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Game 7

There’s no way to classify what happened at Shea Stadium on a mild, rainy October night. Willie Randolph replicated one of the most epic blunders by a manager in a seventh game. Endy Chavez replicated the dream he had the night before Game 7. Jeff Suppan replicated his performance from Game 3. And somehow Adam Wainwright (who?!?) found a way to protect a ninth inning lead without a fastball.

So how did all this happen? How is a team that just last night won its 90th game about to be playing for a ring? How is it that Game 7’s either end in a thrashing or a miracle? How many wagers did the baseball fates have on this contest? There must be some explanation for the seemingly inexplicable.

With the intention of cutting straight to the heart of this matter, jump to the top of the sixth inning. One out. Cardinals and Mets tied 1-1. Oliver Perez walks Jim Edmonds on his 87th pitch. Perez has just completed one of the most improbable treks from the fringes of the baseball world to its most cherished stage. He has clearly left every ounce of sweaty fortitude on that mound at Shea. Randolph trots out to the hill, as Chad Bradford finishes his warm up tosses, waiting for the imminent call.

As the skipper gets to the mound the entire infield convenes for a meeting. Randolph looks Perez square in the eye and asks him the one question you never ask a pitcher in a deciding playoff game, be it Pedro Martinez or, well Oliver Perez. Course coach, I got one more in me. That cliche could be uttered by one of the great pitchers of all time or by a character played by Kevin Costner. Unfortunately for viewers it’s all the same. We know baseball is too cruel and Hollywood is too unoriginal for the other shoe not to immediately drop.

Instead of Perez exiting stage right it’s Randolph. And before he can retake his post in the dugout Scott Rolen has launched the first meatball he sees deep into the dark and cloudy Flushing night. Mets fans lost their lunch. Red Sox fans shuddered. Yankees fans snickered. Then Endy Chavez, the role player that time and time again has defied the odds, decided to defy the fates. With one of the most majestic catches October will ever see, Chavez ascended over the fence, hauled in the ball, swung around and doubled up Edmonds at first base.

In the delirium that ensued Chavez could have levitated and flown back to the dugout and the Shea-faithful wouldn’t have noticed. In less than a heartbeat a mundane Game 7 between two-are-you-kidding-me-hurlers had transformed into a transcendent fall classic.

If destiny had called in the form of Willie Randolph pulling a Grady Little, Endy Chavez sure as hell refused to answer the phone.

Shea continued to bump, waiting in giddy anticipation for the other other shoe to drop; waiting for this new manifestation of destiny. Waiting for Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado, David Wright. Waiting.

Somehow they were kept waiting all the way until the ninth inning. Then came Yadier Molina. Facing Aaron Heilman, Molina turned on a fastball left over the middle of the plate and connected. If everyone in Shea knew that Rolen’s ball was out of the park, they certainly knew that this fly ball had warning track written all over it. For some reason it just kept carrying. For all Shea knows a jumbo jet took off from nearby La Guardia Airport and gobbled that ball up into its jet stream. Didn’t really matter how it happened, though. It was 3-1 Cardinals heading into the last of the ninth inning.

If baseball fans are connected at the hip in one common way it is in the mutual hope they share; the hope that their marquee bats will find a way to come up in deciding-situations: If we’re gonna lose, least let us lose with [insert star] at the plate…

The Mets got that chance. Against a closer who had earned that designation merely for his work in the last two weeks, New York had to feel good about its chances. Sure, Wainwright had been effective in the series, but saving a playoff game and eliminating a team in its own house are two completely different things. Both Jose Valentin and Endy “Angels in the Outfield” jumped on fastballs for solid singles. First and second. Nobody out. Cliff Floyd, a pinch hitter, stepped to the plate, and got rung up on a breaking ball right over the heart of the plate. True knee-breaker, but also the kind of pitch that relies solely on deception.

Next up was Reyes, who managed to work the count against the visibly-fazed Wainwright. He got into a hitters count and smoked a frozen rope to right center field. Edmonds was in good position and made the play. Two outs. Paul Lo Duca up. Anybody rooting for the Mets knew that if only Lo Duca could find a way to get on base, that would be it. Sure enough, Wainwright, now really feeling the pressure, lost all command of his fastball. Five-pitch walk and Carlos “October” Beltran up.

Wainwright fooled Beltran with a first pitch curve. Then he fooled him again with a last pitch curve. And Game 7 was suddenly over, along with the Mets season. It was a season where the expectations were minted as soon as the Mets forcefully took the NL East away from the Braves. And that basically happened by May 1st. Unfortunately, lots can happen in seven months. And to the Mets, lots did.

However adversity doesn’t change expectations. Not to true competitors at least. Fact is, these Mets may not be champions this year, but no one can deny that they competed until the end. And with the way Game 7 unfolded, maybe merely competing wasn’t enough. Because on one stormy autumn night in Queens, it appears that for the Mets it simply wasn’t meant to be.

NLCS Main(e) Points

First off, KUDOS JOHN MAINE. On the surface Maine’s performance in Game 6 last night fits into a nice historical perspective: no rookie pitcher starting an elimination game has ever lost that game. As concise as that sounds, don’t be fooled: John Maine was one pitch away from not making it out of the first inning. Which makes his 5 1/3 innings of shutout baseball all the more glorious. With one out and runners on second and third in the first inning, Maine whiffed Jim Edmonds on three pitches before retiring Scott Rolen with the bases loaded two batters later.This was a game earmarked for disaster, and the kid battled through it. He battled quite literally with himself, struggling all evening to locate his pitches (54 strikes, 44 balls), but refusing to give up another hit after that fateful first inning. He primarily kept his fastballs up in the zone, and had good velocity, 93-95 mph. After being boosted by a leadoff home run from Jose Reyes, it was undoubtedly Maine’s game…

Speaking of the catalyst, Senor Reyes, I think it’s safe to say that his postseason slump has ended. And a la Johnny Damon in Game 7 against the Yankees in 2004, opponents beware. Reyes is the single most dynamic player in the game today, and his non-presence in these playoffs nearly cost his team this series. Nearly…

Since every prediction I have made about the Mets has not come to fruition (see: Pedro, El Duque, Mets in 5) I will refrain from asserting that the Mets easily win this game tonight. So I will stick to the facts, and let conclusions be drawn as they may…

Reyes is baaaaaack, which bodes exceptionally well for the Mets offense, not to mention potentially disastrous for the Cardinals pitching staff. I have always deemed it next to impossible for an on-paper inferior pitcher to dominate an on-paper superior lineup twice in one series. This kind of stuff just doesn’t happen. Check it. Add to that the fact that the “inferior pitcher”, Jeff Suppan, couldn’t cut it as the mop-up man for the Red Sox two years ago and you get my drift…

The Mets have history on their side. Teams that have forced a Game 7 after being down 3-2 have won that seventh game in eight of 11 instances. The game also happens to be at Shea Stadium, a venue that has housed so much magic this year that David Blaine just might be angered that he finally has some competition in New York (and in Queens no less). So unless Jeff Suppan is counting on making his 90 mph fastball disappear, odds favor the Metropolitans…

Finally, this team has been hit with every possible hindrance that a squad predestined for the World Series could be dealt. From injuries to slumps; blown leads to series deficits, they have persevered through it all. And they have done so through toothy smiles and gags, headbumps and hairdos, intertwined with hasty heroics. Some of those traits sound familiar? To paraphrase an ex-champion in the context of this Mets team: it might just be “destination”.

Post-Division Series Points

The Cardinals are back in the NLCS, where they are about to meet their maker in the form of the New York Mets. I wasn’t completely convinced that St. Louis had simply shaken off their collective blackout at the end of the regular season until I saw Tony La Russa give Chris Carpenter the nod in Game 4 last night against San Diego. By doing so he sent a clear message: with the Jeff’s (Weaver and Suppan) posing as playoff-number two and three starters, it was just plain silly to look down the line at a possible fourth starter. Had to go right back to the top. Couldn’t put his faith in Jason Marquis or Albert Pujols or the hometown faithful.

Okay, the move paid off. Carpenter rebounded from a rocky first inning against the Padres and clinched the series for his ball club. He did what aces do: win a big game. Problem is, the next big game he appears in will not be until Game 3 of the NLCS. It could’ve been Game 1, if La Russa had a ounce of faith in any of the aforementioned entities. But he didn’t. He witnessed first hand the colossal implosion of his corps a few weeks ago, and obviously deemed advancing to a third consecutive League Championship Series a sufficient success.

In the interest of speaking directly: the Cards have no chance of winning a game not started by Carpenter against the Mets. Since his slated second start would be for a Game 7, it’s safe to say that the Mets clinch the NL pennant in 5, and rest up for the World Series while the A’s and Tigers duke it out in a long series…

Speaking of those destroyers from Detroit…how bout them Yanks?!? No honestly, props to the Tigers. That squad clearly responded to the naysayers a la the White Sox of last year by thoroughly dominating a team that most (yours truly included) believed would be bashing all the way to the AL pennant. Now the Yankees are headed to the showers, another October minus glory.

Obviously more is being written about the Yankees than any of the remaining playoff teams. There is lots of speculation that Joe Torre is headed out; lots of debate over whether A-Rod can ever show his face in the Bronx again. Jim Caple even dared to suggest that the Yankees trade Jeter and move A-Rod to short. Yeah, and maybe the Patriots will trade Tom Brady if they lose a few more playoff games. Hogwash. But hey, with a philosophical structure as warped as the one exercised by this present version of the New York Yankees, maybe they should just cut out the heart of the beast.

Yeah, and then that beast will bleed all over the Bronx. So in the name of preventing bloodshed, let’s quell the “trade-Jeter” talk…

As for the ALCS, this is a series I’m having a lot of trouble getting a read on. Detroit’s near-stellar starting pitching, coupled with their ability to consistently have good at bats and hit the ball out of the park, has been impressive. With Joel Zumaya throwing hand grenades in the forms of weaponized-fastballs to opposing hitters in the seventh and/or eighth innings, the Tigers appear to have a sound formula for success…

I’m kind of reeling because I still haven’t totally grasped the fact that Oakland won a series-clinching game for the first time in my cognitive life. The A’s are a team that has always been constructed for a long series; they’ve just never been able to get to a seven game series. Now that they are there with Rich Harden seemingly in midseason shape, they’re going to be tough to beat. Because both the Tigers and A’s are peaking at the right time, the ultimate advantage once again swings back to the Mets, who will have to go into either Detroit or Oakland to begin the World Series, but with less tribulations in their rear view…

Bye Week with Rudi

When I’m not diligently producing points for my reputable readership I’m shifting in and out of various free lance jobs at College Sports Television (CSTV). Lately I have been working as a researcher for the studio crew. On Saturday CSTV was fortunate enough to obtain the analytical expertise of one of the NFL’s more decorated running backs, Rudi Johnson.

I had no idea he was going to be in-studio, and coincidentally was wearing one of those half-turtleneck, NFL-brand, long-sleeve T-shirts. The only insignia is in the form of a small team logo on the left side of the neck. And those who know my local affiliations understand implicitly that the logo was of a little Patriot. Let’s just say that after watching intently four quarters of the Patriots-Bengals game last Sunday I wasn’t exactly flyin’ outta my “And 1’s” to go and introduce myself.

To add a little perspective Rudi is 5-10, 225 pounds. He wore a sleek cream-colored suit, baggy. To the unknowing those 225 pounds may have seemed diminished, possibly even in question. To a perceptive sports-eye who happened to be wearing some adversarial gear, those were 225 pounds of human steel. So yeah, I had a lot of work to do and didn’t have the opportunity to go say whatup…

After Rudi did a taped-bit he gravitated over to the research area to check in on the day’s games. I looked up and he was over my right shoulder. (At least the logo was out of his line of sight.) I stood up, introduced myself, and told him not to pay attention to my shirt. Which drew his attention directly to my shirt. He chuckled, and reflected briefly on the Pats game. Said the Pats got away with one, and his squad will get another shot come playoff time, with a different result. I noted that the venue may be different, come January. He didn’t waver. I didn’t doubt him.

I asked him about the upcoming schedule. He said they’re going down to Tampa after the bye week. I grinned and joked about how that should be a nice bounce back game. “Somebody’s gotta pay,” he asserted. I once again didn’t doubt him. Probably because he’s one of the nastiest running backs for one of the NFL’s most high-powered offenses. Have I mentioned that? He’s also a down to earth guy. Has that unique combination of ego and personality. He’s brash, and in the same breath modest.

And then he took my seat. As a researcher, ninety-five percent of my work involves staring at a computer screen, tracking football statistics via gamecasts. I had gone to grab a bottle of water, and when I returned Rudi was plopped down at my station, reading up on his squad and his competition. So I stood and waited. I had some, not a lot of work to do. But there really wasn’t any question. I just wasn’t going to be the guy who tells Rudi Johnson to get out of his seat in a Pats shirt. No, I’m not that guy.

When Rudi finished, I retook my seat, and before long he was back flanking me watching the games. We got talking again, this time about his division, the AFC North. Agreed that the Steelers would rebound and the Ravens would level off. I asked him what games he had circled on the schedule, and he directed me towards a Monday night game on December 18th in Indianapolis. Talked about how there will definitely be a lotta offense. I added that this rematch of one of the great games from last season will probably have home-field implications as well. I surely wasn’t enlightening him.

If there is one aspect of the NFL that separates professionals from wannabes, it’s the sheer power with which these guys hit each other all over the field. (In the Bengals-Patriots game last week Reche Caldwell was blindsided so hard that I really thought he was knocked out cold.) In that light I asked Rudi if there was one hit he remembers taking that really flattened him. He laughed and responded that he likes to initiate the hitting. I agreed, assuring him that I have seen plenty of instances in which he pancaked, railroaded or simply ran through opposing players. But there must be that one hit, right…

“John Lynch,” he said. “One time he got under my chin, and hit me good, I needed stitches.” I then asked him if there were any singularly memorable blasts that he’s dealt out. The gist of his response was that those kind of memories were plentiful. He does love a good stiff arm though, and he is part of an elite class of backs who employ it frequently. Most relevant, his ex-teammate, Corey Dillon. He said the two still talk, and was in accord with my claim that Corey was more than happy to accept “the 15” for his excessive celebration after earning a hard-fought, late-touchdown against his old mates.

Looking ahead, Rudi exuded nothing but confidence about the 2006 season. “We expect to win every game we play,” he said. If there is one thing the Bengals have to do better, though, it is to more effectively defend against the run.

“Gotta stop the run,” he said.

“One thing’s for sure, Rudi,” I shot back. “Ya’ll can definitely run the ball.”

He grinned and headed over to the set.

NFL Points: Week 4

The Patriots and Eagles are back in it to win it. Mark it down. While the Bears and Colts are probably the best two teams in the league right now, it is New England and Philly that have rediscovered the winning two-step, and should thus be feared…Donovan McNabb dazzled on Monday night, throwing for two touchdowns and running for another two against unfortunate Brett Favre and Green Bay. McNabb has now thrown nine touchdowns this season against just one interception. Had it not been for his cockiness against the Giants with a humongous lead, the Eagles would be undefeated through four weeks. The Andy Reid/healthy-Donovan McNabb combo has been good enough to appear in four of the last six NFC Championship Games. The defense can still stop the run and Brian Westbrook can still confound opposing coaches and personnel with his multifaceted capabilities. With the Cowboys (and we’d expect T.O.) coming to town on Sunday, Philly is one win away from putting itself in the drivers seat for the NFC East title…

With all the hoopla and verbal jousting in the week preceding Sunday’s game between the Patriots and Bengals, one had wonder if the Cincinnati players were merely trying to fill the time during which they were normally posting bond. Relevant as that may be, the Bengals had a different agenda on their minds. They saw the Pats game as a minor speed bump after which cruising over at fairly high speeds they would be able to proclaim themselves the best team in football. Instead Laurence Maroney decided to stiff-arm that scenario, in addition to the rest of the weak Cincy-run defense, en route to 125 yards on the ground and two touchdowns.

There are very few instances when Bill Belichick gives a sound bite worthy of repeating or attempting to interpret. But when the ever-mum and monotonous-New England coach decided to engage himself in that Bengal-banter during his press conference earlier this week, it was obviously for a reason. Chad Johnson had essentially challenged Belichick to give him one on one coverage to which Belichick responded, “Tell him we’d cover him one one on one all the time but he pushes off more than any receiver in the league. He must be paying off the officials not to call it.” A comment from Belichick involving wit? It can’t be true! Well it was calculated, and while his facial expression won’t change until the tickle of falling confetti forces the issue, we can definitely say that the coach got the last laugh this time…

MLB Playoff Points ‘06

Undoubtedly the most bizarre stretch-run in recent memory. Yet here we are, on the eve of another MLB postseason. Collapses, surges and injuries were the dominant story lines throughout the last week of the season. The Cardinals and Tigers survived while the Twins and Dodgers thrived. The Padres and A’s sustained while the Mets and Yankees pained. Now that some of the dust has finally settled it’s clear that there’s not a single team in the field that is currently equipped with the necessary tools to win 11 October baseball games. With that in mind, let us examine a handful of guys whose play will ultimately dictate the fortunes of their teams.

Rich Harden and Frank Thomas: It’s sad to say, but Rich Harden embodies the essence of this generation of the Oakland A’s. That is, he consistently comes out of the gates in April doing his best Sandy Koufax-impression. The A’s come out of the gates in October doing their best ’96 Yankees-impression. Problem is, Harden is always on the shelf by mid-May and the A’s are always eliminated in the ALDS via reverse-sweep by mid-October. Sooo, if Harden can take his rightful place atop the new Oakland “Big three” (in front of Barry Zito and Dan Haren), and Frank Thomas can continue to anchor that lineup, the A’s could find themselves back in a position to win one game and advance to the ALCS. Yeah, familiar territory for Oakland…

Chien-Ming Wang and Randy Johnson: The Yankees have such ridiculous offensive capabilities that they should probably be represented at the next G-8 Summit. With that said, their championship aspirations rest on the shoulders of their starting pitching. Mike Mussina’s poise under pressure is one-upped only by Mariano Rivera (okay, five-upped). Wang has made one career playoff start, and lost. The Unit was borderline-atrocious in his one playoff-stint with the Yanks last October. Wang has been much better this year, but Johnson has arguably been worse, and is now ailing. Yankee-fans definitely don’t want to hear the names “Corey Lidle” or “Jaret Wright” in the same sentence as “elimination-game” so the front three for New York must bear the torch.

St. Louis Cardinals: So much to say, don’t know where to begin. They do have the best hitter in baseball. They also have the best pitcher in the National League. After Albert Pujols and Chris Carpenter though, all they got is a whole-lotta baggage. They’ve been to the World Series and NLCS the last two years, respectively. And yaddy yaddy yadda, I mean let’s face it, THIS TEAM DOESN’T DESERVE TO BE IN THE PLAYOFFS!! They deserve to get a reality show made about the last two weeks of their season, that’s about it. But behind all the mortification is experience. If this team can find a way to regroup they could actually be back in the NLCS. (It’s okay, I’m laughing too.)

Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran: With Pedro out, many might deem the Mets rotation as the x-factor. It’s a given that the starters are either old (Orlando Hernandez and Tom Glavine) or lacking postseason experience (Steve Trachsel and John Maine) but the bullpen is the deepest in the league, and will bolster the staff from the back end. If Willie Randolph can get five innings from his starters, the Mets will be fine. So long as Reyes wreaks havoc for opposing pitching staffs on the base paths and Beltran reprises his role as an October-assassin (the real reason Omar Minaya gave him all those digits). With those two guys leading the way offensively, the Mets will be scoring runs consistently. As for “that guy” to replace Pedro when it comes to closing out a series, I think El Duque proved last year that he remains a transcendent-October pitcher (and that’s taking into account the possibility that he’s 68 years old).

Failing to mention the Twins, Tigers, Padres and Dodgers by no means is an indicator that they are ill equipped to get out of the first round. On the contrary I believed that the Twins could’ve beaten the Yankees in a short series and ended up taking the whole thing. But the Tigers decided that the Royals were real good and in doing so gave away the division on the last day of the season. I’m avoiding a prediction here because for the first time since 2001, I know the Yankees are going to win the World Series. But wait, I was wrong then because the Yanks lost the ’01 Series to Arizona! I’ve said it before; I’m no visionary. So how bout this: Mets take back the subway in seven.


Pedro Afterthought…

What a shame. There will be no epic Pedro-return in the World Series. And now that it has been revealed that he has suffered a torn rotator cuff there may be no Pedro until late next year. But one thing about Pedro is for sure. That tremendous ego of his is matched only by the size of his heart. That’s the reason I fervently believed he would somehow find a way to pitch when needed; the same reason he was immortalized in Boston. And I speak for a nation when I wish him the best.

Pedro Points

I agree with you, Mets fans. It’s just not fair. Your team toppled its arch nemesis’ monopoly on the National League East. Your squad established the new pecking order in the new National League. You’ve been patiently waiting for your first breath of October baseball since the fall of 2000. And now it appears that it’s all being yanked away from your grasp. Pedro Martinez is done. Shuddering yet? Don’t worry; it’s not my intention to grind salt into your fresh wounds.What I intend to do is instill an ion of optimism into the minds and souls of all you Mets fans now pondering the cosmic questions. Yes, Pedro has a torn tendon in his left calf muscle. Indeed, the Cardinals are attempting to stage one of the great and most sudden collapses in baseball history. Affirmative, if St. Louis consummates its pursuit of unprecedented failure, you could be facing the trio of Clemens, Pettitte and Oswalt with the World Series on the line.

Granted, none of that sounds optimistic. But assuming Houston doesn’t throw a rock at this glass house in which the Mets appear to be residing these days, the road to the World Series remains open, albeit slightly impeded. Put simply, the Mets are still built to get to the World Series, even sans Pedro. And once that hope becomes a reality, news will break.

Am I declaring that Pedro will absolutely pitch in the Fall Classic? No, I’m neither a doctor nor a visionary. First off, let’s review the facts. Pedro has a torn tendon in his left calf muscle; an injury for which he will not be going under the knife. It is said that he will need a recovery period of four to six weeks. The World Series is still more than three weeks away (and could possibly be pushed back further due to possible tie-breaking scenarios that would postpone the beginning of the playoffs).

Now if surgery were required it would be a foregone conclusion that Pedro would not be available to pitch in the World Series. But it isn’t. Yet the documented word is that Pedro will not pitch, period. I’m sorry, but I will not accept that assertion given the other facts. Who’s to say that the tendon won’t heal properly enough for Pedro to at least give it a go? Who’s to say that an emergency procedure or innovation won’t make it possible for Pedro to pitch? Remember, this is his left calf, not the vital right calf necessary for accelerating off the mound.

Hmmm, all this talk of ace pitchers, tendons, destinies being altered…

Yes, I’m obviously referring to the Curt Schilling, bloody sock, superhero ALCS-saga of two years ago. While it was the sheath of the tendon in his ankle that was torn, Schilling was not medically fit to pitch, as his injury-riddled 2005 season ultimately proved. But sometimes the stage simply outweighs the ailment.

If the Mets find themselves still playing baseball in three weeks, and possibly staring a rematch of the 2000 Subway Series head on, don’t count Pedro out. He may already have his ring, but he also has the memory of his teammate defying the physical odds instilled in his dome-piece. He knows that the Red Sox would not have beaten the Yankees without Curt Schilling. And somewhere not to far from the surface of that remarkable Pedro-ego, that understanding resides.

So today, if Willie Randolph or anyone associated with the Mets is going to tell me definitively, inexorably, that Pedro is finished for the season, they are diminishing the aura of October baseball, where willpower and courage have been known to supplant perceived-reality.

When Pedro spoke in light of the disheartening news, he opted to champion his resilient teammates, saying that, “They’ve done really, really well without me. I hope they can do that again and pick me up during the time I’m limited or away.” Call me an optimist, but those don’t sound like the words of a man who has accepted his fate.

NFL Points: Week 3

Fans, analysts and pundits alike enjoy over-blowing early season subplots in the NFL. Granted if your star running back goes down and happens to be the reigning NFL MVP, teams like Seattle have legitimate concerns. But after three weeks of football unless your team has ceased to enter the win column, it’s not as bad (or good) as it seems on the surface…The Saints, fresh off road wins in Cleveland and Green Bay, capped by an emotional and thorough domination of the Falcons in the return of the Super Dome, have a tough road ahead. I mean that literally, as the remaining road schedule for New Orleans includes Carolina, Pittsburgh, Dallas, and the New York Giants. Add to that a rematch with Atlanta in the Georgia-Vick-dome, and the Saints are going to truly relish their resuscitated home. Likewise the Super Dome will continue to buzz with that visceral, palpable electricity. With seven more “Super Dome Bowls”, it will be up to seven different adversaries to attempt and match the intensity of a group of Saints inspired by the spirit of a city, a city that was ripped at its seams, but never tore. No small task for an opponent…

The New York teams have reasons for optimism. The Jets appear to be an eight win team with a healthy Chad Pennington at the helm. Jonathan Vilma is the most underrated middle linebacker in the league. He is a monster with the football senses of a player five years his elder. He singlehandedly makes the Jets defense a physical and viable unit. Playing in the suddenly weakened, but ever-hard hitting AFC East, should make for some (gulp) entertaining Jets games…

The Giants are welcoming the early bye week with open arms. There are clearly issues needing to be addressed behind closed doors, as opposed to on the practice field. Notably how to begin games with composure and execution, something that appears to be buried deep within the collective psyche of this football team. To this issue the whole Giants team is culpable. The big, bad defensive front of the G-men has been consistently losing the battle at the line of scrimmage. Eli Manning has come out of the gates erratic and frenetic, and his receivers have certainly not been bailing him out early in games. The Giants are a solid team with a quarterback that has quickly established himself as a prime time performer. Maybe Eli should call his brother and ask how to properly begin games, and in turn he can inform Peyton of how to execute the two minute offense…

Alarm bells are sounding in New England, and throughout the league. Is Tom Brady hurt? Depressed? Has Bill Belichick lost his edge? Is the dynasty dead? The answers are always, at the moment, absolutely not, and only time will tell. Many declared the end of the dynasty in Denver last January, but lest we forget that the Patriots are a Super Bowl XLI-victory away from becoming just the second team in league history to win four out of six Super Bowls (Pittsburgh’s “Steel Curtain” the other). So let’s wait to pass judgment on this team for a few months…

Until then we can address what is relevant and timely. Tom Brady’s shoulder has always been a problem. Coupled with the super-secret fashion in which the Patriots handle issues of injury it is truly impossible to determine definitively if Brady’s shoulder is seriously ailing. Definition won’t come until Matt Cassel starts a football game. As for Brady’s emotional status, it is no secret that he was very close with Deion Branch, and the loss of Branch has hit Brady hard. That being said, it is naive to think that the Patriots will continue to struggle throwing the ball. Doug Gabriel and Reche Caldwell showed glimpses of their respective talent against Denver. Both have the ability to run crisp routes and catch the ball, the two vital requisites of a wide receiver. Chad Jackson, in his one NFL appearance, illustrated his explosive potential; he just needs to get healthy.

The fact is that Brady has been looking primarily to his tight ends, Ben Watson and Daniel Graham, not because his receiving core is inept or unskilled, but rather he has a certain comfort level with the guys he’s played with. The Patriots employ an intricate and comprehensive offensive system; a system that relies on receivers making spot changes in their routes. Simply put, Gabriel and Caldwell are not yet sufficiently schooled in the Patriots passing schemes. That being said, they are wearing the uniform for a reason, namely because Belichick and Scott Pioli believe they have the intellectual capacity to conform to their system. SO PATIENCE…

Yee Fate A-Rod?

I’m a concerned Red Sox fan, but not for the laundry list of reasons you’re probably expecting. I’m concerned because the sports world of post-October 2004 might just be in jeopardy. I am in accord with many in reference to the “five-year grace period”, as I am a transplanted Bostonian attempting to make it in the New York sports media and would never have survived in this city had I not been rewarded with a bottomless pot of ALCS sludge to sling at Yankee fans whenever necessary.

Because most of that proverbial excrement has always (and rightfully so) had a pungent and uniquely A-Rod-aroma, I am beginning to wonder if the other shoe is ever going to drop. I speak of the latest Sports Illustrated cover article in which Tom Verducci confirms to the sports-reading world what has been inherently understood in the cities of Boston and New York since that fateful series. Namely that A-Rod is an arrogant softy with sparse amounts of friends within his clubhouse (and profession for that matter).

So my question is what happens next? Does A-Rod ground into another series/season-ending double play, and define his legacy as the greatest player to be cemented in a fortress of infamy? Or does he draw on that singular, innate baseball talent, and emphatically lead the Yankees to a World Series crown, while foaming at the mouth for three straight weeks in doing so?

I guess what I’m saying is that with no ghosts of Red Sox past, no pending trips to the OC, and no stout defending-champions standing in his way, isn’t it conceivable that “baseball’s most talented player” (or so I’ve heard) will tear up the competition and thus his own track record before all is said and done? Couldn’t Verducci have written this article after another historic A-Rod collapse? He surely would have more ammunition (although he certainly had more than enough).

I can deal with the ineptitudes of the Red Sox front office (in light of reverse sweeping the Yankees). I embrace this period of grace. I LIKE THE NEW STATUS QUO! But now that A-Rod has received the journalistic-equivalent to an “E True Hollywood Story” it appears that we have now reached a crossroads. In a month or so the A-Rod legacy will be undeniably stamped and delivered. I just hope that legacy isn’t going to get Fed-Ex’ed straight to Cooperstown.