February 2008

Spring is here!

It’s here — pitchers and catchers are officially in the house here in Fort Myers. That includes the injured Curt Schilling, who chose not to meet with the media today.

Manager Terry Francona and general manager Theo Epstein did hold their annual state of the spring address. First baseman Kevin Youkilis is the first member of the starting nine to report. Catcher Jason Varitek is merely required to be in Fort Myers today, but doesn’t have to report until tomorrow.

Jonathan Papelbon was the first player to address the mass media and he didn’t disappoint.

Are the Red Sox the team to beat? "I think so. If we’re not the team to beat, I’d like to know who is. I think that, like I said before, our No. 1 thing is to stay healthy. If we do that, i don’t know who can really compete with us, from a top to bottom scale. It’s a good situation to be in, that’s for sure."

Papelbon is no content with one ring. "My whole goal now is to keep this ball rolling and just kind of pick up where we left off."

Did Papelbon’s dog really eat the World Series-winning baseball? "He’s an old Mississippi reporter, he’s not like you guys and just move on. He  kept plugging on this ball. I finally just told him, look my dog ate it. What do you want me to do with it? If you believe it, you believe it. If you don’t, you don’t. What can I say?"

A reporter told Papelbon that it sounded like the dog ate his homework. "Exactly, exactly."

More later,

Ian.

Oki-Doke might have a little something up his sleeve

Hideki Okajima came up with that changeup-splitter last year that bewildered hitters. This time around, he says he’s working on some new pitches , but won’t say which ones. Hitters will find out soon enough.

Other than Okajima holding court, it was a positively quiet day at Red Sox camp. It was a soggy day, and precious few players were around.

Dice-K went out to do some throwing about 10 minutes before the rain started. He stayed out there amid some thunder and lightning. Shortly thereafter, the downpour came. Matsuzaka then sprinted across the field and ran into the clubhouse soaking wet, with a priceless smile on his face.

Manager Terry Francona and general manager Theo Epstein were holed up in organizational meetings for most of the day. They are expected to address the media together Thursday — the official reporting date for pitchers and catchers — in their annual State of Spring Training address.

Thursday should be a much more active day on the blog front.

Until then,

Ian.

Live from Fort Myers

Yes, I am officially here. It is time to start another season, my seventh covering the Red Sox. I got down mid-afternoon yesterday and went grocery shopping and unpacked and admired the warm weather. A good first day.

Today, it was time to get to work. The interesting story today was Craig Hansen speaking to the media about his sleep apnea problem, which he took care of this winter with surgery. Hansen was noticeably more outgoing with the media than he had been in past years, and frankly, he just seemed like a different person.

I think you will see a much more energized pitcher this year. Hansen estimates that he was getting about two real hours of sleep a night with the apnea, and that his friends told him he was snoring like "a 500-pound fat man".

Pitching coach John Farrell feels that Hansen will be a key part of this spring for the Red Sox.

Manny Delcarmen and Javy Lopez were a couple of other notables who worked out for the first time today. Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima took the field for the third straight day.

Incidentally, Dice-K has integrated an Americanized approach to his training this year, throwing a football. You see Major League pitchers do that all the time, but Matsuzaka didn’t do it last year. He told the Japanese media that he sometimes throws spirals, but it’s a work in progress. Matsuzaka also has a mullet that would make Kevin Millar proud.

Ace Josh Beckett is also in the house, but hasn’t met with the media yet. That will probably occur in the next couple of days.

John Farrell said that in light of Schilling’s injury, the obvious top two candidates for the fifth spot in the rotation are Clay Buchholz and Julian Tavarez.

I’ll be back with more updates on Wednesday, when manager Terry Francona is expected to address the media for the first time this spring.

Talk to you later,

Ian.

Schilling sidelined

One week before Spring Training starts, and we already have a major news story. Unfortunately, it’s not a good one.

Curt Schilling’s shoulder is not in good shape. That is obvious when it is barking in the middle of the winter, and not amid the rigors of a long season.

Obviously there have been some disagreements between the Sox and Schilling’s doctor — Dr. Craig Morgan — on whether he should have surgery or not. Ultimately, a third party had to settle the disagreement and there won’t be surgery — at least not now.

Obviously, the Sox hope that Schilling can be a key contributor in the second half. He is a postseason legend and that is when he will be needed most.

It’s too bad for Schilling. If this is, in fact, his last Major League season, I’m sure he didn’t want to spend a large chunk of it undergoing tedious rehab.

As far as the Red Sox are concerned, they should be able to withstand this injury for the short term, assuming Beckett, Dice-K, Wakefield, Lester and Buchholz are healthy and effective.

Initially, I thought Coco Crisp might be dealt for a reliever. Now, you wonder if they might try to add to their starting depth.

Schilling blogged about his shoulder a little while ago. The Red Sox haven’t said much. You can bet this will be a major news story when Spring Training kicks off on Feb. 14.

WOW

That’s what all of New England is saying this morning. How did the Patriots lose that Super Bowl? It leaves everyone a little numb,but that’s sports.

It’s as if everyone around here forgets what it was like in 2001 when the Patriots — the lovable underdogs back then instead of the hated favorites — essentially did the exact thing the Giants did this time around. At its core, the reason most of us love sports in the first place is because you just never know what can happen.

In this game, you saw a truly gutsy performance by Eli Manning and the Giants. The pass Manning made on the last drive to get the ball to the 25-yard line and the catch made by David Tyree to finish that play is one of the most unbelievable athletic plays I’ve seen in my 25 years or so of watching sports.

You saw the Giants make incredible plays on offense and come up with stifling stops on defense. You saw them overpower the Patriots on both the offensive and defensive lines. You saw them play with no pressure on their backs and instead, just truckloads of momentum and confidence. You saw a hard-nosed coach in Tom Coughlin finally reach the top of the mountain. You saw a tremendous veteran in Michael Strahan finally taste a Super Bowl.

And in the biggest of big games, we finally saw the Patriots lose. They’ve spoiled us in this region ever since that fateful day when Mo Lewis crunched Drew Bledsoe and created an opening for Tom Brady. The Patriots were very lucky to get the tuck rule against the Raiders in 2001, otherwise that first Super Bowl never gets off the ground. They were fortunate that the Rams played tight in the Super Bowl that year, much like the Patriots did this time around.

In 2003 and 2004, the Patriots were flat-out the best team in football and they won the rings to prove it. The 2005 team was never right, and beaten down by injuries, and nobody was all that surprised when they lost in Denver. Last year? They never replaced Deion Branch, yet somehow pulled out an all-time gutty win in San Diego and simply ran out of gas in Indy to miss a chance at another ring.

This year? The Patriots had the most talent, the most smarts and for most of the year, the most heart, in football. But along the way, the whole complexion of this thing changed. It became more than just a football season. It became a crusade. It became more of a battle against history than their opponents.

The Patriots put so much into being the first undefeated team in 1972 and it took its toll. Everyone played the Patriots with the intensity of a Super Bowl. It was as if, starting with that game in Indy against the Colts in early November, almost every opponent came at the Patriots with championship-like force.

In this Super Bowl, the Patriots were tighter than the Giants. I think that was obvious. There was a tell-all shot before the game, during warmups. Eli Manning came charging on to the field, smiling and all fired up, and sort of patted Tom Brady good-naturedly as he ran by. Brady had a death-like stare on his face and didn’t even blink at Manning’s friendly gesture. It was as if the weight of the entire world was on his shoulders, while Manning looked much like a young Brady did back in 2001, with all that confidence and no burden.

The great Bill Belichick is as good at what he does as any coach or manager there has ever been. He’s right up there with Auerbach and Lombardi and Stengel and Torre or whomever else you want to throw out there. But guess what? Coughlin outcoached him in this game. There is no shame in that. It happens.

The one move that was extremely confusing to me was the 4th and 13 when Gotskowski could have kicked a 49-yard field goal. Why didn’t they go for the three points? The game was indoors and Gotskowski has a very strong leg, two things that were in New England’s favor at that moment. Yet Belichick went for it. That was a real head-scratcher. I would have punted or taken the three points.

The other perplexing thing was just seeing Matt Light and the rest of the offensive line get beaten up. All year long, the offensive line was a huge strong point of the Patroits and in this one, they got handled so badly. I feel like Light spent most of the game on the ground while Brady was getting clobbered.

It seems as if we’ve all become Yankees fans around here lately, just feeling so entitled. Just savor every time one of your teams has a "CHANCE" as Junior Seau would say, to win a championship. You aren’t always going to win it. The Red Sox aren’t always going to come back from 3-0 against the Yankees or 3-1 against the Indians. Sometimes it’s going to go the other way, and the same goes for the Patriots.

Other regions would be in sports heaven to experience the type of sports moments we’ve had here early in the 21st century so instead of crying in your beer, just relish the era we are in right now. The Celtics are about to seriously challenge for a championship for the first time since I was in high school. The Red Sox have the best farm system in baseball and should be in the playoffs every year for the forseeable future.

And the Patriots? They’re going to be a force for a few more years, I would imagine. Tom Brady is 30. Bill Belichick is still in his coaching prime. Randy Moss remains hungry to win his first Super Bowl. Maroney is going to keep getting better. This loss hurts right now, but it will pass.

Enjoy the moment. And as Junior Seau would say, enjoy just having a "CHANCE". Because without having a chance, you have nothing. And as the Giants showed in this classic sporting event, having a chance can mean EVERYTHING.

Just a little over a week until pitchers and catchers report under the blissful sun of Fort Myers, Florida!

Ian.

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