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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The day the Celtics mattered again

It's official, mark July 31, 2007 on your calendars, the Celtics are relevant again on the Boston sports landscape and now throughout the NBA. The Celtics made a blockbuster deal, trading Al Jefferson, Gerald Green, Ryan Gomes, Sebastian Telfair and Theo Ratliff's expiring contract plus two 1st-round draft picks to get 10-time All-Star Kevin Garnett from the Timberwolves.

The Ray Allen trade didn't create much excitement for me or around here but this is a legit. deal. The Celtics took a big gamble that with a healthy Paul Pierce, Allen and K.G., they can be contenders in the East for the next 3-4 years. And why not? The Celts have been a complete joke for most of my fan years. Except for a random run to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2002 and Antoine's second go-around with the Celtics, this team has not made any strides on the court, to get back to the glory days of the 60's-early 90's. We've all heard about how great those days were in the Garden and while it's doubtful the C's are on the brink of a dynasty (since they'll have zilch when these three stars are done), they should be a favorite to win the Eastern Conference.

The Nets made the NBA Finals twice recently and the Cavs-a team with one superstar and no other above-average player-made it this year. All three teams lost to better Western Conference teams but at least they made it there. The Celtics season's have repeatedly revolved around drafts and as Danny Ainge has shown, there's nothing he screws up more than a draft.

It'll hurt to see Al Jefferson develop into the star we all know he can be but his growth will definitely be stunted in Minnesota which is currently an old Celtics b-squad (remember Ricky Davis, Justin Reed, Mark Blount). Green will probably never be anything more than a talented scorer that can't play defense or team basketball. It's hard for me to see Gomes leave as he went to PC but what can you do? He'll have a solid NBA career wherever he goes. Telfair will be out of the NBA in two years and Ratliff might not ever play again. Two draft picks is a pretty steep price but if the Celts have two good seasons in a row, it won't really matter since the picks will be in the 20's.

A fall with the Red Sox in the playoffs, the Patriots opening the regular season and the Celtics with their new squad is looking mighty nice. The future is now for the Boston Celtics. They've completely abandoned the youth movement in hopes of getting lots out of Pierce, Allen and KG. Why not? The Celtics matter again in Boston, proof that anything can happen.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

an underwhelming homestand

The 11 game homestand to start the second half was the Red Sox longest stretch of home games in the season. To make it even more favorable, the Sox faced three very beatable teams (four against Toronto, three against the Royals and four against the White Sox). Thus far, through nine games the Red Sox have gone 4-5. Their lead in the A.L. East which reached a highwater mark of 14.5 games, fell to 7 games a few days back as the Yankees have played good baseball for the last month. It's eight games heading into Saturday.

This could have been a time when the Red Sox really distanced themselves from the Yankees but for now, they'll be happy to go 6-5 and salvage what they can. The two biggest problems the Sox have faced during this malaise has been bad starting pitching and a lack of any hitting with runners in scoring position. The pitching faltering was bound to happen at some point. With Schilling out since the beginning of July and Julian Taverez recently remembering that he was well Julian Tavarez, the Sox fearsome rotation has become much more pedestrian. Beckett has still been a rock (although Boston wasted a great Beckett start last sunday in a 2-1 loss to the Blue Jays) but Dice-K has been knocked around lately. The Dice man gave up six walks the other night to the White Sox. And Wakefield? Well, you can't really count on anything from Wakefield outside of always making his starts. Sometimes those knuckleballs are pretty easy for hitters to pick up. Kason Gabbard has been a bright spot as the young left-hander has put together some good starts. At this point, most fans would want to see him stick in the rotation when Schilling comes back and send Tavarez back to his rightful mop-up position.

The other positives during this frustrating stretch have been Manny Delcarmen, Julio Lugo and Coco Crisp. That wasn't a misprint. All three of those guys have played some of their best baseball in a Red Sox uniform over the last two weeks. Manny has been a force coming out of the bullpen and not allowing inherited runners to score while also blowing batters away with his mid-90's fastball and plus curveball. Lugo is riding a ten game hit streak which for him equals fifty games after the terrible first half he had. He's been consistently getting on base, stealing bases and scoring runs from the eight or nine spot. Lugo provided the exclamation point last night with a grand slam off Jose Contreras as the Red Sox won 10-3. Crisp had a bases-loaded three-run triple last night. He's also been getting on base and actually hitting the ball with some authority. Can't forget to mention that Manny Ramirez has been crushing the ball too, just like any knowledgeable fan knew he would.

The easiest thing to do is panic. When the Sox don't play well and lose, it's a natural reaction for Red Sox fans (not to mention the insufferable local media) to start freaking out about the Yankees. I'm not afraid though, you know why? These aren't the Yankees of the late 90's. They have so many pitching problems (that have been highlighted before) and holes in their lineup that it doesn't even really matter that Clemens came back or if A-Rod hits 70 home runs. The Red Sox lucked out in the sense that they don't have the Indians, Twins or even Mariners in their division. You'd like the A.L. East to be more competitive but with so many veterans on the Sox this year, it's hard to imagine them completely losing their focus and coasting into the playoffs. Every team has hiccups in baseball so hopefully the Red Sox can wake up from this one and take the last two from Chicago before heading out to Cleveland to meet a very underrated Indians team.

Friday, July 13, 2007

There's only one David Beckham!

MLS is mostly irrelevant in America but this topic was too big to ignore considering my love of soccer and the fact that I studied in London for a semester in college. David Beckham-the biggest name in sports worldwide-had a press conference in LA today as he gets set to join the Galaxy. The hype machine has been getting fired up for months so prepare yourself for weeks, nay months of the same drivel from eerily similar small-minded sportswriters from across this great land of ours.
David Beckham played for Manchester United (England) and most recently Real Madrid (Spain)-two of the most famous and successful club teams in the world. He was also the captain of England for three World Cups. He's an outside midfielder, most famous for his crosses and pinpoint free-kicks. He could never take over a game but he's great at what he specializes in. He's 32 and his contract with the Galaxy runs through 2012. Not sure if he'll still be running around the US by that point but that's something to worry about for another day.
Beckham is a 21st century creation. He's bigger than Michael Jordan at his prime, its not even close. The main reason being that soccer is the most popular sport in the world. Actually, its probably the most popular sport in just about every country outside the US and Canada. Americans like to think we have the greatest country in every regard (politics, sports, money, music, etc.) but for whatever reason soccer has never really gained popularity nationwide past the youth level.
Will Beckham change that? Who knows. The variety of sports in America is a good thing. We have so many options, there's a sport out there for everybody that's interested. It's silly to think that the NHL, NBA, MLB or NFL are perfect. Hockey is quickly becoming the forgotten sport stateside while there's plenty of problems with the other three major sports. Beckham coming to LA can't hurt. His combination of ability (Real won its league title thanks to him a month ago), star power (married to a Spice Girl with a boob job, hello) and good looks/quirky English charm have taken the world by storm for the past decade.
I don't know why so many American sportswriters, talking heads and older generations seem almost scared to admit that MLS could succeed. It's bizarre. They don't like soccer, OK great we get it. All the interest Becks will bring can only help a league that is in dire need of better ratings, more quality players and bigger crowds. Its a spectacle, who doesn't like that? The American sporting world won't change overnight. Football and baseball with basketball running closeby will still rule the day but there's no reason that soccer can't slide into the number four spot. And don't get me started on NASCAR, that doesn't count hillbilly. So let me be the first from this blog to welcome David, Victoria, Cruz, Brooklyn and Romeo (their three boys) to the States. Go on Beckham! Come on lad!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Let the second half begin

Baseball is a funny sport. Its regular season (162 games) is way too long and yet when every team takes three days off in the middle of the season, it feels like the world is about to end. This might have something to do with the fact that nothing else is going on. The NBA and NHL playoffs are long gone and NFL preseason is just a glimmer in a few months.
The consistency of baseball season is one of its most alluring features. On any given summer night (unless you're a Cubs fan), you can catch your team on the tv/radio/internet. For as great as the NFL is, its one main downfall is that one game a week doesn't cut it for most A.D.D. afflicted American sports fans. We need games all the time. The MLB All-Star game actually falls a little bit past the halfway mark of the season but for all intents and purposes, its a solid marker. The Red Sox headed into the break at 53-34, 10 games ahead of Toronto and New York. As the last weekend showed, the Sox can't simply cruise to the playoffs. The Tigers swept them in three games at Comerica Park, showing why they're the team to beat now that Kenny Rogers is back. A rotation of Bonderman, Verlander and Rogers with a lineup of Sheffield, Ordonez, Guillen, Pudge, etc. is very scary indeed. Their bullpen may be awful but that doesn't seem to be a big deal.
Most people don't want to start crowning the Sox AL East champs yet but I think that's silly. Sure, they'll win the division. Anything can happen, its a long season, blah blah. That's a forgone conclusion. The bigger and more important question is will they make it through the AL playoffs which are shaping up to be one of the toughest in recent memories. Assuming the Tigers, Red Sox and Angels win their divisions with the Wild Card being most likely the Indians and possibly the Mariners, dang.
I'm getting ahead of myself though. I should take a second to look back on the first half and examine what we learned through three months.

1) Dustin Pedroia is a solid major leaguer. If you had told me that two months ago, I would have laughed in your face. He didn't take long to completely prove me wrong and I couldn't be more happy.

2) Josh Beckett has continued to improve as he gets more experience in the American League. He should be a solid starter for years.

3) Jonathan Papelbon is one of the most talented pitchers in the game. You could sense this last season but this season has only proven that more. I would take him over any other closer in baseball. I don't know if that's because I'm a homer but his talent is unquestionable.

4) The two Japanese imports have been great: we all knew Dice-K would be good and while it took him a little while to get used to MLB, he's adjusted just fine. As for Hideki Okajima? Nobody expected anything of this guy and he was an All-Star in his first season. Pretty amazing. He's taken over the set-up role at an important time as Timlin is unreliable anymore.

5) Ortiz and Manny were not who we thought they were. Ortiz (.314 avg, 14 HRs, 52 RBIs) and Manny (.284 avg, 11 HRs, 45 RBIs) had subpar first half by their ridiculous standards. Until proven otherwise, I would say these guys will both have better second halves. Ortiz's power numbers will go up while everything with Manny should go up. Ortiz has a bad right leg and Manny is 35 but I still can't picture them not picking it up. Time will catch up with them eventually but not this season.

6) Mike Lowell was a complete steal in the Beckett trade. Sure, he might not be here next year. Forgetting that, we've gotten some real value out of Lowell this past year and a half. He should have won a gold glove last year and he was an All-Star this season. What more do you want?

7)Lugo and Drew as expected are busts. Its not like people even had high hopes for these two but so far one has been a disaster (Lugo, batting .197) while the other has been simply average (.258 avg, 6 HRs, 33 RBIs). If they had decent first halves, the Sox would be up like 13-15 games.

8) Wily Mo will never do anything for the Sox. Baring an injury or trade, his role won't change and predictably neither will his production. The Red Sox version of Pedro Cerrano can't hit the curve ball or anything off-speed and he's an absolute nightmare in the field. Yikes. At least Arroyo is struggling this year with the Reds.

9) Coco Crisp won't be the player Theo and the minions expected when they signed him but he at least has found a role. He's playing a gold glove center field (but he'll never win as long as Torii Hunter is breathing) and getting on base consistently. What a concept. He's not a leadoff hitter which is too bad but i'm slowly starting to like him.

10) Schilling is the key to the Sox second half. If he isn't healthy or can't be effective, the Sox' margin for error is smaller. You need three quality starting pitchers to go far in the playoffs. Beckett, Dice-K, Schilling sounds right. Substituting Wakefield or Tavarez makes the Sox much less imposing. Schill lives for the big moment and if he can compete, you never want to bet against him.