On the evening of the day in which Cam Neely took the first official baby steps that might lead toward a return to the NHL, Maurice Vaughn, arguably the American League's Most Valuable Player, declared the Boston phase of his major league baseball career to be history.
The first story is uplifting. The second story makes you want to place a .45 in your mouth and pull the trigger. Oh, yes, it really is that distasteful. There is more than enough blame to go around for everyone in this story.
In the end, however, the Red Sox look good and Mo looks bad. Mo looks bad because the Red Sox in the end gave Mo the basic contract he said he would accept. No matter how Mo chooses to spin this story in the coming years, he will forever be hoist, as my old history teacher A. Graham Down would say, "on his own petard." His own words, spoken to Joe Guiliotti of the Boston Herald only last week, will forever be there to haunt him. Give me five years at market value, Mo said at that time, and I'm back in a Red Sox uniform. By offering Mo $60 million for five years, the Red Sox wound up doing just that.
And what did Mo do? He told someone else --- in this case, WBZ-TV's Steve Burton --- that, you know, no matter what they offered I doubt I would have taken it. And why was that, Mo? Because of "the way things came down" over the last couple of years.
We're still not certain whether the Red Sox wet as far as they did because they really wanted Mo, or because they had arrived at the conclusion he would never re-sign, and so what difference would it all make, anyway, except to allow them to have the upper hand in the Court of Public Opinion. That doesn't make them wrong, or anything. It actually makes them come off as something shrewd. Right now, Mo Vaughn, at his peak one of the most popular players in Boston history, looks very bad, very bad indeed.
| The hopes of a city rest on the comeback of former Bruins sharpshooter Cam Neely. (AP) |
So we are in need of a feel-good story. Mo is gone, amid lies, charges and counter-charges. The Patriots are falling apart, and can probably be declared clinically dead if they lose in Buffalo on Sunday. The Celtics, for all practical purposes, do not exist. That leaves us with the in-again, out-again Bruins, long, as always, on heart and grit and short, as always, in firepower beyond the first line.
Enter a heavenly apparition named Cameron Michael Neely, an immensely popular player whose brilliant career was interrupted by injury as far back as the 1991 Stanley Cup playoffs (the infamous Ulf Samuelsson cheap shot), and which was ended for good, or so it seemed, by what was described as a degenerative hip condition in the late stages of the 1995-96 season.
As recently as the beginning of this calendar year, Neely was a firmly retired hockey player. "I still consider myself a retired hockey player," he said following the Wednesday morning workout.
What he is trying to be, of course, is an un-retired hockey player. The story began to take shape when he sought help from therapists earlier this year. He was experiencing so much pain in the hip he could not do relatively simple things, such as golf. He sought help in order to improve the quality of his newly-married life. Playing for the Bruins was not on the agenda.
Now it is. He kept getting better and better. He tried skating, and that went well. He presented himself to the Bruins. Now he's on a 10-day practice trial to see if there is any real possibility he can play again. If he can't, he can't. He figures he will have given it a good shot, and he can bring proper closure to his athletic career.
This is Cam Neely we are talking about here. Neely scored 50 or more goals three times, with a high of 55 in the 1989-90 season. He was a different type of player, a truly rugged body-checker who had a surgeon's touch around the net. He also had good looks (a many times messed-up nose, notwithstanding and was a definite old-fashioned matinee idol in this town. To say he was special would be a vast understatement, and if you doubt it consider the words of teammate Don Sweeney on the day of Neely's retirement in September of '96.
"You know when I realized how great he was?" inquired Sweeney. "When he was back for a game, and then out for a game, then back for a game and out for a game. The difference when we had him and when we didn't was tremendous. there was a ripple effect he had on every player in that locker room."
Or ponder the words of GM Harry Sinden that same day. "In one four- or five-year period," Harry said, "the guy had a tremendous impact on our team. He had a tremendous impact on the whole city. If we had won a Stanley Cup, he would have been put on a pedestal. He would have been as big as Orr. His style was so completely identified with what the Boston fan likes. It just clicked."
Obviously, that Neely isn't coming back at age 33 after missing more than two full seasons. But 2/3 of 3/4 of the old Neely, performing on the power play, would help the team, and it would surely sell tickets. And playing again would enable Neely to feel he had gone out on better terms.
The Mo story is a tale of management stupidity (he could have been re-signed a year ago for far less money), mixed with Mo's own B.S. and petulance. The Neely story is one of perseverance and dedication. Mo makes you feel bad. Cam makes you feel good. And either way, it takes our mind off the NBA mess. Talk about stories with no heroes.
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