On Mike Francesa and his return to WFAN in New York

Broadcasting, MLB, NFL, Uncategorized

Francesa screenshot

Mike Francesa’s pending return to WFAN in New York caught many by surprise. An onslaught of criticism has inundated him and the station for the ham-handed way this was handled, that Francesa had his extended “farewell tour” only to stage a return four months later, and he usurped his replacements with little regard to anyone other than himself.

Francesa benefited from the poor showing in the first ratings book from his replacements, “The Afternoon Drive” with Chris Carlin, Maggie Gray and Bart Scott, and that the station was still reeling from the firing of morning co-host Craig Carton after his arrest for allegations of being involved in a Ponzi scheme.

This was a perfect storm. The decline in ratings was one thing. The content for the Afternoon Drive show and that they lost to none other than Michael Kay appears to have been the tipping point. For Francesa’s  hard core listeners – of which were and are many – a shrieking storm alert text message on a loop is preferable to listening to Kay. Since there is no other sports afternoon radio talk show in New York, those who cannot stand Kay and didn’t like the Afternoon Drive show were left lamenting WFAN’s inability to keep Francesa from leaving and Francesa for abandoning them.

For Carlin, Gray and Scott, the die was cast early in their brief tenure during the New York Giants’ quarterback controversy when Gray launched into an extended rant as to how an NFL team should develop a quarterback as if she somehow knew more about it than experienced NFL front office folk. No, it wasn’t a Francesa rant when he raved like a lunatic with his ample flesh jiggling and his voice and internal organs straining like he was about to have a volcanic eruption with Diet Coke exploding from every orifice, but it was worse. Francesa was so cocksure in his statements – no matter how idiotic they could be – that he pulled it off. Gray tried a calm, rational approach that failed the “Who are you to be saying this?” test. Francesa’s credibility on such a subjective topic as developing a quarterback is likely not any better than Gray’s, but he sold it better and hand waved away the credibility question like one of his callers.

Carlin tried too hard to generate controversy with outrageous statements.

Scott clearly lacked conviction as he spouted memorized lines about sports other than football.

It didn’t work. Like the nightmarish experiment of David Lee Roth replacing Howard Stern, there were two choices:

1) Continue moving forward, refuse to acknowledge a mistake and let the audience wither away to nothing.

2) Cut the ties and make a move that was financially motivated to be sure, but was also adhering to what the audience wants.

The purpose of a radio show is to generate listeners. The listeners are gauged by ratings and the ratings are an overriding factor in advertising rates. Losing listeners means lower advertising rates and lower revenue. After the loss of Carton and the station’s apparent rudderless foray into the unknown, they had no alternative. It’s fair to criticize the station for how it was done, but arguing that it was not a sound business decision is putting what’s deemed to be “fair” ahead of what’s necessary to effectively run a business.

Francesa is not innocent here. It would not be the essence of Francesa if he didn’t try to spin his return into something he was “forced” to do as he made bizarre allusions to a conspiracy to keep him off the air as if he’s the last line of defense against a cabal of shadowy powerbrokers for which his return sabotages a quest for universal domination.

Somewhere inside him, when getting past the rancid soda, clogged arteries, calcified chunks of ego and goo, presumably he knows this. And he doesn’t care.

To say that he couldn’t find a new radio home is difficult to believe. He certainly could have gone to Sirius or gotten a job on a network talking about the NFL and college basketball. The motivation to go back to his radio home could have been the money; it could have been the exposure; or it could have been that he finally got what he wanted from WFAN and his wife was sick of him being around the house micromanaging her all day when she’d grown accustomed to him being gone.

It doesn’t matter. His fans don’t care.

Those rolling their eyes at the extended farewell tour and his subsequent return are ignoring the reality that Francesa has functioned for his entire career – if not his entire life – thinking that he was worthy of feting and fealty just for existing; simply because he granted his listeners the generosity of sharing his wisdom with them. By that metric, he should have been idolized whether he was retiring or not.

As for show content, this was a no-brainer. Like him or not, there are few voices in the media who have that cachet of “I wonder what he/she will say about this?”

Francesa has it.

Wondering about how Aaron Boone is using his bullpen for the Yankees?

What’s wrong with Matt Harvey and what the Mets should do?

If there’s a real chance that Tom Brady will retire and that a rift between him and Bill Belichick will sabotage the Patriots?

Whom the Knicks should hire as head coach?

If the Giants will select Saquon Barkley, Bradley Chubb, a quarterback, or trade down with the second overall pick in the coming NFL draft?

What the New York Jets will do after having traded up to get the third pick?

Francesa will tell you. You’ll listen. You might agree. You might disagree. You might loathe his arrogance and refusal to admit to ever having been wrong about anything, ever. He’s heading back to WFAN because the station needs him and he needs the forum. How it was done is secondary and after all the conversation, nobody cares if they get the show they want. That show is Francesa’s show.

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The clock is ticking on Matt Harvey

MLB, Uncategorized

Matt Harvey pic

After Matt Harvey’s performance on Saturday night, the clock is ticking on his time in the Mets starting rotation. The days of placating him, giving him rope, hoping and waiting for him to regain what injuries and perhaps self-abuse and age-related decline took from him ended when the club moved on from manager Terry Collins and pitching coach Dan Warthen. Mickey Callaway, Dave Eiland and the new staff are taking no prisoners and are not letting sentiment interfere with doing what is best for the team and organization. Should Harvey continue to show the same stuff he has in his first three starts, this does not bode well for him.

Brave fronts and sunny assessments aside, Harvey was serviceable and lucky in his first start against the Phillies, mediocre in his second start against the Nationals, and poor at best in his third start against the Brewers. The same relentlessly positive statements about his first start were said whenever he didn’t get blasted in 2016 and 2017. It’s forced and subjective. Certainly, injuries are a part of that, but he has not been consistently good since 2015. He’s bluffing and trying to get by when a pitcher with his talents never needed to do so. As he approaches 30, learning to survive rather than effortlessly dominate will take time and dedication; two things the Mets do not and should not have regarding their erstwhile marquee star.

Ironically, Harvey’s final glorious moment with the Mets was Game 5 of the 2015 World Series when he convinced Collins to allow him to try and finish the complete game shutout, and was left on the mound as the Royals staged a rally to tie the game. The Mets lost the the World Series that night. Since then, for Harvey, it’s been a plummet with that moment, arguably, the first step off the cliff.

But none of that matters now.

The time for blame and search for explanations as to what happened to the guy who looked like a carbon copy of the mid-1980s Roger Clemens and has degenerated into someone’s 2019 reclamation project is over. The Mets are not blameless in what’s happened to Harvey and pinpointing exactly where he and they went wrong is impossible. However, it is inaccurate to absolve him of any role in the affair simply because he’s gutting his way through as best he can and he maintains that level of competitiveness as his abilities have declined so markedly. The late nights, diva-like behavior, inexcusable tardiness to the park, needless disputes between the club with agent Scott Boras as his frontman, endless tabloid drama that he seemed to foster intentionally – and that’s just the stuff that was reported and became public – were all Harvey. If the club bears any responsibility for it, it’s that they let it pass without telling him enough was enough and they weren’t protecting him, nor were they letting him slide because he was “special.”

Eventually, they did suspend him in May of 2017, but by then, what difference did it make? Suspending him earlier in his career would have been for his own good. Suspending him in 2017 was for the club’s own good because then at least he wouldn’t be pitching – and that’s with his replacement for his scheduled start, journeyman Adam Wilk, getting pummeled by the Marlins.

Fortunately for the Mets and not so much for Harvey, the club does not need to keep putting him out there every fifth day, hoping for a miraculous return to glory. They don’t have to concern themselves with getting something from him at any juncture beyond this season. Most importantly, the Mets are no longer stuck in the “we don’t have anyone else” trap. They do have someone else. In fact, they have two someone elses. Zack Wheeler’s encouraging performance against the Marlins on Wednesday could have been an anomaly, but when comparing his stuff to Harvey’s, Wheeler might be able to get away with missing his spots and being the same scatterarmed entity he’s been for his entire career and still be more trustworthy. Jason Vargas will eventually be ready to pitch and he’s entering the starting rotation, period.

Something’s got to give. Someone’s got to go. If, under Callaway, the Mets are adhering to the meritocracy template that Collins often spoke of but rarely followed through upon, then Harvey will need to become a third multi-inning reliever along with Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman, help as much as he can, wait for the clock to run out on his time with the Mets when both sides can move on.

With Harvey’s pending free agency and the percentage of Harvey and the Mets remaining together beyond this season comparable to the chances of Jennifer Lopez leaving Alex Rodriguez for Michael Kay – theoretically, it could happen, but it won’t – there is no reason for the Mets to put forth any pretense of fixing or showing reverence to Harvey for what he was three-plus years ago. And if this is what he is, a team with the rising expectations that go along with an 11-2 start cannot waste games with Harvey, whose reputation was built long ago with the club not under any obligation to be beholden to it anymore.

For the Nationals, it’s early…but

MLB, Uncategorized

Harper pic

Like any rivalry, the barking between fans of the New York Mets and Washington Nationals descends into the absurd, truthful though it may be. Repeatedly referencing the Nationals four shots at the playoffs and four first round playoff losses in the Bryce HarperStephen Strasburg years is undoubtedly accurate, but it’s not as if the Mets have won a championship during that time to accord them an unassailable argument to validate the mocking.

Still, the Mets won the pennant in 2015. The Nationals are saddled with not just the inability to get beyond the first round, but also the 2015 implosion that allowed the Mets to pass, lap and embarrass them, and a dwindling amount of time to make good on a cycle of seven years in which they had the most talent in baseball, all the pieces in place for a dynasty and are on the verge of letting it slip away. If it comes completely undone in the first month of what could be Harper’s last season as a National is more apropos than tragic.

The same Nationals fans who roll their eyes at Mets fans’ ridicule and seek to dismiss the Mets’ searing start as if order will be restored in due time are eliciting a sense of “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Already being six games out of first place after two weeks is not something to cavalierly dismiss. It’s not just that the Nationals have fallen so far behind so fast, but the way they’ve done it should be especially worrisome with a rapid spiral an increasingly possible outcome.

Even with a hedging halfway projection in the five games between Saturday and Wednesday, the Nationals could find themselves nine games out of first place with two weeks remaining in the first month of the season.

The Nationals have reason to reference injuries as a cause of their early-season struggles – a cause, but not the cause. The Mets had the same justification, well, forever and the Nationals showed no sympathy in beating them brutally. Why should the Mets not reciprocate when their rival is bruised and bleeding?

Daniel Murphy is still recovering from knee surgery and Adam Eaton has a bone bruise. Those are two key components from their lineup who are missing. Their starting pitching has been predictably excellent. The bullpen has been mediocre. What accounts for their 6-8 record at this writing is their offense. Ryan Zimmerman’s lack of game action in spring training was shrugged off as a tactical decision, but a .424 OPS and a 16 OPS+ after 47 plate appearances indicates that, yeah, maybe at-bats in minor-league games to keep him healthy for the regular season was not the best idea in the world.

Trea Turner has a slash of .208/.333/.283; Michael Taylor is at .160/.192/.180. Without Murphy and Eaton, not even a megastar like Harper and the embarrassingly underrated star Anthony Rendon can make up for that.

There is no answer to the question as to whether this would be happening to the Nationals had they not retreated to their familiar template of blame and cheapness with a key factor in success and failure — the manager — and given Dusty Baker the contract extension he earned not only with back-to-back division titles, but by cleaning up the mess left behind by the manager he replaced, Matt Williams.

Williams’s resume is eerily comparable to that of the manager they hired to replace Baker, Dave Martinez. Sabermetric advocates loathe Baker and love Martinez due largely to his longstanding affiliation with Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon and his familiarity with the numbers-based, new age style utilized by the Cubs and before that the Tampa Bay Rays. Baker’s strength was never strategic. His strength is running the clubhouse and gaining favor with the players because they knew he had their backs and would let them do their jobs without constantly being in their faces. Results are what they are. Baker got them. Martinez is not.

An overriding concern should not be falling so far behind this quickly, but players like Harper, Murphy and Gio Gonzalez seeing where the season is headed and thinking of their pending free agency rather than salvaging what could be a lost cause by May. Harper in particular could have as much as half-a-billion dollars riding on this season. Does a desperate run and the work necessary to salvage a Wild Card justify risking that by diving, running into walls and busting on every play?

Yes, it’s early. No, the Mets and their fans should not be gloating. But that does not dispel the concerns that should be reverberating for the Nationals, because they are very real even in mid-April with 90 percent of the season remaining.

On Jason Heyward, the Cubs and Theo Epstein’s philosophy

MLB, Uncategorized

Heyward

Baseball general managers have their philosophies that frequently blur the line between belief systems and biases. The struggles of Jason Heyward are indicative of how Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein relies on that foundation to repeat similar mistakes made in the past — mistakes he should have learned from. Now the club is essentially trapped in the current situation with few alternatives but to accept and adapt.

The defenses and excuses for Heyward have run out. In 2016, his dreadful first season in Chicago was camouflaged by the Cubs run to the World Series and “saved”€ by the folk tale of his inspiring rain delay speech that roused the reeling Cubs from their punch-drunk stagger after the Indians had tied World Series Game 7 with an eighth inning rally. In 2017, the afterglow of that championship and Heyward’s supposed role in winning it saved him from the deserved vitriol that otherwise would be directed at such a monumental bust.

Although it’s still early in the 2018 season, the number of fixes, repairs, glitches, hitches and flaws that have befallen Heyward and their attempts to return him to some semblance of the player the Cubs thought they were getting have grown moldy, repetitive and tiresome like that preposterous story from the World Series. Two-plus seasons of popgun offense and admittedly still superlative defense have settled into the acceptance stage of the grieving process. This is what he is. Maybe he’ll give them 10 home runs and a .710 OPS –€“ if they’€™re lucky. Apart from that, there is a reasonable argument to say that he should not even be an everyday part of the lineup.

For all the statements about objective analysis as the driving force in decisions made in today’s game, Heyward’s 8-year, $184 million contract is the only thing saving him from being a defensive replacement in the late innings as the Cubs hope to get something of use from him apart from his glove and his “leadership” — something that, in most cases, the sabermetric community scoffs at.

When the contract was signed, the non-SABR community was bewildered at why a good but not great player with a history of injuries who didn’€™t appear to like baseball very much was so in demand. This is not to blame the Cubs. The Cardinals, Nationals and Yankees had interest in Heyward. Had the Cubs not paid him, someone else would have. That a player who was never mentioned as elite got to that point speaks to the overemphasis on statistics, projections and the intangibles — the latter of which SABR advocates downplay when it is inconvenient to their argument.

Heyward was a cumulative player whose age and widespread talents accrued enough production that his wins above replacement (WAR) was high enough to assuage any legitimate concerns about him.

He didn’€™t hit a lot of home runs, but he was a Gold Glove-caliber right fielder who could also play center field. He didn’€™t hit for a high average, but he walked a fair amount. He stole double-digits in bases and had a solid success rate when he did run. He was 26. It’€™s doubtful the Cubs or any team is planning on the worst-case scenario when paying a player so lucratively, but in Heyward’€™s worst-case scenario, they’d get great defense, some speed, some pop and an overall good player who would contribute to what they were building.

But now it is the worst-case scenario in that €™they’re stuck with a minimally productive player who’s in the lineup almost solely because of his salary.

This is wedded in Epstein’€™s theoretical-based way of constructing his teams. He attaches himself to certain players and won’€™t let go. In Boston, it was Hanley Ramirez who was traded while Epstein was in time-out after a tiff with Larry Lucchino and who he repeatedly tried to reacquire once he returned to run the Red Sox. Ben Cherington –€“ an Epstein acolyte — eventually made it happen once Epstein was gone and the results have been up and down. In Chicago, he’€™s had John Lackey, Jon Lester and Anthony Rizzo –€“ all of whom were or are successes in Chicago. However, that attachment has also led to players like Heyward being hopelessly overpaid for what they provide amid embarrassingly transparent excuses continually proffered as to what the unseen contributions are with cherrypicked numbers used as justifications for his undeserved playing time.

Epstein’€™s resume will get him elected to the Hall of Fame. He’ll have earned enshrinement. Breaking two longstanding curses€ and winning long-awaited World Series in both Boston and Chicago accord him an impenetrable shield. That does not mean he can do no wrong and that he doesn’€™t make mistakes. Heyward is one of them and the Cubs will be paying for it through 2023.

Adrian Gonzalez fools those who pushed for his release

MLB, Uncategorized

 

Adrian Gonzalez

The fundamental idea behind sabermetrics is to come to objective assessments about players. For a great many who promote themselves as “experts” based on their command of stats, there remains a reactive – and admirably natural, albeit unadmitted – response when players are not performing. Such was the case with Adrian Gonzalez throughout spring training with the New York Mets. After his grand slam Sunday night in Washington and now that Gonzalez has performed reasonably well both offensively and defensively in the admittedly very early going of the regular season, there is no longer the demand that the Mets release him and do something different (Jay Bruce, Wilmer Flores, Dominic Smith) at the position.

On one level, it was fully understandable for there to be so visceral a response to Gonzalez’s weak spring. He batted .207 in 58 at-bats with 1 home run and 2 doubles. He looked old and slow. Were he fighting for a job, he would certainly have lost.

But he wasn’t fighting for a job. That’s the key point.

Even at age 36, given his history as a former superstar player and that he cost the league minimum of $545,000 after his release by the Atlanta Braves, multiple teams were interested in him. Like a marketable free agent, the key for the player is what is best for him personally. Gonzalez was marketable for different reasons than a top-tier free agent would be, but he still held certain cards that allowed him the freedom to choose where he wanted to go based on the key factor at this juncture in his career: playing time. The Mets offered it without him needing to earn his way onto the roster. If that was not the case, he would not have signed with the Mets, relegating completely irrelevant his spring training performance and how rickety he looked.

Gonzalez’s spring training was not about getting hits and earning his way onto the roster or into the lineup. A “hands” hitter who relies on his reactions and his discerning eye at the plate, Gonzalez was simply getting his timing down and preparing his body and bad back for the grind of the long season. He was not trying to make a team. While it might be reasonable to think that a player who is well past his prime – regardless of how great he was during that prime – could contribute nothing of note after that ghastly spring training performance and how terrible he looked, it should not be forgotten that Gonzalez was very good as recently as two seasons ago and his 2017 season was sabotaged by that bad back.

He has not been vintage Gonzalez, but his .805 OPS, patience at the plate and solid defense are still in place. Should he be unable to maintain that or get hurt, the Mets have numerous options to replace him, so they can maximize his production for as long as it lasts and figure something else out as the season moves along.

It was preposterous to think he was “done” and the Mets should release him when the options they had were also rife with questions. Gonzalez serves as a prime example of the fundamental flaw of armchair expertise: there are unknowns such as what the player was told when he signed and what he was doing with his at-bats during the spring.

Had he not been given the clear promises that he would get every opportunity to play based on his regular season performance, he would not have signed with the Mets in the first place. The team is currently benefiting in a way they would not have had they adhered to the ignorant calls to release him in the spring. It may not last, but considering his cost, any contribution he makes is worth it.

Gabe Kapler and his bad start for the Phillies

MLB, Uncategorized

 

New Philadelphia Phillies manager Gabe Kapler has had a rough first week. With the strategic and technical bullpen gaffes, meandering explanations for those gaffes, and an arrogant attitude that is off-putting, he has done himself no favors, especially in a city like Philadelphia.

Compounding his situation is that the Phillies’ opportunistic aggression in the free agent market by signing Carlos Santana, Jake Arrieta, Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter created unrealistic expectations for the season, some of which suggested that they were a playoff contender.

In context, it’s only a few games and he is a rookie manager who is coming at the job from a different viewpoint, one in which the numbers take precedence and the manager has his thumb on everything the players do. However, there are worrisome signs that could place his position in jeopardy even at such an early stage in his tenure.

His style comes across as stifling, going beyond the basics of being the boss when in the clubhouse and on the field to player nutrition and what seems like an attempt at 24/7 influence on the players’ conduct.

It’s notable that Kapler’s sole managerial experience came in A-ball as he took a break from his playing career and worked on the Boston Red Sox organization. In the low minors, it’s necessary to keep a tight rein on the players for disciplinary purposes. In the majors, even with a young team, it is not. Certainly, discipline and teaching are important with a young major league club, but this is not a group of pure rookies who need to have the manager constantly on their asses. The Phillies free agent signings should preclude such an overbearing attitude as Santana and Arrieta are both high quality people on and off the field and come from winning organizations with managers in Joe Maddon and Terry Francona who should be the ideal for all new managers not in their strategic maneuverings, but in how they give the players room to breathe, something Kapler has yet to learn how to do.

Kapler is intense and highly opinionated. He wants things done his way. But it’s not “my way or the highway” as much as it’s “my way, you’re a moron.” It’s the difference between philosophical disagreements and outright derision of the other perspective.

There’s a learning curve to managing in the majors and Kapler has quickly veered onto the shoulder of that road. There are six months to get it back under control. However, it does not take long to lose support not just of the fans and media – that’s to be expected no matter who the manager is – but of the players and the front office. Phillies GM Matt Klentak undoubtedly expected some growing pains and given his stat-centric style, is willing to give Kapler time to grow. Team president Andy MacPhail has literally been in baseball since birth and has adapted to the current generation as a means of survival. For someone who has seen everything in baseball, it is thoroughly understandable if MacPhail is watching Kapler and asking, “What the fuck is this guy doing?”

Initially, Kapler will get a break on that. If it continues, he won’t. That can be a negative influence not just on the young players the Phillies are trying to develop, but for the veterans in the clubhouse who, like Santana and Arrieta, have played for managers who do know what they’re doing and can see the signs of those who don’t. It can impact players wanting to come to Philadelphia as free agents and be a hindrance rather than a help.

Smart men have failed and stupid men have succeeded based on nothing more than their handling of people and adapting to the situation. If Kapler fails to adjust and fast, he could be the former and be out of a job before he realizes what happened and what went wrong, even if it’s clear to everyone but him.

This is Matt Harvey. Accept it and move on.

MLB, Uncategorized

Matt Harvey pic

Matt Harvey is trying to have a life comparable to that of Derek Jeter and Tom Brady sans the on-field production. With his latest foray into the gossip columns occurring simultaneous to his on-field future being in flux, it’s time for the Mets to accept that this is what Harvey is. There won’t be an awakening that he needs to focus primarily on his pitching and making as much money as he possibly can in his rapidly approaching free agency. There won’t be a more subdued off-field lifestyle. And there won’t be a “new” Matt Harvey in any way but as a statement that sounds good.

This is not to imply that he should stay home and watch TV, never leaving the house; but the intentional attempt to get his name and face in the gossip columns was growing tiresome when he was at his peak. Now that he’s trying to regain some semblance of what he lost, it’s growing offensive. The attention he gets from the images kissing models and partying late into the night is not a matter of circumstance. It’s intentional quid pro quo. Someone – whether it was the public relations representatives of Adriana Lima, Harvey or both – contacts the columnists and makes sure that the date will garner the desired attention and buzz. This is a fundamental reality of the trade-off between a famous person and the paparazzi. Harvey, however, does not need this type of attention just now. While spring training is essentially meaningless for a veteran player who is just trying to get in shape for the season, for a player – particularly a pitcher – like Harvey returning from a serious injury and two years away from free agency, it minimally behooves him to just show up, stay out of the limelight, do his work and party without the glare of the flashbulbs and the viral media attention endlessly shared in a hollow attempt to play the rock star when it’s unknown as to whether he can hit the same cords he once did.

Harvey has courted drama and the wrong kind of attention for much of his major-league career. The Mets looked the other way and shrugged because of his excellence on the field and that he was the clear star of their universe, for better or worse. Now, though, he’s their fourth starter behind Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz. Should Zack Wheeler prove himself healthy enough to start, Robert Gsellman replicates his surprising 2016 performance and Seth Lugo shows his workmanlike production, Harvey could find himself behind all of them.

The time for granting him passes, laughing and shrugging is over. He wants to be Jeter, but is turning into Bo Belinsky: someone whose fame is due to off-field pursuits rather than as a natural result of on-field performance. To make matters worse, Syndergaard has taken over as the man about town and is doing so in a more media savvy and salable way for himself and the organization.

Eventually, it gets to a point where the drama is no longer self-created as means to an end, but is just who he is. From the Scott Boras demands for Harvey’s innings limits to missing team workouts to the spate of injuries and talk-talk-talk of how he wants greatness but still pops up in the front of the newspaper rather than the back, the Mets are not motivated to placate Harvey or Boras any longer. Protecting him is not in their best interests because signing him to a long-term contract is not happening. He is not the type of person in whom a long-term, $100 million-plus investment is a wise one and every team that considers him will ask itself the hard question of whether he’s going to take the money and lose interest in being a baseball player. By now, it’s clear that the team that does it won’t be the Mets. With that, they need to wring him out, get what they can from him and move forward. Whether that parting of the ways is achieved through a trade or allowing him to leave as a free agent depends on his performance. Either way, he can be someone else’s distraction. It’s enough already.

Chris Christie, Mike Francesa and WFAN

Broadcasting, Politics, Uncategorized

chris-christieThe idea of WFAN in New York replacing Mike Francesa with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie sparked the inevitable jokes about the weight of the two men; Christie’s dystopian political future; and the station’s desperation to find a recognizable name with sufficient girth to fit into the groove of Francesa’s chair as well as the one he legitimately created as an innovator in sports talk radio.

On the surface, the response is a justifiable “Chris Christie?!?”

But it does make sense.

First, it must be considered whether Francesa is simply rattling the coins in his empty can of Diet Coke for a better deal when the reality sets in that he’s serious about leaving.

That might make sense were it 10 years ago and his former partner Chris Russo had just departed. He had the station’s financial future in his hands and he easily could have raked them to get exactly what he wanted. Now? Maybe not. The arguments for it being real are obvious. He’s 63-years old; he’s been doing this for 30 years; he has young children; and, for the past decade, has been working alone for up to six days a week – a grueling 30 hours – on the radio.

It’s not easy.

He’s often ridiculed for his frequent vacations, especially over the summer, but with the above factors, he does have the right to take some time off and not have to explain himself to anyone, nor to be unjustly lambasted for it.

On the flipside, this might be a negotiation with him seeking a reduced schedule at the same or more money.

It might be a combination.

Every utterance of Francesa must be judged within the context of an ego-driven agenda. For him to say that Joe Benigno and Evan Roberts are even under consideration to replace him is more of a threat with the between-the-lines statement of “This is what you’re relegated to if and when I leave” attached to it. Of course it’s possible that WFAN would replace Francesa with Beningo and Roberts to predictably disastrous results, but the idea of Christie, with that alternative of Joe and Evan, gets better and better.

Is this a contract negotiation that Francesa is pushing to the hilt? He notoriously serves as his own representative which, after his parting with the YES Network, led to an ill-advised, terribly implemented union for his radio show to be simulcast on Fox Sports 1. He was preempted seemingly more often that he was on with complaints from fans in the Metropolitan area who see the preemptor – European Football – in the following way:

The negativity with Francesa for his arrogance, ignorance, sudden entry into political prognostication and more is justified. However, if the criticism goes beyond a pointed critique of tangible content and it enters a realm of mean-spiritedness for its own sake, then the target can express displeasure and have something done about it. This is where the WFAN morning show of Boomer and Carton steps over the line.

Francesa is certainly not above being criticized, but when the morning show is going into professional wrestling mode and generating “heat” when Francesa has no interest in taking part in the gag, Francesa has the right to protest. Francesa is one of the main reasons that sports talk radio in general and WFAN in particular has become as big as it has. It’s difficult to envision the station having achieved its level of success and relevance without Mike and the Mad Dog, his former show with Russo.

Mentioning Russo is vital because once the pair split, Francesa looked at several options to replace him and then chose to do the show alone. Perhaps that was the intent all along. But that hardly matters. To claim that Francesa is “lazy” or that his threats at retirement are a financial ploy is a mistake.

And for it to come from Boomer Esiason and Craig Carton?

Esiason’s ego is Betelgeuse next to Francesa’s Pluto only with fractional foundation for it. He’s little more than a retired jock broadcasting hack who received every opportunity to be a media star, failed, and ended up having to get up at 4 a.m. to have a job in radio and is another replaceable, faceless, ignorable entity on dull NFL pregame shows and weekly roundups.

Would anyone notice if he was dispatched into obscurity?

Carton is the “me tough” testimony to faux outrageousness.

So yes, Francesa can react when he’s mocked by that entity and expect the station bosses to stop it. Could the failure to step in with workable sanctions to make it stop be, in part, why he’s walking?

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Flaws aside, when he’s on his game and motivated, he still has the power to create compelling radio that few others can.

This is why Francesa still matters.

About how many broadcasters can it be said, “I wonder what ‘X’ will say about this?”

Francesa works alone. In the past, he has gone on crafted rants and tailored his positions to suit an end (see this absurd 2012 rant about the New York Mets). He has also backtracked on things he’s repeatedly said without so much as an acknowledgement, let alone a mea culpa. But the disappointment at Francesa being off this week and missing out on his take of the Randy Levine-Dellin Betances back and forth is legitimate because he still has “it” and we can’t help wondering what his position would be. This goes beyond the deflation when tuning in to WFAN at 1 p.m., not knowing that Joe and Evan are on in his stead, and hearing their moronic singalong with Francesa’s theme song that functions as an allegory to their vapid show.

WFAN will not get away with finding a “star” radio host from Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and expect him or her to seamlessly slide in to take over for Francesa. It won’t work. Nor will the concept of Joe and Evan being moved to Francesa’s slot – the show is unlistenable. Evan and Kim Jones? They could have sex on the air and not get a fraction of the attention or ratings Francesa does. Moving Boomer and Carton to the afternoon? Maybe they could get away with that, but their listeners and Francesa’s listeners are of a different breed making it a risk to ruin two different time slots instead of one.

The selection of Christie is so far outside the box and, apart from his appearances at Dallas Cowboys games as a guest of owner Jerry Jones and his known status as a Mets fan, there’s a limited amount of sports content linked to him so he’s not walking into the studio with any baggage – in that realm anyway. He’s guest hosted on Boomer and Carton with promising results.

The replacement must be based in the Metro area with a feisty combativeness and an interesting potential to say interesting stuff. Christie certainly has the voice, the personality and the interest in sports to make it work.

Francesa leaving can create a gaping chasm in the middle of the afternoon that literally and figuratively could only be replaced by someone as big as Francesa. Christie certainly fits in every aspect for it to work.

Joe Torre’s five-word method for dealing with Randy Levine

MLB, Uncategorized

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“Randy, shut the fuck up.”

This statement, related on page 203 of The Yankee Years by Joe Torre and Tom Verducci, undoubtedly echoes what those inside and outside the New York Yankees organization feel today about team president Randy Levine after his combination monologue and touchdown dance following the Yankees prevailing in their arbitration hearing with relief pitcher Dellin Betances sparking an angry response from Betances.

Much like the intricacies of the arbitration hearing itself and the Yankees’ position compared to Betances’s position, there’s no reason to relate exactly why Torre colorfully told Levine to shut up. These details are secondary to Levine himself, his undefined role, and his constant and clumsy attempts to insert himself into baseball operations for which he’s more qualified to be a lunatic caller to WFAN seeking to trade a package led by Chase Headley to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for Mike Trout than an actual key decision maker in club construction.

Looking more like a midlevel functionary who should be nowhere near either a camera or a microphone and behaving like a professional wrestling manager when he does, calling Levine’s statement ill-advised neither does it justice nor encompasses the full scope of his egocentric attempt to insinuate himself into the story. His behavior took a tone indicative of the entire process being a personal affront to him. Judging by Levine’s reaction even after winning the case, there’s an unsaid expectation for Betances to fall to his knees and thank the Yankees for making the offer they did, even going so far as tell the club that he’d take less like the petrified tenement owner Don Roberto in The Godfather, Part II when he garnered information as to whom Vito Corleone actually was and the consequences for not acquiescing to Don Corleone’s offer he couldn’t refuse.

Who is Randy Levine?

George Steinbrenner hired Levine due to Levine’s well-connected political position and that he was going to help the Yankees with the establishment of the YES Network and guide them through the labyrinth-like process of building a new Yankee Stadium. As far as baseball goes, he’s the epitome of “some guy” who happened to parlay various connections to place himself in a circumstance in which he had a forum to express these views without any understanding in a business or baseball sense as to what he’s talking about.

As evidenced by his statements related to Betances’s on-field performance, Levine remains suspended in the simplified statistics of two decades ago, equating the discredited save stat with a relief pitcher’s value. Since establishing himself as a big leaguer, few if any relief pitchers have been as dominant or valuable as Betances. Levine, with a blatantly vague understanding of how relief pitchers should be judged, takes the role at which the Yankees predominately deployed Betances and that he was not placed in situations that he would accrue negligible stats like saves and used it to denigrate one of the most valuable commodities that Yankees have.

This goes beyond Betances implying that he might rethink doing whatever manager Joe Girardi asks him to do for the sake of winning and his clear anger at what was said. Betances cannot be a free agent until after 2019, so the Yankees can shrug at any anger on the part of the pitcher. He’s essentially at their mercy. That said, if Betances was pitching when he wasn’t 100 percent to help the team and he’s being treated like an indentured servant, he’s more likely to take his own interests into consideration and save his bullets for the time at which he can get his lucrative long-term contract. Since he was such a late bloomer who was a starting pitcher in the minor leagues and didn’t establish himself as a big leaguer until he was moved to the bullpen at age 26, his window to make big money is limited. That foray into free agency after 2019 might be his one chance to get paid. Taking that into account was well within his rights before this. Now? He’s perfectly entitled to go all-in with being an independent contractor who is seeking to maximize his financial station.

To a man in the Yankees clubhouse and including the coaches and manager, you will be hard pressed to find one person who will disagree with one word that Betances said in response to Levine’s idiotic rant. For him to pitch on back-to-back days and do so for multiple innings after the Yankees had essentially punted the 2016 season by trading away Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller and Carlos Beltran, he made a sacrifice that directly opposes his self-interest.

The question to ask is this: How much would Betances get on the open market if he was a 28-year-old free agent?

With his résumé and the combined contracts that lesser pitchers Brett Cecil, Mike Dunn and Brad Ziegler received (a combined $65.5 million over nine years), Levine is either ignorant of the reality of the market for relief pitchers or he is twisting reality to suit his position.

Betances isn’t trying to change any market. The market is what it is.

For Levine to again place himself at the center of a matter that has nothing whatsoever to do with him not only hurts the organization, but the cost could end up being far greater than that $2 million disparity with what Betances asked for and what the Yankees wanted to pay. Given his history and inexplicable arrogance, even if Levine understands this, it won’t matter. This is aggravation and attention the Yankees do not need, but to satisfy the craving Levine obviously has to be at the center of these stories, they’re getting it and will continue to do so until someone above him – the Steinbrenners – do as Torre did more than a decade ago and tell him to shut the fuck up with the power to make him do it and consequences if he doesn’t.

Knicks, Oakley and organizational estrangement

Basketball, MLB, NFL, Uncategorized

madison-square-gardenThe incident at Madison Square Garden in which former New York Knicks player and longtime fan favorite Charles Oakley was arrested for a confrontation with arena security has yielded a visceral reaction from fans and media members who see Oakley as the epitome of what the current Knicks are missing. As a player, he did the dirty work, protected his teammates and was the “lunch pail” guy – the ones no team or business in general can function successfully without and whose work is largely appreciated in every context but the stat sheet. Long since retired, Oakley does not have an official role with the organization.

Given their current plight with team president Phil Jackson viewed as a disinterested observer of a team he was tasked – and received a contract for close to $12 million annually – to rebuild and owner Jim Dolan’s perceived ineptitude, it’s no wonder that the anger is reaching explosive proportions.

Regardless of the negative views of Jackson and his commitment and Dolan and his competence, is Oakley to be granted the benefit of the doubt for his behavior when no one seems to know what the dispute was even about? There must be a separation between what a player might have represented to the organization in the past and what is good for business in the future.

Every sport has these uncomfortable situations of trying to respect the past, granting deference to those who played an integral role in it and doing what’s right for the organization in the present and future. Not all reach the level of embarrassment as Oakley and the Knicks, but they’re everywhere. Legacy jobs are often harmless as long as there’s no actual decision making involved with them, but when a person is given a role without the ability to function in it effectively, it’s like a virus.

Sandy Alderson’s New York Mets regime has faced passive aggressive criticism from former Mets stars Howard Johnson and Mookie Wilson among others for their abandonment of the team’s past, but the biggest name that has elicited an over the top reaction is Wally Backman. This in spite of the Mets giving Backman a job as a minor league manager when no one else would; in spite of him repeatedly angering Alderson and his lieutenants for going off the reservation, for self-promoting, and for being the last thing anyone wants in a minor league manager: visible. In September of 2016, Backman either left the organization of his own accord or was fired – it’s still fuzzy – smothering his supporters’ lingering hopes that he would be given a chance as, at a minimum, a coach on Terry Collins’s staff.

By now, it’s clear to anyone who can read between even the flimsiest of lines that Backman only lasted as long as he did with the Mets because of his popularity with the fans and that the Wilpons were protecting him from Alderson’s axe. There are still conspiracy theories speculating about the real genesis of Alderson’s issues with Backman and whether Backman has been blackballed or not.

The only thing we have to go on is what’s happened. With that, if Backman truly is the managerial genius his fans purport him to be, it only worsens the practical reality that no affiliated club will hire him in any capacity. That Backman, for lack of big league opportunities, needed to take a job in the Mexican League is conveniently ignored in the narrative of negativity that still surrounds the Mets even as they’ve won a pennant, made the playoffs as a wild card and are a favorite to contend for a World Series in 2017, all under Alderson and Collins.

Ozzie Smith was angry with the way Tony La Russa reduced his role in 1996 and basically forced him out when Smith wanted to keep playing after that season.

Smith is royalty with the Cardinals and was treated as such by Whitey Herzog and his successor Joe Torre. By the time La Russa arrived, he was unattached to the Cardinals’ past. The club had been declining for several years, sparking the hiring of La Russa to begin with. Was La Russa supposed to enter the 1996 season relying on a 41-year-old Smith who had batted .199 the previous year? Or should he have pinned his hopes on what Smith had been five years before to keep from angering fans who want to have a winning team but also want to continue treating their stars with blind loyalty?

In his lone year playing for La Russa, Smith had a solid comeback season showing a portion of his fielding genius and batting .282 in 82 games, sharing the job with Royce Clayton. Could he have maintained that over the course of the season at that age? Could La Russa bank on that? Deferring to the past has its place, but when there are substantive changes made, collateral damage is unavoidable. La Russa didn’t go to St. Louis to mess around with what was already there and had finished 19 games below .500 in 1995. Caught in the crossfire was Smith. He’s still bitter about it, but who can argue with the success the Cardinals had under La Russa? Now had the club been worse under La Russa than it was under the prior, old-school Cardinals front office or Clayton fallen flat on his face, then there would have been a larger contingent of angry fans and media members standing behind Smith just as Knicks fans are doing with Oakley.

Tom Landry was unceremoniously fired by Jerry Jones in 1989 when Jones bought the Dallas Cowboys. When Jones made the clumsy and necessary decision and subsequently walked face first into a public relations buzz saw, no one on this or any other planet could have envisioned that less than three decades later, Jones would be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame to take his place among the sport’s luminaries along with Landry.

In retrospect, the same fans and media members who were outraged at the crude dispatching of Landry had been privately saying that the coach needed to go and a full overhaul was needed. Jones, in telling his predecessor Bum Bright that he was not buying the team unless he was able to replace Landry with Jimmy Johnson, was setting the conditions that many advocated but few had the guts to follow through upon. By the time the Cowboys’ rebuild was completed four years later and culminated with a Super Bowl (and two more in the next three years), no one cared whether Landry would acknowledge Jones or still felt embittered about his dismissal.

The insular nature of sports front offices is exactly what owners sought to get away from when they hired outsiders from other industries to take charge. Before that, a large percentage of former players who rose to upper level positions in a front office did so not because of competence or skill at the job they were hired to do, but as a form of patronage. That is no longer the case and invites a backlash. When Jeff Luhnow was hired to run the Houston Astros and gutted the place down to its exoskeleton, the on-field product was so hideous and former Astros stars so callously discarded that the response was inevitable: he had abandoned luminaries and made the product worse. The Astros are contenders now and the groundswell is largely muted even if the anger is still there.

Giving former star performers a ceremonial title is not done to grant them sway with the club. It’s a placating measure to engender goodwill with the fans and media. When that comes undone, incidents like the Knicks and Oakley exacerbate current problems and provide evidence of ongoing and unstoppable turmoil.

The issue for the Knicks is that they’re in such disarray that this type of incident involving a player who was a key component of their glory years will be magnified.

The Oakley incident can be viewed as the nadir of the Knicks under Jackson and Dolan based on nothing more than Oakley having been a favorite of the fans and the media during his playing career and representing a past that is so far in the rearview mirror that a large bulk of younger fans are unlikely to believe it even existed in the first place. It occurred directly on the heels of a typically cryptic Jackson tweet that seemed to disparage Carmelo Anthony and sent the team president and “Zen master” into familiar spin control only contributes to their perceived dysfunction. If the Knicks were riding high and this happened, the reaction would have been that Oakley needs to know his place. Since they’re not, it’s symbolic of that which ails the club.

Adhering to the past might be palatable, particularly when Oakley-type incidents take place, but there needs to be a separation between what’s happening within the organization and its outskirts even if they appear to be inextricably connected.