Tuesday, April 16, 2019

2019 Red Sox Week in Review: 4/7-4/13

The Red Sox stumbled and bumbled their way through the first ten days of the season and ended the previous week with a dismal 2-8 record. With the end of the brutal season-opening road trip and then their first home games of the season in this third week of the season, would the Sox finally get back to the brand of winning baseball they played last season? Would the team finally turn the page on 2018 after getting their rings and unveiling the 2018 championship banner in their home opener? Will playing in front of the home crowd at Fenway Park be the thing to cure what ails them? These are all questions I had heading into this week and as you'll see, the results continued to be...mixed, at best.

(4/7 at Arizona Diamondbacks): A classic "bullpen game" since Hector Velazquez got the spot start. Combined with his cohorts in the bullpen, the relievers delivered one of the better pitching performances for the team thus far. This game was bereft of action apart from the red-hot Mitch Moreland hitting a solo home run in the seventh inning which was the difference maker. It was a 1-0 Red Sox win and helped them avoid the sweep at the hands of the Diamondbacks. The miserable season-opening road trip ended with the Sox 3-8 but heading home to face two of the worst teams in the league, it would be the perfect time to make up some ground in the standings, right?

(4/9 vs. Toronto Blue Jays): Well, maybe not. With their home opener, the Red Sox became the last team in Major League Baseball this season to play their first home game, a ridiculous travesty that the league should be ashamed of. The reigning champions and that's how they spent the first two weeks of the season? In any event, the prevailing wisdom across Red Sox Nation was that the return home would rejuvenate the team and that the road trip would soon be a distant memory. Instead, after they got their rings, unfurled their championship banner, and honored the fellow 2018 champion Patriots, the Sox fell flat on their faces in front of a home crowd that started leaving in the sixth inning. Chris Sale got the start and once again looked like a shell of himself, throwing erratically with decreased velocity and control issues. The low point came when Lourdes Gurriel stole home to cap off a Blue Jays rally that gave them a 5-2 lead. Not even Moreland's power surge (another homer in this one) could help. It was surreal to hear the boos rain down on the team, but they were unquestionably earned as the Sox stumbled badly and lost this one 7-5.

(4/11 vs. Toronto Blue Jays): After a day off, the two teams finished off this short two game series with what looked like another crushing defeat early. Nathan Eovaldi continued his terrible 2019 by giving up an early three-run home run to Justin Smoak in the third inning. He gave up a two-run shot to Rowdy Tellez later in the inning and in the blink of an eye, the Sox were in a 5-0 hole. It was a miserable start to the game but the Sox fought back led by another Moreland home run and Pedroia's first RBI in forever to cut the deficit to 5-3. The Sox crept closer but then gave up a late run to Toronto which made it 6-5. In the bottom of the ninth, though, Moreland tied the game when he doubled to drive Mookie Betts in before Rafael Devers singled in the game-winner. The 7-6 victory was much needed and really exciting, although it would be nice if all of the Sox' wins so far this season weren't comebacks after getting down early in games. Since wins are at a premium this season, though, I suppose beggars can't be choosers.

(4/12 vs. Baltimore Orioles): A four game series with the lowly Orioles seemed to be just what the Sox needed to fatten up their record and get back on track. Andrew Benintendi suddenly rediscovered his power (if only for a game) when he belted his first homer of the season early in the game. The Sox opened up a 3-0 lead and the mercurial Eduardo Rodriguez delivered the best performance by a Boston starter this season over seven shutout innings (and on only 93 pitches!). He earned the first win by a Boston starter this season, which is simultaneously good and pathetic. The Sox tacked on some insurance runs later in the game and it's a good thing they did because Baltimore made a late surge that fell just short. The Sox won 6-4 and wait...what's that? A winning streak? Yes, fans, the Sox had their first winning streak of the season at two games. I know it sounds lame to be excited about it, but the way this season has gone so far, we've got to take what we can get...

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(4/13 vs. Baltimore Orioles): Surely the Red Sox would keep beating up on the Orioles and make it three straight, right? To that I answer: you have been watching the team this season, yes? Just when it seemed like they'd put it all together, they came out and delivered another stinker which reminds you that something is seriously wrong with this team this season. We have a large enough sample size now to confirm that Rick Porcello operates on an even year/odd year cycle and that we should be in for a brutal 2019 from him. He not only got shelled, but he gave up the first hit Chris Davis has gotten since September 2018. Previously 0-58, Davis managed to club THREE hits and FOUR RBI in this game as the Sox were pounded. The final score was 9-5 but that makes it look closer than it really was as the final two Boston runs came during a meaningless ninth inning. In a season rapidly filling up with low points, getting beaten like a drum by a AAAA squad like the Orioles, and allowing Davis to bust out, has to be one of the lowest.  So much for that winning streak.

Quick Hits: It's not just one thing the Red Sox are doing poorly this season; every facet of their game has been bad. The starting pitching has been abysmal with one or two exceptions, the hitting inconsistent, and bullpen mostly solid but erratic, and the defense atrocious. The amount of errors this team is piling up so far this season is unbelievable, especially as they were one of the top defensive teams last year. Only JD Martinez, Xander Bogaerts, and the currently hot Mitch Moreland are hitting well while pretty much everyone else is having terrible starts to the season. The body language and demeanor of the team during and after games continues to be poor and it's clear that it's wearing on them as much as it is on the fans. This next week won't get any easier as they wrap up the Baltimore series before going on the road to face the injured but still dangerous Yankees and the first place Rays. I'm not exaggerating when I say that how they finish this month will make or break the season. It's time to stop talking about what's wrong and put it into action by playing better, period.

5-10 record, 4th in AL East (6 GB the Rays)

If you love the Red Sox as much as I do, you'll enjoy my book A Win For Every Stitch which chronicles their historic 2018 season from Opening Day to the end of the World Series. It may even help take your mind off of how bad this season has been so far. Click below to check it out and read some reviews...every Sox fan will love it!

Monday, April 8, 2019

2019 Red Sox Week in Review: 3/30-4/6

The Red Sox got off to a slow start in their first two games last week, going 1-1 and looking woefully unprepared. The starting pitching was bad but the bats were producing so it seemed only a matter or time before they'd put it all together, right? Well, if you watched any one of the eight games they played in between then and now, you'll know that it wasn't the case; if you didn't, well, you're in for one heck of a baseball horror story...

(3/30 at Seattle Mariners): Eduardo Rodriguez' first start of the season showed that the hype he was getting all spring training was unwarranted; he was the same old frustrating tease that he's been his entire career. The Sox tied the game at two in the third inning, but E-Rod had his unexpected meltdown and left with a 6-2 deficit. It took him 105 pitches just to get through 4.1 innings and it was too big of a hole for the team to dig out of. Boston made a valiant comeback in the ninth but fell short as Xander Bogaerts had a brutal strikeout looking to end the game 6-5 Mariners. Mookie Betts made an incredible catch in right field, but overall the defense was shaky again and it would only get worse as the week went on.

(3/31 at Seattle Mariners): The Sox went for the series split and struck first, scoring three runs in the first inning. Would that be enough for Rick Porcello to give the team their first win by a starting pitcher? Unfortunately, the answer was a resounding "no." They had a complete meltdown in the third inning which was catalyzed by an error on a fly ball by JD Martinez in left field. A walk and a home run wiped out the Red Sox lead and when the dust settled, they were down 9-3. The Sox again mounted a late comeback, but again it was too little too late. The final tally was 10-8 and a loss in the first series of the season for Boston. They must have been all too happy to leave Seattle, too, because the Mariners were just killing the ball all four games. It was then off to Oakland to see if the Sox could get back on track and in the win column.

(4/1 at Oakland Athletics): David Price made his first start of the season and ended up giving the Red Sox their best performance from a starting pitcher in the young season so far. He was good and gave the team the rotation's best performance by far, giving up four runs over six innings, but that still wasn't enough to stave off defeat. The bullpen, including my least favorite reliever ever in Heath Hembree, gave up another three runs and the bats did nothing as the Sox went down meekly to the tune of 7-0. They finally got a decent performance from a starter and couldn't take advantage of it...somehow, only five games into the season that seemed to sum up the entire campaign so far.

(4/2 at Oakland Athletics): Chris Sale looked to bounce back from his dismal Opening Day start in his second start of the season. It was clear from the beginning that something was wrong with him...his stuff was flat, he labored to get through the first few innings, and his fastball was averaging a slow (for him) 89-90 mph. And yet, somehow he gutted out six innings of one-run ball. He only struck out one batter, but he used his guile and off-speed stuff to stifle the A's and keep the Red Sox in it. So of course, the team mustered exactly zero runs of support and lost the game 1-0. Even when the Sox get two solid pitching performances from their starters, they can't convert them into wins. It's a troubling pattern for the season already and it's only been six games.

(4/3 at Oakland Athletics): It was Nathan Eovaldi's turn to try and have a solid second start, but once again Red Sox starting pitching couldn't come through. He made it through five innings and gave up three runs, but those three runs erased the early 3-0 lead the Sox had built earlier in the game. It took a freak hit from Mookie, a scorching liner that hit the third base bag and ricocheted into left field for a two-out two-RBI double, to put the team back on top late in the game. That proved to be the difference maker (although Andrew Benintendi added an insurance run for good measure) as the Sox held on to win their second game of the season 6-3. 

(4/4 at Oakland Athletics): The series finale gave Boston a great chance to try and earn a series sweep as well as some redemption for Eduardo Rodriguez. Boston got out to another early lead which E-Rod gave right back with a monster three-run blast to Stephen Piscotty which tied it up. From there, the A's kept pouring it on and the final indignity came when Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley didn't communicate on a routine fly ball and allowed it to bounce in between them and over the fence for a two-RBI ground rule double. Oakland won this game 7-3 and knocked E-Rod out after less than four innings. It was hard to believe he'd be worse than his first start, but he managed the feat just the same. After the game Alex Cora said "we're not paying attention to details," to which I replied "well, who's fault is that, Alex?" It's almost as though those of us who warned that they took it too easy in spring training were right in saying that they weren't ready to begin the season. As the Sox limped out of Oakland, it didn't seem like things could get any worse...but they did. 

(4/5 at Arizona Diamondbacks): In a young season already full of low moments, the Sox wasted no time in reaching their nadir. Rick Porcello was absolutely awful as were the Sox relievers. They went down 14-1 in this game and only a late and meaningless rally in the late innings prevented this from being a horrendous blowout. The final margin of defeat was 15-8, but that score makes the game look much closer than it really was. There had already been a few instances of the team visibly showing their frustration, from Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts pounding the ground after they each got thrown out at third base, to Jackie Bradley pouting in the dugout after a strikeout, but the low point was seeing Porcello trashing the dugout and throwing a water cooler after his night was through.  That and Eduardo Nunez actually pitching an inning...it's never a good thing when a position player ends up on the mound! There are some major, major issues with this team and that's a very concerning thing to see after so few games.

(4/6 at Arizona Diamondbacks): As the only Red Sox starter who has given the team a decent start, David Price was well on his way to doing it again when the team jumped out to a quick 3-0 lead; he even helped his own cause by hitting an RBI single. It all came crashing down immediately afterward when Arizona scored four runs to take the lead. The Sox squandered a golden opportunity to blow the game wide open in the eighth when they loaded the bases twice and only came away with a single run to tie it. It came back to haunt them when Alex Cora left Colten Brewer (who the Diamondbacks were hitting hard all inning) in too long in the ninth. Mookie bailed them out by gunning down the would-be winning run at the plate, but Carson Kelly followed with a single to left field that ended the game 5-4 in favor of Arizona. It was another gut-punch loss in a young season full of them so far.

This post contains affiliate links which means that at no additional cost to you, I may receive a commission if you click through and make a purchase. This helps me keep this site going to bring you more great content. Thanks and enjoy!

Quick Hits: Boston's starting pitching continued to be awful, giving up at least a home run in every game until the second Arizona game...that made it TEN straight games to start the season where their opponent hit at least one homer. They also committed at least an error in every game except two during this entire stretch. For a team that was one of the top defensive squads in all of 2018, it's been shocking how many mental mistakes they've been making in the field. Between the bad pitching, shaky defense, and angry outbursts, it's been a complete 180 from how this team was last year. In 2018, they led a charmed existence and everything went right for them. So far in 2019, almost nothing has gone right and they haven't exactly handled it with grace or resolve. Even Alex Cora has been snippy and snarky with the press which isn't a good look. There's one more game against Arizona and a day off before the home opener at Fenway Park...it'll be fascinating to see the reception they get from the home crowd and how/if they bounce back and start playing up to their talent level.

2-8 record, 5th in AL East (4.5 GB the Rays)

If you love the Red Sox as much as I do, you'll enjoy my book A Win For Every Stitch which chronicles their historic 2018 season from Opening Day to the end of the World Series. Click below to check it out and read some reviews...every Sox fan will love it!

Saturday, March 30, 2019

2019 Red Sox Week in Review: 3/28-3/29

In the interest of time (and my sanity), this season I'm going to be doing weekly recaps of Red Sox games. Last season I did daily recaps and while it was a lot of fun and resulted in the publication of my popular book A Win For Every Stitch, it was also exhausting. This go around, I'm going to offer up bite-sized recaps of every game the Sox play in a week. Since the season just started two days ago, this first one will be short, but from here on out they'll be longer. Either way, as the Sox embark upon a defense of their 2018 World Series championship, the 2019 season promises to be an interesting one...let's see how it unfolds!

OPENING DAY (3/28 at Seattle Mariners): The defending champion Red Sox open the 2019 season with an eleven game West Coast road trip starting with a four game series against the Seattle Mariners. Chris Sale made his second straight Opening Day start for the Red Sox, but unlike last year's dominant performance which was blown by the bullpen, this year it was Sale who blew it. He gave up seven runs in three innings, including three home runs. The Sox were never in this game and were blown out 12-4. The lone bright spots were multi-hit games from Mookie Betts (3-5) and JD Martinez (2-5). The pitching was absolutely atrocious across the board and Brian Johnson, who pitched a clean eighth inning, was the only Boston pitcher to not allow a run. File this game away as one to forget, and remember...that's why they play 162 of them.

(3/29 at Seattle Mariners): Postseason hero Nathan Eovaldi made his first start of the season and looked to help the Sox bounce back after the disappointment of Opening Day. Unfortunately, he was almost as bad as Sale was the night before. He surrendered six runs, four of them on home runs, and didn't look particularly sharp. Mariners rookie pitcher Yusei Kikuchi kept the Sox off-balance over six innings and only allowed three runs (two earned) including solo homers by Xander Bogaerts and JD. The Sox mounted a late comeback which included a solo homer from Christian Vazquez and the game-winning three-run blast from Mitch Moreland in the top of the ninth. Matt Barnes picked up his first save of the season and the Sox took this one in dramatic fashion 7-6.

This post contains affiliate links which means that at no additional cost to you, I may receive a commission if you click through and make a purchase. This helps me keep this site going to bring you more great content. Thanks and enjoy!

Quick Hits: The starting pitching has been atrocious so far...I know it's only two games, but this was supposed to be one of the team's biggest strengths so it bears further watching as to whether it was a case of shaking the rust off or if there is going to be some major regression from last season. The bats have been mostly effective so far, showing that no lead is too much for this team to come back from. Finally, the bullpen was awful in the opener, but pitched well in holding the Mariners scoreless for the latter half of the second game in order to allow the offense to mount the comeback. Next up this week: two more games against the Mariners to wrap up the opening series followed by four games in Oakland and three in Arizona (ugh, interleague play already?!)

1-1 record, 2nd in AL East (0.5 GB the Yankees)

If you love the Red Sox as much as I do, you'll enjoy my book A Win For Every Stitch which chronicles their historic 2018 season from Opening Day to the end of the World Series. Click below to check it out and read some reviews...every Sox fan will love it!

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Baseball is Back!: Opening Day 2019

Photo: www.twitter.com/redsox
For baseball fans far and wide, today is one of our favorite unofficial holidays. It's the beginning of yet another season where, no matter who you root for, hope springs eternal. This could be the year for your team (unless you root for, say, the Marlins in which case sorry, but you've got no chance!). Where I live the winter weather has been stubbornly hanging on for dear life, but there are signs of spring everywhere. My kids' baseball and softball seasons are finally moving from indoor training to outdoor practices and while the weather hasn't cooperated much, little by little it's getting better. Soon it'll be warm and sunny and I'll be spending parts of every day and night at a ball field somewhere, coaching and cheering my kids and their teams on, going to some minor league games, spitting out sunflower seed shells, and playing catch, throwing grounders and fly balls, or tossing batting practice. I'll also spend the next six (and hopefully seven) months living and dying with my Red Sox as I've done since I was born and as I will until I die. 

So wherever you are and whoever you root for, get ready to hear those two words we've waited all winter to hear: PLAY BALL!

If you happen to be a fan of my favorite team, the Boston Red Sox, you might enjoy my book A Win For Every Stitch which chronicles their historic 2018 season from Opening Day to the end of the World Series. Click below to check it out and read some reviews...any baseball fan and Sox fan will love it.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

NEW BOOK RELEASE: A Win For Every Stitch: A Fan's Diary of the 2018 Boston Red Sox Championship Season

                            BOOK OPTIONS (Please Choose Based on Your Location)

My new book A Win For Every Stitch: A Fan's Diary of the 2018 Boston Red Sox Championship Season has just been released and is now available for purchase. For anyone who may have missed my original announcement of this book back in November, here's the blurb from the back cover:  

"There are 108 stitches on a baseball and in 2018 the Boston Red Sox won 108 games: a win for every stitch. At the beginning of the season, Drew Athans decided to keep a running diary of every game to have fun and to see if he could do it. With the Red Sox going all the way and winning the World Series, it turned into the perfect memento of an historic baseball season which he's now decided to share with all Red Sox fans. Containing recaps of every game the team played from late March when the season started to the final game of the World Series in October, A Win For Every Stitch is a book for any Sox fan. Relive all of the ups, downs, thrilling wins, and excruciating losses that made up this Red Sox season for the ages."

The book is now available for you to purchase on Amazon as a paperback for $19.99 and a Kindle e-book for $4.99As a special limited time offer, you can order a SIGNED copy of the paperback directly from me for $19.99. This is something I did for my second book and it was very popular. Just use the PayPal button above to select a copy based on your location, order, and pay (you don't need to have a PayPal account in order to purchase). Please MAKE SURE you choose the correct option and make sure to include your mailing address. For the signature, please include in the notes section of the order form any special inscription you'd like me to sign (otherwise, I will come up with my own). Be careful to choose the correct option depending on where you live: the USA price includes shipping anywhere in the USA, but for international orders there will be an additional $10.00 charge for shipping (this is based on what it has typically cost me to ship books out of the country in the past).

Please keep in mind that I am a one-man operation! I am self-publishing this book and will be handling all of the shipping of orders myself, so please bear with me. I will do my absolute best to process every order as quickly as I can and will email each of you when your order has shipped. PLEASE ALLOW 1-2 weeks for your order to get to you after you place it. If you're ordering as a Christmas gift and absolutely need to have it in time, I would recommend ordering an unsigned copy from Amazon. If you want a signed copy and are okay risking the chance of it getting it to you a few days after Christmas, I will still do my best to get it to you on time. 

If there are any questions about the process, please let me know in the comments section below or email me at rockandrollchemist@gmail.com and I will answer immediately. Thanks and I hope you enjoy my book!

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Baseball Is (Almost) Back! (2019 Edition)

Winter is nearing its end and it's almost spring, so you know what that means, right? It means that just as in 2017 and 2018, it's time for my annual ode to baseball and the upcoming Major League Baseball season. There's a lot to get into as I look back on last season before looking forward to this one. It's been a very inconsistent winter where I live; periods of bitter cold and snow followed by unseasonably warm weather, and then back to frigid temperatures. This cycle has gone on ad nauseum and by this point, despite how much I like winter I'm fully ready for spring. Since early January my son's travel baseball team (which I help coach) and my oldest daughter's high school softball team have been practicing indoors and we're all chomping at the bit to get outside onto real grass and dirt. With anticipation for my kids' seasons as well as the upcoming MLB (and by extension, Red Sox) season, this is where I'll look back at the 2018 season on both a baseball as well as a personal level.

This post contains affiliate links which means that at no additional cost to you, I may receive a commission if you click through and make a purchase. This helps me keep this site going to bring you more great content. Thanks and enjoy!

As it pertained to the Red Sox, 2018 couldn't have been any better than it was. The team rampaged through the regular season to the tune of 108 wins and the best record in all of MLB. They finally got past the first round of the postseason for the first time since 2008 with an exciting four-game series win over the hated Yankees that included a 16-1 pasting in game three. They defeated the defending champion Astros in five games in an ALCS that was filled with some truly dramatic moments. Finally, in the World Series they defeated the Dodgers in five games, overcoming a heartbreaking loss in an 18-inning epic game three to take the final two games in Los Angeles for their eighth title and fourth since 2004. It was the culmination of a season for the ages which included the most wins in franchise history and their most dominant postseason run ever (11-3 across the ALDS, ALCS, and World Series). The 2019 squad will bring almost everybody back who was a major contributor in 2018 including Nathan Eovaldi and World Series MVP Steve Pearce, both of whom came to the Sox via midseason trades and who were indispensable contributors in October. The only key losses have been in the bullpen (Joe Kelly signed as a free agent with the Dodgers and Craig Kimbrel remains an unsigned free agent) and second basemen Ian Kinsler who signed as a free agent with the Padres. In addition to everybody returning, the Red Sox will hopefully have some key contributors coming up through their farm system. So far during this Spring Training their number one prospect, Michael Chavis, has looked really good swinging the bat as has Bobby Dalbec. Young players like Sam Travis and Tzu-Wei Lin who played well in their stints with the big club have also played very well. While I'm still very concerned about the bullpen, perhaps more so than in years past given that the Sox now have no real closer (although a growing section of fans and writers seem to think Ryan Brasier will be able to step in and fill the role) this year may be the biggest test of how well the Boston relief corps can replenish itself from within. I will admit that the with the Yankees having gotten seemingly stronger through their offseason acquisitions while the Red Sox stood pat, I could very well see New York winning the division this season. However, this Red Sox team is coming off a dominating season and will be another year older, wiser, confident, and more experienced playing together. It should be another dogfight throughout the summer for supremacy in the AL East (and let's not forget about the Rays who quietly won 90 games last year). Isn't that all we could ever want as baseball fans, for the Red Sox and Yankees to both be good so that the games mean something? I know I can't wait!

On a personal level, the 2018 Red Sox season was one of the best in my life. While it of course wasn't as life-changing (at least as a sports fan) and cathartic as 2004, the 2018 season brought so many new experiences and positive changes to my life that I'll never forget it. First and foremost, the running diary I kept of the entire season from March to October resulted in my third published book and perhaps the one I'm most proud of, A Win For Every Stitch. I've written about it a few times on this site and I don't want to belabor the point, but it's a book I'm very proud of and one that so far has been 100% popular with readers and customers. Sales have been great but what humbles and excites me the most is when I get messages and emails from fans who tell me how much they love the book and how it brought back such great memories of last season. The book, all of the work I put into it, and the Red Sox themselves also led to a lot of other cool new things that happened in my life in 2018. I wrote about these in the book, but they include writing for Guy Boston Sports, two of my kids and I getting to meet Mookie Betts at his baseball clinic, and all of the opportunities opened up and the people I met because of my baseball writing.

One question I've been asked repeatedly since A Win For Every Stitch was released was whether I'm going to write another book on this upcoming season. The idea hadn't crossed my mind and it certainly wasn't my intention to follow it up with another book on the Red Sox. I've acknowledged in the book as well as on this site that I was exceptionally fortunate that the season I chose to challenge myself and write about ended up being the greatest season in franchise history and culminated with a World Series championship. It all ended up being so perfect and honestly, I'm not sure how I could ever top it. However, there is something intriguing to me about the upcoming 2019 season since the Red Sox are returning pretty much the entire team that won it all intact and will be trying to not only defend their title, but become the first team since the 1998/1999/2000 Yankees to repeat as champions. I haven't yet decided if I'll do it, but if I do I may keep it quiet to see either A) how long I keep it going (remember the out I gave myself last year?) or B) whether or not this season ends up being interesting enough to warrant another book.

Regardless of whether I write another book about the Red Sox or not, I cannot wait for this season. Along with my kids' baseball and softball teams finishing up their indoor workouts over the next few weeks before we get outside onto real fields (weather permitting), the winter which has been dragging on and on for the last few weeks should hopefully be coming to an end as spring, warmer temperatures, and the promise of new seasons both amateur and professional gives me hope and optimism as it does every year around this time. There's a old saying that I've always liked that says "baseball is the only game that can make a kid feel like a grown man, and a grown man feel like a kid." A related quote is that "you can be a kid for as long as you want when you play baseball." There's just something special about this game and about this time of year that has always filled me with excitement. Having kids who are as into the game, both watching it and playing it, only makes it more special to me. No matter who you root for, it's all about hope and the promise that this might be the year for your favorite team. With that, I wish you and your team the best of luck (unless it's the Yankees!) and since it's my blog, I'll close with an exhortation of my own: Go Sox!

Saturday, March 16, 2019

If the Red Sox Struggle in 2019, It Will Be the Bullpen's Fault

To everyone who is about to go all crazy after reading my headline, I ask you to give me a moment to make my case in this post. Yes, I know it's spring training and yes, I realize that these games don't count. Teams are usually playing their fringe major league/AAAA guys and trying to get a look at what they have in every level of their farm systems. The regulars don't usually play more than a few innings a game and the pitchers throw even less. You can never gauge how well a team is going to do in the regular season based on what they do in spring training, and the Red Sox are bringing back the team that won 108 games and a World Series almost completely intact. Everything will be fine, right?

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Normally I'd agree, but for some reason the longer this spring goes on the more of a bad feeling I'm getting about the  Sox. With a 6-13 record, Boston sits dead last in the Grapefruit League standings a year after winning it. The Sox have said and (seemingly) done all the right things, but it hasn't translated at all to the results on the field. Is it the offense that I'm worried about? Not really. The potent Red Sox lineup that rampaged through the regular season and went 11-3 in the postseason returns almost completely whole. Reigning AL MVP Mookie Betts, near-Triple Crown winner JD Martinez, Andrew Benintendi, ALCS MVP Jackie Bradley, World Series MVP Steve Pearce, Xander Bogaerts (after a career year), and Mitch Moreland all return healthy and ready to go. Rafael Devers has another year of (hopefully) maturation at the plate and in the field under his belt while the team waits to see what, if anything, they might get from the returning Dustin Pedroia. These guys have been working on their hitting all spring and besides, at best they're usually only getting a couple of at bats per game before sitting to let the young guys play. They may hit from the very first pitch of opening day or they may start slow, but they'll be fine. Is it the starting pitching that's causing consternation? Nope. Again, they return the same rotation that bulldozed through the league with a healthy Chris Sale, David Price, Rick Porcello, Nathan Eovaldi, and a seemingly rejuvenated Eduardo Rodriguez. These guys have been throwing and working all spring and like the hitters, they're usually only throwing a few innings a game to keep them fresh and get their arms into shape. Once the season starts, they should be fine.

That leaves the same thing that has been a bugbear of mine for the last several years: THE BULLPEN. If you read any of my posts last season (or my new Red Sox book), this will come as no surprise to you. Mark my words, if the 2019 Red Sox fail to mount a strong defense of their World Series title (or even their AL East title), it will be because of their horrific bullpen. Despite the numbers, the Red Sox bullpen in 2018 wasn't great if you actually watched them on a day-in/day-out basis (which I did). The Sox led the league in runs scored and had a potent offense, so more often than not the pen pitched from ahead with a lead which masked a lot of their issues and made the numbers look better than they were. This year they bring back almost the entire bullpen from last year minus their best reliever from October (Joe Kelly) and their closer who was awful in October (Craig Kimbrel). What's left? Tyler Thornburg looks even worse this spring than he did last season...a bust and proof positive that the Sox once and for all lost the Travis Shaw trade. Ryan Brasier had a delay to his spring because of an infected toe (no, seriously). Brandon Workman, Brian Johnson, and Hector Velazquez have looked lousy, Steven Wright is suspended 80 games for PED use, Matt Barnes has been inconsistent (what else is new?), Heath Hembree (my personal least-favorite) has barely pitched (which is actually a plus), and Carson Smith is still rehabbing the shoulder he injured by stupidly throwing his glove down too hard in the dugout last year. There isn't any major league-ready help coming from the farm system (or at least any quite yet) and what all of this leads up to is a bullpen that looks EVEN WORSE than 2018. By and large I've been a fan of how Dave Dombrowski has constructed the team and obviously the results of the last few seasons (and especially 2018) speak for themselves, but the one thing he has done an atrocious job of since he was hired in 2015 is building a quality bullpen. He seems to either willfully neglect it or be downright delusional when evaluating the talent they have in there.  Given the abysmal track record Boston has in developing pitchers from within over the last 10-15 years and with the quality guys they chose to pass on signing this offseason (a couple of whom ended up with the Yankees), it looks like we could be in for a long season of blown leads and losses snatched from the jaws of victory with this sorry crew.

Maybe Mookie, JD, and Xander don't come close to the monstrous seasons they had last year. Maybe the starting rotation has a down year. Maybe the Yankees are just too good and the Sox can't keep up with them this year (I don't think any of us expect the Sox to win 108 games again this year anyway). But if I were a betting man (and I'm not), I'd put good money, and a LOT of it, on the bullpen being the reason the Red Sox don't repeat the success of 2018 in 2019. I guess we'll find out starting next week.

If you'd like to relive all of the excitement and memories of the incredible 2018 season, my book A Win For Every Stitch will take you back to that historic year!

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Revisiting My How to Write a Book Series: New Lessons Learned in Book Marketing

Back in 2014 I wrote a multi-part series of blog posts called How To Write a Book. It was a series designed to be a step-by-step guide based on my experiences writing and self-publishing two (at the time) books. One of the the things I had struggled with back then was with book marketing. As with everything during the entire self-publishing process, the emphasis is on the word self. YOU and you alone are the marketing department for your book and how you approach the entire endeavor can be the difference between success and failure. I made reference to my approach to in the final part of the series but in hindsight, I'd say my results were mixed at best. I sold a fair number of books and both of my titles got excellent reviews, but I was fairly timid and hands-off with the marketing. I posted a link here or there on social media and online forums, but other than fans of Blur (whom the books were about), I didn't cast a very wide net. When I published my newest book A Win For Every Stitch in December 2018, I vowed to take the lessons I learned from my previous failures as well as what I'd learned from some research I'd done and approach book marketing totally differently. So now, four months in I thought it would be beneficial to write this post as both an addendum to my earlier series as well as a stand-alone post on my experiences in marketing a self-published book in 2019. Here goes...

Back in 2014 I wrote the following:

"This is where your skills as a writer will not matter as much, while your skills as someone who can connect with your audience and create interest and excitement for your book are of paramount importance.  The hard part of creating and executing your book are finished, and now you've got boxes (or access to boxes) of copies and copies of your book. But you didn't put in all of that work just to sit on copies of your own book; you did it because you had something that was important to you that you thought would also be important to a lot of other people which you want to share with them. Well, the only way that's going to happen is if you put in the work to get those copies into the hands of your future readers!

Right off the bat, I want to emphasize the point that there is a fine line between being a good salesman and promoter, and coming across like a huckster. Your target audience and any potential fans will be instantly (and 99% of the time, irreversibly) turned off by an approach that makes it obvious that you're simply trying to get them to buy your book. Even worse is if you make it obvious that you're only interested in their money. Honestly, and this is speaking from personal experience, that's not why we write books and are so eager to get them into the hands of our readers. While it is, of course, nice to be rewarded for your hard work and dedication, it shouldn't be (and hopefully isn't) the only motivation for doing it." 

So what have I learned since 2014? I've learned that in order to be a better marketer, you not only need to cast a wider net but also engage MORE. I'm still coming to terms with it because as I said five years ago there's a fine line between being a good, engaging salesman and a huckster. I used to lean more toward the engagement and I still do, but I've found that in order to be more effective I've had to also be a little bit of a huckster as well. And you know what? I hate it. Being a huckster of any kind goes completely against my personality and what I'm usually comfortable with, but I've found that by incorporating a little more of it, my marketing has been much more effective. Let me clarify what I mean by the term "huckster," too. What I don't mean is to be sleazy, obnoxious, or dishonest. Instead, I mean that I've...

- ...been more aggressive in my efforts. Aggressive doesn't mean obnoxious and in everyone's face, but it does mean to be more persistent and engaged. I post about my new book more frequently than I ever did my previous books, I've broadened my net in terms of where I market it, and I try to engage with potential readers and customers much more than I ever have in the past. For the most part this has worked really well and I've attracted a lot of readers and customers. I've enjoyed engaging with them all and most rewarding of all, I've loved the unsolicited positive feedback I've gotten from fans regarding the book. What's even nicer is that many of my satisfied readers recommend my book to other fans which has created a positive feedback loop of good reviews and interest. The one downside to my more aggressive marketing approach? I've been kicked out of a few of the Red Sox/baseball Facebook groups I post in, some because they have strict no-advertising policies that I didn't know about and some because I guess I just irritated the administrators! It goes completely against my nature as a person to self-promote and draw attention to myself, so I've had to really step out of my comfort zone to market this way, but the results have been undeniable and I continue to refine my approach.

- ...been more creative in how I market. Rather than sticking solely to Facebook groups in my niche (which is all I did for my first two books), I've been branching out into other ways of marketing. I still predominantly use Facebook, but I've upped my efforts on Twitter and (especially) Instagram. I've also looked to not only promote in the obvious baseball and Red Sox fan communities, but in independent author and self-publishing communities as well. These are huge groups of like-minded people all trying to do the same thing and supporting other independent writers in the efforts to spread the word about their books. I've found that while I haven't necessarily seen a spike in sales, the networking aspect has proven invaluable in connecting me with other writers of similar interests. I've also tried to think outside the box a bit, reaching out to my university's alumni association as well as local newspapers and websites. I've had varying degrees of success, but it's been fun and different and I've learned a lot about what works, what doesn't, and why.

This post contains affiliate links which means that at no additional cost to you, I may receive a commission if you click through and make a purchase. This helps me keep this site going to bring you more great content. Thanks and enjoy!

Those are the two biggest things I've learned about book marketing this time around although there are always little lessons picked up along the way. Your mileage may vary with these, but at the very least between my original article and this update, you should have some starting points for how to effectively promote your book. A Win For Every Stitch has been by far my most successful book in terms of popularity and sales. I won't divulge exact numbers but just since its release in December I've sold hundreds of copies, both through Amazon and directly (I offer signed copies directly at no additional charge). I've found that some people prefer the convenience and speed of Amazon while some prefer the personal touch of a signed copy and dealing directly with me. Both have been great for me and I will continue to use both approaches.

As I learn more (and I'm sure I will), I'll continue to update this series. I'd also love to hear from all of you out there who have gone through the same thing: what's worked for you? What hasn't? And what advice do you have for effectively marketing your books? Please let me know so we can help each other out!

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

A Win For Every Stitch Has Cracked the Top 100 on Amazon!

Since this is my blog, I figure I'm allowed to brag a little bit on here from time to time. In late December a few weeks after it was released, the Kindle ebook version of A Win For Every Stitch was the #1 New Release on the Kindle charts. Sales have been steady and increasing at a nice clip since then, good for the Kindle version but even better for the paperback. I've been selling a TON of signed copies of the book, but as I've seen my Amazon paperback sales increase I had a goal of cracking the top 100 baseball books. That finally happened this past weekend when A Win For Every Stitch hit #89 on the Amazon top 100 baseball books. Given the thousands of books they sell on the sport, to say I was both thrilled and humbled would be an understatement! More than anything, I'm just happy that enough people are enjoying the book...it's got 100% positive five-star reviews as well, so I must be doing something right. I apologize for bragging a little bit, but I thought it was pretty cool!

My next goal is to crack the top 50...

This post contains affiliate links which means that at no additional cost to you, I may receive a commission if you click through and make a purchase. This helps me keep this site going to bring you more great content. Thanks and enjoy!

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Remembering A Baseball Influence

Today is a special yet somber day for me. It's my late grandfather's birthday and this year marks ten years since he's been gone. It's always hard when a loved one passes away, but for me I'm reminded of it every year around this time when baseball and spring training are ramping up. You see, my grandfather is a huge reason why I'm such a massive baseball fan. I wrote about it at length in my book A Win For Every Stitch, which I also dedicated to him, but for anyone who hasn't read the book he was quite simply not only my grandfather but he was my buddy. He was a massive Yankees fan due to his being born and raised in the Bronx, but even though he loved his team he was also just a huge fan of the game. Some of my earliest baseball memories are of watching games with him in the den of my grandparents house and listening to him talk about the old Yankees teams he'd seen. I learned a lot about the game and its history from my grandfather (as well as some choice phrases for those frustrating moments as a fan!). He always asked me how my baseball teams were doing when I played and any time he and my grandmother were visiting us, he'd come to the ball field to watch my games. Even when I played in college, he'd ask how I did and if my team won, just like he'd done when I was younger. Being a Red Sox fan, there was always a lot of good-natured ribbing between the two of us especially since his Yankees tended to win more often than not. The Red Sox crushing defeat in the 2003 ALCS was avenged by their stunning comeback in the 2004 ALCS and I'll never forget my grandfather marveling at it. He tipped his cap to Boston...I remember his words were "they finally beat the Yankees when it mattered!" He was happy to see the Sox finally win the World Series that year, although I've never been sure if he was happy for the team or just to see me so thrilled. (He always did say since he lived in New England, his second favorite team was the Red Sox, but never when they were playing the Yankees!).

This post contains affiliate links which means that at no additional cost to you, I may receive a commission if you click through and make a purchase. This helps me keep this site going to bring you more great content. Thanks and enjoy!

Baseball was a huge part of our relationship. Every time I was over at my grandparent's house during the season, I could find him in his den watching a game. I spent countless hours sitting in there with him watching baseball and talking about all sorts of things. Not just the game, but about family, what was going on in my life, stories from his long life, and anything else. He'd pass me contraband cookies and Hershey kisses and my grandmother would bring in whatever yummy Greek dessert or food (like her legendary meatballs) that she'd made so we wouldn't have to miss a pitch. Those times over the years are some of my fondest memories. I remember one of the last times I spent time with him before he died: it was October 2008 and we talked about how the Red Sox looked like they might repeat as World Series champs (they'd eventually lose a tough ALCS to the Rays in seven games). It was one of the last moments between us before he died and, along with a photo of the two of us from that day, is one of my most treasured memories of him. Baseball was a huge part of our relationship and I'm comforted by the fact that every game I watch reminds me of him in some small way. I know he'd absolutely love to watch my son and daughters play baseball and softball the way he watched me (only my oldest two girls knew him and they were young when he died). He'd be amazed to see that the Sox have won two more World Series in the years since 2009, while the Yankees haven't won any. But more than anything, I just wish I could watch one more game with him or call him on the phone to talk about stuff. I know he's watching me from above and still rooting for his Yankees. And don't worry Papou... maybe the Yankees will win another World Series before the Red Sox do! (Just joking!)

If you'd like to read a little bit more about the baseball memories I have of my grandfather as well as about the Red Sox amazing 2018 season, it can all be found in my book A Win For Every Stitch. It's available in paperback and Kindle e-book on Amazon below.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Jethro Tull

Jethro Tull circa 1969: left to right Martin Barre, Ian Anderson, Glenn Cornick (top), Clive Bunker (bottom)

For this entry in my series of band profiles (i.e. bands that I'm a huge fan of), here's one who was huge during their late 1960s and 1970s heyday but who aren't as well known in 2019 as other titans of their era. As you've no doubt gleaned from the title of this post, I'm speaking of course about Jethro Tull. Formed in Blackpool in 1967, they first emerged onto the London rock and roll scene in 1968 with their unique and high energy live concerts, their appearance in the Rolling Stones' Rock and Roll Circus Film, and their debut album This Was. Fronted by charismatic singer/songwriter/flautist Ian Anderson, Tull were unlike anyone else on the scene at the time. Their sound was originally a marriage of blues, jazz, and heavy rock, but with the departure of founding guitarist Mick Abrahams and the addition of longtime guitarist Martin Barre, the band's sound shifted to become more progressive. They incorporated elements of British folk music with their increasingly complex approach to create a wholly unique sound. From their second album, 1969's Stand Up through their creative high points of 1971's Aqualung and 1972's Thick as a Brick, the band enjoyed one of those runs of success that all great bands seem to have where they can do no wrong. Even when losing their original bass player Glenn Cornick after 1970's Benefit and original drummer Clive Bunker after Aqualung, they released an album every year of the 1970s and became one of the biggest bands in the world. It all blew apart in 1980 with what has been termed "the big split" and since then, they've continued to release albums with Ian Anderson as the only constant member. For the purposes of this post I am going to limit my examination of the band to their output up to and including 1979's Stormwatch as that was their final album before the big split and the last one I listen to.

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Tull's striking logo showing Anderson in silhouette in his classic flute-playing stance

The genesis of Jethro Tull can be traced back to Blackpool, England and a group formed by grammar school friends Anderson, John Evans, Jeffrey Hammond, and Barrie Barlow. After playing together for several years and going through some lineup changes, they split with Anderson retaining bass player Glenn Cornick and guitarist Mick Abrahams. They added a friend of Abrahams on drums named Clive Bunker and the original lineup of Jethro Tull was born in December 1967. However, they weren't yet called that; after gigging around London and changing their name on a regular basis, they settled on their unusual moniker when a promoter who happened to be a history buff named them after the namesake 18th century agriculturalist and liked their show enough to re-book them. In addition to their relentless gigging, two other seemingly mundane occurrences during this formative time would have a big impact on the band's sound and presentation. The first was Ian Anderson regularly wearing a long overcoat in order to stave off the cold in the freezing bedsit he lived in at the time...it would become a regular part of his stage attire in the band's early years. The other event would have a more profound effect: realizing his limitations on electric guitar, Anderson bought himself a flute, taught himself to play, and became the second lead instrument in the band next to Abraham's guitar. This gave them a sound and visual appeal during Anderson's solos that set them apart from their peers. Signing with Chrysalis Records, they released their debut album This Was in 1968. It was a solid collection of blues and R&B drenched heavy rock; however, two songs (coincidentally the two best on the album) hinted at the future of the band: the slide guitar and flute driven "A Song for Jeffrey" and the jazzy "My Sunday Feeling." At this time, Anderson and Abrahams differed over the creative direction of the band. Abrahams left to start his own band, the blues-based Bloodwyn pig, while Anderson set about recruiting a new guitarist. Apart from a brief stint with Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi that only lasted a few weeks (which included Tull's appearance in the Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus), the band would welcome the guitarist who would, along with Anderson, define the sound of the band for the next forty-five years. Martin Barre joined in December 1968 and the band would embark upon creating their greatest work.

With Barre in tow, the band set out to produce their absolute best work over the ensuing decade. It began with 1969's Stand Up. It was the first great Tull album and contained standout tracks like "Nothing is Easy," "Bouree," "Fat Man," as well as the non-album single "Living in the Past." It was followed by the equally strong Benefit in 1970 which had the hit single "Teacher" as well as classic deep cuts like "With You There to Help Me" and "To Cry You a Song". The album marked a more mature and experimental Tull both musically and production-wise as well as the beginning of Evans' tenure in the band (initially as a session player before becoming a full member in 1971) and the end of Cornick's tenure. Anderson was famous as a strict bandleader who didn't tolerate much in the way of drug use and carousing, two things of which Cornick was fond of. He was replaced by Hammond for the epic Aqualung album in 1971; that record stands as Tull's finest achievement and the album for which they're most famous. Containing classic cuts like the title track, "Cross Eyed Mary," "Locomotive Breath," and "My God," the album has been a staple of rock radio since its release. Critics and fans considered it a concept album about religion (and many still do) despite the protestations of Anderson. Frustrated, he decided to give everyone what they wanted by making the band's follow-up album a blatant concept album. First, though, was the matter of another change to the band's lineup. Drummer Clive Bunker had always told Anderson that as soon as he "found the right lady, he'd be gone." Upon getting married at the conclusion of the Aqualung tour, Bunker left the band at the end of 1971. Another of Anderson's former Blackpool bandmates, the newly christened Barriemore Barlow, stepped in to fill the drum spot and at this point Jethro Tull was the original pre-Tull Blackpool group plus Martin Barre. This lineup would more or less finish the decade and produce the remainder of the band's best music. The first album they created was the previously mentioned concept album, 1972's Thick as a Brick. The record was comprised of one 45-minute long song that had several distinct movements and was spread across both sides of vinyl. The breathtaking music was accompanied by surreal, humorous, and bizarre lyrics inspired by numerous influences including Monty Python. It's my personal favorite Tull album and one that I never get tired of listening to. From there, the band got further into concept albums with their next release. The first was 1973's A Passion Play which tells the story of a man's journey in the spiritual afterlife. It's very good but not a personal favorite of mine. The making of the album was fraught with difficulty; the original sessions and tracks were scrapped partway through. Listening to those unreleased tracks (which were released years later as the Chateau D'Isaster Tapes), I actually like them a better than the final album. They followed this up with two more streamlined albums that used some of the leftover tracks from the abandoned sessions, still incorporating progressive elements but rocking harder in 1974's Warchild and 1975's Minstrel in the Gallery. These two excellent albums from Tull's 1970s run were followed by their final true concept album of the decade, 1976's Too Old to Rock and Roll, Too Young to Die! (the exclamation is in the title). It was a solid album with some great songs on it, but the story wasn't clear and thankfully this was as far as Tull went with concept albums. They finished out the decade with three of their strongest albums which also coincidentally were a trilogy of albums that fit together as a series. Incorporating more English folk music influences into their brand of rock music, these three albums (1977's Songs From the Wood, 1978's Heavy Horses, and 1979's Stormwatch) found Ian Anderson focusing on more topical concerns in his lyrics. Songs From the Wood focused on personal relationships while Heavy Horses on English traditions and wildlife, and Stormwatch on environmental concerns. Accompanying all of these albums in the 1970s were grueling tours around the world which saw the band's popularity greatly increase while taking its toll on them. Jeffrey Hammond left in 1976 after Minstrel in the Gallery and was replaced by John Glascock who finished out the decade on bass before dying at 28 from a heart defect in 1979. That was a crushing blow to the band which, along with their exhaustion, led to the "big split" in 1980. Only Anderson and Barre remained and here's where I leave off with the band. I can't comment on their music from the 1980s to the present although I do know they made some ill-advised forays into electronic rock before getting back to basics at the end of the 80s. Barre left the band in the early 2010s and now Anderson is the only remaining member touring with a revamped version of the band.

Where to start with why I and countless others love Jethro Tull's music? First and foremost, they have great songs. When you're discussing Tull, it starts and ends with Ian Anderson seeing as though he not only is the voice of the band but writes all of their songs. Like all great songwriters of his generation, his vision drove the band and his amalgamation of rock, blues, jazz, classical, and folk musics was unique among his peers. In addition to his distinctive voice and excellent acoustic guitar playing, his flute playing gave the band a completely unique sound unlike any other band. How many rock bands before or since had a lead flute playing solos along with lead guitar? Of course like any great songwriter, his songs were only as good as the musicians performing them and again, Tull was blessed here. Anderson's constant musical partner for decades was Martin Barre, one of the greatest and most underrated rock guitarists of the 1960s and 70s. Every bit as versatile and talented as, say, Jimmy Page, Barre had a sound and approach unlike anyone else during that era. The band was blessed with two fantastic drummers in Clive Bunker and Barriemore Barlow; Bunker had a heavier, more rock feel akin to Keith Moon or Ginger Baker, while Barlow was a tighter and more precise drummer. Ditto the bass guitar department, where Glenn Cornick was more of a free-wheeling melodic bass player while Jeffrey Hammond played more in the pocket (but was no less melodic). Add in the superb piano and organ playing of John Evans and it created one of the most interesting, exciting, and enduring sounds of the late 1960s and 1970s in rock music.

I first became aware of Tull when I was a kid in the 1980s. My parents had Benefit, Aqualung, and Too Old to Rock and Roll, Too Young to Die! on vinyl. Those first two albums in particular, as well as their greatest hits album on cassette and other songs I heard on the radio grabbed me instantly. The fact that it was this hard rock music that had guitar AND flute solos really intrigued me. As I got older and dug deeper, I explored more of their albums and was struck by the scope of their music as well as the different sounds and concepts they covered. I grew to also appreciate the humor in a lot of the band's music, especially Anderson's lyrics. As anyone who knows me can tell you, I'm a lifelong Anglophile and I've always loved the British style of humor so Tull's wit amused me as much as their fantastic music. As the years have gone on their standing in the pantheon of great bands from that era remains strong with older fans but perhaps not so much with younger ones. That's a shame as not only is the music still great, but they've influenced a lot of modern bands over the last 25-30 years. My favorite albums are Stand Up, Benefit, Aqualung, Thick as a Brick (my favorite of theirs), and Minstrel in the Gallery, but if you haven't listened to Tull before, I'd recommend going through their entire discography from This Was through Stormwatch. Not only will you enjoy the great music they made, but you'll marvel at their growth with each album. Even after listening to them constantly for the last thirty years, I still do.

Monday, February 4, 2019

The New England Patriots Won the Super Bowl Again...Six-Time Champions!

Photo: www.twitter.com/weei

If you had told six year old me in 1986 after the Patriots got blown out by the Chicago Bears in the Super Bowl that they'd become the greatest franchise in NFL history some day, I probably wouldn't have understood what you meant. If you'd then told sixteen year old me in 1996 the same thing after the loss to the Green Bay Packers, I probably would have laughed in your face. We were happy just to have made it to the game again. Twenty-one year old me in 2001 was just so happy to have won the first title that I wouldn't have cared to look eighteen years into the future. But now? Now, in 2019, after ELEVEN Super Bowl appearances and SIX titles? I've seen them all with my own eyes and I still don't believe it, but after last night's 13-3 victory over the Los Angeles Rams, the New England Patriots are six-time champions and unequivocally the greatest franchise in NFL history.

Heading into the playoffs and then the Super Bowl, the Patriots were playing their best football of the season and had improbably beaten the top team in the AFC, the Chiefs, in Kansas City. They shut down the number one offense in the NFL by playing their best defensive game of the season. However, leading up to the Super Bowl there was some worry, including from me, about how they would match up against the Rams. LA had the second highest scoring offense in the league after the Chiefs and a fearsome defense led by twin beasts on the line in Aaron Donald (the Defensive Player of the Year) and Ndamukong Suh. This was a defense unlike the weak one in Kansas City that Brady and the Patriots offense shredded to the tune of 37 points. Still, the New England offense was pretty potent itself this season and the prevailing wisdom was that we'd probably see a high scoring game. In the Guy Boston Sports Super Bowl Roundtable from last week I predicted a 31-21 Patriots victory. I thought this would finally be the year the Pats would win by a margin greater than three or four points. I ended up being right about the ten point margin, but nothing else in the game went the way I or anyone else guessed.

I won't get into the minute details of the game, but this was simultaneously the strangest and yet most satisfying Patriots Super Bowl victory of the entire run. First was the bookending feel of it, beating the Rams for the second time during the dynasty, seventeen years to the day they defeated them the first time. There was, of course, the larger margin of victory although the game was still very much in question until the final few minutes. Everything else that happened was wacky, though. Both defenses played incredibly well, with the Patriots in particular playing with a ferocity and tenacity that carried over from the last month. (As an aside, if Bill Belichick's defensive game plan in the first Rams Super Bowl was his greatest, then this one has to rank number two). The defense kept Jared Goff and the Rams offense off-kilter and rendered them ineffective all night. They neutralized Todd Gurley (who seemed to be getting the Malcolm Butler treatment from Sean McVay) and CJ Anderson and other than old friend Brandin Cooks who made a few nice catches, completely shut down the passing game, too. They harried and hurried Goff all night, sacking him and knocking him around to the point that he was feeling the pressure before it was even there. As for the Pats, they moved the ball pretty well on offense considering how tough that Rams defense was, but for some reason their drives kept fizzling out. The first drive ended with a brutal Tom Brady interception and another ended with a missed Stephen Gostkowski field goal. I don't think anybody would've predicted a 3-0 Patriots lead at halftime and I don't think a 3-3 game midway through the fourth quarter was on anyone's radar either. Julian Edelman, the eventual Super Bowl MVP, was unstoppable all game and it was around the nine-minute mark in the fourth quarter than the Patriots finally uncorked two championship drives. The first one saw Brady hit Edelman, Rex Burkhead, and Rob Gronkowski for big gains before Sony Michel scored the game's lone touchdown for a 10-3 lead. Then, after Stephon Gilmore's clutch interception of Goff at the Patriots four-yard line with four minutes left, Brady marched the offense down the field for a Gostkowski field goal to make it a two-score game at 13-3. The defense made one last stand (on a drive where the Rams strangely showed no sense of urgency) and the game was over. Ring number SIX for Belichick, Brady, and the Patriots.

This year's title has to be, along with the first one in 2001, the most improbable of the entire dynasty. I certainly didn't think they had it in them this season; last season's team should have won it all and the loss to the Eagles kicked off the most bizarre and tumultuous offseason of the last twenty years. The huge roster turnover and the sluggish start to this season didn't help, and two brutal last-second losses in a row in December led me (and others...it wasn't just me!) to conclude this wasn't the year. From there, we know what happened and it culminated with this latest title. With this sixth title, the Patriots are now tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers for the most Super Bowl championships in NFL history. Despite this, I think it can be safely said without a doubt that the Patriots are now the greatest franchise in league history. They've won all six of these titles in a league with a hard salary cap that is designed for mediocrity. The NFL is set up for every team to go 8-8 every season (in theory) such that any team can win the Super Bowl in any given year. For the Patriots to have gone to THIRTEEN AFC Championship games, NINE Super Bowls, and won SIX of them in the last eighteen years is mind boggling. They've won more for a longer sustained period of time and in a league set up to make that sort of thing impossible. (Remember, the Steelers won their first four titles in the 1970s in a league full of rampant steroid use, no drug testing, no salary cap, and no rules limiting what defenses could do). The Patriots have also done it all with the same head coach and quarterback. It all adds up to something that has never been done before in the NFL and never will be again. (And remember again, what the Steelers did wasn't so unique...a decade later, the San Francisco 49ers also won four titles in a decade). I've watched every game of this run of dominance, and I still don't believe what I've seen. Savor it, enjoy it, celebrate it, because like I said a couple of weeks ago, this is not normal and it's something we're never going to see again once it's over.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

A Bloody Favorite Book Genre of Mine: Vampires

And now for something completely different...

I suppose calling something I enjoy a "guilty pleasure" is a bit presumptuous in that it assumes I'll be judged for it without giving the reader the benefit of the doubt, so I'm not going to use that term. What I am going to do is something a bit different: I'm going to write about something you probably wouldn't expect on this blog. My name is Drew and I have a confession to make: I love to write, I love to read, and my favorite genre of fiction is the vampire novel. I do also enjoy vampire movies, but I must interject the caveat here that as far as both forms of media are concerned, I am very picky about those I like and those I don't. And before anyone asks, yes I've read the Twilight series (and didn't think much of them), and no, I don't think everything having to do with vampires is great. But of the ones I have sifted through to find, they've all captured my imagination and for the same reasons. Since I am currently (still) working on my first novel, which I started back in 2010 and falls within this genre, I thought it would be interesting to examine why vampires and their lore has captivated me ever since I was a kid.

Without trying to be an amateur folklore historian, a little bit of background: even though the vampire myth goes back to the Ancient Greeks and Romans, it is the Eastern European vampire folklore dating from the Middle Ages that has captured the imagination and fueled the present-day mythos. That's certainly the case for me. There has always been something so entrancing about the Gothic and Medieval feel and tone of the original vampire literature that has just grabbed me. Regarding the beings themselves, the mix of revulsion and attraction to what a vampire is has always fascinated me. In essence, they are undead beings who upon dying were turned into inhuman killing machines, preying on the blood, the very life force, of living people. They are pale and gaunt like corpses, with superhuman strength and abilities and of course, those fangs. And yet, in their undeath they are enhanced versions of how they looked in life: the women impossibly beautiful, the men the epitome of handsomeness. There's also usually a lot of romance as well as some eroticism and sex which, as long as they're not gratuitous, I enjoy as an underlying subtext in vampire literature. I tend to lean more toward the romance aspect of it as I've always been a sucker (no pun intended) for a good love story. Finally, while I've never been a fan of over-the-top gore and violence, I've always been a fan of horror/thriller books and movies. I don't go for slasher films and stuff like that, but more of the type of horror that scares you with what's implied than what's shown, and then shows a glimpse of it for effect. I find that the best vampire books utilize that versus the in-your-face gore of more mainstream traditional horror. These various attributes of the vampire mythos are almost always woven into whatever story is being told, and the breadth of settings for vampires in fiction is vast. I've read everything from historical fiction to futuristic sci-fi and everything in between. It's a very versatile genre, but it's dependent on whether the author can avoid falling into cliche traps while keeping make it interesting.

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Seeing as though my love of this genre inspired me to begin working on a vampire novel of my own, I thought it would be fun to list some of my favorite vampire books. These are the ones that inspired me to try writing my own and the ones that I keep going back to when I need to get my horror fix. I'm not listing them in any particular order apart from the first one...

Dracula by Bram Stoker

The father of all vampire novels. Even though there were other vampire stories that were published before Stoker's book in 1897 (a few of which I also love and which will be discussed below), it was this one that birthed the genre and is considered the masterpiece from which all subsequent vampire literature and film are derived. I've probably read this book twenty times in my life (so far) since the first time I cracked it open as a twelve year old. For those who haven't read it (and may want to), I won't spoil the story for you, but this is one special book. It's told in an epistolary format through the voices of all of the main characters and chronicles the story of how the titular Count Dracula arrived in Victorian England and nearly spread his curse around the world. The story is exciting and thrilling, and Stoker did a masterful job not only with the action sequences, but with some slow-burning and truly terrifying moments that are as chilling to read the tenth time as they are the first. Almost everything that is commonly accepted about vampires comes from Dracula. Yes, Stoker pulled a lot/most of it from folklore sources, but here it all crystallized in the best vampire book of all time (and one of the best novels of all time in any genre). If you haven't read this book, even if you're not that into vampires or horror, I highly recommend you read it at least once. It's that good. My personal favorite version is the annotated one shown below. My wife got it for me as a Christmas present several years ago and the annotations opened up a whole new world of understanding of how Stoker wrote this masterpiece.

Now I'm going to get into some older short stories that predated Stoker which are favorites mine before getting back to newer novels, beginning with one of the best...

Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

This novella was published in serial form in 1871 and 1872 and predates Stoker by a quarter century. It's not as well known which is a shame because in my opinion it sits alongside Dracula as the greatest of the old vampire stories. It tells the story of Laura and her father who vacation for an extended period of time in the Styria region of Austria and are troubled by the new friend they've met named Carmilla. The story evolves into the tale of how the Countess Karnstein, who was a vampire, terrorized the region for hundreds of years, Carmilla's connection to the Countess, and Laura's experiences during and after their friendship. I don't want to give anything away because there are a lot of twists and turns in the story, but I will say it's as chilling and thrilling a story as Stoker's book and an absolute favorite of mine.

Varney the Vampire (or the Feast of Blood) by James Malcolm Rymer

This one is a little more unusual in that it's a pretty meandering tale that was serialized in the "penny dreadful" format popular at the time of its publication. It dates from 1847 and as such is even older than Carmilla or Dracula. The story centers on the villainous Sir Francis Varney and his reign of terror against the wealthy Bannerworth family. It's not as tight a story as others, but it's still enjoyable and an essential and classic example of pre-Stoker Victorian-era vampire literature.

The Vampyre by John William Polidori

Along the same lines as Varney the Vampire is this short story which, dating from 1819, is the earliest example of vampire literature I'll be discussing. It is widely considered to be the first work to meld the folklore with the romantic horror/fantasy elements we now take for granted as part of the genre. It tells the story of the vampire Lord Ruthven and the terror he inflicts upon his unsuspecting new friend Aubrey. As with Carmilla, there are some plot twists that I won't spoil here, but it's a really cool story and definitely one worth checking out.

Now to get a bit more modern (or at least twentieth century)...

Salem's Lot by Stephen King

I used to be a huge Stephen King fan, as in I'd read every single one of his books up to about 2010 or so. I started to get turned off by a lot of the repetition in his themes, some of his more bizarre and vulgar passages (and it takes a LOT to turn me off with vulgarity), and his insane persona on social media (I'm not going to get into politics here, but King has been more unhinged than usual over the last decade) which turned me completely off of his stuff. However, my favorite book is still one of his finest and is the only true vampire novel he ever wrote. It was his second ever published novel, released in 1975, and tells the story of the nefarious vampire Kurt Barlow's arrival in a small Maine town called Jerusalem's Lot (Salem's Lot for short). Little by little, children and adults alike begin disappearing and re-emerging as vampires, spreading the curse throughout the town. Protagonist Ben Mears, visiting the town for some inspiration for the novel he's writing, witnesses this horror and barely makes it out of the town alive. The entire story is gripping, terrifying, and ends somewhat ambiguously (which I like), but what makes it truly excellent is that unlike in many of his books, King takes the classic "less is more" approach to the terror in the story. I've always found that a few effective sentences which let the reader fill in the gaps with their imagination can be ten times scarier than bludgeoning them over the head with graphic wordplay and King succeeds immeasurably in this book. Also worth checking out are the two related short stories he published in Night Shift: the first, "Jerusalem's Lot" is a creepy prequel to the novel while "One for the Road" is a truly terrifying story of what happened to one unfortunate family on a snowy winter night a few years after the events of Salem's Lot. I can't recommend these three works of King's enough to any vampire lover.

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

Dating from 1954, I Am Legend is a gripping story that only has two main characters in it. Robert Neville is the only survivor in Los Angeles where vampirism has spread across the world infecting everyone. By day he scavenges for supplies and research materials on how to cure vampirism and along the way, he has developed efficient methods for killing any sleeping vampires he encounters. By night, he stays barricaded in his house fending off vampires trying to come inside (including one particularly creepy former neighbor who torments him by continuously calling out his name). After years of this lonely existence, he meets a fellow survivor named Ruth who he allows into his house. Without giving the rest of the story away, all is not as it seems between Neville and Ruth and the end of the story is both bleakly despairing and surprisingly uplifting. One of the best, even if it was turned into a fairly lousy movie starring Will Smith.

That brings us to one of my favorite series...

The Anno Dracula Series by Kim Newman

This is a series I had been hearing about for years but hadn't gotten around to checking out until 2014 or so. I won't get too bogged down in the details, but in a nutshell the series is predicated on the supposition that Dracula survived his encounter with Jonathan Harker and his band of friends at the end of Stoker's novel. It is a world where vampires and humans live openly side by side and all of the inherent struggles that come when two competing races and their cultures collide (gee, that sounds kind of familiar...). The books are each set in their own time period as follows in order: Anno Dracula (set in 1888 London), the Bloody Red Baron (set in 1917 during WWI), Dracula Cha Cha Cha (set in 1959 Rome), Johnny Alucard (set in 1980s America), and One Thousand Monsters (an interquel of sorts, set in 1899 Tokyo). All of these books feature main character Genevieve Dieudonne, a 450 year old French vampire. Her longtime human companion and lover Charles Beauregard is also present in a few of the books although being human, he eventually succumbs to old age in a way Genevieve obviously does not. What makes Newman's books stand out besides the excellent writing is the amount of historical research and accuracy contained within. He also weaves into the stories numerous historical figures both real and fictional (for instance, real life people like Orson Welles, Francis Ford Coppola, and the Red Baron alongside fictional characters like the aforementioned Lord Ruthven, Dr. Jekyll, Victor Frankenstein, and so on). There's a lot of classic dark British humor (which I'm a fan of) and the books are simultaneously frightening and hilarious (in spots). All in all, it's one of my favorite book series, vampire or otherwise, and one I can't recommend enough.

I think I'll end it here, although I will add that the comic book miniseries 30 Days of Night is an excellent example of vampire fiction translated to the comic medium. There are also two series of books I've been meaning to check out for a while: The Passage trilogy by Justin Cronin (which has just been launched as a TV series) and the Vampire Zero series by David Wellington. And before anyone asks, no I haven't read Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles and I don't think I ever will. I enjoyed the first book Interview With the Vampire (and the movie) but from what I've heard it got pretty bizarre after that (as did Rice herself). Perhaps I'll check it out some day, although not before I read the Passage trilogy or the Vampire Zero series.

So there you have it, my favorite vampire books. What do you think? Have you read any of these and if so, do you agree or disagree with me? And are there any other good ones you've read that you think I should check out? Please let me know!