Monday, October 31, 2011

Problems with the Patriots?

Sunday wasn't a banner day in Patriots Nation. The Pittsburgh Steelers had the ball almost twice as long as the Pats in a 25-17 loss; and the fact that the game was even as close as the final score indicates is due more to the Steelers' ineptitude in the red zone than anything the Patriots did.

But let's be real. Before the season started, we had this one circled as a loss. At least I did.

You know how that goes. You examine the schedule and go right down the line ... win, lose, win, lose ... etc.

Thus far, I'm off one. I had them at 6-1 to this point, losing only to the Steelers. I had them at 13-3 for the season, losing only to the Jets at the Meadowlands, Pittsburgh and the Philadelphia Eagles. Maybe that was optimistic, especially after they lost in Buffalo.

But honestly, do you see anyone on their schedule the rest of the way, other than Philadelphia, who scares you? The Giants? They could barely beat Miami.

I'm confident the Bills will come up here and lose ... and that the Patriots will easily defeat Miami wherever they play. I don't see Denver (and Tim Tebow) posing much of a threat, nor do I worry too much about the Washington Redskins ... who would appear to be done before they even reach the halfway point.

It's possible the Kansas City Chiefs could give them a game. They look as if they've turned the corner a little. But I'm counting on the Patriots' knowledge of Matt Cassel to carry the day.

So seriously? I say 12-4, which should be more than enough to make the playoffs and possibly win the AFC East.

The problem, however, is that once the Patriots get past these next two weeks, and can coast to the end of the season (except for Kansas City and Philadelphia), another problem looms. The playoffs.

In golf, you drive for show; you putt for dough. In baseball, you may win a lot of games on your offense, but good pitching will always beat good hitting. And bad pitching turns all-stars into losers.

Didn't we just see that? The Red Sox, for all the glitter in their batting order, lost because their starters forgot how to pitch. The Texas Rangers pulled a World Series fold reminiscent of the 1986 Red Sox because their relievers couldn't get anyone out when they needed to.

In football, offense may win you games, and even get you into the playoffs. But once you're there, you'd better have a mean, intimidating defense. And that, my friends, the Patriots do not have.

The Patriots have not won a playoff game since they beat San Diego in 2008 to make the Super Bowl, where they lost to the Giants primarily because New York had a snarling, mean, intimidating front four who could get after Tom Brady and make him do things he did not like to do (not to mention one fabulously lucky catch).

The reasons the Patriots haven't won are simple. Their defense isn't mean enough to win playoff football. Over the course of 16 games, they play enough bad teams so that their offense can overcome the defense's mediocrity. Plus, they've reached a point in their history, especially at home, where teams play scared against them (see Dallas Cowboys, Oct. 16).

There are enough bad teams on the Patriots' schedule that they should win 11 or 12 games even with this defense. But they don't play the Baltimore Ravens or Cincinnati Bengals, both of whom have shown signs of having fierce defenses; and and if they play the Steelers again, it'll be in Pittsburgh again, unless the Steelers come down with the plague between now and then).

This spells trouble. Teams with even decent defenses beat them. Why? Because the Patriots' defenses can't stop ordinary offenses from accomplishing great things.

The Pats are 5-2, but lets examine that. They beat Miami (which no one else seems to have any trouble doing either), San Diego (the Chargers always find a way to lose up here), the Jets (somehow, if the Jets are still hanging around in January, their offense won't be in the same disarray it was earlier this season), the Oakland Raiders (which I thought, at the time, was a pretty good victory), and the Cowboys (who should have won the game, and would have had they not played scared). In every one of those games (even against Dallas), the defense had trouble getting off the field.

The Patriots, even when they were winning Super Bowls, always kept the other team's offense on the field for long periods of time. Rarely did they ever dominate the possession game. As Brady's career progressed, the Patriots morphed from being sort of a ball-control team to being one that lived and died with the big strike. That became very apparent when they signed Randy Moss.

They had a defense back then that lived and died with big plays too. Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison, Mike Vrabel, et al ... their forte was coming up with the right play at the right times. Perhaps way back in the beginning, when Richard Seymour was younger and not so prone to injury, that front four was imposing. But as time wore on, that defense relied on the instincts of its big play makers.

However, guys like Bruschi, Harrison, Vrabel, Teddy Johnson, Roman Pfeifer, Ry Law, and the rest, don't grow on trees. They are special. What makes them good is some combination of physical ability and smarts.

Same with Troy Brown. He was never most physically gifted guy the Patriots ever had. But he was smart. And he -- like the other aforementioned players -- knew how to win. They got it. They understood where they were supposed to be, when they were supposed to be there, and what they were supposed to do once they got there.

Did Rodney Harrison ever take a bad angle on a ball, or a tackle? Doubtful. Did Law? Never.

Here's what I think: For six or seven years in the 2000s, the Patriots had something unique on defense. They had a special group of guys whose skills meshed with each other like a well-oiled piece of machinery. Whatever egos they had, they managed to submerge for the betterment of the team. That sounds trite, but the art of ego self-management is far easier said than done.

And try as Bill Belichick might, he probably will never get that combination of selfless-but-talented defenders ever again. Ever. That defense has to be taken apart and put back together from scratch. It needs some sort of cohesive theme to it, which it doesn't have now.

What the Patriots defense is is patchwork group of aging veterans -- castoffs, really -- who can't contribute on the field the way they used to; and a group of either inexperienced or overrated kids who just aren't cutting it. Of that group, only Jerod Mayo could take his place among the NFL elite at his position.

Here's where I think Belichick has a quandary going for himself: If he just decides to chuck it and rebuild through the draft, he runs the risk of depriving Brady that fourth Super Bowl championship ... the one that would really, truly cement his legacy as one of the all-time greats (though he may already be in that category now). Belichick may come across as an unsentimental sour old churl, but if you know anything about him, you know he has tremendous loyalty toward those who have been loyal to him.

Rather than just release Bruschi, he gave him the chance to announce his retirement with dignity and then praised him effusively when the time came. He did the same for Troy Brown.

And he should have. Bruschi and Brown were two football players. There was nothing about either of them that would a scout take notice. You had to see them over the long haul to appreciate what they brought to the team.

Brady is one better. He is another loyal soldier to Belichick who also happens to be among the smartest and most talented quarterbacks of his era. If Belichick feels as if he owes Brady his best efforts to get him another championship, well, it's easy enough to understand. That relationship has had mutual benefits. Each has turned the other into a legend.

But we've seen this so many times ... especially in Boston. The Celtics, for years, tried to patch up the holes in the wall in order to get Larry Bird another ring. And they're close to doing it again to get Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen another taste of it (though Danny Ainge screwed that one up last winter royally).

This is one of the reasons teams eventually lose their edges. They become too attached to stars who may have a year or two beyond their peak, trying everything they can to get them that one, last ride to glory. But it doesn't work that often (John Elway being one glaring exception to the rule).

Most of the time, all it does is set the team back. Can anyone say the Minnesota Vikings are better off for having given Brett Favre an extra two years? How did the Kansas City Chief make out with Joe Montana?

At least the Boston Bruins did the smart thing (though it hurt to see him go) and traded Ray Bourque to a team that seemed to be on its way toward winning a Stanley Cup.

I don't know what the answer is, except to say that's why Belichick gets the big bucks ... to make these kinds of decisions. It does take the wisdom of Solomon to figure it all out, doesn't it?

Judging from what we saw Sunday in Pittsburgh, the Patriots will win 11 or 12 games, they'll make the playoffs ... may even win the AFC East ... and then struggle because they'll be facing teams that play defense.

There's nothing mysterious about any of this. It's football. Offense fills seats. Defense wins championships.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Idle baseball chatter ...

Idle chatter while wondering when baseball became a winter sport ...

One of the worst aspects of the World Series in this era is watching baseball players run around dressed like they're about to take part in the Iditarod.

I can't watch this. Seeing Game 1 of this year's series in St. Louis gave me the same feeling I get when I see the movie Fargo on TV. It could be 90 degrees, with matching humidity, and I go running for a quilt when I see Frances McDormand and all those crazy accents coming at me.

I remember the first two games of the 2004 series at Fenway, when nighttime temperatures hit the low 40s, with drizzle to match. Game 2, the second of the two Curt Schilling Bloody Sock Stigmata affairs, was so bad at the Red Sox, who won it, booted the ball all over the field.

Afterward, someone asked Terry Francona if he should be worried about his team's wretched defense ... an odd question since the Sox won the game pretty handily.

Francona replied that he wasn't ... and that it was tough to really judge anyway since the games are being played in winter.


If Major League Baseball ever sits down long enough to wonder why it has to end its season in midweek, and otherwise tiptoe around the National Football League, it can start by acknowledging that playing night games north of the Mason Dixon Line, in late October, is somewhat like trying to play pond hockey in Miami. The game is absurdly out of its element.

Baseball has enough going against it already. It has no sustained action, it has nuances that are totally lost on an entire generation of people who have grown up with continuous action, whether it's in their sports or their video games, and it's best aspects are both pastoral and cerebral.

It is a sport made for lazy summer days (and nights), and its best attraction might be the warm weather that goes with it. You can put up with the odd chilly April day because you know that better weather's coming.

But frigid nights in late October? Not only is it depressing to watch players with ear flaps coming out of their baseball caps, it's distressing because there's no harbinger of warmer weather. Winter just pounces on us like a sumo wrestler once the final out is made.

Why would you want to reinforce that by putting your showcase event in such horrible elements?

And Major League baseball wants to add another game to this madness? Good luck with that.


I'm watching Josh Hamilton in Game 2, and he's hurting so badly he can barely swing the bat. But he's in there.

Cut to this year's Red Sox team, where J.D. Drew hurt his knuckle and missed a month.

And people wonder why this team hit the skids so badly in September.


David Ortiz now says he wants to come back to the Red Sox. Apparently someone must have pointed out to him that nobody else is going to give him anything close what the Red Sox will pay him to stay.

But let's not bash Ortiz entirely. He's the second Red Sox player in a row to win the Roberto Clemente Award. And while that might not get you far in the game of baseball, it goes a long way in the game of life. Whatever else you can say about Ortiz, you can't question his commitment to give back some of what he's been given.

And for that, he deserves credit and a tip of the hat.


I've never been a big Tony LaRussa fan. When he was with the Athletics, Peter Gammons often acted as a one-man press agent for the man that my sister affectionately calls "Pruneface."

I've been in on a couple of LaRussa post-games, and he's not the friendliest guy around. But that's not why I'm not a fan. He, more than anyone else, turned baseball into a game that approaches four hours to play. He's the guy, more than anyone else, who began this parade of what I call situational pitching that results in three pitching changes in an inning, with the requisite warmups, ad nauseum.

It's stuff like this that makes baseball such a chore to watch, especially if you're stuck in a ballpark in freezing cold Octobers.

But ...

Here he is, in another World Series he has no business being in. The Cardinals were deader than Elvis in August, and their rise to the MLB playoffs mirrored that of Tampa Bay's in the American League. The difference between TLR and Joe Maddon: The Cardinals kept going. The Rays fell hard, for the second straight year, to the Texas Rangers.

I used to laugh every time Gammons sang his praises in a column, because, to me, LaRussa's teams underachieved twice when he was with the A's. They lost in 1988 to a Dodgers team that had about one-fifth the talent his A's had; and they fell again, two years later, to the Cincinnati Reds and Lou Piniella (how hard was that for me? I can't stand the Reds, even though I have always liked Sweet Lou).

In his next foray into the Fall Classic, LaRussa and the Cardinals were cannon fodder for the dramatic rise of the Boston Red Sox, who broke the "Curse of the Bambino" at their expense.

But he redeemed himself in 2006, winning a World Series against another of today's great managers (Jim Leyland), and -- I think, anyway -- is poised to win another one this year (I hope I don't jinx anyone).

So, maybe he's not so bad after all.


Am I the only one around here who wishes Theo Epstein would just go already? Look, the Red Sox won two World Series on his watch, but if you examine it a little bit closer, you'll find that he was nowhere near the principal architect of that first team.

To me, the player who did more to change the culture of that clubhouse in the early 2000s was Johnny Damon, and Dan Duquette brought him in. The Duke also brought us Manny, Padro, Jason Varitek, Derek Lowe, Tim Wakefield and Trot Nixon.

I'd give Theo more props for the 2007 team except that the biggest reason they won, Josh Beckett, was also a product of someone else's watch. The Red Sox made that trade while Epstein -- gorilla suit and all -- was home sulking after having quit in a huff following the 2005 season.

In truth, Theo is no better or no worse than most GMs. His free agent track record is definitely a case of hit or miss ... and the misses have been by a mile.

He's fortunate that he has one of baseball's biggest budgets, and he can always go out and try again without losing too much in the process. But the last two big-money signings (John Lackey and Carl Crawford) have proven disastrous. No amount of money can make up for those.

When the Red Sox and Francona parted ways, the general party line was that managerial gigs don't last forever, and that every now and then you need new blood.

Gee. That's exactly how I feel about Epstein.


I'm picking St. Louis in seven.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

If I were the new Red Sox GM ...

If I got a phone call from Messrs. Henry, Werner and Lucchino asking me become the next general manager of the Red Sox, I'd take the job ... but only if I had absolute carte blanche on making personnel moves (including hiring the manager).

With that guarantee, here is what I'd do ... in order.

I'd make a strong bid to hire Tony Pena as the next manager. He seems to be the candidate best suited for the job. First, he knows what it's like to play here, so he can be a good sounding board for people like Carl Crawford (who isn't going anywhere for the next few years) who seemed intimidated this season by the heightened expectations of a rabid fan base (something Crawford didn't have in Tampa Bay). Second, there is no way Pena would allow idiots like Josh Beckett and John Lackey to get away with the crap they pulled this summer. Third, he has enough cachet around the game to stand up to guys like David Ortiz when they go off on one of their petulant rants. Fourth, he'll hire a pitching coach (I'll give him that privilege) with whom he is on the same page; and fifth, he can probably spot a catcher with major league prospects far better than anyone in that organization can at present.

Next would be a period of reckoning, since my fan base is going to be looking some after this mess of a season. First to go, via trade, is Kevin Youkilis. It's just time for him to move on, and for the Red Sox to do so as well. Youkilis had a few gooid seasons (mostly when he was positioned around some fantastic hitters), and nobody questions his hustle and desire. They do question his personality, though, and I have strong opinions when it comes to surrounding my work environment with jerks.

And to me, Youkilis is a jerk. And if you have to put up with jerks when they're helping you on the field, you don't have to put up with them when they start hitting the downsides of their careers. And this is where Youkilis is now. On the way down. See you later. I'd pull a Dan Duquette and say he's in the twilight of his career, except his career never had enough light associated with it to merit a twilight.

If, in two years, Jacoby Ellsbury makes a bee-line out the door you can blame Youkilis. He's the one who went public last season questioning Ellsbury's manhood, and his loyalty, after he broke five ribs colliding with Adrian Beltre. This insult came after genius Theo -- whom I'm happy to replace, frankly -- had a brainstorm and turned him into a left fielder. If he'd kept him where he was, he probably never would have been injured and maybe the Red Sox are good enough in 2010 to make the playoffs.

Youkilis comes across as petulant, moody, impatient, and temperamental. If this team appears unlikeable, he's one of the reasons why. We don't have to be singing Kumbaya all the time, but, come on, I don't want you to be throwing people to the wolves either.

In my world, the Red Sox need to build, position player-wise, around three people in the coming years: Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez and Ellsbury (I'd say Crawford, too, but getting his head straightened out will be the No. 1 in-house project for this offseason, and for 2012, and until we do that, he can't be one of the building blocks).

I question whether Ellsbury will even be here in two years, considering all the indignities he's suffered, but I'd be willing to work on him. He's worth the effort, believe me.

As Part Two of the reckoning, I'd first try to trade John Lackey, and I'd accept anything all the way down to a bag of used baseballs in return, and, if I got no takers, just flat-ass release him. Realistically, we're going to have to eat this contract, and it'll taste as bad as turnips on Thanksgiving (the only time I ever had to eat them growing up, and even then, I resisted). But it has to be done. There is no way on God's green earth I'd ever allow him to set foot in my clubhouse again. I'd have to allow him on my field if whatever team unfortunate enough to have him plays a game here, but I'd put bouncers at the door to keep him out of the clubhouse.

It's one thing to pitch as badly as he did this season. But to as miserable a person as he appeared to be? I'd rather have my teeth drilled than watch him pitch another year.

Reckoning Part Three: Trade Josh Beckett. This will be difficult. Not that I don't think he's marketable. Of course he is. But getting rid of him will mean getting rid of whatever potential for greatness he has left in him.

I'm sure it's out there. He could very well do what Roger Clemens did and rejuvenate his career by leaving here. Fine. That's a risk I'll take. You know how I don't like jerks? I dislike people who disrespect their professions even more. He was supposed to be a leader on this pitching staff. Some leader he turned out to be. I guess in one way, he was. He was the leader of a pitching staff that averaged less than five innings per start from Sept. 1 on. He was the leader of a pitching staff that, when the going got tough, they got soft.

You know what, Josh? Go drink beer on someone else's dime (not to mention time). Not mine. I'm sure there are a few KFC's in Kansas City, or Seattle, or Pittsburgh, or wherever else I might ship your ass off to. You're not going to do that here.

This, I know, leaves us even more pitching-thin than we are now (and judging from September, that's pretty damn thin). I'm not counting on Daisuke Matsuzaka, although I kind of feel obligated to invite him back just to see if there's any way he can help us.

But as for Beckett, I don't care. You have to have standards, and I should think hoisting a few cold ones while chomping on KFC grease would violate even the most basic standards. Beckett, at his age, should know better. The fact that he doesn't is quite alarming, and makes one wonder whether he'll ever get it, and become anything more than a loose cannon.

We go on. The next two moves are hard because of their sentimental value to the team. I release Tim Wakefield and Jason Varitek.

Varitek is done. Finite. I never understood how you could have your captain's main function on the team be a personal catcher for Josh "Double Down" Beckett. That's got to end. Every August, just when you need it the most, the local undertaker holds a wake for Varitek's bat (both his and Youkilis' bat are usually deader than Elvis during the stretch run).

And, really, what kind of a captain is he? He certainly couldn't do what a captain is supposed to do: be part of the self-policing force that should have jolted the Red Sox out of their September freefall. So, again, what is the value of keeping him?

It'll hurt to let Wakefield go. He's been the absolute prototype loyal soldier on this team. He's earned whatever accolades he's received over the years, and where I might expel more than a few of these guys from my foxhole, I'd want him in mine if I ever found myself in one.

But he's going to be 46. Last year, we depended on a 45-year-old man to be part of the starting rotation and watched as he painfully fumbled his way to his 200th career victory. It was right up there with waterboarding in the torture department.

I just feel as if I have to remove him from the equation for no other reason than to keep myself from depending him as "the insurance policy" ever again. If Progressive Insurance was that undependable, that hideous looking woman on TV wouldn't have a job!

Those would be my five "messages" to the rest of these guys that whatever bullshit went on in 2011 would not be looked upon kindly in 2012.

Moving forward, I'd next summon the following players to meet with myself and Mr. Pena: Crawford, Gonzalez, Ellsbury, Jonathan Papelbon, Daniel Bard, David Ortiz and Jon Lester.

I'd let Pena work on Crawford. I'll tell Tony "he's all yours." Whatever has to say, or do, he has to let Crawford know that we don't want him to be Babe Ruth, or Reggie Jackson, Mark Teixeira, or whoever he thought he was supposed to be. We just want him to be Carl Crawford. That's enough.

All I want to say to Gonzalez is this: The next time you bitch about having to play ballgames on Sunday nights, I'll make sure I ship you to some team where nobody cares when you play. There are plenty of them. I'd remind him that the only reason the Boston Red Sox can afford to pay him whatever salary he's getting is because they command a large national following, which translates in to TV ratings and a rabid fan base, which translates into money, a lot of which is going in his pocket.

So it wouldn't kill him to be a little grateful and to shut up about when the games are. Thank you. That's all. Have a nice flight home. See you in February.

I'd tell Ellsbury that we we want to tear up his contract and renegotiate a new one now. I am going to do everything short of selling him shares of the team to keep him here. He is the most exciting player we've had here in years, and there's no way I'm going watch him leave here and put on another team's uniform without one hell of a fight.

The message to Papelbon and Bard is pretty simple: I am going to hire the best trainers and conditioning coaches I can find, consult the best nutritionists in the business (and I know one of the best in the business, too), and I expect them both to study and learn, so that come August and September of next season, they'll have enough gas in the tank not to fade and blow important ballgames down the stretch.

(In all seriousness, with the wealth of knowledge we have about conditioning and nutrition in the 21st century it is beyond appalling how many of these guys were flat-ass out of shape come September, and I'm not talking about the "Pound That Budweiser" club only).

Speaking of Papelbon, Bard didn't do much to convince me that he's ready to be the closer. Ergo, I have to think about getting Papelbon signed to a deal. Closers with his makeup, not to mention his willingness to be accountable, aren't that common.

Ortiz' would be a brief conversation too. Big Papi is part of the local lore. More than any other member the 2004 and 2007 Red Sox (except for maybe Johnny Damon and Kevin Millar, who were only around for one of the championships), Ortiz encapsulated the joie de vivre of that bunch. He became a civic institution, and is still enough of one today that when he went into his horrendous slump two years ago, he got a ridiculously free pass from the fans. Also, he's one of the few "steroid poster boys" who managed to outlive the scandal and emerge relatively unscathed.

Papi needs to remember this the next time he pops off and interrupts the manager's pre-game press briefing over a disputed RBI (as if one is going to make that much of a difference). And he needs to remember that when, and if, the Red Sox ever name him pitching coach, he can make recommendations to the manager about whether Alfredo Acevas should be a starter or a reliever. Otherwise, STFU.

Cutting ties with Ortiz, even now, would be too painful a reminder of all that went wrong this year. He still has enough cachet for me to consider re-signing bringing him back. I'd convey all this to him, with the caveat that if he feels that compelled to go elsewhere to lower his blood pressure from all the drama, it would be advisable to ponder how many teams would pay what we'll pay him just for staying.

Lester ... boy ... we're going to make this one an old-fashioned trip to the woodshed. Stepping out of my role as the new Red Sox GM, and speaking strictly as a fan, I really want to know where he gets off being in such open defiance of a manager who nurtured him as if he was his own son. What would ever possess John Lester to violate professional protocol that badly? I mean, what nerve! This is a guy we bled for (in the spiritual sense) in 2006 when he was diagnosed with cancer. This is a guy we cheered for with abandon the following year when he pitched (and won) Game 4 of the World Series. Terry Francona made it a point to put it that way.

We stood on the seats at Fenway Park and felt as if one of our own had pitched that no-hitter in 2008. He was such a great story.

To hear that he's among the KFC Keggers is so disappointing and discouraging there aren't any words to say about it. It's the type of thing that leaves you feeling hollow, and makes you wonder why you pour so much of your energy and emotion into such over-privileged, over-indulged, and over-entitled jerks.

Stepping back into my role as GM, this is exactly the sentiment I'd relay to Jon Lester. John Lackey may be the physical manifestation of all that is wrong with professional athletes, and Josh Beckett may be the physical manifestation of all that was wrong with this team, but Jon Lester is the moral and spiritual manifestation of what it means to let people down who lived and died with you, and who believed in you as strongly as Terry Francona did. He needs to know that, and he needs someone to tell him in no uncertain terms the damage he did to himself, and his fans, in 2011. I'll take this on gladly.

I'm also going to tell him that we think that he's basically a decent guy with a decent work ethic, but that we don't see him as a leader (obviously) just yet. AND I'm going to tell him that we're looking to find a veteran pitcher with just enough left in the tank to contribute, but whose main function is to teach him how to be a leader. If Lester considers that "hiring a babysitter," so be it. Apparently he still needs one.

I read an article years ago about how Don Mattingly worked Derek Jeter when Jeter came up to the club. Mattingly, one of the classiest Yankees ever, taught Jeter how to be a Major League ballplayer, and he obviously taught him well. That's what Lester needs now. He needs someone with Mattingly's respect for the game to teach him how to be the ace of a pitching staff.

As for personnel, all I ever intend to say to Pedroia is that while we don't necessarily believe in putting the "C" on someone's jersey, if there is a captain, it's him ... and that while I believe in the "one chief" system Dick Williams used so many years ago, Petie has both mine and Pena's carte blanche to assert whatever leadership he feels he has to in that clubhouse. Those who chafe at it will be told to deal with it. If everyone played the game the way Pedroia plays it, we'd be on our way to the World Series.

I feel Lester and Clay Buchholz make a pretty good one-two combo on the mound. We obviously need more, and since -- judging from the parade of limp-armed pitchers we saw last year -- that's not coming from the minors, we're going to have to either trade for them or sign some free agents.

Now, I understand the market's not flooded with them. We'll have to do the best we can. The staff is in shambles, and losing Beckett's not going to help that any. But going forward, putting a staff together has to be priority No. 1, and it's not going to happen overnight.

I suppose I'd also give Eric Bedard a chance to get into some decent shape and see what he can do to help us. He wasn't terrible. He just wasn't in peak physical condition.

We need a third baseman, and a right fielder. I Michael Cuddyer. Always did. I also like Jeff Francoeur. I'd be happy with either, but it seems at this point, Cuddyer is the more available option.

I'd also keep Marco Scutaro around for another year. If we're so critical of the players who tanked in September, we should probably think about rewarding one of the few who didn't. Ditto Alfredo Acevas. He's got to be part of the solution, going forward. I'd invite Dan Wheeler and Matt Albers back. Albers, especially, had some moments. But man, he'd have to drop about 100 pounds, wouldn't he?

These are a few of the concerns that I think really need to be address before anyone can talk about the floating of the Titanic that was the 2011 Boston Red Sox. There's so much they have to do. Theo has to answer for some bad signings, not the least of which was Bobby Jenks, who contributed nothing. Where was the crack medical staff on this one. Speaking of which, getting a new medical staff has to be a priority. This one is horrible. Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard would be an improvement.

We're going to have to save matters of depth, the bullpen (which was terrible), and what to do about Jarrod Saltalamacchia (as he's clearly not a starting catcher in the Major Leagues). But those are relatively minor issues compared to fixing what broke down in September.

And I'm not one of those people who thinks we just have to "move on" and act as if 2011 didn't exist. It existed. It happened. And I hope these guys never forget.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Weekend potpourri ... and nothing to do with sports (OK, Kat?)

A little of this and a little of that on this gorgeous autumn weekend ...

This past week, Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts and the presumed frontrunner in the race to unseat him next year -- Elizabeth Warren -- got into a war of words that, frankly, doesn't make the sitting senator look all that, shall we say, mature.

Here's what happened. During a debate (more like a friendly round-table discussion) between Democratic candidates, Warren, a Harvard professor, was asked what she did to get through school. The questioner (and this is important) reminded her that Brown had posed in the altogether for Cosmo, using the money to foot his educational bill.

"I kept my clothes on," Warren said, to laughter (and thankfully, there was laughter, because everyone saw it for what it was ... a light, off-the-cuff, and some might even say disarming, answer to a somewhat loaded question.

Next day, on a local morning drive-time radio show, Brown was asked what he thought of Warren's remark.

"Thank God," he said, again, to much laughter.

What followed is the very definition of "knee jerk." All the usual suspects got on their high horses about Brown's remark. Democrats called him sexist, said it was outrageous that he used "frat-boy" talk to demean Warren's appearance.

It was really a stupid thing for him to say. Nothing like reducing a senatorial campaign to "rate-them-on-a-one-to-ten-scale" lockerroom talk.

It's what he said later that really offended me, though. Brown said he didn't go to Harvard, and that he went to the school of hard knocks. There's so much wrong with this statement that it's tough to know where to begin.

First, the obvious. Warren did not go to Harvard. She started out at George Washington University in D.C., got her undergrad at the University of Houston, and then went to the Rutgers School of Law. Hardly Ground Zero for Eastern elitists.

Brown went to Tufts University (hardly a "college of hard knocks" school) and then to Boston College Law. I'd say that educationally speaking, the senator might have the upper hand in "elitism," if that's the label he's trying to pin on Warren. Graduating with a BC law degree is not too shabby.

So let's just cut that out now. Brown tries to portray himself as "everyman," and it worked in his last campaign against the politically inept Martha Coakley, who -- in somewhat of a reversal of the usual political ethic -- is a better administrator than she is a campaigner. Brown was able to box her ears off by doing the type of political pandering 101 that Coakley found odious -- such as shaking hands in front of Fenway Park on an ice-cold New Year's Day before the NHL's winter classic between the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers.

Something tells me Warren won't fall into that trap. Something also tells me she's a tad bit tougher than Coakley. She was passed over for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's directorship in part because she intimidated Republicans who would have to be instrumental in approving her nomination. With that knowledge in hand, President Obama turned to someone else (it's things like this that aggravate people who voted for the president in 2008).

So far in her public life, Warren has had no problem standing up for what she holds near and dear, so I don't see where Scott Brown's going to give her many sleepless nights. It remains to be seen, however, whether even the Massachusetts electorate, with its reputation for electing liberals, will -- in its current mood -- vote for anyone connected with Harvard.

We're not that much different than anyone else up here. The economy affects us, too. And just being associated with the cradle of east coast liberal elitism (go into the Harvard Co-op sometimes and you'll know what I mean) might put a little too much baggage on her back.

Still, I like her. And I agree with her belief that no one gets rich on his own. People who make a lot of money do so with a generous portion of help from both the public and the public sector. Good for her for reminding everybody.

One hopes the election turns on more than catty remarks about posing nude for Cosmo ... and the subsequent rebuttals and the usual fallout. In this day and age, however, I doubt it will.


It was a simply, snarky Facebook status: "NEWS FLASH: Steve Jobs still dead." Yet the reaction was interesting.

The notion came about after I read an column by someone -- obviously not a Jobs fan -- taking people to task for their over-the-top reaction to his death earlier this week.

I posted the article on another bulletin board, where it was suggested that I had to be a liberal because the author minimized Jobs' contribution to the human condition. I hadn't thought of that. I simply thought the article had something kind of interesting to say.

But to me, the message to me wasn't about politics. It was about the way people overreact to the death of their icons -- something that goes double for Baby Boomers like myself.

And make no mistake: Steve Jobs was one of our icons as as much as he may belong to the ages. His genius is/was totally, totally lost on a lot of the people who came of age in World War II through the 1950s. What he did, more than anything else, was to move move technology forward by making it more accessible to people who didn't necessarily have a technical aptitude. Such as me.

I'm one of those guys who needs to find someone my son's age to help me with even the slightest detour with my computer. Yet even I know how to work an iPod (well, now, after he taught me).

(I've mastered the Blackberry, but the idea of converting to an iPhone is still a bit intimidating to me.)

You know how they say that computers become obsolete almost as soon as they hit the market? Well, that's because Jobs helped make it that way. As much of a genius as he was with the technology, he was even more of a genius at marketing. He used to say that people don't know what they want until you show them. And he had an uncanny ability to know exactly what to show and when to show it.

There are a thousand different ways to honor Steve Jobs in death, most of them to do with talking about all that he did for, and contributed to, our culture. He was as important to this generation as Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell were to theirs, and his legacy will certainly be on a par with theirs.

But can we please stop these shrines? And the over-emoting? And the muck-raking that's already starting to unearth itself now that he's gone? (example: "The Secret Private Life of Steve Jobs" ... the headline that greeted me when I logged onto the internet today)?

I don't care. I don't care if you're all broken up about it. And I don't care about his secret life either, unless it affects how my iPod works.

This is the downside of social networking, if you ask me (something Jobs is certainly responsible for too). It's so easy, with Facebook and Twitter, and the rest, to go from any kind of decent retrospectives to all-out mawkishness. It just becomes mind-numbing, and it cheapens the whole discussion.

Thirty years ago, when John Lennon was shot to death, there was no Facebook. No Twitter. Apple was really in it infancy. The only way to mourn the unconscionably violent death (key point!) of such a cultural icon was to go to New York and sing songs in Central Park, across from the Dakotas. The people who went actually had to do something ... and, you know, unite.

These days, there's no such spirit because all you have to do is get on Facebook and say "RIP, Steve Jobs," or post something about how hearing of his death reduced you to tears (really? I mean, seriously?). And then, after that, you go back to posting about about how good (or bad) Glee was last night, or cutting and pasting some absolutely inane political statement that 120 other people have already posted. There's no connection beyond that. At least, not to me.

The sadness in Steve Jobs' death, to me, lies in the fact that he was only 54 (four years younger than I am) and that whatever else was germinating inside his brain -- things that could have further humanized technology -- will now remain locked inside. We'll never bear witness to them. That is sad.

Years ago, there was a running joke on Saturday Night Live about Francisco Franco, whose death watch was like Waiting for Godot. SNL spoofed the whole thing by having Chevy Chase say, "this just in ... Francisco Franco still dead."

Some of the over-the-top coverage of Jobs' death reminded me of that.

And, I suppose, we'll get it some more now that Al Davis (Oakland Raiders' owner) has died. I guess it's this old, crusty New Englander's way of saying that owning a Mac, or an iPod doesn't mean you're on such intimate terms with their inventor that you have to go around acting as if someone near and dear to you just died.


I don't have a problem with religious people. I don't see religion as superstition, and I bristle when I hear people who refer to believers as ignorant and uninformed.

To me, whatever puts you on the right path in your life has as much validity as anything else. And if that includes a belief system -- any belief system -- that works, and it doesn't intentionally aim to harm non-believers, who's to argue and tell you you're wrong.

However ...

Now that Mitt Romney is a serious contender for the presidency (in fact, I'd even say that the nomination at this point is his to lose, only because he's less scary that any of his alternatives), his Mormon faith has become an issue.

And here's where I take issue with Christians who feel qualified to demean Romney's faith. Robert Jeffress, a Dallas pastor (and, not surprisingly, a Rick Perry backer) says Romney's no Christian, but, rather, a member of a "cult."

Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding
. Raise the red flags. He said "cult." Bad word. It conjures up images of crazed people like Jim Jones and David Koresh.

First, Mitt Romney was my governor for four years (well, it was probably two and a half, and then he set his sights on the White House and pretty much abdicated day-to-day governing unless doing so made him look good). I'm no Mitt Romney lover. In fact, I think he's one of the biggest phonies in politics.

But one thing Romney did exceptionally well during his tenure as Massachusetts governor was keep his Mormonism out of it. If you didn't know he was a Mormon, nothing he did, or said, would have given it away.

It is OK to give people with whom you disagree politically their proper props, by the way.

But having said all that, it is entirely beside the point. There is nothing more boring than listening to religious zealots find fault with those who don't follow their particular path to salvation. And nothing more irrelevant.

Here it is still only 2011, and we're going to have to wade through this stuff? We're going to have to wade through the "my God is better than your God" argument?

Who cares?

If you need a better reason for the framers of the U.S. Constitution ensuring that a specific religion never becomes too powerful a force in this country, I don't know where you're going to find it. The idea of any Christian foisting any kind of a litmus test on the political process is patently offensive, even if it comes from nutjobs like the Reverend Jeffress.

We already have enough religious extremism in this world -- everything from radical Islamists (we all know about them) to whack jobs like the Westboro Baptists and Fred Phelps, who -- by the way -- planned to picket Steve Jobs' funeral (how's that for tying up all these fragmented subjects?). The last thing we need is to enter into a debate on who's version of salvation has more validity and throw it into the process of electing our president.

I'm a Catholic. But I don't care what Romney is. I don't care if he believes that the tides that go in and out every day carry the key to salvation, or whether he finds it in a quiet walk through the woods in the early morning. In fact, if I ever found out he did, I'd probably like him a whole lot more than I do, because, frankly, those are my two favorite places to be ... walking along the beach or walking through the woods.

One of the worst things about our political climate today is that candidates feel compelled to avow some attachment to a deity. I so wish it weren't so.


Speaking of religion, there's this:

I wonder if this is on the level. If it is, it appeals to my sense of the uber perverse.

But since the perpetrator's name is Sam Mullet, I have my doubts. Lest any of you out there doesn't know what a "mullet" is, Google it.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Monday, Monday ...

As the cataclysmic events from Fenway Park last week recede in the rear view mirror, let's go over a few things about both the Red Sox and the Patriots -- one hopes -- a bit more dispassionately than perhaps some of the screeds that were unleashed last week.

First, we should all adhere to the following maxim: Things are never as good as they seem; and they're never as bad as they seem either. Maybe at the moment they seem hopeless, but with time and distance, a lot of the visceral emotion sorts itself out.

Judging from the stuff we've been reaching, Yawkey Way has been the site of one giant, ongoing, bacchanal. Pitchers swilling beer on their days off ... players running up and down Terry Francona's back ... Adrian Gonzalez bitching about having to play Sunday nights (poor baby!) ... Kevin Youkilis antagonizing everyone with his oh-so-engaging personality ... John Lackey being, well, John Lackey!

Dysfunction, they name is Red Sox.

These Red Sox, and their ignominious September swoon, are surely the cause for stock market unrest, the rise of violent terrorism in the world, Barack Obama's slippage in the polls, snow in the winter, and halitosis.

Well, if you read some of the stuff written around Boston last week, you'd have to come to a similar conclusion.

Let's get the most obvious thing out of the way first. Yes, it is unprofessional to be pounding those Budweisers down during a game. But whenever I hear things like this, I always wonder. Is the act of doing such a thing that much out of step with general Major League practices? Or is it, perhaps, something that goes on much more often than we think, and that it's being trotted out as an excuse here simply because of the way the Red Sox folded in September.

That's the million dollar question. The culture of Major League clubhouses being what it is, somehow I suspect that these things happen. I've read, many times, that Keith Hernandez and Kevin Mitchell were having a beer together in the Mets clubhouse moments before Mitchell was summoned to pinch hit in that legendary sixth game of the 1986 World Series.

And we've also heard, and read, of the 2004 Idiot Red Sox toasting each other with Jack Daniels prior to going out onto the field (though that was Kevin Millar's tale, so who knows, really, what the deal is there!).

Obviously, whoever was doing imbibing was under the impression that it was a somewhat accepted practice. Otherwise, that person (or persons) wouldn't have ever though of doing such a thing. Also, having a beer and sloshing it down to the point of slurring your words ... big difference.

The bottom line here is that you can do these things when you're 82-41 and nobody cares. It's like the old tale that when one of his aides told Lincoln that Ulysses S. Grant was a drunk, Lincoln replied that said aide should find out what he drinks and sent a carton of it to all his generals.

However, when you're 7-20, as the Sox were in September, all of a sudden it's a big issue. So at the very least, the guzzlers should have understood that and knocked it off.

Regarding Francona, losing your job, whatever the circumstances, is a blow to your dignit. There can be a thousand and one good reasons why it might be time to go, but the damage being let go does to your psyche is immeasurable. So you bet I feel for Tito.

Francona is in a "what-have-you-done-for-me-lately" business, however. And, as he says, it's the only thing he ever wanted to do, and probably the only thing he really knows how to do professionally. Professional manager and coaches are hired to be fired, and it isn't often you see a man such as Bobby Cox or Don Shula stay with one organization through retirement. Hell, even Tom Landry was fired from the Cowboys. What happened to Francona has happened to almost every professional coach and manager at one time or another.

This doesn't mean I think firing Francona was fair. I don't. For seven of his eight years, he was the right guy for the players he managed. This year, he was not? That just doesn't make sense.

There are so many reasons for what happened, and laying it all on Francona's feet is simply ridiculous. But that's how it works. You can't fire everybody, so you snip off the head of the hydra, and hope that the next person who comes along and put the pieces back together.

I'm pretty sure he will, whether it's Bobby Valentine or someone else. The team is simply too talented to fail the way it did this year. It might not be talented enough to win a World Series (that pitching's going to have to get a lot better for that to happen), but it's too talented to play .333 baseball over an entire month -- and especially to lose five out of seven to a Baltimore Orioles team that could have easily lost 100 games were the Red Sox not in such disarray.

I go back and forth with this whole team chemistry thing. There are times when I truly believe Earl Weaver's formula of chemistry=pitching and three-run homers. There is nothing more soothing to a team's nerves than well-pitched game accompanied by some timely hitting. That cures all.

Francona alluded to it when he said that for a team to be harmonious, they didn't have to all want to go to dinner together. But they had to play together on the field. They had to know their roles, and understand what they couldn't and couldn't do ... and to understand what was needed at specific points in a ballgame.

One game seems to stand out in my mind that acts almost as much as a microcosm of the entire season as the last game did. The Red Sox were losing, 4-2, to the Yankees on Sept. 1 (the series that, I think, planted the seed of doubt in their minds). That was the game where Jon Lester seemed to get no breaks from the plate umpire ... but still managed to give up only one run.

That was the game that started Daniel Bard's slump, too, as he and Alfredo Acevas squandered a 2-1 lead in the seventh inning.

But the reason I bring this up is this: Gonzalez was up with two outs and the bases loaded in the ninth inning when he took a called third strike to end the game. It was a borderline strike ... and one uncharacteristic of the umpire's strike zone most of the night (which really didn't exist) ... but he was retired with his bat on his shoulders none the less.

I understand a walk's as good as a hit (though it only would have made the score 4-3). If you're the league's leading hitter, and leading RBI man, you have to be up there with a mind to drive the ball. If you make an out, so be it. But at least you made an out trying to do something.

His job, at that point, wasn't to "get on base." Jed Lowrie, Jacoby Ellsbury and Marco Scutaro had already done that. His job was to knock in some runs. Or go down trying.

I'll guarantee you this; Dustin Pedroia wouldn't have stood there long enough to take Strike Three. He may not have driven in the runs, but he'd have gone up there and taken his cuts. That's what your RBI guys are supposed to do.

I have to think that anyone who understands the game, and the moment, had to have been a little disappointed in Gonzalez. Yes, he was facing Mariano Rivera, and yes, Rivera is the all-time saves leader in the history of baseball. But it was pretty obvious that night Rivera didn't have his best stuff. I mean, he walked two batters and Marco Scutaro got a base hit off him. So he wasn't fooling anybody.

I think this display of being totally lacking in intestinal fortitude destroys team chemistry faster than any clubhouse spat can. Gonzalez has to swing the bat and take his chances.

I don't know, but after that, I started to worry. There's a fine line between playing to win and playing not to lose. It sounds like a cliche, but that's only because it's the best way to describe the dichotomy. And it just seemed to me as if the Red Sox were starting to play not to lose.

If you play to win, you take chances. If they fail you live with it. Bill Belichick going for it on fourth and five two years ago in Indianapolis ... everything though that was ridiculously stupid. I didn't. Belichick figured that the Patriots had a better chance of winning if they didn't give Peyton Manning the ball back. They lost, because they didn't make it on fourth-and-five, and Manning brought the Colts right down the field and scored.

But with all the complaining and second-guessing, nobody ever stated the obvious: Bill Belichick was right. Whether he gave Manning the ball back on his side of the 50 or on the Indy 20, Manning was going to zip down the field and score. That's what he'd been doing the entire quarter.

You can't be afraid to fail. And in that at-bat, Gonzalez acted as if he'd rather take a walk and leave it up to the next guy to be the hero. For the money the Red Sox are paying him, Gonzalez needed to wear the crown and accept failure if it happened.

The Red Sox never stopped playing not to lose after that. They seemed to handle every situation as if they were carrying a stack of Waterford crystal down a flight of stairs. And when you're that scared, you're easy prey.

As for Francona's role in this, it's tough to say. I suppose you can preach, until you're blue in the face, that, hey, we're up by nine games ... just go out and play the way you did to get to this point. But if it's in enough people's heads that trouble's brewing, then trouble it is. And just as winning is infectious, so is losing. That snowball keeps rolling down the hill regardless of what's in it. Soon enough it becomes an avalanche, and it's impossible to stop until it's left major damage.

The problem with these Red Sox is that too many of their principal players never stopped struggling, so that when some of the ones who'd carried them all summer started scuffling, there was no alternative. Carl Crawford just couldn't step into the breach when Gonzalez wore down and lost his mojo. Kevin Youkilis was too beaten up. They had no right fielder who could hit. There just ended up being too many automatic outs.

Without Lester and Josh Beckett pitching to near perfection, there was no one else on the staff to take up the slack because Lackey was horrible all season long ... even when he was winning. Tim Wakefield is 45, and you can't realistically expect a guy that old to carry your rotation.

As for No. 5: Pick your poison (and that's exactly what it was, too ... poison). Andrew Miller? Kyle Weiland? Nobody who took the ball came through.

When the Red Sox won, and players scuffled, other players stepped in and covered. There was always someone lurking somewhere in that lineup who could do major damage (and by that, I mean hit home runs, and not just singles and the odd double). This year, there was nobody once Gonzalez started struggling and Youkilis was hurt.

The question you have to ask yourself is why? Why did all these players wear down the way they did? It's not because they played too many Sunday games, or because they drank beer. It's because a) they were out of shape; b) they'd rolled through the league for so long they forgot what it was like to have to earn it; and c) once they were put in that position, they couldn't come up with the requisite amount of cajones to earn it.

So unless the next manager can teach cajones, I'm not sure what else he can do.

But, as I said, things aren't always as bad as they seem. Perhaps the next manager puts the players on some kind of a between-season scheduled. Perhaps he puts some realistic conditioning expectations on them and acts accordingly if they come to Fort Myers having not met them. Perhaps he's not afraid to look Gonzalez in the eye after he strikes out looking with the bases loaded and reminds him of why it is the team's paying him a gazillion and a half dollars to hit.

And perhaps he locks the beer cooler until the game's over.


Is the Patriots defense so bad that once they start playing the good teams they'll be trampled to death (as we've been reading today)? Or is it more a case of the defense has playmakers who have, consistently over the past two seasons, risen up to make critical plays at critical moments? This was how those teams from the mid-2000s won three Super Bowls. They were never dominant. They just made big plays when they needed to be made.

It's a fair question. One of my favorite, if not my all-time favorite, Patriots players was Troy Brown, and it's not because he had dazzling talent. It's because he made plays. I wish sometimes NFL scouts would put the stop watches away and just focus on what players do to win games. That's the value of a Troy Brown and a Troy Palomalu. They sense the big moments and they come through. And when the Indianapolis Colts won a Super Bowl in 2007, it was as much because of James Sanders, and his propensity to come up huge in crucial moments, as it was because of Peyton Manning.

I kind of like this Patriots team. There seems to be that sense of what's needed, and when. And there seem to be players who respond. It's probably an exaggeration to say Patrick Chung made a huge play when he picked off Jason Campbell in the end zone to kill and Oakland Raiders drive, but the fact is he was there and the receiver wasn't. It counts as an interception however it happened.

Sunday's Patriots game was a classic example of a team with the ability to steal a game when it isn't at its best. Over the course of a season, these things happen. You can't be picture-perfect all the time. Sometimes, for whatever reason, you're a little off. And when that happens, the difference between winning and losing comes down to making more plays than the other guy. Bill Belichick says that every time the Patriots win ... "we were able to make a few more plays than they did" ... and most of the time you want to scream.

But not this time. This time he was spot on. It came down to making plays, and the Patriots made a handful of them on both offense and defense. The Raiders marched the Patriots up and down the field, but when it came time to make a play -- as in doing something that would permanently tip the balance of the game to them -- they couldn't do it. That's why the Patriots won, and that's why Oakland lost.

There's no need to be over-analytical about this. Do the Patriots have some issues on defense? They do. Does any team not? Would the Patriots be better off with Aaron Hernandez playing instead of rehabbing his knee? They would. But wouldn't any team benefit from having Aaron Hernandez in its starting lineup?

Are the Patriots going to miss Jerod Mayo going forward? They'll miss him a lot. But also take note of the fact that without Mayo, who left in the second quarter Sunday, the Patriots allowed three measly points until the outcome was beyond doubt. Maybe the people who get paid to worry about such things care about the whys and wherefores, but, really, should any of us? Does it matter? They won on the road, in Oakland (where they generally have a tough time), and against one of the league's best running backs in Darren McFadden.

They did what they had to do. They ran for more than 100 yards, and that helped keep the Raiders, and McFadden, off the field in the second half. They did enough good things to win the game ... quite comfortably, in fact.

And you know, sometimes that has to be enough.