For the fan in enemy territory

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Will the Mets leader please stand up? Part 1

According to Webster's Dictionary, the word leader is someone who leads, guides or is the first and/or principal performer of a group. In other words, it is someone who takes charge. When scanning through the pages of history, we see countless examples of people who have qualified under this definition and have achieved great success.

The most notable in American history may be George Washington. He is a man who took control and was great at making adjustments. He used the situation to his advantage. He showed heart, attitude and experience to lead and conquer. The rest is history as they say.

Believe it or not, sports and history have much in common. A team needs a leader. They need someone who will stand up and guide. Someone who will be the experienced one when no one else knows what to do in a given situation. Every successful team has had this to some degree or another.

The current New York Mets are lacking this presence on the field. They are too busy listening to instruction and direction from managers, general mangers, owners, scouts and whatever else the case may be. The trouble is that the leadership presence that they need is not experiencing the situations with them, only observing and responding to them.

For this reason, it is not possible for a manager to be the true leader of a team. They will direct and pull the strings, but never truly guide in the moment. Therefore by definition, the New York Mets lack a player who meets these characteristics. Although they have a few candidates for the role, no one has truly stepped into it. This may perhaps be the major reason for the uninspiring and at times unspirited play that the team has displayed over the past few weeks.

The record of this current team as I am writing this is 18-16. This isn't the best record in sport right now, but it certainly isn't the worst. It is a slightly above average record for a slightly above average team. The question is why are they just a slightly above average team? What do they lack that the top tier teams all seem to have?

The answer is leadership. The team has actually been without this for the last several years, since the departure of their last true on field leader, Mike Piazza. There have been a few since him that have tried to fit the mold, but to no avail. Before we look at the current candidates, let's take a brief look back at the past so called leaders. This is how we learn in history, sports and life, by looking back and learning from past errors.

Since Piazza, the Mets have had only a few who have attempted to guide this team. Paul LoDuca, Pedro Martinez, Brian Schneider and Carlos Delgado are the only ones who really come to mind. LoDuca had the fire, intensity and heart that you want in a leader, but not the self-control. He led by example only.

Pedro Martinez led by word but seldom action or example. He was brought in by the Mets brass for the specific purpose of leadership. He showed the heart and the mouth, but not the consistency required for the job.

After the departure of LoDuca, Brain Schneider was charged with the mission of leading this team. His leadership, however proved to be that of the quiet type. He led by example but not by words then was injured and became lost in irrelevancy.

The final one was Carlos Delgado. Delgado had the mouth, attitude and experience needed to fill this void. His health, however, became an issue. He was a good influence on the team, though he was not without his own controversies. But a good leader must be able to call out a teammate to encourage them to strive to do better. The problem with Delgado is just as he was taking on the role, his health prevented him from being effective in that role.

Moving forward to the present, the team still lacks that leader. There are a few who could fill that gap on the current roster. In part two of this article, we will take a deeper look at them. From the current roster, they are: Johan Santana, David Wright, Francisco Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran, Jason Bay, Jeff Francoeur, Rod Barajas, Ike Davis and Jose Reyes. We will examine the pros and cons of each of these candidates, in part two.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The weather will work against Giants and Jets

This week, both New York football teams combined their efforts. In a rare show of unity, the Giants and the Jets brought players and owners to the new stadium for a press conference to make a plea for a Super Bowl bid. It would be in 2014.

They have a major obstacle and an argument for that obstacle. The weather. It is a well known fact that New York has not only some of the best fans in the world, but also a tremendously large fan base to draw from for an event of this magnitude. When the city of New York takes the big stage in a sporting event, they do so with style, class and a flare that no other city can pull off.

A case in point, the World Series. In the past few years, the city has hosted several World Series games, all with wonderful feedback and results for the city. Another example would be the parades that the city stages for their winning teams. No other city throws a party like New York.

They throw parties all year and end the year with one in the middle of the universe in Time's Square. No other city can boast that. The city of New York has a mystique and an elegance that no other city can match. There are images branded into our collective subconscious of the city that no other place on Earth can boast.

If I were to go to an impoverished country in the Eastern Block, and show someone a photo of the Statue of Liberty, they would think of America. They would think of New York. Try doing that with a photo of the Sears Tower in Chicago. No other city can claim such notoriety. The prominence that the city carries is unmatched by anyone, anywhere.

There is an old Chinese saying "a picture is worth a thousand words". In this case the memories that we all have of New York from our collective minds are worth an encyclopedia. The teams have boasted of the tourism in cold weather months. The city has so many events to partake in during the harsh months of the winter.

These are all wonderful arguments. They are all true and necessary to use in order for the city to properly show themselves off. When a city is requesting a bid for an event of this magnitude, they have to show themselves off. I think of the Olympics. How many times do we see a major city in the world unify and rally behind each other for the chance to showcase their city to the world for a few weeks.

This is no different. The Super Bowl is seen by millions all over the world. It is a wonderful opportunity to show New York to the rest of the masses. However, it is not the proper time to show it. It is true that New York has such a massive draw of tourists and events in the cold of winter, but it is also true that the Super Bowl has always been in warm weather.

When the owners first decided on different locations to host the yearly event, they did so with the integrity of the sport in mind. I, like many of the readers of this, think that cold weather not only is the best way to play the sport of football, but it defines the sport of football. It is football.

In cold weather, teams must rely more on the physicality of their offensive lines and the running game of the offense. It is true football, the way football was always meant to be played. However, the league seems to have two factors in choosing Super Bowl sites: perfect conditions and an attempt at neutral ground.

The first, perfect conditions, is the biggest factor in why the league may not accept the city's bid. The league wants the biggest game of the year to be as close to perfect as possible, for the sake of the league's image. The league also wants a competitive game. That means that both teams must be at full strength, thus the week off to rest before the game.

Both teams must be able to play to their strengths without outside elements effecting that game plan. If a team is a pass dominating offense, the elements will not help them. Therefore, that such team will be rendered weaker and the result will be lopsided. This is the main fear of the league.

The league figures that all things being even, the best team will win. Therefore, they try to make all things as equal as possible, that includes the conditions. Imagine if the city had the type of winter in 2014 that they had this past one. The game would be held with multiple feet of snow plowed into mountains along the sidelines and the field conditions themselves would be icy at best.

This makes for a sloppy and slow game. There would be little scoring and little interest. The league owners would be embarrassed. True, it would make an even game as both teams would be susceptible to the elements, but if one of the teams is not built to play on those elements, it would be a one-sided affair.

The second point is to have the game on the most neutral site as possible. There is one major reason for this, as far as the league is concerned: image. All the talk about the fairness of the game to the players and crowd noise is all true, but it is not the league's primary rationality.

The image of the league is the primary motivation for the league. Make no mistake about that, it is a business and it must market the best possible product to the best of their ability. The NFL wants a host city to be attractive to visitors so that they will spend more money.

The league will always speak highly of protecting the integrity of the game and keeping it sacred, but in the end, what is more sacred to them is profit. I just can't see New York city in February getting the type of fan turnouts that a Miami or a Tampa Bay would in the same time period, if the activities are outdoors.

Fans spend more money when they are happy, warm and comfortable. It is psychological. The league would have to move all events indoors and that would be a more expensive process for the league that may make them less potential money. They are not interested in spending, only making.

I would like to think that the NFL cares about the fans, but if given the option between large crowds outdoors in beautiful weather and great game conditions or large crowds indoors in cold weather game conditions, I believe the NFL would choose the great conditions. That is actually the choice that they will have before them very soon. We will find out.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The bean ball needs to make a comeback

On Sunday afternoon, the New York Mets fell just short of a comeback against the San Francisco Giants in the bottom of the ninth. The Giants closer Brian (not a Beach Boy) Wilson, gave up a leadoff double to Jason Bay. He followed it by striking out the side. That accomplishment was achieved by striking out the heart of the order, and that includes David Wright.

Wright was ejected for arguing but he has a history with these Giants. Last season, he was drilled in the head by this same team and the Mets never showed retaliation. It was certainly not intentional, but the pitch that hit him was intended as a brush back pitch.

It was thrown strategically with the intent of scaring Wright to hold his batting stance a little further away from the plate, so that the pitcher's next pitch would be out of reach. This is a common practice. However, when a player is hit, it is often viewed as damaging and an almost unforgivable act. This act is only allowed to be forgiven if there is retaliation.

A case in point, Mike Piazza was hit in the head by Roger Clemens several years back, and the Mets had to at least try to hit Clemens when he had an at bat the next time he played the Mets. They missed Clemens in their attempts, but at least they tried. These days, the umpires call a warning to both teams when they feel that there is a danger of such retaliation.

These are grown men and they have a difficult time being drilled and then warned that they cannot retaliate. That goes completely against everything that it means to be in the heat of battle and competitive. The occasion never arose last season after Wright was beaned, but it did this year. The Mets never took advantage of it. They could have. They should have.

In the top of the ninth inning, closer Brian Wilson had a rare at bat. Closers never bat in a game. When it happens, a team must take advantage of it and rattle him. They should have brushed him back. At the very least, the effort would have planted a seed of doubt in the minds of Giants players and they would not have been able to retaliate without an ejection.

True, he is not the pitcher that hit Wright, but it still sends a message. The message: we're not taking this lying down and we will not fold. Had they done so, perhaps, Wilson would not have been so in control with a runner on second and no one out. Perhaps, he would have not even pitched the ninth at all.

The Mets came back on the bullpen, not on Wilson. Had they done so, they may have been able to come back on Wilson. The game on the field is more than a game of athleticism. It is a mental game as well. Often the outcomes are decided by who guesses right and who doesn't. The sport of baseball is a chess match more than any other sport and it is a battle of wits.

The hitters have so many weapons at their disposal. Whether the weapons that hitters have are baserunners tipping them off, video studies, memories of previous at bats against a particular pitcher or even crowding the plate to better reach an outside pitch. Hitters have their own ways of playing that mind game.

The pitchers have too few options. They also have film study and pitching coaches helping to properly plan for a particular hitter, but they do not have the luxury of missing the strike zone. It is up to the pitcher to make the pitches, more than it is the hitter to hit. The pitcher, in this offense obsessed age have too few weapons to use without the ability to brush back a batter.

It is a necessary weapon in the arsenal of a pitcher for psychological warfare. I am not advocating injury, but in this homerun happy game that we see today, there are too few intimidating pitchers. Pitchers were intimidating in the pitching dominated eras because of this option.

Names like Nolan Ryan, Bob Gibson and even Roger Clemens in his prime not only had wonderful velocity and a great array of pitches, but there was always the doubt in the back of the hitter's mind that if they stepped too close in the batter's box, they would be on the ground. These pitchers had a claim to home plate. It belonged to them.

That mentality is missing in today's game. It is a needed mentality. One of heart and determination, not to mention a mentality of pride in defending your honor and your team. This action was one of unity. The rest of the team would immediately be there to defend their pitcher.

This is seldom seen today. I'm sure that if the thought of a bean ball was in the minds of the Giants players, especially the pitchers, they would have played much more cautiously. If they had, the Mets would have swept the series.