Saturday, December 24, 2016

December '81: Green and White Clad Santa Brings Big, Long Overdue Gift to New York Football Fans

TO BE POLITE, the 1970s were unkind to New York football fans. To be blunt, they sucked.

The Jets, having stunned the world with their Super Bowl III triumph over the Baltimore Colts in 1969, paid a heavy karmic price for quarterback Joe Namath's victory guarantee and never posted a winning season.

All-purpose back Bruce Harper
and offensive lineman
Marvin Powell
The Giants had just one, rolling up a 9-5 record in 1970, during what should have been a victory lap for their intracity rivals. They also had no home, bounding like an unwanted relative from Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, to New Haven, Connecticut's Yale Bowl, to Shea Stadium in Queens and finally to the swamps of New Jersey, where the team christened its eponymous new stadium in 1976 by winning three contests and losing 11.

Hobbled by injuries, Namath's decline was precipitous and, by 1977, he was placed on waivers and claimed by the Los Angeles Rams. A succession of successors to championship coach Weeb Ewbank, failed to stem the losing tide.

The Giants' humiliating nadir came on a November day in 1978 when running back Larry Csonka, playing out the string in Hackensack, NJ after a hall of fame career in Miami, failed to corral quarterback Joe Pisarcik's handoff with less than 30 seconds remaining.

The ensuing fumble, scooped up and run into the Giants' end zone by Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Herman Edwards, converted a sure 17-12 victory into a 19-17 defeat.

The Jets, for good measure, lost by the same score that day, to the New England Patriots. They would finish the season 8-8, a five game improvement from the prior year, while the Giants would go 6-10. Each team would, bizarrely, replicate those records in 1979. Then, in 1980, each finished 4-12.

If there was a bright center of the pro football universe, New York was the planet it was farthest from.

But bad teams get good draft picks and, picking consecutively in the 1981 National Football League draft, the Giants selected hulking linebacker Lawrence Taylor as the second overall choice, while the Jets took the dazzling-if-fragile halfback Freeman McNeil as the third.

... vs. the Packers, Dec. 20, 1981
An NY win would send the Jets
and the Giants to the post-season.
On field, the teams' performance during the first six weeks of the 1981 season suggested little had changed. The Jets dropped their first three games before sandwiching two wins around a tie. On Oct. 11, their record stood at 2-3-1. The Giants, after winning two of their first three, promptly lost a pair before producing another victory, evening their record at 3-3.

From there, the Jets took off. Buoyed by the gutsy play of quarterback Richard Todd and a ferocious defensive line -- Mark Gastineau, Abdul Salaam, Marty Lyons and Joe Klecko, a unit that collectively came to be known as the New York Sack Exchange -- Gang Green reeled off seven victories in nine games.

Among them, a stunning 16-15 victory over the division rival Miami Dolphins in which Todd, playing with a cracked rib and sprained ankle, threw a game winning touchdown to tight end Jerome Barkum with just seconds to spare.

By Dec. 20, the last Sunday of the regular season, the 9-5-1 Jets were scheduled to play the Green Bay Packers. On the line: a berth in the American Football Conference Wild Card game.

The Giants' seesaw season saw them win three in a row twice, while enduring a 1-3 stretch in between. Their regular season had ended the day before with a 13-10 victory over the Dallas Cowboys. With a 9-7 record, they needed help to make the post season. They needed the Jets to beat Green Bay.

And the Jets delivered. With Todd tossing two TDs, running backs Bruce Harper and Kevin Long adding two more and the defense sacking GB QB Lynn Dickey nine times, they dispatched the Packers, 28-3.

Christmas had come early. New York's wallflower football teams were going to the Wild Card dance. With both games set for Dec. 27, the Giants would journey to Philadelphia, while the Jets would host the Buffalo Bills at Shea.

The only NFL playoff game ever played at Shea
Dec. 27, 1981
Of course, for the Jets, disaster is never far from view.

Harper fumbled his return of the opening kickoff. Sixteen seconds in, the visitors led 7-0. By the second quarter, Buffalo increased that lead to 24-0. The New Yorkers fought back, posting 13 unanswered points before the Bills struck again.

As the game clock wound down, Buffalo had the lead, 31-27, but the Jets had the ball and Todd was driving. With 10 seconds remaining, Bills defensive back Bill Simpson intercepted a pass at the one yard line, sealing the victory for the visitors.

It would be the only NFL playoff game ever played at Shea.* In 1984, they'd join the Giants at the Meadowlands. Meanwhile, down the interstate in Philadelphia, the future landlords beat the Eagles 27-21. Their season would end on Jan. 5 with a 38-24 loss to the eventual Super Bowl XVII winner San Francisco 49ers.

But the dreadful decade, 1970-1980, was over. Todd and the Jets would lose the 1982 AFC championship to the Dolphins in a mud-mired game in Miami. The Giants, in 1986, would beat the Denver Broncos to win Super Bowl XXI.

* To be sure, Shea hosted two American Football League Jets playoff games in 1968 and 1969.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Monday, October 24, 2016

Confessions of a Cubs Bandwagon Jumper

``YOU ARE A WAGON-JUMPING FRAUD," my wife told me on Sunday.

She's right. I am. Guilty as charged. Wearing a blue Chicago Cubs t-shirt on the day after they'd won their first National League pennant since 1945, what right have I -- a life-long Mets fan -- to cheer for a team I avoided supporting for almost a decade while living just blocks from Wrigley Field?

Last place Mets beat
the 5th place Cubs, 2-0.
None really.

Bandwagon jumper. Hypocrite. Front-runner. Fraud. "You're honor, the defendant would like to enter a plea of `Nolo contendre.'" Still, I can't help but cheer for the team I expressly rejected in favor of their less-popular intra-city rivals, the White Sox, while there.

My meager, pathetic justification is this:

I was born in an NL New York household, a son of Brooklynites abandoned by the Dodgers and morally unwilling and unable to embrace the Yankees, an act my father said was tantamount to cheering for the First National City Bank.

So, it was root for the Mets and whoever was against the Yankees, a pretty easy edict, even after I left home in 1983 for college in Boston, where the enemy of my enemy was the Red Sox. That all changed of course in 1986, when the formerly-down-trodden Mets -- who were a last place team in '83, 82, 79, 78 and 77 -- collided with the still-hexed Sox in the 1986 World Series.

There comes a time in every fan's life where his loyalty is tested, where the ties that bind one, heart and soul, to the old home team are strained by circumstance, by peer pressure, by the urge to try a new relationship. And so it was that I had blended with Red Sox nation. I wore the clothes, I bought $3 bleacher seats. I munched Sports Bars, drank beer and imbibed the lore... about the heartaches wrought by Series losses in '46 and '67 and '75, Pesky's hesitation, Gibson's dominance, Armbrister's interference. I already knew about the karmic wound inflicted by Bucky "Bleeping" Dent.

Dykstra led off with a homer.
The Mets never trailed.
Still, I was in Boston and the Mets I'd left behind had inflicted their own karmic wounds. I'd seen Neil Allen hang too many curveballs swatted into oblivion by the likes of the Cubs' Dave Kingman and the Philadelphia Phillies' Bo Diaz.

How much worse could it be to root for the Red Sox? Dumb question, right? For feckless me, it wasn't really one I had to answer. Red Sox history was something I learned in college. The Mets were my religion. When forced to choose, my faith won out.

And so it would be, 20 years later, when I found myself moving to Chicago while the White Sox were the champs and the Mets seemed to be a rising NL East power.

Why adopt the Cubs? Why absorb their lore: the Billy Goat curse, Leon Durham's error, the Steve Bartman incident? Why should I -- by then a long-suffering Mets, Jets and Islanders fan -- take on their burden when I had better options? Besides, rooting for another NL team was a conflict of interest (a rule I still observe to this day).

Cynical, middle-aged me.

For a time, it worked, especially for one golden inning on an ungodly hot Summer Sunday at Wrigley Field when the Mets pummeled a succession of Cubs pitchers for 11 runs, including three homers, two of which were grand slams.

The rising power Mets were soon humiliated by an Adam Wainwright curveball in the Autumn of '06, then bedeviled by late-season collapses in '07 and '08, failures that coincided with back-to-back NL Central titles for the Cubs and another playoff appearance for the White Sox.

Struggling Mets 7,
Struggling Cubs 4
Still, having left New York, more or less for good, I clung more tenaciously to my roots, my Mets, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health. But the Cubs, their fans and their city made a deep impression, one that remains to this day.

Truth is I had a sneaking admiration for the Cubs' aesthetic, the classic uniforms, the bullseye logo largely unchanged since I was a kid, the ballpark, the neighborhood, the absurdly optimistic fight song sung there with conviction. "Go Cubs! Go!"

Chicagoans care passionately about their city. It may seem to those who don't live there that it's one big free-fire zone, but it's not, and everyone wants it to be a better place. The people who live there have a civic pride the likes of which I've never known. The Cubs evoke an even deeper passion. Despite 108 years of failure, their fans endure. Their enthusiasm never wanes. Even with ample justification. Their hope never dies. They've suffered and suffered and suffered some more.

They've paid their dues in spades.

Meanwhile the Mets are done until next Spring. Unlike last season, there are no operable conflicts of interest. With all due respect to fans of the Cleveland Indians -- waiting since 1948 for a World Series winner to call their own -- the Cubs and their fans have waited 40 years more. I want this for them.

Go Cubs, Go!

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Sunday, October 16, 2016

1981 Coda: Les Expos Nous Souviens

A PERPETUAL FIRE SALEAnyone who came of age after the wrecked season of 1994 can be forgiven for thinking the Montreal Expos were never anything but that. To all appearances they were a forlorn franchise in a foreign outpost whose destiny it was to develop top-flight players and then part with them.

The roster of the departed is as dazzling is it is dispiriting.
  • Pedro Martinez, 2015 Hall of Fame inductee, traded after winning the 1997 National League Cy Young to the Boston Red Sox for the oft-injured Carl Pavano;
  • Five-tool right fielder Vladimir Guerrero, who arrived in 1996, quickly became a perennial MVP candidate and finally won the award in 2005, his first season with the then-Anaheim Angels;
  • Oufielder Larry Walker graduated to the club in 1989, batted .322 in 1994, then left for a 10-year stint with the Colorado Rockies, where he won three batting titles and the 1997 MVP award;
  • Closer John Wetteland left after '94, then saved 74 games for the New York Yankees over the next two years, the second of which was a championship season;
  • plus '94 All-Star pitcher Ken Hill and All-Star outfielder Marquis Grissom and, later, All-Star outfielder Moises Alou
  • and after the 2004 season, the entire franchise, removed to Washington as the Nationals.
La serie soulement.
It wasn't always that way. There was a time when the Expos were a rising force in the National League with a roster that included ratified Hall of Famers Gary Carter and Andre Dawson, the Hall-worthy Tim Raines and ace reliever Jeff Reardon, a/k/a "The Terminator."

Their high-water mark was the strike-torn 1981 season. A microcosm of Expos' history, it ended sadly.

Though treading water for much of the 1970s, the team was accumulating talented players, starter Steve Rogers arrived in '73, Carter in '74, rifle-armed right fielder Ellis Valentine in '75, outfielder Warren Cromartie for keeps in '76, NL Rookie of the Year Dawson in '77, versatile Tim Wallach in '80 and Raines in '81, the year they dealt Valentine to the New York Mets for Reardon.

After finishing 10 games below. 500 in 1978, they burst into the upper echelon of the NL East, winning 95 games the next year and finishing two back of the eventual World Champion Pittsburg Pirates. Attendance at their cavernous concrete saucer, Olympic Stadium, jumped too, from 1.4 million to 2.1 million. 

While winning just 90 games the next season, they edged closer, finishing a game behind the eventual World Champion Philadelphia Phillies as 2.2 million came to watch.

Finally, amid the rubble of the '81 split season, the Expos finished first in its second half and then beat the Phillies in the first and last NL East Division Series for the right to play the Los Angeles Dodgers for the flag.

Opening the best-of-five round in L.A., the more experienced Dodgers won game 1, then dropped contests 2 and 3. The Expos now had two chances to win Canada's first pennant and do it in Montreal.

Game 4 was still 1-1 in the eighth when L.A. left fielder Dusty Baker singled and Dodger ironman Steve Garvey followed with a home run. The visitors tallied four more times in the ninth to put the game away, 7-1, and even the series at two wins a piece. 

Game 5, for both sides, would be win-or-go-home.

Rookie sensation Fernando Valenzuela started for the Dodgers. His opponent was journeyman Ray Burris, who'd out pitched the phenom in game 2, shutting out L.A., 3-0. Each allowed only allowed a single run scored on a ground ball out. After eight innings, the score stood 1-1.

Expos rookie manager Jim Fanning summoned Rogers, a starter who'd gone 12-8 during the abbreviated campaign, to pitch the ninth. He retired Garvey on a first-pitch pop up, then third-sacker Ron Cey on a deep fly to left.

What happened next may have been the first domino in the long chain of events that destroyed the Expos.

Rogers fell behind Rick Monday, 3-1, then left a pitch up and out over the plate. The Dodger right fielder crushed it. Dawson chased the ball as far as the field would let him, stopping only at a fence too high for heroics, and watched it sail out of sight. A half inning later, L.A. would win 2-1.

Saison finis.

Blue Monday, they called it. To this day, it remains the closest the Expos and their lineal descendants, the Nationals, have ever gotten to the World Series.

Attendance climbed to 2.3 million in '82 and '83, but the team's performance slipped, triggering an era of rebuilding. Carter departed, as did Dawson and Raines, but eventually new heroes arrived. Another strike, in '94, ended the season at mid-year with the Expos holding a suddenly worthless 74-40 record, the best in baseball. 

Caught short by the resulting new economics of baseball, they never recovered.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Upstart Brewers Take the Yankees to the Brink - Remembering the First A.L. East Division Series

THEY RODE IN FROM THE MIDLANDS, unshaven, unkempt and unproven. Upstarts who'd never before appeared in the post season, the Milwaukee Brewers came to challenge the coiffed, corporate, pinstriped enterprise known as the New York Yankees.

One hundred Octobers after Ike Clanton's cowboys faced off against Marshal Wyatt Earp, his brothers and Doc Holliday at Tombstone, AZ's OK Corral, a new gang of have-nots arose to challenge an established order. The setting for this showdown was Yankee Stadium, a place hallowed not by tombstones, but monuments.

The once-in-a-lifetime intra-division playoff
Each faction had pushed the other to the edge.

It was the fifth and deciding game of the American League Eastern Division Series, a one-of-a-kind play-off round necessitated by a work stoppage that gutted the middle of the 1981 Major League Baseball season.

The strike had forced the Powers That Be to conjure a plan to rekindle pennant races in a season with too few games left to allow most teams to make up necessary ground.

It would be a split season. Those in first when play stopped -- including the defending division champ Yankees -- would be credited with winning half of that title. Whomever sat atop the same pile in October, got the other half.

Possession of the divisional crowns would be decided in best-of-five series played out across the quadrants of baseball.

Oct. 11, 1981
The Yankees had won the AL East four times in the previous five years, but knocking at the penthouse door since '78, the Brewers were poised to barge in and evict their overlords. The Bombers won the' first two games, in Milwaukee. The Brewers fought back, winning the next pair in New York.

Their leader, fireman Rollie Fingers, would win the '81 Cy Young award as the AL's best pitcher plus its Most Valuable Player award and -- ultimately -- election to baseball's Hall of Fame. Behind him, unkempt 6'4" starter Pete Vuckovich won 14 games to lead the league. Behind them: scruffy, slugging centerfielder Gorman Thomas, future two-time MVP Robin Yount, plus hit-machine Paul Molitor -- both of them future 3,000-hit-club members and Hall inductees -- and perennial .300 hitter Cecil Cooper.

The Yankees boasted several stars of their own. Outfielders Reggie Jackson, a/k/a "Mr. October" and Dave Winfield were Hall-bound, as was reliever Rich "Goose" Gossage. Bolstering them: three-time 20-game winner Tommy John, eventual '81 Rookie of the Year Dave Righetti and that night's starter, '78 Cy Young winner Ron Guidry, a/k/a "Louisiana Lightening," a/a/k/a "Gator."

Moose Haas, a/k/a "Moose Haas" took the mound for Milwaukee.

From that night's program, a look at the man
behind baseball's most famous mustache..
Before a crowd of 47,505, Thomas opened the scoring with a homer off Guidry in the second. Cooper drove home a run in the third. Clantons 2, Earps 0.

The lawmen retaliated in the bottom of the fourth. Yankee shortstop Larry Milbourne singled. Haas then retired Winfield on a fly ball to right. It was the last out he'd get. Jackson homered to tie the score. Designated hitter Oscar Gamble did too, giving New York the lead.

The Moose was cooked. For the second time in the series, he'd not escape the fourth inning. Mike Caldwell, ordinarily a starter, came on in relief, but the man known as The Yankee Killer for his success against the Bronx Bombers, had none, yielding two more hits and a run before being lifted too.

Establishment 4, Upstarts 2.

Guidry gave way to Righetti in the fifth. He held the Brewers scoreless until the seventh when, with two outs, Yount tripled. Cooper's single drove him home. 4-3. Catcher Rick Cerone's homer in the bottom half restored the Yankees' cushion, 5-3.

Milwaukee threatened in the eighth, coaxing two walks from Gossage but could not plate a run. It was their last rally of the season.

In the bottom of the frame, Milbourne -- the Yankees' least famous starter -- led off with his third hit of the game, a single. Winfield, who team owner George Steinbrenner would later deride as "Mr. May", flied to center completing an 0-4 night. Mr. October singled, then pinch hitter Lou Piniella's double cleared the bases. New York 7, Milwaukee 3.

The game as scored.
Molitor and Yount who collectively amassed 6,461 hits during their careers, could not muster one against Gossage in the ninth. Then Cooper, who'd driven in two of the three Brewer runs, popped out to Yankee third-baseman Graig Nettles.

Game over. Series over.

The Yankees would dispose of the Oakland A's, led by their once-and-future skipper Billy Martin, in the AL Championship Series, and then lose to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series.

Era over.

The Bombers had a losing record in 1982 and didn't return to the post-season until 1995.

The Brewers would bounce back with aplomb. Sparked by Yount's MVP season, a Cy Young-award-winning year from Vuckovich, and an inspiring one-legged manager, Harvey Kuenn, the team nicknamed "Harvey's Wallbangers" won the '82 AL flag, but lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in a 7-game World Series.

To date, it's the only pennant they've won.

The Brewers moved to the National League in 1998.

Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Year Baseball Screwed the Cincinnati Reds

IF YOU GOOGLE the phrase "best record in baseball 1981," then click the "images" tab, the first picture you're likely see is this one:

Still housed on the Cincinnati Reds' website, it depicts a dour, sour grapes celebration, and like all pictures it tells a story. It goes like this:

Major League Baseball doesn't recognize regular season champions in the manner of, say, the National Hockey League. There's no official trophy and no flag. So this one is atypical. The best-record reward is, rather, home field advantage for the league playoffs.  Once having secured said best record, said team is ordinarily permitted to participate in said playoffs.

The 19-%$#@!-81 Reds Yearbook
And there was the rub for the '81 Reds.

Their prize for compiling baseball's best record 35 years ago was the knowledge of a job well done and and that disconsolate D.I.Y. pennant. They got to watch the playoffs -- all three rounds of them that year -- at home.

All of this because of the Baseball Strike of 1981, a labor/management dispute over compensation for teams losing players to other teams through free agency. What in retrospect seems little more than an asterisk in the history of MLB/MLBPA relations was casus belli that summer and -- spanning June 12 to July 31 -- it wiped out more a third of the MLB schedule.

The Reds played just 108 games that year, 54 less than in a standard season, and won 66, compiling a .611 winning percentage. The next-best NL record belonged to the St. Louis Cardinals, who played just 102 games and won 59, good for a .578 winning percentage. There would be no playoffs for them either.

When play resumed, the lords of baseball decreed the season would be split in two, giving even those teams near or at the bottom of the standings when play stopped a chance at the playoffs.

It was not a decision worthy of Solomon.

The four teams first place when the strike began were declared first-half "winners." Won/lost records were re-set to 0-0, and the races started anew. Second-half "winners" would play their first-half counterparts in big league baseball's first-ever division series.

George Foster, 1977 NL MVP, 1982 Reds Alumn
When play paused in June, the defending World Champion Philadelphia Phillies led the NL East, while the Los Angeles Dodgers perched atop the NL West. 

When the second half ended, they'd been supplanted by the Montreal Expos and Houston Astros. Guaranteed entry to the playoffs, the Phillies had slipped to third, 25-27, while the Dodgers, at 27-26, fell to fourth.

The consistent and unlucky Cardinals and Reds finished second in each half and -- in this pre-Wild Card era -- out of the dance. Uninvited. Montreal toppled Philly in the division series for their first and last NL East title. The Dodgers out dueled the Astros in the West, then extinguished the Expos, capturing the flag on foreign soil.

Fate proved more kind in the American League where the Milwaukee Brewers and Oakland A's, who had the best combined AL records, each managed a first-place finish too. The Brewers fell to the first-half winner Yankees in the east while the A's deposed the Royals out west. The defending AL champs had earned their berth by winning the second half despite of an overall losing record, 50-53.

Los Angeles beat New York in the series, four games to two.

The Cardinals rebounded from their strike-year disappointment to win the 1982 World Series, beating the then AL champ Brewers in seven en route to becoming an NL power. St. Louis would return to the series again in 1985 and 87.

But for Cincinnati's mighty Big Red Machine, this was the end. The team that had finished first six times in the 70s, won four pennants and two world championships, vanished from the post-season for an entire decade.

Ken Griffey Sr. left the Reds for New York after 1981.
In 1988, he came back.
That winter their starting outfield left for New York: George Foster via trade to the Mets, while Ken Griffey Sr. and Dave Collins were acquired by the Yankees.

In 1982, the Reds finished last for the first time since 1937. They finished last again in '83.

The strike year also marked a turning point for Reds ace Tom Seaver, who posted a 14-2 record. Though his .875 winning percentage was baseball's best, the NL Cy Young Award went to Dodgers rookie phenom Fernando Valenzuela, who finished 13-7.

It was Seaver's last year as an elite pitcher. After slumping to 5-13 in '82, he was dealt to the Mets for whom he'd once starred. After just a single season there, in which he went 9-14, the man known to New York fans as "The Franchise" was left unprotected from the free-agent compensation pool fought over in 1981 and was claimed by the Chicago White Sox, who'd lost a pitcher to the Blue Jays.

After 1985, the use of Major League players as free agent compensation was scrapped in favor of amateur draft picks, the system still in use today.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The 46-Year Grift: My Life as New York Jets Fan

THE NEW YORK JETS are toast. Finished. Out of the race. Eliminated. Done.

There. With minutes to go before their 2016 season-opening kick-off, I've said it and gotten it out of the way, freeing my Autumn for more productive pursuits. More importantly, I've shed the burden of expectation -- specifically the expectation of anything good.

The sometimes hurt, sometimes heroic
Richard Todd, whose play in 1981 inspired
 signs declaring, "Todd is God!''
(This page from the 1979 Jets yearbook)
Life as a Jets fan is conducive to this kind of thinking.

I love the Jets, really I do, too much to actually watch them play after decades of disappointment.

Not yet four when they won their sole Super Bowl appearance in 1969, my conscious Jets fandom began in 1978, when the National Football League adopted its 16-game season format, tailor-made for a franchise with a remarkable propensity for going 8-8 and making fans feel good about it.

That's how they finished that year and again in 1979.

Since then, it's been one damned thing after another, including:
Ancient history by NFL standards? Sure, but imagine how that history could have gone differently.

Precision Jets pilot Ken O'Brien,
from the 1987 yearbook
More forks in the road: Pete Carroll, the Super Bowl-winning coach of the Seattle Seahawks, began his pro career by leading the Jets to a 6-10 record in 1994 and being fired by then-owner Leon Hess who declared that at 80 years old he wanted to win "now!" Carroll's replacement, Rich Kotite, led the team to an aggregate 4-28 record over the next two seasons. Hess died in 1999.

Bill Belichick, who has directed the New England Patriots to six Super Bowls and four championships, was named Jets' head coach twice yet never coached a game.

The first time, he was part of a package that included the hiring of legendary one-time Giants head coach Bill Parcels, who had recently retired as Patriots' HC, as an "advisor." When the Patriots balked at what they rightly perceived to be a breach of Parcel's contractual obligations to their team, the Jets were compelled to pay compensation, freeing him to step out from behind the curtain and be the top man in the Emerald City.

Belichick was demoted to defensive coordinator. It was a slight he'd not forget. Three years later, when Parcels tired of the Sisyphusian burden of rolling the Jets' karmic stone uphill, the team quickly moved to promote Belichick to the job that they'd supposedly given him three years earlier. Just as quickly, he resigned and went to work for New England.

Given the Jets' star-crossed history, perhaps the result of a Faustian bargain struck by their Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath when he guaranteed that Super Bowl III victory, maybe it wouldn't have mattered if Belichick remained.

The fantastic and fragile Chad Pennington,
from a 2002 season game program.
Sometimes, they just seem cursed:
  • Cursed when Bruce Harper fumbled the opening kickoff return at the 1981 Wild Card game against the Buffalo Bills, instantly putting them in a 7-0 hole from which they'd never escape in the last NFL playoff game at Shea Stadium;
  • Cursed when Testaverde's achilles tendon tore in first half of the first game of the 1999 season after he'd led them to the 1998 AFC championship game;
  • Cursed when placekicker Doug Brien missed two potential game-winning field goals in a 2004 playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers;
  • Cursed when -- after using their first draft pick to take kicker Mike Nugent to replace Brien -- Pennington and back-up QB Jay Fiedler sustained season-ending injuries in the same quarter of the third game of the 2005 season.*
Bad decisions? Bad juju? Plenty of both to go around.

Since the NFL's adoption of a 16-game schedule, the Jets have gone 281-317-2 over 38 seasons (two of which were abbreviated by labor issues). Seven of those seasons produced 8-8 records, another 8-7-1, two at 7-9, five at 9-7, six at 6-10 and six at 10-6. These Monsters of the Middling once went 12-4. They also once went 1-15. They've won 10 post-season games and lost 12, including four AFC Championships.

To be sure, all of those bad times were preceded by good times: the New York Sack Exchange defensive line that made the Jets a premier team in the early 80s; O'Brien's almost unerring accuracy; that franchise-best 12-4 season in 1998; their rally to an 8-8 finish the next year when, post-Testaverde injury they'd fallen to 2-6 before being rescued by the unheralded Ray Lucas; plus that brief time when Mark Sanchez and Rex Ryan got us all to buy in.

Every peak only heightened the subsequent fall.

Fandom for any team is an act of faith. Nobody wins all of the time, even if it sometimes feels that way. The Jets are far from alone in seeming to be endlessly rebuilding, forever close to turning that last corner. That's the grift, the long con: we the willing, we the credulous, we the gullible, we believe.

Even if we don't want to, we believe.

* A Cincinnati Bengal since 2010, Nugent just minutes ago booted a game-winning field goal for the big cats as they downed the Jets, 23-22, in the 2016 season opener. Of course he did.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Randomness of Retired Numbers

THE NEW YORK METS would never have retired number 31 for Roy Lee Jackson, Bruce Berenyi, Gene Walter or even team captain John Franco. But they did for Mike Piazza.

What separated Piazza from those who wore the hallowed numerals before him was performance: more homers than any catcher in big league history, 220 as a Met, a .296 average for them compiled over parts of eight seasons, plus leadership of the 1999 Wild Card and 2000 National League pennant winners. He's also a freshly-minted member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

The Tom Seaver Day
stadium give-away poster
July 24, 1988
So retirement of "his" 31 was a given, right? Right. Sort of. Sort of not.

Number retirement has always been more art than science, the criteria more subjective than objective. In short, the reasons to do, or do not, are not always clear. This is especially true for the Mets, but not uniquely so.

The cross-town Yankees have honored an astonishing 21 players this way -- by far the most in baseball -- not counting certain future Famer Derek Jeter's 2. Still, only half of the Yanks' number retirements are for Hall members (though relief pitcher Mariano Rivera will soon be among them). Their criteria for doing so is inconsistent and likely tinged with office politics.

Number 9 was taken out of circulation for two-time American League Most Valuable Player Roger Maris in 1984, almost two decades after he played the last of seven seasons for them and only after Graig Nettles wore the digit for 11 intervening years. A power-hitting, gold-glove third-baseman, Nettles played more games for the Bronx Bombers than Maris, hit more homers, drove in more runs and played for just as many world series winners: two. Neither made the Hall but 9 was shelved for Maris in the same year Nettles published his Yankees memoir, "Balls."

Reggie Jackson's 44 is also affixed to the wall in Yankee Stadium's Monument Park. He's also in the Hall, at least in part for his Yankee exploits that earned him the monicker Mr. October, but he played most of his career for the Oakland A's -- 10 years to just five for the Yanks.  In contrast, Dave Winfield played nine seasons in those same pinstripes -- longer than he did for any other team -- hit almost twice as many homers as Jackson, 205 to 144, and drove in nearly double the runs, 818 to 461. But his 31 has been issued to 25 players since 1990, Winfield's last year in the Bronx.

Hall of Fame? Yes, in 2001. Monument Park? Never. Why? Because he irked the boss.

So, clearly team-tenure, gaudy stats and Hall membership are only part of the calculus for taking digits out of service.

With all due respect...

Fergie Jenkins toiled for 10 seasons with the Chicago Cubs over two stints, winning 20 games six times. Yet his 31 was issued to 13 other players -- including Hall of Famer Greg Maddux --  before being finally taken out of service for them both in 2009.

Wade Boggs was subject to similar (mis)treatment by the Boston Red Sox, who issued 26 to thirteen players after his last season there before finally shelving it this year. A Hall of Famer and 3,000 hit club member, Boggs last played for Boston in 1992, spent five years with the Yankees -- who didn't retire his then number 12  -- and then two seasons with his hometown Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who did.

Jenkins/Maddux 2009
Steve Garvey played 14 of his 19 big league seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers, winning the 1974 NL MVP award and placing in the top six in voting four other seasons. L.A. won four pennants and a world championship while he anchored their infield at first base. His uniform number 6 remains in service. The San Diego Padres, for whom he played the rest of his career, including for the 1984 National League champs, retired Garvey's digit in 1988.

The Montreal Expos deactivated numbers for Rusty Staub, Tim Raines, Andre Dawson and Gary Carter. Upon relocation to Washington as the Nationals, new ownership promptly re-activated them, even though Dawson and Carter had made the Hall as Expos. Who cares? The Montreal Canadiens.

The Houston Astros have taken nine numerals out of service, including those of two ex-Mets, Nolan Ryan and Mike Scott. Ryan's 34 was also shelved by the Texas Rangers while his 30 was taken out of service by the Los Angeles, California, Angels of Anaheim.

The Mets haven't honored him. In fact, they retired just four numbers, among the fewest for any team in baseball, skipping some of the most celebrated players in their history. Piazza's ceremony was the team's first such event since 1988, when they enshrined Tom Seaver's 41. Miracle of '69 manager Gil Hodges' 14 was retired posthumously in 1973. Original skipper Casey Stengel's 37 left with him in 1965.

And that's it for 54 years of work.

Not fade away

Consider this: the Astros have honored as many Mets players as have the Mets, two.

For Darryl Strawberry, the team's greatest ever home run hitter, nothing. Fifteen players have worn his 18 since the slugger left after 1990 including Travis d'Arnaud this year.

Gary Carter spent five years with the Mets, cemented their status as contenders, starred for them in the championship year of 1986, and served as co-captain. Three more players wore his 8 before he made the Hall in 2003, whereupon it was unofficially shelved but never enshrined.

Carter died in 2012.

His is not the only uniform number to unceremoniously fade away. Willie Mays' 24 was withdrawn from circulation after he after wore it as a Mets player and coach from 1972 to 1979 (though it was errantly issued in 1990, then purposefully to Rickey Henderson in 1999 and 2000).  It has become Schroedinger's Jersey: simultaneously retired and not. Mays is now 85. There's still time.

Willie Mays of the Mets
from their 1973 yearbook
Finally, there's Keith Hernandez: distinguished wearer of 17 from 1983 to 1989, winner of six straight gold gloves for fielding excellence at first base, leader of the 1986 championship team, captain in 1987, co-captain with Carter in 1988 and 89, now one of their Emmy Award-winning television analysts.

He was, inarguably, one of the best and most important players in their history. Still, his jersey was handed out 14 times after he left.

Nobody's worn Hernandez' numerals since 2010, but they're not retired. True, he missed out on the Hall. But, Carter made it and that didn't solidify his case either. Piazza arrived in Cooperstown just last week. Today, his 31 hangs atop the left field stands at Citi Field in Flushing.

So the questions remain: Why or why not? In or out? Yes or no? As the Jedi Master Yoda once said, "Do or do not. There is no try."

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Other Other Griffey

MIKE PIAZZA teared up during his National Baseball Hall of Fame induction speech yesterday.
The 1994 Jacksonville Suns

Ken Griffey Jr., who followed him to the podium, cried early and often during his address. In the audience, Ken Griffey Sr. wept openly while his elder son talked about a lifetime lived among big league ballplayers, first surrounded by his father's teammates on the mid-1970s Cincinnati Reds team known as the Big Red Machine and later with the New York Yankees and Atlanta Braves, then in his own right.

One person who the camera did not catch crying, even as his more famous brother acknowledged him, was Craig Griffey, a 42nd round draft pick of the Seattle Mariners who never made it to the big leagues.

Genetics can be capricious and cruel. For every Joe, Dom and Vince DiMaggio, or Ken and Bob Forsch or Phil and Joe Niekro, baseball history is replete with would-be rival siblings, only one of whom was kissed by that biochemical fate that makes somebody a star.

Admission: $3
Think Tommie Aaron, younger brother of Hank, or pitcher Mike Maddux and his younger and 355-game-winning-brother, Greg,  or Larry Yount, who appeared in just a single game for the Houston Astros while little brother Robin had a Hall of Fame career with the Milwaukee Brewers.

If the question about Ken Griffey Jr. was ever nature or nurture, clearly nature has the edge as Craig Griffey -- less than two years the younger -- likely had many of the same experiences and exposures.

Craig rose no higher than AAA, having a cup of coffee at the end of his career with the Mariners' affiliate in Tacoma, the Rainiers. Three games, three at bats, one hit -- a triple. For the bulk of his career he played at the AA level, batting .212 with five homers, 108 runs batted in and 67 stolen bases, falling short of the show.

The numbers of late August
By happenstance I saw him play for the Jacksonville Suns at the end of August 1994, as the Major League Baseball strike consumed the balance of the big league season. Also watching from the stands that day, then-Mariners manager Lou Piniella. On a team that included future Seattle pitcher Derek Lowe, catcher Chris Widger and other prospects, Griffey-the-younger was hitting an inconspicuous .224.

Still, he was a professional ballplayer, which is more than most of us can say. It's certainly more than I could say.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Where No Man Has Gone Before

August 1976
STAR TREK BEYOND opened Thursday night.

It's the 13th movie in a 50-year-old franchise... blah blah blah.

So what? Why do we care? Why should we care?

Here's why:

Before it became a reliable cash machine, a source of blockbuster movies (which really only began with the 2009 reboot), it was a means of imparting a message.

The message was about a particular type of future, a future where we could surmount our earthly difficulties, a future where people of different nationalities, races and species could peaceably co-exist.

Because of that ability to put aside those differences, those better versions of us were able to build faster-than-light spaceships, powerful portable computers and tiny flip-top radios. They figured out how convert matter to energy, transmit it across great distances and reassemble it into the people or things they'd deconstructed in the first place.

Dec. 22, 1986
The U.S.S. Enterprise traversed star systems, meeting beings hostile and friendly. People fought. People died. Some episodes in the original series and its five sequels were downright silly.* Others were profound.** Most of them were memorable.***

They all made us think about impossible things. Warp drive? Transporters? Time travel? We still don't have any of those things, but we WANT them. Those pocket-sized communicators? We got 'em.

Star Trek helped us to aspire.

This newest movie comes 47 years after the United States first put men on the moon. Star Trek, the original series, was conceived amid our struggle to get there. Incredibly, regrettably, after just three years and six missions, we quit.

We quit trying to go anywhere really.

The U.S.S.R. put the first man in orbit in 1961 -- 55 years ago -- the U.S. matched the feat nearly a year later with John Glenn's historic flight. So, we mastered that trick a long long time ago. But that's really all we do now. We put folks up in the International Space Station and subsequently bring them home, generally without incident. And hardly anyone gives it a second thought.

Aug. 31, 1991
Meanwhile, fostering the unity of people within countries and across boarders seems as improbable as visiting Alpha Centauri.

We need Star Trek.

Not the dark, J.J. Abrams-infused version (though I'll certainly see the new movie and the new series CBS says it'll roll out next year) but the original concept, the one that filled us with hope and awe, the one that made us want "to boldly go where no man has gone before," and to want to go there together.

* Spock's Brain, where a mysterious woman boards the Enterprise, surgically removes the Vulcan's gray matter and uses it to power her civilization

** City on the Edge of Forever, where Dr. McCoy, accidentally overdosing on a powerful drug, goes back in time and changes history. Kirk must ensure his girlfriend dies to set things right. Also, The Inner Light, where an alien probe knocks out the Next Generation's Captain Picard. He regains consciousness living somebody else's life.

*** Yesterday's Enterprise, a rip in the space-time continuum sends a past version of the Enterprise into the future, changing everything that happened after it left.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

When Gary Rajsich Rescued Baseball

GARY RAJSICH ROCKED the summer of 1981. Alright, half of it. But he rocked it really well.

"Who the hell is Gary Rajsich?" you ask?

Short answer: He was, for a brief time, the best home run hitter in professional baseball.

Our hero, from the Mets' 1982 Team Photo Album
The somewhat longer explanation is as follows:

Rajsich (it's pronounced RAY-sitch) was a sixth year minor-league ballplayer who had his best pro season just as Major League Baseball's players went on strike. From June 12 to Aug. 8, big league ballparks sat empty and unused as labor and management duked it out over the now somewhat arcane issue of free agent compensation.

Darkness descended. Gary Rajsich shined in the void.

It was his good fortune to play for the Tidewater Tides, AAA affiliate of the then not-significantly-better New York Mets, who acquired him at the end of spring training from the Houston Astros. With big league baseball on the blink, ESPN, the Sporting News and those who made their living covering the art of hitting a round ball with a round bat squarely needed a story.

They found it in Norfolk, Virginia where our hero was quietly slugging away. By mid-June, Rajsich had 20 homers, more than anybody in baseball.

At just that moment, the Tides were set to play the Columbus Clippers, who just happened to be the top farm club of New York Yankees, setting up the International League equivalent of a subway series (in an era when inter-league play was something reserved for the World Series). In the absence of major league programming, the mid-June contests would be broadcast back to New York by the teams' big league announcers.

Suddenly Rajsich -- a virtual unknown when the MLB strike began -- was the biggest baseball story in the land.

The '81 Clippers were stocked with future Yankees: burly slugging first-baseman Steve "Bye-bye" Balboni, slick shortstop Andre Robertson and -- for seven starts -- that season's American League Rookie of the Year, Dave Righetti.

The Tides had, well, Rajsich, plus future Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, future San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy, future Pittsburgh Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage (what is it they say about those who can't do?), plus Mike Howard, whose 1983 opening day start in right field for the Mets, behind the returning Tom Seaver no less, would be his last major league appearance.

Rajsich did his part in a June 22 contest won by the Tides, 8-7, clubbing a three-run homer, his 21st on the year.

He would crack just three more before his season of wonder abruptly ended nearly a month later with a broken wrist sustained in a home plate collision. Rajsich's stats to that point: 74 games, 253 at bats, 70 hits, 11 doubles, 1 triple, 24 homers and 56 RBIs. Not bad for a half-season's work. Balboni would win the IL's home run crown. He and Rajsich would make the league's All Star team.

From the Mets' 1982 yearbook, a tale of promise

More importantly, the outburst put him on the team's radar and merited a promotion to varsity the next year, joining a perennially-rebuilding roster that included Dave Kingman, George Foster, Ellis Valentine and Mookie Wilson. There, the 27-year-old rookie struck just two home-runs, one of which came in the same game as a highlight-reel catch. By 1983, he'd back at Norfolk, stroking 28 more round trippers while being passed on the organizational depth chart by Darryl Strawberry.

He'd hit just one more big-league homer for the Mets -- and for his career -- before being sold the St. Louis Cardinals in 1984, then shipped to the Giants the following year as part of a package exchanged for slugger Jack Clark.

Today, Rajsich is scouting director for the Baltimore Orioles. But for a brief shining moment 35 years ago -- during the ruined Major League Summer of 1981 -- he was The Man.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Star Fleet Guide to Playing Doctor

I WAS A STRANGE CHILD. Or at least that's what I thought.

Before there were a dozen movies*, five spinoff TV series and their 646 episodes, before Star Wars, before Skylab fell from the sky, before Al Gore invented the Internet, there were just unassociated nerdy kids like me and the odd places we went to get our Star Trek fix between broadcast reruns on New York's WPIX, channel 11.

Strange yes, but evidently not alone. Even back in the mid-1970s -- against a backdrop of Gerald Ford trying to W.I.N., leisure-suited Steve Austin running incredibly fast but in slow motion and America's Bicentennial -- there were others like me who had the need for warp speed.

We found it at the local bookstore.

Hortas, Andorians, etc.
all for just 95 cents
Spock gets it on.
Say what?
Two Spocks, for the
price of one paperback.

In the beginning there was Bantam Books' serialized adaptation of the 79 episodes of what my people reverently refer to as The Original Series. That was indeed only the beginning. Amid those 12 volumes, their author/editor, James Blish popped out one of his own: Spock Must Die.

Wait! What? SPOCK MUST DIE??? Well, that was a must read.

So was Bantam's next Star Trek-based work of original fiction, Spock, Messiah! (in which our hero reportedly has sex!)

A conjectural super-starship...
with three warp engines!
My virgin eyes! I'd not even kissed a girl (though remarkably, improbably, I would do so just two summers later at the age of 12).

Tom Clancy-like, I retreated to realm of hardware and theoretical technology. If boys like me wanted to live in a make-believe world, long-time SciFi publisher Ballantine Books was more than happy to furnish it: The Star Fleet Technical Manual.

Trekkie wonderland in a very official-looking vinyl slipcover with gold leaf lettering. A compendium of United Federation of Planets peace treaties, star maps, phaser schematics and everything I ever wanted to know about the U.S.S. Enterprise and other ships of the fleet. According to the manual there were hundreds. Who knew?

Soon to follow, official Starship Enterprise blueprints. From the bridge (it has a bathroom!) to sickbay, to the shuttle bay to ship's laundry. Not real? Who cares! To my nerd brain, this was the essence of cool.

The Enterprise bridge had a bathroom... it's there, just below the midline on the left.

Actually some people did care... about me,  about proper socialization and so-called normalcy. Well meaning friends who distracted me with Mets games and stickball, street hockey and FM radio. And girly magazines.

For their patience, I owe them a debt of gratitude. I came along only grudgingly.

In 1977 Ballantine published the Star Fleet Medical Reference Manual, a companion to the Technical Manual for those of us whose favorite character was Dr. McCoy. You could learn a lot from a book like this, how to give first aid to a Gorn, reproductive habits of Vulcans and tribbles and some basic facts about humanoid biology.

But nothing about that mysterious species known as "girls." For that I would need to look elsewhere. It was time.

* Soon to be 13 with the scheduled July 22 release of Star Trek Beyond.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Of Doc and Darryl

DARRYL AND DOC. Doc and Darryl.

Demigods and heroes upon which we Mets fans of the 1980s projected all of our hopes and dreams. Darryl Strawberry, who arrived first in 1983, was going to be part Ted Williams, part Willie Mays, a colossus whose silky swing propelled baseballs into orbit. Twenty-six in his freshman year, to go along with 74 runs batted in and a .257 average.

Naturally, he was the National League's Rookie of the Year.

Oct. 18, 1988
Teen-aged Dwight Gooden arrived the next spring, firing fastballs and spinning curves en route to 17 wins, 276 strike-outs and the Mets' second straight Rookie of the Year award. The next year he was even better, 24-4, 268ks, 1.53 ERA and the N.L. Cy Young Award.

The following year, -- 1986 --amid the Mets' first world championship since their miracle of 1969, it all began to come apart. 

When this New York Magazine issue hit the stands in October 1988, the man called Dr. K. had already been through drug rehab and the Mets had returned to the playoffs after a 100-win season, during which they swept their National League Championship Series opponents, the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Unimaginably, unknowably, the end was near. The Dodgers pushed past the Mets, taking the series in seven games, on their way to humbling the Oakland A's. Kirk Gibson was the hero that year, not Darryl, not Doc, not anyone who wore a New York uniform. The team wouldn't return to the post-season again for 11 years, by which time Strawberry and Gooden -- battling drugs and other ailments -- had gone on to other glories, ironically, with the New York Yankees.

Tonight, they're the subject of an ESPN 30-for-30 documentary. 

What might have been. What could have been.

Follow me on twitter @paperboyarchive.

Monday, July 11, 2016

The All Star Game That Nearly Wasn't

THEY RIPPED THE HEART right out of the baseball season. You'd think more people would remember.

Memory is a funny thing. Collective memory even more so. Bigger events often overwhelm their smaller, yet significant, antecedents. And so it was that the Major League Baseball job action that destroyed the entirety of the 1994 season came to eclipse the previously unprecedented strike of 1981.

The Late Summer Classic
But, 35 years ago, coming off a thrilling 1980 season that saw the Philadelphia Phillies win their first World Series -- the image of reliever Tug McGraw exultant after fanning the Royal's Willie Wilson for the final out still vivid -- the dark clouds of labor discord gathered.

Free agency was a mere five seasons old. Owners tiring of losing top stars for no return whatsoever demanded some form of compensation. The players' union, sensing a backdoor means of impeding their hard won player movement, refused to go along.

On June 12, 1981, they walked out. Baseball's cathedrals went dark, empty and unused, while standings and stats sat frozen in time.

Billy Martin's Oakland A's led the American League West, the New York Yankees characteristically ruled the A.L. East. Their National League nemeses, the Los Angeles Dodgers, aided by the brilliant rookie left-hander Fernando Valenzuela, ruled the West, while the defending champion Phillies sat atop the East. And sat. And sat. And sat.

The All Star Game, set for July 14 in Cleveland was postponed indefinitely and still the parties remained at loggerheads. More than seven hundred games went unplayed before peace prevailed on July 31, with a limited form of compensation for loss of upper-echelon players.

Those four teams in first place when the walkout began were declared first-half winners, the won-loss records were reset to 0-0 for an unprecedented second-half. But where to begin?

Cleveland, site of the All Star game now rescheduled for Aug. 9, with the regular season to resume the next day.

Team rosters were stocked with players worthy of the contest.

The N.L.'s starting nine featured three future members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame: Philly's Mike Schmidt at third base, the Montreal Expos' outfielder Andre Dawson and catcher Gary Carter, plus baseball's all-time hits leader, Pete Rose. Among the senior circuit reserves, hall inductees Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver and Bruce Sutter.

Some of those on the NL ballot...
... and their AL counterparts.

The A.L. lineup was just as good, boasting Boston Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk, California Angels' first baseman Rod Carew, Royals third baseman George Brett and Yankees outfielders Reggie Jackson and Dave Winfield, backed by Hall members Eddie Murray, Rollie Fingers and others.

A nip-and-tuck affair, the game saw the A.L. lose leads of 1-0 and 4-2 before succumbing 5-4 before more than 72,000 fans at the antiquated, cavernous Cleveland Municipal Stadium.

Carter blasted two homers, but Schmidt's two-run shot off Fingers proved to be the game winner. The Baltimore Orioles' Ken Singleton had the lone junior circuit clout. Fingers took the loss. The San Francisco Giants' Vida Blue got credit for the win and Sutter, then toiling for the St. Louis Cardinals got the save.

Baseball was back. Sort of. The split season's second half would bear hope, heartbreak, injustice and -- unlike the catastrophic events of 1994 -- at least a championship.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive