Monthly Archives: April 2010

Clay Buchholz in a vacuum

Off topic, it's hard to believe we're already three seasons removed from his September, 2007 no-hitter.

I like Clay Buchholz. I know he’s had a bit of a checkered past, and some fans seem to either love him or hate him for the fact that he has a girlfriend who is quite attractive. And, a good number of fans have no problem with him whatsoever, but would also have no problem were he to be traded for Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.

Those three issues aren’t quite an issue at all to me (though if he were to be dealt to San Diego for a certain hulking first baseman, that wouldn’t be so bad.) What is at issue is that, speaking as a baseball fan first, he’s fun to watch. He’s tall and lanky, looking as if his erector-set elbows and knees could come undone at any moment, spilling his appendages out of his uniform and onto the base of the mound in a cluttered mess.

And, when he’s on his game, he has four pitches that can baffle opposing hitters, and at 25 years old, is at just the right age to have all the ability in the world, and not be old enough to realize he should really be more cautious with his arsenal.

Tuesday night, he was certainly on his game. The Red Sox’ bullpen was in dire need of a break, and sure enough, Jonathan Papelbon, Daniel Bard and Hideki Okajima wouldn’t even be available. And with a staff struggling as greatly as the Sox starters, a strong showing would go along way toward quieting an insane fan base and giving the whole team a pick-me-up.

Buchholz took the mound as he always does. Which is to say, he looks like he’s always a little shocked and just a tiny bit terrified to be there in the first place. He’s gangly, his hat always looks a little too big, his hair peeks out in weird places from under the sweatband. He squints in at Victor Martinez behind the plate, shoulders slumped forward, mouth open just slightly, as if he’s trying to read along with the catcher’s signs.

He nods, his shoulders swing back, his body whirls around, and his long, 12-to-6 motion delivers a ball that buckles some unsuspecting Toronto Blue Jay at the knees, resulting an awkward swing that pops a lazy ball back to Marco Scutaro at short stop. After giving up a run in the first, Buchholz is cruising, and another batter is left to think about his next at bat, his possible demotion or the next round of free agency in the fall.

Buchholz was throwing a gem, and in the eighth inning, Adrian Beltre suffers a mental breakdown and tosses a grounder to third long past Kevin Youkilis at first and into right field, settling Blue Jay Vernon Wells in at second base with one out.

Toronto has new life, and Buchholz, with the same look in his eye as in the first inning, looks in, and strikes out Lyle Overbay on four pitches. Old friend Alex Gonzalez doesn’t fare much better, lifting a fly ball to center field to end the threat of a tie and the inning. Ramon Ramirez makes quick work of Toronto in the ninth, and the Sox have a 2-1 win under their belts.

Buchholz didn't pitch beyond his years against the Blue Jays. He just threw exactly as he is.

It wasn’t just a solid performance by an exciting young arm, it was the kind of game that draws me back to baseball like a fiend. This was the rarest of games, the ones that seem to exist in a vacuum, clear of division races, trade rumors and the blood-curdling screams of talk radio. A battered bullpen provided something of a back story, but that was a distant second to what was going on.

Tuesday night, Clay Buchholz went out and pitched a hell of a game. He was so much fun to watch that he became all that the Red Sox ever were or have ever been. In front of a four-fifths empty SkyDome (or whatever they call it these days), he just took the ball on his day to throw, and he threw. And threw. And threw, to the clip of a season-high 117 pitches. The only thing that could’ve made it even better and more old school would have been if Terry Francona had let him go out for the ninth to finish what he started.

But not everything operates within a vacuum. With Ramirez in to pitch, thoughts of pitch counts, inning totals, tired bullpens, the next turn in the rotation and, ultimately, a tough battle with New York and Tampa Bay for the division came back to the forefront. Ramirez threw a tidy inning, the Red Sox had a win, and I went to bed happy.

And it wasn’t just any old win. For eight innings, Buchholz wheeled through the Toronto lineup, growing up before our eyes while keeping his youthful and seemingly confused frame on the mound. He looked to not have a care in the world, and that gawky windup looked fantastic on every toss.

All the other thoughts that cloud a baseball season came back. But my first was on making sure to watch every start he makes for the rest of the year.


Tim Thomas’ story unmatched

How can you not root for Tim Thomas?

Tim Thomas has fallen on hard times.

Cast aside in favor of soon-to-be-if-not-already-superstar Tuukka Rask, mocked in his home arena over the last two months of the season, reviled for the contract he signed prior to the 2009-10 season, Thomas has become, at best, an afterthought in Boston.

It’s easy for fans to move on and forget when a previously loved athlete loses a step or gets lapped by a younger, faster, stronger model. And on that note, it seems especially easy for Boston fans. Nine years ago, Drew Bledsoe felt it when Tom Brady stepped into his void. David Ortiz has been feeling the heat since early 2009 from Red Sox fans. Pedro Martinez became strangely under appreciated after the arrival of Curt Schilling, just as Schilling later heard it when Josh Beckett and John Lester arrived to nip at his heels. And so on, and so on.

It’s the nature of competition, but with Thomas, I take the poor treatment a little more personally. Tim Thomas has, by far, my favorite story in hockey. After graduating from the University of Vermont in 1997, Thomas bounced around from the ECHL, IHL in North America to the HIFK in Finland. He signed with the Edmonton Oilers in 1998, and was assigned to the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs before going back to Finland. Then, it was back to the IHL, then back to Europe, and, with the Bruins’ organization, he hooked on with the AHL’s Providence Bruins, where I first saw him play.

He was a weird goalie. He seemed shorter than his listed 5’11”, he wore a weird mask that wasn’t really a Chris Osgood-style cage, and certainly wasn’t your typical Bauer or Itech mask. He flopped around to the point that you weren’t too convinced he really knew what he was doing. He became a fan favorite with the Baby Bruins almost immediately.

He got his first taste of the NHL in four games in 2002-03, wearing a very you-won’t-be-here-for-long number 70 on his back, and played well enough to win three games. In 2003-04, he was stuck back in Providence behind Felix Potvin and Andrew Raycroft, who would go on to win the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie. At the end of the season, and at peace with the thought that his chance to play full-time in the league wouldn’t come, he went back to Finland.

While the next NHL season was flushed down the crapper, Thomas racked up a 1.58 GAA and a .946 save percentage against a 34-7 record. And to his surprise, the Bruins came calling for the revived 2005-06 season. He left Finland, came to camp, and … was assigned to Providence in favor of Raycroft and rookie Hannu Toivonen. But Raycroft struggled, and when Toivonen was injured, Thomas came back up, with the classic goalie number 30 on his back, and started sixteen straight games with the Bruins in dire straights (this is after the abominable trade of Joe Thornton, remember). The team was back in the playoff race, and Thomas was a one-man highlight reel at that time. Behold:

The impossible became the routine. Thomas, he of seemingly no style, was willing the Bruins back to respectability. After every game, he was beaming. He was an NHL goalie. He was rewarded with a three-year, $3 million contract at the end of the year. He’d made it.

What followed? Two consecutive seasons where was penciled in as a backup and emerged as a starter, more incredible saves, and, in 2008, the official resurrection of the team with the help of Zdeno Chara and rookie Milan Lucic, and pushing top seed Montreal to seven games.

In 2008-09, the Bruins got off to a roaring start, and Thomas had his best year, leading the league in save percentage, goals against, and won the Vezina Trophy. For his efforts, he got his payday, a four-year deal worth $20 million total.

That, really, is the root of the angst for Bruins fans. One glance at his 2009-10 numbers (.256 GAA, .915) don’t say “worst goalie in the world.” They’re not at the levels of the previous season, but they’re certainly in line with a strong starting netminder’s. Plus, the Bruins defense was a shell of the previous season (I’m looking at you, Dennis Wideman). But he’s been lifted from games, booed in his home building, mocked by fans as an overpaid has-been.

Tuukka Rask has been incredible. He just outplayed Buffalo’s Ryan Miller, arguably the best goalie in the world. With Marc Savard returning, the Bruins could ride his hot hand deep into the playoffs, if things break the right way. It’s his net, and he deserves it. With any luck, it will be his net for years to come.

In the meantime, Thomas is the good soldier, working with Rask in practice, knowing he may have played his last game in Boston.

Boston fans can be quick to forget. As a group, they toss aside what was old in favor of what is new. Some call this “passionate,” but honestly, this aspect is really just short sighted at best, ungrateful at worst.

Thomas hopefully won’t have to play in these playoffs. If he does, it means Rask has either been hurt or imploded, and either would be horrible. Thomas, as much as anyone, knows the net belongs to who plays best, and no one can argue that Rask has displayed an incredible calm this season. He’s been stellar. He’s their best option now.

Still, it bothers me that his last memory of being on the ice in Boston will be of getting booed as he’s lifted for Rask against Buffalo. It makes me feel better that he played so well in their last regular season game against the Capitals (and him, too, I’m sure), but that was in Washington.

Just before that last home start, I saw him in net against the Calgary Flames. He backstopped at 5-0 shutout, stopping 31 shots. He was the second star of the game, leaving the ice to cheers. He was smiling.

If, next year, he’s on another team, I’ll do my best to keep that moment in mind when I see him. But it will be hard not to think of how poorly fans treated him on the way out.

Lovably bad: My mediocre Red Sox

Luis Rivera terrorized Yankees fans, somehow.

Ask any fan not from New England or New York, and they’ll tell you that, yes, without question, the Boston Red Sox are a powerhouse. They have been a powerhouse for the better part of a decade now, and barring some incredible lapse in judgment, will continue to be so.

But, of course, it wasn’t always that way. Speaking as a child of the 90s, I grew up first with the pretty good Sox of the late 80s (led by Mike Greenwell, Ellis Burks and an aging Dwight Evans), but really hit my stride with the Butch Hobson era of three consecutive losing seasons, culminating in the World Series-killing strike. Luckily, they were nowhere near playoff contention at that time. The Montreal Expos weren’t so fortunate.

I feel like I learned to love baseball first and the Red Sox second over that period, with Greenwell and, later, Tim Naehring firmly entrenched as my favorite players. And they had some good players even when they were bad. Mo Vaughn, John Valentin, and a non-chemically-enhanced Roger Clemens. They were my team, and I loved them unconditionally.

But oh boy, they had some flops. Assembling them by position, here were my favorites:

1b: Carlos Quintana
Quintana wasn’t a complete dud, hitting .287 and .295 as the Sox’ regular first baseman in 1990 and ’91, but he’s best remembered for a car accident that caused him to miss the 1992 season and derailed his career. When he returned in 1993, Vaughn had a vice grip on first base, he suffered from numbness in his hand, and by 1994, he was given his release.

2b: Scott Fletcher
Fletcher led the ’93 Sox in stolen bases… with 16. Otherwise, he spent his time keeping his number 5 jersey warm for some shortstop that came along a few years later.

3b: Scott Cooper
By far, the worst two-time All-Star any sport has ever seen. I know third base was a weak position in the American League at that point, but … two All-Star games? His OPS those two years: .752 and .786. Horrifying. At least he seemed like a nice guy.

SS: Luis Rivera
Home runs in five years with the Red Sox: 21. Number of those that came against the New York Yankees: 6. Ask my boss (a Yankees fan) though, and he’ll swear he hit 25 of his 21 home runs against the Bombers. That has to count for something.

RF: Bob Zupcic
My predominant memory of Zupcic was his home run trot. He only had 6 with the team, and I probably only saw two. But, there he was, rounding second base with his arms sticking straight up in the air. Field goal, Zupcic!

CF: Herm Winningham
Winningham played 868 games over nine years with four different teams, and was never hit by a pitch. Weird.

LF: [Blank]
There’s been a stranglehold on left field for my entire lifetime. Jim Rice, Mike Greenwell, Troy O’Leary, Manny Ramirez, Jason Bay and now, Jacoby Ellsbury. They range from pretty good to Hall of Fame worthy. I’m sure I could think of some scrub that played here when either Rice, Greenwell or O’Leary were on the mend, but I won’t. I can’t besmirch the keepers of the Monster.

But if I had to… Lee Tinsley. Most notable for wearing four different numbers in parts of three seasons with the Sox: 38, 26, 47 and 10, in chronological order.

C: Dave Valle
Signed away from Seattle to be the Sox’ starting catcher in 1994, he was traded as soon as possible to bring back a personal favorite, outfielder Tom Brunansky. Thanks, Dave!

DH: Andre Dawson
Dawson will enter the Hall of Fame this year, but it won’t be for his time in Boston. After hitting his 400th career home run early in 1993, it was all sore knees and pinch runners for the Hawk. Classy dude, though.

P: Chris Nabholz
It would have been enough if he were just the awkward-looking guy he was. But, no. He also racked up a 6.64 ERA in 42 innings pitched in his only season in Boston. I’ll also never forget reading his summary in one of Bill James’ books at the time: “Two words: He sucks.” Or something to that effect.

With that, Clay Buchholz is currently on the mound, Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia are in the lineup, and Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon are in the bullpen. Oh, and they’ve won the World Series a couple of times, or something.

Yes, life is better now.

When the Bruins were more an idea than a team

Cam Neely was the main source of my happiness as a Bruins fan early on.

Through the past three seasons, the Boston Bruins have worked, improved and developed actual hopes with an actual plan and built an actual team that, hopefully soon, should be able to make a run at a championship. Last night, they finished off the Buffalo Sabres in the first round, and are waiting to see if they’ll face Pittsburgh or Buffalo in the second. Miroslav Satan scored the game-winner, and David Krecji had two of his own. It was a great moment for a Bruins fan.

But until the Bruins defeated Montreal in a wild Game 6 in the opening round of the 2008 Stanely Cup playoffs, I realized that many of my favorite moments with the team weren’t team moments at all. Since 1992 or so, they just hadn’t had that many memorable wins. The two that could qualify — Anson Carter’s goal to eliminate the Carolina Hurricanes in 1999, and Glen Murray’s double overtime winner in Game 4 against the Canadiens in 2004 — were quickly nullified in my memory by losses soon to follow.

Sturm’s Game 6 goal was too good to fade. Not even a quick 5-0 thrashing at the hands of Alex Kovalev and company could take the shine off of what the Bruins had accomplished. They’d brought hockey back to the middle, and taken the Gallery Gods to a high not felt in 20 years. They had created hope, organically.

Until recently, my favorite moments were a hodgepodge of singular moments of greatness that happened to involve my favorite team. Here were my top five:

5. Cam Neely’s 13th hat trick

My memory of Jan. 22, 1995 is one of mostly giddiness. Camped out downstairs, I had a tape in the VCR to capture the first game of the 1995 season, trimmed in half by the lockout that also killed that year’s All-Star Game.

The Bruins opened up the season against the Flyers, and Neely, far and away my favorite athlete past and present, picked up three goals to give Boston a win. Funny enough, that also marked the debut of rookie goalie Blaine Lacher, who figures heavily in our next moment.

4. I get my first Bruins jersey

On my 27th birthday, my first B's sweater still fit like a charm.

Christmas 1994, I got my first Bruins jersey, a black model with no name or number. It was a size L, and being in 7th grade, this basically made it a dress that I wore with the sleeves rolled up past the stripes. It didn’t matter. It instantly became my favorite article of clothing, even if my friends thought it was hilarious to punch me on the bear stiched onto the shoulders whenever I wore it.

After a couple of months, I brought it to a store to have a number put on it. In a moment of poor judgement, I went with not my beloved Neely, but with Lacher, a hot rookie goalie. I have a thing with goalies (I always wanted to be one), and I wanted to be first on the bandwagon.

Lacher had a good first season, a horrifying second one, and never got to have a third in the NHL. But that jersey now fits me properly (you have to appreciate just how oversized it was), and walking around in Lacher’s 31 sweater is pretty hilarious. I have a few other Bruins sweaters now, but I know which one will always be my favorite.

3. Everything PJ Stock did.

PJ Stock was a left wing from Montreal, Quebec, who scored five goals in his NHL career (plus one memorable tally in the ’02 playoffs) and was generously listed at 5’10”. He also, for a brief time, single handedly put the “Bad” back into the Big Bad Bruins.

To say Stock became a cult hero in Boston is to understate just how much he meant for a few quick seasons. The Bruins’ identity as a bruising, punishing team disappeared when Neely’s body betrayed him. With no one to fill the void, the team’s mostly working-class fan base grew restless or lost interest entirely.

The 2001-02 season was an interesting one. Behind the tough-as-nails Bill Guerin, the emerging Joe Thornton, and goal scorers like Brian Rolston, Sergie Samsonov and Glen Murray, the Bruins resumed their winning ways in the regular season. But, by far, the most popular Bruin was Stock. T-shirts denoting members of “STOCK’S ARMY” and “STOCK’S ASS-KICKING CREW” littered the stands and the streets. Every other back had the number 42 with either “Ass Kicker” or, simply, “Stock” on the name plate. He was David fighting a league of Goliaths night after night, and he did it with showmanship and flair to boot.

Eventually, though, the lack of goal scoring led to his falling out of favor with the Bruins, and an eye injury suffered in the AHL ended his career. But, even in 2010, it’s impossible to go to a Bruins game and not see at least one 42 in the stands.

2. Neely’s 50 goals in 1994

At the age of 11, on Feb. 12, I took in my first Bruins game. I wore my Bruins sweatshirt, got my first Bruins puck (still displayed proudly on my desk), heard my first “bullshit!” chant, and, in the first period, witness my first, and so far only, hat trick in person.

It was Neely, of course, who pulled off the feat against Chris Terreri and the New Jersey Devils in the first period, a natural hat trick, and would’ve added a fourth in the second period were it not disallowed (thus, the cause of the “bullshit” chant). They were his 37th, 38th and 39th goals of the year, and in his 44th game against the Washington Capitals, he scored his 50th and final goal of the season. Mind you, that wasn’t the team’s 44th game. Neely, still suffering greatly from injury, wasn’t able to play on back-to-back nights, had to take other games off here and there, and really was skating on one leg all year. He willed himself to keep scoring whenever he was able to play.

Five games later, he played his last game of the season, and had to sit out of the playoff run. Two years later, he played in his final NHL game, again well short of the playoff run. Early in his career, he was a runaway train. At this stage, he simply had to work harder than everyone to succeed. No one ever tried harder to stay in the lineup, and no one ever did more with a failing body.

1. Ray Bourque lifts Lord Stanley’s Cup

From March 6, 2000, to June 9, 2001, I was not a Boston Bruins fan. The Bruins would miss the 2000 and 2001 tournaments, but it didn’t cause much heartbreak. To be clear, I wasn’t rooting against the Bruins at this time. As a matter of fact, I still followed them pretty closely, watched a lot of games, and rooted for folks like Guerin, Samsonov and Dafoe.

But from the moment Ray Bourque was sent, along with Dave Andreychuck, to the Colorado Avalanche, the singular goal and rooting interest was for Bourque to get his name on the Stanley Cup before he retired. And after being knocked out by the Dallas Stars in the 200o Western Conference finals, it was a more desperate rooting situation in the 2001 playoffs.

The Bruins came under a great deal of criticism during this time, and rightfully so. General Manager Harry Sinden won’t be remembered as much for constantly building contending teams, or making the playoffs for a then-record 27 consecutive seasons, but that he failed to build a team to compete with the powers of the league, like Edmonton, Calgary, Pittsburgh and New Jersey. So, at the end of his career, after 20 years, Bourque had to leave for one last chance at the cup.

The fans have also come under criticism, though, for how readily he was celebrated in New England. After he won the Cup, Bourque brought it back to Boston, where he was greeted as a returning hero by thousands of fans. This was seen as pathetic by outsiders (and some notoriously vitriolic writers), that the fans of one team would celebrate the achievements of another club.

They didn’t understand. Bourque’s departure was heartbreaking. He had been the rock on some great teams and some terrible ones, always serving as the perfect captain, and despite giving everything to his team, his team couldn’t give him enough to get his name on the Cup in Boston. The only way his trade could be justified was for him to win the ultimate prize. When he did that, his trade went from heartbreaking to merely bittersweet.

For anyone in New England with a heart and a soul, it was a joyous moment when Joe Sakic handed him the Cup.