Sunday, May 31, 2009

Boston Breakers Help Escalator Dad and Escalator Daughter Find a Common Bond

In the summer of 1996, my 'til death do us part became my ex-wife. I hated that piece of my life for so many reasons. For one, I had never really failed at anything before and failing at a marriage was devastating to me. When I took off my wedding band as the door hit her where the good Lord split her, I felt as if I had emblazoned the scarlet letter on my chest at the very same time.

With the loss of the other half of Mr. and Mrs. I also said "see you later, sweetie" to my beautiful daughters, Erika and Julia. They were age seven and five at the time. As they turned and waved to me with one hand, while holding Mom's hand with the other, I knew I'd see them soon, but knew that our relationship was forever altered.

I saw them every Wednesday and every weekend, an arrangement I knew was much better than many Dad's are allowed, but that simply wasn't enough. Each time I'd drop them off, the hurt was a little bit more. We'd drive from Milford, NH to Worcester, MA singing.

Their little angelic voices brought me to tears from Milford to Worcester and back again as the sang "Butterfly Kisses" and P-Diddy's "I'll Be Watching You". Just to make their old man cry a little bit more, they changed Sean John's lyrics to "I'll Be Missing You."

Weekend upon weekend passed and the hurt never went away. I love those two little gals and no one will ever take their place in my heart.

Fast forward five or so years and I've picked up most of my pieces and met "Ms. Right" yet again. Kate had two children, Kaitlyn, age 7, and Dakota, age 3. They welcomed me into their lives, sort of.

Though Mom was happy again, I represented the official end of any hopes that "Dad might come home." It's a crummy world we live in when Mommy's and Daddy's can't figure their stuff out enough to prevent Daddy from going away.

I knew I'd never replace Dad and didn't even try. I listened to advice from anyone who had ever walked a mile in these Hush Puppies and got more and more confused with each theory. "Be their Uncle." "Be their friend." "Just Be." I tried them all and none of them seemed to hold the key of how to get close to the two little squirts who hated me so.

They tried to like me and me them, but we were failing miserably. As Mom and I spent more and more time together, Kaitlyn and DJ, hated me more and more. I sense Kaitlyn had a voodoo doll hiding beneath her pillow and jabbed my eyes like a pin cushion every time I showed up at the door.

Dating turned to marriage and my girlfriend's two little urchins became my step children. I'd tuck them in to bed sometimes, if they let me in their room, but truthfully I longed for them to be Erika and Julia and not Kaitlyn and Dakota.

Kate and I tried everything. Game night. Family time. "Stay away from each other time" and even "really stay away from each other time". We changed our respective names from Step Dad and Step Kids to Escalator Dad and Escalator Kids, as step seemed so ugly and evil.

Dakota seemed to come around eventually, but Kaitlyn was a tough sell. One day it seemed as if we were making progress and the next day her head would spin around and she'd spit green venom in my direction. I knew part of it was the fact that she was a teenage girl and part was just she plain old didn't like me.

And then tonight came.

Sometimes things happen and you can feel the magic. Tonight was magic.

Kaitlyn and I left for the Boston Breakers game around 3:30. We drove through McDonald's Drive Thru and I placed her order correctly for the first time ever. "Two BBQ chicken chipotle snack wraps, crispy, no lettuce, a medium fry and a medium diet coke."

I looked over at Kaitlyn as the clerk hollered $5.14 through the muffled intercom and she smiled at me. Not lovingly, as we won't go there, but liking-ly.

I turned the Radio to Kiss 108, her favorite station and cranked it loud. We had gone on Winchendon to Boston car rides before and if Kaitlyn doesn't have her I-pod and head phones, she's text messaging to the world. I just blast a little Matty Sigel and we drive silently.

Today, however, Kaitlyn turned the music down softer than normal and smiled.

Kaitlyn smiled.

I was taking her to her first Breaker's game and she seemed to genuinely appreciate it. Kaitlyn had played soccer this fall for her high school and I had made a game here and there when I could.

I always hoped she'd thank me after the game, but I don't think she did. Maybe once or twice, but I really sensed it was out of obligation instead of appreciation.

We drove a bit longer, still not really saying anything to each other, like two guys being left in a room together. The silence was uncomfortable to me and I assume to her, but I really couldn't come up with anything to say.

We hit Rte. 2 heading to Boston and Kaitlyn broke the uncomfortable silence. "Thanks for taking me to see the Breakers, Todd. I'm really excited."

I felt a warmth in her voice that matched the warmth in my chest. We had bonded. At long last, I had found something that made Kaitlyn tick. Soccer. Women's Soccer to boot.

I suddenly felt the same as I did the first time I took my son, Corey, to Fenway to see our beloved Sox. Corey is as passionate about the Sox as I am and he and I chat for hours on end about the hometown team.

Taking him to the Fen for the first time was the greatest gift I could ever give the little squirt. Kaitlyn is equally passionate about soccer and I quickly realized that we were experiencing something really special.

I started to talk to Kaitlyn about Kristine Lilly and Kelly Smith and how my job with the Bleacher Report was going to allow me to go to all of the home games. Kaitlyn seemed impressed and asked me if she could take pictures of the team, while I wrote. "Absolutely, girlfriend", I said. "Anything you want."

We got to beautiful Harvard Stadium and Kaitlyn's eyes sprang from her beautiful little face. She's 15 now, going on 18, but had the expression of a wide eyed little girl. I sense she thought the game was going to be in Foxborough, which would have been cool, but playing at The Coliseum was "way cool."

Kaitlyn seemed especially impressed when I was waved by the parking attendant simply by saying, "Hi, I'm Todd Civin. I'm with The Bleacher Report."

"WE don't have to pay, Todd?" she said.

"That's right, WE don't have to pay." I laughed not expecting her to chip in anyhow.

We got to the Will-Call window and picked up our credentials. Mine was for the season and Kaitlyn's a one day pass, so she could take pictures for her Escalator Dad.

She put it around her neck, careful not to mess her hair of course, and glanced down at it as she walked.

As we walked by the security guard on to the field, simply by flashing our "golden ticket" Kaitlyn was flying higher than the Woody Woodpecker Balloon at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

"Look at the turf, Todd. And the players. Look how close we are. Look how fast they shoot," she continued, never taking a breath in between sentences.

I asked Kaitlyn if she wanted to go to the Press Box and quite unexpectedly she declined. "Let's sit in the stands with everyone else."

We walked into the stands, which were filled with Daddy's and Daughters everywhere we looked. I sense Kaitlyn thought the same thing, though who knows what goes on in the mind of a 15 year-old gal?

We sat at the 50-yard line about half way up the majestic stone seats at Harvard and cheered non stop for ninety plus minutes of play. Kaitlyn pointed out the nuances of the sport that a rook like me has yet to pick up and compared the play of the Breakers team to her Monty Tech team.

"Their passes are crisp and they dribble far less than we do" she taught me. "And the game is about 75 percent faster" she said, using the wildly inaccurate math skills that garnered her a borderline C.

As the final whistle blew and the PA blasted Breakers 2, Sol 1, I screamed to Kaitlyn in my horse little squeal. "We won." Kaitlyn looked at me and nodded as if she didn't even really care about the final tally.

"Yup, we won, Todd. WE won."

We filed out with the rest of the exuberant crowd and I bought Kaitlyn a cute Breakers Blue and white T-shirt. She thanked me several times on the way to the car, in between an endless banter about Marta and Kelly.

She asked me if we can do it again the next game and if she can bring her friend Abbey. I answered in the affirmative and she thanked me yet again.

I expected her to fall asleep in the car like she usually does but she and I chatted for most of the ride home. "I wish I played Spring soccer" she said. "That game was awesome."

We arrived in Winchendon and Kaitlyn bounded up the stairs to show Mom her T-shirt and tell her about the game. Kate looked at me and smiled.

I said good night to my little Escalator Princess as she left the room and hit the hay.

I don't think she'll be singing Butterfly Kisses to me any time soon and definitely not any "I'll Be Msiing You."

Tonight, I'll settle for Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole.....Ole...Ole!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Tom Brady: Like a Kid in a Candy Store with Sweet Offensive Weapons

Tom Brady looked a little bit like a fat kid in a candy store as he took the field for the first time since tearing his ACL last October.

No, Brady hasn't put on weight during his recovery. He just truly looked wide-eyed and on a bit of a sugar high after participating in OTA drills at the Patriots' training camp this week.

In an upcoming story by Sports Illustrated Peter King, Brady described himself "as confident as anyone could be that I'll be ready to play, back to playing normally, when the season starts."

"I've done everything I could to push myself, sometimes too hard. Right now, I'm doing everything. Literally everything. There's nothing I can't do."

That confidence, along with Brady's showing at this week's first full team practice, has his teammates equally "buzzing."

ESPN reporter Wendi Nix reported that Brady's teammates were "re-energized" after watching Brady throw and that Brady himself was "upbeat and confident."

And confident he should be. Brady finds himself with some sweet offensive options as he enters the 2009 campaign.

Brady should feel like Charlie Bucket finding the Golden Ticket after the team added running back Fred Taylor, wide receivers Joey Galloway and Greg Lewis, and tight ends Chris Baker and Alex Smith to an offense that scored 410 points (25.6 p/g) last season.

In Taylor, who was signed as a free agent after 11 seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Patriots are getting a power runner with breakaway speed to complement their existing stable of rushers.

Coupled with running backs Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris, and Kevin Faulk, the Patriots should add to a running attack that compiled nearly 2300 rushing yards a year ago.

Though he won't be expected to shoulder the entire load as he did in his years with the Jaguars, Taylor claims there is still a lot left in his tank.

"I've always said I'll run until the wheels fall off. Drive this car, get rotations, you're going to keep pushing, because if those tires come off you're in trouble. I'm going to keep going forward."

"I want to learn the playbook so I don't have to hesitate," explained Taylor.

"I don't want to feel like a rookie out there. So I listen, I've always been coachable. Whatever I gotta do, I gotta do it. But it starts with learning the playbook."

Familiar Brady targets of Randy Moss, Wes Welker, and tight end Benjamin Watson will be joined by veterans Lewis, Galloway, Smith, and Baker to form an experienced and versatile passing attack.

Under Cassel's regime last season, the team racked up over 3,500 yards via the air after throwing for 4,731 behind Brady in 2007.

In Lewis, the Patriots get a possession type receiver to replace spare part Jabar Gaffney, who signed with the Broncos during the offseason. Lewis had only 19 receptions a year ago, but has a career high of 48 receptions for 561 yards in 2005 when he was Donovan McNabb's third receiver.

He is expected to be an added receiver when Brady goes four or five wide, along with Moss, Welker, Galloway, and perhaps rookie Brandon Tate.

Lewis is also expected to see time on the special teams as he has recorded 41 special teams tackles while playing for the Eagles.

Galloway, who enters his 15th NFL season, provides another deep threat to Brady's arsenal. Though he caught only 13 passes last season in nine games, Galloway is coming off seasons of 57, 62, and 83 receptions in the three years prior.

The 5'11", 197-pound wide receiver has 682 career receptions for 10,710 yards (15.7 avg.) and 77 touchdowns in 185 career games.

Galloway's career average of 15.7 yards per reception ranks him at No. 1 for active NFL players with 300 or more career receptions. Moss ranks second at 15.66 yards per reception.

In addition to Galloway's receiving accomplishments, he has recorded 141 career punt returns for 1,349 yards (9.6 avg) and five touchdowns.

The Patriots also added tight ends Chris Baker and Alex Smith during the offseason, to complement the tandem of Watson and David Thomas. Baker and Smith both caught 21 passes last season for the Jets and Buccaneers, respectively, while Watson and Smith caught 22 and nine balls in 2008.

With all of these sweet offensive weapons, it may be opposing defenses who leave Foxboro writhing in pain this season. Only this time it will be from one big dose from Tom Brady's candy store.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Through the Eyes Of....David McCarty: World Champion Human Being

For those of you who have followed my exploits over the last several months, I hope you've learned this about me.

For one, my family and friends mean more to me than the very breath I breathe.

If I were in a boat with any of my family or friends and some one had to go overboard so that the others can survive, it's me.

Not because I'm a hero, but because my friends and family are.

Second, I love the game more than I love the final score. Wins fade away. The players and the memories are timeless.

Third, I'm angry about steroids, skyrocketing salaries, players who don't give it there all or make use of the God-given talent they have been blessed with. See Rules No. 1 and 2 above if anything seems out of whack here.

So when life circumstances allow me to bump into a fellow human being who seems to be a mirror of these sentiments and beliefs, I get all weak-kneed and fuzzy inside. Not because I had a brush with a star, but because I had a brush with a human that my kids and your kids can still look up to.

So when I had the opportunity to spend some time with former Major League utility man David McCarty, I got (see above)...all weak-kneed and fuzzy inside.

No, I didn't truly meet Dave in the flesh. I cannot tell a lie. But, while living this fantasy we call Sports Writer, I mustered up enough Khutzpah (see Todd's Yiddish Dictionary) to ask Dave to do a cross country interview.

Right in line with his character, he was open and gracious and giving.

The following is the first in a series I will be doing called "Through the Eyes Of....".

In each segment, I will present interviews with or stories about those that I view to be the "Good Guys". It is my personal crusade to present baseball in all it's beauty and splendor instead of hashing and rehashing all that is broken with our National treasure.

So, I present to you, the first in the series..Through the Eyes of ..David McCarty, World Champion Human Being.

TC: How many MLB teams did you play for?

DM: I played for nine different organizations, and was in the major leagues with seven of them.

TC: What was it like playing ball at Stanford?

DM: It was a great experience. I am a strong believer in going to college before turning pro. It gives a young man the chance to get his education paid for while allowing him time to mature as a person and a player.

By signing out of high school players are going to have to hit all the stops on the way up and there is some pretty brutal travel and very little pay in the low minor leagues.

The one exception to this is if a player is such a high-round pick that he will get several million dollars and be financially set for life. Otherwise the money will still be there when a player signs out of college.

TC: If you could have won a WS, an MVP, or gone to an All Star game which would you do?

DM: No brainer—win the World Series. It was incredible.

TC: Tell me who would present you if you got in the HOF?

DM: The guy I just bought the ticket from because that is the only way I’ll get in.

TC: What was your favorite on the road city?

DM: Seattle was always great because you could get up in the morning and just walk around. It is so compact that you can leave the hotel and see so much of it just by walking around. I also liked going to Texas or Houston so I could see family.

TC: Who had the crummiest MLB locker rooms?

DM: The old Cleveland stadium was the worst followed closely by Tiger Stadium and Fenway before the renovations.

TC: What is your favorite on-the-road meal?

DM: I enjoyed having barbecue in Texas and KC.

TC: Who was the greatest coach you played for?

DM: I most enjoyed playing for Tito (Boston's Terry Francona). He does such a great job of deflecting so much of the media heat away from his players. It really makes it easier for guys to relax in the pressure cooker that is Boston.

TC: Should baseball have a salary cap?

DM: Not unless there is a salary floor to go with it. I find it hard to consider when some of the teams receiving revenue sharing money have taken the proceeds and putting it in their pockets rather than spending on talent to put a better product on the field.

TC: What do we do about the spending of the Yankees?

DM: Keep having them spend foolishly. They continue to have the highest payroll in the game, but that hasn’t gotten them a WS title this century.

I think many teams need to do a better job of attracting fans and creating revenue. Step one in that process is putting a decent product on the field and it can be done on a modest budget.

Look at the Twins and the A’s. They continue to develop homegrown players so they can compete without breaking the bank. It takes smarts and effort, but can be done.

Let’s not forget that the Yankees were a joke of an organization when Steinbrenner bought them. All the money in the world doesn’t matter if an organization has poor leadership. The Orioles have spent money for quite some time, but are still in a shambles.

TC: If you were starting your own baseball team, who would be the one player you would have to sign?

DM:Not an easy question. A couple years ago I would have said Pujols. Now there isn’t a no-brainer pick. There are guys like Pedroia or Longoria that you want to see more of a track record out of before making an absolute commitment to having him be THE cornerstone your team is built around.

There are also guys like Teixeira or Howard that could be considered. I can tell you that I wouldn’t build my team around a pitcher, because they can’t affect enough games and there is too big a chance of injury.

TC: What are your favorite baseball movies?

DM: Bull Durham and Major League. I have to throw in Fever Pitch because you can see the back of my jersey in a dugout scene.

TC: Meeting which MLB player was the most amazing?

DM: Meeting and playing against Nolan Ryan was very special for me, because he was a boyhood idol of mine.

TC: Did you ever think you would be held in the position of awe that all boys, young and old hold you in?

DM: I remember what it was like to see or meet a professional athlete when I was a child so I can understand the fascination with seeing professional athletes.

TC: What should be done to clean the egg on baseball's face?

DM: A world-class testing program for steroids and HGH.

TC: If you had to do it all over again, what would change?

DM: I might have tried being a pitcher. I pinch hit against most of the lefty relievers in the game and I can say that there are quite a few that are in the big leagues because they are left handed and breathing.

That is why I tried my hand at pitching with the Sox. I told Tito and Theo that I could do better than a lot of guys who were in the league.

To their credit, they gave me a shot. I’m 6’5" and with little practice was able to hit 89 mph. I could also spot my fastball very well, so I think I could have had a pretty good career as a pitcher.

WRITER'S NOTE: Mccarty appeared in three games as a reliever for the Sox in their World Championship 2004 season. He was 0-0 with a 2.45 ERA and had 4 Ks in 3.2 innings of work.

TC: What do you do being retired at under 40 years old?

DM: I knew I would want and need to do something when I retired from baseball so I started talking to people while I was still playing ball about different careers I was considering. I settled on commercial real estate because of the flexible schedule and ability to get into the property-ownership side of the business.

TC: What are you doing now?

DM: I have been working in commercial real estate for Lee & Associates in Oakland for about three years now. We handle office, industrial, and investment deals. If any readers have questions or need help with commercial real estate please feel free to contact me.

TC: Are you involved in any charitable endeavors?

DM: Our son, Reid, has Tourette Syndrome so we support the Tourette Syndrome Association. I have also done a little with the Boys and Girls Club of Oakland.

TC: Is your wife and family glad to have you at home?

DM: I think so. Most days. My wife, Monica, is a successful Scottish historical romance novelist. She has hit both the NY Times and USA Today best seller lists.

WRITER'S NOTE: Her book Highland Scoundrel hit book stores on March 24, 2009 and is doing quite well. It is the story of Duncan Campbell. He possesses all the attributes for a Highland chieftain except for one—legitimacy.

He was forced from the clan for a crime he didn’t commit, and has earned a reputation as the fiercest, most skilled mercenary on the continent. When their attempt to prove Duncan’s innocence uncovers a deadly secret, not only their lost love, but their lives hang in the balance.

My wife, Katie, bought it the day it hit stores and has not put it down.

And so is the life of David McCarty. Some how I think the world of sports would be on more solid footing if there were a few more of him around. It is reassuirng and gratifying to know, however, that when God assembles that "All-Star" team in the sky, David McCarty will be at the end of the bench willing to play first, the outfield or even throw a few innings of shutout ball. TC.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The 2008 New England Patriots Responded To the Season's Challenge

"Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you respond to it".

Sometimes, the team that captures a fan's heart isn't the one with the most wins or the team that travels the deepest into the playoffs. If it was, one would have to assume that my favorite Patriots team would be chosen from the teams that rode the Duck Boats in 2001, 2004, or 2007.

One could even go so far as to predict that my "equipo favorito" would be the 1985 squad that traveled to the Super Bowl as the AFC Wild Card selection, only to become the chew toy of the Refrigerator and the '85 Bears, or the 1996 squad that stumbled against Brett Favre, Desmond Howard, and the Green Bay Packers.

Those who know me would find it quite apropos that the team that stole my heart was the squad that exhibited the most heart, the team that showed the most chutzpah (my only Yiddish expression), and the squad who had the heel of the opponent on their collective gullets and kicked out just short of being pinned.

There has perhaps never been a team that had more to prove to the naysayers than the Brady-less 2008 Patriots squad. After the loss of their heart and soul, it would have been easy for this dog to curl up in a ball and lick its collective wound, but it chose to bark and bite instead.

The Patriots were forced to endure without starters Brady, Laurence Maroney, Rodney Harrison, and Adalius Thomas. This would have hamstringed many teams on both sides of the ball, but the Patriots used it as motivation to come together as a team and rise above it.

In order for a team to rise above adversity as they did, the characters must make a choice. The leaders of the team had to make an unconscious decision to refuse to be mediocre and to raise their personal bar to a higher level.

Bill Belichick—Head Coach

There is no better coach in the game when it comes to getting his team to play with a chip on their shoulder. The loss of Brady represented one huge gouge, and Belichick responded to the challenge.

One Patriots GM said, "This is now a good time to see the greatness of Belichick. The team will answer the bell.

"You can talk all you want about Brady, and he obviously is legendary and will be in the Hall of Fame, but so will Belichick. You can say: How important is a Hall of Fame coach? Just as important as a Hall of Fame quarterback."

From the postgame press conference after game one, right to the very end of the season, coach Bill got his team ready to play with Matt Cassel at the helm. In the week following the loss of Brady, there was ample talk about signing Dante Culpepper, Vinny Testaverde, or Chris Simms, but Belichick put all his faith in Cassel and was rewarded handsomely.

Matt Cassell—Quarterback

All the critics doubted Cassel's ability, as he hadn't started a game since high school. He used this as motivation from the moment Belichick handed him the ball right to his very last game as a Patriot. Tell me I can't, and I'll show you why I can.

From somewhat wide-eyed and slow footed the first few games to two time AFC Player of the Week, Cassel threw for 3,693 yards and 21 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions. He ended with a QB rating of 89.4 and twice threw for over 400 yards in a game.

As if that wasn't enough to silence the critics, Cassel also played through the loss of his father and played much of the season without his No. 1 rusher, Laurence Maroney.

Sammy Morris—Running Back

Morris has never really shown the consistency to become much more than a situational back. With the loss of Maroney and Lamont Jordan to injuries, Morris was the primary back in a runner-by-committee system. Morris responded well.

When he wasn't stiff-arming opponents, he was bowling them over en route to his most productive year in nine professional seasons. Morris achieved personal bests in rushing attempts (156), yards (727), yards per carry (4.7), and touchdowns (seven) and provided the Patriots with the ability to keep the chains moving.

Morris was most valuable when crossing into enemy territory, where he averaged 6.2 yards per rush between the opponents 49- and 20-yard lines.

Kevin Faulk—Running Back

Faulk has always run with a vengeance as an all-purpose version of the Little Engine That Could. Faulk amassed over 1,200 all-purpose yards after missing the first game of the season due to a one-game suspension for possession of marijuana.

Faulk was more of the change-of-pace back behind Morris, Jordan, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and Heath Evans, but seemed to have the referees moving the chains every time he touched the ball. He was part of the Patriot's running back committee that amassed more rushing yards than any Pats team since 1985.

Individually, he set a single-season career high in 486 receiving yards on 58 catches, as well as setting a single-season career high for touchdowns scored with six.

Wes Welker—Wide Receiver

There may not be another player in football, short of Brady himself, who plays with more of a sense of proving the critics wrong than Welker.

The All-Pro receiver wasn't drafted out of Texas Tech. He signed a free agent contract in 2004 with the Chargers and was waived after the first game. After three moderately successful seasons with the Dolphins, he has turned himself into a Pro Bowler.

He caught 112 balls for 1,175 yards with Brady at the helm in 2007 and had nearly identical stats with Cassel last season (111 catches for 1165 yards). There may be no receiver more fearless in going over the middle, a trick that led to his near beheading against the Steelers.

Welker set an NFL record in 2008 with 11 consecutive games with six or more catches. Of course, Welker also returns punts at nearly a 10-yard per attempt clip.

Randy Moss—Wide Receiver

Moss has long been known as one of the league's leaders in receptions, but rarely has his name been synonymous with being a "team leader".

He teamed up with Brady in 2007 and established a single-season NFL record with 23 touchdown catches to go with 98 catches for 1,493 yards. He dipped last year with Cassel at the controls but still caught 69 passes and scored 11 touchdowns, while going over 1,000 yards (1008) in receiving for the ninth time in 11 seasons.

With Brady's leadership absent, Moss became far more receptive to speaking about the offense.

Jarod Mayo—Linebacker

The new face of the Patriots defense won Defensive Rookie of the Year honors and became the first Patriot to do so since Mike Haynes.

Mayo, drafted in the first round out of Tennessee, amassed 128 tackles, 100 of them solo tackles, and established himself as a ferocious hitter in the middle of the Patriots 3-4 defense.

Mayo had a season high of 20 tackles in a 34-31 loss to the New York Jets in November, but right from the start of the season, he made his presence known as the future of the Patriots defense.

Brandon Meriweather—Safety

Belichick put Meriweather in the remedial program in his rookie year after drafting him in the first round out of Miami in the 2007 draft. Meriweather appeared in all 16 games as a rookie, but he only made 27 tackles.

This past year, Meriweather established himself as the heir apparent to Rodney Harrison with 83 tackles, four interceptions, and two sacks. He seemed to be everywhere on the field and established himself as the fierce hitter he was while at Miami.

Stephen Gostkowski—Kicker

Maybe it's just me, but after taking over for fan-favorite Adam Vinatieri over three seasons ago, Gostkowski has had to prove himself to me every time he sets up to make a field goal.

After doing so 40 times last year and hitting 36 of them, one would hope that he has escaped from Automatic Adam's omnipotent shadow.

Gostkowski not only hit 90 percent of his field goals (a single-season career high), but was a perfect 40-for-40 in extra point attempts and is now 157 of 158 in his career.

He was named to the Pro Bowl for the first time in his career in 2008, while his 148 points set a new Patriots record for points in a season since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. Vinatieri was the previous record holder with 141 points in 2004.

The 2009 Patriots will have even more to prove. The return of Brady and the additions of Shawn Springs, Joey Galloway, Greg Lewis, and others will provide ample opportunities for the new squad to win over my affections.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

What Big Papi and All of Us Need to Remember as His Slump Continues

We all have our theories on why bad things happen to good people.

I'm no different. I've had my good stretches and more-challenging periods. Last summer fell into the latter and will go down in the Book of Todd as one of the more challenging times of my life.

I just felt out of whack. Not quite as sharp as I'd been the day before and it seemed that my internal karma was out of sync. Where one day I would bend down and find a dollar on the ground, the next I'd bend down and rip my drawers.

Rather than fold up and wither, I found the intestinal fortitude to gut it out and manage, until I slowly came out of my personal slump.

But I'm not a baseball player. My work is noticed by only a handful and isn't viewed by 35,676 per day.

No one pays to see me work and watches my every move. I'm not written up in the newspaper on a daily basis.

So Big Papi is in a slump. Can't hit his way out of a paper bag, and he knows it. To quote him after Thursday's 0-7 performance, "Just write that Papi stinks."

But just because Papi is in a slump doesn't mean he took performance enhancers, doesn't mean he's hurt, doesn't mean he is old and unable to regain his skills.

He's in a slump. Slumps happen in baseball as do streaks. And if you ask those who play the game, no one can really explain why.

I've been told by hitters that when things are going good, the ball seems to come in twice as big and everything they hit seems to find a hole. Conversely, when they are in the midst of a dip, it's the opposite.

Compounding things is the extra pressure people put on themselves when things are going sour. See Ortiz's three-foot, check-swing tapper with the bases loaded and two outs in the 12th vs. the Angels on Thursday as an example.

No one can convince me that Ortiz's feeble attempt was due to eliminating steroids or getting a year older.

The human psyche is fragile and there are several factors that may be affecting Ortiz:

  • It's the beginning of the season.
  • It's his first full year without Manny behind him in the lineup.
  • He is getting older.
  • All players are under much more scrutiny due to steroid allegations.

Ortiz slumped badly at the beginning of last season too, hitting .070 through his first 13 games. This slump is now three times longer. But Ortiz broke out last year and is likely to do the same this year.

Last year in a Boston Herald article by Jerry Crasnick, Ortiz explained his slump this way:

"I'm just trying to figure things out for a minute so I can go back to being Big Papi again. You see this in baseball, where a guy will have a hard time, go home, chill out, and come back with a fresh mind. It happens to everybody."

In 1970, at age 31, Red Sox great Carl Yastrzemski hit .329 with 40 HR and 102 RBI. The 1970 season was the third in the four seasons in which Yaz topped .300, had at least 40 round-trippers, and drove in more than 100 runs.

In 1971 Yaz slumped to .254 with 15 HR and 70 RBI.

He dropped in every offensive category except triples. His slugging percentage fell over 200 points, and his on-base percentage dropped 70 points.

It was the first year I started watching baseball as a kid. I remember the sparse Fenway crowd booing the captain unmercifully. The more Yaz struggled, the more hostile the Fenway "Unfaithful" became.

Yaz spent every day from April to September making adjustments, taking extra batting practice, and talking to those who knew him best about changes he needed to make in his stance and swing.

Nothing worked.

Perhaps the most interesting stat is that Yaz's strikeouts actually decreased slightly, from 66 in 1970 to 60 in 1971. He was making contact, just bad contact.

His slump actually lasted through the next season, when he hit .264 with 12 home runs and 68 RBI. The following year, 1973, he rebounded to hit .296 with 19 HR and 95 RBI.

During a batting slump during the career of Red Sox left fielder Mike Greenwell, he was said to have grabbed all of his bats, put them in the center of a room, lit candles around them, and had a seance to get the evil spirits out of his lumber.

"It worked," explained Greenwell's teammate Ellis Burks. "The next day he came out and was raking hits."

Burks faced similar challenges several times during his career.

Through his first four seasons in the majors, Burks was establishing himself as a legitimate .300 hitter with 20 HR and 90 RBI annually.

In his fifth season, at age 27, Burks fell to the mid-.250s. His production dropped by over a third. Burks struggled the entire year and much of an injury-plagued following season before he rediscovered his stroke in 1993 for the White Sox.

When asked about what causes slumps, Burks said:

"Hell, if I knew that, I wouldn't go in them. Maybe it's just a matter of losing concentration for a split moment. In baseball, all it takes is a split second for you to do something different such as pull your head up a little bit. It's just weird."

Francona is prepared to sit Papi down for a few and let him relax. I personally don't advocate a trip to the disabled list or a trip down the batting order.

Maybe a good night's sleep, a change of luck, and a visit from the baseball Gods, and all will be well again.

The best thing that we, as fans of the Sox and admirers of Papi, can do is cut the man some slack and support him no matter how bad things get.

The memory of Ortiz's tap out on Thursday may well be replaced by the game-winning shot he hits tomorrow.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Red Sox Getting Good Return on Investment From Penny

If Lansdowne Street were Wall Street, Brad Penny's 6.69 ERA would be the grossly inflated figure of the latest government bailout—slightly less than Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, or Bear Stearns, but a hefty number nonetheless.

But after Penny's fifth quality start of the season, Red Sox GM Theo Epstein may indeed leave critics with "AIG" on their faces.

Many felt that Epstein was being penny wise and pound foolish when he signed the big right-hander during the offseason. After an injury-plagued year, Penny was inked to a $5.5 million deal, with another $5.5 million in possible incentives. Following a 6-9 win-loss record and an ERA of 6.27 for the Dodgers in 2008, most GMs didn't even have Penny on their shopping list.

Epstein saw Penny as a low risk, high reward move to help bolster the bottom of the Red Sox rotation. Penny is currently sitting at 3-1 with a hefty ERA, but for those who have watched him all season, it is clear that Penny's stock is rising.

Penny has gone more than six innings in five of his seven starts. In four of those five starts, he has given up three earned runs or fewer, while giving up four earned runs yesterday.

Omit Penny's two disastrous starts in April, and his earned run average would be a palatable 4.80.

In his last three starts it is evident that Penny is adjusting to the American League, a challenge that plagues many National League transplants. Penny has demonstrated that he has fully recovered from the shoulder inflammation that held him to just nine innings total after the All-Star Break last season.

His velocity has consistently been in the low 90s, hitting 94 several times on the radar gun yesterday with good location. He's been mixing in his other pitches well, keeping hitters off balance.

As solid as Penny has been, however, it would surprise no one if Epstein dealt from a position of strength and traded his asset within the next month or so.

To complement Penny and the other four Red Sox starters—Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Tim Wakefield, and Justin Masterson—the Red Sox have as much pitching depth as anyone in the majors.

Daisuke Matsuzaka is soon to return from the disabled list, which would allow Masterson to head back to the bullpen.

John Smoltz, who the Red Sox signed as another low risk, high return free agent, is expected to be pitching in the Boston Red Sox rotation roughly around June 1, 2009.

Down on the farm, the Red Sox have Clay Buchholz and Michael Bowden waiting in the wings, eager to enter the Red Sox's vaunted rotation. Buchholz is 2-0 with a microscopic 1.03 ERA, while Bowden is 2-1 with a nearly identical 1.06 ERA for the Pawtucket Red Sox in AAA.

Barring an injury or a bout of prolonged ineffectiveness, Penny would appear to be the odd man out.

With 10 years in the majors, Penny's experience would be viewed as an asset by other contending teams, while his salary, with nearly half the season gone by June, makes him affordable for almost any potential suitor.

Look for Epstein and the Sox to move Penny in exchange for a shortstop or a left-handed power bat. Currently, Sox DH David Ortiz is struggling mightily at the plate, while Julio Lugo and utility man Nick Green have been filling in for the injured Jed Lowrie.

Either way, it appears that Sox fans would agree that Penny has provided a solid return on Epstein's investment.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Should Athletes Be Viewed As Role Models?

In the wake of the 50-game suspension handed down to Major League Baseball star Manny Ramirez, children are left scratching their collective head trying to decide which professional athletes to look up to.

Barry Bonds posters once pinned to cork board walls have been torn down and replaced by Alex Rodriguez's poster, only to be torn down and replaced with Ramirez's, only to be torn down and....

The historic cover of Sports Illustrated showing Michael Phelps adorned with Beijing gold has been pulled from protective plastic sleeves and now yellows in the racks of doctors' offices from coast to coast. Phelps was photographed taking bong hits at a party last fall.

Plaxico Burress's championship New York Giants jersey sits next to Michael Vick's on clearance racks all around the country. Burress shot himself in the thigh at a Manhattan night club in November.

Vick is soon to be released to home confinement after serving the bulk of a 23-month sentence at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan. That came after he pleaded guilty to bankrolling a dogfighting operation at a home he owned in eastern Virginia.

Other sports stars with an L emblazoned on their Loser foreheads include:

  • Former track star Marion Jones;
  • Baseball players including Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGuire, Rafael Palmeiro, and Joba Chamberlain;
  • Football players as Rae Carruth, Pacman Jones, Tank Johnson, Donte Stallworth, and nearly a dozen police-record-holding members of the Cincinnati Bengals.

It is disturbing to think what must be going through the heads of young fans as their idols and role models appear more frequently on police blotters than on the sports pages.

Nary a SportsCenter is aired without talk of arrests, drug use, womanizing, driving while intoxicated, domestic abuse, or other publicly unacceptable behavior.

Thrust into the public eye due to their immense talents, athletes often become the real American Idols while often lacking the moral character or the skill set that accompanies such a God-given gift.

I asked several people with backgrounds in sports where they feel the athlete's responsibility ends and the parent's responsibility as mentor, guide, and role model takes over.

Former MLB star Brian McRae feels that young athletes are bound to make mistakes.

"An 18-year-old kid is still 18 years old," explained McRae, whose dad, Hal, played and managed in the majors.

"They make a lot of mistakes. Our focus as parents should be to teach kids right from wrong and get them to understand that people are human and as such make mistakes no matter how much money they make.

"If parents are smart, they can teach their kids lessons after seeing what has gone on the past five or six years. I put more on the parents' shoulders. These are your kids."

Brian McRae, who works with young kids as general manager and director of player/coach development for the KC Sluggers baseball organization, had this to add.

"A role model should be the parent or family member that spends time with kids to help them understand what life is about. A teacher, a member of the church, someone who is around and in their life, not someone in a fantasy world."

David McCarty, who played 13 seasons for seven major league teams and was a member of the 2007 world champion Boston Red Sox, had this to say when asked if athletes realize what type of pressure is heaped upon their shoulders when entering the public eye.

"I remembered looking up to professional athletes when I was a kid, so I knew that kids would look up to me. I tried to be a role model, but I have always wondered why celebrities and athletes are placed on a pedestal.

"I think our society would be better served if kids looked up to doctors and teachers. In general, athletes and other celebrities aren’t good role models. Quite often athletes are not all that intelligent and why should we care what an actor thinks about some political issue?"

Ken Germano, a former member of the Italian national baseball team, a former Olympic athlete, and a former professional baseball player, knew what he had signed up for in terms of a becoming a child's role model.

"In Italy, because baseball was so special at the time, kids would knock on our door at 7:30 in the morning asking for an autograph, even if we got in at 4 a.m. from a road trip. They were so excited and cute. How could you refuse them and not want to help in any way you could?

"Everyone on the field is in position to be a role model, even the bullpen catcher," added Germano. "You put on the uniform, you should be ready for everything that comes with it and the consequences of your actions."

"This means that if you don’t understand something, you need to ask questions until you do," added Germano, who is principal at Wellness Fitness Consultants and is an expert on children's fitness.

Germano has empathy for parents but agrees that it is their responsibility to be the child's primary role model.

"I think it is much tougher being a parent (than an athlete) as your kids watch and see your every move, not just the big ones. In the end it comes down to the parents, not celebrity athletes."

Fellow Bleacher Report and Yankees writer Stephen Meyer feels that both athletes and parents are integral in the modeling of a child's behavior.

"The difference between being a celebrity and parent in terms of role-model attitude is that celebrities seem to have a more dominating presence over children," said Meyer, who writes under the name Heartbeat of the Bronx on the Bleacher Report as well as his own sports blog by the same name.

"While parents are ultimately working much harder to provide good examples and insight for their children, a celebrity can impact a child's actions immediately without any questions asked

"This puts a lot of pressure on celebrities to do the right thing, as the celebrities will not be there when kids ask "Why?" with their parents' lessons and advice."

Meyer added, "There is much less pressure on an 18-year-old to excel in the sport he has mastered than to survive combative warfare on foreign soil. If young men are deemed ready to risk their lives while wielding firearms, they are certainly ready to field a ground ball or catch a pass.

"The celebrity comes with the territory of the profession, and a player must take the bad with the good. Whether it is a free ride to a respected university or a seven-figure contract, athletic celebrities are given immense benefits for their skill."

Germano added, "It is unreasonable to put this type of expectation on a young athlete unless the proper mentoring and oversight is in place. Take LeBron James and his transition from teenager to superstar, for example. There's a kid who has an exemplary demeanor and attitude and can handle being a star and a role model."

Friday, May 8, 2009

Dom DiMaggio Dies at 92: Red Sox Fans Lose One of "The Teammates"

Sometimes in the wake of a black event, the "Baseball Gods" have a way of evening the score. They have a plan to make things hurt a little less and allows us to keep things in perspective.

If you don't know about the events of yesterday, you've been reading Vogue instead of Bleacher Report. Venom litters the pages on MLB, Red Sox, and Dodgers sites and more than likely on Sports & Society, Opinion, and even the other MLB community pages throughout B/R.

As both writers and as fans, we love this stuff. We love the drama as much as we say we don't. We are rubber-necked drivers slowing as we pass a flipped car in hopes of seeing blood. It's human nature. I'm not here to question why, only to state that it exists.

No where on the site, however, does anyone mention the passing of Red Sox legend Dom DiMaggio, who died last night in his Marion, Mass. home at the age of 92?

One may contend that God would never use DiMaggio's passing to deflect conversations about the death of the sport, but who knows. Maybe God is reminding us about all that was right with the sport vis-a-vis all that is wrong.

“Little Professor,” as he was known due to his bespectacled eyes and his slight frame, played for the Boston Red Sox from 1940 to 1953. He was a quiet but well-respected teammate and opponent.

He was the youngest of nine children with brothers Joe and Vince being the most famous of the DiMaggio clan. Joe was, of course, a Hall of Famer with the Yankees from 1936 to 1951, and brother Vince played for five different National League teams from 1937 to 1946.

In the New York Times best seller The Teammates, by David Halberstam, DiMaggio was described as an "athlete carried as much by his remarkable intelligence as by his natural talent.

"He grew up partially in the shadow of his older brother, but would end up a seven time American League All-Star. It was Dom that Ted (Williams) would turn to for support in later years."

Former Red Sox player David McCarty told me in an email today that "he was always so nice and fun to talk to when he would stop by the clubhouse.

"DiMaggio was a great friend and teammate to Williams, Johnny Pesky, and Bobby Doerr."

All but DiMaggio has their number retired on the right field Fenway facade. (Hmmmm?)

DiMaggio holds the Red Sox club record still when he hit in 34 straight in 1949. He led the American League twice in runs scored (131 in 1950 and 113 in 1951) and also led the league with 11 triples and 15 stolen bases in 1950, when he hit a career-high .328.

Famed writer Dick Flavin, a friend of Dom, Teddy, and Johnny, wrote and recited the following poem as a tribute to the famed three at Ted’s home in Hernando, Fla., on Oct. 23, 2001. He later recited it again at Fenway Park in 2002 at a memorial to honor Williams' death.

Though mainly about Williams' heroics, I felt it would be an appropriate tribute to a star who lived in the shadows of the game's biggest.


(With apologies to Ernest Lawrence Thayer)

By Dick Flavin (all rights reserved)

The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Red Sox nine that day,
The score stood four to two with but one inning left to play.
So when Stephens died at first and Tebbetts did the same
A pallor wreathed the features of the patrons of the game.

A straggling few got up to go, leaving there the rest
With he hope that springs eternal within the human breast.
They thought if only Teddy could get a whack at that—
They’d put even money now with Teddy at the bat.

But Dom preceded Teddy and Pesky was on deck.
The first of them was in a slump. The other was a wreck.
So on that stricken multitude a deathlike silence sat,
For there seemed but little chance of Teddy’s getting to the bat.

But Dom let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And Pesky, of all people, tore the cover off the ball.
When the dust had lifted, and they saw what had occurred,
There was Johnny safe on second and Dominic on third.

Then from that gladdened multitude went up a joyous yell,
It rumbled in the mountains and rattled in the dell.
It struck upon the hillside and rebounded on the flat,
For Teddy, Teddy Ballgame, was advancing to the bat.

There was ease in Teddy’s manner as he stepped into his place,
There was pride in Teddy’s bearing and a smile on Teddy’s face.
And when, responding to the cheers he lightly doffed his hat,
(I’m making that part up)
No stranger in the crowd could doubt ’twas Teddy at the bat.

Ten thousand eyes were on him as he wiped his hands with dirt,
Five thousand tongues applauded as he wiped them on his shirt.
Then when the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance gleamed in Teddy’s eyes, a sneer curled Teddy’s lip.

And now the leather covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
And Teddy stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped.
“That ain’t my style,” said Teddy. “Strike one!” the umpire said.

From the benches black with people went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm waves on the stern and distant shore.
“Kill him! Kill the umpire!” someone shouted on the stand,
And it’s likely they’d have killed him had not Teddy raised his hand.

With a smile of Christian charity great Teddy’s visage shown.
He stilled the rising tumult and bade the game go on.
He signaled the pitcher, and once more the spheroid flew.
But Teddy still ignored it, and the umpire said, “Strike two!”

“Fraud!” cried the maddened thousands, and the echo answered fraud.
But one scornful look from Teddy and the audience was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
And they knew that Teddy wouldn’t let that ball go by again.

The sneer is gone from Teddy’s lip; his teeth are clenched in hate.
He pounds with cruel vengeance his bat upon the plate.
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Teddy’s blow.

Oh, somewhere in this land of ours the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout.
And they’re going wild at Fenway Park ’cause Teddy hit one out!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

When A Character Lacks Character: The Manny Ramirez Story

I am not going to continue writing the piece I had nearly finished, giving the Los Angles Dodgers an A+ grade for the first month of the season. If computer's spit out paper, my story would be in the form of a trail of balled up papers.

Sure, the Dodgers have won their first 13 games at home and yes, they are a Major League leading 21-8 coming out of the gates. Yes, Chad Billingsley still gets an A+ for his 5-0 start and yes, Andre Ethier is breaking onto the MLB map with a breakout season. But when magna cum laude gets caught cheating on the SATs, all scores need to be examined and unfortunately, marked with a big, red F!

What is really the issue now is not the grade the team got but what kind of emotional hit the organization takes. When one of your characters lacks character, the recipe is tasteless.

It has long been documented that while in Boston, Manny was a top-notch hitter and a bottom-of-the-barrel teammate. Towering home runs and a reputation for striking fear into opposing pitchers was often overshadowed by his on- and off-field antics. Over the summer and winter months, I wrote endlessly about the negatives that Ramirez brought to the table and was oft chastised by those who accused me of sour grapes. To them I simply say, I told you so.

Mommy taught me a long time ago that if something looks like a rat and smells like a rat, you start guarding the mouse traps.

Ramirez is a rat.

His attitude is nasty and surly. he thinks nothing of quitting on his teammates and now he joins A-Rod and Clemens, McGwire and Palmiero, Giambi and 90-plus others who simply lack the character and morals to carry on this tradition called baseball.

Role Model? With his long dread locs, he would not be allowed to hold many jobs without taking the scissors and the detangler to his unkempt locs. He fought teammate Kevin Youkilis, who, by many, is considered to be the consumate teammate.

Youkilis took exception to Ramirez's lackluster play. He even beat up the Red Sox' elderly traveling secretary, more than likely because he parked in Manny's special handicapped spot. Role Model? I think not.

The Golden Rule, Manny, states, "Do unto others as you would want them to do unto you". This isn't sour grapes or jealousy. It's the Golden Rule.

Venom is currently spewing from my very being. My kid and I entrusted you with our sport and you, Manny, and you, Bud Selig, and you, A-Rod, do not have the character to be entrusted with it.

You can now sit for the next fifty games, with your over-sized ego and your undersized set of jewels, and count your money, count your Hall of Fame votes. One can't use a hand for counting while the other doesn't even register on your hand.

This is of course more repulsive than high-fiving the fans in left field or urinating behind the Green Monster. This is cheating, stealing, and lying.

I pray that Dodger fans opt not to support and cheer for Manny upon his return. Everything they loved about him has to be soured by the latest antic.

I've said all I care to say on Ramirez and on the subject.

I think I'll go back and try to rescue the Dodgers from 50 days worth of detention.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

A Writer's Night With The Breakers: Everything From Charise To Redbones

For any of you who have read my work, I think it is quite clear. I'm a baseball guy. Born and Bred Red Sox Red was more than a story I did, but a candidate for my epitaph when The Good Lord calls me up to that Fenway Park in the Sky.

I grew up with a glove on one hand and a ball in the other and sleep each night still with my Wally the Green Monster stuffed animal. It wakes me each morning by playing Sweet Caroline out of a muffled voice box it calls it's mouth.

My favorite all time movies are Fever Pitch, Field of Dreams, Bang the Drum Slowly and Bull Durham. My favorite moment in life, finishing just ahead of the birth of my three children was the Great Yankee Collapse of 2004 and the subsequent World Series victories in 04 and 07. As Bill Simmons so appropriately wrote, "Now I Can Die in Peace".

So what's a guy like me doing covering last night's Boston Breakers and Los Angeles Sol match-up? Can a baseball guy really be swayed to adopt the sport that is enamoured around the globe and thought to be a bit of a pest by many from Maine to Monteray? I don't see that happening.

And could a rookie sports writer elevate his own personal game enough to cover his first major sporting event? "A bit more likely", I thought knowing my own repetitive habit of over achieving.

I had become the unofficial Bleacher Report dude for the Boston Breakers about two months ago, stumbling upon the Breakers quite by accident. I was covering a Worcester Sharks hockey game and Greta Teller, Marketing Manager of the Breakers was there with two of the nameless, faceless girls from a team and a league I had never heard of.

Business man first and soccer fan way down the line, I struck up a conversation with Greta and bragged of my # 1 ranking as Red Sox Bleacher Report writer. We swapped business cards and I went in to watch the Sharks mop up the ice with the Manchester Monarchs of the AHL.

I went home, slept and woke the next morning and shot off an email to my new business contact. Greta turned me over to Kevin Hassett, probably concerned that a "good looking dude" like me was using my "high powered position" to get her email address. Not this time, Greta.

From there the rest has been synergy. Kevin opened the Breakers door to me and the Bleacher Report and feeds me news on a daily basis. Robert Penner, the league rep does the same for me. I volunteered to become Community Leader of the Bleacher Report and beckoned for others to join. Our membership is double digits now. Not a country but a community just the same.

We now have writers for each of the seven teams nationally and are becoming relevant on the WPS Public Relations and media coverage. At last night's game between the Breakers and the league leading Los Angeles Sol, we were there. Channels 4, 5, 7 and Fox seemed to be noticeably absent or hidden well. I stayed up until 2:00 AM writing with one eye on the keyboard and the other eye on the TV and recaps of the game must have fallen in line just beneath High School field hockey and Joey Chestnut winning another hot dog eating contest in Atlantic City.

This troubles me as I believe the success of the league and success of the Breakers is partially the responsibility of local media outlets. I suspect that the Breakers story was squeezed into an irrelevant corner of the Herald and well, the Globe has bigger issues.

Off of my soap box and back to the game. As my daughter, Kaitlyn and I entered historic Harvard Stadium, I got the same feeling as I did when I entered Yankee Stadium for the first time. Though not my home field and not my beloved sport, I had goose bumps from head to tail bone as I walked through the majestic gate. Roman Coliseum? Not quite but lets say it is the theological equivalent of going to Vatican City because you're not quite ready for Heaven.

We arrived at the stadium and the parking lot was filled with kids kicking soccer balls around the grassy field and tailgate parties in abundance. The odor of hot dogs, burgers and charise (Portuegese sausage) with saffron rice hovered above the crowded lot.

Outside the inner gates to the field, the atmosphere was filled with energy. Free booths were manned and gave away everything from Free Bumper Stickers and Breakers schedule magnets to Londonderry's own Stonyfield organic yogurt. Girls were everywhere with Dad's and were enjoying the Daddy/Daughter equivalent to Opening Day at Fenway.

Kaitlyn and I wandered into a Breakers tent and I helped one of the volunteers blow up a few of the complimentary noisemakers which fans banged together as the announcer yelled G-O-O-A-L-L-L!

The lyrics of the Electric Slide pop into my over imaginative cabesa as I weave my way through the euphoric crowd of little girls. "Some say it's mystic. It's electric. Boogie woogie, woogie. You can't resist it. It's electric. Boogie woogie, woogie!"

Like a kid with a sweet tooth at Mrs. Fields Cookies, I show my finely laminated press pass and walk onto the Harvard Stadium grass. While pinching myself slightly and then again, I look at Kaitlyn and say my three favorite words in the language..."Oh, My God!"

We walk around for a bit, still unsure what I'm about to do and I quote Bill Belichick, "Act Like You Been There Before."

I regained my composure and hung for a bit with a group of Brazilian fans who have come to see Marta. The World's Number One Player. It is the first non-World Cup meeting of the top two players in the World. Though living in and around Boston, the Brazilian fans aren't here to see the Breakers tonight but to see the Babe Ruth of Women's Soccer.

"Marta is the equivalent of Pele", explained Sammy Rodrigues who traveled all the way from Portsmouth, NH and Minas Gerais Brazil to see the diminutive Brazilian Princess. "We don't care who wins. This is about seeing Marta play."

I quickly realized that the game was a secondary event to seeing Marta for the Brazilians and seeing Number 1 vs Number 2 for the other 8,000 plus fans who passed through the turn styles tonight. Like McGuire Vs. Sosa in the pre-roid days and like Larry vs. Magic in the days of the tight NBA shorts. Not David vs. Goliath per se but Goliath vs Goliath.

"It's like a mini-World cup" added Rodrigues. "Like when Renaldo plays."

Rodrigues' friend and fellow Marta fan, Juliana Lima added, "We are so, so happy just to see her play."

We entered the stadium which was quickly "filling up" by US soccer standards and took a seat on the 50 yard line. Where the ghosts of Harvard vs. Yale traditionally took place, a new rivalry of equal importance was soon to commence.

Taking their seats in the stands near the Boston goal was Marcus Santos and Bloco Afro-Brazil. I assumed the band, which was comprised of 2 bongo players, several drum players, a spicy female dancer and a guy who played some sort of Brazilian maraca, was here to root on Marta, but I was grossly mistaken.

"We're here to pump it up for the Breakers", said an excited Marcus Santos, who played a beautiful wood grain bongo and occasionally blasted a loud golden whistle while the band cranked.

The handsome Brazilian with a toothy white grin, wore a green bandanna on his head and a bright yellow tank top to match the Brazilian flag which waved in the Cambridge breeze. "This is our first Breaker game and we are so happy to be part of this great event."

The band's official name, Bloco, simply means Group explained Santos, who can only be described as refreshing and exuberant.

"This is very exciting for us," added band spokesman Sandro Scoccia, a native of Somerville by way of Salvador Bahia, Brazil. "We've played all over the country for five years and have wanted to play at an official local event for some time. This is great."

Scoccia explained that Afro Brazil as a member of the Harvard Square Business Association, who got Scoccia in touch with a team spokesman who was thrilled to have Boco play.

I asked Scoccia his opinion of the brand of soccer he expected to see, "Female soccer is a grade below men's soccer. The skill is there, but the difference is the strength and speed and athleticism. The girls can do everything the men can do skill wise, but they simply don't have the strength of a male athlete," added Scoccia who has clearly watched a game or two in his lifetime.

Being a man, I, of course, had to spend some time speaking with Melinda Rhone, who danced at the front of Bloco while they banged out their rhythmic sound. Rhone, a pretty Brazilian gal, who is a Harvard grad and a college professor, was dressed in a green and yellow half shirt and a grass skirt. She danced barefoot and swayed energetically to the rhythmic sound of Bloco.

As we chatted about not only the Breakers but her position as a college professor of History of African Diaspora Through Dance, a fan interrupted politely to speak to my new friend. "It's like being at Maracana in Rio" exclaimed the fan, speaking of the world renowned Futbol Stadium in Rio De Janeiro.

Rhone agreed excitedly and wished the fan boa sorte (good luck) before chatting with me about her role as a college professor. "If you mention me in your story, please tell the readers that I am not a dancer at soccer games but an actual Harvard Grad, professor, researcher, lecturer and choreographer. It is important that girls not only play and love soccer, but spend time investing in their future."

Kaitlyn and I traveled back into the stands and settled back on the 50 yard to watch as the event within the events finally began. We cheered feverishly along with the excited crowd as Kelly Smith scored the quickest goal in league history at the one minute mark of the first half. The goal marked the first scored on the Sol this season and the crowd erupted as the shot tickled the twine.

The crowd was extremely knowledgeable and I listened to all of those around me in hopes of picking up some nuances of the game. Rhealms Wilford of Worcester explained to me, "It's like a chess game. The girls see what is about to happen three or four moves in advance and anticpate who they are going to pass to."

Jamie Wheaton, an eleven year old soccer aficionado from Lexington, said, "The new Breakers seem to be much more popular than the original team." Wheaton who plays for the FC Greater Boston Bolts and who has seen several men's professional games in England, added, "I love to watch what the girls do and feed what I learn into my game."

His Mom added, "It is a unique event to see when the number one player in the world (Marta) takes on the number two (Kelly Smith). These two would normally only meet in the World Cup."

The first half ended with the Breakers ahead 1-0 and Kaitlyn and I grabbed a Pulled Pork sandwich and some BBQ beef from my favorite BBQ joint, Red Bones. "Dem Bones, Dem Beers" I heard a customer say while wiping some BBQ sauce from his beard. Not sure what it meant, but I laughed just the same.

We settled back into our seats and I watched the last 45 minutes with the in the same intensity that I watch a World Series Game 7. I was hooked. The Breakers and Sol swapped second half goals sandwiched around several close calls by Marta. The Breakers were in her shorts most of the match and marked her every move.

Kaitlyn continued to educate me and I finally got the hang of offsides and how it differed from the game I call football. I even finally know the difference between direct and indirect and a corner kick and a goal kick.

The game ended 2-1 Breakers and I hustled down to do my first post game interviews. Possessing a pair of balls slightly larger than the Puma which the girls kicked around, I walked up to Kelly Smith and introduced myself as Todd Civin, a reporter from the Bleacher Report. She acknowledged me as if I had said Todd Civin from ESPN the Magazine.
I instantly realized that not only was Bleacher Report relevant but so was I. "What did you think of the fan support?" I asked Kelly before trying to decipher her British accent. I think she said, "It was amazing. Great support from so many amazing fans."

I told her that my Bleacher Report friend from across the pond, Maire Ofeire, had asked me to tell Kelly that she is needed back on Arsenal, her British club. Kelly laughed and told me, "The overall product of the WPS is better than the original league. The girls play a better game technically than the old teams."

"The fans come to see us play good soccer. And we really played well."

I then went and talked for a bit with Angela Hucles, who was a pleasure to interview. "This was a great win for us. We needed to concentrate on getting three points. Los Angeles entered the game four points ahead of us and with this win we closed the gap to one. It was a great win". We exchanged email addresses and I pinched myself again as I left the field.

Kaitlyn and I drove home chirping like two hens all the way from Cambridge to Winchendon. I had about five story ideas flowing from my brain while trying to listen to everything Kate was excitedly explaining.

I knew I was hooked and knew that I had just fallen for the new gal in town. The baseball guy is now a soccer guy too and I left the match knowing I had left no stone unturned in my coverage of the event.

Better change my business card. I am officially a soccer writer, too.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Save Worcester's Trees ~ Build A Memory

They took all the trees
Put em in a tree museum
And they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to see em
Dont it always seem to go
That you dont know what you've got
Till its gone
They paved paradise

And put up a parking lot.

We all know the lyrics to Joni Mitchell's anthem "Big Yellow Taxi." But suppose that art imitated reality and the green movement of Mitchell's hippy era song was catapulted into present day Worcester, MA.

Instead of "the Man" ridding the central Massachusetts city of its maples and elms, the scorned Asian Long Horned Beetle played reckless tree warden instead.

To date, 18,000 trees have walked the Green Mile in Wormtown and been sentenced to death by local tree companies. The execution of these trees has actually prevented the loss of hundreds of thousands more had the beetle infestation been allowed to spread.

Today Worcester looks like a war zone. The brush lines the sidewalks of the city's neighborhood awaiting pick up by the heavily taxed removal companies. Worse than this however is the thought of the next generation waking each day and not seeing the towering elm that sprung from the yard hundreds of years before.

No walking along the shaded city streets or swinging from a tire swing in their back yard. I think of countless days spent with my brother, Keith, climbing to the top of the maple, which traveled high into the blue summer sky.

Erased would be the tree fort that Keith, Phil Atwood and Steve Rieser built in the back yard or the story of the day a sledge hammer tumbled from the fort and cracked open Sonny's wooden head.

Gone would be the heart carved into the side of the maple that said that M.C. + D.S. (My Dad and My Mom) would share T.L.A. (True Love Always).

Rock a bye baby
In the tree top
When the bough breaks
The cradle will rock...

What happens if the whole tree breaks? Where will the cradle rock then?

I recall chucking apples as fast as my left handed arm could throw, sidearm, smashing into smithereens against the Cedar tree. Now not only is the memory erased, but the cedar tree is too.

And I fondly remember sitting with the mother of my children beneath the pines in Institute Park. Cuddling. Falling in love, second.. by second.. by second.. by second.

See, as simple as it seems, trees not only build houses but build memories too. The memories of my tree's will grow forever. But what about the memories that cease to be made as each tree tumbles to the earth.

Save a tree. Grow a memory.

Worcester Sharks Fraser McLaren: Wanna Go?

As a frat boy at Syracuse it seems like me and my fellow TEP's were always getting in a weekend scrap. Not sure if it was too much booze, too much testosterone, or too many gals that we were dying to give a tour of the inside of TEP Palace.

Every Friday or Saturday at 2 p.m. and sometimes an occasional Sunday through Thursday ended with the Weekly Square Dance. I was a muscular little fire plug in those days and was always ready to drop the gloves and go a round or two.

My ring wasn’t the square circle and certainly wasn’t surrounded by ropes or turn buckles, but the pavement in front of Sutters Mill, Buggy's Bar and Tavern and good ol Hungry Chucks.

Our weekly Battle Royal started for any of a number of reasons.

  • For looking at a brother cross eyed
  • For checking out our TEP Little Sisters or any sorority gal a bit too long.
  • "Yes, I do mind if you dance with my date."
  • To cover the back of any drunken TEP brother

Not sure what our record was in those matches. I suspect we won a few more than we lost. But we didn’t keep score. I just know that I came home many a night with a busted lip, in need of a stitch or two, or seeing the world through one slightly closed eye. Rarely did I end a night with out a little blood on my knuckles and someones tooth imprint in my hand.

My Dad had a buddy in the Army who was a parachute jumper. Dad once asked him if he liked to jump. He replied, “No, but I like to hang out with guys who do like to jump.“

The analogy being, that I am now 47 and haven’t fought for 25 years (well, except for defending a buddy in Barbados a couple summers ago). But I still like to hang out with guys who do.

So when I had the opportunity to do a Q and A with the Worcester Sharks resident tough hombre, Fraser McClaren, I assumed I'd be chatting with a fighter who occasionally plays hockey. Instead I found a skilled and articulate hockey player, who occasionally has to watch the backs of his "Brothers" or set the tone of a game.

I couldn't resist asking the Enforcer On Ice a few questions that I've always wanted to know. I asked him what he says to his opponent, as if comparing his answer to my repertoire.

"I usually say "Do you wanna go or whatever I think of at the time" said the 22-year-old left winger. "Sometimes you don't need to say anything at all. You both just no it's time."

"Sometimes you have to stick up for a teammate. Sometimes you just need to send a message to the other team or even to your own teammates if the team came out flat. I see it as my responsibility to set the tone of the game. Though other guys on the team sometimes do the same."

Fraser stands at 6'5" and tips the scale at 228 pounds of solid granite. When on skates the pride of Winnipeg, MB Canada adds a few inches to his mountain man frame.

"I'm not a fan of staged fighting." he explained, while spitting out a tooth or some blood or someone's ear. "This is when two guys go because they are expected to. Like it is their role to fight to give the audience there monies worth. I think I good hit has the same or better effect than a fight."

I asked him how fighting on skates compares to fighting in street shoes. "I don't know. I never have fought in street shoes", laughed Fraser quickly reminding me that fighting is simply part of his job not an anger issue.

McLaren in his first year with the Sharks is more than just the teams tough guy but a guy who can handle the stick as well as his gloves. He came to the team at the end of 2007 and played in only four games. This year, however, he played in all 75 Sharks games and netted seven goals and one assist.

Prior to joining the Sharks, McLaren finished sixth on his Canadian Junior team in points with 40 in 66 games.

"I consider myself to be a power forward more than a fighter. I love to kill penalties and really take pride in that part of my game. Most thugs don't kill penalties."

Fraser's earned a ten-minute misconduct and a season-high for penalty minutes when he scuffled with Steve MacIntyre (Providence) in only his third game with the Sharks last season. He scuffled for the first time in his AHL career with tough guy Kevin Westgarth of the Manchester Monarchs.

Despite being able to put the puck in the net on occasion, Fraser hopes to get to the NHL because of his ability to hit, bang and occasionally drop the gloves. McLaren broke the 600 career penalty minute plateau earlier this season after seasons with the Portland Winter Hawks and the Moose Jaw Warriors of the Western Hockey League.

"I hope to get to the NHL with the San Jose Sharks since they are the team that drafted me. But if that doesn't work out, I'd be happy just playing hockey."

McLaren, who leads the Sharks with 21 major fighting penalties in 75 games, once scored a Gordie Howe hat trick (a goal, an assist and a fight) in a game when he was with Moose Jaw. "I think I got a goal and two assists and then got jumped from behind to complete the trick, laughed Fraser.

As I was ready to wrap up my interview with the Mighty McLaren, I had one final question. Coincidentally, it is one that ties in with the Sharks ticket selling campaign. "Wanna Go?" I asked.

That's the last thing I remember. McLaren showed me why he's the toughest dude at the DCU and why I'm a 47-year-old sportswriter with a glass jaw.