Yankees Belt-Tightening, Part I—A Cranky Fanbase Grows Crankier

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To gauge the short-term, “what have you done for me lately,” nature of sports fandom, you need only look at the absurd demands of fans of the New York Giants football team calling for the firing of coach Tom Coughlin and replacing quarterback Eli Manning less than eleven months after they won their second Super Bowl with Coughlin and Manning. Not only have they won two Super Bowls, but in both games they beat the Patriots with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, supposedly the best quarterback/coach combination since the 49ers had Joe Montana and Bill Walsh.

But the Giants are 8-7 and suffering through a second half slump that has left them on the outside looking in at a playoff spot, needing a win on Sunday against the Eagles and significant help from other teams to squeak into the playoffs. It has also put Coughlin and Manning in the crosshairs of angry fans’ venting.

Of course they’re greedy, but what’s happening now with the Giants pales in comparison to what’s going to happen with the Yankees in 2013 if their ancient veterans aren’t able to conjure one last run and make the playoffs with a legitimate chance at a World Series win. The same fanbase that booed Derek Jeter and referred to him as “Captain Double Play” among other, worse epithets, now reacts like a mother bear when one of her cubs is in danger should anyone say one negative word about Jeter, even if it’s true. His performance since he notched his 3000th hit has been a renaissance to the player he was a decade ago; that’s why he’s back to “untouchable” status.

It’s a fleeting loyalty especially with the nouveau Yankees fan who began rooting for the team at some point between their 1996 World Series win and their 1998 114 win claim to being one of the best teams in history. Like the newly rich, there’s a gaucheness combined with a lack of comprehension as to the reality of how difficult it is to win and maintain as the Yankees have. They want the team to just “buy stuff” and fill the house with gaudy showpieces and expect to find themselves admired and respected for their taste. But it’s not taste to buy a Picasso just because it’s a Picasso. It helps to understand the significance of the piece and it doesn’t have to be expensive to be of value. The same holds true with players. Fans wanted the Yankees to buy the most expensive pieces on the market and since 2000, that’s what they’ve done to maintain this level of play. Their cohesiveness and home built charm has suffered as they transformed into little more than a band of mercenaries without the on-field camaraderie that was a subtle and imperative portion of the four championships between 1996 and 2000. The pieces that once fit together no longer do.

What happened with the Yankees and Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Joe Torre and the other foundational members of the dynasty is an extreme rarity. A club showing the ability to make it through three rounds of short-series playoffs and win a championship is far more difficult to accomplish than it was when the Yankees were seemingly in the World Series every year from the 1920s to the 1960s.

That dynasty came undone as the stars got old and weren’t replaced. The draft had been implemented and the Yankees were unfamiliar with having to wait their turn and battle with other clubs for the right to get players—no longer could they offer the most money in a bonus for a kid who wanted to join them because of Mickey Mantle and that they won every year.

They were a dilapidated afterthought from 1966 through 1976 when they made it back to the Fall Classic and that was three years after George Steinbrenner purchased the team and set about doing what it was the Yankees always did—spend money and demand results now. Sometimes it worked and sometimes Steinbrenner’s immediate success of returning the club to its prior glory within 5 years after buying it set them on the path they took in the 1980s with dysfunction, rampant managerial and front office changes, money spent on trash and an eventual decline to last place. It was when Steinbrenner was suspended that Gene Michael and Buck Showalter were able to rebuild, develop, keep their youngsters and do something novel in Yankeeland: let the young players play for the Yankees.

It worked.

Success demanded more success, however, and any thought of stepping back and shunning the biggest free agent names/trade targets was dismissed out of hand. Money spent can’t guarantee a championship and the Yankees have won one since 2000. It’s the way the game is played now. It takes a certain amount of good fortune to win multiple titles in a short timeframe. The San Francisco Giants are considered something of a dynasty now with two titles in three years, but that too was circumstantial rather than the result of a new template or dominance.

The Yankees’ situation is different. Faced with the demands of a fanbase that doesn’t accept anything short of a World Series forces decisions that wouldn’t normally be made. When they tried to scale back on paying ludicrous amounts of money for other team’s stars by building their own pitchers Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy, they were rewarded with a missed playoff spot in 2008 and their strange and paranoid restrictions on the above pitchers resulted in all being disappointments.

They responded by reversion to what was with big free agent signings of CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira. That worked in 2009 as they won the World Series, but the contracts were expensive and long-term. Burnett in particular was dumped after he pitched as he has in his entire career with customary mediocrity sprinkled in with flashes of teasing brilliance. The Yankees were somehow surprised by this. The belief that by sheer act of a player putting on a Yankees uniform, he’ll somehow evolve into something different than what he is has doomed the club before.

Teixeira is declining; Sabathia has a lot of wear on his tires at age 32 and is signed through 2016. That’s before getting to the other contracts such as that of Alex Rodriguez along with this new austerity that has culminated in a strange and unusual off-season for the 21st Century Yankees.

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The Truth About the Drafts—NFL and MLB

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New York football Giants’ GM Jerry Reese was a guest with Mike Francesa yesterday to discuss his team’s haul in the NFL draft a week ago.

You can listen to the interview here.

Reese has won two Super Bowls and is the top football man of one of the most organized and serious front offices in the profession. During the interview, when discussing the media’s and public’s analysis of players and the draft, Reese said something very simple, highly intelligent and laser precise enough to stick a pin in the enormous and bloated egos of those who think they’re more qualified to assess, analyze, advise and criticize the players that are taken in any draft than those who are making the picks.

Well, I just think that there’s so many draft shows and people talk about draft picks and people don’t do it professionally for a job. We have guys who do it for a living. And the guys who don’t go to all the ballgames and scout them like we do here, I think there can be some misinformation.

He was speaking from his position running the Giants, but it applies to all drafts. My focus is on the NFL draft and the MLB draft.

The NFL draft has long been an extravaganza with a phalanx of armchair experts anointed credibility in a circular exercise without end. It’s easy to sit on the sidelines—with no responsibility—and say anything. Occasionally you’ll be right; occasionally you’ll be wrong; but without a career or job on the line, what difference does it make? All that’s necessary are a forum, the buzzwords and an audience.

I say this having great admiration for what a true NFL draftnik like Mel Kiper Jr. has been able to do in creating a niche for himself where there wasn’t one before. He worked very hard to get where he is and has made a lot of money doing what he loves.

That said, is anyone going to notice if Kiper says that he’d choose X player over Y player and Y player turns into a star? Probably. But is he going to lose his job? No.

Because the mandate of the draft analysts on ESPN, NFL Network, MLB and other outlets is to stimulate debate, disagree and draw attention to what they’re saying, there’s no reason to take it seriously.

If the mock drafts pop up and the repeated changes, “raging debates” and “eureka” discoveries as to why the “experts” are changing their minds isn’t based on any new information, what’s the point? We’re oversaturated with information as it is. It’s designed to attract webhits, ratings, attention and to sell draft guides. From higher ratings come more advertising dollars. If you know this going in and still partake for the theater, fine; if you don’t, then you’re being treated as and acting like a mindless sheep.

I could get my hands on a reputable website with the list of the top 30 potential picks in the NFL and MLB drafts, pick one and formulate a roundabout explanation as to why I did it without actually saying anything and there would be 1000 people saying it’s brilliant and another 1000 saying it’s idiotic.

Jon Gruden was savaged on Twitter for his negativity about drafted players. Said savagery was uttered by people who have no credentials to be critiquing someone like Gruden who is a Super Bowl winning coach, has extensive experience and would have another coaching job almost immediately if he chose to leave the broadcast booth.

Are you more credible than Jon Gruden? Is some guy on Twitter?

With the number of NFL players who were late-bloomers (Rich Gannon); lower round draft choices who found themselves in an advantageous system and circumstances (Joe Montana; Tom Brady); journeyman free agents who wouldn’t give up (Kurt Warner); or foundlings (Victor Cruz), and the number of top 3 pick busts (Ryan Leaf, Tony Mandarich, Blair Thomas), it’s not a science. Top NFL people are going to hit and miss.

So where does that leave Twitter-guy? Guy with a draft book and a dream? Radio man? Mel Kiper Jr.?

MLB former top picks in the draft are no more of a guarantee of success on the field or intelligence off the field. Just last week, former first overall pick Delmon Young was arrested for a fight outside a New York hotel that was classified as a hate crime because he, in a drunken state, made anti-Semitic references to the people he was fighting with.

In hindsight, Young hasn’t been a player worthy of the top pick in the draft either.

Anointed megastar Bryce Harper was caught in a viral video playing softball in a Washington DC park. What would’ve happened if Harper, trying to impress the people he was playing with, swung too hard and awkwardly and tore his shoulder in a softball game?

The video is below. It’s evidence.

Brien Taylor got into a fight and destroyed his shoulder.

Scouts were split on whether to select Ken Griffey Jr. first overall or a player named Mark Merchant. Mike Piazza was drafted in the 62nd round as a favor to his godfather Tommy Lasorda. James Shields was a 16th round pick. Albert Pujols was a 13th round pick. Jose Bautista was a 20th round journeyman who hopped from one organization to another before getting a chance to play with the Blue Jays—who almost released him.

The Reese quote basically says that if a talking head on TV gets a pick wrong, he’s still going to be a talking head on TV the next year and five years after that. If Jerry Reese gets it wrong, he might survive in his job for a year or two, but five years of mistakes and he’s out of a job and possibly out of football entirely.

It’s their living.

If you’re suggesting that you know more than they do and have on the line what they have on the line, here’s a flash: you don’t.

It’s even worse if you say you do.

Because you don’t. And won’t.

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Should the Mets Honor Chipper Jones?

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There was a raging debate on Twitter as to whether the Mets should give a farewell to the retiring Chipper Jones when the Braves come into Citi Field for the final time this September.

Some say no. Some say yes.

I can understand those that feel the Mets shouldn’t be honoring an opposing player, but apart from that the arguments against it don’t hold much water.

The number of players that would warrant an opposing team acknowledging his career-long performance and who openly announce that they’re retiring before or during that season are relatively few. Former basketball star Julius Erving did it and essentially had a tour that went on for an entire season.

It happens.

Wayne GretzkyJoe Montana and Jim Brown didn’t say, “this is it” and didn’t get the opportunity to have all their opponents and fans wish them well.

In baseball, I can’t think of any player who’s said he’s retiring and been feted by opponents in an overt fashion mostly because players on that level don’t admit they’re retiring until they retire. Perhaps it’s because they haven’t decided yet.

Mariano Rivera has intimated that he’s going to hang it up after 2012, but the main reason he hasn’t openly said it yet is because, I believe, he wants to leave himself room to continue playing.

With Jones and the Mets, it’s not as if they’re retiring his uniform number or giving him a car as they would a player who’d been a star for the Mets. If they do anything, it’ll be a 10-15 minute goodbye to give grudging credit to a great player whose biggest moments always seemed to be against the Mets and whose departure will make the rivalry far less interesting. My guess is that they’ll give him a memento from Shea Stadium. The fans will applaud for Jones not because they liked what he did to the Mets, but because of the way he did it with class, consistency and professionalism.

There was never a hatred between Jones and Mets’ fans. When they chanted his given name of “Larry”, it wasn’t vicious and he laughed it off. He was respected in a competitive fashion without the vitriol that accompanies the palpable and mutual loathing between Pedro Martinez against the Yankees.

Jones named one of his children “Shea” after the Mets’ former park where he had those huge moments. If it’s possible for an opposing player to embrace New York, Jones managed it.

There are players whose dignity earn them that type of honor. Rivera, Derek Jeter, Ken Griffey Jr.—their behaviors accorded them a certain stature that would make it more of a “we’re fans of baseball and thank you for playing the game correctly” rather than cheering for a despised opponent.

Chipper Jones is among their number and deserves that moment between himself, the Mets and Mets’ fans.

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The Tim Tebow Press Orgy

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Mike Francesa is the same person who relentlessly defended a ridiculous Bill Parcells decision to have Leon Johnson throw an option pass that was intercepted in the final game of the 1997 season to cost the Jets a playoff spot.

It was in that same game that Parcells did with Neil O’Donnell and Ray Lucas what the Jets are planning to do with Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow by interchanging them based on the situation. Then came that idiotic option pass that was picked off.

You can read the game recap here on NYTimes.com from 12/22/1997 and see the boxscore here on Pro-Football Reference.

In the tone of an exasperated defense attorney/advocate, Francesa twisted himself into a pretzel (no small feat) to justify the Parcells decisions with: “He (Parcells) tried something and it didn’t work.”

If anyone else had done that, what would Francesa have said?

The Jets-Lions game was, for all intents and purposes, a playoff game for the Jets and Parcells botched it.

What if it were Rich Kotite? Ray Handley? Barry Switzer? Rex Ryan?

Francesa would’ve spent a month on the subject.

But it wasn’t any of those coaches. It was Parcells and objective reality was of no consequence and non-existent.

His criticisms of the current Jets have been valid, but there’s not even a hint of evenhandedness because: A) he dislikes the organization, its members and how they run things; and B) extended Jets rants help his flagging ratings.

Now it’s Tebow and the press conference that has drawn his ire.

But Tebow’s no ordinary backup.

The press conference was necessary and Tebow handled himself brilliantly.

In baseball, if you want attention you mention Tim Lincecum, Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper or Alex Rodriguez; in basketball you mention Jeremy Lin; in football, you mention Tim Tebow.

Were the Jets not supposed to have a press conference?

This typhoon of lunacy is taking over the entire sports world and it doesn’t matter whether Tebow warrants the coverage or is talented enough to be accumulating this amount of press. It’s not about ability in the fame game, it’s about interest. Tebow generates interest and as long as the webhits and ratings come in when he’s the subject of the story, he’ll continue to be the subject of the story.

It’s a media firestorm with segments saying he can’t play; others saying he can. The Jets are being called a laughingstock that continually undermines their starting quarterbacks with desperation. The have a loundmouthed coach; an overmatched GM; and a meddlesome, starstruck, rich kid owner.

Bear in mind that Francesa also regularly defends Jim Dolan. Think about that.

The Jets were savaged for turning their back-to-back appearances (and losses) in AFC Championship Games as validation for their template “working”. It was that success that led to the perception that they were knocking at the door to something special and it was only a matter of time before they kicked it down. That, in part, was what gave Rex Ryan the basis to make his outrageous Super Bowl predictions. He probably would’ve made the same predictions anyway, but that’s irrelevant to the suggestion that because Sanchez won four road playoff games that the Jets shouldn’t have acquired Tebow.

Francesa referred to Tebow as a “competitive assassin” who’s going to want the starting job.

Isn’t that a good thing?

Or is Sanchez’s confidence so demolished that he has to have a clipboard backup who doesn’t want to play for his own ego not to be shattered?

The days of a quarterback being ensconced in his position because of his draft status, name recognition and fleeting success ended 20 years ago. Go up and down the league and find one that’s irreplaceable. Even the Patriots went 11-5 when Tom Brady was lost for the season and they did it with Matt Cassel who didn’t even start in college.

Increasingly, it’s become a system game. Would Joe Montana have become Joe Montana without Bill Walsh?

Tebow needs his Walsh and he needs an opportunity. If it’s not going to be given to him because of his Heisman Trophy and draft status, then he’s clearly going to try and take it.

This should be appreciated and not ridiculed.

No, Tebow currently can’t run a system, but he can do two things well: he can throw the deep ball and he can run. Is that not of any use? When he comes into the game, doesn’t the opposing defense have to prepare for a bomb or some gadget running play? Wouldn’t that make a mess of their defense? And wouldn’t a defensive whiz like Ryan know how hard that is to counteract?

There are armchair GMs, experts, draftniks and capologists on social media and the sports networks opining about every sport. Their opinions are given weight—without accountability— and it’s degenerated into a zero sum game. No matter what the Jets did with Tebow, it would’ve been wrong.

If they didn’t make a move to get him, a segment of the gallery would’ve wondered why.

If they didn’t have a press conference, the media would’ve screamed and shouted that they needed to talk to Tebow.

If the Jets moved forward with Sanchez and he struggled, it wouldn’t matter who the backup was, the fans would’ve called for the backup to get a chance to play.

The Patriots were supposedly considering drafting Tebow and might’ve had interest in him had the Jets and Jaguars not been after him—would that have been a “stupid” move by a “clown” organization? Or would it have been more geniusy geniusness from Bill Belichick for thinking outside the box?

Tebow wouldn’t have been a threat to Tom Brady because he’s Tom Brady.

He’s a threat to Mark Sanchez because he’s Mark Sanchez.

If they don’t want to have a controversy, then Sanchez has to perform.

They didn’t give up much to get Tebow; he’s garnering interest; they’re selling merchandise; and I’m not prepared to say that it’s not going to work because I don’t know. And nor do you.

He’s a backup to Sanchez—a player whom the fans don’t particularly like and is making his name on four road wins in the playoffs. It’s not an unimpeachable megastar that Tebow is competing with and he’s right to think he’s got a shot at the full-time job because Sanchez has never given anyone reason to think otherwise apart from draft status and some negligible success. If he can’t deal with this, then it’s on him and the Jets would probably have to go out and get someone else anyway. Maybe a little of what Tebow has can rub off on Sanchez or at least get him to work harder. There’s nothing wrong with that.

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Let’s Talk Tebow

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Judging by the reaction, the Jets just signed a Christian missionary who hadn’t played football since high school.

This isn’t the 49ers signing Renaldo Nehemiah and sticking him in a pair of shoulder pads because he could run really, really fast; this is the Jets signing a player who has talent that may not translate directly to playing quarterback in the NFL.

But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have use on and off the field.

Of course the Jets may be trying to sell tickets and merchandise, but Tebow isn’t a novelty like Eddie Gaedel or a silly freakshow like Michael Jordan deciding to play baseball. He can play. It’s just that his skills translate differently from the classic pocket passer that John Elway was and would clearly prefer as evidenced by his decision to sign Peyton Manning and trade away Tebow.

Is it the joke that the multitude of football experts in the media, on Twitter and Facebook and everywhere else are implying?

No.

Will it work?

Who knows?

Much like the attempts to separate Tebow from his religion and following, you can’t pigeonhole him as anything because he’s many things. To make the statement, “if he were just another everyday football player” is a waste of time and energy. He is what he is with everything—good and bad—that accompanies it. His piety is apparently sincere and fans have taken to him because of that. He’s also an interesting experiment on the field.

The concept that he’s going to make current Jets’ quarterback Mark Sanchez’s job harder by placing a target on his back from minute one is true, but so what? Sanchez has been inconsistent and if his rumored questionable work habits are accurate, there’s nothing wrong with a little pressure regardless of where it comes from and why. Jets fans are going to be screaming for Tebow not because they think he can play; not because they think the Jets will be better with him than Sanchez; but just to be obnoxious and get a reaction.

It’s not an indictment of Jets’ fans because fans everywhere would do the same thing. Had the Broncos kept Tebow, it would’ve happened with Manning if his recovery didn’t look to be complete and he was playing like it. And that’s Peyton Manning.

That the Jets functioned with backups that were non-threats (and aged Mark Brunell and Kellen Clemens) served to give Sanchez security in his job that he has yet to earn. Joe Montana had Steve Young behind him. The fans called for Young and Bill Walsh benched Montana in favor of Young, inviting Montana’s understated wrath.

It’s the way things are. There’s no loyalty. It’s a business.

Is it a bad move?

Is it a good move?

Depending on whether or not it works, we’ll see.

To think this is a “ridiculous” decision is based on outside interpretation. The Jets supposed failure to read through Tebow’s contract was used as a hammer to beat the organization up, but it appears to have been a misunderstanding and media play on the part of the Broncos.

If the way things were “always done” was the basis of everything that happens in the future, NFL players would be wearing leather helmets and working in sporting goods stores in the off-seasons; there would be no free agency; there wouldn’t have been any black quarterbacks, head coaches or front office people; the forward pass would never have been implemented; and no one would watch the NFL because it’d be too boring and tied to the early part of the 20th Century.

To me there’s nothing wrong with bringing a high-character talent into a lockerroom that had grown toxic. The reasons are irrelevant. Tebow isn’t coming in bible-thumping as his mandate. He’s a football player and should be treated as such.

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