The West Coast road trip immediately after the All-Star break was not a happy time for the 2004 Boston Red Sox.
It was becoming clear the Sox would not catch the Yankees in the AL East pennant race. In six days on the road, soon to be traded Nomar Garciaparra didn't speak. Not to the media, to anyone. In a start against the Angels, Derek Lowe got hammered off the mound and then got hammered in the visiting clubhouse as the game went on before doing the most ill-advised press availability imaginable.
The next night, David Ortiz, popular but not quite the beloved Big Papi of today, did a very foolish thing.
It is one of the lesser recognized parts of Ortiz's career, but a man not wrongly perceived as amiable is one of the most constant and aggressive complainers about ball and strike calls I've seen in over 50 years of watching.the big leagues. Ortiz gets genuinely angry on borderline calls. In this game, a called strike three by an ump whose name I can't remember set him berserk. Face-to-face screaming led to an immediate ejection, more screaming, and when Ortiz stomped back to the dugout, he didn't leave it, but began tossing bats onto the field.
It was a jolly good show, right up to the moment one of the bats took a bad bounce and came within millimeters of hitting that ump. That's an instant mandatory 10-game suspension. As it was, he got three games. It wasn't as if the Sox didn't need his bat. Ortiz risked his team's season to indulge in a childish display of temper.
Every reporter on the road with the Sox was at Ortiz's locker when the game ended. He was going to be Exhibit A in my early column for the Herald the next day on that ever-popular topic, "What's Wrong With the Red Sox." All I needed were a few defensive quotes from the miscreant slugger himself.
Didn't get 'em. Ortiz was the last Sox to go to his locker. He turned and faced his inquisitors with a sheepish but broad grin. "Gang, what can I say," he said. "I fucked up."
Ortiz was not Exhibit A in my column the next day. How could he be? Honest admission of error is rare in public figures in any walk of life, let alone a star ballplayer of a team in trouble.
In the event, of course, that unhappy team in trouble in July became the happiest, most astonishing story in Boston sports history, which would not have happened without Ortiz. Good thing that bat missed.
I don't want to overstate what I am about to write. Performance determines how the public views athletes, the rest is window dressing. San Franciscans adored sociopath Barry Bonds, and they should have. Big hits and plenty of 'em are why New Englanders made Ortiz Big Papi, why they resolutely overlooked his link to PEDs (again, as they should have). But window dressing is an important part of the sales process, even if it's the product that makes or breaks it.
David Ortiz is an emotionally candid man. He wears his heart on his sleeve right near his batting glove. As almost all of us do, he liked being adored, and fans could see his delight in their delight, just as umps could see he really was mad about that called strike.
That sort of openness is getting rare among elite athletes. They can't afford it. Look what it's gotten Colin Kaepernick. Safer to have one's agent craft sweet nothings for the Player's Tribune.
Ortiz hid from no one. It never crossed his mind he ought to. As a result, he never had to.
I don't know if Ortiz will make the Hall of Fame. Probably yes, but one never knows with the Hall electorate. If he does, I do know this. His acceptance speech will be of considerable interest.
Bills 16 - Patriots 0
Seldom if ever has the Michael Gee Theory of Random NFL Lousiness had a more complete validation than it received yesterday afternoon at Gillette Stadium.
You may remember that the Theory holds that in every NFL season, every NFL team, even the eventual Super Bowl champion, will play a complete 60-minute stinkeroo in which failure is so complete it appears as if a visiting Bulgarian folk dance troupe was somehow sent on the field instead of the uniforms' usual inhabitants.
The Patriots, as Bill Belichick readily admitted, were terrible at everything. Offense, defense, special teams, game planning, in-house fan promotions, you name it. Had Tom Brady played quarterback instead of Jacoby Brissett, things might have been different. Buffalo might only have won 16-6. Forty-four men failing outweigh any superstar, even Brady.
Oh, well. Fans should remember the corollary to Gee's Theory, namely, that the annual debacle is an anomaly, not a sign of impending doom or even Things to Fret About. If it happens to all teams, and it does, then your team is no worse off for having endured the experience.
Pats fans especially should remember their team's next game is against the Browns. This is as close as pro football can get to one of those Division I-AA cupcakes SEC teams play to fatten up their home win records for the press guide and to give third-stringers a chance to play so they won't transfer out.
Arnold Palmer's reign as golf's undisputed champion was quite brief, lasting from his comeback win at the 1960 US Open, the event where he really became "Arnie" and the 1962 US Open he lost in a playoff to Jack Nicklaus. His reign as golf's most cherished legend never ended and never will, even in death.
After that '62 Open, Palmer was one of the Big Three along with Nicklaus and Gary Player. He never won a major after the 1964 Masters. By the end of the '60s, he was no longer a true contender in the majors. Nobody cared. He was Arnie forever, maybe not the golfer fans wanted to be (all golf fans play golf), but always the golfer they loved the most.
Don't get me wrong. Palmer was a great champion. He won seven majors, including back to back Open championships, a tournament he pretty much saved by rekindling American interest in it. But the overriding fact of Palmer's career, no life, was the enormous affection he generated among people who never met him.
What makes some athletes loved, while others, equally great, must make do with respect? Why is one boxer Muhammad Ali and another Joe Frazier, one outfielder Willie Mays and another Hank Aaron? Why was Arnie Arnie and Nicklaus, the golf's all time champ, Jack, given more reverence than true fondness?
Beats me. That question gets close to mysteries of human existence way, way above my pay grade. But I'll hazard a guess. The athletes who inspire the most love are the ones who best project love for what they do, who show exuberance on top of their excellence.
No one ever lived who loves golf more than Nicklaus, who's a warm-hearted passionate person to boot. But Jack's love showed itself in scholarly focus and steel concentration. Palmer's love for his game was worn on his short sleeves. It was a reckless love, a teenager's love, foolish and wonderful all at once. Two of Palmer's most famous tournaments featured defeats due to blown leads, the '61 Masters and '67 US Open. Those only made fans love him more. Fans know love hurts sometimes.
Palmer took that love and used it to become the first sports brand/marketing conglomerate. When a man is still doing commercials in the last year of a long life, his connection with the public is an awesome power.
What generated that power? In the end, it might be boiled down to a simple formula.
Arnold Palmer, champion golfer, embodied a truth all us hackers come to know. There's no such thing as a bad day on the golf course.
No truth of life is always true. Today will be a bad day for every golfer on every golf course on the planet.
The death of any young person is the ultimate cheat, an unspeakable tragedy far beyond my power to express in suitable words. I will miss seeing a great pitcher. To his family, teammates and friends who must deal with the loss of Fernandez the person, I can do nothing but offer my total sympathy. I hope anyone who's ever watched baseball will do the same, and I'm sure they do.
Last Thuught Before Sleep Last Night
Perhaps John Elway knows more about quarterbacks and quarterbacking than almost all the rest of us.
More than Bill O'Brien anyway.
Cliches Get That Way for a Reason
The nonpareil Atlanta Braves starting rotation of the '90s had a motto. "Work Fast, Change Speeds, Throw Strikes." I'm sure it didn't originate with them. Probably Old Hoss Radbourn thought of it first.
Ladies and gentlemen, we give you Rick Porcello. 89 pitches, 65 strikes, and for once, a Red Sox game that was over before I felt like going to bed. Porcello's been one of the stars of the 2016 team all season long. Now he's my personal Boston baseball hero. What I've been yelling at pitchers to do for, oh, 40 years or so, he did as well as anyone could.
My fondest hope for the national pastime is that Porcello's brand of twirling becomes contagious.
The Etiquette of Closure
Dillen Betances had nothing last night. From about his second pitch on it was clear that the ordinarily outstanding Yankee reliever had no zip on his fastball nor control of it. To have him try to finish what had been a 5-2 lead over the Red Sox in the ninth was an invitation to disaster.
Betances was left in, and blew up as spectacularly as when careless folks forget to defrost their planned deep-fried turkey on Thanskgiving. Hanley Ramirez hit a three-run homer and Boston won 7-5, in a game the Sox needed to win, but that the Yanks absolutely couldn't afford to lose.
Second guesses of New York manager Joe Girardi were few and far between. Closers pitch the ninth and are expected to finish it. The revolutionary strategy of the '80s is the iron dogma of 2016. If Betances couldn't complete the assignment, too bad for him and his team, but that's baseball.
Why is that? Why is the specialist closer the only pitcher on a staff not subject to preventative replacement, the only one who's ALWAYS taken out only after it's too late to do any good? It is commonplace for the sport's true ace starters, the Bumgarners, Kershaws, Sales, etc. to be quickly yanked in the early innings of a game if their skipper thinks bad has no place to go but worse. But in the ninth, with one, two or three measly outs to go, a pitcher will be left to douse a potential win in gasoline and then light the fire with a Roman candle.
Girardi had a much better view of Betances than I did, and is far more qualified to judge pitching. He had to see what I did, that his stellar relief ace should never have opened the bullpen door. Bad night? Overwork? The reason didn't matter. The evidence should have. Yet a most competent and veteran manager chose to go down with his ship firing meatballs to the most dangerous lineup in the game. And 29 other managers would have done the same.
Baseball doesn't get new ideas very often, so it loves the ones it does get, loves them to death. The Closer was a new idea once. Now, it's just another dogma in a sport that says "you see something new everyday in this game" but doesn't really believe it.
Anatomy of an Overlay
I was on the golf course last Friday afternoon when it was reported that Rob Gronkowski wasn't on the Patriots' team plane to Phoenix. Didn't hear the news until the next morning.
I was on the phone and online Saturday afternoon as soon as it was reported that the spread on the Pats-Cardinals game had gone from Arizona minus six to minus nine. Too bad for me, I couldn't get to Vegas on such short notice. An opportunity for profit was missed.
A game point spread moving three points in a day means a full-fledged market stampede is in motion. Such stampedes create market distortions, the kind investment bankers spend their working lives trying to detect ahead of the suckers. And like all stampedes in all markets, the swing in the Pats game came from investors overrating one fact at the expense of any and all contradictory fact.
It's certainly a fact that Gronkowski is an outstanding football player. He might be the best tight end of all time. Losing him makes it more difficult for New England to win any game. But how much more difficult is the question.
Not three points worth. No tight end that ever lived is or was a three-point spread player. That honor is reserved for quarterbacks, and not many of them. Tom Brady's one, of course, but his expected absence was already factored into the original six-point spread. Pats getting six is a bet that without Brady, New England isn't as good as would be with him. Pats getting nine was essentially a bet that Jimmy Garoppolo would stink in his first game as a starter, so much so that New England's other offensive players would be rendered pretty much impotent.
That bet was a personnel judgment. Taking the other side of the bet was one Bill Belichick, who indicated through his every action in preseason that he thought Garoppolo would do just fine as a quarterback temp. Don't know about you, reader, but I would never make a football bet with Belichick. I just don't like my odds.
A lot of bettors lost a lot of money on that proposition because of two other facts they ignored, one a strictly gambling truth, the other a larger football truth that non-betting fans ignore every autumn weekend, causing them frustration if not financial loss.
Gambling truth: Bettors tend to overrate the short-term impact of injuries. Injuries work through attrition. They wear a team down and eventually overwhelm its depth. But for one game, substitutes tend to play almost as well as the starters they replace. Martellus Bennett is a Pro Bowler. Belichick and Josh McDaniels proved their playbook contains a goodly number of effective plays where the primary tight end blocks rather than catches. For one game, a makeshift offensive line can do just fine. It's by games three or four without starters where a team starts to really miss them.
Football truth: There are 45 guys in uniform for each team in an NFL game, and each and every one of them is important to the outcome. If the Pats lose Brady, Gronkowski and Nate Solder and the 42 remaining Pats play their best, New England will be competitive with any team. It's as simple as this. The Pats are a good team. The expression "good team" means a team with many good players, not just a couple of stars.
Good players, even great players, do not always play their best. If the Pats who took the field last Sunday night had to play all 16 games this season, they wouldn't win 'em all. They wouldn't win the Super Bowl. But they'd win more than they'd lose, and they'd never, ever, be a real nine point underdog against anyone.