Friday, June 27, 2008

Amateurs wanted in Beijing

This was my mother’s idea. So you can credit her with the assist.

My mom grew up figure skating, a sport which is obviously a focal point of the Winter Olympics every four years. Whenever Michelle Kwan or Sarah Hughes was on ESPN performing triple-toe-loops growing up, my dad and I used to joke, “Quick, change the channel before mom sees!”

Anyway, what used to make the Olympics so refreshing was that professionals were not allowed to compete. Think about the Miracle on Ice. A bunch of college kids came together and somehow beat the Soviets amidst the tension of the Cold War. Remember in “Miracle,” Mike Eruzione no longer played for BU; he played for Team USA.

That was cool.

The Dream Teams who dismantled international foes, bearing gold medal after gold medal just can’t compare to The Miracles (don’t forget about the 1960 USA hockey team; the 1980 squad was the second miracle) simply because the players were paid to play.

To me, this issue is most relevant because of the upcoming Beijing Games, specifically basketball. We all know that March Madness is sports’ most exciting time of the year. Imagine those same athletes donned in red, white, and blue, representing the Land of the Free, Home of the Brave.

At the very least, it would give you tips on how to fill out your bracket come next spring, right?

I don’t know, I’ve always been a more of a college hoops fan than an NBA guy myself. But this year especially, I feel like Mike Krzyzewski should be molding the minds of youngsters instead of those of multimillion dollar-making NBA superstars, creating an all-college, all-amateur squad to which fans could relate.

Plus, NBA players are bound by contacts, of course. They play 82 regular season games and in some cases, numerous subsequent postseason affairs. The Celtics suited up 105 times in all this past season. Do they really need any more basketball? If I’m Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak, I don’t want Kobe Bryant playing in China this summer, for risk of injury or simply for fear of fatigue.

I admit, it will be fun to watch the league’s best come together to take on the world. But imagine Tyler Hansbrough out there. Imagine the intensity of March Madness overflowing into the international games.

Professional athletes don’t belong in the Olympics. It should be amateurs only, like the Ancient Greeks intended.

There’s something to be said about rooting for amateurs and not money-hungry pros. I’ve seen enough of Kobe, LeBron, and Melo of late. Let the kids play and improve their games on the international stage.

Do you believe in miracles?

I wish I still could.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

International ballers here to do more than just win, baby

If you sniff hard enough, you can smell it. The 2008 NBA Draft is just over 24 hours away, which means two things: 1) The Celtics can no longer bask in the glory of their recent championship because 2) The ’08-’09 season inauguration is already upon us.

No, I’m not going to discuss who the Bulls should select at No. 1 (cough, Derrick Rose, cough, cough); that’s already been beaten like a dead horse.

I’m not even going to ponder teams’ needs as Chicago’s clock continues to tick because quite frankly, Chad Ford, Bill Simmons, Jay Bilas, Andy Katz and Co. can simply do it better than I can.

Instead, I’d like to mull over a recent trend in the new-age NBA: The emergence of international players.

It’s no secret; in today’s world, sports are not only a mean of entertainment; each franchise has become a multimillion dollar business. That said, in some cases, owners and general managers alike have more than just winning on their minds.

In Boston, Red Sox owners John Henry and Tom Werner have made it quite clear that winning championships is atop their annual agenda, as they have accomplished that goal twice in the last four years. Meanwhile, across town, Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs is notorious for pocketing extra cash in lieu of spending it on free agents that could subsequently help his team make a postseason run down the stretch.

The contrast of these two ideals poses an interesting question relative to Thursday’s draft: Do teams always select foreign players strictly to help themselves win games, or does revenue alone have anything to do with it?

Let’s see.

The Houston Rockets make a percentage of every Yao Ming jersey sold in China, which in turn, obviously boosts team revenue and everyone upstairs gets paid. The same can be said about Seattle’s Ichiro Suzuki in Japan or Dallas’s Dirk Nowitzki in Germany.

See, even if Yi Jianlian is a complete bust in Milwaukee (which isn’t the case, yet), the Chinese fan base will still care (see if you don’t believe me) and theoretically buy Bucks merchandise. So, even though there is a soft salary cap in the NBA, the money has to go somewhere, right? In this case, it would go to Bucks owner and U.S. Senator Herb Kohl, which then begs the question: Was Milwaukee’s Yi selection a year ago a good investment, even if he never helps the Bucks make a championship run?

Where I come from, the answer is no, absolutely not. In Beantown, winning is everything. But what I’ve realized as I grow older and wiser is that that is not the unanimous case around the country. No one cares as much as Bostonians or New Yorkers. Yeah, winning would be nice, but to your average sports fan, it just doesn’t matter that much. And when that is the case, owners don’t feel added pressure to win and can thus worry about things other than winning, like exactly how much loose change goes into their respective pockets.

Aside from Yao – and even he hasn’t accomplished that much since arriving in the states in 2002 – and Dirk – who perennially seems to choke in the postseason – international players have not had that much success in the NBA. That said, players like Italy’s Danilo Gallinari, France’s Alexis Ajinca, and Congo’s Serge Ibaka remain projected first rounders for Thursday's draft.

Will they succeed in the NBA? I have no idea. But maybe success in this case isn’t measured solely on W’s.

Ease the transition: It's time to switch to wood

I found a better analogy. I’m not sure why I didn’t think of it sooner.

On June 17 I wrote about the absurdity of the existence of Major League Baseball’s designated hitter, as it creates polarity within America’s pastime. What I re-realized recently (I realized it before, but was reminded of late, for obvious reasons) was that the usage of aluminum bats in college baseball is even more impractical than the longevity of Big Papi’s position.

College basketball isn’t played with a rubber ball.

It makes no sense to me that at the collegiate level, baseball is played with a completely different hitting utensil than that at the professional level. And do not underestimate the difference between the two, either.

In high school, my conference – the Bay State Conference – was one of the only conferences in Massachusetts to use wood bats, and thus, I have somewhat of a biased perspective. But let me tell you, making the switch from aluminum to wood (which is harder than the other way around) is not exactly like going from Nikes to Reeboks. In high school, our non-conference games were played with aluminum and each time I – along with many of my teammates – had difficulty making the transition.

Swinging with a wood bat is an altogether different phenomenon than that of aluminum. Wood bats are less rewarding. If you fail to make contact with the sweet spot of the bat with wood, hits became that much scarcer, as aluminum is much more forgiving. That’s why college scouts tend to add 100 points to the batting averages of wood bat users, to put everyone on an even playing field.

Like I said, I am biased. I like the wood bat game much better. In high school, wood bat ball was like NL ball, as teams like my Framingham Flyers played more small ball by implementing squeezes and sacrifices more often. Conference games tended to be much lower scoring affairs, as non-conference battles often saw run totals reaching over 20, like we saw last night.

Last evening, staring into the ugly face of elimination, Cinderella Fresno State defeated Georgia 19-10 in Game 2 of the College World Series Championship Series.

To me, that’s not baseball. Growing up, we used to play that game all the time. It’s called Home Run Derby.

Anyone who appreciates a 19-10 slugfest over a 1-0 pitchers’ duel (like my roommate Jordan – forgive him, he’s from L.A.) in a game of such magnitude doesn’t comprehend the true game of baseball. I’ll take a well-executed hit-and-run over a 440-foot solo homer any day of the week.

And I’d be willing to bet that Peter Gammons would, too.

We live in an era with DHs, pitch counts, and lefty specialists, which I guess is O.K. But the NCAA is doing a disservice to these college athletes bound for the pros. Making the adjustment to wood bats – especially for the first time, which is the case for many – isn’t exactly like remembering how to ride a bike. It’s more like finally taking off the training wheels.

Tonight I’ll be watching one Bulldogs team be crowned champions of the college baseball world. I just wish I was hearing the melody made by maple rather than a cacophony pings.

Monday, June 23, 2008

In recruiting world, stars aren't always what they seem

They say ignorance is bliss. But ignorance can also lead to misunderstandings and flat-out mistakes.

I’m a victim of the latter two.

On May 31 I wrote that UW coaches Bo Ryan and Bret Bielema need to dig deeper into the national well of talent and improve their respective recruiting endeavors.

But upon further review, this duo is actually doing just fine.

In my own defense, it is frustrating that Bielema was unable to land any of the Big Ten’s top 20 recruits and Ryan seems to stick to the Brian Butch, Greg Stiemsma, Joe Krabbenhoft, Jon Leuer, (need I say more?) prototype. But I’ve subsequently made two conclusions about the world of college recruiting: 1) Top national recruits don’t always pan out and 2) There are always diamonds in the rough.

My complaints about Ryan’s recruiting regime were that he A) Failed to look past the Midwest bubble and B) Went after players with too similar games (heady, but not exactly outrageously athletic). However, Ryan’s 2008 recruiting class consists of a center from San Antonio (Ian Markolf) and a power forward from Arizona (Ryan Evans). Plus, Evans and shooting guard Robert Wilson from the state of Ohio fit the more athletic style to which I was referring.

Foot has already been inserted in mouth.

In hindsight, Ryan has also done a pretty good job of obtaining nationally acclaimed high schoolers. Keaton Nankivil and Leuer were both four-star recruits (according to in ’07. Trevon Hughes (New York), Jason Bohannon, Joe Krabbenhoft, Marcus Landry, and Stiemsma also received four stars upon arriving in Madison.

To put things into perspective, Kammron Taylor was a two-star recruit in ’03 and Maurice Wade and Ray Nixon each received four stars in ’02.

Case in point.

It’s been a similar situation across town during the Bielema/Barry Alvarez era. Bielema’s 2008 recruiting class is highlighted by four-star defensive end Tyler Westphal from Menasha, Wisc.

As a whole, Bielema/Alvarez has done a better job delving into the national recruits than Ryan; just look at the Badger backfield: P.J. Hill (New York), Lance Smith (Ohio), and Zach Brown (Florida). Also, Bielema’s ’08 class consists of 18 three-star recruits, including quarterback Curt Phillips (Tennessee) and cornerback Marcus Cromartie (Texas).

Wide receiver Lance Kendricks received four stars in ’06 while Kyle Jefferson and David Gilreath – next season’s projected starters – each received three stars the following year.

Linebacker Jonathan Casillas – the most productive UW linebacker to date and team captain for the 2008 Badgers – and P.J. Hill – the 2006 National Freshman of the Year – were both two-star recruits in 2005.

Senior tight end Travis Beckum and redshirt freshman offensive tackle Josh Oglesby were both five-star national recruits in their respective years. Beckum could very well be a first round draft pick in the 2009 draft and Oglesby will be the third tackle on an extremely deep and talented 2008 UW o-line.

As you can see, this star rating system is better at creating constellations than it is accurately ranking high school players. That said, given their recent success on a national level, I still think both Wisconsin programs mentioned can improve their respective recruiting efforts. However, both are doing better than I initially believed.

In the world of college recruiting, things aren’t always what they seem. Former Badger Joe Thomas was selected third overall in the 2007 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns, en route to becoming a Pro Bowl selection in his rookie season.

Not bad for a one-star recruit.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Ainge's masterful moves reason for banner No. 17

A roster packed with household names doesn’t always come out on top. The Celtics just happened to take care of business last night; it was by no means a certainty.

In 2003 – after L.A. had just lost to San Antonio in the conference semifinals – Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak assembled his version of the Dream Team, or Big Four, if you will. Kupchak acquired future Hall of Famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton to join superstars Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. They were said to be unstoppable. A fourth title in five years was supposedly inevitable.

But when the Lakeshow realized that there was only one ball on the court, and not enough individual touches for their quartet of prima donnas, things began to go downhill. Phil Jackson’s crew lost to the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals that year in five games. To call it a disappointment would be a vast understatement.

Five years later Celtics GM Danny Ainge took a page out of Kupchak’s playbook, only hoping that his results would be a little more positive than those of his yellow counterpart.

So after posting an abysmal 24-58 record a season ago, Ainge decided it was time to play ball and attempt to feed a championship to Celtics fans, something they had been craving for 22 long years.

But Ainge and Co. were stunned last season after obtaining the fifth pick in the draft, erasing the hopes of landing either Ohio State's Greg Oden or Texas's Kevin Durant, both of whom easily could have helped Paul Pierce turn the team around. The Green was doomed.

Or so we thought.

Then Ainge called his buddy Kevin McHale (just like Kupchak called former Lakers legend Jerry West to acquire Pau Gasol from Memphis this season – funny how that happened, isn’t it?) in the Twin Cities. Five players and two draft picks later, 10-time All-Star Kevin Garnett was donned in green and white.

Ainge had already nabbed sharpshooter Ray Allen in a multi-player deal with Seattle that left Boston fans scratching their heads for answers. Until of course the Big Ticket came along. Then it all began to make sense.

Your average fan may have thought that the trio of Garnett, Allen, and Pierce was enough. But Ainge knew otherwise. The offseason signings of James Posey and Eddie House coupled with the midseason acquisitions of P.J. Brown and Sam Cassell proved to be the difference in getting Boston over the hump, ultimately concluding in the raising of banner No. 17 last evening.

Everyone will remember The Big Three. But do not forget about the four I just mentioned. For without them, this storybook season may not have had such a happy ending.

So Ainge did what Kupchak could not in ’03-‘04. He assembled a team containing multiple (more than two) superstars, surrounded them with just the right role players, and won the NBA Title. But how did they do it, exactly?

What made this Celtics team different than the Lakers of five years ago was their unselfishness. The Big Three became one and each had no problem making the extra pass, giving up a shot of his own. The role players accepted their duties and youngsters Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins flourished around the spotlight of the Amigos.

Yes, those individuals had great seasons. But the real reason this team finished on top was because of exactly that, its ability to play team basketball.

Garnett got them fired up with a plethora of screaming and high-fiving, unlike Kobe whose bitching and moaning at teammates and referees (much like his coach Phil Jackson) alike were evident throughout the entire series. Allen led by example. And Pierce taught them all what it meant to wear Celtic Green.

Ask Doc Rivers, and he’ll tell you that this team won 80 games because of two things: Unselfish ball movement and extraordinary team defense.

Garnett was truly the only exceptional defensive player on this championship roster. But Doc taught them how to hedge, recover, and rotate to perfection. Together.

Phil Jackson did not.

The Boston players bought into the system and the Celtics soon became the best defensive team in the land, en route to last night’s culmination.

Rondo learned what it takes to succeed as an NBA point guard. The Celtics were at their best offensively with him calling signals and the ball being shared quickly across the parquet.

Rivers outcoached Jackson, Pierce outplayed Bryant, and the Boston bench beat that of L.A.

Now, Doc and the Big Three will all be showing off their bling shortly, each for the first time. But it wasn’t because they were hungrier than Phil, Kobe, and the rest of the LaLa Land whiners. It was simply because they were the better team.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

DH creates unfair home field advantage

Imagine if the NFL’s NFC placekickers had to punt on fourth down, while AFC teams carried punters on their rosters. Or if David Stern’s Western Conference squads were allowed to sub on the fly, allowing the Spurs to insert Bruce Bowen for Robert Horry only on the defensive end of the court.

That’s essentially the way Major League Baseball is set up. Bud Selig’s sport is completely unsymmetrical. And it makes no sense.

The American League implemented the designated hitter position in 1973 for one reason: To sell tickets. More home runs, further balls hit, and simply more offensive firepower in general appeals to the new-age fans; the same fans who scream like bloody hell every time Johnny Damon hits a moon shot 225 feet to the right fielder after being jammed by a 2-2 fastball.

For years I’ve been an advocate of baseball unification. National League ball is better ball. Managing an NL club actually takes strategy. Sacrifices, hit-and-runs, suicide squeezes, and double switches have all been virtually eliminated from AL play because of the DH.

And I think that stinks.

As much as I enjoy rooting for a lineup consisting of Mike Lowell, Kevin Youkilis, and David Ortiz, I still think the pitchers should hit.

Until yesterday.

Last night I watched the Red Sox-Phillies game on ESPN. The game was played in Philly, meaning pitchers hit; no DH. Boston starter Bartolo Colon came up twice with runners in scoring position early, facing Philly ace Cole Hamels, a southpaw with arguably the nastiest changeup in the game.

Watching Colon try to make contact with any of Hamels’s pitches – changeups and fastballs alike – was like watching George Muresan try and do the limbo. It just wasn’t gonna happen.

Colon gets an A for effort though, as each time he swung with all his might, knocking his helmet off from the force all the while making El Guapo look like Lance Armstrong.

Needless to say, it was frustrating to witness, as Colon stranded runners with two outs on two separate occasions before the middle of the fourth inning. Had it been the sixth or later, the obvious move would be for Terry Francona to pinch hit for the Dominican doughnut, but Tito’s hands were tied, as going to the bullpen in the fourth during the opening game of a series simply makes no sense.

That left me in quite the mental quandary. Coming from a wood bat high school league, I love the NL, small ball strategy. But after watching the Sox’s round righty embarrass himself at the plate last night, I had no idea what to think anymore.

But, regardless of my disliking of the DH, one thing is for sure: The rules need to be unified; this “separate but equal” mentality is a little bit outdated.

American League general managers structure their teams knowing that a DH will be in their respective lineups. The opposite is true for NL GMs. That said, the home team in interleague play has a distinct advantage because AL pitchers can’t hit and NL DHs are typically guys used primarily as pinch hitters, accumulating just a few at-bats per week.

Don’t get me wrong, I think interleague play is one A among many Ds and Fs, sticking out like Sam Cassell on an Abercrombie billboard on Selig’s report card. But in order for it to be completely fair and balanced (like Fox News?), either AL pitchers need to grab a bat, or NL hurlers need to stop hitting the cages.

Although I favor the former, I don’t really care which one happens, just as long as this irregularity is dealt with properly. And timely.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Over the bunker and through the Woods

It just doesn’t get old.

Not for us. Not for me. And especially not for him.

Just when we thought we’d seen it all, he takes his game to new levels.

An eagle on 13. A chip-in on 17. And another eagle on 18.

“It’s like he has a GPS system in his head,” my grandmother put it this morning.

(I do wish they had mid-fairway interviews, like they do in baseball and basketball with managers and coaches. It’s cool to hear what Doc Rivers says during timeouts and in the locker room. Imagine being in Tiger’s mind as he walks down 18.)

It truly is amazing, though, even for him. He could do nothing but laugh after he scorched the flop on 17 that should have skidded 20 feet past the cup. Instead, it hit the stick, slid down, and disappeared from sight.

When that happened, I literally jumped out of my seat, by myself in my apartment. I was uprooted about 15 minutes later on 18. I kid you not.

No cliché even does justice to what we have been so privileged to witness from The Chosen One. No words can describe it. He sprayed his drives from rough to rough, winced at every contact, walked to his ball using his driver as a cane, and somehow shot a 1-under 70.

The man is possessed.

Typically, unbiased fans root for underdogs. The Celtics got old. The Yankees got old. The Patriots are getting old. It’s what makes March Madness so great.

But for some reason golf is different. We watch for one reason.

Maybe it’s because of his focus. Maybe it’s because of his boyish enthusiasm even after claiming 13 major titles. Maybe it’s because you never know what to expect next. I’m not sure. But whatever the reason, everyone roots for Tiger. Look at the replays; when he celebrates, people in the stands high-five each other, as if they made the putt themselves.

It just never gets old.

Michael was Michael. But dominance like this has never existed before in sports. Six NBA Championships doesn’t compare to 13 (and counting) major trophies. I wonder how it feels to be divine among mere mortals.

Someone should ask him that.

ESPN’s Rick Reilly put it best. He never saw Sinatra sing or Koufax pitch. But the coolest part about his journalistic career, he said, is being able to cover Tiger Woods.

It’s true. We may never see anything like this again in our lives. He never ceases to amaze us; that’s why we watch. One day I’ll be sitting on my couch, telling my grandson, “Growing up, I got to watch Tiger Woods play golf. You’ve never seen anything like it.”

Don’t take these moments for granted, because I was only kidding, Tiger is not immortal; he can’t do this forever.

I think?

Thanks for the show, Tiger.

I just can’t wait to watch him again tonight.

Friday, June 13, 2008

My confessions: Lakers Pierced by No. 34

I’ll be the first to admit it: I was wrong. On many accounts.

Early in last night’s second quarter the Celtics were down 24 points and I had had about enough.

“I don’t know how much more I can take of this,” I said to my friend and fellow Celtics fan Bryan. “We can’t come back from this.”

“Chill, the Lakers almost did in Game 2,” Bryan reminded me – as if I needed a reminder.

“Yeah, but we don’t have a superstar like Kobe Bryant to lead a comeback like that,” I stupidly replied.

That’s where I was wrong.

The first quarter of last evening’s Game 4 made my stomach feel similar to that when I finish a general tso’s dinner combo from Asian Kitchen, complete with suspect grayish meat, greasy fried rice and a couple of under-cooked egg rolls.

Nothing was falling for the Celtics. For a minute, or 24, I thought I was watching the ’06-‘07 Green. Nope, the Amigo’s somehow managed to play like Wally, West and Gomes, en route to a 21-point first quarter deficit.

That’s when my phone rang.

“I guess we’ll hafta win Sunday,” my grandfather sobbed on the other end, as if he hadn’t just left Fenway Park after a beautiful 9-2 Red Sox victory – which he had.

“I know, I know,” I agreed.

Bryan just shook his head.

And then it happened.

With ax in hand, Paul Pierce began to chop. First one leg. Then the other. Then “Timber!” The Lakers insurmountable lead came crashing down, the noise quadrupled due to the silenced, celebrity-filled Staples Center crowd.

Allen and Garnett dominated Odom, Gasol, and Vujacic in the second half. Posey and House hit their shots. But it was The Truth’s performance – on both ends of the floor – down the stretch against Kobe that fueled the Celtic comeback.

“Gimme that,” Pierce said as he ripped the MVP trophy away from Kobe last night. “I’m the superstar.”

And he was, or is, now in my mind. Kobe was everything but.

My roommate Mahoney – the biggest Chicago sports (Michael Jordan – what else do they have to root for?) fan I know – and I had the whole Kobe vs. MJ debate a few weeks ago. I claimed that if His Airness is 1, then Kobe is 1a.

Mahoney loudly disagreed, arguing that Kobe is a distant 2.

Well, Mahoney, don’t get used to this, but you were right. Kobe is looking up at Michael from a much shorter podium.

And it showed last night. Paul Pierce was the best player on the floor. Jordan wouldn't have blown that lead.

So, Bryan and Mahoney, here it is in print: You guys were right, and I was wrong. Kobe is still MJ’s tutee and the Celtics are now one win away from banner No. 17. Oh, Bryan, Sasha Vujacic isn’t a terrible defender either, I was wrong about that, too.

God that feels awful.

Here are a couple more thoughts on The Finals I’ve been bottling up inside for a few days. In no particular order…

If Luke’s last name wasn’t Walton, would he even be in the NBA?

Nobody mentioned this, but much of Leon’s Powe-riffic (eh, I tried) performance in Game 2 came while being guarded by the hippie’s son. He can’t play defense and he is a liability on offense. Why is he getting minutes in The NBA Finals again? I’d love to see a one-on-one game: Luke vs. Brian Scalabrine. I’ll take the red-headed wonder at 2:1.

Doc Rivers isn’t an idiot, like we all thought in Boston

However, had he put Sam Cassell in one more time instead of Eddie House, I was personally going to fly home, grab a Bic razor, screw up his fresh lineup, then douse his fly, blue suit in tomato sauce and red wine. But, he finally figured it out. House is the spark the C’s team needed off the bench on the road. Rivers went small late last night, beat L.A.’s traps, and out-coached the Zen Master himself. That’s why he’ll be wearing a ring next week and Phil will still have one empty finger.

If KG ever developed an up-and-under move, he might be the best player ever

Seriously, he fades away on every shot. Imagine him actually going to the rim from the post. Scary.

Why does home court advantage matter so much?

I understand it’s significance. I understand home cooking and crowd energy. But the rim is still ten feet from the floor in Boston and L.A. How come Garnett (in the first six quarters in Lala Land) couldn’t hit the jumper from just inside the arc he hits 80 percent of the time at home and Kobe actually took it to the rim before the fourth quarter? Basketball at home should be basketball on the road. Why do teams look completely different in different venues against the same opponents? I guess it’s beyond me.

David Stern needs new refs

Forget what Tim Donaghy said the other day about the 2002 playoffs. I’m talking about now. The refs’ Game 2 blunders were fully made up in Game 3. The crowds shouldn’t influence calls that much. But they do, which is a pretty big problem.

If I hear the term "X-factor" one more time, I'm going to puke

Every player not named Bryant, Pierce, Allen, or Garnett is not necessary an X-Factor. Enough with the clichés.

Kobe is such a cry baby

He whines at his teammates and complains about every call. How fitting for the league's MVP.

Paul Pierce has become a five-tooled superstar

One. More. Game.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

With youth, comes ignorance

BOSTON In terms of the atmosphere, “electric” is the only word that seems fitting. Chants of “Beat L.A.” filled the air as I walked out of The New Garden after the Celtics’ 98-88 Game 1 victory over Kobe and the Lakers.

That’s right, I did it. I completed the trifecta in a mere four-and-a-half years. I was in Houston in 2004 for the Patriots’ Super Bowl XXXVIII Championship over the Carolina Panthers. I was at Fenway Park for the Red Sox’s Game 1 win over St. Louis after the miraculous comeback against the Yankees. And Thursday, I was in Red Auerbach’s holy place to experience the Celtics-Lakers rivalry for myself, a night I will never forget.

During my eight-day vacation at home last week, I realized that experiences like these are not only invaluable because they will be forever etched in my memory, but because I am able to share them with others for years to come. I will be able to tell my grandchildren, “Yup, I remember when Boston dominated the sports world. I was in attendance for them all.”

Hearing stories like these from elders is pretty damn cool, if you ask me.

I could sit and talk to my dad about how his mother threw away his Mickey Mantle Day program when they moved from Stamford, Conn. to Brookline, Mass. and how my grandfather and his brother watched Ted Williams trot into the Boston dugout and disappear into the clubhouse after the final at-bat of his career for hours. But what I decided this week is that it’s even more rewarding to hear sports stories from people that you don’t interact with on a regular basis.

Monday afternoon I sat next to Sandy Merloni, mother of ex-Red Sox and MLB journeyman Lou Merloni, at the Framingham High School baseball playoff game. I sat in the Bridgewater-Raynham stands with open ears, listening to her tell me the real story about Nomar’s departure from Beantown (Nomar and Lou are still good friends; Sandy was at Nomar and Mia Hamm’s wedding) and the difference between Boston sports fans and well, those of any other U.S. city.

Wednesday night I had the privilege of sitting next to an 85 year-old man at Fenway Park. You’ve got to be in damn good shape to be attending baseball games at that age in sub-60 degree weather. And he was.

This man from Southboro, Mass. has had Red Sox season tickets since 1968, the first year they went on sale, the year after the Sox won the A.L. pennant in ’67. He told me about the times in the 70s when Fenway had less than 500 people in the stands.

Imagine that.

He said when the infielders would talk to each other, you could hear every word, as their voices would echo off of the empty seats. He told me about the miserable days during The Curse.

We talked about life before pitch counts. We both agreed that Francona should have left Manny Delcarmen in for the eighth, after striking out the side in the seventh.

Okajima got the job done instead.

When it comes to sports, I know my stuff. But no matter how hard I try, I was never at The Garden for the Bird-Magic rivalry and I never suffered through the horrors of Buckner.

Some people did.

At times, stories that start with “Back in my day” or ones that refer to “the good ole days” can be tough to sit through; I’m aware. But if you can get yourself to postpone the text messaging for a few minutes, listening may in fact be worth your while.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

"Experience" overrated; it's time to play ball

San Antonio head coach Greg Popovich hit the nail on the head a couple of weeks back. During the Spurs’ series with the Hornets, he got at the media for being too cliché.

And he was right.

If the Spurs win, they will say it was because of our “experience,” Popovich explained. If we lose, it will be because we are “too old.”

So after Popovich’s Spurs left the Bayou unscathed after Game 7, of course it was because they had “been there, done that.”

Here we go again.

Tomorrow night the NBA Finals begin. The matchup is intriguing: Kobe Bryant got there after demanding a trade following last season’s disappointments and the Celtics survived the East after completing the biggest one-season turnaround in league history. Bryant and Derek Fisher have each earned three rings. Meanwhile, Doc Rivers, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen are all making their first finals appearances, as James Posey – NBA Champion in 2006 with Miami – tells them “what it’s like.”

Like Popovich, I’ve had enough of this nonsense. Basketball is basketball. Yes, playoff basketball is more intense than that during the regular season, but Doc and The Big Three have all played in Game 7s before. They shouldn’t expect anything different in the upcoming weeks.

Too often, the idea of “experience” is overrated. If the seasoned vets always won, it would be impossible for anyone to win for the first time. In seven game series, the better team usually prevails.

So if the Lakers win the ’08 Finals, it will be because they were the better team – or they at least outplayed the Celtics – not because of Bryant and Fischer’s experience.

And if the Celtics win, it’s not because they were hungrier, either, because you know Kobe wants that ring without Shaq.

Shove all the jargon aside. It’s time to play ball. And may the best team win.

For Yankees' sake, Joba belongs in pen

They used to be the prototype by which all franchises measured themselves.

Boy, how times change.

In the late 90s, they could do no wrong. The New York Yankees won four world championships between 1996 and 2000, creating a seemingly endless dynasty.

Key word: Seemingly.

The Yankees were the best. They used to beat out the Red Sox every year in the AL East. They had the golden boy Derek Jeter. They had the hitting. They had the starting pitching. But most importantly, to me at least, they had a guy named Mariano Rivera, who threw one pitch – a cut fastball – that was virtually unhittable, even by the best of major league hitters. When Mo used to trot out from the bullpen, you knew the game was over. Yankees win. Theeeeeee Yankees win!

Not anymore.

Something magical happened in the fall of 2004. The Red Sox came back from an 0-3 hole to defeat the Bronx Bombers and go on to break the 86 year-old curse by sweeping the Cardinals in the World Series. Call it a miracle. Call it a fluke. Call it what you want, but since then, the boys donned in pinstripes haven’t been the same.

Yankee General Manager Brian Cashman used to be the professor of the class How to Create a Dynasty 101. Now, he’s ripping pages out of Sox GM Theo Epstein’s textbook, wondering what went wrong.

Under Epstein, Boston has created a team loaded with homegrown talent. Aside from the obvious (Jon Lester, Jonathan Papelbon, Kevin Youkilis, and Dustin Pedroia, to name a few), Epstein’s prospects keep coming up and producing at the major league level. Guys like Justin Masterson, Jed Lowrie, and Jacoby Ellsbury have shown that Boston sports fans still have something to look forward to, should these fantasy-like seasons suddenly come to a screeching halt.

The same can’t be said in the Bronx.

Cashman and Co.’s prospects have done everything but give hope to the Yankee faithful. Except one.

Pitchers Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy have been utter disappointments thus far. Joba Chamberlain has not.

Prior to the 2007 season, the Red Sox decided to convert Papelbon back to a starter. They changed their minds come spring training, and that change of heart led to a dominant regular season from the flamethrower from Mississippi State and a subsequent World Series Championship.

You’d think the Yankees would have learned.

Chamberlain has been every bit as dominant as Papelbon since his debut in the major leagues last season. And with Rivera staring retirement in the face, the obvious decision would be to have the kid from Nebraska succeed the cutter-throwing legend.

If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Hank Steinbrenner evidently disagrees.

So Steinbrenner and the Yankees decided to do what the Red Sox chose not to: Make their stud reliever a starter. And in his debut last night, he didn’t make it out of the third inning; how fitting.

I laughed when I saw the line, but I would have liked to have seen a different scenario. I would have loved for Chamberlain to throw a solid seven innings, and then have the Yankee bullpen blow it in the eighth, just to prove how valuable he is as a reliever.

Too bad.

Great closers are a rarity in baseball today. I believe the Yankees have one, they just refuse to believe it.

Good luck Hank, you’ve made an awful mistake.

Framingham 13, Andover 8: An all-around girls lax win