Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Pave paradise. Put up a parking lot.

Much has happened in my life since 2006. I've graduated college, moved to New York and worked in a job long enough to vest a pension. I've seen two siblings get married, two cousins and countless friends across the U.S. I've gone on vacations to 21 countries across four continents. I've seen 53 new major league teams in five different sports play home games across 33 cities in four countries over three continents. I've seen the Giants win a Super Bowl unexpectedly, collapse into mediocrity and then unexpectedly win the Super Bowl again. I've seen three of my four favorite North American teams move into new buildings, I've seen Bruce Springsteen in concert six times and I've even become an uncle.

I have not, however, seen the New York Mets play a postseason baseball game.

That drought, mercifully, will end next week when the Mets face (and possibly host?) the Los Angeles Dodgers on Oct. 9 in Game 1 of the National League Division Series. That I may be hiking in Glacier National park at the time makes me a bit anxious, but with the magic of modern technology, I'm clinging desperately to the hope that I will still be able to see the magic on a phone or at a local bar. But the fact that it is happening at all, is important. The life of a Mets fan, so often, is an exercise in masochism or, if one wants to believe it ultimately serves a higher purpose, asceticism.

I am not one of those people. There is not higher calling or ultimate lifestyle reward for being a Mets fan. In fact, so often there is no reward at all, large or small. That has been particularly true over the past near-decade since Carlos Beltran was unable to get the bat off his shoulder (though given the nastiness of a 2006-Adam Wainright curveball I refuse to be one of those who still bears resentment against Beltran). The last nine years of living with the Mets has included two epic collapses, the acquisition of one of the greatest pitchers of his era only to see him breakdown over the course of his contract, a ponzi-scheme fueled bankruptcy, front office turmoil and, and yes I know I've mentioned this, but it cannot be stressed enough, a high-ranking front office employee who challenged a clubhouse full of minor leaguers to a fight.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

NFL Picks Week Three: This entry canceled by the Pope

Some of you following the news this week may have noticed that some guy named Frank is visiting New York today and tomorrow, which is apparently bringing every Catholic out of the would work. The Pope is in town and that means tons of traffic changes, early office closings and New York generally being in a dizzy tizzy. The upshot of this is that I am also too busy to write a full entry in this blog -- or at least too lazy -- because the holy father has made it so.

Pope Francis will curiously not be hosting a mass at Yankee Stadium, which is the typical public location for a sitting pope to do so out of concern for his exhaustion, but he will be hosting a mass at Madison Square Garden. This, I believe, is the closest this trip will get to anything sports-related, which is a damn shame considering John Paul II's visit to St. Louis in the late 1990s that included a private audience with Mark McGwire, and a hilarious photo of him receiving an authentic jersey from the St. Louis Blues that I have to imagine he wore regularly around St. Peter's. He certainly wasn't wearing it around the rink.

I don't much believe in Catholicism or the Pope's significance on a religious level (which really shouldn't be a surprised considering the obvious), but I will admit I know people that need his guidance. The New York Giants have a rare Thursday night tilt against the Washington Redskins tonight, and if anyone could use the help of a higher power to get back on the straight and narrow, it's probably my boys in blue. Following consecutive back-breaking losses that could otherwise have the Giants in commanding early position in the NFC East, the Giants need a win desperately to get back into the race, which is a lot to say in Week 3 of the season, but it isn't wrong.

It is rare that both the New York Giants and the Holy Father are in the same general geographic area at the same time -- there aren't many football fields in the Vatican, though I hear there are some good livestock shows -- but I can only hope some of his influence can rub off on Big Blue as they make a bid to save their season. If Francis manages to have an impact on his brief visit to New York, well, maybe I'll start believing in miracles.

If nothing else he might leave with a pretty sweet personalized jersey.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Just what does it take to turn around a hat trick day gone wrong?

Those of you who read this space regularly (and feel free to let me know if you do personally, because I'm pretty sure I could count you on one hand) are probably aware that on those sublime, fortunate afternoons and nights where three different teams I root for win, I like to boast that I've had a hat trick day. Some of those days are truly memorable. Some, however, are not. And then there are those special inverse hat trick days that are so brutally painful that you start to question why you wrap up so much emotion in a trivial event you have no direct influence on in the first place.

Then again, maybe it's not so much that I have no direct influence as it is that I wore the wrong Eli Manning jersey yesterday. We can't really know for sure.

The point is, it often takes something pretty remarkable to overturn the misery of an inverse hat trick day, let alone one where all three teams you're following happen to blow leads in the process. Yesterday, I got to test the theory of just how unlikely a positive occurrence you need to be connected to to truly block out that kind of disappointment, particularly when, at one point, it looked like I might be in for a pretty damned good day.

It all started around 11:12 a.m. ET as I sat in my office watching Southampton, which has not exactly set the world on fire like it did a year ago when the Saints spent half the season in second place in the table. Yesterday the Saints were playing those irritating 800-lb. gorillas known as Manchester United, the type of outfit that overspends to the point that you can mock their inefficiency, but still get steamed that even if quadrupling your payroll only gives them a better team than yours by a hair, they've still got that single hair. At that time, Southampton striker Graziano Pelle had slammed an easy rebound into the net to give the Saints a 1-nil lead over United, which got me thinking I could be in for a hell of a day.

At 11 Southampton faced Manchester United. At 1 the Giants opened their 2015 home schedule against the Atlanta Falcon. At 8 the Mets looked to cap a Subway Series win against the Yankees. And finally, at that same time, the Emmys would be happening out in Los Angeles. Typically, I don't care that much about the Emmys, but, see, I knew a guy who was nominated or something.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

NFL Picks Week Two: Let's do everyone a favor and not talk about last week

Ok, look. I'm not going to go into my complaints and frustration from the Giants' colossal meltdown against the Cowboys in Week One. I mean, sure, the clock management was totally screwy, the refusal to run for short yardage out of a spread is a constant reminder than football coaches accept change slower than eroding mountains and the idea that somehow a one-possession lead with 90 seconds left is better than a two-posession lead with two minutes left is, you know, nuts.

But look on the bright side!

....

See?

Ok, so when you think about it, there are, at least some positives to cling to. The Giants' defense looked far better than many anticipated, with the notable exception of backup middle linebacker Uani' Unga being picked on like a the nerdy kid at lunch during Dallas' winning drive. While the Giants still only have themselves to blame for not ultimately winning, you can also include the fact that the Cowboys got a little bit of home cooking. New York won the turnover battle and more or less held its own in a road game against one of the League's title favorites that any sane person would say it should have won.

I take a mild bit of reassurance from that, or maybe I just get a reminder than the difference in the NFL between great and terrible is razor thin, but the important thing is that I've emotionally moved on from a colossally frustrating season opener. I haven't lost hope even if the betting public has. After all, the Giants would have won a huge season-opening game if it wasn't for a few easily fixable mistakes. So, the logic goes, fix the mistakes, the wins will start coming, right?

Thursday, September 10, 2015

NFL Picks Week One: It's the fourth year of the cycle, everybody!

Tons of great things happy every four years. In the world of sports, we see how intensive training and a strict doping regimen can produce thrilling competitions at the Olympic Games. In politics we witness first hand how much money it takes to buy the Presidency. Scientists gather to find out what cool things we can do with dirt. And in the NFL, it's starting to appear that against all odds, something truly crazy happens.

Every four years, the New York Giants beat the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.

I know, I know. Two Super Bowl titles four years apart does not a trend make. But when one looks at how totally zany those two title runs were, and how much better the Patriots, Packers or any other team the Giants played during those runs objectively were (2007 Buccaneers and 2011 Falcons excluded), one has to wonder if something strange isn't in the air. The Giants were a combined 19-13 over those two seasons compared to a combined 29-3 mark from the 2007 and 2011 Pats. New York was mediocre in most statistical categories, suffered coach-jeopardizing losing streaks and barely scrambled their way into the postseason in both seasons. Both Super Bowl victories required a late fourth-quarter touchdown drive that involved a mind-altering catch to pull off an upset. Each Super Bowl berth required an unexpected overtime field goal on the road against a superior opponent in perilous weather conditions. Each championship, in order to occur, would require its own series of implausible and improbably events.

And yet at the beginning of February, there we were, twice watching Eli Manning, the quarterback who had been a poster child for aloofness and unfulfilled expectations, lifting the Lombardi Trophy with a big ol' "Screw you" grin on his face.

No one really knows how all that happens, but there must be a reason. There must be an outside force affecting the data. And so, much like my belief that the Chicago Cubs must actually be cursed, something has predetermined the Giants' cyclical success. Some higher power has preordained that New York will upset the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl every four years. It's as dependable as the globe's greatest soil scientists gathering quadrennially to talk about earth.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

What on Earth is going on here?

This is not my team. These are not the Mets I know.

In my emotionally-scarring 2.5 decades of baseball fandom I have grown used to scars and disappointment, to collapses and anemic offenses, to insurmountable deficits left insurmounted against mentally stronger foes. What I have never grown used to, what I may never grow used to, is watching this team give up a crooked number and have anything resembling "confidence" that it was capable of a rally.

And so, after last night's stunning comeback, which not only gave the Mets a six-game lead in the NL East but also may have provided the back-breaking moment that puts the proverbial fork in the Washington Nationals, I ask the one question that continues to run through my mind as I try to contain my youthful glee.

"What on Earth is going on?"

The New York Mets, suddenly, are good. Like, really good. On July 31, the Mets opened a three-game series against the Nationals coming off two losses and trailing Washington by three games. That night Wilmer Flores, who days before was crying on the field when he thought he was on the verge of being traded, hit a walkoff home run, sparking a stretch that has seen the Mets go 25-11. In that span, New York has made up a shocking nine games on Washington in the standings while winning all five games between the teams.

Friday, September 4, 2015

We'll Always Have San Francisco.

My plan for today was to write about the impending doom that is going to be Northwestern's 2015 college football season -- and fear not, I'm sure I will have more than enough to say about that over the next few months -- but as so often happens in "journalism" breaking news is going to take priority. As the minor leagues opened their football season this weekend (and yeah, they're pros, they just don't get paid), the New York Giants decided to cut a link to their past as the NFL's 2015 campaign is about to dawn next week.

In a move that isn't a terrible surprise to anyone who has watched the Giants for the past two season, New York decided to cut punter Steve Weatherford on Friday. Normally this isn't the type of personnel move that generates much publicity, and for people that pay attention to other teams, it may only seem noteworthy because of Weatherford's famous physique rather than his punting. In fact, his punting over most of his Giants career, in which he pinned opponents inside the 20 yard line 24.25 times a season compared to 42 times in 2010 with the New York Jets, has been relatively average. Last season he finished 18th in the League in average punting distance and 25th in net average distance. Even if you're a fan favorite and a famous physical freak, average is a bad thing to be when you're a punter with a cap hit of more than $3 million in the coming season.

In Weatherford's stead the Giants will apparently be employing Brad Wing as their punter after he was acquired in a trade with the Pittsburgh Steelers not long after Weatherford was cut. Wing is far less experienced, with just one NFL season under his belt, but his numbers last season were better than Weatherford's and he counts $2.5 million less against the cap to boot. I'm actually quite excited for Wing because he's an Aussie who grew up playing my favorite sport nobody knows about (apparently Geelong didn't know about the sport this season either), and the skills he has as a result of playing footy gives him an extra dimension the Giants could exploit, as LSU did during his college days.

Now, cutting a punter usually flies relatively under the radar, and most fans of a team might be unable to have any emotional reaction whatsoever. After all, punters are one of the most unsung players on the field despite being among the most important even if they shouldn't be. I tend to find myself heavily in the camp of "coaches punt way too often," but even if I believe that to be the case, I can recognize when a punter is having a good day. And furthermore I can recognize when a punter has a great day.

I bring this up, and I feel sentimental about this whole thing, because on January 22, 2012, Steve Weatherford basically won the 2011 NFC Championship Game for the Giants.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

It's been a while. Please be gentle.

The Mets are in first place. It's September. These are two sentences I haven't been able to say successively in nearly a decade. In fact, September 19, 2008 was the last time the Mets could say they held the best record in the NL East in the final full month of a Major League season. That's a span of 2,539 days. Or 60,936 hours. Or 3,656,160 minutes. Or 219,369,600 sec--

Look. You get the point.

It's been a long time since the Mets were in first place or even close to first place with a realistic shot at the postseason. The last time New York was in a pennant race, 23-year-old me was pulling his hair out watching the motley crew of Luis Ayala, Aaron Heilman and Scott Schoeneweis fritter away game after game after game. It was a distinctly different era in my life, where the immediate post-college years filled themselves with booze and frivolity, refusing to acknowledge that at some point the summer camp period of young adulthood ends and you have to figure out your future. Now, at 30, things are so different.

I mean, yes, I still work for the same company, live in the same apartment and I'm still a bachelor. But they're different, I swear.

That season, even as I watched a mediocre bullpen torpedo what should have been a World Series contender (The Mets, who lost the division by three games, would have won it by 12 if all games ended after eight innings instead of nine), I was safe in the naive notion that a big-budget club from the World's largest media market with a burgeoning super star third baseman and the best pitcher on the planet in Johan Santana was certain to stay competitive for years to come.

In fact, the next season when the Mets brought in K-Rod and J.J. Putz to shore up those bullpen concerns, Sports Illustrated went so far as to tab the Mets as its presumptive World Series favorite in its 2009 MLB preview issue. They finished 70-92.