Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Series the Miami Heat Have Been Waiting For

Ever since the first game of the 2010-11 season, and perhaps ever since LeBron, Dwyane and Chris Bosh got together to bring honor to South Beach, the Miami Heat have been gearing up for this series against the Celtics. Not only did they build a team of superstars, but they built the team specifically to beat the Celtics. Armed with sharpshooters who could neutralize the Celtics' perceived defensive strength of interior defense and armed with interior players who could outrebound the rebounding-challenged Celtics, Miami wanted to be in this series.  Maybe not in the conference semifinals, but they wanted it nonetheless.

Don't underestimate Pat Riley's ego in all of this, either.  The Celtics took care of the Heat last year pretty handily.  Despite not being o the team last year, James and Bosh continually talked about the Celtics in revered terms that one would reserve for royalty.  They were obsessed.  It really seemed that this team's goal was to beat the Celtics rather than winning the NBA Championship.

Bosh is Crying just out of the Picture.              opposingviews.com
It all started with that first game of the season. Expectations were high at the beginning of the season prompting even an ill-conceived Miami nightclub's promotion of free drinks for every Heat loss (I wonder if that bar made it through the season). Everyone thought that the Heat were going to plow through the season with 70 wins and adoring children were going to throw flowers at their feet. That game was a wake-up call of sorts as the Celtics handled them easily winning that first game, 88-80. Surprisingly, Doc Rivers outcoached Erik Spoelstra in this game, letting the Celtics' stifling defense frustrate the nervous Heat.

It didn't get much better a couple of weeks later as the Celtics won their second meeting in Miami 112-107.  This game featured the Celtics big three outplaying the Heat's big three.  Exacerbating matters further, the team became uncoachable under coach Erik Spoelstra, while at the same time trying to define everyone's roles (leading to Chris Bosh crying about touches like 16 year old school girl at her first prom). Soon a couple of five game losing streaks followed.  Things were not going well for the Heat; things weren't going well at all.

Despite these initial setbacks, it appeared that the Heat were starting to come together, winning 12 of their last 14 games including a 100-77 shellacking of the Celtics just two weeks ago.  The Heat were again on track toward their ultimate goal - getting past the Celtics.

Meanwhile, the Celtics were limping toward the finish, just as they had last year.  Kendrick Perkins was gone (and you're not convincing me that this guy is the key to a championship) and the Rajon Rondo seemed distracted.  A four game sweep over the hapless Knicks really didn't prove anything to anyone, so the Celtics are looking to prove themselves once again. 

Instead of comparing the two teams line by line, it seems fitting to just compare the three most important aspects of this budding rivalry.  The Big Three, Defense and coaching.  In this Series, the Celtics have edges in both defense and coaching.  The Heat's idea of defense is to over play, hoping that LeBron or Wade come through with spectacular defensive stop.  That kind of defense simply doesn't work against a savvy offense in the playoffs.  Similarly, Spoelstra is out-classed by Rivers in this series.  Overcoaching, while hoping for Wade or James to make a spectacular play will not lead to a Series victory.

I would have said the same thing about each team's big three as well, until I watched that game toward the end of the season.  The Heat's stars played with fire and purpose.  They were beating the Celtics at their own game - intimidation and trash talking.  The Celtics, instead of fighting back, were generally content with just playing out the string.  A worrying sign when pride is at stake like that.  I give the Heat the edge on that one.

Ultimately, I think this is going to be a hard-fought seven game series.  The Celtics will prevail, however 4-3. 

Oh yeah.  Here we go Sixers!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Natural: The Myth of Jed Lowrie

Who's "Jeff" Lowrie?

At the Patriot Day game last Monday, my 6 year old overheard the women in SRO behind us talking about her favorite new player named "Jeff" Lowrie.

courtesy of blogcritics.org
Jed Lowrie?  "He's the shortstop for the Red Sox.  He's taking Marco Scutaro's place until he doesn't hit any more.  [or contract malaria or the Bubonic Plague]"  I'm expecting more questions, perhaps "who's Marco Scutaro?" or "why are those women always swearing?" But he just turned around and continued to watch.  Maybe he knows who Jed Lowrie is, or maybe he doesn't care, but one thing's for sure, the beginning of the Red Sox 2011 season has been marked by two things - mediocre play and the emergence of Jed Lowrie.

A couple of weeks ago, I had suggested that Tim Wakefield would be the key to the Red Sox 2011 season.  I might be wrong.  Jed Lowrie, relegated either to the disabled list or the bench since the Red Sox called him up in 2008, had been prior to this year a disappointment.  This year, Lowrie was pegged to be the utility infielder, backing up Scutaro, Youkilis and Pedroia.  He was originally pegged to get about 105-150 at bats.  A funny thing happened though, Lowrie started off the first couple of games only hitting .143/.393, but then has gone on a tear, hitting .462/1.231 for the season.  It's very early in the season - I understand that, but on a team with silver sluggers at virtually every position, the team's hottest hitter is a utility infielder.  No wonder the Red Sox are 6-11.

But where did this all come from?

Originally drafted by Red Sox in 2005 out of Stanford University, Lowrie was seen as an average fielder, who had gap power.  After his Sophomore year at Stanford where he hit no home runs. (interesting), Lowrie progressed to have a great offensive Junior year, hitting 17 home runs, driving in 68 runners, while batting .399/1.239 in only 60 games.  After a slight fall off in his Senior year, the Red Sox drafted him in the first round of the 2005 amateur baseball draft.  A couple of decent - but not great - seasons in A and AA ball led to Lowrie being considered one of the Red Sox best prospects in 2007 and 2008.

But he really hasn't panned out yet.  Hindered by wrist issues and a curious case of mononucleosis, Lowrie has always had to fight for his job, even at the ripening age of 27 years old.  Seemingly one of Francona's favorites though, Lowrie has managed to stick with the big club.   Despite being injured/sick for most of the 2010 campaign, Lowrie showed flashes of long awaited promise at the end of 2010, hitting .287/.907 with 9 home runs in only 171 at bats. 

Getting back to this year, Lowrie has demonstrated patience at the plate (while not garnering that many walks) and obviously is seeing the ball well.  He leads the league in batting average by almost 90 points (although he not yet qualifies with the minimum amount of plate appearances).  He has hit 3 home runs in his last 5 games and leads the team in RBIs.  When you see a box score of the Red Sox starting line up, you notice that many of the Red Sox are at or below .200 while Lowrie's .463 batting average sticks out like green thumb (not sore).  After this tremendous start, proponents are hopeful and critics are doubtful.  I don't think anyone knows where this will end up.  Could he be Bill Mueller (without the aura of steroids) or could he be Sam Horn (one good game and that's about it).  Have we seen the best or were we beginning to see the real Lowrie?

Either way, it didn't take long for the boys to start asking me if Lowrie hit a home run or got an RBI.  When he's up at plate, they don't ask me who he is, they know.  And not know like Carl Crawford's .130 batting average know, more like David Ortiz 2003 know.  Back to my question.  Will it last?  Obviously not at this pace, but he is slowly becoming the Red Sox starting shortstop - almost enough to make us forget about Hanley Ramirez.

And the myth continues.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Red Sox on Patriot's Day - Daisuke's Revelation

The anticipation had been building for days in the JMR Household all week.  I was stranded by work for the week, so an April vacation was out of the question.  But Monday was Patriot's Day and what better way to spend a morning in April than fighting Boston Marathon traffic getting to Fenway Park for the annual Patriot's Day baseball game.  11am is early for a baseball game, but I was excited about this game too since I had never seen a game this early.  But the day was filled with questions.  Can my stomach take a 9:30 sausage and beer?  Can the kids handle eating that much junk food that early in the morning (I'm a notorious softy when it comes to this kind of stuff)?  And most importantly - when I saw that Daisuke Matzusaka was scheduled to pitch - can the Red Sox actually win this game?

The day started off auspiciously enough as we were actually 20 minutes early to Fenway Park.  Unfortunately we couldn't get into the park.  We all know what that means as the Yawkey Way Store beckoned us with all of those neon lights...T-Shirts and baseballs for the boys!  The older one got his favorite new player Adrian Gonzalez.  And the younger one?  Yes, He got Jacoby Ellsbury.  Apparently he forgot Ellsbury's problems last year, as Ellsbury was vilified for skipping games due to injury (by the boys even).

9AM.  Boston, MA.  There is nothing like getting into the park early to watch batting pract...oh crap, no BP today?  "Seriously?  There's no batting practice?" I ask one of the ushers, who appeared to be as old and weathered as the seats in the Infield grandstand where we asked him the question. 

"Players don't want to practice that early, there isn't enough time."  He answers.  I dream about using that same excuse for the 9am little league games I'll be enduring this Summer.

Never mind though.  We walk over to the Pesky Pole, hoping that one of the pitchers will sign the newly purchased baseballs being held by my expectant boys.  I point to each of the guys I recognize - Daniel Bard, Hideki Okajima, Aceves.  My 8 year old then asks me who one of the guys was, the one walking away from us toward the dugout.  I can't tell, I explain, because I don't recognize the guy from behind.  When one of the other dads tells me it Bobby Jenks, we both share a laugh when I joke that all fat guys look alike to me.  It's only funny if you know who I am.

We're getting Bloody and Ridiculous!
Eventually, after walking around the Park, soaking in all of the sunlight (it's not poetry, it was just really cold), the boys talk me into going to our seats up by the Coca Cola Pavilion.  I relent as soon as I see people milling around up there.

After walking for 30 minutes up ramps, switchbacks and stairways (the elevator wait would have been quicker) we get to our seats in the last row of the Section 18.  Only a crowded SRO crowd behind us stood between us and Game On fifty feet below.  I admit that I love these seats, you get a birdseye view of the game, you have a good vantage point and you can see the plays developing in front of you.  The boys take on it?  Kinda cold and really high up.  When the six year old looked apprehensive climbing the stairs to the top of the the pavilion, I explained the bright side to him.  Pointing out the minutemen with muskets holding the Canadian and American flags 100 feet below, at least we wont hear the musket fire.  That didn't help.

Matsuzaka comes out to a smattering of applause and boos.  We all remember the 2 inning, 7 run stinker last Monday against the Rays.  Will we see a repeat of that performance?  Or will we see the Dice-K that we saw last May going 7 innings giving up only 1 run?  It started out well as Dice-K got the first two batters to fly out.  After a Jose Batista single, Adam Lind grounds out to end a scoreless first inning.  We were all cautiously optimistic.

Up 2-0 in the second inning, thanks to a Jed Lowrie bases loaded single, the old Matsuzaka gives up a walk to a guy hitting .190, Travis Snider.

"Oh here we go..." the lady sitting next to my 6 year old sighs.  I agree.  But as soon as my 8 year old asks me why everyone is booing Dice-K and Carl Crawford, the Red Sox get out of the inning.  A murmur begins in our section.  That would be the last batter that Dice K gives up for the rest of his outing.  Maybe we could sense it.

An Ortiz RBI single in the 3rd and a Jed "The Natural" Lowrie 2 run home run in the 5th brings the score to 5-0.  But that's not the story this morning.  Daisuke is pitching an absolute gem.  Challenging all of the hitters, making good pitches when behind in the count, everything was clicking.  Even the 30 year old women talking about their boyfriends and weight watchers behind us were getting excited about Dice K and "Jeff" Lowrie.

The sixth and the seventh innings were highlighted by Youkilis and Ellsbury home runs and an RBI double by Carl Crawford.  The party is just getting started.  We've endured some really poor play this year so playing a big lead finally felt right.  The boys were buoyed by the crowd too, wanting to stay even after the game was out of reach.  Even a meaningless Wakefield home run in the ninth couldn't stop the cheering.  What a great game.  This is Red Sox baseball in 2011.

We all walk out, exchanging high fives with some drunk fans who were probably on their way to celebrate further.  It didn't matter, we all had big smiles on our faces.  Keep it up boys. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Bonds and Ramirez - Brief Requiem for the Home Run Hitter

Well that was time and taxpayer money well spent.  Barry Bonds has finally been convicted.  Not for the three counts of perjury he was charged with or simply for being a jackass, mind you, but for Obstruction of Justice by misleading jurors and prosecutors on non-steroid statements he made, seriously.  Home confinement for a year or two say the federal guidelines.  Great job, guys!  That's three years that I'll never get back.  Between this and the ridiculous witch hunt against Zdeno Chara in Montreal, law enforcement and prosecutors around North America must be pulling their hair out.  This comes on the heels of Manny Ramirez retiring from the Tampa Bay Rays, instead of being the only fool to ever have to serve a 100 game suspension after unbelievably testing positive for a masking agent during Spring Training.  

Bonds has been convicted and Ramirez has finally been stopped, but serial killers are still free and the idiots who attacked the Giants' fan are still on the loose...all right I'll stop.

Looking back, wasn't it obvious?             lucasletsloose.blogspot.com
It's not really about Bonds or Ramirez, really, or about David Ortiz or ARod, or even Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa.  It's about adults who feel that knocking down professional athletes is more fun than the more mundane tasks in their lives.  It's about adults who feel a high profile case might held build their careers and perhaps even make them D level celebrities.  It's about adults who spend hundreds of dollars to see a baseball game (in Boston at least) who feel better about themselves if these athletes screw up.  It saddens me because its a kid's game, after all.  

But in my living room, and in living rooms across the country, we couldn't care less about steroids, or BALCO, Greg Anderson or where Barry Bonds was injected and by whom.  All we cared about then were and all we care about now are the entertainment value of the games and how our teams are doing.  We care about scoring runs and hitting home runs.  I'll admit that 1998 and 2001 were great years.  Watching, first, Sosa and McGwire chase Roger Maris' single season home run record in 1998 and then Bonds chasing McGwire's record three years later, I was glued to the TV everytime ESPN cut away to the game when one of them was at bat.  It made for great drama.  My kids weren't born when these games were being played, but I know they'd be sitting right next to me.

These days, my kids are similarly enthralled.  We watch the Red Sox and the first question either of my boys ask is how many home runs player x has.  They don't care that Big Papi or Manny might be juicing it up, all they care about is whether they'll hit a home run.  Maybe they're naive, but they just want to be entertained.  Talking about steroids and what's wrong with the game is boring.  I wouldn't blame them if they got up from the couch and started playing their video games. 

And I have to agree with them.  When I watch Albert Pujols or Jose Batista hit, I want to see a home run.  I want to be entertained.  Maybe I'm naive like my kids - and I like it that way.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The ICA - The Culture Experiment Part 2

"Just because you're silent doesn't mean you have nothing to say."  Paul Chan.  Where on Earth could this be from?

Several months ago, in our attempt to bring culture into our kids lives, we brought them (dragging and screaming, of course) to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  At the time, I saw this a fair compromise for the hundreds of dollars we've spent on ice cream, car rides and video games - all they had to do was just walk with us through one of the most famous art galleries in the United States.  While perusing some of the most famous works of art in the United States, an idea struck me.  Why not also visit the Institute of Contemporary Art in (at the time), its new home in the South Boston Waterfront.

Not quite Plastic bags...              courtesy of icaboston.org
Well it took over a year, but we finally made it to the ICA.  We were trying to kill time before the recent Harlem Globetrotters game and this was our third choice.  Unfortunately, both the Fenway Park Tour and the New England Sports Hall of Fame were closed for the day.  I guess off to the ICA we finally go!

4pm.  Boston.  The first problem we encounter is that the museum's closing time is just an hour after we arrive.  How are we going to see everything in time?  As we come to find out, this won't be a problem.

We walk up to the "child friendly" table staffed by a couple of college kids clearly working here to pad their resume.  They point us in the general direction of the elevator so that we move to the fourth floor while simultaneously looking at their phones or watches, I can't tell.

Undaunted, the kids love the glass elevator, that we have to take to get to the East Wing (Mom - not so much).  We come out of the elevator greeted by the first two pieces of contemporary art.  A can of some sort of energy drink rolling endlessly on a conveyor belt and a bunch of plastic grocery bags blowing up in the ceiling.  Seriously, you ask?  Yes, seriously.  Now I'm not an aficianado of contemporary art, but that really sucks.  If I see art that my children can do in art class, then it's not really art.  It's just throwing stuff on the wall and seeing what sticks.  I can't even justify some sort of symbolism in these two first pieces.  Luckliy, it gets better.

We then venture through a couple of rooms.  One is dominated by newspaper clippings, receipts and advertisements folded in certain ways to spell unintended words and phrases.  Pretty cool idea I thought from an artist named Gabriel Curi - discovering our materialistic culture in unusual ways (or at least that is what the tattooed gentleman explained to me as I squint to read what's written on the tapestries.  The boys were likewise enamored with the room that included the mirrored lights that appeared to go on forever.  The museum associate and I tried to explain the concept of the one way mirror to my six year old as the reason why the lights appeared to go on forever, to no avail.  He is 6 after all.

After spending fifteen minutes in the first two rooms, we walk into what I call the "video" room.  We watch a video of guy walking through a supermarket shooting bows and arrows at food, obviously harkening back to the days when we were hunters and gatherers.  It was amusing to watch until my 8 year old asked for a bow and arrow set for his birthday, then not so much.

"But you don't like grocery shopping." I explain to him as we proceed to a stop action (or slow moving) video of large sugar cubes in a pool of oil.  The juxtaposition of the pure white sugar cubes slowly disintegrating into the oil was interesting to watch, as was the slow deterioration of the sugar cube structure.  Another work that was a shadow projected on the floor only induced the children to create their own shadows. 

We were finally able to talk them into moving to the most interesting part of the museum which interestingly enough was part of the building architecture too - the observation room.  It was here that a glass wall overhanging the little board walk made you think that you were floating right above Boston Harbor.  Incidentally, I have no idea what the kiosks were there for in the sitting gallery part of the observation room.  It was here, though, that we spent the most time.  Sensing the children getting bored, we thought we would go down to the lower floors

Unfortunately the third floor was a motion picture/video art room that was closed when we were there and the second floor was some sort of digital sound room that was not open to the public.  These closed doors bummed us out.  It was even too late to go through the gift store.  Hooray on that one though! I don't have to buy a couple of stuffed animals with "ICA" stitched on them.

Overall, the museum was interesting.  There is no reason to make a day of it however as even real art lovers can walk through the area in an hour.  Remember we were trying to kill time before a game and still only managed to be there for an hour.  It appeared that there were a couple of exhibits getting ready to open, so perhaps the viewing time and space will increase.  It certainly didn't seem like we walked through the entire structure; it seems much bigger from the outside.

And that quote to lead this off?  Next to the sugar cube/oil video.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

UConn's Destiny Doesn't Include Duke This Year

1990, 1999 and 2004.  Maybe it just seems like the UConn Huskies have to play Duke in the NCAA Tourney every year.  Sometimes they lost (Screw you, Alaa Abdelnaby!).  And sometimes they won.  (Beating Duke in the Championship Game in 1999 and in the National Semifinal in 2004).  After Duke was beaten handily by Arizona in the Sweet Sixteen, though, we had to find another team to root against.  Enter John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats.  Can Kemba and "Silence of the Lamb" reach Monday's final game against the most corrupt college coach in history (I slowly move away from the glass structures in my house lest rocks get thrown)?

Calipari has always been a mosquito on Jim Calhoun's hide.  Ever since Calhoun decided to end the annual match up with UMass after Calipari's first year there, followed soon after by Calipari's desperate, and illegal, pursuit of Hartford's own Marcus Camby, these two guys just can't get along.  Calhoun likes to take potshots at anybody and everybody and Calipari is an easy target.  If I can get the boys to agree to watch the Final Four instead of the 2011 Red Sox, we'll see how this game turns out.  Butler-VCU is NOT a good lead in, I'll you that much.

9pm.  Basement Bar. I'm still rubbing my eyes from that Shephard Fairy-inspired photograph of Kemba Walker.  Way too much time went into that piece of art. And we all laugh as Alex Oriakhi does some sort of Dougie dance.  Good start to the game.

Calipari is trying to become the first coach to have three Final Four appearances vacated because of recruiting violations.  Good luck, John.

"Dad, can you change it back to baseball?"   C asks me - not a good start.

"xzxzxzxzzxxzzxx"  The sound of my ignoring him.  I already tried the "Sorry, I can't hear you." trick but he's sitting right next to me. 

"Start the game already!  It's been 40 minutes!" G tells the TV, clearly more interested than his brother.  Everyone is getting antsy.  Finally the game starts.  Mansfield's own Tyler Olander immediately scores with the Huskies' first basket.  Get him out of there now!

As the boys notice that I am writing this journal, my older son starts giving me writing advice - comma here, comma there.  Why don't you stop reading this, kiddo!  When they read the word "punk" they both get worked up.  I wish they would just go to bed at this point.  Back to the game as Kemba Walker hits his first 3-pointer with ten minutes left in the First Half.

Out of the last TV timeout, Walker and Jeremy Lamb execute a beautiful cut play leading to a ten point lead with three minutes left.  UConn holds on to this 10 point lead at halftime.  31-21.  Two of us are getting mighty sleepy...

Second half and the boys have gone to bed.  Good thing since they are thus spared of the cursing and head shaking caused by Kentucky's two three pointers to start the half immediately cutting the lead to four.  And as Kentucky catches up and takes the lead, I' seriously considering getting the kids back up.  I have to work tomorrow so if they're zombies for Mom tomorrow?  So be it.

Now with 12 minutes left in the game, Walker twists his ankle running after a loose ball.  Crap!  He stays in, but clearly looks hobbled as he walks the ball up the court.  Which is too bad since Kentucky looks too tired to run with me, much less UConn.

Two minutes left and UConn is barely hanging on.  In fact a friend texts me "Did not like that last minute."  This game is WAY too close.  Particularly when two of your best three players are freshmen.  And, as soon as I write that, Napier turns the ball over with 18 seconds left as he dribbles the ball off a Wildcat foot.  More cursing ensues.  Kentucky ball with just seconds to play.  Calipari calls timeout to consider his legacy.

Out of the timeout, Kentucky looks confused as they are just dribbling the ball around.  With no go-to shooter, and clearly no play called, Kentucky throws up an ill advised three pointer when a two will do.  After the inevitable miss, Kentucky fouls Napier with 1.7 seconds left.  Just make these free throws...YES UConn wins 56-55!  Cut the nets!

And see you on Monday.