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For local teams, stunning in a rear-view look

Clearing the decks soon to be draped in holly as the clock runs out on what’s been another banner year in sports – especially if you hail from New England!

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 The scorecard for 2013 is stunning! A spectacular championship in baseball. In hockey, a precious near-miss as tender as any Cup might be.  A festival of world-class dramatics in football that has become routine in the Belichick/Brady era. And if in basketball we had to accept the end of an era, your team, given its history, need never apologize.

In years like this, you should wonder what it’s like living in Cleveland, Milwaukee, or Atlanta. Which is why one finds intolerable the spoiled yuppies hanging out in Foxborough when they gripe about officiating, or those inveterate bores from The Nation when they whine about the psychic sores they retain from the 1949 baseball season.
Tell them they should move to Seattle!

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Without question Jameis Winston was the nation’s best college football player, and yet his winning by a landslide of the Heisman Trophy only further cheapens that once-fabled bauble to the point where it ought to be retired out of respect for those who won it validly once upon a time. Winston is the third highly controversial winner in the last four years.

Vaguely cleared of very serious legal charges against him, the 19-year-old freshman QB from Florida State has every right to ply his trade, which will be soon enough in the NFL where he belongs. But his now-anointed status as a collegiate icon is ludicrous, like everything else connected with Big Sport on America’s campuses.

A remarkable 115 of the 900 sportswriters and broadcasters who voted for the Heisman this year left Winston off their ballots. That’s a lot; in fact it’s an unprecedented rebuff to a winner. So maybe the cheerleaders are waking up. And maybe next year the cow will jump over the moon.

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Further in the realm of no-brainers, few will quibble with the Veteran Committee’s selection of the three baseball managerial tenors – Brothers Torre, Cox, and LaRussa – for the Hall of Fame. As well as deserving, they are highly popular picks and Cooperstown ever craves to appease the popular fancy. But was it necessary now, their first year of eligibility?

Bolder, even smarter choices might have been characters who’ve been waiting patiently for their turn, including a fascinating trio, each of whom had genuine historical impact: Marvin Miller, whose continuing rejection borders on the scandalous; George Steinbrenner, who is certainly as worthy as Tom Yawkey; and the chap who is No. 1 on my list, Tommy John. How the electors can deny the superior craftsman John, the winner of 288 games while playing a historic role in sports medicine, remains beyond me.

Choosing Miller, Steinbrenner, and John would have required a bit more imagination, along with a deeper sense of history, and would have, thereby, been, may I politely suggest, more impressive.  

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With their garrison finishes of late, the swashbuckling Patriots owe us nothing in terms of entertainment. It’s as if their playbook were taken from the Perils of Pauline. But does this bode well for the post-season? Not likely.

More to the point, of their seven thrilling and epic finishes this season, three resulted in losses, with two of them to teams presumed to be decidedly inferior. You should keep in mind that save for a handful of flukes, they’d be 6-8.
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A finely orchestrated parity is the work of genius in the other three major games, yet professional basketball survives with very little of the stuff. Rules have been rigged in the other leagues to promote the equitable distribution of talent in the pursuit of as high a degree of competitive integrity as possible. But in basketball such efforts have failed miserably.

So with the NBA season near a third over, you have three of the six division races virtually decided, only two of the fifteen Eastern Conference teams having winning records, six teams serving as doormats with miserable winning percentages of less than .300, and the Boston Celtics leading their division with an 11-14 record (as of the writing) and little likelihood of much improving. This is astonishing, and probably unprecedented in modern pro sport; all of it.

How a league can survive with such disparities and so little competitive balance defies explanation. But the Celtics, as the lucky beneficiaries of this woeful imbalance at the moment, are not likely to demand answers.     

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Well known as a class act and team guy, etc., Dustin Pedroia isn’t likely to demand a re-opening of his contract negotiations now that he will be earning less than half of what Robinson Cano will drag down in Seattle. Nor is it a knock on Cano to note that most baseball GMs, given the choice, would prefer the spunky lad who plays for Boston.
Cano may have greater talent, but there’s something special, indeed rare, about Pedroia much as was cited about Derek Jeter over the years when he was oft compared with A-Rod. You can safely bet Pedroia will remain mum on the matter. But, it’s fair to ask, what was he thinking?
On the other hand, it’s fair to wonder what Cano was thinking when he lamented that the Yankees had “disrespected” him by only offering a seven-year deal for $25 million per. Was there no one in his witty entourage able to advise, ‘Don’t go there’.

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Regarding the severe suspension and censure the Bruins’ Shawn Thornton got socked with for his smack-down of the Penguins’ Brooks Orpik. Yes, a stiff penalty was in order. Thornton, as he himself has entirely acknowledged, bolted well over the line. But a 15- game suspension was too stiff; 10 was sufficient, 12 at the most. Keep in mind that the Buffalo roughneck who ambushed and concussed Louie Ericksson earlier this season got only six, although the incident was equally nasty, with the Sabre, unlike Thornton, being a repeat offender.

Moreover, lowering the boom on Thornton fails to take into account the totality of that particular evening’s nastiness, beginning with Orpik’s hit on Eriksson, which ignited the unpleasantness. It was vicious and should have been penalized. The deliberate attempt by another Penguin to injure Marchand of the Bruins was another huge factor. That offending Penguin also got suspended – six games – mainly because he’s also a repeat offender. Finally, there was the matter of a Penguin defenseman deliberately slashing the Bruins’ Kelly, breaking his ankle, an ugly incident that went un-penalized because none of the four on-ice officials noticed. Maybe they need six.

Kelly will be lost two months. The Penguin who attacked him has been identified but not even questioned, let alone punished. It’s unclear how long Eriksson will be sidelined, but it’ll be longer than Orpik, who appears near to returning at this writing. Having sustained two concussions in less than two months, the very clean-playing and non-violent Eriksson will be at considerable risk henceforth.

Maybe it’s impossible to precisely adjudicate these messy scenarios. They might defy the wisdom of a Solomon.  But vaguely there remains the sense this one was fumbled while the intrinsic complexity of these situations is not being properly understood, let alone factored. In the end, the stigma Thornton now permanently bears seems further unfair. But to go much beyond that suggestion is to appear to defend what I don’t wish to defend.

There are no easy answers. It may be convenient for bombastic newspaper columnists to declare justice is being done here. But they are wrong.  And mounting the soapbox on this issue is always suspect. I’m thinking of a local scribe in particular who has loftily denounced sporting violence as represented in the Thornton case. Most impressive! Now he can go back to fawning over his first love, the National Football League.         

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On that complex and admittedly uneven note may we conclude this year’s ramblings. They seem consistent with the nature of the times, sporting and otherwise. And to all, a Good Night!