Of Center Field, a Darkened Dog Track, and Golf's Tiger

Baseball has long carried the day when it comes to locutions that insiders and true fans use as a second language - the hot corner, a can of corn, the cycle, suicide squeeze, ribbie, Ks, the nickel curve, and the slider, to name just a few. Then there's the Hot Stove League, which for me conjures up a long-ago scene in an up-country general store where fans gathered around the warm central stove to swap baseball stories and promote a trade or two for the off-season.

It's a quaint notion, of course, in this 21st century. Why sit around a store when you can call a sports talk show or just sit down at your computer and send your thoughts into the blogosphere? What once was a lot of private gabfests among friends anxious for the next season to begin has become a 24/7 verbal and oral fusillade with no limits on the creative and nonsense meters.

Over the past few weeks in Boston, where sports talk is non-stop, the state of the Red Sox, who are in the middle of a five-month layoff, was on many days the main focus of caller interest. The obsession that fans, and some of the radio hosts, have with any comparison of the relative merits of the Red Sox vs. the Yankees – the players, the payrolls, the front offices – is remarkable for its depth, its passion, and especially its presumption that fans and hosts have equal standing with team executives when it comes to evaluating talent and pay scales and trade realities. I think the notion of fans instructing team officials in the art of salary managing is relatively new; that was what general managers did quietly to little media notice until salaries and salary caps became public information. But telling management what players to play and where and what players to trade off is a notion as old as the game itself, and a good thing to boot.

As I type this, Red Sox fans who are Yankee haters can think of nothing else but the need to replace power hitter Jason Bay with another power hitter (unless Bay re-signs with Boston). All attention seems to be focused on 27-year-old first baseman Adrian Gonzalez of the San Diego Padres of the National League, who bats left and throws left and who last season hit 40 home runs and knocked in 99 and who has, over the last six seasons, averaged 32 home runs and 98 RBIs with San Diego. The question is, of course, what will it cost the Sox to get him in a trade? Hot Stovers can quickly get up a head of steam on this one and one name being tossed about as one of several who might find themselves in San Diego in 2010 is Jacoby Ellsbury, the fleet-footed (70 stolen bases last season, a Red Sox record) and highly competent centerfielder who played 153 games and batted .301 this past year.

I have been watching the Red Sox with interest since about 1950 when I was seven years old and looking back over that time I can think of just three centerfielders who for me brought a dash of something special to the position: Dom DiMaggio, Fred Lynn, and Ellsbury. While Red Sox reporters like the Globe's Nick Cafardo and WEEI's Sean McAdam think it doubtful that Ellsbury will be traded, that he has earned his right to the position, with the Red Sox you never know.

The Curtain Falls in Raynham

Late on Saturday night Dec. 26, eight greyhounds lurched out of the starting gate at the dog track in Raynham and into the lighted oval for one last chase of the faux rabbit Rusty. This was the last live race for the track, which has now shut down in conforming to the law banning greyhound racing that was passed by Bay State citizens in 2008. There still will be betting possibilities there this year, but they will be on races (dogs, horses, trotters) run in other states and televised back to Raynham.

The story of Raynham extends back almost 70 years to a time when boys like the 14-year-old George Carney could get a nice-paying job leading greyhounds out onto the track and lining them up for the next race. Now a sturdy octogenarian with lots of fire left in his belly, Carney is the longtime operator of the Brockton Fair who took over the track and related facilities in 1966. "Was Saturday night like an Irish wake?" he was asked as he looked around Saturday evening and saw his clubhouse facility swarming with friends and bettors as if it were the 1980s, heyday years in the life of the track. And the crowds had been just as large earlier in the day for the afternoon card. "No," he said, "no wake. Things change, time to move on and deal with what's ahead." Which he hopes will be slot machines to go with his simulcast racing cards.

Lots of things – some cultural, some financial, some generational – combined over the last 15 years or so to shut off the lights and to silence the dogs in full chase at the Raynham oval. But George Carney's mind is still hard at work thinking about tomorrow and the next day and the day after that. It's how he operates, as friend and foe alike know oh so well.

A Tiger Who Had Us All Fooled

There have been billions of words typed since the day after Thanksgiving when a noted professional golfer rammed his SUV into a hydrant and a tree outside his home in Florida. Few of them have contained any purchase of charity toward Tiger Woods. The jury wasn't out long; the verdict is guilty on two counts - tossing his wife and two children aside to lead the reckless life of a cross-country tomcat, and living a lie in front of family, friends (some surely were not unaware of the lustful side of their hero), and fans of his golfing ways and means.

The words and pictures over just a few news cycles diminished at the speed of light the standing in the world of the once-magisterial and stand-offish Tiger Woods the Man. He was now a cartoon character for the tabloids and OhMyGosh websites to make fun of. But the status of the still-magisterial Tiger Woods the Golfer remains in abeyance until he comes out of his penitential state and says or does something.

Those of us who treasure the game of golf for all its merits - among them its difficulty and its straightforward challenges (it's about you and the ball and the ground and the sand and the hole), its rules and its dependence on the trustworthiness of its players to follow them diligently and call penalties on themselves, the five-mile walk outdoors while having fun, the camaraderie that attends fun matches among friends - also treasured Tiger Woods the Golfer, who until six weeks ago had consistently performed extraordinary feats with a golf club in his hands from the time when he was just a few years old. He, like just a few others in the annals of sport, is a sublime artist who happens to be a competitor on the side.

I hold no respect for the tomcat in the man. He and his wife, if she is willing, have to deal with the shipwreck of his personal life. But I can't shake the suspicion that his gifts for playing on the greensward have been compromised to a great degree. Then again, maybe we'll soon be seeing Tiger Woods the New Man merging positively with Tiger Woods the Golfer.