Month: May 2019

Mandel’s Musings: Bart Starr, Packers Quarterback for Five Championships, Dies at 85

The great Starr won three NFL championships as the quarterback for the dominant NFL team of the 1960s before the Super Bowls began.

by Scott Mandel

Bart Starrwho died on Sunday at 85, ushered in the Super Bowl era, winning two championships for the Green Bay Packers. The most valuable player of Super Bowl I was Bart Starr. And the MVP of Super Bowl II? Starr, once again.

But, it’s easy to forget there were NFL championships before the Super Bowl became part of the national consciousness. And, Bart Starr won three NFL championships, in 1961, 1962, and 1965, before he won the first two Super Bowls.

A 17th round draft choice out of Bear Bryant’s University of Alabama program, Starr was slightly built, didn’t have a passing arm that anyone would mistake for a howitzer, and wasn’t fast afoot. It was no surprise he lasted until the 17th round.

But, all he did was win football games, especially when Vince Lombardi took over Green Bay as the head coach in 1959.

Over the course of their nine seasons, Lombardi and Starr knew only success. A team that had gone 1-10-1 in 1958 (0-6-1 with Starr starting) would never record a losing season under Lombardi. The Packers improved to 7-5 in 1959, played for the N.F.L. championship in 1960, and the first dynasty in NFL history was born, with Bart Starr at the helm.

The two elite quarterbacks in professional football for most of that era were John Unitas, the best forward passer of the 60s, and Starr, who engineered the legendary Lombardi’s offense to perfection.

The difference between them? Unitas had stats, and one important championship in 1956. But, Bart had multiple CHIPS.

Vince Lombardi speaking to Bart Starr during Super Bowl I, in 1967

Stuck between eras of the N.F.L., Starr won more of the league’s titles than any quarterback not named Tom Brady. The line of demarcation in NFL history tends to be pre-Super Bowl and post-Super Bowl, which began January, 1967.

In the era preceding that first Super Bowl, the game began to evolve into something resembling today’s focus on the passing game. The onset of the forward pass started to push to the side, typical NFL offenses based on the concept of “three yards and a cloud of dust,” which utilized running backs to follow the blocks of the offensive lines to essentially move the first down chains. The forward pass, back in the early 50s, had essentially been used when the running game left offenses in third and long scenarios.

The modern era, which Starr/Lombardi and Baltimore’s Johnny Unitas, coached by Weeb Ewbank, helped usher in, led the N.F.L. on a path to being America’s richest and most popular sport. And while the transition from the league’s wilder early days to its sleek and modern present would quite likely have happened without Starr, he and the Packers helped create the early blueprint for players of the soon-to-be-merged N.F.L. and A.F.L. to follow.

Mets’ Catching Duo Turns Into Johnny Bench to Defeat Tigers in Extra Innings

by Scott Mandel

So this is what the Big Red Machine, the legendary Cincinnati Reds of the 1970s, must have experienced with some frequency. The guy behind the plate hitting clutch home runs for a dozen or so years to win games for those Reds of Joe Morgan, Pete Rose, Tony Perez, George Foster, and, of course, the legendary Johnny Bench, behind the plate.

Tonight, the guys the Mets employ to catch pitches from their pitchers, also provided the Mets with all the offense they needed to defeat the Detroit Tigers, 6-5, in 11 innings in front of a near-sellout crowd at Citi Field.

Tomas Nido, the defensive-minded backup catcher and owner of a .172 batting average to go along with one home run so far, was the latest to send the injury-riddled Mets to a victory in their final at-bat, drilling a solo homer to right-center field in a 5-4, 13-inning victory over the Tigers at Citi Field.

“Amazing. First walk-off ever — hit or home run. So that was an unbelievable feeling,” said Nido, who was doused not only with Gatorade but also had a large bag of popcorn and bucket full of bubble gum dumped on him as well. “I had one in high school, but this topped it.”

Nido’s third career homer was by far the biggest hit of his short Mets career. Leading off the 13th, he drilled a 2-0 Buck Farmer fastball over the wall, clinching the Mets’ fifth win in six games. It was also the team’s fourth win in their final at-bat in their past five games, and in each of those victories the game-deciding hit was provided by an unlikely source.

Ramos slammed two home runs for Mets, today

“The crazy thing: That was probably the last thing I was thinking, hitting a home run there,” Nido said.

Before Nido’s heroics, the Mets’ starting catcher, Wilson Ramos, showed why the Mets gave up on Travis d’Arnaud early into this season. Ramos, who had been slumping of late, slammed two home runs, one to left center field and the other to the opposite field in right, driving in all the Mets four runs. That production alone was enough for the Mets (25-26) to hold a 4-3 lead going into the eighth.

Until Nido snapped the tie with his big blast, giving Mets catchers today a combined 4 for 6, three homers, five RBI’s, And. to add to this positively Bench-ian game from the Mets catching brigade, Ramos picked off Gordon Beckham at first base with a bullet throw the old Reds catcher would have been proud of.

Going into today’s afternoon contest against the rebuilding, Triple-A talent-level Tigers, Mets manager Mickey Callaway knew his bullpen would be short because of all the arms he had to use last night in a 9-8 loss to these same lowly Tigers.

Callaway was hoping to get five innings from today’s starter Jason Vargas, always a shaky proposition most people wouldn’t bet the farm on. But, once again, Vargas, who doesn’t top 86 mph with his fastball, was able to use his crafty, veteran control to keep the young Tigers off-balance two times through their lineup. Vargas left with a 2-1 lead, having completed five full innings.

Scherzer Goes Six Shutout Innings Before Nats Bullpen Implodes in 6-1 Loss to Mets

It’s not every day you get to witness a matchup of arguably, the two best pitchers in baseball but, yesterday, at Citi Field, the Mets Jacob deGrom, the Cy Young Award winner last season, faced the Nationals’ Max Scherzer, the Cy Young winner the season before that.

Scherzer was trying to help Washington avoid a third straight loss to the New York Mets and a fourth straight loss overall, but he was matched up against right-hander Jacob deGrom, who beat him out for the 2018 NL Cy Young award.

Scherzer’s manager, Davey Martinez, told reporters before the third game of four against the Mets in Citi Field that he thought his ace would be up for the challenge.

“He’s a fierce competitor and he loves to win,” Martinez said. “There’s no other thing for him but winning, so he’s going to out there today and face an opponent that’s pretty good too, but knowing Max he’s going to gives us his best effort and go out there and try to get that win.”

Scherzer’s pitch count was high, but he tossed four scoreless on 73 pitches after the Nats jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the top of the first, and he picked up three Ks in a 25-pitch fifth that left him with nine strikeouts and 98 pitches overall after five scoreless.

He came back out for the sixth and retired the Mets in order in an 11-pitch frame that ended his outing.

Joe Ross and Matt Grace combined to get the Nationals through the seventh with their 1-0 lead intact, but two runners reached against Kyle Barraclough in the eighth and three runs scored on a bases-loaded double off Sean Doolittle, who gave up a three-run home run as well in what ended up a 6-1 loss.

“Scherzer was amazing,” Martinez told reporters after the loss. “Exceeded the pitch count we thought he was going to have and gave us a chance to win and we just couldn’t close the deal.”

It was another loss for the Nationals, who’ve now dropped four straight overall, three in Citi Field, and 14 of 21 in May.

“No one likes to lose,” Scherzer said after another solid outing in which a potential win was lost in the bullpen.

“Everyone hates losing. Everyone in here hates losing, so you don’t have time to feel sorry for yourself, you play every single day, you have to come out tomorrow and just compete and there’s nothing else you can do.”

Scherzer was asked what the Nationals have to do to keep things from spiraling further out of control after they fell to eleven games under .500 with the loss to the Mets.

“When you face adversity, this is when you reveal yourself,” Scherzer said.

“Whether you have the mental fortitude to come back and know that you can block out all the negativity that’s probably going to surround us right now. You’ve got to come forward to the game with that positive attitude of knowing what you can control, knowing that you have the right mindset that you’re going to go out there and compete and compete at 100%. You have to think of all the little things you can do, and for me that’s really what I’ve been focused on in kind of the past handful of turns in the rotation, of all the little things that I can do to make sure that I’m executing pitches and make sure that I’m throwing the ball the way I want to. It just takes an individual approach when you have adversity.”

Mets Blame Should be Re-Directed from Callaway to Disappointing “Star” Pick-Ups

Let this be a big shout-out to the biggest reasons New York Mets manager, Mickey Callaway, is now on the hot seat, only one quarter into his second season at the helm since leaving the security of Cleveland for this metropolitan hotbed of second-guessers.

So, you, Robinson Cano. And you, Todd Frazier. And you, Wilson Ramos. Don’t be hiding out there in left field, Brandon Nimmo. You, too. And, let’s not forget Jeurys Familia, either. It’s been a horror show for the ex-Mets closer turned set-up man for the new closer, 24-year old Edwin Cruz, who also hasn’t found the rhthym on his purportedly unhittable fast ball-slider combination.

We can easily extrapolate, based on numbers alone, the Mets record, currently at 22-25 (13-21 over past 34 games) would be significantly better if the above-named culprits were producing at levels commensurate with the backs of their baseball cards.

But, they’re not.

And, Callaway is taking all of the heat for the lack of performance from his key players.

So, even though the Mets pulled out another win tonight in the bottom of the ninth inning over their division rival, Washington Nationals, they are not a team running on all cylinders and haven’t been for over 30 games and counting.

So, even though Amed Rosario beat out an infield single to send the Mets to a dramatic 6-5 walk-off victory over the Nationals at Citi Field tonight, it occurred only after Familia came in to protect a one-run lead in the eighth inning after the Mets had rallied from deficits in the seventh and eighth innings against a very poor Nationals bullpen.

On a 3-1 pitch, with runners on second and third, Rosario hit a three-hop grounder to shortstop. Trea Turner, who didn’t charge the ball. Turner waited on it, double-clutched and his throw was too late to nip the speedy Rosario at first. The on-field celebration began.

“The moment I hit that ball, I immediately thought I had to get there,” Rosario said. “I don’t know if it was the situation of the game, but I got into a full gear at that point.”

Said Callaway: “Rosie just outran the ball. We went crazy.”

Watching this Mets team roller-coaster from the highs and lows of the sport would drive anybody crazy. But, this season will not end well for Callaway or the Mets unless guys like Cano (0-4 tonight and a smattering of boos from the home crowd), Familia, Nimmo, Frazier, and Ramos match the numbers on the backs of their bubble gum cards.

Mets actually on winning streak after dramatic walk-off
Rosario and his teammates celebrate bottom of ninth win at Citi Field

Mandel’s Musings: Brooks Koepka, Symbol of Golf’s Evolution is Blowing Away the U.S. Open Field

Koepka is showing why he is now the most imperious player in major golf with an explosive marriage of power, finesse and ice-cool emotions

by Scott Mandel

Evolution is inevitable. Who uttered that particular piece of brilliance?

I did.

But, really, evolution, as the primary driver of societal and athletic advancement, is inevitable and shows up in every facet of our lives, with the possible exception of the “natural selection” process for the current resident in the American White House.

Charles Darwin would have gone to town on that one, but if he were alive today, he would look at Brooks Koepka and note just how correct his theories of natural selection, in the 19th century, truly were.

Koepka, the product of Florida State University who is built like a linebacker, represents the new wave of golfer on the international scene. Koepka is 6’0″, 215 pounds of pure muscle. He hits the golf ball off the tee 340 yards away, or about 20-50 yards further than the average professional golfer. Koepka is also a self-described “gym rat,” working out with the weights and machines several times per week.

Keopka has become the epitome of the evolution of the sport that once was dominated by a bunch of 165 pound genteel men with plaid pants and cute golf caps. He has brought weight-training into the sport while combining his enormous strength with meticulous technique in his golf swing and all the modern advances of golf technology.

Brooks Koepka: force of nature.
Koepka is making The Black Course look easy

Koepka, who tied for second at The Masters last month, credits his ability to stay on an even keel as one of his best attributes.

This combination has created a veritable monster of the Midway on the most difficult golf courses in the world. This week, Keopka is blowing away the field at the U.S. Open, one of the four major tournaments of the year. Playing on one of the most difficult courses in the country, the Bethpage, N.Y. Black Course, Koepka shot a 63 (yes, a 63!) and a 65 on his first two days.

“It’s massive,” he said. “I don’t think people realize how difficult it is and how you have to let things roll off your back, laugh about it and move on. This game tests your patience, for sure.”

Playing alongside Keopka during the first two rounds of this event was one Tiger Woods, once the heir apparent to Jack Nicklaus as the greatest golfer the world had ever seen but now, at age 43, and several back and knee surgeries into his great career, is merely one of the best golfers in the world. He is probably still a top ten performer and on some weeks, such as last month’s Masters, Woods seems capable of summoning his old talent and beating the field of youngsters on this tour, as he did in gaining his fifth green jacket. But, Woods was unable to sustain it at this major, missing the cut.

It was strange seeing Woods and Keopka, the past and the future of the sport, standing side by side during this tournament’s opening two rounds. One looked fresh and muscular and eager while the other looked like he wanted to be elsewhere.

Perhaps, when Woods watched Koepka tee off from 18 holes each of the days they were paired together, with Koepka drilling the golf ball further than Tiger ever did, it contributed to the veteran’s sense of ill-feeling It was also strange seeing Keopka out-drive Woods off the tee by 40 yards.

Image result for brooks koepka Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods, not a small man, looks much smaller in comparison to Koepka

But, that’s evolution for you. It’s also age vs. youth.

For further comparisons sake, Nicklaus, considered the greatest golfer in the sports’ history and the winner of 18 Majors, three more than Woods, was also one of the tours longest hitters off the tee, at 5’10”, 190 pounds.

Jack, in his prime, was measured by IBM in 1968, along with other top golfers from that era for their distance off the tee. IBM recorded driving distance data at 11 PGA Tour events. The top 10 players, 51 years ago, averaged 270.2 yards, the average was 264.0 yards and Nicklaus led the Tour at 276.0 yards. Adding 35 yards for increased speed, hotter driver and better ball, IBM estimates Nicklaus would’ve averaged 311.0 last season

Brooks Koepka (right) stamped his authority on the US PGA as Tiger Woods toiled.
Woods said he wasn’t feeling well this week. Koepka said he feels great

Evolution. It’s not just the human body that has gotten bigger and stronger, it’s the equipment and training techniques that have made today’s athlete capable of so much more than those of prior generations.

But, the combination of all of those things with Brooks Koepka’s talent and strong will is how a new champion of golf is being crowned, right here in Bethpage, New York.

The day, in 1985, the Knicks won the first NBA Draft Lottery and with it, Patrick Ewing

The great Dave DeBusschere, the Knicks G.M. in 1985, slammed his fist in joy.

David Stern, the commissioner of the NBA, and voracious Knicks fan, announced Ewing as the number one pick in the draft of the hometown New York Knicks, followed by a crescendo of cheering from the NY draftnicks at the event in June, 1985.

And, Knicks fans thought they were getting the next Bill Russell, the Celtics center who was a shot-blocking machine and the best winner in NBA history.

Knicks fans thought they were getting the Hoya Destroyer, a 7-foot, 240 pound athletic freak who loved to play defense, block shots, and rebound, all in the pursuit of winning championships.

We all know how that turned out. As good a career as Ewing had, the Knicks never figured out that an NBA championship team needs more than one superstar to compete for the ultimate prize. LeBron James, with the Lakers last season, learned that very well, didn’t he?

Image result for Patrick Ewing loses to Houston
Ewing never brought home a championship for Knicks fans. Akeem won two.

Tonight’s event will excite the hell out of the winning team’s fan base, make no mistake about that. But, Zion Williamson, sure to be the ultimate prize and number one choice in the upcoming June draft, will need lots of help to turn a terrible team into a competitive one.

New York City Going Just a Little Nuts for Zion Williamson

from the New York Post

Zion Williamson would be Knicks’ first domino with ‘endless potential’

The Knicks hope that having the biggest star at the NBA draft lottery will bring long-awaited luck to the downtrodden franchise.

Patrick Ewing, the prize of the first-ever lottery in 1985, will represent the team which drafted him at Tuesday night’s event in Chicago, with the Knicks tied for the best odds (14 percent) of landing the No. 1 overall pick, and the rights to Duke superstar Zion Williamson.

Former rival and fellow Georgetown legend Alonzo Mourning will be representing the Miami Heat, while active players Kyle Kuzma, of the Lakers, and DeAndre Ayton, last year’s No. 1 overall pick of the Suns, will also be on stage.

Actress Jami Gertz, part of Atlanta’s ownership group, will be the face of the Hawks for the second straight year, an honor she called a “lot of pressure” last year.

Here is the complete list of team representatives for the 2019 NBA Draft Lottery:

SEE ALSO

NBA draft lottery 2019: Time, how to watch and how it works

SEE ALSO

2019 NBA draft lottery odds: Knicks’ chances at landing No. 1 pick

New York Knicks: Patrick Ewing

Cleveland Cavaliers: Nick Gilbert (son of team owner)

Phoenix Suns: Deandre Ayton

Chicago Bulls: Horace Grant (special advisor to team president and COO)

Atlanta Hawks: Jami Gertz

Washington Wizards: Raul Fernandez (vice chairman)

New Orleans Pelicans: Alvin Gentry (head coach)

Memphis Grizzlies: Elliot Perry Minority (owner and director of player support)

Dallas Mavericks: Cynthia Marshall (CEO)

Minnesota Timberwolves: Gersson Rosas (president of basketball operations)

Los Angeles Lakers: Kyle Kuzma

Charlotte Hornets: James Borrego (head coach)

Miami Heat: Alonzo Mourning (vice president of player programs)

Boston Celtics: Rich Gotham (team president)

Philadelphia 76ers: Chris Heck (team president)

Mandel’s Musings: Drake’s New 767, Melky’s Milestone, Sweet Doris Day, More Trump, Felicity Huffman sans Hubby

by Scott Mandel

From Melky Cabrera’s Milestone to Doris Day (Who was a big fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers)

Doris Day is dead at 97. Her irrepressible personality and golden voice made her America’s top box-office star in the early 1960s.

For you young’n’s, who never heard of Doris Day? Think Madonna, but with more talent. And, if you are too young to know who Madonna was, use your power of the Google to figure all this pop culture out.

Melky Cabrera, who’s been with NINE teams in MLB, nearing career milestone

Who would have predicted, back in 2005 when Melky Cabrera was first brought up by the Yankees, would get to within 109 hits of 2000? But, the Melk Man is almost there. Now on his ninth team in his 15-year major league career, Cabrera, who was always a four-tool talent (throw, hit for average, run, field, hit for some power) has 1891 hits, going into tonight’s game. But, don’t ask me which team he’s with. I’ve lost count. No, actually, he hooked up with the Pittsburgh Pirates this year.

Image result for melky cabrera and Robby Cano
Cabrera reportedly was traded by the Yankees because of his negative influence on the nighttime habits of Robinson Cano.

Felicity Huffman goes solo during her court battle

Where is actor William H. Macy, spouse of actress Felicity Huffman? Have they decided it would hurt his show business career by showing public support for his wife as she goes to court every day to fight for her freedom?

NBA stars are not all from power conferences

How great is it that the key players in these last set of NBA playoffs come from schools like San Diego St., Weber St. and Lehigh? All the talk about the importance of getting one of the first three picks in the upcoming NBA draft simply doesn’t hold weight when you analyze who the stars of the league are, today. Damon Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Kawhi Leonard? All came from smallish, mid-major schools.

Inflation will be returning to the national consciousness, again. Wait, this is a sports website so, concessions at stadiums and arenas will be exploding in price by 25% or more.

Allow me to re-introduce into the national vocabulary and consciousness, the word, inflation. We are headed there, and it’s going to come quickly.

Remember that middle class tax cut of Trump’s? The one his base loved so much? We knew it was a fraud but now, watch prices of everyday items shoot up, driven by the China tariff war.

Make no mistake, it is a war with potentially, equal or greater short and long-term impact on this country than a war with bullets.

Everything will go up by 15-25%. And, electronics, like an iPhone? 25%. Headphones? 25%. Trump’s tax plan? 25% higher than pre-Trump taxes.

Someone has to pay for the 22 trillion dollar U.S. debt Trump created and his military budget, an all-time record.

Increased wages, limited as they have been, will be eaten up. Tax refunds were eaten up with the first food shopping excursion.

Remember, this guy ran NINE COMPANIES into the ground. Chapter 11, baby. He will say this is short-term, and when China capitulates (never happen), prices will fall and jobs will explode

Milton Friedman, a free-market guy who would support several of Trump’s pro-business tactics would be rolling over in his grave to see how Americans are about to get screwed by this huckster/liar.

Inflation is on the way. As Jim Carville said almost 30 years ago, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Drake Buys 767 jet plane for $187 million. Jet is shaped like a……well, a long, cylindrical unit…

Guys used to buy expensive cars to cover up their insecurities. I guess being a rap star raises the stakes on phallic insecurity.

Memories of Minor League Baseball (and Johnny Oates)

by Scott Mandel

A friend of mine, a New York Post sports columnist named Mike Vaccaro, recently posted photos on Facebook of a minor league game he attended in the baseball hotbed of Rancho Cucamonga, California. The smallish stadium and the homey atmosphere were all captured beautifully by his cell-phone camera bringing back some childhood memories for yours truly.

Rancho Cucamonga, a city of about 177,000 residents located just south of the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains and Angeles National Forest in San Bernardino County, is a perfect locale for a minor league baseball franchise. It is about 37 miles east of Downtown Los Angeles, just close enough to be near a media and population center but far enough to still be described as a sleepy, relaxed town. The city’s seal, which centers on a cluster of grapes, alludes to Rancho’s agricultural history as a producer of great wines.

Seeing Vaccaro’s pictures elicited wonderful memories about the experience I had at my first minor league baseball game in 1968, when I was a puny kid who dreamed of being a baseball player, someday.

My dad, a pitcher of some renown at James Monroe High School in the Bronx, New York along with a teammate named Hank Greenberg, loved to tell stories about his pitching exploits and his days roaming the Bronx fields with the future Hall of Fame slugger when they were 18-years old.

Johnny Oates httpssabrorgsitesdefaultfilesimagesOatesJ
Oates played in the Majors from 1970 to 1981, then became a manager

I hadn’t been to many baseball games at that stage of life but found out in the Spring of ’68 that our family would be taking a plane trip to Miami Beach to visit my grandparents. When we arrived in south Florida, I was thrilled to learn we’d be going to watch the Miami Marlins, a Single-A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles on one of the nights.

The Marlins were a good team, with a winning record and several players achieving high statistical objectives. I even remember some of their names, today. Stan Martin at second base. Pedro Gomez, their 33-year old slugging outfielder. Larry Johnson, the slick-fielding first baseman. Or, Mark Hershman, the righty with the 12 to 6 curve ball. I don’t know why I can remember these players, most of whom were in their late teens or early 20s. Maybe it was the close proximity to the field offered by the small Miami ballpark. But, all these years later, those names have stuck with me.

They also had a young catcher named Johnny Oates, playing in his second season of professional baseball. Johnny, as it turned out, became the key element to my whole experience that night because unlike most current-day major leaguers, minor league players make themselves accessible to the fans and to the communities they are playing in.

Before the game, as I was asking Johnny for his autograph (which must have thrilled him, too), he told me he was 21 going on 22 years of age, which seemed really old to me. He said he was the catcher and he was from Virginia. The whole conversation took about 30 seconds but my world had changed. I, too, wanted to be a catcher. The next catcher for the Yankees. And, I wanted to meet more people from Virginia. Or Florida. The world seemed so vast, at that point.

As it turned out for Johnny Oates, he made it to the major leagues less than two years later, when he was brought up in 1970 to catch for the best team in the game, the Baltimore Orioles, who had miraculously lost the World Series the previous season to the New York Mets. Becoming a major league member of the Orioles, with Hall of Famers like Frank and Brooks Robinson, guys like Boog Powell and Don Buford, and that amazing pitching staff he got to catch, had to be heady stuff for the youngster from Virginia. Jim Palmer (another Hall of Famer), Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar were his battery mates. Quite a jump up the ladder from the single-A Marlins.

Johnny carved out a terrific career in the majors, playing for 11 years and gaining the respect of the baseball community as an excellent baseball man, which led to his being named a manager in the Yankees farm system almost the day after he retired as a player, at age 35.

Oates eventually became a major league manager in 1991, replacing his former teammate, the legendary Frank Robinson as the manager of his first big league team, the Baltimore Orioles, where Johnny would win the Manager of the Year award in 1993.

Despite being let go by the Orioles’ new owner, Peter Angelos, in 1994, Oates was quickly hired by the Texas Rangers, who had just fired their previous manager, Kevin Kennedy. Oates proceeded to lead the Rangers to their first playoff appearance in team history during the 1996 season.

Oates won the American League Manager of the Year Award for a second time, in 1996, sharing honors with the Yankees’ Joe Torre and a third time, in 1998.

I wrote to Johnny Oates when he was diagnosed with cancer while managing the Rangers. I took that opportunity to remind him of how nice he had been to a wide-eyed little kid in Miami Beach, a kid who never forgot that kindness. I mentioned how life-changing an experience it had been to get to talk to a “real” baseball player.


Johnny sent back a hand-written five-page letter, when he was in the middle of his final battle with cancer. His memories of those days were sharp and brought to life again by his elegant prose and recollections of his days as a Miami Marlin, in the lowest level of minor league baseball.

Johnny Oates passed away in 2004. He was 58 years old. Even as a Single-A baseball player, he was as big league as one could get.

A final note to Mike Vaccaro: I hope you got to observe a bunch of kids talking to “real players” at that game in Rancho Cucamonga. It’s life-altering stuff.

Johnny Oates hokiesportscom
Johnny Oates in 2003 for induction to the Virginia Tech Hall of Fame

Kawhi Leonard – The Under-publicized NBA Superstar

Leonard just may be the best player in the world

by Scott Mandel

The Toronto Raptors season has always been about pacing themselves for the playoffs. The Raptors have tasted regular-season success plenty in the past, but it never tastes so great when the seasons always end in the same way: With too-early losses in the playoffs.

That’s why general manager Masai Ujiri made the gutsiest move of the last offseason in trading franchise centerpiece DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio for the Spurs‘ disgruntled superstar, Kawhi Leonard. It was risky on many different levels. One was that the Toronto fan base adored DeRozan, and DeRozan adored them back, and you just don’t sever those types of relationships without feeling very uncertain about your decision.

Another reason was that Leonard was coming off a bizarre season lost to injury, a mysterious quad injury where the Spurs often felt left in the dark and out of step with Leonard and his camp. When the Raptors made the trade, they could not be sure if they were sending the beloved DeRozan for a player still capable of being a Finals MVP – or whether they would be getting, in exchange for their franchise player, an ex-superstar who was now damaged goods.

But the risk, Ujiri deemed, was worth it. The DeRozan-led Raptors era felt tapped out as a very good regular season team that wasn’t built for playoff success. A Leonard trade was going for it: Ujiri pushing all of his chips to the center of the table. Perhaps the biggest risk that Ujiri was taking was to trade for a superstar who was in the final year of his contract, and who had made well known his desire to return to Southern California. The Raptors would have one season to capitalize on the talents of Leonard and their impressive surrounding pieces. Succeed there – say, make an NBA Finals – and it would all be worth it, even if Leonard decided to leave in the offseason anyway for SoCal.

Which brings us to Sunday evening in Philadelphia. The Raptors were in a pickle. In Game 1, they dominated at home, with Leonard showing – as he has these entire playoffs – that it might be him, not LeBron James and not Kevin Durant and not Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is the best player in the world. This was close to the best version of the Raptors, even if the contributions from the bench were less than you’d hope.

Now the Raptors were in trouble. Lose this one and they’d be heading back to Toronto having to win out to win the series. In all of NBA history, only 11 teams have come back from a 3-1 deficit in a seven-game series. It can happen – just ask noted Raptors killer LeBron James – but it is not the situation any team wants to find itself in. Especially when the alternative, losing in the second round of the playoffs after planning an entire franchise future around this moment, would likely portend close to a total franchise rebuild. The pressure was on. This felt like the last time Toronto could do anything of note in the postseason for a long, long time. Lose here, and the Raptors were about to take a huge step back as a franchise. Who knows when they’d ever find themselves back at this point.

So what did the Raptors do on Sunday? They stood up to the challenge and were close to that best version of themselves. Even with a visibly struggling Pascal Siakam, who had been listed as doubtful with a calf contusion but gutted it out anyway, the Raptors had their most complete game of the series. Leonard was machine-like in his efficiency. This wasn’t just the same Leonard who was a top-five player in the NBA before his injury-riddled 2017-18 season. This was quite possibly a better Leonard, at least on the offensive end: 39 points on 20 shots, 14 rebounds, 5 of 7 from 3, including the dagger in the final minute. It was another Jordanesque playoff performance from Leonard. But even Michael Jordan needed Scottie Pippen to win championships, and it was the stellar supporting cast that pushed the Raptors past the Sixers. Kyle Lowry was aggressive, and at times he looked like a younger version of himself, a.k.a. an All-Star. Danny Green didn’t shoot much, but he played good defense and got to the free throw line, making all eight of his attempts. Most importantly, Marc Gasol showed why Ujiri made his trade-deadline move to nab him from the Memphis Grizzlies. Gasol played his finest game of the playoffs, playing his typically excellent defense while scoring 16 points and reminding the Sixers they have to respect him as an outside shooter. The Raptors outscored the Sixers by 13 points while Gasol was on the floor, the best plus-minus on the team.

It is here where we should note that one big reason the Raptors were able to steal one on the road was because Embiid was very clearly not himself. He was playing without the aggression he brought to his incredible Game 3 performance, and without the joy, too; Embiid ended up with only 11 points on just seven shots. Head coach Brett Brown offered up an explanation afterward: Embiid had texted him at 6:20 a.m. and said he wasn’t sure he could play. He’d been up all night throwing up and got an IV hydration early in the morning. It was, apparently, a virus, and unrelated to the stomach bug that hampered him in Game 2. Whether it’s a stomach bug or a virus, knee tendinitis or too many milkshakes from the night before, it’s become even more clear during these playoffs that the Sixers need Embiid close to 100 percent in order to fulfill their very large potential.

Still, this should not take away from the Raptors’ complete and dominant performance. They regained home-court advantage after a Game 3 where they looked wholly outclassed. They leaned on their superstar, but they got important contributions from their supporting cast.

In so doing, they extended this era of Raptors history. Maybe the era will end this week, or maybe it’ll go well into June. They played with urgency, but it never felt like desperation. With more performances like that – where their superstar plays like the best player on Earth, and their supporting cast doesn’t turn into a collective pumpkin at the mention of playoff pressure – the Raptors could very well be playing later this season than they ever have.