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.

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.

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.

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.

Are the Mets really blackballing Wally Backman?

MiLB, MLB, Uncategorized

backman-picWally Backman is asserting that the New York Mets in general and general manager Sandy Alderson in particular have blackballed him in an effort to prevent him from getting another job with a major league organization, something he has yet to do in any capacity since he left the Mets in September. With that the case, Backman accepted a position to manage Monclova in the Mexican League this season.

Backman alleges that he has inside information from a friend in the Major League Baseball commissioner’s office who informed him of what Alderson is doing. In addition, he disputes the “resigned” narrative that was presented at the time of his departure even though it was he who stated that he walked away.

Backman also claims that Jeff Wilpon “betrayed” him. This ignores the reality that it was Wilpon who essentially forced Alderson to accept Backman as a minor league manager for his entire tenure as GM. Had Alderson been granted his wishes from the start, Backman would not have played an upfront role in the organization, particularly not as the steward to the team’s best young players.

While Alderson is an easy scapegoat, what seems to have happened is that Backman, understandably, had grown weary of languishing in Triple A and wanted to be moved up to Terry Collins’s coaching staff and the Mets refused. Had the Mets been willing to do that, it would have happened after the 2015 season when bench coach Bob Geren departed for the same job with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Instead, Alderson chose Dick Scott. Again, after 2016 with Tim Teufel being removed from the coaching staff, the Mets selected Glenn Sherlock to serve as third base coach and catching coach.

There was no opening for Backman and one was not forthcoming. Yet his decision to leave was done in a typical Backman fit of pique without understanding that it was not the Mets holding him back, but holding him up by giving him a job when no one else would have. There’s no doubt that Backman is an intense competitor, a good and wizened baseball mind, and fearless enough that he might be exactly what a team in the need of a kick start could use. But there’s a reason no one will hire him whether it’s his past, his reputation as a loose cannon, or something else. This has nothing to do with the team that did give him a job, the Mets.

Is it possible that Alderson is bad-mouthing Backman to prevent him from getting a job with the implication that a successful run from Backman with another organization and a chance at managing in the big leagues could end up embarrassing the Mets?

Anything is possible. However, a better question to ask is whether it’s likely. The answer is no.

In what is expected to be his final season as the everyday GM before retiring, moving to a senior role, or doing something else entirely, Alderson certainly has better things to do at age 69 than to orchestrate a whisper campaign against Backman, whom he clearly considers a non-entity. The likelier scenario is that the other MLB teams know Backman’s history and there are behind-the-scenes reasons for which he’s not getting hired. If asked for a recommendation, Alderson’s not going to give him one. As a professional, Alderson would presumably give the positives and negatives of Backman and leave it there without going to the energy-sapping lengths to overtly interfere with a job offer from another team.

What this appears to be is Backman leaving the Mets and thinking his work with the organization for six years and his on-field success was sufficient to cover up the warts before gauging the job market and if he was a candidate for any open position in MLB or the affiliated minors. Since his on-field baseball credentials are good enough to get a job, his inability to do so creates the image that there’s something up, true or not.

With his statements against Alderson and the Mets, he didn’t do himself any favors. Like most of the problems Backman has had in his attempts to manage in the big leagues, they’re predominately of his own making and the blackball explanation is another diversionary tactic that few will, and should, believe.

Bobby Valentine as ambassador to Japan is no joke

MLB, Politics, Uncategorized

bobby-vThe news that former major league player and manager Bobby Valentine might be a candidate to be the U.S. ambassador to Japan under President-elect Donald J. Trump has yielded incredulity while ignoring the reality that he actually has credentials for the job.

Valentine can be described neatly in one simple word: polarizing. This new career opportunity only adds to that perception.

His supporters swear by him; his detractors swear at him.

He’s one of the most skillful strategic managers in baseball history, innovative and gutsy – just ask him and he’ll tell you. That’s part of the problem. His ego and nature as a hardliner has also made him one the most reviled people in the sport.

Through his baseball career, he’s garnered connections that have resulted in a wide array of unique endeavors. For example, Valentine claims to have invented the wrap sandwich in his Connecticut restaurant; he oversaw public safety in Stamford, CT in a cabinet post for the city’s mayor; and he’s a close friend of former President George W. Bush in spite of Bush having fired him as manager of the Texas Rangers.

This is before getting into his career as an athlete. One of the true multi-sport stars coming out of high school, he was also a competitor in ballroom dancing. The Los Angeles Dodgers selected him fifth overall in the 1969 amateur draft one selection after the New York Yankees picked Thurman Munson. It was with that organization that his greatness was predicted, his lifelong father-son relationship with Tommy Lasorda started, he became loathed by his teammates for that “teacher’s pet” persona, and injuries sabotaged his talent.

Once his playing career ended, he embarked on a coaching career that led to him being viewed as a wunderkind manager with the Rangers; he went to Japan when his didn’t get another opportunity for a big league job after his dismissal in Texas; and eventually landed with the New York Mets, winning a pennant, before he was fired in a power struggle with general manager Steve Phillips. Then there was the disastrous year as Boston Red Sox manager in which he is blamed for a litany of issues that fermented the year before under Theo Epstein and Terry Francona and whose stink manifested and grew poisonous while he was steering the damaged ship.

He’s certainly eclectic and has forged a number of relationships sparking a cauterized loyalty among friends and mocking and ridicule among enemies. There are many on both counts.

Without getting into politics and the inevitable battle lines that accompany it, the Trump administration appointing Valentine as ambassador to Japan might, on the surface, seem silly. In truth, it’s not. The tentacles connecting Valentine to all the players in this drama boost his qualifications to take the job. He speaks Japanese, understands the culture, is well-regarded in the country as the second American-born man to manage a Japanese team and the first to win a championship there. He’s an experienced public speaker and has managed a great number of diverse personalities in different settings than this ambassadorship where bureaucratic necessities will regulate the behaviors of underlings in a sharply different way to what he grew accustomed to in baseball.

As with all things Valentine, there’s a caveat to appointing him and it could potentially explode with one “Bobby V” moment. Putting on a fake mustache and glasses and returning to the dugout after having been ejected while managing the Mets; picking unnecessary fights with his star players Todd Hundley and Kevin Youkilis among others; courting outrage with the media for his condescending arrogance; and refusing to be flexible when it meant the difference between keeping his job and getting fired all validate his reputation that ranges from difficult to a ticking time-bomb.

Does he do it on purpose? Is it the nature of his personality to be difficult? Or is it a combination of the two?

In his baseball career, he was a tactician without tact. Should he take an ambassadorship to Japan too seriously, there’s the potential of an international incident.

But the job isn’t one that is designated to someone who has to save the world. The current ambassador to Japan is Caroline Kennedy – most famously known as the daughter of President John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy. It was basically her lineage that made her a candidate to get the job and she doesn’t speak Japanese. Why was her appointment acceptable when Valentine’s isn’t?

This is not a partisan issue. Every president doles sweetheart assignments to people who were big contributors or prominent supporters to the campaign as a form of reciprocity. The difference with Valentine is that in spite of his lack of skills as a diplomat in his baseball career, he has the qualifications for the job if it was advertised in an open job search and he applied for it. So what’s the joke?

MLB managers starting 2015 on the hotseat

MLB

It’s never too early to speculate on managers that might be in trouble sooner rather than later. Let’s look at who’s going to open the season on the hotseat.

John Gibbons – Toronto Blue Jays

The Blue Jays have a weird contract structure in which Gibbons’s contract rolls over with an option kicking on on January 1st each year, therefore he’s never a lame duck.

Gibbons is a good tactical manager, but he’s never had any notable success. It can’t be said that he hasn’t had the talent in his second go-round as Blue Jays manager either as they’ve spent and brought in big names and All-Stars. Some aspects of the teamwide failure – such as injuries to the likes of Josh Johnson in 2013 – are not his fault. In fact, it’s hard to blame him for the failures of the team. Even with that, someone has to take the fall if the Blue Jays stumble again with the American League East as wide open as it’s been since the mid-1990s.

General manager Alex Anthopoulos has been reluctant to blame Gibbons or anyone else for the team’s struggles since they became aggressive with their spending. After an extended flirtation amid questionable tactics and circumstances with Baltimore Orioles GM Dan Duquette their first choice to replace Paul Beeston as CEO and Beeston remaining as team CEO for 2015, Anthopoulos might be swept up in a housecleaning of the front office and on-field staff if this season is another mediocre one in Toronto. It’s easier to change the front office and manager than it is to clear out veteran players with onerous contracts. If the Blue Jays are faltering early in the season, Anthopoulos will have to take steps to fix it with a new manager.

A.J. Hinch – Houston Astros

No, Hinch isn’t on the hotseat because the current front office might fire him if the Astros get off to a bad start, but he’s on the hotseat because the front office might be on the hotseat if the Astros get off to a bad start.

Owner Jim Crane has high – you could even say ludicrous – expectations for this season believing they’re going to make a playoff run. He’s shown unwavering support to GM Jeff Luhnow and his blueprint, but the weight of Luhnow’s gaffes are becoming too heavy to ignore. If it’s late August and the Astros are again mired in last place in a very difficult AL West and the young players upon whom they’re banking their collective futures experience the often inevitable struggles young players experience, then the groundswell for wholesale changes will be too much for Crane to ignore. If Crane fires everyone in favor of Nolan Ryan, then no one, including the new manager, stat guy darling Hinch, will be safe.

Terry Collins – New York Mets

The Mets are expecting to contend this season and Collins is on the last year of his contract. The argument could be made that he’s served his purpose of steering the ship as best he could while the team rebuilt and waited for long-term contracts of useless veterans to expire. It’s not unusual for teams to have a competent, veteran caretaker manager who runs the club through the tough years and then bring in someone else when the front office believes they’re ready to win.

Collins will get the beginning of the season to see if they win under his stewardship. He’s earned that after playing the good soldier and keeping things in line for four years. However, if the team is off to a 9-15 start and there are calls for someone’s head before the season spirals out of control, Collins will be gone.

Mike Redmond – Miami Marlins

Just looking at owner Jeffrey Loria’s Steinbrennerean history with his managers is enough to say that even a successful manager shouldn’t feel too comfortable with his job status. He’s had seven different managers since he took over the team in 2002 and hired Jack McKeon twice. He fires people for a multitude of reasons and won’t hesitate before doing it again. When his teams have expectations, he’s got an even quicker trigger finger. Some believe that the Marlins are set to be legitimate contenders in 2015 putting Redmond in the position of being the obvious target if they get off to a poor start.

At the end of the 2014 season, Redmond signed an extension through 2017, but so what? Loria is still paying Ozzie Guillen for 2015. He’ll fire anyone regardless of contract status. Presumably, he won’t hire the 84-year-old McKeon to replace Redmond, but he’ll find someone to take the job and perhaps fire him at the end of the season too.

Ron Roenicke – Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers thought long and hard about it before deciding to bring Roenicke back for the 2015 season. They essentially collapsed over the second half of the 2014 season after a first half in which they were a surprise contender. That the team wasn’t particularly good to begin with and were playing over their heads when they achieved their heights in the first few months doesn’t matter. It’s the perception that the team faltered under Roenicke that could lead to a change. He’s got a contract option for 2016 and with the team set to struggle in 2015, he’ll be the scapegoat. He’s not a particularly good manager to begin with, so whomever they hire won’t have a tough act to follow.

Don Mattingly – Los Angeles Dodgers

It would look pretty stupid for the Dodgers to fire Mattingly after new team president Andrew Friedman ran from the idea of Joe Maddon taking over after Maddon opted out of his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays and went to the Chicago Cubs. Mattingly isn’t a particularly good manager, but the Dodgers failings in his tenure haven’t been his fault. They’re altering the way the team is put together and need a manager who will follow the stat-centered template they’re trying to implement. Having trained under Joe Torre and played under the likes of Billy Martin and Buck Showalter, it’s hard to see Mattingly willingly and blindly doing whatever the front office says in terms of strategy.

The Dodgers made some odd moves this winter and got worse instead of better. If they get off to a bad start, Mattingly could finally be shown the door for someone who’s more amenable to what Friedman was hired to create.

Bud Black – San Diego Padres

Amid ownership changes, general manager changes and constant flux in the way the ballclub has been constructed, the one constant with the Padres over the past eight years has been manager Bud Black. Black is lauded for his handling of pitchers and running the clubhouse. The media likes him. He’s terrible when it comes to formulating an offensive game plan and this Padres team, reconstructed under new GM A.J. Preller, will be as reliant on its offense as it will be on pitching. He has to actually manage the team this year and his strategies will be imperative to whether the team is an 80 win disappointment or an 86-90 win contender for a playoff spot. That’s not a small thing. Black has overseen two separate late-season collapses in 2007 and 2010 in which mistakes he made were significant influences to the Padres missing the playoffs.

Preller has been aggressive and unrepentant in getting rid of players that were present when he arrived and in whom he had no investment. Black falls into that category. Black is in the final year of his contract and in spite of his likability is hindered by his predecessor, lifelong Padres player and manager Bruce Bochy, having won three World Series titles with the rival San Francisco Giants.

He won’t have much time to show that he can run this sort of team and will be fired quickly if he can’t.

Michael Kay’s Diet Coke Stunt: Just For The Lack Of Taste Of It

History, Management, Media, Players, Television

Michael Kay’s first show as the new simulcast of his ESPN radio show on the YES Network replacing Mike Francesa’s WFAN show began with an act that is indicative of what we can expect moving forward. Hopes that Kay would alter his sycophancy, self-promotion, pettiness and pretentious ridiculousness were dashed immediately after 3 p.m. EST on February 3. As the show began, on display in front of Kay was a bottle of Diet Coke. After their introduction, Kay’s flunky/partner Don La Greca lifted a garbage can up for all to see and Kay theatrically tossed the bottle into the trash.

For those not familiar with the reference, Francesa always has an open bottle of Diet Coke in front of him from the beginning of the show to the end. It’s become a running joke known to frequent viewers. In a misguided attempt at humor; to flaunt the fact that he’s replacing Francesa; or simply because he’s obnoxious, Kay’s childish, poorly planned and blatant moment of flamboyance did little more than validate the reputation he’s carried with him since his rise to prominence on Yankees broadcasts first on the radio then for the YES Network. Constantly fighting battles that only he sees or cares about, Kay’s penchant for carrying out personal vendettas over the smallest perceived slights has blurred the line that he himself created as he portrays himself as an objective sports analyst while simultaneously being an employee of the Yankees rooting for, promoting and self-righteously “protecting” the brand.

Lest anyone believe that his new gig with his show being on YES in lieu of Francesa’s would lead to an altering of that template that he’s crafted. The Diet Coke stunt—and that’s what it was, a stunt—clearly indicated that it’s going to be more of the same from Kay. In fact, it might get worse.

What was the purpose of it? It wasn’t a knee-jerk idea that they did without thinking about it. If it was, where’d they get the bottle of Diet Coke? Saying something stupid can be done in a split-second. To put forth the effort to go and find a bottle of Diet Coke, strategically place it in front of him for all to see knowing that Francesa-watchers would understand the symbolism and have his partner pick up the trash can to dispose of it in such florid fashion took planning. It wasn’t well-thought out, it wasn’t funny and, unless Kay’s intent was to say, “Hey, I’m still a jerk!”, it wasn’t necessary.

And that’s the key. If Kay was truly trying to go mainstream and stake a claim for his show as a nationwide entity, he’d have to tone down his act from a Yankees shill who behaves as a petulant infant using his forum to promote his own agenda and alter his persona and content. Whether that was ever a consideration is known only to Kay. Or perhaps he thinks he is toning down his act which would be even more disturbing considering his initial move on the open of his show on YES.

Kay has his shtick that he’s used ad nauseam since he arrived in the Yankees radio booth. From the over-descriptive “interlocking N and Y” as if he’s painting the word picture for someone who’d never ever seen the Yankees hats and uniforms; to the lame catchphrase of “See ya!!!” on a home run; to the “Lllllet’s do it!!” at the first pitch; to the recitation of Billy Joel lyrics to conclude each and every radio show as if he’s doing something different from the rest of the radio talk show world, it’s all about him and what he believes people want to hear from him.

If asked about it, Kay would undoubtedly say, “The fans expect it from me.” It’s irrelevant whether or not he’s aware that the expectation lies more in the reality that he’s the goofy, annoying guy at the party with the lampshade on his head thinking people are laughing at his antics when the truth is they’re laughing because he’s making an idiot of himself and they’re too used to it to tell him to leave.

He enjoys hearing his own voice and insinuating himself into the moment as if the treasured memories of fans extends to his voicing of the narrative. Derek Jeter hits a home run for his 3,000th career hit? The moment has to be endured rather than enjoyed with Kay’s voiceover reading from a prepared and sickening speech about Jeter’s greatness. The Yankees win game 1 of the 2010 ALCS in a startling comeback over the Rangers? Kay takes that as his cue to pronounce the series over after the first game against a very good team that eventually wound up dumping the Yankees in six games. Joe Torre takes on Kay during his tenure as manager? Kay treats it as a personal affront and kicks Torre on the way out the door following his ouster claiming that he “protected” the former manager as if that was part of his stated job description.

His claims of objectivity are exposed as transient when the sets of rules by which he purports to base his analysis are conveniently ignored when the Yankees violate his principles. If it’s the Red Sox or Mets, there’s a “right” way to do things and for the most part, they don’t adhere to it. With the Yankees, there’s a separate, superior plane on which they walk because of their “rich tapestry of history.” Jose Reyes is removed from a game to win a batting title, and the Mets have gotten it “wrong” from “day one.” Bernie Williams does it and it’s glossed over for no reason other than he’s a Yankee.

You can’t be the objective analyst on the radio, then walk into the Yankees booth and blatantly push an organizational perspective as if he’s the game time front man of their PR department. You can’t be a friendly and nice guy off the air and then behave like a buffoon on the air when taking shots at the supposed competition.

That’s another dichotomy with Kay that is difficult to reconcile with the fool who took his pathetic and uncreative shot at Francesa: everyone who meets Kay off the air says he’s one of the nicest and most accommodating media people you could hope to meet. He’s friendly; he takes the time to talk to people; and is likable. Is that the real person? Is the radio personality staged? Or is it both? There are plenty of people in the media—in the New York market especially—who create an image of the generous, nice person and off the air they’re arrogant, condescending, dismissive and hypocritical.

Kay may believe that he got the YES gig because of his talents. In truth, he replaced Francesa because the organization wanted someone who was more in line with the club mandate of showing the Yankees in a positive light on the broadcast arm of their ministry of propaganda. Even with that, he could have begun the show in a positive manner. He could have said something to the tune of, “I know there are people who would prefer the other show to be seen in this timeslot; that many don’t even like me. But I’m here now and I hope you’ll give me a chance. I put on a good show. It’s a different show, but it’s good. The only way you’ll be able to decide is to listen objectively without any preconceived notions.” How would that have been viewed rather than tossing a bottle of Diet Coke in the garbage? He got attention he wanted, but it’s been universally lambasted. It wasn’t clever and it was gutless. Francesa himself summed it up when he replied to Newsday’s Neil Best’s query about it by saying, “Classless, loser move from two guys I have been burying in the ratings for over a decade.”

Like Francesa or not, he hit it right on the button.

If Kay’s intention was to give the new listeners and viewers a summary of what to expect from his YES show and wanted to do it in one brief and ill-advised move, mission accomplished. If YES isn’t already regretting their decision to choose brand loyalty over business, then they will be soon as Kay’s act destroys ratings and ruins what they built with Francesa over the course of his twelve years having his simulcast broadcast on their network. They won’t admit the mistake, but they made one. That became clear by 3:10 p.m. on February 3. Ten minutes after the start of a new era on the YES Network.




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