“Now I Can Die in Peace” (Book Review)

“Now I Can Die in Peace” (Book Review)

Bill Simmons is my favorite sports writer.

Over the course of his career, he has produced a ton of work, and much of it is focused on the teams that he loves the most: the Patriots, the Celtics, and the Red Sox.

simmonsHis writing can be long-winded, and is always extremely biased, but it can also be very funny, and he truly does care about what he is writing about. He has managed to create a great career as a sports writer, and still manages to love the game he writes about.

Really, there is nobody better to write about the 2004 Red Sox than Bill Simmons.

Over the course of the book, which is now in its third edition, he has accumulated articles that not only chronicle his pained history as a Red Sox fan, but his infatuation with the team, and the ups and downs of the ’04 season that culminated in the historic World Series win for the first time in 86 years.

simmons2The articles do well to show really how painful some of the memories of the Sox are for their longtime fans, and also show their nature of loving then hating someone on the team. The overractions are constant, the idolization of athletes is continual, and it is constantly fun to read.

One of the best parts about Simmons’ writing is the endless pop cultural references, and the tons of footnotes that he adds to his work. It is hilarious, and often spot on. His consistent use of The Shawshank Redemption as a means to compare things is always right, and gives us a firm ground for comparison in many of his articles.

Simmons takes us through the hurt, and the torture, of so many Red Sox moments of infamy: from the harrowing losses over the years, to the players leaving town for greener pastures, leaving behind them a rabid fanbase that wants nothing more than to celebrate a World Series victory with their beloved team. He takes us through the panic-inducing 2004 ALCS, where the Sox fell into a seemingly insurmountable 3-0 hole against the mighty, and hated, Yankees.

And he does it so expertly that he has created a true page turner of a book, even though we already know the ending.

The connection that Simmons has with the team is incredible, and at points, it becomes a book that is more about the relationships he has with people because of the Sox, than about the Sox themselves. His father plays a major role in so many of his stories, and his article after the Sox finally won is something that can truly tug at the heartstrings. Simmons is a versatile writer, who is easily able to make us mad along with him, or vividly recount the tale of a game that we watched, or make us actually laugh out loud while reading.

The '04 Series win was kind of a big deal.
The ’04 Series win was kind of a big deal.

There are tons of books about baseball, and many of them are very well done. Now I Can Die in Peace provides us with a little something more than others, specifically others that have chronicles the championship run: it has soul to it, and that soul comes from an endless passion for the team that the author has.

For any Red Sox fan looking to relive some pain and some glory, this book is a must read. For fans of other teams, it offers a great look at how the team came to be where it is today, now a team that has won 3 championships in the last 10 years.

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The Battered Bastards of Baseball (Film Review)

The Battered Bastards of Baseball (Film Review)

This documentary had been sitting in my Netflix queue for quite some time, and I finally got around to watching the film made about a Class-A baseball team that started playing in Portland, Oregon, during the 1970’s.

And boy, was I glad I did finally watch it.

The Battered Bastards of Baseball is an exceptional documentary about baseball, about the minor leagues, about one man’s baseball dreams, a city embracing the ultimate underdogs, taking on the system, and having fun playing a game. It is definitely worth watching.

Bing Russell managing the Portland Mavericks in the Battered Bastards of Baseball documentaryWhen the Portland Beavers left for Spokane, the city had lost its AAA baseball team, and the sport was essentially dead in the Oregon town. But one man, actor Bing Russell (father of Kurt), decided that he wanted to bring baseball back to Oregon, in the form of an independent Single-A team, which he named the Portland Mavericks.

Russell was obsessed with baseball, and had spent his youth around the famous New York Yankee teams of Lefty Grove and Joe DiMaggio, and had spent some time playing in the minor leagues himself. He was a true student of the game, analyzing it to death, and going to far as to make baseball documentaries that would teach others how to play the game the right way. He wrote about how to play in every possible situation.

This was not some actor trying to recapture his youth, it was an actor with a baseball dream, and one that he understood incredibly well.

Buying an expansion franchise for a miniscule price, he held open tryouts for the Mavericks, which led to the team being stocked with a bunch of no-names and men whose dreams of baseball had seemingly died when they were never drafted or signed by a big-league club and allowed to play in their massive farm systems.

By being an independent team, meaning there was no affiliation with a major league club, meant that the Mavericks were going to be playing against developing major league players, and the bonus babies that the big teams had down in the minors, to learn the game. They would always play with a chip on their shoulder.

And the Mavericks made the big league teams look bad. Because they were good. Russell assembled a team that would win, playing their hearts out to prove that teams made mistakes in not drafting them at some point during their careers. They weren’t all pimply-faced college kids, as many A teams are, but a mixture of youth and veterans. But they all held one thing in common: they all loved baseball, and they just wanted to play.

Since there was no MLB affiliation, Russell had to foot the bill for everything himself. And it took some time to build up a fan base in Portland, but when they did, they set records. The city began to truly embrace their gang of miscreants, the team that would go out on the field, play the game the right way, and have a ton of fun doing it.

battered3The Mavericks didn’t play for long in Portland, because the Pacific Coast League, the largest AAA league in baseball, eventually decided that they wanted back into Portland after seeing the massive crowds that were attending the Mav games. Due to baseball legislation, they were allowed to do this, and they simply had to buy back the territory owned by the Mavericks. This lead to a court battle based on the price they needed to pay, and here we see Russell standing up to the PCL, because he had built up something incredible for the low minors, and they just wanted to take it away from him.

The return of the PCL signaled the end of the Mavericks, but their legend can now be seen by everyone. They set attendance records for A ball, the team had winning records that were unmatched, and some of the players from the team went on to do big things (including an Oscar-nominated bat boy, and of course actor Kurt Russell, who was a player on the team, the inventor of Big League Chew, and a pitcher who made it back to the majors). The Mavericks proved that even as the only non-affiliated minor league team in the country at the time, they could make it work, and they could play the game that they loved.

The story is told through interviews with some former players, the commissioner of the league, the bat boy, and others, and they all look back fondly at their time with the Mavericks. Their individual stories are great and compelling, as are the results of some of their lives.

This is an excellent documentary, and a definite must-see for any baseball fan. It shows the possibility of the love of the game, and has a great us-versus-everyone storyline that is undeniable. The Battered Bastards of Baseball is well worth the time to check out.

Goodbye Jeter, From a Sox Fan

Goodbye Jeter, From a Sox Fan

As a fan of the Boston Red Sox, I should hate Derek Jeter. All Red Sox fans should. He was a great ballplayer, one who tormented the Sox for years and years. During the heyday of the Yankees, he always had his hand in shattering the hopes and dreams of Red Sox Nation time and again, as he led the dreaded Yankees to five World Series titles.

jeter2But looking back now, now that we have won three World Series of our own, broken the Curse, and remained one of baseball’s most well-run organizations, it is possible to look back at the career of The Captain with some respect.

Had the Sox never come back from that 3-0 deficit in 2004, and never emerged as champs again in 2007 and 2013, Jeter would probably remain one of the most hated people among Sox fans. But finally, we overcame him and his team, and are champions ourselves, so now we can give him the respect that he deserves.

I know that he is being lauded as such, but I don’t think that Jeter is a top-5 Yankee of all-time. It is impossible to crack that list, with the truly impressive list of some of the best players of all-time sporting the pinstripes during their careers. Despite his Gold Gloves, he was never really the best defensive shortstop out there, and his bat would never destroy you. But his timing would. When there was an incredible play to be made, or a clutch hit to be had, it always seemed that it was #2 doing it.

Off the field, despite having an impressive list of gorgeous A-list girlfriends, a string of beautiful women leaving his apartment, he was never embroiled in controversy, as so many athletic stars are these days. He kept his nose clean, at least to the best of our knowledge. And this allows us to like him even more, because he never became a true villain in the sense of someone like Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens.

We were only able to hate him because he was good.

I watched his final game at Yankee Stadium the other day, and when he came up in the bottom of the ninth, it was almost guaranteed that he would do something. Hitting a walk-off single to secure a victory for his team was pretty much expected. Sure, they may have tossed him a ball that was easy to hit, but he still got it done. And that is all that matters. It was a perfect sendoff for a magnificent career.

jeterI always liked that he wore #2, now the final single-digit number that a New York Yankee will ever be able to wear, as his will be retired soon. Letting him have that number was a historic move, and he honoured it throughout his career. He does stand with the likes of Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, and Mantle, and that single number on his back was always a symbol of that, of his greatness.

Even as a fan of his most hated rival, it is easy to look at Jeter with respect, and some admiration. He had a great career, and in five years, it is all but guaranteed that we will be seeing him again when he is inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

It is a place that he belongs, among all the other greats of this amazing game, and as much as I don’t want to see another Yankee cap in bronze there, he deserves it, and he belongs there. Even just being the all-time hits leader on such a hallowed team is enough to get him in to Cooperstown, in my opinion.

In a season that served as a year-long sendoff for #2, it has become tiresome reading all of the articles about him. Seeing all of the strange, and somewhat cheesy gifts that teams presented him with over the course of his farewell tour. But now that it is over, with only two games left on his career (being played in Boston, no less), we can really look at him and appreciate what he has done for the game of baseball.

He played, he won, and he did it with class.

Congratulations to Derek Jeter on a great career. I won’t miss seeing you rip the hearts out of Red Sox fans, but I will miss having you be a part of baseball.

Because that’s where a true ballplayer belongs. A part of the game, forever.

The King Returns: A Fringe NBA Fan’s View

The King Returns: A Fringe NBA Fan’s View

I am not a very big basketball fan, to say the least. I find it difficult to watch games on TV, as, like many people, I find they drag on in the waning minutes of each game, where each team seemingly has an endless supply of timeouts, and a final minute can take a half hour to play out. I have been to a couple of NBA games, and find the in-person experience much more entertaining. I follow who the stars are, and can tell you who won the championships in each year, but that might be it.

For me, like millions of people, the heyday of the league was during the days of Michael Jordan and the reign of the Chicago Bulls, when every kid with a basketball hoop on their driveway was a Jordan fan. For me, those days are long gone.

But I have been trying to pay more attention to basketball over the past couple of years, even engaging in a fantasy league that I inexplicably won (I had Kevin Durant, and I’m pretty sure that’s what did it for me).

Like the rest of the sporting world, I have been following the LeBron James Decision 2.0, and have opinions, just like any other fan of sports.

Back where he belongs.
Back where he belongs.

Today, James announced that he would be leaving the Miami Heat for his former, and hometown, team, the Cleveland Cavaliers.

And this is great news. For a few reasons.

Like many people, I had been trained to hate the Heat after they created the Big 3. Cheering for them would be like cheering for the New York Yankees, a team that simply buys themselves a championship, and seems to be devoid of a soul. We all knew what Miami fans were. Fringe fans, who would only go see a winner. Their attendance records over the years definitely reflect this. They didn’t seem like a city worthy of having such a dynastic team. And the Heat did well, the experiment worked. They went to four straight finals, and won two of them. Sure, they probably should have won all four to make themselves legends, but that is still a pretty impressive record, leaving the rest of the Eastern Conference chasing them since the day James told us he was taking his talents to South Beach.

With his return to Cleveland, James is coming home. He is from Akron, was drafted by the Cavs, and spend the formative years of his career there. They even went to the finals once, getting rightfully whipped by the Lakers when they got there.

But now, the Cavs are a team on the rise, and having the best player in the world rejoin them makes them an immediate contender. They are a young team, and in a couple of years, if they are able to keep it all together, they have the look of a team that can win year after year, giving the downtrodden fans of Cleveland something to cheer for in their title-less town.

James will join a plethora of young talent, and a group of fellow #1 picks. Kyle Irving, Anthony Bennett, and Andrew Wiggins (unless he is traded for Kevin Love) will be a part of the future that will soon dominate the league. This is to go along with Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters as well. Seems like a pretty good group. If they can grow together, they will truly be a force to be reckoned with, and the Cleveland championship drought should end at some point. They are good side pieces to the best player in the game, which, let’s be honest, is important in basketball, where having one great player is enough to make you a good, contending team.

I believe that LeBron made the right choice by going home. He should probably have never left Cleveland in the first place, as it made him look like a mercenary. He was the best player in the league, and should have convinced others to join him in Cleveland, instead of him packing up and moving somewhere else to chase a title. It made him look less great than he really was, like he was the piece, instead of the centerpiece. If, and more likely when, he wins in Cleveland, he will be a legend. Going back to a small market makes him look like a better person. Trying to win for his home makes him look like someone who truly cares about Ohio. And this is good for him.

With one choice, James has, in my mind, gone from being one of the greatest villains in the NBA, to one of the good guys. He is already cleaning up his image by making this choice. It will be easier to cheer for him now that is a Cav again. In the same way that it was always easy to cheer for Jordan, even though it is in our nature to hate the greatest player and the greatest team.

In another way, this is a cool thing for the Canadian basketball fan. The Canadian Cavaliers, with three Canucks on their roster, were already on their way to becoming Canada’s Team (except for those few people outside of Toronto that actually cheer for the Raptors). Now, it is much easier to cheer for them, because we know that they will be good. It is nice to watch our homegrown talent play at the highest level, it is even better to watch them when they aren’t completely terrible.

In my opinion, the Return of the King is nothing but good things. It brings a star back to where he belongs, it ruins a troublesome partnership in a city that is tough to cheer for, and it turns a villain into a returning hero.

Great choice by LeBron, and it will be interesting over the next few years to see how well the Canada Cavaliers are able to do. I may still be a fringe fan, but this one move is something that could help draw my interest back to the NBA.

Lester K’s 15

Lester K’s 15

For years now, I have predicted that Jon Lester would win the American League Cy Young award as the best pitcher. Sure, he hasn’t really come close, but he has always been so full of promise, that it seemed like he was always ready to take another step in his development, from being a big, strong staff ace to one of the best in baseball.

He has had some really good years, and some forgettable ones (like most things from the Bobby Valentine era in Boston).

lester2On Saturday, Lester put together one of his best ever outings, by striking out 15 Oakland A’s. I was lucky enough to be watching the game on MLB.tv, and it was impressive. It is exciting to see any pitcher hit double digits in K’s in a game, but 15 is almost unheard of. Sure, there were the days of Roger Clemens fanning 20, but even in today’s pitcher dominance, this many strikeouts is unheard of.

Over the course of 8 innings, Lester fanned 15 and allowed only 1 hit. Of course, the Red Sox bullpen made it interesting by almost letting things fall apart in the ninth, but the Sox won 6-3.

This is the type of game that I always knew Lester was capable of, and that is able to do every time he takes the mound. His stuff was almost unhittable, and he demonstrated tons of movement on all of his pitches. Throughout the game, he was focused on working hitters both outside and inside, painting the corners of the plate to the endless frustration of the A’s. And this included many borderline calls that didn’t go in Lester’s favour. He probably could have had more strikeouts than he did.

So far this season, Lester has been the victim of a low-performing offense when he is on the mound, but his strong stats cannot be ignored, despite his 3-4 record. In only one game has he had an ERA above 3.00, and he has had at least 6 strikeouts in every start. His season ERA sits at an impressive 2.59, with 58 K’s in 48 innings and a pretty good 1.09 WHIP. And don’t forget, he pitches in the tough AL East, where he has already faced the Orioles, Yankees (twice), and Blue Jays. Throw in the MLB-leading Brewers, and division leading A’s, and the competition he has to face is pretty solid.

Maybe it is no surprise that Lester is in a contract year, and only received a lowball $70 million dollar offer from the Sox in the offseason. Lester is pitching for his $100 million+ contract, and it is tough to argue that he doesn’t deserve it, especially when you see the other 9-figure extensions less comparable pitchers have been receiving.

For now, Red Sox fans should be pleased with the fire Lester has pitched with this year, and rejoice in the 15 K gem he tossed on Saturday. It was something to behold.

2014 MLB Predictions

2014 MLB Predictions

Even though I will surely regret trying to pick the standings for the upcoming season, I might as well give it a shot. Last year, I was way off in my bold prediction of a Washington Nationals vs. Kansas City Royals World Series. I guess there is no harm in trying again! Except for my inevitable hurt pride in being so wrong about things.

AL East

  1. Tampa Bay Rays
  2. Boston Red Sox
  3. Baltimore Orioles
  4. Toronto Blue Jays
  5. New York Yankees
  • raysAlways the most difficult division to pick, because there are three very good teams in here, and two others that have great teams on paper but have yet to deliver it on the field. It’s hard to argue with the Rays’ success over the past years.
  • So much went right for the Red Sox last year, it will be difficult to duplicate that. But, they made some smart, low-cost moves over the summer, and should very much be in contention again. I like these guys, because they are tough and scrappy.
  • Yes, I’m picking the Yankees for last place. That rotation is just a huge question mark for me, and that starting infield is brutal. One injury to their old men roaming the shale, and they’re done. Their outfield is definitely improved, but that is only three of nine positions. Brian McCann is an upgrade at catcher, however.
  • I thought about going with the Orioles to win this division, but they are always such a tease. Third is where they belong.
  • Those poor Jays. Even if they put together a year that is injury-free, they will have too tough a time getting past the other monsters in the division. Too many questions in the rotation, as well.

AL Central

  1. Detroit Tigers
  2. Kansas City Royals
  3. Cleveland Indians
  4. Chicago White Sox
  5. Minnesota Twins
  • tigersHard to pick against the pitching of the Tigers. They can basically roll out three aces in a row, and the rest of the rotation is pretty solid, as well. I think their bullpen is improved.
  • This year, the Royals start to put it together. After a few seasons of expectations, they started to get it together in the second half of last year. They keep it going. Definitely a team trending upwards.
  • The Indians put together something special last year, making it to the one-game playoff. I don’t think they can do it again, but they are another fun, scrappy team. Love what Francona has done there.

 

AL West

  1. Oakland A’s
  2. Texas Rangers
  3. Seattle Mariners
  4. LA Angels
  5. Houston Astros
  • a'sNot much changing at the top. The Rangers have still more firepower, but there is something about this team that is lacking over the past couple of years, and doesn’t seem to be fixed. It’s finish. They lack finish. Prince Fielder could have a huge year there, if he doesn’t wilt in the Texas sun.
  • The A’s are just consistent. They are a good team, even if they seem to lack good players.
  • Finally, an off-season where the Angles don’t overpay someone. Trout is incredible, but the aging lineup around him won’t do much to help him out.

 

NL East

  1. Washington Nationals
  2. Atlanta Braves
  3. NY Mets
  4. Philadelphia Phillies
  5. Miami Marlins
  • natsThe Mets will actually probably be the bottom of this division, because there is a lot to like about the young Marlins.
  • I feel that last year was a season-long mistake by the Nats. They are better than what they showed last year, after their success the year before. They pull it back together this year.
  • Is it just me, or does the Phillies just seem like a collection of dinosaurs at this point?

 

NL Central

  1. St. Louis Cardinals
  2. Pittsburgh Pirates
  3. Cincinnati Reds
  4. Milwaukee Brewers
  5. Chicago Cubs
  • cardsShould be the most interesting division race again this year.
  • Impossible to bet against the always-consistent Cardinals. That rotation is excellent, arguably the best in the NL.
  • I think the Pirates contend again. They had players last year, on their miracle run, that had off-years. If they get it going as well, they can be good. Exciting team to watch, as well.
  • The Reds just kind of stay the same. Pretty good. Not excellent.

 

NL West

  1. LA Dodgers
  2. Arizona Diamondbacks
  3. San Francisco Giants
  4. San Diego Padres
  5. Colorado Rockies
  • dodgersThat LA payroll is crazy. As is their roster. Even with the inevitable injuries, they have bought the depth to stay competitive. Another very good stable of pitchers. Seems like they have a dozen starters to choose from.
  • Arizona is building, and this division always seems to have tons of movement in it.
  • The Giants are usually good every second year, and this would be their year again. Don’t count them out, but I feel there are a few too many gaps to oust the Dodgers here.

 

AL Wild Cards: Red Sox, Royals

NL Wild Cards: Braves, Pirates

AL Champion: A’s

NL Champion: Nationals

World Series Champion: Nationals

 

Red Sox Back to Road Red

Red Sox Back to Road Red

I don’t really post enough about uniforms on my blog. I love uniforms, and I follow several websites that keep me up to date on all the tweaks and changes that go on through a season. For true uni-nerds, you really need to check out uni-watch.com for literally everything from the four major North American sports to Japanese soccer league changes. It covers everything.

While the uni sites out there do amazing jobs of reporting changes, I want to comment on one change, that albeit slight, is significant in my mind.

red sox redThe Boston Red Sox have gone back to a red script on their road uniforms. They won the World Series in 2004 and 2007 with these roadies, then they changed to the blue font that has been seen for the past couple of seasons. While I didn’t mind the change, it made the road greys seem more bland, and for a team with Red in their nickname, it was lacking something for sure.

It is a welcome change back to the way it was before. The red offers more pop to the name of the city, and it just makes for a better colour palette, in my opinion. The Red Sox should have Red.

red sox blueWhile the blue tended to have a pretty classic, old-school look, in a sport where all road teams are wearing grey as their primary colour, I feel like it is important to have certain aspects stand out on the field. Even the Yankees, with their timeless uniforms, have a dull look on the road, with their combo of grey and blue. The red adds some much needed spark, and will appear more vividly on TV, and in person.

I love the change. Plus, I already own a red font road uniform, so now I can take it back out of retirement!