The Times West Virginian

Sports

May 3, 2013

HERTZEL COLUMN- Smith finds himself in mine field

MORGANTOWN — Geno Smith has not so much as signed a contract or gone through a workout as a New York Jet, let alone played his first game against the Giants or the New England Patriots, and already he finds himself in the center of a mine field that could destroy his career in New York.

New York, you see, can be the greatest place to play sports in America or the worst.

You are a hero or bum, and there is no in between.

Contrary to popular belief, on the whole, it isn’t a place where the media make or break an athlete, for, in the most part, his actions both on and off the field determine his fate.

But it is a different media than you run into in most places — especially in, say, Morgantown, W.Va., where he spent his past four years.

I know this all too well. I grew up in New York. I worked in New York.

And it became rather obvious by his draft day shenanigans and the controversy that started — followed by his firing his agent, leading to them anonymously planting the story that he believed he would be “the No. 1 pick overall in the draft” — that he is already at a make-or-break point in his career there when it comes to reception from the media and fans.

Here’s the thing, as a friend of mine who has worked his whole career in New York, put it to me when we were discussing what makes New York different from other places.

“Stories never die,” he said.

In most markets, a story comes, has its run of a couple of days, a couple of weeks maybe, but eventually it goes away.

Not in New York. This is a town with two of the most aggressive, sometimes outrageous, tabloids in the country in the New York Daily News and the New York Post, and their back pages dictate the sports news of the day.

While the Internet and talk radio dominate other markets, it is those two newspapers and The New York Times that form opinions — and when that opinion of an athlete goes south, his life becomes miserable.

Think of it over the years, people who for whatever reason wound up on the wrong side of the headlines — be it because of bad performance on field, bad performance off field or simply because of an impression they gave of the type of person they were.

One of those who were literally run out of town was George Foster, a onetime Cincinnati Red who came to the Mets with baseball’s biggest contract at $2 million a year and failed to produce and seemed to be aloof.

Then he made a remark that was perceived to be racially motivated.

“I was unhappy because Davey Johnson was platooning Danny Heep and Kevin Mitchell in left field,” Foster said in an interview with The Times after he left the city. “But the straw that broke the camel’s back came when I criticized the club for not giving Mookie Wilson, who had been hurt, his job back in center rather than keep Lenny Dykstra out there.

“What I said wasn’t intended to be racial at all,” Foster continued. “I was just saying the team was showing favoritism to Dykstra, who had just come up. But I never got a chance to explain what I meant.

“The next day, Davey told (general manager) Frank Cashen that Foster goes or I go,” he said. “And I was gone.”

That was New York in a nutshell.

And it doesn’t matter who you are.

One of New York’s biggest heroes was Tom Seaver and one of its biggest sports writing celebrities was Dick Young, who was reaching the end of his career while Seaver was struggling after his greatest days.

The situation was described this way:

“Meanwhile, Seaver was being described as surly in the clubhouse and in dealings with the media. In his column in the New York Daily News, Dick Young wrote that Seaver was an agent of discontent among his teammates. In a summer of headlines dominated by Watergate, this curmudgeonly Young made it perfectly clear that Seaver had made an enemy in him; it would not be the final war of words between the two.”

Young wrote:

“Nolan Ryan is now getting more money than Seaver and that galls Tom because his wife Nancy and Nolan’s wife Ruth are very friendly and Tom has long treated Ryan like a little brother.”

Having his wife brought into the mess was it for Seaver, who that day called the Mets’ front office and said, “Get me out of here, do you hear me?”

And so it was he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds, starting the downfall of the Mets.

Such soap operas are common in New York, and once the media put their teeth into them they do not let them go. You’ve seen it with Tim Tebow and Mark Sanchez of the Jets, Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees, Bobby Bonilla with the Mets, Bobby Valentine when he managed the Mets ... George Steinbrenner.

The thing is, after dealing with Geno Smith here for four years, we came to understand that he is a good person, a driven, competitive person, but one who is likely to say what’s on his mind without thinking of the consequences.

In New York, the consequences often can be magnified beyond belief.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.

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