Wild American Gooner

When Sports Are More Than Just Sports


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The State of My Stateside Teams

I want to do today’s post a little differently. Instead of choosing one topic, I’m going to give each of my teams in the United States a paragraph. S0 here goes.

The Red Sox are a mess right now. It feels like I’m re-watching 2014, because like last year, every single time there’s the smallest bit of momentum, they drop the next two and three of the next four. I still think it’s worth holding course and seeing if David Ortiz and Pablo Sandoval can break their season-long slumps, but I’m getting less optimistic with every successive setback. However, it is encouraging to see a few of the players turn things around, notably Xander Bogaerts, Dustin Pedroia, Wade Miley and Joe Kelly. If a couple more players can figure it out, maybe there is a run in this team. But no matter how bad it gets, as long as we have Eduardo Rodriguez going every five days, there will be something to look forward to. He is the real deal.

The Celtics are about to enter a really interesting part of the offseason. With large amounts of cap space for the first time in years, this summer will be a test of whether big free agents will be attracted to playing for Brad Stevens. My gut tells me no, but wouldn’t it be nice if LaMarcus Aldridge came for a visit? Regardless, a priority has to be re-signing Jae Crowder. I also want Danny Ainge to work as hard as he can to move up a few spots in the draft to get Willie Cauley-Stein. He could make a serious impact on the team defense, and is miles better than somebody like Kevin Looney, who is being looked at for #16. I’m opposed to giving up the Nets picks, but I think Cauley-Stein’s value above who we’d draft at #16 is worth surrendering an extra first round pick.

The Patriots continue to make news in all the wrong ways. Whether it’s appeal talk, Brandon Spikes’s hit and run or Malcolm Butler getting benched, it’s so negative that following the team this offseason has become unappealing. I think this could be an ugly year on the field too. It can’t be overstated that where all three AFC East teams improved, the Pats lost almost everything at running back and in the secondary. I’m legitimately worried about making the playoffs. This could be an bad year. It’s a really good thing the pressure is relatively off for a year after the Super Bowl win.

Arkansas baseball has been an inspiration. Zach Jackson’s three and two thirds inning save to close out the Super Regional was one of the most gutsy performances I’ve seen on a baseball field. These guys fight and these guys win. Getting to Omaha is the highest achievement this team could have imagined. Any success in the College World Series will just be icing on the cake. With the dire lack of arms in the bullpen due to James Teague and Dominic Taccolini’s injuries, making a run there will be extraordinarily difficult. But this is a truly special group – I wouldn’t bet against them. Nothing made me happier than the Red Sox drafting Andrew Benintendi in the first round and then Tyler Spoon in the 30th. I can’t wait to see Benintendi roaming the Fenway grass. But in the meantime, it’s time for the #OmaHogs to beat Virginia. Woo Pig Sooie.

After a successful year on the hardcourt, Arkansas basketball is looking at a rebuilding year. When Anthlon Bell is the leading returning scorer, that’s not a good sign. But for the next month, the focus of Hog basketball is on watching Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls in the NBA Draft. Portis is getting rave reviews across the league as one of the most NBA-ready players. And Qualls has managed to disappear from draft boards despite posting the lowest body fat percentage of anyone. I really wish Qualls had come back for his senior year, but alas, he made the same mistake B.J. Young did and gambled despite not being assured of being drafted. However, I think Qualls could be a success in the NBA, even if he isn’t drafted. I certainly want the Celtics to take a flier on him in the second round. He’s such a talented athlete that I think he has serious potential defensively with a year of good coaching. I think Portis will be solid, and could have himself a nice career, but his ceiling is low. With so many power forwards on the Celtics, he’d have a hard time getting going in Boston, and thus hope he gets drafted somewhere else.

Arkansas football is riding a ridiculous high right now. Suddenly Arkansas is mentioned as a national title threat. And despite a murderous schedule once again, I don’t disagree. For the Arkansas offense has the potential to be incredible. Two 1,000 yard rushers are returning behind the best offensive line in the country, which in Denver Kirland, John Skipper and Sebastian Tretola boasts three potential all-americans. Sure there are questions at receiver, but I liked what I saw from Keon Hatcher last year and as much flak as I give Brandon Allen, he now has two full years of experience. Plus, the new offensive coordinator Dan Enos is a coach who has had success with QB’s. The defense took three big losses through the middle, but largely remains the same group that held LSU, Ole Miss and Texas to a combined seven points. I realize I need to temper my expectations before the season starts, but the excitement is too real. September 5th can’t come soon enough.

The Davidson basketball non-conference schedule is slowly coming out and I’m liking what I’m seeing. Games at UNC and at Madison Square Garden vs. Pitt give Davidson big-time exposure and a real chance to earn RPI-boosting wins. But more importantly, it seems like the schedule will be a little stronger on the back-end too, which was almost an issue last year. It’s good to pile up wins, but the strength of schedule numbers needed to be higher. I’ve seen early predictors say this team won’t be the same without Tyler Kalinoski, but he’s just one player, albeit a really good one. Between Jack Gibbs, Brian Sullivan and Jordan Barham, there are many hands capable of filling his production. And with Jake Belford returning from injury and some size coming in with the recruiting class, I’m not convinced there will be even the slightest bit of drop-off from last year.

The last team I want to mention is the U.S. Men’s National team in soccer, who beat both Netherlands and the world champion Germans this week on European soil. I’ve heard many people say the wins don’t matter because they are friendlies without many of the sides’ top players, but that should not take anything away from the achievement. Taking many players without experience, the U.S. topped two of the best teams in the world. That’s a fact. And it can be a springboard for Jürgen Klinsmann and the program. You can’t tell me players like Bobby Wood and Gyasi Zardes aren’t better off in the career having this burst of confidence. This was a week to treasure for U.S. soccer fans.

 

 


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Farewell to Mr. Excitement – Saying Goodbye to Rajon Rondo

Just last night, I was at my first Celtics game of the year, watching the mercurial Rajon Rondo lead the sorry-looking 2014-15 Celtics to a win over the Magic. Rondo appeared uninterested from the start, turning the ball over at an alarming rate in the first quarter. But then, like in so many other games, he started playing with an intensity that few can match. Suddenly, midway through the third quarter, he was just three rebounds away from a triple-double. He was streaking down the court to create shots left and right. He was fighting on the offensive glass. And he was attacking the rim.

But now, Rondo is packing up and headed to Dallas, traded today for Brandan Wright, Jae Crowder, Jameer Nelson and a future 1st and 2nd round pick. What is surprising is not that Rondo was traded, but the swiftness in which this move happened. I’m left stunned at the fact that he’s gone, that I had a chance to say goodbye, but didn’t even know it was going to be necessary. In many ways, this trade was inevitable, but it still comes as a surprise after so many years of seeing him take the floor.

Rondo did a lot of spectacular things on the basketball court. He also did a lot of agonizingly stupid things. But on the whole, he was a player worth watching on a nightly basis. And he was an absolute competitor, one right up there with Kevin Garnett as the type of player you could guarantee hated losing more than you hated sitting in traffic. Rondo played through all sorts of injuries, and routinely put his body on the line.

Watching Rondo play the last two years has been tough. He was put in an environment where he simply wasn’t going to win based on the roster around him. Because of that, I believe he started playing games with himself, trying to keep his assist-streaks going and going for triple-doubles because he wasn’t getting the necessary competition on the court. He was so competitive that he needed to avoid losing, even if that meant beating challenges he set for himself. It was almost like he had to detach himself from the reality of the losses in order to stay motivated and engaged.

Many people like to criticize Rondo for all sorts of things. But I’ve always given him the benefit of the doubt. Regardless of what his motivation was every night, he put on a show, which helped the team way more often than it hurt. Sure, it would have been nice had he learned to shoot free-throws, but he helped the team in so many other ways.

Rondo was never going to be the superstar that so many people wanted him to be. Whether it was his inability to accept coaching or his refusal to redevelop shooting mechanics, most true Celtics fans have always known Rondo needed a running mate to be successful. He may have been the official team captain, but he was not Paul Pierce by any means. He was Rondo, the player capable of anything. He was not Rondo, the player capable of leading the Celtics to a championship by himself.

The moment I knew a trade was coming was when Kevin Love went to the Cavaliers. After two seasons of rebuilding and losing, the Celtics were not going to be able to convince Rondo to come back in free agency. I don’t think he would have accepted even a max deal from the Celtics knowing more losing was on the immediate horizon. So while the return from this trade isn’t what you’d expect for a player of Rondo’s potential, it was a deal the Celtics had to make if it was truly the best offer out there. It was either this or losing him for nothing in the summer.

I’m going to miss Rondo on a number of levels. I’ll miss the competitor who wouldn’t even lose Connect-4 at charity events.  I’ll miss the fiery, grudge-holding Rondo, going against top point guards on national TV and relentlessly attacking their pride. I’ll miss triple-double seeking Rondo cleverly getting his shooters open looks as I saw one final time last night. And finally, I’ll miss playoff Rondo more than anything, but the circumstances suggested we weren’t going to see that any time soon.

Like Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Doc Rivers, and Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo did spectacular things in Boston that made the city a basketball town for a number of years amidst tremendous sporting success across the board. Rondo brought excitement to the Garden night after night and produced some unforgettable moments.

Think about the dunk on Jason Maxiell. Think about Game 2 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals when Rondo poured in 44 points, while adding 8 rebounds and 10 assists. Think about his 29 point, 18 rebound, 13 assist game vs. the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010. Think about all the times he faked the behind-the-back pass. Think about that championship.

The Celtics have a long way to go before they will return to the era that Rajon Rondo helped define. But this trade is a necessary step towards that next era, a move made without a trace of nostalgia, as Danny Ainge has avoided doing in a big way. Rondo’s exit marks the official end of a remarkable era to be a Celtics fan. I’m going to miss these guys a whole lot in the years to come, but ultimately, I have faith in what Ainge is doing.

One final question I’d like to pose is whether Rondo deserves a place in the rafters. Pierce will be there for sure. Garnett will probably be there. But will Rondo’s number 9 join them? He was not dominant on the 2008 team, but in the years and playoff runs that followed, it can be argued that Rondo was the catalyst of everything that went right or wrong. And more often than not, it went right. For all his critics, Rondo was one heck of a Celtic.

It is with a great deal of sadness that I bid farewell to Rajon Rondo as a Celtic. It’s been a fun 9 years.

Do you think Rondo deserves a place in the rafters? What are your thoughts on the trade overall? Please comment below. 


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Oh, How Outsiders Must Hate Boston Right Now

Sports fans around the country must really hate Boston right now. I’ll be the first the admit that I’ve been seriously spoiled in my professional sports fandom. Not only do we win more often than not and possess money to dump on free agents, but we are wonderfully obnoxious about it all – think Bill Belichick deciding to get an extra touchdown rather than kneeling the ball. The last two days have been a spectacular microcosm for the relative power and arrogance of Boston sports that I hope never ends.

To recap, the Patriots routed the NFC North-leading Lions 34-9, doing Patriots things like sitting Sports Illustrated cover boy Jonas Gray for being late to a practice with no consequence at all and running up the score with a needless touchdown. I love that Bill Belichick left Gray active for the game even though he had absolutely no intention of playing him. It may have left the Patriots with one fewer player, but he made the Lions, TV announcers, and millions of fantasy owners wait the whole game to see how long the in-house suspension would last. And how annoyed must Steelers fans be, not to mention fans of any team needing a good running back, that LaGarrette Blount wryly worked his way back onto the Patriots with a serious of childish acts that ultimately will carry no consequences?

At the same time, we had our much overlooked New England Revolution playing in the Eastern Conference Final against the New York Red Bulls and taking the first leg 2-1 on the road on a dubious Jermaine Jones goal. Hate us for scoring goals like that. Hate us for acquiring World Cup star Jones on a literal coin flip. And hate us for not caring one bit that we have a legitimately great soccer team right now – even the owners of the team, the Krafts, couldn’t be bothered to watch the Conference Finals.

There was a Celtics loss in the evening – we have to have one bad team, right? – but before the night was over there was news that the Red Sox had landed Hanley Ramirez for 5 years and 90 million dollars. Given their pursuit of Pablo Sandoval, the move was surprising, but maybe they’d gotten impatient with Sandoval, or believed his price was too high.

Wrong. We all woke to the news that Sandoval too was headed to Boston, for 5 years and roughly 98 million. Wow. The Red Sox spent almost $200 million in twelve hours on a pair of third basemen when the biggest need on the team is very clearly pitching. Somehow, Ben Cherington went in and stole the two best hitters on the market before everyone’s eyes. And it can be argued that he didn’t need to. You can sure hate us for that.

Cherington seemingly sold Ramirez on playing left field, a position he has never played in his big-league career. This is the same player who put up a stink for having to move from shortstop to third base not too long ago. Ramirez also will join an absurdly crowded outfield, although he won’t be the one worried about that. So what convinced him then that this was the place for him? The answer has to be money. Most teams can’t afford to spend money on superstars they need, but the Red Sox do it for players they want.

Sandoval on the other hand chose Boston over similar offers from two other teams, including the Giants, for whom he’d won three World Series titles and become a cult hero. He chose a worse team in a city with notoriously harsh critics in a more challenging league over his home team that didn’t try to undercut him. I can’t begin to understand why he’d make that decision, but I’m sure glad to have his switch-handed hitting bat in the lineup.

On a quick tangent, the Red Sox now have to sort out the mess in the outfield and acquire frontline starting pitching. I think it has to start with Jon Lester. Wouldn’t that be the cherry on top of this month if he signed? And then go after Cole Hamels with a package that includes Deven Marrero (whose path is now blocked for at least two years) and a couple other top prospects. Yoenis Cespedes probably has to go somewhere, so if the Phillies want him, he could be a chip. Next, trade some combination of outfielders for a second-tier pitcher.

I think out of the outfielders left, I want to keep Betts, Victorino, Nava and Castillo. We can’t bank on Victorino being healthy, but if he turns out to be anywhere near what he was two years ago, he’d be a valuable piece in right. And Nava’s left-handed bat and versatility could come in handy as a fourth or fifth outfielder. That leaves Craig, Holt, Bradley Jr., and Cespedes on the outside looking in.

At one point early Monday morning, 4 of ESPN’s top 6 headlines were Boston related. And frankly, although it was a pretty great day to be a fan, it wasn’t particularly out of the norm. We’ve had many days like that in years past. You should hate us for being obnoxious and arrogant. But I hope this run of excellence across the Boston sports never ends.

I don’t know if I necessarily believe that a culture of winning breeds winning, but I believe that a culture that expects winning demands winning. And as fans, we more than any other fan group won’t put up with losing at this point. Lose and we won’t accept it.