An NBA playoff preview

The NBA playoffs kicked off this week in what promises to be a unique happening for fans and players alike. The biggest coronavirus change has been not having home court crowds to affect the game. As great a job as Adam Silver and company have done, that can’t be approximated let alone duplicated. But, since it beats the alternative, I’ll go with what I can get.

Here are a few things to keep an eye on as the second season evolves.

No Home Court Advantage: This helps all lower seeds who never have it, because unlike the Stanley Cup playoffs home court matters in the NBA playoffs. Tough luck for the Bucks, who lose out on home court throughout after killing it at home in going 30-5, but they’ll survive. Not sure about Philadelphia, who was a league-best 31-4 at home and a horrid 12-26 on the road.

The Silver Lining: (1) After their three-month layoff, players will be a lot fresher entering these playoffs, so the fatigue factor should be much less than usual. (2) No travel between games will also help the fatigue factor. (3) Since they have to jam more games into a shorter time window, games will be every other day, eliminating the excruciating TV-induced two- and three-day waits between games.

Players to Watch: Here are five to keep an eye on.

Damian Lillard: Not much is expected in the 1-8 Lakers and Blazers matchup. But Lillard comes in averaging 37 per in the bubble, which included games of 45, 51 and 61. With Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo out, L.A. has no one to cover him, which should make things less comfortable for them.

T.J. Warren: He had a 53-point game and three more in the 30’s in the bubble against a season average of 19.8. A coming-of-age run or just a hot streak? That’s the question going in as Indy faces a Miami team that plays D hard.

Anthony Davis: Hard to believe, but in his first seven seasons he went to the playoffs just twice. He’s a likable guy, but after the shameless way he forced his way out of Nola he must deliver, as the Lakers ain’t some team that’s never won before and they traded their entire future to get him.

Luka Doncic: After a breakout second year that saw him average 28.8, 9.8 and 8.8 in points, rebounds and assists, it should be fun watching the kid with the Larry Bird game play when the games really count. I’m looking forward to seeing how the NBA’s next truly great player does.

Is LeBron Still LeBron? With LeBron 35 and trailing Michael by three rings, LBJ needs his fourth title now for reasons of the LeBron-vs.-MJ debate. The rebounds, scoring and shooting percentage were down a touch, but given the career-best 10.2 assists per, that speaks to adjusting to playing with someone as good as Davis. It also speaks to a basketball IQ that will let him adjust to aging better than most on his Mt. Olympus level. Given all that, he still looks pretty good to me.

Glimpse Into Philly’s Future: The rumor mill has wondered all year, is it time to split up the Ben SimmonsJoel Embiid duo? Well, with Simmons injured and done, the brass will see what they are without him, in the same way the Celtics found out they were better without Kyrie Irving two years ago. If they overachieve, bet on a Simmons trade and a reconstructed team of bombers stationed around the big fella. If it’s a bad one and done, while small-ball Houston rolls, it could be goodbye Joel.

Most Interesting Round 1 Series — Oak City vs. Houston: There’s real hate in this series and nothing drives a series better than teams having real animosity for the other. Chris Paul hates James Harden and the flopping, always whining Harden hates Paul. It’s why CP3 wanted out of Houston to land with a surprising team still standing after losing both Paul George and Russell Westbrook last summer thanks to savvy maneuvering by GM Sam Presti. Since I loathe the entire Houston franchise, from the owner to how Mike D’Antoni coaches to its two stars with the me-first games to even the uniforms, I’ll be pulling for Oak City. Emotion aside, most think Houston should win, but in a test of their total three-ball game I’ll stand up for bigs everywhere and take the Thunder.

Celts Underachievers: I heard some folks recently saying you’re a “green teamer” if you’re unwilling to say the Celtics underachieved by finishing behind Toronto. The C’s certainly had some consistency issues and left some wins on the table. But their .667 winning percentage is 55 wins in an 82-game season. I had them for 49 before the year, and given their punch-less bench, 55 seems about right to me. As for Toronto, after winning 56 games they lost Kawhi Leonard and then played on a 60-win pace this year. For context, when Larry Bird missed all but six games in 1988-89 the Celtics went from 57 wins to 42 without him. So I tip my cap to the Raptors for overachieving and refusing to give in.

Celts Expectations: How they do the next eight weeks depends on consistency in two areas, defending the perimeter and shooting threes, though it would be nice if they got better at finding easy shots and getting to the line when the bombs aren’t dropping. Especially Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward, who tends to disappear when the first couple don’t fall. More important is forcing three-ball shooters off the line because they’ll lose if they let the threes rain down. They did all of that in their signature bubble win over Toronto, but that’s just one game. So the question is, can they consistently do that night in and night out?

That will take growing maturity from Jaylen Brown and Tatum, along with a tougher Hayward.

The week that was

With news coming fast and furious in the restart of three major sports along with more from NFL camps and in college football, we’ll try to keep up with it all, through a series of news briefs to look at the headlines from emerging stories.

Bloom off the Rose at Fenway: With the Red Sox having the worst pitching staff I’ve ever seen them have, I’d say Chaim Bloom’s bargain-basement shopping approach to finding value pitchers is off to a rocky start. Though even more shocking is that six teams in MLB have even worse team earned run averages than the Sox’s 4.74. Also, seeing the statistics-driven decision-making forcing Ron Roenicke to bat lead-footed J.D. Martinez second is not a confidence-inspiring move either. It was done to let them go lefty-righty through the fifth spot in the order to combat late game relief pitching match-ups even though it puts their best RBI guy hitting directly behind the eighth and ninth dead spots in the order 80 percent of his at-bats. Plus the match-up issue is overrated when guys like Xander Bogaerts hit .317 against right-handed pitching in 2019 and just .291 vs. lefties, while J.D. hit 17 homers and drove in 65 runs against the righties. The order thing changed fairly quickly, but it’s not a good sign that they don’t realize batting that guy there probably knocks 30 RBI off his total in a full season. It’s early in the development process for Bloom, so the headline is a little unfair. But since I’m a guy who thinks it’s smarter to not outsmart yourself as baseball so often does in favor of letting top talent just play, let’s just say I’m not really impressed so far.

The Double Negative and More Thing on Red Sox Pitching Award: Does Matt Barnes never not walk someone when he pitches? I’m just asking ’cause every single time I watch him pitch he’s pitching in trouble due to unnecessary walks. As someone who mourns the passing of the three-hour-and-42-minute game I find it beyond annoying.

Michigan-OSU Rivalry Kicked Up a Notch:Good to see local lad Ryan Day go right back at mouthy Michigan coach/instigator Jim Harbaugh at Big 10 media day last week after he made claims about improper coaching going on at thee Ohio State. Day basically said you worry about your team and I’ll worry about mine. With the game earlier than usual in mid-October Harbaugh might be just getting in some early head games, or, more likely, damage control given the heat he must be feeling for being 0-5 vs. OSU after last year’s 56-27 rout. Especially with Big Blue having lost 15 of the last 16 to their bitter rival. As for Day, word was he later told associates he wants to hang 100 on Harbaugh this time, which given last year’s thumping might be doable.

Plymouth State Alumni News Notes: Of course hanging 100 on Michigan wouldn’t be good news for Plymouth State alumni who still fondly remember the dominant days between 1993 and 1995 when head man Don Brown’s teams went 25-6. He’s now defensive coordinator for Big Blue in Ann Arbor and 100 on the resume is rather unsightly.

Celtic/NBA Alumni News: The sad news of the weekend came from Nashua/Bishop Guertin alum Mike Lupica. The New York Daily News columnist writing one tweet asked the basketball world to pray for his long-time friend Paul Westphal as the one-time Celtic/NBA Hall of Famer has brain cancer.

Celtics Cement 3-Seed in East: Friday’s not-as-close-as-the-122-100-final score-indicated win over Toronto was arguably their best and most satisfying of the year. It featured a balanced attack with seven guys in double figures, but most notably had the kind of fierce defense by all of its parameter defenders that they have not shown enough of in the regular season. The latter suffocated the Raptors potent 3-ball game and that will be paramount for them to duplicate come playoff time. So take it as a good sign.

The 2016 Nightmare: While he didn’t have a strong game, seeing Raptors All-Star Pascal Siakam Friday again brought reminders from the 2016 draft. Danny Ainge had three picks in Round 1 and started by taking Jaylen Brown third overall. Given theversatile inside, mid-game and long-range scoring threat he’s turned into, that was a great pick. But then (gulp) came Guerschon Yabusele at 15. Really? A finesse player being 30 pounds overweight on draft night wasn’t a red flag? Next came Ante Zizic at 23. An in-the-witness-protection 7-footer after landing in Cleveland in the horrid Kyrie Irving trade. Four picks later, the NBA’s savviest judge of young talent, Masai Ujiri, took Siakam for Toronto. Missing him twice gets me every time.

Groundhog Day – The Football Edition: Really? They’re gonna give the XFL yet another try? Yup. Not even four months after it filed for bankruptcy again, ex-Miami footballer turned mega-movie star Dwayne Johnson, better known as the Rock, bought the XFL remnants for $15 million last week with a pledge to try it a third time. That will make it five tries overall for spring football, starting with the USFL in the 1980s. That one at least produced real talent and some eventual big names like Famers Steve Young, Jim Kelly and Reggie White, along with the now on to bigger things owner of the New Jersey Generals, Donald Trump.

Faces in the Non-Crowds: Best face in the Sgt. Pepper’s-like virtual sports crowds last week was Bernie Lomax. If you don’t remember Bernie, he was the dead guy everyone partied around in his Hamptons beach house after the illicit insurance executive was bumped off by his mob boss partner in the 1989 major Hollywood motion picture Weekend at Bernie’s. He was at the Dodgers game Friday and, if you’re wondering, he still looked dead to me.

NBA bubble thoughts

Let’s take a look at the first week of action as the NBA got restarted a week ago.

Even though he did hit the game winner, I got it sorta right last week saying the Paul George-Kawhi Leonard defensive duo would give LeBron issues when the Lakers and Clippers play. But while he had just 16 points, I neglected to mention how they’d stop Anthony Davis, who killed them with 34.

I’m with Giannis Antetokounmpo in the feud with James Harden. And not just because the loathsome Harden doesn’t even try on defense, flops on every shot and whines when he doesn’t get the call. It’s his sour grapes for the Freak deservedly winning the MVP award over him a year ago.

The prize for the dumbest thing said on TV all weekend goes to ABC announcers Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy praising Mike D’Antoni for not “overreacting” after Harden picked up his third foul six minutes into the first half. With Jackson you expect it, but Van Gundy? Brad Stevens leaves guys in with three first-half fouls all the time and it makes me crazy because it almost always leads to one of two things, both bad: losing aggressiveness on offense and especially defense to avoid getting No. 4, or they quickly get their fourth. Like Jaylen Brown did in the season opener vs. Philly and was useless for the rest of the game. Predictably Harden got his on a break breakaway at 3:36. That forced the coach to waste his challenge trying to overturn a blatant push-off, because, as Jackson incredibly said, you can’t let stars get four fouls in the first half. Right, Mark.

The single worst example of that kind of coaching malpractice came in the 1983 NCAA Final when towel-chewing Houston coach Guy Lewis left Clyde Drexler in after picking up his third midway through the first half. I’m sitting there yelling take him out when after the glide goes airborne two plays later Terry Gannon cleverly grabs the back of his thighs to make the contact more forceful. Boom — number four! Houston never got back into rhythm after that, leading to the Jimmy Valvano “I need someone to hug” moment after Lorenzo Charles dunked Dereck Whittenburg’s never-came-close 35-footer to give NC State the 54-52 upset win.

Don’t agree with Marcus Smart that Antetokounmpo didn’t get called for the charge/block on Friday because he’d have fouled out. But what I do object to is overturning the charge part when they went to see if his foot was out of the circle on replay. They shouldn’t be able to do that because if they’re going to use replay on every bang-bang charge it’ll turn things into an endless baseball game. Plus that semi-circle thing under the basket is just dumb. The only thing it does is make it impossible to make that call, because you can’t focus on whether the upper body is moving and whether the feet are out of the circle. So for once I don’t blame the refs, because it’s optically impossible to do both.

However, two possessions earlier Antetokounmpo jabbed Daniel Theis hard enough in the stomach to make him double over, and no call. It was inadvertent, but so what? How they could not call blatant contact like that is beyond belief, especially since they looked at it on replay to see if there was intent. And, oh, by the way, if they make the right call, the Freak’s not in the game for the Smart block/charge that led to the decisive six-point swing that gave Milwaukee the game.

Interesting that Robert Williams got DNP’s in the C’s first two games. Should we read anything into that?

Also interesting was hearing that Kevin Garnett is a lead investor in a group trying to buy the Timberwolves. Though, given KG’s recent public animosity toward outgoing owner Glen Taylor and that Vikings owner Zygi Wilf leads a competing group it seems like, ah, a long shot.

If you missed it, Doc Rivers moved past Red Auerbach into 11th place all-time in NBA wins. It surprised me the once all-time leader is now that far back in the pack.

Nice night by Indiana’s T. J. Warren going for 53 vs. Philly, but it’s also basketball inflation. Those of us who saw Pete Maravich play know that without threes it’s the meager 44 Pistol got back in the day despite throwing all the bombs he regularly buried.

The final Nets/Kyrie tally is in. The overachieving 42-40 bunch of last year were 8-12 in the games Kyrie Irving played for them and were 24-22 when he didn’t. Talk stats and “skills” all you want, but winning is what defines how great someone really is.

But give him his props for putting his money where his mouth by pledging $1.5 million to replace the salary lost by any WNBA player who opts out of their season over coronavirus.

If anyone still wants to know why they take so many threes in the NBA, look no further than Boston shooting a once unimaginable 60 percent on three-point shots Sunday vs. Portland. That produced 48 points on 30 shots and to do that with two-point shots you’ve got to shoot 80 percent. Not even Villanova did that as they upset mighty Georgetown in the 1985 Final during the greatest shooting game in NCAA history.

He didn’t get into that game, but it was nice seeing local lad Wenyen Gabriel in uniform for the Blazers.

The NBA gets points for negating the sterile surroundings of the bubble by creating a TV set with fake crowds and buzzing fan noise. It actually works, especially with pictures of folks like Paul Pierce and Jayson Tatum’s little guy Deuce blended into the virtual crowd like The Beatles did on the Sgt. Pepper’s album

I know, dating myself. But the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Bandalbum had, after, all the greatest album cover ever, didn’t it?

Celtics ready for playoff run

The NBA restart begins this week with some tune-up games in advance of the playoffs. All will be played in the Orlando bubble, which will be weird. Even weirder will be having no fans on hand and thus no home court advantage, usually a big deal in the playoffs. And with as many as four teams in each division having a shot, this is the most wide-open playoff since 1979!

Here’s a look at those with the best chance to win it, with apologies to Utah, who is close to these teams but will have a tough time climbing over the best out west.

Boston Celtics: Despite some frustrating moments, the Celtics have been a breath of fresh air after last year’s dumpster fire. They have three 20-points-per scorers and Gordon Hayward is at 17.1, so they have firepower. But there’s not much scoring off the bench, which will haunt them against Toronto, Milwaukee and the Clippers if they get that far. What they need is Jayson Tatum to continue the ascension toward being a Top 10 player and Hayward to be more steady. When the latter plays well the whole team does, but his outside shooting frustratingly disappears at times and he plays with no confidence other times. In short, he’s got to be tougher and more consistent. Outlook– They could go out early or, if they shoot well, to the finals.

Philadelphia 76ers: They’re under major scrutiny. Whispers have been growing that if Philly doesn’t go deep in the playoffs it may be time to break up the Joel Embiid-Ben Simmons duo. Seems weird after all the crowing done over the supposedly brilliant but actually failed “process” that delivered them to town. But for all the good Simmons does, he can’t make a shot past 10 feet, somehow has never made a three-pointer his entire NBA career and is very shaky at the line. In the 3-ball-crazed league that’s not good, especially with Embiid doing serious damage in the area where Simmons needs to operate. For now, their issues are that they’re not a good 3-point shooting team and the home/away splits were 29-2 in Philly and 10-24 on the road. So you have to wonder if playing in the dome is good or bad. Outlook – they’re dangerous but go out early.

Denver Nuggets: They didn’t look particularly inspired when they split a pair of early season games with the Celtics. But they’re deep, versatile and big and have a number of guys who can score. Their best player is center Nikola Jokic, who is surrounded by a lot of good shooters, and he’s their best passer. If the head is on straight they can beat everyone. Outlook – Having said that, I don’t think they can guard Lebron if they meet in Round 2.

Houston Rockets: Many like Houston because of the James Harden-Russell Westbrook duo and scrappers that make up their small ball line-up. Not me. Their 34.8 percent 3-ball shooting is just 24th in the league and basically the same as shooting 50 percent on twos. So I’m betting micro-ball gets blown up when they face teams with big centers like Anthony Davis or Jokic, who’ll adjust to their quickness to play them tougher outside the arch as a series evolves, then kill them on the boards and with inside scoring. Outlook – Don’t get past Round 2.

Miami Heat: They’re scrappy and have a great coach who gets a lot out of his team while Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic are better than many probably realize. But, while I know he’s talented, I’m not a big fan of Jimmy Butler, whose idea of leadership is to belittle people. I’m also not sold on the bench as Tyler Herro, Kendrick Nunn and (sorry, N.H.) Duncan Robinson are going to have to prove to me they can do in the playoffs what they did during the regular season. I don’t see that happening. Outlook – A tough out done after Round 1.

L.A. Lakers: The LeBron-A.D. duo is as formidable as any in the NBA, but what else do they have? Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley are both out, so they have no point guard. And sorry, David Price, yuck to ball hog replacements J.R. Smith and Dion Waiters. Outlook – Hard to ever bet against LeBron but I don’t see them getting by the Clippers, or maybe even Denver.

Toronto Raptors: Don’t know if anyone saw them being on pace to win 59 as they were before the virus hit. What they have is a very good coach and a great GM who sees how the pieces fit, and their best player, Pascal Siakam, is a lot better than people think. Outlook – Tough out for anyone.

Milwaukee Bucks: They were on a historic pace before the shutdown, have the NBA’s best player in the Greek Freak and seem to be on a mission. On the down side Eric Bledsoe does a lot more bad things than he does good in big moments, and while they’ve been productive I don’t like their bigs. The bench, though, is underrated and so is Khris Middleton, who can go on a six-game shooting tear than can kill a team. Outlook –They go to the Finals.

L.A. Clippers: My pick to win it all because they have great defenders on the wing in Leonard and Paul George,who can also go for 30 any night and the ever annoying Patrick Beverley at the point. That latter will be a nightmare for the point guard-less Lakers. And with those two great wings they can stagger their playing time to avoid the normal fatigue that comes with trying to guard LeBron and the Freak by themselves for an entire game. Finally with Marcus Morris, Reggie Jackson and Joakim Noah added to Montrezl Harrell and the game’s top sixth man Lou Williams they are deep and feisty off the bench.

All this doesn’t take into account Covid-19 blips — they can’t be predicted.

Reverse Plunkett replay?

Well, Cam Newton signing at this late date for a hitch in Foxboro was a bit surprising. But it was also a typical under-the-radar move that got universal approval throughout football punditry, where Coach B waited for the price to come to the right value as Newton languished on the market.

People are asking what it means for the 2020 Patriots. Prevailing wisdom says it’s one of the following: (a) he’s got cold feet on Jarrett Stidham, (b) he wants to see the kid earn it head-to-head vs. a name QB to see how Stidham fares under fire, (c) he still likes Stid but wants a better backup if things don’t go as planned, or (d) Brian Hoyer is a goner — again.

Another option is one I mentioned six weeks ago: that he’s trolling to see if Newton can be a 21st-century version of Jim Plunkett to be high-ceiling QB for the next four or five years. If it turns out like that, it’s appealing since JP led the Raiders to two Super Bowl wins after being released by the 49ers in 1979. That it came at 29 and just two years after paying the whopping bounty of three first-round picks, a second-rounder and starting QB Tom Owen to get him told you how washed up the 49ers brass thought the former Heisman winner and first overall 1971 pick was.

But the NFL’s Belichickian figure of the day, Oakland GM/owner Al Davis, signed him on the cheap. Not sure if he thought Plunkett could recapture the promise he showed being Rookie of the Year in New England or just that he’d be a better backup than he had. But after two years on the bench, when Dan Pastorini went down early in 1980 with his health and confidence restored he led Oakland/L.A. to those two Super Bowl wins in four years.

Not sure Newton will do that, but his 2015 MVP season says he has a huge upside and he’s a year younger than Plunkett when he was resurrected. I’ve got to think something like that’s going on in Bill’s mind.

Personally I was hoping if they could get a similar deal with Jameis Winston they’d sign him. That would have set up a perfect Tom-vs.-Bill competition where Tampa gets his QB and Bill takes theirs to see who does better without the other.

I know Winston threw a mind-boggling 30 picks, but he also threw 33 TD passes and his 5.190 yards is more than you-know-who has ever thrown for. Plus the only other time the Bucs used a first overall pick on a quarterback was for Vinny Testaverde in 1987. Guess who resurrected his career in Cleveland after busting in Tampa Bay? Coach B.

Here are a few more thoughts from a busy time even with no games going on:

• With the Black Lives Matter national anthem protests raging through the NFL season I’m guessing new Patriots kicker Justin Rohrwasser and his controversial tat of the hate group 3 Percenters are going to be under scrutiny in the year ahead.

• Given the history, the Patriots have no one to blame but themselves for the Cincinnati taping incident. But a lost third-round pick seems kind of steep if Bill didn’t send them there.

• If Hoyer does get cut I’m betting he ends up on the coaching staff as a just in case insurance policy.

• From defying medical advice and the NFLPA to leading those in-your-face 20-person workouts in hot spot Florida, to TB-12’s profiteering in hawking a questionable $45-a-month immunity supplement during the pandemic, Tom Brady is racking up a lot of “I don’t like that guy” points.

Yikes, Tom.

• Is it me or is Kendrick Perkins everywhere these days on all things NBA? Most notably by calling Kyrie Irving a fraud for his phony opposition to the NBA restart. But also for giving the first reason I’ll buy for the Rajon Rondo-Ray Allen feud. Most say it had to do with Ray leaving for archrival Miami, but Perk says it was for Allen being in favor of a rumored Chris Paul-for-Rondo trade. Rondo hates Paul, who he and I think is vastly overrated. It led to two near fights and their ejection during a game at the Garden, so it makes sense that Ray being in favor of dumping Rondo like that would send him around the bend.

• With the NBA announcing 16 players just tested positive for the virus it seems like going into a hot spot in the country to finish their season is going to be tricky. That bubble they’re playing in better be super hermetically sealed.

• Anybody hear when the Dustin Pedroia retirement press conference is scheduled for?

Baseball — ready, set, go

Ready or not baseball kicks off Thursday, July 23, in what will likely be the strangest baseball season ever. No one knows what to expect beyond the fact that with only 60 games each one will have a far greater impact than it would in a marathon-like 162-game season. That urgency is the most interesting thing about the season ahead.

So here’s a preview of the biggest stories and changes the 2020 MLB season may lead to.

No Crowds at Games:I don’t get the hubbub by some over piping background noise into telecasts. As long as they don’t overdo it, why not if it makes it sound less hollow?

Astros Cheating Scandal: If ever a team could benefit from no fans in the stands and a schedule not as closely watched as past years, it’s the Houston Astros. Before the pandemic hit, the retribution parade for their cheating scandal was likely going to be the year’s biggest story. Now it’s an afterthought.

Dark Horse Candidates: As usual the Yankees are getting a lot of ink, especially after signing Gerrit Cole, but I see more money going down on Tampa Bay to win. That is based on a strong 2019 when they finished 12 games ahead of Boston while spending $140 million less and a belief strong bullpens matter most in a 60-game season. I’d argue the opposite, as starters won’t have to pace themselves like over a six-month season. Tell me a 12-start season wouldn’t have been perfect for Chris Sale, which would’ve eliminated his annual post-All-Star game fizzles from overwork.

Non-Dark Horse Candidate: With Masahiro Tanaka already getting nailed in the head by a vicious Giancarlo Stanton line drive the annual injury parade has started for the Yankees. Given their history, I expect more to follow. In the NL I guess it’s L.A., though only because I’ll be watching how Mookie does.

The Stats: Jack Chesbro’s (41) and Hack Wilson’s(190) records for wins and RBI are safe. But what if someone hits .400? If so, there goes Ted Williams being the last to hit .400 in a season. So the question is, should it count? Well, when Roger Maris hit 61 homers in 1961 to break Babe Ruth’s single-season record, Commissioner Ford Frick tied an asterisk to it because it happened during the new 162-game schedule, while Babe’s came in 154. Frick, it should be noted, was a Babe binky and was protecting the big fella. With no one watching out for Ted, who knows. But if ever an asterisk should be attached, it’s to hitting .400 in 60 games! While I know the Commish has a lot going on, he should state what’s what before the season begins.

Can Someone Hit .400? It still may be a long shot, though, since according to a story I found in a FanSided column by someone named Bill Felber the last to be over .400 after 60 games was Andres Galarraga in 1993, which came in Denver’s thin air. That makes Nomar Garciaparra’s .389 in his first 68 of 2000 closer to today’s reality. So, if anyone does it, it happens at Fenway, making the most likely culprit Rafael Devers.

Alumni News: The rising star who got away to shine will be Yoan Moncada in Chicago. While it took him a while to roll, he hit .315 with 25 homers in 2019 and all signs point higher. A huge year will be extra painful because in addition to costing John Henry $50 million to sign him, with Sale out for the year the guy Moncada was traded for faces an uncertain future that comes on the heels of 2019’s dismal 6-11/4.40 campaign and an injury-shortened 12-4 season in 2018. That surprisingly points the needle for winner of that deal a little more toward the White Sox.

Never-ending A-Fraud Saga: It remains beyond belief that two-time PED cheat Alex Rodriguez is allowed to be the face of baseball on ESPN and beyond-er (if that’s a word) belief that MLB is actually considering letting this serial liar into the bidding to buy the Mets less than six months after the Astros cheating scandal exploded. But he’s got a new problem, after blatantly pandering to MLB owners last week by saying that after earning $448 million in baseball’s free market, players should accept a salary cap. Player outrage was best expressed by ex-Yankee Brandon McCarthy, who said players should boycott “self-serving liar” Rodriguez during his ESPN gig. Agreed, because If there’s ever been a bigger me-first fraud, I’ve yet to see him or her.

Radical Realignment Ahead: Playing games within a 10-team region to cut down on travel may be the forerunner to radical realignment that could erase the lines between AL and NL. For the Sox it’ll be facing the Mets, Yanks, Phillies, Blue Jays, Orioles, Nationals, Braves, Marlins and D-Rays. The history lover in me won’t love that, but I will say that after the NFL-AFL merger I hated seeing the Colts, Steelers and Browns leave the NFL to be part of the new AFC and I got over that pretty quick.

New Extra-Innings Rules: Thanks to dugout micro-managers making nine-inning games endless I’m for starting extra innings with a runner on second base. Anything to eliminate ending games at 3 a.m. with seven people in the stands.

Universal DH: The DH will be used in both leagues. Will it lead to it universally going forward? Probably, but who cares.

The Pandemic: As much as we’d like to, we can’t ignore the world’s biggest story with the biggest question being, with 10 teams playing in the nation’s four biggest hot spot stats of Texas, Florida, Arizona and California, will baseball be able to miss all the land mines to finish the season at all?

Cross your fingers, because I think making it through the year is a, ah, long shot.

Holes in Sox show

The abbreviated version of the 2020 baseball season kicks off next week when the Sox and Orioles go at it at Fenway. It’s safe to say we go into this season with the lowest expectations in a long time, for various reasons, which include a lackluster 2019, stat geek Chaim Bloom being hired as GM after a career bargain-hunting with Tampa Bay, Alex Cora’sfiring, the ceaseless cost-cutting chatter leading to the trade of Mookie Betts and David Price,and Chris Sale’s season-ending surgery, all of which were blocked out by the sun of the worldwide pandemic.

As a result, the Sox have many question marks and a few real strengths that are being overlooked by the Nation. He’s a summary.

Injury Update: Camp got off to a rousing start with four guys testing for the virus. If you missed it they were minor-league power hitter Bobby Dalbec, expected bullpen key Darwinzon Hernandez, fringe reliever Josh Taylor and projected opening day starter Eduardo Rodriguez. That leaves a giant void right off the bat, as E-Rod missing just two weeks in the short season is like missing the first 40 of a 162-game season.

Biggest Question Mark – The Rotation: As Butch said to Sundance when they couldn’t shake the posse after them in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, “Who are those guys?” That’s how I feel about a rotation, ah, headlined to start by Nathan Eovaldi, Martin Perez, and others I’ve never heard of. So my answer to Butch would be “beats me.” Second: At any time in his Red Sox tenure, even right after his marathon relief stint in Game 4 of the 2018 series, did anyone ever see Eovaldi as the ace of the staff? Well, he will be if E-Rod can’t get it back in gear very quickly. We know the potential, but given his injury history that’s not a comforting thought.

Next Question – What’s the Story at Second Base:With the Dustin Pedroia retirement party on the horizon here’s where Chaim’s bargain-hunting comes in. So I’ve got no clue what they have here, especially with Michael Chavis likely earmarked for a 1B, DH, IF utility role.

Biggest Strength – The Hitting: Talk all you want about the loss of Betts, he was only their fourth best hitter a year ago. Xander Bogaerts (.309-33-117), Rafael Devers (.312-32-115) and JD Martinez (.304-36-105) all out-hit Mookie (.295-29-80) in average, homers and RBI, and with 54 and 52 respectively, the first two had had more doubles than Mookie’s 40 too. Andrew Benintendi can take up some of the slack from the loss of Betts if he can re-find his consistency. Bottom line: Even if the 26-double, 23-homer 2019 stat line was the career year for Christian Vazquez they’ll have more than enough hitting to win.

Who’s Hot: It’s hard to tell with anyone, but Eovaldi throwing four scoreless innings in his first outing while allowing just one hit and a walk and striking out four was encouraging. Especially since 34 of his 58 pitches were strikes, the command was good. The 58 pitches indicates he’ll be at 75 on opening day if he makes it that far.

Most Anxious to See – Alex Verdugo: He’s the most ready for prime time prospect they got for Betts. In his first full season he hit .294 with 22 doubles, 12 homers and 44 RBI in 104 games. Projected over a 162-game season that’s 33 doubles, 18 homers and 67 RBI which is comparable to what Betts did — 42 doubles, 18 homers, 77 RBI and .291 — in his first season in Boston. Not saying he’ll be Mookie, but I’m interested to see if the trend goes up. And the pandemic shutdown helped by giving the stress fracture in his back extra time to heal.

What to Make of the 60-Game Schedule: For a team that can’t win it in a 162-game season because the pitching won’t hold up, it’s a good thing. And who knows, if the hot streak everyone eventually gets comes in the first month they’ll stay in it most of the way. It had better too, because if a team starts really hot, you won’t have time to catch up like you can over the marathon of a 162-game season.

Perfect for Chaim Bloom: Given the tradition-laden-ness and IQ of the fan base, the guess is some of the GM’s New Age, Ivy League ideas would get pushback over 162. But in a low-expectation 60-game season he’ll get room to experiment. Like using openers for both the fifth and fourth spots in the rotation where the more programmed strategy lets you set up match-ups more easily to keep their weaknesses at a minimum. And if it works it’ll show what I’ve been saying for a while now, that the cost per out/inning goes way down with this approach over paying big money to mediocre fourth and fifth starters. That lets a team concentrate big money in starters 1 through 3, and with injury questions surrounding Sale and Evoladi after heavy investments in them that’s important with E-Rod in his walk year.

The Ron Roenicke Question:I don’t know much about Roenicke beyond that he got to learn from Earl Weaver playing for him in Baltimore and had a stint of four years and change as manager of the Brewers between 2011 and 2015. That started by winning 96 games in Year 1 and went downhill after that leading to his being fired with a pedestrian 342-331 career record. He fits comfortably into the “baseball lifer” category. Which means a guy who gets a shot or two to manage but ultimately winds up a bench coach and the one who takes over when a manager gets fired. That suggests he’s keeping the seat warm for Cora, which is OK with me after Cora pays the penalty for the transgressions in Houston.

A closer look at Cam

Finally, there is real on-field news to talk about. The Red Sox opened summer camp last week, the Celtics opened theirs earlier this week and, praise the lord, the Tom Brady saga is not the only thing people are talking about when it comes to football.

Well, that’s sorta the case today regarding the latter. But after having a week to think about it I’m back to talk about who’ll be playing QB for the Patriots in 2020, not who’s not. Thus, we’ll leave the Sox, Celtics and Bruins for next time, to fill in some of the blanks on last week’s Cam Newton signing.

The Snap Judgment: I’m always a skeptic and rarely let my imagination run away on big stories of this type. If you do, the first thing that comes to the mind is the MVP season of 2015 and he hasn’t been that guy since, um, 2015. So the first reaction was they’ve improved the backup QB spot and added a big name to challenge Jarrett Stidham for what comes next at quarterback. However, as I’ve thought about it, I’m warming to his potential upside. The caveat being he’s over his recent shoulder and foot woes.

Primarily because a high-level Cam means we’ll be seeing a different type of QB play than we’ve had for over 30 years (with Drew Bledsoe figured in). As great as Brady was, there have been times I’ve thought how nice it would be to have a QB who could get yards on his own with a run/pass option near the goal line and on third and short, or be able to turn a sure sack into chicken salad with his legs.

As the mind wanders, here are some observations on Newton.

Things to Know about Cam Newton: While Brady routinely has thrown for 4,000-plus yards, 11 times overall and only missed doing it in the Deflategate-shortened 12-game 2016 season during the last nine seasons, Newton has only done it once, as a rookie in 2011.

On the flip side, while I’m surprised Brady has run for as much as 100 (barely) three times, in the last eight seasons his combined rushing total is just 321. Newton has topped every season of his career except last year when he played just two games.

Having said that, the flip side of the flip side is that most running QB’s get beat up or worse as a season goes along. But in missing only five games in eight years before last year, Newton’s durability is better than I thought. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been the dreaded “game time decision” quite a few times. I don’t recall Brady ever being one of those and that adds uncertainty in a way Brady never did.

Then there’s the accuracy thing. Newton has completed just 59.6 percent of his career passes and been over 60 percent just three times, though the best, 67.5 percent, was in 2018. In 19 seasons Brady has never not been over 60 percent, though he barely did that (60.8 percent) in 2019.

The accuracy difference also shows itself in interceptions, where Brady has thrown for double digits just three times (11 twice and 12) since Newton entered the league in 2011. Cam has never had a non-double-digit pick season with a high of 17 in 2011 and low of 10 when he was MVP in 2015 when he also had his only 30-plus-TD-pass (35) season. Brady has seven 30-plus seasons.

Looking Ahead to 2020: When I hear “mercurial personality” I think Kyrie Irving or Jose Canseco and that’s not good. But my measuring stick actually is a guy I didn’t like, Deion Sanders, because I really hate “hey, look at me, me, me” types. But the rule of thumb is what do you hear about a player coming out of the locker room or after they leave town. In Deion’s case you never heard detractors, so I figured he must have been a good guy. That appears to be the case with Newton as well.

I’ve been harshly critical of Odell Beckham’s commitment to winning over the years, so persistent rumors of Cam’s workout buddy coming to New England got my attention. I wasn’t for Antonio Brown because he’s nuts. For OBJ it seems more maturity issues similar to pre-Foxboro Randy Moss, who worked out great here. At least for a while. So, in a rare about-face, I’m interested, as he’ll certainly help the weapons deficiency. That leaves three questions. Would Cleveland let him go? What would they want back? What would you give up to get him? Oh, plus he’s pricey and they’re up against the cap, so who are you willing to let go?

Passing yards and picks can be a reflection of throwing down field more than the Pats do, as well as not having the great slot guys and third down backs Brady always had. It’ll be interesting to see if the system, play calling and superior coaching can negate Newton’s negatives.

Bottom Line: What the “should have kept Brady” crowd needs to understand is that while TB-12 is the GOAT, he wasn’t that guy last year. He was middle of the pack, with just two vintage Brady games, Pittsburgh in the opener and the second Buffalo game. History tells us he likely won’t be as good at 43 as at 42. Not a Willie Mays on the warning track 43, but not an improvement over 2018. The stats may go up because of his new weapons, but that’s irrelevant to what would have happened here with Patriots personnel. Thus with the team likely transitioning to a more conservative, run-dominated, defense-oriented game to accommodate its talent, Newton’s game may be a better fit than the 2020 version of Brady. So I’d say the likelihood is better than 50-50 that with a healthy Newton the play at QB improves over 2019.

Though that could just be my imagination running away with me.

Questions follow reopening

The major sports leagues went about their business last week planning to open their respective seasons. In baseball, basketball and hockey it will be with no fans, with the latter two doing it from one site to reduce exposure to infection to the coronavirus. In football, despite last week’s warning from Dr. Anthony Fauci that we’re not done with the virus and with a second wave likely it’s risky, they’re still planning on games with fans socially distanced.
As usual, those who either don’t like that news or live in fantasy land pushed back on Fauci. Like Boston Globe NFL reporter Ben Volin with a column last week citing several other medical experts who say it can work. He also laid out the extensive plans NFL teams have for creating safe havens at their facilities through social distancing and the like.
I’m no expert, but sorry, I’m not buying it. Somebody explain to me how they can social distance in the huddle. Ditto on the line of scrimmage and while tackling someone about 80 times a game. How about on quarterback sneaks for that big first down that leave 12 people lying on top of each other for a minute or so as they untangle? TD celebrations? Yeah, that can be discouraged or even penalized. Though given that roughly 20 percent of the people I see walking around the grocery store are either clueless or of the “I’m more important than anyone else” types without masks, I don’t think that will take for all.
Throw in everyone on the field perspiring all through the game and violent exhales from ball carriers after getting drilled unexpectedly by a 260-pound guy running at full speed, and the physics just don’t add up. Or is it the chemistry? Or is it the biology? Or maybe it’s all three. As you can see, science was never a strong suit, so that’s why I listen to Fauci on these issues, particularly for what we should do in the grocery store if you get my drift. But I digress.
Then there was the news last week that five Philadelphia Phillies and someone from the Blue Jays tested positive before their teams even officially gathered at their ultra-sanitized facilities to begin pre-season. Both have been shut down indefinitely. That does not portend a smooth start, and baseball is the sport that most easily translates to adopting a social distancing program.
What happens if an NFL team gets hit with a mass of positive tests at one time? Like the six Cowboys who tested positive last week. Can just see it now — NEWS FLASH: Dak Prescott, star runner Ezekiel Elliott (again) and all five starting offensive linemen are among 10 Dallas Cowboys to test positive today and they’re now on 14-day quarantine. How do you replace 10 guys on offense at once when that’s added to the usual three or four normally out every week in a sport where injuries ravage lineups as the season progresses? Especially if among the 10 are also their two other QB’s. Then what? To survive all that they’ll need 80 players on the roster.
Since all their pitchers sit together in the bullpen or dugout it could be the same in baseball. As John Madden used to say — BOOM, there goes the pitching. How are you going run a team with 80 percent of the pitchers gone?
Hockey? What would have happened to the 1970 Bruins if both Gerry Cheevers and Eddie Johnston went down together? Especially after they somehow had let future Vezina Trophy and multiple Stanley Cup winning goalies Bernie Parent and Ken Dryden get away to Philadelphia and Montreal respectively. As an aside, since that was right around the time I checked out on hockey, that’s about as recent an example as I can come up with. Basketball can probably survive the best, because it needs fewer players and there are a million of them around. But it still raises the question of what the product is actually going to be like.
Of course this isn’t the first time sports has had to deal with a possible dire talent drain. With almost every able-bodied man drafted into the Army, baseball was so stretched during World War II that one-armed outfielder Pete Gray played 77 games for the St. Louis Browns in 1945. That he was able to bat .218 with just one arm is remarkable. Though since lefty hurler Jim Abbott is the only player since to make the majors with that disability it does speak to the shortage of available players during the war.
After Pearl Harbor, Commissioner Landis asked President Roosevelt if baseball should be shut down. To which FDR said no, it was important for the nation’s morale to keep playing, and they then did the best they could with the likes of Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and most everyone else off to war. Of course they weren’t charging $200 a ticket to watch that product in a risky health environment.
Mixed in to all this is the need to restart the economy, which is a very important factor in everyday life. Whether sports fits into the “need” category is up for debate. But not to the folks whose livelihood depends on sports going forward or who have huge investments on the line with the teams. Fortunately, we can watch it all on TV. That brings the risk down to the players, coaches and all the others those involved in playing and broadcasting. And their participation is up to them, as it should be.
Will it work without stopping midway through? The Reggie Lewis case from many moons ago taught us it’s better to go with the pack of docs who agree against the one in dissent. But those docs were on the side of caution for Reggie, which is what Dr Fauci is pushing. I’m with him, because I don’t see it working.
Hopefully, I’ll be wrong.
Email Dave Long at dlong@hippopress.com.

A little Election Day practice

Making the year ahead in this most unusual coming sports year even more unusual is it’s coming as the presidential election and the Black Lives Matter protest appear to be on a collision course. That took a major step forward last week when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and USA Soccer broke ranks from their previous stance to back their players’ right to protest. The president immediately and stridently assailed those new stances as unpatriotic and said he won’t be watching. Thus with detractors and proponents on each side it’ll be happening every Sunday and with the election growing closer and closer it will likely be a hot campaign topic all through every following week. That means sports may have a greater direct impact on how people vote for president than it ever has before.

So, to get ready, I’m going to practice my voting technique today by voting on the following items that have been in the news of late.

News Items: Automated Balls and Strikes Good for Baseball?

One of baseball’s coming debates is when the not too far off technology is perfected, should baseball have balls and strikes called by technological automation? When replay first arrived I wasn’t a big fan because I thought it might take the human element out of the game. But with the growing regularity of brutal officiating errors happening all through sports that feeling is gone. Now the concern is just about getting an answer more quickly. I particularly like the idea of a computer calling balls and strikes because it will standardize what a ball and strike is according to what the rulebook says it is over the discretion of each ump on a given night. I vote yes on automated strike zones.

News Item: Do Baseball Players Deserve Leeway On Money Talks?

While I have been critical of baseball for its tone deaf fight over money, I will say comparisons to the other leagues is not quite fair. NBA and NHL players were paid through the end of March and missed just one paycheck. For NFL players it’s looking like they’ll play the entire schedule with some fans in the stands, so they won’t miss any checks and the financial hit won’t be as severe for their owners. Baseball players meanwhile haven’t been paid since last year and with no fans at their park and half the seasonal TV revenue gone they’re facing a vast reduction in pay. Plus with 100 years of documented history in the memory bank, their lack of trust in their owners is well-founded. Since it’s not apples and apples compared with the other sports the vote is to give them a little leeway in this battle. Though my advice is keep clueless nitwits like Blake Snell away from the mike.

News Item: Will Young Patriots Receivers Be Better Without Brady?

One of the stories of actual interest in the relentless Tom Brady or Jarrett Stidham news cycle is will the production of the Patriots’ maligned young receivers improve with a less demanding QB in Tom Brady’s place? It’s food for thought, though it’s more complicated than just that. For one thing, the offense will be dumbed down for Stidham, which will make decision-making on the fly less complex for them as well. That complexity probably contributed to Brady’s much discussed “trust issues” with newcomers. Though I’ve thought that it was more simply being set in his ways and pickiness the last few years when his “I know all the answers to the test mentality was a bit of a double-edged sword. It led to complete command of the offense, but his lack of patience for those who didn’t have that led him away from the young guys in ways he hadn’t earlier in his career when he jelled immediately with Deion Branch, David Givens, Gronk and Aaron Hernandez. So, while they won’t be as good as they were with vintage Brady, I’m a yes that they’ll get more from N’Keal Harry and company with a player closer to their learning curve under center.

News Item: Does Mike Bolsinger Have a Case?

You’ve got to love this one. Former Blue Jays reliever Mike Bolsinger filed suit in February against the Houston Astros for damages to his career. The claim is their sign stealing was behind him being lit up for four runs and four hits in 1/3 of an inning in 2017, which immediately got him sent to the minors for good. So here’s the question for a judge and jury to ponder: Did that one game alone get a guy with 1-7 record over two years when the ERA’s were 6.31 (2017) and 6.61 (2016) demoted to the minors? Sorry, those are journeyman numbers and the kind that get guys sent to the minors all the time. Vote to throw the bogus claim out of court.

News Item: Jeter a Lock for Yanks’ Mt. Rushmore

Saw this one on Facebook when a kid I grew up with posted a picture of Derek Jeter looking up at the Yankees’ Mt. Rushmore like Ruth, Gehrig and DiMaggio were waiting for him to join them as the fourth member. Hey, I like Jeter as much as the next guy and think his adulation in NYC is similar to the Tom Brady GOAT stuff around here. But, sorry, the gushing NYC media making him out to be a cross between Joan of Arc and Charles Lindbergh is way over the top. Even the Brady comparison doesn’t work since TB is (or may be) the greatest at his position while Jeter is not the greatest at his. Though teammate Mariano Rivera was and that’s why he’s higher in my Rushmore voting than Jeter. So with him just ninth on my all-time Yankees list behind Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, the Mick, Yogi, Rivera, Whitey Ford, Bill Dickey and Jeter with either Andy Pettitte or Red Ruffing rounding out the Top 10, it’s a no vote for Jeter.

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