Archive | September 2016

Division Champs! Why Does it Feel Empty?

After two consecutive last place finishes in 2014 and 2015, the Boston Red Sox rose up to have the best offense in Major League Baseball. It’s been fun watching this team hit so well and excite the city of Boston. Last night, they clinched the American League Eastern Division Championship for the first time since 2013. They have sowed up a playoff spot and avoid the Wild Card randomness and cap a great regular season. They celebrated in Yankee Stadium after securing the division. 

So why was I not celebrating? Well, winning the division last night felt empty for a few reasons. Namely, we lost. Last night’s game in Yankee Stadium was eminently winnable, with an outstanding start from Clay Buccholz, and an offensive surge in the 8th that should have been enough for the bullpen to hold. It wasn’t though. Craig Kimbrel, the closer for the Red Sox and a representative at the All-Star game this year, was absolutely awful in the 9th. He walked three guys, gave up 1 hit, got no outs, and when Joe Kelly got tagged by Mark Texeira with a grand slam, surrendered four runs to lose the game for the Sox. The Red Sox had a game that they could have easily won against their arch rivals and they blew it. Regardless of winning the division, I don’t feel good about what I saw from my team last night. 

Should I be happy that the Red Sox are in the postseason? Yes. Am I happy that I will get to watch Ortiz in the postseason one more time? Yes. Does that make up for blowing an eminently winnable game against the Yankees while there is still plenty to play for this week? Not only no, but hell no. The bullpen did not instill any confidence in me, and losing to the Yankees, especially in walk off fashion, is always gut wrenching. And what’s left to play for? Home field advantage throughout the playoffs. 

Right now, the Red Sox are the second seed in the playoffs. They would have home field for the Division Series and the World Series sown up if they make it that far. Here’s my concern: the American League Championship Series. Boston is best at home this season and they’d be in the best position to win the championship if they had home field advantage in that series. Here’s the problem: Texas has the best record in the A.L. and I don’t like the matchup against Texas. They’re 3-3 against them this season and didn’t look good in Arlington when they traveled there earlier this season. Every loss makes the chance for best record less likely and that worries me, especially with the bullpen’s importance to every team and the Sox bullpen coming up smaller than mini me frequently this season. They are 20-22 in one run games in the postseason, where close and low scoring games are more frequent, that stat is alarming. 

Am I worrying too much? Probably. Do I have cause for concern after last night? Yes. Do I desperately want David Ortiz to go out with a championship? Without question. Have I enjoyed this season? Yes! It has been so much more fun than the last two years and I love being a Red Sox fan right now. But am I happy after clinching the division? No. There is still plenty of baseball left to play and too much up in the air to celebrate after a night like that. This isn’t the Red Sox of the past, when just winning enough to get into the postseason was acceptable. Winning championships is the ultimate goal, and the Red Sox have a long way to go before they can win the championship. 

Don’t Forget Miami Shaq

When asked what the most important move he has made for the Miami Heat, former coach and current President and Godfather Pat Riley didn’t say it was signing Alonzo Mourning in 1995, drafting Dwayne Wade in 2003, signing Ray Allen away from Boston in 2012, or luring Lebron James and Chris Bosh to South Beach in 2010. He said that acquiring Shaquille O’Neal was far and away the biggest move he made as president of the Miami Heat. “He turned our franchise around. He gave us real legitimacy.” The reaction to the interview in which he said this has been a mix of “really?” and “He’s just saying that as a bitter man who has watched Lebron and Wade leave him in recent years.” To both of those I say, quit your bellyaching and understand the context of Shaq’s arrival in Miami. 

In the 90’s Shaquille O’Neal was the most exciting player in the league. He was a massive man who had the agility of a guard and was averaging 28 and 15 in his sleep. He made the Orlando Magic not only relevant, but took them to the finals and made Orlando the most exciting team in the league to watch. When he went to the Lakers in 1996, he cemented his place as the second most dominant player in NBA history behind Wilt Chaimberlain. He won the MVP in 2000, led the Lakers to 3 straight titles, and was the MVP of the Finals in every Finals Series the Lakers won. 

Contrast this incredible success with Miami’s history up to that point. The Heat were founded in 1988 and were ice cold out of the gate. They lost their first 17 games and finished their first season 15-67. They didn’t make the playoffs until 1992, and they were swept easily by Chicago in the first round. They didn’t make the conference finals until 1997 and lost in 5 games to the Bulls. They built some strong regular season teams in the back half of the 90’s and played some legendarily brutal games against the Knicks, but Alonzo Mourning, Tim Hardaway, and new head coach Pat Riley weren’t enough to make it to the NBA Finals. In fact in 1999, they became only the 2nd top seed to lose to an 8th seed in the first round of the playoffs when the Knicks upset them. When they drafted Dwayne Wade in 2003, Miami meant absolutely nothing in the basketball world. Beyond having one of the NBA’s legendary figures in Pat Riley involved with their organization, they hadn’t won anything of major significance. 

Then in 2004, Shaq and Kobe broke up and LA’s championship reign came to an end. Miami had gone to the 2nd round of the playoffs that year, but still needed a piece to make them legitimate title contenders. They decided to trade Lamar Odom, Brian Grant, and Caron Butler to get Shaq. Immediately, the impact was felt. Shaq and Wade became the biggest power duo in the game, Miami had the best record in the east, and came within one victory of their first NBA Finals appearance. After retooling their supporting cast, a severely disrespected Heat team upset Detroit in the Eastern Conference Finals and the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals to win the franchise’s first championship. Miami completed their quest for a ring and this one is held in high regard by Riley, who has 5 rings as a coach. It all became a real possibility when Shaq arrived. 

The 2006 NBA Finals are regarded as a one man show. Dwayne Wade was absolutely the best player on the floor that series, averaging 34.7 points a game and winning the MVP of the finals. Shaq didn’t have that great a series, only averaging 13.7 points a game. Compared to his points output in prior years, this was a precipitous decline. He still pulled down a team high 10.2 rebounds a game that series and contributed to a championship team. But this series highlights just how under appreciated Shaq’s time in Miami was. 

His first season in Miami, Wade was not the future Hall of Famer that he is today. He was a quick shooting guard with a big upside and plenty of scoring ability, but he wasn’t Flash yet. The Miami Heat were a promising team, but hadn’t earned the respect of the league yet. When the Big Aristotle showed up, Miami became a legitimate title contender. They had an MVP candidate, one of the greatest centers of all time, and a player with plenty of game left to give. While the Shaq that played in Orlando and LA is treated as a legendary player, Miami Shaq is generally regarded as the start of the old, lumbering Shaq who barely resembled his former glory. That’s not a fair description. In fact, Shaq was almost the MVP of the league in his first year in Miami. He averaged 22.9 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.3 blocks a game while leading Miami to 59 wins in 2005 and lost the MVP to Steve Nash in one of the closest votes in the history of the award. His 2nd year in Miami, he still averaged 20 points and almost 10 rebounds a game, and had 27 point and 12 rebound performances and better against the Bulls and Pistons in the playoffs. Shaq played at a Hall of Fame level in Miami, even though many fans have forgotten that. 

Lebron and Wade were a more dynamic and explosive duo in Miami than Wade and Shaq were. But without Shaq going to Miami, the Heat never win a single championship and Wade’s successes that made Miami appealing to Lebron and Bosh in 2010 don’t exist. Thus, Pat Riley is correct about Shaq’s importance to the Heat organization. 

When Shaq is inducted into the Hall of Fame on September 9th, most highlights will be from his years in Orlando and Los Angeles. Don’t forget to talk about his Miami years though. Wade didn’t become Flash until Superman joined him, and Lebron might never have taken his talents to South Beach of the Big Aristotle hadn’t made Miami credible six years earlier.