Thursday, September 29, 2011

Choking is putting it mildly

All righty, then, let's dispense with the rating system. I don't know when a team in any sport has choked like this year's Boston Red Sox did.

Ordinarily, I don't like the word -- mainly because I think it does a grave disservice to the other team. Did the 2004 Yankees choke? Or did the Red Sox who beat them seize their opening in a series that turned on a stolen base and a clutch home run? Truth be told, maybe a little of both.

But to chalk it up merely as a "choke" denies the fact the Red Sox also picked themselves up and won the thing.

Ditto the 2007 Patriots. Did they choke? Or did the New York Giants have the personnel -- a huge front four nimble enough to chase Tom Brady around and minimize his pinpoint accuracy -- to match up with them? And was it a choke that David Tyree made that incredibly spectacular (and lucky) reception right before Plaxico Burress caught that touchdown pass? Not really. It was just one of those catches for the ages.

Did the 2010 Bruins choke against the Philadelphia Flyers? Or was that 3-0 series lead in games a tale of incredibly good fortune in the first place?

The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Sports history is full of moments when teams provide an ever-so-slight opening, and their opponents storm down the door.

But this? What we witnessed in the past month? THAT, my friends, was a choke. To choke, you have to lose in the face of overwhelming odds. All other things need to be equal, which his why you can't really call losing a game choking, even if everyone thought you should win it. Anything can happen in a game. Or even in a short series. Sometimes things take on lives of their own.

The Vancouver Canucks probably lost last spring's Stanley Cup final in Game 1, when the referees wouldn't do anything about Alex Burrows biting Patrice Bergeron. That enraged them enough so that when they came back to Boston, after running into some crummy luck up in Vancouver, they ran the Canucks off the ice three times. They put themselves in a position to win it, and that's how it goes sometimes. The Canucks had to scratch and claw to win three games in their own rink, while the Bruins won comfortably all four times. To me, that says the Bruins were simply better and the Canucks, therefore, did not choke.

But going 7-20 in the month of September, and playing yourself from being nine games up in the wild card race -- and even being in first place in the division -- to being bounced from the postseason on the last day of the year -- that's choking.

Another definition of "choke," to me, is that there can be no reasonable excuse for it. None. Recite me a litany of injuries, and I might agree that, yes, it seemed as if every time you looked, some other Red Sox player was missing games because of this ailment or that. Some of them seemed pretty dubious, too, but since it's not my body, and I'm not a doctor, I don't feel especially qualified to make those judgments. But it does seem, on the face of it, that this was not a well-conditioned team.

But injuries or not, if a team that terrorized the Major Leagues from May through August 27 (from the time they started 2-10 to the day they swept the Oakland A's in a day-night doubleheader, they were 80-41, which -- as any baseball fan knows -- is a shade under .667 (.661, to be more precice ... derived from dividing the number of wins by the total number of games played during that stretch).

You could argue that no team -- or few teams, anyway -- could keep that pace all season. The 1998 Yankees, maybe; and the 2001 Seattle Mariners eclipsed it. But as a matter of perspective, if you win 100 games (which a lot of people thought these Red Sox would do) your winning percentage is .617.

So if the Red Sox came back down to earth in September, it would have been easily understood. But OK. Let's say they came back down to earth in a normal way. After that doubleheader, their record was 82-51 (.616). From that point on, they were 8-19 (a woeful .333 for all you statisticians).

If 8-19 had become 13-14 ... not anything to write home about, but certainly not horrible for a team that seemingly had at least a playoff spot wrapped up before Labor Day) ... that would have ended the season with a 95-67 record ... more than enough to have won the wild card, at least, comfortable. All they had to do was play .500.

With that team, and that talent, that shouldn't have been a whole lot to ask. And we'd have all figured that Terry Francona was doing the smart thing, resting players, easing up on the gas a little to save their stamina for what has become an increasingly mind-numbing and grueling post-season.

But apparently it was a whole lot to ask.

There's a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," in which the poem's main character -- an old seaman -- kills the albatross (widely seen as a bird of good fortune) and thereafter bears witness to a chain of horrible events.

I don't know which one of the Red Sox was out shooting birds in late August, but the hideous chain of events that ensued reminds me of that poem. There wasn't a single element of their game, or their team, that escaped unscathed. Their starting pitching was a disaster. Here, one supposes, you could legitimately site injuries and bad luck. We've discussed elsewhere in this blog the effects losing Clay Buchholz had on the rotation.

But it goes deeper. The team made some horrible decisions, such as bringing up an untested rookie and trotting him out there five times while this swoon was gathering momentum. Don Zimmer got crucified in 1978 for pitching Bobby Spowl once., though that could be because Zimmer told her world "the kid has ice water in his veins" right before the Yankees lit him up during the famous Boston Massacre.

But Terry Francona has to account for this. Five times. His record? 0-3. His ERA? 7.66. How many times did he have to trot the kid out there to realize he wasn't ready?

David Ortiz caught all kind of flack for saying that perhaps Alfredo Aceves should get a start instead of the manager trotting this kid out there five times to get belted around like a pinata. I would agree that kind of overt second-guessing is bad form (Bill Belichick would not have been pleased). I would also agree that Ortiz had a point. Saying Aceves was too valuable in the bullpen to spare is little like your boss saying you're too valuable working the night shift to get the promotion you think you deserve. You reward people for performing well, and figure it all out from there.

And Aceves certainly performed well. He's one of the few people on this team who didn't choke.

Ortiz was somewhat of a loose cannon around here this year, and one wonders, even with the decent season he had, whether we've seen the last of him. Is it time to cut ties and move on? Second guessing Francona on his pitching is bad enough. But that stunt he pulled interrupting Francona's press conference to bitch about what he thought was a scoring change that took a hit away form him ... he should have been benched for that. And he wasn't.

And that brings up another point. Francona can safely be called a players' manager. His style is to create a comfortable atmosphere that he feels is conducive to winning. Damage control is a big part of Tito's MO. Whatever goes on behind the scenes, Francona maintains an even strain in public, and his players know they'd have to practically commit an axe murder in the clubhouse before he'd ever call them out to the media.

This is great ... as long as the players respond by respecting the game ... and by winning. The minute that changes, then it's really time to try something else. Francona, I think, was slow to respond to this malaise. There were signs, even as far back as when they were winning, that there were some high maintenance situations that needed to be monitored ... Ortiz being one of them.

The two other principals: John Lackey and Carl Crawford.

What is there left to say about Lackey? Saying he was merely a disappointment is being unnecessarily charitable. He was an anchor that dragged this team down all season. Maybe he shot the albatross.

Bad enough to lose. Bad enough to be hammered night after night. Bad enough that every time he pitched, practically, the team had to come from behind to win. But his total unwillingness to be accountable was astounding. And because of that, Lackey becomes the official poster boy for how arrogant unlikeable this team was as the season progressed.

And just when he did something positive -- albeit holding a junior varsity Yankee team long enough for the Red Sox to win in 14 innings last Sunday -- he ruins the moment by bitching about the TMZ divorce story (after the team asked him not to, by the way). Who needs the Yankees and Rays chasing you when you have such camaraderie in the same room?

Crawford was Exhibit B. I'm tired of hearing how stressed out he was because of the contract. He could have just as easily laughed at his agent and said, "come on, nobody's worth that much money." Nobody held a gun to his head and made hims sign it.

I'll admit I was happy as hell when the Red Sox got him. I still think he's a good ballplayer ... the type of guy the Red Sox have historically eschewed (to their detriment). I figured, hey, with guys like Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury on the team, the Red Sox won't play as much station-to-station baseball, and may be able to stem some slumps by resorting to smallball.

I figure Crawford and Ellsbury gave them two great slump-proof weapons.

Turns out I was half right. Ellsbury was one of the few consistent players on this team from stem-to-stern. I'm afraid the egregious collapse will sour a lot of MVP voters toward him, and if that's the case, it's too bad. Because Ellsbury absolutely had an MVP season, and he can thank his underachieving bonehead teammates for robbing him of what which he truly deserves.

Back to Crawford. Like Lackey, Crawford's disappointing ineptitude was compounded by a few stunts, and a few dubious injuries. Throwing Jason Varitek under the bus after the captain -- apparently -- called him out for sitting out a doubleheader with a stiff neck was perhaps the most gutless thing I've seen on a Red Sox team in many years. I'm sure, at that point, if it wouldn't have cost the Red Sox a king's ransom, they'd have been happy to release his ass right then and there.

Whatever virus it was that infected the pitchers it spared no one. Josh Beckett was lights out all season until he sprained his ankle. Once he returned, he lost his mojo.

Jon Lester, for two years plus, was one of the best pitchers in the game until he strained a lat muscle and had to miss some starts. He was never the same when he got back either. Either both of these guys were hiding much more serious injuries, or they got worn down. And if it's the latter, you have to ask why? And who's fault is it?

Daniel Bard picked a two-week stretch in September to lose his mojo too, and the results were disastrous. He pitches like the Bard of April through August, and this series wouldn't have even mattered. Jonathan Papelbon was having his best year ever ... until September. Then he blew two crucial saves (including Wednesday night's). He saves either of them and, at the very least, we're heading to St. Petersburg today. And did the Red Sox crack medical staff -- the ones who misdiagnosed (or took took too long to properly diagnose) Ellsbury's injury last year and then left him hanging out to dry for not having the requisite amount of balls to play through five broken ribs -- do any kind of background check on Bobby Jenks? What a wasted signing that was.

The whole thing was so out of kilter that even when Francona tried to do the noble thing, trotting out Tim Wakefield so he could get his 200th win, it worked against him and the team. We all love Wake. He's been a loyal soldier forever, and if anyone deserved the milestone, it was him.

But when Wake's knuckleball goes south, it goes all the way to Tierra del Fuego -- which is where it was last seen in August and September.

This is a perfect example of how that cliche that "nobody's bigger than the team" can be true, even if the very thought of saying that makes you sick. Francona became fixated on getting him No. 200, and you have to wonder whether everybody took their eyes off the ball as a result.

But on the other hand, this is what happens when you have nobody who can throw the ball. Relying on Wakefield, a 45-year-old man, in August in September as one of your principal starters is just asking for trouble.

Go right down the line. Adrian Gonzalez? Wha-happened? He was the sweetest looking hitter I've ever seen for four months and then disappeared. And please don't blame the Home Run Derby. It's just another excuse.

The right field situation was a mess from Day One. J.D. Drew was useless and Josh Reddick, while had his moments, certainly wasn't the answer.

Catching? I love Varitek. Next to Carlton Fisk, he's the best catcher they've had in my lifetime. I love the way he played in his prime. Balls to the wall all the time. And he'll always have a special spot in my heart for the mitt-sandwich he fed Alex Rodriguez in 2004.

But he's done. I don't think the Red Sox should just give him a "seeya later." Maybe they should do a Jake Taylor and make him a coach. Maybe he can coach heart, because whatever he lacked in physical skills he more than made up for with guts and determination.

And I'm afraid Jarrod Saltalamacchia is not a first-string catcher. I have no doubt but that he did the best he could. I don't think he laid down like some of the other ones did. But what can you say if a person's best just comes up woefully short a lot of the time?

There are others who are exempt too. Dustin Pedroia may have had his rough spots, but, really, how can you criticize him? The guy's got the pedal to the floor every second he's out there. What's really disturbing about this team is that too many of its players didn't feel ashamed enough by Pedroia's example to get up off their asses and snap out of it.

I'm not a huge Marco Scutaro fan, but you can certainly count him as someone who showed up in September. So basically, by my estimation, you have four guys out of 25 (Pedroia, Ellsbury, Scutaro and Aceves, and if you add Ortiz, who wasn't horrible, make that 4½.) who carried their weight the last month of the season. But it wasn't just their weight they were forced to carry, was it? It was also the dead weight of the other 21 players.

I've saved Kevin Youkilis for last because his situation is, well, complicated. Let me be clear. I'm not his biggest fan. I've always admired him for his all-out style of playing, but even though you could never question his effort or his desire, he's also one of those players prone to lengthy slumps where even I could get him out.

He's also 33, and he's the type of player who's only going to break down more and more often. You can only push yourself so far before your body pushes back, and his body is starting to push. I really question the wisdom of leaving him as the team's only power-hitting every-day right-hander. They just had to know there would be stretches, even if he was healthy, where he'd get worn down from his frenetic style of play and go into long tailspins.

Even when he was healthy, he wasn't having his best season ever, and you have to wonder, going forward, whether we've seen the best of him. My guess is yes.

After having said all this, the collapse of 2011 was -- as the cliche goes -- a total team effort. Outside of the aforementioned four players (maybe five), everybody else needs to step up and be accountable. What happened this month was a inharmonic convergence where the planets just went off in as many different directions as there are players on the team. Each situation took on its own life, and the resulting chain reaction was truly horrific (only in the baseball sense of course).

There was too much bad baseball, and too many bad decisions, and lackluster performances, and underachieving, to call this anything else but what it was: A choke for the ages.

The question is where do we go from here? Well, let's start by gutting the entire coaching staff, manager and all. I think Francona did wonderful things for this team. He was instrumental in changing the entire culture of it for seven years. That's longer than any other manager in my lifetime has done it. But whatever happened, and however it happened, Francona lost this team.

If firing him fair? Of course it's not. But what else can you do in these situations? It isn't as if he'll be collecting unemployment. He'll get a job the second he's let go from this one. He's legitimately earned it.

And I'd also tell Theo Epstein that if he wants to go to Chicago and rebuild the Cubs, go right ahead, and that I'm not going to try and match any offers they give him. Cut him slack for not being clairvoyant enough to realize that Carl Crawford was going to have horrible year and be somewhat of a clubhouse cancer to boot, and you can't really blame him because Gonzalez fell back to earth with a thud. But you can ask him why the pitching staff was so thin, and why signings like Jenks and Dan Wheeler turned out as horribly as they did.

You can also, if you want to quibble, ask him whether, in the long run, it would have been better to keep Jason Bay and forgo signing Lackey (I think we all know the answer to that one), and whether, in the long run, they'd have been better off keeping either Victor Martinez or Adrian Beltre and leaving Gonzalez where he was. That one may be a push, but there's one thing you cannot deny: The Red Sox were easy pickings for even middle-of-the-road lefties down the stretch because with Youkilis out, they didn't have one right-handed hitter who put the fear of God into them.

Yes, it's going to be a very, very interesting off-season, isn't it?

Now if you'll excuse me, there's a Heimlich maneuver that needs to be performed.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Quick hits ...

Just a random sample of quick hits as we catch up on the events of the past weekend ...

I'm a charter member of the "I Think John Lackey Is Overrated" club. I thought it was a terrible decision by the Red Sox to throw that ridiculous contract at him, and always pegged him as middle-of-the-rotation guy who might be able to give you innings, and even shut a team down once in a while.

But that's all. He's not a front-liner, and he never was. And if the Red Sox had paid any attention to how Lackey's pitched against their own team they'd have saved their money and re-signed Jason Bay. Because, with few exceptions, the Red Sox have pounded Lackey worse than when Buster Douglas cold-cocked Mike Tyson.

That said, the fact he sucks as a pitcher shouldn't turn him into a pinata when it comes to his personal life.

Sunday night, Lackey went off on reporters because someone (we still don't know who) texted him an hour before he was supposed to start against the New York Yankees to ask him (I guess) to corroborate TMZ reports that he and his wife were getting divorced.

Well I have to questions right off the bat. First, why would someone do that? Has the media become so invasive that someone would harass the guy an hour before the biggest game he'll probably pitch this regular season? Couldn't it wait? I'm a fan of getting the story, and getting it first too. That's how I was brought up in the business.

But this? Lackey's right. That crossed a line. Even though Tiger Woods can attest to the fact that your life is not your own when you're a worldwide celebrity, I'm sure no one who covers golf would walk up to Tigger as he's teeing off at the Masters and ask him about his 10 affairs.

So, yes, that was more than a little insensitive and invasive.

As for my second question, why is Lackey even paying attention to his cell phone?????

Man, you've got the ball in a game that could possibly make or break the entire season. The difference between rescuing your team from this tailspin and kicking it further along on the road to the Underachiever's Hall of Fame rests on your overrated right arm!

What are you doing checking your text messages?

No wonder why the guy can't get out of the fourth inning half the time. If you're that unfocused you don't deserve to do well.


Onto the Patriots. There's nothing mysterious about what happened Sunday. The Patriots thought they'd just roll over the Buffalo Bills, just like they always do, but the Bills weren't having any. Lazy, sloppy play by the Patriots got the Bills back into the game, and once they got a taste of it, they weren't going to stop until they finished the job.

Good for them. I don't know about anyone else, but I like to see teams like Buffalo rise up and start counting for something ... even if it's against the Patriots.

Bill Belichick and Tom Brady aren't above learning a few lessons, even as they're getting measured for those ugly banana-colored blazers wear when they're being enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame. It's never too late, and you're never too good, to be humbled.

But there are some glaring weaknesses on that team, no? We're back to two years ago with the receivers. They don't have a deep threat, and I can't imagine how anyone would trust Chad Ochocinco after Sunday's game. It wouldn't surprise me if Belichick cut him this week and cast his lot with Matthew Slater.

Yes, the loss of Aaron Hernandez ultimately ended up hurting them (though it shouldn't have ... if you jump out to a 21-0 lead should be able to finish the job without much trouble). It would be nice if they could run the ball a little better. That way they wouldn't have to keep throwing it up and risking interceptions.

The defense is a mess. Belichick made that a priority in the short signing period between the time the walkout ended and the season began. But so far, that has been a massive disappointment. They're getting no push, and I'm sorry, but you could have Ty Law and Darrelle Revis out there together, and if the quarterback has all day to throw, he's going to beat you.

Devin McCourty is neither Ty Law nor Darrelle Revis. He's a second-year player who probably could have benefited from some off-season workouts that got wiped out by the lockout.

Kick a few of those big guys in their big asses and get them to rush the passer. That'll make the likes of Devin McCourty a much better player.


I thought maybe that last night's win over the Yankees might do the same thing for the Sox that the Ortiz home run did in '04 ... serve as a catalyst to snap out of it and start playing baseball.

Nope. It's 6-2 Baltimore in the seventh, and Tampa Bay's winning. If the this holds, the Red Sox are done. If the Buffalo Bills smelled blood, what do you suppose it is the Rays are smelling? And they're playing a Yankee team that isn't the slightest bit interested in putting the pedal all the way down to the floor.

Just awful.


On that subject, I'd find it real hard to gas Terry Francona for one bad season. The month of September was like some virus that just spreads through your system and destroys everything in its path. By the time you know you even have it, it's too late to do anything else but wait until it runs its course.

Every possible thing that could go wrong with this team has gone wrong. Everything. Bad luck. Bad breaks. Bad baseball. And bad attitudes.

You know, I do have a lot of sympathy for Lackey when it comes to defending him against idiots who would invade his privacy on that whole TMZ divorce thing. But having said all that, he's a big boy. And while he gets some slack for his personal problems, he gets none for choosing to make an issue out of them after what could have been the team's biggest win of the season.

Sorry. That was just wrong.


Even quicker hits ... Apparently Michael Vick thinks he's special. After breaking his hand Sunday, he went off on the referees, suggesting that their standards for protecting him are different than they are for protecting everyone else. Way to go, Michael Vick. Just when your image is somewhat on its way to being saved, show the world what a jerk you really are ... I like this Rays team a lot. They have a look about them that reminds me of those Minnesota Twins teams under Tom Kelly and Ron Gardenhire, a team that was impossible to dislike. I like the manager, Joe Maddon, who is kind of a quirky character, and I love their pitching. I don't know what happens to them if they make the playoffs, whether they run out of gas because of the energy they had to expend to get there. But if they make the post-season, they're my team. Hands down ... And, please, can the Cardinals do the same thing to the Braves? Pretty please? ... Before anyone concedes the AL West to the San Diego Chargers, let's see the Oakland Raiders play a few more games. Somebody, apparently, forgot to tell them they're supposed to suck. Right now they're 2-1, with a win over the Jets. And if you want to judge them for coughing up a big lead to the Bills, you'll have to judge the Patriots similarly ... I guess Tony Romo gets SOME props for playing with a punctured lung and broken ribs. There. I said it. It was painful, but there it is.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Arms for the poor ... or a Farewell to Arms?

It isn't all that difficult to explain why the Red Sox have gone from a team on pace to win 100 games to one that might not even reach 90.

It comes down to one word: Pitching. Or, in the case of the Red Sox, lack of pitching.

With rare exceptions, and even with some of the team's best hitters fighting through late-season slumps, the Red Sox have scored runs. They scored runs last year, too, when they didn't even win 90 games and couldn't make the playoffs.

The line on them last year was that they couldn't hit good pitching and that's why they came up short. But really, who does hit good pitching? That's why it's ... repeat after me ... good pitching! Because nobody can hit it.

It's no crime to have a quiet day at the plate with C.C. Sabathia or Justin Verlander on the mound. You just have to hope, in those instances, that your pitcher can at least give your side a chance by keeping the Yankees and Tigers off the scoreboard.

Really, the anatomy of this late-season-collapse-in-waiting can be easily explained. Tell me that last time the Red Sox got the early jump? Can you? I'm not sure I can, and I'll be damned if I take five minutes off my life to look it up. Suffice it to say that every time you look up, the Red Sox are losing early in the game. They may come back on some nights ... and they may not. But it's a safe bet that they never score first ... or, at least, haven't very often in the last month and a half.

Their pitching continually puts them behind the eight-ball. Even the ones who belong here, let alone the ones who are only in the rotation because there's no one else healthy enough to throw the ball.

I don't care how good your offense is. If you're constantly playing from behind, and your back end of the bullpen is being lit up like the Griswolds' house on Christmas Eve, then you're not going to win. The 1927 Yankees couldn't score enough runs to overcome that.

Let's examine. Coming out of the chute, the Red Sox had five projected healthy major league starters: Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Clay Buccholz and Daisuke Matzusaka.

But the theme song for this staff should be "Ten Little Indians." One by one, they all went down at one point in the season. First it was Daisuke, who had to have Tommy John surgery. Then Lackey went on the DL, ostensibly for some kind of elbow problem, but more likely because of the mental anguish he's been suffering due to his wife's illness.

OK. Let's cut him some slack here. We're all human beings, and we're all affected by what goes on around us. And you'd have to be abnormally tough not to let your wife's cancer, and the issues surrounding it, creep into your psyche and make you less effective at your job.

Now, some people might be. Lackey, clearly, is not. In fact, Lackey, even before his wife got sick, is one of those guys who crumbles like a stale cracker the minute something goes wrong. You can see it. He puts on a face, goes into all these body contortions, and you can just tell he's rapidly coming undone. The Sox have had lots of pitchers recently with the ability to shrug these things off and refocus. Not Lackey. the minute he, or someone else, makes a mistake, that's his cue to stomp around, gesture, make a face, and then exacerbate the problem.

I don't know how much fun it is to play behind someone like that, but it sure as hell isn't any fun to watch.

Lackey's had his moments. But not many. So when he pitches, the onus is on the offense to put up a lot of runs. But what's a lot? Eight? That's how many they put up for him last time out, and he couldn't hold that lead.

Buccholz? Lost year. To me, he's the key to the whole thing. Considering he's probably missed about 12 starts now (at least), let's speculate that with the offense this team has, and his 3.64 ERA, the team probably would have won nine of them. Not sure how many they won with the rag-tag group of arms that took his place, but I'm betting it wasn't that many. It could very well be that this thing would be over now with a healthy Buccholz. There would have been no Andrew Miller, and some of the other stiffs who have been thrown in there because of the Sox' paucity of pitchers.

Thirty or forty years ago, you asked your starter to go seven or eight innings, and perhaps even nine. Whatever Tony LaRussa was doing in the 1960s, he wasn't re-inventing pitching, and running guys in and out of there three/four times an inning depending on matchups.

But since that's where we are with pitching, all we're asking the starter to do is go six-seven innings. Seven is ideal. Six is more the norm, unless his pitch count is low. Now, we have specialists for the last three innings, and when everything is set up properly one guy each pitches the last three innings.

The Red Sox signed Bobby Jenks for the seventh inning. Obviously that didn't work out. They tried to Matt Albers in that role after some of their other ones didn't pan out. No dice. They had a lefty who could come in to get tough left-handed hitters out (Rich Hill) but he blew out his elbow the same time Daisuke did, with the same result. So, basically, they had no lefty-on-lefty pitcher all season.

The top two guys, Beckett and Lester, pretty much held up their end of the bargain until about a month ago, and then even they started breaking down. I'm really baffled about this. There was some speculation that the Red Sox aren't in very good shape, and there may be some credence to that, especially among the pitchers. It just seems awfully strange that all five of them suffered major injuries this year, and that Lester, in particular, all of a sudden can't find home plate with a GPS.

Something is amiss here. And with all the finger-pointing going on, you have to wonder why pitching coach Curt Young seems to be getting a pass here. Aren't pitching coaches supposed to be able to take guys like Daniel Bard aside and detect flaws in their delivery so that they don't go three or four games in a row just totally stinking out the joint? Aren't they supposed to be able to take Lester on a side session or two and knock heads to figure out why a guy who was among the best pitchers in baseball the last two years all of a sudden can't locate his pitches and ends up going deep into almost every count?

I mean, what else is the guy getting paid for?

While the offense cannot be totally exonerated, let's be real. These pitchers, and this bullpen, do what they're suppose to do, which is throw strikes and get outs, this race is over and we're talking about a team that's poised to win about 95 games. The entire conversation is altered.

And what does all this prove? It proves, once again, that you can never ... again, repeat after me ... never, ever, ever, EVER, have enough pitching.

Seems like anybody who knows anything about baseball should have figured that out by now.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

... As If We Could Ever Forget

I'm not sure it's possible for anyone who remembers September 11, 2001, to forget. It's still to fresh in our minds. There have been a handful of events in my life where I remember exactly what I was doing when they happened: JFK's assassination; the announcement on national TV by Howard Cosell that John Lennon had been shot; the explosion of the Challenger shuttle; and 9/11.

This isn't to grade the events by significance. Obviously the mass slaughter of 3,000 innocent people carries more weight than the gunning down of one person, even if he was an icon to people of my era. But these events, regardless of their significance in the overall big picture, are indelibly etched into my brain as four moments when the sheer horror of what I was hearing, seeing, and -- even if vicariously -- experiencing left me speechless.

I was only 10 when JFK was shot, and being that young, I didn't understand the big picture. All I knew was that the president was dead. There was no real big picture with Lennon and the Challenger. They were enormous tragedies to be sure, but their context was limited to the visceral reaction to their occurrences. There were no long-term ramification to Lennon's death that went beyond the tragically-enough knowledge that an important voice in our lives had been silenced needlessly and senselessly.

Sept. 11, 2001, was different. I'm not even sure, 10 years later, that the big picture has totally emerged. It's as if someone thrust an extremely difficult, obtuse Rorschach Test on us and demanded, on the spot, that we interpret it. There were so many ways to go, the real question, back on that day, was "where do you begin?"

At the beginning, of course. Strip away all those questions and you have the initial shock of watching it unfold. And on that day, as well as the few days and weeks that followed, I submit that it was impossible to do any kind of critical analysis about lessons we may have learned from it, or the reasons it happened, or the geopolitical implications of it. It was enough simply to digest the horror.

We may have thought we could do it, but looking back, it was unrealistic to think that, as a nation, we could have come up with a suitable response. And I think that's one of the faults of the American psyche: that we want these solutions now ... chop! chop! He who waits somehow waffles.

That kind of shock takes months to absorb. We woke up on Sept. 11, 2001, worrying about how much gasoline cost. And on the east coast, we had a plethora of shark attacks off the coast that dominated the news. Congressman Gary Condit was embroiled in the scandal surrounding Chandra Levy. The Red Sox had already begun their annual September decline (which, I'm happy to report, continues to be a trend in 2011).

Myself, I was recovering from blood poisoning and was still home, recuperating from a recent hospital stay. At 9 a.m. every day, on one of the local cable TV stations, I watched reruns of the old Perry Mason TV show. I set my body clock to them.

I believe it was about 8:57 when I checked into the Today Show on NBC ... just in time to hear that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Oh, God, I thought. What kind of a stupid, idiotic pilot can't steer a plane away from two buildings that stick out like buck teeth in reverse on the southern tip of Manhattan?

I was curious to see what fool had done this ... and how much damaged he caused. I assumed it was a "he," at least.

When I saw, it was instant disbelief. This was no single-engine prop job ... not from the looks of that fire. And again, not being able to put two and two together adequately, I could think of was "oh, no, people are going to die because some pilot, or some air traffic controller, screwed the pooch. Heads are going to roll!

Then ...

It was right there before my eyes. I saw the plane come into the picture, and I remember saying to myself, "wouldn't you think they'd have rerouted air traffic away from that area until they could figure out how a plane could be steered so tragically wrong?"

Then, I saw the explosion. And that that point, there was no doubt. No ambiguity. My son was standing there, watching with me, and I said -- I know, the ultimate "d'uh" moment -- "you know what this is, don't you? This is a terrorist attack. Somebody's grabbed these airplanes and they're flying them all into buildings."

It wasn't long afterward that we'd learned that both of the planes that hit the towers took off from Boston. And again, in these moments, you don't have a filter. I didn't think of whether MassPort was incompetent. All I could think of was that Logan Airport is only about six or seven miles as the crow flies from my house, and that my wife worked in a building that was literally right across the Boston Harbor from the control tower.

Part of me knew that whatever nuts had hijacked these planes and caused this much carnage were dead ... but there was another part of me that felt as if they were right next door to me. Those are the things that creep into your mind when these things happen. Rationality is out of the question.

The rest of the day was a blur. My wife's office evacuated, and she ended up taking a cab home from Boston because the subway line that runs past the airport -- the one she took to get to and from work -- had been shut down. We just sat and watch events unfold, from rumors that a truck bomb had blown up across from the state department, to the tragedy at the Pentagon, to the crash of Flight 93 in Shanksville, PA ... all of it ... to watching the towers collapse. And do you know what the first rational thought I had was? It was that, my God, the world just got much, much smaller.

I also remembered what a priest from my parish said to me after the Oklahoma City bombings of 1995. He said that there was no way on earth anyone could possibly justify such indiscriminate murder. It was horrible enough that 3,000-plus people died. That it was so random, and indiscriminate, and that it was perpetrated not by a natural event, or an accident, but a massive conspiracy, was unspeakable.

Americans had always thought we were impervious to this kind of an assault. We've probably fought more wars (if you were to take a ratio of the age of the nation to the wars it has fought) than almost any other country on the planet. Yet it hadn't been since Pearl Harbor (and technically at the time Hawaii was not a U.S. state but but merely a territory) that any of the battles were fought on U.S. soil. Before Pearl Harbor, you had to go all the way back to the Civil War to find similar carnage.

And as events continued to unfold, and we heard that these terrorists who had been training right in front of our noses had done this to us ... that just added insult to the horror. Unknowingly, we were complicit in this (and I say this only in the loosest sense possible; this type of attack wasn't uppermost on anyone's mind).

So far, the theme here has been that the shock of seeing this happen, and experiencing the loss of people you knew, prevented us from thinking rationally. Before you can do that, you have to absorb the impact. If someone hits you in the stomach hard enough, you probably have to wait until you can breathe again before you worry about hitting him back.

There's no point in rehashing all the things that happened once we got our feet out from under us. Because by then, we'd moved past the initial shock and grief and into the realm of the political. I won't say I agreed with everything the U.S. did in response to 9/11, but I won't say I disagreed with it all either. And that's fine. I don't trust people who acquiesce on issues simply because that's what the party line dictates. Each situation has its unique solution, and if you tie yourself down to the same ideology and dogma every time, you do nothing but rob yourself of the opportunity to arrive at a truly measured, creative response. Sad to say, it doesn't appear as if many of my countrymen feel the same way on that.

Ten years later, my initial cogent reaction is still my strongest: This is a much, much smaller world than it used to be. You'd have to see that if a group as nomadic as Al Qaida could inflict as much damage on the U.S. as it did. Advances in communication and technology have made this a world as small, figuratively, as the state of Rhode Island.

The internet is a double-edged sword. One of its assets is anonymity, which is also one of its evils. All you need to do is go on any one of a number of hate sites to see that people who don't have to use their names to spew invective and vitriol can be pretty damn brave.

There are more shades of gray now than there ever were. There's ambiguity in everything. There are no absolutes ... or damn few, anyway. One man's hero is another man's villain. It all depends on your perspective.

Ten years and one day ago, we were oblivious to a lot of these feelings. Whether we should ever have been so naive, or so oblivious is another story entirely. But we were.

As the day segued into night ... and further segued back into Sept. 12, 2001, all I could think of was the final line from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner:" "A sadder but a wiser man, I 'rose the morrow morn."

Friday, September 2, 2011

Labor Day Musings

Happy Labor Day Weekend, everyone.
Labor Day is easily the most bittersweet holiday of the year. For while it introduces the month that has perhaps the most spectacularly great weather of the entire year in the northeast, it also draws the curtain down on summer, and reminds us that uncompromising cold is not very far away.

But, as they say, let's enjoy the moment. We have September and October -- two absolutely gorgeous months, generally -- ahead of us before we have to start worrying about freezing to death. Right?

Anyway, let's begin ...


I've been catching up with an old friend (and by old, I mean we haven't communicated but for a few emails in almost 30 years) recently. We made friends the first day of college (on orientation day, actually) and remained so for the five years (and beyond) we were at Northeastern University in Boston.

Fern was always a challenging person when it came to debating and discussing issues. We could never totally agree on anything. I've never considered myself conservative, by any stretch, but compared to her, I'm Dick Cheney.

Fern, who grew up in New Jersey, is now a Californian. And as such, probably more used to unstable ground than I am. So when the east coast had a 5.8 earthquake last week (more on that later), she emailed me out of the blue to ask me about it.

It was great to hear from her, and we've been emailing back and forth since. Over the course of our correspondence, I told her how much I idolized the author John Irving, and she told me how much she idolized Paul McCartney.

OK. I took that as a cue that we were going to discuss Paul's indelible contributions to baby-boom culture, so I sent her back a long, convoluted email outlining my self-appointed expertise on the subject.

I got one back basically telling me to stop being so convoluted and high-falutin', and that her idolatry for "Macca" began when she was 10 because he was the cute Beatle.

And it reminded me. At the end of the day, and despite everything that happened with the Fabs in the ensuing years, our first, and perhaps lasting, memory of them is of four mop-tops who shook their hair all over the place when they sang, and whose most profound lyrics might have been, "yeah, yeah, yeah."

It's easy to forget that. They may have grown into cultural phenomena, but they began as the cute one, the sarcastic one, the quiet one, and the guy on the drums with the big honker.

I guess you can't over-analyze that.


It also occurred to me that 10-year-old guys did not look at, say, Dusty Springfield and Petula Clark the same way as little girls looked at the Beatles. It's hard, when you're 10, to get all worked up over women twice your age. My first celebrity crush -- if you want to call it that -- came a few years later when I was debating as to whether I'd want to kiss Ginger or Maryanne (and believe me, it was "kiss." Not anything else).


I wouldn't know who Chaz Bono was were it not for the sex change procedure he's undergoing. I vaguely remember that there was even a Chastity Bono. And the only reason why that registers is that I really think that people who give their kids such strange names ought to be put in a room so that the rest of us can slap them around for a while.

But Chaz is going to be on "Dancing with the Stars" this fall. Now, the obvious question is when did Chaz Bono become a star? It's the same question I asked when Bristol Palin got her turn to spin around the dance floor. Other than getting pregnant when she was 16 and having a relationship with the father right out of Dogpatch, what did she ever do to become a star? Just because she's Sarah's daughter?

My only reaction is that we've set the bar quite low lately for defining the word "star."

That said, the reaction to Chaz being on the show -- not to mention the reaction to the reaction -- is certainly interesting, if not exactly eye-opening.

I do not watch Dancing with the Stars. Couldn't care less about it. And Chaz being on the show isn't going to make me watch either. I hate all that stuff ... American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, America's Got Talent ... (though I thought it was great that Kirstie Alley lasted as long as she did on the show).

First, to the producers of Dancing With The Stars: Chaz's story is compelling. No question. Him being on the show brings this story to light even more than it's been exposed already; and it perhaps entices more viewers as well.

Well, if you're going to put yourself on the line like that, then deal with the fallout. Because only an idiot wouldn't expect any. You can't have it both ways.

To the moralists out there who think that Chaz's appearance on the show is somehow sending the wrong message to kids: Please. The whole show's a circus. The only way Chaz would send the wrong message to kids is if he wore a sign around himself saying, "I'm transgender, and I'm lovin' it." And even then, what's the wrong message?

It makes me wonder when, in this country, are we simply going to allow people to be happy with who they are? When are we going to wake up and understand that as long as Chaz Bono (and others like him) isn't careening through life causing large-scale misery and mayhem, why should anybody be concerned about his lifestyle?

It brings to mind the whole gay marriage issue. I've always rejected the notion that gay marriage somehow destroys the sanctity of the institution. No it doesn't. The strength of the institution, at its most pure, comes down to two people who love each other, and whether they can sustain that love over a lifetime. Gay, straight, transgender ... what's the difference? Love is love ... happiness is happiness.

Leave them alone. And leave Chaz alone. I'm sure the process he went through to even arrive at the decision to have a sex change was tortuous enough.

And finally, this is the very definition of irony. We're talking about dancing. Theater. Entertainment. Or, to be as delicate as I can possibly be about the subject, one of the most nurturing environments in the entire country for gays and transsexuals. I wonder whether these armchair moralists out there have any idea, when or if they go to the theater, how many of the people they're watching may also be gays or transsexuals?

We'd need one paramedic for every 10 of them!


I promised more earthquake/hurricane talk. Well, when that earthquake hit, we were sitting in the theater that contains the massive diorama of the Battle of Gettysburg. Part of the production involves simulated artillery fire that is pretty vivid in its realism (it is said that the artillery barrage was so loud during the gunfight preceding Pickett's Charge on Little Roundtop that it could be heard as far as away as Philadelphia).

As we were preparing to listen to the presentation, the ground shook intensely for about 10 seconds. We looked around, a bit puzzled. There are no subways in Gettysburg (the usual reason the ground would shake in the middle of the day), and the train station's on the other end of town from where all the historical museums are.

With no other explanation forthcoming, we just figured that it was a bit of simulation to get us prepared for what was to follow. We saw the display, never giving it a thought (and yes, the artillery simulation was quite vivid). But when the show ended, someone who works at the museum came in to tell us, that the ground shaking was a 5.8 earthquake.

There was no damage. In fact, the only residual effect of the quake, in southern Pennsylvania, at least, was that we couldn't use our cellphones to make calls for almost two hours. We could text, however, and email through our Blackberys. But no calls.

Needless to say, there were countless texts sent back and forth to ensure all the folks up in Boston that we were OK.

The best line from the whole thing was from my friend Nancy in Minnesota, who emailed me, "well, you certainly felt the earth move, didn't you?"


And not only did we get to experience an earthquake while we were in Pennsylvania, we got chased home by a storm ... Hurricane Irene.

First of all, can I just say that people who whine and complain that the storm was a bust, and that it was overhyped, maybe ought to move to Vermont. I'm sure the people up there would disagree. The state -- which is one of the most pristinely gorgeous in the entire country -- is a mess. Roads washed out ... bridges collapsed ... massive flooding ... a genuine tragedy. There are ton of people along the east coast who still don't have power, and it's been almost a week since the storm hit.

So let's stop talking about how overhyped this storm was. If there's a problem, it's that all storms are overhyped ... so much so that when the forecasters are actually right about one of them, nobody takes them seriously.

Thankfully, my little corner of the earth didn't get the worst of Hurricane Irene. This isn't to say we came through unscathed. There are lots of downed trees and power outages in metropolitan Boston too. But it could have been worse.

In fact, my worst experience with Irene came not on the day when the storm was supposed to be at its height -- in our case last Sunday -- but the day before, when we were driving home from Philadelphia. Even though we'd heard that there would be only "showers" on Saturday, the word "showers" didn't do justice to what actually happened.

It didn't just rain. And it didn't just pour. I don't even know if there's a word for what it was. I guess the best way to describe it is that there was a wall of water so thick you couldn't see. Were it not for the lines on the Mass. Pike, I'd have had no idea where I was. Thankfully, through all that water, I could see the highway lines as they came upon me, and could also see the tail lights -- barely -- of the car in front of me.

But some people are just idiots. We're talking so much rain in such a short period of time that there was nowhere for the water to go. Even the Mass. Pike was a river, especially the left and right lanes. The center lane wasn't as bad, and that's where I stayed!!

But there were people who just went speeding through those puddles like it was 80 and sunny. And one of them poured so much water on my car that, for a few seconds, I felt as if I was going through a carwash. I couldn't see anything.

That was scary. And that was also the worst it got for the rest of the weekend.


Four and a half hours to play nine innings, with only six runs scoring? That's what happened Thursday at Fenway when the Red Sox and Yankees wrapped up their three-game series.

There's no excuse for this.

I don't know when throwing a strike became such a project, but Major League umpires are going to have to relax the strike zone a little bit. It was the same for both sides Thursday.

I really have to congratulate the umpire on his pinpoint eyesight. Either that, or suggest he get another job, or stronger glasses. There's no in between. Either he was so "on" the plate that he could tell the difference between a ball hitting the outside corner and one a hair of an inch off, or he was just being a jerk (I'd use a different word, but Lord knows what armchair moralist may read this and suggest I'm sending a bad message to someone).

My guess is No. 2.

Then, he calls Adrian Gonzalez out on a pitch that was low and outside ... and a ball every other time he saw it.

And I'm beginning to see the wisdom of timing pitchers and batters between pitches. This stepping out, stepping off, rumba is getting absurd. Throw the ball. Get in there and hit.


No real way to end this, except to say it's been a nice, although short, summer. Not as warm as last year's perhaps (I'm not one of these people who complains about the heat).

We somehow missed June entirely, and August was up-and-down, weather-wise. But July was one for the books. With any luck, we'll have a seasonal fall and a much milder winter than we did last year, when it snowed enough to make me think we were in the Arctic.

My most vivid memory of last winter was watching my son shovel off my roof ... and then seeing him limping around with back pain for a month afterward!!

No repeats, please.