Monday, November 30, 2009

The Redemption

I'm more or less fully entrenched in Football season right now, and yesterday I got a rare treat when most of the 2nd half of the San Francisco 49ers/Jacksonville Jaguars game was on TV here. It's rare that the 49ers are on here at all, unless it's on ESPN or whatever. The only time I've had a chance to see them this season were at the very end of a game where they somehow managed to lose to Mr. Media Whore himself on a last-second TD, and another game where they failed to show up and got bombed by the Atlanta Falcons.

But Sunday, the 49ers, who at 4-6 were clinging to their playoff lives, put forth perhaps their best effort of the season in a solid 20-3 victory over Jacksonville, led by Alex Smith. If you haven't been keeping up with the travails of the 49ers, or Smith, let me give you a quick recap.

Taken as the #1 overall pick in the 2005 Draft, Alex Smith has had at best, a checkered NFL career to this point. Handed the reins midway through the 2005 season, Smith struggled as a starter, throwing 11 interceptions to his 1 touchdown. I had my doubts, but he improved in 2006, leading the 49ers from the doledrums of 4-12 to near-respectability at 7-9. I expected big things out of Smith in 2007. Unfortunately, Smith separated his shoulder early in the season, got rushed back by then-coach Mike Nolan and ended up further damaging his arm to the point where he missed most of 2007, and all of the 2008 season. Meanwhile, unknown Shaun Hill had grabbed the reins at QB and appeared to be running with it. After a bad 2007, Hill led the 49ers to 7-9 in '08, and, much like Smith was in '07, appeared to be primed to take the next step with the Niners in '09. It wasn't so much that Hill was a great passer, but he played a smart, instinctual game, didn't make mistakes and generally led the 49ers to victories. On the other hand, Smith was basically forgotten about. He only remained on the team by restructuring his initial contract, and made the team as a backup. If he'd shown anything during his 4 NFL seasons, it was that he wasn't cut out for the job.

Still, Smith persevered. Though he wasn't much in the consciousness of anybody who followed the 49ers, he returned to training camp with an improved attitude and a new sense of focus. True, it was a longshot. True, he still had to prove he was healthy and over his arm troubles. But he was there, and he put in the necessary work. He was ready, should the situation call for him to step in for Hill. And that situation presented itself in a week 7 game vs. the Houston Texans. Hill had been struggling and the offense had been mostly lifeless throughout the first half of a game that saw the 49ers fall behind 21-0. At the start of the 2nd half, Smith was summoned to take over. And all he did was lead the 49ers on a quick touchdown drive, moving the ball smartly down the field and breathing some life into the team. His attempt at a comeback ultimately fell short, but in throwing 3 TDs in the half, Smith had shown more to us than he had, perhaps, in any of his previous 4 seasons in the league.

The next day, Smith was named the starting quarterback outright. He would be given the chance to prove that he was cut out to be in the league.

Though Smith's results to this point haven't been eye-popping (going into Sunday's game, he had thrown for just over 1,000 yards, with 9 TDs and 7 INTs), he at least was keeping the 49ers in games. Over his first 4 games, the Niners only managed a 1-3 record, but Smith was running the offense solidly and keeping the games respectable. They hung with the undefeated Colts most of the way in his first start, and Smith led another furious comeback in Green Bay. But Sunday, it all fell into place for Smith, who threw for 232 yards, 2 touchdowns, no interceptions and no sacks. More importantly, the 49ers actually were able to take an early lead and hold the Jaguars at bay the rest of the way. In the process, the 49ers improved their record to 5-6. Not impressive, but for a young team with a QB in the midst of a major career reclamation, it's not bad. It's also good enough to be within 2 games of the Division leading Arizona Cardinals, whom the 49ers beat in Week 1, and whom the 49ers play on Monday Night Football in 2 weeks.

For Alex Smith, it continues to be a long road back to where we hope he'll be. But it's games like this, however small they may seem in the grand scheme of things, that make all the difference in the world as far as building confidence and showing that you're capable, and you belong. Smith was the headliner in the 49ers most complete performance of the season to date, and heading into the stretch run of the season, it could be the beginning of the 49ers peaking at the right time and riding that wave into January.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Decision: 2010

I've been on a bit of an unplanned, unannounced hiatus of sorts, not because of any particular reason, I guess I just didn't have anything in particular to write about. Nothing noteworthy has happened, as far as the Mets are concerned, at least as it pertains to me. And, I suppose, that was probably a good thing. As a Mets fan, there's not much one can do right now except for just lay low. Maybe reflect on some prior glory (Always welcome and needed in these difficult times). Maybe some of us petulantly declared our fandom in open forums such as Facebook (not naming names or anything...!). But, otherwise, just lay low and wait for something to happen. That is, if something happens. There's talk, but then again, there's always talk. I have this somewhat faint hope that Roy Halladay will be sitting under my Chanukah Bush next month, but I fear that not a likely scenario. Stranger things, however, have happened.

There have been odd snippets that have popped up over the past few days about things the Mets are doing to their stadium and their uniforms to try to acknowledge the history of the Mets. And it is a History that shouldn't be ignored. It was mentioned to me late in the 2009 season that the lack of Mets History in Citi Field was, perhaps, the brainchild of the Boy-King, who for some reason felt that our beloved Shea Stadium was cursed and the time the Mets spent there should be ignored. It's hearsay, but if it's true, then the Mets owners are, perhaps, even dumber than we give them credit for being. Asking a Mets fan to ignore the Mets past is, perhaps, akin to asking the Sun to not rise in the morning. It's not going to happen. And if you try to make us ignore it, well, the backlash can be rather nasty. So, the Mets are doing what they should have done in the first place and making Citi Field into a place that will celebrate the history of the team that plays there. Wonderful. After last season, Fabulous Freddie and the Boy-King had better listen to what the fans want. Was that really so hard?

Then, there's this whole cream-colored uniform thing, which is kind of ridiculous, if you ask me. I'll be honest, I don't care what kind of uniforms the Mets wear. They could be beet red with lime green pinstripes and a lavender accent. The uniform doesn't matter so long as the team wins. So, when they announce things like this, I have a tendency to ignore it because personnel moves should be of paramount importance right now, not clothing. However, Paul Lukas at the Uni Watch took this as the impetus to launch a full-scale diatribe at Fabulous Freddie and the Boy-King, saying what I'm sure most Mets fans feel right now. I'll just let Paul do the screaming for me on this matter.

But there was one thing Met-related that did pertain to me this week. On Tuesday, I got a letter from the Mets. I was pretty sure I knew what it was before I even opened it, and, of course I was right. Inside was an invoice for a 2010 Weekday 15-game plan, which included a schedule and a list of the 2010 plan dates. The promised "discount" wasn't much of a discount. I suppose I should be happy with what I get from them. A drop of $20 per plan isn't much, but it's something, right? One thing I didn't expect was that they were expecting me to renew for the same seats I had last year. I've taken many pictures from those seats (and even of those seats).

I seem to be of a small sliver of the Mets fan base who had the following feelings about Citi Field. 1) The seats were, all things considered, fairly reasonably priced for a new stadium where ridiculous ticket prices were thought to be the norm. 2) I didn't have a problem with the seats. Though they were in the last row, they weren't obstructed, they weren't somehow blocking my view of any major part of the field, and they were near a bathroom and an exit. But, they were still in the last row. And I was hoping that I would be able to upgrade these seats. I'm new to this whole season-to-season seating thing, so I figured it would probably be worth my while to call the Mets and see if I could change my seats. Not surprisingly, I got on the phone right away with a woman who was all too happy to help me out, though at first she seemed convinced that I was calling to cancel my plan and tell Jeffy-poo to kiss off. I'm sure she's gotten that call more than a few times. She seemed somewhat pleasantly surprised when I said, "I'd like to renew, but I'd like to see if I can move my seats." She said they could try to accommodate me, but they had to know how many plan holders were renewing for 2010. I can't imagine that every plan holder from 2009 is. But they wouldn't know until December 18th, so I should renew, and they will leave this note on my account and will contact me after December 18th to see if I can be moved. That was, all things considered, rather helpful and nice of them. Hell, if I pay online, I can even pay off the tickets in two separate payments.

There is, I'm sure, a certain segment who would scoff at me for renewing and willingly hand my money over to a pair of half-wits who will probably throw it in the air and run around screaming. But how could I not renew? The Mets are, as many of my loyal readers are aware, my one big luxury in life. Going to games is my escape, it's my sanctuary. I don't think it mattered how bad the Mets were in 2009 or how bad things look for 2010. I'm going to be there. I don't think that was ever in much doubt. Sure, I joked about it. I asked for suggestions such as using the invoice as toilet paper. One friend suggested I go to each game, put a sign on my seat that read "FIRE OMAR" and walk out. No, I'll be there. I may feel stupid for doing it, but I'll be there.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Wrong Side Of Town

The problem with this World Series was that the outcome was inevitably going to piss me off. That was how I saw things going in, and that was how it turned out. My plan was to basically pretend it didn't exist. Just shut it off. Why put myself through the misery?

But it's impossible to do that. Not when you're rooting for the team from the wrong side of town, from the perspective of both of the teams present. It was easy to ignore the jeers from Philadelphia. That came from afar. The snibes that come from within eat at you more and more as the games play on. Maybe it's not something that's directed absolutely at you, but it's that sneering, snide arrogance. They thumb their noses at us, and why shouldn't they? We're a laughingstock. We can point at them all we want, but we're on the same field they are, we spend the same money they do, and we try to exploit the same business model they've perfected. But where they can throw their money at the best people imaginable, we throw our money around like we're a 20-something NYU coed walking into H&M.

The end result, of course, is the 2009 season.

Despite my best efforts to ignore it, despite every effort I put in to pretend it wasn't there, I couldn't. The newspaper covers, the radio shows all got to me. By time the series rolled around, I was sure I could avoid it. But there I was, listening on the radio. I couldn't subject myself to it on TV. No way. It's easier to follow when you don't have to actually see anything. And ESPN radio brought me a neutral broadcast from Jon Miller and Joe Morgan. But as that first game progressed, something odd happened. The Phillies were ahead, the Yankees were down. And for some reason, I really enjoyed watching the Yankees lose. So, that was how it had to be. Like most Mets fans, I'm sure. I wouldn't give the Philly fans the satisfaction of saying I was rooting for them. Oh, no. But even though I didn't want the Phillies to win, I wanted the Yankees to lose more. That was my official statement to anyone who asked.

Game 2 was ignored. Game 3, I found myself in the midst of a major Halloween party. Stuck as the head troubleshooter, several parties requested updates of the game for the attending revelers. So, fine. Out comes the BlackBerry to check in periodically. As the night continued and I allowed myself to become as intoxicated as is recommended when one is on the job, I found myself in a private area with a TV. This would be the first I would be seeing of the World Series at all. The Yankees were ahead. Jayson Werth hit a Home Run. As if on cue, I broke into a joyous "JAY-SON WERTH-LESS!" chant. This time, it was supportive. But he was still Jayson Werth-Less. Of course, the Yankees won. Of course, the Yankees ran away with the rest of the series. It seemed somewhat inevitable. Even when many Yankee fans seemed to be going through some sort of bizarre panic between the 5th and 6th games, it was still with that obnoxious "When We Win..." attitude.

Well, they won. Now we're going to have to hear about it all Winter, and probably all the way through next season, too. Should be a treat.

Say what you will about the Phillies, and say what you will about Cole Hamels, who probably ought to think twice before he goes after the Mets again, but they still managed to ride a bullpen that rivaled the 2008 Mets all the way to the World Series (see what happens when your hitters hit?!). Even though they lost and a lot of their players looked bad doing it, they're still by far and away the team to beat in the NL East. The Mets, well, the Mets should be thinking about how the hell they're going to finish higher than 4th place. The Mets certainly have the deep pockets to reinvent themselves the same way the Yankees did. Don't let anyone tell you different. But the question is, are they smart enough? Is the person making the decisions capable of making the right ones? Over the past few seasons, the answer has been a resounding "No," and that's enough to scare the bejesus out of any Mets fan. The Yankees, by winning the World Series, proved that any problem can be fixed if you throw enough money at it. I don't know if the Mets are smart enough to follow suit. Only time will tell.

I've been following this team for over 20 seasons. I was discussing this over the weekend with a fellow Mets fan. I've seen more winning seasons than losing seasons, and it's not even close. These last few years have been bad times for me as a Mets fan. There's no argument on the matter. But during those seasons, the Mets were, at worst, good enough to contend right down to the last day. It just didn't end well. But it's not as though I've suffered through the George Foster years or the Craig Swan era (a fact pointed out to me by my cousin, though the credibility is lacking since he is a Manhasset, NY native who moved to Philadelphia and is now a rabid Phillies fan). The worst I've got is the Bobby Bonilla era or the Art Howe years. Hell, I've even got some pretty sweet Postseason memories of my own. But I was 7 years old in 1986. I'm too young to remember or appreciate it. I've never truly tasted that ultimate victory. I've never really been able to capture that moment and actually be able to say, "Holy Shit, the Mets are World Series Champions!"

Maybe, someday, I will. Until then, I'm just another schmuck rooting for the other team on the Wrong Side of Town.