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It’s hilarious to consider how precisely a year ago the Celtics and their spoiled legions were wailing about their accursed luck in being cheated out of illustrious rookie prospects by the capricious whims of bouncing Ping-Pong balls.
Had alleged “fortune” smiled on them last June they would have been overjoyed to draft either Kevin Durant or Greg Oden and launch yet another interminable re-building program that would have had neither the room nor the interest, let alone the wherewithal, for the likes of Kevin Garnett. And had they picked Oden who promptly wrecked his knee -- as was likely the case -- the following would have been a lock.
They would have been more miserable this season than last when they were an utter disgrace. Their season would have ended six weeks ago. Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers would have since been fired. Paul Pierce would be right behind them, riding a rail out of town. Wycliffe Grousbeck and his happy band of financiers would officially be the town’s laughingstock. And the tattered remnants of the fabled dynasty would again be groveling for a break with its fortunes tied to the capricious whims of bouncing Ping-Pong balls.
It’s a marvelous twist even for a franchise that’s had almost mystical interventions of sheer good luck many times in its history. A terrible blow turns out to be a gift from the gods. Redemption arrives disguised as sheer ruin. It’s one of the great stories of our sporting times and a reminder that in this day and age the difference between a champion and a bum can be as thin as a razor’s edge.
On the other hand, we ought not get too far ahead of ourselves here. For the first time in these playoffs, the Celtics face in the Lakers a legitimate contender that is also healthy. As was the case in the Cleveland series, when it was essentially a matter of derailing LeBron James for a game or two, they have to find a way to mess with the mind of Kobe Bryant. That will prove significantly more difficult and even more necessary.
At the hour this seemingly magical turn of events arrives at its denouement, this much should be understood. The razors edge slides with the tides. Moreover, the core nucleus of this team is hardly composed of ‘‘kids.’’ This could well be their one great shot. It may be now or never.
When Manny Ramirez, in one of his merrier Manny moments, clubbed his 500th career home run the other day he became the 24th slugger in baseball history to reach that level of eminence. Until the 1970s it was an achievement considered a fast-track ticket to the Hall of Fame, making the bearer a first-ballot cinch with no questions asked. But should that any longer be the case?
When Ted Williams surpassed 500 dingers in his final season, 1960, he became only the fourth chap ever to scale such slugging heights with Mel Ott (511), Jimmie Foxx (534) and Himself, the one and only Bambino (714), being the others at that time. Ted, of course, finished with 521. The difference between only four people having accomplished something in baseball’s entire history and 24 having done it is substantial.
The point has everything to do with the watering down of baseball’s precious mother lode of vital statistics brought about by a gamut of forces, not all of them proper. They include smaller ballparks, buggy whip bats, steroids, weaker pitching, HGH, atomized baseballs, all those vitamins, additives, and not so legitimate enhancements that enable sluggers to beef up, lower fences, umpires who won’t let pitchers pitch inside. There are more.
It is not just the hitters. Pitching’s equivalent of 500 homers or 3,000 hits is the winning of 300 games. Tommy Glavine has lately accomplished the trick joining the illustrious ranks of the Lefty Groves and Warren Spahns. But that hardly makes Glavine the equal of “Old Mose” or “Spahnie” anymore than winning 300 games put Don Sutton in the same class as Bob Feller, Robin Roberts or Bob Gibson, none of whom came close. Glavine and Sutton -- among many others -- benefit hugely from modern medical science that can maintain and repair arms that were once well beyond help or restoration. This has allowed many to pile up the numbers well into their 40s. Relief pitchers and pitch counts have further helped.
Statistics have to be redefined. In the modern era, they have lost their sheer power to dazzle and convince. They need to be scrutinized. None of which will affect the case of Ramirez. For all his flaws, he’ll breeze into Cooperstown because by the time he hangs ‘em up, his HR and RBI numbers will be off the charts; even the revised charts. But if they let Manny in, how can they keep Babe Herman out?
Lord Stanley’s Cup
There’s danger in suggesting anything definitive let alone final about a professional championship series still in progress, although if you write for a weekly newspaper that temptation is an occupational hazard. While knowing better, dare I suggest the Stanley Cup Finals were a disappointment if only because the Detroit Red Wings are too darn good.
As of the writing the Wings lead the series three games to two. The uppity Pittsburgh Penguins could still turn it into a classic by winning the last three games. But I wouldn’t bet the ranch on it, if I were you. The Wings sterling defense simply won’t allow that.
This was supposed to be the most sizzling Cup showdown in a decade. The Penguins have fabulous young talent. Yet through the first four games, the Wings have rendered them “ordinary.” It’s hard to play hockey better than these Detroit guys have been playing it.
Nicklas Lidstrom, leader of the Wings’ superb pack of seven flying Swedes, is generally credited with being their guiding genius. He’s widely regarded as ranking among the half-dozen best defensemen of all times. That would place him in the ultimate company of Doug Harvey, Dennis Potvin, and those three illustrious Bruins; Eddie Shore, Ray Bourque, and the incomparable one, Bobby Orr. While already a six-time Norris Cup winner, it’s still fair to ask if Lidstrom is worthy of that much esteem. Does his body of work surpass that of his own teammate, the granite-jawed Chris Chelios, who at 46 is still a titanic force and inspiration? The Wings defense, which some argue is the best of all-time, has made journeyman goalie Chris Osgood, who was available on the waiver wire not so long ago, look like the new Terry Sawchuck.
Such matters are incidental to the moment, however. The more important question is, what does the Wings’ excellence do to that theory -- most prominently espoused by our old pal Don Cherry -- that holds that the glut of European imports, led by the Swedes whom Grapes most deplores, have altered the game, diminished its style, and lessened its appeal to North American audiences?
One suspects it ends the argument for good. A Swedish all-star team aided by an aging Greek defenseman, a rebuilt goalie, and a handful of Canadian plumbers is about to win the Stanley Cup in a manner as impressively as it’s been done since the glory days of the Original Six. Poor Grapes will never survive this.
As for the rest of us, two of the most poignant statistics of the season are these. In 2008, Gordie Howe turned 80 years of age. And Bobby Orr turned 60. Who says hockey fans live in the past?