Despite efforts by the New York Rangers to create a celebratory mood, the premature end of Mike Richter‘s career as the team’s best-ever goaltender on a blue day a couple of weeks ago was anything but joyous. “You know, it’s not a great day,” lamented Madison Square Garden chairman Jim Dolan. “It’s not a happy day at all.”

Richter’s retirement may portend yet another dismal year for the Blueshirts, whose preseason contests start Friday in Dallas. Injuries to Brian Leetch, Pavel Bure, and backup goalie Dan Blackburn are no way to end the playoff drought, now a baffling six seasons. Bure’s cranky knee is no surprise; he was damaged when GM Glen Sather traded for him. Blackburn was headed for steady work in the minors anyway (although with Mike Dunham‘s own injury history, he might have been back).

But Leetch’s absence is a real worry. He went down with a bruised ankle in December, the same ailment sidelining him now, and the Rangers immediately lost eight of their next 10 games. In the 31 games Leetch missed, no one could replace his all-around excellence or his average of 26 minutes of ice time, and the club went 10-18-3. Only six of the NHL’s 30 teams allowed more goals last season, and defense remains the Rangers’ weakness. Free agent signee Greg de Vries, a solid member of Colorado’s blue-line corps, should bring good depth provided he isn’t distracted counting his $13 million (!) bounty. But this team still lacks a nasty thumper to complement Leetch. It’s no coincidence that since Jeff Beukeboom‘s career ended in 1999—like Richter, from a concussion—Leetch hasn’t had a regular partner and the Rangers haven’t cracked the playoffs. Derian Hatcher would have fit perfectly, but if Sather made an offer, he couldn’t offer Stanley Cup contention, which Detroit did. Regardless, without Leetch, the Rangers are going nowhere. —Stu Hackel


Back on August 29, after the Mets had put together an 11-4 run that was providing a glimmer of hope for a strong finish to their regrettable 2003 campaign, Art Howe sat in his Shea Stadium office and talked about the Mets’ potential role as spoilers in the hotly contested NL wild-card race.

“Just about every club we’re going up against is in the hunt,” said the manager, referring to the fact that 23 of the Mets’ final 29 games were coming against the Phillies, Marlins, Cubs, and Expos. As far as the Mets were concerned, said Howe, “These are our playoff games.”

Yes, and just as Yankee and Twin fans can tell you all about the ex-A’s skipper’s track record in the real playoffs the past few years, Met fans have been in the unenviable position of enduring Howe’s ever-puzzling managing style in his team’s faux-playoffs. From August 29 through September 14, the Mets went a pathetic 1-12 against Philadelphia, Florida, and Montreal, even though they were in most games. The problem was mostly due to Howe’s grossly reactive managing approach. The media have basically given him a free ride because of all the injuries (Vaughn, Floyd, Piazza) and sell-offs (Alomar, Burnitz, Benitez) that depleted his troops. Still, with less than two weeks left, we can count his total hit-and-run plays for the season on the fingers of one hand. For a team with such little power, that’s inexcusable. Meanwhile, his handling of the Met bullpen since Benitez’s departure has been nothing short of bizarre. He’s thrown youngsters like Dan Wheeler and Orber Moreno into tight games, then left them in to endure multi-run poundings; in other tight games, he’s yanked vets like David Weathers and Mike Stanton after one or two batters—with equally poor results. Call Howe the “IRA manager,” as in rollover—and play dead. —Billy Altman


And the winners of the Second Annual Cryogenic Baseball Quiz are . . . Des Devlin, Erik Hepler, and Eliot Kieval.

Devlin called Detroit Tiger Randall Simon‘s sausage-bashing this summer baseball’s greatest post-millennial moment. “Surely the Shot Heard Round the Wurst,” Devlin wrote in part, “will one day strike down the great subway races, guess-the-year oldies games, spelling bees, Three-Hat Monte cartoons, pneumatic T-shirt fusillades, grounds crew danceathons, and the dozens of other shameful desecrations of the cathedral of baseball.”

Hepler noted the “general scumminess” of Bud Selig‘s congressional testimony, and Kieval voted for the moment when Randy Johnson killed a bird with his fastball.

Honorable mention goes to Otto Von Ruggins, who weighed in on the freezing of Ted Williams; Jake Thomases, who was thrilled by Barry Bonds‘s 2002 post-season; and Irina Paley, who waxed poetic about the Subway Series.

A complete set of answers will appear on this week. But for those bursting with curiosity about the Hall of Famer who had a career ERA of 2.90 (better than Steve Carlton‘s) but a career won-lost record of only 3-4 and a total number of innings pitched of only 102 1/3, the answer is Dave DeBusschere, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Oh, yeah, we also asked who said, “I grew up in the 1960s, and I think I could tell by looking in a guy’s eyes if he was smoking dope.” The answer: Bobby Valentine. —Allen St. John

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