That’s The Way Love Goes

It’s not easy being a sports celebrity in the Boston metropolitan region, no matter whose uniform you wear; if there was just one word used to describe the fan base in this area, it would be intense. One day, you’re given a parade downtown along with the key to the city; the next day, you wouldn’t win an election for dog catcher. The banter on the airwaves suggest that fans here tend to expect nothing less than perfection on the field; when a player suddenly slips a few notches below the level that we expect them to player, it doesn’t take long for the media to begin questioning how good a player he is, no matter what he’s done in the past. That is soon followed by every arm-chair quarterback and fantasy league manager offering every possible, off-beat solution to the problem, most of which involve shipping that player in an air-tight container to the farthest reaches of the galaxy.

So when the unofficial Red Sox head cheerleader, first baseman Kevin Millar, came to Edgar Renteria‘s defense last weekend and told the club’s fan base to stop giving him so much grief, it wasn’t long before the assault began. As expected, Millar got grief for trying to stick up for his teammate and even more grief for highlighting the fact that his level of play thus far this season had been sub par at best; meanwhile, Renteria continued to hear it from everyone within earshot regarding his lack of offensive output and clutch hitting.

If nothing else, the veteran shortstop has learned quickly in just his first few months in a Red Sox uniform that becoming a member of one of the most storied franchises in baseball means the eventual discovery that Boston fans are among the most passionate sports fans in the world. Every season, we turn on our radios and televisions or make our way to Fenway Park and cheer for our beloved Sox in numbers. We study the box scores, review the upcoming schedules, and follow the team from the very first game right down to the very last out on the last day of the season. Generations of fans from Boston and beyond have stood behind this team and relentlessly cheered every year for that season to be the one that a long-awaited championship was finally rewarded to our team.

The fascination with the Sox is so intense, players who otherwise might have had a rather quiet major league existence find their lives forever changed when they put on a Red Sox uniform. Sam Horn, for instance, played just over a hundred games with Boston over three seasons and accomplished very little in his baseball career, but his name is synonymous with one of the World Wide Web’s most popular chat rooms. Dave Roberts, another player whose career has been relatively quiet, will be remembered until the end of time for his stolen base in the bottom of the ninth in Game Four of the 2004 American League Championship Series that led a moment later to a game-tying run and the beginning of something very magical for Sox fans.

As odd as it sounds, Red Sox fans boo players because they support the team. Go to Tampa Bay or Milwaukee and I bet the home team hardly hears a discouraging word from the crowd during the games, no matter the situation; at least, that would be the impression I’d get looking at those half-empty stands. Boston, however, loves its team for better or worse and, for every time they jeer a player during a prolonged slump or a bad outing, they cheer even louder when he redeems himself with a diving catch, a timely hit, or a quality start. Manny Ramirez, Carl Yastrzemski, Ted Williams, and Babe Ruth – all of these players went through rough stretches in their careers and the fans were quick to give them an earful. In the end, however, when their fortunes turned, those same fans were the ones who applauded these efforts the loudest.

Radio and television shows with overly-opinionated hosts don’t really do it for me because, often times, the discussions border on the level of immature blather; they seem to exist only to work up listeners over the frustration of watching a player struggle on the field, whether or not it has hurt the team. Often time, these diatribes border on the harsh and insensitive and that doesn’t seem fair to our players. That doesn’t mean that I don’t get angry when a guy suddenly goes cold at the plate but, like most fans, I am quick to forgive and forget the next time he sends a pitch into the Monster Seats to tie the score or makes the game-winning hit in the bottom of the ninth. From being a Red Sox fan for many years, I can fully appreciate the fact that a season has its ups and downs and a streak of bad fortune can turn quicker than the tide.

It’s been a week now and, since his 0-for-4 performance last Sunday, Renteria has been on an unbelievable tear; over his last six games, he has gone 16-for-24 to raise his average from .239 to .295. In that time, he’s had three or more hits in four of those starts, two home runs which include a grand slam in Saturday’s thumping of the Yankees, and scored seven runs while knocking in six. When the Sox return to action tonight against the Orioles at home, expect the young ballplayer to hear a resounding cheer throughout Fenway Park and beyond when his name is announced during the pre-game ceremonies and when he makes his way to the plate for his first at-bat. Though it’s unlikely that his recently hitting display will continue, he should finally understand tonight just what it means to play for this club and its fans and that should feel very good indeed.

Fenway Park Forever

For just once, the little guy won, and I’m not speaking to last year’s amazing run to a World Series title by the Red Sox. I refer instead of those fans of Fenway Park, Boston’s majestic old ballpark, who launched a campaign that opposed the former owners’ plans to tear her down in favor of an exact replica but with all the amenities of the modern sports facility. Save Fenway Park!, a grassroots campaign, was launched in 1998 soon after these plans were announced and most individuals familiar with Fenway, including yours truly, viewed them as another far-reaching group just looking to stir emotions when it seemed obvious that a new facility was the answer to the park’s shortcomings. I was most interested in losing those cramped seats and obstructed views in the grandstands where I have sat on many evenings hoping that this would be the year.

Fast-forward seven years later; suddenly, with several changes made to the park over the past few years by a new Red Sox ownership, there is renewed commitment to the oldest active park in the majors. With a championship team playing to a packed house every night, the organization announced in late March that the club would remain at Fenway for generations to come. As John Henry, Tom Werner, and Larry Lucchino stood before the media publicizing a foregone conclusion, you could almost hear the soul of the park breathe a collective sigh of relief.

Fenway Park may be the most aesthetically-pleasing park in major league baseball today, although I admit that I may be slightly biased in that opinion. True, it still has shortcomings that will never be solved even with extensive renovations, but perhaps that is part of the attraction. Enter the gates, circle underneath the grandstand to find your section, and then climb the concourse to emerge to perhaps the most inviting site: the clay infield, the fresh-cut grass, and that left field wall that arises high above the playing field, beckoning batters to try and scale its heights with a perfectly-executed swing of the bat. Foul lines hug the walls as the park wraps itself right around the action on the field, with the attention of nearly 35,000 pairs of eyes on every delivery to home plate and the outcome that follows.

Less than two weeks ago, we were witness to an ugly incident in which a fan not only interfered with play in the right field corner near Pesky’s Pole but, on camera, appeared to take a swing at an opposing player. That fan was subsequently ejected from the ballpark and ultimately lost his season ticket privileges, a move made by the organization to make an example of that individual for trying to smear the spirit of the game. While some might see the punishment as harsh or extreme, the purpose was to save the intimacy of the park. While the owners want to keep fan interaction as a part of Fenway’s attraction, they don’t want fan interference to detract from its beauty.

Witness one hundred years ago when the Red Sox, then commonly referred to as the Americans, played at the old Huntington Avenue Grounds just across the tracks from the South End Grounds that the old Boston Braves called home. It was not uncommon for fans to stand along the foul lines and wrap themselves around the infield dirt. How often do you suppose that fan interference played a role in deciding the outcome of those games? Even after moving into Fenway Park in 1912, fans use to sit on what was known as “Duffy’s Cliff” in left field, the slight incline in front of the left field wall as the action took place.

These days, at many other ballparks around the majors, the average ticket holder sits far away from the action, so much so that you need binoculars just to recognize who’s playing where. Even those who get front-row seats usually find themselves with generous amounts of foul territory that buffer them from the action. That’s part of what makes Fenway such a unique place to watch a ball game; that intimate feeling, even with the addition of several thousand seats before all is said and done, has not vanished. The place where we watch today’s players like Curt Schilling, David Ortiz, Jason Varitek, and Manny Ramirez is not much different from the time that saw such greats like Tris Speaker, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, and Carl Yastrzemski cover the field. While the names have changed, the aura of Fenway is still there.

Over the years, baseball stadiums have come and gone, like Ebbets Field, Sportsman’s Park, the Polo Grounds, and Tiger Stadium; some day, they may be joined by other storied stadiums like Wrigley Field, Yankee Stadium, and our beloved Fenway Park. For now, the Red Sox have realized that while Fenway, like a classic car, may not have the attractions of these modern stadiums, but it’s the simple beauty of the old girl that continues to bring fans through the turnstiles.

Pride Of The Yankees

Opening Day at Fenway Park in 2005 is when I became a fan of the New York Yankees. Now, before anyone threatens to strip me of the privileges of being a card-carrying member of Red Sox Nation, my loyalty to the home team has not changed. My favorite T-shirt still reads: I’m a fan of two teams, the Red Sox and whoever is playing the Yankees. I still have tickets in hand to see them play at Fenway Park a half-dozen times this season. David Ortiz is still my papi. Above all, I will always root for the Red Sox regardless of whether I have to wait another 86 more years to see them bring home a World Series title (and if I’m still alive at the age of 116, it will be worth it).

No, I became a fan of the Yankees that day because the organization proved that they are a class act. As Boston players, coaches, trainers, and even the team masseuse came out of the dugout one by one to collect their World Series rings and then raise a championship pennant for the first time since the start of the 1919 season, New York players, coaches, and even general manager Brian Cashman, Theo Epstein’s counterpart and George Steinbrenner’s whipping boy, either sat on the bench or stood on the top step in the opposing team’s dugout and respectfully watched the entire ceremony.

New York manager Joe Torre, for whom I’ve always held the highest regard, respectfully applauded his counterpart, Terry Francona, when the Boston skipper’s turn came to accept his ring, and Francona would later note that the simple gesture gave him a lump in his throat. Then, the loudest applause from the Yankees, and undoubtedly from the crowd on hand, came when 85-year-old Johnny Pesky, a fixture in the Boston organization for over sixty years, came out to be given his long-awaited piece of history. Torre was quick to tip his cap, having been a friend of “Mr. Red Sox” since he was a player with the St. Louis Cardinals and Pesky was managing the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Then later, as customary pre-game introductions were made for the home opener, the 33,702 Fenway fanatics in attendance, who had booed nearly every member of New York as usual, greeted closer Mariano Rivera with some of the loudest cheers ever given to an opposing player in a Yankees uniform. Of course, these cheers were in part because the usually-dependable Rivera, who has 336 career saves to his credit, had blown his last four save opportunities with the Red Sox, including two in the post-season series last fall that allowed Boston to climb all the way back from a 3-0 series deficit to win the American League pennant before moving on to the World Series. Rivera could have taken a page from recently-departed Sox pitcher Byung-Hyun Kim and given the crowd a one-fingered salute, but he instead broke into a huge grin, chuckled, and graciously acknowledged the crowd’s appreciation for his “services” with a tip of his cap.

It would have been simple enough for the Yankees to remain in the visitor’s clubhouse and pass the time as they waited until it was necessary to show up for the pre-game introductions. With 26 world championships to their credit, it would be easy to argue that Boston has a long way to go to match the success that New York has had for nearly a century of play. Still then to watch your biggest rival celebrate a championship that might have been theirs had Dave Roberts not stolen second base in the ninth inning of Game Four in the ALCS might not sit well with most teams. Just last season, baseball was replaced by base-brawl between these two clubs when Boston’s Jason Varitek and New York’s Alex Rodriguez, who came within a few million dollars of becoming a Red Sox player himself, exchanged words and then punches, turning an afternoon at the ballpark into a wild spectacle.

No one from the Red Sox organization instructed the Yankees to show up and no one would have expected them to make an appearance; from a Boston fan’s perspective, it would probably have been dismissed or, to the misguided delight of some, seen as a sign of petty jealousy. Instead, New York put aside any trivial differences from the past, checked their collective ego at the door, and demonstrated something is hard to find these days: sportsmanship. Winning championships is old hand for New York but, to be a true champion, it was only proper for them to recognize when someone else achieved that success.

My favorite T-shirt will be ready for all of those visits to Fenway and, when the Yankees are in town, I’ll still loudly boo each player’s name as it is read by the announcer because it’s part of the ritual that’s been handed down from generation to generation. I’ve been a fan of the Boston Red Sox through thick and thin and this loyalty will never die; most of all, I’d like to see them win a few more championships at the expense of those boys from the Bronx. However, with everything that we’ve experienced as we’ve soaked in that long-awaited title over the past six months, we should remember what the New York ball club did for us on Opening Day. That straightforward, thoughtful act by their bitter rivals did not go unnoticed by those wearing a Boston uniform and, with a bit of luck, it was not lost on the fans as well.

Happy New Year, Finally!

About a week ago, I was suddenly regretting the thought that 2004 was coming to an end; after all, that was the year for long-suffering Boston Red Sox fans and perhaps I was reluctant to let go so soon after enjoying everything that went the excitement of a World Series championship. From the first day of spring training right, through the trials and tribulations of the regular season and an even wilder post-season, and culminating with the awakening of my 18-month-old son to have him in front of the television when Foulke softly tossed the ball to Mientkiewicz at first, it was almost too difficult to detach myself from the emotions that I felt.

2004 will be a year that no one who was a fan of the Red Sox will soon forget. 2004 was the year that a prodigal son returned to the fold and joined the ace-in-residence to provide a one-two punch that few teams could match. 2004 was the year when Jason Varitek and his teammates collectively shoved their mitts in the face of the New York Yankees at Fenway Park on a warm July afternoon and sent a message that the season would not end that day. 2004 was the year that a young general manager took the biggest gamble of his brief career and traded the Franchise. 2004 was the year that it wasn’t over until Big Papi took one last cut. 2004 was the year that a bloody sock characterized what this “team of idiots” was willing to do to end the years of frustration. 2004 was the year that it was someone else’s turn to choke at the worst possible moment. 2004 was the year that, finally, was the year.

However, perhaps there is much to look forward to with the dawn of 2005. For the first time in our lives as Red Sox fans (making the assumption that none of you reading this truly remember the last time it happened), we will watch our team play a season as defending world champions. For the first time, we won’t be wondering if this will finally be the year but if our team can repeat the feat. For the first time, perennial doubt has been replaced with renewed excitement and we can walk around with our chests held out a little further and our heads held up a little higher.

Am I aware that the other teams in the league will now approach their games against us with the intent of knocking us down from our lofty perch? Am I worried that Pedro Martinez has flown the coop after seven seasons in Boston to nest in the confines of the Mets organization next season? Do I dread the knowledge that Randy Johnson and Carl Pavano will be wearing pinstripes next season, as might Carlos Beltran, and that the Yankees will be looking to administer some payback for what happened in the American League Championship Series? My only response to these and other questions like those is that, if these are the dilemmas that come with being crowned as world champions, it’s good to be the king!

There is no promise that this season will be anything like last season; it would be next to impossible to recapture the essence of that run a year ago. Nevertheless, I look forward to another exciting season of Red Sox baseball as I have every spring since I can remember. Varitek will be back behind the plate as captain of the team and no one will need to see a “C” sewn on his jersey to understand that. David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez will be back with their bats to provide that awesome one-two punch at the plate. Curt Schilling will be back on the mound every fifth day to expend every ounce of energy available to keep opposing teams frustrated at the plate. Johnny Damon will be back leading the charge in center field and in the lead-off spot. Terry Francona will be back in the dugout and Theo Epstein will be back in the front office, doing everything they can to assemble and develop another championship team.

Best of all, on the second Monday of April, just a little before three in the afternoon, no matter what happens the rest of this season, a championship banner will be raised high above Fenway Park for everyone to see. The fact that the rival New York Yankees, no matter how many guns have been hired, will get a front-row seat to the festivities only makes it that much sweeter. With no more talk of curses, 1918, the Bambino, or any other ghosts of the past 86 years that always seemed to stand by, waiting for the most inopportune moment, it’s truly going to be a happy new year.

Adios, Amigos

The seven-year itch was strong enough to sour the relationship between Pedro Martinez and the Boston Red Sox to the point where negotiations to bring the future Hall-of-Fame pitcher back for at least a few more seasons were little more than pomp and circumstance. Truth be told, there was little to no surprise from the Boston front office and Red Sox fans when Martinez decided to take his show from the Fenway to Queens to the tune of a guaranteed four-year deal with the Mets. The biggest question now becomes why Martinez would chose to join a club that had not seen a winning season since the run to the World Series in 2000 and finished 20 games below .500 last season, the only team who had a payroll above $100 million that missed the playoffs. Of course, as typical of players who bolt via free agency to other teams, it was less about money and more about respect; yeah, right.

For nearly seven seasons, having Martinez pitch every fifth game almost guaranteed a win that day for the Boston nine. People came to the park, waved Dominican flags, posted his strikeout total for the game in the upper bleachers, and chanted his name as he stared down every batter through the order, never afraid to throw a little inside or fire one right through the heart of the plate. Whenever a batter did reach base, fans reacted with disbelief, unable to fathom the possibility; they also knew that, when it became necessary, he would reach back into his pocket for that strikeout to snuff any threat. Watching him pitch was always reason to tune in, no matter who the opponent would be.

So it was no coincidence that as his stock grew, so did his arrogance. People who knew him long ago when he was coming up through the minor league system of the Los Angeles Dodgers, a team that he longed to pitch for as a youth sitting under that mango tree in Santo Domingo, noticed the self-confidence he exhibited and how determined he was to prove himself as had his older brother, Ramon. With just a slight build but a whip for an arm, it took quite some time for him to prove his worth. When the Red Sox offered to trade with the Montreal Expos for his services in the winter of 1998, that was when he realized that he had arrived on center stage in a city that thirsted for an end to a championship drought.

As Pedro quickly became a legend in Boston, he found himself believing that he was invincible and that the rules did not apply to him. Why should anyone question his actions outside the lines when he was doing so much for the team on the field? Whether it was showing up late for spring training, snubbing a chance to pitch in the All-Star game so that he could fly to the Dominican for a family vacation, or staying behind in Boston during the sixth game of the 2004 American League Championship Series, he felt that the only responsibility he had was to win games. He enjoyed rock-star status among his legion of fans and, through the fault of both the club and himself, he was allowed to be Pedro.

Now, the team is moving in a new direction. No long does the term, “25 players, 25 taxis,” apply to this club. With an ownership and a front office determined to follow the model that the New England Patriots football club have created in putting together two NFL champions in three seasons, it is the whole and not the individual that makes up the team and that philosophy must be accepted by each player that walks through that clubhouse door. Pedro Martinez obviously did not fit that model and, despite efforts contrary to this philosophy to bring him back into the fold for perhaps a few more seasons, the organization was quietly thrilled to have the albatross gone.

It cannot be stressed enough that Martinez obviously put every ounce of energy into helping his club finally realize the dream of a World Series championship. To a man, his teammates will tell you that he was all business on the mound, and the fans that loved him could see that in his eyes. Unfortunately, the price of his services was much greater than the value of any contract. All that we, as Red Sox fans, can do now is say thanks and goodbye to Pedro, and look forward to what should be an exciting time for baseball in Boston.

2004 Division Series Previews

Perhaps no season in recent memory has come down to the final day of the regular schedule before the playoff picture became clear. Even with three American League teams clinching playoff spots almost a week or more before the season ended, every team that finally did make it spent the last few games trying to jockey for a more favorable position in the post-season, with Anaheim getting the edge over Minnesota to host one of two division series match-ups. Meanwhile, in the National League, Los Angeles needed until Saturday to claim the stake on its division and the Houston Astros, who seemed out of playoff contention at the All-Star break, enjoyed a late season surge and won the final seven games of the regular season to earn the National League wild card spot. Now that the marathon has passed the 26-mile mark, it’s time for the eight remaining teams to sprint to the finish, starting with the four division series.

New York (101-61) vs Minnesota (92-70)
Season series: New York won, 4-2

One of the biggest weaknesses of the Yankees this season was its starting pitching staff; despite winning 100-plus games for the third straight season, its starting rotation was not intimidating to opposing teams. In contrast, the Twins have Johan Santana, the likely AL Cy Young award winner (sorry, Curt Schilling and Mariano Rivera), who won 20 games, struck out a league-leading 265 batters, and posted a 2.61 ERA, Brad Radke (11-8, 3.48), and Carlos Silva (14-8, 4.21). However, what got the Yankees to 101 wins was the strength of its offense, led by MVP candidate Gary Sheffield; the team scored an eye-popping 897 runs this season and stroked 242 home runs, a team record. Last week, the Twins paid a visit to Yankee Stadium and got swept by the Bronx Bombers in three games; the results will be no different for Minnesota against New York this week. In other words, the division series is just a formality for the Yankees as they make their way to yet another ALCS.

Anaheim (92-70) vs Boston (98-64)
Season series: Boston won, 5-4

Five weeks ago, the red-hot Angels strolled into Fenway Park and were swept in three games by the even more red-hot Red Sox as Boston continued its climb on top of the wild card standings and Anaheim fell four games behind the Oakland Athletics in the American League West division. While Boston spent the rest of the season trying to catch the Yankees, eventually finishing three games behind New York in the AL East, Anaheim won 17 of its remaining 29 games to win the division by just a game over Oakland. Anaheim hopes to demonstrate that World Series title they collected in 2002 against the San Francisco Giants in seven games was no fluke. Boston, which won 19 of its last 30 contests, is looking to win its first World Series in 86 years. The teams are evenly matched in most facets and this has all the makings of a fall classic, even if it is just the first round. However, Boston should win because they have 21-game winner and Cy Young candidate Curt Schilling, the Monsters of the Fenway, Manny Ramirez (43 HR, 130 RBI, .613 SLG) and David Ortiz (41 HR, 139 RBI, .603 SLG), and a supporting cast ready to finish what was started in 2003.

St. Louis (105-57) vs Los Angeles (93-69)
Season series: St. Louis won, 4-2

Unlike most of the playoff contenders this season, the chances for St. Louis were never in doubt, having surged well ahead of its fellow NL Central division opponents by mid-summer on its way to its fourth division crown in five years. Starter Chris Carpenter (15-5, 3.46) led the rotation this season but will miss the first round with an injured bicep; however, the remaining four starters all won 10 or more games, equaled only by Boston this season. At the end of the game, the Cardinals have Jason Isringhausen, who converted 47 saves while posting a respectable 2.87 ERA. On offense, Albert Pujols, were it not for a San Francisco Giant named Barry Bonds, would be the most prolific offensive force in not only the NL but all of baseball as well (my god, is he really just 24 years old?). The Dodger Blue were led by Adrian Beltre on offense, who clocked 48 home runs and posted a .334 batting average, a resurgent Jose Lima, who posted 13 wins and a 4.07 ERA, and a relentless Eric Gagne, who collected 45 saves this season. On paper, it appears that St. Louis has the better team, and on the field, the same is true; expect to be seeing the high-flying Red Birds cruise to the NLCS.

Atlanta (96-66) vs Houston (92-70)
Season series: Tied, 3-3

Give credit to Bobby Cox, the one constant in the Braves clubhouse, who led his team to a playoff appearance for the 13th straight year (not including the strike-shortened 1994 season). Very few people picked Atlanta to repeat and most had them finishing fourth; perhaps the lesson learned is, like the Yankees, they find a way. Likewise, Houston fired Jimy Williams at the All-Star break after a poor start and no one expected that they would see action in October. However, Houston had other plans and, with Phil Garner at the helm, went 49-25 the rest of the way to clinch the wild card spot in the National League. In other words, we have two teams that no one thought would be in the post-season, but here they are, warts and all. Neither team has impressive numbers on offense or defense, so who has the advantage? It’s a toss-up; Houston won left and right over the last six weeks of the season, going an amazing 31-8, while Atlanta was almost as hot, going 25-13. However, the edge goes to Houston for the reason that Atlanta went 51-25 this season against what proved to be relatively weak competition in the NL East, making it easier than expected to take the division. Houston, however, played almost evenly against St. Louis this season and had to battle Chicago in the standings in the final weeks; winning nine of the last ten also has them on a roll that will be tough to stop.

Give Credit Where It’s Due

The Anaheim Angels were still looking for the license plate of the bus that ran them over repeatedly for three straight days at Fenway Park, having been swept by the surging Boston Red Sox. The win gave Boston a 4-1/2 game cushion in the American League wild card race over the same Angels and a six-game lead over the Texas Rangers, who will pay a weekend visit to Boston starting tonight. The win also kept Boston just 3-1/2 games behind the New York Yankees, whose once seemingly insurmountable lead of 10-1/2 games had been whittled away in just over two weeks. Life is good for the legion of fanatical Red Sox fans that is suddenly savoring the possibilities of some exciting October baseball.

Looking back just over a month ago, this same legion was scratching its collective head as it tried to make sense of a team that seemed to be underachieving. Was this not practically the same team that just last year was five outs away from heading to a World Series for the first time in many years at the expense of the dreaded Yankees? Were they not that much better with the addition of Curt Schilling in an already strong rotation and Keith Foulke as the dominant closer?

Even more so was the question of the team’s leadership. Was manager Terry Francona, who has not much more experience than his predecessor, Grady Little, just not the dugout leader this team needed to motivate the club to win consistently? Had the young general manager, Theo Epstein, gone mad by trading one of the most popular players in Red Sox history, Nomar Garciaparra, in return for a one-time Gold Glove first baseman and an anonymous shortstop from a lame-duck Canadian team?

Much has been said about the roles of these two gentlemen on this team and not much of that has been positive. Francona, with just four years of head coaching experience at the major league level, did not carry with him the awesome respect of a Joe Torre or a Jim Leyland when he was brought in during the off-season to take over for the disgraced Little. Epstein, at age 30 years the youngest GM in MLB history, had been given leeway during his first year in 2003 and was applauded for his success, but some wondered if that aura was wearing thin.

While it would have been easy to make excuses in relation to the injuries and the clubhouse distractions, the two instead ignored these critics and did their parts; Francona continued to find a game plan that worked while Epstein continued to look for ways to improve the club. Now, the team has gelled at the right time and has left a path of destruction over the last month of baseball like a twister through a trailer park.

For that, you almost have to tip your cap to these two for staying poised and true to task. The two have also put the club on a road to future success; Francona has shown the flexibility to go with the flow of the game and Epstein, with Nomar in his rear view mirror, has set the club up to sign two of its key players that will become free agents at the end of the season, Pedro Martinez and Jason Varitek.

True, at this point, even with 30 games that remain to be played, there are no guarantees. A team does not make the playoffs because the club is more deserving; to paraphrase former actor John Houseman, it must earn that shot. However, with a team an upstart general manager has assembled and a no-nonsense manager now leads, you must feel pretty good right about now. At least, you must feel better than the Angels.

“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.