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.