By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

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A dominant run, a rousing finish: The Celtics have made believers of us all

Photo (cc) 2013 by Michael Tipton

In the end, it wasn’t them. It was us. Since late April, we’ve been watching the Celtics with our eyes half-covered because we told ourselves we’d seen this team fall short so many times before. But that’s not really true. The first legitimate chance the current version of the Celtics had of winning it all was in 2022, and they were outclassed by a much better Golden State team. Last year, yes, they woke up too late and couldn’t overcome Jayson Tatum’s sprained ankle in Game 7 of the conference finals. But that’s the only time they should have gone farther but didn’t.

This year? A dominating regular season followed by a magnificent 16-3 playoff run. By far the best team they played was Indianapolis, and yet that was somehow their only sweep. The other series: 4-1, 4-1 and an emphatic 4-1 against Dallas, which proved to be an inconsistent Luka Doncic and a bunch of guys. As Bob Dylan once put it, “What looks large from a distance, Close up ain’t never that big.”

My favorite Celtics championship team is the 2008 squad, with the incomparable Kevin Garnett along with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. Yes, I was a fan of the Larry Bird-led 1980s teams and the ’70s-era teams with Dave Cowens, John Havlicek and Paul Silas. But there was something special about 2008.

I may have to revise that. There were so many great story lines this year. Al Horford’s endless quest for a championship, finally fulfilled. Questions about whether Tatum and Jaylen Brown could play together — exaggerated by the media, but not completely without foundation. The emergence of Derek White. The addition of Jrue Holiday. (Admit it: We all feel a little guilty at being glad that fan favorite Marcus Smart isn’t around anymore.) The injuries to Kristaps Porzingis, who managed to play 16 minutes in the closer and actually made a few contributions after a rough start. Joe Mazzulla’s emergence as a decent coach.

I thought Tatum would get the Bill Russell MVP trophy after taking the team onto his shoulders Monday night and carrying them to victory. Brown got it instead, which is fine, because he was more consistent throughout the Finals. His improvement over the past year has been nothing short of remarkable. After utterly failing to step up after Tatum’s sprained ankle against Miami last year, he became the highest-paid player in the NBA over the summer, which had a few of us scratching our heads. And then he went out and earned it, at least to the extent that anyone can “earn” $286 million. How fitting is it that he’s now won playoff trophies named for Russell and Bird?

By adding Holiday and Porzingis last year, Brad Stevens turned an almost-good-enough team into the NBA’s best. If the Celtics are going to have a chance at repeating, though, Stevens may need to work some magic again. I’d be astonished if Horford doesn’t retire. Porzingis needs surgery on his ankle, and he may be better suited to a 20-minutes-a-game role as a bench player given his fragility. Can Stevens bring in a reliable big man? Other than that, though, the Celtics are well-positioned for another championship run.

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My totally unasked-for rant about what happened to the Celtics

Photo (cc) 2010 by Christine

You don’t care what I think about the Celtics’ just-concluded season, but I’m going to tell you anyway.

The team made a great comeback from 0-3. Derrick White made a play for the ages to pull out Game 6. In the end, though, they lost to a less talented but tougher and better coached team — although I have to say that the Heat certainly didn’t look less talented in this series.

What’s next? Joe Mazzulla has to go. Beyond that, this is still a very good team. I think Al Horford can continue to be valuable (assuming he doesn’t retire) as long as they cut down on his minutes. I’d love to see Rob Williams play more, but I’m afraid that his knee won’t allow for that. I still love Marcus Smart.

The big question is whether to break up the two J’s. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were both awful with everything on the line, and I don’t want to hear any injury excuses about Tatum. They might have to deal Brown because of contract considerations, and if they do, I hope they replace him with a veteran who Tatum respects, even fears. He needs guidance. That said, he took over during the final five quarters against Philadelphia, and that was just as much of a pressure situation as Monday night was.

Many, many people have said the Celtics should have stopped shooting threes since they weren’t falling. Unfortunately, the modern NBA is built around the three, and the Heat were scoring from outside at will. You score two, they score three, and you’re another point behind. I’d love to see the NBA get rid of the three and return to ’80s-style inside basketball. But we know that isn’t going to happen.

And let’s not hear anything about lack of effort. They were playing absolutely as hard as they could until maybe the final eight minutes, by which time the writing was on the wall. They just played a terrible game.

Catching up with Ken Burns’ ‘Baseball’ nearly three decades later

What could have been

After we got home from Cooperstown in early August, we decided to watch Ken Burns’ 1994 documentary “Baseball.” Neither of us had seen a Burns film in its entirety since “The Civil War” (i.e., before kids), mainly because we don’t watch much television and we don’t like getting trapped into sitting through long series. But this seemed worth taking on, especially since the 2022 Red Sox weren’t doing anything that warranted investing time in.

On Saturday night, we finally finished with 11th and final episode — one of two post-production add-ons, this one largely about the Red Sox’ 2004 World Series triumph, which, based on the amount of airtime he got, the Sox apparently staged for the benefit of Mike Barnicle. The steroid-induced rise and fall of Barry Bonds got quite a bit of attention as well, and it warmed our hearts to see Roger Clemens administered a thorough thrashing.

The original nine “innings” were well worth the time we put into them. Running two to two and a half hours per episode, they started slowly, with an overdose of lyrical tributes to the quiet joys of the National Pastime. Once Babe Ruth arrives on the scene, though, the series really kicks into gear, with lots of great archival footage. The highlight is Jackie Robinson, whom we follow from his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 until his premature death in 1972.

Buck O’Neil signing autographs in 2005. Photo (cc) 2005 by kc congdon.

“Baseball” is done in Burns’ characteristic style, with a lot of talking heads, including Bob Costas, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Studs Terkel, George Will and — the best, in our view — Buck O’Neil, a Negro Leagues star who died in 2006 and who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2022. O’Neil comes across as calm and wise, with a slight edge of hurt and anger occasionally flashing in his eyes. We had the sense that he knew more about baseball and life than the rest of Burns’ guests put together.

The unevenness of the two add-ons came as a surprise — Burns’ attention to detail was largely missing, maybe because he farmed out much of the work to underlings. The sound editing was terrible, with the music often drowning out what the guest commentators had to say. Still, how can you not love watching the Sox dismantle the Yankees in the 2004 league championship series all over again?

We watched it by signing up for a PBS Documentaries subscription for $3.99 a month and then tuning in through Amazon Prime Video. If you’ve never seen “Baseball” and you’ve got 20-plus hours to spare, we recommend it.

Shot of love

We’ve been watching Ken Burns’ 1994 documentary “Baseball,” which certainly beats watching the Red Sox these days. Last night, as the story turned to the death of Babe Ruth’s first wife, Helen Ruth, in a Watertown house fire, I heard a familiar tune on piano. I couldn’t quite place it except that it was clearly a hymn.

Then I remembered. It was “Abide with Me,” which — in addition to being sacred music — is the first piece on Thelonious Monk’s 1957 album “Monk’s Music,” written, as it turns out, by a 19th-century English church musician named William Henry Monk. Thelonious Monk doesn’t play; instead, it’s lovingly rendered by his horn section, consisting of Ray Copeland on trumpet, Gigi Gryce on alto sax, and Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane on tenor sax.

Please give it a listen. It might be the most uplifting thing you do all day.

Congratulations to the Celtics for a thrilling ride. If they stay healthy, they’ll be back.

Jayson Tatum. Photo (cc) 2018 by Erik Drost.

I am no basketball analyst. But I watched almost every minute of the Celtics’ playoff run, which came to an end last night with a thorough thrashing at the hands of the Golden State Warriors. And I just want to say this: Don’t tell me about blown opportunities, choking or any of those other tired sports clichés. They lost to a much better team. Even those maddening turnovers were a symptom, not a cause.

Longtime Celtics fans will hark back to the Larry Bird era or, more recently, the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce-Ray Allen trio. There are some key differences. Bird was one of those rare talents who arrived fully formed. Garnett, Pierce and Allen were veterans brought together for what turned out to be one championship run.

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, by contrast, still have some learning to do. They’ve learned a lot the past few weeks, and we can all hope they’ll be better players as a result.

These opportunities don’t come along very often, and you hate to see them miss what looked like a real chance at a championship. Among other things, the Celtics were about as healthy as you can expect an NBA team to be in June. Robert Williams was hobbled, but he’s their fourth-best player. You can say they’ll be back next year, but so much of that depends on avoiding injuries.

But congratulations to the Celtics for a great ride. And congratulations to the Golden State Warriors and Steph Curry, the best pure shooter the NBA has ever seen.

BoMag and the Globe offer dueling theories about who shot David Ortiz

David Ortiz celebrates the first of his three championships with the Red Sox. Photo (cc) 2013 by Colin Steele.

Boston magazine and The Boston Globe published dueling stories over the weekend that recount the 2019 shooting of Red Sox legend David Ortiz.

The Boston magazine story, by Mike Damiano, appears to have been many weeks, if not months, in the making — it’s a rich, deeply reported story about Ortiz’s life in the Dominican Republic and his complicated family situation. The Globe article, by Bob Hohler, may have been assigned (or least put on the fast track) in reaction to  BoMag. It’s a newsy account of that attempts to get to the bottom of who ordered Ortiz’s shooting, and why.

By all means, read both. But by far the most interesting detail is the dueling theories about the role of a major drug trafficker, César Peralta, known as “The Abuser.” According to the Globe’s account, former Boston police commissioner Ed Davis, who was hired by Ortiz to investigate the shooting, Peralta is in fact the guy who ordered the hit. Hohler writes:

Davis, disclosing his findings for the first time, said the powerful and politically connected drug lord César “The Abuser” Peralta came to feel disrespected by Ortiz, prompting him to place a bounty on Ortiz’s head and sanction the ragtag hit squad that tried to kill him.

“Peralta said he had David shot,” Davis said in an interview, citing information that he said US law enforcement officials gathered and shared with him.

The BoMag story, on the other hand, all but rules out Peralta as having any role. Here’s what Damiano has to say:

As I, too, tried to get to the bottom of what caused the shooting, I found that the closer I got to people with genuine knowledge of the Santo Domingo underworld, the more skepticism I heard about the love-triangle theory and any possibility of Peralta’s involvement. One man I spoke with who knows many of the men in Peralta’s circle, as well as some of the men accused of involvement in the shooting, said that the theory was bunk. No part of it added up, he said, and hardly anyone in his neighborhood — Herrera, a hot bed of Dominican drug trafficking — believed it.

The two accounts also raise some questions about access. The Globe’s owner and publisher, John Henry, is also the principal owner of the Red Sox. Davis is a security consultant for the Globe. It does not appear that Davis shared his theory about Peralta with BoMag.

Both stories dismiss the widely mocked theory put forth by Dominican authorities that Ortiz was the victim of mistaken identity.

The conclusion I took away from Damiano’s and Hohler’s reporting was that we may never know who ordered the hit on Ortiz. I’m just glad he’s still with us.

Footnote: I’m told that Damiano has been hired by the Globe.

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A weird Red Sox season ends on a down note

Red Sox-Yankees at Fenway Park. Photo (cc) 2018 by Daniel Hartwig.

What a weird Red Sox season. They played way over their heads for three months, were lousy for two and a half months, got incredibly hot and then stopped hitting. They were more fun than anyone thought they’d be on Labor Day. But Chaim Bloom has work to do.

Musts: two additional good starting pitchers (maybe Chris Sale can be one of them), a completely revamped bullpen and better defense. I don’t want to see Kyle Schwarber playing first base again. Maybe they can talk J.D. Martinez into leaving, which would open up the DH position. I’m sure they’d like to, even though he can still hit.

Although it would be a luxury, I’d also like to see them figure out how to get more consistency out of the offense as well. Still, offense is not what’s wrong with this team.

Finally, I was upset when the Sox brought back Alex Cora given his role in the Astros’ 2017 cheating scandal — and his possible role in a lesser Red Sox scandal in 2018. He proved himself once again to be the best manager in Sox history other than Terry Francona, and he seems to be genuinely contrite.

But to echo one of my Facebook friends, he needs to take the next step and tell us exactly what happened in 2017. His role in all that is still kind of a mystery, even though we know what happened in general terms.

Don’t let the door hit you on the way out, Curt

Curt Schilling, the bloody-sock hero of the 2004 Red Sox, says he’s leaving Massachusetts for Tennessee, where he expects that people won’t be so mean to him. I’ve never been to Tennessee, but I hope people there aren’t as racist, transphobic and full of hate as Schilling has become over the years.

In 2017, Travis Waldron wrote an excellent in-depth piece for HuffPost on Schilling’s descent from apparently normal conservative in his playing days and the immediate aftermath into an all-purpose terrible person.

Yes, Curt Schilling should be in the Hall of Fame

Curt Schilling in better days. Photo (cc) 2007 by Andrew Malone.

We have a good discussion under way on Facebook about whether Curt Schilling should be in the Baseball Hall of Fame. I say yes, even though he’s devolved into a terrible human being who’s mocked trans people and joked about journalists being murdered in the years since his playing days ended.

The argument against Schilling, one of the great post-season clutch pitchers, is that the Hall of Fame has a character clause, and there’s no doubt that the Schilling of today is someone of exceedingly poor character. But the clause should pertain to how he conducted himself as a player. Schilling always respected the game, unlike cheaters such as Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds and Pete Rose. With Clemens, it wasn’t just steroids; it was also his adolescent meltdown in the 1990 playoffs. Clemens was thrown out, and the Red Sox lost the game and the series. Of course, that probably would have happened anyway given Clemens’ miserable record in big games.

Sean McAdam of the Boston Sports Journal wrote a terrific piece the other day about the man Schilling used to be before becoming a deranged right-wing extremist. I was particularly struck by McAdam’s account of Schilling’s leadership in awarding full shares of the team’s 2004 World Series money to low-paid clubhouse attendants and the like. Here’s how McAdam put it:

After the fact, I was told that Schilling was behind the gesture. (For those suspicious that Schilling was the source of this information, he was not). He argued that for the players, the difference between a full share of, say, $300,000 and $250,000 was minuscule, relatively speaking. But by including more non-players in the distribution of full shares, they could impact the lives of so many who didn’t make seven- and eight-figure annual salaries.

Indeed, some bought houses, paid off mortgages or paid tuition bills with that money. And indirectly, they have Schilling to thank.

None of us knows what happened to Schilling. Obviously something went haywire along the way. In some respects his Hall of Fame credentials are borderline, and we can only imagine the unhinged speech he’d give at Cooperstown if he were actually inducted. But that shouldn’t enter into it. He deserves a plaque.

Hank Aaron could have played in Boston — and he’s still the true home-run king

Hank Aaron. Photo (cc) 2015 by David Valdez.

Imagine if the Braves had never left Boston. The great Hank Aaron, whose death at the age of 86 was announced Friday, might have played here. Of course, Boston was a notoriously racist city when Aaron was playing, and we still have plenty of problems. But it’s interesting to ponder what might have been.

Like many fans, I remember watching the Braves as Aaron approached and then surpassed Babe Ruth’s seemingly unbreakable record of 714 in 1974. Braves games were carried on national TV during Aaron’s pursuit, which meant that the entire country could watch. Sadly, the obits all go into some detail about the hate to which Aaron was subjected for having the temerity to break a white man’s record.

On Friday, Twitter was abuzz with the possibility that Major League Baseball’s recent decision to regard the Negro League as “major” might mean that Aaron’s final home-run total of 755 would be revised upward — conceivably by enough to pass Barry Bonds’ steroid-tainted 762. But apparently that’s not going to happen. Mike Oz of Yahoo Sports addressed the matter in December:

One thing that would have caused a tectonic shift in the record books was if Hank Aaron’s 1952 season in the Negro Leagues counted. He hit either eight or nine home runs that season, depending on the source, but Barry Bonds sits atop the all-time home run leaderboard by seven, so either one of those being accepted would have made Hank No. 1 again.

Alas, the 1948 cutoff was chosen because most of the top talent fled the Negro Leagues after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, making the leagues more like the minor leagues than the majors by the time Aaron arrived.

That’s a shame, and maybe MLB will revisit the issue. Either way, though, Henry Aaron will always be the truth home-run king.

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