State of the Underdogs
As the basketball and hockey seasons draw to a close, football gearing up to start training camps and baseball in full swing, there is a lot going on across the New York Sports landscape, and my teams are in the thick of it all.
The biggest story in New York is the Mets, who saved face over the weekend by holding on for dear life against the Yankees, winning the rubber match 6-4 and the series 2-1. Their reward was the Empire State Building shining blue, orange and white, and everyone gets to keep their job a little while longer. As great as it always feels to beat the Yankees (and conversely how awful it is to lose to them - had the Mets lost the third game on an Alex Rodriguez homer it would’ve felt exactly like Luis Castillo’s drop last year and crushed the fan base for the remainder of 2010) the big test for the Mets lies directly ahead in three games with the Philadelphia Phillies.
The series might lack the buzz of the first since neither Johan Santana nor Roy Halladay will pitch in the series, but everything is on the line for the Mets. If they can two of three and get back to .500 they can close out a terrible month on a high note. The Yankees and the Phillies are the two teams the Mets measure themselves against, and ultimately are the teams they have to beat if they will ever get better.
The Mets offense is built on streaky players, all of which have been ice cold up until the last two games of the Yankees series. Jason Bay tripled his home run totals in 2010 during the Sunday night game, David Wright got a couple of clutch RBI’s in Saturday’s win, and Jose Reyes started a couple of key rallies with hits. Every Mets fans knows Reyes is the key to igniting the offense, and he has yet to look comfortable since coming back from his injuries.
As for Wright, has the pressure of being the face and heart of the franchise started weighing him down? His power numbers are back, but his strikeout totals are going up with them. The David Wright that could routinely hit doubles to the opposite field has disappeared, replaced by a David Wright with an upper-cut swing that leads to all or nothing at-bats.
But what scares every Mets fan right now is the rotation. Over the past couple of weeks the John Maine and Ollie Perez that almost pitched the Mets into the World Series in 2006 are distant memories. Mets manager Jerry Manuel is fed up with their poor performances (as are Mets fans) and if the Mets are fortunate they won’t have to rely on either one again in 2010. Hisanori Takahashi had been one of the best reliever out of the bullpen, and in his first start he showed the Mets he can be just as reliable as a starter, but can he do it over the course of a season? Until Jon Niese comes back they’ll have to turn two more relievers into starters, and you can’t expect all of them to succeed.
The dream solution to the rotation problem for Mets fans (and I’m sure Omar Minaya as well) was almost a Mets solution a few years ago too. Roy Oswalt, the ace of the Houston Astros has soured on the only team he’s played for, which has gone in the toilet in the NL Central. Oswalt has a full no-trade clause and has stated that he want’s to go to a top-flight contender, a la Halladay to the Phillies. Do the Mets look like that team now? Absolutely not. Could they be that team with Oswalt, Santana and Mike Pelfrey atop the rotation and Carlos Beltran back in centerfield? Maybe - still seems more like a wild-card team. But those three atop the rotation could win a short playoff series if the Mets can ever get there. But it’s all moot if Oswalt doesn’t believe he can make the Mets contenders, and if the Mets are willing to give up on their young, cheap talent that they spent so much of the past off-season building up.
The Jets meanwhile are in the process of renegotiating some important contracts. Darelle Revis (deservedly) wants a new contract and a significant pay raise from his rookie deal. He’s earned it by anyone’s account with his stellar play in 2009 and if the Jets are going to give anyone a big payday, it’s Revis. Jets head coach Rex Ryan constructed his top-ranked defense around Revis’ ability to shut down the NFL’s best receivers in single coverage, freeing the rest of the secondary to double cover other receivers, or to blitz along with the linebackers and overwhelm to opposing offensive line. Without Revis, Ryan has to reconfigure the secondary and linebackers, and it would be like an entirely different defense. Revis is one of those players you have to pay because he IS the best in the league.
The other Jet clamoring for a pay raise is just as integral to the offense as Revis is to the defense. Center Nick Mangold has become one of the best O-lineman in the league, and is the co-anchor (with left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson) of the Jets top-ranked rushing attack. With the Jets moves at running back in the off-season, they have shown they believe the key to their running game isn’t the backs as much as it is the players who block for them. Mangold and Ferguson are the two young studs on the O-line who will ultimately get the big paydays, and Mangold wants his now. Maybe this explains why they cut expensive veteran Alan Faneca, because they knew they would have to pay their center. Mangold was hurt by the uncapped year as much as anyone, since he still has to play under his rookie contract instead of becoming a free agent.
So the answer for the Jets is obvious, right? Pay the players who are the pillars of your offensive and defensive strategy and move on with everybody happy. But the Jets under Mike Tannenbaum have been very stingy and unsentimental in negotiating with their players, just ask Pete Kendall, Chris Baker or Leon Washington. But none of those players were to the Jets what Revis and Mangold are, these are players you don’t get stingy with.
The Knicks are in full LeBron watch, along with the rest of the NBA outside of Boston, Orlando, Phoenix, and Los Angeles. Three potential suitors, Cleveland, Chicago, and New Jersey will essentially offer LeBron the coach of his choice (from John Calipari to Phil Jackson) if LeBron doesn’t want to play for Mike D’Antoni in New York. As I’ve written before, this is a pivotal summer for the Knicks, and if the Knicks don’t get LeBron or a couple of other big free agents, they could see a mass exodus of fans to the Nets, who have gotten a jolt of life from their new owner, Mikhail Prokhorov. The Russian billionaire has already promised the playoffs next season and a championship within five, and has the cap-space to get the same players the Knicks want. If their move to Brooklyn goes as scheduled, they could really conquer the New York market and supplant the Knicks. That’s the Freddy Kruger scenario for a Knicks franchise that has been living a nightmare for the last decade. And at this juncture, it may be more realistic than the dream of LeBron in blue and orange.
As for the Islanders, they will try once again to convince NHL nomads to play for a franchise that hasn’t won a playoff series since 1993, in one the oldest buildings to house a professional team and may not be in the same place much longer. There is still no word on Charles Wang’s Lighthouse Project to renovate The Nassau Coliseum and the surrounding area. There have been overtures from Brooklyn with the Nets new arena and in Queens with the land adjacent to the Mets’ Citi Field (remember Queens and Brooklyn are still technically Long Island), but each is a long way from happening. Wang has shown himself to be patient with the arena, but who knows how much he has left. If Wang had shown more patience with his coaches, maybe Peter Laviolette could have led the Islanders on a deep playoff run. He won the Stanley Cup leading the Carolina Hurricanes in 2004 and has now led the Philadelphia Flyers to the Finals after taking over in early December.
It’s a tense time in New York sports. The next few months could determine the directions of each franchise for the next decade. For now New York fans will have to make due with playing their what-if games as we wait for foundations to be built, or for the ax to fall.