Thursday, March 5, 2009

Moss, Marbury, and Many

In the recent years, three Boston teams have found themselves with a decision to make. A player they needed was available for their team. The player was highly skilled, but a bit of a butthead. Besides being known as clubhouse cancer, the player had been accused of giving up on teams, or games, or plays. The decision to have the player on the team was controversial, and up for much debate. The overriding issue was whether talent was more important than chemistry. Did winning games lead to a happy locker room, or was a happy locker room the key to winning games?

Following the 2006 season, the New England Patriots were in a bit of a funk. They were still one of the elite teams in the league, but hadn’t won a title in a couple years. They had an all-world quarterback, but lacked the receivers for him to throw to. Interestingly enough, there was a receiver available for trade out of Oakland. Randy Moss. Moss had both sides of this equation. His talent was unquestionable. If he wasn’t the most talented receiver in the game, he was certainly in the conversation. He also had a long history of being a meathead, going back to his college days. He had long been accused of not hustling on routes if he wasn’t supposed to get the ball. He had been accused of quitting on Oakland once he realized they weren’t very good. His off the field and on the field issues had been long documented, including pretending to moon the crowd after a touchdown, and almost running over a meter maid. If you wanted to uphold the chemistry of a championship caliber locker room, this was the last type of player you wanted to bring in. But, the Patriots didn’t care. They saw the talent they needed. They decided that if the clubhouse was as tight and together as people were claiming it was, they could absorb a distraction. Professional athletes such as those wouldn’t let another player’s distractions affect their performance. So, they traded for Moss. You can decide for yourself if the deal worked or not. His first year, the Patriots put up the first ever undefeated 16-win regular season in NFL history. Counting playoff games, no team in history has won more than their 18 wins that season. Along the way, Moss set the NFL record for most touchdown catches in a season, and Tom Brady set the record for most touchdown passes in a season. Last season, with a back-up quarterback the team racked up 11 wins. That would look like a pretty successful move to me.

Just recently, the defending champion Boston Celtics found that they had a need. Their bench just wasn’t putting up enough points to keep them in every game. They also didn’t have a back-up point guard they could trust to handle the ball. Interestingly enough, there was a shoot-first point guard available. Stephon Marbury. Again, Marbury had the two sides of the argument. He had the talent to make him an elite point guard. He was also the poster child for a me-first clubhouse cancer. To say that he caused a distraction in the other places he played was an understatement. He apparently bought courtside seats to his team’s games, just to cause a distraction. He quit on the Knicks so he could force his way out of town. The Boston coach didn’t want him in the clubhouse because of the distraction. The team’s star players weren’t fond of the addition. The championship Celtics had been the definition of a “team” and disruption of that was cause for concern. Once again, the talented player was signed. It was assumed that if the coach was any good, he could coach this player as well. It was assumed that if the team’s chemistry was as strong as suggested, it could handle a little acid. It was assumed that professional ballplayers wouldn’t let one player’s distractions affect their performance. So, Stephon Marbury is the new back-up point guard for the Celtics. Obviously, it’s too early to tell just how well it goes. But, they don’t appear to be crumbling to the floor just yet.

Slightly less recently, the defending champion Boston Red Sox had a need. They had a DH who needed protection in the line-up. They needed to score runs for their pitching staff. Interestingly enough, there was a player available who was one of the best ever at driving in runs. He would have provided protection for any hitter in the league. Better yet, he was already on the roster so they wouldn’t have to give anything up to get him. Manny Ramirez. Once again, Manny had both sides of the issue. His talent was legendary. He’s a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, and one of the best hitters in a generation. He also had a history of not hustling. Some people think he quit on the team at times. The manager of the team wasn’t fond of him. The veterans on the team though he was distracting. They claimed that his behavior was actually hurting their own performance. So, like the other examples, the organization told them to suck it up and act like professional athletes. No, not the Red Sox organization. The Red Sox got rid of Manny, getting a bag of balls in return. They added prospects to the deal. They added cash to the deal. All to get rid of a player who was probably the best hitter on the team, hustle or not. No, it was the Dodgers organization that told everyone to ask like professionals. They acquired Manny in the steal of the decade. How did it work for them? Manny hit like an animal. Manager Joe Torre apparently knew how to handle Manny. The Dodgers rode Manny’s back right into the playoffs. He practically single-handedly carried them to the NLCS. Finally, he wasn’t enough to carry them anymore. The Red Sox, on the other hand, lost the division, and lost the ALCS when the Rays had home field advantage. Just Wednesday, the Dodgers re-signed Manny to a contract, practically begging him to come back. They Dodgers had no competition, but still practically got on their knees to put Manny in an LA uniform. They look pretty good to win another division title.

So, I guess that just leaves one question.

What do the Patriots, Celtics, and Dodgers know that the Red Sox don’t?

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