New York Mets: Ike Davis, Jon Niese, and Jenrry Mejia

It’s official: I am getting sort of old. For sports fans, one sign of this is when players on your favorite team are younger than you. I was born on August 19, 1986 (I’m 23) and although the New York Mets have had players that are younger than I am the past few years, this is the first season that it’s really hitting me.

Starting pitcher Jon Niese actually made his big league debut in the 2008 season and was part of the club at times last year, but this year was the first time he made the Opening Day roster, earning the fifth spot in the Mets’ rotation. Niese was born on October 27, 1986, the day the Mets won the World Series against the Boston Red Sox. I hadn’t really been “counting” Niese, but now that he’s solidified a spot on the Mets’ roster, it is time to officially recognize him.

Joining Niese on the pitching staff is rookie Jenrry Mejia, who is only 20 years old. Mejia was born on October 11, 1989. He is pitching out of the bullpen and although I was surprised he made the team out of spring training, the fact remains that Mejia is part of the squad and hasn’t given manager Jerry Manuel much reason to think he doesn’t belong.

The player who really got me thinking about all of this is first baseman Ike Davis, who was called up to the club yesterday to make his big league debut. Davis was born on March 22, 1987, so he turned 23 just last month. Davis rounds out a trio of young Mets stars who are younger than I am.

David Wright and Jose Reyes, although only a few years my senior, have always seemed even older, probably because they were Major League stars making big bucks before I started college. There’s a big difference between being nearly the same age and actually being younger, though, so the trio of Niese, Mejia, and Davis make the 2010 season the first in which I must admit that I’m aging as a fan.

Baseball is probably the best sport to measure your fan age, though perhaps I’m biased. Basketball is certainly tough, since so many players only spend a year or two in college, making the average age a lot younger. Football has much larger rosters, so it’s simply harder to keep track of everyone, though I do know that New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez is younger than I am by a few months.

As my dad reminded me tonight, having a few players younger than you is not a big deal. He told me the worst part is when you are older than all of the players. Thankfully, I’ve still got a long time before that happens.

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Are New York Mets Fans Apathetic?

Worse than an upset, angry, or depressed sports fan is an apathetic sports fan. If a team angers its fanbase, well, at least the fans are feeling something. A buzz surrounding a team — even if it’s mostly negative — is still a buzz, and players, coaches, and especially owners will take that over an apathetic fanbase any day.

The New York Mets fans, I fear, are becoming apathetic. I would know; I’m one of them.

There’s no sense in rehashing the past few seasons in too much detail. The 2006 team was the most talented Mets squad in decades and reached the National League Championship Series. The 2007 and 2008 teams, however, became infamous for their poor play in September, blowing leads in both the divisional standings and in late-inning situations. Words like “collapse,” “chokers,” and arguably the worst of all, “laughingstock,” were used to describe the franchise.

Last season was the worst the team had performed, as far as won-loss record, since 2003, finishing 23 games behind the Phillies. But that was 22 games more than they had trailed at the end of the previous two seasons, so it didn’t sting nearly as much. Jose Reyes, Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran, David Wright, and Johan Santana all landed on the disabled list, some for very long stretches, so hope was lost by the All Star Break.

By my barometer, the excitement level entering this season was relatively low. Even after a six-month offseason, Mets fans were exhausted. The team’s play had taken a toll on us and it didn’t help that, despite the Mets not even participating, we were tormented during the playoffs, too: The hated Phillies won the World Series in 2008 and returned last season, only to lose to the damn Yankees.

No, life as a Mets fan couldn’t get much worse. Even if you wanted to play the old “everyone’s in first place on Opening Day” card, you had to know the Mets wouldn’t be there for long, not with Reyes and Beltran starting the season on the DL and a starting rotation with one exclamation point but four question marks.

The lack of talent extends beyond the playing field, though. Ask people in the know which team has the worst front office and I’d be shocked if a large percentage didn’t name the Mets, or least put them in their worst three. I’m afraid that Omar Minaya, the general manager who fumbled the firing of a manger in ’08 and embarrassed the organization at a press conference last season, is better suited as a talent scout or at the very most a GM for a small-market team.

Minaya has — or at least had — a knack for uncovering some diamonds in the rough. And while it’s hard to say that signing superstars like Santana, Beltran, and Francisco Rodriguez, even at huge costs, were bad ideas, as far as payrolls go, no team has done less with more than the Mets.

This begs the question: Were the Mets easier to root for when they had a smaller payroll? In 1995 the Mets had the fifth lowest payroll in baseball, according to the USA Today Salary Database. They began a steady climb from there, moving near the middle of the pack in ’97 and into the top 10 in ’98. The 2002 season was the last time the Mets were outside the top five as far as payroll.

When money is spent unwisely — as it was in the early part of the 2000’s — it’s frustrating. Players like Robbie Alomar and Mo Vaughn proved to be horrible additions. While the Mets current crop of highly-paid paid players have provided far more bang for their buck, the fact remains that since going to the World Series in 2000, the Mets have only reached the postseason once.

Having a losing team when you don’t have the big stars — as was the case in the ’90’s — is one thing, but with the way the Mets have spent the last few years, losing is far more painful. I’m not suggesting that the Mets sit on their money. But the big spending raised expectations, and since the Mets have not won, the disappointment level has been extremely high.

Citi Field, in its inaugural season, was a nice attraction for Mets fans last year, despite the dismal product on the field. But the shine of the new stadium has likely already worn off. No big name signings are going to rejuvenate this fanbase, a la the Pedro Martinez signing after the 2004 season. The same can be said for bringing in a well-known manager. Mets fans don’t want to hear any promises from the owners or any more corny slogans from the marketing department either.

We want the one thing every fanbase wants, and it’s something this current roster may not be capable of doing consistently: winning.

Extraordinary Baseball Pitcher Subject of Sports Illustrated April Fools Day Prank

It was 25 years ago today that Sports Illustrated fooled its readers with the unbelievable story of Sidd Finch, a raw baseball talent who, according to the magazine, wowed the New York Mets with his 168-mph fastball. It was published on April 1, 1985, before I was born, but it lives forever in the SI online vault.

The article, written by one of the all-time great journalists, George Plimpton, is incredibly entertaining. Had I been born 15 or 20 years earlier and therefore been old enough to read the story when it originally ran, I’d like to think I wouldn’t have been fooled. But apparently everyone was fooled. The article had pictures and everything.

I thought about writing my own April Fools Day article, but you’ve got to get really, really creative in the Internet age if you want to actually trick people. You think Sidd’s story would have been believed by anyone today? Google is great, but it makes it harder to lie.

When re-reading the Sidd Finch story this morning, I also thought about what would happen if it were true — if my beloved Mets really did acquire an unhittable machine like Finch. Sadly, I came to the conclusion that if Sidd Finch appeared in the Mets spring training facility in 2010, these are the most likely scenarios:

  • He’d be traded. What, you think this is out of the question? This is the organization that dealt flamethrower Nolan Ryan.
  • He’d be moved to the bullpen. Despite showing no signs of arm fatigue, the Mets would probably consider turning Finch into a reliever. And as a Mets reliever, by definition, he would pitch poorly.
  • He’d get injured. This is the most likely of the scenarios. Finch would either actually sustain an injury, somehow, or he’d be misdiagnosed by the Mets medical staff. He’d be sent to a shoulder specialist who would find something wrong with his knee, and he’d recommend a few days of rest. A week later, the Mets would put Finch on the DL. Two weeks after that, after cross-country trips to visit with 12 different specialists, Finch’s condition would worsen, until he was declared out for the season. Of course, he’d delay his surgery until it interfered with the next season.

Yes, these are the things Mets fans think about these days. It’s probably a good thing Sidd Finch isn’t real. Happy April Fools day!

Final Four 2010: Duke, Michigan State, West Virginia, Butler

Shouldn’t we have seen this coming? I mean, it’s not like there’s a George Mason in this bunch. It’s been a wild Tournament with a lot of upsets, sure, but to call this year’s Final Four unpredictable, crazy, a fluke — now that’s taking it too far. You may not have seen Cornell reaching the Sweet 16, Northern Iowa beating Kansas, or Tennessee going to the regional final, but you should be ashamed of yourself for not having a perfect Final Four. Here’s why.

Duke
Do I really need to waste Internet ink on the Blue Devils? They were a one seed, they’d been to 14 Final Fours before this trip, and they get all the calls. Seriously though, do you know anyone who didn’t have Duke in at least the Elite Eight? The committee paved a very smooth road for Duke to reach the regional final, where it likely would be matched up with either Villanova or Baylor. It was the latter, and the Bears were a formidable foe. But come on, Baylor? This was not the team that was going to knock off mighty Duke. This was an obvious pick, so I’m sure you had it.

West Virginia
The Big East has been regarded as the top conference in college hoops the past few years. You had to expect one Big East team to reach Indianapolis, and why not the conference tournament champ? Like Duke, WVU had a fairly easy path to the regional final. As it turned out, it was even easier than most thought, as the Mountaineers faced a 15, 10, and 11 seed before toppling Kentucky.

The Wildcats are very talented, but also very young. WVU has its own star in Da’Sean Butler, and he’s an experienced senior. Upperclassmen top youngsters in March, didn’t you know that? Sure you did, so you probably had WVU, too.

Michigan State
What’s that you say? That you had Duke and West Virginia, but the left side of the bracket was just too crazy? Wrong. How could you overlook a team that had gone to five Final Fours in the past 11 years? This is practically the same Spartan squad that danced all the way to the title game last season. Sure, the top three seeds getting bounced before Michigan State had to play them helped, but Tom Izzo would have found a way to get his team to the Final Four regardless.

I don’t want to hear about Kansas. Kansas always chokes; you should know this. Michigan State never chokes. Did you think you were going to go the entire Tournament without seeing Magic Johnson? Shame on you if you took any other team in the Midwest region, no matter how loaded it was.

Butler
OK, you convinced me about Michigan State, but you’re not going to tell me Butler was an obvious choice, too, you say. Guess what, bracket braniac, I am. Butler was a preseason top 10 team. Better yet, in the last poll before the Tournament, it was ranked eighth. The top seven teams all received one and two seeds. The Bulldogs, inexplicably, got a five seed.

But surely you recognized this was no typical five seed. While some of your friends foolishly took UTEP as an upset in the first round, you knew Butler, with all that Tournament experience, would coast to the Sweet 16. That’s where top-seeded Syracuse awaited, a team that seemed too big, too athletic, too good for a lowly Horizon League team, at least to some. But not to you. You valued defense, team chemistry, timely three-point shooting, and a desire to “go home,” to Indianapolis, that propelled this team to the Final Four.

There you have it. Four different paths, but all of them equally predictable: a perennial favorite, the best of the best, the top Tourney coach, and the hometown kids. Shame on you for whiffing on all of them, yet alone one of them.

My Final Four? Baylor, Kentucky, Kansas, and BYU.

Derek Needham of Fairfield: MAAC Freshman of the Year

If you are a casual basketball fan, not too familiar with names and class standing, and you saw Derek Needham play this season, you’d be shocked to learn he was named the MAAC Rookie of the Year. This is not because you wouldn’t think he was deserving, but because you didn’t think he was eligible.

Needham has played beyond his freshman standing since he took the court for Fairfield. He is averaging 16.3 points, 5.2 assists, and 1.8 steals per game, all in the top five in the conference and first among freshmen. He’s also pulling down 3.3 rebounds per game, an impressive number for a 5’11” point guard.

The numbers, while incredible, don’t tell the whole story. Needham is a leader for Fairfield, no small feat considering the Stags finished in second place in the MAAC after posting a 13-5 record. You often hear announcers and even coaches talk about a “freshman wall,” but if one existed for Needham, he bulldozed right through it.

After winning the rookie award and being named to the All-MAAC second team, Needham elevated his game even more in the conference tournament in Albany 10 days ago, proving he belonged right up there with the league’s backcourt stars, most of whom are upperclassmen. In Fairfield’s first game against Canisius, Needham played all 40 minutes and dropped a game-high 29 points, outperforming senior point guard Frank Turner, who scored 15 before an unfortunate incident led to his ejection with five minutes remaining. The Stags won 67-57.

Against Niagara and senior guard Tyrone Lewis, a name associated with clutch play in the MAAC tournament, Needham was outscored by Lewis 20-17, but Fairfield won 69-63 to advance to the final. Lewis had to watch the final 1:28 from the bench after fouling out.

During Fairfield’s postseason run, Needham admitted he owes some of his success against the elite, veteran guards in the league to imitation. “When we watch film, I like to watch them,” he said. “I feel we have great guards in our league, and I can be one of them. My preparation is to watch what they do and maybe take some of their moves.”

The Stags came out on the wrong side of an overtime game against No. 1 seed Siena, but Needham’s 16 points and three assists led the team. Playing all 45 minutes, he outperformed the Saints’ Ronald Moore, who scored nine and added six assists.

Siena head coach Fran McCaffery was certainly impressed with Needham’s play throughout the season. “Phenomenal point guard,” he said. “One of the best freshman point guards I’ve seen in my 27 years.”

In fact, every MAAC coach, media member, and fan who had an opinion on Needham had a positive thing to say. And why wouldn’t they? The freshman from Dalton, Ill. is a star on the court and appears to be a great kid off of it. The person who knows Needham as well as any of these people, Fairfield head coach Ed Cooley, had the highest of praise. He was asked whether he knew Needham would be this good so quickly.

“When we recruited Derek I told my boss, ‘We’ve got a point guard. We’re going to give him the ball right away. We feel he can be good,'” Cooley said after his team had advanced to the championship. “But that kid’s a really special talent. Hell no, I didn’t think he was that good; you’d call me a liar.”

To expect a freshman to achieve the level of success Needham has is unreasonable, but Cooley obviously saw a lot of traits he liked, even if some of them have blossomed earlier than anticipated. “Not only is he good (as a player), he’s a great person…unbelievable character, natural-born leader. And that’s really what our program has been missing, and to get a freshman to be able to do that, you can’t ask for more than that. He’s a home run recruit.”

Needham and the Stags came up just short in their quest for an NCAA Tournament appearance, but they’ll still get a taste of the postseason in the College Insider Tournament, which starts tonight. Fairfield plays at George Mason.

With the 2011 MAAC Tournament moving to Fairfield’s home arena in Bridgeport, the Stags have hopes of their soon-to-be sophomore star leading them to a much bigger postseason stage.

Marist Womens Basketball: A MAAC Dynasty

ALBANY, N.Y. — The big story on the women’s side is that Marist is the MAAC Tournament Champion for the fifth straight year after defeating Fairfield 66-49 early Sunday afternoon. But before I get into that, it would be unfair not to mention Fairfield’s unbelievable run to the MAAC title game. To win nine games in a row and get itself to the final after all the injuries this season was truly incredible. Winning its third game in three days with a virtually non-existent bench was simply too tall of a task. However, if it weren’t for the overwhelming excellence of the opponent, the Stags may have been able to do it.

The fact that the opponent was top-seeded Marist was no surprise. There hasn’t been a MAAC Tournament final in the last seven years that hasn’t involved the Red Foxes. The most amazing part, though, is of course the consecutive championships. Consider that on the men’s side the most consecutive titles won is three (by LaSalle). It may seem like the Saints have been dominating for a long time, but the Siena men have only won two in a row and are appearing in only their fourth straight final.

In other words, the Marist women’s basketball dynasty is unlike any other in MAAC hoops history. Leading the way is 6′ forward Rachele Fitz. The senior has done nothing but win since arriving on campus. Marist head coach Brian Giorgis said, “If there’s a better player in the history of this league, I’d like to meet her.” Hard to argue with him considering Fitz’s resume which, after this weekend’s wins and awards, includes four MAAC regular season and conference titles, three MAAC Player of the Year awards, and two MAAC Tournament MVPs, to name a few.

She is averaging 18 points and eight rebounds this season. Despite some foul trouble that kept her on the bench for a period in the first half, Fitz still scored 15 in the title game, shooting seven-of-12 from the field. She is modest enough to deflect praise to her teammates and coaching staff, but anyone involved with women’s basketball in the MAAC knows about her great career. A couple of wins in the upcoming NCAA Tournament and even more people in the college basketball community will know too.

Fairfield eliminates the Gaels from one tournament, helps them get into another: Iona may have lost to the Stags on Saturday, but Fairfield’s loss to Marist in the title game guaranteed that the Gaels would receive an invite to the NIT. Per NCAA rules, if the regular season champ also wins the conference tournament, then the second-place team automatically gets an NIT bid. Therefore, Marist’s win clinched a spot for Iona.

Iona head coach Anthony Bozzella, good friends with Giorgis, was appreciative of the Red Foxes accomplishment. Said Giorgis: “I already got a text that said ‘congrats and thanks.'”

Niagara Eliminates Iona, Feels the Gaels Pain

ALBANY, NY. — Last night here at the Times Union Center, the No. 6 seed Niagara Purple Eagles defeated the No. 3 seed Iona Gaels. Niagara head coach Joe Mihalich was all too familiar with the outcome.

“Two years ago we were in this game, the three-six game,” Mihalich said. “(Tonight) was like history repeating itself. We lost to Marist. We finished third, Marist finished sixth, and these guys — Tyrone Lewis and company — learned from that painful experience.”

The two matchups and their results are amazingly similar. In the 2008 MAAC Tournament, Niagara was the young team that went 12-6 in conference to earn the three seed. Marist was the six seed, but had the veterans that so often reign supreme in postseason play, starting four seniors and a junior. Many thought Marist would be a difficult matchup for the Purple Eagles and they were right, as the game went down to the wire. Back and forth throughout, Marist took the lead for good with just under two minutes left and won 66-62.

Compare that to last night’s (or should I say, this morning’s) game. Iona, at 12-6, was the young, inexperienced three seed with the unlucky Tournament draw. Yes, the Gaels had already beaten Niagara twice this season, but the Purple Eagles have been playing their best basketball of late. College basketball coaches always talk about peaking in March, and that’s certainly what Mihalich’s squad is doing. With a completely healthy roster, Niagara is clicking after a mid-season slump that saw them lose six of seven conference games.

Of the five players who saw the most minutes last night for Niagara, four are seniors and one is a junior. Contrast that with Iona’s underclassmen-heavy roster (two freshmen and a sophomore started) and you’ve got the makings for another “upset,” at least in terms of seeding. Sure enough, Niagara reclaimed the lead with just under two minutes remaining and never looked back. Even the final score, 68-64, was nearly identical to the Niagara-Marist outcome.

The post-game chatter was focused primarily on Niagara’s advantage in one of the areas you can’t coach: experience. “Our seniors are winners. Our seniors have been there before,” Mihalich said. “Somebody said to me this morning, “It’s going to be the up-and-coming stars against the current stars — the seniors — and it was going to be a battle of wills. And thank goodness our seniors did what they had to do at the end, whether it was a defensive play, taking a charge, or making foul shots.”

The most clutch player was certainly the senior guard Lewis, who had a game-high 21 points and added 10 rebounds. His three-pointer with 1:47 to play put Niagara up for good, and he was perfect from the free throw line, including going six-for-six in the final 1:25 to preserve the victory.

“I think (experience) is huge,” Iona head coach Kevin Willard said. “They’re an experienced team. We beat St Peter’s (in the regular season finale) and they told me we got Niagara. They were picked second in the conference for a reason.

“Experience is tough. We had our chances though.”

Iona fans can rest assured knowing that in just a couple of years it will be the Gaels who have the experience that is just so critical in these conference tournaments.

One man's writing in one place.