The Boston Bruins sent their city into a frenzy on Wednesday night when they dominated the Vancouver Canucks 4-0 in Game 7 to win their sixth Stanley Cup. Given Boston’s long sports history and its fans’ general fervor, it’s not surprising to read numerous accounts reminiscing on their personal relationships with hockey and the Bruins. The “Win it For…” thread on Sons of Sam Horn is chockablock with touching stories of parents, brothers, friends, and coaches who instilled in the forum’s posters a love for hockey and the Bruins. While not as long or quite as tragic as the Red Sox’s 86-year drought, the Bruins’ 39 years without a Cup inspired much of the same feelings in their supporters, and indeed, that thread is a homage to a similar thread in 2004.
I don’t have the personal connection to hockey or the Bruins that many others do. Not that I’m a bandwagon fan or anything—as with every sport I follow, I pay pretty close attention to the team and watch most regular season (and all playoff) games. But I never played hockey growing up, and I certainly feel like an outsider cheering along with guys and gals who got up early every day for practice and have been involved in rock ‘em sock ‘em battles of their own.*
While I can’t identify with the players who have worked their whole lives for the Cup, or the fans who wanted their Bruins to “Win it for” their die-hard father, mother, or Bobby Orr-idolizing grandfather, there are some qualities that this Bruins team embodies that everyone can admire.
Last year the Bruins became the first team in U.S. pro sports since 2004 and just the 4th of all time to blow a 3-0 series lead. While there were plenty of injuries for Boston—and Philadelphia was a very strong team in their own right (making at all the way to Game 6 of the Finals)—this was a huge disappointment, and many in Boston were calling for major changes. President Cam Neely and the rest of the Bruins’ front office stayed the course and kept the same coach, general manager, and the same core of players. At numerous points both in this year’s regular season and postseason, they faced adversity, and every time they responded. In the first round of the playoffs, they were down two games to none against bitter rival Montreal after captain Zdeno Chara had to sit out Game 2 with dehydration. They then scored the first three goals on the road in Game 3, winning it 4-2 to get themselves back in it. They were down 3-1 in Game 4 of that same series, looking at trailing the series 3-1. They won that game 5-4 in OT. In Game 2 of the next round against Philadelphia, they were down 2-0 after just ten minutes, but Tim Thomas saved the next 46 shots and Boston won in overtime. In Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, they gave up a three-goal lead and a chance to take a 3-1 lead against the Tampa Bay Lightning, but rallied to win the next game and eventually that series. And last, but probably most important, they fell down two games to none in the final and lost one of their best players, Nathan Horton, to an illegal hit, but rallied to win that game 8-1 and from that hit on outscored the Canucks 21-4.
As much as I’m inclined to disbelieve stories of motivation and leadership, it’s certainly believable that this team learned from adversity and made the extra effort and teamwork needed to win the Cup. Clichéd narratives like this make much more sense in a game like hockey where positioning, passing, and effort are so important, where there are players whose job it is to antagonize teams into taking bad penalties, or where teams will hit another guy just to make sure he’s tough enough. In hockey, if you don’t stand up for yourself** or have a teammate to stand up for you, you won’t last very long.
The Bruins’ teamwork, determination, and effort stand in stark contrast to their opponents in the final, who crossed numerous “hockey code” lines by diving, inflicting, or attempting cheap, dangerous hits and who blamed everyone but themselves for their failures during the series. The Bruins were able to remain smart and not get drawn into any wars of words, nor did they take any retaliatory penalties, even though it certainly must have been tempting. While they weren’t saints (Brad Marchand, I’m looking in your direction), they remained focused in a situation where a less driven team (and perhaps previous versions of the Bruins) may have lost their cool. And in the end, the team was rewarded and their fans can be proud.
*I think a big reason that hockey is such an insular game is that there’s a distinct difference between watching and playing it. The hardest part of the game for me to learn was the “code” involved in fighting, chirping, and post-whistle scrums. For someone who never competed on the ice, it doesn’t make a lot of sense that it’s OK for guys to simply throw down during a game, and I’m sure I still don’t comprehend the tremendous physicality involved in the game, as I’ve never taken a check or a slash. It’s another reason why hockey in warm-weather areas may just not work, as people in Florida didn’t grow up lacing them up every day (whether on a team or on the local pond).
**A really great anecdote from Elliotte Friedman’s always-interesting column: “It was 1996 when Chara first arrived in Canada, joining the WHL’s Prince George Cougars as a 19-year-old. Stan Butler, who coached that team, said the big Slovak was challenged to a fight three seconds into his first shift. He destroyed the guy. After he got out of the penalty box, someone else dropped the gloves. Chara won that, too. During the first intermission, Butler asked him if he’d ever fought before. The answer was no.” This illustrates both hockey’s unwritten rules and the toughness of Chara and the Bruins.
Just as we did last year, this year we kept track of the best names drafted in the 2011 MLB draft. 2011 wasn’t a particularly strong draft. It didn’t give us any Goodrums or Greathouses, but—carrying over Kendrick Perkins (Red Sox) from last year—we were able to field a full (but still bad) NBA starting 5, with Perkins, Brad Miller, Matt Barnes, Aaron Brooks, and Derek Fisher.
Bubba Starling (Kansas City Royals)
Matt Barnes (Boston Red Sox) - not this Matt Barnes
Joe Panik (San Francisco Giants)
Mikie Mahtook (Tampa Bay Rays)
COMP ROUND A
Brad Miller (Seattle Mariners) - not this Brad Miller
Austin Hedges (San Diego Padres) - We like when names are also complete sentences.
Bryan Brickhouse (Kansas City Royals)
Kylin Turnbull (Washington Nationals)
Dillon Thomas (Colorado Rockies)
Kenneth Peoples-Walls (St. Louis Cardinals)
John Leathersich (New York Mets)
Taylor Featherston (Colorado Rockies)
Chris Marlowe (San Francisco Giants)
Derek Fisher (Texas Rangers)
David Goforth (Milwaukee Brewers) - He was also drafted last year by the Indians.
Abel Baker (Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim of California Angels)
Kevin Quackenbush (San Diego Padres)
Aaron Brooks (Kansas City Royals)
Stephen Lumpkins (Kansas City Royals)
Adam Choplick (Arizona Diamondbacks)
Derrick Loveless (Toronto Blue Jays)
Steven Snodgrass (San Francisco Giants)
Aaron Bummer (New York Yankees)
Adam Weisenburger (Milwaukee Brewers)
Devin Shines (Los Angeles Dodgers)
Raphael Rhymes (Pittsburgh Pirates)
Jordan Gross (Boston Red Sox)
Joseph Pankake (Texas Rangers)
Malcolm Clapsaddle (New York Mets)
Travis Pitcher (Oakland Athletics)
At least it ended in a good way. LeBron went off, dropped the dagger, beat his chest, and acted like he had gotten further than the Eastern Conference Finals and like Dwayne Wade wasn’t the main reason for it. Wait, this isn’t a particularly good end. But it’s better than what I had envisioned, which was a game 7 loss, perhaps in overtime, as Lebron or Wade drove to the lane possession after possession, consistently drawing fouls while similar play on the other end went unrewarded. Or one of the Heat stars accidentally-on-purpose knocking a Celtic down and injuring him. Or maybe the refs overstepping their bounds and throwing a Celtic out of a crucial game for using bad language, which is technically in the rulebook but if applied fairly would mean nearly every player (except maybe Ray Allen and A.C. Green) would get tossed from every game.
With the way games one through three went, these scenarios weren’t even a fantasy. They actually happened. Now, no one wants to be the one who complains about the refs. “Only losers whine about that.” And yes, that’s true, and it’s unbecoming, but it also assumes a base level of competence from the officials. When the officials are decent and a losing fan complains about a borderline call, that’s whining. But in a series reffed the way this one was, it’s simply being realistic to discuss the effect the officiating had on the series. Consider:
In five games, Miami attempted 47 more free throws than Boston. So nearly ten per game. It’s generally accepted that the Celtics are more of a jump-shooting team, while the Heat like to go hard to the basket, so maybe this disparity isn’t surprising. But adding up the totals by shot type (according to CBS Sports), the Celtics actually attempted 108 layups and 18 dunks, while Miami only attempted 95 layups and 16 dunks. I’m willing to buy that Miami’s drives to the hoop were more likely to draw a foul, given James’ and Wade’s playing styles, but not so much more likely as to warrant such a disparity.
I was also pretty unhappy about Dwayne Wade pulling Rajon Rondo down and injuring his elbow, rendering him pretty ineffective for the next two games. Rondo is of course the Celtics’ biggest offensive weapon, and as we saw in previous playoffs, he has a tendency to turn up his game when the team needs him most. But on a play when the ball was far away, Wade hooked his leg around Rondo and knocked him over awkwardly. While he was ostensibly protecting Rondo from chasing the ball, I thought it was an unnecessary non-basketball play and should have been called a flagrant foul. But it fit right in with the Heat’s pattern of physical, bullying play that bruised Ray Allen’s chest, knocked Rondo down repeatedly, and got the Celtics into foul trouble (along with a couple phantom technicals*) and was generally ignored by the officials.
*Is it weird to anyone else how little was mentioned about the flagrant foul on Jermaine O’Neal and technical on Pierce in game one that caused a five-point swing in the former case and an ejection in the latter, both of which were later rescinded by the league? I know the refs can’t be perfect, but something is wrong when two calls that have such an obvious effect on the outcome of the game are later admitted by the NBA to be wrong.
Some more thoughts on the series:
-I’m unlikely to watch the rest of the playoffs at this point. It’s a shame, because basketball is a great game, but it’s really being ruined for me by poor officiating and boring play from the Heat. I much prefer teams that run offenses, setting screens and making the extra pass, than teams who put it in one of two players’ hands and either jab-step and shoot a jumper or drive and expect a foul at worst.
-Where do the Celtics go from here? There’s lots of talk about “blowing up the core,” but this doesn’t make any sense to me. The Big Four are all signed at least through next year (when Garnett’s contract expires) so it makes sense to me to bring them back, see what Jermaine and Shaq O’Neal can offer, see what an offseason can do for Jeff Green’s teamwork and basketball IQ (and for the Big Three’s legs and other nagging injuries) and see what happens. At the end of the year, Garnett and Allen’s contracts expire, so GM Danny Ainge needs to again take a look at the team at the trading deadline and, if things don’t look promising, deal those expiring contracts for future pieces. I don’t have any delusions about the Celtics’ chances next year, but if enough things go right (Green matures, good health, some good bench additions through free agency or even the draft) they have as much shot as anyone.
Hey, at least they didn’t go down like the Lakers!
I have no idea if Jacoby Ellsbury has any kind of pregame rituals or superstitions. I haven’t even noticed if he has prepitch routine. (I did, however, notice that a few games ago, in his first AB, Ellsbury did the thing Ichiro does where he holds his right arm straight out, holding the bat vertically. I’ve never noticed him do that before, and I haven’t seen him do it since.) I’m not sure it matters for the purposes of this post, anyway; the fact that I’ve started every sentence so far with “I” should make it clear that this post is about more about me than Ellsbury. When it comes to baseball, I am very superstitious.
Two nights ago, Ellsbury’s 19-game hitting streak was snapped by an 0-4 night at the plate. Around 15 games, I started thinking, “If he keeps this going, I’m going to have to write about it.” At 18 games, I thought, “Well, I don’t want to jinx him.” Yes, I do, in fact, know how silly it is to think that a blog post discussing Ellsbury’s hitting streak could ruin it, just as I think it’s silly any time a fan thinks any of his or her actions can directly influence the outcome of a game. But for some reason my own weird baseball-related superstitions have never gone away.
Baseball, maybe more than any other sport, is full of these little eccentricities. Teammates don’t talk to a pitcher in the middle of a no-hitter. The words “perfect game” or “no-hitter” are off limits until the possibility of either has disappeared. Players avoid stepping on the foul lines while taking the field, except for those players who go out of their way to always step on the line. Then there are all the different prepitch routines. These are only examples of on the field routines. Back when my brother was still playing, if he hit a home run one day, he had to eat the same exact meals the next day (a fact I found very entertaining when he opened the 2001 season with homers in his first three games).
As for myself: back when I played, I believed in not washing my white sanitary socks (for those who don’t know, those are the socks that go under your stirrups) until I went hitless in a game. The same went for my long-sleeve undershirt. Needless to say, I had moments on my summer league teams where I probably smelled really disgusting. Anyway, those days are long gone (I’m OLD!), but apparently some kind of remnants have lingered long enough for me to think I could have ruined Ellsbury’s hit streak. Fortunately, I can write this knowing I had nothing to do with his streak’s end.
Ellsbury gets a chance to start a new streak tonight as the Red Sox visit Yankee Stadium.
I’ve always been drawn to people in the middle of things. One of my former literature professors called them “characters on edges.” Stephen Crane’s Jack Potter, town marshal of Yellow Sky in “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” has always been one of my favorite characters because of how he had one foot in the diminishing Wild West and the other in the more civilized West. Newland Archer—despite his Hamlet-esque waffling in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence—is another, simply because he was torn between two smoking hot babes who apparently represented old Victorian values and a new age of American modernism. If you’re not yet wondering what this has to do with Jacoby Ellsbury, then congratulations, you are just as nerdy as I am. I wrote before that I’m drawn to Ellsbury’s extremes; he struggles badly and goes on crazy hot streaks. Ellsbury constantly hovers on the precipice of greatness and mediocrity.
Ellsbury’s ridiculous speed and athleticism might be all that keeps him from sliding into mediocrity. He is, in all other aspects, a rather generic baseball player. He’s an outfielder who is decent at reading the ball off the bat but makes up for bad jumps by being super fast, and he has a below-average throwing arm. His streaky hitting is usually caused by his mechanics getting a little out of wack. In short: Ellsbury is close to being a replacement level player. Maybe this doesn’t surprise a lot of people. I know a fair amount of Boston fans were ready to ship him out last season. But when he’s on his game (which he has been lately), Ellsbury looks less like the generic, Randy Winn-type outfielder and more like the electrifying Carl Crawford-type player.* Maybe that’s an unnecessary shot at Winn, but the point is that Winn is an entirely unremarkable player.
*While discussing this post with a friend of mine, he said Randy Winn wishes he could be as good as Carl Crawford while Crawford is currently playing like Randy Winn.
Since Ellsbury’s athleticism is what separates him from the pack, it’s what I find myself focusing on. I look for smiles, laughter, and other facial expressions, even the slightest burst of anger at a bad call or a swing he’d like to take back, but there’s almost never anything there. It’s as if Ellsbury has learned his on-field demeanor from JD Drew, who is only notable in that he never expresses any emotion. He is often robotic, and Ellsbury has adopted Drew’s machine-like qualities. Ellsbury is always stone-faced and sometimes seems cold, which makes his speed that much more fun. Everyone knows that, once he’s on first, he’s going to steal second. It’s a programmed decision, and Ellsbury is only calculating the precise pitch to run on. Sometimes he teases the pitcher into throwing to first a billion times, making the pitcher think maybe he’s held Ellsbury close enough to prevent the theft. And when he steals anyway, I like to imagine it crushes the soul of the pitcher, because he’s less of a replacement level player and more of a killer robot designed to crush spirits.
*Photo courtesy of Keith Allison via Creative Commons License
Ellsbury hasn’t done a whole lot to write about so far. He has made a couple of nice defensive plays, he’s still struggling at the plate, and—like all of the Red Sox—he’s been upstaged by Dustin Pedroia’s “Laser Show.” Pedroia seems to want to carry the whole team on his back, and he’s doing a damn fine job of it. At times I thought I picked the wrong player to follow for the season, but there’s just something more attractive about a player who can both be an offensive spark and also struggle at times. I wonder what goes through the mind of a player like Ellsbury when he looks so visibly disappointed at himself after watching a perfect fastball go by him for a called strike. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised if Pedroia never went through another slump ever again.
On to the weekend: I’ll admit I didn’t watch an entire game this weekend, but I did catch most of all three games. I spent most of the weekend doing household chores and watching sports, rotating through baseball and the NBA playoffs. Baseball has always been my favorite sport, so I always go back to it. Ellsbury served as my anchor this weekend; no matter what I did, I did my best not to miss an Ellsbury at-bat. Washing dishes can be quite relaxing with the TV volume loud enough to hear Remy’s and Orsillo’s voices over the swoosh of soapy water.
Despite not having a hit on Saturday, Ellsbury showed why he can be such an asset to the Sox offense with two walks. I’m okay with Ellsbury walks because they’re pretty much the same as a double. After a walk in the second inning, I (and all of Fenway) expected Ellsbury to steal second, which led to a number of throw-overs by Jays pitcher Jo-Jo Reyes, which ultimately led to a Jed Lowrie home run. I feel like it’s easy to overrate the effect a runner can have on distracting a pitcher from the batter, but I do think there’s something to it. Maybe some advanced stats guys can educate me on that. (Also, Ian and I have been on the #FreeJedLowrie hashtag on the Twittermachines.)
On Sunday, he crushed a ball around the Pesky Pole for his third homer of the season. Three homers for Ellsbury this early in the season is a bit surprising, if not a little troubling. As Remy pointed out, his swing had a bit of an uppercut motion to it. I don’t really want him trying to hit homers. I want him hitting line drives, which he’s not doing right now. He is, however, getting walks, which is nice.
Ellsbury’s been bounced from leadoff to the 8- and 9-spots in the lineup, which is indicative of how much lineup shuffling has been going on with the Sox in general. I believe most of the shuffling is caused by trying to get Crawford going and finding a consistent spot for him in the lineup. Ideally, I’d like to see Ellsbury leading off, followed by Crawford and Pedroia, but the Sox lineup has so many offensive weapons—especially when Lowrie is in there—that finding a consistent lineup can be difficult.