Wednesday, March 23, 2005

TATB Notebook 03.23.05

Touching all the bases while wondering if Darius "Burger King" Rucker has a shred of dignity left, then realizing that someone who has spent much of his adult life being called "Hootie" probably didn't have much to lose in the first place . . .

If Danny Ainge can admit his mistakes regarding the Celtics, I'd have no right to criticize him if I didn't do the same. So here comes my mea culpa (Latin for "Finn, you bleeped up again"):

I hated the Ricky Davis trade. Hated it.

Tony Battie was one of my favorite Celtics - he played hard despite knees that were turning into hamburger, and I consider him the best clutch performer in franchise history for no other reason than he drove Paul Pierce to the hospital the night he got stabbed. I was sad to see Batman go.

Throw in Eric Williams - another key component to an overachieving Eastern Conference finalist just two years previous - and I simply could not understand what Ainge was thinking . . . especially since Davis was perceived to be the devil-horned epitome of everything "wrong" with the NBA, stereotyped right down to the tatoos, cornrows and faux triple-doubles. Bad dude, that Davis.

Fast forward a year later, and here I am, swallowing my words and offering this confession: Davis is easily my favorite player on a Celtics team full of fun players. He busts his skinny butt on defense, he has the deadly midrange game that 90 percent of the guards and forwards in the NBA lack, and he might be the most electric athlete the Celtics have had since the early days of Dee Brown. (Though Tony Allen gives him a run for his slam-dunkin' money.)

Most tellingly, Davis is the guy you want with the ball in his hands with game on the line; not even Paul Pierce can match his ability to create his own shot, and Davis is more trustworthy in those situations.

It was a great trade.

In retrospect, Ainge was doing the only thing he could to make the Celtics better - swapping aging stability in Battie and Williams for an elite but immature talent, gambling that Davis would grow up and become the player he should be. And at age 25 - he's that young - it seems he has. Ainge deserves credit for reaching for the stars, because he sure seems to have found one.

We will always admire him for his autumn heroics (yes, that is the right word), and it'll be a crime if he ever has to pay for another meal or frosty beverage in New England ever again. But man . . . could Curt Schilling please pause and take a breath once in a while? I know he prides himself on being articulate and accessible, but is he really such a blowhard that he can't help but to offer his often ill-informed opinion on every topic under the sun, from steroids to the presidential race to the future of Brad and Jen? Put down the microphone, the telephone, the bullhorn, and shut up already, Curt. You're beginning to make Kevin Millar look like a mime.

Then again, I know one thing that might have silenced Schilling real quick: a congressman asking him under oath if any of his teammates on the 1993 Phillies juiced. Something tells me he'd have had to pull a McGwire on that one. Right, Nails?

Little Lenny . . .

. . . and Livin' Large Lenny. I'm just sayin' . . .

Considering that Adam Hyzdu might as well change his name to The 26th Man, Theo did well to get reliever Blaine Neal in exchange from the Padres. Neal throws a flame-broiled fastball, and three years ago with the Sea Dogs he looked like a Robb Nen in the making, striking out more than a batter an inning and posting a 2.36 ERA. Unfortunately, he seems to suffer from a bad case of Schiralditis - he fastball is as straight as Carson Kressley is gay . . .

. . . and he's been unable to develop a reliable second pitch. Still, of the trio ex-Sea Dogs closers whose career paths have led them to the Sox bullpen - Matt Mantei and Hector Almonte being the others - Neal has a very good chance of being the second-best of the two. Faint praise, to be sure, but praise nonetheless.

Should we take the Patriots complete disinterest in stud free-agent linebacker Ed Hartwell to mean that the braintrust thinks Tedy Bruschi will play next season? Or should we remind ourselves that when one assumes anything about the Belichick/Pioli player procurement process, you're risking looking like a jackbooted idiot in the long run? Probably the latter, huh?

Which brings us to Bruschi, and a fan's ongoing quandry. I find myself devouring all the stories on his physical state, searching amid the medical jargon for a glimmer of hope that this was all a misunderstanding between his heart and his brain and he will be cleared to play next season. Because you, me and Peyton Manning know No. 54 might be the one guy other than the quarterback that makes the difference between 13-3 and 10-6. Then, I inevitably catch myself putting football ahead of the man, feel a tinge of guilt, and think, He's got a beautiful wife, three adorable boys and a Super Bowl ring to give each of them when they are older. How can anyone possibly root for him to put on a football helmet again?

Congratulations go out to WEEI for switching to its new format. I'm pretty sure it's now the first all-steroids-talk station in the country. Riveting stuff. (Snnnoore.) If only there were a sports-talk alternative around here with a signal stronger than a ham radio. Stephen King, are you listening?

I was saddened to hear of the passing of former Bears safety Todd Bell, who died at age 47 last week, apparently of a heart attack. A first-rate headcracker and an All-Pro in 1984, he was one of my boyhood favorites, a player very similar in style and skill to Lawyer Milloy. Unfortunately, also like Milloy, he also made a decision based on money that ended up undermining his legacy. Bell is not remembered for the two or three great years he had, but for the one great year he didn't have - he sat out the Bears' Super Bowl Shuffle season, perhaps the best single team in NFL history - in a contract dispute over what amonted to $166,000 a year. He returned in '86, but he was never the same afterward, and neither were the Bears. It's too bad. For a too-brief time, Todd Bell was one of the best.

Is anyone else worried that Johnny Damon is getting a little too caught up in being Johnny Jesus Superstar? I mean, the book, the rock-star persona, the nagging injuries this spring. . . I'm starting to wonder if he's the likeliest candidate to suffer a severe hangover from 2004. Then again, his Game 7 ALCS performance should be worth about 86 years of mulligans - he can turn into Axl Rose at this point and the Nation would still adore him.

So Barry Bobblehead tells us he may miss the season, in part because he's "tired." Huh. I would have thought there's a steroid he could've taken for that.

I'm rooting for Taylor Coppenrath to find a spot in the The Association, but my semi-trained eyes tell me Vermont's favorite son is going to have to spend a year or two adding some muscle and polish in Europe before coming back to fill some team's Token Goofy White Guy role. With his thin frame and Jamaal Wilkes-style shot, he's simply not NBA-ready at this point. The Eurotrip worked wonders for another likable New England kid, Concord's Matt Bonner, a similar if more physically developed player who has found a niche with the Toronto Raptors this season. Could work for Coppenrath too, and I hope Ainge keeps an eye on him.

I have to give Reggie Miller credit. It doesn't seem to bother him that his sister looks more like an NBA player than he does.

If there's any blessing at all in this steroid controversy, it's that players of a previous era will receive more plaudits for their accomplishments. Henry Aaron, shamefully underappreciated, will become a more beloved figure, in large part because people don't want the insufferable Bonds to break his record. Jim Rice may now get into the Hall of Fame - aren't his 382 homers are a lot more impressive than McGwire's 583, knowing what we think we know now? And superstars of this era who are clean - I'm guessing Manny Ramirez is atop this list - will be lauded for accomplishing great things without giving into temptation.

We opened this column with Celtics talk. Might as well close with some too. A few days ago, a reader asked whom Al Jefferson reminded me of among current NBA veterans. The best I could come up with at the time was Rasheed Wallace, and even as I said it, I knew the comparison wasn't entirely accurate. Wallace is lankier, and his precision from long-range is something Jefferson can only dream about right now. Plus, Wallace is rabid, and Jefferson is not, as far as I know. A better comparison, pointed out to me via email today, is Elton Brand. You can see it, can't you? The similarity is uncanny. Jefferson is two inches taller and slightly slimmer, but everything else about him is a mirror image of the Clippers star: the pillow-soft hands that magnetize every loose ball within their grasp, the instinctive and creative spins and fakes on the post, the blocky, thick shoulders, the deft touch from anywhere within 10 feet. And to think that the Celtics came up with a younger, taller version of a Brand, a force whose averaged 19.4 points and 10.5 rebounds per game in his career, with the 15th pick in the draft . . . well, Ainge would get my vote for NBA Executive of the Year for this alone.