Patriots Look to Wrap Up Preseason Against Giants

Wes Welker may have scored a touchdown against the Lions, but his neck injury will likely keep him and most of the other Patriot starters from Thursday's preseason finale against the Giants. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)

The 2-1 New England Patriots will finish their preseason Thursday night at Gillette against the 2-0 New York Giants. It will be the seventh consecutive Patriots preseason concluded with the Giants. The Giants beat the Patriots 20-17 last season at the New Meadowlands Stadium.

It’s been a Jekyll and Hyde preseason for the Patriots. They looked fantastic in their first two games, crushing the Jaguars with their reserves and the Buccaneers with their starters. Against the Lions – a team that ranks first in the league in passing and total yards per game, and second in the NFC in points allowed per game – they looked dreadful. Which team will show up Thursday?

Giants Not as Scary as Lions

The Giants do not pack quite the same punch the Lions did. Their defense is mediocre, ranking them in the nebulous middle of the pack in most categories. They’ve only recorded five sacks, lacking the dynamic pass rush that helped them derail the Patriots’ undefeated season in Super Bowl XLII.

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Sabathia, Yankees Bullpen Strand 16 Red Sox Base Runners

Darnell McDonald throws his bat after striking out with the bases loaded to end the seventh inning as Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli pumps his fist during Tuesday's game at Fenway. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

All good things must come to an end, including CC Sabathia‘s winless streak against the Red Sox this season and Boston’s explosive offense. Sabathia allowed just two earned runs in six innings Tuesday night at Fenway, and the Red Sox left 16 men on base, losing to the Yankees, 5-2. Boston now leads New York by just a half-game in the AL East.

Sabathia Keeps Runs Just Out of Reach

Sabathia lived on the outside corner Tuesday night. Lefty, righty, it didn’t matter: Sabathia pitched just about every batter away. While this generated a lot of base runners – 11 in six innings – it also meant few opportunities for that one big run-scoring hit. Adrian Gonzalez struggled most with this strategy, striking out swinging against Sabathia three times on breaking balls down and away. Gonzalez finished the game 0-5, the only Red Sox starter without a hit.

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This Red Sox-Yankees Series Just Doesn’t Feel as Important

With the Red Sox up two games in the AL East, and with both teams likely to go to the playoffs, this Red Sox-Yankees series just doesn't carry the same weight as the one from early August. (Reuters/sportsillustrated.cnn.com)

I’ve approached every Red Sox-Yankees series so far this season differently. The first series was Boston’s home opener. The Red Sox had lost their first six games – all on the road – and they needed that first win to get the monkey off their back. They took two of three, winning the series in the final game on April 10. It was Boston’s first shutout of an opponent, which went a long way towards convincing fans that the Red Sox’s pitching could back its offense.

Beating the Yankees at Fenway is challenging, but not overwhelmingly. When the Red Sox visited Yankee Stadium in May, that series felt like the first true indicator of how the AL East’s top two teams stacked up against each other. Boston’s three-game sweep in New York finally brought the Red Sox back to .500, effectively purging the first 1.5 months in which a great team struggled to find its identity.

The second Red Sox trip to Yankee Stadium was simply an opportunity. With a series win, the Red Sox could send a powerful message to the Yankees: “We can come into your park, and we can still kick your ass. What can you do?” And that’s exactly what the Red Sox did, sweeping the Yankees yet again and scoring nearly twice as many runs (25-13 in three games).

By the time the second Fenway series came around in early August, it had become clear that both the Red Sox and Yankees would go to the playoffs. The two might fight for the AL East, but both teams would at least earn a chance at a World Series. This series became a simple indicator of whether the Red Sox would fade late in the season. A series loss would suggest the Red Sox backing limply into the playoffs, which worked in neither 2005 nor 2009. A series win would suggest an aggressive push into the playoffs, as the Red Sox did in 2003, 2004, 2007 and 2008. In those years, the Red Sox won two World Series and went to two ALCS Game 7’s..

The Red Sox won the series and the season-series for the first time since 2004. Those three games showed the Red Sox would not fade away. It also showed that Yankee ace CC Sabathia‘s problems with the Red Sox aren’t going away, making any seven-game series with the Yankees seem far less scary.

Now the Yankees come to town one last time, and I don’t know what’s left to prove. The last series started with the Red Sox and Yankees tied for the AL East. This time, the Red Sox hold a two-game lead. Without a sweep, the Yankees will leave Fenway still behind in the divisional race. But does that even matter? The Red Sox have the best road record in the majors, and the Yankees rank second in the AL. Neither team is afraid to go on the road, and neither team knows which opponent poses the bigger first-round challenge.

Detroit’s Justin Verlander will win the AL Cy Young and maybe even the MVP, but the Tigers have the statistically weakest offense of any likely AL playoff team. Texas’ C.J. Wilson, meanwhile, is a career 4-1 with a 1.43 ERA against Boston. The Rangers, meanwhile, beat the Yankees rather easily in the ALCS last season, and the Tigers are 4-3 against the Yankees this season. Who each team should want to face in the postseason remains very unclear.

I suppose I want the Red Sox to win the AL East: Doing so would force the Yankees to play of the road, where they are three fewer games over .500. The Yankees are the only team with both the offense and pitching to go stride-for-stride with the Red Sox, so whatever scenario makes them most likely to be eliminated is the way I lean. If taking two of three (or ideally sweeping) improves the odds of the Yankees playing the majority of their playoff games on the road, then I suppose I want the Red Sox to take two of three.

But really, I just don’t care. These two teams will meet again in the ALCS. Whoever holds home-field advantage won’t matter because both teams have no problem winning on the road.

The final measure of the Red Sox’s and Yankees’ worth won’t be taken until October. Their two remaining series until then just don’t feel as important.

Athletics Hammer Wakefield for Eight Runs, Add Seven More off Bullpen

Josh Willingham rounds first following his fourth-inning two-run home run off Tim Wakefield during Friday's game at Fenway. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

The Oakland Athletics swung early and often Friday night at Fenway, and Tim Wakefield was powerless to stop them. Wakefield gave up eight runs (four earned) on eight hits, including two homers, and the Athletics battered the Red Sox, 15-5. The Red Sox maintained their one-game lead in the AL East because the Yankees lost 12-5 to the Orioles.

A Bad Night All Around for Red Sox Pitching

Up 2-1 entering the fourth, the Athletics took control of the game because Wakefield couldn’t get the third out. With one man on and two out, third baseman Scott Sizemore pulled the first pitch he saw just inside the Fisk Foul Pole for a two-run home run to go up 4-1.

Second baseman Jemile Weeks (3-5, three runs) struck out, but the knuckleball bounced away from Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Weeks reached first on the passed ball. Coco Crisp walked to set up Hideki Matsui, who doubled the first pitch he saw to deep center to score both.

DH Josh Willingham (2-5, four RBIs) waited a whole pitch before smashing his own two-run home run into the Green Monster seats to put Oakland up 8-1.

Wakefield had no one to blame but himself for his sixth failed attempt at his 200th win and sixth loss of the season. He left too many knuckleballs up in the zone and only struck out three despite eight two-strike counts. Just four of the eight runs Wakefield allowed were earned, but eight hits and two walks in four innings won’t get it done, no matter how good your offense is.

Wakefield had a faint chance of winning his 200th game when the Red Sox gave him a 1-0 lead to start the second, but he couldn’t hold it. First baseman Brandon Allen doubled to lead off the inning and scored on a single by right fielder David DeJesus. DeJesus moved to second on a wild pitch, and shortstop Chad Pennington (3-5, 2 RBIs) singled him to put the Athletics up 2-1.

Recently recalled Scott Atchison went three innings, saving the bullpen a bit but allowing a seventh-inning RBI double to Pennington that Mike Aviles – who was playing his first game ever in left field – may have misplayed.

Matt Albers continued his downward slide, allowing four runs on four hits and a walk in the eighth. In 10 August appearances, Albers has an ERA of 13.10.

Darnell McDonald made a rare pitching appearance in the ninth, giving up a two-RBI double to Willingham to put the Athletics up 15-4.

Red Sox Can’t Match Athletics’ Offense

The Red Sox struck early against Athletics starter Gio Gonzalez, with Jacoby Ellsbury leading off the first with a double, then scoring two batters later on Adrian Gonzalez‘s single just past Weeks at second base. David Ortiz followed Gonzalez with a single to extend his hitting streak to 10 games, but Jed Lowrie struck out to strand two.

That the Red Sox offense didn’t curl up and die after going 1-2-3 in both the second and third, then seeing the Athletics go up 8-1 in the fourth, is commendable, though it mattered little. Dustin Pedroia led off the bottom of the fourth with a home run off the Sports Authority sign above the Green Monster, and Ortiz followed him four pitches later with a solo shot into the center-field bullpen to make it 8-3 Oakland.

The Red Sox tacked on a fourth run in the fifth when Ellsbury led off with a triple and scored on a Marco Scutaro ground out, but they never closed the gap further. McDonald popped out on a 3-1 pitch with two men on in the sixth, then reliever Brian Fuentes got Ellsbury to foul out to end the threat. Gonzalez finished the game giving up four earned runs on seven hits, three walks and five strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings.

The Red Sox put two more on in the seventh on a Pedroia walk and an Ortiz double to right, but Lowrie struck out for the third time to end the inning. A pinch-hit double to right by Josh Reddick in the ninth scored Scutaro to make it 15-5, but Lowrie struck out again and Aviles flied out to the warning track in left to end the game.

With the win, Gonzalez evened his record to 11-11. It was his second career win against the Red Sox.

Overpaying Always Better in Baseball

Sabermetrics can help, but if you can't afford relievers who don't allow multiple grand slams, you're rarely going to win. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

The Oakland A’s missed out on a three-game sweep against the Yankees Thursday because their bullpen allowed 16 earned runs in 3 2/3 innings. I followed the game during the final chunk of my drive home from the Midwest with my new car. With me was my mom, and she asked me if this blowout loss was because there just aren’t enough good pitchers to combat all the great hitters in the MLB. A decent question, but a better one is, “Why do teams like the A’s perpetually fall short against the Yankees?” The answer: money, plain and simple.

Skyrocketing free-agent contracts and negotiations have created a situation where every free agent is overvalued. It doesn’t matter how good you are– your contract will to at least some extent be overblown. The reasons for this lies in the current baseball trend of signing young talent to long-term deals before they reach free agency. The assumption underlying it: once a player reaches free agency, he will always take the highest salary available, perpetually favoring big-money teams like the Yankees, Red Sox and Mets, who can afford to overpay for talent.

This strategy may keep young players in the system, but it indirectly creates free-agent classes with fewer players competing for more jobs. This favors the players immensely: If there are only four first basemen available in the off-season, and at least four teams need a first baseman for the following season, then each player only really competes against three other players for that big paycheck. Teams feel they need to solve their problems immediately, so they overpay for those who can immediately fit their needs. The MLB has become short-sighted, always favoring the immediate solution over the long-term.

A perfect example of this is John Lackey, whom the Red Sox signed following the 2009 season. They were still pissed over the Yankees swiping Mark Teixeira the previous off-season, a move that seemed too similar to the Alex Rodriguez fiasco five years prior. The Red Sox wanted to show they could make big, splashy signings as well as the Yankees, so they went after Lackey, who was the best free-agent starting pitcher available.

It didn’t matter that Lackey’s 2009 season wasn’t actually all that good. His 11 wins were the fewest since his sophomore season in 2003. His 3.83 ERA was the highest it had been since 2004. His 176 1/3 innings were the second-fewest since his rookie season. His strikeout-walk ratio had dropped each of the last two seasons. Who cares? The Red Sox wanted the best pitcher available, and they paid $82.5 million to get him. Excluding his recent winning ways (a product of Boston’s lethal offense, not his pitching prowess), how’s that working out?

The Red Sox have the money to sign players to contracts above and beyond what the players are worth, which is good, because every free agents gets paid this way these days. The A’s however, have always been a team with no money, a team that tries to win cheap. The central premise of “Moneyball” was that Billy Beane found a way to win more games over three years than any team ever had before by using sabermetrics to find valuable players who slipped beneath other teams’ notice. Beane used a sort of “baseball calculus” to determine how valuable each player was to his team, and whether that player was worth what the agent was asking.

Thursday’s game showed the downside of this strategy. Statistically, individual relievers contribute the least to a team’s success across the season. While it’s important to have one “bullpen ace” (not necessarily the closer), it’s far more important to have a lineup that can get on base and at least two (or even three) high-quality starters. Given a super-limited budget like the A’s, the bullpen is often crippled to divert resources to more valuable parts.

That crippling puts extra pressure on the Oakland starters. If they can’t go deep, the team suddenly has to entrust its win to its weakest part. Against a team that can afford to overpay for multiple relievers who are just above average (like the Yankees), the A’s usually fall.

Sabermetrics may have initially provided a means for low-budget teams to compete with big boys, but that time is over. In this free-market atmosphere, it’s the teams with the big budgets who usually win.

Former Patriots FB Heath Evans Retires to NFL Network

Heath Evans rushes for a two-point conversion against the Dolphins on Nov. 13, 2005- his first and best game with the Patriots. (Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images)

Former Patriots fullback Heath Evans tweeted Tuesday that he has decided to retire, trading in the helmet and shoulder pads for a necktie and microphone on the NFL Network.

Evans played 10 full seasons in the NFL with four separate teams. The Patriots signed him on Nov. 1, 2005, after the Miami Dolphins released him a week earlier. Evans stayed with the Patriots through 2008, never missing a game.

Evans played his last two seasons with the New Orleans Saints but was rarely used. He earned a Super Bowl ring with the Saints after the 2009 season, though a knee injury ended that season for him in an October 25 game against the Dolphins.

Evans finished his rushing career with 579 yards, a 3.5 yards-per-carry average and four touchdowns. He recorded 439 receiving yards, posting a 7.7 yards-per-catch average and four receiving touchdowns. He also returned for 247 yards, bring his all-purpose total to 1,265.

Before the Dolphins, Evans spent four years with the Seattle Seahawks.

Evans in Foxboro

Evans’ best years unquestionably were with the Patriots. Over three quarters (453) of his career rushing yards were gained with the Patriots, as were over half (229) his receiving yards. Evans finished his career with eight career touchdowns, and half came with the Patriots (three rushing, one receiving).

As a fullback, Evans struggled to carve out a niche in a league that is quickly moving away from the position. Quicker and stronger running backs no longer need fullbacks to clear out blocks. Shooting the gap and turning the corner are requisite skills for RBs now, so players with the bulk to clear space aren’t as crucial.

The emergence of Kevin Faulk as Bill Belichick’s go-to third-down back in the last few seasons further diminished Evans’ usefulness to the Patriots, and the Saints never found a way to work him into their system.

Knowing When to Call it Quits

Faulk caught just seven passes and rushed only twice in 2010, and with the new kickoff rules for 2011 killing the need for quality special teams players, Evans likely saw his chances of ever getting serious playing time again (even by his standards) fading.

Evans had the chance to retire healthy and handsome. He had already established himself as a good quote-man in the locker room, and now he could go on t.v. and make some decent money without leaving football entirely. Totally sensible move.

A Measure of Revenge

Evans played 54 regular-season games with the Patriots. His best came on Nov. 13, 2005. Though it came against the Dolphins, the team who had cut him less than three weeks earlier, it was also Evans’ first with the Patriots, and the only 100-yard game of his career, rushing for 84 yards on 17 carries while adding 18 receiving yards on three catches. Evans may have set the bar too high too early.

The Patriots beat the Dolphins 23-16 that game, with Evans running in the two-point conversion with just over two minutes to play to put the Patriots up a touchdown.

After the game, Tom Brady said, “I remember the first day at practice when we thought, `Why did somebody release [Evans]?’ We thank the Dolphins very much for letting him go.”

The Memory of Evans Will Likely Fade Away

Evans missed by a year the Patriots’ three-title dynasty. From 2005-2008, the Patriots lost in each successive round of the playoffs (divisional round after ’05 season, AFC Championship after ’06, Super Bowl after ’07) until missing them entirely in 2008.

Other than a minor contributing role on the 18-1 2007 Patriots (in which he rushed for all three of his Patriots rushing touchdowns), Evans leaves virtually no mark in the annals of Patriots history. There won’t be a statue, a parade or even a discussion of his greatness. Evans simply didn’t do enough to merit any of that.

Evans legacy will be only that he played three and half of his 10 seasons in New England. He could very easily leave a far more indelible mark as a broadcaster, if only because his time as a player was so nondescript as to make a less memorable broadcasting career virtually impossible.

A Day of Firsts at Futures at Fenway

The Red Sox have less of a press box and more of a "press arena."

I arrived at Fenway Park Sunday morning right on time for media check-in for the minor league double header “Futures at Fenway.” I was promptly directed to the “Absolut Club,” an air-conditioned room I never even knew existed. I was given my Red Sox media pass, which instantly became my favorite, and took the elevator to the fifth floor (Fenway has five floors?) press box.

I’ve been in two minor league press boxes already (Pawtucket, R.I., and Manchester, N.H.), but neither prepared me for the sheer magnitude of the Fenway press area.

A long hallway led me past framed and glossy images of famous Red Sox moments. A massive press dining hall (serving pretty decent mac & cheese, chicken fingers, salad and a DIY sundae bar) appeared to my left. TV and radio broadcast booths looked menacingly closed-off on my right. I briefly thought I was in the wrong place, but an overhead sign reading “working press” (which I’m proud to say I was Saturday) cleared that up.

And then it appeared: the booth itself. Not really a booth: “Booth” conjures up images of confined spaces and journalists transforming into Kryptonians.

This was more like a “press arena:” Three long tiers of surprisingly comfortable business chairs. Giant windows overlooking the field. Dozens of men (and a few women) huddling over their laptops or comparing notes.

I dropped off my bag and went down on to the field (another first) to start interviews. With me was esteemed WEEI Red Sox reporter Alex Speier. I was blown away at the breadth of his knowledge of the Red Sox organization. We met a scout I’d never heard of that works primarily in the Gulf Coast and Dominican Summer Leagues. Not only did Speier know this guy by name, he knew this guy had a bunch of kids, all boys.

Speier then began an on-the-spot interview with this guy on the status of some very low-level prospects in the Red Sox system, and Speier knew enough to not look foolish. He later told me that it’s taken years, but he knows everyone in the Red Sox organization. I believe him.

What I learned in my first two minor league trips helped greatly. There was a line of reporters wanting to interview Double-A outfielder Alex Hassan. Instead of waiting around with nothing to do (as I did in Pawtucket), I took the opportunity to interview Sea Dog pitching coach Bob Kipper, who gave by far the most interesting interview of the day (minus the usher that started talking about the strip club where he also worked).

Once I completed my Double-A interviews (including tag-teaming the Hassan interview with a NESN intern, another new but valuable experience), I went back to the press box. Remembering my laptop this time (unlike in Manchester), I used the time before the start of Triple-A player availability to write the Hassan story. By the time the Players’ Club opened to the press for Pawtucket interviews, the Hassan story was virtually done.

My interviews with the PawSox also went more efficiently this time. When pitcher Alex Wilson wasn’t available, I talked to pitching coach Rich Sauveur. When former major leaguer Junichi Tazawa was late, I interviewed catcher Luis Exposito, who’d worked with Wilson at the Double- and Triple-A level.

As I waited for Tazawa’s interpreter to get free, I watched Hassan and the Double-A game on CC TV. The number of PawSox who cheered when Hassan homered in the eighth to tie the game 2-2 surprised me. I’d never realized the camaraderie minor leaguers must feel for each other because of how much they all move within the farm system. To see them cheer for Hassan despite having moved up in the world was kind of sweet.

Hassan’s homer capped a three-hit game, and I realized now I needed a post-game quote from him (not so daunting since the rest of the story was already written). Thankfully, the game went to extra innings, so I had enough time to complete my interpreter-aided interview with Tazawa (yet another thing I’d never done before) and get down to the field. When the game finally ended (after a colorful conversation with the above-mentioned usher), I was allowed back on to the field. Thousands of people in the seats, but I got to go out on the field and interview players.

I was on my feet for nearly 8 hours, I came home dehydrated and exhausted, but once again I left thinking, “I have a pretty cool job.”

5 Thoughts from Patriots Preseason Halfway Point

Dane Fletcher may prove to be a valuable part of the Patriots' revamped and explosive pass rush. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Two Patriots preseason games, two blowout victories, including 28-0 first half by New Englands’ starters against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday.

So what have we learned about the Boys in Blue and Grey? Here are five observations:

1) This defense is much faster. The Patriots ranked last in the NFL last season in opponent passing yardage, due in large part to their league-worst 47.1 opponent third down conversion percentage. They were also a middle-of-the-road sacking defense, tied for 14th with 36.0. In two preseason games, this defense has become far more aggressive, combing for seven sacks, three non-sack tackles for losses and 11 quarterback hits. This Patriots defense attacked the Buccaneers and Jacksonville Jaguars’ quarterbacks, forcing the, to unload the ball faster. The result: just five converted third downs out of 25. My sleeper defensive player is second-year linebacker Dane Fletcher, who was unstoppable last week against the Jaguars, recording two TFLs and hitting the quarterback once. He’s great at fighting through blocks and killing runs at the line of scrimmage. Look for him to back up Jerod Mayo, whose two sacks, two defensed passes and three QB hits Thursday show how well-suited he is to the Patriots’ new 4-3 defense.

2) Steven Ridley is a keeper. Stevan Ridley‘s put up some big numbers in two preseason games, recording 219 all-purpose yards (148 rushing, 71 receiving) and three touchdowns (two rushing, one receiving). I’ve been particularly impressed with his football instincts. He’s unafraid to go up the middle, but also knows when to hold for a split-second, then shoot the gap. He also has yet to show the lateral-motion tendencies that made Laurence Maroney so infuriating. When he’s not running vertically, he keeps himself on a diagonal, making it easier for him to turn upfield while still getting around pursuing defenders. The Patriots typically keep four or five running backs on the 53-man roster. Two spots are locked up with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead, which leaves six RBs and 2-3 spots. Kevin Faulk, a great third-down back, deserves a third, and then I’d say give Ridley the fourth. Richard Medlin has shown enough promise to be worth a spot on the practice squad, but it may be time to say goodbye to Sammy Morris, who was barely used last season after hurting his knee in 2009.

3) Aaron Hernandez is outplaying Rob Gronkowski. Media members with more access to Patriots practices have raved all camp about Rob Gronkowski, who last year was part of the Patriots’ rookie tight end dynamic duo. Gronkowski may practice better, but so far Aaron Hernandez has been the far shinier tight end in actual games. Hernandez has caught all nine passes thrown to him, totaling 110 yards and a touchdown. He’s looked as good on short-yardage downs as he has on red-zone plays. Gronkwoski was known last year for his size and strength (6’6″, 265 lbs.), which let him out-muscle defensive backs and out-reach linebackers. Hernandez might be quicker, however, which would prove more valuable on blitzes. Look for Hernandez on third-and-long plays: with his speed, he can get open faster on plays in which Tom Brady won’t have as long to throw. On short-yardage passing plays, giant Gronkowski is still the better option.

4) The new kickoff rules may mean the end for Brandon Tate. With the ball now kicked off from the 35-yard line, touchbacks may become the norm. If that’s the case, Bill Belichick may have to think long and hard about cutting Brandon Tate. He hasn’t played at all in the first two preseason games, and Taylor Price is quickly making a name for himself at wide receiver (five catches, 105 yards and a touchdown against the Jaguars). He’s also shown brief glimpses of specials teams talent. Coupled with Matthew Slater (24.3 yards per catch in two games), the two might squeeze Tate out of a roster loaded at wide receiver. Without as many opportunities to show off that kick-return speed, Tate might have a hard time distinguishing himself.

5) Will we really keep two placekickers? Stephen Gostkowski has been Belichick’s go-to kicker for points (3/3 on field goals, 9/9 on extra points) so far, but it’s rookie and former UMass kicker Chris Koepplin who’s handled all the kickoffs. Koepplin is averaging 67.5 yards per kick, five times kicking touchbacks. Belichick may want to preserve the leg strength of the most accurate kicker in Patriots history by letting Koepplin handle kickoffs, but doesn’t having two placekickers on a team seem kind of redundant? Wouldn’t that spot be more useful carrying a lineman, linebacker or receiver?

President Obama Owes Rajon Rondo an Apology

President Obama shouldn't be bullying and mocking Rajon Rondo, but if he does, the joke should be better than "Rondo can't shoot." (www.cbssports.com)

SLAM Online published an excerpt Wednesday from Jackie MacMullan’s upcoming biography of Shaquille O’Neal. The excerpt tells of a March 8 fundraiser at the Museum of Fine Arts, in which President Obama mocked Rajon Rondo, telling Ray Allen to teach Rondo how to shoot.

Rondo was shooting better than 50 percent before March 8, but his accuracy dropped over 7 percent for the remainder of the season following the fundraiser. Obama’s comments may very well have affected Rondo. The excerpt from MacMullan’s book suggests as much, with O’Neal relaying Kevin Garnett‘s observation that Rondo looked hurt.

It was a joke, perhaps, but an unfair one at best, a hurtful one at worst. And one the President of the United States has no business making.

The Cheap-Shot Artist

Rondo played with three Hall of Famers (four when O’Neal was healthy) in the 2010-11 season, each of whom owned a different part of the offensive court. Allen drained threes with a sniper’s calm; Paul Pierce had the pull-up jumper and could hack and slash his way through the lanes or to the foul line; Garnett owned the post and the 20-footer; O’Neal could out-body anyone under the basket. Exactly where on the court, Mr. Obama, would you want Rondo to be shooting?

We’ve known since his campaign that President Obama is a decent basketball player. We learned during the 2011 NCAA Tournament that Obama is a very knowledgeable basketball fan. It is therefore reasonable to assume that if Obama had seen any Celtics games before the fundraiser, he would’ve realized that the Celtics neither needed nor wanted Rondo to be a shooter.

Mocking Rondo’s shooting reeks of the easy joke, of the cheap shot. For a man so understanding of basketball strategy, to fall back on a simple joke like “Rondo can’t shoot” shows a measure of cowardice and herd mentality. Everyone else criticizes Rondo for poor shooting, so why not the President as well?

A far more courageous joke would have been to mock Pierce’s flopping. Here, I’ll give you an example: “Paul, it’s nice to see you standing upright for once. You spend so much time flopping on the ground, I half-expect to see you playing in the next World Cup.” Or: “Man, Shaq, when you sat on that bench in Harvard Square, I think that was the longest you’ve ever gone without talking in your whole life. Bravo, sir!” See, was that so hard? I don’t even have a speech writing staff!

Making an unfair joke at Rondo’s expense was a missed opportunity for the President. He could’ve once again shown off his great basketball knowledge, perhaps ingratiating himself further with the youth vote. Instead, all he showed was that he watches “SportsCenter.”

The Bully

Mocking Pierce, O’Neal or any of the other veteran members of the Celtics would have been fine. All of them have reached a point in their careers where they can approach themselves with a bit of humor. Rondo is in a different place.

Despite the leadership he shows on the court, Rondo still plays in the shadows of his teammates. Three will enter the Hall of Fame, and one will have his number retired and raised forever to the rafters of the TD Garden. Rondo has no idea what his legacy, either as an NBA player or a Celtic, will be.

Rondo plays with an inferiority complex, and drawing attention to his greatest fault only makes that worse. It’s like mocking a boy with a lisp or the girl who hasn’t hit puberty yet: It’s bullying, plain and simple. And as the most powerful man in the world, President Obama’s mockeries carry the most weight and the most hurt.

I won’t presume who Rondo voted for in the 2008 election (assuming he voted at all), but it would not surprise me if Rondo voted for Obama. Think how humiliated you would feel if the man you supported and helped put in power turned around and, instead of thanking you, mocked you in front of your colleagues.

Obama may have thought his words were an off-the-cuff joke, but there is no such thing as “off the cuff” with the Presidency. Everything must be planned, because every action sends a thousand messages and signals, intentional or otherwise.

Obama likely did not want to destabilize one of the NBA’s best passers, but he did anyway. Perhaps a private apology would be appropriate.