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“Impossible” Still Possible?

Red Sox fans this morning were ecstatic, albeit still a little sleepy, after staying up late to catch the end of Boston’s sixth straight victory won in dramatic fashion, thanks to back-to-back, late-inning home runs from sluggers Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, over the nose-diving Chicago White Sox. It was the first time since late April that the Red Sox had swept a road series and earned Boston some revenge after losing two-of-three last weekend at Fenway to these same White Sox. It also meant that, after being 10-1/2 games behind New York at the start of last week, they had climbed back to with 5-1/2 games thanks to New York, who had lost five-of-six last week and were swept over the weekend at home by the red-hot Anaheim Angels.

Just last week, a lock for the American League East title in 2004 seemed like a foregone conclusion for the Yankees and, for the seventh straight season, the only chance for the Red Sox to see the post-season would be to focus on two or three other teams that were competing for the coveted wild card playoff spot. Suddenly, with the Yankees sputtering and the Red Sox flying high, even the most pessimistic Boston fan is paying attention once again to the division race.

It’s still going to take quite an effort for Boston to catch New York in the standings. If the Yankees play just over .500 ball for the rest of the season (20-19), the Red Sox would need to win 27 of the remaining 40 games left on the schedule. Put another way, with 12 series that remain to be played, the Sox could not afford to lose more than one game in each series. Two of those series will be played against the Yankees: one three-game weekend series at “The House That Ruth Built” followed by another three-game series at “Friendly” Fenway.

Boston also has a more difficult schedule left to play. 13 games remain against West Division opponents and three of those teams are in the playoff hunt: the Angels, the Oakland Athletics, and the Texas Rangers. The Red Sox play two of those series at home against Anaheim and Texas, then fly straight to Oakland to play three more games before wrapping up the road trip with four in Seattle. Meanwhile, other than Boston, New York will face just one other team that has a record better than .500: the Minnesota Twins. The rest of these games include three series with Toronto, two each with Cleveland and Baltimore, and one each with Tampa Bay and Kansas City; New York is a combined 31-8 against all these teams, not including the slumping Indians with whom they have yet to play.

The wild card edge, without a doubt, goes to Boston, and I don’t say that just because of my loyalty to the Boston nine. Head-to-head against the other three contenders, Boston is even in strength and should stand toe-to-toe with them; with two of these series coming at home, the Red Sox should have a slight advantage. Also, Anaheim, Oakland, and Texas must all play each other several more times before the season ends while Boston has several division series against weaker opponents that should be easy to take. Thus, the three West Division rivals should tear each other apart while Boston enjoys the view from the sidelines and moves further ahead in the wild card lead.

So, with the wild card so easily within reach, are the Red Sox only hurting themselves if they attempt to catch New York? To quote a well-known former Yankee great: “It ain’t over until it’s over.” History proves that New York is resilient and that they will fight right down to the final out. Plus, given an easier schedule over the next few weeks, perhaps some young pitching staffs will help New York regain it offensive edge while the club’s own pitching staff tries to regroup. However, nothing is set in stone and, if the Sox can stay hot, those two series between the two clubs could prove interesting. To say that I would love to see a reversal of fortune come in favor of Boston would be wonderful but, to put it in another perspective, a division crown is not the most impressive piece of hardware that can be placed in the trophy cabinet at the end of the season.

For The Love Of Manny

Manny Ramirez
Manny Ramirez

Manny Ramirez had no reason to change his public persona; after three productive years in Boston, he had proven well enough that, despite a hefty salary, he was a presence in Boston. Between Aaron Boone’s home run to end Game 7 of last year’s American League Championship series and the first day of spring training, Ramirez found his name in the news more than once. The subject of trade talks, until Alex Rodriguez ended up in Yankee pinstripes, you would have had every reason to believe that he would carry a huge chip through the season.

For those of you who hibernated from late October until late February, Boston placed Ramirez on waivers early in November in the hope of unloading his remaining $100 million salary on George Steinbrenner, who had watched his team lose its second World Series in three years. After that failed, Ramirez was all but on the plane to Texas as the Red Sox and Texas Rangers agreed to a trade that would bring Rodriguez to Boston. Instead, the player’s union intervened and, upon further review, nixed the deal because they felt that Boston was trying to cut too much of Rodriguez’s record $252 million contract.

So, after two failed attempts to send his lifetime .317 average and 337 home runs to another town, wouldn’t you expect a 12-year veteran player known for his bat and his silence to show even less emotion on and off the field? Instead, this season we are seeing something new: a suddenly affable Manny Ramirez. Is this the same player who rarely had anything to say to the media suddenly becoming the go-to guy, giving direct quotes for the media hounds to scribble on their notepads? Is this the same Ramirez that suddenly has time to give off-field interviews? Do our eyes deceive us, but is that Ramirez sitting in the dugout during the game, making comedic gestures at the camera, looking relaxed, and smiling?

Ramirez has even had a web site developed in his name, where he goes so far as to answer people’s direct questions. It’s not that he was never friendly with the fans. I recall a co-worker telling me that Ramirez, while waiting for batting practice at spring training, turned around every time a kid called out his name for a picture and held a pose and smile until he or she got the shot. He is also more than willing to spend a few extra minutes signing autographs and does considerable charity work, most of which we never read about in the paper.

What has suddenly turned a man who once shunned reporters for more than a year after being questioned about his hustle into a media darling? Does he suddenly realize how great it is to play in front of Boston fans that, through most everything, have stayed loyal to him? Have David Ortiz and Kevin Millar, who never fail to keep the team loose with the ups and the downs, cracked his shell? Did three ghosts visit him on Christmas Eve?

Though the jury is still out on how the 2004 season will end for the Red Sox, never has there been such camaraderie in a Boston baseball clubhouse. Red Sox Nation is engrossed in the everyday events of this team, 365 days a year, and it has never been more evident than the fact that, through Sunday, the team had enjoyed 103 straight sellouts at Fenway Park. Search up and down the lineup, and it’s hard to find a player that the fans don’t love.

Manny is no exception to this observation, and maybe more so now that he has become less of a mystery to the fans who chant his name when he comes to bat and erupt in celebration of a home run over the Green Monster. They’re even tipping their hats when he makes a great play like the great diving catch he made last Friday against Philadelphia with his good buddy Pedro Martinez on the mound. “Citizen Manny” (apropos after becoming an official US citizen in May) seems to have finally joined the ranks of Red Sox Nation, and no one seems happier than he.

A Marriage Made In Heaven?

One week into interleague play and Boston can feel good about taking four-of-six from the National League at home. Excitement griped the Hub this weekend when the Dodgers, who had been to Boston once before in the 1916 World Series but never played in Fenway Park, battled the Red Sox and fans were witness to two great games (we’ll just overlook the beating that Los Angeles gave Boston on Saturday). There was even some pleasure in watching the Red Sox tangle with the Padres earlier in the week; Tuesday’s pitching duel between David Wells and Pedro Martinez ended in a rare but memorable 1-0 win for Boston.

It’s been eight years since the two leagues began playing against each other and interleague baseball is now an integral part of midseason baseball. Still, as in any relationship, you always find something that you want to change to make it even better. While this does not involve a clean shirt or a different haircut in our case, the look of interleague play needs a tweak here and there. The problem is that there are some glaring imbalances that should be corrected for it to be better.

First, there needs to be another realignment of the leagues. With the National League having two more teams than its American counterpart, the divisions don’t match up; only the AL and NL East have the same number of teams while the NL Central and West divisions have one more team than their AL counterparts. This imbalance forces two National League teams to play each other in the midst of interleague play as they would at any other time of the season.

One solution would be to bring Milwaukee back to the American League to give each league fifteen teams, but that would mean interleague meetings every day throughout the season and the owners will have none of that less it cheapen the interest. The second solution would be to contract two teams, although you will never get the approval of the player’s union to do that. Expansion is the third option, but you’ll never get me to agree to that solution.

Second, we need to get rid of the “natural rivalry” games. As a Sox fan, I’ve almost dreaded seeing the Braves come to Boston or the Red Sox fly south to Atlanta for years because we were constantly playing against a superior team and that usually guaranteed at least four or five losses each season. Meanwhile, the Yankees were facing the Mets in a Subway Series and the New York American League representatives were easily taking it to their weaker cross-town rivals.

Sour grapes aside, the schedule seems a little imbalanced when the weak sisters of baseball have to play against perennial powerhouses because they seem like natural adversaries. Plus, some of these rivalries that have been created make no sense. What did the Diamondbacks do to earn the wrath of the Twins? Who knew that the Tigers and the Rockies are natural enemies? Major League Baseball did, but somehow the memo must have been undeliverable to my mailbox. Why not just rotate the interleague rivals as they do in the NFL and let the chips fall as they may?

Third, a decision needs to be made on what to do with the designated hitter rule. I’m impartial to keeping it because I would rather see David Ortiz swing for the fences than watch Martinez flail away at the ball, but it seems like an unfair advantage for National League teams who have pitchers that have faced live pitching for a couple of months. It’s hard to believe that, after thirty-one years, an agreement has still not been reached between the two leagues on whether the DH should become universal in or dropped from Major League Baseball. I don’t have a solid argument either way – perhaps I’ll save that for another column – but this sticking point should be the easiest to address.

All in all, though, what I once believed was just a passing novelty has proven to be a remarkable “gimmick” for baseball. When you consider that, in every other major sport in the United States, everyone gets to face each other at least once every few years or so, it makes for more excitement and more interest. I’m looking forward to watching Martinez face off against Barry Bonds next weekend, even if I might have to stay up a little later to see the game here on the East Coast. Maybe next season, should it not happen this postseason, I’ll watch the Cubs and Sox face off in a rematch of the 1918 World Series. It’s true that not every game will feature “classic” match-ups, but it makes for some interest in an otherwise long season and, with maybe just a tweak here and there, has proven to be a winning formula for baseball.

2004 Season Preview

Now that another wild and crazy off-season is finally coming to an end, it’s time to dust off the binoculars and look over the field of players that will be putting on a uniform for the Boston nine this season. For you holdovers from last season, you won’t see many differences; the only significant loss being 2B Todd Walker, who left as a free agent and signed with the Chicago Cubs. Where the Sox have improved the most is with the pitching staff, having added starting pitcher Curt Schilling and closer Keith Foulke to give the Red Sox a solid staff on the mound. On paper, you have to like what you see, but this column would be relatively uninteresting if we didn’t take a closer look, let’s answer some self-imposed questions first.

1. Who will be the number one starter, Schilling or Pedro Martinez?

The truth is that there is no “number one” on this team, but Pedro will have the honor of opening the season against Baltimore on 04 April. While a definite rotation has not been set to my knowledge, there is a good chance that Schilling and Martinez will NOT pitch in back-to-back games this season. More likely, we will watch Tim Wakefield‘s knuckleball flutter between their starts. So does that make Schilling a number three starter? The good news for Red Sox nation is that Boston has one of its strongest rotations in years; when you toss in Derek Lowe, you have four proven starters that between them could easily collect 70 wins.

2. Will Bill Mueller have another career year?

It’s unlikely that Mueller and the rest of his team will repeat the offensive output that they had last season, when they out-slugged the 1927 New York Yankees and were first in runs scored in the majors. Still, it’s very likely that he can hit .300 again and continue to use the Wall to his advantage. He’s probably also good for another 10 to 15 home runs. Most importantly, he has proven himself at third base, one of the trickiest positions in baseball to play.

3. Is manager Terry Francona on the hot seat already?

Given the fact that there are several big contracts that expire at the end of this season, the pressure is on for the Red Sox to go all the way, if you ignore the fact that history and the other 29 teams are not on their side. Francona was not the first choice that the Red Sox had but, if consider that Grady Little, who had no major league coaching experience when he was named manager two years ago, won nearly 200 games in two years, you just need to have enough knowledge and personnel skills to repeat that success. As long as he is smart enough to pull a pitcher who is obviously fatigued late in a Game Seven, then he should do fine.

4. Who will see more time at first, David Ortiz or Kevin Millar?

Ortiz would like to spend more time covering the bag, but he will come second to Millar. However, when Ellis Burks is used as the DH, Ortiz will win over Millar on this battle. Ortiz just has better numbers at the plate and the Sox will not want to keep his bat out of the lineup too often.

5. What free-agent signing will have the highest impact?

Although Curt Schilling’s presence in the lineup will make the starting rotation an opponent’s nightmare, having Keith Foulke come in to shore up the closer role will mean the most to this club. Since Derek Lowe’s 2000 season in that role, the Sox have been very weak in this respect. Lowe faltered the following year, Ugueth Urbina was anything but solid in 2002, and the closer-by-committee experiment last season was, while a sound idea in theory, a complete failure in practice. Foulke collected 43 saves in his one year in Oakland and that means that the rest of the bullpen can be used better to set him up to close the door.

6. What bench player will have the highest impact?

My money is on Gabe Kapler, who enjoyed a solid spring and will actually start the season in right field as a replacement for the injured Trot Nixon. Once Nixon returns in May, Kapler will likely take a seat on the bench but will called out for service if Manny Ramirez is thrown into the DH role or is given a seat by Francona to rest for a day. He also makes a nice pinch hitter should the opponent throw out a left-handed reliever, having hit .326 last season against southpaws.

7. Will the Red Sox be able to hold off the Yankees and win the AL East?

As strong as the Red Sox have become with several key additions, you cannot ignore the Yankees, who have also made key additions for another chance at a World Series title. They certainly have a stronger lineup with the addition of Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield. The only real question for the Yankees will be if Kevin Brown can have an injury-free season and if newcomer Javier Vazquez, recently of the Montreal Expos, will prove unflappable under the lights of Yankee fans and the front office. As Sox fans have seen for the last six years, you can never underestimate New York; every year, they remain tough. It helps when your owner is willing to shell out nearly $200 million to pay for the collective salary of this team.

8. Overall, is Boston good enough to… you know?

Anybody who has followed the Red Sox as long as I have knows enough NOT to start opening the champagne bottles prematurely. However, with all that happened during the off-season, good and bad, Boston has made significant strides to improve on a team that came very close to tasting a championship in 2003. It will be critical for Boston to play to this potential if they are to stay ahead of the Yankees. With the addition of Schilling, the starting rotation looks strong and, with the addition of Foulke, so does the bullpen. Although it will tough to match last season’s offensive output, there are plenty of bats available to score runs when needed and, defensively, the Red Sox are better than average at most positions and should keep the untimely errors to a minimum. In conclusion, the 2004 edition of the Boston nine is good enough, but let’s not say any more than that.