Spring survey of sports world

Some things to wonder about as we count the hours to opening day, even if the occasion is possessed of rather less mystical fancy than was the case before we discovered the modern boys of summer have lumpy feet of clay.

-- But not Curt Schilling. He was a lot of things, but he didn’t cheat and he was an open book. Say this for the lug. There was a touch of Sinatra in his act. He did it “his way” to the last; his own man, for better or worse. One might even tip the hat to him for standing up to the media, speaking his mind without resorting to the usual platitudes giving no quarter. It’s one thing to complain about how you’re being depicted to the public. It’s another to do something about it.

Schilling could take it and he could hand it out, which is fair enough. And if he was a bit of a blowhard and often a shameless self-promoter that only made him better copy, nor do I recall him ever denying it. The hunch here is that the total package will wear well in time. He was never boring. And, he delivered.

But is he a Hall of Fame lock? No! In time, he’ll make it. But just like Black Jack Morris, with whom he most favorably compares, he’ll have to wait his turn. Schilling and Morris were both post-season titans, both work horses in the clutch, both winners of three championships, and both more lion-hearted than merely stylish. Keep in mind Black Jack won 38 games (254) more than the Big Schill (216) and that’s meaningful. Schill makes it, eventually; one ballot after Jack.

-- One senses growing dread even among college hoop junkies over the prospect --increasingly possible as of the writing -- that the much sullied University of Connecticut gang of hirelings will run away with the NCAA bauble, for whatever it is worth.

With its considerable baggage U Conn was an embarrassment from the get-go then managed to arouse yet another nasty controversy over its recruiting antics right in the middle of the bloody festival leading one national columnist to term their program, “a cesspool.” Isn’t that pretty? If you’re looking for a relatively clean pick, go with Villanova.

-- Did the slide of the Celtics over recent weeks -- wherein they’ve more resembled the Heat or the Sixers -- begin with the knee woes of Kevin Garnett or the acquisition of Stephon Marbury? That may be unfair given that the resident enfant terrible of the dysfunctional Knicks has so far been on his best behavior in blissful Boston. Still, repairing his toxic image, so finely crafted over the years, remains a formidable task. If he manages that here, add another minor miracle to the Celtics’ myth.

-- Zdeno Chara will probably get the Norris (best defenseman) trophy, though he doesn’t quite deserve it, while Tim Thomas won’t get the Hart (MVP) trophy even though he is richly deserving. It’s the nature of these things. Overall, one can see the Bruins getting blanked in the awards sweepstakes. It’s not the sort of team that commands such attention, yet another of its charms.

But for Claude Julien to be denied coach of the year laurels would be borderline criminal. Who could beat him out? Maybe the guy in Washington, Bruce Boudreau, or the very trendy pick who has San Jose hitting on all cylinders, Todd McLellan.

From here it looks to be between Julien and Boudreau who have much in common, both being career bushers and throwbacks who have been kicked around callously but bore the slights with dignity and now at last get to experience redemption in middle age. It’s a nice story, no matter which way it breaks.

-- Might the Red Sox regret not finding a way to tie up Jason Bay with a new contract before the season? You never know how a kid will handle ‘‘the contract walk-year.’’ Some thrive on it as did Mark Teixeira last season. Others take the pipe. As a modest, low key chap with limited experience performing on a high intensity plane, Bay might be vulnerable. And if he responds brilliantly and has a terrific year, how will the price go down?

-- Does all the talk about the eminence of the “Big East” grate on Boston College’s athletic department? It’s being called the best conference in the land. And to think, the Eagles snubbed them.

Moreover, it was with what was perceived as considerable arrogance, that BC stiffed the Big East, a conference composed of comparable and traditional eastern foes, in favor of the ACC, a conference of southern schools with whom they have little in common, a few years ago. The ACC’s subsequent decline especially in terms of basketball has been notable. And if it still provides an edge in football, how does that translate to BC’s advantage? No point in waiting for the all-knowing A.D at the Heights to admit he made a mistake.

-- Many wonder why the name Phil Kessel keeps surfacing whenever the Bruins are contemplating a major deal. Only 21, Kessel plainly has phenomenal offensive potential. Yet doubts that have stalked the kid since he was in high school linger. If he does not get healthy and stay healthy for the forthcoming playoffs and/or doesn’t bring his “A” game with him, you’ll understand why he remains “trade bait.”

-- On the other hand the Bruins have clearly missed Marco Sturm, kayoed most of this season with injuries. It was the loss of Sturm that necessitated the costly Mark Recchi deal. Up front experience and a sniper’s touch are what they most need to shore up and Recchi helps. But Sturm, finally getting the chance to play for a true contender, would also have provided both, possibly in greater measure.

-- There’s a rumbling in the Bronx and it will be fascinating to see how it plays out. It concerns the Yankee’s shortstop, who has institutional status. But a couple of ragged moments in the recent World Baseball Classic further under-scored the rapid decline of Derek Jeter’s game in the field. He is no longer championship caliber on defense; not at shortstop, which is vital. He can’t go to his left. His range is gone.

There’s hardly shame in this nor is the estimable Jeter at the end of the line. Few can handle the position when they reach their mid-thirties. Robin Yount was forced to move to center field, Ernie Banks to first base, Johnny Pesky, Junior Stephens, Maury Wills, even Luke Appling to third. It happens. But should it happen to Jeter soon?

It seemed a moot point until this spring when an unheralded 23 year-old, Ramiro Pena, came out of nowhere to excel at the position defensively. Suddenly there’s an option. With much riding on this season, may the Yankees be tempted? Jeter is a certified institution. He may not retreat to a corner outfield post gladly. More high drama, as can only be conjured in the Bronx, is assured.

-- Lastly, a word on Colleen Howe, who died recently at the age of 76. If the game of hockey, so thoroughly macho in its traditions, had a “first lady” it was the iron-willed, fiercely competitive and so very bright wife of the ultimate hockey player, Gordie Howe.

She was arguably hockey’s first agent and one of the first in all of sport, representing Gordie in contract talks as early as the mid-50s, when most sporting wives were required to pose on Ladies Day in high heels and bonnets while otherwise minding their manners. How do you think that went over with the old war-horses of the Original Six? But Gordie being Gordie none dared mutter any wisecracks about “apron strings.”

In her wonderful family she had two more hockey players, a teacher and a surgeon. It was the First Family of Hockey. Gordie was the mainstay but Colleen was its heart and soul. And pound for pound the toughest character in the clan.

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