Boston Red Sox World Series Champions

“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.

Nomar’s Gone, Let’s Move On

Nomar Garciaparra
Nomar Garciaparra

The inevitable was approaching whether we wanted to believe it or not and Ted William‘s frozen head must have spun inside that liquid nitrogen-filled container when the news broke. After ten years in the organization and seven-plus years with the parent club, the face of the franchise was sent packing in a four-team deal and a sad chapter closed the book on the relationship between the Boston Red Sox and shortstop Nomar Garciaparra. Whereas no one ever expected a few years ago that he would play anywhere but here, the relationship had cooled – perhaps had even become colder than an arctic breeze – and there was no getting around the fact that a break up was necessary. So the Red Sox sent employee number five to Chicago and that was that… or so it would seem.

It’s been less than a week to this point and, already, I’m tired of reading the he said/she said commentary that has been given considerable space in the sport sections of the local papers. The Red Sox organization blames Garciaparra’s agent who told them that his client deserved no less than $16 million per season when Boston had offered roughly $15 million instead. Boston sportswriters, known for being a rather vicious bunch that loves to make mountains out of pitching mounds, tell us that Garciaparra faked the extent of his injury in an attempt to stick it to the organization. They also claim that the organization did everything that it could in the final weeks before the deadline to try and mend fences, only to have it thrown back in their faces and told that he wanted out, whether it was now or after the season ended.

The truth is that we will never really know who is to blame for this mess or if there is any blame to place. The facts were that Garciaparra was coming to the end of his current contract and it was apparent that the two sides could not agree on a new one. It is also fact that Garciaparra will play at least the rest of the 2004 season with another team looking to bring a championship to its city for the first time in many, many years. What is also important is that we put the matter behind us so that we can concentrate on the other fact: that the team that takes the field now is the one that we are counting on to try and help end this championship drought. Whether we agree with the trade or not, there are no do-overs; what’s done is done and we must move on.

There is no question that Garciaparra was, for the most part, a fan favorite during his tenure in a Boston uniform. He dazzled us with his amazing ability to snare ground balls and then whirl around to fire a bullet to first for the out. He peppered the field with hits all over the park, never fearing to swing at the first pitch he saw, and came through in the clutch in opportunities that were too plentiful to count. Most of all, whether he was happy or not with his situation off the field, he played 100% on the field, never doing less than what he felt the fans deserved to see from him.

My most vivid memory of him comes from an October night in 1998 when, following the end of a loss to Cleveland that eliminated Boston from post-season play, Garciaparra came out of the dugout and began clapping his hands in a gesture to show his appreciation for the support that the fans had given his team all season. While the rest of the team, including a soon-to-be-departing Mo Vaughn, quietly filed back into the clubhouse, but the young shortstop was not about to let another disappointing season spoil the chance to let the Fenway faithful know that he considered them the tenth player for that team.

Hopefully, in another week, the sting will be gone and everyone involved will have moved on, as is the business of baseball. Players come and go and it’s never easy to see a fan favorite depart, perhaps for greener pastures. Although it doesn’t feel right to not see employee number five taking the field for Boston, we must not let the bitter taste of what was an ugly divorce ruin the memories of what was a great stretch of time to be a fan of the Red Sox.

Analyze This, FOX Baseball

First off, I’m going to apologize right away because this column is nothing more than personal therapy so that I can get something off my chest that has been bothering me for at least eight years and counting. Well, actually, it’s not as if I’m losing sleep over this, but every time the situation rears its ugly head once more, the stabbing pain in my brain returns. In the end, I hope that, if I accomplish nothing else, I will be able to relax the next time I am forced to deal with this matter.

I’ve reached the breaking point with having to endure Red Sox games that are broadcast by the FOX Sports Network on Saturday afternoons. Granted, the game I watched between my beloved Boston nine and the New York Yankees was a “classic” if you were rooting for the Sox. You had both teams trying to out-slug the other, whether it was with the bat or with the fist, and the emotions swung in all directions for the players and the fans. In the end, Boston won in dramatic fashion off ever-steady New York closer Mariano Rivera, who surrendered a one-out, game-ending, two-run home run to light-hitting Bill Mueller to give the home team an 11-10 victory.

However, what made it most unbearable for this Red Sox fan, besides the edge-of-your-seat drama, was the two idiots squawking in the broadcast booth. I’m referring to play-by-play announcer Joe Buck and color analyst Tim McCarver. These two have been ruining my afternoons for the better part of the last eight years or so, especially when the main entrée happens to be the Red Sox and the Yankees. They have to be, bar-none, the worst broadcast tandem in sports. They offer nothing but inane chatter for three straight hours or more.

I’ll start with Joe Buck, son of legendary, Hall of Fame broadcaster Jack Buck. I don’t want to sound trite, but I believe that the only reason that he has this gig is because he is the son of a legend; in short, he is average at best. His attempts to induce the dramatic in his calls seem to fall flat and he repeats the same tired clichés over and over.

Then again, Buck is not even half as bad as his two-bit partner-in-crime, Tim McCarver. The former catcher played for 21 seasons in the major leagues and you would think, with all that experience, he would be able to offer more insight and depth to the game. Instead, he points out the obvious and rambles on and on about nothing in particular; I once heard someone likening him to a kindergarten teacher explaining how to tie your shoelaces. I also cannot count the number of times that he makes a point only to have it discredited almost immediately; he’ll second-guess the effort a player is making only to then watch the player make a great play in the field or punch a timely hit down his throat.

Together, these two just pollute the airways, whether they are calling a regular season game, the All-Star Game, or the playoffs. They are the essence of FOX baseball coverage, which spends more time fooling with cutting-edge graphics and goofy sound effects then trying to develop the formula of a successful broadcast. The game seems more like an opportunity to promote the newest reality show or the next Simpsons episode and less like a chance to watch and enjoy some afternoon baseball.

I think that it’s time to give the weekend baseball broadcasts back to NBC or have ESPN broadcast all the nationally televised games; let FOX concentrate its efforts on other sports like football and NASCAR. I don’t know how soon the contract runs out, but perhaps my fellow baseball fans can start a collection to buy out the remainder of the agreement. Surely, I can’t be the only one who feels a headache every time I have to watch and listen to these broadcasts; otherwise, I’m just going to have to kill my television, turn on my radio, and enjoy the games as my grandfather did.

2004 Mid-Season Review

Well, you certainly cannot look back on the first half of the season and wonder if it would have been the Yankees that were seven games back at the break and thinking wild card had the Red Sox had the lineup that was drawn on paper by Theo Epstein during the off-season. However, even as it stands, Boston enjoyed what, for many teams, would have been a successful first half: ten games above .500 and poised to make a run at a playoff spot in October. There are 76 games left to play in the 2004 season; as we enjoy the All-Star break, we look back on the studs and duds of the first 86 games.

Team MVP: Manny Ramirez
First runner-up: Curt Schilling

Even though this is his fourth season in Boston, it almost seems like we are meeting Ramirez for the first time, and the faithful are enjoying his company. The suddenly easygoing left fielder is enjoying a banner year: his .344 batting average, 26 home runs, and 77 RBI are tops on his team and have him at or near the top of the American League leader board. Not only is he a legitimate AL MVP at this point, he has a chance to become the first batting Triple Crown winner in nearly forty years. It’s hard to imagine that he was nearly sent packing over the winter; never have the cheers been louder when he comes to the plate or he makes a sensational catch in left field.

Team Goat: Derek Lowe
First runner-up: Kevin Millar

Perhaps he feels that he is being picked on, but Lowe has certainly not carried himself well enough on the field to be worthy of a multiyear deal that his agent, Scott Boras, is looking to get him this off-season in the $11 million per year range. His ERA of 5.57 is one and a half runs per nine innings higher that Tim Wakefield‘s as a starter. His seven wins do not look good next to eight losses in seventeen starts. It’s true that his defense has not always been there to support him; the 21 unearned runs scored against him are the most on the team. Still, he should be doing better than this and he knows it; hopefully we will see him turn things around in the second half.

Biggest Surprise: Pokey Reese
First runner-up: Johnny Damon

When Boston signed this two-time Gold Glove winner, they knew that they should expect greatness in the field and he has not disappointed. If you went through a reel highlighting the ten best plays of the first half by the Red Sox defense, we’re certain that he would be in better than half of those. With a career .250 batting average, you would not expect him to contribute much at the plate, but he has driven in 26 and scored 50 runs. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that we will see him anywhere but in the number nine spot in the lineup and, with Nomar Garciaparra back from injury, his playing time will be limited, but everyone knows how valuable he’s been to this team; those cheers for him whenever he comes to bat are backed with respect for his efforts.

Biggest Disappointment: Cesar Crespo
First runner-up: Byung-Hyun Kim

He was given ample opportunity to prove his worth and, by his own admittance, he blew it. In 79 plate appearances, Crespo batted .165 while driving in just two runs, never walked, and struck out 20 times. Perhaps you can argue that, given his limited playing time, he never had a chance to find his groove. Explain then how Doug Mirabelli, with seven less plate appearances, hit .306 with seven home runs and plated 17 runners. Sorry, but when you wear a major league uniform, you have to player like you belong.

Second Half Outlook
Let the good times roll!

It’s well known by anyone who had followed Boston this season that, after a 15-6 start, the Red Sox barely maintained a .500 pace (33-32) while New York surged from 4-1/2 games back at one point to seven games ahead in first place. The second half is not going to be any easier as Boston will play 24 games in 25 days following the All-Star break. This includes a trip out west, then three games in two days at Fenway against that pesky Baltimore, followed by a weekend home series against the rival Yankees, then ended with two weeks on the road against Baltimore, Minnesota, Tampa Bay, and Detroit.

At the moment, they also stand one game ahead of Oakland in the wild card race. Knowing that, it doesn’t mean that Boston could not pile on the wins in the second half and surge past New York into first place in the AL East. However, the point is to make it to October and perhaps the collective energy of the Red Sox is better spent trying to stay ahead of the wild card rivals. They have enough strength in the starting lineup and depth in the bench that they should be able make a run for that elusive World Series title.

As a side note, don’t forget that this might be the last chance to see Garciaparra and Pedro Martinez, two recent Red Sox legends, playing in a Boston uniform. Without a doubt, one or both of these fine players will be gone at the end of the season. Say what you will about them, but they have enjoyed some sensational years here and are have contributed mightily to the recent success of the Red Sox. We don’t know yet just how much we will miss either of them.

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.

Here Comes The Spider-Man

Major League Baseball changed its mind very quickly when, after announcing plans to put ads for the upcoming summer movie, Spider-Man 2, on every base in major league parks during a weekend in June, howls of rage from baseball purists helped decide that this was a bad public relations move. The same fans also got their knickers in a twist when ads showed up on the uniforms of players during a season-opening series in Japan between the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the New York Yankees. The victory for these fans, however, may only be short-lived.

Go to any major league ballpark today and you can’t avoid seeing ads everywhere for newspapers, major retailers, cell phone services, and soft drink companies. A blank wall space is nothing more than a potential spot to make a few extra dollars for a club that goes towards the cost of running a major league team, of which a good percentage counts towards player salaries. I can even stand at a stall in the bathroom and read an advertisement for exotic automobiles available at a local dealer. Don’t forget, too, that almost every ballpark now bears a brand name: Tropicana Field, Comerica Park, and Network Associates Coliseum, to name a few.

So where does the line in the sand get drawn between the genuine nature of the game and the chance to squeeze as much revenue out of the fans of baseball? Is it wrong for the playing field to have an ad for Home Depot carved into the outfield grass by the grounds crew? Should baseball players double as walking billboards for Coca-Cola? Have we entangled ourselves in this web of advertising that we have accepted the inevitable, on which Major League Baseball is counting??

In other sports, advertisements have become commonplace in areas that baseball fears to tread. At professional hockey games, you find large ads painted under the ice and possibly even a product name glued to the side of player’s helmets. Uniforms sported by European soccer teams have ads for adidas, Sony, petrol companies, and many other businesses. NASCAR is the best example of product placement gone mad; ads are plastered on every square inch of the cars, painted on the infield grass, and sewn to the jumper suits worn by the drivers. Regardless, the popularity of NASCAR grows every year. Would baseball be able to adopt some of these practices in a manner that does not detract from the game?

Those who favor the tradition and integrity of the game of baseball will eventually lose this battle because Major League Baseball, through no fault of its own, puts the bottom line above all else. At the end of the day, no matter which team ends up on top and who finishes last, the question will be: how much profit did we generate this season? What we, as fans of the game, can hope for is that the game itself does not change. A grand slam by Manny Ramirez scores the same number of runs whether or not an ad for Claritin prominently adorns his pant leg. A diving catch by Johnny Damon in the outfield is recorded as an out whether or not he slides across the Golden Arches painted on the grass.

Still, I want the field and the uniforms to remain untouched. I love the beauty of the green grass in the outfield, the red dirt in the infield, and the white glow from the bases and the foul lines under the sodium lights. I also love the white home uniforms of the Red Sox, with BOSTON boldly printed on the front and the players’ numbers printed square on the back. It would be a shame to have to deface the iconic images of America’s pastime in the name of revenue.

Mourning The Yankees?

Passionate Red Sox fans are still trying to wash the bitter taste of defeat from their mouth after watching the Red Sox hand a sure victory over the New York Yankees last October. Once again, we had to endure the taunts from the Yankee faithful and talk of an unspoken curse made by a dead ballplayer. Then, we watched these two teams play hardball in the baseball market; the Sox lured Curt Schilling away from balmy Arizona and the Yankees while New York snatched Alex Rodriguez, a player that was thisclose to being in a Red Sox uniform. In March, spring training tickets between the Sox and Yanks were fetching $500 each for a game that no impact on the upcoming season except to evaluate non-roster invitees vying for a spot on the parent club. As the season began, the rivalry was about as heated as it has ever been and we wondered what stories would be written this year.

So Sunday afternoon, as I watched Gary Sheffield weakly swing at strike three from Scott Williamson to end a three-game sweep at Yankee Stadium, I had to stop myself from clapping and cheering too loudly in my living room, less I wake up my sleeping son on the other end of the house. Boston has just managed to take six out of a possible seven games in ten days from New York and, while fans of Boston were trying their best to stay grounded and remind themselves that championships are won in October, Yankee fans were jeering their beloved nine. Peering into the enemy dugout, the pinstriped hosts looked as if they had just been to a funeral. Meanwhile, the visitors casually filed onto the field to congratulate each other and fans wondered if they were not feeling as elated as the rest of New England.

Something just did not feel right, though. Granted, as it has already been established, it’s only April and the Sox have plenty of games left to play before the season ends. However, that was not what bothered me. Had the Yankees, with eight All-Stars in the starting lineup for Sunday, been unable to beat a Red Sox team that was missing Nomar Garciaparra and Trot Nixon? Were they not able to get into the mind of Pedro Martinez, who had single-handedly (with some help from Grady Little) given Game Seven of last year’s American League Championship series back to the Yankees? What happens when our team is finally together as it was put together on paper in the off-season; what will happen then when these two collide later this season?

No one should feel sorry for the New York Yankees with the 26 world championships and the $183 million payroll. No sympathy cards must be mailed to George Steinbrenner. No flowers need to be delivered to Joe Torre or Brian Cashman’s office. No Get Well cards must be sent to Derek Jeter or Alex Rodriguez. If the Yankees have proven one thing over the years, it is their resilient nature and the ability to bounce back from troubled times. No one truly believes that the Yankees are done; it’s only April, remember?

Yet, what if this is the season that the Yankees finally come apart at the seams? What if they are doomed to a .500 season, or worse? What if the team doesn’t improve much from its abysmal .217 batting average, 53 points less than opponents are batting against them? Have teams from the AL East finally figured out how to pitch around these guys? Have they lost the ability to produce runs when needed, one at a time? Will the jeers from the minions at Yankee Stadium continue into May, then June, and perhaps all the way into September?

As a Red Sox fan, my first priority is to see that the Red Sox win the World Series. My only contribution to this effort is my unyielding support through thick and thin and perhaps the purchase of some tickets every season. However, what I would love nothing more is to see that, on the way, they stomp on New York to earn that title. I don’t mean win 15-of-19 games during the regular season and finish 20 games in front of them; I want another classic ALCS showdown.

I want to see a series between them that ends with the Red Sox streaming onto the field, jumping on each other’s backs, spraying champagne on reporters, and blowing smoke from nice juicy cigars. I want to see the ghost of Ted Williams in a corner of the clubhouse standing there with a knowing smirk. I want to see Johnny Pesky cry tears of joy. I want to see a dejected Yankee squad slowly file back to the clubhouse, hanging their heads, and wiping a few tears from their eyes.

Truthfully, at this point, I and the rest of the Boston faithful just want to see the Red Sox win their first championship in 86 years, and it doesn’t matter to me what teams they must push aside to get there. What would give me the most satisfaction, however, is to know that we went through New York to do it. Having been in their shadows for so long – 86 years, to be exact – nothing would be sweeter than to finish what was started in 2003, when the Red Sox came so very close to making this wish come true.

Putting On The Hurt

Nomar Garciaparra smiled to reporters this spring and told everyone not to worry because his ankle was just a little sore and that, after all, spring training games are meaningless. You don’t win championships in Florida, unless you happen to be the Marlins. But, just days before the 2004 season was to begin, the Red Sox placed the All-Star shortstop on the 15-day disabled list due to a sore Achilles with a likely return date around the end of April. You can’t help but flash back a few seasons when he missed most of 2001 due to a nagging wrist injury that required surgery on Opening Day.

Trot Nixon is another of the walking wounded for the Red Sox; out since early in spring training with a sore back, he is not expected to return until the start of May at the earliest. Ditto for Ramiro Mendoza, who was placed on the DL with shoulder tendonitis four games into the young season, and Byung-Hyun Kim, who started the season on the DL and spends these days rehabbing in Sarasota. Johnny Damon has also sat out for a couple of games, perhaps in part because his long hair has robbed him of any peripheral vision and caused him to run into his fellow outfielders during the first few games. Fortunately, his injury will not require injured reserve status and he should be back for action when the rains end.

Perhaps the slew of injuries that have plagued the Red Sox early in this year’s race can account in part for the stagnant production at the plate. Yes, the Sox are 4-3 after a week of baseball, but perhaps more thanks to a strong bullpen that have helped keep games close. Except for the absence of Todd Walker, this team has the same makeup as last season’s team that scored 961 runs; the difference is that the Sox were relatively injury-free for most of that year. So, instead of fielding the dream team that was molded in the off-season, Boston has had to go to the bench early and rely on role players like Gabe Kapler, Mark Bellhorn, and Cesar Crespo to fill in the blanks.

Fortunately, the schedule makers are usually very kind to the Red Sox in April. Yes, they face the Yankees seven times, but the rest of the competition consists mainly of the weak sisters from the East: Baltimore, Toronto, and Tampa Bay. Yes, they have improved and are not to be taken lightly but, even with one eye closed, the Sox can manage .500 in April without much effort and stay close to New York.

Boston, to keep its sights on October, must count on the return of its starters as expected by the end of this month. Until then, manager Terry Francona must continue to juggle the lineup as he has and hope for the best; so far, the oddball combinations have worked to help stay the course. Most important is that the rest of the team, minus the injured regulars, must remain healthy; any further setbacks may dig a hole out of which is too deep for Boston to climb.

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.