Tuesday, December 27, 2005

A case of the Mondays

It was a little much, this "Monday Night Football" farewell. After all, it's only a farewell to the shrinking percentage of Americans who don't subscribe to basic cable - "MNF" is shifting from ABC, its home of 36 years, to ESPN next season. Last night's tribute/going-away party, which relegated the Pats' 31-21 victory over the Jets to subplot status, was little more than a maudlin exercise in self-congratulations by the network.

But damned if we didn't enjoy it anyway. TATB is nothing if not nostalgic, and the clips featuring great games and great personalities were . . . well, great fun. The highlights and hijinks from Monday nights past reminded us of the time when the presence and chemistry of Cosell, Dandy Don and Mr. Kathy Lee ensured that each week's game would be appointment television no matter who was playing. I couldn't help but think how much more worthwhile ESPN Classic would be if it re-ran games from "MNF"'s '70s heyday rather than reheated re-runs of crap like Arli$$. Until then, I'll have to settle for these lasting memories from three decades of watching "MNF":

Bo knows prime time, 1987: If you are a sports fan of a certain generation - namely, mine - that whole ESPN "SportsCentury" Greatest Athlete of the 20th Century countdown was a farce in your mind. You don't need some catchphrase-spewing nimrod such as Stuart Scott to lie through your television screen and dare claim that someone other than the one and only Vincent Edward "Bo" Jackson is the best athlete your eyes have witnessed. Sure, he was a shooting star, a hip injury derailing both of his careers, but he did things on the baseball field we haven't seen since (running up the wall after making a catch, hitting a home run off Wes Gardner that's probably still embedded in the wall behind Fenway's center field bleachers), and damned if baseball was his second-best sport. This performance, in which Bo busted off a 91-yard run straight down the left sideline and into the tunnel, lives on as football career tour-de-force, in large part because he also traumatized the fraudulent Brian Bosworth so badly on a goal line encounter that The Boz ended up selling freakin' real estate for a living. (The link no longer works, but you get the gist.) Best athlete? Athlete? There's Bo, and then there's everyone else. Period, end of discussion, and I don't give a damn what "SportsCentury" says.

Joe Montana out-Elways John Elway, 1994: The two greatest quarterbacks in NFL history going toe-to-toe and throw-for-throw. Elway was at the height of his giant-toothed powers, but it was Montana who enjoyed one last heroic hurrah on this night, marching the Chiefs down the field and throwing the game-winning touchdown pass with six seconds left. (For some reason, I keep imagining this certain skinny high school kid in California watching this game unfold and thinking, "Someday, that'll be me.")

Joe Washington throws, runs and passes for touchdowns as the Colts beat the Patriots in a driving rainstorm, 1978: Washington didn't torment only the Patriots; a speedy halfback who played for the Chargers, Colts and Redskins, he was one of the most versatile and underrated weapons of his time. Right, kinda like Mike Vrabel.

Dan Marino and the Dolphins gun down the 12-0 Bears,1985: This was one of those much-anticipated showdowns where the hype proved justified. The best passer ever puts the lone blemish on the record of the best single-season defense ever in what I believe is still the highest-rated Monday night game ever. And somewhere that night, the 1972 Dolphins got sh*tfaced.

Tony Dorsett breaks off a 99-yard, two-foot, 11-inch run against Minnesota, 1983: Perhaps its because most of his Cowboys accomplishments have been bumped out of the record book by Emmitt Smith, but Dorsett's legacy isn't what it should be. He was the most electric ballcarrier of his time, a threat to go all the way every time he touched the ball. This was his definitive run. If you never saw Dorsett, watch Reggie Bush. The similarities are uncanny.

Returning to Schaefer Stadium for the first time since being paralyzed by a Jack Tatum cheap shot in the '78 preseason, former Patriots receiver Darryl Stingley receives a seven-minute standing ovation from fans and players before the season-opener against Pittsburgh, 1979: Still and forever the most emotional moment in Patriots history.

Broncos safety Steve Atwater, miked up for NFL Films, stops Kansas City locomotive Christian Okoye in his tracks, 1990: The hardest one-on-one hit I've ever seen. The audio sounded like Paul Bunyan's axe splitting a tree.

Howard Cosell tells the world that the icon of a generation has been murdered, 1980:

"An unspeakable tragedy that came to us from ABC News in New York City: John Lennon, outside of his apartment building on the West Side of New York City, the most famous perhaps of all the Beatles, shot twice in the back, rushed to Roosevelt Hospital. Dead . . . on . . . arrival."

I was in fifth grade, already a full-blown sports nut but only then starting to get into music, so I was more moved by Russ Francis's touchdown catch than I was the tears in mom's eyes after Cosell delivered the heartbreaking news. The significance of the tragedy became clearer the next day at school, when Mrs. Walton put off our normal curriculum so we could spend class discussing Lennon, and the Beatles, and music, and death, and anything else we had on our prepubescent minds that day. The sense of sadness among my teachers - most of whom were about the same age then as I am now - was palpable even to a doofy, oblivious 11-year-old like me. The memory of that day has stayed Kodachrome-clear through the years. I recall it as the first time I ever saw my teachers as human beings.

Lawrence Taylor snapping Joe Theismann's leg like a wishbone, 1985: If only LT had hit him in the mouth instead, our Sunday Night ESPN telecasts (and next year's Monday nighters, come to think of it) would be so much more pleasant.

As for today's Completely Random Football Card:

"Turn out the lights, the party's over . . . "

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Nine innings: 12.24.05

Playing nine innings while hoping the Yankees' new center fielder goes bald . . .

1) Scattered thoughts, mixed emotions and famous last words regarding Johnny Drama:

• Larry Lucchino can lament in his disingenuous, lawyerly way that Scott Boras never gave the Sox a chance to match the Yankees' offer. But the truth seems apparent to anyone with clear eyes: The Red Sox had Damon's value slotted at four years and $40 million, and they were reluctant to go to $40,000,000.01. The Yankees played the game brilliantly, feigning disinterest until giving Boras/Damon a lucrative, intriguing, take-it-or-leave-it offer, but their feat of stealing one of their rival's best players would be much more impressive had the rival shown anything more than a cursory interest in retaining him.

• Damon was apparently wowed by the Yankees' recruiting efforts, which included the obligatory phone call from manager Joe Torre. I'm sure Torre is quite the sweet talker, but is it really such an unique honor? I think Torre has now officially called every free agent in baseball history on the Empire's behalf, beginning with, I believe, Catfish Hunter. As far as the other recruiting tactics are concerned, we haven't been able to get anything confirmed, but it's rumored that Capt. Jetes and A-Rod offered to escort Damon to a private viewing of "Brokeback Mountain."

• Damon, during the press conference in which he revealed his new, Yankee-regulation makeover/neutering, had this to say when asked how Sox fans are reacting to his departure: "It will be crushing. I meant a lot to those fans." True enough, I suppose, but to acknowledge as much himself implies that his ego is as huge as his wife's . . . bank account. My point is that Damon is going to say a lot of things that offend the sensibilities of Sox fans in the next few years. He has a new fan base to pander to, he likes to talk, he isn't particularly articulate, and he has absolutely no filter.

• I've heard a lot of fans - admittedly, mostly 'EEI mouthbreathers - dump on Damon for his second-half fade last year and suggest that is the sign of certain and immediate decline. Please, just stop. Anyone who was paying attention knows he was severely hindered by a painful shoulder injury that he suffered diving for a blooper one night in Texas. The injury would have sidelined wimpier teammates, but he was out there virtually every day, dashing from first to third, crashing into walls, and doing all he could to win ballgames even when he could barely swing the bat. It's understandable to be pissed at him for jilting us, but there's no need to revise history or attempt to diminish all he did for the Red Sox. He was a very good player here for four years, he thrived in some of the biggest moments in franchise history, and his woolly visage will forever be associated with the most enjoyable Red Sox team of our lifetime. He will be missed, but a hell of a legacy remains. I'll remember him well, even while I spend the next four years rooting for a head-on collision with Hideki Matsui.

2) So who plays center for the Sox now? Ummm . . . well . . . er, looks like Bubba Crosby might be available. And there's always Adam Stern, destined to be remembered as the John Trautwein of outfielders. Those two future Hall of Famers excepted, this journalistic masterpiece lists the potential candidates in no particular order. If we were to put our top three in order of preference, it would look something like this: 1) Jeremy Reed (the price could be right, and he has star potential); 2) Torii Hunter (an affable, legitimate star, but his price tag and the Twins' demands make it unlikely); 3) Coco Crisp (his season was remarkably similar to Damon's, and coincidentally, his name is Manny's favorite cereal).

3) The Sox could do worse than entering the season with Alex Cora as their starting shortstop. His glove is quality, a few notches below Pokey level, and while he's not going to win a Silver Slugger award anytime soon, he's been more productive offensively offensive seasons than you might think. It's certainly a more prudent alternative than paying the Devil Rays' ridiculous ransom for Julio Lugo (any trade for a second-tier player that involves Andy Marte would reek of desperation) or overpaying for a stopgap such as Alex Gonzalez. (Then again, the two most comparable players to Cora in baseball history aren't exactly in danger of being elected to the Red Sox Hall of Fame.)

4) Rant time: The Red Sox' front office's transparent attempts at playing spin-o-rama with every significant snippet of news has aggravated me for a while now, but the embarrassing and unnecessary Damon Damage Control press conference was the last straw. The next time I see Larry the Lawyer in front of a microphone, he'd better be reading from a script that goes like this: "Theo? Theo? It's me, Theo. You know, Cousin Larry. Just wanted to let you know the door's ajar, Theo. The light is on. I guess what I'm saying with all these witty metaphors is . . . please come back, Theo. Please. I promise not to meddle anymore. I'll stick to playing monopoly and buying up all the land around Fenway and putting seats atop the Coke bottles and all that peripheral stuff that helps us rake in millions from the sucke . . . er, Red Sox Nation. Listen, I won't even look at a box score unless you tell me to. You can even play your Pearl Jam discs as loud as you want in your office. Anything you want, Theo. Theo? Are you out there? Please come home, Theo."

5) Let's see, the eight-time defending AL East champion Yankees have added Damon, Kyle Farnsworth, Mike Myers and Octavio Dotel (a shrewd low-risk, high-reward move that Theo likely would have tried to swing himself were he still, you know, employed.) Meanwhile, the Blue Jays, who apparently found a few million loonies in the Rogers Centre seat cushions, have added A.J. Burnett, B.J. Ryan, Lyle Overbay and are on the verge of acquiring Troy Glaus (a low batting-average, high OPS slugger who'd be ideal watching Manny and Papi's backs from the No. 5 spot in the Sox lineup). Conclusion: As of Dec. 24, 2005, the Red Sox sure look like a third-place team from this vantage point.

6) Rudy Seanez? Really, that's the best we could do? Good god, who's the next to come back from the dead from the '03 Bullpen By Disaster? Chad Fox? Jason Shiell? I realize Seanez had a terrific 2005 season in San Diego - that strikeout rate is Gossagesque - but color me skeptical that a 37-year-old 14-year journeyman who's had four seasons with an ERA above 5.50 is going to come to Boston and duplicate numbers he accumulated in pressure-free, pitcher-friendly Petco. It doesn't help his cause that this final act of his previous disaster of a stint here is permanently singed into my brain; it foreshadowed Grady Little's ultimately fatal inability to handle a bullpen. (Getting angry just thinking about it.) Thanks, Grady. (Fuming now.) No, really. Thanks. (Damn, damned, dammit. How the hell did he get another job? Didn't Frank McCourt watch Game 7?) Good luck, Grady. Really. And enjoy that CEE-ment pond at your new LA home, you braying doofus. (ARRRGGGG! AIEEEEEEEEEE!!!!) I think I'd better go watch the World Series video before I get, you know, angry or something.

7) First D-Lowe, then Billy Ballgame, and now Nomahhh. By the time the season rolls around in April, the Dodgers may have more members of the '04 World Champs than the Red Sox do. (Yes, Nomar counts in this corner.) I wouldn't bet against Kevin Millar getting a non-roster invite there, either. He'd have the recommendation of Grady, he's actually an L.A. guy born and bred despite the phony/folksy Cowboy Up character he likes to play on TV, and he wouldn't have to go far to film his recurring appearances on the excreble "Best Damn Sports Show, Period."

8) As for our Christmas Eve Completely Random Baseball Card:

Ron Santo "Claus". Get it? (Groan.) Hey, don't blame me. Chris Berman told me it was hilarious.

9) Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, gang. You guys have made TATB's first year more fun and rewarding than we dared imagine, and for that we sincerely hope Santa makes all your Christmas wishes come true. And while the fat man with the red wardrobe is at it (no, not you, Boomer Wells), here's hoping he brings little Jed and little Benny the shortstop, center fielder and first baseman they asked for.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Five reasons we are sad to see Johnny Damon go

1) The grand slam. Right . . . we meant the grand slam. Curt Schilling boasted about wanting to make 55,000 New Yorkers shut up. Damon actually did it, with what is arguably the most important home run in Red Sox history.

2) The odd array of quirks, contradictions and skills that made him such a unique player. His physique is cast in steel and he hits with power, yet he swings the bat like he's Otis Nixon's long-lost albino brother. He can chase down flyballs with the fleetest of foot, but his throwing arm makes Little Leaguers snicker. He crashes into the wall (and the occasional utility infielder) like he's an honorary Knievel, yet he rarely misses a game with an injury. It truly was a treat to watch such an original play the game his way every day.

3) The sunny personality off the field and his relentless hustle on it. He may have cultivated (or accidentally stumbled into) his lucrative Hollywood image, but the truth is that he is as down-to-earth, friendly, and unabashedly appreciative as any big leaguer we have ever encountered, and he played like there was nothing in the world he'd rather be doing. (Must . . . resist . . . joke . . . about . . . wife.)

4) Have we mentioned that he was a Yankee killer? Game 7? The grand slam? Two homers, six RBIs? The man knew how to seize the spotlight. Not only did he thrive under pressure, he embraced it. So what's the amended adage now: After you beat 'em, join 'em?

5) Cue Joe Castig:

"There's a groundball, stabbed by Foulke. Underhands to Mientkiewicz, and the BOSTON RED SOX ARE WORLD SERIES CHAMPIONS!"

Johnny Damon. One of the 25. Without him, it never would have been possible.

Five reasons we are glad to see Johnny Damon go

1) The noodle-armed throws from deep center field, where he requires a cutoff man to reach the cutoff man.

2) His appropriately titled, borderline coherent attempts at locker room literature. "Idiot" is no "Ball Four." Hell, it's not even "Balls."

3) The bubbleheaded bleach blonde of a second wife, who's overexposed by any definition.

4) Too much ado about the 'do. Get a haircut, hippie!

5) Insincere quotes that really piss TATB off in retrospect, such as this gem he spewed to MLB.com in May:

"There's no way I can go play for the Yankees, but I know they are going to come after me hard. It's definitely not the most important thing to go out there for the top dollar, which the Yankees are going to offer me. It's not what I need."

Hair today, gone tomorrow

Johnny Damon, center field, New York Yankees.

Pardon me while I projectile vomit.

The defection of one of the most universally popular Red Sox in years is a bummer to say the least, one more sad reminder that the rivalry means so much more to fans than the players.

News such as this would have been more devastating, oh, three years ago, however. Current mismanagement considered, all I can say is thank god the Red Sox won the World Series; no amount of the Yankees' dirty money can buy our memories of October, 2004.

As the timeless picture above suggests, Damon played a recurring role in the best moments of our lives as Sox fans. For that we'll be forever grateful, and so I promise to throw only the really small batteries at him when he and his noodle arm return to center field at Fenway for the first time. For our old friend Johnny, no DieHards from the diehards!

Yeah . . . As you can probably tell, we're gassed, semi-coherent and more braindead than usual tonight. It's 3:30 a.m., we just got home from Boston and my sunny, sweet and extremely determined 2-year-old daughter will be hollering "Daddy! Up!" in about three hours. Sleep is in the immediate forecast. But we vow to be back with a full-length post on Traitor Johnny's defection Thursday.

In the meantime, check out our recent interview with the good folks at RedSoxNation.net. Oh, and please, if you get the chance, click here and give nominee TATB some love in the Best MLB Blog category. You vote for us enough, we promise to tell you what a Dangling Chad really means.

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As for today's Completely Random Baseball Card:

So much for Johnny Rock Star. Shaving-fetishist Steinbrenner is going to make Damon look like a hairless cat.

Monday, December 19, 2005

First and 10: Patriots 28, Bucs 0

1) I've often made the argument in the past that the 2001 Patriots were the least talented team to win a Super Bowl. (Remember Fred Coleman, third receiver?) It's not meant as a putdown, but as a tribute to their unity, perseverance and the shrewd strategizing of Bill Belichick's coaching staff. That considered, if the Patriots continue their current resurgence, overcome all the adversity they have endured this season, and somehow, some way, knock the already-anointed Colts out of the postseason, I'd consider it Belichick's Boys' greatest accomplishment of all. And after what I saw this weekend, truth be told, I'm just about expecting it.

2) So this is what Rosey Colvin must have looked like when he first caught Bill Belichick's eye as a havoc-wreaking force of nature with the Bears. Colvin, who has a sack in five straight games and gave us flashbacks to an Andre Tippett highlight reel against Tampa Bay, finally appears to be fully recovered from the career-threatening hip injury he suffered in Week 2 of the 2003 season. His return to form couldn't have come at a better time, and it's always refreshing to see good things happen to good people. Colvin's one of the gems in a Patriot locker room that has more than it's share.

3) Then again, it can't be coincidence that Colvin, Willie McGinest, and the Patriots pass rush as whole suddenly start playing infinitely better when Richard Seymour returned to the lineup. After the dude in the No. 12 jersey, Big Sey might be the most valuable player on this team, at least in the all-important terms of making those around him better.

4) I'm not saying Tom Brady is the toughest S.O.B. in the NFL, but legend has it he once roundhouse kicked Chuck Norris so hard his beard burst into tears. (Click the link. You'll understand.)

5) It's been apparent to our untrained eyes for a while now, but to hear an old sage like Ty Law say the same thing after the Pats' recent victory over the Jets was enough to put a little bounce in our step: Ellis Hobbs is going to be one hell of an NFL cornerback. Barring any further chinstrap malfunctions, obviously.

6) He's probably TATB's favorite current Patriot - we've rarely seen a wide receiver maul defensive backs with such vicious delight - but even we tend to forget how much David Givens means to the offense until he is gone. He may not be big in stature, but he plays big, and his physical presence makes life easier for the mighty-mites like Deion Branch, Troy Brown and Tim Dwight. Givens, a seventh-round heist in 2002, is a free-agent after the season, and while receivers are generally the most replaceable commodities in the NFL, this particular player is all but irreplaceable to this particular team. Scott Pioli needs to find the cash to keep him in Foxboro.

7) If Tedy Bruschi's hellraising, vintage 11-tackle performance didn't put a smile on your face and a lump in your throat, then maybe you should just take your silly dog and your stupid sled and get your skinny green butt out of Whoville, Mr. Grinch. You are hopeless.

8) Are we sure Chris Simms isn't really Boomer Esiason's kid? He is a lefty. I was actually more impressed by Phil's boy than his reputation suggested I would be. He throws a nice ball, has a better-than-average fastball, and is willing to take a wallop in order to make a big play. Against the Pats, the wallop-to-big-play ratio was heavily in his opponents' favor, yet he hung in there and showed enough skill and poise to make me think he's eventually going to be a fine performer in Jon Gruden's complex offense. I'd always heard Simms was loathed by University of Texas fans, who made a folk hero out of fellow quarterback Major Applewhite (a marginal talent who couldn't make it out of Pats rookie camp a few years ago). The curse of unrealistic expectations, I guess.

9) Packers vs. Ravens tonight on Monday Night Football? Ugh. Get ready for three hours of Michaels and Madden giving Brett Favre a verbal tonguebath. I like Favre - it's hard not to - but the over-the-top fawning he routinely gets from the national media these days is borderline ridiculous. He's a gunslinger! He's a warrior! He'd play the game for free! Puh-leeze. He's a gunslinger . . . who throws more stupid interceptions than any veteran QB this side of Dallas. He's a warrior . . . sure, except that he throws the ball away every single time there's a chance of him get hit. (Just watch. You'll be shocked.) He'd play the game for free . . . even though he talks about retiring constantly and sometimes seems like he's just playing for the coin. The truth is, Favre is a Hall of Fame talent whose skills are rapidly eroding, he's as undisciplined as he ever was, and for all the joy we are told he gets from playing the game, he sure looks like he's going through the motions a lot these days. Something tells me there's a better chance of Madden passing up a slice of turducken than mentioning any of this tonight.

10) As for today's Completely Random Football Card:

Gotta imagine the '72 Dolphins Alumni Association has one massive collective hangover this morning.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

TATB Hall of Fame inductee Ricky Bell

Athletes possess the power to touch children's lives so effortlessly. Yet for those who care only halfheartedly, their influence is too often fleeting.

Sure, Mr. Big Shot can show up for a charity event, scribble some autographs, maybe read a few pages of the Cat In The Hat, flash that megawatt grin for the photo that'll be in the next morning's Names And Faces. It's all cool.

But once the shutters stop clicking and their team-mandated community service requirement is met, too many slide into the familiar comforts of the lifestyle of the rich and famous, oblivious or indifferent to the powers they hold over their young fans. It's enough to turn a starstruck fan into a bitter cynic - or God forbid, a sports-talk radio host.

If only there were more athletes who wholeheartedly embraced being heroes and role models. If only there were more sincere men, more good men in professional sports, more men who give back more then they take.

More men like Ricky Bell.

If you only vaguely remember Bell, there's no need to turn in your playbook. His NFL career lasted but six seasons (1977-82). Not long after its conclusion we'd learn it was due to a terribly tragic whim of fate, and for nearly two decades now he's been little more than a footnote in the margins of the NFL Encylopedia.

I considered myself a Bell fan as a kid, his 1980 Sports Illustrated cover among many papering my bedroom walls. And yet my memories of him shed their cobwebs only after a pair of recent events brought his name into my consciousness: USC tailback Reggie Bush's Heisman victory (Bell, one of the countless great Trojan ballcarriers through the years, finished second in the '76 Heisman race to Tony Dorsett). And the arrival of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Foxboro this week to take on the Patriots (Bell, along with Lee Roy Selmon and Doug Williams, brought respectability to the laughingstock franchise in the late '70s).

Bell's professional career began with great fanfare, but not much good fortune. The Buccaneers chose him first overall in the 1977 NFL draft, a pick ahead of Dorsett, who went to Dallas. While Tom Landry's locked and loaded Cowboys won the Super Bowl in Dorsett's first season, the Bell's Bucs were a running, stumbling joke, what with their traffic-cone orange uniforms, their something less than masculine mascot Bucco Bruce, and a 26-game losing streak that kicked off their existence.

They didn't earn their first victory until the second-to-last game of the season in Bell's rookie year. But suddenly, in 1979, the joke was on the Bucs' opponents. Bell, a fierce, relentless runner (think Ricky Williams, pre-Reefer Madness) churned his way to 1,263 yards as Tampa Bay became the darlings of the NFL, finishing one victory shy of a Super Bowl berth.

The good times didn't last - Bell became injury prone and mysteriously ill, and he and the Bucs slipped into irrelevance. But unlike so many athletes past and present, Bell's legacy is not dependent on his on-field accomplishments. It is in his friendship with a shy disabled boy named Ryan Blankenship, the details of which are both heartwarming and heartbreaking. The relationship documented in A Triumph Of The Heart: The Ricky Bell Story a 1991 TV movie starring Mario Van Peebles (a destitute man's Denzel), as well as in the following snippet from a terrific 2004 feature published by the Tampa Tribune:

Giving back. That was Bell's idea the first day he met Ryan Blankenship. It happened so accidentally. Bell's business partner, Les Roth, inquired at HRS about Bell's desire to begin a relationship with a needy child. Hours earlier, the HRS worker was at lunch with Blankenship's speech therapist. The connection was made. When Bell first visited the home, Blankenship was frightened by the sight of a hulking football player. Blankenship hid underneath his father's truck.

Bell got on his hands and knees to pull out Blankenship. Bell smiled at the boy. That's all it took to spark a friendship. Blankenship never was frightened again. When Bell grew up, he stuttered. It left scars and was the reason he majored in speech communication at USC. He was drawn to Blankenship, who struggled to form words and sounds. "They could actually communicate with smiles, with their eyes," said Carole Blankenship, Ryan's mother. "It was kind of magical."

Bell organized car washes that raised money to purchase a computer for Blankenship. He offered a standing invitation to attend Bucs practice and brought him around the locker room. Bell pushed Blankenship to take up sports and stay active. Put your mind to it, Bell said, and you can beat anything. No one knew it then, but Bell was about to face his own obstacle, one he couldn't defeat.

An obstacle he couldn't defeat. The irony of it all was so cruel. While the young boy was blossoming, the larger-than-life football hero who had gently helped bring him out of his shell was losing strength by the day.

As his football talents eroded and the injuries mounted to the point where some who knew better whispered he was a malingerer, Bell learned something was terribly wrong. The devastating diagnosis came in the immediate weeks after he retired from the San Diego Chargers during the strike in '82. He was suffering from dermatomyositis, a particularly vile disease which causes progressive hardening of the skin and muscles. It was terminal.

Ricky Bell died of cardiac arrest on Nov. 28, 1984. He was 29 years old.

It was a terrible loss for reasons that have nothing to do with football. If there is any solace in such a tragedy, it must be this:

His heart failed him. It never failed anyone else.

Twenty-one years after his hero's death, Ryan Blankenship is living proof.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Winter meetings wonderland

The winter meetings are over, and your World Champions-Once-Removed Boston Red Sox look a lot different this morning than they did during the final, futile evening of the past season. Naturally, you've got questions. As always, we'll pretend to have some answers:

Q. Who is this Andy Marte cat and why should the thought of him in Boston make me as jacked and pumped as Pete Carroll at a Rose Bowl pep rally?

According to the 2005 edition of Baseball Prospectus, Andy Marte is merely . . .

The best prospect in baseball and a future superstar. As a 20-year-old toiling in the mostly hitter-unfriendly Southern League, Marte hit .269/.364/.525. In only 387 at-bats, he smacked 52 extra-base hits. He's got monstrous power and a broad base of hitting skills. In his prime, expect a few seasons of Adrian Beltre, circa 2004.

Q. So he's actually a better prospect than the departed Hanley Ramirez? Sweet. Just one nagging, teensy little concern here: If Marte's such a Can't-Miss-Kid, why were the Braves so willing to trade him for a 30-year-old shortstop who looked like he was suffering from osteoporosis last season?

Here's the explanation Braves general manager (and future Hall of Famer) John Schuerholz offered during an interview on WEEI's Dale and Holley Friday afternoon: Atlanta needed a shortstop after Rafael Furcal snapped up the Dodgers' ludicrously lucrative three-year, $39 million offer, and the Braves think Renteria's miserable 2005 season was an aberration and he will return to his four-time All-Star form in his National League comfort zone. Further, with Chipper Jones entrenched at third for at least three more years, there was no place for the kid to play after attempts to convert him to a corner outfielder were unsuccessful, according to Schuerholz. It's a perfectly reasonable explanation, though one must be wary of dealing with the Braves: they have an exceptional track record of evaluating their own prospects, of hanging on to the phenoms and dealing the frauds. (David Nied and Mike Kelly are nodding in agreement.) It's entirely possible that they believe the ceiling for Marte is lower than what is currently being projected, and felt it was worthwhile to trade him while his value was at its peak. As far as a postmortem on Renteria's one-and-done career with the Sox, I think it's fair to say our expectations were too high and he underachieved, always a recipe for disappointment if not disaster. We do wish him well - he carried himself with quiet dignity and never made excuses for his Offermanesque play - but ultimately, his greatest contribution to the Red Sox came while he was playing for the Cardinals:

Q. Who will the Red Sox shortstop be on opening day?

Shortstop? Who needs a stinkin' shortstop? The Yankees haven't had one for years, and it's never stopped them from winning tons of regular season games. (Man, that was really fun to type.) Unfortunately, the truth is that the days when the Sox had the stability at short that Capt. Jetes provides the Yankees are getting farther and farther away in the rear-view mirror. The Sox will start their fourth opening day shortstop in four years this season, and your guess is as good as mine as to who it will be. Right now, it's no one, which is why the Sox are suddenly scouring a free agent market that features little more than washouts and retreads such as Rey Sanchez and our old pal Pokey. There's Mr. Hamm, whose stock has fallen faster than any superstar in recent memory. There's Alex Gonzalez - the mediocre one, not the other mediocre one. Gary DiSarcina and John Valentin are still in the neighborhood. And there's really not much else, unless you think old friend Orlando Cabrera can be had from the Angels or believe the Orioles would trade Miguel (B-12) Tejada within the division. At the moment, this sure does look like a major oversight by the Gang of Four. While the Sox front office certainly appears to be approaching this offseason like that overzealous buddy in your rotisserie league - deal first, ask questions later - you'd have to say the balance of trade is in their favor so far. They've given up Renteria, Hanley Ramirez, Anibel Sanchez, Henry Garcia, Doug Mirabelli, Jesus Delgado and boatload of John Henry's cash. They've added Josh Beckett, Marte, Guillermo Mota, Mike Lowell, Mark Loretta, and someone named Jermaine Van Buren. Looks good on the screen, but they're traded two shortstops without getting one back, and they can't seem to make up their mind whether the priority is this year's club or the future. They've raised enough doubt about whether they have a master plan that you can almost imagine something like this taking place during a recent staff meeting:

BILL LAJOIE: Just got off the horn with Schuerholz, fellers. He's taking that stiff Renteria off our hands tonight, and get this - we're getting Marte. Gotta get the boss to throw in some cash, though. Anyone know where Mr. Henry disappeared to?

JED HOYER: Last I saw him, he said he was heading off to the tanning booth. Dude is getting flat-out bronzed. Anyway, the deal's done, huh? Gotta like Marte, right, Ben?

BEN CHERINGTON: Marte? Who's cares about him! I'm married to Wendi Nix! Have I ever mentioned that? Wendi Nix! She's hot! Smokin! How awesome am I? Pretty awesome, I'd say! I married Wendi Nix! Damn!

HOYER: Right. Thanks for the input, man. And for the last time, when we're in the office, we wear pants. No exceptions. Cripes. Anyway, Bill - we hanging on to Marte, or should I get Tampa on the phone and see if they'll move Lugo?

LAJOIE: Lugo? Hell, no. Last time I talked to them, those greedy sumb----- asked for Trammell and Whitaker. I offered 'em Rusty Kuntz and slammed down the phone. Showed them. Ha.

HOYER: Love the '84 Tigers stories, Bill. Great stuff. But it seems to me we'd better figure out who's playing shortstop. I think Lugo ----

LAJOIE: Ramirez is playing short. Don't patronize me, young feller. I've got chunks of punks like you in my ----

HOYER: Manny? I don't think Manny can ----

LAJOIE: Hanley. Cripes. Who else? We've been talking this damn kid up since he was a fetus. It's about time he played.

HOYER: We traded him to the Marlins, Bill. Two weeks ago. Got Beckett, Mota, and one of the 33 third baseman on our roster. Ring a bell?

LAJOIE: Oh . . . oh, no . . . oh, #$%@. Uh, maybe you should call Tampa, kiddo. Ask 'em about that Lugo feller. And let 'em know we might move Chester Lemon in the right deal.

Q. Random pop culture question: What is the funniest, best-written show on network television?

The correct answer is The Office, and don't bother emailing to tell me that the British version or some atrocity such as "My Wife And Kids" is better. This is personal. I'm pretty sure the actress who plays Pam is channeling my wife. My wife is pretty sure she married the real-life Dwight Schrute.

Q. Stick to sports, Finn, and answer this: Do you have any crackpot theories regarding the Sox that are rattling around in that whistle-pea you call a brain?

Why, yes, yes I do. Two, actually. 1) A rejuvenated Theo will return to the Red Sox as team president when Larry Lucchino leaves to join the new ownership in Washington, perhaps even this season. 2) The Sox will not trade Manny unless they get full value in return, having come to the belief that the supposedly self-inflicted personal problems he is going through might just make him finally grow up.

Q. Manny? Maturing? You are a crackpot. How about using some common sense on this one: Johnny Damon. Staying? Going? Turning to the dark side?

Staying, for something like four years and $44 million, perhaps with an option for a fifth year. Scott Boras, Damon's devil of an agent, is getting predictable. He's trying to pull the same sleight-of-hand negotiating tricks he used when Jason Varitek was on the market last year: Claiming there's a "mystery team" that has made a lucrative "secret" offer, pulling the puppet strings in encouraging his player to praise another club in hopes of getting the Red Sox to up the ante, asking for the moon so when his client receives the stars it won't look so ridiculous. Apparently, though, the Sox are the only team to make Damon a confirmed offer. After a few more days of Boras's reindeer games, the strong hunch here is that Damon, who wants to stay despite his transparent recent praise of the Yankees, will take it.

Q. So is that why the Yankees are close to bringing back Bernie Williams and his mummified remains for a 298th season in pinstripes?

I think they want Bernie back because they've got those awesome monuments beyond the outfield fence, and Steinbrenner thought it would be cool to have a statue in front of it. Actually, we're glad to see Williams return to the Yankees for a couple reasons: 1) His skills are shot, so he makes a great Yankee from a Red Sox fan's perspective. 2) Williams really is what all the Joeys in the Bronx bleachers like to call a True Yankee, and it would be a shame to see stay one year too long as, say, a Seattle Mariner. Do I need to remind you of how painful it was to watch Dwight Evans end his career with the Baltimore Orioles?

Q. Did the Blue Jays really spend $102 million on A.J. Burnett and B.J. Ryan?

Yup. Is Canada a great country or what?

Q. What's Roger Clemens going to do now that the Astros can't sign him until May 1?

1) Pitch for his favorite country in the World Baseball Classic in March: Go Texas!
2) Help his wife hock this overpriced junk, probably by forcing the K kids into sweatshop labor.
3) Continue to work on his "art" projects, provided he gets that fancy 64-count box of crayons for Christmas.
4) Call Steinbrenner and tell him he wants to end his career in pinstripes, and he really, really means it this time.

Q. Why is there a single tear trickling down Buckethead's cheek?

Because we're still littering? Because he knew he shouldn't have brought his favorite pipe to Michael Irvin's house for Thanksgiving? No, and . . . well, maybe. But we think the reason Buckethead is inconsolable these days because while Buckethead made his legend as a Maine Guide, he just loves his Red Sox, and like many of us, he's terribly saddened by the systematic dismantling of the "Idiots." This fraternity of admirable, talented and damn-near crazy ballplayers came together in the spring of 2003 and promptly delivered three wildly successful, wildly enjoyable seasons. And now their nothing but days gone by. We knew the end was coming - they looked worn-out and weary against the superior White Sox, and three-fourths of the infield plus Damon are free-agents - but that doesn't mean we're not permitted melancholy feelings when we see Bill Mueller become an L.A. Dodger, or read Gordon Edes's eloquent tip o' the cowboy hat to Kevin Millar. It may have been time for them to go, but that doesn't mean they won't be missed.

As for today's Completely Random Baseball Card:

Dewey as an Oriole? Just. Plain. Wrong. It's as disconcerting as seeing Cowens as a Buck, Law as a Jet, and Orr as a bleepin' Blackhawk.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Hazy shade of winter

Let's just make sure our scorecard is correct here. As the Red Sox descend on the winter meetings in Dallas, a four-day wheelin' and dealin' whirlwind that will require difficult decisions to shape the long-term direction of the franchise, they still have no Replacement For Theo, but instead will unleash four front office "representatives" with varying degrees of clout who will work on deals, pool their knowledge, and ultimately answer to the grand poo-bah, Larry Lucchino. That's how it works, right? Sure seems to be the Sox' plan, and while it's hardly the perfect situation considering all that's at stake, I suppose it beats the hell out of having an uninspiring retread like Jim Beattie or Jim Bowden running the show. Bill Lajoie, Jed Hoyer, Ben Cherrington and Craig Shipley - a.k.a. the Gang of Four - seem entirely competent, and you almost hope one of them ultimately gets Theo's old gig, for the sake of continuity if nothing else. But just in case they're feeling a bit overwhelmed by it all, we at TATB are here to help. No, no, don't applaud - helping is what we do. And with that bit of silliness, here is our must-list of four priorities for the Gang of Four:

1. Re-sign Johnny Damon. His agent, the deplorable Scott Boras, is selling him as some heaven-sent combination of Rickey Henderson and Brad Pitt, a world-class leadoff hitter who doubles as a marquee idol. Boras even claims, in the missive he has given to prospective Damon suitors, that Dunkin' Donuts latte sales skyrocketed after Damon began endorsing them. Yes, the crass marketing of Johnny Damon Superstar is all a little much, but his impact on the baseball field can't be ignored: He is a crucial, perhaps irreplaceable, cog in the Red Sox offensive machine, an ideal leadoff hitter skilled with patience, pop, and enough savvy on the basepaths to score over 100 runs eight years running. We all know he throws like his humerus is broken, but his glove and range is better than average in center field. And even when he's injured, as was for much of last season, he plays with reckless abandon, crashing into the wall in pursuit of a Web Gem in a manner that is the perfect amalgam of Freddie Lynn's grace and Yaz's courage. The truth is, the Red Sox need Johnny Damon, and while his request for a seven-year deal is asinine, I hope they have the sense to offer him a short deal for a high annual salary - say three years and $43 million. For all of his agent's bluster, I have a hunch that Damon would accept it. He has said all along that staying in Boston is his first priority, and I believe realizes he needs the Sox as much as the Sox need him. While he's already established as a beloved icon here - whether he stays or goes, we'll always have Game 7, '04 ALCS - his lovable caveman image isn't going to sell overpriced coffee in Anaheim.

2. Re-sign Mike Myers. Sure, the lefthanded reliever is a specialist to the extreme - he pitched just 37.3 innings last season on a team desperate for competent relief - but he's worth keeping around for one reason: He does his one job very well. Myers held lefthanded hitters to a .198 average last season, allowing just 15 hits to them all season. Simply put, he drives lefties mad with his odd arm angles and slow-slower-slowest breaking balls; I'm pretty sure he made Garret Anderson weep openly at least once last season. The Yankees reportedly have interest in signing him (guess that Alan Embree thing didn't quite work out), and the Sox should make him a priority before the Evil Empire can completely bribe and/or brainwash him. Put it this way: Wouldn't you rather see Myers spinning his sidewinding slop to Hideki Matsui than David Ortiz next season? Thought so.

3. Don't trade David Wells to the Padres unless relief pitching is part of the return package. As currently constituted, the Sox have seven starting pitchers worthy of the five rotation spots: Josh Beckett, Curt Schilling, Wells, Tim Wakefield, Bronson Arroyo, Jonathan Papelbon and the quivering shell of Matt Clement. While Arroyo could - and perhaps should - move to the bullpen, the Sox are still expected to deal from their alleged surplus. Wells, who has requested a trade to the West Coast, is the most likely to go, and a number of rumors have kicked around involving his hometown San Diego Padres, for whom he pitched in 2004. The most recent had 34-year-old second baseman Mark Loretta coming to the Sox in return for Boomer. That wouldn't be the worst trade the Sox could make - Loretta had a quietly sensational '04 season before injuries interrupted him in '05 - but I worry that the Sox are undervaluing Wells. For all of the drama, the Fat Man did win 15 games, and there's something to be said for a lefty that can thrive at Fenway. If the Sox can get Loretta and, say, reliever Akinori Otsuka, well, maybe then it's bye-bye, Boomer. All things considered though, I'd prefer the Sox keep Wells around and instead pursue the intriguing Clement-and-Trot Nixon-for-Bobby Abreu deal that the Philly papers are pushing. Now that's a trade that would make the Sox better. What a notion, huh? Shouldn't improving the ballclub - and not fulfilling someone's trade request - be the primary intention?

Which brings us to the all-important No. 4 . . .

4. Keep Manny, dammit. So tell me again why the Sox are so intent on trading the savant slugger. It can't be his contract. His three-year, $57-million contract suddenly is bordering on a bargain considering the ridiculous sums far less accomplished players such as B.J. Ryan, A.J. Burnett and Rafael Furcal are commanding on the current market. It can't be his production. He's among the most prolific righthanded power hitters of any generation, and if you demand the stats to back this up, you haven't been paying attention and, frankly, aren't worth wasting an argument on. It can't be the overwhelming offers the Sox are receiving. The Angels are offering rickety Darin Erstad (he of the $8 million-plus salary and worse '05 production than Kevin Millar) and ancient Steve Finley (the old-timers say he was sick in the dead ball era) and a handful of their second-tier prospects. The Mets, whose GM, Omar Minaya, supposedly covets Manny to the point of obsession, are offering a middling package headed by Lastings Milledge, their most prized outfield prospect since Alex Escobar. Now, I'm not saying the majority of can't-miss kids actually miss, but if you know what Alex Escobar is doing these days, you are either Momma Escobar or Peter Gammons. You just don't trade Manny Ramirez, First-Ballot Hall of Famer, for could-bes and never-weres and Lastings Freakin' Milledges. You just don't. It can't be his request to be traded. Lucchino himself has said that Manny has asked to be dealt in each of the four seasons this ownership group has run the team, and Manny probably sent his agent into Dan Duquette's office once or twice as well. By now, the Sox should know how to handle this: They tell Manny they will shop him around, do so with little intent of trading him unless David Wright or Brandon Wood comes in return, ultimately hold on to him while telling him they did their best, then sit back and watch as he and Papi spend the summer putting on a fireworks show over Fenway. To be blunt: If they do trade Manny for a couple of wooden nickels and a handful of magic beans, forget the first four items we've listed here, because none of it will help the ' 06 Sox overcome their blockheaded blockbuster.

As for today's Completely Random Baseball Card:

That's Barry Bonds? No way. I don't believe it. Look at those twig arms, desperately in need of some flaxseed oil. C'mon, that's really Oddibe McDowell, right?

Friday, December 02, 2005

TATB Notebook: 12.02.05

Touching all the bases while wondering if the Red Sox will sue Josh Beckett for the 2003 World Series ball, too . . .

I don't spend too many words in this space on college football, but my Globe gig requires that I pay attention, oh, at least as closely as a nitwit like Lee Corso does, and so I can say this with the utmost certainty: USC's Reggie Bush is the most electrifying college player to come along since Rocket Ismail, and he has the talent and tools to have 10 times the pro career. A skeptic might think those increasingly frequent comparisons to Gale Sayers are based in hyperbole, but after watching Bush's 513-yard tour-de-force against Fresno State, this skeptic doesn't. He might be that good. Seriously. Even Sayers reportedly has said so. Here's hoping the Jets win a few (after losing to the Pats Sunday) and play their way out of contention for the top pick in the NFL Draft. I don't want to see Bush, a No. 1 pick so obvious even the Jets couldn't screw it up, running wild in the AFC East for the next dozen years.

While Michael Irvin's "Oh, that? That's my brother's friend's cousin's uncle's fiance's nephew's pipe, officer" alibi has more holes than the Patriots' defense, I wouldn't entirely blame him for falling off the weed wagon, if that's what happened here. If I had to work with Stuart Scott, I'd probably turn to drugs, too.

Speaking of DJ Stewy Boo-Yeah: After catching his spoken word "poetry" narration over the highlights for what I'm pretty sure was an NFL game the other night, I've spent the last few days wondering if rhyming is a sign of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. It was so jaw-droppingly awful - and Adult Urkel was so smugly serious about it - that I found myself more annoyed with his hubris than humored by his stunning lack of self-awareness. I fully expect him to change his name to Maya AngelStu by the end of the season.

Shrewd move by Joe Torre, throwing it out there that Derek Jeter might make a good center fielder, then when the story gets the big type in the headlines, he claims he was misunderstood and was just tossing around some crazy ideas. Torre knew exactly what he was doing: floating a trial balloon. The Yankees have obviously considered this; Torre was trying to see how it would be received, not only by the public, but by the player himself. If Jeter had come out and said, "Mr. Torre, although my identity is as a shortstop, well, I am the captain, and gosh darn it, I'll move to center for the betterment of the team," you can be damn sure his mighty intangibles and truly incredible instincts on popups would be situated between Matsui and Sheffield in the Yankee outfield next season. Then, A-Rod would be back where he belongs, and a capable pro such as Joe Randa or (say it ain't so) Bill Mueller could be signed to play third base, and the Yankees would actually do something that makes sense for once. Instead, they are contemplating trading for Juan Pierre, who is a season or two away from being Tony Womack.

I'd suggest signing this, but I suspect the more publicity it gets, the more determined Larry Lucchino will be to trade him. Personally, I fully expect Manny to be an Angel in the next 10 days, with the rotting carcass of Steve Finley, the washed-up remnants of Darin Erstad, and two or three supposed prospects coming to Boston in return. And then I will puke.

The only contract more ridiculous that three years and $17 million the Yankees gave fireballing headcase Kyle Farnsworth-Whitson-Rogers-Weaver-Wright-Pavano is the three years and $18 million the Phillies shelled out for 76-year-old Tom Gordon. The crazy money being spent on relievers in free agency is making the Sox's acquisition of Guillermo Mota look better and better.

Words to mark: Ty Law will be starting at cornerback for the Patriots in next season's opener. And about that other best old ex-friend coming to Foxboro this Sunday: Eight years and 10,273 yards later after he jilted New England, I still think of Curtis Martin as a Patriot first and foremost. I doubt Patriots history would be better had the Krafts had the good sense to pay Martin before they infuriated him by giving priority to Max Lane and Todd Rucci - hell, after three Super Bowls in four years, it's hard to lament anything in the past. But it certainly would be different. I, for one, could have lived without the Terry Allen Experience.

Monty Beisel's whiny verbal altercation with Providence Journal reporter Tom Curran got a lot of play in the media, particularly considering every reporter who has ever stepped inside a locker room has found themselves in a similar confrontation at one time or another. It's not like Beisel tried to hit him. Which, come to think of it, is probably a good thing: Curran surely would have cut back, left Beisel sprawling on the locker room carpet, and run for an extra 20 yards.

How Dungy-esque and Manning-like it would be if the Colts went undefeated in the regular season and winless in the playoffs. I say Seattle knocks them off the day before Christmas, and if that doesn't happen, the '72 Dolphins take the entire Indy team hostage until they are forced to forfeit a game.

Two points for the Celtics: 1) I was in hoops heaven watching Kendrick Perkins channel Paul Silas and maul his way to 19 rebounds the other night. Perkins, who has gone from fat to fit while completely transforming his body from his rookie season, has soft hands, fights for every rebound, sets a mean pick, and could give a damn about getting his touches. In other words, he's the anti-Blount, and I hope his coach starts giving him the minutes he deserves. 2) I'm not saying Dan Dickau is slow, but I suspect Doc Rivers could take him off the dribble.

I was glad to see Paul Konerko re-sign with the White Sox. He'll forever be identified with the franchise after all they accomplished this season; it's where he belonged, and it's to his credit that he realized as much, even with bigger piles of cash from the likes of Baltimore on the table. We can only hope Johnny Damon has the same sense of loyalty and history and realizes that the Red Sox are as good for him as he is for the Red Sox. As Gammons says, he's not a rock star anywhere but here.

You know it, I know it, and Jerry Jones's team of plastic surgeons know it, so why not just tell ESPN now so it can dedicate the next six weeks of programming to it and get the mind-numbing hype over with: Terrell Owens will be playing for the Dallas Cowboys next season.

Is it too soon to wonder if Tedy Bruschi will ever be Tedy Bruschi! again? The instincts are still there - he still has the uncanny knack for being in the right place to make a play - but save for a touchdown-saving pass deflection against Miami, he hasn't made many plays. And yes, I feel lousy for even mentioning this.

Trade your best player for two quarters and a dime on the dollar? It's called Bruins. Pelted in the streets, mocked in the bars . . . In all seriousness, it seems to me that Joe Thornton is a victim of unrealistic expectations. While he is a very, very good hockey player, the happy-go-lucky centerman never quite became the elite, franchise-altering superstar that his skills and early press clippings suggest he should be. Ultimately and unfairly, the notion that he was an underachiever made him an easy scapegoat when his team underachieved. Hey, Mike O'Connell and Harry Sinden having stuck around this long by blaming themselves.

Not that I hold it against my mom for giving me a prep-school sissy-boy's name, but I'm pretty sure a D'Brickashaw kicks a Chad's ass every single time.

As for today's Completely Random Baseball Card:

Here's hoping this is the year the American League's most feared hitter for the better part of a decade finally gets the call from Cooperstown. Jim Rice absolutely deserves to be a Hall of Famer, and a weak ballot (Gary DiSarcina, anyone?) combined with the backlash against this generation of chemistry-enhanced cheaters makes his candidacy as appealing as it has ever been.

* * *

TATB recently celebrated its first anniversary, and while we're not saying the birthday party was wild, let's just put it this way: we had Michael Irvin take care of the "refreshments," and our guy Buckethead woke up the next morning in an ice tub looking like this and missing a kidney. So while we recover from the festivities, we just want to take a moment to say . . . well, thanks. Year 1 was far and away more successful than we ever imagined, and that's entirely due to all of you doofuses who for some reason make this place one of your regular cyberspace stops, even when I've been AWOL from posting for a few days. Your loyalty and correspondence is greatly appreciated. You're all invited to next year's bash.