Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Jerry Reese: Recent track record unacceptable

Jerry Reese was on point at the dawn of New York Giants training camp. Big Blue's general manager put "everyone on notice" for the 2013 season, basically stating that it's playoffs or bust.

"All I know is that we've been in the playoffs one time in the last four years and that's really not acceptable for us," Reese said before the team's first practice of camp. "That's not our standards. That's not what we shoot for. We want to put everybody on notice, myself, everybody is on notice that that's not our standard."

Good for Reese. The Giants needed a kick in the rear end after last year's meltdown in the second half (stop me if you heard this before). After a 6-2 start the Giants finished 9-7, losing three of their final five games and routed by a combined total of 67-14 in back-to-back games at Atlanta and Baltimore.

Under Reese, the Giants have won two Super Bowls since his takeover as GM in 2007, but it's those frequent second-half collapses and non-playoff seasons in between that's touched a nerve. In opening his edict, Reese mentioned two numbers, one for the amount of playoff appearances in four years and 190, the days left (as of Saturday) until Super Bowl XLVIII to be held on the Giants' turf at Met Life Stadium.

Inside the Giants' locker room will be a countdown to the big game, a daily reminder of exactly what's at stake. Winning the franchise's fifth Super Bowl is incentive enough. Not allowing a rival NFC team to play the big game at Met Life only adds to the importance of getting there.

"When you look at it and you see that number jump out at you, 190 days, that's really not that far away," Reese said. "The sense of urgency really jumps out at me. We're going to put up in the locker room a countdown just so guys can see how urgent it is to be ready to go every week. You can't let games get away from you and expect to make it to the playoffs. We have to have a sense of urgency going into this season.

"Close is not good enough. You need consistency. At times last year we looked like a good football team, and at times we looked like a bad football team. We want to put everyone on notice that is not our standard. Being to the playoffs one time in four years is below our standards."

The Giants have their share of questions. First and foremost is the pass rush with Jason Pierre-Paul off June back surgery and Osi Umenyiora a free-agent defection to the Falcons. They're young and unproven at linebacker, are entrusting second-year pro David Wilson to split time at running back with Andre Brown and fullback will be an issue until Henry Hynoski (knee) comes off the physically unable to perform list. 

All that said, I see the Giants making the playoffs by holding off the Washington Redskins to win a tight NFC East race. While Robert Griffin III and the Redskins have won three of four against the Giants and have an improved defense, the Giants offense is explosive. It will come down to defense and the desire to finish strong. After all, the GM is watching.

Follow Jon Lane on Twitter: @JonLaneNYC

Friday, June 14, 2013

Vernon Wells and the anatomy of a slump

It was May 29 at Yankee Stadium, prior to the New York Yankees’ meeting with the New York Mets, when I had a chance to speak with Vernon Wells. At the time of the interview, Wells was in the throes of an 0-for-17 slump that had his average falling like a lead ballon since he batted .300 for the month of April. Wells was considered finished when the Yankees -- desperate for outfield help and figuring they had nothing to lose -- acquired him from the Los Angeles Angels. As part of the deal, the Halos agreed to pay $28 million of the $42 million left on Wells' contract.

Once the calendar turned to May, Wells was playing down to expectations coming off two miserable seasons in southern California. He opened up about dealing with the period of time when a hitter’s offensive game turns to dust.

“There’s two different slumps from an offensive standpoint,” Wells said. “There’s slumps when you’re actually feel you’re swinging the bat well and don’t get any hits, and the one when you’re just feel like poop and don’t get any hits.

“I actually felt pretty good and hit some balls hard, but sometimes in this game the outcome is not what you exactly want. You still try to be consistent with your approach and go out and continue to battle. I think that’s the same way for the team as well. Things aren’t going to go your way at all times but you stay consistent. You don’t get down on yourself. You don’t get down on the situation and things will turn around.”

Unfortunately for Wells and the Yankees, things have not turned around. In fact, they’ve gotten worse. An 18-inning loss to the Oakland Athletics on Thursday left the Yankees victims of a three-game sweep and coping with a season that may have hit rock bottom. The final score of that game was 3-2, A’s. The Yankees scored both their runs in the first inning and were shut out for the final 17 while going 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position and stranding 14 in a game that lasted an unbearable five hours and 35 minutes.

Brian Cashman’s cost-saving, scrap-heap pickups contributed to the Yankees’ surprising start that still has them eight games over .500 and three games out of first place in the competitive AL East, but like Wells, the injury replacements who played so well in the early going have reverted to their baseball-card statistics the past couple of seasons. Here are the ugly facts:

• Wells’ OPS in April was a hefty .910. It dropped to .615 in May and is down to a ghastly .211 in June as part of a 4-for-42 (.095) performance this month that’s lowered his average to .229. Think about it: That’s a 71-point drop since that wonderful April.

• Wells isn’t the only culprit. In fact, he’s far from it. Travis Hafner, a low-risk offseason pickup to provide lefty pop against right-handed hitters, batted .318 with six home runs and 17 RBIs. He’s 4-for-35 (.114) with two home runs in June and 16-for-102 (.157) the last month and a half.

• Kevin Youkilis, signed to a one-year deal in the winter to replace the rehabbing Alex Rodriguez at third base, came off the disabled list in May. In June he’s 5-for-37 (.135) with no RBIs.

• Thursday was proof negative of where the Yankees offense currently stands. The Frail Foursome of Mark Teixeira, Hafner, Youkilis and Wells went a combined 0-for-28 with 12 strikeouts while leaving 16 runners stranded.

"You don't want everybody to be going through it at once," Wells said after the game. "In theory, you'd like half your guys, if they're going to be struggling, that the other guys are still swinging the bat well. For the most part, it's been the whole group."

Teixeira, out of action until May 31 with a torn ligament in his wrist, is 8-for-46 (.147), although he has three home runs and 12 RBIs. The point is that Teixeira isn’t going anywhere. The replacements -- and you can throw Lyle Overbay (.214 this month) into the mix -- may soon be replaced. Curtis Granderson -- twice in his hard-luck season he’s had bones broken by a pitch -- will be back a bit after the All-Star break. So will (the Yankees hope) Derek Jeter, who was cleared on Thursday to resume baseball activities, and possibly A-Rod.

Until that time, Wells continues to fight through the ills of a slump and the winds of change. The New York Daily News reported that Thomas Neal, an outfielder, will be called up from Triple-A to DH against left-handers. The Yankees may need to find out once and for all if Overbay can play the outfield or perhaps also summon switch-hitter Zoilo Almonte from Scranton.

That would leave Wells in a platoon situation -- perhaps a lesser role once Granderson is back.

“You move on,” said Wells, summing up his situation. “That’s part of going through the learning process of this game. You remember what made you successful and not what made you struggle.”

Follow Jon Lane on Twitter: @JonLaneNYC

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Jason Kidd was destined to coach

Preparedness meets opportunity. Just ask Jason Kidd. 

Since 2010, the year before he won his first and only NBA championship ring with the Dallas Mavericks, Kidd kept a diary with notes on how coaches went about their business and how he may have handled it differently. He encouraged those around him to do the same, realizing that you never know where the game of basketball will take a person. One can look back at those notes for a better understanding on how to handle a situation. 

Although Kidd said the idea of being a head coach first developed during a conversation with his agent, Jeff Schwartz, a week before his retirement as a player after 19 seasons as a point guard, one would figure that leading a team from the sidelines would be his next calling. A cerebral assassin on the court, Kidd formally took the reigns as the Brooklyn Nets' 22nd head coach during a news conference on Thursday. 

Widely considered a coach on the floor, Kidd now goes back to the beginning. He takes the job without any previous coaching experience and a mere 10 days after ending his Hall of Fame playing career. When he played the game, Kidd was an extension of the coach. Now he's charged with actually coaching a group of 15 players and getting through to his close friend, mercurial Nets point guard Deron Williams, to be that extension and bridge to the promised land.

"I'm a rookie. I go from being one of the oldest players to now a rookie coach, and so I'm very excited about this challenge," Kidd said. "Sharing the things  as a player as being unselfish, communicating and being tough. Hopefully I can give that to the guys."

As the floor general, Kidd ran an offense with aplomb, carefully biding his time until striking at precisely the right moment with the perfect pass, shot or pick and roll. He did the same while considering his next career. Brian Shaw, a former NBA guard and fine Indiana Pacers assistant coach, was the leading candidate to be the fresh face coveted by Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov to take over for interim coach P.J. Carlesimo. Kidd said Schwartz told him that in lieu of golf, why not consider staying involved in basketball. Never one to back away from a challenge, Kidd launched a stealth campaign and set his target on the franchise he almost singlehandedly saved at the turn of the millennium. 

It was 2001 when the New Jersey Nets acquired Kidd in a straight-up trade with the Phoenix Suns for Stephon Marbury. All Kidd did was take the once laughable Nets to two straight NBA Finals. In addition to winning that elusive ring in 2011, Kidd captured Olympic gold medals with the United States in 2000 and 2008. 

To doubt Kidd on anything he sets his mind to is foolish. Anyone who believes Kidd is destined to fail because he has no experience neither has studied his track record nor paid any attention to what Mark Jackson -- another former point guard -- is doing in Golden State. Larry Bird took over the Indiana Pacers as a neophyte head coach and eventually led them to the finals. Doc Rivers went to two finals with the Boston Celtics, winning one. He started with the Orlando Magic, without experience, winning the Coach of the Year award in 2000 after his first year with the Magic when he led a team that was picked to finish last in the league to a near playoff berth.The coaches with the most wins in NBA history, Don Nelson (1,335) and Lenny Wilkens (1,332), both were hired without coaching experience.

"He did give guys the opportunity, maybe crack the door open for guys who were playing to be able to go into coaching because of the success that he's had," Kidd said of Jackson. "There are guys that are examples out there that have done it. Hopefully I can carry the torch and have the same success."

Kidd turned the Nets franchise around as a player. As a head coach he'll light a fire under a talented yet underachieving team that bowed out in the first round of the playoffs. Few ever surveyed a basketball court as well as Kidd. Few have ever been as prepared for a new and daunting challenge as what Lawrence Frank -- Kidd’s coach in Jersey who may end up as one of his assistants -- once called a "coach maker." Kidd may have decided he wanted to coach only weeks ago, but the foundation of such a possibility were first put down that season in Dallas. 

Follow Jon Lane on Twitter: @JonLaneNYC

Monday, June 10, 2013

Shaquille O’Neal urges NYS Assembly to allow vote on MMA bill

Add Shaquille O'Neal to the MMA-to-New York bandwagon. O'Neal, a native of Newark, has lobbied to support the legalization of mixed martial arts in New York, the only state in the land of 50 to not lift the ban on regulating the sport. Last week, Connecticut crossed its name off the infamous list.

Here's the full release:


ALBANY, NY June 10, 2013 – NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal today urged the Assembly to vote on legislation to legalize and regulate mixed martial arts (MMA) in New York. O’Neal, a New Jersey native, frequently spends time in New York and said if it were not for his responsibilities during the NBA playoffs he would have looked forward to coming to Albany to speak with Assemblymembers directly.

“For more than a decade, I’ve trained in MMA.  I’ve studied boxing, jiu-jitsu, Muay Thai, and wrestling.  I’ve practiced martial arts and MMA for the last 15 years.  I know how MMA training helps both the body and the mind. I know that MMA training teaches respect and discipline,” O’Neal said. “I’ve been to MMA matches – UFC and other promoters, professional and amateur – and I know that this is a real sport, requiring incredible athleticism and has a fan base that rivals the home crowds I played in front of for the Lakers, Heat and Celtics.

“I’ve been to a UFC event at the TD Garden in Boston and I would love to attend one at the ‘Mecca’ – Madison Square Garden.  As a businessman and sports enthusiast, I know the kind of economic activity UFC and other MMA events bring to communities.  It would be huge in New York City and would be even bigger for those struggling upstate New York communities,” O’Neal said.  “New Yorkers love their Knicks and Nets, Yankees and Mets, Giants and Jets, and they also love MMA.  It’s time for New York to do the right thing.

“The State Assembly should allow a vote on the bill to legalize MMA. The Senate has supported it and now it’s time for the Assembly to give New Yorkers a fair opportunity to be able to watch MMA at an arena in their hometown,” O’Neal said.  “I know the Speaker loves the Rangers, but millions of New Yorkers also love MMA with the same passion he has for hockey.”

Follow Jon Lane on Twitter: @JonLaneNYC

Thursday, June 6, 2013

And then there was one ... New York

Mixed Martial Arts is about to become legal in the state of Connecticut, leaving New York State as the only one in America that has failed to sanction a sport that is globally popular. 

Not that Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and his band of stooges care, but it's beyond embarrassing that the UFC and Bellator are prohibited from holding sanctioned events in New York. A UFC show at Madison Square Garden would be a monumental economic windfall for New York City and the Big Apple. Then again, you're talking about Assembly men who find it viable to determine what's harmful for the rest of us citizens of the Empire State.

Here's the sad part: It's perfectly OK to hold unsanctioned and unregulated MMA in the state of New York. Remember, we're talking about NYS Assemblymen here, at least those too ignorant to come to their senses.

Here's the release on Connecticut's green light and why New York, by choice, remains in neutral:

ALBANY, NY June 5, 2013 – Lorenzo Fertitta, The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Chairman & CEO, praised the Connecticut General Assembly’s Senate for giving final passage to a bill to legalize mixed martial arts (MMA) in Connecticut.  The bill passed out of the Senate by a vote of 26-9 today and out of the House of Representative earlier in the legislative session by a vote of 117-26.

“Assuming Governor Dan Malloy signs the bill into law, Connecticut will become the 49th state to legalize MMA.  There will be only one state in the entire United States of America where professional MMA will remain illegal,” Fertitta said.  “I know New York likes to think of itself as a leader but when it comes to the fastest growing sport in the nation, New York is now the only outlier. 

“Not only will New York be the only state to ban professional MMA, it will continue to be the only state to allow amateur MMA – albeit unregulated and potentially dangerous – while banning professional MMA,” Fertitta said.  “It’s time, New York.  The Senate has passed the bill four years in a row by overwhelming bipartisan majorities.  It’s time for the Assembly to allow the bill to be voted upon.  It’s time for New York to legalize and regulate MMA.”

Follow Jon Lane on Twitter: @JonLaneNYC

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Lyle Overbay dilemma

Shortly after Lyle Overbay singled off New York Mets phenom Matt Harvey in the sixth inning for what was his ninth go-ahead RBI for the New York Yankees this season, I tweeted that the Yanks need to find a way to keep Overbay on the team after Mark Teixeira returns as soon as Friday, with Kevin Youkilis shortly to follow.

Easier said than done. This is the dilemma facing the Yankees:

• Teixeira, despite similar numbers last season (.251/.332/.475) compared to Overbay's current .251/.295/.468, is in the fifth of an eight-year, $189 million contract he signed in 2009. But beyond the numbers, the Yankees not paying Teixeira handsomely to sit on the bench or be a switch-hitting platoon player. And Teixeira is the better player. Period.

• The idea of Overbay playing some right field was bandied about, but Yankees general manager Brian Cashman told The New York Post that's not happening. And although Teixeira played some outfield at Georgia Tech, forget about that too.

• Overbay is a left-handed batter who plays first base. The Yankees lineup is lefty heavy with Travis Hafner as the left-handed designated hitter. On days Teixeira gets rest, a healthy Youkilis slides over from the hot corner to man that position.

Overbay is passionate about remaining with the Yankees, telling Mike Francesa on Tuesday that even if he doesn't play for the next month, he wants a chance to stay with a team and compete for a World Series ring. For a player on the bubble, Overbay has been more than what anyone expected from a guy signed by the Yankees after his release from the Boston Red Sox three days before the end of spring training. His 29 RBIs rank second on the Yankees and his eight home runs are third. Last Saturday against the Tampa Bay Rays, Overbay's walk off Rays closer Fernando Rodney started the game-tying rally in the ninth and his 11th-inning homer put New York ahead for good.

Tuesday's performance further solidified Overbay's reliance in the clutch, even if his roster spot remains far from secure.

"I mean, we go through those discussions every once in awhile, but I've also said you worry about it when it's the time," said Overbay, who has been released on three occasions. "Other things have happened in the past when you're all worried about it and people want you to talk about it, so until we get to that day we won't say anything. There are ideas, obviously, but things can change real quick around here."

Joe Girardi's stock answer regarding too many men for too few positions has been how the problem usually solves itself, for instance when Curtis Granderson's return to the disabled list with a broken knuckle cleared the outfield glut for at least the next six weeks. But Teixiera played in his first rehab game for Double-A Trenton on Wednesday and is close to completing his comeback from a torn tendon in his wrist. Youkilis, signed to a one-year deal in the offseason, isn't going anywhere either, as long as his back holds up.

David Adams, who has played very well at third base with injuries to Youkilis and Eduardo Nunez, is likely headed back to Triple-A Scranton once Youkilis is activated. Teixeira will be back too and that creates one of those problems teams love to have, but are nonetheless tough to figure out.

"It's all good," Overbay said. "I just want to enjoy it. I don't want it to affect the experience I'm having. So I try not to worry too much about it."

Follow Jon Lane on Twitter: @JonLaneNYC

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Ace in a hole: CC Sabathia 'hurting the team'

Even after taking it on the chin Sunday afternoon in the New York Yankees' 8-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, CC Sabathia hasn't been "bad" in 2013. His overall record is 4-4 with a 3.96 ERA and he's been his workmanlike self. Despite getting rocked for a season-high seven runs on seven hits, Sabathia pitched seven innings and has worked into the seventh in nine of his 11 starts.

Here's the problem: Sabathia is supposed to be an ace and he hasn't pitched like an ace. In a disturbing trend, the Big Lefty allowed 10 hits to the Seattle Mariners and 11 to the Baltimore Orioles in his previous two starts. On top of the fact that Sabathia is 3-10 at Tropicana Field and winless there since April 10, 2010, he hasn't won a game period since April 27, going 0-2 with three no-decisions and a 4.90 ERA.

All this after starting the season 3-1 with a 2.57 ERA.

"I'm hurting the team," Sabathia said. "Not being able to make pitches with two strikes, fastball command. I feel fine. It's just one of those things where I feel like the ball is coming out pretty good, but I'm just not making pitches."

This isn't the time to declare Sabathia's career over, but given his diminished velocity (89-91 MPH) and the alarming hits-allowed rate, there is a cause for concern on a Yankees team that's otherwise been smashing tempered preseason projections that had it missing the playoffs for just the second time since 1995. New York is 30-19 and tied for first place in the AL East with the Boston Red Sox on the strength of overachieving spare parts and a solid starting five.

Right now, the nominal ace is not Sabathia, but Hiroki Kuroda, who starts Game 1 of the Subway Series Monday night against the New York Mets at Citi Field. Kuroda is 6-3 with a 2.67 ERA and pitched into the seventh inning in seven straight starts before taking a line drive off his calf two innings into last week's loss in Baltimore.

Follow Jon Lane on Twitter: @JonLaneNYC