WHEN BARRY MET BUBBA
The San Francisco Giants’ lone 2003 visit to Shea Stadium last week resulted in a nice spike for the Mets’ attendance figures, thanks largely to Barry Bonds, who performed as advertised—both on and off the field. First he toyed with rookie pitcher Aaron Heilman and old pro David Weathers, launching cruise-missile homers off each of them that together took less than three seconds to leave the yard. Then he toyed with the sportswriters, who waited eagerly by his locker while he enjoyed a leisurely post-game shower; watched silently as, with back turned, he methodically toweled off and lotioned up; and saw their patience rewarded with an over-the-shoulder “I’m sick today” brush-off that left them with little to report except that Mr. Bonds prefers briefs, not boxers.
We’d hoped to find out about Barry’s non-baseball activities that night—namely, the private audience that the ailing slugger (“sore throat” was the official word) had granted Bill Clinton before batting practice during the ex-prez’s impromptu appearance at Shea. While Bubba Bill kept mum regarding his conversation with Bonds, he did share his impressions of the Met players’ dining room (“Y’all got smoothies!”) and noted that his likely position on the diamond would be first base—although, said Slick Willie (and this is a direct quote), “I’d love to play the field and run around.”
Seeing Clinton in Flushing brought back memories of Richard Nixon‘s 1985 tour of the Met clubhouse. Tricky Dick acted as if it were a state dinner, shuffling from locker to locker dispensing prepared one-liners to the most prominent Mets, including Rusty Staub (“Hello, Grande Orange!”) and Gary Carter (“I only wish I could have handled the media as well as you, haw-haw”). Maybe the most precious moment came when Nixon told Ray Knight (married to LPGA champ Nancy Lopez), “I used to play second fiddle to a famous golfer myself” (meaning avid linksman Dwight Eisenhower). Knight had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. —Billy Altman
OUR MR. BROOKS
Most of the tributes to Herb Brooks, who died last week, focused on his orchestrating the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team’s improbable gold medal. Overlooked were his three-plus fascinating seasons coaching the Rangers. Brooks and his “Smurfs”—as the small, fleet Rangers were nicknamed—played flashy European-style hockey, and only Roger Neilson, who also died recently, coached more Ranger victories during the past 20 years. The Smurfs bookended two outstanding seasons around a good one but just could not get past the Islanders, the NHL’s best team. They did extend the Isles to the limit—OT of the deciding Game 5 in 1984’s opening playoff round—before bowing out on a goal by Ken Morrow, who had starred for Brooks’s Olympic team.
Brooks was a top innovator, teacher, and motivator, but his methods sometimes backfired, and his exit from Broadway was not very heroic. He openly criticized team captain Barry Beck, calling him a “coward”—perhaps the worst thing you can call a hockey player—during the ’84-’85 season. Former Rangers PR director John Halligan recalls that Nick Fotiu, the native New Yorker and team tough guy, tried to defuse the controversy by telling Beck that Herbie had really called him a “cow head,” whatever that meant. It didn’t work. Beck was a favorite of Sonny Werblin, the impresario who controlled the Garden and had traded a pile of good players for Beck in 1979. Beck went into a funk, as did the team, and Herbie was gassed.
Brooks returned here to coach the 1992-93 Devils, but they couldn’t effectively play his style. He clashed with some star players, notably Claude Lemieux, whom Brooks called “a cancer.” Lemieux replied, “He knew I was a cancer when he got here. I was born in July.” —Stu Hackel
PROFILE IN COURAGE
The Mets’ god-awful season reached a humiliating low this week, when skipper Art Howe retooled his starting rotation specifically to keep Tom Glavine from facing the Braves in an upcoming series. Granted, the Mets are essentially playing an exhibition schedule at this point, and it’s no secret that Glavine has struggled against his former club, but what does it say when a purported ace has to be protected from a particular opponent?
Howe said having Glavine face the Braves again would be “just not fair.” But what’s so unfair about expecting the team’s marquee pitcher, who’s being paid a jillion bucks, to do his job on the appointed day? Glavine, supposedly a stand-up guy, said, “I don’t really like facing any team five or six times [per season]. That’s one of the things I don’t like about the unbalanced schedule.” Funny, he didn’t seem to mind facing the Mets multiple times a year back when he played for Atlanta.
The most curious aspect of all this is that Howe protected Glavine by moving him up in the rotation, planning to start him on three days’ rest against San Diego on Tuesday. Given that Glavine has twice missed turns this year because of arm trouble, it’s interesting that the Mets were willing to risk taxing his arm by pitching him on short rest rather than have him face the big bad Braves. If this tail-between-the-legs approach is any indication, equipment manager Charlie Samuels will soon have to start stocking diapers in Glavine’s locker. —Paul Lukas