Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Playing catch-up

The paper's got the news, TATB's got the views . . .

News: Paul Pierce is playing the best basketball of his career, Ryan Gomes is a revelation, the Celtics are on the verge of real relevance again.
Pierce's redemption song has been a joy to behold - he's removing all hyperbole from Tommy Heinsohn's proclamation that he's the best pure scorer the Celtics have ever had, and better yet, for the first time in his career, he's making his teammates better and carrying himself as a leader. (He's always conferring with his younger teammates and pointing stuff out when he's on the bench. Just watch.) While much has been written about Pierce's transformation on and off the court - Bill Simmons did a particularly nice job summing up the entire Truth Experience the other day, though I'm still confused as to whether BSG threw out that old newspaper or not - I think there is a factor here that's rather obvious but isn't getting much attention as it should: Pierce believes in the kids, and for the first time in a long time, he sees himself as part of a bright future for the Celtics. Think about it: For all the admiration we couch potatoes have developed for the high basketball IQs of sweet-shooting Delonte West and the exceedingly clever Ryan Gomes (whom we recognized as a useful talent long before Doc Rivers did, thank you very much), for as much as we dig the you-can't-teach-that post game of Al Jefferson, the raw athleticism of Tony Allen, Gerald Green and Orien Greene, or the work ethic and desire of Kendrick Perkins, well, Pierce sees it all from point-blank range. He knows what these kids are really all about, and it's incredibly reassuring how much he genuinely seems to enjoys them. Remember, from the careless insubordination of Mark Blount to his mini-feuds with Kenny Anderson, Pierce justifiably hasn't always had the most faith in his running mates. Hell, I bet even his buddy Antoine Walker, with his rim-denting threes, drove him nuts at times. Now, at age 28, he's become the player and leader we all hoped he'd be, and he's got an intriguing, admirable collection of young players following him. Yeah, I'd say the Celtics are on the very of relevance again. (Oh, and one more thing: If Doc Rivers ever gives Brian Scalabrine significant minutes at the expense of Gomes above right, with Gerald Green ever again, he should be forced to turn in his whistle and clipboard on the spot, because there is absolutely no hope for him as an NBA coach.)

News: The Patriots release defensive end Willie McGinest, watch receiver David Givens to depart to Tennessee as a free agent, and allow iconic kicker Adam Vinatieri to test the market.

Patriots' fans mantra during the glorious recent seasons has been "In Bill We Trust," and for the most part such faith has served us well. But at the moment, it's justifiable to wonder just what Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli are thinking. While the new collective bargaining agreement and increased salary cap have led to a whirlwind of free agent activity, the Patriots have been conspicuously quiet. What are they up to? Good luck finding out. Maybe they are waiting for a second wave of talent to hit the market (Keyshawn Johnson, cut by the Cowboys tonight, would be a superb replacement for Givens, IMO). Maybe they don't think the likes of Antwaan Randle El are worth the coin they are getting. Maybe they are working on longterm deals for Deion Branch and Richard Seymour, a prudent exercise to be sure. Maybe Belichick is following Bon Jovi's "How The Hell Are We Still Around?" Tour and completely forgot about that whole repair-your-team-in-the-offseason thing. But whatever the plan of attack, this much is true: the tailgating, ticket-buying natives are getting restless. We want some news . . . and maybe even an explanation or two. Oh, we all know the Patriots are loathe to justify their decision-making process to the media, and for the most part I think fans are okay with this. But isn't it a touch alarming that McGinest, a hugely popular player and a member of four Super Bowl teams, and Vinatieri, merely the best clutch kicker in football history, are speaking of their Patriots careers in the past tense? It would be nice if Belichick or Pioli could deign to explain to us why McGinest was cut (hey, we all know he was invisible when Seymour was out last season, but it would be reassuring to hear a softer farewell from Belichick) or why Vinatieri apparently isn't worthy the paltry sum of something like $2.5 million per year (I suspect they think he slipped last year). Of course, we'll never get these answers. And until the Patriots make a few moves and Belichick stops singing backup on "Dead Or Alive" and gets back to business, all we can do is wait. And wonder.

News: A new book by San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, Game Of Shadows, exposes Barry Bonds as a liar, cheater, jackass, tax evader, adulterer, bully - and oh yeah, a steroid abuser.
Finally. the smoking needle. I always figured it was a matter of time before the posse caught up to Bonds and revealed the truth about how he really accomplished the scientifically impossible, transforming himself from looking like El DeBarge to the Incredible Hulk in his mid-30s. That he was so brazen and arrogant to the media - almost daring them to "catch me if you can" - not to mention abusive behavior to his supposed friends, particularly trainer/dealer Greg Anderson, well, he motivated a lot of people to want to bring him down. Well, they got him. Anyone who read Sports Illustrated's lengthy excerpt from the meticulously reported book cannot possibly have a shred of doubt that Bonds has cheated his way toward baseball's most hallowed record. And whatever comes of this bombshell, be it jail, a suspension from baseball, a ban from the Hall of Fame (for which he was a mortal lock even before he started pumping everything but battery acid into his body), or even a premature death, the damage Barry Bonds has done to himself is no match for the damage he and his enablers have done to baseball. Bonds may go away, but this story won't for a very long time. (Two other intriguing sidelights to this story. 1) Fainaru-Wada and Williams got access to the grand jury testimony from the BALCO case, which means they also know the full truth about the other athletes called to testify. If I'm Jason Giambi - and to a lesser extent, Gary Sheffield - I'm verrry nervous about what else is documented in this book. 2) It's been fascinating watching ESPN scramble to save journalistic face after getting broadsided by SI's scoop. The day the excerpt appeared on CNNSI, ESPN took a curiously long time posting anything regarding the story on its website - and when it did, it chose to overemphasize a report in ESPN The Magazine revealing that Bonds used Androstenedione. That's the equivalent of reporting that the freezer on the Titanic was full of ice cubes. Then, tonight, they had the "scoop" that there is another Bonds book on the market and in it it is revealed that - stop the presses! - he told Ken Griffey Jr. in 1998 that he was considering taking steroids. It's interesting, sure, but it's a mere footnote to SI's story. ESPN's embarrassment was compounded by the fact that it has had a reporter, Pedro Gomez, covering Bonds and only Bonds for two years now - you'd think he might have had some insight regarding the situation. Of course, the network's credibility regarding its coverage of the swollen slugger was compromised the moment they announced plans for a Bonds "reality" show. Considering ESPN promotes itself as the World Wide Leader and has an annoying knack for taking credit for every relevant piece of breaking news ("ESPN's Chris Mortenson is reporting that the Philadelphia Daily News reported that Terrell Owens is an $*%&%&#&#"), it's been fun to watch them get hammered, and perhaps even humbled. Boo-yeah!

News: The World Baseball Classic is in full swing . . . but does anyone in the United States care?
I admit, I was skeptical. I thought this was another ill-conceived, poorly timed Bud Selig production, a crass marketing opportunity barely disguised as competition. But after watching a half-dozen or so games the last few days - hey, the baseball jones needs feeding - I have to admit, I'm enjoying the hell out of this thing. Highlights so far: Domincan dandy David Ortiz hitting one entirely out of the park while carrying his nation the way he carries Red Sox Nation; Korea's Byung-Hyun "One Finger" Kim whiffing the US's Vernon Wells on an 81 MPH meatball with the bases loaded Monday night; A-Rod hitting a game-winning worm-killer up the middle to win a game, then being greeted with a snarky "Mr. March" headline the next morning in one of the New York tabloids; and finally, imagining the lava flowing out of George Steinbrenner's ears when he got word that the shoulder that bothered Johnny Damon during the second half last season is again "barking." Steinbrenner, you might recall, was a conscientious objector to this whole World Classic concept, pressuring his Yankees not to play and predicting that someone would suffer a serious injury. If he's right, and that player turns out to be a Yankee . . . well, in this corner, that qualifies as poetic justice.

As for today's Completely Random Baseball Card:

You know, it'd be impossible to draw a caricature of Big Head Barry these days. Go ahead, get out your Crayolas and try. The size of his real 'roid-swollen head simply cannot be exaggerated.