Monday, November 29, 2004

1st and 10: Patriots-Ravens

Immediately following each Patriots game from now until the confetti falls in Jacksonville, it's my intent to post a quick column shortly after the game. Nothing too deep, mind you, just a couple vignettes that linger in my mind, a few scratchings on the notepad, and anything else I noticed in between trips to the fridge and the john.

The plan is to keep it to 10 items, thus the silly cliche of a title. I'm hoping it'll ultimately turn out like the kind of light but interesting stuff I love to read - in theory, a Peter King/MMQB type thing, minus, of course, the all-access pass (a major minus, I admit), the Brett Favre man-crush, and the New Jersey high school girls softball references. (Well, okay, maybe just a few softball references. Go Mary Beth!)

Should I be lucky, you'll eventually make a habit of clicking here in the immediate hours after the Patriots game concludes. Just read, baby. Uh . . . please?

With that, here goes . . . well, something. Help me out here, Gil. "Going left to right on your dial and (what the hell is this, Gino?) up and down on your screen, it's first and 10, Patriots . . ."

1) Sometime during the second quarter, Rosevelt Colvin bolted through the line unimpeded and swallowed Ravens quarterback Kyle Boller before the beleaguered QB had time to 1) finish his 5-step drop; 2) react appropriately, and; 3) pee himself. It was an encouraging sight to say the least - for the first time since suffering a career-threatening hip injury in Week 2 last season, Colvin looked like the speed-freak of a pass rusher the Pats thought they were getting when they signed him as a free agent. If yesterday's performance is a harbinger of things to come, we can only imagine how much more menacing the Patriots' D will be.

2) No player was more hyped coming into this matchup than Ravens safety Ed Reed. Belichick paid him the highest of compliments early this week, praising Reed as defensive MVP of the league at this point. While Reed was appropriately impressive - his range in coverage and against the run seems limitless, and he has an uncanny instinct for being at the right place at the right time - one flaw was revealed, and then revealed again. Reed, talented though he is, arm-tackles way too much. Ofen enough for us to take notice, he was easily discarded by Corey Dillon's Paytonesque stiff-arm, and at times he looked about as interested in making a hard hit as Torry Holt is in taking one. Should the day come where Planet Earth needs one safety to make one tackle with the fate of all humanity (and Canada, too) at stake, I'll take Rodney Harrison over Ed Reed every single time. I suspect Belichick would, too.

3) Speaking of Dillon, we all knew he was good - when a guy sets the single-game rushing record, as he did a few years back, it's something of an indication that he has some ability. But did you know he was this good? Dillon is faster around the corner than I ever realized, he's shifty and smart in the open field (watch how he effectively cuts back inside a defensive back to gain a few more yards at the end of a play), and best of all, he never, ever runs out of bounds when a few more yards can be had with a just little bit of brutal contact. On touchdown run, he played Bo Jackson to Ray Lewis's Brian Bosworth, leaving cleat marks on the Ravens' star's chest. Curtis Martin might be my favorite Patriot of all-time, but he's no longer the best running back in franchise history. He's not even the best to wear No. 28.

4) Watching Justin Kurpeikis smile broadly, his face and uniform covered in mud, after making a vicious open-field special-teams tackle in what was his Patriots' debut . . . well, it was one of those moments that remind you why you love sports. Anyone who ever played just for the pure joy of it could appreciate his emotion at that moment.

5) If there's a more physical receiver in the NFL than David Givens, I haven't seen him, and I don't think Ray Lewis has, either. After cranking Givens on a short pass in the second half, Lewis offered the maniacally grinning Givens a hand to help him up, as if he was saying, "You took my best shot and lived to tell. You've got my respect, kid."

6) Now, I wouldn't trade Brady for any current QB, up to and including the entire Manning family tree. And if any current Boston athlete is immune to criticism, it has to be New England's reigning Mr. Wonderful. But, at the risk of sending Chins Shephard and his sidekick Chewbacca Smerlas into a booze-and-cholesterol fueled fit, I have to ask: Has Brady been less accurate this year than he has been in the past? It seems he's missed more open receivers this year than he did in the previous two? Am I right? Or are my expectations just too high now? Actually, it could be this: I've been playing too much Madden. Computer Brady just doesn't miss.

7) Troy Brown apparently has better hands as a receiver than he does as a defensive back. He should have had his second interception yesterday, but Boller pass in the slot doinked off his facemask. And that, my friends, is the most negative thing I ever will say about the greatest pure football player in this franchise's 44 years.

8) From Brown at corner to Mike Vrabel at tight end, the extraordinary versatility of this team is another reason why they make our Sundays so enjoyable. Save for one exception: the Richard Seymour-as-fullback experiment scares the bejeezus out of me. He's simply too important to the defense to be risking in such a insignificant - and dangerous - role. Didn't Belichick learn anything from Dan Klecko's injury?

9) Phil Simms mentioned during the broadcast that Adam Vinatieri should be a shoo-in for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. First time I've heard someone with national clout say such a thing, and it's about damn time someone did. The argument can be made the Vinatieri has made the three most clutch (clutchest?) kicks in NFL history, and I suspect you don't need to be reminded of which three I'm talking about. (You know, if you take two from the Snow Game, the argument can be made that it's four.) If his resume doesn't get him in, then the lone kicker in the Hall, Jan Stenerud, should be evicted. No one has had a more storied career than Vinatieri, and as far as I know, Stenerud never chased down Herschel Walker, ran in a two-point conversion, or threw a touchdown pass, either. Vinatieri's the best. Ever. Period. Extra point.

10) They win on Sundays and Monday and even the spare Thursday, at night and during the day, during rain and snow and wind and locusts, during September and January, by land and by air, with scoreboard-lighting offense and bone-snapping defense. They win, and win, and then they win again. My point? It's getting extremely easy to take this team's rare professionalism and talent for granted. Please, join me in fighting the temptation. Enjoy this team, savor it, revel in it, appreciate it - do what you've been doing, I imagine - but don't allow yourself to become football's version of the pre-2004 Yankees fan, spoiled by the success and thus unable to enjoy anything but championships. Besides, you don't look good with cheap gold chains and a cheesy mustache.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Why Patriots will beat the Rams

The New England Patriots will win the Super Bowl today. Of this there is no doubt. They will win because it is meant to be. It is their destiny, their fate, their just reward for 41 years of frustration. It is their time, their turn.

Ignore the conventional wisdom that says the Patriots need everything to go right to beat the mighty St. Louis Rams today. Anyone who does not believe that this team can win hasn't been paying attention. How can anyone doubt the Patriots now, after everything - everything - has gone so right for so long? From the emergence of boy-wonder quarterback Tom Brady to David Patten's game-saving play while unconscious against Buffalo, from the endless contributions of a huddle's worth of lovable scrap-heap free agents to the exorcism of so many old demons: this has been a season for the scrapbook.

How can anyone doubt them now, after their fairy-tale victories of the last two weeks? In the aftermath of the Tuck Rule/Winter Wonderland victory over Oakland Raiders, didn't it cross your mind that this sure-fire NFL Films staple might be the highlight in your life as a Patriots fan? And wasn't that highlight bumped down to the No. 2 slot a week later, replaced at the top by Bledsoe's tearful vindication in Pittsburgh?

It's plainly obvious that the planets are aligned for this team to end the region's 15-year dry spell without a major sports championship. There is an angel on this team's shoulder. And I can't wait to discover his game plan for today.

This isn't to say there aren't logical reasons why they can win, football-based explanations to appease the Pigskinheads who can't comprehend that the workmanlike 11-5 Patriots might beat the flashy 14-2 Rams. We know they'll need another big day from their special teams - field position is of the utmost importance against St. Louis. They'll need Antowain Smith to run the ball effectively and control the clock. They'll need to put pressure on Rams quarterback Kurt Warner, hoping he'll cough up the ball, and they cannot afford to cough up the ball themselves. And when the Rams do move the ball, the Patriots must hold them to field goals instead of touchdowns.

In other words, they'll need to play even better than they did in the teams' previous meeting this season, a 24-17 Rams victory Nov. 18.

Can all this be done? Sure. Has been, actually. The blueprint comes from a past Super Bowl. This comparison has been made more than once in the media frenzy of the past week, but it's so valid that it's worth repeating.

Let's go back to 1991 and Super Bowl XXV. The Buffalo Bills, with their "K-Gun" offense, the most explosive of its day, were double-digit favorites over Bill Parcells's New York Giants. The Bills had demolished the Oakland Raiders 51-3 in the AFC championship game, while the Giants needed a late Roger Craig fumble and five Matt Bahr field goals to get past the San Francisco 49ers 15-13 in the NFC title game.

So what happened? The Giants controlled the ball for almost 41 minutes behind bruising running back Ottis Anderson (the Antowain Smith of his time), and the New York defense pummeled the soft Buffalo skill players all day. Final score: Giants, 20-19.

Oh, and the defensive coordinator of that Giants team? Some fella named Belichick. Something tells me that guy might have a say in today's outcome as well.

If anyone is capable of coming up with a plan devious enough to stop the Rams, it is the Patriots' scheming head coach. We've said it before, and we'll continue to say it right up until his Hall of Fame speech: Bill Belichick's genius lies in his uncanny ability to force the opposing offense to do what it doesn't want to, or better, what it can't. (Hey, isn't that Kordell Stewart over there, nodding in agreement while wiping away tears? It is!)

The Rams pose Belichick's toughest challenge since dismantling the "K-Gun" 11 years ago. At first glance, they don't have a weakness. These guys score more often than Wilt Chamberlain. They score running and passing. They score in bundles - they are they first team in league history to score more than 500 points three seasons in a row - and they score in a hurry

Really, there is but one flaw in the Rams' offense. Call it their dirty little secret: They'd much rather be playing touch football than tackle.

Yeah, these guys are wimps.

Now, there is no disputing that Rams receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce are as talented and electric and fast as any duo in the league. Their skills are startling.

But when it comes to taking one for the team, they aren't exactly Lynn Swann and Ed McCaffrey. They are yet to fight off a tackler for a few extra yards when given the option of diving to the safety and comfort of the turf. Even running back Marshall Faulk, slippery as he is, is reputed to have a glass jaw. He can be stopped, hammered into submission. The Patriots did it to him regularly when he played for the Colts.

Remember Terrell Buckley's interception in the team's first meeting this season? Wasn't Warner's fault - the pass was right where it was supposed to be. Turns out that the receiver wasn't. Watching the replay, you see Bruce ducks like the sky is falling when he sees someone in his path - a teammate, as it turned out. The pass eluded him and went right to Buckley, who returned it for a touchdown.

You can be sure Tebucky Jones and Lawyer Milloy have been made aware of the Rams' aversion to contact, just as you can be sure the Rams remember that five of their players were knocked into the infirmary during the teams' last meeting. It is no coincidence that the teams that have beaten the Rams, or at least given them a good fight, all feature physical, hard-hitting defenses. Think Tampa Bay, New Orleans or Philadelphia a week ago. They are all tough and mean - similar to the Patriots.

Some say the Patriots' season turned when linebacker Bryan Cox put a bone-rattling hit on Colts wide receiver Jerome Pathon in Week 3. Indy played scared the rest of the day. A similar message must be delivered to the Rams, preferably sometime around the coin flip.

Anyway, those are the logical ways the Patriots can win today. But who says logic will play a part in this? Instead, consider the most sentimental, improbable storyline your mind can conjure up, and then you may be closer to finding the truth.

Maybe Troy Brown will be the hero. That wouldn't be such a shock - isn't he always in the middle of the fun? - but it certainly would be ironic. Remember, this is the same Troy Brown who broke into tears when he found out that a double-hernia would keep him out of Super Bowl XXXI, the same Troy Brown who became sick on the sideline as Packers kick returner Desmond Howard bolted past his replacement for the game-clinching touchdown.

There are rumors that Brown will be returning kicks today for the first time this season. Imagine him taking one back to finish off the Rams. If any player deserves such justice . . .

Or maybe Bledsoe, the displaced gunslinger whose dignity amid adversity has made him as appreciated in these parts as Steve Grogan, will come off the bench and match Warner bullet for bullet, leading the Patriots to a come-from-behind victory. Wouldn't that be something if he actually one-upped last week's drama? Again: If any player deserves such justice . . .

Or maybe today's lead role will be played by Adam Vinatieri, Jermaine Wiggins or Ty Law. Who knows who the hero will be.

And who knows how the Patriots will top the last two weeks.

All we know is that they will.

Because in a season marked by miracles, these Patriots are not about to fall one short.

(Originally published in the Concord Monitor under the byline "Nostradamus Finn".)

Aim blame at Little, not players

In time, perhaps we'll remember it as a wonderful season. But we can't. Not yet. Not today, and not for quite a few tomorrows.

Three days after the Boston Red Sox's excruciating, extra-inning 6-5 loss to the hated New York Yankees in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, our emotions remain raw.

So we ache, and we curse, and we mourn and we fume. And although we know there is no crying in baseball, that doesn't mean we aren't also tempted to shed a tear or two. Silly, but sometimes it hurts to be a sports fan.

The numbness and the haze that engulfed the Red Sox fandom the moment Aaron Boone's game-winning homer sailed deep into the New York night have only now begun to fade. But the suspicion that the better team lost while the better manager won will linger for years to come.

For all of you young Sox fans who never quite understood what all the angst was about - well, now you know, don't ya, kiddies? This is how it happens. This is how you turn into one of those bitter, cynical Sox lifers. This is how you become your dad.

Now that you've been through it, don't let any of your elders tell you otherwise: This was the worst loss in Red Sox history.
In 1978, the Sox and Yankees were playing for the American League East crown, not a trip to the World Series. In Game 6 in '86, at least we had tomorrow.

This? This was a chance to send Roger Clemens into retirement with one heaping helping of regret. A chance to celebrate on the Yankee Stadium lawn. A chance, with one beautiful, epic victory, to silence Fox hot-air balloon Tim McCarver, the Curse rhetoric and every Yankees fan who has ever polluted your life.

The worst loss? You'd better believe this was the worst loss.

And now we are left to make sense of the autopsy report. The only solace is that we know who committed the crime.

The Red Sox were hindered by Grady Little's passive-bordering-on-comatose managing all summer. The worst of his habits? He had a ridiculously slow hook with pitchers, often leaving them in until a lead had evaporated or the game was out of reach.

And wouldn't you know it. With his Sox just five outs from baseball heaven, his reactive approach to his job at last became too much for his players to overcome.

In Game 7, Pedro Martinez entered the eighth inning having thrown 99 pitches and holding a 5-2 lead. Pedro departed after 123 pitches, having allowed four consecutive two-out hits and three history-changing runs.

If you didn't hear this statistic from an angry and shaken Jerry Remy in the NESN post-game show, you've surely heard it by now. The batting average against Pedro this season between pitches 105 and 120 was .370. Three-seventy!

Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein, with all of his Moneyball sensibility, surely was aware of Pedro's penchant for tiring at the exact same point in every game. There is no doubt that the information was passed along to the manager by one source or another.

So why did Little ignore data that practically screamed, "PEDRO MARTINEZ RUNS OUT OF GAS AFTER APPROXIMATELY 100 PITCHES, YOU DROOLING DOPE!"

Simple. Pedro said he felt fine.

Well, geez, of course he did. Pedro is as proud a man as any of us will ever encounter. He would never give up the baseball without it being pried from his hand - which is precisely why it's the manager's duty to make that decision for him.

Pedro said before Game 7 that "I'll leave my arm at home plate." I doubt he expected his manager to take him literally.
Little, who's now a national laughingstock instead of merely a regional one, should have been handed his pink slip before Boone touched home plate. But at least his day of reckoning is inevitable. Should he ever manage at the major-league level again, we can only hope the Sox have the good fortune of facing his team with something valuable at stake.

You know what's the worst part of all this? Little's incompetence deprived us of at least four more opportunities to watch his team play baseball.

How we miss them already. In terms of performance and personality, this was far and away the most likeable Sox team of a generation, and perhaps of any generation.

On the field, they were relentless and resilient, even when the scoreboard suggested their chances were slim.

Off the field, they were as fun-loving and freewheeling as those aging frat brothers in Old School.

They seemed like the kind of guys you'd love to have a beer with. During the rowdy celebration on the evening when they clinched the wild-card, heck, maybe you did have a beer with them.

The hideous ending shouldn't prevent us from cherishing the postcards and snapshots we collected over the season-long journey. Such as the comeback from a 0-2 deficit against the A's, punctuated by Derek Lowe's two consecutive called strikeouts to end the series. Or everything about David Ortiz, who channeled Hendu on a nightly basis through the sweet September.

The horrible haircuts. The awkward man-hugs.

My favorite scene of the season took place away from the cameras. Three hours before Game 3 of the ALDS against Oakland, Kevin Millar, the ringleader of the clubhouse circus, stood in the concourse in the bowels of Fenway Park and animatedly explained to a sausage vendor how he had just fallen off the podium during a pre-game press conference.

"Dude, I am an idiot," Millar concluded.

"You know it," the sausage guy shot back.

A man of the people, that Millar.

We'd like to believe that the same humble crew of "idiots" will return to take care of their unfinished business next season. We are not so naïve as to expect as much.

There will be changes, some subtle, some perhaps stunning. John Burkett might retire. Todd Walker and Mike Timlin are free agents, and you can bet the Evil Empire will try to sell both of them on the mystique and aura of the dark side.

Bill Mueller, Trot Nixon, Jason Varitek and Ortiz all enjoyed what must for now be considered career years. Pedro and Nomar are delicate. Manny may return to his home planet.

While the hot-stove gossip will help keep us warm, there's one thought that will torment us through the long winter:
If this Sox team couldn't do it . . . well, maybe no Sox team ever will.

All the comebacks and camaraderie - it just felt so right this time around. This was the team. This was the year.
All we ever wanted was there for the taking.

If only Grady Little had taken the ball.

If only. Dammit.

One of the few things that has made me smile in recent days is the recollection of another lovable ballclub that couldn't quite get that final victory at the end.

In the final scene of the Bad News Bears, the classic 1976 comedy about a misfit team of Little Leaguers, the protagonists have just lost the championship to - who else? - the Yankees.

While the mini-Yankees preen and prance like Derek Jeter near a TV camera, the Bears watch their rival's celebration with equal parts sadness and envy.

Until a Bear named Tanner Boyle speaks up:

"Hey, Yankees!" hollers Tanner. "You can take your trophy and shove it straight up your . . ."

(The word we are looking for here is synonymous with "Steinbrenner.")

"And one more thing," chimes in teammate Timmy Lupus. "Wait 'til next year!"

And then the crazy kids celebrated like champions.

Someday, maybe our Bad News Red Sox will too.

But today, and for many tomorrows to follow, it's going to be a struggle to shake that nagging feeling.

Next year? It should have been this year.

(Originally published in the Concord Monitor. You know when.)

Friday, November 19, 2004

Fallen Angel

I think most columnists (and writers in general) are overly self-critical, often unsatisfied with their own work. I fall into that category much more often than not. Reading a column post-publication, I inevitably wish I'd changed a word here, made a tweak there, and suddenly, a piece I thought I liked is is source of nagging aggravation, a missed opportunity. Sometimes though, even us hacks do find the words we were looking for, and that swing for the fence pays off with a satisfying trot around the bases. This column, published in the Concord Monitor. Oct. 23, 2002, is one of those instances for me. Ostensibly about the "cursed" Angels' 2002 World Series run, it will become apparent as you read it that it was a roundabout way for me to write about a subject close to my heart - the late, coulda-been-great Lyman Bostock. Few columns I've written have meant more to me personally. - CF

* * *

I was 8 in the summer of '78, and in my small universe, there was baseball, and then there was the unimportant stuff. Jim Rice was Batman. Butch Hobson was diving noggin-first into bat racks. Luis Tiant whirled and twirled and fooled 'em all, and the Yankees were 25 pinstriped Darth Vaders.

Baseball, especially those obviously invincible Red Sox, was on my brain so much, I might as well have had 216 red stitches winding around my head. This obsession exasperated my mom. After one too many questions about why a curveball curved or how Oscar Gamble grew such a spectacular Afro, my folks instituted a rule: No talking about baseball at the dinner table. Dinner was family time, the hour to talk about more important matters.

I didn't understand it then - what could possibly be more important than baseball? - but as the summer faded into autumn, I learned that it indeed was not life and death after all. It took the latter to teach me so.

On Sept. 23, 1978, Angels outfielder Lyman Bostock was murdered. It is one of the most tragic chapters in baseball history.

On the final day of his life, a sunny Saturday afternoon, Bostock went 2-for-4 in an Angels' loss to the Chicago White Sox at Comiskey Park. After the game and with a rare night off, he made the short drive to Gary, Ind., to visit his uncle, Thomas Turner.

At approximately 10:30 p.m., Bostock was riding in a car with Turner and his godchildren, Joan Hawkins and Barbara Smith. Bostock had known the women for 20 minutes.

A car pulled alongside. Barbara Smith could see her estranged husband, Leonard Smith, was driving. She told Turner not to stop the car. He sped through two red lights, but was forced to stop at a busy intersection.

Leonard Smith jumped out of his car and walked toward Turner's Buick. He was carrying a 12-gauge shotgun. No words were exchanged. Smith opened fire through the back window. Bostock was hit in the right temple. He crumpled to the floor, blood gushing from his head.

Three hours later, one of baseball's most appealing young stars was dead. He was 27 years old.

Until the day Bostock died, I knew him only as a comically airbrushed picture in my baseball card collection. But as I absorbed the finality of it all - Dead? A major-league baseball player? Is that possible? - I was hit with emotions I was not completely familiar with.

I was curious and confused and stunned and frightened and angry. His death was beyond my naive comprehension. I recall staring at that '78 Topps card endlessly, trying to memorize his stats. At the dinner table, I asked questions about Bostock. Countless questions. They had nothing to do with baseball.

Now, I imagine you're asking: Why bring up this story now? Simple. Because the current Angels - these Amazin' Angels - have brought it back to me.

These are the good old days for the 41-year-old franchise. It is a joyous time of fresh October stars such as Garret Anderson and Francisco Rodriguez, and cuddly mascots such as the Rally Monkey and David Eckstein. This year, the Angels' laughter hasn't turned to tears.

But with good times come remembrances of the bad, and heaven knows the Angels have had more than their share.

The Angels' history is so hellish, the Red Sox look blessed by comparison. We are familiar with the suicide of Donnie Moore, and all the late-season collapses. We hear about the womanizing washout Bo Belinsky, and the untimely deaths of so many promising prospects in the '70s.

We hear about Bostock, too. But not as much as we should. He deserves to be more than a footnote, a name on a morbid list of Ballplayers Who Died During A Season. He deserves better, because he might have been among the best.

Bostock played just four major league seasons, three with Minnesota and his final one with the Angels. He died with a career .311 average - a number that pairs him with Jackie Robinson in the history books.

He batted .336 in 1977 and was the runner-up to teammate Rod Carew for the American League batting title. A lefty hitter with an elegant swing, he was so gifted and dedicated that his manager, Gene Mauch, compared him to Pete Rose.

Bostock could have been a great, if only that bright future had been a match for his darker fate. Maybe he would have grown up to be Tony Gwynn, a winner of multiple batting titles and a wonderful ambassador for the game. Or maybe he might have been Roberto Clemente, another doomed ballplayer whose talent was matched only by his generosity.

Kindness was among Bostock's dominant traits. After playing out his $20,000-a-year contract with the Twins - yes, that's 20 thousand, not 20 million - Bostock signed a five-year, $2.25 million deal with the Angels in November 1977. The deal, which came at the advent of big-bucks free agency, made him the third-highest-paid player in the game.

Bostock didn't intend to collect his riches. He intended to earn them. So when he began the '78 season in a 2-for-39 slump, he approached Angels owner Gene Autry and insisted on giving back his April salary.

Autry refused the offer, so Bostock decided he would give the money to charity. ("Charity The Big Winner in Bostock Slump," said the headline in The Sporting News.) Naturally, mailbags full of requests poured in, and Bostock sorted through them himself, trying to determine who needed the money the most.

A newspaper photo a few days after he died showed Bostock's jersey hanging in his locker. On the floor were several boxes of mail. His April salary was donated posthumously.

The tale of Bostock's philanthropy sounds like the stuff of fiction, particularly in the context of today's greed. The game has changed so much in the 24 years since he died, and much to its own detriment. But some things, they never change.

Baseball survives, even thrives, in spite of itself. The Red Sox crumble like a dried-up leaf in September, no matter how many promises they make in April. And much to my girlfriend's chagrin, I still babble on relentlessly about baseball at the dinner table.

Lately, the topic has been these admirable Angels, and their quest for their first World Championship. Often, I've found my windy monologues winding around to Bostock, and the summer of '78, and all that I learned about baseball, and life.

Bostock taught me that the world was cruel and unfair and unpredictable. That the good guy didn't always win, that ballplayers weren't superheroes even if they tried to be, that death can find you anywhere, anytime, even at a busy intersection on a laid-back Saturday night.

The Red Sox would stomp on my little heart later that summer, and damned if it hasn't become an annual tradition. But these Angels, the cursed Angels . . . they've kind of grown on us cynical New Englanders, haven't they? We can relate to them, appreciate what their franchise and its fans have gone through.

We are kindred spirits. They should give us hope. If the Angels can win it, well, hell, maybe the Red Sox can too.

Cheer them on, Red Sox fans. Shake those silly ThunderStix. Salute Glaus and Salmon and Percival and Spiezio. Appreciate them for doing what our hometown team could not. Applaud them for dethroning the Yankees, who are still 25 Darth Vaders, only with much larger bank accounts.

With the Angels just a couple wins away from a celebration unlike any they've ever seen, please, take a second to remember a fallen Angel from the franchise's terribly tragic past.

Remember Lyman Bostock, a wonderful ballplayer and a better man, one who had the green light to stardom, if only the red light had changed.

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Where have you gone, Tom Newell?

(Article originally published in Down East magazine, April, 2002.)

They're a forgotten footnote in Maine's sporting history now, but a decade before the Portland Sea Dogs captured the hearts, imaginations and wallets of local baseball fans, there was minor-league baseball in our state. The team was called the Maine Guides, and I considered them mine.

The Guides were a Triple-A-level ballclub, a ladder-step higher than the Sea Dogs and just a lucky break from the major leagues. Their home, called The Ballpark, was as clean and simple as its name. Just a five-minute walk from my family's summer home in Old Orchard Beach, it was where I happily lounged away those breezy summer days before pictures of girls replaced ballplayers on my walls.

The Guides arrived in 1984 to much anticipation. They drew 6,144 for their inaugural home game, in 38-degree temperatures. The team won, and won some more. A writer from Sports Illustrated came to town and wrote a fawning four-page spread. One player said he enjoyed Old Orchard so much, getting summoned to the majors felt like a demotion. Even the helicopter-sized mosquitoes, the logical result of the illogical decision to build the park in a forest near the ocean, were part of the charm.

The Guides' owner, Jordan Kobritz, didn't believe in promotions and mascots and loud, endless distractions. He believed the game was the draw. For a time, it was. But the Guides preceded the baseball nostalgia boom, and eventually, without any marketing, the magic died. The team bolted town in 1988 for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Pa., leaving a trail of debt in its wake. In the franchise's final innings, the ballplayers outnumbered fans, and the mosquitoes went hungry.

But in between the glorious beginning and ignominious end, I spent some of my fondest days attending their games. For the first three years of their existence, players were provided by the Cleveland Indians, an organization whose haplessness inspired the comedic movie Major League. (Players were later provided by the more capable Philadelphia Phillies.) Although I obeyed my obligation to root, root, root for the home team, I was aware that most of the guys who would make a comfortable living in the sport were in the opposing dugout.

I learned this at my first game. The Guides lost to the Toledo Mud Hens by something like a 17-1 score. Of all the Mud Hens who circled the bases that day, it was a rotund, shiny-scalped outfielder with an easy smile who caught my eye. I asked my dad, holding the game program, for the player's name.

"Kirby Puckett," he said, adding indifferently, "A guy built like that will never make it."

A week later, Puckett was gone, up to the big leagues and the Minnesota Twins. I doubt he's been back to Toledo or Old Orchard since, but he did make it to Cooperstown this summer. Kirby Puckett is a Hall of Famer. My dad still is not a scout.

Usually, my partners in attendance and crime were my cousins Kris and Tom, who visited each summer from Illinois. Armed with our Sharpie pens and a stack of baseball cards, our pregame ritual consisted of leaning over the railing and hollering, "HEY, CAN WE HAVE YOUR AUTOGRAPH, MISTER?" at anyone who happened to be in uniform. I remember my excitement the time I secured the signature of Barney Nugent. I also remember my disappointment when I discovered the only Barney Nugent listed on the Guides roster was the trainer. I suppose the belly lapping over his belt should have been a clue he wasn't some gifted young slugger.

One time, we met a big bellied guy who did turn out to be a pretty good ballplayer. We had seen this mammoth man play before, so we knew his name . . . or at least thought we did. "SEE-cil! SEE-cil," we yelled and pleaded in unison, waving our cards and pens. SEE-cil turned and glowered our way. The thought of fleeing seemed reasonable. "My name is Cecil (SESS-il)," he said, his glare quickly turning into a Bet-I-scared-ya-didn't-I? smile. He signed our cards. A few years later, a larger-than-life Cecil Fielder hit 51 home runs for the Tigers. I imagine kids who nagged him for autographs that summer pronounced his name right.

The players we saw pass through in visiting uniforms could stock an All-Star roster for this generation. Dwight Gooden, on his first comeback from drug abuse. David Justice and David Wells. Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. Fred McGriff and Jay Buhner. But for every Puckett or Fielder, there were dozens of Greg Leggs and Junior Noboas, Pichy DeLeons and Alan LeBoeufs - oddly unforgettable names with utterly forgettable careers.

And then there was Tom Newell.

Tom Newell is without exception my favorite baseball player of all time. My cousins and I got his autograph so many times that he knew us by sight if not by name. "It's you guys again?" he'd say, then shake his head, smile and sign whatever we were waving at him that day. Tom Newell looked like a ballplayer, tall, trim and tan. He acted like every fan's friend.
I rooted desperately for Tom Newell to make the major leagues, and he did, with the Phillies at the tail end of the '87 season. I'll forever recall seeing him at The Ballpark the day in September he learned he'd be going to the majors.

"So you got the call," I said. He looked up from signing his name. "Yep. Flying to Philly after the game. It's my dream come true," he said, his grin the truest confirmation.

His dream came true only for a moment. The next spring, he blew out his rotator cuff, the kiss of death for a pitcher. He bounced around the minors for a number of years, never quite regaining his health or his fastball. Tom Newell never again wore a big-league uniform.

I last heard of him too many years ago, when I read in the back pages of Baseball Weekly that he had been released by the Double-A Albany-Colonie Yankees. Listed were his career major-league statistics: Two games. One inning. Four runs allowed. Earned-run average: 36.00. It was his baseball obituary.

While old ballplayers are laid to rest in the agate type, old ballparks die a more protracted death. During a recent visit to my family's home, I stopped by to check up on an old friend. It was a melancholy experience. The Ballpark is abandoned now, surrounded by a chain-link fence to discourage would-be intruders. Peeking in, I could see the crumbling press box, the sunken clubhouse roof, the outfield fence full of holes. The field desperately needed a mowing. So did the parking lot. I saw some ghosts - hey, down by the bullpen – that’s where I caught my only foul ball - but mostly I saw neglect.

While there were few signs that the Guides ever existed, their indirect descendants in Portland are going strong. I know this firsthand; I attend a scorebook's worth of Sea Dogs games a summer. But of course it's not the same. I'm older now, and I understand that the game is not enough; it needs the marriage with marketing to thrive, to survive. So in that case, the Sea Dogs will be around awhile, I am certain.

Sometimes, though, while watching the frenzied fans feed French fries containers to the "Trash Monster" or cringe as they wail along with Slugger the Sea Dog on another tinny version of "YMCA," I catch myself wondering where they all were when my Guides needed them.

And sometimes, I wonder if any of those fans ever heard of Tom Newell.

Or for that matter, Barney Nugent.

(Special thanks to Brian Merzbach at for use of the photos.)

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Bledsoe stands pat

It was sad, sure it was. Anyone who call himself a Patriot fan now owes Drew Bledsoe a debt of gratitude. If not for the serendipitous timing of his arrival in New England, the Patriots would have jilted us for St. Louis long ago. The joy of recent championship seasons would never have been known.

But spare him your pity, because the man does not deserve it. In watching the lowest moment of Bledsoe's rapidly deteriorating career the other night - a 9 for 21, three-interception, 87-yard nationally-televised debacle - I was reminded again of something I realized during his last days in New England.

Drew Bledsoe never cared enough. About football, about winning. About doing what it took to become a better quarterback. And now he is paying the ultimate professional price. His career is in a tight spiral - right down the toilet.

Bledsoe always was such a stand-up guy, always accountable for his flaws and failings . . . yet he did nothing to correct them, ever. He's still immobile, he still pats the ball like it's his favorite kitty, his mechanics still are woefully out of alignment, he still has the footwork of a newborn fawn, he still can't throw a screen pass without one-hopping it, he still locks on to his No. 1 receiver time and again. Which may be why he hit Troy Brown between the 8 and the 0 the other night - once your go-to guy, always your go-to guy.

Toward the end of his run with the Pats, I found myself wondering if his reliable accountability was a defense mechanism, a conscious or subconscious way of reminding us how much he really, really cared. By taking the blame, he avoided receiving his share. How many times did we hear the same speech after every kick-in-the-nuts loss during the Carroll Years - this one's on my shoulders, I'll take the blame, blah blah yada yada. He may have sounded sincere, but football never meant enough to him to turn his words into actions, to fully commit to improving. He always bolted to his ranch in Montana as soon as the season ended, ostensibly to get away from football for a while. Six months later he'd come to camp 10 pounds heavier and looking like the love child of Sasquatch and Kris Kristofferson.

This professional indifference becomes all the more galling when contrasting Bledsoe's approach with that of the man who claimed his job. For all Tom Brady has accomplished in his four NFL seasons, damned if he doesn't still come back improved in some way every year. Look how well he throws deep now, or how deceptively elusive he is in the pocket, or how his shoulders have broadened. He's had it all - two Super Bowls MVP awards, countless magazine covers, the hot brunette from Coyote Ugly - and it only makes him work harder and want more.

There is no offseason getaway for him. The only Montana matters to Brady is a quarterback whose legacy he's driven to exceed.

Bledsoe? His legacy was exceeded long ago. Sunday was just one more sad reminder.

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Sunday, November 14, 2004

The scoop

Do a Google search for "sports columnist" and you'll get 159,000 matches. (Frighteningly, the first match is Stephen A. Smith.) Search again for "sports blog" and your options number 115,000. For perspective, a search for "naked Paris Hilton" yields 73,000 pages.

Rule of thumb: When you're hunting for something and you have more options than there are butt-nekkid pics of America's Tramp, you know what you're looking for is out there in abundance.

What I'm trying to say here, in my wordy, roundabout way (get used to it), is this: thanks for finding me. I figure if you navigated the vast expanse of the World Wide Web and somehow ended up right here, right now, you're either a former reader of my Concord Monitor column, someone recommended my site, you gave birth to me (hi mom - I'll call!), or you saw my half-page color ad in "Cat Fancy."

Heck, you must have sought me out, because the bleepin' Internet sure isn't going to help you find me without some digging. Search for "Chad Finn" and first thing that pops up is some hippie-looking cat who apparently has found far greater success breeding freakin' berries than I have as a sports journalist for two of New England's finest newspapers. Much to my ego's detriment, Chad Finn, Blueberry Guy comes in second on the search list, too. And third. Fourth, also. Dude's berries must be a sight to see. Er, whatever that means.

So, yeah, thanks for finding me. Now let me explain exactly what it is you've found.

I started this site in Nov. 2004, for a couple of reasons:

1) I fear for the future of newspapers, and fret that in the onrushing age of electronic media, being a page designer - which is part of my job description at The Boston Globe - is fast becoming the dodo bird of journalism jobs. I figured it couldn't hurt to learn some rudimentary HTML, maybe some Photoshop, get in on this blogging fad, and anything else that might make me a desireable employee at someplace other than Derek Jeter's Taco Hole 20 years from now.

2) I dearly missed writing. For the better part of five years, I wrote a column at the small but substantial Monitor. From what I gathered, some people even read the thing on occasion, and every other year or so I might get a nice little plaque or two for my efforts. It was a wonderful, fulfilling job. But in December, 2003, my dream job beckoned.

A little background: Ever since the summer of '78, when I was 8 and my growing love of the sports was fertilized by the brilliant sports writing in the Boston Globe, I dreamed of someday covering the Red Sox for my dad's favorite newspaper. The dream stayed with me through my teen years, even as I turned most of my reading attention to Steve Buckley's coverage of my beloved, neglected Maine Guides in the Portland Press Herald. And it flourished as a journalism student at the University of Maine, where I covered a 17-year-old Paul Kariya's first strides toward hockey superstardom.

But as the years flew off the calendar, the dream was amended. In 1994, the Monitor hired me as an assistant sports editor straight out of UMaine. I soon found that I was satisfied with that career path, particularly after realizing sometime in school that covering a major pro sports beat is a horrible, soul-killing lifestyle. (And covering the Red Sox is on a whole 'nother level.) So the dream became this: to work at the Globe the year the Red Sox won the World Series.

I was hired by the Globe as a page designer/copy editor on Dec. 13, 2003, a day I might rank as the fourth-most-joyous in my life, after birth of my daughter, my wedding, and, of course, the time I met Butch Hobson and Otis Nixon in Old Orchard Beach, Me.

Eleven months later after I was hired by the Globe, on a glorious autumn night in October, 2004 . . . well, you know. Renteria grounded to Foulke, Foulke threw to Mientkiewicz, Mientkiewicz scurried away to get the ball authenticated . . . and then all heaven broke loose. Sometimes I still marvel at how blessed I am to have my silly little dream realized. In a serendipitous bit of irony, or maybe karmic confirmation that I've made the right choices along the way, the game story the night the Sox won the World Series was not mine - but the headline atop it was: "The Possible Dream." The possible dream, indeed.

Yet, as much as I appreciate, enjoy, even cherish my Globe gig . . . I still longed to write. I missed having a forum, an opinion that mattered. I missed the give-and-take with readers, missed hearing "Finn, you nailed it" or "Finn, are you sniffing glue again?" when I'd run into folks around town.

And I really missed writing about the Red Sox. The first year in many that I don't have a newspaper column, and wouldn't you know it, they win it all. Man, that killed me, hurt like a repeated kick in the ol' Manzanillo. During the early stages of writing withdrawal, I even tried keeping a journal about the Sox during the season last year, with an eye toward pitching it as a book if the season went the way I'd hoped. I was diligent 'til July, but daily life intervened. I abandoned it. (Unfortunately, Stewart O'Nan didn't.)

Which brings us here, to Plan B, which I suppose stands for "blueprint," since I'm still figuring out exactly what this site is and what I hope it will become. Some ideas, details and Cliff Clavin-style facts that might help clarify this thing:

- The name of this site was the name of my notes column at the Monitor, but it's lineage is far more distinctive. Touching All Bases was the title of Ray Fitzgerald's column in the Globe from 1961 to 1980. This is my small way of paying tribute to the best sports writer this city has known, a writer who remains an influence on me 25 years after his passing. (His Best Of compilation is available on the main page if you're interested.) To put it the best way I can: I would be thrilled and fulfilled if someday my best column was as good as Ray Fitzgerald's worst.

- Simply put, I want to write the type of stuff I like to read. You can probably get a pretty good sense for what that is from my links list - Gammons, Peter King, Dr. Z, all of whom have the traits and talents I expect from a columnist: Humor, insight, perspective, an ability to be critical or poignant when the moment calls for it. My greatest hope for this site is that you'll recognize some of those traits in my work.

- I have some recurring features in the works, such as a Monday morning "First and 10" Patriots column during football season, and weekly "Nine innings" Red Sox notes columns during baseball season. I hope to write satirically now and then, probably by using fake dialogue or some other wicked clevah device. I will also work baseball cards into the equation, though I haven't quite figured out how yet. I hope to do some longer, column-style pieces, if time (and the sleep patterns of my infant daughter) permit. No matter how it all plays out, I promise to be vigilant, with a minimum of two substantial posts per week, and hopefully four or five.

- Derivitive is the last thing I want to be. Well second-to-last: I really don't want to be Skip Bayless. Seriously, I do hope you'll find me to be original. If you catch me writing a 12,000 word missive on the pros and cons of "According To Jim" or other such dreck, or if I suddenly start dropping names of E-List quasi-celebrities . . . well feel free to light me on fire, as the weary catchphrase goes.

- Tragically, I'm guided solely by the bickering voices in my own thick skull. This site is not affiliated with Globe, and it does not reflect the opinions and beliefs of my employer. In fact, should the Globe eventually discourage staffers from having blogs, I'll shut this baby down faster than Bob Irsay beat it out of Baltimore. I won't even turn out the lights.

So there you have it: the Touching All The Bases memo/mission statement/blather/cry for help. Thanks surfing here, and indulging my lengthy explanation of exactly where the hell you are. I do hope you find your way back again.

Oh, and if you were looking for the other Chad Finn, do me a favor, will you? Let Blueberry Guy know I'm gunning for him.