Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Vote for Pedro

Boo Pedro? No. Won't happen. Can't happen. The ignorant jackals with motivations as questionable as their credentials will not win this round. They will not brainwash the pink-hat brigade and all the Burger-King-Johnny-come-latelys who trendily fill the seats at Fenway but lack the lifer's perspective to quite comprehend what they're seeing. The real fans will be heard. And they will not jeer the greatest modern pitcher, the greatest showman, and perhaps the greatest competitor, ever to call the Fenway mound his workplace.

No, they will stand and they will cheer, so loud and long that a Landsdowne Street passerby might think Papi has just walloped another walkoff. Mark these words: Tomorrow night, Pedro Martinez will be appropriately applauded from his pregame journey from the bullpen, to Carl Beane's introduction, to the first pitch he throws. He'll tip his hat and tap his heart. Maybe he'll even fire the six-guns at Papi and Manny, and surely suppress a laugh behind his glove the first time he has to face his old compadres. This is not Johnny Damon coming back in the enemy's clothing. This is Pedro Martinez, coming home.

Boo him? Not at Fenway Park. Not now.

And not ever.

We'll start with the statistics, because no reminiscence of Pedro's reign in Boston is complete without them. In seven seasons, he had 117 wins against 37 losses, a 2.52 ERA. He won two Cy Young Awards, and if not for the duplicitousness of a New York writer, would have won an MVP. He claimed four straight ERA titles, including one season when his 1.74 ERA was 3.23 runs lower than the league average. He won three strikeout titles, and earned six postseason victories. His stats in '99 alone look like something out of PlayStation: 23 wins, 4 losses, a 2.07 ERA, 313 strikeouts in 213.3 innings, and a WHIP of 0.923. (The next season, 2000, his WHIP was 0.737. Just plain sick.)

Add up all the numbers, and the conclusion the calculator spits out is this: If you didn't see Sandy Koufax in his heyday, then Pedro Martinez from 1998-2000 is the best pitcher your eyes have seen. If you did happen to see Koufax, well, you've been twice blessed, haven't you?

With all that's happened in recent years, it's easy to forget just how much Pedro's arrival in Boston meant at the time. The Sox lacked a true ace after Roger Clemens's departure the previous offseason - shockingly, Steve Avery and Aaron Sele didn't quite fit the bill. Worse, the Sox in 1997 were stale, mediocre, misguided - almost irrelevant. "Boston was a sad town . . . pessimistic," Pedro recalled during his gracious, candid press conference this afternoon. But his arrival in December of that year changed all that. These are the good old days in Boston baseball, right here, right now. Pedro planted the seeds for this nine years ago.

Christ, he made it fun. You remember, don't you? Every Pedro start was an event, with a capital E. The Dominican flags and the heady, something-great-is-happening-here-tonight buzz gave Fenway the feel of a World Cup match. Yeah . . . I remember it so well now. The anticipation of 7:05 p.m.'s arrival was off the charts, my day planned around his start. When Pedro was on the mound and dealing, it's the only time - other than a few select Clemens starts, I suppose - that I can recall wishing the Sox would hurry up and get their at-bats over with so we can watch the pitcher again. And I know I'm not the only one who, when real life kept me from watching the game, would turn on Joe and Trupe a few innings into a ballgame, and being shocked when he had given up a single run. He wasn't invincible. But he damn sure seemed that way.

The dusty old highlight reel in my mind began rolling again recently as I dug through some old boxes in the garage, looking for forgotten old sports stuff to haul up to my new home office. What I discovered in one box was like a Pedro time capsule. A stack of old K cards from one of his late-'90s starts. (I used to tape them to a Yankee fan co-worker's desk back when Pedro actually owned the Yankees. Long time ago.) Ticket stubs from an '03 victory over the Devil Rays, the first time my dad had seen him pitch in person. A stack of yellowed Globe sports sections, and some scattered baseball cards, including one where he has a Jheri curl that would make even Michael Jackson ashamed. And the April 20, 1998 Sports Illustrated pictured here, featuring a fantastic article by Gerry Callahan (yep, him) that included this quote from Pedro about his arrival at Logan Airport on Dec. 11, roughly a month after he was looted from the Expos:

{There were fans at the airport} yelling and waving flags, and someone had a sign that said WE LOVE YOU, PEDRO. That night I said to someone, 'I think I love Boston already."

My most cherished baseball memories will turn two years old this October, of course. But pre-2004, so many of my favorite postcards and snapshots I've collected in my 27 years as a Sox fan feature Pedro prominently.

I remember him pitching as courageously as any hurler I've ever seen, taking the Jacobs Field mound in relief in Game 5 of the 1999 ALDS with an aching oblique muscle, a sore shoulder, and no fastball to speak of and limiting those fearsome Indians to exactly zero hits over the final six innings. I'll never forget Peter Gammons's comment afterward: "So now we know. Pedro will be a great pitcher at 35," his point being that he's savvy enough to dominate without his best stuff. I've never seen two players do so much to carry one team as Pedro and Nomar did that season. They were Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, and though the Evil Empire prevailed in the ALCS, to that point that season - and that comeback against the Indians - was the pinnacle of my existence as a Sox fan.

I remember him pitching the best game I've ever seen, the 17-strikeout one-hitter at Yankee Stadium in '99. You'll recall that the one hit was a solo homer by New York DH Chili Davis. The TV replays soon revealed something truly amazing: Davis had his eyes closed when his bat connected with the ball. That's what it took to hit Pedro in those days: blind friggin' luck.

I remember him pitching the most bizarre game I've ever seen, the brawl game in Sept. '00 in Tampa in which he hit the leadoff batter, Gerald "Ice" Williams, damn near got cold-cocked in the face, then did not allow a hit until a Baseball Immortal named John Flaherty singled in the ninth. Sox fans knew Flaherty would get a hit when Pedro's gold cross fell off his neck just before he went into his windup. There always were strange omens and harbingers with Pedro.

And call me crass if you must, Tim McCarver, but I still savor the day in October, 2003, when he heaved that bullrushing gerbil Don Zimmer to the Fenway turf. Hell, one thing Yankees fans (who got the true essence of Zim's incompetence when he did his damndest to run the Bombers into the ground during Joe Torre's illness a few years back) and Sox fans ('78, duh) can agree on is that Pedro should have finished the job while he had the chance.

By people more reasonable than me, the Zimmer incident is regarded as a black mark on Pedro's reputation - and of course it is not his only one. We all know he could be . . . difficult. Physically, he was as delicate as an infant, and sometimes behaved like one. He was charismatic and childish, engaging and defiant, complex and paradoxical. He was generous to his teammates, yet always played the diva, demanding special privileges he believed worthy of his status. He could bitch with the best of 'em.

Pedro owns one of the most expressive faces I've ever seen. In his happiest moments, he'd light up Fenway with that easy, megawatt smile, the one on display in today's must-see press conference, the one that always became appropriately mischievous during his taped-to-the-dugout-pole, Yoda-mask-wearing antics. You just know, on the four days he wasn't pitching, he drove stiff ol' Jimy Williams and his flat-brimmed hat nuts.

In darker times, Pedro's face would sink, his eyes would turn to serial-killer slits, and wouldn't you know it, the next pitch would mysteriously find it's way into the small of Karim Garcia's back. The worst was when Pedro never seemed to smile in that miserable summer of 2001, when he nearly was forced to sacrifice his shoulder to Joe Kerrigan's managerial incompetence.

The writer in me appreciated how easy he made it, what with all the talk-radio-ready soundbites and catch phrases about "mango trees" and "calling the Yankees my daddy" and "drilling the Bambino in the ass." The fan in me just wanted him to shut up and pitch and quit causing himself so many problems. But he was incapable of silence regarding slights real or imagined. Over time, I learned to chalk up his - what, pettiness? rabbit ears? thin skin? - up to his immense pride, the pride absolutely necessary to silence the doubters (namely his first manager, Tommy Lasorda, who labeled him too small to hold up as a starter) and succeed in the major leagues as a 5-foot-10, 175-pound power pitcher. Ultimately, the fierce drive and oversized ego was all part of the package that made him the most compelling athlete to grace this city since Larry Bird.

We'll probably never get the full story of how Pedro became an ex-Red Sox - too many of those in the know have ulterior motives, reputations to protect. But the hunch here is that the Sox braintrust wanted to retain him, and were smugly certain that they would retain him at their price. I suspect Pedro, his pride an impediment once more, wanted to stay desperately - hell, he admitted as much today - but couldn't reconcile his love for Boston with his desire for affirmation (and of course, cash). The Mets played the game brilliantly, topping the Sox's offer at the final crucial turn and making Pedro feel wanted. Two years into a four-year deal, Omar Minaya looks smarter than his Boston counterparts, who accepted the timid Matt Clement and plump, ancient David Wells as "good value" consolation prizes.

Maybe I'm getting caught up in the sentiment, awash in all these the memories, or maybe it's just the thought of another year of suffering Clement, but lately I find myself wishing more and more that Pedro were still here. In the spirit of full disclosure, I didn't feel that way two years ago. I believed the whispers that the innards of his shoulder looked like Spaghetti-O's, that re-signing him to anything more than three years was a risk not worth taking. I fretted that watching him stumble to the finish line of his career here, a shell of his former self, would taint his Boston legacy. But today, it sure looks like Gammons was prophetic all those years ago: So now we know. He'll be a great pitcher at 35.

As he charmed the media today, Pedro recalled his two favorite memories: The '99 All-Star Game at Fenway, when he struck out Larkin, Walker, Sosa, McGwire and Bagwell, five of the first six hitters, the little man stealing the thunder from what might now be suspected as Steroid Row. The other savored recollection he shared today also is one of mine, and it is captured in the photo atop this page: Poking his head out his truck upon arriving at Fenway the morning the Sox returned home as champions, and being saluted by thousands of joyous fans. Look at that smile - that's the one we're talking about. It reminds me of his quote near the end of "Faith Rewarded," one he repeated today: "I'd trade three rings anywhere else for just one with the Red Sox." You know what? I still believe him. No one savored the championship more. No one deserved it more.

Pedro was relatively far down the list of heroes in that magical postseason, though his dusting of Hideki Matsui in Game 5 of the ALCS lingers as a subtle turning point. But seemingly every one of the 25 contributed something important, and Pedro was no exception. In Game 3 of the World Series - the victory that convinced us this championship was indeed inevitable - he was his vintage self, pinpointing sizzling fastballs, snapping off mind-bending curves, and pulling the string on that so-nasty-it-should-be-illegal changeup. The final pitching line of his Red Sox career: Seven innings, three hits, no runs, and a 4-1 victory. No, Pedro did not clinch that elusive championship. But he put the champagne on ice and the ghosts on notice.

As he walked off the mound that warm St. Louis night, he pointed skyward like always, flashed that smile, and somehow looked both overjoyed and relieved, as if an 86-year-old burden was about to be lifted off his delicate right shoulder. We scarcely suspected it then, but it was Pedro Martinez's last on-field act as a member of the Boston Red Sox.

He was leaving for good. But not before giving us with one last cherished memory.

Do the right thing, Sox fans. Give him one more of his own tomorrow.


Saturday, June 24, 2006

Three random 1989 Donruss baseball cards

I'm in the midst of banging out a Pedro epic for Monday/Tuesday. Let's just say I don't quite get the damn fools who think he deserves to be booed at Fenway, and so I'm really hoping to do this one right. In the meantime, a trio of cards for your perusal:

Man, look how skinny the Iron Sheff was then. He really must have worked hard (coughcoughcreamcoughcough) and spent hours throwing around weights in the gym (coughcoughclearcoughcough) to become the jacked and pumped slugger of recent seasons (coughcoughI'm gonna kill you, R. Kelly!coughcough).

Did you catch ESPN's all-day "countdown clock" to the Rocket's season debut Thursday? It was an annoying gimmick with no redeeming qualities beyond promoting the network. In other words, it's guaranteed ESPN will be hammering us over the head with it the next few months, at least until they come up with something even more obnoxious. (I'm pretty sure I just described the career trajectory of Stephen A. Smith in that last sentence there.) If they absolutely must give me a countdown clock involving Clemens, how about counting down the days until the Rocket hobbles out of a crucial game in the third inning with a groin injury and a 6-0 deficit? Now that's worth looking forward to.

It's been a somber few days here at TATB headquarters. First, we rehashed the Len Bias saga, a more emotional trip in the Way-Back Machine than we expected. Then, just a few days ago we learned that Ron Jones, a star-crossed former Phillies outfielder, an ex-Maine Guide, and an original TATB Hall of Famer, died at age 42 of a brain hemorrhage. Turns out he passed away a couple of weeks ago, but we only learned about it when seeing his name under the In Memoriam header on the baseballreference.com homepage; after a quick Google search, I was dismayed to discover his death barely warranted a mention in the Phillies notebooks in the Philly papers. In the scattered items I've written about Jones on this site and elsewhere, I spent most of my words touting Jones's gifts as a hitter. He batted .371 once in the minors, and his sweet lefty swing and stocky physique drew comparisons to Tony Gwynn. But I'd like to think that in at least one article/post, I emphasized that as good a player as he was, he was an even better guy. During his season and a half in Old Orchard Beach, Jones made a habit of hanging around in the parking lot after Guides games, sitting on the hood of his pickup truck, enjoying a beverage or two, and shooting the breeze with anyone who wanted an autograph, to talk baseball, or just to say hi to a ballplayer. My dad and I got to know him well enough that he'd greet us by name when he ran into one of us at the ballpark or around town. (He lived at a hotel just a few dunes down the beach from our house, and I can't count the times I saw him playing pinball at the downtown arcade.) Jones was just a kid then, 21 or 22 years old. Baseball stardom seemingly was only a few line drives away, and yet he was content being a regular guy, another friendly summer resident in a small community. That impressed me, and after multiple knee injuries aborted his big-league dreams, I always hoped his uncommon humility helped him accept the way his career ended. Sadly, that wasn't the only thing that was over much too soon.

* * *

And because we always try to end on a happy note here at TATB, a bonus card:

That right there is the innocent smile of a young pitcher who has not yet heard of one David Americo Ortiz Arias.

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Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Nine innings: 06.21.06

Playing nine innings while pleased that Coco Crisp is finally doing something besides commercials . . .

1. Reaction to Terry Francona's meeting with the young pitchers to tell them they're going to play an important role from here on out: Please, tell me the next meeting is to tell Seanez and Tavarez that they've been sold to the Hiroshima Carp and have 20 minutes to clean out their damn lockers. Seriously, this is great news, perhaps even a decision that we'll look back on as a turning point in the season. Maybe Manny Delcarmen and Craig Hansen aren't ready to assume crucial set-up roles in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings, and maybe they'll take their lumps. But I happen to think they are ready - Delcarmen fastball is still as straight as a javelin, but he's getting his duck-for-cover curve over for strikes, and that's going to make his life much easier. And while I applaud the Sox for being cautious with Hansen, he already has the second-best stuff in the 'pen behind Goose Papelbon, and the immediate needs of the ballclub should supersede any concerns about his youth or inexperience. And besides, they can't really be any worse than Tavarez and Seanez, both of whom seem to pitch well when the score is 8-1 but are Slocumbesque when the outcome is yet to be determined. While I have been anti-Seanez since his first miserable turn with the Sox, I actually still hold out a shred of hope for Tavarez. Sure, he's a headcase, but he's pitched in key roles for good teams for much of his career, and stuff is still quality, Maybe getting into a low-pressure role will help him recover his confidence. But for now it's time to see what the talented kids will do. I felt like the Sox waited too long to bring up Papelbon last year, and an early arrival may have made the difference between winning the AL East and letting the Yankees have their quaint little celebration on the Fenway lawn. Then again, the Sox's history of prudence with their prospects suggests this: they think Delcarmen and Hansen really are ready. And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Jon Lester, whose build and motion remind me so much of Bruce Hurst that I almost expect him to show up at the '86 Sox reunion next week. After watching his start against the Braves, I'm convinced he is ready to give the Sox more this season than either a healthy Matt Clement or David Wells would. Kinda fun having real, live pitching prospects for once, isn't it?

2. Tony La Russa's warning proved prescient. Boston, with all of its intense passion, just wasn't the right place for shy Edgar Renteria. And while he was a major disappointment last season - his 30 freakin' errors simply cannot be justified by his being "uncomfortable" - I thought Jerry Remy made a great point the other night when he said he thought Renteria was the smartest every day player the Sox had last season. Renteria did do a lot of the small things well - hell, the 'EEI banshees are still yowling about his daring bunt hit against the Orioles that preceded a Papi walkoff - and while I'm glad he's gone, I regret that, for whatever reason, we didn't get to see him at his best.

3. And speaking of intelligent players . . . If one person has said to me recently that Alex Gonzalez is the best defender they've ever seen play for the Red Sox, than at least a dozen have. I usually offer token resistance - Pokey Reese is the best defender I've ever seen play for anyone - but I certainly understand where they're coming from. Gonzalez seems to produce the spectacular on a nightly basis - I love how he slides to pick a grounder in the hole, then pops up and guns the runner out all in one motion - and he's rock-steady as well. He's glove absolutely makes up for his feeble (but improving) bat. And while we're praising the middle infielders here, this is all I have to say about Alex Cora: Not only is he the smartest player on the team - he's a natural to manage someday - but he might be the best pure utility player the Sox have ever had.

4. Remnants from the Twins whuppin', which suddenly feels like a long time ago: 1) The Twins took a ration of crap from the experts for passing on USC righty Mark Prior to take a local high school catcher with a lower price tag with the No. 1 overall pick a few years back. Joe Mauer is making them look pretty shrewd now, isn't he? 2) I wish I got to watch Johan Santana on a regular basis. What a treat. Not only can he overpower hitters, but he seems to take a cruel joy in making them look foolish with his ridiculous changeup. He reminds me of Pedro in his heyday. 3) Few Sox fans probably were familiar with him before this series, but trust me in my minor-league obsessed dorkiness when I say there's no shame in getting beaten by Jason Kubel. He was one of the best prospects in baseball two years ago before blowing out his knee, and even after missing an entire season, he remains the second-best prospect in the Minnesota system behind future Cy Young Award winner Francisco Liriano. (Whom someone should do a decent book about, by the way.) We may not have heard much about Kubel before this series, but good health willing, we'll be hearing about him for years to come.

5. Kyle Snyder looks like what the stork might deliver nine months after Bronson Arroyo hooked up with Big Bird.

6. Take away my Old-School Credentials if you must, but National League baseball? You can keep it. Give me the designated hitter, the rudimentary strategies, the mighty sluggers and the cowering pitchers. Just spare me from watching Curt Schilling try to squeeze his XXL head into an XL helmet, or seeing John Smoltz pop up a bunt to stunt one more attempted rally, or suffering all the wannabe La Russas pulling off double switches and using 42 different pitchers to get through the last three innings.

7. Verrry interesting listening to John Smoltz say during a taped interview in the Sunday night Sox-Braves game that he'd be open to a trade if it "were for the betterment of the Braves organization." I've always thought Smoltz was pretty classy (and not in the Ron Burgundy sort of way), but his comments seemed like a disingenuous way of saying, "Get me the hell off this sinking ship." Poor Smoltzie might miss the playoffs for, what, the first time in 16 years? Rough life, man. That said, if he really is available, you better believe he'd be at the top of my Red Sox Wish List, ahead of Dontrelle Willis (if he's healthy at 30, I'll be shocked), Jason Schmidt (if he's healthy in September, I'll be shocked), and pretty much any other available starter. I imagine Yankees fans would say the same thing, which could set up a hell of a bidding war.

8. I'm happy for 'Toine, who earned his championship ring with a disciplined (for him) 11-rebound effort last night. I'm happy for Dwyane Wade, who I do not hesitate to say is one of the finest and most likeable all-around basketball players I've ever seen. And I'm happy for Shaq, if only because he won without the Ego Twins, Kobe and Phil. But anyone who watched these Finals and is not disgusted by how slanted the refereeing was toward the Miami Heat is either A) Pat Riley, B) One of David Stern's scriptwriters. I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but when you see Wade falling to the ground without being touched or Shaq plowing into his defender's breadbasket and getting the call again and again and again, and then you remember that Mark Cuban's name is atop Stern's enemies list, well, you have to wonder if the outcome would be different were the court actually level.

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

He's 70 years old, and I'm pretty sure he could still kick every one of his players' asses. Especially Soriano's.

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Monday, June 19, 2006

'Without a doubt, I'll be part of the Celtics' tradition'

Twenty years ago today, and damned if don't I remember it like it happened 20 minutes ago.

I was 16, and with the exception of my family and maybe that cute blonde in homeroom, basketball was the most important thing in my world. It was the final half-day of school at mighty Morse High in Bath, Me., and that carefree buzz was in the air, the giddiness that comes with knowing that if we could get through this day, we had the whole summer - and so much else - ahead of us.

I popped in to say goodbye to my favorite teacher, Ms. Levesque. She taught health, attended Michigan State during the Magic Johnson era, and shared my love of hoops. I realized immediately something was terribly wrong. Her usual good cheer was whitewashed by a frozen, frighteningly unfamiliar look: "I just got back from lunch," she said. "They said on the radio that Len Bias is dead. A heart attack."

I felt the blood rush from my face, a dreadful feeling I've experienced only in the most traumatic moments of my life. Her words would not register. I could not believe them.

Len Bias? Dead? Just. Not. Possible.

I slipped out of the haze only upon seeing one of my teammates a few moments later in the hallway. My friend was a terrific player himself, so skilled that he had been invited to attend Red Auerbach's elite basketball camp the previous summer. When he returned, empowered and yet unabashedly starstuck, all his stories seemed to center around one of his counselors, a famous college player who sounded like as dynamic and cool as a person as he was a player.

The tears streaming down my teammate's cheeks told me he had already heard the news. My god, it really was true: His counselor, our hero, the next great Boston Celtic for sure, was dead.

Len Bias. Dead.

My memories of the rest of that day and the aftermath are mostly scattered snapshots and soundbites: the numbingly surreal footage of his gifted body now nothing but a long, stiff corpse wrapped in a white sheet and being loaded into the back of a black van; a somber Larry Bird saying it was "the cruelest thing I've ever heard" and oh, how I naively agreed with him; standing in the middle of the living room and staring at the front page of the Times Record, our town's afternoon newspaper, just staring at that goddamn picture. There's Bias, grinning that Kodak grin, all glorious youth and promise in his sharp new suit, holding up that pristine No. 30 jersey and wearing an endearingly ill-fitting Celtics hat. How could this photo possible go with the headline: "Celtics' Len Bias dead at age 22."

And of course, I remember learning the truth. That Bias basically murdered himself, celebrating his good fortune of being drafted by the World Champion Celtics by doing enough cocaine to kill Secretariat. I was confused why he would risk so much for one night of irresponsible revelry; I hated him for that, and it scared the living hell out of me. I swore I would never use hard drugs; if they killed him, and soon thereafter, Cleveland Browns defensive back Don Rogers, well, a doof like me had no chance.

I've stayed true to the vow, and I imagine I'm not the only one he impacted that way. But spare me the "he helped more people in death than he would have in life" rhetoric. All things considered, I'd trade any "Just Say No" lesson I learned from his senseless death for the chance to watch him play for the Boston Celtics - with Bird and McHale, with The Chief, DJ and Walton - just one time. Something tells me he'd trade his legacy as the Ultimate Cautionary Tale to live just 48 minutes of his dream.

I don't need a morbid anniversary to think of him. He comes to mind when I run into that old teammate at a reunion, or when I consider the Celtics' lousy luck, or when his haunting visage appears on ESPN Classic, bounding out of the gym like a taller, fiercer Jordan and leading Maryland over North Carolina. God, I hate that footage. I watch it every time.

I've still got that old newspaper. I've carried it with me to college, to my first real job at the Concord Monitor, to the Globe, everywhere significant my career has taken me these last 20 years. Yellowed and worn, it now rests in the top drawer in the desk of my home office, along with a few other articles that have meant something to me along the way: Gary Smith's Sports Illustrated piece on the Indians boating tragedy, columns by Steve Buckley and Peter Gammons on my beloved Maine Guides, a farewell my buddy Duckler wrote upon my Monitor departure, a few other ink-stained landmarks of my life.

I catch myself looking at it every so often, but all these years later, I still don't know what to make of . . . well, all of it. How could Bias have been so reckless? Why, as one Maryland teammate asks in that feature ESPN has been running all day on SportsCenter, didn't he stop at a few lines and just go to bed? Was it a case of someone going too far while experimenting with drugs for the first time, as Auerbach and others with a reputation to lose claimed, or was he an addict adept at hiding it from those around him?

And there's the question that haunts the Boston Celtics to this day: Would he have been the player he was supposed to be, the sweet-shooting, skyscraper-scaling guar-an-teed future All-Star who would have bridged the transition from Bird and McHale to Lewis and prevented this inescapable descent into mediocrity? Or would cocaine have ruled and ruined him, just as it did Chris Washburn, Roy Tarpley, William Bedford, and so many others from that doomed '86 draft class?

I sure as hell couldn't find the answers as a lost and devastated 16-year-old that day in 1986. Twenty years later, I still can't. So I take out my old newspaper - Times Record Vol. 21, Number 120, Thursday, June 19 - and I read the Associated Press story one more time. And still I wonder: Why?

RIVERDALE, Md. (AP) - Len Bias, the 22-year-old Maryland All-American picked No. 2 in the National Basketball Association draft Tuesday, died suddenly early today after suffering an apparent heart attack.

Bias was brought to Leland Memorial Hospital, outside Washington, at 6:50 a.m. after suffering cardio-respiratory arrest, hospital spokesman Frank Berry said. Berry said Bias was unconscious and in critical condition when he arrived by ambulance.

Bias was pronounced dead at 8:50 a.m.

Jack Zane, University of Maryland sports information office, said Bias was stricken at his campus dormitory, and his teammates summoned help. Maryland coach Lefty Driesell and members of the team also went to the hospital, Zane said.

Bias was drafted by the NBA Champion Boston Celtics, and afterward said: "It has always been my dream to play in the NBA. Now I have a present within the dream, to play with the Celtics.

"Without a doubt, I'll be part of the Celtics' tradition."

* * *

(Note: Michael Wilbon, whose column on the late basketball player Derek Smith also is in my keeper file, writes about Bias today, and of course it is brilliant. Here's the link.)

(And if you can handle seeing a ghost, a video, along with a Maryland propaganda film.)

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Sunday, June 18, 2006

Three random 1989 Topps baseball cards

A new Nine Innings column is on deck, likely to be posted late Sunday night. In the meantime, here's a pretty decent three-man rotation for your consideration . . .

He may have lost his slider, but all these years later, damned if The Unit still doesn't have his boyish good looks.

A heartwarming human interest story who became a hell of a pitcher by any measure, the last Yankee I sincerely rooted for, and as Tim Brown's terrific feature in the L.A. Times this morning reminds us, a decent and honest man. If you don't like Jim Abbott, you're hopeless.

Smoltz and the Braves missed the playoffs the season this card came out. They missed them the next year, too. And they haven't missed them since. Astounding. You might think I've taken one too many tomahawk chops to the head, but even considering their recent nosedive, I'm not writing off Smoltz or Atlanta just yet.

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Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Three random 1984 Topps Traded baseball cards

Time to bust out a new feature here at TATB: Three Completely Random Baseball Cards From A Completely Random Year. Catchy title, eh?

Like many things we do here at TATB, we're adding this to the site's repertoire for two reasons: 1) We're dorky about baseball and old baseball cards. 2) We're wicked dorky about baseball and old baseball cards.

Actually, we do have semi-logical reasons for doing this beyond . . . well, you know. This is the evil spawn of two of our other recurring and most popular features: Guess That '70s Ballplayer and the Completely Random Baseball Card.

Since I'm about out of those goofy '70s mugshots (though we do have one grand finale planned), I figured this might be a fun way to sort of bridge that gap until I can come up with another stash. And you guys never seem to get enough of the random baseball cards, so this is a way to add even more to the site.

Also, it allows us to get something quick and hopefully entertaining posted on our busier days, so we don't go more than a day or two without a post. And it allows us to rant or share an anecdote about a player or topic that doesn't really warrant its own post. (See the Mark Langston item.)

We're starting with three 1984 Topps Traded cards. Why? The hell if I know - guess I just wanted to see if Pete Rose really was an Expo, or if that was all just a hallucination caused by eating too much of that "gum" Topps used to put in packs.

We'll be jumping around to a different set each time, and as always, your comments in the Suggestion Box are always welcome.

Sox fans remember Tudor as one of the talented lefties (Bruce Hurst, Bob Ojeda) the Sox developed in the early '80s, all of whom Don Zimmer, in all his infinite plate-headed wisdom, didn't think he could pitch at Fenway. Media members remember him as one of most guarded, confrontational jerks around. Pirates fans remember him as one of few players who weren't named in the infamous cocaine scandal in the mid-'80s (then again, he was only around briefly). And Cardinals fans? They might remember him for his infamous meltdown in the '85 World Series, but that would be a shame if that overshadowed his truly phenomenal season. Tudor went 21-8 in '85, with a 1.93 ERA, 14 complete games and 10 (ten!) shutouts. He had a WHIP of 0.93, having allowed just 209 hits and 49 walks in 275 innings, and he finished second in the Cy Young race to Mets flash Dwight Gooden. It was a hell of a season - and frankly, an aberration, for he never won more than 13 games again. But it's certainly worth remembering, because for one season, John Tudor was one of the greats.

It's been a while since I studied French. Tell me again how to say, "Dammit, Dawson, get the #$*$**%**# run home, will you? I've got two grand riding on this game!"

Check out this tribute to Langston, from former manager Dick Williams's autobiography, "No More Mr. Nice Guy":

"It was the ninth inning, and my ace Mark Langston was pitching with a 3-0 lead. Having allowed just two hits, he was damned near perfect. The Twins shortstop Greg Gagne, who batted just .265 that year, singled. And Dan Gladden, who batted .249, walked. Langston, who looked a little tired, was giving up. Despite having a two-hitter working - do you know how many pitchers dream of taking a two-hitter into the ninth inning? - he was still giving up. Because he was tired. Because he wasn't tough enough. How did I know this? Because all season he'd been taking himself out of games. He'd walk past me in the dugout and say, "I've had it," and be gone. Just like that. No regard for his teammates. No regard for winning.

". . . I saw the same thing happening all over again. After those first two batters reached base, I watched Langston on the mound contorting his face and shaking his head and all but shouting for me to take him out. (Expletive) him I decided. My duty is not to him but to the Seattle Mariners. He had to get tough, and his teammates had to get tough. So I would make him tough it out.

"But of course, he didn't. He threw up a fat pitch and was nailed for a three-run homer by Steve Lombardozzi, who finished that year with eight homers total. Unbelievable. I yanked Langston from the game without looking him in the eye, because I was too embarrassed. For the great game of baseball, and the great art of competing, I was embarrassed. We eventually lost the game.

"For the rest of my time in Seattle I perceived Langston as I feel much of baseball finally perceived him when he cost the Montreal Expos the pennant in the late summer of 1989 by choking on his final few starts. Gutless, that's how I perceived him. Gutless. Anybody can pitch for a loser, which Langston did very well for the Mariners before I arrived . . . C'mon, Langston. Let's see you pitch for a winner. Let's see you be a winner."

Suffice to say Williams didn't believe in pitch counts. Then again, a few years later Williams was arrested outside his hotel with no pants on, so he apparently didn't believe in a lot of things. As vicious as he was, though, he might have been right about Langston, who played a pivotal role in the Angels' epic collapse in 1995. I can picture Williams watching that Mariners-Angels one-game playoff in front of his TV yelling, "C'mon, Langston you *$**$**#&* crybaby. Boo-hoo! I was right about you all along, you ##@*$&#*@* sally! Whoa there . . . hey, anyone seen my Dockers?"

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Monday, June 12, 2006

Nine innings: 06.12.06

Playing nine innings while wondering why Varitek didn't pinch-hit for Mirabelli . . .

1. Just when you're ready to wonder if David Ortiz is only human after all, just when you're beginning to think that .260-something batting average is proof that The Shift is his Kryptonite, just when you're sure you're witnessing the first prolonged slump of his Red Sox career, he takes one mighty swing, answers your 2-year old daughter's innocent, daddy-prodded request to "Hit a home run, Big Happy," and turns certain defeat into one more exhilarating victory. Rangers, 4-2? Make that Red Sox, 5-4. Really, what more is there to say that hasn't already been said? The walkoff homer was the fifth he's hit in a regular season game (and I believe the seventh overall, though I think I'll soon go watch "Faith Rewarded" just to be sure), and damned if it doesn't feel like the 25th. I've said it before, and I'm sure I'll say it again: David Ortiz is the best thing to ever happen to the Boston Red Sox. God bless Big Happy.

2. C'mon, don't chicken out now, Jason Grimsley. It's not like you have a legacy to protect, and you're already in the baseball witness protection program from here on out anyway. So keep naming names, and then name some more. And then maybe those players you finger as steroid abusers, HGH freaks and world-class cheaters and frauds will name names, and so on and so on and so on, and before long, we'll finally have the full story about who did what and who was sticking a needle where during this, the Steroid Era. And then, and only then, will we be able to put everything in perspective - the records, the accomplishments, the size of Barry Bonds's head. At last we'll know just how rampant performance-enhancing drug use was/is in baseball, and with the goddamn truth finally having been told, there will be no more bombshells to disrupt the game and steal the headlines every few weeks. I suspect you think you'd be hurting the game to reveal what was going on behind locker room doors. Funny, because with the right dose of courage, you might just end up saving it.

3. Is Josh Beckett is the real-life Nuke LaLoosh? I'm not certain, but I'm pretty sure I saw him trying to breathe through his eyelids during the fifth inning. Actually, all things considered - and with my enormous expectations for him tempered for the moment - you have to consider today's start progress for the ridiculously gifted, ridiculously stubborn 25-year-old righthander. He resisted the urge to try to throw every pitch at 120 mph, spotted his top-shelf curveball with more precision, and while the velocity on his changeup is still too high (at 89 mph, it's the equivalent of a Keith Foulke fastball), he seemed to have made the conscious effort to pitch rather than just throw. He caught the Rangers hitters off-guard a couple of times by throwing breaking stuff when he had two strikes - Hank Blalock looked especially foolish in the first inning - and it was apparent that the scouting report said, "Sit on his fastball with two strikes." Now, this isn't to say that I'm abandoning my conspiracy theory from the other day: I still believe the Blue Jays and Yankees picked up on a hitch or a quirk in his delivery to let them know exactly what pitch was coming. Well, either that or Varitek was sick of being shaken off all the time and told the hitters what to expect, a la Crash Davis when Nuke got too big for his garter belt. You know, come to think of it, Varitek is said to be a big "Bull Durham" fan . . . and the hitter in that scene was NESN's own Paul Devlin . . . hmmm, I might just be onto something here . . . (slipping tinfoil hat back on) . . .

4. Just when I was starting to think that his stellar performance against the Yankees was the aberration and his stint in Boston would ultimately be little more than a cameo, David Pauley settled down after a gruesome start and allowed just one run over his final three innings tonight. The Sox farmed him out after the game - to Pawtucket, a step up from where he was two weeks ago - but I don't think we've seen the last of him, and I certainly hope he'll be back. Despite the homely 7.88 ERA, he showed enough to warrant legitimate prospect status - an old-school curveball, a sneaky two-seamer that cuts back across the outside corner, a darting sinker. And there was something endearing about the way he carried himself upon realizing the dream. He managed to come across as both poised and nervous as hell, and he seemed legitimately awed during the New York game when Big Papi sat down and draped his massive arm around him as if to say "Welcome to the bigs, kid. You belong." While you wish he threw just a little harder, I like what I saw for the most part in terms of ability and demeanor. I'm rooting for him.

5. While Pauley heads down I-95 with three big-league starts and no big-league victories to his credit, Manny Delcarmen finally picked up his first career win as the beneficiary of Papi's Game 1 bomb. Like Pauley, Delcarmen is another one who's impossible not to like - he's the local kid, smiles easily, and has the raw skills to someday be a lights-out power reliever, especially if he can continue to improve his command. You have to be happy for him for achieving his milestone today. I was glad the Sox resisted the Indians' demands to include him in the Coco Crisp deal, and I hope Francona continues to give him a shot to show his stuff, because while he probably won't earn too many more victories as long as he's a reliever, he has a chance to help this team win a lot of games, and perhaps soon.

6. Am I the only one who heard Sox executive Mike Dee on WEEI trying to charm his way through Saturday's rain-delay disaster and wondering if he struts around humming Beastie Boys tunes: "I'm Mike Dee and I get respect . . ." I am the only one, aren't I? Dammit, I hate it when I'm the weirdo in the room.

7. Regarding that Cleveland trade: Andy Marte is hitting .259 with 4 homers in Triple A (looks like sly ol' Schuerholz knew exactly what he was doing), Guillermo Mota has a 7.82 ERA, and Kelly Shoppach lost his backup job to journeyman Tim Laker. Even though Crisp and David Riske are only now beginning to contribute, you'd have to say the deal is tilted toward the Sox so far.

8. In case you missed it, Gabe Kapler went 2 for 5 in his first rehab game in Portland today. Not that I'm suggesting the Sox should rush him back into his familiar fourth outfielder role or anything, but I'm pretty sure he'd contribute more playing with a torn Achilles' tendon in one leg and a wooden peg for his other leg than Willie Harris and Dustan Mohr would with four healthy wheels between them.

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

Can you believe the Sox couldn't manage one measly homer off him? We didn't get to yell "Way back!" even once. What a letdown.

* * *
(Quick programming note: You might have noticed that, for the first time in several months, I turned the post "comments" back on. I did so for four reasons. 1) Blogger has made them much easier to moderate, and you know how I'm a control freak. 2) Haloscan offers a commenting system that doesn't require you to sign up for anything. 3) I always like hearing from you pencil necks, geeks and damn fools, and since I've been overwhelmed with email lately, I figured it would be an additional way to let you have your say. 4) My wife nagged me to do it. So there you go. Feel free to post in the comments or to continue to email me, and as always, play nice. We're a PG-rated site. Okay, PG-13. Of course, if I get that "Brokeback Mountain" photoshop featuring Jeter and Damon again, all bets are off . . . - TATB Management)

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Sunday, June 11, 2006

And don't forget Julio Valdez

New column coming late Sunday night, peeps. In the meantime, what say we crank out a weekend edition of our Random Lists of Five . . .

Five Players Who Should Never Get Booed At Fenway:
1. Pedro (Don't tell me you've forgotten already.)
2. Derek Lowe (Sports Guy nailed it in a recent column when he compared him to Sam Malone.)
3. Nomar (Remember when it seemed like he hit the ball hard every single time up? There were too many good times to let the acrimonious ending ruin his legacy.)
4. Keith Foulke (Someone might want to remind Johnny from Burger King that Foulke was the real MVP of the 2004 postseason.)
5. Everyone else from the 2004 champs that hasn't yet signed with the Yankees.

Five Pitchers Who Were Not The Eastern League Pitcher Of The Year Last Season (Because Jon Lester Was):
1. Justin Verlander, Erie
2. Francisco Liriano, New Britain
3. Jonathan Papelbon, Portland
4. Chris Ray, Bowie
5. Joel Zumaya, Erie

Five Players You Might Not Remember From the Super Bowl 36 champion New England Patriots:
1. Terrance Shaw
2. Matt Stevens (the white Tebucky: Big hitter with no instincts.)
3. Fred Coleman (the third receiver, no less)
4. Charles Johnson
5. Arthur Love (the poor man's Jabari Holloway.)

Five Former Teammates Of Jason Grimsley . . .
1. Lenny Dykstra, Phillies, 1989-91
2. "Corky" Belle, Cleveland, 1993-95
3. Troy Percival, Anaheim, 1996
4. Roger Clemens, New York, 1999-00
5. Rafael Palmeiro, Baltimore, 2004-05

. . . And Five More:
1. Steve Jeltz, Phillies, 1989
2. Alvaro Espinosa, Cleveland, 1993-95
3. Gary DiSarcina, Anaheim, 1996
4. Luis Sojo, New York Yankees, 1999-2000
5. Bruce Chen, Baltimore, 2005

Five Most Similar Pitchers To Bronson Arroyo According To Baseball-Reference.com:
1. Roy Smith (Former Maine Guide, gem of a guy, not much of a pitcher)
2. Aaron Harang
3. Mike Harkey
4. Garrett Stephenson
5. Alan Benes

Five Most Similar Hitters To Wily Mo Pena According To Baseball-Reference.com:
1. Jon Nunnally (a brief member of the '99 Sox - Duquette signed about 500 Jon Nunnallys in his tenure)
2. Bob Thurman
3. Brant Alyea
4. Chuck Essegian
5. Roy Foster (yeah, I have no idea who these guys are, either)

Five Songs That Have Popped Up On My iPod As I Write This Crap:
1. "You Could Be Mine," Guns & Roses (Makes me want to break stuff.)
2. "Fake Plastic Trees," Radiohead (Makes me want to break more stuff!)
3. "Symbol In My Driveway," Jack Johnson (Okay, I'm calm now. One of my favorite lyrics: Got my plans in a Ziploc bag/Let's see/How unproductive we can be
4. "When The Stars Go Blue," Tim McGraw (Tug's boy may not have the greatest pipes, but he knows how to pick a cover tune.)
5. "California Love," Tupac and Dr. Dre (Because sometimes, TATB kicks it old school.)

Five Best Books About The Yankees:
1. "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," Buster Olney
2. "Damned Yankees," Bill Madden and Moss Klein
3. "Bronx Zoo," Peter Golenbock and Sparky Lyle
4. "Steinbrenner," Dick Schaap (You think he's a giant dinkus now? Twenty years ago he was a tyrant.)
5. "Man Crush: Of Derek, Mariano, and a Frisky Announcer's Unrequieted Love," by Tim McCarver

Five Random Celtics And/Or Lakers From The '80s:
1. Clay Johnson (a garbage-time superstar)
2. Connor Henry (looked like Shaun Cassidy . . . played like Shaun Cassidy)
3. Chuck Nevitt (the Lakers' answer to Greg Kite)
4. Mike Smrek
5. David Thirdkill

Five 1981 Pawtucket Red Sox, Excluding TATB Hall of Famer Chico Walker, Who Hit 17 Homers, Stole 24 Bases, And Yet Couldn't Get A Fair Shot In Boston:
1. Wade Boggs
2. Bruce Hurst
3. Bob Ojeda
4. Rich Gedman
5. Marty Barrett

Five Must-Read Baseball Writers, Non-Globe Division:
1. Gammons (I love my job, but not as much as he seems to love his.)
2. Bill James (It's this simple: Anyone who belittles him hasn't read his work.)
3. Thomas Boswell, Washington Post (His Sox/Yanks stuff during the 2004 postseason was brilliant.)
4. Bob Klapisch, Bergen (N.J.) Record (consistently well-written stuff about the Yankees and the Mets, and the book he co-authored on the despicable '92 Mets, "The Worst Team Money Could Buy," gets the TATB seal of approval.)
5. Olney

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Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Nine innings: 06.06.06

Playing nine innings while wondering if Jason Giambi is really that sweaty, or if it's just the cream and clear burning off . . .

1. You'll be besieged with lots of theories in the coming days about why Josh Beckett is getting slaughtered, and some will even be valid. His fastball is straight. They're sitting on the heater because he can't get his curve over. His command is spotty. He's leaving the ball up and over the plate. His pitching pattern is predictable.

Well, I've got a theory of my own (or at least of the minority) and I'm confident it will eventually prove the correct one:

The batters know what he's throwing before he throws it.

Yep, he's tipping pitches.

Frankly, there is no other logical explanation for what's happening here. A pitcher of his ability and velocity should not be getting hit like this. His arm is sound by all accounds. His stuff is elite, if inconsistent. The fastball that Giambi hit all the way to New Jersey was clocked at 97; the pitch Andy Phillips blasted came in at 96.

Now, there's no shame in getting taken deep by Troy Glaus or Vernon Wells or a re-swollen Giambi; they get paid the big bucks to hit home runs, and sometimes you just have to tip your cap to them. They are among the few men on the planet who can hit a 97 mph fastball even when they don't know it's coming.

But Andy Phillips is not among those few, and when the likes of him, Ben Broussard and Russ Adams are confidently teeing off on him, when you've allowed a career-high in home runs in the first week of June, when Miguel Freakin' Cairo is taking a fastball on the outer half of the plate and pulling it to left, something fishy is up.

The batters know what's coming. They do. And as a quick Google search revealed, it wouldn't be the first time. This is from Beckett's rookie season, in '02:

Beckett will take the mound again today at Philadelphia, hoping to show that the worst drubbing of his brief career last week against Cincinnati was a fluke. He retired just three batters and gave up eight hits and seven runs, which hiked his ERA from 2.90 to 4.09.

"They were hitting it like they knew what was coming," Beckett said.

That might explain the performance. Recurring blisters on the middle finger of his pitching hand have forced Beckett to alter his grip, perhaps causing him to inadvertently indicate what kind of pitch he's about to throw.

Cincinnati slugger Adam Dunn said Beckett positioned his right hand in his glove differently when he was about to throw a curve. Other Reds hitters said they didn't notice the rookie tipping any pitches, but Marlins manager Jeff Torborg and pitching coach Brad Arnsberg were suspicious.

"It seemed like they knew something," Torborg said. "I stood there that night wondering. They hit everything he threw, including a couple of curveballs inside that they should have been fooled on."

Former major league catcher Jim Leyritz stopped by the Marlins' clubhouse last week to tell Arnsberg that Beckett positioned his glove one way before throwing a fastball and another way for a curve.

Arnsberg studied game video for over an hour, trying to spot such disparities.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? For what it's worth, the Red Sox have dismissed the notion, but there are couple of names in that story that raised my eyebrows. The first is Brad Arnsberg, Beckett's pitching coach during his time in Florida, who is currently . . . the pitching coach for the Blue Jays. You're telling me he hasn't tipped off the Blue Jays' hitters to some giveaway in Beckett's deliver, the way he grips the ball in the glove, something, that gives the hitter the enormous advantage of knowing what pitch is coming? Arnsberg knows the quirks of Beckett's delivery better than anyone with the exception of the pitcher himself. Of course he's spilled the secrets.

The other name that caught my eye in that story was Jim Leyritz. I'm sure you've seen him sitting behind home plate during the recent Sox games in the Bronx, wearing the gaudy leather jacket with the logos of every major league team. He works for MLB.com now, but his loyalties are with the Yankees, he loathes the Sox (since Jason Varitek took his job) and I wouldn't be surprised if he's shared some knowledge with the Dark Side.

Go ahead, call me a conspiracy theorist if you will, but the signal in my tinfoil hat tells me Arnsberg, Leyritz, and apparently just about everyone else in the AL have found a tell in Josh Beckett's delivery.

Al Nipper, Terry Francona and the Red Sox damn well had better get in on the secret.

2. I wish David Pauley had that first big-league victory to show for his fine performance under difficult circumstances tonight. But at least he made it apparent why the Sox brought him up in the first place: While he may be inexperienced (this was the 22-year-old's second start above Double A) and his curveball/changeup repertoire isn't going to wow the guys with the radar guns, Pauley receives high marks from the Sox front office for his composure and competitiveness, and they believed he could handle the bright lights of the Bronx better than certain, more touted prospects. And he did. Best of all, he silenced those shrill numbskulls who derided Pauley after his rough debut against the Jays. The kid may not ever be a major-league ace, but on this night, he showed he belonged.

3. If we didn't realize that Mike Timlin is the unsung hero of the entire ballclub, we sure do now. Seeing Rudy Seanez come into a tie game with the bases loaded and realizing there really was no better alternative tends to have that effect on you.

4. Maybe it's because Yankees fans are insecure and desperate for affirmation, understandable enough given that most of them look like Turtle from "Entourage" (the women included) or Bobby Baccala from the "Sopranos" (wait a minute - that is Bobby Baccala). But man, aren't the Bronx Faithful getting a little carried away with their cloying demand for a curtain call after pretty much every semi-meaningful home run> I thought the second-inning hat-tips by Phillips and (H)G(H)iambi were lame Monday night, but last night's Bernie Williams lovefest after he hit a solo homer in the fifth inning to tie the game at 1 was even cheesier and more than a little pathetic. What's next, a standing O for A-Rod after he homers in the ninth to cut a deficit to 12-3? You'd think Yankee fans would realize that a curtain call is the way to salute those who have delivered in the biggest moments - a Reggie Jackson three-homer World Series game, a David Cone perfecto, Jeter's flip to get the Lesser of the Giambis. Then again, it's been a while since they've won a championship, from what I hear. Guess they've lowered their standards.

5. Loyalty is a trait you'd treasure in a friend, but for a baseball manager it can be a character flaw. I think Francona is a heck of a manager, but I'm convinced he cost the Red Sox three or four ballgames last season by playing Kevin Millar over Kevin Youkilis long after it became clear that Mr. Cowboy Up wasn't going to hit. He played Millar out of loyalty, and to a lesser extent, he's currently making a similar costly mistake by batting Jason Varitek sixth. Varitek, who has struggled at the plate for almost 3/4ths of a full season now, has no business being that high in the lineup, not with Youkilis and Mike Lowell tearing it up. I suspect the injury Varitek had during the World Baseball Classic is still bothering him, and you have to give him credit for gutting through it, but he has been a complete mess at the plate for most of this season. Francona needs to quit protecting One Of His Guys and move him south in the order until his bat is useful again.

6. The "Baseball America" junkies have long told (assured?) us that the Yankees farm system is barren and neglected, and certainly every time a mummy such as Scott Erickson or Terrence Long lumbers north from Columbus, that perception is enhanced. But Brian Cashman and the rest of Steinbrenner's minions, lackeys and whipping boys deserve credit for putting faith in players that weren't considered supreme prospects, but who certainly look like able major leagues now. Robinson Cano received mixed reviews as a farmhand, but he's done nothing but hit since he arrived in New York, and he looks like a future star and Sox tormenter at second base. Chien-Ming Wang has a Derek Lowe sinker, a sneaky fastball, and poise in abundance. And while Melky Cabrera looked overmatched during his recall last season, he belongs now. His catch to rob Manny Ramirez of a homer in the eighth last night is one of the best Web Gems we will see all season, and his heady and alert baserunning in the first inning Monday stole the game's first run, and more importantly, earned a coveted fist pump from Captain Derek J. Intangibles.

7. Our obligatory NFL note: Yes, Bethel Johnson was a bust of a second-round pick, a slightly faster but just as clueless version of Tony Simmons. But for a player whose Patriots legacy is one of Unfulfilled Promise, he sure came up with his share of huge plays, as documented by my Globe teammate Mike Reiss in a May story:

Among Johnson's most notable plays with the Patriots are two kickoff returns for touchdowns -- a 92-yarder against the Colts in 2003 at the end of the first half, and a 93-yarder in 2004 against the Browns on the opening play of the game. He also had a big catch against the Seahawks in 2004 -- a 48-yarder on third and 7 late in the fourth quarter to help the Patriots seal a victory. Two other big offensive plays for Johnson were a 41-yard touchdown catch to give the Patriots a 7-0 lead over the Titans (and ultimately a 17-14 win) in the 2003 Divisional playoffs, and a 55-yard touchdown reception in Atlanta in 2005.

I also recall Johnson reversing field and gaining a crucial late first down in that Titans playoff game in '03. Not a bad personal highlight reel for a player who never really put it together. Makes you wonder what he could be if he ever stumbles upon a clue, though if he couldn't do it playing with Tom Brady, it's probably not going to happen.

8. If Jack Welch is the "Voice of the Fan," then I'm the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Cripes, he's been popping up on the postgame show more than The Eck recently.

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

Here's a frightening thought appropriate for 6/6/06: What if Al Nipper was a better pitcher than he is a pitching coach? (Shudder.)

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Monday, June 05, 2006

Word to ya mutha

Doon-doon-doon doo-doo-doon-doon
Doon-doon-doon doo-doo-doon-doon
All right stop!
Collaborate and listen!
TATB's back with a brand-new edition . . .

(See, this is what happens when I can't think of an intro to a notes column - I go and get all Robbie Van Winkle on you and completely blow my street cred. I suppose Suge Knight will be dangling me over a balcony at any moment. What say we pretend this incident never happened and get on with the column, huh? Oh, right . . . and enjoy having that atrocity of a "song" in your head for the rest of the day. You're welcome! Doon-doon-doon-doo-doo-doon-doon . . .)

• If there's been an under-reported story during this Sox season, it's regarding Jonathan Papelbon's complete and total dominance as a closer. Watching him make the ninth inning his own with his unhittable rising fastball and suddenly nasty splitter reminds me of watching Goose Gossage in his prime. I mean, Papelbon's given up one earned run. One. He's 20 for 20 in save chances, with a 0.33 ERA. And he's technically still a rookie. Simply amazing. ESPN will catch on one of these days.

• Has anyone seen Stan Van Gundy since Pat Riley realized he had a potential championship team on his hands and decided to slime the coach out of a job? Is Van Gundy still working for the Heat, or for some other NBA team, or did he return to his previous gig as Ron Jeremy's stunt double? No matter what his fate or how bummed he must be at the moment, at least he knows that he'll always be referred to as "the better-looking Van Gundy brother." Hey, it's something.

• I'm not saying I agree with him, but Cornbread Maxwell's oft-repeated assertion that he'd take Dirk Nowitzki over Larry Bird doesn't sound quite so blasphemous now, does it? (I suspect Larry still holds his alcohol better, however.)

• My pal Mike over at TLBR is a walking iPod, and he had a great list of song recommendations today that included a tune by one of TATB's favorites, Ben Folds. Mike writes of Folds's "Landed": Another song that usually I need to stop what I'm doing and collect myself. That's a hell of an honest admission right there, but I know where he's coming from. I've had Folds's "Still Fighting It" rattling around in the music studio of my mind for the past few days, and of this I am convinced: If there's a line that captures the heartbreaking aspect of a parent/child relationship better than "You're just like me/I'm sorry" I haven't heard it.

• All right, I surrender. The Arroyo-for-Pena deal is a bust, at least for this year. There? Happy? Can we move on to another topic now? We can? Okay, good. I've got one: Why Moves That Don't Take The Future Into Some Consideration Are As Short-Sighted And Stupid As Glenn Ordway. (Subtitle: Doug Mirabelli Was Washed Up A Year Ago While Josh Bard Is Currently Hitting .360 With As Many Homers As Varitek). Discuss.

• The Rocket re-signed with the Astros. He's not coming to Boston, even at the trade deadline, okay? Time to let it go, fellas.

• If you're wondering why the Sox would throw David Pauley to the mustached, occasionally employed, wife-beater-wearing bleacher wolverines at Yankee Stadium this week rather than bringing up Jon Lester, all I can say is this: The knock on the prized lefty when he was at Portland last season was that he wasn't as mature as some of the other prospects, particularly Jonathan Papelbon and to a lesser extent, Pauley. While Lester obviously is blessed with a big-league arm - he was pitcher of the year in the Eastern League last season, beating out Justin Verlander and Francisco Liriano, among others - the suspicion here is that he's still not quite equipped to deal with the pressure (and probable failure) that a Bronx debut would bring. To put it another way, the Sox don't want to turn the kid into Bobby Sprowl. I'd say that's prudent wouldn't you?

• Does Joe Dumars's boss realize his GM really drafted Darko Milicic over Dwyane Wade (and Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Bosh) three years ago? It was stupid then; it's historically idiotic now. Shouldn't Dumars have to return his Executive of the Year trophy and rescind any other accolades he's collected over the years, out of pure principle? This might be the worst personnel blunder ever committed by a member of the Bad Boy Pistons backcourt, and as Raptors, Pacers, Knicks and Continental Basketball Association fans know, that's saying something.

• I'm assuming that the poor sap of an umpire who was accosted at close range by Jim Leyland during the Tigers/Sox game today is still trying to get the nicotine smell out of his nostrils.

• Long ago and for better or worse, I accepted membership into the Antoine Walker Employee No. 8 Appreciation Society. My take on him was that he cared deeply about basketball and winning and being a respected member of the Boston Celtics, and even though his maddening actions sometimes left you wondering what the hell kind of screwed up impulses were going through his brain, he always meant well. So I have to say I was more bemused than surprised to see Shaq and Dwyane Wade playing it cool while ol' Toine partying like it was 1999 during the postgame celebration after the Heat finished off the Pistons the other night. 'Toine, who to his credit seems to have gracefully accepted life as a role player, should have taken a cue from his superstar teammates and acted like he'd been there before, even though, of course, he hadn't. Then again, that wouldn't have been like the 'Toine we knew and, warts, bricked 3s and all, enjoyed, now would it?

• Surprised to learn while banging out some agate at work tonight that Freddy Sanchez is second in the National League in batting at .345. While I thought Sanchez was a bit overhyped coming up through the Sox system - I considered him the Top Prospect By Default since there were so few to choose from in those days - he struck me as a player who could do a lot of little things well, had a good baseball IQ, and might make a nice living as a valuable utility player on a good team. Sort of an Alex Cora with a slightly better stick. But if the agate is to be believed, maybe the hype was justified after all.

• The whole MySpace phenomenon creeps me out. Yet as this pile of restraining orders on my desk suggests, I think I've made it apparent that I pretty much adore Jenna Fischer, the actress who plays Pam on "The Office." (Hey, at least I'm not stalking Uecker. Actually, truth be told, it's because she and her character remind me in many ways of my wife, and I'm not just saying that because I know my wife will read this. Hi dear! Love ya! Can we get pizza tonight?) Anyway, my conflict. As a shrewd way to increase the younger demographic's awareness of the acclaimed but ratings-challenged show, several cast members, including Jenna/Pam, blog on . . . yup, MySpace. I do hate the site - it strikes me as seedy, a place where Gary Glitter would spend a lot of time surfing. But her blog is actually becoming a must-read at TATB headquarters, not only for the insider info about our favorite show, but because she writes about everyday life - her favorite music, hanging out with friends and her husband, travel - and her status and unaffected style put an interesting twist on what might otherwise seem mundane. She comes across as grateful, occasionally overwhelmed, and just a little bit naive about her accelerating popularity. To put it another way, I can't quite imagine, say, Jennifer Aniston cheerfully soliciting autograph requests on a self-maintained internet site back in "Friends" fledgling days. I'm not sure she's doing it deliberately, but she's offering an insightful peek at what life is really like for the newly famous in Hollywood. I hope she keeps it up as her career ascends.

• Finally, thanks to all of you who sent me a note regarding my review of Rob Neyer's latest in The Globe the other day. I've been pretty atrocious at responding to email recently, so I just want to let all of you know that the kind words and correspondence are always much appreciated. For those of you who asked, no, writing isn't part of my job description now, and yes, I'm perfectly content with my gig on the desk. It's a blast, actually, and while the occasional review is fun, I mostly do it because I get to keep the book. I'm always geeked to add a new book to my sports library. Hey, have I mentioned that I'm an incurable sports nerd yet today? Probably figured it out, huh?

• As for today's Completely Random Baseball Card:

Hmm, wonder if he could catch Wakefield.

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