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.

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Belichick Won’t Be Blamed For Hernandez’s Mess

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Bill Belichick is one of the few coaches who won’t get any of the blame for the current predicament that Aaron Hernandez is facing. You can read about the latest with Hernandez here, but at best it sounds like another player who got involved with “associates” who he would have been better served not to have been involved with. At worst, he’s in a lot of trouble.

Regardless of that, what would be said if this were another incident in the long line of incidents that occurred with the Dallas Cowboys under Jerry Jones and company? What would be said if it was Rex Ryan and the New York Jets with their overt lack of discipline and seemingly fundamental need to embarrass themselves with loud talk and little on-field action? The Cincinnati Bengals have had their share of off-field turmoil. The Oakland Raiders have a long history of actively seeking out players who would be in jail if they couldn’t play football—and they might be in jail anyway.

Fairly or not, there are organizations for whom the players’ behaviors are seen as an entity unto themselves with no responsibility doled out on the team or the men who signed them, tacitly agreeing to take the personal problems in order to try and win. That the Patriots, under owner Bob Kraft, were the team that drafted Christian Peter claiming not to know his history of misogyny and then chose not to sign him once they “found out” about them created the image of a team that doesn’t do it “that” way meaning the Jones way or the Al Davis way in not caring about personality as long as the player can help them.

The image failing to jibe with the reality is meaningless. If the coach of the Patriots were a Barry Switzer-type outlaw, then of course the blame for Hernandez’s predicament would be dropped on the desk of the coach because he couldn’t “rein in” his player as if that’s even possible with grown men. Since it’s Belichick, he has the power to do the things he wants and if that includes dumping a player who can still produce because he’s mouthy and violates team rules, so be it. Other coaches without Belichick’s resume and the organizational track record of success would have to make certain compromises and bend the rules to try and win to keep their jobs and have the fans come to the games. Belichick has the best of both worlds: he can dump the player or he can sign the player and no one will say anything either way.

Belichick can sign Randy Moss, Chad Johnson, Albert Haynesworth and other players who’ve had on and off-field issues and see if they’ll fit into his program. He can sign Tim Tebow and not worry if it’s going to lead to a huge media circus around his team, nor be frightented of Tebow’s legions reacting negatively if he cuts him. If these players don’t help his team, he can dispatch them with no harm, no foul. If they do, it’s more evidence of Belichick’s “genius.” In truth, it’s still a compromise, but the compromise doesn’t have to be buttressed by putting up with the same behaviors that got the players in trouble and made them available to the Patriots on the cheap in the first place.

No matter who the coach is, how scary he can be and the rigid discipline he displays to keep his house in order, there will always be players for whom trouble is a magnet. Some skirt it and rejuvenate themselves, dodging the bullet sometimes literally and figuratively, as Ray Lewis did; sometimes they end up in jail for the rest of their lives like Rae Carruth. When dealing with grown men making the money amid the fame that NFL players are today, there’s nothing a coach can do to keep his players completely in line during their off-hours. Nor should it come as a surprise if a vast majority of professional athletes are carrying firearms. In fact, given the history of people seeking out athletes to rob because their salaries are so prominent, they’re irresponsible if they don’t take steps to protect themselves. Given today’s debate regarding guns, it’s not politically correct to say that, but there’s a difference between a person who has a need to protect himself and a mentally unstable person who is able to acquire weapons for the express purpose of committing mayhem.

A coach can’t tell a player not to take steps to keep himself safe and no one—not even Belichick—has such omnipotent powers to shield a key to his team like Hernandez from what happened in this case. Belichick has protection as well: the championships absolving him from any questioning and blame. Other coaches don’t have that. That’s his weapon if he chooses to use it and, unlike what might have happened with Hernandez, it’s not going to get him sent to jail if he does.

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Melky Cabrera’s Dream Season Is Just That

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Melky Cabrera’s batting average on balls in play (BAbip) is .413 and that’s not going to continue.

It won’t.

So forget it.

He’s been smoking hot this season and is putting up numbers that, on the surface, look like he’s turned the corner. The perception that he’s playing up to his potential is leading to a misplaced belief that Cabrera is now a “star” player for the Giants.

Well, he’s not. His numbers are what they’ve always been and he’s benefiting from the aforementioned inexplicable and unsustainable luck.

Cabrera’s a useful bat with speed and versatility in the outfield; he has some pop; is a switch-hitter; and when he’s committed can produce. He’s not an MVP candidate unless he’s extremely lucky which is what he’s been this season.

This isn’t an assessment based on stats of visual analysis. It’s a combination of both.

It wasn’t long ago that the Braves non-tendered Cabrera after one season in Atlanta because he showed up out of shape, played like he was in a cloud and aggravated Bobby Cox and the Braves’ veterans in a similar fashion as he aggravated the Yankees into getting sent to the minors in 2008. A hallmark of Cabrera’s career has been the dialing down of his effort when he felt secure in his job. When he’s comfortable he gets lazy. After signing with the Royals, Cabrera appeared to realize that his life as a baseball vagabond was never going to be as lucrative as it would be if he showed up to play every day with the necessary commitment.

He has 15-20 home run power, can steal 20+ bases and play all outfield positions competently. But he’s not a star. He’s not going to win the batting title. And he’s not worth the amount of money someone is going to blindly throw at him when he hits free agency after this season based on his luck on balls in play and other attributes. Yankees’ fans in particular are soon going to use Cabrera’s numbers as a bludgeon to attack GM Brian Cashman for trading him to reacquire Javier Vazquez. Cashman’s obsession with Vazquez was blockheaded, insistent and foolish, but trading Cabrera to get him wasn’t a mistake. It was the same with the Royals. They needed an arm for their starting rotation, Cabrera was due a big raise in arbitration and they made a move for the talented and flighty Jonathan Sanchez. It hasn’t worked for them so far. That’s the way it goes.

I liken Cabrera to the former NFL cornerback Larry Brown who won the Super Bowl XXX MVP for the Cowboys by intercepting two passes from Steelers’ quarterback Neil O’Donnell. Brown didn’t make any brilliant athletic maneuvers on those plays. He was standing there, O’Donnell threw two balls to him and he caught them. From that he became a budding “star” and parlayed that misplaced credit into a lucrative contract with the Oakland Raiders that was a ghastly mistake. Cabrera is in shape; is playing hard; and is maximizing his abilities. But like Brown, he’s been in the right place at the right time. A huge contract will be a misjudgment for the team that signs Cabrera just as it was for the Raiders when they signed Brown. They’ll be paying him for what he was at his best and for good fortune and not for what he actually is.

Cabrera deserves the attention he’s getting now, but few should be surprised when he reverts back to form—that form is of a pretty good ancillary player. That’s it.

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These Are Your Jets; This Is Your Coach

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Rex Ryan was brimming with confidence when he took over as Jets coach, but it wasn’t blustery for the sake of noise, it was real. Bringing along the 46 defense and a reputation for speaking his mind, Ryan swaggered into the Tri-State area trying to change the Jets culture from one expecting to be the second class citizen in area football and a punching bag that folded or found some clever way to lose when they were on the cusp of something special.

It’s no wonder the Jets and Mets have long been associated as brothers in innovative failure.

Ryan’s personality and looseness are designed to attract players. Whether that attraction is due to the fine line of letting the players be themselves or having zero discipline is an important question. His father, Buddy, was known for building great defenses; feistiness; the close relationships he forged with his players; fighting with management, fellow and opposing coaches; and losing in the playoffs.

Up until now, Rex Ryan’s mouth has mostly been backed up by consecutive trips to the AFC Championship Game. They lost both games because the Jets, based on ability, had no right to be there to begin with. They were lucky; they were opportunistic; they were pretty good; and they were playing with house money.

House money is an interesting analogy considering Ryan’s penchant for his mouth being the equivalent of the purple suited, high-rolling pimp riding up in an Escalade and emerging in all his gaudiness, resplendent rings (one being of the Super Bowl variety won as a Ravens assistant) decorating both hands, and a booming voice designed to have the masses turn and look at him as he struts into the casino flashing wads of cash, ready for action.

The attention is the key and it’s meaningless to him whether it’s because they’re irritated by him or impressed with his brashness.

The problem with that for one who’s operating on the wrong side of societal propriety is that the attention can cause unwanted legal entanglements.

For a football coach, it makes the rest of the league, fans and media want that gauche figure to be put in his place—especially in the insular and mostly conservative world of football.

This season, the Jets were supposed to take the next step from back-to-back second place finishers in the AFC to the elite in the game.

I’m not going to start delving out of my realm and try to find reasons why the Jets ended up 8-8 and didn’t follow through on Ryan’s guarantee of a Super Bowl, but I can discuss what I know about people and the influence his pronouncements of greatness and superiority have had on his team’s results; that he’s rapidly gone from moderately entertaining to tiresome to borderline delusional.

Comparisons of the Jets to teams that maintained the perception of lax discipline or were the preferred destinations for ne’er-do-wells and malcontents fall flat when they’re examined in depth.

The Raiders were known as a halfway house for players whom no other team could control or whose talent couldn’t be unlocked under conventional football-style disciplines; the truth was that in their heyday, John Madden and Tom Flores were in charge of their teams and Al Davis was always hovering around as a powerful figure who could not only keep the players from crossing that fine line between being edgy but worthwhile and more trouble than they were worth. Push Davis too far and there was a great chance a player would never find another job in football—not just as a player, but period.

The Cowboys of the 1990s had a similar aura of chaos, but Jimmy Johnson was able to play ringleader to Jerry Jones’s circus and keep the Michael Irvins of his team off the police blotter. When Barry Switzer took over, it was a free-for-all; there was no one to slam down the hammer because the head coach and the owner were acting just as self-indulgently as the players were and the requisite hypocrisy of “do as I say, not as I do” didn’t exist under Switzer because he didn’t want to be seen as a hypocrite.

But it’s the coach’s job to be a hypocrite.

Those Cowboys managed to win another championship under Switzer, but the wheels came off shortly thereafter in part because of that cannibalistic hubris.

If a coach or player is going to open each press conference with continuous proclamations of his own greatness, then he’d better come through.

Mark Messier, Jimmy Rollins and Joe Namath made their guarantees and performed in their games to make the guarantees come to pass. Realistically, what would’ve happened had the Rangers lost in 1994? Had the 2007 Phillies not come back to catch and pass the Mets? Had the Jets of 1968-1969 not won the Super Bowl? Nothing. But because these men said they were going to win and did, they became legends. That it was circumstantial is irrelevant.

No one remembers those who said they were going to win and didn’t, but they’re going to remember Ryan because he says the same things over and over and refuses to back down; the more something is said, the less meaning it has.

Even if the Jets do win at some point following another Ryan decree, what good did it do if, on the 50th, he happened to be right? It’s as if he’s playing darts with a blindfold and saying he’ll hit the bullseye. Eventually, he’ll hit it. So?

The Jets are a rogue outfit under the stewardship of a coach who doesn’t have the first concept of taking the toys away from his spoiled brats.

Compromising principles for expediency will eventually come full circle and haunt the transgressor; he may still achieve the initial goal because of that concession, but a price needs to be paid.

The problem the Jets have is that Ryan doesn’t seem to have principles to compromise. It’s all full speed ahead; double, triple and quadruple down on the high-rolling bet he made at the beginning.

Interestingly Tom Coughlin, the coach that beat Ryan last week and is the polar opposite in terms of personality and the way he handles his lockerroom, was considered the fascist that no one wanted to play for when he had endless rules and regulations for the expansion Jaguars. In this Sports Illustrated article, Coughlin summed it up perfectly in the following clip:

“Let me say this,” he said, pointing an index finger at a camp visitor. “You only get one time to make a first impression. You can’t start easy and then get strict on players.”

Ryan can’t maintain this roster, come storming into camp in 2012 and say, “That’s it, I’m pulling in the reins!” First, no one would buy into it because that’s not his style—he can’t be someone he’s not and remain authentic; second, if the Jets are going to purge the problem people on the team, they’re looking at a significant alteration in their personnel from the one that Ryan guaranteed was winning the Super Bowl this season. If he’s allowed to do it, he’d better win because few if any coaches get a third rebuild.

In this Wall Street Journal report of today’s elimination loss to the Dolphins, Ryan somewhat adjusted his over-the-top persona:

“I’m always going to chase the Super Bowl,” Ryan said. “If you don’t, you’re going to be a loser. You have to have the guts to go for that.”

There’s a slight difference between “chasing” and “guaranteeing”.

Because of Ryan’s decision to administrate his team in this way—with the inmates running the asylum and a conscious choice to make outrageous statements—the Jets can’t drastically reset their template even if they get rid of some players and assistant coaches.

This is it.

The coach needs to shut up.

But we all know he won’t.

And by now, he can’t.

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