Thursday, September 21, 2006

Collaborate and listen

This was originally intended to be a "First and 10" column, but I figure that probably wouldn't be so timely now, four days and countless rehashes after the Pats' 24-17 win over the Jets. Heck, you might say it'd be more like "Last and 10"! (Ha! Ha-ha! . . . knee slap . . . c'mon, it's late.) So instead I've cranked out a monster notebook - kind of a meld between a "First and 10" and a "Nine innings," with a few other ridiculous notions and harebrained ideas thrown in for good measure. Dig in, and as always, thanks for reading and sharing your take:

• Bill Belichick has his team right where he wants them: At 2-0, in first place, and with countless rolls of film documenting their flaws and follies from their ugly victories Weeks 1 and 2. That said, I have no idea what to expect in this Denver game, other than that it's a good policy to stay away from Champ Bailey. The Broncos are historically tough on the Patriots - Tom Brady is 1-4 against them in his career - and Denver has not allowed a touchdown this season. On the other hand, Jake Plummer has suddenly remembered he's Jake Plummer, and he's about one more ill-advised throw away from permanently ceding his job to Jay Cutler. I suppose I'll give the nod to the Pats because they are at home and last season's playoff loss is a motive for revenge, but I don't feel particularly good about it.

• Three thoughts on Tom Verducci's must-read regarding Alex Rodriguez's bizarro struggles, which aren't limited to the ballfield; to a man, his teammates seem to have no use for him, to the point of open contempt: 1) Excuse the pop psychology, but after reading this, you simply can't come to any other conclusion but this: there is no Alex Rodriguez, fallible human, regular guy. His entire persona is tied up in the deceptive image of A-Rod, the perfect ballplayer and Mega Man, and so when he fails or struggles, he simply is not secure enough in himself to come to grips with it. (Hell, he even refuses to use the word "slump.") Yeah, the guy's a mess. 2) Jason Giambi, who seems about as genuine as a chronic cheater can be, comes across as a team-first leader. 3) Derek Jeter, the captain in title if not clubhouse conduct, does not, at least where A-Rod is concerned. Does pettiness count as an intangible?

• The Sox's decision to recall Devern Hansack from Double A Portland is one of those nice stories that remind me why I like sports. Hansack, an affable 28-year-old from Nicaragua, is a journeyman's journeyman: he was released after a couple of uninspiring years in Class A with Houston, did the vagabond ballplayer thing for a while in baseball hotbeds such as Holland (do they wear wooden cleats?), then returned to Nicaragua to play a little ball and get on with the rest of his life. Well, a Sox scout spotted him in a winter league, recommended that Boston sign him, and long story short, he blossomed into the ace of the Sea Dogs' championship team late this summer, winning the clinching Game 5 against Akron and looking like a pitcher with legitimate big-league aspirations. As the Portland Press Herald's Glenn Jordan (who is dearly missed on the Sea Dogs' beat, IMO) details here, it was kind of neat how the Sox informed him his improbable dream was coming true. (Update: My buddy Mistler has another fine first-person take here.)

• Peter King's column used to be staple on my Monday mornings, but ever since his wide-ranging NFL insight began regressing into a grating collection of anecdotes about his massive Starbucks intake, Montclair Freakin', N.J. softball, travel whines, Brett Favre man-love and atrocious fantasy football advice (Chris Simms? C'mon, we know you've known his old man for 20+ years, Peter, but cripes, the kid is on the verge of losing his job to Major Applewhite), he's become a pathetic parody of himself. He seems to have a remarkable sense of self-importance, and for proof, I offer you this as one example of many:

This is going to do nothing but make you envious of me, and so I'm not sure if I should write it or not, but I relate it only to let you know how thankful I am for the charmed life I lead, and to remind you that the next time I complain about anything job-related you need to put me in my place and tell me what a fool I am.

Last Wednesday, at the conclusion of the league meetings, I had a 5:15 p.m. flight on Continental from Phoenix to Newark. Being the baseball nerd that I am, I decided to stop in at the Arizona-Oakland exhibition game in Phoenix for a few innings, in large part because Randy Johnson was hurling. And so here came Miguel Tejada to the dish. Cool moment.

Reigning NL Cy Young Award winner versus reigning AL Most Valuable Player. Here's the pitch. Long drive to right ... twisting ... curving foul ... deep ... and 10 feet foul, over the fence. I thought -- and I have my reasons why -- what a good thing it would be to have that ball.

There was a moderate crowd on this toasty Arizona afternoon. And, after the inning, I walked out to the bleachers down the right-field line and looked over the fence that stood between the main ballpark and the back fields where the A's train. I asked a fan where the ball was that Tejada hit, and he pointed to the first main field, where a ball sat between home plate and the first-base bag. At the same time, a kid, maybe about 7, asked some other fans where the ball was; I heard him. And those fans pointed to four foul balls sitting in sort of no-man's land between the backstop on the first field and the fence where I was. I knew this couldn't be true, because the ball went over the fence barely foul, not 35 feet foul the way it would have had to if it was where the kid thought it was. And so I walked to the area outside the right-field stands where a guard and an A's official were making sure no fans got down to the lower fields and the players' parking lot. I asked if I might be able to get the Johnson-Tejada ball. The official said no problem, and I walked down, past the alerted guard, and onto the pristine field to get the ball. Behind me, all of a sudden, I heard the running footsteps of the kid, who'd apparently snuck behind me and got past the guard, too, and he scrambled past the backstop to get the ball he was sure was the one Tejada hit. I picked up the True Ball, and I told the kid: "I'm sure you've got the one Tejada hit," just so he'd feel good about it. And when the guard saw him walking back up the ramp toward the stadium, he tried to stop the kid, but he was too quick and slipped back into the stadium. (Just like I'm sure I would have done if I was a kid and had an MVP foul ball.) I thanked Matt sincerely, told him the ball would be put to good use, and went back to watch a couple more innings before catching my plane.

And now you know why I have the best job on earth.

Geez, I guessing King's editors cut out the part where he shoved the kid to the ground after he raced past the scone-stuffed, out-of-touch jackass. What. A. Tool. If I ever meet King, I vow to you that I will kiss his ass right up to the point where I tell him I loved him as Norm on "Cheers." Might not be original - the similarity is uncanny - but you know it would infuriate him, in part because George Wendt has him by at least 80 pounds these days, and in part because King surely thinks he's the bigger star. Gotta do something to puncture that bloated ego, people.

• And in a related note, how many so-called experts are revising their trendy Dolphins-Panthers Super Bowl prediction at the moment? I suppose the Panthers could recover should Steve Smith return to good health, but why Daunte Culpepper continues to fool people into believing he's an effective and winning NFL quarterback is a mystery to me. He's perennially overrated. Just like his team.

• I'm not saying Chad Jackson will replace Deion Branch, in terms of production or reliability. But from what I saw Sunday, it's at least a legitimate possibility, and for the moment, that's good enough for me. The kid clearly has tremendous skills. We'll learn about the rest soon enough.

• That said, I do miss Branch and David Givens, and I can't help but shake my head in disgust at the vocal minority who feel the need to denigrate their abilities and accomplishments simply because they are no longer a part of our team. Branch and Givens weren't the most physically gifted receivers in the T.O. sense, but they were smart, fearless, dependable winners who deserve nothing but plaudits for what they helped the Patriots accomplish in their four seasons here. I'll remember them well, and I don't understand why anyone wouldn't.

• Happy 50th, Big Papi. Thanks for bringing a little bit of electricity back to Fenway in this lost September, and for reminding me once again to never take you for granted.

This made my day, not only because he is again healthy and doing what he loves, but because this column, from the fresh insight to the (completely justified) list of Very Special People, is absolutely classic Gammons. Damn, I sure did miss him this summer.

• Derek Jeter is going to win the AL MVP award whether he deserves it or not, but even Yankee fans will admit their dreams of Championship No. 27 hinge on the right elbow of their real MVP, the indispensable Mariano Rivera. To put it another way: Given a choice between having Jeter or Rivera healthy for the postseason, I think even New Yawkers would relegate Jeter to the status of World's Highest-Paid Bench Coach.

• Just how long has Junior Seau been around? The Chargers selected him with the fifth pick in the 1990 draft. The Patriots selected a linebacker themselves five picks later. Hey, anyone heard from Chris Singleton lately?

• While the Dodgers' four-straight-homers-in-the-ninth comeback was historically wonderful, and Nomar's I-love-this-game reaction after hitting the walkoff winner was a pleasant revelation, the best thing about that ball game's conclusion was the graceful, egoless call by the incomparable Vin Scully. After using his patented "She's gone!" as Nomar's shot cleared the fence, he was silent for a good 30-45 seconds as the cameras captured the Dodgers' pure jubilation. Then he cut in with a wry "And, oh by the way . . . the Dodgers are in first place," and signed off. It was simply perfect. Trupiano and the rest should be so elegantly articulate.

• The Reggie Bush saga, among the increasing list of USC improprieties, suggests to me that Pete Carroll has about as much institutional control with the Trojans as he did during his Pushover Pete days with the Patriots. He's a swell guy, a clever defensive coach, and a charming recruiter, but he commands about as much respect as a poodle in a dog pound.

• Bob Ryan referred to ol' No. 80 as "the venerable Troy Brown" Sunday, and I thought that was perfect. That stiff arm he unleashed on Jets DB Derrick Strait was straight out of a Walter Payton highlight reel, and he remains the savviest third-down receiver ever to run a pass pattern for the Patriots. It seems like he's been around forever - and on these days when he seems ageless, you almost wonder if he will be.

• Buster Olney, whom I respect and whose work I enjoy even though he rarely seems to be right, thinks the Sox are going to make a run at Eric Gagne if he doesn't remain with the Dodgers. I'm not sure if I like this, to be honest. While Gagne is as good as it gets when he's healthy, he's not healthy all that often, and I can't help but notice that he's considerably smaller than he was when he converted from a mediocre starter to lights-out closer in '02. I'm just afraid the risk outweighs the reward in this case, and the Sox need a sure thing more than they need another question mark in that bullpen.

• I'd be glad to be wrong, but from what I've seen of Dustin Pedroia and David Murphy, the Sox will be all set for a utility infielder and a 4th outfielder for the next half-decade or so.

• All right, here's my take on HandshakeGate: I'm fairly certain Bill Belichick is pissed Eric Mangini dismissed his advice and took a job with the hated rival, one that in the aftermath of the HC of the NYJ debacle, once questioned his mental well-being. I'm fairly certain Mangini is taken aback and a little bit hurt by his mentor's petty you're-dead-to-me routine. And that's all the bandwidth I'm going to waste on this made-for-Ordway storyline.

• The moment the ninth inning of Game 162 of the Red Sox season is complete, Terry Francona seriously needs to go into hibernation for about three months. The man is wearing every crushing loss, devastating injury, and unjust break on his face; he looks like hell, pallid and drawn, and he's not exactly the picture of health in the best of times. Get some rest, Tito. The Nation knows you've earned it.

• The rip job Padres GM Kevin Towers dropped on Doug Mirabelli the other day comes as no surprise to anyone who's been around the Sox's washed-up backup catcher for any length of time. Mirabelli's an accomplished blowhard with a ridiculously inflated perception of his own abilities; Francona couldn't wait to be rid of him after the 2005 season, and I'm sure he's just thrilled to have him chirping in his ear now. Man, this trade just gets better and better, doesn't it?

• After making the mistake of watching "Sports Final" Sunday, I'm not sure what Bob Lobel openly disdains more: The Red Sox, the Patriots, the fans, or Steve Burton.

• Not sure if this is a legit rumor or just wishful thinking, but it's worth noting that Sox media relations honcho Glenn Geffner used to do radio play-by-play for the Padres. Hmmm. Anyone know if Trupe's contract has been renewed yet? Please say no . . . please say no . . .

• Okay, the important stuff. Here's my prediction for tonight's season premiere of the official sitcom of TATB, the Emmy-winning "The Office": I'll drool and grin like a jackass every time Pam is on the screen, my wife will roll her eyes and tell me I'm much more of a Roy than a Jim, I'll counter by noting that Angela reminds me of her, but much warmer, then I will be ordered to sleep on the couch . . . in the driveway. Hey, it's kind of our Thursday routine, you know. As far as the actual show is concerned . . . I say Jim transfers to Stamford after Pam breaks his heart and stays with Roy. I say it's several episodes (or seasons) down the road until Pam admits her true feelings, probably only after Jim has a new best girl in his life. If you want more of my pathetic insight, well, hell, stop by. That'll be me babbling on the couch, down by the mailbox.

• As for today's Completely Random Football Card:

When I was a kid, way back in the days before Flying Elvis stole Pat Patriot's gig, my dad would insist that Russ Francis was the best all-around tight end in the game - better than Kellen Winslow, Ozzie Newsome, Dave Casper, all of them. I took it with a dose of skepticism - he also insisted Stanley Morgan was better than John "J.J." Jefferson, my third-grade football hero, and I knew that couldn't be true . . . except, ultimately, it was. And don't tell my old man, but I think he might have been right about Francis, too.

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