Wild American Gooner

When Sports Are More Than Just Sports


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Time for Accountability at Fenway

I’ve never understood the fascination of media guys needing to declare a season dead as early as they can. Are people really going to look back at the end of the year and be impressed with your ability to say correctly that a 27-38 team isn’t going to make the playoffs? For me at least, I’d be more impressed with somebody who didn’t give up on a team this bad. That being said, I’m just about at the point where I’m ready to give up on this Red Sox team.

The simple fact of the matter is that this is not a good baseball team. And no matter how many team meetings the team has, nothing’s going to change until the players start playing fundamental baseball. This isn’t about hitting home runs or making diving catches. It’s about knocking down grounders to keep runners from taking extra bases and moving runners over when they’re on base. Last night, Mookie Betts led off an inning with a single, then got picked off on the fourth pickoff attempt of the at-bat. That can’t happen. But it’s not just one play every game. It’s inning after inning that seasoned veterans fail to make the necessary plays.

But what makes me believe this team is so unlikely to turn things around is the lack of accountability on display every night. Players are required to make themselves available to the media after the games. But far too often, everybody has cleared out after a bad loss. David Ortiz and Hanley Ramirez have left without a whimper. They might be out of answers, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need to fulfill their contractual obligations and speak.

Before yesterday’s loss, Dustin Pedroia pulled the ‘blame the media’ card, saying the team is done listening to all the hate. But how can he blame the media for blasting the players when those players aren’t showing up and backing each other up off the field, let alone on it? I admire Pedroia for wanting everyone to ban together, but calling out the media is the wrong move. It is yet another failure to be accountable.

I’m not saying the team needs to apologize for playing poorly. Rather, they need to accept that the boos they are hearing at Fenway and the criticism they are receiving from the media are a very real reflection of the way they’ve been playing. When Pedroia got a mock cheer for catching a pop-up Sunday afternoon after losing two earlier, he was livid. He believes he deserves more respect from the fans. But what he and the rest of the team need to realize right now is that the fans are appropriately fed up. The post-World Series grace period was last year. We are tired of seeing last-place, underachieving teams full of players who appear to to be doing little more than just collecting paychecks. And by paying to see bad baseball, we have the right to boo.

I don’t want to rag on Pedroia too much, especially when he’s one of two or three players performing well this year. But his comments the last two days are worrying. With nothing else to go on because so many people are staying silent, we have to take his words as representative of the team. And to me, these words are a statement of complacency and a sign that they aren’t looking in the mirror.

I’m not set on getting rid of John Farrell or Ben Cherington at the moment, but I do think something needs to be done to shake up this roster. Bring up Jackie Bradley Jr. or Allen Craig and give them a real chance in the outfield. Take Mike Napoli out of the lineup for more than just a two-day mental break. Take Hanley Ramirez out of the game in the 6th inning for defensive reasons. Do something to make everybody less comfortable. Maybe then they’ll see themselves for what they really are right now.

But regardless, this is the team we’ve got this year. We’ve got to hope that they’re going to play better even if it’s hard to believe. But that doesn’t mean I’m opposed to booing Red Sox players simply because they are Red Sox. They aren’t entitled to my undying adulation even as Sweet Caroline plays in the background.

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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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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.


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If You Give Up on Özil, I’ll Give Up on You

International Breaks serve to do two things: 1. Get every Arsenal player injured. 2. Make every Arsenal fan believe the sky if falling. With no Arsenal action to speak of for two weeks, only bad things can happen. And only bad things have happened. After a full fortnight of negativity, starting with the loss to Chelsea, everyone has forgotten how well Arsenal played on October 1st. Saturday’s came cannot come soon enough

Obviously, there are a ton of concerns defensively right now. Depending on the severity of Laurent Koscielny’s lingering achilles problems, Arsenal could be giving full Premier League debuts to both Hector Bellerin (Calum Chambers is suspended for a match) and Isaac Hayden against Hull on Saturday. I have more trust in those two than most I suspect, but we’d all feel more confident were than another defender in the squad. Alas, there isn’t. But against the likes of Hull and Anderlecht, one would hope Arsenal has the firepower to outscore a team if they can’t keep a clean sheet.

But the story this break has revolved around Mesut Özil. Early last week, the German soccer federation announced the Arsenal playmaker had injured his knee and would be out 10-12 weeks. When I saw the news, I was heartbroken. Özil had finally been stringing together some great performances and was noticeably forming a great understanding with new striker Danny Welbeck. But looking at the fixture list, I reasoned that if Arsenal could survive any three month stretch without their best player, it was now. Sure, there are a few tough tests mixed in, but for the most part, the schedule looks nothing like what it was in September.

In Özil’s three month absence, Arsenal has no lack of players capable of filling his role. I’ve been reading that Jack Wilshere has been having an excellent run with England, so maybe he should get the nod in the number 10 role. Santi Cazorla could also slide over, or Tomas Rosicky could return to the lineup. Should Cazorla move inside, that might give Lukas Podolski or Joel Campbell a run on the left, if only until Theo Walcott returns. If Wilshere gets moved forward, Abou Diaby or Francis Coquelin will need to come into the side alongside the holding midfielder. The only option I’d be worried about is putting Aaron Ramsey in the number 10 role when he comes back.

Speaking of Walcott, the images of he and Serge Gnabry back in full training brightened my otherwise gloomy international break state this morning. I feel like many people have forgotten about Walcott, but he could absolutely be a game-changer. Couple his pace with Welbeck and with Alexis Sanchez and suddenly Arsenal becomes lethal in the final third. I cannot wait for Walcott to get back on the field. Just imagine what it will be like when Walcott, Sanchez and Özil can play together.

But the story didn’t end with the injury for Özil. The media has used this injury as an excuse to write about how Wenger is fed up with Özil, how he wants to sell him in January, how Özil is fed up with Arsenal and how he also wants to leave. All of a sudden, every step that Özil took in the right direction in September has been forgotten. The media has used an unfortunate injury (a knee injury is unlucky, not the product of a lazy player or poor coaching) to return to their relentless Özil hatred. Frankly, it’s appalling. While I don’t believe a lick of what’s being written, in the international break, it’s hard not to pay attention to it.

Why would Arsene Wenger give up on his record signing now – a record signing who started brightly at Arsenal only to be derailed by an injury, proceeded to win a World Cup, and has steadily grown more influential this year? Özil is the answer to Arsenal’s problems, not the cause of them. Surround him with players that complement him and he becomes one of the game’s very best players. Watch some tape of Real Madrid from only two years ago and tell me you’d sell him. I dare you.

That the rumored price of a deal to Bayern Munich is 30 million pounds is an absolute joke. Arsenal bought him for 42, and despite what the media would have you believe, he has not lost more than 25% of his skills. Big teams like Bayern have the funds to overpay, so why Arsenal would ever accept a low-balling bid like that for Özil I don’t know. Would I sell him for 45? Maybe. Only if Wenger brought back a Javi Martinez type in the deal. But other than that, absolutely not.

So please, Mr. Wenger, from the bottom of my heart, I implore you not to give up on Özil. He is your best player and your key to success. You lose when he plays poorly and win when he plays well. If that doesn’t tell you he’s important to the squad, nothing will. Change your tactics to work with Özil, don’t try to change him. If you do give up on our number 11, I will have no choice but to give up on you.


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Rusney Castillo, My U.S. Open Prediction and Some EPL Thoughts

With classes beginning tomorrow morning, I thought I’d get a post up tonight before I’m swamped with back to school meetings and work. This post will be a collection of some sports related thoughts from the last few days.

I’ll start with the Red Sox’s signing of Cuban defector Rusney Castillo over the weekend to a seven-year, $72.5 million deal. Having never seen him play, my gut reaction to the deal is that it seems like an awful lot of money for a player who has yet to prove himself at this level. I know most of the recent Cuban arrivals have worked out, but there is no guarantee that Castillo will do the same. This signing also doesn’t fit the mold of a team that has declared itself a frugal spender on the free agent market. Should he struggle, I expect to hear a lot of  people asking why this money couldn’t have been added on to an extension for Jon Lester earlier this summer.

The new center fielder is described as having a plus bat, but with middling levels of power. He’s a slightly above average defender but he certainly won’t be Jackie Bradley Jr. out there. (For the record, watching Bradley play center field has probably been my favorite part of this season.) And Castillo’s not a speed demon either. All in all, he sounds like a good player, but not a superstar. Yet comparisons are made to Yasiel Puig, and Yoenis Cespedes himself said Castillo is a better player than he. Based on the scouting reports I’ve read, something has to give.

But don’t get me wrong. I do like the deal, as I think it puts the Red Sox in a position of power this offseason, with an abundance of talented players they can use as trade bait in potential deals for the Giancarlo Stanton or Cole Hamels types. The outfield now includes Castillo, Cespedes and Allen Craig, three talented hitters, plus Shane Victorino, Daniel Nava, Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts. All of these players carry value. My guess at this point is that Craig, Nava and Bradley Jr. won’t be around next year, but it could easily be Cespedes and Victorino making way.

This signing is yet another statement from the Red Sox management that they will make all the effort they can to put a World Series contending team on the field next year. Worst to first to worst to first might be within reach. Adding frontline pitching remains a must, but the offense looks like it will be much improved. It’s not often a team struggling as badly as the Red Sox can have such reason for optimism. I hope we get our first taste of Castillo in Boston soon.

Switching to tennis, the U.S. Open starts tomorrow. I say this about a lot of things, but the event is truly one of my favorites. It will be tough for me to watch a lot of the action in the early going, but I will tune in when I can. Night tennis in Arthur Ashe Stadium is spectacular. And the music on the ESPN U.S. Open commercials gets me every time. It must be love.

I’ll have more to say in the next two weeks about the tennis itself, potentially picking the results of the later matches, but today I’m just going to offer my prediction for the winners. On the women’s side, I like Simona Halep to win it all. She has been climbing the ladder to stardom recently, and I think she will find it in New York.

On the men’s side, I think Roger Federer will finally get another Grand Slam title. Playing in front of the sport’s biggest crowds that will be on his side at all times, Federer will ride the wave of support all the way to title. He will look young again. As long as I’ve followed tennis, it feels like veteran, big name players have performed better in the U.S. Open than in any other major. There might be early upsets, but the stars are always there in the end. Federer has been playing well recently, and he won’t have to play Novak Djokovic until the final in this tournament. Without Rafael Nadal in his way this time, I think we’ll see Roger lifting the trophy in a fortnight.

And now to the EPL. This morning, I tuned in to the Sunderland-Manchester United match to check up on the relegation battle. To me, there was no question that Sunderland looked the better side today. United were sloppy and had no spark to their play. Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney were largely invisible up front, and defensively, the storied side were a joke. I don’t understand why the supposed tactical genius that is van Gaal is forcing the 3-5-2 on his team. They are simply not built for it, as they neither possess any true wing backs at the moment nor any talent at center back. If the defense is so bad they need a back five against Sunderland, how many will they need back against the likes of Chelsea?

Watching United drop points has become as regular as my trips to the grocery store. It’s getting increasingly funny. The seemingly imminent arrival of Angel di Maria adds a fantastic player to their squad, but it doesn’t address any of their problems right now. Van Gaal’s system also will see di Maria moved away from areas of the pitch in which he is most comfortable – assuming van Persie and Rooney remain up top with Juan Mata in the hole behind them. United will have spent an astounding amount of money this summer without addressing any of their biggest needs.

Tomorrow’s Liverpool-Manchester City match should be a fascinating one. Neither team was particularly impressive in their wins last weekend, and each will be looking to lay their claim as the league’s best side. With Mario Balotelli joining up with Liverpool, Daniel Sturridge has a point to prove. He and Balotelli would make an odd pairing up front, one I don’t expect to succeed long term. Sturridge has been on fire in the last year and should have the starting spot locked down going forward should Liverpool elect to play with a lone striker. But he’ll need to do a lot today to quiet all of the Balotelli fans out there. My prediction for this match is a 2-2 draw.

And lastly, the more I thought about the Arsenal game yesterday, the more satisfied I became with the result. We are incredibly lucky to be at four points after these first two Premier League matches. Things could easily be a lot worse. It was always going to be a tough stretch with players coming back late due to the World Cup. But as long as they get through Wednesday’s vital Champions League match, the team should come out of it fine. Arsene Wenger could be breathing a large sigh of relief soon.