April, the month that makes a sports nut’s head spin

Having famously and rather churlishly declared April to be “the cruellest month,” we can safely assume that T.S. Eliot was no fan of the sports we revel in, although he may have found the social niceties of a cricket match amusing while hanging out with fellow dons on the playing fields of Cambridge. In another age, and having had his cultural experiences widened, lofty old Tom might have changed his tune.

Far from hateful or hurtful, April is downright joyful for the contemporary sports nut whose life, whether he or she cares to admit it, is pretty much governed by the jock calendar. The month’s first week alone brings us the launching of another baseball season, the NCAA basketball finals, the ongoing NCAA hockey festival, with Jerry York's BC Kids in hot pursuit of another championship for their legendary coach," and the Masters.

As the month roars along we can further anticipate the NHL’s garrison regular season finish, the unleashing of the Stanley Cup free-for-all (sans Bruins?), the launching of the NBA playoffs (featuring the Celtics as the team nobody wants to meet). If that ain’t enough for you, chum, there’s the NFL draft, the gathering rumble of horse racing’s Triple Crown, and a big boxing match for throwbacks who still monitor the manly arts. April’s agenda offers plenty of potential for the escaping of a whole lot of reality.
Some stray notes and observations while awaiting April’s lyric unfolding:

Talk of cruelty, as in “cruel and unusual punishment,” that’s what witnessing with a mixture of astonishment and disgust the Bruins meltdown this season has been for that diminished breed that had remained believers all this difficult season long. One does not relish yielding to the “I told you so crowd,” especially on this subject, but as of the writing, with three desperate games left, there looks no avoiding that unpleasantness.

How bad has it gotten? After surrendering six unanswered goals to the Blackhawks the last Sunday of the regular season – in the game they “had to win” Mike Milbury, one of their very own, felt moved to observe on NBC that their performance was “degrading, disgraceful and ugly!” Ouch! For a season that had been laced with moments of genuine valor to end thusly is beyond the merely cruel.

Even though, as of the writing, a place in the playoffs remains theoretically possible, it’s not only highly unlikely but deservedly so and maybe not worth the effort. Who needs to see them get obliterated by the snarling Capitals in a swift and merciless first round, which, given their deplorable state, would be inevitable.

There will be time enough for the post-mortems, but be warned they will begin in goal, although there is the fear the coach may not get a pass this time. And that would only compound the damage. Stay tuned!
The David Ortiz “Long Goodbye,” or, if you prefer, “Victory Tour” has gotten off to a rather clumsy start. Totally unnecessary was the spring training chapter of this increasingly convoluted saga in which our hero tearfully bid farewell to Fort Myers, with sparkling oratory, nice little gifts, and a gladiatorial roll around the ballpark receiving requisite hosannas. Alas, the moment didn’t quite meet expectations.

Speaking volumes was the reaction of that day’s opponent, the Orioles, when the golf cart transporting the man of the hour rolled ceremoniously past Baltimore’s dugout. Not only did the O’s refuse to applaud, but they turned their backs on the passing parade. No doubt Buck Showalter, their crusty manager and a stern by the book disciple of traditional baseball etiquette, was behind this deliberate insult, the message clearly being that Buck regarded the entire silly shtick to be, shall we say, bush league. In the kingdom of baseball you can bet he’s not alone.

If hardly an all-time great, Ortiz has been a very good, notable, highly entertaining player worthy of reasonable kudos. That much few would deny, even if some of his achievements have been sullied by steroid-abuse allegations that have never been answered, let alone dispelled. But even adoring fans inclined to reject such reservations should recognize that while still stuck in the month of March, the Red Sox, with a lot of help from the guest of honor, managed to over-play their hand.

All of which as the season begins leaves baseball people muttering that they’ve already seen enough and critics questioning whether these highly contrived and aggrandizing rituals are somehow getting out of hand. And to think, we’ve only got six more months of this ballyhoo to go.
What makes Bill Belichick, for all his warts and baggage, one of the most brilliant sports executives of all time? Simple! He has a profound and comprehensive plan and he sticks to it. He believes in his system, never hedges, hems, or haws. He knows how to draw lines that can never be crossed, and when they are, he doesn’t hesitate to pounce. He never second guesses himself, let alone compromises on his basics.

It was by all these yardsticks that the cutting of ties with erstwhile star defensive lineman Chandler Jones was both vintage Belichick and a classic example of what makes him the most formidable football mover and shaker since Vince Lombardi reigned uncontestably. And like Lombardi and other such lions of the brotherhood as Chuck Noll, Paul Brown, and Curly Lambeau, Bill Belichick has no compunctions about being ruthless when he determines that needs require it.

With his curious late-season off-field indiscretions, Jones crossed the line, violated the inviolate, could no longer be trusted, nor could any contrition on his part absolve him. Nine football moguls out of ten would have waffled rather than dump Jones for half his worth nor does Belichick harbor illusions about replacing him with a late second-round pick in the forthcoming draft (short of miraculous blunders by his fellow GMs, always a possibility.)

What Belichick understands and the others don’t is that none of that is the point while the message he’s sent the rest of his team is worth a helluva lot more than draft picks. Classic!

Lastly, a word on Dr. Arthur Pappas, who has lately departed at age 84. It was little noted, it seemed to me, but that had much to do with the fact – suddenly a stunning awareness – that it has been some 40-years since Arthur was enmeshed in the monumental uproar that enveloped the Red Sox after the death of Tom Yawkey.

To those of us lucky to have been along for the wild ride, that tumultuous era, roughly running from the mid-‘70s into the mid-‘80s, remains a fond memory touched with a giddy nostalgia. What a story it was, rife with schemes and counter-schemes, all central to thick plots having to do with old enmities and lusts for revenge. The Red Sox were up for grabs and some of the angles conceived for the landing of this crown jewel of a sporting property might have been worthy of an Agatha Christie. To today’s Red Sox, so painfully normal and efficient, the entire thing would have been an anathema.

None of that was Arthur’s bag. He was a physician, darn fine and respected as a specialist in the then new concentration of sports medicine, with a particular emphasis on sports orthopedics, fast evolving into the crucial science within the science it has since become. Arthur was well ahead of his times, bringing Red Sox medical services that had been notoriously and even tragically inept over the generations kicking and screaming into the modern era.

But as one of the “minority part owners,” so-called, the group of smart and well-healed investors the crafty Buddy LeRoux assembled to prop up his brazen financial strategies, Arthur became vulnerable. Should the team doctor also be a part owner? It was a controversy that raged for a decade, albeit one of many. But he rode above it, held his dignity, and in the end survived it all quite nicely.

Arthur was one of the last of that fascinating era, most of the others being long gone – Buddy and Haywood, the irascible Dick O’Connell, Smiling Jack Satter, and, of course, the Iron Lady, Jean Yawkey Herself. It was Jean, guided by John Harrington, who ended that era of happy nonsense bridging to the current era and all that blissful normalcy.

By comparison, so boring!


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