Sunday, December 31, 2006

First and 10: Patriots 40, Dirty Rotten Titans 23

1. So the Jets it is, huh? I suppose this makes it an easy week for the Felgers and Ordways of the world, who can yowl about Handshakegate and crank up the hype machine to full-throttle. Yep, we're getting the Border War matchup the banshees have desired all along . . . and the funny thing is, I suspect it's the matchup Bill Belichick would prefer as well. The Patriots are a superior team to the Jets in terms of talent and accomplishment, but given an additional week of preparation and catching the Patriots on a short week, Eric Mangini took his estranged mentor to the woodshed last time around, pulling off an upset as convincing as it was stunning. You have to figure a vengeful Belichick will make sure it won't happen again, especially given the fact that his team already knows the consequences of underestimating the Jets. Further, an optimist might argue that the Patriots are peaking at the right time - the turnover-free road victories over physically tough Tennessee and Jacksonville were encouraging to say the least, reminiscent of the way they won so many games in '03 and '04. I like this team a lot right now, and judging by his demeanor lately, I think Belichick does too. Of course, that's not going to stop him from showing them the grisly footage from the Jets' loss 20 times this week. Another loss to the Sons of Richard Todd? It's as unacceptable as it is unlikely.

2. I understand why Dick Enberg occasionally fumbles his words - god bless him, he's been blurting out his trademark "Oh, my!" since Red Grange was galloping around in a leather helmet. But what's his partner Randy Cross's excuse? He must be still suffering from post-concussion syndrome from his Niners' days or something, because he is unlistenable. He botches players names chronically, turns an anecdote into a mind-numbing miniseries (tell me again why Jeff Fisher doesn't like having the scores announced), and comes across in a joking manner that might be tolerable if it wasn't a device to mask his lack of preparation. Please come back, Phil Simms. We took you for granted, and we even promise to never again peg you with a snowball.

3. I'm still not comfortable with him being this team's de facto No. 1 wide receiver. But Reche Caldwell has convinced me that he's a worthy replacement for David Givens, and considering the piles of money that so many less productive wideouts received in free agency, you'd have to consider him perhaps the best bargain of the offseason.

4. Looks like accomplished cheap-shot artist Kevin Mawae has shared a few of his dirty tricks to his Tennessee teammates. You know a team is dirty when you come away with the impression that they're a roster full of lawless lowlifes, then realize that Skull Stompin' Albert Haynesworth wasn't even involved. Not that our own Rodney Harrison is a Lady Byng winner; there is a smidgen of irony in the fact that he was taken out by a dirty play. Of course, recognizing such irony didn't prevent me from spewing a string of expletives as Harrison writhed on the ground. He's played so well since he came back, and losing him at this point would be crushing.

5. Every time someone tries to tell you that Belichick is bloodless Xs-and-0s-spouting automaton, keep in mind that he has set aside a play in the season finale each of the past two years to give an old favorite one final moment for the highlight reel. Last year, it was Doug Flutie with the dropkick. This year, Vinny Testaverde got to throw one last touchdown pass, giving him at least one in a record 20 consecutive seasons. Ask me, such consideration makes Belichick downright sentimental.

6. Man, Ed Hochuli just kills me - the three-sizes-too-small shirt and "Welcome to the gun show" flexing when he announces a penalty is so narcissistic and transparent, I half expect that on one of these Sundays, he's going to show up shirtless, with zebra stripes painted onto his torso.

7. I suppose there's some correlation between his ascent to the starting job and the Titans' revival . . . but there is no doubt that Vince Young has a lonnngg way to go to become the quarterback the "He wins games!" mythmakers claim he already is. To borrow the words of Gil Santos: "This kid can run, but he's not so good at throwing it." Ain't that the truth - I haven't seen so many bounced screen passes since the days before Drew Bledsoe became acquainted with Mo Lewis. Ditching the Byung Hyun Kim delivery might be a place to start.

8. Adam "Pacman" Jones is a cross between Deion Sanders and Ol' Dirty Bastard. He could end up playing in a half-dozen Pro Bowls, or he could end up hosting "The Playas Ball VI: Titan Pimp!" Right now, I'd say the odds are slightly tilted toward the latter.

9. He has a nose for the end zone, always seems to get 37 inches on 3d and 1, and needs a gurney to get off the field after any run over 25 yards. Yep, I'd say Corey Dillon is morphing into Antowain Smith, and that's really not such a bad thing - hell, most aging backs turn into Marion Butts. Besides, the Patriots did win two Super Bowls with the affable Smith playing a crucial role, and Dillon, despite his creaky wheels, quietly had a very productive season, scoring 13 rushing touchdowns to tie the franchise single-season record set by some guy named Curtis Martin in 1995 and 1996. He's not what he used to be, but he's still pretty darn useful nonetheless.

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

I'm guessing he didn't win a whole hell of a lot of playoff games with the Patriots, either.

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Happy New Year's, and thanks for making this little blog so fun and rewarding. I sincerely appreciate the fact that you take a moment in your day to check in and read what we have to say. Here's hoping 2007 brings the fulfillment of all your dreams. (Quietly humming "Same Old Lang Syne" . . . you know, the kick-ass Dan Fogelberg version . . .)

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One more thing before I go pound whatever remaining Sam Adams Winter Lager we have left over from Christmas: This was probably my favorite sports column of the past year. It's a thoughtful reminder of why we became fans in the first place, and it seems appropriate now, on a day meant for new beginnings. Enjoy

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

First and 10: Patriots 24, Jaguars 21

1. Heard Belichick's taped postgame interview on 'EEI today, and it was almost disconcerting how giddy, animated, and downright chatty he was in the immediate aftermath of the victory. Hell, he even asked Steve DeOssie and Pete Sheppard for their opinions on Jack Del Rio's decision not to go for the onside kick with a little over 2 minutes remaining, and engagingly discussed his thoughts on what to do in that situation. You got the sense that Belichick was genuinely savoring clinching the AFC East, the first real fruits of his best and most challenging coaching job since the 2001 season. Better yet, you got the sense that Belichick really likes his team at the moment . . . and if he likes his team, maybe that whole four-in-six-years thing isn't as improbable as it might sometimes seem.

2. There were a lot of encouraging developments in Sunday's victory - the success of the ol' dink-and-dunk offense, the renewed discipline in terms of protecting the ball and limiting penalties - but nothing raised a Pats fan's optimism more than this: Rodney Harrison is back, baby, and an outstanding Patriots defense just got smarter, meaner, and whole lot more fun to watch. Damn, I sure missed him.

3. When Tom Brady returned to the game one play after Jaguars linebacker Clint Ingram attempted to give him the Mo Lewis treatment, you could pretty much hear an entire six-state region exhale at once. No offense to Matt Cassel, but there is not a more horrific sight for a Pats fan than watching him jog onto the field while No. 12 is writhing in pain on the turf, gripping his right arm. I'm pretty sure I saw the last six seasons flash before my eyes in the few horrifying moments that Brady was down.

4. I want to see more of Dave Thomas even when Benjamin Watson is healthy. The rookie third-rounder out of Texas was the most impressive pass-catcher on the field Sunday, and it's pretty clear that Brady has confidence in him that he doesn't yet have with players who have seen much more playing time. (See: Jackson, Chad).

5. I know his production has tailed off even when he hasn't been injured . . . but man, Laurence Maroney makes such a difference when there's a concerted effort to involve him in the offense. His game-breaking touchdown run was simply breathtaking, and I'm keeping the faith that Belichick and Josh McDaniels intend on unleashing him in the playoffs. I'm still pissed about the whole four-touches-in-second-half thing against Indy. Give him the ball 15 times in the final two quarters, and I bet the Patriots win that game.

6. Asante Samuel is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season, but if he wants to become a legitimate No. 1 cornerback, he needs to make better judgments about the when to go for the ball and when to play it safe. Of course, his reputation has been enhanced almost solely due to his eight interceptions this season, and for the free-agent-to-be, more picks probably equals more digits in the paycheck.

7. If you didn't see it, check out Mike Reiss has an insightful piece in Wednesday's Globe on the Patriots' philosophy regarding roster construction. Belichick is particularly candid, and it really puts into perspective how wise it is to prioritize depth over a roster top-heavy in high-priced talent but with several minimum-wage players filling out the bench. The most obvious example is in the defensive backfield, where the likes of Artrell Hawkins and Chad Scott have helped the Patriots survive and even thrive despite losing Eugene Wilson and Randall Gay for the season and Harrison for a prolonged stretch.

8. While it looks like the Pats are all but locked in to hosting Denver in the first round, I find myself holding out hope for another showdown with the Jets. Eric Mangini had two weeks to prepare for the Pats last time around, and given his intimate knowledge of the Patriot Way, he made the most of it. He won't be so fortunate again. In Round 3 of the renewed "border war," the Patriots will have the prep-time advantage - I can't imagine they're wasting much thought on the Titans this week - and you know the revenge factor will give Belichick additional motive.

9. I don't know a Pats fan that wasn't pulling for Romeo Crennel to succeed in Cleveland, given that his opportunity to be an NFL head coach was long overdue. But now that the Browns are beyond hopeless and his job is in serious jeopardy, I find myself hoping that he'll make his way back to Foxboro next season. By all accounts Dean Pees has done a heck of a job with New England's defense, but Crennel is as good as it gets. Bet Mangini would love to have him in New York, too.

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

Jacksonville rookie flash Maurice Jones-Drew reminds me so much of Brooks, the former Chargers and Bengals dynamo, and if you don't remember him, trust me when I say that it's high praise. Brooks was the short, speedy type like Jones-Drew, and he had huge legs and packed the hardest per-pound wallop of any back of his time. Brooks is one of few backs to continue improving into their 30s. Not a bad back for Jones-Drew to emulate, all in all.

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Saturday, December 23, 2006

A partridge in a pear tree? What kind of lame gift is that?

Ten free minutes for me, 10 free lords a-leaping for you . . .

1. I don't get why so many words have been wasted on Tom Brady's Pro Bowl "snub." Peyton Manning is having a far better year, Carson Palmer has slightly better numbers, and Philip Rivers has slightly inferior numbers but quarterbacks the league's best team. They are all deserving choices. Granted, Brady has had to deal with more adversity than all of them put together, but I think anyone who his assessing his performance honestly would say this hasn't been one of his best individual seasons. Oh, he's been good, and god forbid we ever find out what life is like without him . . . but for whatever reason, he hasn't been great. Had he been chosen for the Pro Bowl, it would have been based on reputation rather than anything he's accomplished on the field in 2006. Anyway, I can't imagine he gives a damn or pays more than lip-service to the contrived "they're disrespecting us again" angle. Brady's priority has always been a certain other Bowl, the one that matters. (By the way, am I seeing things, or is that a Colts hat he's wearing in that photo?)

2. We should have a better clue as to the legitimacy of the Patriots' postseason aspirations after today's business trip to Jacksonville, where the Jack Del Rio's bipolar Jaguars tend to perform as if they're the '78 Steelers. While today's game is expected to be a street brawl - the Jags like to bring the pain - at least the Patriots aren't going into this one undermanned: My man Mike Reiss's trained eyes tell us that Laurence Maroney and Rodney Harrison appear ready to defy the injury report and play despite their questionable status, and while Vince Wilfork and Ben Watson will be observers rather than participants for the second straight week, there are encouraging signs that this injury-ravaged team is regaining some semblance of health just in time for the playoffs. If only they can just get through this one with a win . . . and no more personnel losses.

3. Two leftover thoughts on the Iverson trade. 1) I give A.I. and George Karl a month, tops, before they are on the verge of re-enacting Sprewell-Carlesimo. They're two of the most stubborn mules in the NBA, and Iverson's reckless/fearless crossover-and-chuck game will quickly offend Karl's Tar Heel sensibilities. 2. It's apparent the Celtics could have put a better package together - Joe Smith, Andre Miller, and two No. 1s is really the best Billy King could do? - but with the flashes Al Jefferson is showing, I'm glad Danny Ainge resisted the temptation. Call me a fool, but I believe in these kids. 3. 'Melo and Iverson together? Now this should be a reality show.

4. A couple of the more prominent stats wizards are predicting a major breakout for Manny Delcarmen next season, based on his improved K/BB rate in '06, and it did seem like he was making significant progress before injuring his hand and losing command of this curveball. It's fair to say he's the most likely of the Sox' unproven cadre young pitchers to contribute immediately next season, and for that reason I hope the rumors are false and he's not the pitcher who would head to the Nationals in a Wily Mo Pena-Chad Cordero swap.

5. If there is one small blessing regarding Paul Pierce's two-week injury hiatus, it's that Doc Rivers will have no choice but to play the electric (if clueless) Gerald Green until The Truth's wobbly wheel is healthy again. Judging by the Sixers debacle, things could get ugly during Pierce's absence, but at least Green will keep it interesting with a SportsCenter highlight or two.

6. File this under Stupidest Damn Thing I've Read All Year, NFL Division. It comes from a recent article by The Associated Press's Dave Goldberg on the Colts' pathetic defense. In attempting to put the six-time On Paper Super Bowl champion's flaws into context, the nation NFL writer for the nation's largest wire service offers this nugget of idiocy:

In the end, it’s just another reason why there are no dominant teams in the NFL and haven’t been for a decade.

I was so stunned when I first read it that I immediately had to read it again, just to make sure I didn't miss an addendum or a qualifier or some friggin' explanation. Something such as, ". . . excluding, of course, the three-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, who won 21 consecutive games, 10 straight playoff games, went 34-4 over two seasons, and must be regarded as the first true dynasty since the early '90s Dallas Cowboys." Alas, such a sentence never appeared in Goldberg's article. Weird, huh? He must have hit the delete key by accident or something, because so national football writer would be so brazen or oblivious as to completely disregard the Patriots' accomplishments . . . right?

7. The three best running backs I've ever seen, in order. 1) Earl Campbell (He ran like a pissed-off bull at Pamplona, which is probably why his prime was abbreviated - he took more kill shots than Kevin Faulk.) 2. Walter Payton (My memories of Sweetness remain so vivid, I can't really comprehend that he's been gone seven years now.) 3. LaDainian Tomlinson (If he makes a champion out of an accomplished gagger like Marty Schottenheimer, he immediately ascends to the top of the list.) Honorable mention goes to Bo Jackson, who was the greatest Bosworth-abusing combination of power, speed, charisma, and video-game invincibility we've ever seen, but was gone before you can say "Bo knows hip replacement."

8. It seems you've come to expect an obligatory "The Office" reference, so here's a YouTube clip of a recent Craig Ferguson appearance by the Official Muse of TATB, Wife Excluded. I'm searching for a "now that's a Golden Globes nominee" joke here, but frankly, I'm just not finding it.

9. I've come around on the benefits of this transaction, but it simply cannot be a good omen that J.D. Drew is ready to go on the disabled list before he even signs his contract.

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

I suppose it was a better idea football-wise to bring in that roided-up idiot punter Sauerbrun, but I was hoping the Pats would sign Landeta after working him out this week. The dude is ancient. He's been around so long, he actually played in the USFL, though he really first made his name for dating Donna Rice after the Gary Hart scandal. Told you he was ancient.

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I'm hoping to write during or after today's Pats game, but I have a feeling I may be the designated Christmas Eve Errand Boy in the TATB household. So if we don't cross cyberpaths again until the New Year, I just want to offer my sincerest thanks for making this fly-by-late-night operation something I'm proud of and genuinely enjoy working on. All you readers, emailers, commenters, sportos, motorheads, sluts, bloods, geeks, wasteoids, dweebies, and $*%&heads make it worthwhile. You're all righteous dudes. So happy holidays you and yours, and be careful out there. You never know where Dontrelle Willis might be peeing on a car.

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Sunday, December 17, 2006

Saturday night's all right for fighting

Quick thoughts while wondering if Bridget Moynihan will get "Moving the Chains" from Santa . . .

• Carmelo Anthony is probably my NBA favorite player to watch. His image may be hip-hop, but his offensive game is decidedly old-school, especially his gorgeous high-arcing midrange jumper. And his immense talent is exceeded only by his charisma - the kid's got the easiest smile since Magic. So it is with some semblance of disappointment that I must admit the truth: Anthony a damn fool, and I put it that mildly only because I'm trying to avoid language that some might find offensive. The evidence that there's something sinister behind Anthony's smile has been mounting for some time now: His appearance in the underground "Stop snitching" video in his old Baltimore neighborhood was alarming at best, and he's had his share of maturity issues with coaches and teammates in Denver. But last night was the final piece of evidence necessary to convince this jury. There simply is no justification for his brawl-escalating sucker punch of the Knicks' Mardy Collins last night. A player of his stature should be above that. It's another black-eye for the league in the lingering wake of the unforgettable Detroit-Indiana brawl, it's going to devastate Anthony's when David Stern nails with at least a 10-game suspension, and it ruins what's left of his reputation as one of the league's signature players. What a fool. What a shame.

• I know they've won five in a row, and the never-ending Iverson rumors seem to have unified them as a team. Still, after watching Greg Oden do his man-against-boys thing today in Ohio State's decimation of Cincinnati, I'd just as soon the Celtics tank it, pray the ping-pong balls bounce their way, and position themselves to land the NBA's next great center. He's that good.

• My record of predicting Patriots games this season is about as pathetic as the Texans' won-lost record, so take this with a shaker full of salt, but . . . well, I'm nervous as hell about today's game. I worry that Vince Wilfork's absence will leave a massive running lane through the heart of the Patriots' defense. I worry that Andre Johnson will find the Patriots' decimated defensive backfield to his liking. I worry that David Carr will play at least as well as his fellow Class of '02 draft bust Joey Harrington did a week ago. And I worry about the ability of Tom Brady and the Misfits to move the ball with any effectiveness if Laurence Maroney and Ben Watson are in street clothes. Do I think the Pats will win? Even in their wounded and weary state, I'd never bet against them against a subpar opponent. But this game isn't going to be the automatic "W" it appeared to be when we first glanced at the schedule, and frankly, they could really use an easy one right about now..

• If you ever wondered why Gabe Kapler was so popular at Fenway despite his feeble production, well, we're going to pretend it's not because the chicks dug his pecs. Instead, we like to believe the reason he probably accumulated more standing ovations than homers in his Sox career is because Kapler understood and appreciated what it meant to wear the Red Sox uniform, and articulated that understanding and appreciation remarkably well. Consider his thoughtful comments upon announcing his retirement to take a minor league managing gig in the Sox system:

"I have been thinking about this transition for many years, and believe this to be the right time. This will afford me the opportunity to make an impact in the lives of young men, not only to help them develop as baseball players, but also more importantly, as human beings. I had ample opportunity to continue my playing career, but feel that I can give so much more as a manager and a leader. I feel this decision will be extraordinarily fulfilling to me personally and professionally and look forward to tackling the challenges that lie ahead. I am ecstatic that the Red Sox, which I think is the best organization in baseball, believe in me enough to give me this opportunity. I see the minor leagues not only as a place where I can learn and develop, but I'm going to be rewarded emotionally and spiritually. To have an extreme impact on somebody's life can be much more powerful than hitting a home run."

Yup, I'm pretty sure that's exactly the way Casey Stengel would have put it. Something tells me Kapler is going to do all right for himself in his new career path.

• Man, Gerry Callahan's snide browbeating of Julio Lugo a few mornings ago sure did an effective job of turning me into a Lugo fan. Someone needs to tell the 'EEI zeppelins that Lugo was found not guilty of assaulting his now-ex-wife, and I'd say it's a credit to his character that he was given custody of their children. This is not Wil Cordero, people. I'm not sure why the Sox are so enthralled with him as a ballplayer, but the least we can do is give the person a chance.

• I'm still wondering who's going to be coming out the 'pen with a one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth, but for now I'll give Theo Epstein his props for culling together a relatively deep relief corps by buying low on some previously successful pitchers. Brendan Donnelly likely would be voted Most Likely to Be Found With Sandpaper Taped To His Glove should such a poll be put to his peers, but he's been a very effective setup guy for the Angels through the years, and consistent middle relievers (that's practically an oxymoron) usually cost more than the likes of Phil Seibel. As for J.C. Romero, he's got control problems, both in terms of stuff and temperament, but he's been overpowering in the past, and even during his struggles with the Angels last season, he still retired lefty hitters at around an 80 percent clip. He's worthy of at least a look, and he could end up being a bargain.

• It's funny, but I seem to get just as many comments and emails about "The Office" nowadays as I do about the Sox and Pats. At first I wasn't quite sure what to make of it - the last thing I want is to turn it into my own personal "The O.C./90210," if you get my drift - but I'm pleased to know that so many other people are into this brilliantly written and acted show; it's criminally underrated, both by the Nielsen boxes and the awards shows. (When will John Krasinski get some respect for his nuanced performance as heartbroken good-guy Jim? Or how about an Emmy nod for Rainn Wilson, who becomes Dwight Schrute? And I'm guessing you know how our heart races for the radiant Jenna Fischer, who plays Pam with an irresistible balance of sweetness and subversiveness.) This week's episode, "A Benihana Christmas," was as pitch-perfect as any in Season 3, from Dwight's Christmas miracle . . . to Michael's "bold" Photoshop blunder . . . to Jim's revealing pep-talk . . . to Michael "marking" the waitress . . . to Karen and Pam teaming up to take down Angela. This show is so consistently, gut-bustingly hilarious, I almost forget about the underlying theme of loneliness. You might even say it gives me goosebumps.

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Friday, December 15, 2006

Fever pitch

It was the great unanswered question of this Red Sox offseason: Will Daisuke Matsuzaka call Fenway Park home in 2007? And now that it has been answered with a resounding "yes," an affirmation that can be heard all the way to the heart of the Pacific Rim, and now that we've tracked the flight plan of John Henry's plane on Sons of Sam Horn, cheered the would-be ace's arrival on the tarmac, watched every last minute of the "Matsuzaka Marathon" and the surreal press conference on NESN, and wondered just what he makes of all of this, here are a few more questions and answers regarding the new No. 18 in your program:

Did Theo Epstein and the Sox front office handle this as flawlessly as it appears? Let's put it this way: This entire situation has restored my wavering faith in this front office. Make no mistake, Theo Epstein, Larry Lucchino and the rest played the game brilliantly, from beginning to end. They targeted Matsuzaka as the pitcher they simply had to have this offseason, blew the dumbstruck Yankees and everyone else out of the water with the eye-popping posting bid, realized they had all the leverage and held their ground despite Scott Boras's transparent but effective make-'em-sweat negotiating machinations, and ultimately signed a 26-year old pitcher whom everyone in baseball likes (more on that in a second) to a six-year deal for an annual average salary that is more than $2 million less than that of career mediocrity Gil Meche. Yeah, I'd say they handled it flawlessly. I haven't felt this good about this management team since October, 2004.

Will he live up to the Japanese Pedro billing, will he be the second coming of the Fat *$&#@ Toad, or will he be something in between? Let's get something straight right away: he will not be another Pedro. Petey's stretch of dominance from '98-'00 was a once-in-a-fan's-lifetime gift from the sports gods, and it's not fair to ask anyone to live up to that standard. Now, with that disclaimer out of the way . . . I'm convinced he's going to be very good, as in Cy Young-candidate-good, and I believe that for this reason: Even when those in the know around baseball were taken aback by the Sox's enormous posting bid, no one - and I mean no one - questioned whether Matsuzaka was a worthwhile investment. I am yet to hear or read comments from a scout or an insider with first-person familiarity with Matsuzaka who does not believe he's going to be an outstanding major league pitcher immediately. From what I've seen (thanks, YouTube) and heard, he looks like a young Mike Mussina, but with a better fastball, and while that's not Pedro territory, you're damned right it's high praise. Man, I cannot wait to watch this kid throw the baseball.

Was there a specific point during the negotiations when you became certain a deal would happen? When ESPN's Steve Phillips said it wouldn't. Seriously. How did that boob-with-a-pulpit ever get a GM gig? He must have nudie pictures of the owner groping Mr. Met or something. Actually, as I wrote a few days, I thought this was going to happen all along, despite the tension and posturing by both sides during the negotiations. A deal simply made sense for everyone involved: The Sox clearly were sincere in their desire of the player and were willing to pay a reasonable price, Matsuzaka has hungered to pitch in the majors for a few years now and had no intention of returning to Japan for another season, the financially strapped Seibu ballclub had already announced how it was allocating the posting fee and may or may not have been in cahoots with the Sox regarding a threat to send Matsuzaka to the minors if he returned, and Boras needed to make a deal or risk losing credibility with a Japanese public that does not look upon greed as favorably as does a lizard-skinned baseball agent. Despite all the countdown-clock drama, the signing was inevitable.

What's the Japanese word for "guts"? To put it another way, can he handle the pressure of Boston? Ah, the question every self-important TV talking head is oh-so-seriously contemplating these days. We're only going to say this once, so listen up, all you vacant hairdos and Jim Rome wannabes: Matsuzaka became a national icon in Japan when he was in high school; he's carried the weight of a nation on his right shoulder for eight years, and despite the pressure, he somehow managed to emerge as the premier pitcher in the land. Something tells me he's going to be just fine handling the weight of Red Sox Nation. As for the melodramatic overkill of the last few days? He's used to it; I worry more for his teammates, who are in for a claustrophobic surprise when they realize how many Japanese media will be cramming into their clubhouse every day. But given what he's put up with already, a few bleacher blowhards and yowling ninnies like Gary Tanguay aren't going to affect him, though it probably helps that he doesn't speak much English. (I did love Shaughnessy's suggestion that Matsuzaka throw out his AM radio. Heaven knows I should do the same.)

Why is Doug Mirabelli gently weeping into his chicken parm? Because yesterday was supposed to be his day, dammit. And he didn't even get a police escort this time! You can bet Dr. Charles Steinberg will be hearing about this. You do not treat the world's most famous .193-hitting, 36-year-old backup catcher this way without having hell to pay!

Did Glenn Ordway, in the rare moments when he wasn't instigating a catfight between vapid Steve Burton and disingenuous Dale Arnold today, actually stumble upon a great idea? Shockingly, yes, when he suggested NESN should air a handful of Matsuzaka's Japanese League games so fans could have a chance to become familiar with him. It's a shrewd idea to feed our baseball jones while filling out those blase winter programming blocks, and I'd be surprised if Tom Werner hadn't already begun looking into it. Come to think of it, Ordway probably lifted the idea from him.

As for today's Completely Random Baseball Card:

Speaking of Ordway, judging by his pronunciation, I'm pretty sure he thinks this guy is Matsuzaka's agent. It's Bor-ASS, Glennie. You'd think he'd be familiar with the second syllable.

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

First and 10: Dolphins 21, Patriots 0

1. In the immediate aftermath of Sunday's debacle, I was annoyed (okay, pissed) at what I'd witnessed. I was convinced the Patriots were setting us up for a one-and-done cameo in the playoffs, and I had the urge to write a dynasty's obituary. Instead, I chose not to write at all, giving myself a few days to sort it all out and try to put the franchise's current state in proper perspective. Well, those days have obviously passed, and so here's where I think they stand: The Patriots, thinner depth-wise than in most years and crippled by more injuries than Colonel Potter's 4077th, are not an elite team anymore, just one of a number of good but flawed teams trying to prove it's more contender than pretender - just like everyone other than San Diego, in other words. The days of expecting every Sunday to bring certain victory are gone, and to be honest, I'm okay with that: a sports fan with a sense of entitlement is an unbecoming sight, and anyone who survive Rod Rust and Victor Kiam, among other eras and errors, knows a Patriots team with a 9-4 record is something not to be taken for granted. And yet, there's no denying that recent history has heightened our hopes, and in that regard it's disheartening to realize that a team that has so exceeded even our wildest expectations the last five seasons is suddenly trending in the wrong direction. Consider this: We like to hang our hats on the fact that the Belichick Patriots are traditionally beasts in December, that they always improve this time of year. But now we're looking at three straight weeks and four out of five in which they've played like a bumbling, second-tier NFC team. They're committing penalties like they're the Oakland Raiders in disguise, and they turn the ball over way too often for a team with grand aspirations. I hate to say it, but it seems they're getting worse, and I can't believe I'm saying that at this point in the season. Sure, maybe they'll find their mojo against lowly Houston, and maybe they'll pin down Jacksonville and Tennessee just the way the Jaguars and Titans did to the Colts, and maybe they'll enter the postseason with a little bit of momentum, the confidence of knowing they can beat anyone on a given Sunday, and wisdom of a three-time former champion. But right now, any dreams of a return trip to Miami in February have to be tempered by the reality of this gruesome first visit. The Patriots have a long way to go to get there again.

2. Yes, Deion Branch shot his way out of town, but only an idiot or Fred Smerlas (synonymous, I know) would dispute the fact that the Patriots would be a much better team at this hour had the Patriots found a way to satisfy dependable ol' No. 83. He's dearly missed, for unlike every receiver on this current roster, he could get open against quality cornerbacks and tight coverage consistently, and anyone who denies that isn't being honest.

3. Ellis Hobbs is so far in Belichick's doghouse, not even Doug Gabriel can see him. I'm curious what his transgression was, other than jumping around like a Chris Canty-esque fool every time he makes a marginally good play.

4. If Vince Wilfork is down for any significant length of time - and apparently, he was hobbling around on his redwood legs with a pronounced limp Monday - I fear the Patriots' run defense will begin to resemble that of 2002, when legendary windbag Steve Martin spent his Sundays flailing around and planning his next interview as ballcarrier after ballcarrier whizzed on by.

5. I refuse to believe the Patriots could do no better for a Josh Miller replacement at punter than Ken (But I'm A Magnificent Holder!) Walter. He's horrible, he was horrible the last time he was here, and there simply has to be a better alternative out there. His return makes no sense except from the perspective that they wanted a reliable holder for Stephen Gostkowski. Which, frankly, is an ass-backward way to choose a punter.

6. The more footage I saw of Maurice Jones-Drew, Fred Taylor and the rest of the Jaguars stampeding of the fraudulent Colts, the more annoyed I became that Laurence Maroney didn't get 25 carries, minimum, against Indy earlier this season. Ask me, Josh McDaniels has a long way to go to prove he's worthy of his OC title.

7. Matt Light is to Jason Taylor as Max Lane was to Reggie White. A human turnstile, a minor nuisance, a speed bump on the way to the quarterback. Man, what a whuppin'. Belichick wasn't exaggerating - Taylor might be the most dominating defender in the NFL this season. He was reminiscent of another Taylor, one who used to wear No. 56 for the Giants.

8. Speaking of Taylor, the Dolphins swiped him in the third round of the 1997 NFL Draft, 73d overall. The Patriots' picks up until that point: Canty, Brandon Mitchell, and Sedrick Shaw. Bust, journeyman, bust. Bobby Grier was something, wasn't he? (One more note: Mike Vrabel went later in that third round, to Pittsburgh . . . two picks after the Pats selected the long-forgotten Chris Carter.)

9. I miss the days when Tedy Bruschi made game-changing plays.

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

Hey, look - it's a Patriots tight end who actually held onto the ball once in a while!

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As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly

Ten free minutes for me, 10 free incarcerated Bengals for you . . .

1. Allen Iverson, guard, Boston Celtics? I reluctantly approve such a notion, if only for entertainment's sake; the Answer's reckless/relentless style of play would be a treat to watch up close, though I fear all the lumps his scrawny body has absorbed through the years will lead to an accelerated decline. There is one caveat to my approval, however: If Gerald Green's name comes up in any discussion with the Sixers, I plead with Danny Ainge to hang up the phone and wait for Billy King to humbly call back with a more reasonable request. They can have Delonte West, Sebastian Telfair, and even Big Al if his exclusion is a deal-breaker. Just don't give up Green. He has rare physical talent, a picturesque jump shot, and you can see he's figuring it out with each minute of playing time Doc Rivers awards him. I'd rather watch him grow into an elite talent than watch a current elite talent like Iverson begin to age.

2. Is Doug Mirabelli the only person on the planet with the mad skills to catch a knuckleball? I'm beginning to think so, since the Sox are apparently kicking around the thought of bringing him back one more time to caddy for Tim Wakefield. This is, of course, a ridiculously pea-brained idea. Mirabelli was washed up two years ago, and he's a well-known pain in the Assenmacher on top of it all. I say it's about time Jason Varitek sucked it up and caught Wakefield, and if that's not an option, then bring in Sandy Alomar Jr., whom I believe caught Tom Candiotti in Cleveland way back in the deadball era. Sure, Alomar may be calcified at this point - I think he's actually older than Sandy Alomar Sr. - but really, can he be any worse than Mirabelli?

3. So now the versatile Don Davis is done for the year, the 11th Patriot to be placed in injured reserve this season, and Belichick's troops are suddenly so thin at linebacker that one more injury (knock on wood) would be nothing short of devastating to their defense. Hell, the situation is pretty dire already. How dire? Paging Roman Phifer . . . Roman Phifer, please report to the front desk . . . Hey, even though ol' No. 95 is now two years into retirement, I can think of worse options. (See: Beisel, Monty).

4. In a related note, I'd gladly welcome Junior Seau back for a second tour with the Patriots in '07, though it should be as a backup since it would be prudent to start getting younger at the position. (I still contend that Kamerion Wimbley, the Browns' stellar rookie linebacker, was their No. 1 target in the last draft, though that Maroney kid wasn't a bad consolation prize.) Even Seau's most ardent detractors had to be won over by his inspired and reliable play before his gruesome injury, and he seemed to really relish the Patriot atmosphere.

5. Apparently, hypocrisy is an intangible. From the fellas at Fire Joe Morgan:

Does anyone still wonder why we are tough on Derek Jeter for not standing up for ARod this past year?

Here's a recent article where Derek Jeter talks about ARod:

Recently, the Yankees Captain has been hit with some misguided criticism that he should come out stronger in his defense of Alex Rodriguez . . .

"That's exactly what I said," Jeter calmly explained. "I said the only thing I wasn't going to do was tell the fans who they should boo and who they shouldn't boo."

And here's an article from 2005 where Derek Jeter talks about Jason Giambi:

Then Jeter took the opportunity to stand up for Giambi, who was booed so loudly after he struck out in the eighth inning it was hard to hear public address announced Bob Sheppard announce the next hitter. Jeter implored Yankees fans to stop booing Giambi.

"The fans have to start cheering for him," Jeter said. "If you're a Yankee fan, you want us to win and we need Jason."

One more time: 2006, re: ARod:

"I said the only thing I wasn't going to do was tell the fans who they should boo and who they shouldn't boo."

And 2005, in re: Giambi:

Jeter implored Yankees fans to stop booing Giambi. "The fans have to start cheering for him," Jeter said. "If you're a Yankee fan, you want us to win and we need Jason."

The end.

Seriously, that is just awesome. Fist pump!

6. If I'm Theo Epstein, I keep dialing up Jim Bowden and badgering him about a Wily Mo Pena-for-Chad Cordero swap until the Nats' GM either changes his number or gives in. While a straight-up swap probably isn't reasonable - the Sox would have to kick in at least a pitching prospect or two - it's not completely illogical from the Nats' standpoint. Bowden reportedly has a fondness for Pena dating back to their time in Cincinnati together, Washington desperately needs some sock in the middle of their Soriano-less order, and while Cordero is already a proven closer at age 25, he's something of a luxury to a Nationals team that is so flawed that it probably won't have a whole lot of leads for him to protect.

7. Forget the insane money given to such mediocrities as Gil Meche, Juan Pierre, and Gary Matthews Jr. The leader in the clubhouse for Bleepin' Stupidest Signing Of The Offseason is the Chicago Cubs for the three-year, $20 million deal they gave Jason Marquis today. Yes, that Jason Marquis - the one who was quite possibly the worst pitcher in the NL this season (6.20 ERA, led the league in homers allowed) and has a reputation of disregarding the advice of everyone but the voices in his own thick head. Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan must be having a good laugh about this one.

8. I finally found the analogy I was looking for: Pam Beesley is this generation's Bailey Quarters, and if you know what I'm talking about, I know you're nodding your head in agreement. And with our obligatory "The Office" mention out of the way, here are some words from a certain stellar TV show of its time that might just stick in your head for the rest of the day: Baby, if you've ever wondered/Wondered what ever became of me . . . Go ahead, sing it. Resistance is futile.

9. Curt Schilling says he's learning some Japanese so he can communicate with Daisuke Matsuzaka. I suppose it's an honorable gesture, though I'm suddenly curious if there's a Japanese word for "windbag."

10. As for today's Completely Random Baseball Card:

Who knew the current Boomer Wells wasn't the original? You know, I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume the two aren't related.

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Friday, December 08, 2006

I hate *$*#* winter

Just got home from Boston, my 1 hour 20 minute commute having turned into a 3-hour, white-knuckle whiteout of an ordeal thanks to the blinding freakin' snow squalls that I had no idea were coming. No joke, these were some of the worst conditions I've ever driven in, and I've lived in New England my whole snow-dreading life. I hate winter. Hate it. One of these years, I'm going to pack up the wife, the kids, one of the three cats, my Buffett and Marley CDs, and Jenna Fischer if she's willing, and head someplace warm like Bequia or St. John, and I'm not returning until I get confirmation that every last snowflake in the Northeast has melted. Did I mention I hate winter? I do. How much? It's December 8, and I'm ready to bash Frosty the Snowman's skull in with a snowshoe. That's how much.

(Deep breath)

Okay, now for a few leftovers from the winter (I hate that word) meetings. (God, I'm so ready for summer . . .)

Looks like Balco Barry will still be a San Francisco Giant when he breaks (insert asterisk here) Henry Aaron's all-time home run record. Bummer. I was intrigued by the fleeting Bonds-to-St. Louis rumor, if only because it made sense on a number of levels: Bonds would form a fearsome tandem with Albert Pujols in the St. Louis lineup, Tony La Russa is a well-known steroid sympathizer, the Stepford Cardinals fans would welcome him without wondering how his head got so damn swollen, and he could help Pujols make the transition from budding jerk into a full-blown *%*#*#**.

Ramirez straight-up for Soriano? Finally, a blockbuster! Wait . . . you mean we're talking Horacio Ramirez for Rafael Soriano? Okay, not such a blockbuster as their surnames might suggest, though I do find myself wondering why the Mariners would trade a power-armed, highly coveted setup man for Ramirez, who amounts to a fourth starter at best in the American League. Schuerholz, you've done it again.

Never thought I'd see the day the Sox were outbid by the Royals, but I have to give Kansas City credit for shelling out the dough for Octavio Dotel, who is more than a year removed from Tommy John surgery and offers a much higher reward than most of the usual relief suspects on the market. He was near the top of my Red Sox wish list, though I'd still prefer gambling on Eric Gagne.

However, I cannot wrap my mind around the fact that the Royals gave $55 million bucks to Gil Meche, who has a history of arm problems and reputation for indifference. Perhaps I'm a hypocrite considering the team I follow recently paid a similar amount of money simply for the sole rights to negotiate with a pitcher, but it seems an alleged small-market team like Kansas City would be reluctant to empty the vault on a pitcher with a career 4.45 ERA. Then again, maybe that's the lesson to take from this: the small-market teams aren't quite so small anymore. Well, except for the Marlins.

Manny for the fading and overpriced Todd Helton? C'mon now, I refuse to believe Theo would even consider such foolishness.

Count me as wholeheartedly on board with Tito Francona's plan to bat Kevin Youkilis second and Coco Crisp eighth, particularly if it leads to Crisp utilizing his wheels, finding a comfort zone, and rediscovering the good health and mojo that made him such a dynamic offensive player in Cleveland.

Words to mark: Someone is going to get a bargain in Keith Foulke. A grumpy bargain, and a creaky-kneed bargain, but a bargain nonetheless. The pitcher I saw in September, 2006 looked pretty close to the one I saw in October, 2004.

Nah, I'm not sweating the Matsuzaka situation. I remain convinced the Sox will get it done, but not without another week's worth of posturing by both sides.

Barry Zito, lefthanded pitcher, Texas Rangers? Could be, and for the bargain price of $102,000,000.00! Yep, sure looks like Scott Boras is going to play Tom Hicks for a rube again, isn't he? Can you say Chan Ho Zito? All right, maybe that's an exaggeration . . . but man, sometimes I wonder how these owners got so filthy rich when some of them are so clueless.

C'mon, Drayton McLane. Open up the safe and give Andy Pettitte the extra couple of million he's obviously angling for. No one outside of the Bronx wants to see the classy lefty wear pinstripes again. Keep the Houston boy home, and the hell away from pitching against us, 'kay?

As for today's Completely Random Baseball Card:

I knew there was something I didn't like about him.

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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Winter ball

When I grabbed the PowerBook and plunked down on the couch tonight, I intended to peck out a First and 10 column on state of the Patriots after their grinder of a victory over the wretched Lions Sunday. But with the news that the Sox have finally signed both J.D. Drew and Julio Lugo - I think both of these deals were first rumored during the Lou Gorman administration - baseball again grabbed the headlines in the sports pages of my mind. (You have no idea how much I wish I could cover these winter meetings. Man, it looks like such a blast. Maybe someday.) Anyway, we'll get to the Pats in the next day or so, providing they aren't again trumped by some relevant Red Sox developments. As for today's news, some thoughts we've been meaning to share . . .

• NESN jostled Jerry Remy from hibernation to appear in-studio on its nightly Hot Stove program, and we're glad to report he's as on top of his game now as he would be during a tense July showdown with the Yankees. He brought particular insight regarding Terry Francona's proclamation today that he expects Manny Ramirez to be with the Sox on opening day. Said RemDawg: "Terry Francona wants Manny Ramirez off this team. He wanted him off the team the last six week of the season, and he was adamant about that. Listening to the comments he makes, he's trying to do one of two things: Build up Manny to the rest of baseball so they can trade him, or smooth things out because he knows he's coming back." I'm pretty sure that's the first time I've heard anyone with credibility step up and say definitively that Francona feels Manny is more trouble than he's worth. Remy himself was clearly disgusted with Manny's absence late last season, yet unlike the Gerry Callahans of the media world who can barely suppress an irrational hatred for the goofball left fielder, Remy conceded that he's all but irreplaceable and sounded as if he wasn't dead-set on seeing him leave Boston. "I don't know who you could bring in except for Albert Pujols to make up for the loss of Manny," he said. All in all, it was compelling and rewarding television. Sure, Remy might be a huckster, but there's no one better at cutting to the chase and analyzing the sport. Even in December.

• I'm probably overdoing the Remy stuff here, but I also feel obligated to note how refreshingly blunt he was regarding the acquisition of J.D. Drew: "I haven't heard many good things about him," Remy admitted, before becoming the second prominent media person to compare Drew to Fred Lynn this week, following Peter Gammons's lead. Remy offered an interesting take on his laid-back former teammate: "I believe, and I think [Fred] believes, that if he stayed here his whole career, he'd be a Hall of Fame ballplayer . . . Because Boston pushed him, and sometimes, that works both ways . . . There's extra pressure to perform here, but sometimes you find out that certain guys you don't expect are at their best under pressure." I'd call that a lukewarm endorsement of Drew's chances here, but if the Sox are getting the second coming of Fragile Freddy, I think we'd all be satisfied with that, flaws and all.

• So what's my take on tonight's news? Well, I'm swallowing hard at the length and money of the Drew contract and reluctantly approving of the signing, with the caveat that he's coming here as the No. 5 hitter the Sox desperately need behind Manny and not as Manny's replacement in the four-slot behind Papi. As for his alleged laissez-faire attitude toward the game, my official position is that I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt, in part because I hate the idea of running a player out of town before he actually arrives, and in part because I've vacillated so much with my opinion on Drew that three people I respect this week accused me of pulling a Glenn Ordway and trying to have it both ways. And to be honest, I probably did go overboard with the hyperbole in my criticism, particularly by calling him a Cowardly Lion. That does a disservice to his talent, and here's hoping Drew makes me to look like a fool, even if it's apparent that I'm perfectly capable of doing so myself. As for the Julio Lugo deal, I think I can be a little less wishy-washy with this one: The Sox will regret this, they will regret this soon, and they will regret this dearly. I've never understood Theo's fascination with this average, erratic ballplayer, and I'm pretty sure I never will.

• Tom Verducci, a fantastic writer who nonetheless sometimes strikes me as the national beat writer/apologist for the Yankees, was the first to report today that Andy Pettitte could be rejoining Satan's Traveling All-Stars by the end of the week. Man, I hope this doesn't happen. While he's 34 and seems to battle elbow problems with increasing frequency in recent years, there's still a lot to like: He was outstanding in the second half for the Astros last season, he's a better bargain (hell, perhaps a better pitcher) than Barry Zito, he'd offer a huge boost to a Yankees rotation that is pocked by question marks and injuries, and his presence would likely make the Yankees the front-runners for his buddy Roger Clemens once the transparent dope ends his faux-retirement for the 21st consecutive season. Here's hoping the man they call Donkey hangs 'em up or remains in Houston. We don't need the Yankees pulling off a free-agent steal here.

• No matter what happens the rest of the offseason, this is the most encouraging news the Boston Red Sox could possibly receive. And how much do you admire young Jon Lester for the public grace and poise with which he faced his illness? Pretty remarkable person. Given his talent and character, the Sox are blessed to have him.

• As for today's Completely Random Baseball Card:

Here's hoping he's the next beneficiary of John Henry's wallet.

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Sunday, December 03, 2006

Someday you'll find it . . .

Ten free minutes for me, 10 free ainbowray onnectioncays for you:

1. I think I've made it pretty clear I want Manny Ramirez batting cleanup for the 2007 Boston Red Sox . . . but even I have to admit that those apparently unfounded Jake Peavy-to-Boston rumors briefly had me daydreaming about a Peavy-Matsuzaka-Beckett-Schilling-Papelbon rotation. How sick would that be?

2. I know it's popular to claim his personality is as bland as his ubiquitous grey hoodie, and his reluctance to share even the most minute details regarding his team would drive me mad if I were a Patriots beat writer. Still, I have to say I'd pay good cash for a ticket to listen to one of Bill Belichick's increasingly frequent press-conference dissertations on the history and finer tactical points of football, and anyone who doesn't find that stuff insightful, compelling, and of great interest to New England football fans probably shouldn't be covering the sport in the first place.

3. Let's get something straight: I'm not entirely opposed to the Sox signing J.D. Drew. He's an immensely talented player, and I thought Gammons hit it on the sweet spot today when he compared him to Fred Lynn. What bothers me - even more than any concerns about his makeup, which are justified if perhaps exaggerated - is that it appears he's coming as a de facto replacement for Manny, when what the Sox should be doing is slotting him in as the much-needed No. 5 hitter behind Manny.

4. Every time I see Matthew McConaughey in those "We Are Marshall" commercials, I can't help but be impressed that Wooderson got his act together and grew up to be a football coach. I'm guessing he loves those college girls, too.

5. I've banged through about half of Charlie Pierce's tome on Tom Brady, and I'm enjoying it even though his writing level exceeds my pea-brained comprehension by such a great distance that sometimes I can't see his point with a telescope. The religious stuff in particular eludes me, but this much I have gathered: 1) Lloyd Carr is a bigger boob than he appears to be, which is saying something. 2) There's a pretty decent chance Drew Bledsoe eventually would have lost his job without Mo Lewis's violent intervention. 3) The author isn't the only one who seems to believe Brady is destined for grander things beyond football.

6. Call me vindictive, but my teensy little heart gets all jacked and pumped every time Pete Carroll's Trojans gag away a big game and that old familiar "Golly, what the heck just happened?" look returns to his face. The Rose Bowl isn't a bad consolation prize, though.

7. I say the Celtics start letting Rajon Rondo and Gerald Green learn on the fly with 35 minutes of PT per night, allow Doc Rivers to do his oblivious routine from the sidelines for the rest of the season, and pray that it all adds up to Kevin Durant or Greg Oden in Celtics Green a season from now. Maybe it's a gamble to bank on the ping-pong balls falling your way - whatever did become of Tim Duncan, anyway? - but it's better than a paper-thin 8th seed and a late-lottery draft pick.

8. How come we haven't heard Eric Gagne's name in much hot-stove chatter so far? Seems like in a market where marginal middle relievers are commanding multi-year, multi-million deals (hello, Baltimore), a once-dominating if injury-prone closer might pique some team's interest. I'd love for the Sox to take chance on him, provided the price is reasonable or the contract is incentive-laden.

9. Trap game? C'mon, you know better. The Pats could start Gene Mruczkowski at tailback today, and I'd still pick them to whup Matt Millen's hapless Lions by at least a pair of touchdowns. Let's be humble and call it . . . oh, 34-10.

10. As for today's Completely Random Baseball Card:

Can't honestly say if I'd vote for him for the Hall of Fame or not - I believe he was a juicer, but I also believe that hardly puts him in the minority among his contemporaries. But I do wonder if he's as skinny these days as he is on this '89 card. It's entirely possible, assuming he's cut back on the andro and various other so-called vitamins.

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