CINCINNATI -- Coming to you from my fair hometown, where I have some family time during the Patriots' bye week.
Cincinnati, the home of Pete Rose, conservative politics, Procter & Gamble, baseball’s first professional franchise and Bengals owner Mike Brown.
Mike Brown. The man who inspires the same feeling in Cincinnati that Jeremy Jacobs did before the Bruins went out and won the Stanley Cup in June.
Remember when Boston fans thought the Bruins were hopeless with the Jacobs family running the ship? Remember when Jacobs’ Bruins were the lost stepchild of the Boston championship run from 2002-08? Remember when the Garden was half-full for Bruins games for a good decade while the team waited and waited and waited just to get beyond the first round of the playoffs?
Well, Cincinnatians feel your pain.
Brown’s Bengals have had two winning seasons in the last 21. They won their division in those two years, losing in the first round -- at home -- on both occasions. The Bengals have yet to sell out a home game this season and have had all three home games blacked out on local TV. Many fans have just given up hope with the Bengals until there’s ownership change.
The similarities are remarkable.
The Bengals owner has taken many of the same shots that Jacobs -- both Jeremy and Charlie -- took in owning a professional sports franchise. Entering 2011, both were criticized by their team’s fans for being cheap, stubborn and never fully committed to hanging a championship banner.
But most of all, both have been lambasted for being completely out of touch with the fan bases.
As legend has it here, the Bengals reached their second Super Bowl in seven years in January 1989 (a classic they lost to the 49ers on a late Joe Montana pass), only to have Brown make a stunning discovery: Making the Super Bowl actually COSTS the team more in expenses than it makes in reaching the sport’s ultimate stage.
Brown is the ultimate sports pragmatist. It was Brown who did all the research for his dad, Paul Brown, when expansion brought the NFL to Cincinnati in 1968. In a world where sports salaries have spun out of control, where athletes hold most -- if not all -- of the cards, Brown lives in a world where if the bottom line isn’t positive, it’s not worth doing.
Brown is first and foremost a lawyer, a litigator and supreme negotiator. A lawyer by trade, he is a man who BEAT the IRS on tax liens after his father died in 1991. He negotiated a state-of-the-art NFL stadium on the Ohio River in his father’s name built mainly at the expense of Hamilton County taxpayers.
Paul Brown Stadium opened in 2000 and months later, Hamilton County officials in Cincinnati were arguing with themselves over the deal they worked with Mike Brown and the Bengals.
Taxpayers were up in arms over how their elected officials approved a facility built on their shoulders for a team that hadn’t put up a winning season since Brown took over the franchise following his father’s death.
But the flip side of that is simple: Don’t blame Mike Brown for negotiating the best deal for himself, his family and the Bengals.
Which brings us to Carson Palmer. After a 4-12 season last year, the once-Pro Bowl quarterback had become so disgusted with the Bengals that he said he rather retire than come back to the team that signed him to a six-year, $118 million contract, negotiated by Brown.
The Bengals owner is also a very loyal man, and those close to him said Brown was tremendously hurt and betrayed that Palmer would quit on a team that put so much trust in him. Brown said no how, no way would he allow Palmer to shoot himself out of town, even though the team drafted the “Red Rifle,” Andy Dalton, in April.
In early September, I asked Chad Ochocinco if he kept in touch with Palmer.
He showed me his iPhone and his list of text messages, and sure enough there was the name of his former quarterback with a message from Palmer that his life was going well and he was happy being retired.
Then the Raiders had their “Mo Lewis” moment, sort of, in reverse.
On Sunday, with four minutes left in the first half, Browns linebackers Chris Gocong and Scott Fujita landed on the right shoulder of Jason Campbell, breaking his collarbone. The Raiders, who won the game to improve to 4-2, weren’t about to give up on the season. They were in the need for a first-string quarterback to carry them the rest of the way.
Palmer had been working out at API on the West Coast and had kept in touch with Raiders coach Hue Jackson, the man who first worked with him at USC and then with the Bengals as receivers coach in the mid-2000s, when the Bengals began their rise in the AFC North.
Jackson gave Mike Brown a call, and after several days of negotiating, both sides had what they wanted. The Raiders had a starting quarterback who is in such good shape that he’s getting the start this weekend against Kansas City.
So, after steadfastly refusing to deal Palmer, Brown had a change of heart, thanks in large part to the fate of the football gods. Brown dealt Palmer to the Raiders for a first-round pick next year and a conditional pick in 2013, which could be another first-round pick if the Raiders reach the AFC championship game in either of the next two playoff seasons.
"Several factors made us believe that trading Carson to Oakland was the best move for the Bengals at this time," Brown said in a statement on Tuesday. "The principal development has been Andy Dalton, who has shown himself to be one of the best and most exciting young quarterbacks in the NFL. We have a good, young football team, and Andy can be the cornerstone of that team for a long time.
"We also find ourselves rather suddenly in position of being able to receive real value for Carson that can measurably improve our team -- which is performing well and is showing real promise for this year and years to come. When this opportunity arose, we felt we could not let it pass, and needed to take a step forward with the football team if we could."
“When you sign a contract, you’re bound to that contract. We’re going to hold true to that until it’s time for us to best benefit the football team," coach Marvin Lewis added in a Tuesday presser at Paul Brown Stadium. "Like Paul Brown said, ‘We’ll tolerate you as long as we need you.’ I think that’s very evident and true. This was a good deal for both clubs. We’re excited about it, and I know they are as well.”
When I was sitting on the ninth floor on Oct. 6 during the raising of the Stanley Cup banner, I listened to fans boo the man who paid the players that ended a 39-year championship drought. I couldn’t help but think of Mike Brown.
I figure it’ll be just like that on Cincinnati’s Fountain Square, when the city celebrates the Bengals winning the Super Bowl.
HEY BRUINS FANS, WORRIED YET?
The Bruins have started off their Stanley Cup defense just the way many of their fans had feared -- in a state of apparent hangover.
Entering Thursday’s game, they had won just twice in six games. But worse yet, they had shown little discipline in doing so.
That was certainly apparent in Tuesday’s game against the Hurricanes, who now have two wins against the B’s in as many tries in the new season.
After Milan Lucic and Zdeno Chara went barreling into a scrum behind Carolina’s net late in the second period Tuesday, Chara was thrown out of the game on misconduct while Tuukka Rask left his crease and skated the length of the ice to go toe-to-toe with counterpart Cam Ward.
Then, with just under four minutes left, coach Claude Julien had seen enough and started yelling at the officials for what he felt was the Hurricanes' badgering of the champs, trying to draw them into penalties, which they did successfully. Carolina scored a pair of third-period power-play goals in a 4-1 win.
"It's good to be emotional and physical as long as you're not frustrated," B’s defenseman Andrew Ference said. "This sport's designed where you're allowed to be physical, but as long as you're not punching guys in the head all the time."
Lesson for the champs: It’s great to show fight, but a good dose of discipline wouldn’t hurt, either.
"We have to take responsibility for our actions," Julien said.
Eric Staal, who scored during a 5-on-3 power play to give Carolina a 3-1 lead with 6:34 to play, may have put it the best and given Boston a huge dose of early season reality.
"We obviously frustrated them in their play," Staal said. "We were in their face and aggressive, and they were trying to get something going. When they're doing what they're doing, the refs have no choice but to call penalties when they're penalties. We capitalized eventually on the 5-on-3s, and it was a great win."
Are the Bruins being baited?
"That was in the third period,” Julien said. “It was pretty obvious when the penalties mounted and mounted and they kept getting 5-on-3s."
The Stanley Cup champs are good, but even the Canadiens of the 1970s and Oilers of the '80s would have trouble winning when playing two men short all the time.
MY FINAL RANT
Jason Varitek and Josh Beckett were right this week. Feel free to bash the Red Sox for their historic collapse on the field. It was well earned.
But can we please all stop with the stupid and inane assumption that drinking beer and eating fried chicken had anything to do with the Red Sox' performance in September?
Was it symbolic of priorities being out of place? Sure. Was it regrettable that inaccurate and unconfirmed details of clubhouse behavior were even leaked out to begin with? Absolutely. But to go from Point A to Point B and conclude that because the pitchers may have had a “slump-busting” beer or two and were eating “butt-busting” fried chicken the Red Sox went into the their tailspin is asinine.
Sure, we have to take the players’ word because media and fans aren’t allowed in the clubhouse during games. Sure, appearances (body types and otherwise) don’t look good. But can we please stop assuming that every cockamamie story about beer-drinking from the clubhouse to the dugout is true?
Here’s what we heard (via statements) from the parties Tuesday evening after the WHDH-TV report that had an anonymous source spotting pitchers drinking alcohol in the dugout:
Jon Lester: “The accusation that we were drinking in the dugout during games is completely false. Anonymous sources are continuing to provide exaggerated and, in this case, inaccurate information to the media.”
Josh Beckett: “I cannot let this allegation go without response; enough is enough. I admit that I made mistakes along the way this season, but this has gone too far. To say that we drank in the dugout during the game is not true.”
John Lackey: “There are things that went on this season that shouldn’t have happened, but this latest rumor is not true, and I felt that it was important to try to stop this from going any further.”
“In 32 years of professional baseball, I have never seen someone drinking beer in the dugout,” former Red Sox skipper Terry Francona added.
There’s no way to judge the players based on what happened in the clubhouse, because not even Francona was in there to see it. And unless he was wine-tasting or beer-tasting during the games, there’s no way he knows what they were drinking in the dugout.
The only thing you can judge the 2011 Red Sox on was their abysmal performance on the field in the final month of the season. Nothing less, nothing more. Simple. John Henry and Ben Cherington don’t need breathalyzers in the dugout. They need players who can pass gut-checks in the heat of a pennant race.
I plan to be in Fort Myers in February and March and I can assure you that my questions won’t have anything to do with changing clubhouse protocol but rather what the team will have done by then to change the makeup of the roster.
Will the team be younger and quicker on defense and have more depth in the bullpen? Will Carl Crawford have figured out a way to get on base more? Will Lester throw more first-pitch strikes instead of falling behind and relying on his cut fastball to bail him out? Is Kevin Youkilis 100 percent healthy? Is Clay Buchholz ready to approach the rigors of a 200-inning season? How will Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez adjust in their second years in Boston?
That’s all that matters.
Call me naïve, and I’m sure all of you looking for scapegoats will, but I’ll live with what Lackey, Beckett and Lester all professed on Tuesday, in the wake of the dugout drinking allegations.
The reason the Red Sox lost it in September is because their starting pitching was horrendous, with an ERA over 7.00. Their key players started going down to injuries that had more to do with their age than anything else.
In his first interview since the end of the 2011 season, Buchholz spoke to Mut & Merloni on Thursday. Among the many topics discussed during the lengthy interview was Beckett, who has been under heavy criticism for what has been perceived as lack of leadership this season. Buchholz was asked if that had been the case with Beckett in 2011.
"Absolutely not," Buchholz said. "If anything, I think Josh Beckett was different in a good way this year. He's one of the guys that I've always looked up to regardless of what the situation was, he's got that killer mentality of going out and winning a game. So, that's the guy I've always looked up to and he's one of the hardest workers. … I mean, I'm not saying this because he's my teammate and I'm trying to cover anybody's butt, but he was in the clubhouse every day early, got his work done, ran and did all his stuff. He was the best pitcher on our team this year. I didn't see anything different, no.
"Gaining weight is gaining weight," Buchholz added. "You still have to go out there and perform. That's just the way it is. If this game were easy, there would be more than 750 guys out there doing it. He still went out there and did his job, gave us a chance to win a game every time he went out there. That's all you can ask for from a starting pitcher."
That’s all I’m going to ask in February. Promise.