It’s almost a shame that the weather for the New York-Metro area was so nice on Sunday, April 11th. For about 12 straight hours New York teams, players, and fan-favorites dominated the sports scene, and we learned a lot about each of the participants.
It didn’t take long in the afternoon, or the season, the New York baseball teams to look exactly like they did in 2009. The Yankees came from behind to beat the Tampa Bay Rays 7-3, starting the season 4-2 by winning road series against Tampa and the Boston Red Sox (after losing the first game of the series each time), the two teams that will give the Yankees the stiffest competition in the division, and possibly all of baseball. The only concern Yankees fans have right now is that Javier Vazquez looked like the same Vazquez that was on the mound late in 2004.
The Mets were the exact opposite of the Yankees in the first week of the season. After winning opening games against NL East rivals Florida Marlins and Washington Nationals, they lost the next two games in each series when their starting pitching got rocked or the offense couldn’t get a clutch hit. Same Old Mets. Yesterday they fell behind 4-0 on a Josh Willingham grand-slam off of ace Johan Santana before fans could find their seats. That took the air out of the team, and allowed fans watching at home to tune out early so they could catch the rest of the busy day in sports. Having Jose Reyes back didn’t help the Mets in the last two games against the Nationals, but it is nice to see him back in the lineup after nearly a year-long absence.
I was at the Mets game on Friday when they opened the series against the Nats, a game the Mets would win 8-2 thanks to a solid effort by starter Mike Pelfrey and two homers each against a stiff wind (and it was freezing at Citi Field Friday night - the only time I’ve ever seen the Shake Shack line not extended beyond the ropes) by Rod Barajas and Jeff Francoeur, the latter of which has been the best Mets hitter so far. That improved the Mets record to 5-0 at Citi Field in games I’ve attended. Which makes their losing ways so much more confounding to me in that I’ve never had to experience it in person. If I could afford season tickets I would get them. Maybe the Mets should just give some to me since they can’t seem to lose when I’m in the building. I didn’t get a chance to check out the new additions to the stadium; a Mets Hall-of-Fame and a bar out behind center field, but I have heard good things about them.
The second week of the season won’t get any easier for the Mets. They head to Colorado and St. Louis to face two of the favorite teams in the National League in 2010. If the Mets don’t win one of these series there will already be calls for Omar Minaya and Jerry Manuel to be fired. Six games into a baseball season is too early for a full-out panic, but these are the same problems that have plagued the Mets since September 2007, and it doesn’t look like they will be fixed anytime soon.
The NHL regular season also concluded on Sunday, with an MLB-style play in game between the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers. The winner would secure the last spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs. And it came down to a shootout, with first-year Ranger and former Islander Olli Jokinen being stymied by Flyers goalie Brian Boucher on the third attempt, giving the Flyers the victory and a spot in the postseason.
As an Islanders fan I’m not supposed to be sympathetic to the hated Rangers, but part of me was upset they lost this game. I certainly have no love lost for the Flyers, they are one of the easiest teams to root against in all of sports. It would have been fun to see them fall on their face in front of a jittery home-town crowd. But as a hockey fan I think it is always good for the NHL to have a New York influence in the playoffs. Having the biggest media market in the world paying attention to hockey is something the league always needs to boost TV ratings. And should the Rangers have won the New York fans could have seen Alex Ovechkin and the league-best Washington Capitals for a few games. The Caps almost certainly would have won the series easily, but an Ovechkin in the Garden game could have pulled in some decent ratings for NBC or Versus.
Speaking of the Flyers, they get to play the one local team that made the playoffs and always does the past 15 years, the New Jersey Devils. The Devils continued to show why they are a model franchise by winning the Atlantic Division and claiming the number two seed in the East. The Flyers won the season series 5-1 over the Devils, so the seeds won’t seem to matter much in this series. Whenever these two teams get together in Spring hockey the sparks fly, and expect this year to be no different in a seven game series. The Devils have been upset in the past couple first-rounds, so beating the Flyers could be a big win for the franchise. It won’t get any easier in round two, as the Pittsburgh Penguins or Buffalo Sabres will likely await.
The Islanders season came to an end the same way it began, an overtime loss to the defending champion Penguins. Even though the Isles missed the playoffs yet again, the season was not a total loss. Coach Scott Gordon gets the most out of his roster in many of the same ways former Islanders coach Ted Nolan did in his brief tenure. Rookie John Tavares probably won’t take home any trophies this offseason, but he showed he is capable of scoring in this league and being a leader of a team. The rest of the Islanders talent like Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey, and Matt Moulson are developing around him and forming a decent young nucleus.
But there is still a lot to be concerned about for Islanders fans. The goaltending situation is still a mess. Marty Biron is a free agent and will probably seek a job elsewhere. Dwayne Roloson played great at times but will be 41 next season. Rick DiPietro played only eight games this season and no one seems to know when of even if he can play a full season again. And we are still no closer to an answer about the Islanders arena situation than we were at the beginning of the season. Will the Lighthouse Project get built as planned? Or a slightly modified plan? Will the Isles consider a move to Queens near Citi Field? Or will they pack everything up for Kansas City, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, or any city willing to supply a new arena? Islanders owner Charles Wang has been a patient man, and only he knows how much of it he is willing to burn.
Very quietly on Sunday the Knicks lost at home to the Miami Heat, lead by Dwyane Wade’s 32 point effort. Could Wade’s next game in the Garden be in blue and orange? The Knicks have one more home game left this season, and it could be the last time (hopefully) that we see this Knicks team in the Garden again. A couple of NBA stars are going to get a lot of money this summer from the Knicks, whether or not it leads to wins remains to be seen. But the Knicks should be much more interesting in 2011.
The main course for New York fans on Sunday didn’t even involve a New Yorker or take place here. But whenever Phil Mickelson is in contention on a Sunday, New York cares. The Californian is a favorite of seemingly every golf fan in New York. He was the underdog answer to Tiger Woods for the past decade. First he couldn’t get out of his own way to win a major. There have been four U.S. Opens in the New York area since 2002 (Bethpage Black in 2002, Shinnecock Hills in 2004, Winged Foot in 2006, and Bethpage Black again in 2009) and every time Phil was the favorite of the gallery. I was at each round of the 2009 Open in Bethpage, just a few miles from my home, and almost everyone was pulling for Phil. When he made an eagle on the final round to inch closer to the top of the leader board, you could hear the screams of the crowd all over the course (including from my seats at the 18th green). We just love the guy.
On Sunday with all eyes on the Tiger circus, Mickelson put on a show at Augusta to become just the eighth golfer in history to win at least three Masters. He never bogeyed in the final round and made a ridiculous shot on the 13th hole between the trees that somehow landed three feet from the pin for an eventual birdie. That shot seemed to suck the life out of everyone else’s game in a crowded leader board. To make the victory even sweeter for Phil and his New York fans his wife Amy and his children were all in attendance. Amy has been battling breast cancer the past year, which is tough on any family, and the Mickelsons were no exception. Phil has always been a proud family man (remember during the 1999 U.S. Open he wore a beeper so his wife could alert him when she was going into labor, and claimed he would leave at any point in the tournament despite being neck and neck with eventual winner Payne Stewart) so this win will surely be extra special for him and his family. Whenever Phil wins, New York golf fans treat it like one of our teams won.
The icing on the cake came late Sunday with word that the Jets had acquired Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver and Super Bowl XLIII MVP Santonio Holmes for a fifth round pick in this months draft. While Jets fans were waiting all weekend to hear if our hated rival Jason Taylor would really be wearing green and white next season, Jets General Manager Mike Tannenbaum ran a fast one past the entire league, getting the troubled receiver from the Steelers without much competition. If Taylor joins the Jets as well (and if he makes his decision by which team courted him the hardest, he will pick the Jets - which would be like Reggie Miller signing with the Knicks in 2003 considering how often he has trashed the team and fans) then the Jets will have added four big names in the off season, two on offense and two on defense, two young and troubled and two aging vets looking for once last shot.
The Steelers have been going through a nightmare off season with the headlines and allegations against Holmes and Ben Roethlisberger, especially for an organization that prides itself on being the class of the league as the Steelers do. The Rooney family is one of the corner stones of the league, and a family with the ear of the commissioner. They were not happy with all the negative attention their stars have been getting in 2010, so they shipped Holmes out of town to the first bidder (the Steelers couldn’t have been shopping him to every team or else they would have gotten a higher pick right?) as a direct warning to Big Ben and the rest of the roster. They expect their player to be on their best behavior on and off the field.
Holmes is a calculated risk for the Jets. He will likely be suspended for the first four game of 2010 due to a drug violation. He is entering the final year of his rookie contract and could walk after the season. But the Jets were not going to get a player a valuable as Holmes in the draft in the fifth round or from the wideout position for 2010 and possibly beyond. The Jets have chosen to overlook the headlines with Holmes and Antonio Cromartie and gamble that Rex Ryan can harness the talent while keeping the off-field antics of his players in check. A trio of Holmes, Jerricho Cotchery and Braylon Edwards gives Mark Sanchez plenty of options. And now the Jets can use their first round pick on a pass rusher (which they should do even if they get Taylor) and focus on other positions during the draft. Tannenbaum has never been afraid of bold moves around draft time, and this could be his boldest yet.
I’ve written before how I don’t want to get my hopes up for the Jets, as the other shoe usually drops for this team. But now the Jets could be the favorites of many to win the AFC in 2010, and it would be hard to argue with the talent influx this off season (so much for the final eight rule of the uncapped year) and there is still five months to go before the season starts. Throw in the Jets run upcoming run on Hard Knocks, a new stadium opening and plenty of PSL’s to sell, the Jets will be leading the sports zeitgeist, for better or worse, for much of 2010.
Just another day following New York sports.