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Thoughts from the Nation

One swing away from going up 2-0 and suddenly down 2-1.

That’s October baseball. That’s the Red Sox 2007 ALCS summed up in a single statement.

But there’s more, much more, inside why the Sox are now facing an uphill battle in the playoffs for the first time since 2004. (Note: For the purposes of this column I am going to eradicate the Red Sox 2005 “postseason” from relevance in present matters. For the record, they were swept in the ALDS by the White Sox after trotting out Matt Clement in Game 1.)

The first explanation for this abrupt shift of Sox-momentum is the Angels. They were a banged up team that had no shot of beating the Red Sox, and they knew it, which only made it more painful. The trouncing the Red Sox finished in Disneyland on the 7th of October gave way to Game 1 of the ALCS, in which they pummeled Indians ace, C.C. Sabathia, the front-running candidate for the AL Cy Young. That’s reason number two: the Nation was immensely confident, and understandably so, after four successive wins out of the gate in October. Perhaps overconfident. The “humble pie” that’s been the Patriots fare of choice down the road in Foxborough definitely wasn’t being offered by the Fenway vendors before Game 2; just boiled franks, greasy sausages and lots of good October vibes on Lansdowne Street.

My buddy took me to the game, which marked my first appearance at a Sox playoff clash since Game 5 of the 2003 ALCS against the Yankees. It was a weird feeling; a pennant on the line without the Yankees. Since the playoffs expanded to eight teams in 1995, each of three Red Sox appearances in the ALCS has been against New York (1999/2003/2004). The acute queasiness in the pit of your stomach and typical angst of a Sox-Yanks series weren’t there. Those feelings were replaced by a giddy buoyancy, and inside the ballpark, the sensation was palatable.

Throughout the beginning of Game 2, which ended up becoming the most thrilling, punch-for-punch, see-saw (albeit anti-climactic) affair thus far in the playoffs, there was an electricity in the old ballyard that I had never felt. It wasn’t the normal “desperation buzz” that, for the last half-century, has characterized, defined, and enshrined Fenway as the ultimate October experience. No, this was different. The fans were enjoying themselves. Being situated in left field almost within ear shot of Manny, our section was obviously enamored with the aloof man of power as he defended the Great Wall of Fenway that loomed over his hulking shoulders. Shoulders which, of course, he chose to stretch out not during pregame warmups nor in the dugout before taking the field, but as Curt Schilling’s opening pitches were being thrown to Grady Sizemore. When Sizemore lined a ball to the left-center field gap and Manny “sprung” into action, it was evident that again he was arriving fashionably late.

However, no one even flinched when the Tribe jumped on Schil in the first for a quick run. In fact, two guys to our left, between participation in “Let’s Go Red Sox” chants, found time to muse about the TBS division series coverage of the Sox, which they rightly asserted was “intolerable” (or phonetically, “in-taw-lah-rubble”). Though they did point out that the new TBS late night show, Frank TV, looks “phenomenal” (“fah-gnaw-mun-al”). It was in this spirit that Game 2 played out; 38,000 wildly excited fans, having a ball watching their team exchange sucker punches with a formidable opponent, and merely waiting to see how an imminent victory would transpire. It would take an aligning of the stars or Terry Francona being out-managed to lose this one.

As it turned out, it was a little of each.

It wasn’t that Francona made the wrong moves, because he didn’t. He made the right move by bringing in Papelbon in a 6-6 game in the ninth. He made the right move by pinch-running Jacoby Ellsbury for Dustin Pedroia in the bottom of the ninth. Ellsbury stole second, which set the table for Kevin Youkilis to win the game with a hit and send the Sox to Cleveland with the assurance of the series returning to Fenway for Game 6 if necessary. Youk had an epic at bat against Rafael Betancourt, fouling off six 3-2 pitches, all with Fenway primed to explode, before sending a liner to center field that Sizemore had to slide to one knee in order to secure. And finally, Tito made the right move by sending Papelbon back out for the tenth with the heart of the Red Sox lineup due up in the last of that inning.

By the time Tom Mastny had retired Ortiz, Manny and Lowell in succession it was blatant that Francona had managed the perfect ten-inning game that was now going eleven. On the other side, you had two relievers (Betancourt and Mastny) who had played with Fenway-fire and miraculously, somehow emerged unscathed, and a manager (Eric Wedge) who ultimately managed a superior game simply by refraining from using his eminently-beatable closer (Joe Borowski). Certainly an odd juxtaposition of managerial maneuvering. And all this skipper-jousting came after Betancourt very nearly had his name stamped on the dubious list of those who have exited the wrong side of a postseason walk-off at Fenway. (Rich Harden, Jarrod Washburn, Paul Quantrill, Esteban Loaiza and Francisco Rodriguez would gladly welcome some more company.)

The great escape by Betancourt and Wedge’s calculated non-insertion of Borowski until the game was secured were the unique recipe for downing the Red Sox in Game 2. Granted, Borowksi did protect a two-run lead in Game 3 back in Cleveland, but the Sox laid a monumental egg in that contest, and all that matters now is one thing.

Get this series back to Fenway.

There’s a reason I’m writing just prior to Game 4, which has been billed by many as a “must win” for the Sox. It’s no coincidence that those same people have advocated starting Josh Beckett on short rest for Game 4. The reality is Tuesday is not must-win. The reality is one of these next two games is, and if the Red Sox have proven anything over their recent history, it’s that if you’re playing a five game series it’s the first team with three losses that’s eliminated, and if it’s a seven game series, you guessed it. Four losses and out.

The 2004 Red Sox did what we all know they did, under manager Terry Francona. They lost three straight to the Yankees, then won four one-game eliminations in a row and said good riddance to 86 years of baggage. Yes, only seven guys remain from that team, but don’t let “experts” and “analysts” undersell the Fenway-mystique, and how it has certainly transcended different Sox ballclubs over the last nine years.

Since 1999, the Red Sox have played eight elimination games at Fenway Park. They’ve won six of them (two against Cleveland in the ’99 ALDS, which led to a comeback from down 0-2; two against Oakland in the ’03 ALDS, which turned into another 0-2 comeback; and two against the Yankees in the ’04 ALCS, which were the first two blows in “The Comeback”).

That 6-2 record includes a loss in Game 3 of the now-eradicated 2005 ALDS against Chicago. The only other loss came at the hands of the ’99 Yankees, who were a vastly superior team and in the middle of a run of three consecutive titles. Of the six wins, three of them the Sox walked off. So I reiterate: Game 4 is not a must-win; it’s a should-win. What the Red Sox must do is get back to Boston, preferably up 3-2, but all that really matters is seeing more baseball in Beantown. The outcome of Game 2 has thrust that original “certainty” into short-term peril, but I can assure you the Red Sox players are not panicking, nor is their manager.

They’ve been here before.

Only seven of them of them were toasting at Yankee Stadium three Octobers ago, and only two (Tim Wakefield and Jason Varitek) were there when Pedro Martinez led the waterfalls of Cristal at Jacobs Field five falls prior to that. But these Red Sox and these Indians alike know too well the mystique of Fenway; whether they’ve seen it on TV or felt it in the flesh, they are aware that baseball games become more when the Red Sox are on their last breath in their house.

For these Indians, they want nothing more than to exorcise the Red Sox ghosts from ’99, within the breezy confines of the Jake. For these Red Sox, they want nothing more than get this series back to Fenway.

And this time, instead of starting a comeback, it’ll be their chance to finish one.

Manny Becoming Manny

It was just another pop foul, but Manny’s career must have flashed before his eyes.

With the Red Sox trailing, 3-2, in Game 2 against the Angels, Manny was up with Dustin Pedroia representing the tying run ninety feet away. His partner in crime, David Ortiz (aka Senor Octubre), had been intentionally walked. The Angels wanted Manny. In the heyday of this prolific tandem, a Papi free-pass was about the only thing that could make Manny’s blood boil. Little else could evoke such a palpable sense of anger and disdain from the goofy and benign slugger. In the heyday, the instant four fingers were held up from the dugout, Manny was simultaneously “locked in”. You could always feel it; feel the Manny-brainwaves buzzing: You serious? You want Manny?? I’m one of the best hitters in the history of the game! And you want me!? You loco?? More often than not Manny would step to the plate, peering down the line at Papi, and hit the first good pitch he saw square on the seams. And it would usually go far, very far.

This was the case again in the fifth inning of Game 2; Mike Scioscia had decided he’d seen enough of Ortiz beating his club, and concluded he’d rather take his chances with Manny. After the first intentional ball was thrown to Papi, like a slow roll of thunder, the Fenway-chant began: Manny-Mannnny-MAAAANNNNNNNYYYYY. By the time Ortiz was trotting down to first, the entire Nation was on its feet; the chorus echoed from coast to coast. He stepped to the plate, and appeared to be “locked in”, just like the old days.

Then came the pop foul, followed by a collective, incredulous sigh from the Nation. Then came the first web gem in playoff history by a 17-year old kid (aka the anti-Bartman), who stole the ball away from Angels’ catcher, Jeff Mathis. Manny parlayed his new life into a walk, which allowed Mike Lowell’s fly ball to tie the game.

That moment represented more, though. For Manny, who this year has been as un-Manny-like as we’ve ever seen, that moment represented clarity. After that at bat he was locked in for the first time in ’07. Despite the ongoing struggles of mind versus body, preparation versus timing, Manny was finally able to rediscover himself. It was a feat he couldn’t accomplish while healthy early in the season, nor while ailing late in the season. Like everything with Manny, his swing and swagger were things only he was going to find again, and on his terms.

When Papi came up in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and Julio Lugo as the winning run on second base, there was little doubt that the game would be Manny’s to stamp. Scioscia held up four fingers; Manny started to stew. As the guy on deck for each one of Senor Octubre’s playoff walk-offs at the Fens, Manny might just have begun to feel a sense of history. Here he was, one of the great run-producers of all-time, just shy of 500 home runs, second-most postseason homers in MLB history, a sure-fire first ballot Hall of Famer with a World Series MVP to boot, yet eleven years removed his last walk-off home run.

Manny’s “legacy” is something that probably never held much water in his proverbial cup of tea. He is, and has always been, a studious and artful baseball mind, dedicated to mastering every conceivable aspect of hitting a baseball. For a guy who at times doesn’t even know the count when he’s up at bat, to say that his legacy was ever a matter of personal concern would be to greatly overestimate what is most important to Manny. In Manny’s world, the concepts of “time” and “history” are less significant than those of “routine” and “consistency”. By following routine and maintaining consistency, over time Manny ultimately impacted and changed history. That’s his career in a nutshell: 13 full seasons, 11 of them with 30+ home runs and 100+ RBIs; .313 career average; 490 home runs; 1,604 RBIs; nine playoff appearances; one title (and counting).

Manny’s body of work itself is history. However his mode of thought and workmanlike nature simply never allowed that notion to register. His production was a constant; time and years didn’t pass, merely at bats and games. Until this year. This year Manny never found his stroke; never settled into his trademark groove. For the first time in his career Manny went an entire season without being truly, undeniably, “locked in”.

By the time he came up in the ninth against K-Rod he could’ve been about to pilot the space shuttle and still wouldn’t have been as locked in as he was in that batters box. The Manny-stare was back. The Manny-swing followed suit. And once the ball cleared the coke bottles above the seats on top of the Green Monster, with Manny’s (plus another 38,000) hands raised towards the heavens, the entire baseball universe was shown that the Manny-swagger had returned as well.

And then he spoke.

Players concerned with and aware of their image are talkers. Those select few who contain greatness and are thus concerned with and aware of their legacy are illustrators. They’ll achieve greatness on the field before using the media to mold and re-craft it in such a way as to maximize its magnitude and staying power. Manny has forever epitomized the “silent star”. He didn’t need to talk in Cleveland (guys like Roberto Alomar, Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton and Jim Thome handled that) and never really desired to talk in Boston (minus, of course, “Media” Manny of 2003). Other than an interview he gave before the 2006 season, the last we heard from Manny was during the 2004 playoffs. That was when he talked about how the Sox “took it to another level” against the Yankees, explaining that “it was destination”.

Frank and sincere; witty and at times lost in translation, whenever Manny has spoken it has always been from the heart and informative. No spin. No slant. Just Manny being Manny (where have I heard that one before…). The microphone was Manny’s after Game 2. He gave an on-field interview to TBS, then he granted an exclusive to Peter Gammons for ESPN. To cap it off he made his first appearance in a post game press conference since I-don’t-know-when.

When Manny speaks he doesn’t embody the aura and potency of his track record. He’s just a guy, who knows he’s the best at what he does, talking about doing what he’s great at, with injections of humor. His personality lies in his sense of humor, which is pointed, but sometimes difficult to decipher because some jargon is tough to translate from Spanish. We do know that Manny’s “train doesn’t stop there” and that he is indeed “a bad man”, regardless of how he’s feeling.

The Nation got some reassurance in Game 3 that Manny seems to be feeling perfect at the ideal time of year. In his first at bat, Jered Weaver threw him a 3-2 changeup, which Manny just barely got a piece of. He stepped out of the box and took another look at the swing on the scoreboard replay, almost refusing to believe that he came so close to missing the pitch. The ensuing pitch was ball four. In his next at bat, following an Ortiz-home run, Manny fouled off two 3-2 pitches before sending a hanging breaking ball way over the left-center field wall. This was the same pitch that he’d been fouling straight back all year, but no longer. A game after hitting a walk-off home run for the first time in his playoff-career, he went back-to-back with Papi for the first time this season.

Recently there have been quite a few “firsts” for a guy who, over 13 years, has been one of the steadiest the game has ever seen. For as long as Manny has been Manny, he’s been the complete hitting package. We all know Manny’s train will stop in Cooperstown.

As for his legacy, if Manny stays as hot as these unseasonable October nights, sky’s the limit.

MLB Playoff Points (and Picks)

With three of the four divisional series set, let’s use a Q+A format to assess each team and its opponent in the first round of the playoffs.

Yankees at Indians

How did the Indians get here? With pitching. There was a lot of speculation that the Indians pitching staff would be woefully insufficient for a prospective contender in 2007. Then C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona combined to win 38 games with a 3.15 ERA, and finished the season as the indisputable top-two in the league. Rafael Betancourt posted a 1.47 ERA in 68 appearances as the primary setup man to closer Joe Borowski, who saved 45 games in 53 chances. As a staff, Cleveland gave up the third-fewest runs (704) in the AL, and was ranked third in team ERA (4.05).

How did the Yankees get here? By bashing. The Yankees offense produced 968 runs in ’07, by far the most in MLB, while also leading the AL in home runs (201) and batting average (.290). In the middle of a lineup where every guy hit for power and average, Alex Rodriguez had one of the most prolific across-the-board individual seasons of all-time. The Yankees pitching staff cleaned itself up over the course of the campaign, but it was the Bombers bombing that represented the impetus of their dominance from mid-summer on.

Who are the X-factors in this series? There’s no question that Cleveland’s offense and New York’s pitching staff will be on the clock in this ALDS. Remember, the Indians were supposed to be scoring runs in bunches this season. However, their two key cogs, Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore, both experienced major drop-offs in production from a year ago. If Cleveland is to stand a chance going swing for swing with the Yanks, Hafner and Sizemore will have to step it up. On the flip side, if those left-handed hitting sluggers decide to turn it on the Yankees are going to need guys coming in in big spots to get them out. For this reason the pressure will be on Joba Chamberlain (who’s been nasty since his call-up) and Ron Villone (the Yanks’only lefty in the pen) to get the ball to Mariano Rivera, something the Yankees have had difficulties doing the last few postseasons.

Who wins and why? Yankees in five. I’m just not sold on the back end of Cleveland’s staff in any kind of series with the Yankees bats. Sabathia and Carmona will give the Indians a chance to win games in the late innings but against the Yankees it’s the last six outs that are always the toughest to get. There are too many good and patient hitters in that lineup to allow Cleveland’s aces to be throwing into the eighth and ninth inning, which means Borowski (and his 5.07 ERA) will have to play a deciding role. That’s not a good thing for the Tribe.
Angels at Red Sox

How did the Angels get here? By playing their ball. They score quite a few runs (822; fourth in the AL) given their lack of power (123 home runs; 28th in MLB). What they do is move runners; steal bases; stretch doubles into triples; hit and run. In a word, they’re manufacturers. By being aggressive and forcing the issue they mass-manufacture runs and are good at it. They win close ballgames because they have the ability to hit a single, steal a base, advance on a grounder and score on a fly ball. They’ve shown this style to be uniquely theirs in the AL, which is how they consistently win games.

How did the Red Sox get here? With starting pitching. Josh Beckett has been superb, and the Cy Young of the American League if I had a vote. As a whole, Dice-K’s first season in the bigs was successful. Most were predicting him to be in the neighborhood of 200 innings and 15 wins and he won 15 games in 204 innings. 13 of those wins came before August 11, which would indicate that he ran out of gas down the stretch. But he also may have been pacing himself, as his last three starts were solid after a month during which he got hit very hard. Curt Schilling spent some time on the DL but always gave the Sox a chance to win ballgames. And Tim Wakefield matched his career high with 17 wins.

Who are the X-factors in this series? The Angels are going to need John Lackey and Scott Shields more than ever. They are a banged up team right now offensively. Lackey is their ace and Shields gets them to Francisco Rodriguez. Both have been battered by the Sox this year (Lackey’s ERA against Boston this year is 8.38; Shields’ is 8.10), and if that doesn’t change the Angels will be headed home quickly. For the Red Sox look no further than Manny Ramirez. During Manny’s vacancy David Ortiz came alive and certainly appears like he’s going to carry that into October (especially in light of the cortisone shot he received in his ailing knee). If Manny regains his power stroke and thus re-assumes his role as half of the fiercest hitting-tandem in baseball, the Sox will coast.

Who wins and why? Sox in four. I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not fond of starting to set up a playoff rotation and resting key personnel for postseason play a full two weeks before clinching anything. BUT…it sure looks like Terry Francona knew exactly what he was doing when he put eight and nine days between starts for his horses while giving days off to virtually every regular player, all with the Yankees breathing down the Sox’ backs. Through his moves Tito basically said: “screw it, if we have to sacrifice the division in the name of lining up our staff and getting key guys healthy, gimme that wild card and we’ll run with it.” Turns out they not only achieved their long term goals but still managed to eek out home field throughout the playoffs. That really kills Anaheim’s chances, because their brand of baseball is not conducive to Fenway Park.
Cubs at Diamondbacks

How did the Cubs get here? Lou Piniella. I said it before the season, that Lou would not let the Cubs fail. Sure, they had a nice Cubby-swoon out of the gates, prompting a vintage Lou-meltdown on June 2nd. After the loss to the Braves on that Saturday afternoon the Cubs stood at 22-31; seven and a half games behind Milwaukee. From that day on they played .577 baseball (63-46), and stormed past the Brewers in August. Carlos Zambrano knocking out Michael Barrett surely helped the ball club come together, but it was the fighting spirit that Piniella injected right from spring training that hoisted the Cubs up and propelled them to division champs.

How did the Diamondbacks get here? Brandon Webb. His surreal late-summer run of 42 scoreless innings, which included shutouts in three straight starts to begin the month of August, had the Dbacks playing with an air of invincibility and allowed them to distance themselves from the pack in the NL West. Their lineup is deep (five guys have hit at least 15 home runs) but lacking a true slugger in the middle. Jose Valverde saved an MLB-best 47 games this year, which helped maximize Webb when he wasn’t spinning complete game gems.

Who are the X-factors in this series? For the Dbacks it’s undoubtedly Livan Hernandez. He’s the only Arizona pitcher who’s ever experienced postseason play. He’s a good “one guy” to have, having pitched in two World Series (including the 1997 World Series with the Marlins, when he notched the MVP). If the Dbacks are going to have a fighting chance, they’ll have to pitch well, which will require Livan to assume the role of leader. For Chicago I’m looking squarely at Alfonso Soriano. He’s been scorching all of September, setting the Cubs record for home runs in the month (14), and has been itching to get back to October since he left the Yankees after the 2003 season.

Who wins and why? Cubs in four. If Webb doesn’t win Game 1 I could see a sweep. Ted Lilly and Rich Hill are solid lefties who can strike guys out and the Cubs bullpen is serviceable (particularly setup men Bob Howry and Carlos Marmol). However, the series will be decided by the offenses, and in my opinion the three best bats are all in the Cubs lineup (Soriano, Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez).

The Picks

NL Wild Wild Card Rockies over Padres

ALDS Red Sox over Angels in 4; Yankees over Indians in 5

NLDS Cubs over Diamondbacks in 4; Phillies over Rockies in 5

ALCS Red Sox over Yankees in 7

NLCS Cubs over Phillies in 6

World Series Red Sox over Cubs in 6

NFL Power Points (and Jack)

I had to catch last Sunday’s Patriots-Bills game at the bar because the Jets-Dolphins game was being televised in the New York market. I met one of my buddies outside of a subway station at Fifth Avenue and 9th street in Brooklyn. We had a ways to walk to get to the spot I usually frequent but ended up stumbling on a hole in the wall that I noticed was playing the Pats game. Since the place was relatively empty we decided it was as good as any. It ended up being better. Mugs of Budweiser were a dollar fifty, served by a barkeep who probably remembered life during the Prohibition. There was also no kitchen, which earned this particular bar the designation of “only bar open at noon on Sunday just for drinkers” (or so I would surmise).

The clientèle fell in line with the venue; guys on the solo, sipping brew, uttering profanities at the particular television where their gaze was directed. There were two women in the bar; the token football-bar cute girl (who’s ratcheted up a few notches on the “cute scale” simply because she’s drinking beer and watching football on Sunday) and the bartender’s lady friend (who took intermittent breaks to share a Newport with her man). Since there were no greasy burgers or dry eggs benedict to be had, food deliveries were rampant. I kid you not; I’ve never been to a place where one guy was inhaling a cheesesteak with fries next to a guy chowing on lo mein and egg rolls out of a box. The experience was perfected when a gentleman arrived with a bag of pirated movies, proclaiming “best DVD from Chinatown”. Good times. Now let me unveil the first installment of my NFL top five power poll.

1. Patriots (3-0) Usually the defending champs have to drop a game before relinquishing the top spot. Except this year. In 2007 the Patriots have outscored their opponents, 114-35, and have won each game by at least 24 points. Tom Brady has thrown for 887 yards, 10 touchdowns and one interception; his completion percentage is 79.5% and his quarterback rating is 141.8. All are numbers I can’t even fathom projecting. Randy Moss has been the best receiver in football and the Patriots defense is simply nasty (and missing its two best players). Add that all up and you know why the Patriots are number one until they fall.

2. Colts (3-0) After smoking the Saints at home on opening night the Colts have struggled in victory against Vince Young and the Titans (one of four teams to beat Indy last season) and the emerging-Texans. Wins are wins in the NFL, don’t get me wrong, but the Indy defense remains suspect, especially with the losses of Nick Harper and Cato June. Offensively (per usual) the Colts need not worry. Joseph Addai looks like he’s about to bust out a 1400 yard/15 touchdown sophomore campaign, which will makes things much easier for Peyton Manning as the Colts pursue a (futile?) defense of their title.

3. Steelers (3-0) So far the knock has been that they haven’t beat anyone that good just yet. But three decisive victories (Browns/Bills/49ers) with an average margin of three touchdowns has me believing the Steelers are once again for real. In terms of “Steel City Football”, Mike Tomlin has picked up right where Bill Cowher left off. By pounding the ball with Willie Parker (who leads the NFL with 368 rushing yards) and playing hard-nosed defense (the Steelers D ranks second in the league), Pittsburgh looks likes it’s ready to take back the AFC North.

4. Packers (3-0) The only thing more surprising than the Packers’ 3-0 start was when Ben Stiller’s character in “There’s Something About Mary” thought its quarterback was named “Brett Faaahvraaaah”. Indeed, the man and legend who’s time and again teased us with notions of retirement is guiding a team that has “NFC contender” written all over it. Wins over Philly, the Giants, and most recently San Diego, mean the cheeseheads have returned in full force, and with reason. Green Bay now has a young and vibrant defense complementing the old war horse, and in a division/conference where anything is possible, I say the Pack is back.

5. Cowboys (3-0) I’m not sold on this team yet. The talent is there, no doubt. In fact, top to bottom the Cowboys are probably the most talented team in the NFC. But the NFC East is also the toughest division in the conference and I’ve never thought a whole lot of Wade Phillips (especially in comparison to Bill Parcells) . Because the Eagles are notorious slow-starters I’m far from anointing the Cowboys NFC East champs. Although I will say their second half thrashing of the Bears at Soldier Field on Sunday night was a big statement. I felt they were going to win the football game; I just didn’t know they were going to become “the team” that forced a major shakeup in Chicago.

On a different note, I felt I had to address Jack Bauer errr Kiefer Sutherland’s recent DUI arrest. In case you missed it, Jack was cited for driving under the influence after he was pulled over for making an illegal U-turn Tuesday morning in West LA. While TMZ.com caught Jack lethargically signing autographs at the Fox function he was attending before the incident, I can only imagine how the actual apprehension went down. I’m guessing it was something like this:

Officer: Do you know why I pulled you over, Mr. Sutherland?

Jack: Who the f–k are you talking about?!?!!? I’m Jack Bauer!!!!!

Officer: You made an illegal U-turn, sir.

Jack: I used to run CTU you sonavabitch!!!!

Officer: Have you been drinking, sir?

Jack: There is a terrorist threatening to detonate a nuclear warhead in Los Angeles!! Millions of lives are stake!!!! I implore you to let me go!!!!!!!

Officer: Will you step out of the car please, sir?

Jack: Millions of lives!!!!!!

Officer: Sir, I’m going to have to ask you again.

Jack: Do the names Glen Livet and Jack Daniels mean nothing to you!!!!?!?!?!?

Officer: Mr. Sutherland, I’m placing you under arrest.

Jack: Habib Marwan!!!!!!!!

Cally-Sox-Pats Points

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.

Pats ’07 Preview and Picks

Turmoil amid new faces. New faces amid turmoil. The 2007 New England Patriots.

For the last week that palindromic diagnosis of the three-time ex-champs has been eaten up and regurgitated by much of the nation’s sports, news and entertainment media. The fodder has been abundant: Randy Moss just began practicing; Richard Seymour was just placed on the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list; Rodney Harrison was just flagged and suspended for using HGH (Human Growth Hormone). And Tom Brady just had a child out of wedlock.

Caught up yet? I know what you’re thinking. The only way you couldn’t be caught up with the recent goings on of the Pats is if you fail to acknowledge the existence of ESPN, Sports Illustrated, People, the New York Times, CNN, and of course, TMZ.com. (Check out the piranhas at work on Brady’s tail). So in the interest of preventing further regurgitation, pay attention to the following, fully-integrated, piece by piece, Patriots preview.

Randy Moss Since his arrival Moss has been a model Patriot. Okay, he barely made an appearance in training camp (although regulated his competition during his brief stint), and sat out the entire preseason. In total, a pulled hamstring afforded him a nice month-long rest with which to prepare for his first year in red, white and blue. So, given that we’ve barely seen or heard from Moss, how then could he possibly constitute a model Patriot? Because, well, we’ve barely seen or heard from Randy Moss. He’s spoken to the media, but when he’s done so it was if he was eerily channeling his coach and quarterback. Far cry from the verbal loose cannon that inhabited Minnesota and Oakland. He’s also had no brushes with the law; no funky smells seeping through the tinted windows of his Escalade. So you see? He’s been a perfect superstar, and has been given his due leeway from the masters of player management running the organization. So far it looks like the “meet you halfway” agreement between Belichick/Brady and Moss has worked out pretty well.

Richard Seymour There is no disputing that Seymour is the second best player on the Patriots, and probably the most skilled and versatile defensive lineman in the NFL. When you play six seasons in the league, notch five Pro Bowls and win three rings, “the best” is generally the category you fall into. That’s a Hall of Fame resume in less than half of a career. Because Seymour is only now entering his “prime”, and also happens to be recovering from offseason knee surgery, it is wise to sideline him now. While six games may mathematically represent nearly 40% of the season, I believe it is the Patriot-platitude that states: it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. In the case of Seymour, he need not play the first six games, because the only bearing those games will have is on where the Pats stand in terms of the home-field advantage picture in the AFC. Trust me, that picture doesn’t even start to come into viable focus until week 10. Seymour now has the opportunity to extend his training/rehab camp into October and return when he’s comfortable on that knee.

Rodney Harrison Before all the preposterous comparisons to Barry Bonds start flying, let’s get something straight: Rodney Harrison was not using HGH with devious intentions. In other words, as opposed to Bonds, he’s not a cheater. Of course this is a matter of opinion, and since he did break the law, you have every right to label him a cheater. But I believe him when he says he was using HGH to try and recover faster from a shoulder injury and ligament tears in his knee. The guy has been both an iron man and an enforcer throughout his career (before the 2005-06 seasons he had only one injury-marred campaign in his 11-years as a professional). But that’s also a double-edged sword. Because Harrison has maintained the reputation as one of the most fearsome and dirty players in the league, once the injuries started coming, opposing teams (see: 2006 Tennessee Titans) started turning the tables on the Pats safety. Loosely interpreted as a “put him out when he’s down” policy, it’s clear that there’s been no love lost between the recently-ailing Harrison and his (literally) sore competitors throughout the league. Judging from the forthcoming and sincere way in which he’s dealt with this situation (as opposed to his MLB counterpart, Gary Matthews), and the fact that it doesn’t look like prosecutors are going to charge him, I say let him serve his suspension (four games) and forget about it.

Tom Brady Wow, how times have changed. It wasn’t even six years ago that Brady unbelievably found himself standing smack in the middle of the football universe, hoisting the Lombardi trophy and Super Bowl MVP, ecstatic and stupefied, hands on his cheeks, staring wide-eyed at Drew Bledsoe, like the little boy who had just been told he received a lifetime pass to Disney World. Five seasons and two titles later, the kid who brought a legacy to New England has helped bring a boatload of drama to Hollywood and the fashion world. After his long relationship with actress Bridget Moynahan ended in the middle of last season, and before he started dating supermodel Gisele Bundchen, Brady learned he was going to become a father. Fast forward to the week before last, when Moynahan had Brady’s son, while Tom was balancing the Patriots preseason regimen in Foxborough, with Gisele in New York and the mother of his child in Los Angeles. Quite precarious, considering by nature, such balancing acts traditionally involve stabilizing two entities, one on each side of the center. Unfortunately, even for the mega-man, the laws of gravity still apply. Three’s still a crowd last time I checked. Crazy as it may sound, the time for parting with the hottest woman in the world may soon be upon Tom.

Prediction As we have already (many times over) established, the Patriots are dealing with more than a handful of issues, the reverberations of which are being felt from Boston to Hollywood; from New York to Milan. Just a tiny deviation from the crew of unknowns that chose to be introduced as a team before Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans. Like the Red Sox, the Patriots no longer fall within the greater classification of “little guys”. To the absolute contrary, they are the giants. They remain the hunted, even if they haven’t hung a banner in two years. So how are they planning to navigate through the trenches of overblown injuries, overstated sanctions and glamorous personal and familial affairs? I’ll tell you why. Because the one person who can truly and earnestly say that the CNNs, ESPNs and TMZs mean squat; the one guy who can operate blissfully oblivious to the outside world; the one coach who can stand at the podium and address everything without divulging anything, well he happens to be the man in charge of the 2007 New England Patriots. For years Bill Belichick has been using his unparalleled knowledge and esoteric schemes to win football games. He’s done it with fringe talent; he’s done it with stars. He’s done it with fringe talent turned into stars. This year he has the nucleus. It may not be intact today, but if Belichick will tell you anything it’s that the road to a Super Bowl is a voyage. The beginning may be rocky, but it’s not about where you begin. For the 2007 New England Patriots, the road will end in Phoenix, and a dynasty will be reborn.

Picks

AFC East: Patriots

AFC North: Ravens

AFC South: Colts

AFC West: Chargers

AFC Wild Cards: Bengals and Jets

NFC East: Eagles

NFC North: Bears

NFC South: Saints

NFC West: Seahawks

NFC Wild Cards: Panthers and Giants

AFC Championship: Patriots over Ravens

NFC Championship: Saints over Bears

Super Bowl XLII: Patriots over Saints

MLB Races Points

NL East The Mets have turned it on the last two weeks (9-4) and have all but sewn up a second consecutive NL East title. Carlos Beltran has been the catalyst of the recent Mets-surge (5 home runs, 19 RBIs). With Beltran back, the Mets lineup is at last starting to resemble the one that abused NL pitching staffs all of last year. The difference this year being that the Mets pitching staff is vastly superior to that of a year ago. John Maine and Oliver Perez have suffered setbacks (Maine the physical rigor of throwing 150+ innings and Perez battling health issues) but both are still on pace to start 30 games, win 15 and have ERAs under four. Tom Glavine has continued to be what he is: the last true old-school, non-power throwing workhorse (and possibly the final 300-game winner of all-time).

Then there’s Orlando Hernandez. El Duque has quietly been one of the best and most consistent pitchers in the entire NL. He’s 9-4 with a 3.07 ERA and has submitted 17 quality starts in 22 outings. You may not see his name on the top of the Cy Young balloting come October, but you will assuredly see him winning in October. Like Glavine, El Duque is a rare breed and an invaluable asset on a championship-contending team. And don’t forget about Pedro. Slowly but surely (and fairly quietly) Pedro has been working his way back. Each start he’s made in Class-A ball he’s shown improvement. Whereas at this time last year the news about Pedro was worsening with each day, this season it’s the exact opposite. Expect the wiry-Dominican to be making his return to Shea against either the Astros or Braves the second week of September.

AL East Unless the Yankees can find a way to squeeze a five-game sweep out of a three-game set with the Red Sox this week, the perennial AL East champs from the Bronx are cooked. At seven games back in the loss column with about 30 to play, the Yanks are not only cooked, they’re filleted and about to be served on a silver platter to the Sox starting Tuesday. Now whether the Red Sox opt to devour the meal or not will determine if the Bombers can even continue to contend for a wild card berth. The Yankees are wrapping up a painful road trip Monday in Detroit, needing to salvage a split with the Tigers to pull back within seven of the Red Sox and stay within two of Seattle for the wild card. Currently 2-4 on the swing, the Yankees started in Anaheim where they lost two of three, which included a 18-9 thumping in the second game. Then they headed to Detroit for a game that was delayed four hours by rain. The game itself ended up lasting 11 innings and another four hours and change before Carlos Guillen hit a walkoff three-run home run at 3:30 in the morning.

To say the Yankees will be returning a disheveled and demoralized team to the Bronx would be a severe understatement (then again, a picture does tell a thousand words). Beginning Tuesday it will be time for Jeter et al to man up or tap out, because the nine-game homestand they begin against the Red Sox will ultimatley decide their season. After Boston, Tampa Bay comes in for three. If the Yankees can take one or two from the Sox and sweep the Devil Rays, they’ll be primed to assume control of the the wild card race with Seattle coming to the Stadium for three games. As for the Red Sox, one win in New York this week will finish off the Yankees, and the Sox can set their sights on 100 wins with heavy September-doses of the Orioles and Devil Dogs.

Other NL Races It’s sad to imagine the Cardinals have a realistic chance of defending their crown with something similar to the 83 wins that enabled them to win the World Series last year. The NL Central has just become that mediocre. That said, even though the Cardinals have put together a nice stretch of baseball (13 of 19) and closed to within two games of the Cubs, I don’t see either the Brewers or St. Louis thwarting Chicago down the stretch. The Cubbies managed to take over the division lead without the services of Alfonso Soriano. Now Soriano’s back, the starting staff has been stabilized by Carlos Zambrano (with Ted Lilly and Rich Hill rounding out a quality top three), and their September schedule is very manageable. Oh yeah, and have I mentioned that Lou Piniella is calling the shots on a playoff-contending team for the first time since his beard turned gray?

Out in the wiki-wild NL West the division will likely again come down to the final week of the season (probably the final weekend). The Diamondbacks, Dodgers, and Padres will all be playing multiple series against one another in September, with each having to tangle with the hard-hitting Rockies a few times as well. Watch out for the Dodgers. Their offense has been anemic in August, scoring two runs or less nine times, including being shut out four times. However, this team showed last year that September is winning time, as Los Angeles won 17 games in the final month to tie San Diego with 88 wins and snag the NL wild card. The division is the Dbacks to lose at this point, but out west who knows what to expect.

Other AL Races Many feel that the Indians rigorous schedule over the last leg of the season will be enough to do them in and pave the way for the Tigers to back into the AL Central crown. I would have been inclined to agree with that line of thinking until I found out that Gary Sheffield could be sidelined for the rest of the season. Coupled with the fact that it seems any of Detroit’s “aces” can be tuned up on any given night I think the Tigers are going find it difficult to string together a sufficient stretch of consistent baseball. Cleveland’s lineup is good enough to win on a nightly basis, and with the viable tag team of C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona starting twice every five days I think that should be enough for the Tribe to win 87 games and take the division.

I’ll be the first to admit I had no reason to believe the Mariners would be even close to contending for a playoff berth come the last week of August, let alone occupying one. Nonetheless, the Angels have watched Seattle trim their AL West lead down to two games, as well as take control of the wild card chase. Felix Hernandez is undoubtedly the ace of what is the weakest starting staff of contending AL teams, and he has only thrown 11 quality starts in 23 appearances. With the likes of Jarrod Washburn, Miguel Batista, and Jeff Weaver rounding out the Mariners staff, there’s no way this team wins the 90 games necessary to overtake either the Angels for the division or the Yankees for the wild card.

Sox/Yanks Race Points

Walking to the hardware store in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn this afternoon, I had the luck of running into one of my pinstripe-loving neighbors. He wore a sly grin as he approached from the opposite direction with his toddler. Guiding his son’s stroller with his left hand he raised his right hand and gave me a deliberate and flamboyant four-fingered wave. (You gotta love the subtle simplicities of Yankee fans.)

“Four games back!!” he yelped, just in case the rest of Church Avenue couldn’t decipher the hidden meaning behind his gestural greeting.

“Now what I wanna know is this,” he said as he neared. “You go on the Yankees website and it says four games. You go on the Red Sox site and it’s four and a half. What the f— is that? When are they gonna they change it?”

Alas, it appears that balance has been restored: Yankee fans are once again only concerned with the accuracy of the documentation of their winning. As opposed to the first three and a half months of the season when they were so un-Yankee-like it actually creeped me out.

What exactly constituted un-Yankee-like? In public in manifested itself in the form of consistently bewildered/angered expressions. For instance, imagine you ran into your high school bully when you were 22. After a brief moment of disbelief you’d want to pounce on the guy. This is how Yankee fans walked around for the first half of the season; toeing the line between confused and enraged. This foreign and conflicted state of mind that Yankee fans were stuck in was a direct result of the realization that had gripped them all: the fact that A-Rod, the poster boy of Yankee-failure since October of 2004, was himself the single reason the Bombers weren’t totally buried by July 1st. His Herculean effort the first three months of the year kept the Yanks at least fighting for air, and gave Yankee-faithful the slightest justification to keep monitoring the (gasp!) wild card race in dark corners and most discreet fashion.

In 2007, A-Rod has been the enabler. He’s enabled Bobby Abreu to start bashing; enabled Robinson Cano and Hideki Matsui to start mashing. He’s enabled Joe Torre to keep managing. Because of A-Rod, the Yankees token-late summer run is not being staged in vain. Accordingly, order has been restored throughout Yankee fandom. Like always it began in the Bronx and trickled down the avenues of Manhattan; crossed over the bridges into the other boroughs before permeating the entire Tri-State area. If I had a nickel for each time I’ve heard some variation of “Yanks are back!!! Watch out Sox!!!” in the last few days, I’d have, well a nice stack of nickels. Each of which I’d probably want to hurl back at the taunting Yankee fan of the moment. But that’s the thing. I’m happy with that; happy to be finally having those kinds of exchanges again.

So, you might be wondering, why the bleep are you not pressing the panic button when the walls are crashing down around Red Sox nation? Well first off, if you’ve been monitoring my baseball writing this year I’ve been trying to brace the Nation for a pennant race, little as anybody desired to hear the words. Well here it is folks. The good news is we’re still “the chased”. The better news is that one player is responsible for the Red Sox losing an unacceptable two games in the standings on a weekend when they were in Baltimore and the Yanks were in Cleveland. He is Eric Gagne (and for illustrative purposes you may pronounce his name phonetically).

Much is made of the “closer mentality” and the need to be in a closing situation in order to perform ably. There is no doubt that Gagne has shown this year that he still has the stuff to be a very good closer. Not on the Red Sox, though. He knows Jonathan Papelbon does the closing for the Boston Red Sox. He knew it when he removed the Sox from his no-trade list. He knew it when Theo Epstein agreed to pay him his closing bonuses to become one of the Red Sox setup men. Granted, transitioning from a closer to a setup role is a process, and evidently requires a change of psyche. To say the least, that process has been rocky for Gagne thus far. He gave up multiple hits and single runs in two of his first three appearances out of the Boston bullpen. That was promptly followed by a total implosion on Friday night in Baltimore, when he entered in the eighth inning with a 5-1 lead and left one out later, having giving up four runs and (basically) the game.

Friday night is on Gagne. He needs to get his ducks in a row, and I’d rather see him suffer through the growing (or diverging) pains of becoming a setup guy sooner than later. Sunday was a totally different story. Sunday afternoon in Baltimore marked the last game (as well as the rubber game) of the Sox nine-game road trip, their toughest of the second half. With a 3-1 lead in the eighth inning Terry Francona opted to use setup man Hideki Okajima as a matchup reliever, and go back to Gagne to face Miguel Tejada, who represented the tying run. Tejada deposited a 3-2 pitch ten rows deep in the left-center field bleachers to tie the game.

Whether this was an act of appeasement to Gagne (a fulfillment of some unstated clause in his contract) or mere micro-managing by Tito, the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of the Red Sox manager. The Red Sox have now blown four games this year when leading after seven innings, and two of them have been courtesy of Francona and Gagne this past weekend. Going forward it needs to be communicated to Gagne that on this team he must earn the right to be a setup man, even if he’s being compensated as a closer. Until then (and possibly beyond) Okajima will precede Papelbon because he’s been doing it all year, with near flawless results. I doubt that Gagne will become a $6 million mistake, but if he does Francona and/or Theo better pull the plug and cut their losses because they already have a very good thing going without the guy.

So here we are in mid-August, in a pennant race. Today the Yankees sit four games behind the Red Sox, with three on tap at the Stadium in two weeks. How the teams fare over their next respective 14 games will say a lot about the gravity of that pending series. The Yankees start a seven game home stand Monday night before embarking on a seven game road trip that will lead them back to the Bronx for the Sox series. After three with Baltimore the Bombers will have eight games with Detroit sandwiched around a trio against the Angels. That’s 11 games versus the two teams that have disposed of the Yankees the last two Octobers. The .742 baseball New York has been playing since the All-Star break is sure to cease. The Red Sox, meanwhile, get a few of the teams the Yanks have been torching of late. That includes Tampa Bay six times and the White Sox four, which should set the stage for all this recent bad news to be safely in the rear view come August 28th.

However, as any Yanks fan will gladly (though uncharacteristically) assert, all objects in the rear view are indeed closer than they appear.

MLB Deadline/Fantasy Points

As I laid out in my April Fantasy Points most big-name player movement takes place on or around the July 31st non-waiver trading deadline. That was the case again this year, as the two biggest fish on the block, Mark Teixeira and Eric Gagne, changed uniforms mere hours before the deadline passed. Braves general manager John Schuerholz decided that two years out of NL East contention was unacceptable, and got aggressive, landing the ex-Rangers slugger. Theo Epstein of the Red Sox, meanwhile, who was skewered for standing pat at the deadline last year just a few weeks before the eventual “Boston Massacre”, also showed some fangs at the deadline, acquiring from Texas the former great-Dodgers closer, Gagne.

The goal of every general manager in April is to be a prospective buyer at the end of July. Being in that position is the most obvious indicator that the team a GM has built is a contender. However, contenders want to improve, which is why they become buyers. GMs who are looking to add talent fall into two categories. The first is for those like Schuerholz, who have assessed the landscape of their division and league, in addition to the weaknesses of their own team, and determine that one big piece can be the difference between a second place finish and a spot in the postseason. Suffice to say Schuerholz believes Teixeira will solidify the middle of the Braves lineup and give his offense the kick it needs to run with the the likes of the Mets and Phillies down the stretch. The second category is reserved for GMs of the top couple of teams in baseball, who conclude that one major addition can put their already-playoff bound teams over the top. Epstein’s rationale was that with a deep lineup and consistent rotation, sticking a guy like Gagne in between Hideki Okajima and Jonathan Papelbon would officially vault the Red Sox into “team to beat” status.

For each Schuerholz and Epstein at the end of July, there are a few GM-counterparts that find themselves either unwilling to part with prospects or unable to present a viable package to suitors, and are forced to begin the month of August with a bit of an empty feeling, reflecting and vexing about missed opportunities. Brian Cashman of the Yankees and David Dombrowski of the Tigers have assumed those roles this summer, as Cashman wanted to get a deal done for Teixeira and Dombrowski made it no secret that he coveted Gagne, given the injuries to Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney. Of the Tigers and Yankees, probably only one will make the playoffs this year, which means come October one of the those GMs will have to be answering some tough questions about his lack of deadline-activity (and if it’s Cashman, will probably have to be finding a new day job).

In case you opted not to take a look my original fantasy points, the gist of my argument was that like real GMs, we fantasy owners should look to emulate the modus operandi of the guys getting paid the big bucks to wheel and deal. Which is to say making a blockbuster trade early in the season is careless, because you have no bead on the vibe of your league or even your own team. By now, however, you do have that clarifying knowledge. You know the top teams in your league, and have analyzed the depth and caliber of their rosters; you see what kind of fluctuation has occurred in the standings, which is a good indicator of the prevalence of parity within a given league. And you’ve had ample time to see what your own squad has to offer. So now, with most fantasy trade-deadlines on the horizon, it’s time to start critically evaluating the big picture for your team.

Ideally you find yourself in either Schuerholz’s or Epstein’s shoes (which is a nicer way of saying hopefully your squad doesn’t stink). At this juncture a fantasy owner’s strategy is two-tiered, depending on if the league is rotisserie or head to head. If you’re part of a rotisserie league with no playoffs and only a league champion at the end, your work is waiting for you within the individual league standings. If your team has been middle to top-third of the pack throughout, chances are there is a marked imbalance between the statistical output of your offense in relation to your pitching staff. Injuries and off-years are the prime culprits for such an imbalance. Any fantasy GM of a mediocre team should be hoping for this, because it means you have a surplus of marketable commodities on one side and an underachieving/overly injured contingent on the other. If not, then you just have a very mediocre team.

I reiterate; if your team has been languishing in the middle of the standings you are in much better position if you have either a dominant offense or pitching staff as opposed to decent versions of both. Why? Because now you can afford to package one of your best players and be in line to get in return two very good players to supplant your weakness. For example, if your staff has been exemplary, say with the likes of C.C. Sabathia, Roy Oswalt and Dan Haren as your top three, while your offense has been woefully unproductive you can afford to trade one or even two of those big guns for some big-time offense back (guys like Carlos Lee or Ichiro or Ryan Howard). Since only about thirty percent of the season remains, the categories that you’ve been at the top of the league in shouldn’t fluctuate too much, because of the hundred games over which you’ve had that production. On the flip side you’re now positioning yourself to make a run at the categories that have held you’re team back, and if you can find a way to acquire any of those handful of late-season performers, well then, you just might be in position to make a league-leader start sweating.

As for fantasy owners who are in head to head leagues, the strategy is far more authentic. As opposed to rotisserie leagues, where the sole objective is to finish in first place, for head to head you want to finish in the top four to six of your league and gain a playoff spot. Playoff position doesn’t matter so much as building a team that is capable of winning three consecutive head to head showdowns in September. Divisional races can greatly alter strategy; that is if a team is running away with its division in September (like the Mets and Yankees last year), managers will look to rest their players over the insignificant stretch run to gear up for October. This is the double edged sword that characterizes head to head leagues; the fact that a championship-caliber fantasy team can be derailed because its players are on real teams that are contending for a World Series and care far less about September than fantasy junkies.

The good news is that it doesn’t appear there will be any team shutting it down early this season, as all divisional races are tight (no more than four games), with the exception of the AL East (Sox up seven), which will likely become closer as the season winds down. In other words this is a good year to be in a head to head league. So how does a fantasy owner’s strategy differ? First and foremost what’s happened to this point doesn’t mean a whole lot. If your team is in playoff position you have to be projecting towards September. Check out the September track records of your players and relevant competition. Who’s likely to heat up? Who’s likely to cool off? Who’s shown a tendency of going down with an injury late in the season? When making a significant deal at this stage of a head to head league, the fantasy owner who can most thoroughly answers those three questions should get the better of the deal nine times out of ten.

For the record, I’m participating in one head to head league and one rotisserie league. I’m currently in second and sixth place respectively. So naysayers, my claims are not unfounded…

Now go deal!!!!!  And enjoy all those pennant races in cyberspace.

(Prepare for a few in reality as well.)

KG/Celtics Points

Kevin Garnett is a Boston Celtic. Let that sink in for a moment. Weird, isn’t it? For the first time in almost two decades we devoted Celtic-faithful have been given the opportunity to ponder the unthinkable questions. Questions like how many times will the Green be appearing on national television? Or how many teams in the NBA will finish with more wins than the C’s? And the kicker of all kickers: are the Celtics about to be flirting with championship #17?

Early answers are: many, my friends; very few, folks; and in the words of Borat: YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES!!!!!!

In an effort to assess the scope of this situation, I’ll be blunt. The Celtics are better off today than they would’ve been had they gotten the number one pick in the NBA Draft. Whoa, you might be inclined to interject. You’re saying KG and Ray Allen are better for the franchise long term than Greg Oden would be? Actually no, I’m not saying that. But in case you missed my Paul Pierce Points and don’t know how much he has meant to the city of Boston over the years, I’ll be glad to expand.

I have little doubt that Oden will ultimately become the center piece of a championship team, maybe even a dynasty. For the foreseeable future, though, the kid’s still a kid (even if he looks like he could be the patriarch of multiple Oden-generations). He played one entrepreneurial year in college, and much of that one season he had the use of only his off-hand. He may be a gargantuan man among gigantic men, but rest assured, he will take his lumps for the next few years. The Shaqs and Duncans and Dwight Howards of the world simply wouldn’t have it any other way. He has a whole lot of maturing to do, even if his size and facial hair wouldn’t indicate such. Unfortunately for Paul Pierce (and hence the Celtics), time is of the essence. Paul is beyond hungry for postseason glory. He’s starving, he’s famished. Hell, he’s basically been fasting for the last five years!!

So the answer was obvious. Bring on board the two guys in the league who are arguably as hungry as Paul and at similar points in their careers, and run with it for the next three to five. The time is now. For once, that mantra employed by the Celtics’ Beantown counterparts, the Red Sox and Patriots, has been reciprocated by the Green.

Realistically, the only possible hindrance I see that could thwart this team from winning right from the word go is chemistry. As is always the case when stars get thrown together, egos will have to learn to coexist. I’m confident these three will. They have too much in common not to. All three have brought teams and cities to places they never envisioned: Paul took the Celtics to the ’02 Eastern Conference Finals; Ray carried the ’01 Bucks and the ’05 Sonics deep into the playoffs. And KG helped the ’04 Wolves win the first two playoff series in their franchise history. All have been borderline excessively-loyal guys. Other players in Paul’s or KG’s shoes would’ve skipped town years ago, given their stature and frustrating situations. As for Ray, he was as fiercely loyal to Milwaukee as anyone could be to a small-market city with no viable title shot; he didn’t depart until the powers-that-be effectively replaced him with Michael Redd.

So they’re all ecstatic to be teammates and have already been buddies for some time now, which in my opinion are the building blocks of good chemistry. And don’t underestimate the impact of Boston on their chemistry. From what I’ve heard and read, this deal wouldn’t have had a chance of happening without unrelenting lobbying on Paul’s behalf to KG. For the last few weeks he’s been in close contact with Garnett, surely playing up the value of Boston. Since the city has frequently been labeled as “that place” black athletes don’t want any part of, my bet is Paul brought KG up to speed about that misnomer. History (ie the reason why Boston has a justifiable-bad rap) aside, one thing about the city I’m sure Paul has conveyed is its unmatched passion for its teams as well as its undying love and support of its athletes.

You play pro sports in Boston, you’re automatically on a higher plateau than your colleagues in other cities. Granted, fans in Boston are needy and the media commands accountability, which combined make it difficult to be an athlete without being a celebrity. But even borderline-shy, reclusive players like Manny Ramirez feel the pull of the city to such a degree that in the end the pressure and demand is worth the reward. No city and fan base will support and defend you as staunchly as Boston. No place will drip with such visceral emotion after an otherworldly performance. And if in the end you have a hand in bringing a title to the town, every step you take from that point forward will be on hallowed ground. Paul feels it. He’s felt it through the adoration he’s received, through the devotion of the faithful. He’s felt it through Manny and Pedro and Corey Dillon and Troy Brown. And you know what else? He found a way to make KG feel it.

When you think about it, Garnett has always been destined to play in Boston. Here is a guy who literally leaves it all out on the court on a nightly basis, hell or high water. Now he’s going to be playing in a house that won’t be wondering if he’ll blow the roof off; no, they’ll be expecting it every night. And that first evening when he’s formally introduced and the entire waterfront shakes, like all athletes in new places, he’ll want to savor that moment and freeze it in time, because he’ll have to believe it will be next to impossible to rival it. So it goes for athletes previously foreign to Boston. Just wait until the first shot he hits. The first big swat he records. His first 20-20 game. His first deft dish to Paul for an overtime dagger. Just wait, KG, just wait.

It was this notion that Paul undoubtedly succeeded in relaying to KG, along with the fact that he, KG and Ray will be manhandling the East for the next few years to the tune of 55+ wins and an annual top seed in the playoffs. Once again I won’t mince words: I believe the Celtics are poised to make multiple Finals appearances over the next couple of years. I can’t go so far as to put them on that next level with the two best teams in the league, the Suns and Spurs (only because either Steve Nash or Tony Parker would manhandle Rajon Rondo en route to a Finals MVP), but I entirely believe the Celtics are now the team to beat in the East.

So am I calling number 17 just yet? No, I’m not ready to make any crazy proclamations, but I am ready to watch these guys play ball. And I will say this: when you unite a trio of seasoned and starving superstars and they get a few shots at the glory fruit, expect them to find a way to get fed.