They’re working for the enemy
The studded Yankees cap hanging in Patriots tight end Chris Baker’s locker isn’t going anywhere. He estimates he has about 60 of them at home, and some things he can’t give up, even if he is in the land of the Red Sox.
Baker lists his hometown as St. Albans, N.Y., in Queens. After a career at Michigan State, the Jets brought him home as a third-round pick in 2002. After seven seasons in New York, Baker signed as a free agent with the Patriots in March.
The trek north shifted Baker to the other side of a rivalry that began at the Polo Grounds in 1960, and 99 regular-season and playoff games have made for a divisional battle spiced by trash talking.
So the day Baker walked in the Patriots’ locker room for the first time and pulled on a New England jersey, it took a moment to register.
“It was extremely different having been such bitter rivals with most of these guys I now play with,’’ Baker said. “That was different for me, but they welcomed me in, so it made it an easier transition for me.’’
Former Patriots linebacker Larry Izzo can relate. Izzo played eight seasons in New England, where he was the special teams captain each year. In March, he signed with the Jets, joining his third AFC East team.
“The first day, it’s a little different,’’ said Izzo, who began his career with the Dolphins. “Any time you change teams there will be an adjustment and things like that, but you get used to it pretty quick.’’
With Baker and Izzo trading locker rooms, you may assume they are spilling the details about their former team, but Patriots coach Bill Belichick said the impact of that is overrated.
“Certainly, you could pick up - from somebody who’s been in the system for a long time - something that would be helpful,’’ Belichick said. “Probably some of that formation, especially with teams like this that are in the same division, that have played each other for quite awhile, that know each other quite well, I don’t know how much new information there is really coming out of there in something like that.’’
Jets coach Rex Ryan said he is not opposed to asking questions, but not sure what can be gained.
“You know, you’re certainly going to pick their brain and all that kind of stuff, but again, everybody has the tapes, so you’ve always got to do your work and you’re going to study your opponent and all that kind of stuff,’’ Ryan said.
The concept may be a moot point this season. The last coach Baker played for with the Jets was former Patriots assistant Eric Mangini, who joined the Jets in 2006 but was fired after last season.
Meanwhile, the look of the Patriots is slightly different since Izzo left. Familiar faces such as Mike Vrabel (traded to Kansas City), Tedy Bruschi (retired), Richard Seymour (traded to Oakland), and Rodney Harrison (retired) are no longer in New England.
“There’s been a lot of change, as there has been across the league every year,’’ Izzo said. “Things are always changing, but there’s still a lot of friends on the other side of the ball that I played with. It will be fun to bang heads against my old teammates, and obviously some new people.’’
With the Jets, Baker said he remembered the intensity in the week leading up to a game against the Patriots.
“Every year it was our biggest game because of the amount of wins the Patriots put up in the past and our record against them, so that’s how we always looked at it,’’ he said.
But now that Baker is in a Patriots uniform, “how they look at it now I couldn’t tell you that.’’
Baker didn’t need to speak for the Jets last week. They handled all of the promotion. Defensive tackle Kris Jenkins said he and his teammates are treating today’s game like the Super Bowl, and safety Kerry Rhodes declared they would “try to embarrass’’ the Patriots. Ryan started the week explaining comments from June that he didn’t join the Jets to “kiss Bill Belichick’s rings.’’
Instead of returning the jabs, the comments were met in the Patriots’ locker room with smiles. Talk was directed toward the game.
“We’re a very confident team, and we play a very aggressive, in-your-face style of football; let’s face it, so does New England,’’ Izzo said. “I know having spent time there that people might not say things publicly, but they’re a very confident group, too . . . I don’t think any comments that anybody makes on either side is really going to make a difference on Sunday.’’
The Jets are carrying confidence coming off a 24-7 victory at Houston, where the Jets held Andre Johnson to four catches for 35 yards, a season after he led the league in receiving (1,575 yards). Today’s game may be only the second of the season, but the impact on the division is not lost in all the chatter. The Patriots may have finished ahead of the Jets last season, but neither team made the playoffs.
Last season, the Patriots won the first meeting, 19-10. But in November, Jay Feely booted a 34-yard field goal in overtime to give the Jets a 34-31 victory at Gillette Stadium, giving New York a 49-47-1 regular-season edge.
With such history, it is no surprise the talk such a meeting generates.
“I think there’s always a good rivalry here between the Jets and the Patriots,’’ Belichick said. “There has been through the years and I think there will continue to be this year and into the future. We’re in the same division. We know the whole Boston, New York rivalry thing. It’s there in every sport. It’s certainly there in this sport and I think that’s plenty.’’
When Baker returns to the Meadowlands today, he will meet up with some friends on the Jets he has maintained contact with. But he is helping a new team now.
“When I say I moved on, I moved on in March, and I haven’t looked back,’’ Baker said. “I’m more than happy to be here.’’
Monique Walker can be reached at email@example.com.