MEMO TO HOWE: THIS IS THE NATIONAL LEAGUE
The other day on WFAN, Mike and the Mad Dog asked Joe Torre what it was like watching the Yankees get off to such a remarkable start. Torre’s answer was brief but spoke volumes. “I’m just trying to stay out of the way,” he laughed. That’s if things are going well, of course. When things aren’t, well, that brings us to the other side of town, where after a month on the job, Art Howe is not getting enough in the way. After Sunday’s doubleheader sweep by Arizona left the Mets at 11-14 and still staring up from last place in the NL East, Mike Piazza summed up the season so far as “a step forward, two steps back.” Which also seems to accurately describe his manager’s performance: After working in the American League for the past seven years, Howe has appeared at times surprisingly unprepared for the fast-occurring pitcher-batter matchups and lineup shifts that differentiate the DH-less NL from the AL.
A glaring example: The Mets won a ballgame against Florida on April 18 via an eighth-inning, pinch-hit three-run homer from the lone real lefty power threat on their bench, switch-hitter Tony Clark. The very next day, with all his reserves available, Howe wasted Clark by batting him righty in the sixth inning of what was at the time a one-run game, then was left with no one but right-handed Tsuyoshi Shinjo to face righty Marlin closer Braden Looper with both the tying and winning runs on base in the ninth. The overmatched Shinjo grounded out meekly for the final out, and afterward Howe seemed genuinely surprised when asked why Clark had hit so early in the game. In baseball terms, it’s called using up your bullets before you really need them. Suffice it to say that the in-game learning curve better quicken soon. —Billy Altman
UPSETTING THE UPSETS
Blame David Stern. We understand his reasoning behind the midseason move to a best-of-seven first round in the NBA playoffs. He wanted to maximize Laker TV exposure in case of an L.A.-Sacramento opening-round matchup. And indeed, His Sternness was probably breathing a sigh of relief when Shaq, Kobe, and Co. were down 11 late to Kevin Garnett‘s Timberwolves. But it has backfired in a larger way. Under the old best-of-five format, two of the series probably would have already ended in upsets: Orlando over Detroit and Boston over Indiana. At least three more of the series (San Antonio-Phoenix, Los Angeles-Minnesota, and New Jersey-Milwaukee) probably would have gone to a decisive fifth game.
Longer series mean less possibility of an upset, which is good for Stern but bad for hoops fans. As of press time, Philadelphia-Charlotte and Sacramento-Utah had yet to even play their fourth games. Which leads us to a bigger problem. An already lengthy playoff grind has now become longer than a Russell Banks book or the NHL post-season—take your pick. Scheduling the series so that games stretch over three weekends, just to accommodate the almost-all-cable format, saps the games of drama. That said, Nets GM Rod Thorn should send a thank-you note to his old boss. The seven-game format has to favor the Nets, who, channeling Chris Dudley at the line, blew a chance to complete a 14-point fourth-quarter comeback. A decisive Game Five could have been ugly. The new format will also likely allow the Spurs to slip past the Suns. That helps the Nets because Spurs coach/GM Greg Popovich will likely forget the way Stephon Marbury torched Tony Parker early on. Indeed,the young veteran of the French pro leagues asserted himself as the series wore on. That, of course, is good news for New Jersey because a long spring in San Antonio might deter the Spurs from making a break-the-bank effort to sign Jason Kidd.—Allen St. John
SPREADING ILL WILL
With the World Health Organization warning travelers to avoid Toronto due to SARS, the Royals were a tad apprehensive about visiting the Blue Jays last weekend, despite baseball’s best efforts to calm their fears. MLB’s medical adviser, Dr. Elliot Pellman (“It’s not an epidemic or the black plague”), conferred with the Royals, Rangers, and Angels—all scheduled for upcoming series in Toronto—advising players to wash their hands frequently, use their own pens when signing autographs (yeah, that’ll help), and avoid crowded places. “He wasn’t referring to baseball stadiums,” hastily added MLB’s Sandy Alderson, who attended a game at SkyDome to prove his point (it sure wasn’t for the Darrell May/Roy Halladay matchup). Taking the hint, several Royals carried on as usual, inking balls for fans and dining out in restaurants.
Meanwhile, weary Jays president Paul Godfrey, who’s given more interviews in the past week than LeBron James, kept stressing that Toronto was safe to visit. Though he lamented that group ticket sales were down by “close to 10,000” since the outbreak of the virus, his team perversely benefited from a bump in attendance following the WHO warning, as residents turned out in force to support their city: Friday and Saturday’s crowds were the Jays’ largest since Opening Day. (“What SARS?” read the sign displayed by one defiant fan.) Still, worried Toronto starter Cory Lidle sent his wife back to their Las Vegas home for the season, while fellow hurler Tanyon Sturtze opined, “It’s scary seeing people walk down the street wearing masks.” (Almost as scary as your club’s 9-16 record, Sturtzie.) In actuality, though, the locals hadn’t gone all Michael Jackson yet—the most prominent mask-wearers in town are still those guys behind the plate. —J.Y. Yeh