Friday, June 09, 2017

MUNSON

One of the greatest things about being a father is that after hearing your elders start sentences with“when I was your age” for much of your early life, you finally get to start sentences the same way with your kids.  Wednesday night was one of those moments. While watching the Yankee game with my younger son, it was mentioned that June 7 would have been Thurman Munson’s 70th birthday.    And as the broadcast deviated from the game for a moment to talk about the former Captain, he asked “who was Thurman Munson?”

“When I was your age,” I said, as if I’ve been waiting 40 years for this moment “Thurman Munson was the catcher for the Yankees…”.  I went on how he was a gritty, humble, unassuming type of guy.  I realized that I was probably speaking about him in a way that suggested that I grew up next door to the guy; where we sold candy together door-to-door to raise money for our annual class trip to Washington DC.  But like I said, I’ve waited 40 years for these kinds of conversations, and when you have them, they’re often told through a romantic prism without even knowing it.  I mentioned that Munson could sometimes be prickly, and more often than not had an adversarial relationship with the press. But most importantly, I said, he was a leader at a time with the Yankees were most volatile, at a time when the city they played for was most volatile.  I went on for a bit more about this until the story reached its inevitable conclusion.
 
Billy Martin with Munson in the background. We thought this was normal.
 
One of the biggest differences that I noticed between playing Little League when I was kid, and the way it’s coached now is that when I played we were constantly, and I mean, constantly reminded that we should never, ever argue with the umpire.  These days, on the teams that I’ve helped coach, it’s not really emphasized.  It’s just assumed that it won’t happen, and it generally doesn’t…at least not by the kids anyway.  And then I started to realize why that was -- as young, impressionable Yankee fans growing up in the New York area in the 1970s, we were all raised on watching Billy Martin.  Things like throwing bases, kicking dirt, getting ejected, and giving juicy, alcohol induced quotes to the New York Post afterwards was just the norm.  Maybe the Minnesota Twins or the Texas Rangers didn’t function like this, but there wasn’t much way of knowing.   And that was all great, watching the combustible Martin go out there night after night unleashing his Type-A torrents on whoever, but if it weren’t for Thurman Munson keeping things in check, defusing the chronic dysfunction that was constantly looming, one has to wonder if the Yankees would have had as much success as they did in the 1970s.  Factor in George Steinbrenner, the world’s most least laissez-faire owner in the history of sports, and you didn’t even need to import Reggie Jackson to toss the match in the gas tank.  And then there was Reggie…


Munson to Billy Martin: Stay out of this.

So August 2, 1979 seemed like any other summer day in the woodsy, northern Westchester town of Pound Ridge, New York.  I was nine years old, and I was going into fifth grade in the fall.  For a suburb of New York City, Pound Ridge did much to hold on to its bucolic charm.  Old stone walls built two or three hundred years prior by the original settlers were found throughout.  All the street signs were in the shape of a pointing finger with a white background and black lettering.  There was no police department, just a resident state trooper that was sometimes there.  And even in 2017 there are still no traffic lights.  The Cold War was also alive and well at the time, and I remember our fears of nuclear annihilation were assuaged when my fifth-grade teacher assured us that if New York City was struck by a Soviet warhead, Pound Ridge was just far enough away to not get any fallout.  “Besides,” she added.  “The winds tend to blow east towards Long Island anyway.”

A typical Pound Ridge summer was attending the free day camp at the town park (either Ultimate Frisbee or Capture the Flag - take your pick - with a cookout afterwards), and then we all headed to the public pool for the balance of the afternoon.  There was a snack bar by the pool called Vons, where they had a small, but rather loud playing portable radio.  To this day whenever I hear songs like “Hot Blooded” by Foreigner or “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty, I think of that place.  It was the late afternoon and I was home from my typical Pound Ridge summer routine of day camp/pool when the rotary phone attached to the kitchen wall rang.  It was my neighbor Peter Welsh, who lived two houses down.  I remember probably not wanting to talk to him, I’ve always hated phone calls, and there was always this competitive underpinning in my relationship with Peter, since he and I were both the same age, and had moved to Pound Ridge within a very short time of each other.  Sometimes we were good friends, sometimes not. 

“Hello.”

“Geoff, it’s Peter”.  Peter’s voice was easy to spot, it was raspy, throaty; like Froggy from The Little Rascals.

“Hey man.”

“Did you hear the news?”

“No what?”

“Thurman Munson died.”

“Get out of here,” I thought he was joking.  Besides, I specifically remember him saying that he died which to me suggested that he succumbed to natural causes.  How could the catcher of the New York Yankees just…die?

“I’m serious!”

“How?”

“Plane crash.”

“What???????????????”

And so I ran to the TV, turned on the local news, and there it was, the indelible image of Munson’s incinerated Cessna along some runway in Ohio. This was my “where were you when…” moment for when I learned that Thurman Munson was dead; talking to Peter Welsh on the phone from my kitchen in Pound Ridge, New York.  What’s interesting about this, is that when you speak to people who were around at the time, they all say the same thing; which is, of all the colossal events that have happened in the nearly four decades since, there’s something about Thurman Munson’s death that stands out above almost anything else.  Nobody is saying that Munson’s death is on par with the historical significance of, say, 9/11, or the scores of other jarring headlines since 1979.  However, the clarity of the moment, and the barrage of shrapnel that one took to their central nervous system as a result of Munson’s passing is on par with that of 9/11 for so many.   You might need an extra second or two to recall what you were doing when Ronald Reagan was shot, but you can rattle right off your tongue what you were doing when Thurman Munson was killed.  For what reason is anyone’s guess, but damned if isn’t the case. 
 
Daily News' Front Page Story of Munson's Death.
 
As I wrapped up my lengthy recollection of Thurman Munson, I realized that I probably offered significantly more information than what my son was hoping for; but then again, I have been waiting 40 years for these kinds conversations.  While this went on the Yankees were hammering away at what would result in an 8-0 drubbing to the hated Red Sox.  

No doubt old #15 would have been content.

 





Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Head Games for Headley

Many years ago, I had a job selling copiers in Washington, DC. In the branch office, which could have been the ugliest structure ever built, there were three huge white boards that listed every sales reps’ performance for all to see. On one column, it showed what each rep had sold for the current month and the percentage of quota. On the next column, it showed what every rep had sold for the year, and the percentage of quota year to date. One didn’t have to look for very long to see who was doing well and who wasn’t. This type of fish bowl management is quite common in many sales organizations; especially in the gritty, pound the pavement world of copiers. For the sales reps doing well, you could see them beam with confidence, often poking their head into their sales manager’s office and telling them about what another wonderful week they’ve had. For the one’s doing poorly, they would quietly slink in from the back door, find an isolated cubicle, and write up the week’s recap under the heavy dread of presenting this to their boss. From a baseball perspective, Yankees third baseman, Chase Headley, is one of these guys with the big zero on the board. His dread, while expressed silently, speaks volumes.

A grand example of this occurred in Tuesday’s 5-4 loss to the Red Sox. In the fourth inning, Headley was facing a frustrated Drew Pomeranz at the mound, who had already thrown way too many pitches at that stage in the game. Pomeranz, who’s boyish looks were now giving way to steely eyes of consternation, just gave up a slow moving, infield single to Didi Gregorius after being gorged for twelve pitches in a marathon at bat. On second was Aaron Hicks, also on base from an infield hit. For Pomeranz it must have been a flashback to Little League, with two men on base from cheap hits that just might have been outs if the ball had only bounced a little differently here or sped up a little faster there. With only one out, and nobody yet warming up in the Red Sox bullpen, this was a golden opportunity to break this game wide open against a tiring pitcher with two runners in scoring position. Players like Brett Gardner and Aaron Judge live for these opportunities; they’re the sales guys who are already 127% of their plan --- the ones who actually want to talk to their boss. But it wasn’t their turn to bat, it was the struggling Headley’s.

It’s one thing to struggle, but it’s another thing to show it. Just look at Yankee’s first baseman Chris Carter. His numbers are even worse than Headley’s. Even Yankees’ GM, Brian Cashman, had a few words to say about Carter’s performance, but Carter doesn’t radiate his misery in the way that Headley does. And when you unwittingly advertise that you wish you were doing anything besides what you’re paid to do, the world takes notice.

So Headley comes to bat with Gregorius on first and Hicks on second with only one out. But there’s trouble already. You can just tell by the way he walks up to the plate, slowly, tentatively, slinking in the back door like the sales rep who needs to update his resume. You can’t help but think that Headley is wishing for a plane crash, or some instant South Bronx conflagration to ignite so he can dodge this situation; and if he takes his time doing so, the odds improve. But there is no plane crash, no burning Bronx to speak of on this damp chilly night, and the extra dawdling does nothing but give Headley what he needs the least – time to think. The camera closes in on Headley. He’s not ready for his close up but he gets it anyway. He’s the anti-diva, with his inordinately taut facial muscles, his shrunken eyes – like crude little slits carved into a pumpkin – sealed lips, and leathery complexion all compounding how much he hates playing baseball right now. Nevertheless, he works the slogging Pomeranz to a full count. If he walks, fantastic, the bases will be loaded. If he strikes out, it’s still only two outs and everyone stays on base. What he doesn’t need to do is lamely hit a ground ball to the pitcher and kill the inning with an easy double play. Well, guess what?

Despite this, Headley seems to be the beneficiary of circumstance at the moment. A short-term trade is too costly, for say, Kansas City’s Mike Moustakas and the like, and there aren’t any prospects ready enough to be called up from the minor leagues. That’s not to say that the vultures of the New York media, or global sports blogosphere, aren’t having some guilty fun with Headley’s angst. Anything that even whiffs of imperfection, of just the fallibility of being a human being who plays baseball for a living, stokes up chants of Gleyber Torres, the 20-year-old Venezuelan “phenom” who’s played but 50 games with Triple-A Scranton, but has already been anointed as the Yankees’ panacea for their woes at third base. Torres is just fantasy at this point, but routinely bringing him up anywhere within Headley’s space offers some sadistic joy to those who’d offer a hose to a drowning man. Hey Headley – you thirsty?

In any case, at a minimum, a shift in attitude or body language would do huge wonders for Headley. A simple belly laugh, or a deflective “aw shucks” roll of the eyes would go far with taking the target off his back. Then again, so would hitting the ball. But if he can’t do that, he should at least have fun playing baseball.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Friday, March 28, 2008

FANECA FOLLY

It’s already been a month since the 72 hour high of NFL free agency wore off. If you’re like me, you’ve probably already forgotten where 90 percent of this year’s free agency crop has landed. The evaluation of how well teams have fared in the open market has long been archived and the discussion has clearly shifted to March Madness and spring training. Yet if there’s one thing that can be extracted from free agency this year, it’s that the Jets have become just like every other New York team with throwing money at whatever big names are momentarily unemployed. It’s no secret that the Jets have always been second banana to the Giants, but with the Giants’ improbable Super Bowl win in February, perhaps they’re feeling even more pressure than usual to step up and make some noise.

Seems the Jets are always in some sort of flux; there’s always a coaching problem, a quarterback controversy, an absent minded owner, a cabal of malcontents, a stadium deal that’s fallen through, or a blockbuster draft pick that’s gone bust . For now, the Jets have fewer people to throw under the bus than before. Their most recent and convenient patsy was former GM, Terry Bradway, who in 2006 was drummed out of Weeb Ewbank Hall in favor of a “youth movement”; which included the promotion of 36 year old Mike Tannenbaum to General Manager and the hiring of 35 year old Eric Mangini as Head Coach. At first, both looked like “finds” that only the Jets -- the oh-so precocious Jets -- had on their radar. Add in the high grades they got at the time with drafting Nick Mangold and D’Brickashaw Ferguson, and suddenly there was a lot less shame with being a Jet fan.

Unfortunately, precocity is an adjective that’s seldom associated with the Jets, and the green tomatoes they were hoping to quickly see ripen in their garden have instead shown signs of rotting. While Nick Mangold has rapidly made Jet fans forget about their beloved Kevin Mawae at center, D’Brickashaw Ferguson is looking a lot less like Kareem McKenzie and a lot more like Robert Gallery and Tony Mandarich. As for the coach, the once affectionately nicknamed “Eric Mangenious” is now seen as rat for tattling on his former mentor, Bill Belichick, in connection to “Spygate”. Of course, going from 10-6 in his coaching debut in 2006 to 4-12 in 2007 didn’t help Mangini’s cause either. Muddying the waters even more were the constant screams to bench Chad Pennington -- once the team’s knight in shining armor -- in favor of Kellen Clemens, who as of now falls somewhere between Richard Todd and Browning Nagle in the long, ignominious annals of Jet quarterbacks.

Rather than shop for a new quarterback -- again, the Jets shopped for a new left guard to beef up protection between Ferguson and Mangold. The concept is simple enough: good protection helps make average quarterbacks play great. But instead of looking for an up-and-comer with a mean streak and savvy agent, the Jets opted to pay list price for Alan Faneca. Not only did the Jets pay list price, they paid an unprecedented amount for an offensive lineman; five years, $40 million, with $21 million guaranteed. Faneca, at age 31, is no spring chicken either. Unlike the skill positions such as quarterback or wide receiver, where, in addition to sheer statistics, one can determine the value they bring simply by watching, the contribution of offensive linemen – especially interior offensive linemen like Alan Faneca – isn’t nearly as easy to measure. And because there are few offensive lineman with any national name recognition, the value of these guys is often based on a herd mentality.

Chances are if you go to any sports bar in America and do an informal survey of who the best offensive linemen are, Alan Faneca will likely top any list. But if you ask why that is, you’ll likely get a shrug of the shoulders accompanying an answer like “because John Madden always mentions him.” Is Alan Faneca especially quick for a lineman? Who really knows? Does he have special vision? Again, who really knows? Is he known for great size in his position? Not that anyone is especially aware of. Has he kept his quarterback particularly well protected? Hard to say, fewer teams than Pittsburgh, where Faneca previously played his entire career, run the ball as often. Well he must be a great run blocker then, right? Maybe, then again, with Jerome Bettis carrying the ball, just about everyone looks like a great run blocker. Go ahead, ask anyone on the street why Alan Faneca is considered to be such an elite player and you’ll likely get a blank stare. Yet he’s the chosen one, the $40 million dollar man; the fateful beneficiary of bestowed branding by the American sports establishment.

In a city where everything is overpriced and everyone has their hand in your pocket, Alan Faneca will fit in perfectly in New York. As for the Jets, time will tell if they get their money’s worth. In not, it will be an easy conclusion. After all, they are the Jets.

Monday, February 18, 2008

LITIGATING LOSERS

You don’t have to go too far back to recall games where one team was somehow “robbed” of a championship while the other basked in glory. To this day, I’m sure guys like Bill Buckner and Scott Norwood still deal with the inner turmoil that made them household names. Thankfully, what’s still nice about the increasingly tarnished image of professional sports is that no matter what the outcome is, the books are shut -- end of story. That is until now, where former St. Louis Rams’ player Willie Gary, along with two Super Bowl XXXVI ticket holders and a Rams seat license holder, have filed a $100M law suit against the New England Patriots. Gary, who for the past six years has earned a living playing for the Arena Football League’s Georgia Force, alleges that the outcome of Super Bowl XXXVI, where the heavily favored Rams were beaten 20-17 by New England, would have been different had the Patriots not illegally videotaped a Rams practice earlier that week in February 2002.

In a country that never fails to outdo itself when it comes to litigious absurdity, this suit could be the sports equivalent to Liebeck v. McDonald’s; which was that infamous case involving the criminal negligence of selling hot coffee to those who spill it in their laps. The lawsuit seeks $35 million in damages covering, among other things, the loss of Super Bowl rings, bonuses and endorsements for the 45 Rams players and cost of $400 tickets for 72,922 fans.*

I’m not a lawyer, but if Bob Kraft called me to represent his defense, I’d raise these key points after we agreed on my fee of $850 an hour.

• The Rams only led 3-0 early in the second quarter. On the Rams’ first offensive drive of the second quarter, they got the ball down to the Patriots 34 yard line. The Rams failed to convert on third down due to an incompletion and had to settle for a field goal. They missed. Show the jury how an alleged videotaping of the Rams’ practice impacts the kicker missing a field goal.

• Again, in the second quarter with 8:49 remaining in the half, New England defensive back, Ty Law, intercepts a pass intended for Isaac Bruce and runs the ball back 47 yards for a touchdown. Show the jury how an alleged videotaping of the Rams practice impacts the poor judgment by Kurt Warner on this play. At this point New England led 7-3.

• With less than two minutes in the first half, Rams receiver, Ricky Proehl, has the ball stripped at the Patriots 40 yard line. New England recovers, of which they subsequently score another touchdown with 31 seconds remaining in the half. Show the jury how an alleged videotaping of the Rams practice impacts the fumbling by Ricky Proehl. At this point New England led 14-3.

• In the third quarter, New England defensive back, Otis Smith, intercepted a pass after its intended receiver, Tory Holt, slips and falls. New England again capitalizes from this turnover with a field goal. Show the jury how an alleged videotaping of the Rams practice impacts the stumbling by Tory Holt. At this point New England led 17-3.

• Later in the third quarter, Kurt Warner fumbled on a fourth- and- goal quarterback sneak. The ball was recovered by Patriots defensive back, Tebucky Jones, and returned for 97 yards. New England would have had a commanding lead of 24-3 had the play not been nullified by a defensive hold by Willie McGinest. Even if that play counted, show the jury how an alleged videotaping of the Rams practice impacts Kurt Warner fumbling the ball. As a result of the penalty, the Rams got a first down and scored two plays later. New England led 17-10.

The Rams scored once more tying the game at 17 apiece. With a minute and a half remaining in the game, the Patriots marched the ball to the Rams 30 yard line of which Adam Vinatieri made a 48 yard field goal to win in the game’s final second of play.

Regardless of whether New England videotaped the Rams’ practice or not, the total points forfeited or not accumulated due to Rams’ miscues is 20: Three for a missed field goal in the second quarter, and 17 scored by New England off turnovers. Even if New England had acquired the Rams’ entire playbook, how does such a purported advantage translate to spontaneous game time mistakes made by St. Louis? The answer is it doesn’t.

As for a possible motivating factor for Willie Gary, the suit’s primary plaintiff…

• The average salary for an NFL player is $1.1 million per year. The average salary for an Arena Football League (AFL) player is $40,000 per year. Based on these averages, Gary, in six years in the AFL, would have made only 21.8 percent of what an NFL player makes in one year. While this is only speculation, perhaps Willie Gary is living beyond his means after having a taste of the high life in the NFL. For $850 an hour, I would surely dig a little deeper into Gary’s financial history.

While this suit gets underway, perhaps the Oakland Raiders should team up with the Rams to file another law suit just in case this one doesn’t work out. After all, the Patriots would have never reached the Super Bowl that year had it not been for the extremely controversial game involving the “tuck rule” on January 19, 2002. In the six-plus years since that game was played, the arcane interpretation of that ruling is still being debated. So why not sue? Assuming that Walt Coleman, the referee who called that game, isn’t quite as well-heeled as Mr. Kraft, I’d solicit my legal expertise for a mere $625 an hour.

And since piling on the New England Patriots is as in vogue as watching Britney Spears’ life implode in real time, why don’t the Miami Dolphins sue the Pats for losses tied to the infamous “Snowplow Game” as well? Granted that game was more than 25 years ago – December 12, 1982 to be exact – so there may be a statute of limitations here. But since such a suit is unprecedented, maybe it’s worth it to see if the Fish can extort a million or two from their hated rival. With the likelihood of New England’s legal team being busy for a while, perhaps Miami should also sue John Deere in the meantime. After all, they’re an accomplice for manufacturing the tractor that removed the snow before New England kicked the game winning field goal. You’d figure a company with an apple pie image like John Deere would want to avoid any negative publicity. Surely they’d settle with the Dolphins to make this matter quietly go away.

As for this law suit regarding Super Bowl XXXVI, hopefully the courts in New Orleans, which is where this suit is filed, will see the same ridiculousness as the rest of us. The last thing our society needs is yet another frivolous lawsuit. The last thing New Orleans needs is more high profile nonsense to distract from their rebuilding efforts. And the last thing the average fan needs is more legal rigmarole to dilute whatever purity still remains in the world of sports. For God’s sake, just lick your wounds and move on. This is football…isn’t it?



*Specific information about the suit taken from the Boston Herald.