Fields of Schemes (Cont’d)

For anyone new to town who read last week’s headlines announcing Rudy Giuliani‘s imminent plans for new Yankee and Met stadiums, an important reminder: This is the same mayor who said during last year’s playoffs that he would have a replacement for Shea Stadium worked out “as soon as the season is over”; the same mayor who in April 1996 was reported by The New York Times as saying he wanted to “resolve the [Yankee] situation by the end of the year”; the same mayor who has become a fixture on Yankee radio broadcasts with his eternal pronouncements that “we’re negotiating” for a new Bronx Bomber home.

The holdup, as always, is not some mysterious indecision on George Steinbrenner‘s part as to which borough he wants to hang his championship banners in, but an inability to find someone to pick up the twin stadiums’ estimated $1.5 billion-plus tab. Boston mayor Thomas Menino, it’s worth noting, threw his weight behind a similar plan to replace Boston’s Fenway Park in 1999 only to see the proposed stadium on hiatus ever since; the Red Sox have struck out in finding financial backing for their half of the $655 million cost. Jockbeat could make some withering remarks about why banks seem to understand the futility of funding sports stadiums when mayors don’t, but we think we’ll just let lame ducks lie.

It Camby Done

There’s no gray area when it comes to the playoff exits of the Orange and Blue. Look at these last nine seasons when the Knicks have been a legitimate title contender, and, in many cases, you can pinpoint the exact, irrefutable moment that killed the ‘Bockers hopes for a ride through the Canyon of Heroes.

In ’93, it was Charles Smith‘s failure to convert from beneath the bucket in the pivotal fifth game of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Bulls. A year later, it was John Starks shooting 2-for-18 in Game 7 of the NBA Finals in Houston. In ’95, it was Patrick Ewing‘s finger roll bounding off the back of the rim at the buzzer as the Knicks lost the seventh game of the conference semis to the Pacers by two points. Then there was ’97, when Ewing, Starks, Allan Houston, and Larry Johnson left the bench during a fight in the conference semis against the Heat, got suspended, and weren’t around for the sixth and seventh games. And of course, ’98, when the Knicks blew a chance to tie the conference semis against Indiana at two games apiece by squandering a lead late in the fourth quarter and falling by 11 points in overtime.

In light of these heartbreaking images, the April 23 attack on the family of center Marcus Camby seems almost surreal. True life isn’t supposed to intrude on the fun-and-games of pro sports like this. Imagine for a second that the moment that essentially ends this year’s playoff run turns out to be the instant an assailant entered the home of Camby’s mother and took her and her two daughters hostage, reportedly committing a sexual assault in the process. That’s a very real possibility.

Face it, the Knicks can’t win unless Camby’s feet are in the paint and his head is in the game. The team needs his energy, not to mention those rebounds and blocks and the easy baskets he gets on put-backs and dunks. Camby missed Game 3 of the Toronto series, and even though he’s slated to return to action, no one can predict how well he’ll play for the rest of the postseason. Will he be distracted and tentative? Angry and overanxious? Or might his personal struggles somehow summon in him the ability to seize the day that escaped Smith, Starks, and Ewing?

As far as Knicks fans are concerned, it might not matter. If their deafening ovation and repeated chanting of his name during Game Two was an accurate barometer, Camby has already established himself as a New York hero, canyon ride or not.

Turning Over a New Leaf

The tailgaters who fly flags, grill burgers, gulp brewskis, play roller hockey, and scream over bullhorns in the Meadowlands parking lot before each Devils playoff game annually hope their team’s fortunes will take them deep into spring. Hey, the parties are much better when the weather gets warmer. But they didn’t count on the seventh-seeded Maple Leafs—who Jersey dispatched last year in six convincing games—putting up a fight in this year’s second round.

A big reason for Toronto’s fine playoff showing is the off-season addition of snarly Gary Roberts, who Devils coach Larry Robinson praised as “the guy who makes that [first] line go.” Roberts’s great hands and his Claude Lemieux-like presence have created more room for linemates Mats Sundin and Steve Thomas and allowed Sundin to stand tall and get in the face of his tormentor from last spring, the Devs’ Bobby Holik. Jersey so antagonized Toronto last year that the Leafs bulked up specifically to match the Devils’ physical play, grabbing Roberts, Shayne Corson, and Bryan McCabe in the off-season, while the Devs let perennial playoff pest and clutch scorer Lemieux walk as a free agent.

These moves have paid off with a more determined, gritty Leaf team than some expected, and has balanced, if not shifted, the antagonism. The Leafs can now at least match the Devils hit for hit—and cheap shot for cheap shot. Fortunately for the Devils, none of the remaining Toronto forwards seemed offensively potent at the series’ outset. The Devils were getting offense not from their celebrated “A” line of Jason Arnott, Patrick Elias, and Petr Sykora, but from Alexander Mogilny and Scott Gomez, who work the third line. Plus, Gomez has shown signs of inheriting Lemieux’s shit-disturbing role. Now if the A line and the power play kick into gear, the tailgaters can stock up on charcoal briquettes.

Take Out the Trachs

While a personal four-game losing streak for a starting pitcher at the beginning of a season isn’t necessarily an indication of long-term results, Steve Trachsel‘s new career as a Met is already showing signs of living down to his old one with Cubs, Devil Rays, and Blue Jays.

When the Mets signed him as a free agent over the winter, much was made of Trachsel’s (perceived) reputation as a hard-luck pitcher whose 68-84 lifetime record was due primarily to a lack of run support. After all, optimists pointed out, this is the same guy who, while pitching for lowly Tampa Bay last year, bested Pedro Martinez and Orlando Hernandez in back-to-back 1-0 games. Well, lo and behold, in Trachsel’s first four Mets starts, covering 19 innings, the team scored a pitiful total of 4 runs for him. Only trouble is, he gave up 23 in return.

And therein lies the real problem. Take 1999, for example, when Trachsel led the majors in losses with an 8-18 overall mark. True, he received the third worst run support in the NL, as the Cubs got him only a little over 4 runs per 9 innings of work. Then again, he had an ERA of 5.56, yielding the fourth most runs of all NL starters—and the only three who gave up more were all Colorado Rockies.

It’s a baseball truism that a pitcher who gives up a lot of runs early also demoralizes his own team’s offense in the process, and while much is made of the fact that Trachsel has topped 200 innings of work in each of the last five years, the more significant stat may be that he failed to go at least five in eight of his 34 starts in 2000. In those games, in which he pitched a grand total of just 27 innings, the right-hander surrendered 40 runs—making for an ERA of 13.30 in those contests. In other words, when Trachsel’s good, yes, he can be very, very good—but when he’s bad, oy vey, is he Dreck-sel.

Contributors: Neil deMause, Jeff Ryan, Stu Hackel, Billy Altman

Sports Editor: Miles D. Seligman

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