Thursday, December 28, 2006

Here's To The Year That Was

“It may be quite simple, but, now that it’s done…”

So ends another year of sports. So, in addition to my little awards column I wrote earlier, I’m going to go back and reflect on all that was 2006.

By far one of the most depressing experiences of my young life occurred on Christmas night, when WBZ decided to air a look back at Boston sports in 2006. You have to know that when the Revolution making the MLS Cup Finals is either the best or second-best story of the year, Boston has fallen from the zenith of the sports landscape of America. It was only two years ago when we held both the Lombardi Trophy and, most importantly, the World Series trophies in our possession, and we won “Best Sports City” in the Sporting News’ annual poll in a laugher. All of our teams were in some kind of contention. The Pats and the Sox each won their respective championships, the Celts were perennial “heavyweights” in the lackluster Atlantic Division, and the B’s were a force to be reckoned with in the East. Oh how two years have changed it all. Now, the Celts are undergoing the biggest rebuilding process since the Russell era. The B’s traded off their two franchise players for scraps, attempting to build around “the next thing,” Patrice Bergeron. The Pats, well, ok, they haven’t changed, but still, there is not the aura of invincibility that surrounded this team just two years ago. It’s not as though they are going to be able to waltz through the AFC and the Super Bowl like they did in 2004. As for the Sox, well, now this is the team that has arguably caused a fan base the most grief in the history of sports in the last two years ago. The only reason that it’s arguable is because of our little 86-year draught, which we thankfully ended, without winning it all. The Sox front office has got to be the biggest anomaly in all of sports right now. Which direction are we heading? See, here’s the problem: we put too much trust in them. Remember “in Theo we trust?” We never questioned any of the moves he made in the offseason after the Sox won it all, and why? Well, because we won it all. I mean when you have a team that people live and die by to win a championship, and they finally do, you tend to give the architect a little leeway after the fact. But we as a nation were naïve. We had never experienced “the thrill of victory,” rather, it was always the “agony of defeat.” (On that note, if anyone knows anywhere I can get that “Wide World of Sports” blazer, let me know. That is the single greatest piece of announcing decorum in the history of announcing decorum. What I would do for one of those…ya don’t even wanna know.) So, when we won, we were so soaked up in all that came with winning, we failed to realize that our team was moving in a direction where few of us wanted to be heading: yuppie-land. Here was our blue-collar team, one that prided ourselves on hard work, discipline, and always playing our hearts, whether we were up by 10 or down 20. Ok, sure, a few moves were expected. The Pedro dealings went almost to script. No one really expected that he would stick around. He had demands, and we just weren’t willing to give him four guaranteed years. The Mets came in, did the deal, and benefited for most of the two years they’ve had him, but his ineffectiveness late in the season, coupled with injuries, rendered him useless in the postseason. So, without going out and polling every fan, I have to say that this was a good move. Then, they resigned Jason Varitek, who was undoubtedly the leader in that clubhouse from all accounts. Now this was the move that really could have clued us into if they were “blowing up” this team. If they didn’t sign ‘Tek, then we would have known that something was up, and there would have been an immediate public outcry. So, the deal got done, which turned out to be a lot harder than the Sox had anticipated, given the lack of other suitors for a $10 million a year catcher. Varitek probably gets about $2-3 million for being the player he is on the field, and the rest is for his ability to know and familiarize himself with the pitching staff and be the “glue” that keeps all the “idiots” from straying too far away from the common goal of continuing to win championships. See, the Sox said all along that they were trying to pattern themselves after the Pats, you know, signing character guys and not those who have flaws, and having a winning tradition. Well, the first sign that we should have realized that the front office was straying away from the original plan was the signing of Edgar Renteria and the departure of Orlando Cabrera. When Edgar came to town, we were promised more offense, around the same defense, and a real good clubhouse guy. What did we get? How about eight homers, 70 RBIs, a major league leading 30 errors, and a guy who looked like if you tapped him on the shoulder, he would lose is GD’d mind. (I’m trying to get off of saying g—d----, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult day by day, especially with this team.) So, “Rent-a-wreck,” as he was so aptly named, lasted only one year and peaced, going to ATL for promising young prospect Andy Marte. Ok, before I get into anymore moves, I have to go back and talk about the OC. Does anyone remember who he replaced? Ok, if it were 2002, and I was going to tell you that at the trading deadline, we just traded Nomar for Cabrera and Doug Mienkeitwicz, I would have been hit with shiny objects that would distract me from the hemorrhaging going on in my head. This guy was the icon, the Ted Williams of a generation. Ever since his breakout, rookie of the year campaign in ’97, #5 was a mainstay in Boston. There would be no way they could ever trade him! Then, Nomar started becoming a little too “Hollywood” for his own good, balking at a five year, $75 million contract offer the Sox floated him at the start of the ’04 Spring Training. Then, Nomar gets hurt, forcing him to miss a majority of the first half of the season. Right there and then, the front office basically goes, “ok look, the guy is hurt, and we he may not be as great as he once was, still, he is a legend in these parts, let’s try another offer.” This one was for far less money, but still was a fairly decent offer at the time; four years, $40 million. Nomar felt insulted by this. I don’t really understand why he would feel insulted. Doesn’t the value of a player go down after he gets injured? Anyway, the Sox knew that had to trade him, but still, in the back of their minds, they were fully aware of the repercussions of a potential deal, and that if it went sour, they would get their asses handed to them by the most loyal fan-base on the face of the world (it’s biased, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find any other fans of a team with the knowledge and dedication of Sox fans). So on the night of the deadline, the pull the deal, then take a few steps back from the situation and see how people would react. As a fan, I will tell you the exact repetition of what die-hard fans did in the first hour after they had heard about the deal. First, an initial wave of shock was felt. “They traded Nomar? Are you kidding?” That’s about the same you got from everyone, then, it was “what are they gonna do to replace him? I mean the guy is still a great hitter and fielder, now what?” Then, after you let the news sink in, you immediately tell yourself “you know what? These are the same guys who got Schill from the D-Backs for seemingly nothing and signed Keith Foulke (believe me, back then, we were super-pumped about landing an “excellent closer,” so just keep that in mind while you are convulsively laughing), so these guys are pretty sharp, they know what they’re doing, maybe this was the correct move. I mean Nomar was hurt, and he didn’t seem as though he wanted to be with this team anymore. (see the July 1 game against the Yanks, with him being the only guy sitting on the bench while everyone else was on the top of the dugout) They seem to have plenty of offense on the team already, so I guess we need a fresh direction, and fresh blood to provide a spark.” So now there was the anticipation of how this guy was going to work out playing the 6-spot in replace of Nomar. The results? Well, the guy not only held is own, he almost made everyone forget Nomar was still playing. Minky proved to be a great sub option in the late innings for Millar, and the rest is history. Cabrera was the toast of Boston, getting praise for the care-free way he conducted himself in the dugout, and his extraordinary defense, which he made look so effortless. So now the Sox were the champs, and instead of holding their team in tact, the first move was levied; only offering Cabrera $6 million when he wanted, and got $8.5-9 million. Cabrera was one of the guys who represented all that was great about the championship team, a guy who had fun playing baseball. He did not let the pressures of Boston get to him like Renteria let get into his conscious. The problem was that Renteria was being put on a pedestal that he did not really deserve. He is a good player, but the Sox built him up as “great,” not only through their words, but their wallets, offering a four year, $40 million contract. They saw it as an upgrade, but here’s the thing: Cabrera, if he went on to have a sub-par year with the Sox in ’05, would have been given a pass by the “Nation.” See, he had already exceeded the expectations of fans and then some. Therefore, if he came back down to Earth, it wouldn’t be as scrutinized as someone new coming in and trying to play the role. So, getting rid of Cabrera was the beginning of the end. I always look at that move as the difference maker in where the franchise is going. I believe that move set them back about five years. Do you honestly think Julio Lugo is going to do well in this town? I think my expectations of him are so low that anything that he might do in the future would be a bonus. Honestly, I think he’s another Renteria. They may hold onto him for one or two years, but I cannot see him staying for all four years. There have been other moves (Lowe, Ramirez, Nixon, Damon, Arroyo) that really haven’t panned out, but the Cabrera move is the lightning rod for me. This offseason, in addition to Lugo, they made another mistake by bringing in “Mr. Intensity,” J.D. Drew. I don’t recall, at least in Boston, any move having as much of a negative reaction like the one Drew got. $14 million a year? Please. Speaking of this, how’s that Johnny Damon deal looking right now? What a stupid move that was. They expected to get the same productivity from Coco Crisp? Basically, they traded Renteria and Marte for Crisp…not smart. However, in order to avert from what could have been the worst offseason in the history of the franchise, the Sox saved face, signing Brendan Donnelly and J.C. Romero for the bullpen help they sorely needed. Donnelly is going to assume the “Timlin role” either this year, if they choose to have Timlin close (which would be batty, but hey, I’ve seen crazier). Donnelly has been one of the best middle relievers since Anaheim won their World Series title in 2003. Romero will be used as a lefty specialist, which in today’s game you need, especially when you play the Yankees 19 times. Then, the final blow came when Matsuzaka was officially signed to a six-year deal. Everyone is all up in arms about this around the country. “How could they pay so much for him?” I have to side with the Sox on this deal. See, since the new ownership has taken over, it’s been their goal to globalize the Red Sox brand name. They made their initial impact on the Dominican Republic, and easily did so with the likes of Papi, Pedro, and Manny. Now, they are trying to infiltrate one of the biggest economies in the world by signing Dice-K. If you have money, why not do that? First, you get a quality arm, second, you open up a new revenue stream, and third, and maybe most important, his title will be “Red Sox pitcher.” Red Sox. We don’t wear pinstripes, and neither will this guy.

Ok, I feel like I’ve vented enough about the Sox, and believe me, I could, and may, write a book on the pure frustrations of being a fan of this team. Now, I want to comment on a couple things that happened throughout the year.

Vince Young should be Athlete of the Year, not Tiger Woods. This guy transcends logic. First, at the beginning of the year, he led the most underappreciated team in college football into Pasadena to play the hometown Trojans. Young’s Longhorns literally destroyed everything in their paths, including a 70-3 drubbing of Colorado in the Big 12 Championship. 70-3! I don’t care how bad Colorado may have been, if you’re in the Big 12, playing Division I football, you should never lose by more than 40, let alone 67. Texas went into the Rose Bowl as eight point underdogs, with basically everyone in the country siding with USC and the dynamic combo of Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush. So what happened? Young went off, and you know what, “going off” doesn’t even begin to describe the utter dominance that Young had on that game. It was like watching Beethoven or Mozart on the football field. He went back, and literally did anything he wanted to. USC did not have a great defense. They were good though, so the fact that Young had their way with them makes this probably the most amazing performance by a single athlete I have seen since Tiger in the ’97 Masters. Then, Young gets drafted third overall by the lowly Titans, who just disbanded their franchise quarterback in Steve McNair. Young is expected to start behind Kerry Collins and learn the offense so he can step in either later on in the year, or they could have even waited until next year for him to go, much like what the Bengals did with Carson Palmer. However, Collins was so terrible that Young was pushed into the spotlight early on in the season. After a humiliating loss at the hands of the Colts, Young has single-handedly resurrected the franchise from the laughing stock it was to the playoff contender it is now. If you’re a Pats fan, did you really think that Titans game at the end of the year would be a big deal? Now, it’s one of the best games of the final week of the season. In just a small example, look at how well Young played last week at Buffalo, one of the most difficult places to play in the league, especially in December, even though it was abnormally mild at the Ralph. Again, Young led his team from behind in the final quarter, giving the Titans their eighth win of the year. Eight wins? I guarantee before the season started, the Titans were busy scouting top-10 draft picks. Now, they are looking in the high to mid twenties. All this guy does is win. That is the best possible attribute you can have as a quarterback, is the ability to win no matter what the circumstances are. Brady has it, Montana had it, now Vince Young has become the newest “it” quarterback. To say Tiger Woods had a better year than Young is laughable. Am I honestly supposed to believe that it’s even newsworthy that Tiger won two majors? I think Tiger is going to have to win the Grand Slam in order to win Athlete of the Year. On that note, shouldn’t Roger Federer have more claim on that award if we are basing it on dominating one’s field? Federer won three of the four majors in his sport and basically never lost all year, why didn’t he win?

Mobile ESPN was a noble idea, but did not have the right timing or the initial value to become huge. This issue is near and dear to me, because I actually owned the phone. I have no regrets either, and why should I? If you went into a Best Buy and looked at the phone, yes, it was kind of bulky, but the whole concept of having ESPN be the platform for a cell phone was ground-breaking. In effect, Mobile ESPN was its own cell phone provider, although it bought time from Sprint towers, and, all the ESPN content was included in the service. You did not have to have any kind of internet service to receive this. I think that, although the service failed in the end, it was a groundbreaking idea that could shape the way you will be able to access sports information in the future. Personally, I don’t think this is the last we’ve seen of a cell phone provided by ESPN. Here was their downfall: the two-year contract. Every time someone gets a new cell phone, they are basically forced into a two-year contract. People were impressed by what ESPN provided, but initially, its prices were so far out of whack that no one was even close to buying it, so they bought phones provided by other services. Then, when ESPN started losing big bucks, they came out with a new set of plans at much more affordable rates. The only problem was, the majority of cell phone buyers were already locked into a contract and did not feel like paying a termination fee, which was sometimes in excess of $300, to get out of their contract and switch. Also, ESPN did not make it clear that they were using Sprint to get its airtime. I believe that if more people knew about the network that ESPN provided, maybe they could have received more subscribers. When I signed up in July, I got the ESPN phone, headphones, and a year subscription to both ESPN Insider and ESPN The Magazine, all just for signing up. Well, in a few days, Mobile ESPN will be dead, but again, I believe it laid out a blueprint for others to follow. What will happen in the future is that cell phone providers, like Verizon, Cingular, and Sprint will team up with sports providers, like ESPN and Sports Illustrated, to create a phone that serves as a sports platform, with the ability to access scores and articles without subscribing to any kind of internet service. When this does start, the rates will be comparable to those already out there, making it affordable to those who are skeptical. Also, if you already have Cingular or whatever provider it ends up being, you should be offered a special deal as far as an upgrade is concerned. In my heart of hearts, I really hope this will happen because I absolutely loved the months I had my phone, at least I know all my friends enjoyed the months I had the phone (hey, claustrophobic, back up!)

This was truly the year of the little guy, be it in stature or in reputation. Leading off has to be the George Mason basketball team, who ended up being one of the top stories of the year, running through UNC, Michigan St., and UConn in its improbable run to the Final Four and loss to the eventual champion Florida Gators. Again, this is one of the great examples of what makes March Madness the greatest sports event by far. Every year, it’s someone else. There have been so many stories of underdogs coming out of nowhere to beat some of the best teams in all the land. The whole “one and done” philosophy makes the tournament that much more enthralling. Every game counts. This is the reason the NFL is the most popular sport in America. Every game counts. There are so few examples of this philosophy that the NFL is starting to destroy the competition in terms of popularity. College football is even more popular than any of the other major sports. The first two days of the NCAA tourney are arguably the best two sports days of the entire year. Anxiously, you sit with your brackets, watching an inconsequential game (usually 1 vs. 16, 2 vs. 15) and glaring at the top left corner of the screen, watching, and watching the scores go by, praying for teams that you a.) do not know any of the players that play for that team or b.) have never even heard of that team all together. In any account, you live for this as a sports fan. Seeing great teams fall at the hands of teams that, especially in George Mason’s case, may not have even “deserved” to have been there in the first place. After all, it is not the top 65 teams in the country that get to go. It’s more like the top 45, with 20 teams that run through seeds 13-16, or amazingly got in over a “snub.” In any case, the tournament selection has and will always be a controversial issue, but at least it is done by humans and not by computers. I hate to tangent off of this, but I feel I need to lay out my opinion about the BCS right here. No offense to George Mason, they were a great story, but I feel as though, because we are in football season now, I’m almost obliged to talk about this issue right now. The system sucks, but then again, you knew that. Anytime Notre Dame is playing in a $15 million bowl game after beating no one (come on, what do ya got?...Navy? Please.), you have to know that the system is completely bush-league. This system has now f’d it up three times (Oklahoma over USC, undefeated Auburn having no national title shot, and Notre Dame losing its two games where they actually played someone, and they got spanked in both). This is just inexcusable with the amount of money that is being thrown out there. So now, Mell-o’s BCS fixer-upper. Ok, it is a tournament. I mean it has to come to that. The NFL even has a tournament, and they play more games than the college kids do. So what exactly is the problem with this? It’s all about the NFL and them basically owning the month of January. Outside of New Year’s Day, the NFL owns the weekends, and because of the mutual understanding that the NCAA and NFL have about playing games on the same day, a tournament would result in games being played during the week. But the thing is, doesn’t the NCAA already do this? Look at the Thursday games from this year. In the span of one week, Rutgers played in arguably the best game of the year, propelling them to BCS bowl contention, and then the next week, they get dismantled on the road against Cincinnati. Those are two games that weren't played on a Saturday, but yet people watched it in drones. I believe that if there is enough buzz, you can still get ratings. Because every game would be so important, people would be watching in record amounts. The tournament would consist of the top six teams, and of course, there’s probably going to have to be a Notre Dame clause thrown in there as well. When I say the top six, this refers to the best six teams. If you win a conference, and you are not in the top six, then you will go to one of the other BCS games. Under this format, the present BCS games (Orange, Sugar, Rose, Fiesta) would still be played, with teams going to those games probably getting slightly less money (maybe $10 compared to the $15 they get now). The top two teams would receive bye-weeks, meaning 3 plays 6 and 4 plays 5. This would take place two weeks after championship week, right around the second or third week of December. Because the NFL would still be in the regular season, and with the new NFL Network contract, which broadcasts games on Thursday and Saturday, the NCAA would be able to negotiate with a network partner (CBS, ABC, NBC, FOX) to broadcast the first round of the tournament on that Saturday. The games will be played in different venues according to the NFL schedule, so there will not be any conflictions. When a team, like the Saints, Cardinals, Texans, or any other warm city/dome team. Then, as each school progresses through the tournament, they would receive an increase of money for every round they get to. Again, just an idea, but the first round participants should get $10 million, semi-finals $15 million, and $20 million for the championship. So, if you start off in the first round, winning the tournament could bring the school around $45 million. That’s a pretty good chunk of change. This means that if a team goes one-and-out, they still get the $10 million that the other BCS-bound teams are making. Once this system is implemented, you will see ratings skyrocket, meaning that, in the future, there will be more money to spread around. If you think this is a lot of money, think about how it is now. Presently, there are five BCS games, with teams in the Orange, Rose, Sugar, and Fiesta earning around $15 million and teams in the BCS Championship receiving around $20-25 million. So, the total prize purse is approximately $180 million. In the new format, counting the tournament and all other BCS games the purse would increase to $220 million. With the revenue of college football skyrocketing, this is not so far fetched. Another thing, if they continue to “tweak” the system, I am going to lose my mind. Fellas, pick a system, then stick to it. It becomes very easy to ridicule something when you constantly try and change it, and it still doesn’t work. The committee needs to just come in and put their foot down one year and say "this is how it is, and we're not going to change it." If this were the case, no one would be able to complain, because the committee can just shrug their shoulders. "Oh well, that's the breaks. Should have just gone undefeated." So, that's my BCS shakedown. It will probably never come to fruition, but it may get you to thinking, which is the ultimate goal anyway.

Ok, so back to the little guy. Nate Robinson won the slam dunk contest. Ok, so this was controversial, given the fact that Robinson attempted the same dunk 80 times and Igoudala pulled off one of the sickest dunks in the history of dunks (jumping from out of bounds and ducking his head under the backboard for a reverse dunk...timeless). Still, the way Robinson won was by using Spud Webb as a "prop" of sorts. Imagine, the two little guys taking out the big guy. Well, it happened. Should it have happened? Probably not, but think about when Spud won his dunk title. He had a lot of good dunks, but to say that his were better than Dominique's or Larry Nance's may be stretching it. The reason he won was because it's just an unreal sight to see such a little guy get up that high. Iguodala should have won, but Nate did because he's the little guy, and little guys get way more respect than the big guys do, because simply, it just doesn't happen very often.

More examples: The league and NBA finals MVPs were guards, the Cardinals winning behind World Series MVP David Eckstein, Texas beating USC, UCLA beating USC, Oregon St. beating USC (yeah I'm not a big USC guy), Maurice Jones-Drew, the resurgence of the Saints, Jason McElwin (autistic high school basketball manager who drained six 3s in a game), Dakoda Dowd (played an LPGA event at age 14), Japan winning the inaugural WBC, Justin Morneau winning MVP, Detroit's turnaround from cellar dwellers to pennant winners, Devin Hester, and Geoff Ogilvy wins the U.S. Open (Mickelson helped just a bit on that one).

So, thus concludes the year in review. Hopefully, next year will be better. You have to be hoping that. I mean when the biggest stories of the year is steroids, you have to hope for a more positive new year. Plus, in terms of Boston has to get better right? Alright, so let's toast to 2007. Have a safe and happy new year. Peace.


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