Saturday, December 29, 2007

First and 10: Perfection

1. So there you have it: 16-0. History. Perfection. The impossible as reality. The 2007 New England Patriots are the single greatest team in NFL history . . . during the regular season. You, me, and a certain gridiron genius in a gray hoodie realize that this team's true legacy will be determined in the next three games. The Patriots will either go down as the best team ever in professional football . . . or the best team in professional football that didn't win the Super Bowl. The difference there is bigger than Vince Wilfork's backside. But there are two weeks before that next football game, two weeks before the first chapter in Three Games To Glory, Vol. 4 is recorded, and right now is the time to savor what this impossibly brilliant team has accomplished up to this point. We'll begin with all the glittering numbers - Tom Brady's 50 touchdown passes, Randy Moss's 23 touchdown catches, the league records for points (589 . . . 589!) and touchdowns (75) - but you know what makes these Patriots truly special, and perhaps unique in the annals of professional football? An uncanny knack for always - always, always, always - making the play they need to make at the moment they need to make it; just ask the Colts, or the Ravens, or the Eagles, or the oh-so-close Giants tonight. I do not need to tell you that so much of that magic in the clutch is because of the unflappable quarterback, and while I feel obligated to attempt to say something profound about Brady right now, I'm struggling mightily to find the words to do justice to what he has accomplished so far this season. Brady finished 32 for 42 for 356 yards and two touchdowns tonight against a Giants team that made him earn every single yard (so much for resting their players). And yet, even as the Patriots fell behind by their largest deficit of the season, 12 points, there was little doubt that No. 12 would make sure his team would emerge with the victory. The best I can offer is that Brady - whom I considered on par with Joe Montana as the finest quarterback of all time even before this year's statistical explosion - has become one of those elite athletes, like Montana, Michael Jordan, Bill Russell and so very few others - who can be properly described as transcendent. With three more victories, the same term will apply to his team.

2. The Giants have a well-deserved reputation as one of the most maddening teams in the NFL - one week they can look like a legitimate contender in the NFC, and the next week they'll look as hapless as the '76 Buccaneers. That said, my respect for them grew considerably tonight. Their defense came to play, outhitting the Patriots in the first half and landing good, clean shots on Prince Charles all night, and I was also impressed with running back Brandon Jacobs, whose relentless style caused the Patriots to miss countless tackles, especially in the brutally physical first half. (He left tire tracks on Rodney Harrison on more than one occasion.) And while I'm reluctant to praise the Lesser of the Mannings given that the Patriots have had their problems with the inept likes of Kyle Boller and A.J. Feeley lately, I must admit that Eli showed me something tonight. I'm not saying he'll ever escape his brother's shadow, and he may never justify being the No. 1 overall pick, but he played well enough to put up 28 offensive points on a 15-0 team tonight, and for that he deserves credit. Besides, he's not nearly as sorry as Philip Rivers, the all-talk, no-action QB he was, in effect, traded for. Of course, now that we praise them, they'll go and lose to Tampa Bay by two touchdowns next weekend. There's a reason Tom Coughlin looks so tense.

3. I was surprised to see on the stat sheet that Laurence Maroney finished with just 46 yards on 19 carries. Maybe his performance was exaggerated in my mind by the two rushing touchdowns, including the clincher in the final minutes, but I was very impressed with him tonight, and during the last couple of games, really. He's been running violently, and with perhaps as much determination as he has since the beginning of his rookie season, and while I think some of the criticism he has absorbed this season comes from people who always need something to complain about, I am convinced that someone - a coach, a teammate, one of the dudes with a musket - got to him recently and convinced him that he needs to toughen up and bring his game to the next level if this team is going to win a Super Bowl.

4. Brady's double-record-breaking touchdown pass to Moss, a 65-yard bomb with a little more than 11 minutes remaining, was just as aesthetically pleasing as we dared imagine it would be, and that it was the go-ahead score seemed appropriate. There are, of course, certain other on-field matters to be settled before we even begin to consider who will be back with this team next season and who won't be, but I have to say right now that it's absolutely imperative that the Patriots bring Moss back next year even with the higher sticker price. After watching him, I've been completely spoiled, and no other receiver can possibly compare. The circus can't leave town just yet, you know?

5. He might not be the single toughest Patriots pound-for-pound - at the moment, I think that title must go to one Wesley Welker, who finishes the regular season with 112 catches, or one for every pound he weighs - but is there any Patriots fan who isn't thoroughly impressed by Kevin Faulk right now? In his younger days he used to make you nervous because of his penchant for putting the ball on the ground at the worst times, but at this point in his career, he's become the running back version of Troy Brown, the undersized, underestimated guy who never fails to deliver a huge play when the moment demands it. Tonight he had eight catches for 64 yards, and as usual, a couple of his catch-and-run receptions gained crucial first downs. Faulk's one of those guys, like Brown or Steve Nelson or Steve Grogan or Willie McGinest, who we'll remember with increasing fondness as the years pass.

6. I'm sure we'll hear the usual vaguely insulting words associated with Bill Belichick over the next few days and weeks - humorless, bland, dour, frumpy, stoic, emotionless, unsentimental, cold, and so on - but the man sure looked pretty damn happy to me as he embraced his players as the clock wound down on history. I've said it before and I'll say it again: That Belichick is reluctant to share his human side with the media does not detract from the reality, which is this: He's might be the most compelling person in the entire league, he has more players and coaches who are immensely loyal to him than any coach I can think of with the possible exception of Bill Parcells, and to pigeonhole him as some sort of android just because he is uncooperative or wary is the act of someone who would rather settle for a cliche than put the effort in to find the complicated truth.

7. Know who led the Patriots in tackles tonight? Harrison? Always a good guess, but No. 37 (who was particularly, um, "animated" tonight) was second with six stops. Mike Vrabel? Again a good guess, but he had just two (and one huge onsides kick recovery). Ellis Hobbs? A good sleeper pick, for he always seems to be hauling down a receiver after a reception, but he also had six tackles, five solo. Ready for the answer? Brandon Meriweather, with seven, six solo. To be honest, I'm not entirely sure what that means - does Belichick trust him more in the base defense now than he did a few weeks ago, or were his stats enhanced by playing special teams? - but it's certainly encouraging that this year's first-round pick suddenly is showing signs that he will live up to his advance billing, and it couldn't happen at a better time. The more playmakers the Patriots have, the better, especially against the looming Colts.

8. I'm not saying I'm shocked that Giants punter Jeff Feagles is still employed in the NFL, but it fairly amazing that this is the same guy who impressed few while averaging a measly 38.3 yards per kick for the 1988 Patriots. Being a punter is a nice and lucrative life if you can get it. (Somewhere, Sean Landeta nods in agreement.)

9. I'm just going to assume that the new and alarming holes in the usually stellar kick coverage team were due to the absence of special teams aces Willie Andrews and Kyle Eckel, and that it's something Brad Seely will have properly repaired by the time the Patriots take the field again. (And that concludes tonight's B**** About Something Minor Minute. Thank you for joining us, and please visit us again in two weeks when we attempt to urinate on another parade.)

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

You know, I was all set revel in the fact that it's finally time for the ubiquitous Mr. Morris to shut up and go home, but after hearing his hilariously oblivious humiliation of Fred Smerlas and Steve DeOssie on WEEI this week ("Did you guys ever play football? Didya?"), the crazy old Dolphin is all right in my book. Don Shula, however . . . now there's someone who can just shut up and go home.

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Thursday, December 27, 2007

Free and easy (down the road)

Ten free minutes for me, 10 free half-formed thoughts for you . . .

1. While the Merril Hoge's of the world continue to spew their concussed nonsense about some "blueprint" to beat the Pats, I have to say that I'm actually more confident that they're going to run the table than I have been all season. Here's why: 1) Laurence Maroney is running with more determination and ferocity than I can recall seeing since the beginning of his rookie season. 2) Richard Seymour looks fully healthy for the first time this season, Tedy Bruschi is suddenly rejuvenated and running around like a madman again, and long-lost Eugene Wilson appears to be regaining his usefulness, meaning that their defense is peaking at the perfect time. 3) I have complete faith that once the postseason arrives and every throw matters again, Tom Brady will stop trying to play pitch-and-catch with Randy Moss even when No. 81 is quintuple covered, and the entire passing offense will again become viciously efficient and prolific.

2. A subtlety smart move the Patriots made last season: signing Jabar Gaffney to a two-year contract after he got cut by the Eagles. One other thing about TATB's new football binky: in 2005 with the Texans, he caught 55 passes for 492 yards . . . resulting in a puny 8.9 average. I can't think of a receiver ever having a lower YPC during a productive season. I suppose that's what you'd call the David Carr Effect.

3. Jon Beason, the Miami linebacker we thought the Patriots would take in the first round, is third in the NFL in tackles (130) in his rookie season with Carolina. Another rookie who was long gone before the Pats picked - San Francisco dynamo Patrick Willis - leads the league with 162 tackles, and Jets freshman David Harris is tied for 10th (115). I'm not going to pretend I know how well any of these players would fit the Patriots' system, but from my uneducated perspective it sure looks like the past draft would have been a fine time to take that young linebacker they're going to need in the coming seasons.

4. The Celtics' three losses are a two-point loss at Orlando, a five-point overtime loss at Cleveland, and two-point loss to Detroit - three very winnable games. I'm not saying they would be 26-0 - there are certainly a couple they have won that they could have lost - but they're a lot closer to perfection that most of us realize.

5. The Miami Heat is 8-21, the worst record in the Eastern Conference. Pat Riley, never one to stick it out at the expense of his career winning percentage, should be resigning from "exhaustion" any day now.

6. I hope Dan Shaughnessy is correct in his column today and this is the year Jim Rice, the Sox' slugging superhero in my first seasons as a fan, gets the call from Cooperstown. But I just can't convince myself enough voters will change their minds on him the season to put him over the 75 percent threshold.

7. I'm skeptical that the Sox's interest in Johan Santana is 100 percent genuine as it is - I'm fairly certain they just want to see Hank the Tank cave in and give up Hughes and Kennedy - but the thing that makes me really believe they won't make this trade is the ace lefty's request for a seven-year, $140 million deal. There is simply no way Theo Epstein agrees to pay any pitcher $20 million dollars per season at age 35, let alone one who will cost a collection of fine prospects in trade and who showed subtle signs of decline at 28.

8. Wonder how baseball's version of George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley feel about each other these days. Andy Pettitte's admission that he tried HGH was basically an indictment of Roger Clemens, his longtime teammate and workout buddy. Pettitte, to his credit, took the honest way out. Clemens called his lawyers, sought out Steinbrenner crony Mike Wallace to interview him, and issued a string of non-denial denials. Pretty much what you'd expect from both of them, actually.

9. Just when I start wondering if karma is nothing but a convoluted way for people to convince themselves that the cruel injustices of the world will eventually be righted, Clemens's career ends with him hobbling off the mound in a losing cause, then has his reputation and baseball resume irreparably damaged by his very own cheatin' heart. And then, oddly enough, I find myself a believer in such a concept again.

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

Because sometimes, it really is random.

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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas from the discarded wrapping paper capital of the world

You know, I'd like to say the Brady jersey his grampy got him was the boy's favorite Christmas gift, but at the moment he seems extremely partial to a light pink doll stroller that matches the one his big sister got.

Gee, thanks, Santa. No . . . really.

Ah, you know I kid. While my Marinovich-like NFL stage-dad dreams are dashed for now, I of course adore my dolly-lovin' boy boundlessly. Besides, his sister is the tallest kid in her class, runs like Forrest Gump on a sugar high, and can catch a football with her hands - and she's only 3 1/2! Heck, Terrell Owens can't even catch the ball with his hands yet, and he's in his 30s (but 3 1/2 mentally, obviously). She'll be getting recruiting letters from Pete Carroll any day now, I just know it.

Anyway . . .

All of us at TATB (meaning, um, me) just want to wish those of you who stop here regularly (or even in a drunken stupor every now and then) a joyous holiday season. You make this fun rather than work, and for that I'm grateful. Celebrate, be safe, and be sure to check back in later in the week for more of our patented ridiculousness.


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Thursday, December 20, 2007

I said the audience was heavenly/But the traveling was hell

Ten free minutes for me, 10 free non-denial denials from 'Roidin' Roger for you . . .

1. Since sometime around, oh, the final 1/10th of a second in the loss to Detroit, I've been trying to come up with a Celtics player from the last 20 years or so who is as dumb on the basketball court as Tony Allen. (Maybe dumb is too harsh a word. Erratic? Untrustworthy? Instinctively challenged? Maddening? Nope, dumb's the word.) The best/worst I can come up with is Ray Williams, the scattershot former Knick who had a 23-game cameo with the Celts in 1984-85. Williams was ridiculously out of control - his approach to offense could be described as "jump 'n' fling" - but in a much more entertaining way than Allen, who always seems to make a mistake that everyone in the building but him sees coming. The kid does try, and he has above-average physical talent when he's knee is right, but I don't know if he'll ever overcome his negative basketball IQ. Right now, he's the basketball version of Bethel Johnson.

2. I still say Johan Santana ends up in pinstripes, once one of these repetitive reports claiming the Red Sox remain the frontrunner for the ace lefthander actually convinces Hank "Boy George" Steinbrenner to overrule Brian Cashman and include Ian Kennedy along with Philip Hughes. The Yankees need him, they can afford him, and they will get him. And frankly, I'm just fine with that.

3. Man, the Tuna just can't stay away from the action, can he? I guess that's what you should expect from someone who lives in Saratoga. I think we all agree, however, that ESPN's loss is the league's gain - the NFL is just plain more entertaining when Bill Parcells is involved. The Dolphins certainly fit his mode of operation - he always seems to take over a team that appears to be at rock-bottom, but one that owns valuable assets (in this case, Ronnie Brown and the No. 1 pick). Then, he will clean house of the miscreants, bring in a few of His Guys and savvy vets (this is the perfect home for Chad Pennington), and voila, he looks like a genius when the team goes 8-8. Hey, we never said he wasn't shrewd, and of course it'll be fascinating to watch him go head-to-head with former underling Bill Belichick these next few seasons. I'm sure it's a kick to his massive ego that some now wonder whether Belichick was the real mastermind of the Giants' two Super Bowl victories.

4. I'm not sure Gary Payton has enough left in the tank to help the Celtics on the court - I don't trust anyone older than me to play point guard in the NBA, and for all of his wisdom he might be a little too, um, direct to mentor Rajon Rondo - but it's worth remembering that he's indirectly made an immense contribution to this team already. Payton, you'll recall, was one of the players Kevin Garnett consulted while doing his legwork on Boston before deciding he'd be willing to come here, and the artist formerly known as the Glove apparently had nothing but good things to say about his time here. Hell, maybe Danny Ainge should reward him with that open roster spot for that alone.

5. Mark these words: Sportsman of the Year/Peter King Mancrush Brett Favre will cough up a hairball in a playoff game (two dumb picks, minimum), and some team (New York? Tampa Bay?) that none of the experts think can beat the Packers will. Favre's renaissance this year has been a joy to watch, but it stuns me how often he'll throw the ball up for grabs rather than hanging in there and taking a hit. The likes of King are too busy fawning over him to notice that he's not quite the gritty, gutty gunslinger he's made out to be - he's a guy with some savvy, a strong arm, an overwhelming instinct to protect his own hide, and a better supporting cast than anyone realized. That won't be enough.

6. Is there a more underrated play-by-play announcer in any sport, locally or on the national scene, than the Celtics' Mike Gorman? His unassuming style makes it very easy to take him for granted, but he's a total pro, has great pipes and an unobtrusive catchphrase or two ("Pierce . . . count it!"), and gets extra credit for keeping Heinsohn from mauling an official all these years. The only Boston play-by-play guy I enjoy nearly as much is Gil Santos, and at this point he's slipped so much that should ol' No. 80, Troy Brown, catch a pass this Sunday, I fully expect he will be identified as older No. 80, Irving Fryar.

7. Geez, maybe this kid is the backup point guard the Celtics need. Check out Sebastian Telfair's line tonight in the Kevin McHale T-Wolves' 131-118 win over the Larry Bird Pacers: 48 minutes, 11-18 from the field, 5-5 from the line, 27 points, 11 assists, 1 turnover. To be honest, I'm not sure what to make of it - the gem could be a sign he's growing into his talent, or it could be just another tease - but I do find myself rooting for him for some reason. Sure, he's had his share of trouble and controversy, most of it self-inflicted, but he strikes me as a generally decent kid who puts the work in and wants to do the right thing, and that can't come easily for him considering one of his lifelong role models is his cousin, Stephon Marbury.

8. According to longtime reader Jill H., OK! Magazine - the gossip rag that all but locked up a Pulitzer with its groundbreaking coverage of Britney's sister's pregnancy - is reporting that Official Muse of TATB (Non-Wife Division) Jenna Fischer is dating . . . David Spade. You know, David Spade: the Chris Farley-leeching, Hermey-the-dentist-looking, mean-spirited, smarmy little actor who happens to be the reason Eddie Murphy refuses to appear on "Saturday Night Live." Yeah . . . him. I'm holding out hope that OK! is not the bastion of journalistic integrity I believe it to be and that this will be proved false, but for now it seems appropriate to quote Jim Halpert here: Congratulations, universe. You win.

9. I have to admit, I had second, third, and fourth thoughts about my criticism of those national baseball writers and analysts who raced to defend the players in the immediate aftermath of the Mitchell Report while simultaneously disregarding their own Three Blind Mice role in this entire epic mess. Part of the reason was that I realized that if I were in their position, as someone who had a Blackberry full of contacts and genuine insider access, I too might be reluctant to risk becoming a professional pariah for the sake of a story that would devastate a game that means so much to me. I suppose that means I'd be a lousy investigative reporter, but I have to admit, it's probably the truth. It also dawned on me that there were some extremely accomplished reporters - T.J. Quinn of the Daily News and now ESPN comes to mind - who were on the case constantly and yet couldn't entirely crack it, so maybe I was foolish to think any old big-time baseball writer with an ounce of ambition could. That said, it's worth noting that one of the writers I ripped understood my take. Here's what Peter Gammons said in an email a few days after the post:

Very fair criticism. I do feel that the way Mitchell threw names out there was sloppy . . . and I am one who cannot bring myself to presume guilt without some proof in the cases of the assumed. I love the sport and I enjoy the players, and I am wrestling with the fairness of a handful of players being found guilty when the entire industry was apparently infected. I'm glad I have five years to decide on my Hall of Fame ballot. [But} the defrauding of all baseball records is sad, not for me who really doesn't care that much about records, but for the millions who do. Again, thanks for being fair.

Hey, no matter how you feel about his point of view, you have to give Gammons some credit for admitting some culpability. Most people of his professional stature would begin an email to the likes of me with something along the lines of "Dear lowly maggot peon know-nothing basement-dwelling mom-snuggling blogger: Go %*$%*%*#@$*ourself and your little dog too." And that probably includes some people I work with.

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

Hard to believe considering he'd still rank among my five or six all-time favorite Patriots (and a runaway No. 1 among athletes I've interviewed), but I kinda forgot Lawyer Milloy was still in the league until he publicly shredded, spindled and mutilated that slippery weasel Bobby Petrino after he abandoned the Falcons to go scurrying back to college. Milloy doesn't strike me as a guy who has a lot of regrets, and his bank account certainly justifies any career decisions he has made, but I always thought of him as an athlete who made winning his No. 1 priority, and I wonder if he's ever lamented the way his Patriots career came to an end.

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

The weather outside is frightful (except in Foxboro, apparently)

Two quick comments and a link before I round up the sled dogs and head for Boston . . .

1. I'm not saying I think there's much of a chance the Pats will see their vengeful quest for an unbeaten season end today, but I do worry that the weather could be the great equalizer in this thing. Thomas Jones strikes me as a better bad-weather back than Laurence Maroney, and the absence of Ben Watson could be problematic for both the running and passing games. Where are Snow Bowl superstars Jermaine Wiggins and J.R. Redmond when you need them? (And as I'm writing this, I turn on the TV and there's not a snowflake on the playing field. What the . . . Well, disregard that previous braying nonsense. Ours are going to kill theirs.)

2. The more I think about it, the more I realize the Mitchell Report - and the ensuing press conference by that dead-fish Bud Selig, who might be the only person on earth with negative charisma - was little more than a dog-and-pony show designed to make it appear as if baseball had gotten tough and solved its performance-enhancing drug problem. In truth, though, the report doesn't tell us anything we didn't already know or strongly suspect, and it is curious that there were no star-caliber players revealed whose names hadn't already been associated with PEDs. Baseball spent $20 million - at the minimum - to tell us that Bart Miadich and Adam Riggs juiced, and yet they seem to consider it money well spent. Ask me, the accounting - and accountability - doesn't add up.

As for the link . . . Friend of TATB Tom E. Curran has a thoroughly enjoyable, lighthearted and yet insightful interview with the Grey Hoodied One on NBC. You can tell Belichick gets a kick out of Curran, who takes a quirky approach to trying to get answers from the coach. (From a recent press conference: Curran: "Bill, who was your favorite ball boy when you were with the Browns?" Belichick, smirking: "How long did it take you to come up with that one.") Anyway, check it out. Curran, formerly of the ProJo, is as good as it gets on the national scene, and unlike some of his peers, he doesn't have a barely repressed Brett Favre fetish (that we know of, anyway).

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

I don't like the drugs but the drugs like me

Sifting through the Mitchell Report while apologizing to Dan Duquette for all the snide "twilight of his career" jokes through the years. I hope the Duke is savoring his hour of redemption . . .

* * *

While all of this makes for juicy (no pun intended, honest) gossip and compelling reading, I have a hard time getting worked up by George Mitchell's "findings"; hell, to me the most shocking developments in the report were that Nook Logan's real name is Exavier and that Roger Clemens was too a-scared to stick a needle in his bellybutton, the big sissy. Exavier - that's just some awesome naming skills by his mom. Otherwise, this thing was short on genuine revelations, and pretty damn far from complete; as far as I can tell, Mitchell's four primary sources were Kirk Radomski, the Jason Grimsley case, the BALCO scandal, and one of those online pharmacies the Feds busted. The tip of the iceberg? Hell, that's not even an ice cube. Anyone with clear eyes and more than a shred of common sense realized seasons ago that the use of performance enhancing drugs in major league baseball was approaching epidemic proportions. (To no one's surprise, Bud Selig, who wore his familiar look of permanent constipation yesterday, was not among those with a clue.) And while the names Clemens and Pettitte and Tejada were splashed all over the news yesterday, their involvement in PEDs really wasn't news, per se. It was merely a confirmation of accusations, rumors, and innuendo we've all heard before about those particular players. What was interesting was the amount of never-weres and who's-hes? on this list. Phil Hiatt and Adam Piatt? (I always thought they were the same guy.) Bart Miadich? (Who?) Adam Riggs? (And you are?) In a way, I feel for these guys, the anonymous minor league lifers who tried the stuff out of desperation to secure a big league job and the life-altering riches than can accompany it; juxtaposed with another headline on ESPN yesterday - AROD, YANKEES FINALIZE $275M DEAL - the by-any-means-necessary approach makes all the sense in the world. I'm not saying it's right. But I'm not saying I wouldn't have done it myself, either, if my dream was so close and yet so far.

* * *

I think I've made my fanboy admiration for Peter Gammons plainly obvious here during the three years this blog has existed. I've often said that I am in the business in large part because of the happiness his coverage of the Red Sox had on me as a kid, and to have him become a friend of this site is one of the unexpected bonuses of this gig. So it's . . .. disappointing to see him acting as a blatant and blind apologist for the players. Yesterday, in an apparent attempt to puncture holes in Mitchell's credibility in any manner possible, he actually said he expects there will a be a lot of defamation lawsuits. C'mon now, Commish. You know how many defamation lawsuits there will be? Just as many as there were after Rafael Palmeiro threatened one when he was caught: Zero. Sadly, Gammons and a number of his peers put a higher priority on protecting their own interests, namely a level of access granted only to the true insiders, than they did on protecting the greater good of the game. I put Tim "See No Needle, Hear No Needle" Kurkjian in the same category, too, and even today, in a column that was typically entertaining and balanced, Jayson Stark gave the benefit of the doubt to players who do not deserve it. Only Buster Olney, who admitted to his embarrassment over his profession's culpability in this a long time ago, seems concerned about maintaining journalistic integrity. Which brings me to their employer. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised that ESPN barely acknowledged its uncomfortable proximity to several aspects of this story - John Kruk was a teammate of Lenny Dykstra on the notorious '93 Phillies, Steve Phillips was the Mets' freakin' GM when Radomski was apparently running a CVS pharmacy out of the clubhouse, and "Baseball Tonight" analyst Fernando Vina was actually named in the damn thing. I'll say this for the so-called Worldwide Leader: they are incredibly adept at covering a story and covering their own asses at the same time.

* * *

You know Theo Epstein just loves having his internal memos available for public consumption, and I'm sure by now you know to what I'm referencing: the documentation about the Sox's suspicions regarding Eric Gagné's pharmaceutical habits. Here's how it appeared in the report:

"When the Boston Red Sox were considering acquiring Gagné, a Red Sox official made specific inquiries about Gagné’s possible use of steroids. In a November 1, 2006 email to a Red Sox scout, general manager Theo Epstein asked, “Have you done any digging on Gagne? I know the Dodgers think he was a steroid guy. Maybe so. What do you hear on his medical?”

"The scout, Mark Delpiano, responded, Some digging on Gagné and steroids IS the issue. Has had a checkered medical past throughout career including minor leagues. Lacks the poise and commitment to stay healthy, maintain body and re invent self. What made him a tenacious closer was the max effort plus stuff . . . Mentality without the plus weapons and without steroid help probably creates a large risk in bounce back durability and ability to throw average while allowing the changeup to play as it once did . . . Personally, durability (or lack of) will follow Gagné."

Gagné was atop anyone's list of suspects - he went from a doughy fifth starter type to a pumped-and-jacked terror of a closer overnight, then suffered the requisite ligament, tendon, and back injuries often associated with PEDs - and it's funny how the Sox scout basically attributes all of his success to steroid use. Forget knowing what we know now about Gagné. Knowing what they knew then, why did they ever trade for him? And how much buyer's remorse is Doug Melvin having at the moment?

* * *

Brendan Donnelly might be slightly embarrassed about this whole thing, I suppose, but I can't imagine he will ever have a moment of real regret. Think about it. Here's a guy who bounced around every conceivable minor league for 10 seasons, pitching in such whistlestops as Chattanooga, Nashua, Altoona, and Winston-Salem, without ever getting a shot at the big leagues other than an ill-considered stint on a replacement roster during the '94 strike. But out of nowhere, at age 31, he gets called up to the Angels in '02 and puts up a 2.17 ERA for the world champs, then the next season posts an astounding 1.58 ERA in 63 games. Hmmm. It's pretty clear he did something around that time that dramatically altered the course of his career, a career, we should mention, that has netted him $3,470,000 as a big leaguer. Something tells me the pay wasn't quite so good as an Arkansas Traveler. It's fair to say Donnelly never would have established himself as a major leaguer had he not decided to get some chemical assistance.

* * *

I have a newfound respect for Frank Thomas, the only active player other than the disgraced Jason Giambi who was willing to speak to Mitchell. I had always heard that the Big Hurt, such a physical freak of nature that the story goes he was 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds as a fetus, was furious that his vast accomplishments as a hitter were being overshadowed by the dubious feats of so many 'roided-up peers (he actually lost the '00 MVP to Giambi), and I'm impressed that he had the guts to speak his piece despite pressure from the players' union to give Mitchell the silent treatment. (Full disclosure: Before we knew the identity of the player who talked to Mitchell, I pretty much assumed it was Curt Schilling, the premise being that he's incapable of keeping his opinion to himself on any subject.)

* * *

Since so many words on baseball's preeminent oaf have been spent already, I'm simply going to list a few quick thoughts on the disgraced Mr. Clemens here:

1. Mitchell did nothing but give me 100 percent confirmation what I was 99 percent sure of since, oh, 1998. Even elite athletes rarely improve their performance in the 30s, and they never continuously improve their performance from year to year. Clemens's statistics from the last decade are nothing but a numerical compilation of lies.

2. Clemens belongs in Cooperstown, as does Barry Bonds, simply because I feel they were both locks before they apparently began taking PEDs. I know it's a flawed argument, but I don't think there's any other logical way to look at it at this point. On their plaques, however, the word "steroids" should be prominent, and their heads should be twice the size as those on any other plaques.

3. Clemens is so compulsively dishonest I don't think he knows what the truth is half the time. I don't take steroids . . . it's not about the money . . . I thought it was the baseball . . . Will McDonough had it right all along: he's The Texas Con Man. What a world-class fraud.

4. Andy Pettitte is one Yankee I've always respected, but as the admirably warped geniuses at Fire Joe Morgan are reveling in pointing out, he's just as big a phony as his buddy Roger. Pettitte was one of several members of the dynastic Yankees who was named in the report, and will some will say that taints their legacy (man, has that phrase become too familiar), I'm reluctant to believe that there were more juicers in the Bronx then there were in the clubhouses at, say, Camden Yards or Fenway Park. It just happens to be that the Yankees players were the ones who have been busted so far, due mostly to the fact that Jason Grimsley was a teammate. To put it another way - save for El Guapo, I believed every name on that erroneous list that was floating around the internet yesterday before the report was revealed, and I don't think that makes me gullible, but rather realistic.

5. Suzyn must be devasted. Maybe John Sterling should bring her some Kleenex.

* * *

Given what we now know about the era during which he was the most dominating pitcher we've ever witnessed, the accomplishments of 5-foot-11, 170-pound Pedro Jaime Martinez's accomplishments grow more impressive by the year.

* * *

As for today's Completely Random Baseball Card:

I'm not shocked that our old pal Maurice was among the users outed by Mitchell; I'm not the only one who's long held suspicions about some prominent members of the Kennedy/Canseco Sox teams, so if there was any surprise it's that Mo apparently waited until later in his career to start trying PEDs. Sadly for him, he apparently and unwittingly took the kind that increase your waist size and slow your bat speed. I always assumed it was the endless supply of chocolate glazed that did that.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Day of reckoning

Ten free minutes for me, 10 free game-used U.L. Washington toothpicks for you . . .

1. All I ask of the Mitchell Report when the juicy details are revealed today is this: Please, not Papi. And if there's no mention of Manny, well, I'd be grateful for that, too. Clemens is all yours, however.

2. Bo Jackson is the most dynamic, electrifying athlete I've ever seen, and to all you kids who think us 30-something geezers are exaggerating his exploits, all I can say is you'll never understand what you missed. But as the great Joe Posnanski reminded me recently, Herschel Walker, in his freshman year at Georgia, was a phenomenon in his own right, as breathtaking and charismatic and unstoppable as Bo at his all-too-brief peak. These two stories - this ESPN feature on Bo, and Poz's on Herschel - are delightful flashbacks, the next best thing to watching them play again.

3. Whenever I'm worried about the Patriots' chances in a particular game, they have a uncanny habit of absolutely pulverizing their opponent that week, which I suppose bodes well for this Sunday's uncivil war with the Jets. Because, well . . . I'm a little nervous about this one, particularly if the Mother Nature decides to even the playing field a little bit by dumping a foot of snow in Foxboro Sunday morning. Now, I don't think the Pats will lose, mind you, not with revenge on their minds and malice in the hearts - at this point, I wouldn't be stunned if Belichick attempted to pistol-whip the reprehensible Eric Mangini during the postgame handshake. It's just that the Jets aren't that bad, and a point-spread of 20-something strikes me as a little bit ridiculous. (And now that I've said that, call your bookies and bet the over.)

4. Very interesting timing of that Miguel Tejada trade, wouldn't you say?

5. I do miss "The Office," though I'll admit the show was . . . just a little off this season, I guess. I got the sense that the writers hadn't quite figured out how to handle the new Jim/Pam dynamic; the characters' understated longing for each other, so subtle and heartfelt through the first three seasons, always provided the balance to the over-the-top antics of Michael and Dwight. Their emotions kept the show grounded in reality. This season, with Pam and Jim the seemingly happy, boring couple, the show teetered toward the ridiculous (example: Michael driving his car into a pond) a little too often. I am confident the writers will hit their stride once their strike ends, whenever that may be. The people behind this show are too smart to let it become just another sitcom.

(As for the obligatory Official Muse of TATB, Non-Wife Division photo . . . well, I know what's expected of me. Here you go:)

(Wait! You mean there's a whole slideshow? Parade magazine, you are awesome! I'll be in my room.)

6. Before he went 0 for 4 from the field in tonight's win over the Kings, none other than Rajon Rondo had the highest field goal percentage among all guards in the NBA (.547). That's a little bit misleading, of course, considering that he rarely shoots unless it's a wide-open look or a layup, and actually, I wish he'd shoot more. Rondo's a delight to watch just for his sheer athleticism and quickness, but I wish that he's stop kicking the ball out to the perimeter so often after he blows by his defender. It's almost like he can get to the hoop at will, but he's still too unselfish after that initial move. Who knows, if he stops passing up open layups, maybe he'll get that shooting percentage even higher.

7. I don't think Jim Rice will get into the Hall of Fame this year, and if I'm being completely honest, I'm not certain he deserves to. (Check out his home/road splits sometime.) But I sincerely hope Cooperstown does call for him on this, his 14th year on the ballot. I could argue that I think he should be enshrined because he's was the American League's most feared slugger for the better part of a decade, but really, I'm crossing my fingers for him because Rice was one of my childhood heroes, and I still can't help but root for him.

8. One more reason it's too bad Harry Caray's not still around: I suspect he would really come up with some very interesting pronunciations of new Cubs outfielder Kosuke Fukudome's name.

9. While snooping around the other day, I stumbled upon this almost unbelievable statistic: In 1998, the San Diego Chargers' quarterbacks - a couple of scatter-armed gems named Ryan Leaf and Craig Whelihan - combined for 10 touchdown passes and 34 interceptions. I'm not saying it was the worst QB tandem in NFL history, but I'm pretty sure watching those two on his TV every Sunday is what killed Don Coryell. Junior Seau and Rodney Harrison both played on that team. Something tells me they appreciate Tom Brady even more than most.

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

Wednesday marked the 25th anniversary of the infamous Snowplow Game. So yeah, I guess you can pinpoint the exact moment Don Shula's irrational hatred for the Patriots began.

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Monday, December 10, 2007

First and 10: Patriots 34, Steelers 13

1. In the aftermath of Sunday's thoroughly enjoyable dissection of the Pittsburgh Steelers, an opponent that once again talked a better game than it played, I was left with one lingering question: Is it possible that the Patriots are actually better than they're currently getting credit for? Take a glance at the standings, and you'll realize that they've encountered more than their share of high-quality opponents on their way to 13-0. Consider: They've defeated two teams that already locked up their division (Dallas, Indy), clobbered two teams that current lead their division (San Diego, Pittsburgh), and beat a second-place team (Cleveland) that deserves nothing but respect. The combined record of those five teams, minus their five losses to the Patriots: 48-12. In my usual roundabout way, this is what I'm trying to say: I'm finally convinced that 19-0 is realistic, and perhaps even likely. Imagine that.

2. We won't waste much bandwidth here on Steelers safety Anthony Smith's ridiculous "guarantee"; his public humiliation at Gillette Stadium stands as the ultimate response. But I will say that I can't recall Bill Belichick ever disparaging an opposing player to the media, which made his postgame comment about Smith ("We've played against much better safeties than him") all the more telling. He clearly has exactly zero respect for the player, and I'm not sure if Smith is sharp enough to realize this, but his comments succeeded only in pinning a bull's-eye on his own uniform. Maybe next time he'll realize it's not wise to offer bulletin-board material to a team that thrives on turning even perceived slights into on-field fury.

3. Of course I realize Tom Brady is having a season for the ages, but you know what really hammered it home for me Sunday? When CBS put up a simple graphic late in the game that showed his number of touchdown passes alongside his interceptions. I mean, 45 to 5? A 9-to-1 ratio? That's just sick. The only time you ever see stats that swollen is when you play Madden in the franchise mode at the Pro level. (Not that I've ever done such a thing, of course. I'm an adult. A father. A man of responsibility. Mature. I have no time for video games. Think my wife's buying it yet?) My point: If Brady maintains this record pace and the Pats do run the table en route to a fourth championship, how can anyone make the case that there's been a better quarterback in the history of the league? I mean, I know Montana and Unitas and Elway and Marino have their admirers, and Peter King will surely tell us that Tony Romo leads the league in smiles and that no one gives a better foot massage than Brett Favre, but it terms of genuine accomplishment - statistically and in the win column - won't Brady's resume as The Greatest be undeniable?

4. I've written this before, multiple times, but after his seven-catch, 122-yard performance, I have to ask the question again: How in the hell was Jabar Gaffney out of the league for more than a month last season? You'll recall that the Pats brought him in as a street free agent Oct. 9, 36 days after he was released by the Eagles. He ended up emerging as Brady's most dependable receiver in the postseason, catching 21 passes in three games, and considering how many receivers have struggled to learn the Patriots playbook (Donald Hayes should have it solved any day now), his quick acclimation was tribute to his intelligence. He's not big, and he's not particularly fast, but he's a very good and reliable football player, and I'm coming to appreciate him more with each passing week. Why the Texans and Eagles, not to mention all the teams that passed him up on waivers, failed to recognize his attributes remains a mystery.

5. I suppose you could insert your own HGH joke here, but it must be noted that Rodney Harrison has been playing out of his mind since the beginning of the fourth quarter of the Ravens game. I was beginning to think the years and the injuries had sapped him of his Hall of Fame skills, but ol' No. 37 has looked five years younger lately, and that's a wonderful development considering safety play was one of our few legitimate concerns about this team. Now, if only the long-lost Eugene Wilson could experience a similar revival. I did see him on the field against the Steelers, which counts as progress.

6. Quick Red Sox note: I keep catching myself hoping that the Johan Santana deal happens, even though all logic tells me that the smartest decision would be to hang on to Jacoby Ellsbury and/or Jon Lester, along with the rest of the prospect ransom the Twins would require for the two-time Cy Young winner. I'm suspicious that Santana, at 28, has already peaked, especially when I hear those alarming reports that he was reluctant to throw his slider last season. But . . . there's just enough of a chance that he's capable of being baseball's premier pitcher for another three or four seasons that the thought of him pitching for the Red Sox is tantalizing, and I'll admit part of the reason I'd like to see him here is to keep him away from the Yankees, who remain so desperate for a true ace. I'm sure I'll experience some level of buyer's remorse should the deal happen, but right now I'm hoping Santana is in Boston come opening day.

7. I always think - actually, make that hope - the Patriots are going to take a linebacker high in the draft, whether it was Lofa Tatupu three seasons ago or Patrick Willis or Jon Beason this season. For a variety or reasons, they never do. But - and I know we're getting well ahead of ourselves here - I think it finally happens this season. I'm convinced that if the Patriots do end up with the No. 2 pick in the draft, they'll take Virginia's Chris Long, a defensive end who is expected to switch to outside linebacker in the pros. Everything you hear about him - he's versatile and athletic, his motor never stops, his football intelligence is off the charts - makes him sound like a Mike Vrabel clone, and his pedigree is certainly impressive: he's the son of Hall of Famer Howie Long. He sounds like just the kind of player Belichick and Scott Pioli covet, and while the common belief is that the Patriots like Arkansas running back Darren McFadden, I'm betting that Long will ultimately be their guy.

8. I've always appreciated the work Gil Santos and Gino Cappelletti do on the Patriots' broadcast. They're the voices of autumn in these parts, as familiar and comfortable as an old flannel shirt, and considering how Jonathan Kraft always comes across as an arrogant snot whenever he's interviewed (not to mention that he's responsible for the shrieking abomination that is Andy Gresh) I have no faith that he'll find worthy replacements for them when the time comes. Sad to say, I fear the time is coming. It's not an exaggeration to say it's a surprise at this point when they properly identify a pass catcher on the first try, and it was hardly unexpected that they bungled the two biggest plays of the past two weeks: Gaffney's winning catch at Baltimore (Gil originally called it incomplete, then said he couldn't see it), and the Brady-to-Moss-to-Brady-to-Gaffney flea-flicker Sunday (Gil told us Donte' Stallworth caught the TD). Maybe what they need is a competent spotter to help them quickly with player IDs and such, but right now it feels like the game has become too fast for them to keep up at a sufficient level of competence.

9. As I write this, the snow-globe scene outside the living room window has me in the holiday spirit, and having said all we have to say on the New England football juggernaut (dude, they're awesome!), well, what the heck, here are five TATB-sanctioned Christmas songs:

1. "Christmas Time Is Here," Vince Guaraldi Trio: When I was in first grade, I drew such a kick-ass, spot-on Snoopy that I was convinced I was going to grow up to work for - and eventually replace - Charles Schulz. (Actually, I can probably admit now that I often traced my Snoopy masterpieces. I was like a 7-year-old Larry Johnson, except I knew something about sports.) In all seriousness, my affection for the Peanuts is genuine to this day - this occupies a prominent spot in my home office - and it was much to my satisfaction that my 3-year-old daughter began the majority of her days this summer by insisting upon watching her "A Charlie Brown Christmas" DVD as she devoured her Cheerios. Even in July, it sure beats the hell out of watching Elmo.

2. "Blue Christmas," Elvis: A much more appropriate and appealing option than his lesser-known, late-career holiday single, "All I Want For Christmas Is A Peanut Butter-Banana-And-Quaalude Sandwich."

3. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," The Carpenters: Forget that freaky brother-sister dynamic. You know Karen had the voice of an angel. A really skinny angel, sure, but an angel nonetheless. (Too soon?)

4. "Merry Christmas, Alabama," Jimmy Buffett: The heartfelt way he sings "Merry Christmas, Tenn-uh-see" . . . well, not to get too sappy, but it just sounds so genuine and sincere. It's a wonder Kenny Chesney hasn't released a thinly disguised knockoff himself already. I'm assuming "Alabama, Have A Merry Christmas," will be ready in time for Christmas '08.

5. "Same Old Lang Syne," Dan Fogelberg: Sure, the lyrics are hackneyed ("We took her groceries to the checkout stand/
The food was totaled up and bagged" Wha?) and it's generally cheesier than Rosie O'Donnell's quads, but it still stands alone as the greatest recorded tribute to getting bleep-faced with an ex in the front seat of her car in a grocery store parking lot on Christmas Eve. So it's got that going for it, which is nice.

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

Only someone who's endured multiple concussions could find a way to rank the Steelers ahead of the Patriots today. C'mon, you can do it, Merrill. Fire off those last three working synapses and come up with some with some justification for dismissing the Patriots today.

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Monday, December 03, 2007

Everything's coming our way

Well, it looks like that blowhard gene doesn't skip a generation after all.

Seriously, how much are you loving the Hank Steinbrenner Era? He's a Jennifer Love Hewitt-diggin', tabloid-courtin', droopy-joweled version of his old man, right down to the ubiquitous blue blazer. (What, no white turtleneck? Step it up, son!)

Yes, the Steinbrenner boy possesses that famous Steinbrenner bluster. Unfortunately for him, he hasn't quite mastered the art of the ultimatum quite like his dear ol' bloviating daddy did.

First Hank deftly bullied A-Rod and shrewdly manipulated that negotiation until the poor, humiliated third baseman came crawling back to New York to accept the richest freakin' contract in baseball history. And now his take-or-leave-it offer to the Twins for ace lefthander Johan Santana hangs in the air unanswered, with Minnesota making counter proposals, disregarding his false bravado, and apparently pondering alternative options . . . including, as I suppose you've heard, an intriguing bid from those meddling Boston Red Sox.

Which brings us to the poll question of the day: Whaddaya say, Sox fans? Should they go for it? Should they do - and pay - whatever it takes to get Santana from the Twins, the side benefit being, obviously, that he does not end up in New York? I'll admit it: I've got seriously mixed feelings about the pursuit of the two-time Cy Young Award winner.

The positives, of course, should be obvious even to a dope like Steve Phillips. Santana has been the dominant pitcher in the American League for half a decade. His presence in a rotation with Josh Beckett, Dice-K, and Curt Schilling would make the Sox everyone's favorite to repeat as champs. And he's humble, charismatic, and a delight to watch, sort of a mellower, southpaw version of Pedro. Santana's easy to root for, and the citizens of Fenway would quickly come to adore him.

And yet . . .

The price is appropriately steep, both in terms of Santana's salary and personnel compensation to the Twins. I have a hard time fathoming Theo Epstein committing $20 million per season to any pitcher who will be in his mid-30s at contract's end, even one as accomplished as Santana.

And you have to figure it will take Jacoby Ellsbury and Jon Lester to make the deal happen, despite the Sox's insistence at the moment that it will be either/or. Ellsbury strikes me as somewhat overvalued right now - should the baby-faced October hero be dealt, the Pink Hats surely will weep into their $7.50 beers while yowling, "But he won us a taco!" But I stand by what I wrote in July: Ellsbury projects to be a Brett Butler type rather than the Fred Lynn/Johnny Damon hybrid his legions of admirers envision. He's talented, but hardly untouchable. But in a package with Lester, who threw the best game of his career in the biggest game of his career, and perhaps Jed Lowrie, and perhaps Justin Masterson or Michael Bowden? In that case, the status quo works for me, thanks, and given how often Epstein emphasizes the importance of having young, inexpensive contributors on the big-league roster, I imagine it will be too rich for his blood as well.

Besides, Santana may not be such a sure thing from here forward. I wrote a couple of times in the Fox column this season, he may be showing subtle signs of a decline; statistically, this was his worst season since he moved fulltime into the Minnesota rotation in 2004, and it's alarming to some degree that scouts thought he was hesitant to throw his slider during his mediocre final month of the season.

The pitcher I've often likened him to is Ron Guidry, another undersized lefty with a filthy slider who slipped from historically great to merely pretty good rather quickly. Gator's peak season - and what a season it was - came at age 27 in '78. Santana's peak has been longer and better, but he will be 29 in March, and it's worth noting that his most similar comparison on from ages 26 through 28 is Tim Hudson - respectable company, sure, but not who you'd expect for a pitcher of Santana's magnitude and reputation.

Another popular question these days is this: Should we believe Epstein is sincere in his interest? I think so . . . to a point. The Sox would love to have Santana, but on their terms. But the Yankees need Santana. Huge difference. Epstein has handled this negotiation with a casual calm - no deadlines, no worries - and part of his motivation simply has to be to drive up the ransom for the desperate Yankees, who must acquire this ace unless they want to spend the next half-decade looking up to the Sox in the standings.

Logically, the Yankees have no choice but to meet the Twins' demands - even Georgie's Boy must know this. I only hope Minnesota rookie GM Bill Smith is savvy and patient enough to wait out Son of George's next dozen or so "drop-dead deadlines" until he ends up with Philip Hughes (who's actually nine months younger than Joba Chamberlain, and a superior long-term prospect to the Midge Magnet in my opinion), Mussina-wannabe Ian Kennedy, and Melky Cabrera, an adequate talent whose energy greatly exaggerates his ability.

There are indications that Smith is getting antsy to make a deal - he is apparently willing to take outfielder Austin Jackson and righty Alan Horne instead of Kennedy, a logical proposition the Yankees reportedly rejected late last night. But in the end, if the Twins don't get a collection of talent they are pleased with in exchange for the best pitcher of this decade, it's their own fault.

After all, the Yankees are desperate to get this done. Listen closely to the blustery words of the nervous man in the blue blazer, and you might even hear it.

* * *

As for today's Completely Random Baseball Card:

Sox fans of a certain age have to be proud today that the deft and demanding manager of the Impossible Dream Sox is headed for Cooperstown, one of five candidates voted in by Veterans Committee today. Personally, I'm just hoping he remembers to wear pants to the induction ceremony. (By the way, Williams's autobiography, "No More Mr. Nice Guy," is a fantastic read. Can't recommend it highly enough. He rips everyone, save for his wife, Andre Dawson, and maybe Tony Gwynn.)

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