Monday, June 25, 2012

Someone who works for the Devils has a fabulous sense of humor

I have spent many inches on this blog over the last six weeks writing about the complicated and intertwined history held by the New Jersey Devils and the New York Rangers. They have bumped heads many times and done so with an enormous amount at stake on a few occasions, and I was not shy this spring as a Devils fan about how defeating New York in overtime in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals felt not simply like a victory, but an exorcism. There is a reason it felt so amazing, however, and while it does involve the complex psychological underpinnings of always feeling underappreciated and overshadowed by standing in the shadows of a far less successful, but nonetheless marquee neighbor across the river. And the deepest wound ever caused by that dynamic can be summed up by three words every Devils and Rangers fan will immediately recognize as a symbol of what happened in May of 1994.

"Matteau! Matteau! Matteau!"

There are no words that can describe how important that moment has been in the psyche of both franchises. For the Rangers, it was one more dramatic step toward finally ending that most embarrassing and frustrating of Cup-less streaks, and for the Devils it was a reminder that no matter how successful -- and more importantly how much more successful than the Rangers they were -- it would never really matter in the eyes of most because the Rangers run this market. Stephane Matteau's game-winner in double overtime of Game 7 in 1994 has been etched into the minds of fans of both teams as evidence, so much so that it's somewhat overlooked that he also scored a pivotal double-overtime winner in Game 3 of that series after the Devils had achieved a split in the first two games in New York.

To this day the word "Matteau" has made Devils fans shudder and Ranger fans tickle with glee. And it's that basic, universal knowledge of fans from both teams that made it so noteworthy this past weekend when the Devils decided to do something dramatic that turned the entire dynamic between the two teams surrounding that moment on its head.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

R.A. Dickey Is Pitching Better Than Anyone In Major League Baseball History

It had always been one of my hopes as a Mets fan that when the law of large numbers and probability finally got together and decided that it was time for the Amazins to toss a no-hitter, I would be in the stands by some mystical bit of luck. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be, but given that I will soon be out of the country for three weeks, I'm just glad Johan's no-no came around when I was in the country and able to sprint around the East Village until I found a sports bar that had it on. Last night was the first time I had gone to Citi Field since that game and I suppose it was some small consolation that Santana was honored during the pregame last night -- though I was in line at Blue Smoke at the time -- but then I saw something that just might have been better.

Robert Allen Dickey.

Few things are more exciting than a no-hitter and R.A. Dickey was unable to toss one, but my goodness did he come close. When he surrendered a clean single in the fifth inning there was an audible moan of disappointment from the crowd because everyone in the building knew he was fooling hitters well enough that a no-no wasn't out of the question Monday night and sure enough the stat line would prove us right when Dickey didn't give up another hit for the rest of the game -- for the second start in a row. When all was said and done last night Dickey got his MLB-best 11th win of the season off of nine shutout innings in which he surrendered one hit and two walks, struck out a career high 13 batters and even went 1 for 3 at the plate himself.

While part of me is disappointed at how close I came to seeing a no-hitter, it was still the first one-hitter I had ever seen in person and, without a doubt, the most dominant pitching performance I've ever seen in person, remarkable considering Santana had just grabbed that title at the last game I saw on May 26th. But Dickey's performance was as dominant as anything I've ever seen, and amazingly, it hasn't been particularly out of the ordinary lately. The last time Dickey surrendered an earned run was on May 22. Over his last five starts since then Dickey has surrendered a mere 16 hits, set a franchise record for consecutive innings without a run, consecutive innings without giving up a hit and become the first pitcher in history to go five consecutive starts without allowing an earned run and striking out at least eight batters.

In fact, over his last seven starts, as someone like me who lucked out by picking Dickey up off the waiver wire in his fantasy league months ago might tell you, his strikeout totals have been 8, 11, 10, 9, 8, 12 and his 13 last night. The walks he's given up in that stretch? Six. Total. In 54.2 innings. Dickey hasn't even lost a decision since April 18, winning his last night, and his ERA has dropped from 5.71 to a flat 2.00 even in the process. He's now nipping at the heels of Doc Gooden's club record of 49.0 innings pitched without giving up an earned run. Last night, Dickey capped -- or maybe simply continued -- his remarkable run by becoming the first pitcher since Dave Stieb in 1988 to toss consecutive one-hitters and the first NL pitcher to turn the trick since Jim Tobin of the Boston Braves did it 68 years ago.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

At Long Last, I Shaved Last Night

The first hockey game I went to this season was on October 13, 2011 when the Los Angeles Kings visited the New Jersey Devils. The most notable fact from that game was that Martin Brodeur, already considered mildly shaky entering his 20th season during which he'd turn 40, tweaked his shoulder in the first period, making some wonder if it was another sign that he had entered the relative fragility of middle age and might not be an NHL-caliber player much longer. With Johan Hedberg serving as the backup, the two teams played a fairly tight game until the Devils wound up picking up the extra point in a 2-1 shootout win, something my roommate at the time, Aleem, who went to the game with me, had been rooting for for the sheer entertainment value even though I pointed out to him that a shootout victory was less significant in the standings than one in regulation or overtime.

It was the Devils' third game of the 2011-12 regular season.

Never in my wildest dreams when this season began did I ever think the Devils would get close to winning the Stanley Cup, nor did I think the Kings against the Devils would be the matchup in both the first game I saw this season and the last. Really, all I hoped for was that the Devils would make the playoffs after what had been a dismal 2010-11 season in which they missed the playoffs for the first time since before my 11th birthday. In fact, I distinctly recall having a debate with one of my coworkers about whether or not they'd even make the postseason. I felt they were a fairly safe pick to finish in the top eight, but he said there were 11 teams in the Eastern Conference he all thought were better.

It was a stunning surprise in many ways to see this team that seemed mediocre at best come within two wins of lifting the Stanley Cup nine months later, and this was a postseason run that delivered significant drama, thrills I will take with me for the rest of my life and two deeply satisfying postseason series in which New Jersey vanquished its biggest rivals in consecutive rounds and finally just may have put to bed the pain of 1994. To hope for a taste of the postseason and receive a run that very nearly ended in a championship should be something richly enjoyable.

And yet, last night as I walked to my bathroom to retrieve my scissors, razor and shaving gel I felt dead inside. That's just the way it goes.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Will Tonight Be The End Of The Run For My Playoff Beard?

I woke up with an overwhelmingly large out-of-control beard this morning. In 24 hours, it's entirely possible that there will be nothing left. I have mentioned on more than one occasion here my tattered history with sports beards and considering this is just the second time I have grown one out for the New Jersey Devils it is by far the most successful venture yet. The only other attempt was nipped in the bud by a five-game loss in the first round to Philadelphia and my "Mets to .500" beard in 2009 was even less impressive. It is somewhat strange that this is the superstitious tack I've chosen considering I really hate having a beard but here we are.

To be honest, I cannot wait to shave. The hair on my face is bushy, often uncomfortable and not even close to soft even if varying opinions tell me it actually looks pretty good. Despite that I yearn eagerly for the moment that my cheeks will be free and clear and I can lay them on my pillow comfortably with no rough follicles in the way, and I just may get that chance tonight.

But good lord, I hope not.

In my life of watching sports -- and I have watched a lot of sports -- I have seen my favorite team reach the championship round of its sport 13 times including the 2012 Stanley Cup Final. Some of those experiences have been far more satisfying than others, but I have never, ever, ever witnessed a championship that is likely to have a final score this misleading or that has been this frustrating to watch. Of all my memories of John Starks clanging a three-pointer in Game 6, Armando Benitez being unable to strike out Paul O'Neill, Keith Hamilton being flagged for a phantom defensive holding call or the Devils being unable to close out a Cup Final with Game 6 at home, this has been the series that has delivered the most squeal-inducing head-hanging moments.

When the history of this series is written after it has ended in four or five games -- the odds don't really give a good chance of it lasting longer than that -- people will see that the Kings won their first-ever Stanley Cup in a 4-0 series sweep or a dominant 4-1 performance to cap a remarkable romp through the postseason. But as a Devils fan, to know that people will think your team faded meekly through the night after a remarkable postseason run of its own is disappointing considering it wasn't a dominant romp at all.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Johan Santana and the Night I Never Thought I'd Live To See

Bar on A is a pretty low-key establishment. It's at the corner of 11th street and Avenue A, it's not particularly nice, and last night the bartender appeared to have some bizarre foreign accent even though talking with her revealed that she was from Long Island. I've been to this bar many many times, mostly because they have a happy hour deal where all draughts are $3 -- though I found out last night the price had jumped to $4. In a lot of ways it's one of several default bars I lean to throughout the city, and it serves its purpose just fine even if it lacks anything particularly noteworthy about it.

I was checking the score of the Mets game while I was sitting at the bar, and I saw the Mets were winning, 2-0 at first, 8-0 later on. The Mets are doing surprisingly well at the moment and I was happy to see another win on its way, but I wasn't particularly struck by the zero in the scoreline. It seemed like another of many insignificant wins all like the other that are nice in the moment but not ones you'll remember forever. Around 9:30 however, my friend Weg texted me with two words.

"You watching?"

It took a few seconds to register, and I told him that I was at a bar and all I knew was the score, when suddenly it hit me. Johan Santana was throwing a no-hitter. And I wasn't watching.

To try to understand what a no-hitter would mean to a fan of the New York Mets is to undertake an exercise in diagnosing those specific pains and neuroses that plague the suffering. The Mets are a franchise rich in pitching history with men like Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Doc Gooden and others that have all toed the rubber in Queens at one point or another. This has been the backbone of the organization through its first 8,000 games and yet with all that talent and all the opportunities, the no-no remained elusive.

There have been plenty of close calls. Most Mets fans can recall the near-misses even if they weren't there to see them, such as Jon Niese's flirtation with a no-no earlier this year, a stretch in 2003 in which the Mets carried a no-no into the fifth inning or later on three straight days, or the three times Seaver got into the ninth inning without allowing a hit. People who know the team's history can tell you with ease that it was journeyman Jimmy Qualls of the Reds who broke up Seaver's perfect game bid in 1969 with one out in the ninth inning. They can also tell you that the Mets' 35 one-hitters are, comically, the most of any team in Major League History. And yet, those 35 times they just couldn't keep that one base hit off the scorecard.

In a sense, the lack of a no-hitter became almost a badge of honor for the team, but one we eagerly awaited shedding while accepting that it was a moment almost certainly never meant to be.