Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Timeout Called.

Greetings, folks! The Arena Apothecary is taking a VERY brief hiatus. (Seriously, I'll be back in like a week. Please don't erase this from your bookmarks or RSS feed or anything. Thanks.) I've got other, music-related things to tend to that really should have been tended to a long damned time ago, and it's time to get those ol' proverbial ducks in a row. It's going to take pretty much all of my time/creative energy and (hopefully) transpire in a very compressed space of hours, so there's not going to be anything left over for this space.

(Besides, you're going to be media-saturated with Peyton Manning and Bracketology predictions that never work out anyway for the next week. Honestly, the thing I'd probably be writing about this week if I could wouldn't be the Big Dance or where Peyton ends up, it'd be the NBA trade deadline, which I suspect not all that many of my readers care about in the first place.)

Meanwhile: you should absolutely check out these other fine areas of interwebs excellence:

Brand New Kind Of Photography

My friend Ags runs a phenomenal site where she takes a lot of very pretty photographs and writes about what she's shooting. It's mostly bands, but also lots of baseball, and occasionally other eclectic stuff as well. If you like compelling images and whip-smart, stream-of-consciousness discussions of good drumming, jangly guitars, and two-seam fastballs, this is for you. Enjoy.

Joe Posnanski

Or as my friend Laura refers to him: Joe F^$% Posnanski. (She means that in the best superlative sense. Which, well, duh, because JOE F$%&^ POSNANSKI)

Looper's Delight
Something I haven't messed with much recently, because I've been on a southern-roots-y vector musically for the past three years, but this is the internet bible if you enjoy the use of looping (this includes everything from DJs to Keller Williams, so it's a broad patch of musical territory). Dig it.

The Fearless Songwriter
My buddy Timmy is the most persistently, relentlessly creative person I know. Enjoy his adventures and musings while exploring the alchemical art that is writing songs.

And, if you haven't checked them out before, my three favorite NBA sites:

The Basketball Jones
Hoops-obsessed Canadians who run daily podcasts and write hilarious blog posts.

Hardwood Paroxysm
The spiritual (and possibly metaphysical) descendent of Free Darko (RIP). Now with even more meticulously detailed analysis and intelligent snark. These guys are the jam.

Ball Don't Lie
Because ball doesn't lie, people. IT NEVER LIES!!!!

See you in a week. Thanks for reading.

"These songs are true, these days are ours." - Paul Simon

Friday, March 9, 2012

Dig This Groove: Don't Trade Smoove!

Even within the context of a compressed and grueling 2011-2012 NBA season, the Atlanta Hawks have been especially susceptible to the injury bug. Al Horford is gone until the playoffs, Joe Johnson has missed significant time, and seemingly half our role players have been posting various ailment-related DNPs in the box scores of late. The sole bright spark in the midst of this chaos, the turbine that continues to power playoff hopes even as things are crumbling, has been Josh Smith.

Smoove has become a one-man arsenal of aggressive versatility recently, averaging 23.6 PPG, 11.2 RPG, 1.5 Blocks, and roughly 3 dimes and 1 steal over the last five games, and playing his usual ferocious defense. He is submitting these sublime performances for three reasons: first, there ain't anyone else healthy on the Hawks who can produce right now, so he's filling the gaps as best he can. Second, Smith is unquestionably playing with an Everest-sized chip on his shoulder after getting snubbed from the All-Star Game, and it's fueling his spree of sheer ballitude (shut up, it's a sorta-word) like a NOS feed pushing a modded-out street racer. And third: he could do this all the time if he so chose.

Unfortunately, this is also the Josh Smith who takes so many ill-advised long jumpers, which he can't hit but insists on jacking up anyway. This is the same guy who might as well be phoning it in from Thailand some nights he's so checked out. And now, it's the same guy who wants out of Atlanta.

A few days ago, Smith let it be known that he would very much like a trade before the March 15 deadline. This is both thoroughly unsurprising and perfectly understandable. The Hawks are mired in the perpetual make-the-playoffs-and-get-crushed-by-a-superior-team doldrums. They play a sluggish isolation style that minimizes the effectiveness and beauty of Smoove's game, which is flying up, down, and around the court and demolishing anyone in his path. Oh yes, and Josh Smith is the only player I've ever seen get booed by his home crowd every time he takes a shot more than five feet from the rim. I can see where the man might want a change of scenery.

Over at the bastion of internet awesomeness known as Hardwood Paroxysm, Noam Schiller wrote about the possibility of a Josh Smith trade, and that post included the following:

"Of course, [a trade] fits with us just fine. We hate Josh Smith in Atlanta, and we fully understand if he hates it as well."

Dear Noam, I am a huge fan of your work, but please, please shut up. Atlanta absolutely cannot trade Smoove. I might be the only one, but I most definitely do not hate him. I love Josh Smith; I treasure him, in fact. Because think about it: Josh Smith is almost all we have.

We're not getting out of this maddening, middling mediocrity until the financial albatross that is Joe Johnson's contract comes off the books. (And maybe not even then because the ASG ownership is a walking debacle and a waking nightmare.) Not only is Joe the most overpaid "star" in the game, he's also by far the least entertaining. I have never vehemently disliked watching a good Hawks player before, or any Hawks player, really, but I really, really, hate watching Joe Johnson play basketball. He is the most thoroughly "blah" twenty-a-night guy of all time. Then there's good ol' Al Horford, who when healthy is so very good at his job, but it's all dirty work and grind, the kind of thing you deeply appreciate but can't really admire. I love the man, but he'll never be the recipient of breathless superlatives. Jeff Teague's emergence has been ... uh ... nifty. Yup, nifty is about the right level of adjective for that. Nothing less, nothing more. Zaza Pachulia has one of the most enjoyable names to pronounce in the history of the game, but he's precisely adequate as a basketball player. T-Mac is fun when he gets cooking, but he's so old that it's a rare occasion at best.

Ivan Johnson is, well, freaking awesome. Give him more minutes, Larry. Please.

And then there's Smoove, who is the only player on our roster capable of owning the term "awe-inspiring." Yes, he's monumentally frustrating at times. Yes, those 19-footers make me alternately cringe and scream at the television. But I've reached a place of acceptance with Josh, because when he rams one home on the break or flies out of nowhere for a monster block, he's the only guy in the league who approaches (and occasionally surpasses) LeBron territory in terms of sheer "HOLY CRAP DID YOU SEE THAT?!?!?!" athleticism. He is, quite simply, a totally unique entity to behold on a basketball court. We can't lose him.

So please, please, ye gods of hoops, don't let the Hawks trade Josh Smith. Bland and uninspiring as they are, he is the only consistently fun thing about watching my team, and I will put up with every last terrible decision and slacker night in exchange for those moments when he shifts into that gear that only he possesses and makes the impossible look effortless. From my point of view, that's more than a fair trade.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Luck Destroys Karma. Or: Why I Hate The NFL Today.

The press conference was moving to watch, the earnestness of emotion striking just the right tenor. Peyton Manning's final act as an Indanapolis Colt was a heartfelt thank you to the only fan base he has played for in 14 NFL seasons. It wasn't cloying or saccharine; it was pretty much perfect, actually. Lovely moment. Yay. Let's move on.

Now that the outcome everybody saw coming for months has transpired, we can busy ourselves with the truly important question: What the hell? Seriously, football's Karma Police are either asleep at the switch or drunk at the wheel or some other phrase that can be conflated with "patently ignoring and/or failing in their duties." Sports are supposed to move in a cyclical fashion when it comes to the fortunes of a given franchise, are they not? You suffer through the lean years, you experience a surge of memorably great times (or at least competence) for a decade or so, then it's back to the suffering until that next golden trade or draft pick delivers the goods and pulls you out of the hole again. Lather, rinse, repeat. There are long-form narratives, ebbs and flows that are supposed to be observed here. If you've been fortunate enough to enjoy the luxury of 14 seasons of maybe the greatest quarterback of all time, you should have to stand in and take your lumps when that particular run ends. Their ought to be some bottom-of-the-division misery to equalize the halcyon days you just enjoyed, but for some capricious reason, Indianapolis is being granted immunity from the normal balance of the sporting world's hands of fate.

By now, you're well aware of the circumstances that brought the Colts' relationship with Peyton Manning to and end. The neck surgery that kept him out of last season, the uncertainty about how much of his transcendent ability he might've lost when he returns, the $28 million they were going to owe him if they didn't cut ties. And oh yes, the fact that because they didn't have their star QB all year, Indy finished 2-14, qualifying them for the worst record in the NFL, the first pick in the 2012 draft, and the ability to draft Andrew Luck, who just happens to be the most highly touted pro quarterback prospect since, well, Peyton Manning. This is so blatantly unfair that you can practically hear the screams of agonized outrage emanating from hard-luck sports cities across the country. Because you shouldn't be allowed to luck into two franchise quarterbacks of this caliber back to back. It just ain't right.

Of course, there is no guarantee that Andrew Luck won't turn out to resemble Ryan Leaf more closely than he does Manning. The history of the NFL is littered with players whose careers ended in a maelstrom of hollow promise and unrealized potential. For every ten combine and pro day studs or consensus high picks on someone's Big Board, you can find four or five (and occasionally seven or eight) who, for whatever reason, simply cannot succeed at the game's highest and most demanding level. Andrew Luck could be one of those perplexing and inexplicable busts, but the guy is as close to a sure thing as has ever existed. I'm fairly certain he's going to be an above-average professional quarterback at the least, and he has the potential to be as elite as anyone in the game. Which is what's so maddening about this situation.

If, say, Charlie Whitehurst had somehow evolved into a stud QB for the Seahawks, we'd all be happy for him and for Seattle. That city has suffered enough sports ignominy, and any hope or success that chooses to smile upon them is only fair. Indy doesn't need that kind of morale boost. Aside form the fact that they just got 14 seasons of Peyton Freaking Manning, there's plenty to smile about in Indianapolis without be gifted another brilliant QB. The Pacers are playoff-bound on the strength of a talented and selfless young squad that has been further catalyzed by the off-season acquisition of David West. The Hoosiers are playing there best basketball in years and have knocked off Kentucky, Ohio State, and Michigan State this season. They just got to host a Super Bowl, and of course will also be hosting the "Hillbilly Super Bowl", that annual spectacle and cash cow known as the Indy 500. In short, they don't need Andrew Luck in Indy. Can't they endure a few seasons of workaday-or-below performances from the Colts before automatically becoming serious contenders again?

Apparently not. Apparently the Golden Age of Indianapolis football is rolling on without a hitch. The Colts just flat-out released perhaps the greatest quarterback ever to play the game. They're about to draft the most talented, well-equipped replacement imaginable. Meanwhile, teams like the Cardinals and Chiefs will soldier on through the morass of indignity and irrelevance. Karma has been deferred until a later, undetermined date, and fairness and balance have taken a sabbatical. What a crappy day to be an NFL fan. Unless you live in Indy. Enjoy your luck with Luck, you lucky jerks. Jeeze, who needs a drink?

Monday, March 5, 2012

Love/Hate: Our Wants And Expectations For LeBron James

Let's forget about Udonis Haslem bricking a jumper that was right in his wheel house the other day. Let's ignore the the fact that the "correct basketball play" got made, that the pass was gorgeous and we still hated it even as we acknowledged its perfection. Let's disregard the fact that the All-Star Game "incident" colored our perceptions of that moment. Yes, Kobe would absolutely have taken a shot there, even if he was triple-covered 35 feet from the rim. Which is just dumb even if he is Kobe Bryant, and is certainly not a quality to emulate. Let's also table the Lakers' win over the Heat yesterday, and what we think it means or does not mean. Can we, seriously, talk about LeBron James? Not all the ancillary nonsense we attach to him every second of every day; not our expectations and hopes and foolish projections. Let's distill this back to the essentials, at least enough to distinguish between the player and our need to categorize everything about him.

Let's start with this: LeBron James is an NBA basketball player. He is very, very good at his job. Better, in point of fact, than anyone else currently playing basketball for a living. That's LeBron in a vacuum, and without getting into numbers and awards, that's as capable as we seem to be of discussing him without caveats and clauses and attachments.

Now let's get back to business as usual. The problem LeBron lives with is that no matter which way his fortunes are trending, he is reviled and derided at every juncture. Usually, "best in the game" status carries some immunity with it. We looked the other way with MJ, even after "The Jordan Rules" was published and the darkest pathological and vindictive aspects of our most beloved NBA star got dragged into daylight. We adored Shaq despite his predilection for enjoying the ride (often) at the expense of maximizing his on-court potential. Even Kobe, hated though he may within certain quarters, is accorded a sort of wary reverence commensurate with his status. When you transcend the immediacy of fame and enter the realm of the historically elite, your character flaws are largely negated. To put it another way: Oscar Robertson was, by all accounts, a cantankerous SOB who no one particularly enjoyed playing basketball with ... and we don't care because the cat averaged a triple double for a season and damn that is some next-level shit. So we cut the best of the best some slack. Usually. Unless you're LeBron.

Partly though his own actions and partly through our subsequent reactions, LBJ has been placed in a truly unique position in the NBA and maybe sports in general. A superduperstar and a future resident of Springfield even if he never sets foot on the court again after this season, LeBron has already dropped our collective jaws more times than we can remember. He's a two-time MVP who willed a series of perpetually terrible Cavs teams to playoff success. He's the single most versatile player in the history of the game barring maybe Magic, but he's such a freakish combination of strength, speed, size, and agility that there really isn't any comparison, historical or otherwise. He's in a category of one. In, well, more ways than one.

We talk about polarizing athletes in terms of certain people adoring them and certain other people loathing them. Obviously, there are shades and gradations, but we tend to think in extremes, and the athlete who polarizes sends the fans and media scrambling for one of two diametrically opposed corners. LeBron's problem is that he has transcended your basic love-him-or-hate-him dynamic and created a constantly shifting, internally polarized debate in a great many people who follow the NBA. James' problem, in a nutshell, is that we desperately want him to both succeed beyond our wildest expectations and fail beyond our meanest desires.

Because of his ability to do almost everything on a basketball court better than almost anyone else, we want James to live up to that now-tired "Chosen One" moniker. This is not because we wish him well or even, if you're a Heat fan, because of a rooting interest. It's because we want to feel like we are watching greatness, and more than that, unprecedented greatness, and we will feel cheated if King James never reaches that peak, which by the way only exists in our minds. We look at the surfeit of physical gifts at his disposal and we just assume that he should win 8 titles and break every record in the book. We want him to get there because if he doesn't it means (we think) that we have either wasted a great deal of time and effort feeding and buying into the hype machine, or that he is somehow shorting us by failing to live up to our image of what his "best" looks like. That's why we excoriate him for things like that pass to Haslem or the 2010 Eastern Conference Semifinals or the 2011 Finals. It rarely occurs to us that perhaps the hypothetical apex we've constructed for him is simply unattainable. We will continue to grouse and grumble until he either retires or owns a nice little passel of rings. Then we'll find new things to assail him over, just so we can keep Talking About LeBron James. We demand otherworldly accomplishments and heroic feats, and even as the numbers and highlight reels show that he gives them to us on a nightly basis, King James can never satisfy that demand.

The flip side, of course, is that we also earnestly want him to fail. The avalanche of negative PR LeBron has accrued in the wake of The Decision, the Heat intro that would have made Spinal Tap blush for all its gaudiness, his utterly ridiculous "not one, not two ..." monologue at that event, the "wake up tomorrow to your same crappy lives" presser, and the patina of "he's a quitter; just doesn't have it in him" plastered over it all have made James very easy to dislike. After delivering a kick in the teeth to Cleveland on national television, the transformation to Hoops Public Enemy # 1 was almost instantaneous. No matter how many clever Nike ads LeBron's camp chose to throw at the situation, the second he took his talents to South Beach, it was no longer a matter of joyful when-will-he-peak anticipation. From that point forward, it was ball don't lie and this guy better not perjure himself on the court. The other unfortunate incidents I mentioned above have compressed and compounded the issue, and LeBron now endures a daily crucible in which a part of us hopes the verdict is guilty. From some vague, preachy standpoint, we don't feel he deserves any championship rings, which would eventually factor into whatever consideration we give his GOAT argument (WHICH WE SHOULDN'T EVEN HAVE BECAUSE IT'S MJ AND THAT'S THAT! But anyway ...) We want him to fall short in the trial by fire because to our sensibilities any championships he wins will be ill-gotten gains. We like it when karma punishes those who have done wrong, and some part of our psyche feels that James has sinned.

So we wish for an irreconcilable dichotomy. We ardently desire James' ascension to irrefutable greatness and his receipt of richly-deserved comeuppance. He is a failure if he cannot reach and outstrip every career milestone we envision for him, but a sort of successful morality tale if he does indeed fall short. Conversely, if he hoists five Larry O'Brien Trophies, wins three more MVPs and breaks a few records, we will be highly gratified as basketball fans while still a little disconcerted that there were no apparent consequences for his often callous behavior. We took Jordan and take Kobe for what they were/are. Because LeBron's mind-boggling potential has collided so catastrophically with his bewildering and off-putting brand of self presentation, we refuse to do the same with him. Pity LeBron, and pity us for being malicious and stupid enough to put him in this predicament.

It's strange now to recall that interview (seems a few dozen Mississippi's have flowed under the bridge since) when, in response to a query about his future aspirations, LeBron simply replied: "Global Icon." He can, I think, consider that goal accomplished. What he didn't see at the time and may not see now is that icons are changeable by nature. They represent whatever the people who venerate them want to see. LeBron James' specific iconography is now running along a fault line. On one side is the basketball player we want him to become. On the other is the punching bag we need him to be. Whatever resides in the fissure between, I hope for his sake it's a way out of this mess.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Schism Of The Saints

There have been intimations and half-whispers for a few years now. Certain dark things were hinted at that were essentially impossible to verify without firsthand access and knowledge. As a Falcons fan, I would have been only too happy to sneer and jive at the Saints if I thought they were playing dirty pool, but I simply didn't believe it. Truth be told, I didn't want to believe it, and I suspect that much of the rest of the league and the public felt the same.

In the name of sentimentality and the telling of great stories, it still seemed too soon after Katrina to contemplate leveling accusations at the team who played a crucial role in the healing of a broken city. It was difficult too, imagining a locker room that contained as nice and forthright a guy as Drew Brees could also contain something this sinister, even if the nastiness was on the other side of the ball. After a two-year investigation, though, speculation is no longer required, and incredulity is no longer an option. The Saints' defense, under the auspices of DC Gregg Williams and with the tacit approval of GM Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton, operated a bounty payout system that rewarded players for inflicting injuries and/or knocking their fellow athletes out of games.

My first thought is that no one should be especially surprised by all this. Not just because rumors have been hovering around the Saints for a few seasons, but because this sort of thing is not exactly unheard of in the NFL. In this new era where "CTE" and "concussion" are watchwords and punishments for illegal hits are dealt swiftly and severely, it's easy to forget that not so long ago the league released yearly video compilations of its fiercest and most brutal hits for our rabid consumption. As long as the guy wasn't on our team (and sometimes even if he was), we got excited when somebody got jacked up good and proper. The visceral nature of impact, the audible crunch of large, strong people colliding at high velocity; these things were part of what made the game enjoyable viewing. It's not a particularly massive leap to conceive of teams dishing out some extra incentives for particularly nasty shots, especially if they removed a valuable opposing player from a game's equation. Now that the thinking about violent hits has turned so dramatically, this will likely (and hopefully) be the last example of a bounty system, but it's not close to the first. I know there has been evidence that Gregg Williams had a similar system in place when he was with the Washington Redskins in addition to the current charges, but he certainly didn't invent this particular wheel.* Which brings me to my second thought: New Orleans is about to pay the piper for 50 years of cultural lag in football.

The Saints are absolutely going to catch hell over this. They should, too, because running a bounty system at a time when we have indisputable evidence of the consequences of repeated impacts on a players' brain is terribly, inexcusably wrong. When the NFL drops the hammer on New Orleans, you can bet Roger Goodell is going to make the ultimate example out of the organization. Common speculations are setting the likely punishment at some combination of fines, suspensions, and lost draft picks. Truthfully, given the vendetta-like nature of Goodell's reactions towards hard-hitting offenders, it wouldn't surprise me one bit if he concocted some entirely different and more "angel of death"-esque penalty. Gregg Williams, Sean Payton, and the other implicated players and team officials could very well be looking for work shortly. The Saints might be rendered quasi-impotent as a franchise for the next few seasons by the financial and draft sanctions.** Which makes all the sense in the world on the surface. No one in their right mind would defend the indefensible, and financially backed malicious intent cannot be defended. The thing is that the Saints, like James Harrison before them, have the unfortunate distinction of being in the wrong place doing the wrong thing at the wrong time in the most conspicuous fashion imaginable.

At this point, the NFL's survival depends upon a total culture change. The class action lawsuits have started and they're not going to stop, and the league is striving mightily to distance itself from the ethos that gave birth to those lawsuits. The continued goodwill of public perception is largely dependent on that distance from the past. And in the name of projecting an image that is more refined and more attuned to the risks inherent in the game, the NFL is probably going to crucify the Saints, who so recently authored one of the league's great narratives; a narrative that is being ground into shards by these latest revelations. Because their backs are against the proverbial wall, the league will seek and implement the harshest punishment possible. It may very well be necessary as a deterrent to future teams and players engaging in reckless and dangerous side-games on the field. Heck, it may even be justified. I'm still not certain it will be entirely fair.

Insidious as their recent behavior has been, the Saints have been playing on the proverbial railroad tracks for a comparatively short amount of time. They're going to get hit by a train with a half-century head of steam because the league now must belatedly cover its tracks and adopt a different posture. We'll have to wait and see what the final verdict entails, but Roger Goodell could wind up committing his own version of unnecessary roughness.

*Remember the Eagles/Cowboys "Bounty Bowl" in 1989? At the time, Buddy Ryan's bounty on Dallas kicker Luis Zendejas wasn't considered foul play, it was just an extra-zesty dose of vitriol infused into an already heated rivalry.

** Forbes might need to revise that Most Miserable Sports Cities list if the Saints get punished into irrelevance and the Hornets continue exist in NBA-owned limbo.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

This Was Not The Greatest Catcher In The World. This Is Just A Tribute ...

In my lifetime, I have willfully purchased exactly one piece of sports apparel that was not associated with a team based somewhere inside the Georgia state border. (I say "willfully purchased" because I received a lot of non-GA sports-y swag from various family members when I was a kid, the most tremendously awesome of which was/is an Alonzo Mourning Charlotte Hornets home jersey.) That one rogue willful purchase? A red Boston Red Sox t-shirt jersey with navy lettering that reads on the back: Jason Varitek 33.*

I bought that t-shirt at a store on Boylston Street shortly after I moved to Boston in the fall of 2007. I don't recall what I initially wandered in there for, but once I saw that shirt, I was certainly walking out with it. Did I feel slightly like a traitor to the Braves and Atalanta in general the first time I donned it on my way to Fenway Park? Yes, I did. But it was a minor twinge of conscience almost instantly overwritten by the fact that I had been a Jason Varitek fan well before he began his career in Boston.

Tek is and likely always will be my very favorite college baseball player of all time, and is considered by many to be the greatest college player ever at his position. He was the linchpin on some transcendentally great GA Tech teams in my formative years, the guy who kept me glued to a crappy little clock radio at night long after I was supposed to be in bed, waiting for his next at-bat. (The fact that he was my favorite player on a loaded team that also included Nomar Garciaparra should tell you something.) He was a switch-hitting monster with a semi-gun of an arm and an absolutely tireless drive. Through college, the minors, and 15 years in the bigs, I'm fairly certain he's never dogged a single play.

When the Sawx snapped their long championship dry drought in 2004, I could not have been happier for Varitek, who was in the midst of a 3-year career peak that season, bolstering an already-formidable offense and catching his usual brilliant games behind the plate. Despite having averaged 20 homes a season, Varitek's career offensive numbers are nowhere near gaudy, but his leadership and true talent, his inherent genius, are self-evident if you just watch game tape of him flashing signs. What Peyton Manning is (was?) to signal calling under center, Tek was to pitch calling. He knew the most minute tendencies of every pitcher on his staff, knew their placement down to the nanometer. He knew which hitters would fall for whose stuff and how to pace an at-bat for the maximum efficacy of his hurlers. The guy was an encyclopedia crossed with a Grand Master-level baseball IQ. Watching him call games was watching artistry of the highest caliber.

Of course, he was named the Red Sox captain, an honor bestowed previously by that venerable franchise to only Yaz and Jim Rice. You can see how much he meant by the myriad of articles paying homage that have been published since his retirement was announced. I can assure you there will be very few dry eyes, if any, at the official retirement announcement/ceremony later on today. Along with Tim Wakefield calling it quits and the offseason departures of Terry Francona and Theo Epstien, Varitek hangin' 'em up signaled the end of a glorious era for the Boston. Whatever the Red Sox are ready to become now post-Theo and -Tito, Varitek was the undisputed leader, the heart and soul and guts of that iteration of the team. (No disrespect to Youk and Pedroia, but it's the truth.)

It seemed to me, too, in the manner of a fan imagining thoroughly ridiculous telepathic connections with his favorite players, that Tek always knew when I was in the stands. I felt like we had some sort of strange solidarity; two Atlantans living in the northeast. Or maybe it was more akin to the feelings of a long-time fan of what used to be an unknown band watching them headline a huge venue. (I liked him before he was big, man!) Anyway, Tek always had himself a hell of a game when I showed up at Fenway. Even as his playing time and abilities waned, he was always in the starting lineup when I came and he killed it every time. I distinctly remember one game I went to with my dear friend Laura. We were in the bleachers in right-center, a little more than halfway up, and I had a fresh Sam Adams in my hand when Tek strolled to the plate for his first at-bat. He was mostly out of regular catching duties by then, but he was starting that day. Naturally, he sent a three-run dinger into right. "That's my boy!", I crowed excitedly over the roar of a capacity, drunken (drunk to capacity?) Fenway crowd, which is the only kind there is on a sunny Saturday afternoon in July. "Always delivers when I'm here!" Laura just grinned. She understood my obnoxiousness because she gets that way about Colby Rasmus. Anyway, the next time around, Tek absolutely crushed one; launched it clean over the Green Monster and out onto the pavement of Lansdowne Street. Absolutely made my day. I know it sounds stupid, but he was always doing uncharacteristically badass things like that with the bat when I was around.

Anyway, I just watched Tek's retirement broadcast. Damn thing came over the air while I was trying to finish typing this post, and now I'm a little too melancholy to properly word anything coherent, so I'll wrap this up. Here's to you, Tek. Ramblin' Wreck, Red Sawk, Captain, class act. Thanks for 25 years of incredible memories.

*Coincidentally also 'Zo's NBA number.