Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Best of luck, Ells ... it's been real ... it really has

Last week, Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers admonished his teammates, telling them that professional sports represent two games in one: the game on the court and the other one far away from the arena ... in board rooms and around negotiating tables.

Now I'm no fan of Kobe's. I appreciate that he's a great player ... as clutch as they come, and a future Hall of Famer, even if he did wiggle free of a rape charge and then try to buy his wife off with a diamond the size of Texas.

He is right, however.

And it's not just players who have to understand this. It's fans. Professional sports are not Little League ... they're not high school ... and they're not even college (where sports have turned into something so odious that you need a shower after you talk to your average big-time football or basketball coach).

Maybe 40 years ago, before the 1975 decision that paved the way for modern free agency, pro sports were a little easier for the fan to stomach. Players couldn't follow the money and make the best deals for themselves. It may have been easier for fans, but the kids playing the game were exploited beyond anyone's wildest imagination.

In fact, you can put the blame for today's exploding salary structure in all sports squarely on the owners, who, for years, kept the players on a string and yanked them around any chance they got. If you're looking for any tangible proof of this, read all about how the NFL shamefully (and perhaps intentionally) remained ignorant of a concussion problem that is, just now, blowing the sport up.

Into this maelstrom we give you Jacoby Ellsbury, now formerly of the Red Sox, whose apparent signing with the New York Yankees for seven years and $153 million will without doubt set a chain reaction in motion that would rock Wall Street to its foundation if this were day trading and not baseball deal-making.

Just from a point of practicality, the Yankees have, right now, one of the premier baseball players in the entire Major League system in second baseman Robinson Cano. He's asking for the type of money the Yankees have just given Ellsbury. Even the Yankees, as rich as they may be, cannot afford two of those types of contracts, so chances are Cano is gone, and what results from all this dickering is what is known in Blackjack as a push.

Ellsbury may hit a few more homers with a shorter right field to shoot for, but whatever he hits, the Yankees will lose in Cano's production. More to the point, Cano's only true competition for "best second baseman in baseball" is Boston's Dustin Pedroia, and he's not going anywhere. Pedroia is signed, sealed and delivered (at a hometown discount) for the next 10 years.

(As an aside, this is one more in about 100 reasons to thank our lucky stars in Boston for Dustin Pedroia. He understands that a comfortable situation, along with fan adulation, is worth whatever money he passed up to remain here.)

They Yankees gain a center fielder who is two years younger than the one they've apparently deemed expendable: Curtis Granderson (and if the Red Sox somehow manage to lure Granderson into their midst, I'm willing to take that trade, even if it means giving up a top draft choice. He's only looking for three years, versus the seven Ellsbury signed for).

But they also gain a player who has a reputation -- somewhat deserved -- of being brittle. Think Danny Amendola of the Patriots. This guy can stub his toe and be out for six weeks.

It is sadly ironic that the one injury Ellsbury suffered that was completely legitimate -- the broken ribs in 2010 -- may be the one that convinced him he was better off somewhere else. The Red Sox did not cover themselves with glory on this one. They botched the diagnosis and then practically shamed him into coming back too soon. It would take a person of immense powers of forgiveness to absolve the Red Sox, and the media who cover them, of the whispers and innuendo that went along with this injury.

And it's also worth mentioning that the reason he was injured is because the genius who is now the chief steward in charge of maintaining the Chicago Cubs' long and distinguished history of wretchedness (Theo Epstein) thought it was a neat idea to acquire center fielder Mike Cameron and turn Ellsbury into a left fielder (whereupon he collided violently with Adrian "Kamikaze" Beltre and practically got himself killed).

So only the most naive person on earth thought Ellsbury would stay here ... for that as well as other reasons.

The Red Sox were burned badly by the money they threw at Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, and had to strip themselves down to Triple-A level to rid themselves of the pair, along with Josh Beckett. And while we all applauded current GM Ben Cherington for daring to make the trade, it left Bobby Valentine -- already a severely lame duck -- with no wings at all. The Red Sox couldn't get rid of Valentine fast enough once the 2012 season ended, and while they never should have hired him in the first place, that doesn't mean that every one of those 93 losses last year can be traced directly to him. He had plenty of help.

Cherington, I'm sure with the blessings of the front office, is not about to commit that kind of money to anyone while the footprints are still visible up and down the organization's back, and who can blame him? So they were not about to pay Ellsbury that kind of money ... and Ellsbury wasn't going to settle for less than that kind of money. No hometown discount for Jacoby. Not with Scott Boras as his agent. Boras doesn't do hometown discounts, and Ellsbury was surely not of a mind to grant one.

The fly in the ointment is the Yankees. But if you're Scott Boras and you're shopping someone around for $150-plus million over seven or so years, there aren't many places to go. The Dodgers have all they can handle with the wretched refuse they inherited from the Red Sox ... and really? Who's left?

Let's establish this: Ellsbury is a very, very good baseball player. He has some power (though that 30-homer season of 2011 might have been a slight aberration from what he's capable of doing over the long haul) and he's a threat to steal a base anytime, and from anywhere. He certainly added an element of speed -- which is something you can't teach -- to the Red Sox, and it certainly served them well.

But here's the question: Is Ellsbury the type of player who can carry a team for a month, the way David Ortiz can when he's going well? Or Miguel Cabrera? Or the way Derek Jeter once could? Or -- dare I even ask -- Alex Rodriguez in his prime? 

I say nay. He played 134 games this season (which, for him, is outstanding), hit .298, and stole 52 bases. And with all that, he was no better than the third most important every-day player on his team (I submit that David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia were the guts of that team, and that a prolonged absence by either would have radically affected the 2013 Red Sox). For my $153 million, I want a go-to guy 24/7 ... one who will put up a fight if I suggest he take a rest ... one who will be accountable for what he does ... and one who will help his teammates accept accountability as well.

And I just don't think that guy is Jacoby Ellsbury. That guy is Dustin Pedroia.

The Yankees have been throwing good money after bad from the moment they backed up the truck and dumped millions of dollars on A-Rod's front lawn, eschewing an organizational commitment to build from within, which is how they won four world championships in five years. For all the contracts they've doled out, including the ridiculous extension Boras blackmailed them into signing for Rodriguez (remember the big announcement that he would opt out while the Red Sox were one out from winning the World Series in 2007?), they've won one world championship. In the same amount of time, the Red Sox have won three.

Ellsbury could turn into the second coming of Joe DiMaggio in New York. I sincerely hope he does well. He's a good player and seems like a decent guy. There doesn't seem to be a tremendous sense of urgency about him at times, but that could be more because almost too smooth for his own good. Maybe if he grunted a little bit ... or rolled around in the dirt ... I don't know.

But apparently the Yankees haven't learned that big, fat contracts don't equal winning. It didn't work for the Red Sox in 2011; it didn't work for the Toronto Blue Jays last year; and I'm going to go out on a limb and say it might not work for the Yankees in 2014.

You win championships with a combination of stars and role players who also have to be paid ... and paid well. You need Shane Victorinos, and Mike Napolis, and Jonny Gomes. But if you're spending all outdoors on two or three players, the role players ... the ones so vital to keeping the machinery going for 162 games ... aren't going to be there for you because you're not going to be able to pay them what they want. Unless, of course, you're willing to pony up an exorbitant luxury tax.

Good luck to Jacoby Ellsbury. I wouldn't be so hostile as to say "don't let the door hit you on the ass on the way out," but at the same time, he's going to have an awful lot to live up to. Crawford couldn't handle it in 2011, and the question is whether Ellsbury can deal with it in 2014.

Stay tuned.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Boston Strong

Now that the Red Sox have won the World Series (well, during the series, even ...) there has been a groundswell of sentiment that it is mawkish, or crass, or (pick whatever word you want) to use "Boston Strong" and "Red Sox" in the same sentence.

The feeling is that trivializing the motto in any way is also trivializing the bombing of the Boston Marathon finish line and it's painful aftermath.

I do not agree.

First, let's assume most people in this world are reasonably intelligent. The ones who aren't ... what can you do? They're the ones who think the the NFL, or the NBA, get together and dictate that "we need New York to be in the playoffs, so let's make sure the refs slant all calls their way." They're hopeless, and trying to configure your policies and opinions around these people makes you as dumb as they are.

But for the rest of us ... the ones who always understood -- even at age 5 -- that Moe wasn't really poking Larry and Curly in the eyes, or hitting them off the head with shovels or lead pipes ... we get it. We know there's no way you could ever compare winning a World Series with the slow, painful, and emotional healing process that those victims underwent (and still may be going through). That's insane. Nobody but the most unaware of the dolts on this planet would ever equate the two.

But to be as dismissive as some people seem to be about the feel-good 2013 Red Sox also shows an alarming lack of insight into the human condition. People need good news. They need happy endings. And they need to connect with something uplifting any way they can.

I remember talking with a woman who never saw a basketball game. Maybe she didn't even know what a basketball was. But her boyfriend had just informed her -- out of the clear blue -- that their relationship had ended. She was beyond devastated.

Her depression went on for months ... as these things often do. One of her friends, in an effort to cheer her up, invited her to go to a Celtics game, and on that particular night, the Knicks were the fodder (this was back in the early seventies, when the Celtics were very good). She went, and the Celtics just pulverized the Knicks. And for some reason, she found that experience cathartic. Perhaps she transferred all that hostility from her ex to the Knicks, but whatever it was, she said she said that from then on, she became a rabid Celtics fan.

These things happen. People make the connection. Whether it's to escape from the pain they're suffering in their lives ... whether it's the type of transference this woman experienced ... who knows. But it happens, and more often than any of us know.

The Red Sox didn't do anything to discourage people from making the Boston Strong connection (in fact, Will Middlebrooks might have coined the phrase in a tweet after the team found out about the bombings). They certainly took the ball and ran with it. Were they wrong? No, they weren't wrong. I saw it at the time -- and still see it -- as a genuine effort to use their power to unite people to do exactly that. Unite them.

There was a harmonic convergence of circumstances going on that played into all this. The Red Sox were on a mission last April to win their fans back after the horrendous Bobby Valentine experience. Maybe they saw this as the best opportunity they'd ever have to change the public's perception of them. But again, were they wrong? Crass? Mawkish? I don't think so. We criticize professional athletes all the time for the way they put themselves above their fans ... insulate themselves to the point where they're oblivious to the day-to-day struggles people fight to overcome.

Don't we see it every day? Don't we cringe when we hear someone who's just made $5 million to play a game complain that he should be making $10 million? Weren't we all just flabbergasted that Aaron Hernandez, who was making $12 million, is suspected of the type of grudge murder that John Singleton depicted in his saga of the hopelessness of inner-city gang violence (Boyz in the Hood)?

What on earth is hopeless about $12 million per?

It's one thing for franchises to demonstrate civic responsibility and sensitivity, because they are (allegedly) run by intelligent, business-oriented people who understand that in times like these, we all need to stand up and be counted. But today's professional athlete has no such radar. 

This wasn't just an effort on the part of the Red Sox corporate and public relations staff to promote the team at the expense of a horrific tragedy. That would have been crass. These were the players pushing this along. I remember Shondra Schilling running the Marathon year after year to benefit cancer research. Other wives ran it for other reasons ... and in almost every case, they were doing it to benefit a charity. This obviously hit home to a lot of the players, and they reacted honestly.

Now ... does this mean nobody went overboard in efforts to commercialize the slogan? Of course not. This is America, and it's become the land where nothing is beyond being exploited. I assure you that if the Red Sox never adopted the cause, someone would still have found a way to make an easy buck off the tragedy.

So lay off the Red Sox. They rallied behind this cause, and in so doing perhaps learned -- better than having it drilled into their heads by some manic coach, perhaps -- that if you pull together for a noble endeavor marvelous things can happen. It came out in the way they played, and even more important, in the way they connected with their fans.

The fans knew it, and they responded. I've never heard Fenway louder than it was Wednesday night. The fans weren't just happy for the team ... they were happy for the players who exemplified professionalism, unity and hard work from Game 1 through the end of the series. Isn't it a hell of a lot better than squabbling and nitpicking? Eating chicken and drinking beer during games? Putting your petty differences ahead of the common good? All those wonderful things we see in the news every day?

What better example could they have given the region after such a tragedy other than to pull together and keep rowing? Maybe we should all do that a little bit more, no?

Monday, September 30, 2013

It's great to be back!

"The men from the press said we wish you success, it's good to have the both of you back."

It was probably never the intention of the Boston Red Sox to have anyone channel "the Ballad of John and Yoko" in talking about their first appearance in the playoffs since 2009. But there it is.

And as we learned from the September 2011 fade and the 2012 Bobby Valentine fiasco, "Christ, you know it ain't easy ... you know how hard it can be."

But I don't come here today to crucify the Boston Red Sox. No, sir. To twist a phrase from "Julius Caesar around, "I come not to bury the Red Sox, but to praise them."

Who know, back in March, that the Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals would end up with the best records in Major League Baseball. In spring training, the bets were more along the lines of "will they even finish .500?"

John Farrell was the popular choice to be the next manager after Terry Francona was fired in 2011, but couldn't extricate himself from his Toronto Blue Jays contract. Otherwise, we might have been spared the Bobby Valentine fiasco. It's easy to say this now, but some of us -- last year -- were telling anyone who would listen to us that Bobby V, as much of a bon vivant as he might be, was the wrong person to minister to the hangover that resulted from 2011.Yes, these guys are professional athletes, but after something like that, the Sox needed a morale builder, not someone who was so obviously all about himself.

It happened a year late, but the Red Sox got their guy. Right from the introductory press conference, it became obvious Farrell was a  no-nonsense guy who understood how badly the Red Sox had squandered their standing as the most other-worldly popular franchise in Boston since the Big Bad Bruins.

And it his first mission was to win it back.

Spring training was a love-in. The "character guys" certainly added likeability to the club, but none of that would have mattered had it been simply character alone. If they couldn't play anymore, we'd be talking about next year already ... if we were talking at all.

However, the character guys ended up being among their most clutch players. Mike Napoli may have struck out a lot, and it may have infuriated me to watch him do it as often as he did. But in between, he hit some mighty clutch home runs. Jonny Gomes didn't hit for average, but every time you looked up, he was getting a bit hit in a big situation.

But Shane Victorino, to me, epitomized character in the way he gutted through a season when he wasn't always healthy, and the way he kept coming up big himself when the situation called for it, both offensively and defensively. And I have to ask the question: Would Jacoby Ellsbury have even made it back for the end of the regular season if Victorino wasn't around to, perhaps, help him realize that sometimes, you just have to close your eyes and play through it? Yeah, I know it's a contract year, but Ellsbury is going to get his money from someone. It's just a matter of who. We all know what he brings to the table.

(One wonders, however, what it took to get Clay Buchholz back on the mound, but this is a positive piece so let's let it at that).

This is a happy column and it's a happy story. One can only imagine the effect Farrell had on Jon Lester, who might have started out hot but seemed destined for another season of agonizing nibbling and mound tantrums. Whatever he said to Lester behind the scenes worked, as the big lefty got hold of himself in August and finished by throwing almost unhittable stuff up there.

John Lackey's only value coming into the season was as a whipping boy. He was to the Red Sox what Milan Lucic is to the Bruins: someone I can pound on when there's nowhere else to turn. Lucic acquitted  himself somewhat in last spring's playoffs, and it goes without saying Lackey change a lot of opinions, including mine, by how he did this year ... not only his pitching, but by the classy way he handled some luckless outings where he pitched phenomenally while the team couldn't score runs for him.

And again, one wonders whether that's the influence of a guy like Ryan Dempster (I had to think a minute before writing that name, as my usual term for him is The Dumpster), another one of those character guys who seemed to keep it all in perspective. Dempster, if he pitches during the post-season, will be coming out of the bullpen. And he is publicly fine with that, even if, privately, he might not be. That's OK. At least he's pulling his oars in the same direction. Contrast that to Felix Doubrant, who, when faced with the same situation, mailed it in against Baltimore. I doubt we'll see him on the rooster (yeah, I know ... roster).

One also has to wonder how much of a factor the Marathon bombing was in all of this. There's no doubt the incident galvanized the city, and perhaps gave its athletes some impetus to re-examine some of the petty issues that might otherwise rip a team apart. My own belief is that the incident gave this team, in particular, a rallying cry. That, and, I suppose, the beards.

About the beards. One of the great things about that 2004 team was how sloppy they appeared. Their slovenliness, from Johnny Damon to Mark Bellhorn to Manny Ramirez, was almost a badge of honor ... as was the moniker "idiots." 

Don't the beards remind you of that team? The Red Sox look like Civil War veterans who simply changed uniforms. But again, I'm not judging a fashion show. I just want to see them win games.

I think the guy who benefitted most from havingn like-minded players around him was Dustin Pedroia, who must have felt as if he was Tom Hanks on the raft with Wilson last year. He was surrounded by whiny, kvetchy teammates who seemed more interested in undermining Valentine than simply going out and playing (not that I didn't sympathize, but you still have to do your job).

All that negativity affected him, and during stretches last season, he seemed as mutinous as the rest of them. He fought against it, though, and ended up doing all right. But one can only imagine how refreshing it was for him to come to the park and play alongside the stalwarts on the team this season. He's still the heart of the team, and as he goes, it goes. And since he goes all out, every day, and has teammates who do as well, there's no limit to what they can accomplish.

As anyone can tell you, injuries (or lack of same) can make or break your season. Ask the Patriots. They've just been dealt a crushing blow with reports that Vince Wilfork has a torn Achilles. That's a killer. There's no telling what happens to them from here, as Wilfork was -- after Tom Brady -- their most indispensable player.

The Sox were remarkably lucky that nothing untoward happened to their everyday lineup. They had all their main components. And they're especially fortunate that David Ortiz stayed healthy and productive, because without him they'd be nowhere. I don't always like some of the things he does (like F-bombing a civic ceremony and smashing a phone because he didn't like an umpire's call), but there's no denying that his presence in the lineup makes everyone else just that much better. Hitting 30 homers and knocking in 100-plus runs, again, makes him irreplaceable, silly antics notwithstanding.

 It just proves you don't have to like everyone personally to appreciate their value to the effort. I still think Bill Belichick is an excellent coach, even if he appears to be totally devoid of personality.

But the pitching staff was a mess, and Farrell gets huge props for keeping it above water. Clay Buccholz was on his way to a Max Scherzer-type season before his shoulder ailment sidelined him for three months. The Red Sox lost closer Joel Hanrahan ... and then lost the guy who was supposed to replace him (Andrew Bailey). They turned to Koji Uehara out of desperation, and look what happened? He should at least be in the conversation for the Cy Young Award, although Scherzer should win it hands down.

If the Red Sox have an Achilles heel it's the transition from their starters to Koji. It just seems that the seventh and eighth innings are a nightly chore for this team if the starter runs out of gas after six. They can only hope, with a week's worth of rest, that the starters are able to go into the seventh so that it's only the eighth inning we have to worry about. Uehara has pretty much made the ninth academic, and there's no reason to expect him not to now.

Of course, the other knock is that the Red Sox don't hit good pitching all that well, but, you know, that's why they call it good pitching. If wasn't good pitching, everyone would hit it. But if they end up facing a team like the Tigers, that could be a problem. The Tigers hit all pitching. They have, by far, the most potent offense of the teams that are left and they are probably the only team the Red Sox might have trouble outslugging if it came to that. That's why it was so important that they clinch the No. 1 seed and avoid playing the Tigers until they absolutely had to.

Yet they have their issues too, the back end of their bullpen being one of them. 

Tigers or no Tigers, the team I would prefer not to see is Tampa Bay. Even when the Red Sox beat them, it's like taking a chunk of flesh out of them. It's always a struggle. I alternate between liking Joe Maddon because he's refreshing, and hating him because he tends to be way too full of himself at other times. He has this tendency, sometimes, to act as if he invented the game.

Yet the Rays have pitching to burn, and they are perhaps the only team out of the three Wild Card contenders who can burn through their two best pitchers getting to the first round and still throw quality arms out there for the duration. Lord help the Sox if they play Tampa Bay and fall behind with Price and Moore waiting in the wings. See you later. So let's hope that doesn't happen.

In other words, Gooooooooo Texas.

Obviously, the Cleveland Indians are intriguing. It's a great story ... Francona coming back to the scene of his unfortunate demise. But from a different perspective, I've a feeling the sooner they're out of his the better it'll be for everyone else. The Indians are the "which of these things is not like the other" of the post-season. If you're scratching your head wondering how the Red Sox did it, then you have to be convinced the Indians did it with mirrors. Give them any hope at all, and look out!

That's why, from a purely baseball standpoint, I'm hoping the Rangers survive. I don't want to be on the wrong end of someone's Cinderella story (ask the Cardinals and the Raiders how that feels), and absolutely want no part of Tampa Bay. The Rangers seem to be the best option. I'll take my chances with either Oakland or Detroit, but obviously, if I had a choice, I'd take the A's. Miggy and company could use the rest, couldn't they?

The Red Sox have just as much of a chance as anyone else does to bring another championship to the city. Will they? An awful lot has to go right. One possible danger sign is that the Red Sox coasted on this vibe for 162 games, but they may have to catch another wave to get through the playoffs, just as they did in 2004, when all looked lost.

The good news is that this team is full of good vibes, so it's not out of the question that they'll come up with something. If they do, we could be watching duck boats at the end of October.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Lessons, lessons and more lessons

Whenever we have a tragedy such as the shooting in Washington this week, the immediate impulse is to a) blame someone, or some thing, that had nothing to do with what happened; and b) start pounding home "lessons" we're suppose to learn from it.

This reached its ridiculous extreme when Elisabeth Hasselbeck led a discussion on FOX about the evils of video games, as if they are the ones to blame for the mess in carnage Aaron Alexis left behind Monday in D.C.

The frustration, on whatever level and whatever side, is understandable. This stuff keeps happening, no matter what we do, or say, or think. People always find ways to get around the safeguards set up to keep them from wreaking havoc and tragedy on the world. They're always one step ahead of us ... and that's all it takes.

We have two choices. We either give up trying to protect innocent people from slaughter on the grounds that it won't do any good anyway; or we try harder to get to the root of why there are so many disaffected and dysfunctional people in the world.

Since neither of those choices will provide an immediate quick fix to the problem (or any fix at all, in the case of the former), we've taken to a third option: affixing blame. If we can't solve the problem, by God, we can at least blame someone for it.

In one way, Elisabeth is right (loathe though I may be to admit it). Video games are part of the problem. But to end the discussion there is not just naive. It borders on demagoguery. Then again, so does any discussion that involves banning guns. Or censoring violent TV shows or movies. Or re-examining our national obsession with contact sports whose violent hits make highlight reels and whose injury lists are way too germaine to the outcome of their events.

Because the answer is, all at one, none of the above and all of the above. And therein lies the the problem.

We are a violent society. There's no use arguing that point, and there's no getting around it. Much of what we do, and much of what we represent, centers around violence. It is portrayed, almost everywhere, as the optimum way to resolve issues.

We are desensitized. I remember shortly after the Vietnam War ended, the idea of the military going anywhere, to resolve anything, was almost unspeakable. We as a nation were too traumatized by the era, and all the unrest it spawned, to view military intervention as anything other than a last-resort solution to problems that were better handled diplomatically.

I'm sure Jimmy Carter was a disciple of that mindset by letting the slow clockwork of diplomacy free the hostages in Iran, and that undoubtedly cost him his presidency. He was seen as weak, but those hostages came back alive. I wonder, if  you ask any of them, whether they'd have preferred to see five or six or them come back dead at the expense of, say, being released six months sooner than they were. I'd really be interested in what they have to say.

Can you honestly say, today, that our leaders view our military the same way?  They do not. At the moment, though, we are war-weary after fighting two of them simultaneously for the past decade, and the idea of doing it all over again in Syria seems to be asking too much. Maybe that's a good thing. Maybe, on that front at least, we are learning.

The military is just the most obvious example of how we've gone from being sensitized to war and violence to our current condition of being almost impervious to it. Now, if something horrible happens, we may be affected by it for a day or two (in the case of Sandy Hook, it took a little longer for the shock to wear off), but soon enough we rotate back to our normal programming and the urgency of the tragedy recedes. Until the anniversary comes up, that is. Then, we observe it as if it just happened, seemingly oblivious to the fact that we still, after all this time, haven't made one iota of progress in getting to the root of it.

 The bigger part of this issue -- and most other issues in the year 2013 -- is that we're just not equipped to do the necessary digging to get to the root of them. To establish a national dialogue that would get to the root of gun violence in this country would be way too painful. It would expose too many harsh and unpleasant truths ... not just about the perpetrators, but about us. What is it about us that allows this cesspool of violent messages we see every day to become part of our lives? Why do we accept it? Why do we allow it?

We'd have examine our priorities, and ask ourselves why we seem to place so much importance on the trivial and so little on the real necessities of life ... such as how to effectively manage the enormous numbers of people who are falling through the cracks or society and are living in the shadows. What do you do? How do you treat them? How do you keep them out of harm's way ... and how do we keep ourselves from being harmed by them?

There's a tough one. How do you identify sociopaths before they snap one day and do what Aaron Alexis did? Or the Newtown, Conn., shooter? Or Timothy McVeigh? What influences them? What tiggers them to snap? Who are they listening to? What are they listening to? No one lives in a vacuum. They have to be listening to something.

And how do guns come into play? They are not the sole reason these things happen (though if the NRA could at least admit that guns in the wrong hands become exponentially more dangerous, that would be a terrific starting point, because right now they don't even seem to be able to do that). But they're certainly a component. I mean, you can't have gun violence without a gun, right? This alone should be enough to convince anyone that checking applicants to make sure that at the very least there's no mental illness in their histories, or felony convictions, should be de rigeur. Anything beyond those two elements is just a crap shoot anyway. But we can't even agree on that.

I don't know what the answers are, but I can tell you this: Until we work on finding them, then we're going to continue to have these periodic episodes. Once we admit that, as a culture, we are way more violent than we're willing to admit, then maybe we can fix it. We may not be violent in the sense that we blow ourselves up in the middle of a crowded mall in the middle of the day. But we're much too accepting of it; and we're far too intentionally oblivious to the other aspects of society's underbelly that, when you marry them to our insensitivity to violence, can very easily produce these types of disasters.

Friday, September 13, 2013


Happy Friday the 13th everyone. Here's a little Sportsaidekaphobia to mark the occasion ...

Let's start with some givens. Letting Wes Welker go was a risk for the New England Patriots. The move could end up hitting them in the face like a wave of effluvia. Then again, after one out of 16 games, that's all conjecture. But at the moment, it seems like the dumbest thing the Bill Belichick and the Patriots have ever done.

Of course, to be fair, when they let Welker go, who knew Aaron Hernandez would get into his predicament? That was certainly an X-factor no one could have predicted.

It would appear that the relationship between Belichick and Welker soured beyond repair, and it would also seem, to me at least, that both had a hand in it. Belichick is Dean Wormer, and apparently Welker is Otter. Or Boone. Or Flounder. Or maybe a combination of them all. Perhaps he was on double secret probation all these years and it caught up to him.

Whatever the reason, he's gone and our continuous pining for him isn't going to bring him back. There was obviously an effort on the part of the Patriots to bring in a group of receivers and let them mature together, and we're seeing the growing pains now. I'm not sure even Welker could make much of a difference, because he cannot get downfield, and he can't run six routes at once.

This has been an ongoing concern ... one that was masked pretty thoroughly by the existance of Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. The Patriots haven't had a consistent outside receiver since the jettisoned Randy Moss off to Minnesota. They've made do with the two tight ends, Welker, and a group of backs who could catch the ball ... call it the Kevin Faulk factory. There was Faulk, Danny Woodhead and now Shane Vereen (when he comes back from his broken wrist).

When you think about it, how much of a factor was Brandon Lloyd last year? In New England, your effectiveness as a receiver hinges on how much Tom Brady trusts you, and he didn't trust Lloyd. Nor did he trust Chad Ochocinco.

I have to admit, watching Brady pout last night was disconcerting, and if anyone down there were to ask me, I'd have to say that TB12 is a bigger problem, at this point, than the receivers are. He's going to have to calm down and let these guys develop without hovering over them like some kind of demented drill sergeant. He even said as much himself after the game. I can't speak for any of these rookies, but there was once a time when I was new, and remember well the ones who patiently explained my raw mistakes and I remember the ones with the oppressive, unfriendly criticisms. I always thought that tactic held back development.

I'll save my anger for people who should know better. All I know is that when you have Jabba the Hutt squatting on you while you're feeling your way around it tends to slow your development down.

Look, Brady has had a fantastic career. He's going to be in the NFL Hall of Fame. But I remember a game, in his first season as a starter, when he threw four interceptions against the Denver Broncos. He had to settle in, grow and make his mistakes ... and obviously Belichick saw something in him that made him stick with the kid. Maybe Brady could show the same patience now?

We all want to win. The Patriots do not hold a patent on winning and neither does Brady. And I think winning is one of those things where you sometimes have to extend a hand to your struggling teammates and shepherd them rather than browbeat them on national television.

Something tells me the Patriots -- at least this edition --  have jumped the shark anyway. If that's the case, all you can do is say it's been a hell of a run ... almost unprecedented in this modern NFL. Skills fade. People move on. The chemistry gets diluted and sometimes polluted. And when that happens, you just have to decide to cut your losses and move on.

What's happened with the Patriots concerning Hernandez has to affect them more than just losing Brady for the season to injury. I don't are how professional you profess to be. You're still a human being. And knowing there was a murderer in your midst would have to be more than a little disconcerting.

This already promised to be a difficult season even before Hernandez got arrested. Not having him, and not having Gronkowski yet ... that is huge, and I don't care what kind of a genius everyone thinks you are. That's just too much firepower to replace at once. You can't do it.

But now? With Hernandez in jail, Danny Amendola hurt (and can we please give the guy a break? The guy got hurt. It's a violent game. People get hurt), Vereen out until midseason with a broken wrist, no effective tight ends ... this is going to be a brutal stretch. Until some of these guys get healthy, the team is going to scuffle, and bitching about it isn't going to make anyone happier.

So with all that, is it to much to ask TB12 to just chill with the histrionics, be a mensch, and help these guys instead of showing them up?

And can we stop acting so entitled about the Patriots? Every NFL dynasty has had to regroup. Maybe it's our turn. If it is, so be it. It was bound to happen sooner or later.

And to think ... I'm writing this about a 2-0 team in the National Football League. Teams with far more talent at their disposal would kill to be 2-0. 


Onto other things: I'd love to hear Bug Selig's explanation for how a guy who's been effectively banished for the rest of his career for being a world-class cheat (not to mention rat) is still playing, and that his team is poised to crash the post-season party. This ought to be good.

How embarrassing will it be if a team like Cleveland, Baltimore or Tampa Bay is denied a spot in the post-season because the Yankees crashed their way in while a pariah such as Alex Rodriguez not  only played, but contributed mightily? I could actually see a situation where one of these organized sued MLB on the grounds that their suspended player ended up in the lineup for two months.

Two questions. First, would it have been better had Selig merely suspended A-Rod for the same number of games as it did everyone else in the recent PHD scandal, so he could have sat them out and not put us through this absolute farce? And aren't the Yankees talking out of both sides of their mouths here? They've been pretty obvious about their desire to rid themselves of Rodriguez and his contract, yet there he is. Sitting in the middle of the lineup like an elephant in the living room. I won't object if you call them hypocrites.

All I know is that we have a player who's been suspended ... bur who's playing ... and whose presence in the lineup has a good chance of influencing the post-season. There's something REALLY wrong with this picture.

Saddest of all is while the A-Rod side show is going on, we have Derek Jeter fighting for his career. Even if you hate the Yankees, you have to admire Jeter, who has done nothing but act with class, dignity and professionalism for his entire career. Just another indication that life is exceedingly unfair.


Some quick hits: Patrice Bergeron of the Bruins might be the most underrated, unappreciated athlete in Boston in this or any other era ...Boston College is 2-0, and nobody thought that was going to happen. Maybe 1-1. But not 2-0. Not sure what this means in the long run, but it's certainly  not terrible ... How badly is Alabama going to crush Texas A&M and Johnny Football tomorrow? ... Is there any doubt that John Farrell is the American League manager of the year? The only one I see giving him any competition is Terry Francona, who has turned the Cleveland Indians into a ballclub ... Which, by the way, is a pleasure to see. Tito was always a class act here, a clear illustration of how you could be a good guy and still win in professional sports ... I don't know what's worse: Steve Spurrier undermining the sports reporter who criticized him, or the newspaper publisher who caved and took the writer off the South Carolina beat ... And isn't it time we just blew up the entire big-time college athletics model and rebuilt it so that ethics played a part? ... I don't care how lousy his team is, and I don't care how many press conference meltdowns he has, I'd love to cover Rex Ryan. At least he gives you something to write about ... It's fun watching the New York Giant lose. Tom Coughlin is about the most entertaining coach there is after a loss. He has nothing to prove to anyone anymore. He might go down as the best post-season coach in the NFL's modern era. But damn! When the Giants stink, he's the man! ... I hope the Philadelphia Eagles are terrible this year. I don't trust college coaches anyway, and certainly don't trust Chip Kelly to be anymore than a huckster. I'm already mad at Mike Shanahan because the Redskins lost to them last week ... If those Red Sox beards get any longer, they're going to start tripping over themselves running to first base. I hear ZZ Top is looking for replacements.

Happy Friday the 13th everyone.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Totally random thoughts

Absolutely all over the board this morning with thoughts and opinions ranging from the crisis in Syria to Tim Tebow ... and everything in between. Some of these thoughts might be sobering ... others completely facetious and sarcastic. So strap on the seat belt and let's go ...

Let's start with this: Jerry Remy may or may not have been an attentive father. It's hard to imagine he was too "all-in" with the myriad of issues and problem's he's had in the last five or six years. And considering he's been doing color for the Red Sox since 1988, this pretty much encompasses the entire childhood-to-adulthood transition of his three children.

It's probably safe to say that Phoebe (his wife) probably did a lot of child-rearing alone.

But it's a stretch to hold either of them accountable in any way because their 32-year-old son allegedly murdered his girlfriend. No. It's absurd. There a lots of bad parents in this world, and only a fraction of the kids end up committing murder (allegedly). So to all you people who want to drag him into this awful, awful mess ... grow up and get a life. Talk about kicking a man when he's down ...


 I guess Rolling Stone is making a last stand toward being relevant. First, the profile on the marathon bomber (you know what? I can't even waste my time looking up his name so I spell it right) and now the expose on the life and times of Aaron Hernandez.

Let's see. Hernandez is charged with the premeditated murder of one person and suspected of gunning down two more people last year. So we get it. He's a bad-ass. The angel dust is a new revelation, but you'd have to have been naive to think that he was clean ... or that marijuana was the beginning and end of his drug involvement.

But blaming the Patriots for his debacle is like blaming Remy for his son's (alleged) crimes. There are lots of sleazy coaches, and pro football -- as driven by the dollar as it is -- will always put its organizations and coaches in the position of having to make some slippery-slope compromises to keep winning teams on the field.

But just because the Patriots looked the other way at a lot of the "signals" Hernandez may have sent up, that doesn't mean they're complicit with these alleged murders. It just means that moral and ethical ambiguity reigns in the NFL. "Thugism" isn't exclusive to Foxborough. I suppose the Patriots are fair game for their pious claims that their "way" would preclude such scandal, but to sit there and blame either Bill Belichick or Bob Kraft because Hernandez is accused of murder is simply wrong.

Oh, and one more thing: The media are paid to ask questions, even if they know the answers won't be forthcoming. It's not their job to cover up for the Patriots, or to lead the cheers regardless of what the issues are. It's Bill Belichick and Bob Kraft's prerogative to refuse comment on these issues, but don't expect the media to shy away from asking the questions.


Tim Tebow.

Just writing those words is enough to start a war. For a guy who seems like an inherently decent human being, Tebow is labeled "polarizing." It's because his presence on an NFL team raises all those questions about whether the hype is worth more than the substance. In his particular case, he seems to be the beneficiary of a hype machine that went into overdrive the moment he left Florida, and hasn't abated.

Everywhere he goes, he stirs up dust. These days, he's stirring up up with the Patriots.

Here's what I think: Tebow is a "lockerroom guy." Every team has to have a few of those. They rarely see the field (and you hope to God the situation never arises that they have to be thrown into action) but they're part of the glue that holds teams together. Maybe, someday, he'll be good enough to be a backup, but not now.

Yet, the Patriots -- as we saw this summer -- seem to have a paucity of real-live "lockerroom guys" whose nature and willingness to use themselves as examples create a winning environment. The question you have to ask yourself is whether "lockerroom guys" are so valuable that keeping them on the rosters is worth saving a spot for that final running back or tight end.

I think if you're down to that last roster spot, you're not expecting much out of whomever you pick for it, so this caterwauling about "wasting a roster spot" is silly. The 53rd guy on a team is never going to do more than be a backup on special teams, or be on the scout squad in practice. 

Sometimes you do get lucky, and your "lockerroom guys" turn out to be the stars too. Shane Victorino and Jonny Gomes with the Red Sox are two examples; and so is Patrice Bergeron with the Bruins. Other times, I'm afraid you do have to sacrifice a 53rd player who is the next diamond in the rough so you can get a guy in there who can give you what all good-teams have: self-policing. If that is to be Tebow's lot in life, so be it. After the Hernandez mess, it's obvious the Patriots need some good citizens.


Now, with regards to Syria ... I can't think of too many wars that haven't been incredible wastes of life and resources. Even the so-called "just" wars have extracted a horrible price on the world.

So the idea of just going into Syria with bombs to punish Bashar al Assad for poisoning his own people with chemical bombs might sound noble on the face of it, but even so, it is frought with all the dangers we've come to know so well with regards to anything we do in that part of the world.

So let's just keep that in mind before we join the chorus of "let's bomb them and teach them a lesson." I'm not sure, at this point, whether Assad is interested in being taught a lesson. He's interested in staying in power, and as we've seen, he'll do anything to keep it that way.

Yet this is a ticklish situation. As Secretary of State John Kerry has said, the use of chemical weapons has been such an anathema over the decades that even those with whom we have practically no common ground have refrained from using them. We went through two wars in Iraq -- which was supposed to have an enormous cachet of them -- and never encountered one of them.

Also, the U.S. is on some shaky ground when it comes to disciplining other countries for employing weapons of mass destruction or casualties. We are, after all, the only country to have dropped a nuclear weapon ... and we did it twice in three days. This isn't to stir up a debate over whether doing so was justified, because there are so many sides to this, and most of them contain more than just a small kernel of truth. But it is a reminder that we've done it.

There's also this to consider: Earlier this month, the military group that ousted Egypt's president managed to murder up to a thousand protesters on the wrong side of that country's coup. We didn't do anything for fear of the geopolitical ramifications of doing so. But even if a lot of those people were fighting on behalf of the ousted regime, they're still human beings, and they were still killed by the existing power structure ... tenuous though that might be.

So what's the difference? Are we picking and choosing how our enemies kill people now ... as if gassing them is somehow less moral than generic murder?

I agree the United States has to stand for something, but I'd think mass murder -- in whatever form it takes -- is equally odious, and not just because the murderers used gas and not bullets that tear the insides out of people.


Since I was a teenager, Sunday night of Labor Day weekend meant one thing: The Jerry Lewis Telethon, which was discontinued in 2011. I didn't watch it very often, but I knew it was there ... and often guffawed loudly at how corny some of the "comedy" was.

I also loved to make fun of Jerry Lewis, whose manic comedic stylings got him into a lot of trouble with advocates for mentally and emotionally challenged people. He also took a lot of heat for portraying physically challenged people as pitiful as opposed to inspirational ... at least until he (or his producers) wised up and changed the way he portrayed them.

But I could never knock him for making the attempt to raise money, not to mention awareness, for the plight of challenged people everywhere. However slow he  might have been to begin portraying challenged people as inspirations to the rest of us, as opposed to objects of our pity, he was in there fighting, and helping to fight against the very illnesses that forced muscular dystrophy victims to endure those challenges.

And in that sense, I miss the telethon. In the Boston area, WEEI and NESN had a two-day Jimmy Fund (children's cancer research fund) marathon that was filled with heart-warming stories about cancer survivors who never would have been alive were it not for the Dana Farber Institute and the fund. Jerry Lewis pioneered this type of programming and for that, he deserves everyone's gratitude.

We live in very self-absorbed times, where this type of "giving" is emphasized less and less. Jerry may have been slow on the uptake, but his heart was always in the right place.

Happy Labor Day. It's back to reality Tuesday.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

It was a pivotal year

It's funny how people just keep popping up in your life to remind you of how old you're getting. It could be a relative you haven't seen in a while; an ex-colleague who happens to call you out of the blue; or -- in my case -- George Scott.

I'd say he kept popping up like a bad penny ... except there was nothing bad about him. So let's make an exception in his case and call him a "good penny."

"The Boomer," who died earlier this week, just happened to be there at key points in my life ... dating all the way back to 1967, when he was one of the unquestioned spark plugs of that "Impossible Dream" team that went from next-to-last to first in one season. 

First of all, 1967 was a pivotal year in lots of ways. It was for anyone in my generation, at least. And if you were from Boston, it may still be  -- collectively -- the defining year of our era.

I have four vivid memories of 1967 ... visceral events that have never left me. The first was watching, on a cold winter night, the two promotional clips of "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" on TV. When we'd last left the Beatles, it was August of 1966, they'd just released "Revolver" and they'd just wrapped up their touring careers at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. They'd decided, after three hectic years of non-stop recording, movie-making and touring, that they'd had enough ... and that they were going to take a break to restore their collective sanity.

The oldest among them -- Ringo Starr and John Lennon -- were only 26, and looking back on it, just that simple fact alone is tragic in a way. Most of our lives are barely getting started at 26, yet they were already fed up with theirs.

Lennon made a movie, "How I Won The War," playing Private Gripweed; George Harrison started taking up Transcendental Meditation and continued studying the sitar; Paul McCartney bought a farm in Scotland and involved himself in that; and Ringo did ... whatever Ringo did.

By the time they reunited, they were changed men. As one author noted (and it's the best line I've ever read about Lennon), "the Beatle who disappeared into 'Private Gripweed was never to re-emerge." They had mustaches, and Harrison even had a beard. And the path from "She Loves You" to "Strawberry Fields Forever" had taken some serious turns (though we should have seen it coming after listening to "Tomorrow Never Knows," the final song on "Revolver"). I remember being totally bemused. It had taken me a while to get used to the songs, and now I was supposed to see these four Smith Brothers reincarnates and get used to that, too? It was the portent, I suppose, of a very tumultuous year.

I did ... obviously and so did everyone else. By the time "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" came out in June, the whole world was buzzing about the Fab Four once again.

Shortly after that clip was aired (or shortly before, I can't remember exactly), Albert DeSalvo, the self-styled Boston Strangler (that was his name, I swear), escaped from the Bridgewater State Hospital, where he was being held on a rape conviction (he was never tried for the seven stranglings he admitted to ... and on which he later recanted). He surrendered to authorities the next day in -- of all places -- my hometown of Lynn, Massachusetts.

I remember being outside shoveling snow with my sister (it was February and the snow always seemed deeper and more plentiful back then) when my mother came to the door and told us to get in the house. Just prior to that, state cruisers and up and down our street looking as if they'd meant business.

She never told us why, but I wasn't all that upset. By then, I'd grown to hate shoveling snow ... or, at least, my own snow ... I didn't mind shoveling other people's snow because they paid me.

That night, we were glued to the TV as news footage came over that DeSalvo turned himself in by casually walking into Simon's Uniform Store on Western Avenue. Others may have been horrified but I -- and my friends -- thought it was cool. There was a map of the Boston area on the news, with the word "Lynn" right above "Boston." As my friend Dickie Mariano said, "we're on the map." Right on. Who cared why?

I was 13 in 1967 (turned 14 in August), and all this stuff made a huge impression. Winter segued into spring, which segued into summer. And by then, you could really see the music taking a seismic shift into something heretofore unheard of. In 1966, we were grooving to "Summer in the City." A year later, it was "Light My Fire" and "Purple Haze." Quite a difference.

But jump back two months to April. The Red Sox had -- to put it politely -- stunk as long as I could remember. They were so bad my father used to say that if you turned the paper upside down, they'd be in first place. They never quite made it to last place (thank God for the Washington Senators and Kansas City Athletics), but eighth through 10th was their domain. They had some very entertaining guys on the team, but few of them could actually play.

But maybe because I was 12 and 13 and didn't grasp the subtleties, they'd infused the team with some young guys who could actually play by 1965 and '66. They took their lumps, finishing ninth both seasons, and by '67, they were ready to go. The Sox went out and got themselves a manger who, they felt, could bring these young kids along and teach them to win. His name was Dick Williams.

And apparently, he had a first name entirely appropriate to his personality.

The Red Sox opened the season at 100-1 odds to win the pennant, but Williams rode herd on the boys. And he rode no one harder than George Charles Scott, an affable country boy from Mississippi who loved to hit long home runs (he called them taters) and loved to eat even more. Scotty, "The Boomer," was a big kid whom Williams disciplined often for his lack of management with regards to his physical conditioning. Williams even benched Boomer in the middle of the piping-hot pennant race that summer because he was a few pounds over the weight he'd designated as acceptable. That prompted one sports writer, Tim Horgan, to fume that "the other nine teams in the American League have managers; the Red Sox have a dietician."

Williams also said talking to Scott was like talking to a cement wall. 

But whatever Williams did, he got the best of The Boomer in 1967. He hit .303 with 29 homers -- none of them bigger than the September 30 game against the Minnesota Twins when he hit the go-ahead homer in a game the Sox had to win -- and did. That set up perhaps the most dramatic game in Fenway history until the sixth game of the 1975 World Series came along. My third truly vivid memory of that year was seeing Rico Petrocelli go out into short left field to catch Rich Rollins' flare of a popup that ended that game.

No. 4 came shortly after, when we got to see the scene in the Red Sox clubhouse after Dick McAuliffe of the Detroit Tigers hit into a double play that ended their game with the California Angels and meant the Red Sox had won the pennant outright. McAuliffe was a pesky little second baseman/shortstop for the Tigers who had a batting stance a Little League coach would have detested. He used to drive the Red Sox nuts and one reason was that he was impossible to double up. Even when you thought you'd gotten him out ... there he'd be on first base, having either beaten out an infield nubber or hustled down the line to foil a double play bid.

He only hit into two DPs all season. So it was especially sweet that one of them came on October 1 and it gave the Red Sox the pennant ... their first since 1946.

And to think: all Williams ever promised at the beginning of that season was "we'll win more than we lose."

The pennant race made us forget all the other stuff. Hippies loitering and littering in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park? "The Summer of Love?" Maybe somewhere else. Nobody around here was going to San Francisco with flowers in their hair.

 It was the "Summer of the Impossible Dream" around here. It was the summer of the "Cardiac Kids," and of Carl Yastrzemski (who basically walked on water). We saw Tony Conigliaro's career effectively end (though he'd come back for a few years) on August 18 when he was hit in the face by a pitch. We saw the Red Sox and Yankees (who, by this time, were as wretched as the Sox once were) engage in a true brawl when Thad Tilloson of the 'Stripes hit Joe Foy; and Jim Lonborg retaliated by plunking Tilloson). We saw guys like Jerry Adair, Dalton Jones, Lee Stange, Gary Bell, Jose Santiago, and many others have career years in the same season.

Boomer was one of the constants. He may have eaten a ton, but he also hit a ton as well. And the joy with which he played was infectious. He was truly a fan favorite.

But the magic didn't last, either for the Red Sox or for Boomer. He had an absolutely awful year in 1968 (.171 average with three homers). And even though he rebounded in 1969 with better numbers, they never approached his numbers in '66 and '67.

By 1971, he was 27 (certainly not old by Major League standards), and the Red Sox were out of patience waiting for him to achieve consistent power numbers. He was part of a 10-player trade in October of that season (including Lonborg and Billy Conigliaro) with the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for, among others, Marty Pattin and Tommy Harper.

Pattin had a couple of good years for the Sox, and Harper did as well. But neither was around by 1975, when the Red Sox won another pennant. Scott, meanwhile, terrorized the Red Sox every chance he got. In '75, he broke up Rick Wise's no-hitter with a two-out, two-run homer. And it always seemed as if whenever the Brewers would come to down, Scott would put on a show. No doubt he was deeply hurt by the Red Sox' decision to trade him, and he made sure he let them know (similarly, Carlton Fisk did the same thing much later on when the Red Sox, with their dithering and incompetence, allowed the best catcher they ever had to sign as a free agent with the White Sox).

By 1977 he was back on the Sox, though in all honesty, the trade that brought him back here was not one of the best ever. To get him, they Red Sox gave up Cecil Cooper, who later emerged as one of the best hitters of his era.

And this is where our lives intersected for the first time. In September of that season, the sports editor where I worked at UPI observed Yom Kippur ... and it was on the same night the Red Sox were playing the Yankees at Fenway. It was a huge game. The Sox, Yankees and Baltimore Orioles were all duking it out for the American League East championship. The Sox and O's finished tied for second with 97 wins while the Yankees had 100. Such was the parity in the AL East that season. In '78, the Red Sox won 99 games ... and lost the division when the Yankees went on a tear reminiscent of the 1951 New York Giants, and beat the Sox in a one-game playoff thanks, in large part, to Bucky "Bleeping" Dent's three-run homer.

These days, 97 wins will probably get you into the playoffs under the expanded system ... and they might even win you a division.

Scott had himself a game that night. He hit the two-run homer that put the Sox ahead (to right field ... his power always was to the opposite field) and then, with one out in the ninth and a runner on first in a 3-2 game, picked a low liner practically off the ground and then reached to first to double up the runner to end the game.

The post-game was almost as good as the game. That was the night the "Reggie Sucks" chants (Reggie being Jackson) started and even though it was a doozy of a win, the instructions from our New York office were to get Reggie's reaction to his new-found fan club. Not a good night to be chasing Reggie around. But he accommodated and gave a quote for the ages (and one that I couldn't use): "it's bad for baseball ... it's bad for kids .. it's bad for people who bring their kids to the ballpark ... and there's no need for that fuckin' shit."

Priceless. I got it, filtered it as much as I could (bleeping bleep was how we chose to use it) and, on my way out of the Yankee clubhouse, saw George Kimball of the Boston Phoenix, who was late for the party. He asked me if Reggie had said anything, and I gave him the quote verbatim.

"He really said that?" Kimball asked.

"Yup," I replied. And he used every word of it in his story.

This put me in the Red Sox clubhouse long after the horde had left. I encountered The Boomer sitting at his locker eating this enormous salad (this was his way of fighting the battle of the bulge ... eating salads with enough lettuce that Cesar Chavez had to pick it and deliver it personally; there was other stuff in there too, plus it was loaded with dressing, and one wonders in retrospect whether he'd have been better off just eating less of whatever it was the Red Sox had on the post-game menu that night).

I approached him with trepidation. No one likes to be disturbed when they're eating, and I'm sure for Boomer that went double.

"George," I began, "would you say this was your best game of the season?"

I thought it was a fairly harmless question. I figured he'd say yes (because it was, if you're going on all-around game). Instead he went off on me, spitting lettuce all over me in the process.

"What do you mean saying that? I bust my ass 162 games a year. I don't take no games off. I go out there and play hard every game ..  not just this game." He was steaming. And the more steamed he got, the faster he talked (and he was hard to understand anyway). And let's just say he was imposing. He probably could have eaten me if he'd put his mind to it.

"I didn't mean to imply you didn't try," I stammered "I wasn't trying to insult you ..."

"Well you did," he said. "If you want to ask me about the game, go ahead. But don't gimmie this shit about 'best game'."

All right, then. I'll ask.

"What kind of a pitch did you hit?"

"Fastball," he snapped. No more.

"And what about the double play?"

"Instinct," he said, just as flatly, muttering something about catching the ball and just instinctively going for the bag.

And that was it. I'd gotten a huge break being asked to cover this game solo for UPI (I was 24 years old!) and this is the best I could do with the star of the game? I was doomed to many more years of overnight radio thanks to this, I figured.

And even though I'd worshiped Scott as a kid, I rooted against him, and laughed at his increasing futility, for the next two years (not to mention got angry with him for striking out against Rich Gossage in that '78 playoff game, but in retrospect, at least he swung; Bob Bailey just watched three pitches go by).

I've only had three athletes get mad at me over the course of my career: Pete Rose, Jim Rice (who got mad at everybody) and Boomer.

But nobody cared. New York's main focus, even though the Sox won, was Reggie. He'd had his own tumultuous season, and quite a bit of the controversy surrounding him had come at Fenway (including practically getting into a fist fight in the dugout with manager Billy Martin a few months earlier). I got great quotes out of him for that, so rather than being a bum for whiffing on the Boomer, I was a hero for hitting Reggie out of the park. So see? Life is like a game of baseball. You go 1-for-4, and hit the game-winning homer, you're a star. Even if you whiff badly the other three times. Just ask Mike Napoli.

I left UPI by 1979 for my hometown newspaper, the Daily Evening Item (which has since been shortened to simply The Daily Item). And in 1996, the Massachusetts Mad Dogs became the latest minor league/independent team to try to make a go of it in Lynn. The Mad Dogs thought the best way to corner the market was to hire a popular figure as their manager ... and they picked George Scott.

We were all much older, and wiser, of course, by '96 (not to mention fatter ... all of us!). And this is when I got to really know The Boomer. The first time I interviewed him, we were getting along famously, talking about arcane baseball things that only two guys who love the game could do. After about 20 minute of non-stop baseball chatter, I broached the subject of 1977 and how mean he was to me.

"I was?" he said, with genuine surprise in his voice. That didn't surprise me. Back then, I was one of a horde of reporters entering his domain. I don't suppose he gave any of us much thought beyond the moment.

"Yes," I said. "You were very cross with me. You scared the hell out of me. You had a big salad in front of you and I thought you were going to throw it away and come after me instead."

He let out this enormous belly laugh.

"Man," he said, "I'm sorry. Musta been in a bad mood over something."

"Can't imagine what it would have been," I replied. "You won the game practically all by yourself."

"Don't matter," he said, going on to explain that even though he hit a lot of home runs that season (he ended up with 33, and a .269 batting average ... not terrible), he went through long slumps where all he'd do was strike out (112 times). And he always had coaches telling him that if he's lose the gut, he wouldn't strike out so much because he wouldn't be tied up inside. I can relate to that. So I understood. He was touchy about the "best game" question because he'd had so many bad ones ... and all I did was remind him of it.

He stayed with the Mad Dogs through his tenure, and when I became sports editor two years later, I did a lengthy profile on him that covered both his Major League career and his managerial philosophy.

He was, when he wanted to be, both accommodating and effusive. And he was "on" the day I interviewed him. Toward the end of the session, he told me "I only have four rules I tell my players. Wanna hear them?"

"Sure," I said. "I'd like to."

"Well," he began, "Rule No. 1 is be on time ... for the bus, for the game ... anything we ask you to do ... be on time."

OK, I thought. Fair enough. That's everybody's rule.

"No.2," he continued, "bust your ass every moment you're on the field."

Again, I thought. No surprise there. Nobody wants a player who dogs it.

"No. 3," he rattled off, "no alcohol in public. I don't want no drunk players making any scenes"

Well, I figured, it's too bad you have to spell that out for people, but I guess you do ...

"And No. 4," he said, with great pride, "no fightin' with womens in the streets"

Now that one came at me like a fastball to the chops. First, that's not a typo. That's what he said. Womens. And second, I didn't know how to take it. I sure he meant no scenes involving women where there was a whole lot of yelling back and forth, waking the neighborhood and causing unwanted bad publicity to the organization.

But it was open to so much interpretation! Did he mean it was OK to do it in private? I'm not sure! I don't think so, but you never know.

Anyone who covered the Mad Dogs had Scott stories. He didn't like thunderstorms, and once, while a colleague was riding back from New York with the Mad Dogs, they got caught in a storm. Scott was uber-nervous, begging the "bussie" to pull over until it passed. "Bussie," he said, "I'll give you a hunskie if you just pull over."

That, in case you don't know, is a hundred dollar bill.

Boomer liked to conduct post-game interviews in the altogether. Which was sort of disconcerting for a variety of reasons.

And, he was easy to imitate. Anyone who came in contact with him over an extended period of time had him down to a tee.

The downside to watching Scott in those years was that he'd gotten dangerously big, and had a tough time getting around. He had horrible knees, and had to climb a mountain of stairs after each game just to get to the house the team had commandeered as its administrative offices. It was painful to watch.

After the Mad Dogs folded, he stayed in the Boston area for a while, but pretty much dropped out of sight. He died Sunday at the age of 69, and absent any official ruling on what caused his death, it's reasonable to assume his weight, which he never conquered, and his diabetes, were contributing factors.

With him goes an indelible part of my childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. Life would have been so much duller had there not been a George Scott. And there's a good chance that the magical summer of 1967, which meant to many things to so many people, would have been simply three months of reading about hippies and listening to "Purple Haze" and "White Rabbit" had Scott not been with the Red Sox, and had he not played such a vital role in the "Impossible Dream."

I turn 60 next month. I don't need any more reminders of how old I'm getting, but this is the type of thing that hits you between the eyes.

May he rest in peace ... and may he never have to eat another salad up there!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Things I really don't care about ...

If sports aren't your thing, then I guess it'll be an easy decision to skip this. But if they are ... here are the Top 10 things on the national athletic horizon that -- forgive me -- I just couldn't care less about.

1 -- I really don't care what anyone, anywhere, other than -- at the present time -- the coaching staff of the New England Patriots thinks of Tim Tebow. All the guy asks is a chance to play in the NFL. But the way people carry on about him, you'd think he was going around at night stealing everyone's family fortune. He may not be as wonderful as his biggest sycophant fans think he is, but he's certainly not as bad as his detractors portray either. I suppose it is hard, with the public opinion pool as polluted as it is, to find any kind of a Tebow comfort zone, but out of decency, I think the world should just back off and let him (and us) find it! But that's never going to happen. Just witness the unbridled glee with which these pundits tear the guy to shreds.

2 -- I really don't care who wins the NBA championship. I just wish we could stop hearing about it only through the perspective of LeBron James and the Miami Heat. On the surface, James seems no different than any professional athlete. He has a healthy ego. He knows who he is ... and that he's not just a player but a brand unto himself. He's really not obnoxious. There have been no scandals ... no obvious attempts on his part to act or speak outrageously and then hide behind his fame. It's not that. But he's ubiquitous. He's the current manifestation of how disproportionately we hero-worship mega-stars at the expense of less famous people who are just as vital to our national fiber. And pursuant to the first two items on this list, I was watching ESPN this week and I'd say half the hour-long edition of SportsCenter was taken up by these two stories. That is overkill.

3 -- I don't care what Mike Milbury thinks of anyone, let alone Jaromir Jagr. The self-style world's foremost authority on hockey went off on Jagr between periods of Saturday night's Stanley Cup final game between the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks (oh, yes, ESPN, this series is going on at the same time the James-fest is happening). Among other things, he called Jagr slow and lazy; and said he was unable and unwilling to forecheck and backcheck. In the interest of full disclosure, it might be pointed out (if Milbury didn't see fit to) that Jagr was a rookie on the 1990-1991 Pittsburgh Penguins team that spotted the Bruins -- whom he coached -- to a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference finals before the Penguins stampeded them by winning four straight games. Milbury also had such unflattering nicknames as a player such as "Snowshoes," and his most memorable moment while in uniform might be jumping into the stands at Madison Square Garden and beating a fan with his shoe. So I'd take anything he says with the proper grain of salt.

4 -- I don't care if Doc Rivers wants to coach somewhere else. He's earned the right to change his scenery. And I didn't care if Ray Allen wanted to leave the Celtics last year. Ditto. Rivers is a rare person. He's honest, upbeat, professional, accommodating and fan-conscious all in one. Sort of the anti-Bill Belichick. He was like that as a player and he's like that now. Doc is competitive and obviously feels that the sands in the hourglass have pretty much run out in Boston. That is a rebuilding process that's going to take some time, and no one could blame Doc if he'd just as soon pass. Let him go and be grateful for the time he's spent here. He's been a class act every day of his tenure.

5 -- I don't care about NASCAR. Or any kind of auto racing. Bores me to tears. I can't even name six drivers. The motto seems to be "go left, young man," ... or is it "go right, young man." The most excitement anyone feels at an auto race is when two (or more) cars collide. And as a bonus, you know you've hit paydirt when two (or more) drivers start duking it out when the race ends. The late Jim Murray said it best. "Gentlemen, start your coffins."

6 -- I don't care about crowning a college football national champion. I really don't. And the reason I don't is simple. There is never going to be a tournament that fairly winnows down the teams to a logical, deserving champion. This is possible in all other sports, but not football. And that's because football is too physically taxing and demanding to play the requisite amount of games, in the shortest amount of time. Even this latest incarnation is going to, at some point, rely on someone's opinion (at least one who gets to play). Saying this, Alabama's manhandling of Notre Dame last January did nothing for our arguments that it's unfair to have these power rankings based on league or conference. But at the same time, football, because of its unique physical toll, is going be judged way more subjectively than any other sport. There just aren't enough opportunities to do it on the field. So I say skip all that and go back to the way it used to be. At least there's no pretense of objectivity.

7 --  I don't care about any overexposed celebrity athlete, even if he plays in Boston. And that would include Rob Gronkowski. You know what, Gronk? Take care of your physical needs, stay the hell away from the cameras, and be ready to score some touchdowns this fall. There's no other reason to possibly care about you. That goes for Chad Ochocinco/Johnson/whatever he calls himself on any given day. Today, he issued a heartfelt apology for slapping his lawyer on the ass last week and incurring the wrath of the judge in his court case on the violation of his parole. The judge, offended over how cavalierly he seemed to be handling this, threw the book at him, ordering him to the pokey for 30 days. Today, after he soberly apologized, she relented and ordered him released. I wonder if a) she'd have been so anxious to make an example out of him had he been Joe Doakes; and b) if she'd have let Joe Doakes off on an apology after citing him for contempt of court just seven days earlier. Bad precedent one way or the other, and it speaks volumes about star power. And if Alex Rodriguez wants to slink away and leave us all alone, I'd be OK with that, too.

8 -- I don't care about the umpire's strike zone. Hey, pitch, the ump calls balls and strikes. He sees probably 200-plus pitches in a game (and often more than that, given that batters today are all into this "work the count" mode). He's going to miss one here and there. Even the box on the lower right hand corner of your TV screen is inaccurate once in a while. So, Jon Lester, maybe if you just pitched and stopped approaching every game as if the ump was there for the sole purposes of screwing you, maybe you'd be a little more consistent. If I were John Farrell, by the way, I'd be pulling him aside and telling to just fire the ball. Just throw it. Don't try to paint corners. Don't try to nibble. Throw the damn ball and trust your stuff. Because I swear, if I were Farrell, and Lester threw one more "nibble" pitch, I'd take him out of the game in he first inning. You can really understand, after watching him, why Bobby Valentine left him in to get pounded last year against Toronto. But with regards to strikes and balls, umpires are all different. They see the ball differently. Some (but they're in the minority) tend to call high strikes. Most seem to want you to bring a golf club up there. But whatever it is, it's up to pitchers and hitters to adjust to it. As long as it's consistent (even if it's consistently bad) nobody has any complaints.

9 -- I don't care about sports labor disputes, except that when they happen, we don't get to see sports. But as far as who's right or wrong, and what the issues are, I don't care. Whatever they are, they're phony. Oh, I suppose in the very literal sense, they're real. But if you want my sympathy in a labor dispute, you have to prove to me that one side or the other is being a bully. And seriously, can you see any bullies in any of the equations involving sports labor issues? Both sides approach the table from almost equal positions of strength. What's left is only the acrimony of trying to divide a pie the size of Jupiter. Compare that to labor disputes where one side offers the other crumbs from the pie ... and makes everybody fight over those.

10 -- I don't care about anything an agent says that isn't connected with what said agent knows the  most about: and that's making money for his client. A few days ago Sidney Crosby's agent complained that Boston's Zdeno Chara intentionally hit his client in an exposed area of the jaw that was broken earlier this year by an errant hockey puck. Now, Crosby was exposed in the Eastern Conference final as being kind of a whiny, sniveling prima donna (and I'm being kind). The bravest thing he did in the four games was try to go after Boston goalie Tuukka Rask, who -- though he wouldn't say so -- basically told him what he could do with himself and where he could go. The minute Chara stepped into any fray involving Crosby, Sid the Squid hid behind a referee. So excuse me if I'm not impressed with this latest crying of crocodile tears.

Monday, June 10, 2013

To a mentor ...

We've all had mentors ... people who have showed us the way, patiently or otherwise. One of mine died Sunday.

I was blessed, forty-one years ago, to have an office full of mentors. That's because as an 18-year-old copy boy at United Press International's Boston bureau (and the only one besides) just about everyone had an opinion about what I should be doing and how I should be doing it.

But three spring to mind above all others: Dave Haskell, Gil Peters and Richard Gaines. These were the guys who taught me how to be a reporter. They taught me a lot of other things we won't get into here, because, well, we're not going to and that's all there is to that.

They each had different ways of mentoring. Dave was a stickler on style. Gil observed me in action outside the office, at different venues, and would always offer constructive criticism about how to act (or, which was very often in my case, how not to act). He was also comic relief in those days and had a way of keeping my feet on the ground when I'd have preferred for them to flying all over the place.

I remember Peters one day, after an afternoon of watching me run around doing errands, asking me very sympathetically if I wanted a cup of coffee.

"Gee," I said, "that would be nice." Whereupon he threw a couple of dollars at me and said, "good, when you go out, get me one too."

I couldn't argue with him. That was the job. Which is why it always amazes me today, when kids come in to work their first jobs as interns, why they think they're above doing those kinds of errands. To me, it was always a rite of passage.

 This brings us to Dick Gaines, who died Sunday at the age of 69. One of my many errands during the course of a day was to go across the street from our office to the State House press room, where Gaines would give me his to bring back to the office. It became a trip I enjoyed making, because Gaines was a funny guy. He was, for lack of a better term, the "star" of our office in that he actually covered a beat (Massachusetts politics) and he rubbed elbows with all the principal players.

We got to know each other well enough so that we played tennis together a few times (no contest ... he'd always win in straight sets), and I remember helping him organize a UPI tennis tournament, where I didn't make it out of the first round.

Dick was always a rather flamboyant character. He made a hell of an entrance, he was cocky, unafraid to chap the asses of the bosses, and secure enough to know that in this realm, he had no match. Apparently, the folks up at the Gloucester Times thought the same thing too. He became a nationally-renowned chronicler of the fishing industry and won prizes for his reporting of it.

I don't want to get maudlin, even though when you hear about significant people from your past who have left this mortal coil, you naturally turn to reflection and reminiscence. I guess it helps you deal with it all.

But I'd like to share one story about Dick Gaines and his mentoring of me. In 1974, U.S. District Judge W. Arthur Garrity, ruled that because the Boston school system was woefully out of compliance with mandates from the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the most expeditious way to get the city in compliance was to order forced busing.

Nobody liked this. I'm sure even civil rights activists would have given anything had integration been implemented in a much less draconian way. Although I have no way of proving this, my belief is that Garrity was more than a little put off by the arrogance demonstrated by the Boston School Committee and took that into consideration when he made his decision.

I remember the night before schools opened in Boston, a radio commentator named Avi Nelson encouraged the people of South Boston to show up, to demonstrate, and to impede the implementation as much as they could. By this time, I knew I was going to be part of the "team" that went to Southie in the morning to cover busing. Dick Gaines would be going with me .. which meant that not only was he to report on one of the most divisive (not to mention historic) events the city had seen in quite some time, he was also going to have to babysit me.

I was not looking forward to this. I was 21 years old. I liked going to Red Sox games with Gil Peters, eating free food at Fenway Park, and walking around Boston at lunchtime. Going into Southie wasn't my idea of fun, and I didn't get a whole lot of sleep the night before.

My job was simple. It was to procure a phone. This was, of course, before the cell phone era. The drill was to go into some drug store, or restaurant, call the office .. get them to return the call ... and then just stay on the line until the reporter needed to dictate.

Of course, it wasn't feasible to just hang around on the phone. Gaines would tell me when I needed to get a phone. Meantime, I was to stick to him like glue. That was OK with me!!

I don't think either of us anticipated how ugly it would be. I was there the first two days and I actually saw a photographer get hit off the head with a brick someone had thrown, hoping to hit a bus. The wound raised a lump on the poor guy's head the size of a jumbo egg, and I was worried he was going to die. He didn't, but it scared the hell out of me. And a lot of other people too.

Dick and I were appalled. Here I was 21, and although I thought I was worldly, I wasn't worldly enough to digest this. I didn't know whether to run or to cry, and I knew I couldn't do either. But as appalled as I was, that's how much more incredulous Dick was. He was angry. And I never saw him angry.

Rocks and bricks weren't the only things flying around. Lots of N's could be heard above the roar.

Dick was fuming. He called all the school children who had boycotted (or were told to boycott) being bused out of Southie to other schools "street urchins," and his preferred term of endearment to the adults who encouraged this was "f'ing rednecks."

The first day I was there, I couldn't articulate thought. I mean, I understood the unpopularity of busing. Nobody liked it. But on the other hand, the school department had 10 years to come into some kind of compliance with the civil rights act and at the 11th hour it faced the prospect of having all its federal funding taken away from it because of gross negligence in implementing the mandates. This is why Garrity had to act.

The whole incident made such a profound impression me that in a Persuasion class in college, one year later, I got hold of the decision, dissected it, and delivered a speech on it in front of the class. I even had to dress up in a suit, too, because, as part of the exercise, I was supposed to be a person from the NAACP giving the speech to a room full of people from the group ROAR (Restore Our Alienated Rights), which was the anti-busing group that sprung up in Boston ... and a whose tactics often went just to the edge of violence.

Day Two was worse than Day One ... and this is that day that Dick Gaines not only mentored me but he saved me from an ass-whipping. Both days, Dick would let me stand with him as he interviewed different people, and he was so incensed by what he was seeing that, on a few occasions, he got confrontational with the "urchins and rednecks" he had to talk to. That just made things even more tense.

I have to say I admired him. I'd have loved to have had the guts to do what he did. But I was scared to death and all I wanted to was get out of their alive -- both days -- and not draw attention to myself.

But of course, that's not me. I've been known to wise off and say things at the worst possible times. And ultimately, I couldn't help myself. As the buses started rolling up the hill to South Boston High at the dawning of Day Two, there were three high-school age kids standing there yelling "Go home, Niggers. Get outta here,  Niggers. Go home." Stuff like that.

I'd heard the word once to often, I guess. In that setting, it wasn't simply a racial slur. It was out-and-out assault. And I suppose you have to be in a situation to understand that.

I turned to Gaines, and said -- obviously a bit too loud -- "Chrissakes, when's George Wallace going to show up? This is like one of those Wallace rallies I used to watch on TV."

All of a sudden, the three kids spewing "N" invective all over the place surrounded me, and one of them started poking his fingers in my chest. Now, understand, I was dressed in a shirt and tie that came right out of the Bad Seventies Catalog. I couldn't have stuck out more. This kid, who looked to be about 16 or 17, and a whole lot tougher than I was, just kept poking and jabbing and saying things like "yeah, what are ya gonna do about it, pussy."

Guilty as charged. I wanted no part of him or, at that moment, South Boston in general. All of a sudden, Dick Gaines sensed danger and, I swear, made himself as big as grizzly bear.

"Hey, was anyone talking to you, asshole?" roared Gaines. "No. Nobody's talking to you. Shut the F* up and leave us alone."

I'll never understand why, but the kid backed off. Boy, was I grateful. Dick should have gone back to the office and said to himself, "Krause is definitely not ready for prime time." That's what I'd have done.

Instead, he went back to the editors and raved about how professionally I'd acted (maybe he thought I showed admirable restrained not to haul off and belt the kid, but truthfully, I was scared into paralysis). Maybe he realized that he visibly demonstrated how repulsed he was by all of this whereas I, for the most part, stood there with my mouth open wanting to cry. I don't know. But I made a hell of an impression on him ... one that he shared eagerly and enthusiastically with the guys back at the office.

We remained friendly until he left UPI to join the Boston Phoenix as its main political writer. And then, as with all professional relationships that end, we lost touch.

Thanks to Facebook, I am friends with Peters, Haskell and Warren Talbot, another great mentor from those days. One day two years ago, I happened to see something from the Gloucester Times on line with byline Richard Gaines. I asked some people I know up there, and sure enough, it was one and the same. We exchanged emails and then never corresponded again. Like everything else, life took its turns and we weren't on the same bus.

Death is always terribly sad, especially when you consider he should have had a lot more living to do. Sixty-nine is not old anymore (not to mention it's only 10 years older than me).

I consider it a privilege, though, to have been mentored in an era when journalists took their work, but not necessarily themselves, seriously. I bemoan the the proliferation of internet blogs where anyone with an opinion -- whether it's based on fact or fantasy -- can just fire away with the knowledge that there are no more checks and balances with it comes to veracity and accuracy. Guys like Dick Gaines, Dave Haskell, Gil Peters and Warren Talbot made me understand that if I was writing for the public, I owed the public the due diligence to check my facts and make sure I had them in order before putting the -30- on the end of the story.

Once I found out Dick worked for the Times, I read a lot of his stories. One thing I never had to worry about was their veracity. I took it on faith.

Cheers, Dick from SK-BH.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Some sober thoughts on Memorial Day 2013

We've all seen it ... at every sports venue, every school function ... the moms and dads who have been sent off to God-forsaken areas in the middle east, and who have come back and surprised their children, providing camera-ready human emotion and drama.

Even if you're a bit cynical about the manipulation that goes hand in hand with this, it's hard not to get swept up in it, and difficult not to get a lump in your throat over the pure joy in seeing families united after months and months of being separated.

The only problem? Such orchestrated homecomings tend to obscure the reasons these children have not seen their mothers and fathers for those months and months at a time. Are they still valid? Is it still that necessary to be sending moms and dads overseas to fight? Is there ever an upside to war in general? Or is war, as Edwin Starr sang so long ago, good for "absolutely nothing."

These are tough questions. There's a lot of gray area here. There aren't any easy answers.

Have we become too quick with the trigger finger? Have we worked arduously to prevent conflict from spreading or are we, at times, a little too willing to assert ourselves into an unstable fray in hopes that our sheer might will tilt the resolution in our favor? Do we even consider the reasons that terrorism -- which is why we feel compelled to get involved in these skirmishes in the first place -- has become such an effective weapon against us?

Sometimes I wonder. And that's where I'm at on Memorial Day 2013.

I do not say I have all the answers ... just the questions. People far more intelligent, and far more seasoned at handling thorny crises, are left to figure it all out. But I think we need to ask.

 But I will tell you this: While I have an enormous amount of respect and gratitude for those who have been thrust into harm's way to carry out a mission they had no hand in defining, we should be mature enough, in this country at least, to be able to make the distinction between supporting our troops unconditionally and questioning the decisions that have sent them into action.

 So right off, let me reiterate I have nothing but praise and admiration for our nation's soldiers, and join in thanking them when I see them (they never seem to know what to do when I go up to them in airports, or in other places, and simply shake their hands and say "thank you." I guess it's not a reaction they expect).

But I'm just not down with leaving it at that. I always want to say, after the thank you, "but it's still a huge tragedy that you had to go and risk your life trying to dodge improvised explosive devices, snipers and other assorted forms of military artillery." It's not a very pleasant subject to bring up, so I do not. But it's always there.

I'm with Edwin Starr. Wars is only good for the undertaker. As just as some wars may be, it's still war. It is still the single most barbaric, cruel, vicious, devastating, immoral and just plain sick act in which human beings can take part. When you put all the nationalism aside, and take our territorial instincts into consideration, the pursuit of ever-more-deadly weaponry for the purposes of killing people is still, in a word, insane. It's one of those cases where you begin to wish that the ability to think and solve complex problems, with which the process of evolution blessed us, could have been awarded to the lions, tigers and bears. Maybe they'd have figured out a way to use them without unleashing the devastating destruction we have.

Beyond the generally insane, war tends to bring out depravity at its worst in areas that often have nothing to do with why the combatants are fighting. I'm talking about the way prisoners of war are treated and the atrocities that occurred in Vietnam and Iraq (and, undoubtedly, in other places). They are as easy to understand as they are impossible to justify.

If you stick a group of intensely-trained youths in the middle of widespread hostility being waged against them, how on earth to you expect them to act civilly toward the people who have been shooting them and putting IEDs in their paths? If a war has escalated, and spiraled, so far out of control that little kids and old ladies are booby trapped with explosives, how do you expect soldiers to do anything else but burn the village down when they get the opportunity?

This is simply depravity matching depravity. Like I said, impossible to justify; easy to understand. There's a big difference.

Terrorism, as well, is equally impossible to justify, but just as equally easy to understand. Some of the regions in which we've concentrated our military cannot fight us back conventionally. They don't have near the weaponry or the technical sophistication to produce what we can produce ... unless they have nuclear weapons to wave in front of our faces. It's little wonder, for example, we went into Kuwait and Iraq in 1991 and -- to use the popular vernacular -- kicked ass. To have done anything else would have been the military scandal of the millennium.

Terrorism, to those without the conventional power to defeat us, helps even the score. It puts us on the the defensive ... causes us to be a little less sure of ourselves. And it is the fervent hope of the terrorists to give us an idea of the terror ordinary citizens in places such as Iraq -- people who have much less say in what their government does than we do -- feel when the bombs come raining down on them.

Again ... this is another reason why we need to be pretty damn careful about what we do, and where we do it. Chances are very good that even in a thoroughly justifiable offensive, the backlash, in the future, will include terrorism of some sort. Saddam Hussein's way of fighting back during the first Gulf War was to aim SCUDS at Israel. That's pretty much the same type of terror bombing the Nazis visited upon England during WWII.

When it comes to random attacks that could spring up anywhere, and by anyone, we're not in our element. How do we respond? Militarily? Legally? With covert ops? by branding all Muslims as enemies of the state? Profiling them? Perhaps there isn't a foolproof way.

Perhaps, sadly, terrorism may end up being the cost of doing business in the Middle East (and beyond) today. Each time you ratchet up the hostility or increase your unwanted presence in an unstable region (even if you think it's justified), you invite a more depraved reaction to it. That terrorism rears its ugly head at tragically inopportune times (not that there's ever an opportune time), or that it is so unconscionably indiscriminate, should be of no surprise. It not only destroys physically, it destroys even more psychologically.

Let's see, on July 4, how many Bostonians choose to stay home and watch the Pops on TV. I'm betting attendance is way down.

Once in a great while, someone comes along whose unparalleled paranoia forms a deadly alliance with a voracious appetite for hatred and cruelty ... someone whose mission is to throw the world into mass chaos, and someone to whom a military response is required. His name was Adolf Hitler. And while he may have died in 1945, the repercussions of all he did are still keenly felt today.

If you want one reason why the Israelis just might appear to be a little quick on the trigger, or a little too uncompromising in some of their policies and positions, consider that many of them, still, are children and grandchildren of people who had first-hand knowledge of concentration camps. Or, worse, they are children and grandchildren of people who died in those camps. The Jews in Europe were victims of a systematic, decade-long campaign of racism and hatred instigated by Hitler that culminated, by 1941, with the "Final Solution."

I'd imagine you, too, would have serious issues with people whose avowed mission is to wipe your country off the face of the earth. And you might see things from a different perspective sitting in the middle of a region 100 percent hostile to you as opposed to sitting on the Canadian border where the worst that could happen to you might be having a moose or a bear step in front of your car.

Of course, with all that, even eternal vigilance needs parameters. No one with a powerful military should have carte blanche. To me, the higher the military capability, the more checks and balances are needed to keep it from becoming the big stick hits innocent people over the head. And the more leaders entrusted with managing massive military machines should have to listen to the Hans Blix's of the world who endeavor to turn the bellicose hyperbole down a notch.

If there is to be war, let the United States jump in only when all other avenues to stop it have been exhausted. Let the United States not, ever, be the aggressor. And let us demand of our government a clear objective and a clear moral reason why taking such draconian measures is absolutely necessary. The minute it appears as if we're pulling reasons to justify war out of thin air, that should be our signal to put the brakes on and reassess.

Let us not be shielded from war's cruelty. Let us understand exactly what we're doing and what it means when we send our young people to remote locations to kill and be killed. Let our visceral reactions to such carnage be a part of the process that stops the madness.

Let war not be used to satisfy someone's geopolitical agenda.

Let us stand ready to confront the type of megalomaniac who could inflict catastrophic carnage on the world if left unchecked. But at the same time let us be very judicious of how we label those with whom we have geopolitical disagreements. Saddam Hussein may have been a tyrant, but I'm not sure he was ever the next Hitler.

Finally, let us, as free people with the right to pick and choose those who represent us, acknowledge our imperfections. Let us be able to cast a cynical eye on all the bellicose rhetoric without seeming as if we're lacking in support for our troops. I think just the opposite. I think those cynical eyes and uncomfortable questions support our troops in a much more meaningful way than a few shared memes on Facebook.

And that is where I am on Memorial Day 2013.