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.

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