The Five Most Under-Appreciated NYC Pro Athletes Worth the Price of Admission

The Big Apple is never short on sports stars, but with its pro teams all doing well, the city also has its share of outstanding role players that natives or visitors need to see

Pete Alonso #20 of the New York Mets congratulates teammate Brandon Nimmo #9 after Nimmo hit a solo home run in the first inning against the Washington Nationals during game two of a double header at Citi Field on October 04, 2022 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.
The Polar Bear may be "the man" in Flushing, Queens, but the Mets' under-appreciated spark plug is undoubtedly Brandon Nimmo
Photo by Elsa / Getty Images

New York City loves its sports stars. From the gridiron’s Joe Namath and Lawrence Taylor to the baseball diamond’s Tom Seaver and Derek Jeter, and from “Clyde” Frazier to Mark Messier, who both performed exceptionally in “The World’s Most Famous Arena,” the Big Apple’s true legendary athletes had the highest levels of grit and panache, allowing them to play most memorably under the hottest lights. But all of those figures had sidekicks to thank for their respective team’s success, too — the grunts and working-class types that the majority of New Yorkers really identify with and latch onto. Among many other such players there’s been Carl Banks, Jerry Koosman, Brian Leetch and Charles Oakley, all of whom generally didn’t grab the most headlines, but captured local sports fans’ hearts nonetheless.

With pretty much all of the city’s professional sports teams looking good these days, we thought we’d pay homage to the lesser-appreciated athletes that New Yorkers and visitors to the city still need to go see. Here are our top five, chosen by sport: baseball, football, basketball, hockey and soccer.

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Brandon Nimmo, New York Mets

With a nickname like “the Polar Bear” — and a gigantic physique to match, hence the moniker — Pete Alonso arguably gets the most attention from fans in Flushing, Queens, where the Mets play. The guy probably deserves it, and not just because he takes up the most space in probably any room or stadium he enters. Alonso’s inimitable strength has made him one of the most feared power hitters in MLB, ever since his rookie year when he set a new home run mark for first-year players, slamming 53 dingers in 2019. This year, Alonso is hoping to slug the Mets to their first World Series win since 1986.

But Mets’ Brandon Nimmo catches eyes in his own unique way. Ranging the vast space of center field for any Big League club requires tremendous energy, as does batting leadoff, where the goal is to set up hitters behind him for success. Nimmo does both pretty exceptionally and with great enthusiasm.

Check out his home run-robbing grab against the Los Angeles Dodgers last season, dubbed “the catch of the year”:

But while he’s capable of making great plays in the field, he hasn’t quite improved defensively enough to win any Gold Gloves. However, if there was an award just for hustle, Nimmo would win it every year, if only for how he jets to first base after taking four balls:

Dude does that every time, and he takes a lot of walks, which is exactly what a team wants their leadoff hitter to do. His career on-base percentage is an excellent .386, and he’s definitely the Mets’ number-one spark plug.

Micheal Clemons, New York Jets

Whenever the hell Aaron Rodgers finally shows up to Met Life Stadium and puts on a uniform with a slightly different shade of green, he’s going to garner pretty much all the media attention, and just about all of it from fans, too. And why not? He’s a Hall of Fame talent with an ego and personality to match it. The Jets, which have championship aspirations of their own, also boast a diva on defense in Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, a cornerback who’s already made his penchant for bombast acceptable with worthy play that earned him All-Pro honors as a rookie last season.

But when the pigskin drops again in September, look out for another second-year player on the Jets dee: lineman Micheal Clemons. As the New York Post reported, he is 6-foot-5, 270 pounds “and growing.” When asked what he brings to the table at the NFL level, he told the paper, “Violence. And more violence.”

That’s a guy you want in your foxhole. While Clemons is certainly confident, he’s also humble, telling the press he’s always looking to improve his game and willing to pay his dues on special teams, where last year he blocked a punt that led to a Jets touchdown, against Rodgers’ Green Bay Packers, no less. He’s also known for his style and for choosing his words with deliberate care, which makes the doubled-down “violence” remark particularly energizing for fans.

And when he delivers his words, they arrive encased in a deep sultriness reminiscent of dark chocolate. The Jets media house certainly noticed Clemons’ voice, tapping him for a reading of The Night Before Christmas, which also exhibited his sense of humor, something New Yorkers also love in their athletes:

Hopefully he gets added playing time going forward just so we can hear him speak some more in post-game press conferences.

Mikal Bridges, Brooklyn Nets

Ben Simmons is going to continue to be a focal point of attention going forward for the Nets thanks to some basic name recognition from causal NBA fans, and his lasting ties to the franchise’s poor decision making throughout its “super team” project. But he’s been shut down for the rest of this season, so with the Nets likely to make the playoffs, there’s still time to get to know the team’s other players — the ones who might lay the foundation for future success.

One could do much worse things with their time if they choose to watch Mikal Bridges, described as a “guard-forward” by the Nets official website, highlighting his versatility. Of all the Nets players currently on the roster, Bridges is tops in scoring, at 27.6 points per game, so he appears to be a pretty nice piece the franchise got from the Phoenix Suns in return for Kevin Durant. (Maybe the Nets’ decision making has improved! It certainly couldn’t have gotten any worse.)

Bridges might put up points, but he’s also just “a worker,” someone who seems as though he wants to answer the bell for his teammates day in, day out. Current teammate Spencer Dinwiddie called him “the iron man of the NBA.” Why? Not only is he on pace to play every game this season, but because he was traded he’ll have the opportunity to play in 83 contests, one extra than the full-length NBA calendar.

“You look at how he plays the game,” Nets general manager Sean Marks told ESPN. “Obviously, when he was playing in Phoenix, even dating back to college days, the length, the reliability — he’s nearing 400 games played in a row, it’s pretty unique in this day and age. And for somebody who actually wants to play at that clip is also certainly refreshing.”

As I wrote earlier, New Yorkers adore athletes who simply show up and do their job well on a consistent basis, and there’s no finer example of that in the entire league than Bridges right now. Coming off the Kyrie Irving era, in which he repeatedly found reasons not to play, the Nets seem to love it, too.

Ryan Lindren, New York Rangers

Hockey has a terrific tradition in which teams name their captains, honoring them with a conspicuous “C” on their jerseys. So by definition they’re standouts, regardless of where they play on the ice or how many points they put up. But even in hockey, like any sport, the players who score the most are the ones who get the biggest amount of praise. Wayne Gretzky isn’t called “The Great One” due to the way he delivered devastating body checks — because he didn’t. He’s the best player ever because of his ridiculous career scoring mark.

Thus, the hockey representative for this article couldn’t be Rangers captain Jacob Trouba or points leader Artemi Panarin. Hockey fans know that maybe the most important stat showing overall impact is “plus-minus,” the team’s rate of goal success versus that of their opponent when a given player is on the ice. So for this list we’re going with the team’s co-leader in the category, defenseman Ryan Lindgren.

With his team fourth in the Eastern Conference in points and having secured a playoff spot, Lindgren is looking forward to a return to the lineup from an injury for the postseason. When he gets back on the ice, you can expect this kind of play:

Who doesn’t love a hockey player willing to put their life on the line — OK, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but still — by jumping in front of speeding pucks over and over again?

Frankie Amaya, New York Red Bulls

Soccer is an under-appreciated sport in New York City, so we could’ve chosen basically anyone from the area’s two teams — two because soccer is still pretty popular, and the league in which the Red Bulls and NYCFC play is growing exponentially. But we’re going with Frankie Amaya because of his impressive two-way play in the Red Bull midfield. He’s aggressive and a facilitator on offense, and a vicious defender, where he delivers devastating tackles.

He’s only 22 years old and feels like has been in the league a very long time. He was drafted first overall by Cincinnati FC in 2019, but after two seasons requested a trade. He believed the franchise was not as committed to his development as he was to the team’s success, so he became the most expensive departure in the history of Cincinnati FC when the Red Bull bought him for $950,000 — a figure that could grow if Amaya meets certain performance milestones.

Late last season, his first in New York, he was hampered by a groin injury. But Red Bull fans are anticipating a breakout campaign from the California native who could even make the World Cup roster for the U.S. Men’s National Team in a few years. He’s been a part of the national Under-20 team and was part of the roster for the big club in 2020, though he contracted COVID-19 and couldn’t play in a friendly against El Salvador.

Regardless, the Red Bulls are perennially in the MLS playoffs, and though they’ve gotten off to a shaky start this season, look for Amaya to lead the team back up the table in short order.

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