For the fan in enemy territory

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Gary Carter: Losing the Kid Means Losing our Innocence

On Thursday February 16, 2012, the world of sports lost a legend and the society lost an example. Gary Carter was more than an athlete. He was a role model and he understood that. When he joined the New York Mets in 1985, he was already an established player in baseball.

He had been a five time All-star with the Montreal Expos. He was unhappy with the direction of the team and when management began their fire sale, he was one of the casualties. What was Montreal's loss was New York's gain. He, along with Keith Hernandez, were the veteran leaders of those 1985 and 1986 Mets teams. It was Carter who had big hit after big hit to win games or extend rallies.

This is not uncommon knowledge to the average Mets fan. What may be more surprising is how he was respected by his teammates for his straight-line lifestyle. While the younger players partied and brawled, ridiculing him all the while for not participating in the wild side of  the team, he was happy to be a recluse on the road and a home body all other times.

He was a man that didn't smoke, do drugs, do steroids, didn't drink really, attended church faithfully and loved his family, fans and his life.  Boring to the core as far as journalists were concerned for the sake of creating headlines.

He was a public relations dream. A man that played hard every second of every game, embraced the game, the fans, the organization and the team while living a clean life off the field and being a positive example and face of the team in his spare time.

Gary Carter represents something different for every fan. To the Red Sox fan, he was the man that never gave up in the 1986 World Series and they wish he had. To the Yankees fan, he was the example of what they wanted their players to be like: clutch and leaving it all on the field.

To the average baseball fan, he was an example of how to play the game of life as well as the one on the diamond. To the average Mets fan, he was a symbol of what was once a great time for the franchise. To me, however, he was a little more personal. Let me explain.

I began watching sports as a child living in southern New Jersey. In my area at the time there was one team that played on TV during the summer, the Phillies. On cable, there was the Atlanta Braves and Chicago Cubs.

When I was first discovering baseball, cable was still an unexplored medium. It was expensive and rarely found in the average home. My family finally gave in and invested in it.

The first time I watched Channel 9 WWOR I saw a team wearing blue and playing in a blue stadium. I was immediately interested as blue was my favorite color. I fell in love with the team when those guys in blue won on a walk-off hit.

As I grew into being a fan, I chose a favorite player, like we all do. I noticed a player playing the game with enthusiasm and a passion that was unequaled. I wanted to cheer for that guy. It was Gary Carter.

As time passed by, I began to realize it is better to cheer for the name on the front of the shirt and not on the back of it. Players inevitably leave and so Carter did as well.

When I made the choice to stay loyal to my team, I symbolically made a vow to be devoted through good and bad times, through great players and terrible ones, through prospect flops and prospect trades and everything else this team can throw at me. The team has tested that faithfulness for the next 25 years. Still, the lessons I learned from that day stay with me even now.

Gary Carter meant was baseball to me. He was everything I wanted to be and proof that it was possible to attain. He was a man that was the standard of integrity and character. The things that are seldom honored or celebrated these days.

Society would rather embrace the mistake-ridden celebrities and drama-filled empty vessels on reality shows. Who will fly a flag at half staff for Carter? Who will stand up and say THIS is what our children should strive to be?

In this time of chaos, selfish indulgence and preoccupation, the life of Gary Carter is a reminder of what once was. It hearkens me back to a time when the world was still new. When everything was still before and all things were possible. Now with the stained glass tainted by the graffiti of life, it is hard to recall that little boy that once looked upon life with such optimism and promise.

While I am certain life is still filled with promise in the right circumstances, I am older and wiser now. As are we all. Losing Kid Carter today is a loss of the kid in all of us. We will no longer be able to draw from the well of our memories and be comforted by the fact that all of our heroes of that better day are still among us.

That day is gone. Gone,but not forgotten. Like Gary Cater.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

NYFSJ Valentine's Edition III: Love it or Hate it

Today is a celebration of giving and receiving in the name of love. Mostly for the benefit of the department stores and various discount chain stores that like to capitalize on human emotion. This is a day that embraces all things love, but for the third time in the existence of this blog, I will address both love and hate.

More specifically, it is an annual segment in which I incorporate my six favorite New York sports teams by answering one question about each one. Last year, I made a statement about New York sports in general when I said the future is brighter for it and these teams are all moving in the right direction.

A year later, the Giants won the Super Bowl, the Yankees ran away with their division, the Rangers are in first place, the Knicks are on a hot streak and the talk of the NBA world behind new sensation Jeremy Lin, the Jets barely missed the playoffs but still have a good core coming back next season to build on and the Mets are healthy and entering their new season with a revamped bullpen.

It is a brighter future on all fronts. To continue the tradition, here is the third annual installment of "Love it or Hate it".

1) Love or hate the New York Jets last season? Hate. The Jets entered the season with such high expectations. They were coming off of back to back AFC Championship game seasons and with the addition of Plaxico Burress, the sky was the limit in 2011. The season was filled with boasting and bickering.

The doubts finally set in over Mark Sanchez when they were shocked by a last minute comeback loss to the Denver Broncos and took a playoff knockout punch from the cross town rival New York Giants. They struggled down the stretch and as a result of bad execution on both sides of the ball, they missed the playoffs as a result.

While the season was full of promise and eventually flat-lined out, it's not the end of the world. They have a core group of players returning from that defense and will be in a better position to draft a play maker in a few months. They may also be the front runner to re-sign Burress to acquire one of the many big time free agent receivers available this off-season.

This is truly a team that is one additional player away from making a deep run in the post season. Their issue last season was health. If they stay healthy next year and add one more receiver long-term, they could be a power house for the next few years.

2) Love or hate the New York Yankees this coming season? Love. The Yankees enter the 2012 season with several questions. They lost Jorge Posada to retirement and traded their biggest prospect Jesus Montero to Seattle for pitching phenom Michael Pineda. Pineda has one simple task: be a dominant number two starter behind C.C. Sabathia.

The Yankees are gambling on this one-two punch helping them go deep into the playoffs. They will win that bet. They have the offense, they have the starting pitching and the bullpen to wrap up games in the late innings. They have all the tools to get to the World Series this year.

3) Love or hate the New York Knicks playoffs chances? Love. The Knicks made a lot of noise in the shortened off-season. They cut ties with Chauncey Billups and added Tyson Chandler and Baron Davis. When added to Amare Stoudemire and Carmello Anthony, it was their hope this would secure the top seed in the division at the very least.

To this point, they are the eighth best record in the division and if the playoffs started today, they'd be in trouble. They have been on fire recently with the emergence of the relative unknown Jeremy Lin. While Anthony recovers from another injury and Amare takes time off to grieve a loss in the family, Lin has proven he can run the offense up and down the floor against anyone.

When they both return, Lin will be a mainstay in the starting lineup, not a sixth man off the bench. This chemistry will lift the Knicks back into the playoffs and they will win a series or two or three. If they are healthy, they have every chance of merging their talent and making a serious run for a title.

4) Love or hate the New York Rangers playoff chances? Love. After falling flat in the playoffs last season after losing Ryan Callahan, the Rangers entered the off-season determined to renew their efforts. The truth is that they were not too far off. They signed Brad Richards to compliment their offense and offer some support for their outstanding goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.

With the trade deadline a few weeks away, they still may deal for another scorer, but the chemistry and defense of this team has brought them to first place in the division and among the top two teams in the entire NHL. I see them making a deep run in the playoffs. Whether it will net them Lord Stanley's Cup or not will depend on a few things, but they certainly are a much improved team and ready for their turn at success in the spotlight.

5) Love or hate the New York Mets this coming season? Love. I may be in the considerable minority here, but I believe the Mets will be healthier this season. After missing Johan Santana all season last year, suffering several injuries to key players like David Wright, Daniel Murphy and Ike Davis and losing Jose Reyes to free agency due to a financial decision on the part of the team, things have looked bleak lately.

The Mets are healthier and have addressed their biggest Achilles Heel: the bullpen. They have moved their walls in a few feet and rearranged the dimensions of Citi Field in an attempt to reinvigorate their offense. I have a feeling it will work enough to give the starters a little extra run support. Combined with a healthy Santana and a healthier lineup, they will have a strong showing this season in a suddenly upgraded N.L. East.

6) Love or hate the New York Giants this last season? Love. I saved the champions for last. After a shortened off-season and a controversial free agency period where they failed to re-sign Steve Smith or Kevin Boss, the Giants entered the season with so many questions.

Eli Manning had the answer during the regular season. He carried this team without much of a running game and a suspect defense early on. The defense found their stride late and the running game found their strength in the playoffs to support Eli's campaign.

The end result was the second ticker tape parade in Manhattan in four years. They hoisted the Lombardi Trophy to the shock of everyone that was not a Giants fan. Giants fan have seen this before and were not surprised by the end result; they were ecstatic!

Now that the off-season is upon them, they face a few more questions. Will they be able to re-sign Mario Manningham or simply move on without him like they did Steve Smith? Will they give Victor Cruz a pay raise and a long-term deal?

Will they show Osi Umneyiora the money he has been demanding? Will they replace the TE position next season internally, through free agency or via the draft? It will be another exciting few months as the team prepares to defend their Super Bowl Championship.

Overall, as I mentioned last year, the landscape in New York sports is looking brighter. The city has a champion in football, and possible championship runs coming in the next few months in hockey, basketball and eventually baseball as well.

Every team has a good mix of youthful and raw talent, veteran experience and a fan base that has reason to be excited for the next several years. All of these teams have hope for their future. What's not to love?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

New York Rangers: Why they will win the Stanley Cup

The New York Rangers are currently the best team in their conference. Entering today, they have 75 points to lead the Eastern Conference and only one point away from the best record in the entire NHL. How are they doing it? Goal tending, timely scoring and depth.

First, they are led by their wall in front of the net, Henrik Lundqvist. His 1.81 Goals Against average is second in the NHL and his .939 Save Pct leads all of hockey. He has been nearly lights out this season. The defense in front of him has been much improved as well. The Rangers are 5th in the league in Penalty Kills with  86.6 Pct. Overall, Lundqvist and the defense rank 2nd in Goals Against as a team overall.

Next, the Rangers rank 12th in scoring overall, but when they combine the defense with their scoring opportunities, they make the most of their goals. Marian Gaborik leads the way with 27 goals. He is followed by team captain Ryan Callahan with 21 and then the newest Rangers star, Brad Richards with 17.

Besides showing some firepower between these three, the offense is passing the puck extremely well and spreading the scoring wealth. Derek Stepan (26), Michael Del Zotto (22), Gaborik (21), Richards (21) and Callahan (19) have all lead the way in Assists this year. The Rangers spread it around and use their Offensive and Defensive balance very well.

Finally, they are deep across all of their lines. As just eluded to, they have multiple options. Players like Del Zotto, Stepan, Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov have all been a force this season as members of a supporting cast around the big three. Overall, this team has blended together well and is soaring in the regular season.

Sports, is not about the regular season, though. It's all about how you finish. We saw an example of this just a week ago when the Giants hoisted the Lombardi Trophy in improbable fashion. The Rangers were missing Callahan last season for the playoffs after barely squeaking in. Without their spark, the Rangers looked lifeless and were eventually eliminated.

This season, they are in a prime position to enter the playoffs, if they continue this pace, as the number one seed. That would pit them against the lowest team in the Eastern Conference and surely would set them up for the ability to advance onto the next round with little problem.

As the playoffs continue, they will be able to rely on three things to outlast the league and win it all: hot goal tending, experience and confidence. They have all of the tools now to convert these keys into a Stanley Cup.

If Lundqvust continues his season he will be the standout goalie in the playoffs and the main reason they will win. When combined with their ability to burn penalties, the Rangers defense will be hard to score on, even in the playoffs.

Next, they have been here before. This is a team that has made the playoffs consistently over the past few seasons. While they have not been extremely successful in them, they can still utilize that knowledge of the past and apply those lessons to each situation and scenario in these playoffs. They will not be caught off guard by anything and that helps to maintain an even keel and a calm demeanor in the midst of a wild and hyper playoffs.

Finally, there is a new confidence in this team this season. That swagger can go a long way. They know they can beat anyone at any rink. That allows them to be in a position where they are never intimidated and that goes a long way in helping them feel like they can and will win.

All of these factors combine to set the stage for a terrific end to the season and an even more spectacular playoffs. If they hold true to the tendencies they have established already to this point, they will once again raise Lord Stanley's Cup as the best team in the NHL.