Red Sox Spring Training Wrap-Up: Opening Weekend

Welcome to Goose’s Gabs’ Spring Training Wrap-Up! Every week, we’ll recap all the week’s Red Sox spring training games. We’ll mention who looks good, who looks bad, and which minor leaguers just might be making an appearance at Fenway this season. Let’s get things started with Boston’s opening weekend, in which they played split-squad against Boston College and Northeastern University on Saturday, then began defending the Mayor’s Cup against the Minnesota Twins on Sunday.

Red Sox 6, Eagles 0

Although Red Sox pitching, led by Single-A Salem’s Stolmy Pimentel (2 IP, 0 ER, 0 H, 2 K, W), held the Eagles to just one hit and one walk in seven innings, the big story of the game was Kevin Youkilis, who hit a three-run home run off Boston College starting right-hander Geoff Oxley in the first inning. Youkilis also made a diving stop in the first inning at third base. Great to see him healthy, great to see him hitting, great to see him having success at third base.

Also playing in Saturday’s afternoon game was Dustin Pedroia, who went 0-1 with a walk and a run scored. Pedroia appeared to have no trouble running out a grounder in the second inning after having a pin inserted in his left foot last season. A healthy Youkilis and Pedroia means the Red Sox will have five or six legitimate power threats in the middle of their lineup.

Ryan Kalish had a strong day, going 1-2 with an RBI and a stolen base, as did non-roster invitee Brent Dlugach, who went 2-2 with a run while playing shortstop. On the mound, non-roster invitee Clevelan Santeliz struck out the side in the fifth.

Red Sox 13, Huskies 2

The Red Sox welcomed back more injured stars with Saturday’s nightcap against Northeastern University. Jacoby Ellsbury led off in center field and Mike Cameron played DH, the two combing to go 0-3 with a walk.

The biggest star of the game was shortstop prospect Jose Iglesias, who went 2-3 with two runs scored and three RBIs. Center fielder Che-Hsuan Lin scored two runs and knocked in two more despite going 0-2, while left fielder Peter Hissey went 1-2 with two RBIs.

On the mound, starter Kyle Weiland gave up a first-pitch home run to Huskies lead-off hitter Ryan Maguire. In two innings of work he allowed two hits, an earned run and a walk while striking out two. He did not factor in the decision, as the Red Sox were held scoreless until the fourth inning, when they scored five runs. They scored two more in the fifth, then six in the sixth.

The win went to Rich Hill, who pitched one inning of one-hit, one-run and one-strikeout baseball. Hill has a shot at making the major-league roster. Matt Albers looked impressive doing mop-up duty in the seventh, not allowing a base-runner while striking out two.

Twins 8, Red Sox 4

Carl Pavano out-dueled Josh Beckett in Boston’s first Grapefruit League game on Sunday. Pavano pitched two scoreless innings, allowing one hit while striking out two. Beckett also pitched two innings, allowing two hits and an earned run. Beckett did not record a strikeout and took the loss.

Clay Buchholz fared far better than Beckett, pitching two perfect innings while striking out one. Beckett will have to do better if he wants to supplant Buchholz as the number two starter in the rotation, let alone reclaim his title as staff ace.

But the worst pitching performance goes to Hideki Okajima, who turned a one-run deficit after four innings into a five-run deficit after five. Okajima gave three consecutive singles, then a triple to center fielder Joe Benson. Okajima gave up another RBI single before finishing the inning. He gave up five hits and struck out two. Okajima has seemed to deteriorate a little bit more every season, and a rough start to the 2011 pre-season does not bode well. Then again, it’s just one inning.

At the plate, the Red Sox didn’t start scoring until the eighth inning, when they were already down 6-0. Lars Anderson, potential reserve first baseman, led off with a solo home run, and Josh Reddick kicked in a pinch-hit RBI single to cap off a three-run inning. In the ninth, after the Twins tacked on two more runs to make it 8-3, catcher Mark Wagner hit another solo home run, but the Red Sox could not come back any further.

Final Thoughts

We shouldn’t be overly concerned with anything the Red Sox did in their first few spring training games. The pre-season exists to help players gradually prepare for the regular season. Pitchers tend to take longer to get in shape than hitters, so seeing Beckett and even Okajima struggle is not cause for panic quite yet. But on the flip side, it’s great to see players like Youkilis, Ellsbury and Pedroia out there and moving normally. Injuries derailed a promising team last season, and Red Sox fans can look at these initial games as signs that their beloved players are now injury-free.

And that’s worth far more than any Mayor’s Cup.

The Amazing Andre: Rolim Posts Fastest 600-Meter Time in MA in All-State Championship

(written, shot and edited for Somerville Patch)

Forget personal bests or school records. How about fastest time in the state? Somerville High School sophomore Andre Rolim won the 600-meter run at Saturday’s 26th Annual MIAA Indoor Track & Field All-State Championship at the Reggie Lewis Center in Roxbury, posting the fastest time in Massachusetts this year.

Rolim’s time of 1:21.29 was also the eighth-fastest time in the entire country. In the 600-meter run this season, Rolim went undefeated.

Through the first two laps, Rolim conserved his energy, staying with the front-runners while holding onto third place. But with 100 meters left in his final lap, Rolim put on a burst of speed and pulled away from the pack, winning by nearly a full second.

“Coach told me they were gonna go out fast,” Rolim said. “He told me ‘just follow them and see if you can give a kick in the end. If you can give the kick, you’ll be fine.’”

Rolim came back later in the day to anchor the boys’ 4×400 Meter Relay. The race began with senior Edward Chen, who shaved about a second off his time at last week’s MIAA meet but still finished his heat in third place. Senior Jermaine Carty closed the gap on second place Acton-Boxboro, and senior John Thomas overtook them down the final straightaway before handing off to anchor Rolim.

Given a lead, there was no chance anyone would catch Rolim for second place. But even the speedy Rolim could not catch the team from Mansfield High School, which won the relay by over four seconds, setting a new All-State Championship record with a time of 3:21.78. Mansfield won both the boys’ and girls’ all-around competition.

The Somerville High’s relay team posted a new fastest time at 3:25.81. Boys’ head coach Dave Dickerson credited Cheng’s faster heat with making the biggest difference in the overall standings.

Both Rolim and the relay team will likely compete in Friday’s New England Championships at the Reggie Lewis Center. This is not guaranteed, however, as Rolim and the relay team have already qualified for the New Balance Indoor Championship in New York in March, and Dickerson does not want to tire them out before the national competition.

Also qualifying for nationals in the “Emerging Elites” section was freshman Taija Clark, who set a new personal best with a high jump of 5’2.” After soaring over the bar at 5’0,” Clark cleared 5’2” on her third attempt, getting her body completely and cleanly over. The bar did not move at all.

Girls’ head coach Charlie O’Rourke said he was “very happily surprised” for Clark.

“That’s her best ever, two weeks in a row,” O’Rourke said. “Good for her.”

Also competing for the girls was junior Nicole Genard, who won her qualifying trial in the 55-meter hurdles with a time of 8.42. But during the finals, Genard re-injured her right heel mid-race and finished in fourth place with a time of 8.65.

Unfortunately, the bad luck continued for Genard as anchor for the girls’ 4×200 meter relay. The first three runners- sophomore Gelynne Berger, senior Ashley Murphy and junior Michel’le Meranda– all ran strong laps, and Genard came around the final curve of her lap leading and looking strong. But in the final straightaway the baton fell out of Genard’s hands, causing a disqualification.

Although Genard qualified for the New England meet with her fourth-place finish in the hurdles, O’Rourke said she will not compete, having qualified for the national meet back in January.

“She’s had a black cloud over her the last month, between the injury and whatever happened with the baton,” O’Rourke said. “We’ll give her a little break, hopefully do better at the nationals.”

Also competing in the All-State Championship was senior Herby LaFortune in the boys’ long jump. LaFortune was called for a foul on all three of his jumps, but Dickerson said he thought two of them looked clean.

“I feel bad for him, cause he hasn’t been the seeded guy all along, but boy, he’s gotten better every week,” Dickerson said. “I think his jump this week was better than it was last week, but it didn’t count. I think he would have gotten a medal.”

Andre Rolim wins 600 meter run

Taija Clark sets new personal best, qualifies for nationals

Boys’ 4×400 sets new fastest time

Extending Francona: If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

Sports Illustrated writer Jon Heyman tweeted Tuesday that the Red Sox “intend” to pick up manager Terry Francona’s two-year, $9 million extension, meaning that Francona will be with the ball club through 2013. Already the second-longest-tenured manager in Red Sox history, Francona and general manager Theo Epstein also tie Chicago White Sox GM Kenny Williams and manager Ozzie Guillen as longest-intact pair in Major League Baseball.

The Best Red Sox Manager Ever?

Between the extension and Monday’s induction into the College Baseball Hall of Fame, it’s been a pretty good week for Francona. And why not? He’s the best manager the Red Sox have ever had. Only one other manager- Bill Carrigan, 1913-1916- has won two World Series, and Francona blows all competition out of the water in both playoff wins (28) and total games (45). Only Joe Cronin (1935-1947) has more regular-season wins (1,071 vs. 654 for Francona), and only five managers have a better career winning percentage (.577). But of those five, none managed even half as many regular-season games as Francona has (1,134).

We don’t think of Francona as a great manager because of the way he carries himself. His posture, his smile, his sense of humor, his speech patterns, they all scream “folksy.” He doesn’t carry himself with the professionalism of Joe Torre or Tony La Russa, nor does he have the authoritarian qualities of Buck Showalter. When he gets into shouting matches with umpires, he looks silly, sometimes even anemic. He lacks the fire of Guillen, Lou Pinella or Bobby Cox. And if the players love him, they don’t show it as outwardly as the Rockies might with Clint Hurdle or the Rays with Joe Maddon.

What Makes Francona Great

Francona doesn’t display any of these qualities, and yet he does the two things managers have to do: make on-field decisions (lineup, relief pitching, etc.) that lead to wins, and talk to the press. Neither is an easy task in Boston. The Red Sox have had their fair share of prima donnas come through Fenway’s locker room, and Francona has had to deal with some of the worst. Pedro Martinez. Manny Ramirez. Curt Schilling. Even this current squad, devoid of melodrama though it appears to be, still has a few players whose cockiness demands constant attention, in particular Josh Beckett.

Francona seems undaunted by these players, an attribute that his predecessor, Grady Little, did not possess. Whatever we might think of Francona, he seems to get strong performances out his team, no matter the mental make-up of individual players. And to his credit, any issues that the team might have are kept internal. With the Boston sports media as obsessed with the Red Sox as they are, it’s impossible to keep serious intra-team conflict private for long. But that’s what Francona manages to do.

The only real fight the press reported was the Kevin Youkilis-Ramirez fight in June 2008, less than two months before Ramirez was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers. But given the players Francona has managed over the years, just one conflict reported in seven years borders on miraculous. It’s true that Francona usually manages a team so stocked in talent that any manager could be successful. But the same could be said about the 2003 Red Sox, and Little’s managing deficiencies directly cost that squad a shot at a World Series title.

Less recognized but equally valuable is Francona’s ability to handle Boston’s incessant sports media. In Moneyball, Michael Lewis described the press as “so reliably venomous that it was impossible to distinguish the poison directed at the new regime from the poison they’d aimed at every other person who had the temerity to pass through Fenway Park” (294-295). And there have been plenty of barbs slung Francona’s way since he took over.

But through it all, Francona has never wavered in how he deals with the press. No matter what’s on his mind, Francona always takes the time for pre-game interviews and post-game press conferences. He answers questions honestly, fully and respectfully without bending over backwards. He’s found a middle ground between Bill Belichick’s stonewalling and Doc Rivers’ obsequiousness. He keeps reporters away from the stuff he wants kept internal by essentially giving them everything else. It’s a smart, calculated move that makes for great press conferences and gives the organization an aura of stability.

Perhaps the best way to describe Francona would be to say he extends his own levelheadedness over the rest of team and the press. But whatever he does, the proof is in the pudding. Francona has won 654 games, an AL East title and two World Series rings.

Can’t argue with that.

New-Look Celtics Shut Out of Final Six Minutes; Lose in Denver

When asked about the many trades the Boston Celtics made right before Thursday’s 3 pm trade deadline, many of the players said they were shocked. Thursday night in Denver, they played like it, too. The Boston Celtics did not score in the final six minutes of the fourth quarter, allowing the Denver Nuggets to go on a 16-0 run that turned a two-point Celtics lead into a 89-75 Nuggets victory at the Pepsi Center.

Fourth Quarter Failure

The Celtics- NBA leaders in shooting percentage- did not shoot the ball well all night, making just 39 percent of their shots. But they saved their worst play for the fourth quarter. The Celtics went 6/19 in the fourth on 31.6 percent shooting. Their last basket came on a Paul Pierce (team-high 17 points, 38.9 percent shooting) three-pointer with 6:05 left in the fourth, putting the Celtics up 75-73.

But after that trey, the team fell apart. It wasn’t just because the Celtics sank only two shots after that. Credit Denver’s defense as well. In the final six minutes, the Nuggets blocked two shots, drew a charge, stripped Ray Allen (10 points, 4/11 shooting, 1/5 from three-point range) on one play and forced him out of bounds on another.

The Nuggets defense was stingy enough in the fourth that it allowed Denver players to start running down-court in anticipation of turnovers, leading to easy lay-ups. With the Nuggets up 81-75 with two minutes left in the game, Denver point guard Ty Lawson found shooting guard Aaron Afflalo (13 points, one of five Nuggets to score in double digits) on a fast break. Pierce tried to foul Afflalo to keep him from scoring, but Afflalo still muscled in the layup. He sank the and-1 free-throw as well, putting the Nuggets up nine, at which point momentum swung completely in Denver’s direction.

Overall, the Celtics were outscored on fast breaks, 14-4. That they had such little success on fast breaks speaks to how well the Nuggets controlled the pace of the game, despite committing five more turnovers.

Missed Opportunities

From a pure points perspective, the Celtics didn’t have a bad night. Besides Pierce and Allen, three other Celtics scored in double digits. Glen Davis, who started at center and had to contend all night with the taller and lankier Nene Hilario (12 points), scored 11 points. Kevin Garnett scored 14 while grabbing 13 rebounds for his 19th double-double of the season. And Delonte West scored 10 off the bench.

The Celtics showed this new squad can still score, it just took them far too long to do so. Davis shot just 30 percent from the floor. West shot 36.3 percent (4/11) and went scoreless from behind the arc. When West jumps, he seems to turn his shoulder towards the basket. It might work for him, but his shooting form seems more difficult, more across-the-body, then Allen’s. Garnett was the only player to shoot 50 percent or better (discounting Von Wafer and Developmental League call-up Chris Johnson, who combined to go 3/5 for eight points).

Perhaps most symbolic of the Celtics’ offensive incompetence were their plus-minus ratings, which measure whether the team tends to score or give up points when a player is on the floor. Not a single Celtic had a positive plus-minus. The Nuggets, who shot over 45 percent, only had one player who didn’t have a positive plus-minus, and that was only minus-one.

Small Bench Plus Small Players Equals Loss

Had the Celtics found a way to economize their shooting, they likely would have had a more successful Thursday night. But they gave away too many possessions on low-percentage. They seemed too content to throw up bricks or dribble into double-coverage and turn the ball over.

Without a true NBA center, Boston could not compete with Denver underneath the basket. They were out-scored in the paint, 36-30. When the Celtics did get off shots, they gave up immediately. Boston managed just three offensive rebounds while allowing seven. The Celtics lost the rebounds battle 52-38, which is never surprising. But they also lost the assist contest, 22-18, and that is always surprising. Denver moved the ball well against an ever-tiring Celtics defense, with Lawson doing the lion’s share of the passing with 10 assists.

Rajon Rondo, meanwhile, had an uncharacteristically average night, scoring five points while dishing out “just” eight assists. His lone highlight was an acrobatic mid-air, behind-the-back pass to Davis that put the Celtics up 42-39 in the third quarter.

The Celtics were without any of the players they traded for, so they only dressed nine for the game, including Johnson, who had only logged 16 minutes of NBA playing time before this game. By wasting so many possessions, the Celtics put extra pressure on a defense that could not play at the same level of intensity it usually does. Without more bodies, the Celtics faded down the stretch, leading to the 16-0 Nuggets run.

Denver also had an easier time getting to the free-throw line, shooting 23 free throws to just 15 by the Celtics. The Celtics were already in the penalty with over six minutes left in the second quarter, and the Nuggets got six free-throws out of it. Although Denver only made 16 of their attempts, their near-constant presence on the free-throw line signified how out of rhythm the Celtics defense was.

With a bench that was more than doubled up by the Nuggets’ bench (40-18), the veteran (or maybe just “old”) Boston starters had to play extra minutes, averaging 36 minutes each. The Nuggets starters, backed by strong bench play, averaged just over 26 minutes each.

Celtics Mid-Season Report

Technically, the Celtics (40-14, first in the Eastern Conference) finished the first half of their season back in late January. But with the All-Star Game come and gone, it seems an appropriate time to evaluate the team and assess its current strengths and liabilities. We’ll break it down by the three major positions, then further break it down by starter and bench. Plus, there are polls!

The Guards

Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen: Rajon Rondo has the most assists in the Eastern Conference and averages the most assists per game in the NBA. The Celtics have four legitimate scoring threats in their starting rotation, and consequently Rondo’s shooting numbers have gone down this season. But a point guard’s first job is to integrate and execute the offense, and for Rondo that means delaying his growth as a shooter. Otherwise, Rondo continues to improve each year. His steals per game and assists per turnover have each grown incrementally every year of his career, and he’s actually blocking slightly better this year as well (.2 blocks per game vs. .1 in the ’08-’09 and ’09-’10 seasons). Rondo has long since put to rest any fear that he can’t lead this veteran Celtics squad, and now there’s no telling what his ceiling is. Given an injury-free season, he could break the record for most assists in a season in 2012.

Rondo’s passes come from such a myriad of angles and body positions that they often seem like magic. Now you see it, now you don’t, now it’s in the hoop. But if Rondo’s passing is magic, then Ray Allen’s shooting is art. Every time he shoots, Allen jumps straight up. He releases the ball at his jump’s apex every time. Simply put, his form is perfect, his shot beautiful, and this year we’re seeing it better than ever. Allen’s .501 shooting percentage and .457 three-point percentage are both career bests for him.
There are 11 Celtics home games left in the season. Let’s say two games don’t air on CSN. That means Tommy Heinsohn will call around nine more Celtics games before the playoffs. How will Allen’s newly acquired three-point crown affect Heinsohn’s penchant for histrionics?

Take the “Tommy Heinsohn on Ray Allen” survey

Reserves: The Celtics are lucky to be getting Delonte West back. West is a far better second point guard than Nate Robinson. West can facilitate better, and he doesn’t depend on his jump shot as much. Robinson can hit the trey, but he’s streaky. That makes you cringe every time he shoots. He’s best suited to be a shooting guard, but he doesn’t command the same confidence that Allen does, and the second unit as it currently stands lacks a strong inside presence. West’s ability to drive to the basket can help that, and it will open up jump-shooting forwards like Glen Davis by forcing defenders to rotate in to defend him.

Beyond Robinson and West, the Celtics don’t have much. Marquis Daniels is a strong defender, but he’s at least a month away from returning after bruising his spine. That just leaves rookie Avery Bradley and journeyman Von Wafer. Neither are bad players, but these are your third-string guards for sure. Bradley has shown potential, but you don’t want to rush a rookie too quickly for reasons both physical and mental. Wafer plays pesky defense, and can occasionally hit a three-pointer, but that’s all you can expect out of him.

Overall, the Celtics are unlikely to try and trade to improve this position. Once Daniels gets healthy again, the Celtics will have three experienced guards (including one pure point guard) to play off the bench to spell Rondo and Allen.

The Forwards

Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett: Paul Pierce isn’t scoring as much this year (18.8 points per game, as opposed to 22.3 points per game for his career), but he’s also not taking as many shots. Consequently, his .498 field goal percentage is the highest it has ever been. He’s not shooting as well from behind the arc (.385 three-point percentage, the lowest since shooting .354 in the ’05-’06 season), but he’s making up for that at the free-throw line (.845 free-throw percentage, second highest of his career). For a player whose bread-and-butter is drawing the foul and getting to the line, this is the far more important stat. His rebounds and assists are also up from the ’09-’10 season, and his turnovers per game have declined each of the last five seasons. His steals per turnover average has also climbed each of the last two seasons over the previous one. Pierce continues to perform at an elite level.

Kevin Garnett’s biggest growth this season has been his rebounding, up from 7.3 last season to 9.0 this season. Much of that can be attributed to his knee fully healing, and it looks like the calf-muscle strain he suffered earlier this season has healed completely. His steals per game are also up to 1.5, the highest since joining the Celtics. Garnett loves to use his long arms to disrupt plays, either with steals or rebounds. Both his scoring (1.279) and shooting (.518) efficiency ratings are above his career average as well.

Reserves: This is where the Celtics are the absolute neediest. Right now, there are only two forwards on the bench: Davis and rookie Luke Harangody. Davis currently has to split time between playing power forward and center, which he does very well. He is definitely a candidate for the NBA Sixth Man award this year. Harangody has the box-out abilities and jump shot to be a small forward, but he has yet to develop the aggression needed to slash like Pierce can. With Daniels (who can play small forward) out, that means there isn’t really a backup for Pierce on the team. Hence, the interest in Shane Battier, small forward for the Houston Rockets. Offensively, Battier isn’t much: 9.7 points per game, 2.0 assists, 4.7 rebounds, .744 free-throw shooting percentage. But, as Michael Lewis wrote, Battier is a defensive genius, able to consistently force shooters to their lowest-percentage shooting spots. The only question is whether or not Battier’s defensive skills are worth it for the offensive liabilities.

What do you think?

The Centers

Kendrick Perkins: It’s kind of remarkable how quickly Perkins has inserted himself back into the starting rotation following his recovery from a knee injury in last season’s NBA Finals. In just 11 games (six as a starter), Perkins’ minutes have essentially returned to 2010 numbers (27.4 vs 27.6 minutes per game last season). Perkins’ rebounding is up (from 7.6 to 8.2), but his blocking hasn’t come back yet (from 1.7 to 0.8). That makes sense, since blocking is not just about physical factors such as jumping ability and body control but also mental factors such as timing and knowledge of opponent’s shooting habits. As Perkins continues to play, he’ll start to remember how the other centers play, and he will get his blocking back.

Reserves: This is another spot where the Celtics are in need, but not because of lack of bodies. This time, it’s because of a lack of healthy bodies. Shaquille O’Neal and Jermaine O’Neal have both missed significant time this season with injuries, and their age makes recovery time a bigger concern. Shaq is obviously the better offensive center of the two, and he might have the upper-body strength to be the best rebounder of any center on the team. But even Doc Rivers isn’t sure when he’ll be back. Jermaine O’Neal, meanwhile, has only played in 17 games this season. He might be ready to go in early April, but does anyone think that will be his last injury with the team? Personally, I haven’t liked Jermaine O’Neal since his involvement with the “Malice at the Palace” in 2004. But if the Celtics want to contend for another NBA title, they’ll probably need to go through the Orlando Magic, and that means having lots of centers to body up Dwight Howard, disrupt his shooting and get in his head with hard fouls.

Making matters worse is rookie Semih Erden, who showed promise this season, but has been hampered by a strained groin. He hasn’t played since February 6 against the Magic, and he hasn’t played significant minutes since January 27 at the Portland Trailblazers. Right now, the Celtics only have Davis backing up Perkins, and Davis isn’t really tall enough to play center, plus he sometimes has to play power forward. Centers are hard to come by, so the Celtics are unlikely to trade for one, since it’s unlikely they’d get anyone good or not injury-prone. But this is a team that cannot afford another injury at this position.

Final Thoughts

The Celtics are probably deepest at guard and weakest at forward, and their biggest concern now is going into the playoffs healthy. They’re not scared of the Miami Heat, and they’re two games up on the third-place Chicago Bulls. Doc Rivers can play even looser with the end of this season than he did with the end of last season, because this team has not shown nearly the tendency to blow late-game leads that it did last year.

The Celtics have 28 games left before the playoffs. I predict they go 19-9, but still finish in first place.

All-Star MVP Bryant’s Double-Double Leads West Over East

On his home court and on the cusp of history, Kobe Bryant could not be denied. Bryant scored 37 while grabbing 14 boards, powering the Western Conference to its 24th victory at the NBA All-Star Game in Los Angeles, beating the Eastern Conference All-Stars 148-143. Bryant, who collected three assists and three steals on top of his double-double, was named All-Star Game MVP for the fourth time, tying him with St. Louis Hawks Hall-of-Famer Bob Pettit for most all time.

Bryant faced his stiffest competition from teammate Kevin Durant, who scored 34 points, including draining four three-pointers.

From the East, LeBron James became just the second player ever behind Michael Jordan to record a triple-double in an All-Star Game. James scored 29 points while grabbing 12 rebounds and dishing out 10 assists, all team highs.

Amare Stoudemire also scored 29 points for the East, which has split its last eight All-Star Games with the West. This might have less to do with equal talent levels and more to do with equal motivation (or lack thereof). Neither team played much defense, although the West did steal the ball 18 times, mainly behind Chris Paul.

Why the East Lost

The East played too loose with the ball early on, turning the ball over ten times in the first half. What was a 10-point West lead after one quarter became a 12-point lead after two and a 17-point lead after three.

The East made a game of it at the end, spurred by strong fourth-quarter play from James and teammate Chris Bosh (14 points to lead all East reserves), closing the gap to single digits. But an ill-conceived Bosh three-pointer when the East only needed two and two key free-throws by Durant sealed the victory for the West.

The East finished the game with 21 turnovers. The West only committed 15.

The East also had serious difficulty rebounding and limiting the West to single possessions. Though they only lost the overall rebound battle 61-54, the East allowed 27 offensive rebounds. When you’re playing against terrific shooters like Bryant and Durant, you can’t give up 27 second chances and expect to win.

Boston’s All-Stars

The Boston Celtics sent four players to the All-Star Game: Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo. It was the first time four teammates had all been named to the All-Star Game since the 2006 Detroit Pistons. That group combined for just 23 points, and this one didn’t do much better, combining for just 28. Allen led the Celtics with 12 points, including two three-pointers. His second came with just nine seconds left in the game and cut the West’s lead to 146-143.

The other three Celtics combined for 16 points- four for Garnett and six for both Pierce and Rondo. East head coach Doc Rivers used Garnett and Pierce sparingly, the two players combining for just 19 minutes. Rondo led the East reserves with eight assists.

All four Celtics checked in for the first time together, at 6:37 left in the first quarter. The Staples Center showered them with boos, which quickly turned to derisive laughs when Allen air-balled a three-point attempt.

Miami’s Big Three, on the other hand, combined for 57 points. Dwyane Wade scored 14 points in just 20 minutes of play, fewest of any Eastern starter, before leaving the game in the third quarter with a tweaked ankle.

Pissing Off Everyone Not from the United States 101

The NBA wanted to honor its international players before the game, which was a lovely idea. But the way they did it was so ham-handed and ridiculous that it bordered on offensive. First, they sang the Canadian national anthem. And don’t get me wrong: Melanie Fiona did a fine job with “O Canada.” Only problem: none of the All-Stars are from Canada. In fact, there are only five Canadians playing in the NBA right now, the same as the number of Turkish players in the NBA (and same number of 2011 All-Stars… zero). The most current international players actually come from France, but I guess playing “La Marseillaise” would somehow seem un-American.

To make matters worse, they then let Spaniard Pau Gasol introduce the All-Star Game, because apparently all the international fans who aren’t from Canada know Spanish. The player I most felt sorry for was Dirk Nowitzki, which was surprising. I usually don’t feel bad for German people.

Really? Lenny Kravitz?

The NBA chose Lenny Kravitz to headline the pre-game concert. His music, which could generously be described as combining the worst aspects of the Guess Who and Jimi Hendrix, has gotten even slower and less creative since he entered his 40s. The crowd was clearly not into it, as there were maybe two very brief crowd-shots during the entire performance.

It was a truly baffling decision, given how young this crop of NBA All-Stars is. Let’s not forget that the last time Lenny Kravitz was relevant (“Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me”), Blake Griffin was 10. Celebrity game MVP Justin Bieber was 5.

A Little R&R: Rolim and Relays Win at States

(Written, shot and edited for Somerville Patch)

The Reggie Lewis Center in Roxbury quietly rumbled all evening during Friday’s MIAA Division 1 track meet, but no one made more noise than Somerville High School’s Andre Rolim.

The sophomore Highander began his night by winning his second consecutive title in the 600-meter run, then anchored the 4×400 meter relay, which also won. These two victories were part of an overall strong showing by Somerville High School that saw several players set new personal bests or qualify for the state finals on Saturday.

Rolim appeared to hang back during the first of his three laps in the 600-meter run, letting other runners jockey for position. But after finishing the first lap, Rolim pulled ahead of the pack and never looked back, finishing the race in 1 minute, 22.05 seconds.

“He has such a great kick that it’s ok to let others take it out a bit,” boys’ head coach Dave Dickerson said.

In the 4×400 meter relay, Edward Chen “ran into some traffic” during the first two laps, according to Dickerson, and fell behind. The Highlanders had some ground to make up, but seniors Jermaine McCarty and John Thomas ran their fastest 400-meter splits ever to close the gap during the middle four laps. By the time Thomas cleanly handed the baton to Rolim, Somerville had basically pulled even with Acton-Boxboro.

“That’s all we ask, that he [Rolim] be close enough near the end,” Dickerson said. “If he’s close, he’s gonna win.” Rolim ran his fastest 400-meter run ever- 49.4 seconds- and the team finished in 3:26.23.

It was their best time ever, but a girls’ relay team ran the best race in Highlander history. The girls’ 4×800 meter relay team- senior captains Iaritza Menjivar, Tayla Plett and Sasha Garczynski, and junior Pristine Mei- set a new Somerville High School record with a time of 10:15.15, beating their old record by more than 5 seconds.

The girls’ 4×200 meter relay- sophomore Gelynne Berger, senior captain Ashley Murphy and juniors Michel’le Meranda and Nicole Genard- won their heat in convincing fashion, finishing in 1:48.48 and placing seventh overall. It was their best team performance.

Genard, hampered for the last two weeks by a heel injury, also placed second in the 55-meter hurdles with a time of 8.33 seconds.

Genard, Rolim and the boys 4×400 meter relay all qualified for the state finals.

“She [Genard] should move on to the nationals, so getting her ready for that is also among our primary goals,” said girls’ head coach Charlie O’Rourke.

The top three in each event automatically qualify for the next round, then the next best 12 performances from all MIAA four divisions also advance. The girls’ 4×200 meter relay team qualified among these 12, as did senior Herby LaFortune, who finished fifth in the boys’ long jump with a personal best of 21-02, and freshman Taija Clark, who cleared 5-1 on the girls’ high jump, also a personal best.

Meranda set a new personal fastest time in the 300 meter with 42.78, but did not qualify.

Other Highlanders competing included senior Pedro Rolim, Andre’s brother, and junior Lyndon Kaba, who finished the 55-meter dash in 6.78 and 6.86, respectively, and Natalie Clark who finished the girls’ shot put with 27-03.

The Somerville High School boys’ squad finished the meet tied for sixth place with 24 points. The girls finished 15th with 13.

SHS highlights from MIAA Track Meet

SHS Boys 4×400-Meter Relay

To Fight or Not to Fight: A Rare Musing on Hockey

As the Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens, Pittsburgh Penguins, and New York Islanders have all shown, fighting is alive and well in the NHL. Now, no one will argue that fighting in hockey is in any way new; current rules regarding punishment for “fisticuffs” date back to the 1920s. But it does seem like these last few brawls have achieved a scale rarely seen in the NHL. So we’re left to ponder: is fighting good or bad for the NHL?

There seems to be a degree of arbitrariness to hockey fights. Sure, sometimes they result directly from the plays on the ice. The score could be lopsided, or one team’s checking could be far more aggressive than the other team’s. Alternately, a fight could be a response to a previous game, especially when one team feels a certain offense went unaddressed in the first game. We need only look at the continuing saga of Marc Savard and Matt Cooke for evidence of that.

But sometimes, fights break out just because the two players decide to fight. There’s a quick exchange of glances and eye contact, and suddenly it’s on. No rhyme or reason to it, and often no words at all. When there are words, the conversation is usually very brief, suggesting that some issues run so deep in hockey that it only takes a word or two to start a fight. Based on where hockey players mostly come from, I’d guess those issues include the value of socialized medicine vs. the inability to see a specialist in a timely fashion and the merits of one Scandinavian metal band over another (answer: Mayhem rules).

The fact remains that hockey retains a portion of its fans because of fighting, just as NASCAR does because of potential accidents. Allowing the players to fight humanizes them. It shows that, just like most of us, they care about what they do enough so that when someone impugns their abilities, it produces an emotional reaction.

Hockey fights, random as they might be, have a degree of honesty to them that showboating in the NFL or NBA doesn’t have. We’re more comfortable seeing people fight than we are seeing them gloat.

As kids, we’re taught not to brag about ourselves. But we’re also taught that if a bully won’t leave you alone, sometimes it’s o.k. to fight back. Such values have translated into adulthood. Boastful people are rejected, labeled as “arrogant” or “narcissistic.” But those who stand up for themselves (when it’s appropriate) are heralded for “not taking crap from anyone,” for being “scrappy.”

Some teams have called for harsher regulation of fights in the NHL because they think it’s bad for the game. But fighting is primarily a form of emotional release, and going down this path may ultimately lead the NHL into the state the NBA currently finds itself in. Players aren’t regulated in the NBA, they’re repressed. You can barely make a face now if you’re called for a foul without picking up a technical. If you keep punishing every showing of emotion, you’re going to wash the league of any emotion, and that will ultimately hurt the play. No one wants to waste their money on hockey tickets if a third of the game is going to be fighting (as it was in the Islanders-Penguins game), but no one wants to waste their money watching dis-spirited players either.

Complicating this issue is college hockey. Men’s college hockey allows physical play such as checking, but fighting is strictly and severely punished. Fans are less comfortable with boys- unpaid and representing a school- fighting than they are with men, who are paid a salary and really only represent themselves. Women’s college hockey, meanwhile, allows no fighting or checking. The result, at least with the good teams (like perennial Olympic-team feeder Harvard), is a style of play that emphasizes fluid, strategic skating and crisp passing. Watching a women’s game is such a different hockey experience that you can’t compare it with the men’s game, a comparison that has always kept down the WNBA. But no matter which gender you prefer watching, the college hockey game has shown that good, entertaining hockey is achievable without violence.

Hockey has always appealed most to the “blue-collar” portion of the U.S. And part of blue-collar culture is the embracing of honest emotional urges, even if those urges sometimes lead to violent outbursts. This is not to say that non-working-class Americans don’t feel these emotions, they’re just less self-aware and more self-conscious. They don’t want to admit they occasionally want to lash out, oftentimes at the people around them, so they repress. Hockey fans feel no particular urge to repress those instincts, so they lead the charge the other way. That NHL players do the same appeals to fans and helps them identify with the players.

Ultimately, any decision the NHL makes regarding fighting will be a business decision, and the fact remains that fights generate publicity for the league. The NHL is currently battling Major League Soccer for popularity, behind all three other major sports and NASCAR. Anything that gets more people to games or watching the ads on television is good publicity, even if parents might feel uncomfortable letting their 9-year-olds watch grown men punch each other in the head.

Get rid of fighting, and you’re going to lose a large portion of your fans. And if the loss of fighting leads to a loss of emotional intensity, you’re going to lose the rest.

Ten Career Aspirations

When I interviewed BU guard John Holland last month, he asked me what I wanted to do with my degree in sports journalism. In light of my recently acquired WEEI internship, I thought I might devote an article to answering that very question.

Here are ten things I want to do before my career is over. Some are sillier, others are loftier, but these are my answers:

  1. I want to write with Gene Weingarten’s humor, Jackie MacMullan’s gentle intelligence, Malcolm Gladwell’s insistence, and Michael Lewis’ comprehensiveness, all at once.
  2. I want to go the Olympics and find a story no one’s ever told before. Forget Michael Phelps. A thousand writers will write about him. Bring on an archer from Thailand who developed an after-school archery program that has cut violent crime figures in his city in half.
  3. I want to bring down the IOC and FIFA, finally exposing them as the corrupt, elitist and possibly racist organizations that they are. Then I want to cover how the new organizations running the Olympics and World Cup are so superior that it’s stupefying we didn’t dissolve them sooner.
  4. When we start using gravity manipulation in strength training, I want to cover the first 700-foot home run,
  5. I want to cover a sold-out New York Knicks game, then watch a sold-out Oilhead show at Madison Square Garden 24 hours later. I’ll expect a backstage pass for that, by the way.
  6. When I’m done writing game stories at 2 AM, I want to run a nationally syndicated radio talk show that has the widespread appeal of “Dennis & Callahan” and the intelligence of NPR’s “Only a Game.” And I want to be able to hire 30 young journalists to work for me instead of the five “Only a Game” has.
  7. I want Ultimate (Frisbee) to become the next million-dollar-salary professional sport, and I want to be its first beat reporter. And I want my Ultimate stories published on ESPN.com and in Sports Illustrated.
  8. I want to be the next Buzz Bissinger. I want to find the town in California where volleyball means as much as football does in Texas. I want to cover that team for a year and write the deepest, most nuanced, most complete volleyball story ever told. And I want it to win the Pulitzer fucking Prize.
  9. I want something I write to be published in a volume of the “Best American Sports Writing” series. Then, after I’ve kicked the bucket, I want it to appear in the “Best American Sports Writing of the 21st Century,” so some jackass 20-year-old budding reporter can download it into his brain or however it is kids will learn in 2105.
  10. Whatever sport I wind up covering, I want to be elected to its writers’ Hall of Fame, then its actual Hall of Fame. And then I’ll tell the story of how I got there.

As a final thought, I’d like to share one of my all-time favorite quotes. It comes from “Transmetropolitan,” a comic series written by Warren Ellis and published by DC Comics through its adult-oriented “Vertigo” imprint. The main character, Spider Jerusalem, is Hunter S. Thompson, transplanted into a future that is every bit as zany as Thompson ever was. Given a world that can match Thompson blow for crazy blow, the main character’s only recourse is to become even crazier. Do more drugs. Get in more fights. Write with more ire and bile.

Such actions lead Jerusalem into conflict with the various politicians he encounters, most importantly Gary Callahan, called the Smiler, who is elected President of the United States at the end of the first major arc. Jerusalem sets out to bring down the Smiler as he brought down the previous president (called the Beast), but at one point the Smiler ruins Jerusalem’s entire investigation.

Enter Mitchell Royce, editor at the Word, Jerusalem’s newspaper. Jerusalem has made Royce’s life hell for his entire professional career, but Royce so believes in Jerusalem that he continues to stick by him, even as Jerusalem constantly mocks him.

As Jerusalem is on the verge of utter emotional breakdown due to his destroyed investigation, Royce gives him a backup file that contains Jerusalem’s entire file. He gloats for a bit, then leaves to catch a cab. The cabbie asks him, “Where to, buddy?”

“Now there’s a question,” Royce says. “First, I want to walk into a bar and drink it. And then I’m going to start a fight with five men and win. And then I am going to make use of a truly staggering number of prostitutes. Some of whom I may have once been married to. Following which, I will buy drugs. I will, in fact, show them a large pillowcase, and tell them to fill it with drugs. And I’m putting all on the goddamn expense account.”

I want do that, too.

Brookline High: Prioritizing Player Safety and Concussion Management

National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell announced on Oct. 18 that the NFL, in an effort to curb the large number of in-game concussions players were suffering, would take a stronger stance against helmet-to-helmet hits. The next day, three players were fined $175,000 for hits in their most recent games.

Some NFL players criticized Goodell’s decision, but brain-trauma researchers praised the move as the NFL’s first acknowledgment of the serious dangers posed by concussions.

Prior to this acknowledgment, the NFL had repeatedly denied any association between concussions suffered in play and the emotional and behavioral problems that many ex-football players reportedly suffered from. But at the high school level, schools such as Brookline High School in Massachusetts have long since accepted the dangers of concussions, and they’ve instituted comprehensive programs to properly diagnose them and manage recovery.

“We can’t stop them,” says Brookline High’s athletic director, Pete Rittenburg. “The critical thing is making sure that they’re recognized, and not letting someone return to play too soon.”

To improve concussion recognition and management, Brookline High works with Dr. Neal McGrath, a neuropsychologist whose organization, Sports Concussion New England, is based in Brookline.

McGrath says the partnership with Brookline High began during the 2004-2005 school year, a year after McGrath’s son suffered a concussion while playing football for the Brookline Warriors.

“To my knowledge, there was no school that had a comprehensive concussion management program going,” McGrath says, and he sought to create one at Brookline High. After the program’s pilot year, Rittenburg took over as athletic director.

“We sat down with him and met with him to explain what had been developed and what was available, and Pete, coming fresh into the job, was right on it,” McGrath says. “He sought the funding for it, and he’s made sure that it’s remained a priority in the Brookline athletic department.”

McGrath defines a concussion as a “mild traumatic brain injury,” and “a disturbance in brain function that is caused by a traumatic blow to the head.” McGrath says that a body blow that results in whiplash can also cause a concussion.

McGrath says that concussions usually result in a combination of symptoms that fall into one of four categories:

• Physical, including headaches, dizziness and blurred vision;

• Mental or cognitive, including memory loss and attention lapses;

• Sleep-related, including trouble falling or staying asleep and fatigue; and

• Emotional, including feelings of anxiety, depression or irritability

While physical, emotional and sleep-related symptoms are tracked using clinical evaluations and interviews, McGrath says that cognitive impairment is far more difficult to track. In order to help its trainers and team physician determine when a student-athlete’s cognitive abilities have returned to normal, Brookline High uses the Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing, or ImPACT, program.

ImPACT tests memory and reaction time through a series of computer-based tests in which the athlete is shown a series of words or designs. The athlete must then decide if a certain word or design was in the previously shown sequence or not.

Rittenburg says that all athletes playing “collision” sports – which include football, soccer, field hockey, basketball, lacrosse, gymnastics, diving, rugby, baseball, and softball – are tested before the season begins to determine baseline cognitive levels.

Alex Jzyk, Brookline High Schools’ athletic trainer, says that approximately 1,000 student-athletes play for Brookline High each year, many playing multiple sports. When a player suffers a concussion, Jzyk says, that player will usually take the ImPACT test at least three times before being cleared to play: between 24 and 72 hours after the injury, once the athlete is symptom-free, and once after exercise.

“We manage this very well,” Jzyk says. “We do it for the right reasons.”

McGrath says he focuses his work on high school athletes because there are more high school athletes than college or professional athletes, but they’re already playing with bodies strong and fast enough to cause concussions after a collision.

McGrath also stresses concussion management at the high school level because of second-impact syndrome, a condition where the brain suffers a second injury before fully recovering from the first. This causes massive swelling in the brain that can lead to permanent impairment and often – McGrath says it’s as high as 50 percent – death.

In the Fall 2007 issue of SportingKid Magazine, the National Alliance for Youth Sports said that second-impact syndrome is found almost exclusively in athletes under 18 years old.

Rittenburg and Jzyk have made sure that athletes who suffer concussions are given as much time as they need to heal. Rittenburg says that not only are athletes kept off the field until they’re symptom free, but Brookline High also excuses athletes from full academic workloads until they’re fully recovered. McGrath says pushing oneself mentally while in recovery is like running while still healing from a sprained ankle.

Brookline High pursues many avenues of educating parents on concussion care and management. McGrath has taught seminars for parents of athletes at the school. The athletic department’s website links to McGrath’s website and features a “Concussion Home Care Sheet,” designed by McGrath and Rittenburg. And, starting with the spring 2011 season, athletes will be given a packet of information to take home.

Brookline High may have been the pilot school for this organized concussion management program, but it is no longer the only one. Sports Concussion New England lists 34 youth sport programs, high schools and colleges as partners on their website. These partners include Franklin High School, the 2010 Massachusetts boys’ soccer champion, and Brookline-Jamaica Plain Pop Warner football, whose D Red Team was the 2010 state champion.

Jzyk says that Brookline High’s athletic program may not produce as many championships as other schools and programs, but their commitment to player safety is strong.

Says Jzyk, “Their safety is more important than a winning season.”