% following a week of inclimate weather.
5. Jeter going down to injury only to replaced by a guy who is hitting .412 in his absence.


There's an interesting game on the Major League Baseball website called Beat The Streak wherein you pick one guy each day to get a hit and if he gets a hit, your streak continues. The first person to break DiMaggio's 56 game hitting streak gets seasons tickets for the team of his choice. If somehow you get a 100 game hitting streak, you get four tickets to EVERY game of the World Series.



The main thing I want to say about the NCAA Men's Basketball Final is why the hell is it starting so early? 9:00 at night? Why don't they just start it at midnight so the 8 people in Hawaii who want to watch it will be home from work in time?

Finally, The Prediction, since I'm soooo close to the top of my hoops bracket challenge in 88,306th place:

In five games during the NCAA Tournament, Syracuse has beaten Texas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, the teams that finished second, third and fourth, respectively, in the Big 12. In January, the Orangemen beat Missouri, the fifth-place team in the conference. Only Kansas remains for the Orange to become Big 12 Champions.

Since I don't want to have to root against the team I like better, the pick is

Syracuse 86 Kansas 79

Friday, April 04, 2003

The Rise And Fall of Expectations

"I'm not just going to let Sammy add to his numbers against us" Art Howe, following the season's opening series against the Cubs who beat the Mets two out of three times.

It's a poor foreshadowing of the season when the biggest accomplishment of your opening series is reduced to holding Sammy Sosa from hitting his 500th homer against you. To do it, the Mets pitching staff had to walk Sosa 6 times out of 13 at bats. In a series in which they gave up 22 earned runs in 3 games, it's about the only thing outside of Al Leiter that you can say the pitching staff succeeded at.

The woeful tales of the inept are many. Mike Bacsic, who had once vied for the 5th spot in the rotation and was then reduced to a mop up role, pitched a perfect inning yesterday which brought his ERA down to still-unfathonable 27.00. Following the game he was sent back to the minors to make room for David Cone who may no longer be eligible for Social Security benefits once he takes the mound against the Expos on Saturday.

Yesterday, much like Tom Glavine's start on Opening Day, began with a bang by the Cubs when Steve Trachsel proved incapable of getting batters to make an out. Perhaps they should plagerize the Pentagon's crack slogan squad and call this the "Shock and Awe" School of Starting Pitching. Nine of the first thirteen Cubs batters reached base in the game against Steve Trachsel, as he allowed five runs through the first three innings and believe me, were it not for some inept baserunning by the Cubs, the bleeding could have been much worse. Trachsel picked off Corey Patterson and Mark Bellhorn in succession in the second. Sosa was thrown out at the plate trying to score on Alou's two-run double in the third, then Alou was nailed at home when he tagged up on a fly ball. Otherwise, this would have been much uglier.

I found a New Jersey paper on the train the other day and in it was an article which detailed the course of Art Howe's life and what a "tough" guy he is, apparently meant to offset the press questioning Howe's laid back reputation. Jason Giambi said "he's either the toughest nice guy or the nicest tough guy I've ever known" -- Well, that's a comfort if Art Howe's got my back in a bar fight but frankly, this laid back, everyone's happy as a hippy in a bed of flowers team mentality doesn't seem to be serving much point yet.

But perhaps it is unfair to place the blame on the shoulders of a maladroit pitching staff and its manager. After all, in the first three games of the season, the Mets have struck out a staggering 27 times. Hurray for Fat Mo that he's lost a little weight but he's hitting .143 and has struck out in nearly half of his at-bats.

So far, so bad. Yes, there was that inning or two of brief euphoria when the Mets almost resembled a Major League team instead of some sort of collective Max Patkin revival the other night but otherwise, it's been one act of ineptitude after another.


At the onset of the only game the Mets won out of the series, the capricious Met television color man Keith Hernandez pointed out what a crucial stat he believed an umpire's walks to strikeouts ratio was in determining how a game will play out. He asked viewers to consider the implications of an expanded or constricted strike zone both for the hitter and the pitcher. After a few innings of watching Cubs starter Mark Clement throw wild-pitch sliders all over the place, it seemed like a moot point, but I looked it up anyway later on the Umpire Statistics Page.

The purpose of the site, which provides statistics for handicapping, is to keep track of data on umpires to learn of any biases that may be inherent in the way an individual umpire calls balls and strikes or shows sentiment for or against the home team. It further notes that "psychological and other intangible factors might be used to explain why such behavior occurs."

According to this site's statistics, for the umpires who regularly worked games last season, of the four with the highest walks-per-9-innings ratio, only two are still umpires this season and the other two don't even appear on the All-Time Umpire Roster. What happened to them? Did they blow one too many calls? What do these mysterious disappearances mean? Maybe the days of Alfonso Marquez and Sam Holbrook will soon be numbered and they too, will disappear entirely, Hoffa-like, from the annals of baseball's history. Strange, perhaps even ominous stats.

Yesterday I discovered the existence of Diamond Mind Baseball which has very elaborate computer-projected standings (and analysis) for the 2003 season. They picked the Mets to finish last and while I'd like to feel disgruntled, last year they picked the Mets fourth and look where it got them.

Tuesday, April 01, 2003

New York Minute

For New York fans, the onset of the baseball season yesterday demonstrated two diametrically opposed outcomes yet two similarly ominous auguries for the coming season.

I'm still trying to digest and understand a few things leading up to yesterday's Yankee opener: First of all, the well-publicized Toronto Star advertisement featuring, at the top, a series of Japanese characters and their English translation: "Boo Matsui." In the middle of the ad was a Yankees cap with bird droppings on it. I hate the Yankees just as much as the next guy but let's face it, the ad doesn't make any sense. Why encourage the seven or eight Blue Jays fans out there to boo someone who hasn't even played a regular season game for the Yankees yet? Didn't someone like David Wells, who issued a wide range of slurs against Toronto fans like calling them "wool-hat wankers" and saying "Stick, puck, ice, missing teeth; this is the stuff these Canucks understand. Baseball seems entirely too complicated for 'em.", merit a full page ad? Jim Bloom, in his first year as their director of consumer marketing and obviously desperate to come up with some ideas on how to keep his job, claimed that they picked out Matsui because he was a "high profile" signing. So what? Jose Contreras was a "high profile" signing as well. Ask any Red Sox fan. Do you think some neophyte moron in the Red Sox promotional office is going to encourage fans to boo Contreras? If anything, they'd boo Steinbrenner, a better personification of any bitterness baseball fans have about the economic disparity between baseball teams. For that matter, if he was worth booing, would Red Sox fans be so stupid that the Red Sox would have to take out an ad encouraging their fans to boo him? I think they could figure it out all on their own.

Paul Godfrey, Blue Jays president and a former newspaper publisher, compared the bird-dropping promotion to a political cartoon. "We had to light a fire under our fans," he said. "We used the Yankees to a certain extent. I acknowledge that." Shares in the communications company owned by Toronto Blue Jays owner Ted Rogers have declined almost 70 percent since 2000. They haven't had a sellout since 1997, a frustrating five-year drought for the team's bottom line but maybe fielding a middle-of-the-road team that only flirts with .500 every season doesn't help. Crying about economic disparities not only doesn't help, it doesn't make any sense in the face of the success of teams like the Minnesota Twins and the Oakland A's, to name a few.

Some other nuggets from last night's game was the ridiculous pre-game ceremonies complete with blaring rap music that had nothing to do with baseball, dimmed house lights, a laser show and some very strange smoke effects which made the Skydome seem more like some cheesy downtown disco than the venue of a baseball game.

When some Blue Jays fans did boo Hideki Matsui, as Sunday's controversial advertisement recommended, Hideki Matsui slapped the first big-league pitch he saw to left for a two-out, RBI single in the first inning, immediately followed by the Yankees bonehead announcer's breathless little cheer: "Welcome to America, Hideki!" -- until he realized a few silent pauses later they were all in Canada, not America, d'oh!

The big news of course, was Derek Jeter suffering a dislocated left shoulder after a violent collision at third base with Toronto catcher Ken Huckaby. Joe Torre and his entire lineup circled around him in quiet concern, waiting in vain for an emergency vehicle as though there was no foresight by anyone in the Blue Jay organization that an emergency vehicle might be needed during the game. This too, seemed almost a comical misadventure. Was it stuck in the snow? Were they trying to make Jeter pay for the economic disparity between the Yankees and Blue Jays by pretending they couldn't afford an emergency vehicle/golf cart with stretcher to ferry him away in?

To add even more unsettling news, Jeter, who was taken to Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital for his X-rays, wore a surgical mask as a precautionary measure against the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus, a mysterious and potentially deadly respiratory illness that has led to Toronto residents being quarantined.

Personally, the most disgusting moment of the evening came when listening to a pre-recorded Céline Dion croak out her version of "God Bless America". First of all, the autocratic and criminal nature of Bud Selig was demonstrated yet again for those who didn't notice the first trillion times he has marred the beauty of baseball with his idiotic Milwaukee bureaucrat mentality. For some reason, Major League Baseball ordered "God Bless America" played during the seventh-inning stretch at all ball parks, including those which are not in America, as a show of respect and support for the American-led war in Iraq. While this is bad enough, having a creepy and talentless washout like Céline Dion sing it, made it even somehow even worse.


On the other side of the coin of course, was the miserable, Titanic-like disaster in Shea Stadium yesterday by the "new" Mets who lost in the worst Opening Day defeat in the major leagues since the Cubs trounced the St. Louis Browns 17-3 in 1951.

"I can rest a lot better after a game like this," Art Howe said, "than if we'd lost 4-2 or 2-1.".

The papers were right, this Art Howe IS a laid back guy. If the Mets play the rest of the season like they did yesterday, Howe will have plenty of time to rest pretty soon. In fact, he can take the second half of the season off because there won't be much point in playing it.

Where shall we start, Met minions? This is 2002 redux only this time, there is no Bobby Valentine, with his fake nose and moustache or his "stoned batter" trying to swing at a 90 mph fastball impressions to keep us loose, only Art Howe and his unnerving unwillingness to appear concerned about anything but being relaxed. Look, we've got more bad defense to look forward to! More mental lapses to anticipate! More incendiary relief pitching count on! More quotes about this being only one game and there being an entire season ahead of us, etc.

It's as though the baseball gods want Met fans to know right off the bat: fuggetaboutit. Glavine's harsh downturn in the second half of last season and his hideous post season performances were a portent of the misery to come. That's why the Mets were able to sign him in the first place. Mercifully, whatever faint Opening Day optimism might have been allowed germinate was quickly killed when Glavine gave up enough runs to lose within the first ten minutes of the game. Some people say he didn't sound, after the game, like a man making excuses so much as a man who knew exactly why and how he failed. So cheer up fans. Glavine isn't washed up. The reason he just looks like he is was because yesterday was cold and windy. He couldn't feel his fingers to feel his change up he says. So let's remember that when it's sunny and 90 degrees outside and Glavine is throwing no-hitters every afternoon.

And do you think Roger Cedeño isn't spending all his free time trying to cook up more excuses for why he looks like he's chasing hot dog wrappers on a windy day when a fly ball is hit his way? "I couldn't see the ball", Cedeño said yesterday of his comical misplay of a fly ball in the seventh inning. I'm not trying to make excuses, but the sun was right there, I looked up and there it was." Absolute genius, I say. He looks up, on a sunny day, and wow, there it was, the sun. He and Cliff Floyd, the Laurel and Hardy of outfield play, will be hard at work all season to explain their mistakes during nightgames for example: "The moonlight got in my eyes?", or "it was too dark to see?".

Yes, the Mets "only" lost one game today, but before the fans get too excited, it should be noted that was only because it's too early in the season for doubleheaders.