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Thursday, August 4, 2016

Mets 2016: No magic this time around

You know that old adage that you have to go for everything when you have the chance, because you never know when you might get that opportunity again.

Well, it's so true for the 2016 New York Mets, who appear dead in the water these days. Sure, the second wild card remains within reach, as the Mets trail the St. Louis Cardinals by only 2 1/2 games for that berth. And the eternal optimist will say that once the Mets get into the playoffs, they have enough pitching to make some noise there.

But here's a sharp dose of reality here. The Mets just don't have enough horses to keep up with the Dodgers, Marlins and Cards, oh my.

Last night's horrible and inexcusable loss to the dreaded Yankees is proof that they just can't keep up the pace. Despite what the Mets' crack medical staff and administration tell us, ace lefty Steven Matz is hurting badly from that bone spur in his elbow and shouldn't be pitching with it. They should shut Matz down, let his barking elbow rest for a bit, then have the surgery to take it out.

Matz is 24 years old. I know he's been brilliant since he came up last year and I know he excites everyone with the way he pitches. But Matz started the season with a 7-1 record and his lone loss was that bizarre hiccup against the Marlins in his first start of the year. It means he's gone 1-7 in the 12 starts since. He has an ERA of 4.54 during those 12 games. Something's not right. Oh, it's a bone spur in his elbow. The crack medical staff admits it might hurt a little.

Why are we screwing around with him? They should shut him down for the season and allow him to have the surgery to repair the bone spur. That would make sense, right? He's clearly not the same dominating pitcher he was earlier in the season or last year. Just stop the misery and allow Matz to have the surgery. Every time they parade Matz out there, there's the fear he might hurt something else because he's overcompensating for the injured elbow.

Please, please, I beg Mets GM Sandy Alderson to use some common sense here. We have a precious gem in Steven Matz. He's young and we control his destiny for a few more years. So let's correct him and have him ready for 2017. Besides, we got Jonathon Niese back again. That's someone who could replace Matz in the rotation. Sure, we all know what Niese is and we know he's not Steven Matz or any close resemblance of Matz, but he could fill the bill.

Now, the other injured Met. For the past two weeks, the Mets have paraded Yoenis Cespedes out there with his injured quad. They've hoped that with a little rest, Cespedes could return to action and give the Mets a hope of recapturing the magic of 2015.

But as anyone can see, Cespedes cannot muster any power from his mighty legs. He's up there swinging with his arms. He's clearly hurt _ and the Mets' organization noticed that last night when they finally put last year's savior Cespedes on the disabled list, replaced by the happy-go-lucky Barry Pepper doppleganger dead ringer Brandon Nimmo.

Yes, I know that replacing Cespedes with Nimmo is like replacing Gary Garter with Barry Lyons. Simply put, it just doesn't work.

So it looks as if we've seen the last of Cespedes for the season. Lumbering clod Lucas Duda was also ruled out for the season, but was that a big loss? However, when you realize that David Wright and Duda and Matt Harvey and Asdrubal Cabrera and Jason Ruggiero (who dat?) are all already on the DL, you add it all together and realize it's just not going to happen this year. The magic is not back.

All we can hope is that Cespedes decides once again that he loves playing in New York and will take the $23 million that sits on the table in his Mets contract and doesn't opt out seeking another chance at free agency. He's entitled to it. His contract calls for the opportunity to opt out if he so chooses.

It will mean another off season of sitting on pins and needles, waiting and hoping for Cespedes' decision.

But for now, it looks like this season is a lost one. We've lost too many key pieces to continue the fight.

We also lost a key piece in Anthony Conforto. Oh, you say he's not gone? Well, he's most certainly went into hiding, because his decline is too rapid for anyone to decipher. A year ago, young Conforto arrived and gave everyone the hopes that we had an All-Star outfielder for the next decade or more. He had the sweet swing of Mattingly with similar opposite field power. He had the charm and demeanor of a matinee idol. He hit .270 with nine homers and 36 RBI as a rookie last year. Of his 56 hits, 27 went for extra bases.

He started off 2016 where he left off, hitting .365 with four homers, 11 doubles and 18 RBI in April. From there, it's been a complete free fall like none ever seen for someone so young (just 23 years old).

Conforto is totally lost, with apparently no hope of returning. He swings three feet over breaking balls. Don't dare think he can hit a left-hander. He hit .169 in May. If that wasn't bad enough, he hit .119 in June. He has hit just two homers, just five doubles and just six RBI since May 1. Say what???

How in the world does that happen? Is he Joe Hardy? Did he sell his soul to the Devil, like Hardy did in the musical Damn Yankees, then asked for it back? It's just too unreal for words. He's Mike Vail.

Most Met fans are too young to remember Mike Vail, but he was the phenom that took the world by storm in 1975 as a 23-year-old rookie. He batted .302 with three homers and 17 RBI in 38 games. He tied the National League rookie record for consecutive games with a hit with 23 straight. He made Mets management believe they had the right fielder of the future, so they traded All-Star and beloved icon Rusty Staub to the Detroit Tigers for the couch potato's best friend, portly pitcher Mickey Lolich.

True to Mets' folklore, Vail hit .217 with no homers in an injury-plagued 1976 season, then did nothing much the next season (.262, 8 HR, 35 RBI in 1977) and was placed on waivers, claimed by Cleveland.

Meanwhile, Staub was an All-Star with the Tigers, batting .299 with 15 HR and 96 RBI in 1976 and hitting .278 with 22 HR and 101 RBI in 1977.

Is Conforto headed in the same direction as Vail? Who knows? But right now, he's more lost than Marshall, Will and Holly were on the "Land of the Lost." His two strikeout at-bats last night against Luis Severino were scary. And this came on the heels of a game where Conforto had two doubles and looked like he just might be breaking out of it. Yeah, right.

I seriously don't know what to make of Conforto. I know I don't have any confidence whatsoever that he will somehow snap out of it. He went down to Class AAA Las Vegas and has come back doing the same horrific things he did in May and June.

Now, the team's biggest problem. Yeah, Terry Collins might have won the National League pennant last year, but he's totally lost his marbles this year, rearing that ugly head that showed he was a poor manager in the years prior to last year.

Every game, there are at least two or three decisions that make me scratch my head and wonder, "What in the world is Collins thinking?" Maybe that should be a new game show. "WHAT IS TERRY COLLINS THINKING?" Contestants cane sit there, try to guess what he's thinking about a series of topics and decisions, then win valuable prizes as they guess.

Because as a baseball manager, the man is more lost than Conforto is at the plate.

Two days ago, Collins makes the declaration that he's happy with the back end of his bullpen, that "7-8-9, I have Robles, Reed and Familia, 7-8-9."

In that same game after the pre-game press conference, proclaiming 7-8-9, he brings in human string bean Jerry Blevins to pitch the eighth inning instead of Addison Reed to start the eighth inning, winning 5-3. Now, Blevins has been good, don't get me wrong. But Reed has been unbelievable and untouchable and should have been out there to start the eighth.

Instead, Blevins gives up a walk and a hit and the wheels come off. The Yankees tie it and win in 10.

That's just one of at least 1,237 questionable decisions Collins has made this year. Makes you think that the Mets won last year despite their manager. I have nothing against Terry, the man. He's a wonderful human being. But he's as useful as that solid rock hard cookie you get with fried calamari at top rate Italian restaurants.

Hey, I know there's time left in this season. The Mets can turn it around. With their pitching, anything can happen. And besides, we have Jonathon Niese back. So cheer up.

I just don't think it's going to happen, that's all. It's a lost cause. Nice try, but it's not going to happen. No magic this time.

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You can read more of my work at www.hudsonreporter.com, www.theobserver.com, www.dailyrecord.com, www.northjersey.com or any other news gathering service you may think of. Enjoy this glorious August day.




Sunday, June 19, 2016

Recalling Field of Dreams on Fathers' Day



This column was first printed in the pages of the now-defunct Hudson Dispatch on June 29, 1989. It ended up winning several different awards from the New Jersey Press Association, the North Jersey Press Club and the Garden State Society of Journalists. It was also reprinted in Reader’s Digest later that year (although I never got credit, the paper did).

For several years, the clipping sat in an old Avon box in my basement. We had a major flood two years ago that ruined a lot of my old clippings, including several of the old Dispatch articles. But somehow, this one survived. It’s very weather beaten and faded, but it survived.

I’m posting it today, because after all, it’s Fathers’ Day.

I ventured to the movie theater the other day. No, not to see “Batman” or even “Ghostbusters II.” I’m not a trendy type of guy. In fact, I’m a little behind the times. I saw “Field of Dreams.”

OK, so the rest of the western world has already plunked down the cash to see “Field of Dreams.” We’re in the midst of a blockbuster movie season. “Field of Dreams” is old news to movie freaks. After all, it was only released nine weeks ago.

But “Field of Dreams” is about baseball _ sort of. And besides, “Batman” is not about Don Mattingly. I am a sportswriter _ at last check. And I’m a movie fan. Just a tardy movie fan, that’s all. I had to go see it. Who cares if I’m late?

I heard so many things about the movie. It was supposed to be the best thing ever to happen to baseball movies _ which wouldn’t be a hard feat, considering that most baseball flicks flounder.

I went with an open mind, waiting to be disappointed. I left feeling wonderful, feeling alive, feeling good. “Field of Dreams” touched me more than any other movie. It was clearly the best picture I’ve ever witnessed.

And my strong feelings about “Field of Dreams” had nothing to do with baseball. It had to do with life. Or, for that matter, afterlife.

For those who have not had the chance to see “Field of Dreams” _ like all seven of you _ you can stop reading here. Take my word for it, the movie is excellent. It’s the best thing you’ll see all year.

Now, for you other fortunate folk.

Let’s face it. “Field of Dreams” has its flaws. I mean, Shoeless Joe Jackson batted left-handed in real life and threw right. In this movie, the exact opposite. He batted right and threw left.

Brings up a good question. Do your extremities become mirror images after death? Only Elvis can answer that one. Remind me to ask him the next time the King is spotted at a 7-11 in Michigan. Elvis probably shoots at TVs with his left these days.

Gil Hodges is mentioned to be on the “Field of Dreams.” But there were no Brooklyn Dodgers uniforms to be found.

Still, this movie was absolute perfection to me, because it was able to touch me in a way that some people can relate to _ but hopefully not many.

Because of one movie, I got in touch with the huge vacancy that has been dominating my life for the last 18 years _ namely the absence of my father.

I was 10 when cancer snuffed Jack Hague away from me. He was sick, dead and gone within one month’s time in 1971. He was my everything. He was my inspiration, my motivation, my life. He was my Little League manager, my friend. He taught me so much about life in 10 short years _ and then he was gone.

It left me with a brother who was 60 miles away with his own family, a sister who was maturing rapidly _ and a loving mother, who had to be both parents from that point on. It was not easy.

Especially because of my obsession with sports _ something I shared with my Dad. We would watch ball games together, talk baseball constantly, play catch in my backyard.

With no father, those times came to an abrupt halt. I longed for the days of playing catch in the yard. They were long gone.

“Stop throwing like a girl, James,” I could hear him saying. “Step and throw.”

There were so many times in 1972, the first year after my father’s death, that I would stand in the yard, hoping he would come back. I just kept standing there, smacking the ball into my empty glove.

Little League was no longer fun without my Dad. It was a struggle to play for some other manager.

That summer, my mother bought me a “Pitch-Back,” the net that snapped the ball back to you after you tossed it. However, the damn thing never offered advice. It never told me what I was doing wrong. It just stood there.

And the “Pitch-Back” could never tell me what I was doing wrong in life. Of course, my mother did _ and worked hard at it. But living with two women and no man’s view of life certainly was no breeze for a moody kid who found his only release through sports.

As time went on, I tended to forget about my Dad. Not entirely, but enough that he wasn’t a major part of my life anymore. I lost his set of values, his standards. I forgot what Jack Hague stood for. I wanted to be independent, my own person. I couldn’t fill the shoes of a memory.

Sure, sports remained my one constant _ and still is today. Without it, I would be lost. But most of all the other values I thought I had disappeared.

People think I’ve lived a good life, an exciting life. But it’s been fairly shallow. I never realized that until recently _ and never more so until I saw “Field of Dreams.”

It was a total awakening for me. I knew how important my father was _ and still is. Sure, my father was gone, but I should never let him stop being my parent. I should have left his values live on in my life instead of being pigheaded and stubborn and wanting to be something and someone else.

“Field of Dreams” touched me so much that I wanted to build a field in my backyard, albeit a small patch of brown grass nestled in Jersey City. And all the greats of yesteryear who are now departed could come back. 

They wouldn’t even need an invitation.

Gil Hodges would wear a Met uniform and run the show. Thurman Munson would be behind the plate. Satchel Paige on the mound, Lou Gehrig at first _ and Jackie Robinson stealing bases all night.

And the players would leave a little spot where right field would be, just enough for a grey-haired man with a three-finger glove could throw some high hard ones to his son.

“Field of Dreams” did what it was supposed to do _ make us all dream. It made me dream _ of the days when my father taught me about baseball and life.

I almost took those days for granted. I look back now and cherish. I never realized how much I truly missed my father.

So this is somewhat of an open call to all our readers. Stop, take time out and realize how important your father is.

Sure, there may be some differences and there may be some strife, but the day may come when your father is suddenly not there _ and that vacant feeling of his loss almost gets a stranglehold of you.

I know what that feeling is like. I knew it 18 years ago _ and I rediscovered that huge gap 11 days ago. Yes, Fathers’ Day, the day I saw “Field of Dreams.” I had totally forgotten it was Fathers’ Day. It was so totally ironic I saw the movie on that day.

I’ll never forget Fathers’ Day again. That’s why I love the movies so much _ and why “Field of Dreams” is the best movie I’ve ever seen. I found my Dad. I’m grateful for Hollywood for that.

That’s why I’m asking all of you to find your fathers, too. While he’s still around.

That was 27 years ago. Since then, my father's all-time favorite, Ted Williams, would have joined the crew and we would have had to make room for him in right field. It's 45 years ago this year that I lost Dad. I'm now older than he was when he passed. But he's still there, prominent in my mind, my heart and my soul and I still strive every single day to be the man he was. Here's to all Dads today on Fathers' Day. Enjoy your day.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Remembering "The Faa" five years later

Here's the column I wrote five years ago, right after the passing of my dear friend, Ed "The Faa" Ford. It's amazing he's gone five years already:




It was October of 2009 when I received word that Ed Ford, better known simply throughout Hudson County athletic circles _ and beyond _ as “The Faa” was not doing well. His host of health problems, most importantly congestive heart failure and diabetes, were catching up to him. He was in critical condition in the Jersey City Medical Center and his chances for recovery did not look good.
Doctors put Faa in an induced coma to prevent him from pulling out the tubes that were keeping him alive. I was convinced on a Friday afternoon in October that I was going to the Medical Center to bid farewell to my long-time friend.
That was around 3:30 p.m. or so.
About three hours later that night, I received three phone calls from respected sportswriters and colleagues, all asking me if the Faa had passed on. Apparently, a Rutgers University basketball coach posted on Twitter that the Faa was gone. “RIP, Ed ‘The Faa’ Ford,” was all the Twitter comment read. I thought it was a little strange that word that the Faa had passed could have leaked out that fast, especially after I was just there.
One particular sports columnist, Steve Politi of the Newark Star-Ledger, was actually writing the Faa’s obituary, when I told him to hold off for a second until we could confirm it.
So I called Jersey City police detective Mike McNally, a long-time friend of the Faa, if he had heard anything. McNally, preparing to go to a wedding, actually drove up to the Medical Center to check on his buddy. He called me back to tell me that it wasn’t true, that Faa was still with us.
On the following Tuesday, I went up to see how the Faa was doing. Sure enough, he was sitting up without any tubes, talking like he always did.
In this case, like Mark Twain once wrote, “the rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.”
When Faa saw me, he uttered these words, “I always knew I’d write your [bleeping] obituary before you wrote mine.”
Unfortunately, that’s not the case, because Tuesday afternoon, I got a text message from the wonderful woman who helped to care for the Faa in his time of need and in the middle of his major health crises over the last two years, Anne Marie Costello, who simply wrote, “Faa’s gone.”
Edward “The Faa” Ford, who had an absolutely remarkable life in sports and business, who called thousands of people his friend and was able to touch so many for so long with his undying generosity and care, was now indeed dead. He was a few days shy of his 66th birthday.
It’s almost too incredible for words to think all that Faa did without a true formal education. He didn’t own a high school diploma. He was a grade school dropout.
But he was able to carve out a life that most people simply dream about. He was first a respected baseball coach, leading St. Mary of Jersey City to its lone NJSIAA state championship in 1973. He was a respected basketball referee, officiating many of the top high school and college games in the area, including a handful of HCIAA championship games. He was a business owner, owning a part of three different Jersey City taverns, including Dohoney’s on West Side Avenue, a place he owned for over 25 years.
For 30 years, he was a sports columnist for two papers, first the Hudson Dispatch and later the Jersey Journal, helping both sports sections flourish. Readers all over Hudson County flocked to newsstands to see what outrageous thing would next appear in his “Faa’s Corner” in either paper. He was clearly the most popular sports columnist in this area for three decades _ and did so never collecting a dime and having no ability whatsoever to type.
He was a full-time major league baseball scout, working for the California Angels, the Chicago White Sox, Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers, helping so many local aspiring baseball players get a chance to play pro baseball.
And he was later the assistant director of recreation in Jersey City, helping to form a youth baseball program that has helped develop hundreds of youngsters in the sport he loved the most. It was working with the youngsters that made the Faa the happiest. He truly felt that was his biggest calling.
It’s truly the most amazing career for anyone I’ve ever known without a formal education. What makes it even more astounding is that he never truly understood how incredible his life was. He was just being the Faa. That’s what he did the best.
He was so beloved that words can never describe it. I got the call that he had passed away Tuesday afternoon and as I drove to the Caven Point Athletic Complex where he died _ albeit fittingly _ I received eight cell phone calls on my way there. He wasn’t gone an hour, yet there were eight people calling me, one from North Carolina, another from Easton, Pa.
I guess it’s because for the last 35 years, I was fortunate to call the Faa my friend.
Someone asked how I would best describe my relationship with Ed Ford. I honestly couldn’t answer it.
Because our relationship covered the full gamut of emotions. It went from cantankerous, confrontational, adversarial and angry to loving, caring and considerate. It was first coach-to-player, then sportswriter-to-sportswriter, first as colleagues, then as rivals. It was boss-to-employee (yes, I bartended at Dohoney’s for a stretch when I was out of work), but it was always, first and foremost, friend-to-friend.
He was a father-figure and a brother-figure all rolled into one. I knew that if I ever needed anything, he was right there for me, even if I did appear on his “tombstone” more often than anyone other than Bob Hurley and Mike Hogan.
Faa had a “tombstone” that he kept with people he considered dead to him. I appeared on that tombstone about 50 or so times over the last 25 years. But I somehow always managed to have my name erased, only to have it put back on for some ungodly reason.
One thing was certain: We were attached at the hip for the last quarter century. People always associated the two of us together. No matter where I was, what event I was covering, everyone would come up to me and ask, “How’s the Faa?” I got asked that question about 30 times at the recent Final Four in Houston.
I guess because the Faa and I were cut from the same cloth. We were two Jersey City guys who were not afraid to speak their minds and offer their opinions.
So since Tuesday, I’ve received countless phone calls, e-mails, text messages, all offering their memories of the Faa.
“The English language can’t come up with one word to describe him the right way,” said Bob Hurley, a friend of the Faa for the last 45 years. Faa even served as the best man when Bob and Chris Hurley were married 41 years ago.
“There was a lot more friendship than there were bad times,” said Hurley, who was not on the best of terms with Faa when he passed. “There was never a middle of the road with him. But if you needed something, he was there. Even if he had nothing, he was there. His friendship can’t be measured by the confusing times. We had a lot of really good times, loyal times. The impact he had on people was amazing. He had such a wide circle of friends. There is no replacement. They don’t make them like him anymore. I feel bad for the kids of Jersey City, because there’s no one to help them anymore.”
“He bought me my first spikes and my first new glove,” said Willie Banks, who took the Faa’s guidance and made a triumphant return to the major leagues. “It really feels like I lost a parent. I feel the same way I did when I lost my Mom. It hurts that much. I remember all the times he took me to the baseball field at 5, maybe 6 a.m. to work with me, asking me if I wanted to be good or great. He created my work ethic and I work with kids today because of him. He truly was the cornerstone of my career.”
“He was absolutely a rare breed,” said Rashon Burno, the former St. Anthony basketball player who is now an assistant coach at Towson University. “He was always my voice of reason, telling me what’s wrong and what’s right. He seriously cared about your well being and that’s very rare. He was a huge asset to me.”
“The Faa was a classic,” said Mike O’Koren, who the Faa helped to go to the University of North Carolina before a career playing and coaching in the NBA. “He was such a positive influence on all of us. He was a great guy and always there for me. He really would give you the shirt off his back. We all lost an institution.”
“He wore so many hats,” said Ken Markowski, one of the Faa’s first baseball players at St. Anthony who had a Hall of Fame basketball career at St. Peter’s. “He was a confidant, a father figure, a brother figure. He did so much for me. He was the best and it’s incredible what he meant to me and everyone.”
“How do you describe what he was?” said North Bergen legendary football coach Vince Ascolese. “In terms of all my relationships, I could always count on Eddie Ford being on my side all the time. He had so much charisma. He’s going to be missed.”
“There couldn’t be a nicer person I’ve ever known,” said Joe Borowski, who the Faa signed to his first pro baseball contract with the White Sox before Borowski went on to have a long career in the big leagues. “He would do anything to help you and never ask for anything in return. No matter where I went, I would bring up his name and everyone had a Faa story, either funny or serious. I don’t know if there was anyone involved in Hudson County sports who wasn’t affected by him.”
“I always thought Eddie was very smart,” said University of Connecticut assistant basketball coach George Blaney, who as the head coach at Hudson Catholic, gave Faa his first coaching job as freshman coach. “He had a great knack of evaluating people and understanding talent. He understood what it took to win and I admired that. He had a great ability in talent evaluation and I think that’s what made him a great scout. There was also a childish way about him and he reveled in the bizarre and funny things. What strikes me most about Eddie is that when you met him, you remembered him. Everyone has an Eddie Ford story.”
Personally, I have thousands. There was never a question of his loyalty to me as a friend, even through all the tough times and countless arguments. He was my friend and he’s gone. We’ll gather together to bid farewell to the Faa this weekend. But he’ll never truly be totally gone.
The fitting thing would be somewhere down the road to rename the Caven Point Athletic Complex, truly his home for the last 15 years, as the Ed “Faa” Ford Memorial Complex. Here’s to hoping that someone picks up that torch and remembers his legacy that way.

In postscript, I'm glad someone read my column, because sure enough, a year later, the complex was indeed named after "The Faa". I don't know if I had anything to do with it, but I sure hope so.


Sunday, March 13, 2016

Congrats to the Pirates and their fans

It's safe to say that after last year's debacle, no one believed this next paragraph:

"Seton Hall Pirates, 2016 Big East basketball champions."

How could anyone in their right mind believe that statement?

I mean, the Pirates were a .500 mess last year, barely surviving the season. They were humiliated in the first round of the Big East Tournament by a less-than-average Marquette squad. Once ranked among the nation's best, a team that beat nationally-ranked teams Villanova and St. John's in consecutive games over a four-day stretch right near New Year's Day, the Pirates, bereft with internal strife and complete discord, limped their way home to finish the 16-15 campaign.

I got a lot of grief from a lot of people for a blog I wrote last year, talking about the troubles the Pirates were having, that the star former McDonald's All-American guard Isaiah Whitehead was the root of a lot of the Pirates' problems. Lambasted and chastised would be understatements for the reception I received for that blog.

When I went to Media Day last October, before the start of the 2015-16 season, the idea of the fractured locker room was brought up to sixth-year head coach Kevin Willard, who later admitted that this current season was basically a "shit or get off the pot" season.

Willard admitted that he handled the fractured team, which caused two top guards, Jaren Sina and Sterling Gibbs, to transfer out of the program. Willard admitted that he handled the problems in the locker room "terribly" and vowed back in October that there were indeed changes made.



“I don’t think I did a very good job handling the distractions,” Willard said. “I didn’t handle the outside distractions well. There were a lot of outside distractions from family and friends, aunts and uncles. It wasn’t just one factor. I have a much better handle on that now, but the dynamic of this team is much different.”
 
Even Whitehead addressed the issue.
 
“I never believed any of it,” said Whitehead, the program’s first McDonald’s All-American since 2001. “My mom raised me to be the best person I can be. I’m a good guy. I just think we didn’t know what it was like to be ranked and how to handle it. Last year is in the past. We’ve put it behind us. There’s nothing we can do about it.”
 
Flash forward to Saturday night in New York, when a new Big East champion was crowned. The team was _ yes, believe it _ the Pirates and the Most Valuable Player of the tournament was none other than the believed troublemaker Whitehead.
 
The Pirates defeated Villanova, 69-67, to win their first Big East title since 1993, back to an era where the Pirates were believed to be one of the best programs in the country, back to the days when P.J. Carlesimo was the coach, Terry Dehere was the star and Jerry Walker was the enforcer.
 
There were a lot of reasons why the Pirates are the Big East champions. First, what a transformation in Whitehead, who went from beleaguered player to team leader in a matter of minutes.
 
Then, there was Willard, who really did his homework about his own team. Even though they were without a true point guard, Willard believed that the Pirates could win. They mixed and matched, using Whitehead as the barometer. They played tenacious and relentless defense, physical specimens.
 
If they committed a foul, no problem, we'll just lay it off until next time. They were relentless in their physicality.
 
Willard also changed up his defenses and the Pirates became a dominating force when they went to the 2-3 zone, the kind of zone that is taught in Biddy Leagues and CYO leagues throughout the area, even some of them move on to play in high school.
 
That zone defense saved the Pirates' season, because it allowed guards like Whitehead, Khadeen Carrington and Derrick Gordon to roam free, attack other ball handlers and go for steals. And if they got steals, which more often than not, they did get, they were off to the races the other way.
 
Whitehead was the key. As much as he was a divisive factor a year ago, he was a galvanizing piece this year. He put them all together and led them to the Promised Land.
 
Willard also deserves a lot of the credit and was deservedly the Big East Co-Coach of the Year, along with Villanova's Jay Wright. He eliminated all of the outside influences, took it upon himself to be the leader, made changes in the philosophies and stuck to his guns through it all. For the first time in six seasons, Willard acted like the program was indeed his. And kudos to him for having the intestinal fortitude to realize that he had to do all of the above.
 
Congrats to the Big East champions, the Pirates of Seton Hall, who deserve a No. 4 seed today when they unfurl the NCAA Tournament bracket later today. They deserve it so much for where they came from, from one game over .500 last year to the Big East champs this year.
 
And yes, I have to admit I was way wrong. I never thought this was possible. I have to swallow the pride a lot here.
 
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And kudos to my buddy Greg Herenda and the Knights of FDU for also heading to March Madness as well. What a great turnaround for a team that had to endure a 15-game losing streak just last year, finished 8-21 and now gets to go to the Big Dance...
 
I wish I didn't have a busy schedule this week or I'd be on the road to Dayton with high school friends to see the Knights. Herenda and I were close friends during our days at St. Peter's Prep, constantly getting in trouble together, with him usually the one causing it. He was like my own Eddie Haskell, kissing up to my mother every chance possible and telling her all the mischief I was getting into in school. When he was right there alongside of me, causing the whole mess.
 
I'm very proud of Herenda, because he certainly paid his dues to get this chance to be a part of March Madness. I hope this means that after 35 years in the coaching business, he finally has some job security.
 
So wherever the Knights end up, it has been a great season and a great one for my friend. I wonder if Mr. Rowe, our physics teacher, knows how well Herenda did this year as a coach...
 
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You can read more of my work at www.hudsonreporter.com, with the column about Herenda, www.theobserver.com, www.dailyrecord.com and www.northjersey.com. Just Google my name and you'll never know what you might find.
 
 
 
 
 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

A new year brings a new blog---Hall of Fame musings and grid observations











It’s a new year, which means the blog should be updated. I’ve had a few people to remind me that the blog was not refreshed in quite some time, so that means I better snap to it and give the loyal readers something new from me. I apologize for being lackadaisical and will make my first New Year’s Resolution right here to be more diligent when it comes to the blog. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Anyway, let’s start with the Baseball Hall of Fame inductees that were announced last week. Of course, Ken Griffey, Jr. is an absolute no-brainer and a Hall of Fame baseball player if there ever was one. 

“Junior” is one of the best all-around players to ever play the game, right there with people like Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.

To think that there are three members of the Baseball Writers Association of America who kept Griffey, Jr. off the Hall of Fame ballot for some reason _ other than they didn’t want him to be the first unanimous selection or they thought he shouldn’t go in on his first try is preposterous.

Of course, Mike Piazza got his just due and was elected to induction after four previous tries. Why it took five times on the ballot to get Piazza, the greatest hitting catcher of all-time, into Cooperstown is another befuddlement of this BBWAA mishmash election process.

It’s believed that a lot of the writers believed that Piazza was tied into the whole steroid controversy. They heard rumors that Piazza was on the juice because someone spotted Piazza with acne on his back (a symptom of steroidal abuse), so the former Met All-Star was kept away from his proper place in Cooperstown because of the rumors and innuendo.

That idea just totally eats at me. Let’s deny a man’s place in immortality because a bunch of old sportswriters heard scuttlebutt that Piazza was juicing or was believed to be juicing or someone saw his naked back in need of Clearasill and bingo _ instant steroid bad boy.

Keeping a guy out of the Hall of Fame because of rumors? Piazza was never once officially linked to steroids. From what I gather, he was not listed on the now-scandalous and oh-so-secret Mitchell Report. He was not called to Congress to testify. He never had huge jars of androstenedione supplements prominently shown in his locker. No syringes, no gauze. Nothing _ yet, the thoughts were that Piazza was a juicer.
Hey, he had to be one, because who could ever hit the ball that far and that hard to right field like Piazza did. He had to be on the stuff because he hit 423 homers and catchers didn’t hit that many homers. It was all based on rumor with no substantiated fact, yet Piazza was kept away from Cooperstown and a Punch-and-Judy second baseman like Craig Biggio got in ahead of him.

Well, it’s over now. Piazza got enough votes to get in finally. He will have his day with Griffey, Jr. in August. He will be the second Met player to be enshrined after Tom Seaver. Some people were worried that Piazza might choose to have his place in immortality wearing a Dodger hat, but as everyone knows, Piazza was identified with the Mets for seven-plus seasons and is still considered a Met. He’s the best positional player the Mets have ever had.

Hopefully, the knuckleheads that run the organization will recognize that fact and finally put Piazza’s No. 31 on the wall at CitiField, next to Seaver’s No. 41.

I was rooting (mostly for personal reasons) for Tim Raines to get the necessary votes to get in and “Rock” just fell a few votes short. I got to work with Raines for two years when he managed the Newark Bears and I was the official scorer.

We spent many a day talking baseball, especially through rain delays in his office. The baseball brain trust sessions I enjoyed with Rock, Mike Torrez, Ron Karkovice and Jim Leyritz were priceless.

I especially liked the days when Rock and his son, Tim, Jr., were together in Newark, forming a unique bond that not many outsiders could see.

As a baseball player, Rock was electric, the second best leadoff hitter in the game, next to another former Newark Bear Rickey Henderson, who I also had the fortune to work with when he was a teenager in Jersey City in 1978. Incredibly, Henderson is in the Hall of Fame. Raines should be _ and hopefully will be next year _ and I got the chance to know both pretty well.

Although it’s a fair assumption that Henderson would not remember me again _ even after a reunion in Newark 13 years ago. He remembered the car I drove him to his Duncan Avenue apartment in Jersey City, which was a 1976 AMC Pacer, but didn’t remember me.

“The bubble car?” Henderson said. “You had the bubble car?”

Yes, that was me, but he didn’t remember me at all. That’s OK, I’m not offended. When he was reunited with John Olerud with the Mets, Henderson told Olerud that he once played with a guy who wore his batting helmet in the field. Of course, that player was indeed Olerud. The two were teammates with the Toronto Blue Jays, but Henderson didn’t remember who it was.

But when I was a freshman and sophomore at Marquette in 1979 and 1980, Henderson left me a bunch of tickets in order to see the Oakland A’s play the Milwaukee Brewers. In 1979, most of my Marquette friends weren’t too impressed that I knew two major leaguers in Henderson and Mike Norris. A year later, Henderson broke Lou Brock’s stolen base record and Norris won 22 games and finished second in the Cy Young voting and everyone wanted to know me for the tickets.

Anyway, here’s to hoping that Raines gets his place in Cooperstown with Henderson and Piazza next year. It’s so deserved. Raines is not only a Hall of Fame player but as a guy, he’s definitely better than Cooperstown.

As for the controversy that surrounds others who are not in the Hall of Fame, I’ll stick to my guns and say that Pete Rose belongs in the Hall of Fame, that Roger Clemens belongs in the Hall of Fame, that Barry Bonds belongs in the Hall of Fame and when the time comes, Alex Rodriguez belongs in the Hall of Fame.

Rose belongs because of what he achieved as a ballplayer should not overshadow his incredible disease of being a compulsive gambler. It’s a disease that still has not left Rose’s system, because he’s still betting today. But Rose is a Hall of Famer through and through.

As much as I hate both as human beings, Clemens and Bonds are also Hall of Famers. They were lock members of the Hall of Fame before they ever saw a syringe and put a needle into their bodies. They only enhanced their careers with steroids. The drugs did not make them become legendary ballplayers. They both belong.

As for A-Rod, it’s hard to say where the steroids started, but he was also a Hall of Fame player before the lies began and the steroid use became known. Reports have it (ah, yes, rumor and innuendo) that Rodriguez began his steroidal use rampantly when he was with the Texas Rangers in 2002. Before that year, A-Rod already had four seasons of 40-plus homers and 125-plus RBI and a .330 batting average _ as a shortstop. He should be in as well.

But Clemens, Bonds and A-Rod will more than likely never see the Hall. Nor will Rose after his last defiant stand.

The Hall of Fame should be for the greatest players of all-time. It’s not for players who a bunch of old sportswriters (yes, I’m an old sportswriter myself, just not a voting member of the BBWAA) who have picked people like Phil Niekro, Don Sutton, Bill Mazeroski and _ hate to say it, but true _ Phil Rizzuto in the past.

That’s just my opinion. There are other great players like Albert Belle, Dale Murphy, Jeff Kent and Jack Morris that are Hall of Famers and will never get in. Jeff Bagwell will get in next year, but there’s another.

It took Jim Rice almost 15 full years before he got in _ and that’s because other sportswriters hated him. Rice should have been in right away. He was the best player in the American League for more than a decade. Rice batted .298 for his career. In comparison, Reggie Jackson hit .262. Yet, Jackson is considered an immortal and Rice an afterthought.

Ok, enough with the Hall of Fame. It’s old news, at least, for another year. On to other news now.
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The Cincinnati Bengals-Pittsburgh Steelers playoff game Saturday night was a downright disgrace to pro football. It wasn’t a football game. It was like a bloodcurdling battle to the death, like in a Roman gladiator arena. I thought Russell Crowe should have made an appearance any minute.
First, had anyone in their lives ever see a coach actually pull the hair of an opposing player in a game? We all remember Woody Hayes throwing the punch at the Clemson player that ended the Ohio State legendary coach’s career.
Well, early in the Bengals-Steelers game, Steelers assistant Mike Munchak _ the former head coach of the Tennessee Titans _ actually grabbed the dreadlocks of Bengals defensive back Reggie Nelson on the sidelines after a play. Yes, the coach pulled the hair of an opposing player in the middle of a game. Unreal, right?
Munchak was flagged 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin should have taken Munchak off the field by his own scalp for doing something so totally ridiculous.
Munchak’s play set the tone for what became an absolutely chippy game on both sides with vicious hits galore.
There was the hit on Bengals’ RB Giovanni Bernard that knocked him out of the game, then there was Bengals’ LB Vontaze Burfict’s hit on Steelers’ QB Ben Roethlisberger that knocked Big Ben out of the game with what was later diagnosed as a separated shoulder, only to see Big Ben return with one arm to lead his team.
Burfict was all set to be the hero. Not only did he make the hit on Ben (a hard hit, but a clean one), but he made a great diving interception of a Landry Jones pass with 1:36 left that seemed to be the game-winning play.

Burfict then stupidly runs with the football off the field and into the tunnel, but that’s another thing altogether. The interception was a great play, great read, great catch.

However, Jeremy Hill fumbled on the ensuing play, giving the Steelers one last ditch hope. Big Ben, with his right arm hanging off, went back onto the field to try to lead the Steelers. He obviously couldn’t throw the ball more than 20 yards, but he was out there.

With just 22 seconds remaining, Roethlisberger attempted a pass to Antonio Brown that sailed high. The pass was clearly incomplete, but Burfict went into Brown with his shoulder aimed at Brown’s head. The collision was violent, sending a limp Brown to the turf unable to move his arms, causing a concussion.

The bad blood continued with Steelers assistant coach Joey Porter (who was never a saint as a player) somehow on the field taunting the Bengals, which incensed another bastion of good standing and wonderment Adam (don’t you dare call me PacMan anymore) Jones going after Porter and instead of pushing Porter, he pushed an official instead. That’s a no-no as well.

So Burfict got 15 yards for his hit of Brown and Jones got 15 yards for his push of the official and the Steelers got 30 yards in penalties on a play where the injured quarterback with the bad arm couldn’t have thrown the damn thing 30 yards. Out trots kicker Chris Boswell and he kicks the field goal that gives Pittsburgh the improbable 18-16 win.

It was an implosion like never before seen. The Bengals lost control of themselves and lost the game because of it. Burfict is a super football player who has very few peers. But he’s a complete jackass for all the other things he does _ and there have been so many that he was slapped with a three-game suspension to start the 2016 NFL season. If the Bengals won the game, he would be on the sidelines this weekend. That’s how much of a bonehead he is.

There’s no justification for it. None. Not for Burfict’s hit and certainly not for Jones’ pushing of an official. But there’s also no justification for Munchak pulling Nelson’s hair and Porter going onto the field to taunt and belittle, so both teams were way wrong.

Frankly, it was all pretty sickening and spoiled what was a decent game and turned it into a memorable mess. Burfict deservedly got his suspension. He should have been suspended earlier this year for twisting the legs of players after making a tackle. He’s also been flagged for several vicious late hits, but nothing like this cruel act of violence Saturday. Sure, football is a violent game, but it doesn’t have to be like that. This was hideous.
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If Tom Coughlin wants to pursue coaching jobs in the NFL, that’s his right. He has earned that right to do whatever he likes.

But if he’s looking at the Eagles or the 49ers, then he still wanted to coach. And if he wanted to still coach, then that position should have been with the Giants and not anywhere else.

I don’t buy that the time had come for a change and that sometimes change is necessary. That’s a load of crap. Coughlin earned the right to be the Giants coach for as long as he wanted to be the coach. He earned that right with Silver Big Thing No. 1 (three for the main team in East Rutherford) and cemented that right with Silver Big Thing No. 2 (four for the main team in East Rutherford).

If you win two Super Bowl titles, two Lombardi Trophies (the real name), then you’re a Hall of Fame coach and you can do whatever you like as a coach. 

You don’t fire legends. And apparently, by the way this has played out this week, with Coughlin looking for another job and him not shaking John Mara’s hand after Monday’s press conference, then call it whatever you like. Resigned, retired, moved on, change is good, stepped aside, what have you. It wasn’t that. Coughlin was fired and that’s just wrong.

It wasn’t Coughlin’s fault that the Giants were 6-10 this year. Sure, he didn’t do exactly a great job when they lost to Dallas to open the season or to Atlanta and the Jets. All three games were wins if the team was coached properly. I get it.

But the Giants had an inferior defense from training camp on. Their offensive line was also a work in progress. Those are two main components to a winning football team and the Giants had neither.

How do you fire Coughlin and keep Jerry Reese? The general manager is the one who picked the players.

I tell you what. It was Reese who gave that ridiculous contract to horrible offensive lineman Will Beatty. Reese gave Beatty a 5-year, $37 million contract. OUCH! Why? Beatty never proved himself worthy of that money. He simply cannot play. Brad Benson and his radio commercials for his car dealership could block better than Beatty right now.

The Giants are on the hook for $9.3 million on the salary cap for 2016 for Beatty’s contract. Oh, brother. Beatty was never worth that kind of deal and forced the Giants to nickel and dime their way with other players to fill out a competitive roster.

Beatty proved his worth by not playing a down last season, suffering an offseason injury lifting weights, then suffering another in-season injury working out. He has to be the most overpaid and useless player in the league. A contract like Beatty’s is what strangled the entire franchise and forced the spiral downward, not Coughlin’s coaching ability.

So if Coughlin wants to coach elsewhere, he is applauded. But let’s not kid anyone here. He didn’t step aside or retire gracefully. He was shown the door _ and that’s not only wrong, but a gigantic mistake.

And mark my words: Ben McAdoo will be named the Giants’ new head coach within the next two weeks. McAdoo wasn’t enticed here from Green Bay just so he could become an offensive coordinator. He was promised the head coaching job when Coughlin stepped aside. Or in this case, was pushed out the door.
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I said it when they got rid of him and I’ll say it again now that the Brooklyn Nets are a complete laughingstock.
The biggest mistake that franchise made was to turn the coaching reins over to unproven and disloyal Jason Kidd and get rid of P.J. Carlesimo in the process.
Carlesimo was 35-19 as the head coach of the Nets after they canned the overmatched Avery Johnson as coach.
Carlesimo led the Nets to the playoffs, but they were defeated by the Chicago Bulls in 2013. Since then, the Nets were 44-38 in Kidd’s lone year as head coach, went 38-44 with the lethargic Lionel Hollins as head coach last year and owned a robust 10-27 mark this year before the clueless ownership group fired Hollins and GM Billy King, the architect of all the trades that cost the Nets a zillion draft choices and brought them wonderful people like Deron Williams.

Why the Nets decided to get rid of a successful coach like Carlesimo is beyond my wildest comprehension. One thing’s for sure: They’re not going to be 35-19 again anytime soon.
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You can read more of my work at www.hudsonreporter.com, www.theobserver.com , www.dailyrecord.com and www.northjersey.com