Pearl Everlasting

April 25th, 2016 sendarama Posted in college basketball | No Comments »

The tall dude with the pronounced paunch and an apparent case of the cocaine sniffles looked vaguely familiar, but it had been several years since I’d seen him dribble under duress, and he looked nothing like the whirling dervish of a point guard who went behind his back and through his legs as routinely as taking a breath. He entered the Big Wheel Bikes store in Georgetown in the summer of 1989 as a customer, not as an icon, and that’s how I figured it.

I’m looking for a bike, he mumbled. I showed him a few options, and then he left.

Two hours later, he came back and said he wanted the black Fuji Royale on the front display hook. He took out his American Express card for payment.

I read the name emblazoned on the front of the card and gulped. “Dwayne Washington,” it read. I looked up at my customer, peered down again at the card, snuck a final stare at Dwayne Washington’s features, and blurted out in astonishment, “Son of a bitch, you’re Pearl Washington.”

That’s right, said Pearl, but it was clear that he didn’t want to have a discussion about basketball.

I told him that I’d never forget his monster performance against Georgetown in the Big East conference tournament final in 1984, and he had trouble recalling the game. Knowing full well that he‘d been cut by Miami just a few weeks earlier, and was obviously out of shape, I gingerly asked him what his plans were. He said that he was in DC for a short stretch to be with his girlfriend, and would be attending the Houston Rockets training camp in the fall.

I had the feeling that my efforts to buddy up to Pearl were not being reciprocated, so I gave up trying. I delivered the bike, and we bid our adieus.

When I heard of Pearl’s death last week of a brain tumor at age 52, I was touched, in part because of our brief encounter, in part for my affection for Syracuse, but principally because Pearl Washington was the most exciting college basketball player I’ve ever seen. With the ball in his hands, he was electrifying.

Pearl in mid-dribble

Pearl failed to hang on at Houston, and his descent continued with short stops with Rapid City and San Jose in the Continental Basketball Association, where spectators wondered aloud what had happened to Pearl Washington in a few short years.

It was posited that his ball-handling talents did not translate to the NBA , where 7-foot Goliaths guarded the lane, and his slowness afoot and lack of leaping ability were fatal drawbacks. And he had a problem controlling his weight. But you’d think that the best penetrating point guard in the history of college basketball could find a niche in the NBA among players he had trounced in college.

Pearl himself provided an insight during an interview in 2003 with the New York Times, “I had a God-given talent, and I was always ahead of everybody else in high school and in college. But when I got to the next level, guys were above me. So you have to decide – either you work hard enough to excel in the NBA, or ‘this ain’t for me anymore.’ I didn’t love it enough to really work hard at it anymore.”

To say Pearl’s NBA career was nondescript is to embellish it. Pearl was drafted with the 13th pick in the first round by New Jersey, a moribund franchise whose star point guard, Michael Ray Richardson, had been suspended by the NBA a few months before for cocaine use. He signed for three years and $900,000. En route to consecutive seasons of 24-58 and 19-63 during 1986-87 and 1987-88, the Nets were the pits of the NBA, drawing flies to their makeshift stadium in Hackensack, NJ, and playing in the perpetual shadow of the Knicks.

Pearl came off the bench, averaging about 20 minutes a game. He put up decent numbers, but Nets officials criticized him for being slow and unwilling to work at his game. And there was a bad environment in the locker room. Three Nets were suspended from the league for drug use between 1986 and 1988. When Pearl was left unprotected by the Nets after the 87-88 season, he was drafted by the expansion Miami Heat, who cut him in the spring of 1989. Three years out of college, he was out of the league.

If a lack of motivation and effort were to blame, can you fault the Pearl for not being inspired to succeed in the NBA? He had already blown away expectations at several levels. When he was an 8-year old in the playgrounds of Brooklyn, older players on the court compared his moves to Earl The Pearl Monroe, then a star with the Knicks who was famous for his herky-jerky spin moves and unorthodox shots. He didn’t just live up to the moniker – he usurped it.

The Two Pearls

As a high schooler at Boys and Girls High in Brooklyn, he averaged 35 points, 10 rebounds, 8 assists and 4 steals and was the most highly recruited player in the country. He put Syracuse on the map as a college basketball power and was “the most exciting player who ever played in the Big East and the most important player to our program,” said his coach, Jim Boeheim.

Pearl took ball-handling to a new dimension. He dribbled primarily with his left hand, but shot righty. He created the crossover, a side-to-side dribbling maneuver which freezes defenders at their knees, often causing them to fall backwards. “In the open court, or on the break, or steering through the lane, one on one, there’s nobody better,” wrote Curry Kirkpatrick of Sports Illustrated during Pearl’s freshman season at Syracuse.

That’s what we’ll remember about the Pearl – his dashing, headlong, daring, and of course, penetrating, forays to the hoop, the Carrier Dome exploding as his lay-in somehow eludes Patrick Ewing’s fingertips, David slaying Goliath.

Even in repose, he’ll never stop being the Pearl. The NBA?…. that’s just a footnote.

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Despite Snub, Smart Money’s on Sparty

March 15th, 2016 sendarama Posted in college basketball | No Comments »

They’re short on glitz, but long on substance.

They don’t blow you out -they wear you down, with the consistency of a conveyor belt and the work ethic of a hardhat on steroids.

Projected one and dones know to look elsewhere.

It’s not that Michigan State coach Tom Izzo would reject a Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram or any other top talent guy appearing on his doorstep, but “he goes after the guys he feels can have the most success in his system. Those are the guys he recruits,” says former star Mateen Cleaves, who led the Spartans to Izzo’s only national championship in 2000.

Their three leading scorers this year are seniors, and the best of them, Denzel Valentine, is a case study in incremental improvement. His latest strides forward make him the leading candidate for player of the year. Matt Costello, the burly fourth-year power forward, has improved his scoring and rebounding stats each year. Bryn Forbes, a transfer from Cleveland State, is the nation’s leading 3-point shooter.

While many of Izzo’s prominent coaching peers are dealing with allegations of sexual misconduct, recruiting violations, player arrests, and pervasive grade tampering, the closest thing to a scandal involving Izzo or his players is a failure to fall back on defense during practice. Recently, 68-year-old Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan was compelled to resign early because of the revelation of an extramarital affair. The chances of that happening to Izzo are roughly equal to the likelihood of Donald Trump being caught at confession.

Purity, toughness, and attention to detail are the hallmarks of the Michigan State program, and it’s working. In Izzo’s 21 years at Michigan State, he’s taken the Spartans to seven final fours and nineteen consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, including this year’s affair, which begins tonight with the play-in games at Dayton, Ohio.

All of those good qualities were necessary for the Spartans to get by Maryland Saturday in the Big Ten Conference semi-finals and Purdue Sunday in the finals. Befitting a tough, experienced team coached by a mastermind, the Spartans made every big play down the stretch to outlast the talented Terps and Boilermakers.

Nine Spartans dented the box score in the first half as MSU sprinted to a 36-24 lead. Maryland’s starting team is as good as any quintet in the country, but the Terps get little contribution from their bench. Nevertheless, their defense tightened, and when center Diamond Stone backed in on 6’10” freshman Davante Davis with 30 seconds to go and Maryland trailing by a point, the game was up for grabs. At the top of his jump, well above the basket, and with the ball about to start its descent, Davis rejected Stone’s baby hook to preserve the victory.

Davis saves the day

Purdue mounted no less an effort the next day. Two plays by Valentine encapsulated the contribution of this consummate team leader. After an 8-0 second half run by Purdue which narrowed the Spartans lead to 46-47, Valentine lost his dribble and stumbled to the ground. En route, he lofted a desperation lob to Davis at the rim, who stuffed it through.

Somehow, the ball always gets back to Valentine at critical moments. Ahead 62-61 with less than a minute to go and the shot clock running down, Valentine began his signature move across the painted area. He was stuffed, but double clutched and managed to get the shot off. It swished, and the Spartans closed out the victory and another Big Ten championship.

After those weekend heroics, there was no question that Michigan State had earned a number one seed in the tournament. Except they didn’t. To most pundits’ surprise, the Spartans were relegated to a number two seed in the Midwest Region. Perhaps the result was necessitated by the late ending of the game on Sunday, just an hour or two before the brackets were to be announced. The selection committee may have wanted to avoid a last-minute scramble.

But Michigan State shrugged off the slight. Last year, they reached the Final Four as a number 7 seed. And in 2014 and 2015, they defeated Virginia, this year’s number one seed in the Midwest and their likely opponent in the round of eight. And they have a relatively easy path to the quarterfinals.

The toughest region is the South, where overall number one seed Kansas will meet the winner of Maryland and California in the Sweet Sixteen. Balanced and deep, Kansas lacks star power. No one on its roster is likely to have a productive NBA career. When Maryland meets California in the round of 32, the game will feature at least four future pros. Should Kansas prevail over Maryland or Cal, both Miami and Villanova will present stern tests for the Jayhawks.

The West region is the weakest, but upstart number one seed Oregon is unlikely to last long. Should the Ducks quack their way by St Joseph and the winner of Duke-Baylor, battle-tested Oklahoma will be too much in the round of eight.

In the East, despite overriding talent, number one seed North Carolina appears to lack the “Je ne sais quoi” of a champion. They melted down late against Duke on February 17th, do not shoot that well, and often suffer defensive lapses.

No such problems with Michigan State. If the Final Four match-up between Carolina and MSU comes down to late-game execution, or to a battle of wits between UNC’s Roy Williams and Izzo, the smart money’s on the Spartans, where winning is a habit.

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Ben Simmons Is Very Interesting

January 14th, 2016 sendarama Posted in college basketball | No Comments »

His handle is so good he’s neither right-handed nor left-handed.

He was the pre-season player of the year, a pre-season first team All-American, and the projected number one pick in the 2016 NBA draft without having stepped on a college court, and he’s exceeded expectations.

He doesn’t dribble. He glides. He’s Fred Astaire in sneakers.

His passes are so accurate they come stamped with a return receipt.

Magic compares himself to him.

He leads his team in points, rebounds, shooting percentage, assists, steals, and blocked shots.

He was born and raised in Australia, where his Bronx-born dad played professional basketball and married an Australian woman with four kids. Playing for Montverde Academy in Florida beginning with his sophomore year, he led his team to three consecutive high school national championships and won the Morgan Wootten Award as the McDonald’s All-American who best exemplifies outstanding character, leadership, and academics.

At 6’10″, 245 lbs, with the wing span of a pterodactyl, the hops of a kangaroo, and superior ball-handling skills, he can take it to the hoop at any time.

“One of the best ever to play,” said Antawn Jamison of the 19 year old.

He rarely shoots the three ball… He doesn’t have to.

In fact, he doesn’t shoot very much at all – but when he does, it’s with near 60% accuracy and more than a dash of the spectacular.

He’s Ben Simmons of LSU, the most interesting basketball player in the world.

Outside of the recruiting trail, where he is legend, Simmons may also be one of the more well kept secrets in the world. Ben’s identity, let alone his excellence, is far from common knowledge among the sports fan public, which continues to be mesmerized with pro football. The NFL trumps interest in college basketball until after the Super Bowl. And that’s not about to change.

Despite a series of public relations disasters which would have crippled a mid-size country, the NFL is more popular than ever, and has expanded its reach by partnering with fantasy gambling sites Fan Duel and Draft Kings. Early this season, the sites advertised shamelessly during NFL games. When New York State’s attorney general instituted a court case to shut down Fan Duel and Draft Kings in New York, they wisely curbed back on the obnoxious advertising; but the league succeeded in introducing millions to legal gambling on football.

The mix of fantasy site gambling with the NFL’s intoxicating game action has produced an excitement package strong enough to withstand the fall-out from the bad stuff, which, if you’re counting, includes a) rampant player misconduct; b) Deflategate; c) the spate of concussion lawsuits; d) steroid allegations; e) inconsistent rule interpretations which cloud our understanding of catches, fumbles, and touchdowns; f) too many penalties; g) the Redskin logo uproar; and h) the latest slap in the face, the Rams’ relocation from St.Louis to LA, which was characterized by Michael Powell of the New York Times as “a move consistent with the league’s tear-’em-up, toss-’em-out ethos.”

Two years of uninterrupted bad acts by the league and its players should have undermined the public’s confidence in the game. But revenues and ratings and fan interest have suffered not a lick from the league’s blunders and bad press. Deflategate?… Who cares? Peyton Manning on steroids? … The purveyor of the story, Al Jazeera, left town. A playoff run quickly extinguished the Redskins logo issue. Nothing stands in the way of the NFL. It’s bigger than US Steel.

Ben Simmons Finishes

But if ever there was a college basketball game, and a player, to break through the NFL haze prior to the Super Bowl, the game was the 3-overtime thriller between no.1 Kansas and no.2 Oklahoma on January 4th; and the player is Simmons, who has displayed his full portfolio of skills in leading the Bayou Bengals to a 3-1 start in the SEC, including last week’s decisive triumph over Kentucky and a home win over tough Ole Miss last night.

Kansas-Oklahoma had a lot of hype going in. Not only was it the first regular season meeting between a No 1 and No 2 team in the same conference since 2007 (Ohio St-Michigan), but the teams were reversed in the two major polls. The AP voted Kansas No. 1, Oklahoma No. 2; the Coaches Poll placed Oklahoma in the top rung and Kansas second. The conflict was understandable. The game could not have been more even.

After both teams had blown opportunities to win in regulation and both overtimes, Kansas survived 109-106. “We beat a team that could win a national championship,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. Oklahoma nearly did the same thing.

LSU is not in that category. After a weak non-conference performance, including three straight losses to lesser foes, the Tigers probably need to go 12-6 in the SEC to assure an NCAA berth. If not, then Simmons will probably lose out on player of the year honors to Buddy Hield of Oklahoma, Melo Trimble of Maryland, or Denzel Valentine of Michigan State, who play for top teams. Nor is Simmons a finished product. In a recent loss at Florida, he had seven turnovers in the second half, three of them on offensive fouls. Sometimes he tries to do too much, as when he passes up the mid-range jumper for a more difficult shot or pass.

As he gets used to what his teammates can and cannot do, and develops confidence in his jump shot, Simmons will iron out the few wrinkles in his game. His signature move leaves no room for improvement.

When Simmons rips the ball off the defensive board, and turns up court with a full head of steam, culminating with a dish to a trailing teammate for an easy lay-up or his own thunderous dunk, he indelibly brands himself as a once-in-a-generation player.

And that’s pretty interesting.

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Kristaps Puts Zing in Knicks

December 1st, 2015 sendarama Posted in pro basketball | 1 Comment »

He’s the name on the lips of every New York sports fan, even if they’re not quite sure how to pronounce it.

Following his surprise selection by the Knicks as the fourth pick overall in last May’s draft, a choice which was greeted by Knicks fans in attendance with a loud chorus of boos, Kristaps Porzingis, a 20 year old 7’3” Latvian, who played the last two seasons in the Spanish League, has taken several months to acclimate himself to life in New York and to the NBA. He played for the Knicks rookie team during the summer, and bought a home in Westchester where he lives with his father, mother and two brothers and retreats every night to ma’s cooking. Porzingis speaks four languages, is polite and respectful to everybody, and by all accounts, is a hard worker and a quick learner. He is tattooless.

Just your typical NBA player.

While Porzingis was breaking himself in over the summer, Knicks fans took that long to get his name straight. Recently I asked a group of six serious local sports fans around a poker table if they knew the name of the Knicks’ 7’ rookie, and not one of them got it exactly right.

But after watching Porzingis play, you must spell his name correctly. Displaying a variety of skills which bring to mind the best of Dirk Nowitzki, Larry Bird, and Kevin Garnett, Zinger fills up a stat sheet with a plethora of points, rebounds and blocks. He has the offensive variety of Nowitzki, shoots fouls w/ Bird-type accuracy (85%), and rebounds and blocks shots like Garnett. In wins against Charlotte 11/17 and Houston 11/21, his lines were 29 points, 11 rebounds, and 1 block, and 24, 14, and 7, respectively. Here are his numbers over the last five games: 17.0 pts, 11.6 reb, 4.0 blocks, 85% FT, 35% FG3.

Porzingis starts at power forward with 7’ Robin Lopez at center. His range from the 3-point line is without limits. He gives new meaning to the term “stretch forward.” When Lopez sits, he’ll slide over to center, where he has displayed a lefty hook, a nifty drop step move, and several commanding put-back dunks.

Nowitzki has seen Porzingis develop as a youth in Europe. He pulls no punches:

“He is long. He is athletic. He’s got a touch. He can put it on the floor. He is for real. Sky’s the limit.”

Less than a quarter into the season, Porzingis has already spurred a mini Knick resurgence, on the court and among their fans, who are among the most loyal and passionate in sports. A New York sports fan in the 50’s and 60’s could follow up to three baseball teams and two NFL teams but only one NBA outfit. Most of them will tell you that the 1969-1970 and 1972-1973 Knicks, both NBA champs, were their most beloved sports team ever. The 90’s Knicks of Ewing, Oakley, Starks, Mason, and Sprewell were inspiring but not champions. After 15 years of bad basketball and 43 years without an NBA title, veteran Knicks fans, and the sons of Knicks fans, are ready to explode at a playoffs run.

And New Yorkers waste no time in anointing talented newcomers as superstars. Remember Linsanity? After a string of 20-point games off the bench and then as a starter in early 2012, Jeremy Lin became a cult hero. His jersey retailed for $250 and he appeared twice on the cover of Sports Illustrated. His luster dimmed by a season-ending leg injury and by a lack of support from Carmelo Anthony, Lin left as a free agent in the off-season.

Porzingis will be more lasting. Barring injury, he is going to be a franchise cornerstone for years to come, like Ewing. But New Yorkers need a catchword, a hashtag, to provide a short form identification for their hero. Early contenders are Zinger (my choice, which Porzingis has rejected), Godzingis, Porzilla, and KP. Bland though it may be, KP is the leader in the clubhouse, and has been adopted by teammates and by Knick announcer Walt Frazier.

Porzingis in dunk mode.

Porzingis is not the only reason for the Knicks’ fast start.

The Knicks started 8-6, including back to back road wins at Oklahoma City and Houston. A recent four game losing streak has not diminished their obvious upgrade over last year’s 17-65 team, which was far too reliant on Anthony. Porzingis accounts for much of the betterment, and his presence permits Anthony to shoot less, and more discreetly; but there are other new pieces.

Off their lousy 2014-2015 record, the Knicks were not attractive to top free agents, such as Greg Monroe, LaMarcus Aldridge, and DeAndre Jordan. Having drafted Porzingis and point guard Jerian Grant in the first round, Boss Phil Jackson went shopping among lesser free agents to achieve value and team symmetry. He found both.

He re-signed undrafted free agents Langston Galloway (PG) and Lance Thomas (PF) from last year’s squad for a total of 2.2 million. Galloway came from their D league team. Thomas originally came in trade from Oklahoma City, but was not signed past 2015. A 2010 Duke alum, he was cut three times by New Orleans and played in China for a year. Galloway and Thomas are now key players, averaging 25 and 19 minutes a game, respectively.

Jackson then opened the wallet to sign free agents Lopez, sharp shooting 2-guard Arron Afflalo, and the No. 2 pick in the 2011 draft, Derrick Williams, who languished for four years in Minnesota and Sacramento. Collectively, they earn less per annum than Anthony. Cheap free agents Kyle O’Quinn, Sasha Vujacik, and Lance Amundson round out the roster. On average, 10-12 Knicks get playing time every night. There are exactly two holdovers from last year’s opening night roster – Anthony and starting point guard Jose Calderon.

Unable to sign an elite free agent, Jackson employed other tactics to improve his team – second tier free agency, the draft, and trades. The fourth path to a better record, improvement from within, is now in the works, led by the man they call KP.

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Goat Horns Come In All Sizes

November 8th, 2015 sendarama Posted in baseball | No Comments »

When the World Series was the Big Show, before football overtook baseball in the national consciousness, there were heroes and there were goats whose careers were forever defined by how they performed during those few days in October. We mostly remember the heroes because there have been more good deeds than bad. Since Bill Buckner’s miscue in 1986, can you name one player who is blamed for his team’s World Series loss?

But in the World Series just concluded there was an abundance of goat horns to be dispensed after the Mets’ deflating 4-1 defeat by Kansas City . The Royals were so balanced in their excellence that it was difficult to name an MVP (catcher Salvador Perez got it); but there was no shortage of Mets who tanked at critical moments.

And the irony of it is that the bearers of the blame were four Mets, including manager Terry Collins, who were experiencing career highs following the Amazins’ triumphs over the Dodgers and the Cubs in the NLDS and NLCS, respectively.

Most prominently, second baseman Daniel Murphy went from setting a playoff record for hitting home runs in six consecutive games during the playoffs to making two critical errors on routine grounders which cost the Mets game four and deprived them of a chance to come back in game five. Forget about his homer off Grienke to give the Mets the lead in their pulsating game 5 win over LA. The memory of Murphy as he enters free agency is of Eric Hosmer’s slow bounder slipping under his glove into right field as the Mets’ game 4 lead evaporated.

Following Murphy’s home run explosion there was pressure on the Mets to re- sign him, notwithstanding his reputation for bad defense. But Murphy’s World Series miscues have likely stamped his exit visa from Flushing. Murphy Goat No. 1.

Yoenis Cespedes was acquired by the Mets at the trading deadline from Detroit and promptly led them to the pennant. In his first 41 games with the Mets, he hit 17 homers and drove in 42 runs. His presence in the middle of the lineup almost overnite transformed the Mets from weak sisters to dangerous.

En route to winning the NL Player of the Week award for 9/7 to 9/13, Cespedes crushed Drew Storen for a 3-run triple and homer on successive nights, ending the Nats’ playoff hopes. He continued strong through the first two rounds of the playoffs. There was speculation that Cespedes, a free agent, would command six years at $25 million per year. How could the notably penurious Mets fail to sign him without angering their fan base? After his World Series, Cespedes may still get his money; but it won’t be from the Mets. They will leave Cespedes to the rest of us, including perhaps the Giants, who desperately need an outfielder with pop.

Cespedes’ devaluation began on the first pitch of the series when Alcides Escobar smashed a drive to deep left center. Cespedes tracked it, seemed to defer to left fielder Michael Conforto, then made a failed attempt at a backhanded basket catch. Had the process stopped there, the damage might have been contained to a double. But Cespedes kicked the ball into deep left center and Escobar waltzed home without a slide for an inside the park homer. The Mets lost in the 14th inning, 5-4.

In game 4, Cespedes misplayed a drive by Perez into a double and KC scored its first run. Then, he killed a last gasp rally in the ninth by being doubled off first on a soft liner to the left side. Throughout the Series, he swung at bad pitches, struck out often, and left a dozen runners on bases. His line was 3 for 20 (all singles) with one run batted in. He had disappointed in all phases-at bat, in the field, and on the base paths. Cespedes Goat No. 2.

Murphy fails to get his glove down in 8th inning of Game Four.

Entering the Series, Mets’ closer Jeurys Familia had not blown a save since July. Following Familia’s six out save in Game 5 against the Dodgers and three perfect outings against Chicago, Familia’s 97 mph sinker was drawing comparisons to Mariano Rivera’s cutter. Unlike the Royals, who were content to get 5 or 6 innings from their starters before turning matters over to their very deep bullpen, the Mets looked for their starters to go deep, and to get the ball to Familia.

Game 1 at Kansas City, a see-saw affair, could not have worked out better for the Mets. When KC first baseman Hosmer let a grounder go through his legs a la Buckner, the Mets took a 4-3 lead into the bottom of the eighth. Familia cleaned up Tyler Clippard’s mess to end the eighth and retired the first batter in the ninth. At this time, the Mets had a win probability above 90%. But on a quick pitch attempt by Familia, Alex Gordon smashed a high fastball over the centerfield fence to tie it, and the Royals won in 14. Said Alex Rodriguez commenting for Fox, “That was like a win and a half for the Royals. They won the game and they know they can get to Familia.”

With the help of Murphy’s 4th game error, and Lucas Duda’s wild throw to home plate in Game 5, Familia went on to give up two more leads, becoming the first pitcher ever to blow three saves in a World Series. This label is not entirely fair since Familia inherited runners in blown saves two and three; and Gordon’s homer was the only earned run charged to him in the Series. But belying his reputation, he was far from unhittable against the contact-hitting Royals. Familia Goat No. 3.

But no Met had a worse World Series than manager Terry Collins. Following a magical last two months of the season, and two playoff series in which he pushed all the right buttons, everything was coming up aces for the 66 year old Collins, who was experiencing his first post-season after eleven years as a manager.

He did nothing wrong when the Mets lost the first two games at Kansas City. But he was questioned for using Familia to pitch the ninth inning of the Mets’ 9-3 third game blowout, and then again for letting starter Steven Matz begin the sixth inning in Game 4. When he summoned Tyler Clippard to protect the Mets’ 3-2 edge in the eighth inning of that affair, Mets fans cringed. In the decisive moment of the Series, Clippard went wild high, walking two consecutive batters with one out. Familia could not put out the fire, and the Royals won the critical swing game to take a 3-1 Series lead. When questioned on inserting Clippard over Familia to start the eighth, Collins cited his use of Familia the day before.

In Game Five, Matt Harvey was brilliant for eight innings. The Mets took a 2-0 lead in the ninth when Collins told Harvey, through his pitching coach, that his night was over. Harvey beseeched Collins to send him out for the ninth. Collins relented. Harvey walked the first batter and Collins, in mistake number two, let him face another batter, Hosmer, who slapped a double to left . Collins admitted later that he allowed Harvey to change his mind, and that he was up all night ruing his “mistake.” Collins Goat No. 4.

Honorable Mention goat horns go to Clippard, who was simply awful at the most critical moment of the Series, and to Duda, .
whose wild throw home in the ninth inning of Game Five allowed the Royals to tie the score with two out.

Collins’ bullpen uncertainty at crunch time was remindful of former Nat Manager Matt Williams’ decision-making. The difference, of course, is that Collins’ faux pas were limited in time and place while Williams’ were ongoing. Recognizing that, and apparently appreciating that no amount of good strategy could have overcome the Royals decided superiority over the Mets, Mets brass signed Collins after the series to a two-year extension.

Williams has been so discredited that he is unlikely to sniff a managerial opportunity during the next several years. His successor, Dusty Baker, was celebrated at a festive press conference on Thursday. The Nats, to their considerable embarrassment, were reported to have first offered the job to Bud Black. But in the wake of Baker’s demonstration of charm, wit, and communication skills, qualities rarely exhibited by Williams, there will be no recriminations over the clumsy hiring process. The Nats have upgraded big time at manager.

For reporters who endured two years of metronomic answers by Williams about game strategy after tough losses, the sight of Baker at the press conferences expounding on a variety of issues must have been refreshing. No more are the days when all the manager has to say is “We’ve got to get them tomorrow.”

Even Baker may have a problem replacing the key parts which the Nats are sure to lose over the winter, including Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmerman, Dan Fister, and Dennard Span. The feeling here is that Jason Werth will continue to spiral downward, and that Ryan Zimmerman will remain injury prone. The front end of the bullpen requires a complete re-working and the back end is manned by question marks Drew Storen and Jonathan Papelbon. The Mets will challenge even an improved 2016 Nats for the NL East title.

But the good thing about having Baker as manager is that if things do go wrong, we’ll at least get an explanation.

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