Best Of :: Sports & Recreation
Technically, we suppose, Henrik Lundqvist should be considered the Rangers' best player—the Swedish goaltender has had more to do with the team's improved fortunes in recent years than anyone else on the squad. Ah, but what a narrow definition of "best" that would be! No, our version of "best" also involves notions like grittiness, on-ice energy, and the ability to turn suddenly into a very, very loose cannon. So our vote goes to that container of chemically unstable hockey nitroglycerin known as Sean Avery. A good enough left-winger, we admire the noted sparkplug for his even more significant intangibles—his emotional instability, his love of women's fashion, and his almost Churchillian quotability, such as in the impromptu pre-game press conference he called in 2008 to discuss his former girlfriends and matters of the heart: "I'm just going to say one thing. I'm really happy to be back in Calgary. I love Canada. I just want to comment on how it's become like a common thing in the NHL for guys to fall in love with my sloppy seconds. I don't know what that's about. But enjoy the game tonight."
Even those who have dedicated their lives to loathing the Yankees (ahem) occasionally find a dude on the roster to grudgingly tolerate, even admire, even (gasp!) root for, like, hmm, let's see, uh . . . well, at least they've got one now. Nick Swisher just seems a bit more volatile, excitable, rambunctious, and human than his pinstriped brethren—even his errors have a certain joie de vivre. His generously updated Twitter feed, @nickswisher, has a simple, earnest, familiar warmth to it—wins are "great" or "awesome," losses invariably "tough"—and a kindness and benevolence not generally overflowing from the Bronx. He shouts out his dad on Father's Day, solicits suggestions for new at-bat music (pick Prince's "Kiss"!), and offers occasional injury reports ("My arm is killing me! Hahahahaha"). Anyone who Tweets "I love you, Mom!" can't be all bad—and for a Yankee, that's enough.
New Jersey Nets seven-footer Brook Lopez was the team's first-round pick last year, but the mastodon from Stanford still exceeded expectations. Do the numbers: He played in all 82 games, averaging a solid 13 points and eight rebounds in only 30 minutes a game. Not a great athlete, he still blocked 1.8 shots a game, leading all NBA rookies and setting a team record. And he made the league's All-Rookie team, too. This smart player with a pretty polished game is not likely to be a one-season wonder: This summer, he outplayed the ballyhooed Greg Oden at the U.S. Olympic team tryouts. Back at the June 2008 draft, the Knicks picked sixth and selected Danilo Gallinari. The Nets picked 10th and grabbed Lopez. So far? No comparison.
Is that a cannonball in Rex Ryan's stomach, or is he just glad to be a head coach in New York? Everyone loves a fat man (except for the blubbery but tightly wound former Jets head coach Eric Mangini, who was fired). Now you've got to give it up to Tom Coughlin, who won a Super Bowl with the Giants—but he's about as lovable as Patton. Ryan? He's tough, but he's damn funny, and, boy, is he fat: The new Jets coach reported to the team's training camp this past summer at 340 pounds, up 30 since the end of last season. It's not that he's nervous about his first head-coaching job—the guy just loves to eat. More important to Jets fans, though, is that Ryan's got more football than cholesterol in his blood: His dad, Buddy Ryan, was one of the most inventive defensive coaches in the NFL, and Ryan got high marks as a defensive genius assistant for the Baltimore Ravens. Unlike his daddy, though, Ryan is self-deprecating and downright funny. New York won't be too tough a town for him: The sportswriters like him, and the fans will, too. The guy's already admitted that he's not only fat but dyslexic. If he can just figure out his O's and X's, everybody will be happy.
A thrill one minute and a heartbreak every other—that's veteran football QB Brett Favre's operatic career in a nutshell. And when Favre abandoned New York after only one year, the Jets found the perfect successor: Mark Sanchez. Giving away the farm for the right to draft the USC quarterback was a big gamble, but it started paying off from the start of the season. Like Favre, the kid's got charm, charisma, and skill, with that dose of recklessness that makes fans want to either kiss him or kill him. And, like Favre, Sanchez has enough big plays in him that fans will probably forgive those fumbles and interceptions.
Going to a ball game was a big deal when I was in high school. It started with my father getting a schedule a couple of months before the season and circling the best games—well, the best games you had a shot at going to. Forget the really good games with traditional opponents, but against some second division patsy, maybe you could get tickets. Weeks in advance, we'd start collecting loose change for food and souvenirs.
My father didn't graduate from high school, but he knew more about economics than most sportswriters. "You might want to think about eating before we get in the ballpark," he'd advise us. "Once you're inside, they can charge you whatever they want, and it always costs more. Outside, it's the free market—inside, it's a monopoly."
When I was 15, that's what we went through to go to a pro football game every year. Two generations later, as Yogi said, it's déjà vu all over again: Today, that's what you go through if you want to see major league baseball in New York.
This is the first year since 1996 that my family and I haven't seen the Yankees or Mets play live, in person. After the new ballparks opened, I started calculating the costs. Team Marketing Research of Chicago tells me that, in 2009, a family of four can see a Yankees game, on average, for $410.88. That's bullshit. All of the projections are false. No one who leaves the house at, say, 4:30 to 5 p.m. to go to a ball game that starts at 7 p.m. and will last past 10 p.m. is going to eat just one hot dog and drink just one beer or Coke, and I'd like to know where you can find a decent souvenir cap for just 10 bucks. Their estimate, for God's sake, doesn't include peanuts or crackerjacks. If you're nuts enough to drive to either Yankee Stadium or Citi Field, you're going to pay tolls somewhere; if you park in Lower Manhattan to avoid the traffic tangle of the Bronx, you're going to pay the same parking cost you'd pay at the stadium, plus subway tokens.
The bottom line is, realistically, that a family of four is easily going to spend in excess of $500—more than likely $520 to $550 from door to door—and that doesn't include the traditional stop at a midtown Mister Softee truck on the way home. Hell, it doesn't even include decent seats: The whole plan is based on a ticket cost of $72.97, for which, I'm told, good visibility is a crapshoot.
A game at Citi Field is more affordable. By my calculation, you can expect to pay in excess of $400 (Team Marketing Research's number is $258.97).
Something has gone very wrong here. Just a couple of short years ago, baseball was the sole remaining sport where you could get together with your friends on an impulse or simply scoop up your kids and go without the kind of preparation reserved for major vacations. Now, if you're like me, you're looking at that tab and weighing it against what your kid needs to go back to school or what you need to cover the increase in your health care premium.
And, if you're like me, you're deciding it's not worth it.
Some of you, at least, are like me. Attendance at Yankee Stadium is down 14.8 percent from last year, the biggest dip since 1995. At Citi Field, attendance is down a whopping 20.9 percent, about a fifth of ticket sales in 2008. Please don't try to tell me that ticket sales are down because fans were weepy over the old ballparks. Traditionally, fans have always flocked in greater numbers to check out the new parks. And this isn't about the economy: In times of economic hardship, sensible management has always adjusted, as scores of minor league franchises around the country have shown this season by lowering ticket prices for their fans' budgets.
If the Yankees and Mets haven't done this to any great extent so far in 2009, it's because they haven't yet been stung by a significant loss in revenue. The big spenders are buying enough tickets—a 76.3 percent markup from last year in the Bronx—to justify a continuation of current policy.
If there was one huge political issue that didn't get enough attention last year during the election, it was the results of the so-called Bush Recovery—the ugly fact (proven by IRS data) that during Bush's eight years in office, about 95 percent of the new wealth created in this country went to the richest 10 percent of families. To a large extent, what we're seeing now at Yankees and Mets games is a reflection of that. The working people of New York underwrote a huge portion of the bill for these new ballparks and their infrastructure, but were ignored when the plans were set. Instead of including more seats, which would have brought ticket prices down, the new parks were designed with fewer seats and more luxury boxes—which increased revenue while shutting out average fans.
"Supply and demand," said the Steinbrenners and Wilpons when they raised ticket prices. This is the free market that Republicans have pushed on us: a market free for them to manipulate.
What burns my butt as a journalist is that for more than 20 years, we've been writing articles, editorials, and books to try and raise fan consciousness of what these bastards were trying to do with their schemes to get rid of Shea and the real Yankee Stadium. In the end, none of it mattered—they just went and did what they wanted to do, and got away with it. It was summed up by Rudy Giuliani when he was asked by a reporter why the fans weren't allowed to vote on the issue of a new Yankee Stadium. "Because," he famously replied, "they wouldn't have voted for it."
I'd love to tell Rudy to his face what my vote would have been, but I don't think I'll be rubbing elbows with him at the ballpark this year. Baby needs a new pair of shoes.