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Only one thing is for certain at this point and that is the fact that the tale of Manti Te’o’s inspired play in the wake of the death of his girlfriend Lennay Kekua was built upon a lie.

Whose lie it was exactly we may never know and even if the truth does come out, some of us may not believe it. Regardless of that, only one other thing remains evident – we all had a hand in making this lie reality.

Certainly the biggest amount of blame depends on what story you believe.

If you believe that Te’o is a hapless victim of an elaborate and insidious hoax, then clearly the brunt of the responsibility lies with the perpetrators. However, in this scenario, Te’o is still responsible for continuing the lie after coming to know the truth and likewise, the University of Notre Dame, and the Te’o family share some blame for not getting in front of the issue and letting the truth be known.

If you believe that Te’o was complicit in the events that occurred in an attempt to boost his campaign for the Heisman Trophy, as has been suggested, then the blame is his. In that scenario, it is unclear exactly how much Te’o’s family, or the university was involved, but the argument could be made that if they weren’t involved directly, they shirked the responsibility of examining the story Te’o was selling because, hey, it was the best publicity possible.

Meanwhile, the situation pointed out that in general, we in the media have fallen complacent. What makes us the vilified muckrakers of the world is the fact that our reputation says that we would approach a romantic kiss from our wives with a degree of skepticism, let alone a story being told by someone who was essentially an acquaintance with no proof to back it up.

But that’s exactly what we did.

We bought into it.

The story was too good not to be true. And who was going to question the validity of a guy’s claim that his girlfriend had tragically died of leukemia, especially when it happened around the same time as his grandmother?

A true journalist would, and that’s the sad truth.

Instead, we the members of the free press, whether we were covering the story directly or not, forgot to do what we were taught to do – verify the information with facts. No one did that. We all just bought into it.

All except the folks at Deadspin, of course.

While Deadspin didn’t present a case riddled with fact, it provided enough concrete information along with its heavy dose of hearsay to blow the lid off of the truth that Lennay Kekua was never a real person.

In the football world, the words “Notre Dame” are as polarizing as the terms “abortion,” “immigration” or “gun control” in the real, much more important world. College football fans either revel in the Fighting Irish’s successes, or relish in their failures. Deadspin, of course, falls in the latter category, which may have been their primary motivation for digging deeper into Te’o’s story, but in the end, it doesn’t matter. The fact remains that they did far more than anyone else in the media even dreamed of doing and for that they should be commended.

And while the media may have told us the story of Te’o and Lennay, in the end, it was the general public who ate it up and made it all the more real. If perception truly could become reality, then  birth and death certificates for Kekua would have materialized. Hospital records and police reports from her supposed car crash would be found in public records. Her picture may have shown up in the Stanford Quad, the yearbook of the college she supposedly attended. Heck, a pair of bronzed baby shoes may have appeared in someone’s attic.

The American people bought it because we are so desperate to find our heroes. With realities such as public officials’ approval ratings at staggering lows, continued poverty, unemployment and economic uncertainty, violence both overseas and within our borders, hitting ever so close to home with incidents like the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, even the reminder of great adored athletes of the past now shamed, we are desperate for something to believe in.

Something good.

Something pure.

Something that could support the belief that there is still good that happens in this world.

We wanted it, the heartbroken Manti Te’o gave it to us.

We never questioned it.

We simply didn’t want to.

Patriots fans will hate to hear this, but it’s true.

It could be worse.

Sure, you have a broken toe and a 52 inch plasma screen TV that needs to be replaced after the temper tantrum that ensued when Rob Gronkowski wasn’t able to get his hands on the Patriots’ last-ditch Hail Mary as the Super Bowl clock ticked down to zero.

But as we come to accept the fact that the Patriots simply didn’t make that one play here or one play there that could have been the difference, we should also take the time to realize that while time to win another Lombardi Trophy with Tom Brady under center is waning, it still exists and truthfully, there is always next year.

This season, more than anything, was considered to be a bridge year. No one really gave the Patriots a chance to win the Super Bowl. After the Patriots lost back-to-back games to the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New York Giants, no one gave them a chance to come close.

It wasn’t that it was believed that this team was bad, but that it was still in the building process. Even if they overachieved, that still remains true. The building blocks are still in place.

Before you start throwing one of the half-empty beer cans that are strewn around your house following your Super Bowl party at the screen, consider these points:

1. The four most explosive weapons on the best scoring offense in the AFC will be back next year. Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez are all under contract and it’s almost guaranteed that Wes Welker will be back under the franchise tag.

2. The offensive line that protects the most important weapon will still be strong. There are questions about whether or not Brian Waters, who was tremendous all season and played very well in the Super Bowl, will be back and Dan Koppen is also an unrestricted free agent. But especially on the edge the team is deep with Matt Light, Nate Solder, Marcus Cannon and Sebastian Volmer. Should Waters, who was considered by Pro Football Focus to be the second-best right tackle in football, return, he and Logan Mankins make up one of the best guard tandems in football.

3. The defensive line turned out to be a strength this season. Once the liability of Albert Haynesworth was gone, the Patriots’ defensive line became quite formidable. Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love, easily the most improved Patriot and maybe one of the most improved players in the league this season, were a handful for any offensive line, while Brandon Deaderick proved to be a useful addition once he came off the PUP list. Love is a restricted free agent, but as an undrafted player is most likely to be retained by the Patriots.

4. The Patriots are all set at inside linebacker. When Brandon Spikes is healthy, he is an incredible force in stopping the run. Having a player who can charge forward, plug a hole and drive a running back backwards next to him allows Jerrod Mayo to do what he does best, which is a little bit of everything else.

Now, I’m not trying to blow sunshine up any orifices that are not meant to see the light of day. There are questions that remain about this team, most of them on defense. They still need pass rushers, as Mark Anderson, Rob Ninkovich and Andre Carter are all unrestricted free agents. They need help at safety, as clearly James Ihedebo and Sergio Brown are not a real answer next to Patrick Chung. While guys like Sterling Moore and Kyle Arrington showed some flashes, the cornerback play is a concern.

In addition to that, there’s the question of whether Steven Ridley is ready to be a consistent contributor to this team, as it is likely Benjarvus Green-Ellis will be gone. There’s uncertainty about who the number-two wide receiver, who is really the fourth option in the passing game, will be.

But the Patriots had  a lot of these questions this year and they made it to the Super Bowl. They didn’t just make it, they were about five minutes from winning it.

Which brings me to my biggest point: The Patriots have two first-round and two second-round picks in the upcoming draft. Say what you will about Bill Belichick’s draft history. We all know it. There have been some bad picks. But he also picked up Gronkowski, Spikes and Hernandez in the same draft two years ago, stealing Hernandez in the fourth round.

There are no guarantees. There is no easy road back to the Super Bowl. But there is hope. The sky is not falling.

There is no doubt, former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky is the worst kind of person, if he can be considered a person at all. Perhaps “animal” or “predator” is a better word to describe him. He took advantage of young, vulnerable boys from broken homes and violated them in such a way that it will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

But there is a word that needs to be associated with Penn State head coach Joe Paterno and university officials: accomplice.

There are incidents dating back to the mid- to late-1990s regarding this man’s crimes. The fact that he went from being the heir apparent of the Nittany Lions’ program to “retiring” in 1999 suggests that the program was well-aware of his atrocities long ago.

But even if you believe they were oblivious, a ridiculous assumption that I’ll entertain for conversation’s sake, there was an incident in 2002 during which a graduate assistant witnessed abuse.

In failing to report Sandusky to police, especially when the graduate assistant reported in detail seeing Sandusky in the shower with one of his eight (and now maybe nine) victims in a Penn State locker room shower, everyone at the university with knowledge of the situation gave this monster full license to continue abusing and raping boys for the better part of a decade.

They had the means to stop him, but chose not to. And why? So the program and university could continue to appear responsible and conscientious instead of actually being either of those things.

No one involved in this situation is clean. The graduate assistant, who claimed both Sandusky and the young boy he saw in the shower with him both saw him, did nothing to stop what he saw, despite the fact that it clearly disturbed him. Imagine being that little boy and watching someone who could help you turn his back and walk away instead of stopping the man who was raping you.

The assistant did go to Paterno and report what he saw, which I suppose is better than pretending he never saw it. Paterno in turn passed the buck to his superiors in the administration. The administration slapped Sandusky on the wrist by taking away his locker room keys. Clearly at this point the administration had no interest in justice for the young victim.

But why at that point did Paterno not go to the police himself? Because he was as invested in keeping the image of the program clean, rather than actually cleaning up the program that was covered in the worst kind of filth.

No one is safe. Like a failing home appliance retailer, everything must go. If Penn State hopes to maintain its legitimacy as both a football program and as an institution of higher learning, Paterno must be fired, along with president Graham Spanier and anyone else in the administration who chose to ignore the fact that sexual abuse took place on their campus, levied by a man employed by the university.

What’s more, the NCAA must pull its head out of the sand and realize that this is the most important place to make a stand regarding responsibility and decency. Collegiate athletics’ governing body has come down hard on programs such as SMU, USC and Ohio State for past scandals involving boosters, illegal perks given to players and the like. If a school and a program are not willing to do what must be done to protect children from sexual abuse, the entity that polices that program must act.

The term “death penalty” was thrown around when the University of Miami was involved in a scandal involving a booster earlier this year. Given the fact that the Penn State program allowed the victimization of children for over a decade, nothing short of the death penalty, or banning the team from playing for an entire season, seems appropriate, in addition to bowl ineligibility this year.  Players who want to leave the program should be able to do so without having to forfeit a year.

Some have said they are pained by the thought of one of the premier programs in college football and a revered coach such as Joe Pa are going to end up disgraced. What pains me is the thought of the victims who became victims because no one could be bothered to stop this animal in the first place. If the NCAA is going to make an example of programs for monetary violations, then punishment should be swift and severe to make sure that there is no question that this kind of behavior and willingness to turn a blind eye to abuse will not be tolerated.

While the amount of roster turnover that will occur before the 2012 season remains to be seen, the simple fact of the matter is that the Red Sox will need to make changes. And let’s forget the Albert Pujols or C.J. Wilson talk. With contracts expiring on several members of the team, Boston would do well to do more than just kick the tires on these 10 players who enter the offseason as free agents.

Carlos Beltran, outfield
The Red Sox are probably going to shy away from a big-name signing this offseason, but with a big gap in right field, the Red Sox could make an effort to sign him. After two bad seasons with the Mets in 2009 and 2010, he rebounded with a very strong 2011. He played primarily in right field and played well at the position. With J.D. Drew’s contract coming off the books, the Red Sox would be able to swallow the large contract he would command.

Johnny Damon, outfield
Yep, I said it. The Red Sox need strong veteran leadership and while he’s not outspoken, you can’t say that Damon doesn’t lead by example. At 37 years old, he can’t be relied on as an everyday player in the field, but he most likely could be had for reasonable dollars while serving as a part-time left fielder and DH. Clearly his best days are behind him, but with Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia at the top of the line up, he would not be expected to offer the offensive spark he did his first time around. Especially if the team doesn’t have to trot him out there and stretch him out in the field too much, he could be a valuable presence to have around young outfielders like Josh Reddick and Ryan Kalish. His .307 career batting average at Fenway Park doesn’t hurt either.

Mark Buerhle, starting pitcher
Buerhle is as his name would suggest – a hard-nosed, go-out-there-and-get-it-done kind of pitcher. Given the reports on the subpar attitude and cliquishness of the Red Sox pitching staff in 2011, it’s that kind of player that could help change the culture. Buerhle isn’t a guy who will strike out 15 batters, but he has never thrown fewer than 200 innings and had won at least 10 games in every season since 2001. He is considered one of the most consistent major league pitchers in the game right now and would most likely command somewhere around $16 million per year, so somewhere some payroll would most likely have to be shifted.

Joel Zumaya, relief pitcher
Zumaya is a guy who has been riddled with injuries over his short major league career, but with the amount of talent the right-handed fireballer has, it may be worth taking a flier on him if the dollars were right, and they certainly should be after he missed the entire 2011 season. When healthy, he features a fastball that lives in the 97-99 MPH range and his late and close statistics suggest a guy who can help solidify the back end of a bullpen. Major league hitters have a .218 batting average against him. If the price is right, why not?

Darren Oliver, relief pitcher
At 41 years old, Oliver may decide to quit while he’s ahead and hang ’em up, but the veteran journeyman has become one of the premier left-handed specialists in the game. The Red Sox have been lacking in quality left-handed relief for a few years now and a guy like Oliver, if used properly and not stretched too far, could have real value facing one or two batters in key spots. After floating from team to team and between starting and relieving for most of his career, Oliver has settled into the role and has had a sub-3.00 ERA in each of the last four seasons. Last year, left-handed batters hit just .227 with a .318 slugging percentage against him.

Michael Cuddyer, outfield
Cuddyer has been coveted by the Red Sox in the past and he always seems to be a name that pops up around the trade deadline. Now there’s an opening in the outfield. While his 32 home runs a couple of years ago was an aberration, but he’s still a productive player who will come at a reasonable price tag in comparison to other players the Red Sox have signed recently. He has experience playing all over the field and versatility is valued in the organization.

Bill Hall, utility
Hall and the Giants have a mutual option, but if the decision is made to move on, Hall could once again be a useful member of a winning team. Hall isn’t much of a regular, but it’s hard to forget that in 2010 he hit 18 home runs in limited duty for the Red Sox. The super utility man had a miserable 2011 as the starting second baseman for Houston before being released, which should keep his price tag low, so he’d be worth a flier.

Ryan Doumit, catcher
If Jason Varitek retires, the Red Sox will need a viable option at backup catcher. Ryan Lavarnway figures to be more of a DH than a true catcher and Boston’s other minor league prospects are still a ways away from being ready for the bigs. The Pirates have an option on Doumit, but the $7.25 million price tag is likely too rich for their taste. Doumit has had injury issues, but in a backup role similar to the workload Jason Varitek had last year, he could do well. In 77 games in 2011, he batted .301 with an .830 OPS while playing exclusively at catcher. He also has experience in the outfield, as the Pirates experimented with him there in an effort to keep him healthy.

Francisco Rodriguez, relief pitcher
Rodriguez isn’t the pitcher he was a few years ago, but at 30 years old, he is still very effective. While he most likely will look for an opportunity to close, he was absolutely lights out as a set up man for Milwaukee down the stretch and may be swayed by the chance to play for another playoff contender. With the Red Sox bullpen needing serious work, having a guy like Rodriguez that you can rely on along with Daniel Bard in the late innings the way Bobby Jenks was supposed to in 2011. Or if the Red Sox decide to try Bard as a starter as it is being rumored, he could fill that set up role.

Jonathan Papelbon, relief pitcher
Papelbon had arguably his best season as a Red Sox in 2011, save the tail end when nothing went the team’s way. Especially with Bard’s struggles down the stretch, it seems even more imperative that the Red Sox keep a known commodity in the ninth inning role. Papelbon will demand top dollar, but in a market for closers filled with a lot of question marks outside of Rodriguez and Heath Bell, the Red Sox would do well to hold on to what they have.

Let’s assume for a minute that Theo Epstein remains the general manager of the Boston Red Sox. What would you want him to do to fix the mess that is the team’s clubhouse at this point? Some say simply a new manager to lead this group is needed, but I see a much bigger need to get some new blood in the organization.

Where should Epstein start? That’s debatable, but I think it has to begin with one of the most difficult tasks, which would be to trade John Lackey.

Lackey has proven to be a huge bust for the Red Sox. Even if he wasn’t signed for big bucks over long years, no one could say he’s been even close to a decent pitcher for this staff. He got a gift 12 wins this year, mostly due to the fact that most of the season the team was tearing the cover off the ball. At 32 years of age, he’s no spring chicken, but he still could hold some value to clubs, specifically National League teams, who are looking for some rotation help. While some spots would require the Red Sox to eat a significant amount of his salary – which they’ve been known to do – there are some places that may be willing to trade one large contract that hasn’t worked out for another.

Here’s a look at some possible suitors fitting that description.

New York Mets and Jason Bay (Two years, plus vesting option remaining on a four-year, $66 million contract)
Bay has been hurt for a significant amount of time since signing a huge contract after the 2009 season saw him traded to the Red Sox. He’s also had a lot of his power sapped by playing in the canyon that is more commonly known as Citi Field.
The Mets need pitching help, as they were forced to rely on the likes of Dillon Gee, Mike Pelfrey and R.A. Dickey this past season. A pitcher like Lackey who has always given up his fair share of hits is much better suited for a park like Citi Field and most of the time pitchers have an easier time getting away with average stuff in the National League than the American League East.
As for what the Red Sox would be getting, it would be a gamble, but Bay did post a .915 OPS in 200 games with Boston not all that long ago and would not be relied on as the centerpiece of the team’s offense. His arrival would also mean a move for Carl Crawford away from the Green Monster, which he played horribly.

New York Mets and Johan Santana ($24 million in 2012, $25 million in 2013, $25 million team option that becomes vesting if Cy Young and innings pitched criteria are met with a $5.5 million buyout)
Santana’s problems have been the exact opposite of Lackey’s – still has the stuff, but can’t stay on the field. Santana didn’t pitch at all in 2011, making him a huge gamble for the Red Sox if they were to go this route. However, at the same time, Lackey is a big gamble for New York. After being a horse for most of his career, Santana may be breaking down and if the New York medical staff isn’t sold, this could seem like a worthwhile maneuver that could allow the team to spend the extra money elsewhere or just take the savings. Lackey could work in New York for the reasons stated above, while Santana could be a steal if he could return to form. However, his potential for a bounceback season makes this an unlikely match.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and Vernon Wells (Three years remaining at $21 millon per year)
Wells was a total bust for the Angels and one of the reasons their general manager resigned last week and it’s very possible that the new general manager will want to distance himself as much as possible from the mistakes of the previous front office.
Lackey is a known commodity, which could work for the Red Sox or against them in terms of trading him back to the West Coast. Still, Lackey was always a solid competitor for the Angels and playing an unbalanced schedule against teams like Oakland and Seattle in huge ballparks could only benefit him.
His numbers as a visitor at Fenway Park have been fairly pedestrian over his career, but he’s a Yankeed killer with a career slash line of .302/.354/.517 against New York. He’s also lost a step in the outfield, so a move to left field would allow the Red Sox to move Crawford away from the wall while limiting Wells’ defensive shortcomings.

San Francisco Giants and Barry Zito ($18 millon in 2012 and $20 million in 2013, plus an $18 million option in 2014 with a $7 million buy-out)
This is probably one of the worst fits because the Giants need hitters more than they do pitching and Zito has been worse than Lackey, plus he’s injury-prone. If the Red Sox were to go this route, they most likely would end up with the record for highest salary for a left-handed specialist. Even then, he’s not a good option, as he posted better numbers against right-handed batters than lefties last season.
There’s not much reason to explore this one at all, but it at least had to be mentioned in a conversation regarding bad contracts.

Chicago White Sox and Jake Peavy ($17 million in 2012, $22 million team option with $4 million buyout in 2013)
This most likely won’t happen simply because Peavy’s at the end of his contract and the White Sox would probably just as soon eat $4 million, rather than take on Lackey’s salary and years in the hopes he can turn his career around on the South Side of Chicago. Also, if Terry Francona ends up in Chicago, odds are stacked even higher against this.
Still, Chicago may be ready to move on from Peavy, who just can’t seem to stay healthy for them. He hasn’t appeared in more than 19 games in either of his last two seasons with the team and just hasn’t panned out for a team that was a bigger mess than the Red Sox last season and could be looking to make some extreme changes.
Peavy still has good stuff, but with all the questions surrounding his health, it would be more likely the Red Sox looked into the next name on this list.

Chicago White Sox and Adam Dunn ($14 million in 2012, $15 million in 2013 and 2014)
This clearly would only happen if the Red Sox elected not to re-sign David Ortiz and given his productivity this year, that would only happen if the front office decided that he was more of the problem in the clubhouse than he was the solution.
Dunn has always been a big strikeout guy (182 in a 162 game average), but he also has big-time clout and has a career .374 OBP, which Mr. Epstein would covet and it’s hard to believe at age 31 he’s completely washed up. After all, just a year ago he hit 38 homers and drove in over 100 runs for the hapless Washington Nationals.
However, it would be a hard sell to make for the White Sox, despite Dunn’s struggles this year. It’s hard to make a case that Lackey would prove to be a strong addition unless the team loses Mark Buerhle and is looking for a veteran starter to help solidify the rotation. If there’s one thing going for Lackey, it’s that he’s durable, something that couldn’t be said for a lot of White Sox pitchers this year.

Chicago Cubs and Alfonso Soriano (Three years remaining at $18 million per year)
Soriano has always been the anti-Moneyball player and is clearly in decline. He’s a poor outfielder and has lost a great deal of the speed that made him a good tool offensively. He does still have some pop in his bat, however, and he has solid career numbers at Fenway and against the AL East.
The Cubs are in desperate need of pitching, as Ryan Dempster is a free agent and Carlos Zambrano can’t be counted on and, most likely, the Cubs will be looking to unload him, leaving the team with Randy Wells as their top starter, followed by Casey Coleman.

Houston Astros and Carlos Lee (Final year of contact, owed $18.5 Million)
This one is a stretch because Lee is on the back end of his deal and the Astros most likely would not be willing to take on more years of a massive contract unless the Red Sox were willing to eat some of the salary. That said, Houston had by far the worst pitching staff in the league and may see Lackey is a reclamation project that, if successful, could anchor a staff. Brett Myers was very shaky this year and the team’s most consistent starter, Wandy Rodriguez, is not expected to be back after the Astros tried shopping him at this year’s trade deadline. The Astros were also fooled into believing J.A. Happ was a quality pitcher.
Lee is another man on the back nine who still has enough pop that he could fill at least a part-time DH role for the Red Sox and adds an option as a right-handed bat, something the team struggled without at times. Lee crushed left-handed pitching last season at an OPS clip of 1.028 and he has a .921 OPS at Fenway Park. Should Ortiz leave, a Ryan Lavarnway/Lee platoon at DH would give the Red Sox some roster flexibility as Lee can also play first base or a corner outfield position, provided it’s for a limited amount of time, and Lavarnway, while not projecting as a full-time major league catcher, offers an option behind the plate.

Remember folks, mothers always know best.

“I don’t know why, but I just don’t like him. It’s something about the way he carries himself that makes me wonder if he can play here.”

Those were the words from my mother after hearing the Red Sox had inked Carl Crawford to a seven-year, $142 million contract last offseason. Her concerns weren’t about Crawford’s bat or his fielding or his ability to steal bases. It was all about the character he could bring to the Red Sox clubhouse.

Now, the September-long collapse that has left the Red Sox on their couches nursing their bruised egos as they watch the playoffs on television can’t be blamed solely on Crawford. But after listening to Terry Francona speak to the media on Thursday afternoon, it was clear that something in that clubhouse was very wrong.

Tito spoke of concerns, closed door meetings and moments when players should have gotten behind each other and just plain didn’t. The “Idiots” are long forgotten these days at the Back Bay Fens. These are the big-ticket, no heart Red Sox.

While blame falls on the players for failing to execute on the field, a large portion of the responsibility rests solely on the shoulders of Theo Epstein and more of it has to do with the fact that unlike 2004 and 2007 when he put together World Series champions, he stopped believing that character was all that important.

The evidence: J.D. Drew, who surprised fans at the end of the season by showing up at all. John Lackey, who seems to be more worried about yelling at a teammate for not making a catch on a deep drive than analyzing why the ball was pounded in the first place. Julio Lugo, whom some said just cared too much really cared more about people liking him than putting in the extra work on the field. Daisuke Matsuzaka, who was more concerned with blaming Red Sox coaches for his pitching than himself.

The character guys on the Boston Red Sox are dwindling. The days of “25 players, 25 cabs” seems to be returning. One could say the last one who exhibited true character and was the ultimate teammate was Mike Lowell, a player whom Epstein didn’t even acquire and, quite frankly, didn’t want.

The team has some deep-rooted issues that even the players’ manager like Terry Francona wasn’t able to overcome in the end. Thursday’s presser was maybe the most downtrodden and emotionally spent Francona has ever been and it wasn’t simply because they lost a game Wednesday night. While he’s constantly said he didn’t want to talk about his contract during the season and he wanted to focus on winning, he also never said he wanted to stay in Boston. If he is let go, it’s probable he will take his walking papers with a smile and a spring in his step.

Epstein, on top of failing to measure the importance of character, has also been unable to accurately measure major league talent. He remains a very gifted baseball executive in terms of producing quality prospects. Some of those prospects he’s kept, some he’s leveraged for talent in trades. Beyond that, he’s made some tremendous in-season deals, including the one that sent Nomar Garciaparra out of town for Doug Mientkiewicz and Orlando Cabrera. While most of the world was throwing up their hands in disgust and disbelief, Theo saw a need and saw value where others did not. That all seems so long ago now, doesn’t it.

It was.

And in the meantime, Theo Epstein, especially on the free agent market, has not done well in evaluating talent and value and I would imagine Red Sox ownership is getting a little tired of paying high-priced players to play for other teams when Theo Epstein gets them out of town by promising the club that trades for them that the Sox will eat a large portion of the salary.

One could say that better scouting could have predicted that John Lackey would not fare well in the AL East in smaller ballparks with better lineups (His stuff never was all that good) and that Crawford’s defensive prowess is overrated and perhaps his swing is not built for Fenway or that Bobby Jenks was horribly out of shape and knee and back problems were bound to happen.
On a smaller, more specific level, at the trading deadline when the Red Sox were pretty sure they were in serious need of some pitching help, they got Erik Bedard. Also traded at the deadline was Doug Fister. Two pitchers from the same organization that if it has anything going for it, it’s depth at starting pitcher. The Red Sox took Bedard, who had already been on the disable list once this year, while the Tigers took Fister. According to reports, the Red Sox never showed any interest in the younger, more talented, healthier starter, who was had for essentially the same amount of minor league talent. Fister has a sub-3.00 ERA in Detroit and will pitch in the playoffs. Bedard never had a clean start, spent time on the bench with an injury and as a whole generally underwhelmed.
Epstein was also against the trade that brought Josh Beckett and Lowell to Boston, a move that he is often credited with, but actually happened during the time when he left the team after a sissy boy slapfest with Larry Lucchino.
Epstein’s 2011 Red Sox were also built upon the assumption that Lackey, Matsuzaka and Beckett would all be healthy and more effective than they were a year ago. Given the track records, there was reason for considerable doubt that all three could turn it around.

Injuries like the ones suffered by Clay Buchholz and Kevin Youkilis were perhaps unavoidable. But what was also glaring and obviously short-sighted on Epstein’s part was the lack of depth on the 25-man roster and organizationally. The team gave up some major-league ready talent in bringing in Adrian Gonzalez. That’s true. But even early on in the season, Yamaico Navaro and Drew Sutton were acting as the team’s backup infielders. The backup plan for injuries to the rotation was Andrew Miller, Tim Wakefield and Kyle Weiland. He had to trade for Mike Aviles, Bedard and Connor Jackson for “help.” Matt Albers somehow became a key cog in this mess.

As the ship approached the iceberg, Epstein kept turning the rudder the wrong way. While some say this wasn’t as bad as 2003 or other Red Sox collapses, it really was worse. While the shock value of Aaron Boone or Bucky Dent was greater, the inherent problems with this Red Sox team could be wounds that are much deeper and harder to fix and could have a profound effect on its future.

There have been some hits and some good times with Epstein, but there have also been a ton of misses and perhaps at this point the good outweighs the bad and it’s time to say goodbye.

Those who have been frustrated in recent years with Bill Belichick’s penchant for hoarding draft picks can now rejoice. The New England Patriots head coach has taken some of his picks and made them work for him, something critics have chastised him for not doing enough.

But even more interesting are the players those draft picks were able to yield on the trade market. Reports on New England sports pages seemed more like big box store back-to-school advertisements. Brand names at low, low prices.

In Albert Haynesworth and Chad Ochocinco the Patriots acquired two immensely talented veterans who can make immediate impacts on their respective units. They also come with baggage.

A lot has been made of Belichick’s supposed ability to tame the otherwise untamable with Corey Dillon and Randy Moss being the two pieces of evidence those drinking the Kool-Aid point to. First, let’s examine this.

Dillon was hardly a bad apple when he came to New England. He was branded as a cancer and a malcontent by the Bengals after he made several statements about his displeasure with the team’s inability or unwillingness to get better. He went so far as to say the Bengals could never win so long as the Brown family owns the team. He wasn’t wrong then. He still isn’t. Speaking out publicly when you are living up to everything you signed on for and the team refuses to do anything to improve itself may make you disgruntled, but it hardly makes you a deviant the way the Bengals portrayed him. And funny that while Dillon was so hard to deal with the organization still required a second-round pick for him.

Moss came in with plenty of history and many fans swore off rooting for the Patriots so long as he was on the team. That mood changed when the Patriots were on their way to a perfect regular season and a Super Bowl appearance. Everyone thought Belichick had cured Moss. However, Moss proved that he was only following his typical pattern. So long as the team kept him happy, he would be a good soldier. As soon as he felt he wasn’t going to get the contract he felt he deserved, out came the good old Randy of old, talking about being disrespected and people hoping he would fail and eventually Belichick jettisoned him. If he was cured, apparently he relapsed badly.

Now that the notion that Belichick is a miracle worker is out, the question that remains prominent in everyone’s mind is how these two troublemakers will fit on the field, in the no-nonsense Patriots locker room and in a community that examines everything under a microscope.

Let’s look at Ochocinco first. While he doesn’t have the speed to burn he once had now that he’s 33, he remains one of the game’s top route runners and on top of that, he’s clearly smart. Belichick proved last season how much he valued both of those qualities by trading for Deion Branch, who supplanted Brandon Tate as the receiver opposite Wes Welker.

Ochocinco opens up options for the Patriots by spreading the field not vertically, but horizontally. Even teams with two Pro Bowl corners could find their hands full with Tom Brady with the likes of Ochocinco, Welker and Branch at wide receiver as well as versatile tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, both of whom enjoyed breakout rookie seasons. Brandon Tate still holds a spot serving as the vertical threat the team may need from time to time while Danny Woodhead and rookie Shane Vereen are both very competent pass catchers out of the backfield.

Questions revolve around Ochocinco’s headline stealing antics and how those will be tolerated by the Patriots’ brass. He’s always been about establishing his brand and at times could be accused of putting the name on the back of the jersey ahead of the one on the front. Clearly, that won’t fly in New England. However,  Ochocinco is presented with an opportunity he never really had in Cincinnati – the chance to play for a winner. It’s possible that given his perceived intelligence and his reported admiration of Belichick, he will recognize what his role on the team is. Also, number 85’s antics rarely have been to the detriment of his team. He’s more of a clown or a side show than a locker room bully or a degenerate.

The same cannot be said for the other marquee player brought in by the Patriots for essentially the equivalent of a baloney sandwich. Haynesworth brings with him excessive amounts of risk. Granted, he cost next to nothing to bring in and has no guaranteed money in his contract, so he would be easy to let go if need be. Ideally, he will provide a tremendous inside pass rush, especially in nickel and dime packages when Vince Wilfork is next to him occupying two bodies.

Of course, that will happen only if he is properly motivated, in shape, healthy and out of prison. Haynesworths’ clashes with the Redskins ownership are well-documented and clearly there was a disconnect there that was unrepairable. In that respect, a fresh start could do him good. However, the fact of the matter is Haynesworth’s issues go well beyond disputes with his coaches.

His wrap sheet is long and distinguished with violations including assaulting teammates and waitresses alike, stomping on an opposing player’s head after pulling off his helmet (he missed the first time and went back and tried again) and paralyzing a motorist while driving his Ferrari in excess of 100 miles per hour. To this day he refuses to help pay that man’s bills. I’m no psychiatrist, but I’ve been around people long enough and have logged enough hours watching Law and Order: SVU to recognize a borderline sociopath when I see one.

The odds of Haynesworth working out in New England might be less than 50-50. The odds of Ochocinco working out are much higher. That said, in either case, Belichick believed the upside was far to great  to turn his back on them, given the asking price.

Now the great experiment begins. Will Belichick the alchemist be able to turn these ingredients into gold, or will their volatility cause the whole thing to blow up in his face?

There has been a lot of that kind of talk going around.

You know the kind. The kind of talk that involves the Red Sox going after any superstar perceived to be anywhere close to the trading block as the trade deadline approaches. The star of this year’s show? Carlos Beltran.

Beltran is very much on the market for the Mets and there have been several reports linking the Red Sox to him. Some of them are probably true. No doubt, Theo Epstein wouldn’t be doing his job as the team’s General Manager if he didn’t at least kick the tires.

It’s also true that the Red Sox have been looking for more production from the outfield – Crawford has disappointed and been hurt and J.D. Drew appears to already be enjoying retirement – and have been concerned about getting another right-handed bat in the lineup. Beltran is a switch-hitting outfielder, serving both of those needs for the Sox.

But the fact of the matter is as good a hitter Beltran is, a bat is not the team’s primary concern at this point.

Red Sox fans received some good news this week when reports out of the front office said that the team expects Clay Buchholz back and that the back issues that have kept him out will not require him to miss much more significant time. But if anyone thinks that pitching is not a concern for this team, they are sorely mistaken.

The Red Sox entered the season with a pitching staff that, in an ideal world, would have been better than almost anybody’s in baseball, and certainly in the American League. Confidence in Buchholz and Jon Lester was high. Questions surrounded John Lackey and Josh Beckett, but few anticipated the horrendous seasons they endured in 2010 to repeat themselves. Daisuke Matsuzaka, while frustrating, would still be better than the fifth starter on almost any other team.

Indeed, Lester has lived up to expectations and Beckett has drastically surpassed them. However, as a team, the Red Sox’ ERA is 3.91, good for eighth in the American League. Outside of Lester and Beckett, the rotation has been held together with bubble gum and scotch tape. Lackey sports an ERA of 6.70. Matsuzaka is out for the year. Buchholz, while very good when healthy, hasn’t pitched since June 16. Suddenly the likes of Tim Wakefield, Andrew Miller and Kyle Weiland have become necessities in the rotation.

With that said, if Buchholz returns and can stay healthy, in a short series, he, Beckett and Lester are a formidable trio that can be counted on in a short series.

In the bullpen, the Red Sox face questions. Jonathan Papelbon has been solid. His setup man Daniel Bard has been superb. However, there have been struggles beyond that. Bobby Jenks, who was expected to be a key cog for this team, has been injured and ineffective. Alfredo Aceves and Matt Albers have filled their roles well, but Aceves especially has shown signs of inconsistency. The Red Sox had appeared to have found something in former starter Rich Hill, but Tommy John surgery ended his year. Franklin Morales has been used sparingly since being acquired from the Colorado Rockies.

Clearly, pitching is a much more pressing need for the Red Sox than another bat, especially in the bullpen. Should anything happen to Papelbon or Bard, the question won’t be whether the team can close out games in the ninth, but how they will be able to get to the ninth.

In terms of bullpen help, the biggest names are most likely out of reach. Francisco Rodriguez was already traded by the Mets to the Brewers. Heath Bell is probably untouchable to the Red Sox because of the number and quality of prospects the San Diego Padres would want in return. Mike Adams has reportedly been told by San Diego that he won’t be relocating at all. It is more likely the team could take a chance on Matt Capps, should the Twins decide they are out of contention, Grant Balfour, who has had a great season for Oakland in a middle relief role, but has not fared so well when given save opportunities, or Craig Breslow, the former Red Sox farm hand who had bounced around the past couple of years before finding a niche as a left-handed specialist for the A’s.

Staring pitching talent on the trade market appears to be thin, and while the Red Sox have been linked to the Cubs’ Matt Garza in rumors, its doubtful the Red Sox will want to pay what the Cubs would be looking for in prospects. The Red Sox most likely will give Wandy Rodriguez a look, but the same principle may apply.  With such a shallow market, expect a cheaper option. Derek Lowe could be intriguing and cheaper, given the depth of Atlanta’s pitching staff and while they might not want to trade within the division, Jeremy Guthrie is a solid pitcher whose pitiful record is more the result of the team that backs him up in Baltimore than his performance on the mound.

Giving Jacoby his due

Early on in his career, I was a Jacoby Ellsbury hater. I admit it.

Ellsbury, with his soft bat and blazing speed scared me because more than anything, he reminded me of Vince Coleman, who lit the world on fire, stealing more than 100 bases in his first three seasons. But by 29, Coleman wasn’t the same. Sure, some of that was due to his personal indiscretions, but I think more of it had to do with the fact he rarely drove the ball and hardly ever walked. Once his speed wasn’t quite what it once was, he started posting sub-.700 OPS numbers.

I saw a similar approach to hitting in Jacoby Ellsbury early on and it concerned me.

Consider me concerned no more. After coming into this season with 20 career homers, Ellsbury now has 15 on the season. Include his 26 doubles and two triples and you’ve got a player in the top 10 in the league in extra base hits. Ellsbury is keeping his weight back and driving the ball rather than thinking about getting out of the batters’ box quickly and it’s paying dividends.

With this added power, his stolen base totals may be lower, but he now is a much more versatile threat and that makes him very dangerous.

As I walked through Springfield neighborhoods torn apart by the June 1 tornado that permanently changed the landscape of the City of Homes, I received a text message from a friend that offered a brief moment of levity to a grave situation.

“Last time there was a tornado in Springfield: 1972. Last time the Bruins won the Stanley Cup: 1972,” it read.

I don’t recall this to trivialize the suffering that any may be feeling in the wake of the terrible natural phenomenon. No one would be daft enough to believe that the latter outweighs or is even of equal importance to the former.

But it does provide perspective on just how long the Boston Bruins and their fans have waited for another Stanley Cup. An entire generation of fans – yours truly included – had gone their entire lives without ever seeing one.

I learned of legends of the Bruins’ past through stories told by family and old newspaper clippings, as well as grainy video footage that in the world of high definition television makes most wonder how anyone could ever watch hockey on TV in that era.

My grandfather, a now retired Springfield police officer, mounted an antenna on the roof of his Springfield home large enough that you would think he was trying to land large aircraft.

Its purpose? To pick up the signal of the Boston television station the Bruins were carried on. If the winds were just right and the moon’s gravitational pull wasn’t too strong, he would get it – a static filled screen on which you could see only the shadows of players and objects. But it was enough for him. He would sit in his living room and deliver a live play by play to everyone else in the room.

But kids, both big and small, who have listened to the tales of the legendary Big Bad Bruins did so with a melancholic heart, wondering if there would ever be a moment when we could tell our children that we witnessed greatness from a Bruins team.

To this point, we had nothing but tales of mediocrity, of close but no cigar, and of three-game leads blown.

Now it’s our time.

Just as our parents and grandparents told the tale of Cup legends like Orr, Espo, Sanderson, Bucyk, and Cheevers, so we shall be able to recount the triumph of Thomas, Chara, Bergeron, Marchand, Horton, Krejci and Recchi.

We can tell the tale of the fastest four goals in Stanley Cup finals history.

We can revel in having witnessed firsthand Tim Thomas’ hair-pullingly bizarre, yet incredibly effective style that earned him two shutouts, including one in Game 7.

We can reminisce about how Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg shut down twin brothers who formed one of the most powerful offensive tandems in hockey.

We can marvel at Mark Recchi, the ageless wonder.

We can relate the tenacity of players like Brad Marchand and how Patrice Bergeron knew the “right way” to play the game.

And of course, the number of male babies born in Massachusetts the name Timothy Thomas (insert surname here) no doubt will be at an all-time high.

And the question will be asked for years to come: “Where were you? Where were you when the Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011?”

I was at Paddy’s Irish Pub in Sixteen Acres in a room packed with strangers united as friends with the common passion. As Brad Marchand buried the empty net goal that set the minds of fans who had seen three-goal leads blown before, a deafening cheer: “We got the Cup! We got the Cup!”

The moment, surreal. The feeling, indescribable.

After faltering against Philadelphia last season, blowing a three-game series lead, Bruins General Manager Peter Chiarelli bolstered the team by drafting 19-year-old Tyler Seguin and trading for Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell.

At the trade deadline, he acquired Chris Kelly, Rich Peverley and gave away a first-round draft pick for Tomas Kaberle making a statement that anything short of winning Lord Stanley’s Cup would be a failure.

He took a stand and, in the end, so did his team. And now a new generation has their own story to tell.

Throughout the Boston Bruins’ heart pounding, gut wrenching battle for Lord Stanley’s Cup in these finals, one thing has become the mantra of the fans: Not in our house.

Well, that will hold true, two fold. Surely fans who held posters donning the phrase were referring to the Vancouver Canucks not hoisting the Cup on the Bruins’ home ice. But at the same time, the flip side is also true. Because they have been unable to steal a single game from the Canucks in British Columbia, neither will the Bruins.

The must-win game to end all must-win games for the Bruins does not take place in the friendly confines of the TD Garden where they have outscored their Canadian counterparts 17-3, but the Rogers Arena, a place lacking in fond memories for the B’s. Twice the Bruins have been shut out there in this series and once the two goals they got were just enough to force one of the shortest overtimes in NHL playoff history.

It’s a riddle that Claude Julien has been desperate to unravel. A statistical enigma. Boston actually posted more points on the road than they did at home during the 2010-11 regular season and was one of the best road teams in the Eastern Conference. Yet in these finals, the Bruins are winless in hostile territory. They have not lost a game in this series on the road by more than one goal, but then again, haven’t done anything to win those close games, either.

However, it is possible for the Bruins to win in Vancouver. It has happened before. Boston topped the Canucks 3-1 while in the midst of a strong road trip in late February. The man with the magic? Milan Lucic, the man who everyone has been waiting for to step up in the absence of injured Nathan Horton, scored the go-ahead goal with less than five minutes remaining.

Lucic has been largely disappointing in the series, recording three points in the six games, while getting physically outmatched by Vancouver at times. However, he’s just one of the Bruins who has been performing a Jekyll and Hyde act that resembles a similar one by Roberto Luongo that fans  – present company included – are so eager to jump all over him for. Seventeen goals at home in three games, two goals in three games on the road.

It would be hard to criticize Luongo for his disappearing act, especially given the entire Bruins team has been guilty of the same. It would be hard … if he was more likeable and kept his mouth shut. Instead, he took shots through the media, which were admittedly a tad overblown, at the one man who has been a pillar of strength for this team – Tim Thomas.

As maddening as Thomas’ style in net is, it has worked. He will be the Vezina Trophy winner and should be the Conn Smythe winner for playoff MVP. We can talk about how Brad Marchand needs to be a spark plug and how Mark Recchi needs to be the leader we know he can be, but the bottom line is this team needs to follow Thomas’ example if they want to hoist the Cup. They need to be aggressive.

The Bruins’ biggest fault in this series has been their lack of physicality and intensity, which allowed the Canucks to take it to them. Marchand suggested that in this series, perhaps, the Bruins have been able to be inspired by the roar of their crowd. Well, now the Bruins have to be inspired by the hush of another. To steal a line from another Boston sports figure and alter it slightly, “There’s nothing I’d like better than to shut 18,000 Canucks fans up.”

The Bruins need to be aggressive, take the body and rattle assumed starter Roberto Luongo again. Score a goal first and decisively and revel in the quiet.

Yes, Boston Bruins, there is a Stanley Cup waiting for you. But you have to be willing to go out there and take it.


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