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What I’m Thankful For This Year (New York Sports Edition)

11/27/08

A happy and healthy Thanksgiving to everyone out there.

On this day of thanks, I thought it would be fun to list the 10 things I’ve been thankful for in 2008 when it comes to New York sports.

As a fan of the Mets, Jets, Knicks, Rangers, and Syracuse basketball team, I tried focusing on my teams but had to stray to come up with 10, especially with the teams’ lack of success.

10. The Major League Baseball All Star Game

I was lucky enough to be in attendance at the final All Star Game ever at Yankee Stadium.  As I sat out in the left field bleachers, I couldn’t see everything, but I made sure I stuck around for all 15 innings and all five-plus hours in watching the American League pull out the victory and claim home field advantage in the World Series.

Seeing all the legends like Willie Mays and Hank Aaron was a once in a lifetime experience, and the whole night was as good as it gets for a baseball fan.

9. October Baseball without the Yankees

Now, the Mets weren’t part of the postseason either, so I know I’m opening myself up here for major criticism. However, after having to watch the Yankees extend their season for 12 years in a row, enough was enough.

The fact that the team wasn’t able to make the playoffs in the final season of their historic ballpark was icing on the cake.  It couldn’t have happened to a more deserving fanbase.

Of course it only made things sweeter seeing Joe Torre get his Dodgers into the NLCS.  However, his firing was still the correct decision, right George?

8. Henrik Lundqvist

I’ll admit it, I don’t watch a ton of hockey, but when I watch the Rangers, I can’t help but marvel at how dominant king Henry can be between the pipes.  He stands on his head night after night keeping the team in games when the offense struggles.

Back in the spring, when the Rangers were looking to earn a berth in the Eastern Conference Finals, Lundqvist was sensational against Pittsburgh. Lundqvist led the squad when they weren’t able to capitalize on power play opportunities.

Lundqvist is quietly one of the five best athletes this city has to offer.  Write it down.

7. Jonny Flynn

After two seasons of missing out on the NCAA tournament, the orange have jumped out to a 5-0 start, including road wins on back to back nights against Florida and Kansas.  The big reason behind their early success has been the play of sophomore point guard Jonny Flynn, who is making a case as one of the best one-guards in all of America. His name has been mentioned in the same breath as guards like Darren Collison and Ty Lawson.

Flynn forced overtime Tuesday night with a game tying three with 6.4 seconds left. His ability to create shots for his teammates and score the basketball will make Syracuse a contender throughout the year.  He’s the best pure basketball player Jim Boeheim has coached since Carmelo Anthony.

6. Leon Washington

The Jets’ most valuable player in my eyes, Washington makes something happen every game.  You can pencil him in for making at least one game-changing play, whether it’s a long touchdown run or taking a kickoff back to the house.

Leon has been important in spelling Thomas Jones, and the two have formed a dynamic rushing tandem that has helped put the Jets on top of the AFC East, and in contention for a possible postseason run.

The quarterback handing Washington the ball has been a pretty big reason for their success as well, but more on him later.

5. The Escape, the Catch, the Upset

I’m not a Giants fan, but unlike the Mets-Yankees hate I’ve developed growing up, I always root for the Giants unless they’re taking on my Jets.

While my Jets were nowhere to be found in January, the Giants’ playoff run last season was something that any sports fan could appreciate.  Going on the road and winning games in Tampa, Dallas, and Green Bay, when the wind chill was -20, and defeating the previously undefeated Patriots was all sorts of fun.

Of course the moment from that game that I, like everybody else, will think of first was the escape of Eli Manning and the throw and catch to David Tyree, who pinned the ball against his helmet on the Giants’ final touchdown drive, setting up the game-winning score.

The game was phenomenal, the Giants won a hard earned championship, and the Patriots were denied their piece of football immortality.

4. Johan Santana

While the Mets’ season ended up being a waste, the performance of Johan Santana was anything but that.  Santana was brilliant, winning 16 games and finishing third in National League Cy Young voting.

It was his final two performances of the season, including his complete game, a three-hit shutout on the second to last game of the season (a game I was at), that electrified Mets fans and gave them hope that they would be able to avoid a second consecutive late season collapse.

Of course they didn’t, but that was no fault of Santana, who was pitching with a torn ligament in his knee.  For all the prospects and money Omar Minaya and ownership gave up to bring him to Queens, and in the midst of a very disappointing season, Santana certainly shined.

3. Donnie Walsh

I could have given Isiah Thomas a spot and spoken about how I’m thankful for his removal, but I’m going to group that with Walsh. Since being hired by owner James Dolan, Walsh wasted little time in removing Thomas as coach.

Walsh not only was able to effectively end the dreadful Isiah Thomas era, but he hired a proven winner in Mike D’Antoni. He has already begun to clear cap space for when LeBron James, among others, becomes a free agent in 2010.

The trades of Jamal Crawford and Zach Randolph clear nearly $28 million of cap space going into the summer of 2010, when the Knicks will be primed to start a new era with James leading the way.

Walsh would have topped my list, but still hasn’t gotten rid of Stephon Marbury, although that probably isn’t too far off from happening.

2. Shea Goodbye

I’ve been going to Shea Stadium for nearly 15 years, and at 21 years old, aside from the places I’ve called home and the classrooms I’ve been in, there isn’t a place I’ve spent more time than the former home of the Mets.

Although the season didn’t end as planned, I was able to drive home from Syracuse to attend the final three regular season games in the history of the ballpark.  It was an emotional weekend, and it was great seeing the likes of Mike Piazza, Doc Gooden, and Tom Seaver one last time at Shea.

The final season at Shea also included Billy Joel as the last entertainer of the stadium, and I was lucky enough to be there when Paul McCartney came out.

All in all, some of my best memories were at Shea, and knowing I’ll never be there again to watch baseball is something that probably won’t sink in until I’m watching games at Citi Field.

1. Brett Favre

I can’t think of anything greater than one of your favorite players joining one of your favorite teams.  Such was the case when, in early August, the New York Jets acquired one of the greatest to ever play the game to be their quarterback.  Brett Favre was the centerpiece to an offseason makeover following a disastrous 4-12 season.

Bringing his one of a kind skills and child-like exuberance, the Jets find themselves at 8-3 and in contention for a division championship.  Favre has completely changed the culture in the Jets locker room.  Over the course of the season the group has come together as a unit and played the type of winning football Jets fans aren’t all accustomed used to.

Favre is easy to like and easier to root for, especially when he’s getting his team victories.

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November 27, 2008 Posted by | Personal, Sports, Thoughts | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

All ‘Shea’ Wrote

10/2/08

Last Sunday, Shea Stadium lowered it curtain for the last time, closing the book on 44 years of memories.

While the ball club crashed their own party by failing to qualify for postseason play for a second consecutive season, Sunday was as much about remembering and celebrating the life of a ballpark that saw it all, from baseball to concerts to religious royalty.

When it opened in 1964, the still infant New York Mets finally still lacked the talent to compete, but no longer lacked a home of their own.

Located on Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing, Queens, Shea and it’s surrounding area leave little to be desired aesthetically, in fact more often than not the ballpark is referred to (being kind and keeping this appropriate) an eye sore (among many other lovely names).

When stadiums and ballparks go up today, the buzz word surrounding them is often ‘state of the art’, and while the Mets new home, Citi Field, will certainly fit the description, back in 1964 upon opening, Shea already seemed to appear outdated.

It didn’t help that less than 10 miles away sat another ballpark where another New York team played. A ballpark they said was built by some guy named Ruth. A ballpark where guys proclaimed they were the luckiest man on the faith on earth”. A ballpark that saw championship flags raised and a ballpark that saw both records and legends fall.

Ok, so Yankee Stadium has the history, the mystique and aura and the ghosts.

While Shea lacked all of the above, what it had was a team that gave New Yorker’s lovable losers, who brought National League baseball back to a National League town.

Those early years were as brutal as the traffic is getting there these days, but those Metsies (as Casey Stengal lovingly referred to them as) had charm.

It didn’t take long for Shea’s theater to feature its first true performer, as the right arm of Tom Seaver toed the rubber for the first time in 1965, the same year some kids from Britain sold the place out. From what I hear, they weren’t bad.

Beatlemania was fun, but it was four years later when miracles were made.

Led by Gil Hodges, who had already captured the hearts of New Yorker’s for so many years wearing Dodger blue, made those National League holdovers proud again with an Amazin’ finish in 1969, giving Shea some much needed interior decoration.

It won’t be soon forgotten that Shea hosted football too, and the Jets flying overhead had nothing on the

Just four more years later, another New York baseball legend, who told us it wasn’t over ‘til its over, had the Mets just a win away from a second championship.

Behind a rallying call so often still uttered, the ’73 edition of the orange and blue gave us “Ya Gotta Believe”, but ultimately gave us bitter disappointment.

The next decade saw icons take their final curtain calls (Willie Mays ’72 and ‘73), and also saw hometown heroes make unexpected exits (Seaver in ’77).

As Shea was hardly enjoying its teenaged years, it would be some teenaged stars that would be called upon to revive a drowning organization.

With a Doc and a Straw, the energy was back, even if the magic wasn’t (true Mets fan will appreciate the reference to one of the teams countless ill-fated marketing campaigns).

An MVP from St. Louis along with a ‘kid’ from Montreal, and the pieces were finally in place for Shea to host another October party.

With a game six groundball and game seven comeback, Shea was once again a house of champions, and once again the center of the New York baseball universe.

Another crushing playoff defeat in ’88 saw the end of an era in Queens, as young stars were quickly becoming troubled veterans.

As disappointment turned into embarrassment, and money couldn’t buy success, the dawning of a new era was arriving in the spring of 1998.

A Piazza delivery had a rejuvenated fan base buzzing, looking to quench it’s postseason thirst.

Just a year later, it was Piazza who delivered, as Shea prepared to get ‘wild’.

Never shy from dramatic, the Amazin’s brought with them back to playoffs some magic, as the names Pratt and Ventura were forever etched into both Mets and Shea Stadium lore for homeruns and grand slam…singles.

Another year, and another trip to the playoffs, this time with a National League crown to show for it.

A meeting with those cross town rivals scheduled, with more than titles on the line.

And although a mighty drive from Mikey fell harmlessly in the glove of Bernie Williams, the Yankees may have had their three-peat, but the Mets once again had significance (hardly compensation, but important none the less.)

Fast forward another year, to events that forever changed our lives.

September 11th, 2001 saw time stand still, and when it picked up again in the baseball world, Shea Stadium would serve as 55,000 seat therapist’s office.

Whether or not we should have been there was certainly a question, but by night’s end, doubts were erased with what many agree was the most significant swing Shea ever saw.

With broken hearts beating and crying eyes watching, Mike Piazza’s 8th inning home run might have given the Mets a lead, but more than that, gave a city a much needed chance to smile.

It didn’t win a playoff series, and didn’t clinch a championship- but it didn’t have to.

That swing was about more than baseball, and for the first time since those towers had fallen, New Yorker’s spirits were lifted.

After coming up short in 2001, Shea went silent again for another 5 years, surpassing the big 4-0 without any playoff celebrations.

Before there was talk of a new ballpark, there would be talk of the “New Mets”.

A superstar shortstop and a hot corner cornerstone, along with a hall of fame ace and all star centerfielder made up the framework of a new generation in Flushing.

Led by a GM from Queens and a manager from Brooklyn, it would take only two seasons for the “New Mets” to be National League East champions, dethroning 14 years of consistency down south.

In what few expected to be its final postseason party, Shea was home to a pennant clinching celebration it hadn’t seen in 6 years.

What few also expected, was watching the winners wearing the wrong colored caps, as a called third strike would make a legendary class go for naught.

Seeing it’s replacement finally take some shape, Shea watched it’s own demise slowly resurrect in its parking lost, while it watched the demise of its favorite tenants painfully play out within its walls.

Known simply as “the collapse”, the numbers 7 and 17 would forever be infamously synonymous with the Metropolitans, having nothing to do with a shortstop or a ‘stache’.

In 2008, Shea’s swan song wasn’t the only music playing, as the Piano Man hosted Shea’s last play…twice. With the help of some friends, including one who hadn’t seen Shea’s stage since he first graced it in ’65, Billy the Kid had the house rocking like it had some 40 years before.

Two weeks ago, we bid farewell to Yankee Stadium, known to many as the House that Ruth Built and baseball’s cathedral.

Among those who called it home included the Babe and Iron Man, a Clipper and the Mick. From Reggie and Thurman, to Donnie, Derek and Mo.

That other park in town, the one with the airplanes and the one that looked like it needed to be torn down not long after it went up, might not have been built by sultan of swat, or proclaim itself as religious arena.

Among those who call IT home were Tom and Tug, Daryl and Doc, Mookie and Mike, David and Jose. Not a Hall of Fame guest list per se, but not bad either.

To those who called Shea home, this author included, it might not have been the best looking and might not have fanciest.

It might have lacked mystique and aura, and it might have lacked a pretty white facade.

For all Shea might have lacked, it made up for with its familiarity and unexplainable charm.

To those who have called Shea home for any period of time, what it lacked in physical appeal it made up for with emotional sentiment.

Although few will argue it’s no longer up to the standards set by the new era of ballparks springing up, few will also argue that Shea will be torn down not having lived the fullest of lives.

It saw baseball and football, championships and heartbreaks, religious icons and rock and roll immortals.

But most of all, it was place where millions of people would gather for whatever the reason, not caring about what that place looked like, but more just how they felt once inside.

And more often than not, thanks to 44 years of moments and memories, they felt like they were home.

October 2, 2008 Posted by | New York Mets, Sports, Thoughts | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brett Favre a New York Jet….Seriously

8/13/08

(the following was originally posted on my Sports Illustrated blog about an hour after the Jets acquired the future hall of famer, very early Thursday morning)

It isn’t often I’m woken up in the middle of a great sleep more excited than I was at 12:09 AM when I found out the shoe in Hall of Fame Quarterback Brett Favre will be wearing a different shade of green this season when he suits up for the New York Jets.

Favre, 38, had retired only 5 months ago following a season which saw him revive his legendary career while taking the Green Bay Packers on a Super Bowl run that ended with a loss in the NFC championship game to the eventual world champion New York Giants.

Now, after playing his entire career in the quaint confines of Green Bay, Wisconsin, Favre will now deal with both the bright lights of New York as well as the flashbulbs generated by what should be an unprecedented media circus which should be awaiting Favre’s New York arrival.

The immediate impacts of this deal will likely be Chad Pennington seeing his Jet career end as Favre’s begin.

Pennington’s contract is an easy asset to subtract for salary cap purposes, as Favre, a Super Bowl champion with the Packers in 1996, comes in not only with his hall of fame credentials but a hefty salary to boot.

The trade, which as early Thursday morning was confirmed by several media outlets, sees the Jets swaping a conditional draft pick (likely a 3rd or 4th round pick) that depending on both the performance of Favre and the Jets can become as high as a 1st or 2nd round pick.

This move gives instant credibility to a team that is clearly second string in New York behind the Giants, something that has been apparent even before the Giants knocked off New England in Super Bowl XVII.

Favre will now be taking snaps in the same stadium the team many believed he had ended his career against (his pass that was intercepted by Giants CB Corey Webster led to the Giants winning the NFC championship game back in Jan.).

Favre can expect early fan support, however unlike in Green Bay where he was comperable to the Pope, the honeymoon may not last in New York should Favre not produce.

Make no mistake, that upon his arrival and throughout his first few home games, the reaction should be nothing short of overwhelming, however New Yorker’s have been and always will be a ‘what have you done for me lately’ type of town, so simply being Brett Favre won’t be enough to maintain cheers should the Jets find themselves in the midst of another disappointing season.

Not since Joe Namath has there been a football presence wearing Green in New York, and Favre joins New York far more established and accomplished than Namath ever was.

When he retired back in February, he was the NFL’s all time leader in touchdown passes and retired as the league’s only three-time most valuable player.

He brings a hard working, blue collar attitude to a Jets team that lacked everything from talent to toughness last season, yet instantly improves their ballclub in both regards with the acquisition of the 17 year veteran.

Favre now makes the Jets at the very least a playoff contender, however calling the Jets a Super Bowl favorite or even playoff lock is outrageous.

However, right now, the Jets have made the splash of the NFL offseason, adding arguably the biggest name in the sport (or as of Sunday the biggest name back in the sport) in Brett Favre.

It takes a lot to upstage the team you share a stadium with who is coming off a Super Bowl winning season, however it’s fair to say Favre’s 2008 season in New York, with the Jets, pushes the champion Giants off the back pages, even if only for a little while.

For Jets fans critical of this trade, as a fellow Jets fan who has been suffering with the irrelevant play of this team, it’s tough not to be a huge fan of this move, as neither Chad Pennington or Kellen Clemens had me convinced this team was any better than a 6 win team, regardless of the off season spending spree the team went on.

Head coach Eric Mangini should provide Favre with the kind of winning mentality and toughness he appreciates, and hopefully with an improved roster desperately in need of a competent quarterback, the Jets can make some noise in 2008.

This move not only makes the Jets credible, it makes them competitive and worth watching, and sends a message to the rest of the AFC that they are for real.

Like it or not, Brett Favre gives the Jets something that only a handful of other teams in this league have, and thats a reliable Quarterback who has a Super Bowl ring and a winning pedigree.

Billy Joel sang “I’ve seen the lights go out on Broadway”, and thats how it’s felt for a while despite some occasional success for gang green.

With Brett Favre a Jet, expect those lights to be shining brighter than ever.

August 14, 2008 Posted by | Sports | , , , , | Leave a comment