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Baseball season is right around the corner (hey, three weeks is like four days when you’re my age, so twentysomething days is “right around the corner” to me), and after all the snow this winter, I’m ready. But here comes one of those “the old days were better” ramblings – they don’t call me Old Man Freier in my neighborhood for nothing (actually they pretty much just ignore me because I start every sentence with “Back in my day”). I was recently watching part of game five of the 1976 Yankees-Royals LCS that YES always seems to show and an episode of The Bronx Is Burning on MSG (the one about the 1977 LCS, which intersperses real highlights from the series), and it’s safe to say that baseball has changed since then. It may not have been better, but it was different. It’s lost a lot of its toughness and boys-will-be-boys attitude. In the 1976 game, the first pitch thrown by Grant Jackson right after George Brett hits his game-tying three-run homer in the top of the eighth is aimed right for John Mayberry’s head. It was clearly 100% intentional, but nobody batted an eye. Mayberry ducked out the way, but didn’t even look at Jackson, let alone stand and glare at him or shout at him. The announcers barely mentioned it – just that it was ball one. And there were no stupid umpire warnings, thank god. If that happened today, alarms would go off and the batter would run and hide until it was safe to come back on the field.

In the 1977 LCS, Graig Nettles broke up a double play by putting his shoulder down and running over Frank White, sending him to into oblivion. He made no effort to slide. Of course, the rules have changed since then, and players now have to at least pretend to slide. The rulebook was mainly rewritten because of what Royal Hal McRae did to Willie Randolph, when he body blocked him into left field. Second basemen were just waiting to get killed back then. Again, maybe that’s not better, but different. And then there was the famous fight between Nettles and Brett. Punches were thrown, bodies were slammed, Nettles even kicked Brett – but no one was thrown out of the game. Boys will be boys. There’s even a scene in the miniseries where Billy Martin/John Turturro stands on the top step of the dugout yelling expletives at Royals pitcher Larry Gura (I’m assuming that it’s based on a true incident). Can you imagine Joe Girardi cursing at John Lackey? Today’s players are so much more sensitive and fragile than the old-timers, with their taking offense to any pitch that comes near them, their body armor, pitch counts, delicately sliding around catchers, manicured hair, dancing and handshakes, the disappearance of bench jockeying, coddling by the union and owners, wearing batting helmets while running the bases – you get the picture. And they’re so much nicer to their enemies, with all the fraternizing that goes on. Sure, today’s spoiled players are more athletic, faster, bigger and stronger (wink, wink), but little by little, the game is turning into softball, with no contact, and god help you if you hurt anyone’s feelings. As the Hanson Brothers might have said: “Old-time baseball! Thurman Munson! Cookie Rojas! Lou Piniella!”

Ok, the boring sermon is over, and now back to 2010. Here are the top stories in the world of New York sports this past week:

Comings and Goings: The NFL free-agent frenzy has begun. Say good-bye to Thomas Jones (Chiefs), Kerry Rhodes (Cardinals), David Carr (49ers) and Fred Robbins (Rams), and say hello to Antrel Rolle, Jim Sorgi, Brodney Pool and Antonio Cromartie. The Jets kindly gave $500,000 up front to their new cornerback so he can clear up the many, many, many (many) paternity issues he has going. He’s the Brady Bunch, Eight Is Enough, With Six You Get Eggroll, Yours, Mine and Ours and My Three Sons all rolled into one.

The Week in Port St. Lucie: Thyroids, pink eye, sore shoulders, pitchers getting hit in the knee with line drives, Oliver Perez getting hammered, front office miscommunications and buffoonery – it’s just another routine week for the Mets. John Maine had a promising outing, though when healthy, he’s usually good, while Perez and Mike Pelfrey were lit up. Any bad performance by one of those guys and we’re in “the sky is falling” territory, but with Johan Santana it’s all about how he feels. Statistically, his first start didn’t go so well (1.2 innings pitched, four runs, six hits, one K, one BB), but as long as he’s healthy, who cares? Frankie Rodriguez is back in camp after suffering from pink eye and the slings and arrows of Goose Gossage calling him a clown (I’m not sure which is worse). Clowns everywhere will come out of the woodwork to criticize Gossage because the Hall-of-Fame reliever used the word “clown” in a derogatory manner. We’re only days away from a press conference/formal apology from the former Yankee great: “I apologize to any clowns I may have offended. I regret my choice of words. I should said ‘bonehead’ instead.” And because the Mets can’t seem to pull off the simplest of tasks, for a few days we had Thyroid-Gate, starring Jose Reyes’ overactive thyroid (“It’s not overactive!” “Yes it is!”). Of course, now he’ll be out for weeks or even months before he can resume any kind of baseball activity. But kids Jenrry Meija and Ike Davis along with not-so-young Chris Carter keep on impressing everybody – so they have that going for them.

The Week in Tampa: The Phil Hughes/Joba Chamberlain duel began this past week, and the verdict so far: Hughes pretty good, Joba very bad (27.05 ERA). Francisco Cervelli was drilled in the melon and got a concussion on Saturday. Thankfully, he seems to be doing fine now. And speaking of doing fine, Nick Johnson’s back on the field and homered twice on Tuesday. CC Sabathia looked a lot like Santana on Tuesday, when he went 2.2 innings and let in five runs on seven hits. Meanwhile, the Alex Rodriguez/Dr. Tony Galea controversy continues. The shady doctor treated A-Rod without permission from the Yankees, and now, unlike Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran, he’s refusing to come clean on what went on. The feds may be twisting his arm, but if he’s not guilty of anything then just say so. Of course, A-Rod can’t trust himself to not stick his own foot in his mouth. He’s walking around camp muttering advice to himself, “Don’t say anything stupid. Just pretend you’re somebody else.”

The Race for the Worst: The Nets beat the Knicks this week but they’re still in a race against time for the worst record ever. If they win three more games, will the 1972-’73 Philadelphia 76ers pop the champagne and celebrate like the ’72 Miami Dolphins? The worst record in Nets franchise history is 17-65, by the way. The 1989-’90 team, coached by Bill Fitch, set that mark. Dennis Hopson was their leading scorer (15.8), while Sam Bowie was their top rebounder (10.1 per game). That pretty much says it all. Other players on that team: Chris Morris, Mookie Blaylock, Roy Hinson, Purvis Short, Lester Conner, Charles Shackleford, Chris Dudley, Derrick Gervin, and even Anthony Mason and Rick Carlisle. Looking to the future, though, there was a groundbreaking ceremony yesterday in Brooklyn for the team’s new arena, with Jay-Z and other luminaries grabbing a shovel. But there was no sign of Joe Barry Carroll.

Not Much Better: The woeful Knicks lost to the Nets, and missed all of their three pointers along the way. They did beat Atlanta by one point, though, to try and regain some dignity. But their loss on Wednesday to San Antonio clinched their ninth straight losing season, setting a franchise record (they had eight consecutive losing seasons from 1959-’60 to ’66-’67). Thanks James Dolan. Now please just go away.

Momentum Changer: So, an aging, balding drunk who’s kind of a jerk walks into a bar (this sounds like the beginning of a joke, doesn’t it? But it’s just what I did on Sunday night), and at that same moment Brandon Dubinsky scores the tying goal against Buffalo. But before I even had a bottle of beer in my hand, the Sabres scored in overtime to beat the Rangers. And just like that, another point gets away from them. Even the usually reliable Henrik Lundqvist/Martin Brodeur matchup let them down, when the Devils crushed the Blueshirts in a sloppily played game by both teams. Points are quickly slipping away. Is this the beginning of the end for the Rangers (or did that happen on opening day?) and the beginning of a turnaround for New Jersey, who hadn’t been winning consistently in a few months? It’s getting late fast for the Rangers. And it’s all over for the Islanders, as they lost all three of their games this week.

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