I just spent 10 days in Los Angeles, which should explain the recent void in posting. For that I apologize. However the time I passed in Southern California was more or less a marathon of sports and gaming, culminating with a mega-sports weekend back in Boston. Before I get into the Red Sox and Patriots let me catch you up on the highlights of my wacky sports voyage out on the left coast.
LA is a city that couldn’t be any further removed from New York (and I’m not speaking continentally). In the City of Angels it’s 82 and sunny everyday, and woe to he who spots a cloud. Tans and radiance in LA are as common as suits and scowls in New York. Cars are either classy and ostentatious or average and unnoticed. That’s Southern California in a nutshell: an endless struggle to be seen. Sports act merely as another manifestation of the Hollywood-driven, image-conscious SoCal culture. So yes, sports fans exist in abundance, but their level of interest and passion is dwarfed by their East Coast fan-counterparts. But then again, when everyone is so smoking hot and the sun perpetually shines, I guess sports really don’t need to be so all-consuming.
Case in point was the Dodgers-Padres game I attended last Wednesday. In a do or die ballgame for the Dodgers, the Stadium at Chavez Ravine (a beautiful ballpark situated in the hills above LA) was at least 15,000 short of sold out. The only buzz generated before the late innings was in reaction to the timeless-Tommy Lasorda as he posed for a photo with a pair of cute coeds at his post behind the Dodgers on-deck circle. And the one time the crowd appeared genuinely united in celebration was during the “kiss cam” between innings. This is a ritual where some seedy guy with a camera prowls through the stadium looking to goad older couples and first dates into awkward embraces, all with the crowd peeping gleefully on the jumbotron. (Although I definitely got the best show because it turned out the couple in front of me were actually cousins, forced to sweat out that particular half-inning dreading the scenario in which they were compelled to become incestuous kiss cam-culprits).
The other infusion of energy came when the ever-chipper Vin Scully led the house in his token-double rendition of “Take me out to the ballgame”. While we’re here let me tell you how truly dumbfounded I was when a buddy of mine told me that Scully calls both the radio and television broadcasts, on his own, simultaneously. That’s like trying to recount a Vegas story for your grandmother and best friend on a conference call. Which reminds me…
Smack in the middle of the trip I had my first foray with the mercurial beast that is Las Vegas. Three friends made the trek with me. We got there at 1 am on a Monday night and proceeded to run the gauntlet for the next ten hours. We hit the MGM Grand, Paris, Bellagio, Caesars Palace and the Monte Carlo before calling it a day (or whatever you call unorthodox hours in succession spent in Vegas). Other than some ups and downs, a hooker sweet talking my buddy, and me riling up a blackjack dealer at the Grand, there was astonishingly little to report from Sin City. I was expecting Times Square on speed without the cops. I was ready to be baffled!! I ended up being befuddled. This sensation was later validated when I learned that Britney Spears had made a wrenching comeback at the MTV Video Music Awards the night before at the Palms. What eventually hit me like a sack of bricks was the realization that we unknowingly became those guys who decided to roll through the night after the biggest cooler in the history of Vegas. Excellent.
If you want to laugh or feel my pain watch the “performance” for yourself.
The good news was that a monstrous sports weekend was on the horizon 3,000 miles away in Beantown. The Yankees were visiting the Red Sox for their last regular season tilt beginning on Friday while the Patriots were absorbing a cheating scandal and trying to prepare for a playoff rematch with the San Diego Chargers on Sunday.
Friday’s Sox-Yanks game was spent on the couch at my buddy’s place. A few mornings at the beach combined with the still-present Vegas-hangover was sufficient enough to keep us out of the bar. With the three-game sweep statement the Yankees made at the Stadium two weeks before, it was vital for the Sox to come out and reciprocate that statement. Everything looked nice, as Dice-K submitted his first good start in a month and the Sox carried a 7-2 lead into the eighth inning. It was then that the Yankees decided to reciprocate what the Sox did to Mariano Rivera in the clubs first meeting of the season, way back on April 20th. Namely score a lot of runs in a very short period of time. They battered Hideki Okajima and Jonathan Papelbon for six lightning-quick scores, turning a sure “W” into a ringing “L”. The Sox saved face behind their ace on Saturday, as Josh Beckett proved once again he’s the stopper. But the empty feeling was back on Sunday night as the Nation watched Big Papi fly out with the bases loaded and the game on the line against Mo. The Sox will now enter October having dropped five of six to the Bombers.
So the obvious question is how worried should we be? Seeing Dice-K throw well, albeit laboriously, was about the best thing we could’ve seen minus Manny making a triumphant and healthy return last weekend. The Sox need Dice-K in the playoffs. As for Manny, his oblique muscle strain is absolutely a cause for concern, because the soreness affects both his swing and mobility. It looks like he’s going to end up having a whole month to rehab and strengthen the muscle, which should be enough time. If Manny comes back healthy the lineup is not a concern entering the postseason. The bullpen evidently is. Okajima hasn’t been able to get anybody out the last month and Eric Gagne has cost the team four wins since he came on board six weeks ago. Mike Timlin seems to have finally gotten old. Papelbon has sputtered of late but will be lights out come October because he scares people.
Don’t be fooled, if the Red Sox keep playing the way they’ve been playing they’ll surely surrender the AL East. At 90-63 it’s realistic that they could go 5-4 over their last nine, finish with 95 wins, and (like 2005) lose the division to the Yanks with identical 95-67 records because they dropped the season series 10-8. For this scenario to come to fruition, the Yankees would only have to win seven of their last 10. Shivering yet?
I’ll give you reason for optimism. First, the Red Sox are ambassadors of the wild card, and have their habitual meal ticket to October already punched if need be. While these Sox may not douse themselves in champagne, donning “Wild Card Champion” T-shirts like the Cowboys or Idiots, there’s always comfort in knowing they’re “in” on September 20th. Second, look at the recent past. Last year the Tigers pushed the self-destruct button in September and allowed the Twins to erase a late-August double digit lead and take the division on the last day of the season. The wild card Tigers then chomped their way to the AL pennant before losing a bizarre World Series marred by rainouts and the Cardinals. Then there are the 2000 Yankees, who lost 15 of their last 17 and almost let the in-shambles-Red Sox steal the division, before abruptly steamrolling their way to a third-straight championship. So rest (relatively) easy for the time being and let me talk about the reason why I barely watched the last Sox-Yankees game.
It was very difficult to turn away from NBC on Sunday night, even if the network refused to acknowledge the existence of one of the most thorough NFL thrashings in some time. ESPN.com’s Sportsguy tackled that in his latest column, detailing in form everything Al Michaels and John Madden chose not cover (like, for instance, the Pats-Chargers game that took place in Foxborough). Assuming you’ve read Sportsguy or one of the other gazillion pieces written about the Patriots lately, I’ll abstain from dropping stats, except this one: Roosevelt Colvin finished the game with 5 tackles, 2 sacks, an interception and two forced fumbles. That’s next level. Collectively that’s where the Patriots appear to be residing on a perch of their own these days. Yet, like NBC, the football world and national media currently know only two words to associate with the Patriots: CameraGate. Or maybe that’s one word. Whatever.
In any event what strikes me is that most people I’ve talked to (on both coasts) are in agreement on two fronts about this Patriots team. First is the common belief that, injuries notwithstanding, the ’07 Patriots have a better than 50% chance of vanquishing the ’72 Dolphins by becoming the first team in league history to go 19-0. Second is the fairly unified and time-honored notion that the rat is dirty too. While Bill Belichick decided to interpret NFL rules in his own way (read: cheat), it was Eric Mangini who had no qualms about blowing the whistle on Belichick and assuming the role of “the rat”. Why Belichick was being so brazen in defiance of NFL mandates, in the presence of the one guy in the league who knows more about his skeletons in the closet than anybody else is beyond me.
That definitely doesn’t clean up what Mangini did, however. Football is not like other sports. If anything football represents the closest a game can come to combat. It’s the one sport where the boundary between “gamesmanship” and “cheating” cannot be clearly defined. In football, it shouldn’t be. Teams play once a week, 16 times a year. Preparation for a football game involves much more than scripting the first drive for your offense or honing your special teams unit. Preparation for a football game involves gathering sensitive information about your opponent; identifying and learning how to expose its weaknesses; discovering new ways to confuse and exploit it. You might as well liken being an NFL coach to being a CIA field office chief overseas (within context of course). The goal is to target a system (be it a mark or a team) and infiltrate that system, all towards the greater goal of gaining intelligence about your adversary that you can later use when the time warrants. By nature the work is devious and manipulative. Some work, as they say, is not for the faint of heart. Whereas the CIA develops human assets as its principle means of gathering intelligence, NFL coaches employ the use of video cameras.
Again, I’m not condoning Belichick’s actions; the videotaping of the Jets signals he authorized was a shady and underhanded tactic aimed at gaining inside info about the Jets defensive calls so as to better prepare for the teams second meeting later this season. It was also a means he used to more thoroughly prepare for the teams second meeting later this season. (No, I’m not being redundant.) Fact is, scheming and illegal as it was, it’s pretty commonly held throughout the league that all teams and all coaches do exactly what Belichick was doing, just not as arrogantly. The terms “squeaky clean” and “football” have no business being uttered in the same breath. Rules and violations aside, anyone who sits down and watches football on Sundays knows implicitly that the game is raucous and dirty, defined by battles in the trenches and chess-like maneuvers by coaches. Players don’t hesitate in classifying it as “war”.
What I find interesting in everything that’s happened is the fact that Eric Mangini presented the entire league and its franchises with a golden opportunity to permanently relegate Belichick and the Patriots to the fringes of NFL-society. Yet last Sunday it was Mangini himself who drew the ire of Ravens head coach, Brian Billick. Ater the Jets dropped a hard-fought 20-13 game to the Ravens, Billick said the Jets defense “did a very, very effective job of illegally simulating the snap count” to thwart the Ravens’ offensive line. Coaches are rarely impulsive in press conferences, especially those with the stature and tenure of Billick. While he later backed off what he said, pointing the finger instead at the officials for not properly harnessing the Jets’ maneuvers, Billick’s postgame comments should assuredly not be taken with a grain of salt. In modifying his statement from after the game, Billick later said, “I was more upset that [the Jets] were doing it better than we were. We all do it.”
Very crafty on Billick’s part in my opinion. He succeeded both in blowing the whistle on the whistle blower and subtly conveying that in a word, s–t goes down in the NFL. So you know what? Let’s leave it at that and get back to some football because I’ve lost all feeling in my fingers.