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Maza's Musings

Unsolicited sports opinion and insight

What to do with John Lackey?

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.

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Character more than anything was what the Red Sox lacked

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.

Patriots’ additions raise eyebrows, hopes and questions

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?

Beltran sexy, but not what Sox need right now

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.

For a generation of Bruins fans, new stories to be told

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.

Mission not yet accomplished for Bruins

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.

Did Patrice Bergeron suffer the luckiest injury in Bruins playoff history?

Let’s face it, if Claude Giroux hadn’t laid a devastating hit on Patrice Bergeron in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Tyler Seguin would still be sitting in the press box.

Instead, Bergeron sat beside Marc Savard as the two watched the No. 2 overall pick in the draft dazzle the crowd and befuddle Dwayne Roloson and the Tampa Bay Lightning. Where would this series be if Bergeron hadn’t gotten hurt?

More than likely, they would be up, 2-0. There. I said it.

Seguin has had an impressive start to his playoff career, but this team is still better with a healthy Bergeron in the lineup. Bergeron is the most complete player on the team, a terrific two-way player who often does all the little things that don’t show up in the box score. The Bruins not only lost a lot of talent and 12 points through 11 playoff games, but a lot of hockey know how as well.

What’s more, Claude Julien was forced to alter his lines, including breaking up the incredibly successful third line of Rich Peverley, Chris Kelly and Michael Ryder, which carried the team offensively through much of the first round against Montreal. Bergeron’s linemates Brad Marchand and Mark Recchi had a combined seven goals and 11 assists with a plus-minus rating of plus-9. Since they have been centered by Kelly and Peverley in a game apiece, neither has recorded a point. Marchand is minus-3, while Recchi is minus-4 in the conference semifinals.

No doubt Seguin has put on a show, but there is a reason why he didn’t play in the first two series and it goes beyond the fact he had one point in his last 19 regular season games. The 19-year-old has immense offensive talent, but proved not to have the stamina to withstand a season-long NHL pounding and has not shown an ability to play consistent two-way hockey.

An unfortunate incident gave him his shot and he’s running with it with some heroics, but overall, in the long run, the team would have been better served to have Bergeron healthy.

Luckiest injury in playoff history? No way. Luckiest injury for Tyler Seguin? You bet.

Series saved by Thomas!

As much praise as the Bruins offense is getting, it can be forgotten that probably the reason why the Bruins are not down 0-2 is because of the efforts of Tim Thomas, who put in maybe the most spectacular efforts by a goaltender than has given up five regulation time goals in hockey history.

Thomas rebounded from a lackluster Game 1 with a stand-on-your head performance in a Game 2 that more resembled a no rules pond hockey game than an NHL playoff contest.

Did he allow a couple softies? Yes, he did. But at the same time, he made some very big saves when they were needed most, including in the final seconds of the game as the Lightning made a last-ditch effort to send it to overtime.

Allowing nine goals in the past two games has ballooned Thomas’ postseason goals allowed average to 2.39. Yep. Just 2.39. Considering he’s posted a career 2.26 GAA against Tampa Bay and has been sparkling on the road this year (4-1 in these playoffs, 17-6, 2.15 GAA in the regular season on the road), don’t expect another five goal game.

Man on Fire: Adrian Gonzalez

Will Monday night’s game prove to be a microcosm of the entire 2011 season for the Boston Red Sox? The team struggles through the early stages, only to keep their heads down, right the ship and in the final moments is saved by their newly acquired hero?

Perhaps that’s a bit romanticized, but one thing that’s not is the fact that Adrian Gonzalez is proving to be as good as, if not better than advertised. More than anything, the Red Sox obtained a player who instills confidence that something special is going to happen every time he comes to the plate. Possibly the reason why some have undervalued him throughout his career, besides wallowing in San Diego, is because he carries himself with quiet confidence and poise. There’s no pomp and fanfare. Just results.

For those who require a little more than feelings and appearance to be convinced that something special is happening in the three hole for the Sox, here is some knowledge, straight from the sport that provides statistics like none other. The Red Sox are now 10-5 since May 1. Over that span, Gonzalez has batted .349 with 12 extra-base hits (four doubles, eight home runs) for a slugging percentage of .794 on base percentage and 22 RBIs. He’s currently leading the majors with 37 RBIs. The power outage he suffered at the beginning of the season is ancient history.

As Carl Crawford appears to wilting in the Boston spotlight, Gonzalez appears to be opening up and charging himself up with it like Wall.E. All we have to do is sit back and enjoy watching an MVP season.

Something is Lackey-ing

Just as Gonzalez is raising fans’ hopes, John Lackey has them legitimately concerned.

“Everything went wrong that could go wrong. It’s pretty much the story of my year right now. Everything in my life sucks right now, to be honest with you,” Lackey was quoted as saying in the Boston Herald after getting lit up by Toronto on May 11. He has given up 17 runs in 10 2/3 innings in his last two outings and sports a 8.01 ERA for the season.

What is going on with the $82.5 million man? Probably more than we could ever know. We have no idea what’s going on in his personal life. Maybe his child is sick. Maybe his marriage is falling apart. Maybe it’s something else. Maybe everything’s fine and he’s just not performing. But regardless does that absolve him from criticism? If something is going wrong in your personal life, aren’t you told to leave it at home and don’t bring it into the office?

Because he’s a professional athlete, should we treat him differently? People want to say that he can’t be blamed for taking the money that was waved at him and we shouldn’t place expectations on him simply because of the contract. Any one of us would take that money we’re told.

I contest that there is an expectation that comes with a long-term, big money contract and you assume the responsibilities associated with that when you sign it. You know that there is a mantle of responsibility or at least you should. You would take praise for living up to your contract, such at the praise Gonzalez is getting, so take the criticism that comes with it, as well.

John Lackey has my sympathy if he’s going through something. But just like me, he shouldn’t be allowed to use it as an excuse if he doesn’t perform at the office.

UMass forgets the fans with move to Gillette

It sounds like a good idea and it looks really good on paper.
The University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass) announced one of the worst-kept secrets in New England sports when it unveiled its plans to jump to the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) – formerly known as Division 1A – on April 20.
The move puts the Minutemen in the top level of collegiate football and places them in a conference, the Mid-American Conference (MAC), that is on the way up.
The biggest reason why UMass is making the move is pretty obvious. There is money to be made, a lot of money. UMass has gotten a whiff of those big FBS dollars in the past, including last year when the University of Michigan had enough money to pay the Minutemen $550,000 to travel to Ann Arbor.
Now, joining the MAC doesn’t guarantee significant riches, but it does offer opportunities for UMass to bank quite a bit of cash. According to the Orlando Sentinel’s 2009 blog, MAC teams generated anywhere from $17.4 million to nearly $27.5 million in the 2007-2008 season.
The chance to play in a nationally televised bowl game is also a tempting carrot that was dangled in front of UMass. The MAC currently is tied into the Little Caesar’s Bowl – formerly the Motor City Bowl – with the Big Ten, as well as the less popular GoDaddy.com Bowl and Human-itarian Bowl. Those games all have a potential pay out of $750,000 just for showing up.
What’s more, interest in college football is continuing to grow in New England. Boston College, which was the sole FBS school in New England until 2000, could be pointed to as a contributor, having been to a bowl game 12 years in a row, winning eight straight from 2000 to 2007.
The University of Connecticut has dubbed itself the “fastest rising football program” and actually played in the Bowl Championship Series’ (BCS) Fiesta Bowl after winning the Big East last season – albeit with a mediocre 8-5 record.
It seems like a no-brainer to jump on that train. But here is where I think UMass hits a snag.
According to the NCAA’s FBS Membership Requirements, the school must “average at least 15,000 in actual or paid attendance for all home football contests over a rolling two-year period.”
UMass officially ranked 20th in the NCAA Football Champion-ship Subdivision (FCS) in 2010 with an average of 13,005 fans. Given the capacity numbers UMass claims for McGuirk Stadium, that means there were nearly 4,000 empty seats for UMass home games last season.
The powers that be feel they’ve found the answer to this problem by having the Minutemen play their home games at Gillette Stadium.
If the game UMass played against the University of New Hampshire last season is any indication, they’re right. That contest drew nearly 33,000 people.         But that’s not even close to a realistic expectation for UMass once they become a full FBS member. Remember that the Gillette Stadium game from last year was the result of two teams in relatively close proximity that have developed a rivalry over the past few years.
Will Western Massachusetts residents be quite so willing to drive to Foxboro to see a game against Kent State, Eastern Michigan or Buffalo?
Once the novelty of Gillette Stadium wears off and students spend three-plus hours on a bus to see a home game – assuming the school offers such a service – my educated guess is no.
But never fear. UMass officials say there is a large alumni population out East that is untapped. If alumni really cared enough about UMass football, they would make it out to Amherst. Boston College fans from Western Massachusetts make the sojourn to Alumni Stadium. The Massachusetts Turnpike DOES run two ways, contrary to popular belief.
It’s time to stop sugar coating it. UMass isn’t trying to serve a new population of fans. It’s not trying to make the entire state proud of its flagship university.
With no plans to make a permanent home for the Minutemen on the campus they represent, UMass has made one thing clear: It made a business decision, plain and simple. However, in doing so, it forgot about the thing that is right on their doorstep that helps make a college football game such a unique event – the campus and its students.
Now the powers that be are relying on a fan base they hope exists out East, while alienating the one they have right here. All I can say is good luck.

This opinion was also published in all four Reminder Publications newspapers.

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