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.

Tainted Love

When the San Francisco Chronicle finally let the cat out of the bag this week and detailed the testimony that several sports figures, including baseball’s Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi, gave in the BALCO investigation, it was no surprise to what people had long suspected. In fact, the proverbial bag was more like the plastic recycling bags that the sanitation department requires so that they can see exactly what we are pitching to the curb; the revelations did nothing more than prove what many had known for some time.

Bonds is well on his way to clobbering Henry Aaron’s career home run record by the early part of the 2006 season, but it will be an empty accomplishment. Even Hammerin’ Hank, as detailed in an article for theAtlanta Journal-Constitution today, has lost his admiration and support of the San Francisco slugger’s pursuit. “Any way you look at it,” he carefully pondered, “it’s wrong.” As for Giambi, the Yankees are looking to void the remaining $80 million contract that the New York slugger signed before the 2002 season that will keep him in pinstripes for the next four seasons, although most of the motions being made are merely academic and it would be difficult to show a correlation between his health problems in 2004 and his admitted drug use.

The steroid scandal is about to blow up in the face of Major League Baseball and the time bomb has been ticking long enough and loud enough for anyone to hear it clear across the country. Fans have been casting a suspicious eye on the field for the better part of recent years as the balls fly out of the park at an alarming rate and these stories only further lends discredit to the players. Now the federal government looks to act on the matter; Arizona Senator John McCain, who has warned baseball in the past to do something to police the players, has threatened to introduce legislation that would force the hand of the league to act on the issue.

Baseball will survive this latest scandal because the love of the game will conquer all. The fans love baseball in the purist sense: the smell of the grass, the color of the infield dirt and the uniforms, and the drama of a season from the early moments of spring training to the final out of the World Series. Every play and every game has the potential to be something magical. Whether it’s a line drive into the gap, a flashy double play, or a close call at the plate that makes or breaks the game, we rise from our seats to watch and either groan at misfortune or cheer in triumph. Those moments reveal the child that still thrives in each and every one of us that admires the bold beauty of the sport that has become an American icon.

However, to keep that fantasy intact, the owners and the players must now end the charades and agree together on a stronger policy that will hold players accountable for actions unbecoming of the game. Baseball’s dirty little secret is no longer that and it’s time for action to speak louder than words. It is not a matter of personal civil liberties as the Players Association has long argued; even most players now feel that they must answer the critics and submit to drug tests just to prove that they have followed the rules. The cold, harsh reality is that a percentage of the product that Major League Baseball puts on the field is tainted. In the past, it may have been about business, but the league can no longer do what it takes; it must do what is right.

There are plenty of arguments for stronger drug testing: Jose Canseco, Daryl Strawberry, and Ken Caminiti are three reasons that instantly come to mind. There are also those high school players who are hurting themselves more than they know because they believe that drugs are the answer to a career in professional sports. Most of all, the strongest argument is that it must be, at the most basic element, for the love of this game. As James Earl Jones’ character Terence Mann in Field Of Dreamsasserted as he looked over Ray Kinsella’s baseball diamond in that Iowa cornfield: “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball… This field, this game; it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and it could be again.” Come on, baseball; make us once more enjoy and believe in the good of the game.

Who Will Stay? Who Will Go?

Next Tuesday, 07 December, marks the final day that the former Major League Baseball club of a free agent will be allowed to resign said player or, at a minimum, offer salary arbitration. Otherwise, a player may not resign with his former club until 01 May. That means that, in seven days, Boston Red Sox fans will have a better idea of what face the club will have on Opening Day in 2005 as the organization prepares to defend its World Series crown. Of the 16 free agents that played last season for Boston, one has fled to Japan, utility outfielder Gabe Kapler, and one has resigned with Boston, Doug Mirabelli. Of those remaining players, four big names top the list of players that may or may not return in a Red Sox uniform next season; what chance will they be back?

Jason Varitek – C
Chances: Better than 75%

Varitek’s agent, the infamous Scott Boras, has told all interested parties that his client is looking for a five-year deal around $50 million with a no-trade clause; Boston has countered with a four-year deal in the neighborhood of $36-$39 million. In Varitek’s words, what he wants is stability so that he won’t have to worry about moving his family for a number of years to come. Having spent his entire career in Boston since his trade from Seattle in 1997, staying put would be the ideal situation. Varitek is a fan favorite because he always plays at full speed and probably reached an elite status alongside Sox legend Carlton Fisk when he shoved his mitt in Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez’s face in July.

There are very few free agents on the market that play to the caliber of Varitek; however, having said that, he is also not among the top players at that position. Varitek will turn 33 on 11 April and, historically, catchers do not play well into their late thirties. Reports last week arose that Boston will likely offer Varitek salary arbitration by the deadline and he would have 12 days to decide whether to accept. If he declines, the club would then have until 08 January to try and negotiate a new deal. Boston wants him here and Varitek wants to stay here, especially if he is serious about doing what’s best for his family. A final deal will probably pay him $10 million per season, and some of that will be paid out up front as a signing bonus, but the maximum number of years that Boston would be willing to commit would be four years.

Pedro Martinez – P
Chances: Fifty-fifty

Before the start of the 2003 season, the Dominican dominator began to squawk about a contract extension and told the media that, every day, his price would continue to climb. Instead of going into a panic about the Boston ace bolting to the Yankees when his contract expired, the organization simply kept its mouth shut and instead picked up the club option on a seventh year a week after the season began. Fans began to wonder if the Red Sox would eventually watch another big-name player walk as they had with former studs Roger Clemens and Mo Vaughn but, two seasons later, no one is in a panic and Boston looks like they played those cards right.

Boston has offered a two-year deal at $25.5 million with an option for a third year if he remained healthy that would bring the final value of the contract to around $38 million. Interest from the Yankees has been lukewarm at best; Pedro and his agent called a meeting with Steinbrenner early this month, but the Yankees have not verbalized an offer and it appears to have been more of a ploy to try and force the Red Sox to up their offer. The New York Mets are now willing to offer Martinez a guaranteed three-year contract at the same $38 million level, but it’s not the four years that the ace wanted and New York isn’t exactly on track to win another World Series in the next few seasons. Right now, the Red Sox are holding firm and they are willing to let Pedro walk, something that perhaps no Boston fan would have fathomed even before the 2004 season began. Pedro may get his best all-around deal from Boston, but it will be up to him whether his ego will allow his supposed loyalty to Red Sox fan to keep him in a Boston uniform for another few seasons.

Orlando Cabrera – SS
Chances: One-in-three

Cabrera was a nice pick-up for the Sox and made everyone forget that he was traded for perhaps the most popular Boston player in recent memory, especially in helping his new club win a World Series. Now the 30-year-old Columbian is looking to cash in on the national exposure that you just didn’t get playing for Montreal and is looking for a nice long-term deal. While Boston has some interest in retaining his services, they are not interested in signing him for more than a year or two, especially if Pawtucket prospect Hanley Ramirez is ready for the big leagues by 2006. Boston might try to offer him arbitration, but it’s a better bet that he will try to sign elsewhere because he may not get a better opportunity for more money as a player.

Derek Lowe – P
Chances: Less than zero

The unsung hero of the 2004 playoffs blew his chance to sign a contract extension with Boston in each of the last two off-seasons and that may come around to bite him in the end. Although numbers haven’t been mentioned lately, Boras reportedly was looking to secure Lowe with a contract worth $11 million per season. Lowe did win 52 games over the last three seasons and was a runner-up in the Cy Young voting in 2002, but he was inconsistent over the 2004 season, finishing with a 14-12 record and an ERA of 5.42, and the offensive juggernaut in the Boston clubhouse helped him record a few of those wins. It should be noted that he become the first pitcher in post-season history to record the decisive win in every one of his team’s playoff series, providing an inning of relief in Game Three of the Division Series and pitching gems in Game Seven of the ALCS and Game Four of the World Series. However, Babe Ruth has a better chance of being in a Red Sox uniform next season. Lowe is obviously a disgruntled employee in the organization and also wants to escape the scrutiny of the Boston media. With the younger Carl Pavano on the market for equal value and less money, Lowe will be dishing his sinker on another club next season.

Nothing Valuable Learned

Ken Caminiti tore through the 1996 regular season with the San Diego Padres in a matter that surprised and delight fans, batting .326 with 40 home runs and 130 RBI; his reward was the National League Most Valuable Player award. After his playing career ended in 2001, perhaps to clear his own conscious, he came clean and admitted to Sports Illustrated that his MVP season was not what it seemed; the use of steroids had been the answer to why the ball had flown off his bat that season as well as the latter half of his career. The desire to become a better ballplayer through illicit means developed into a lifelong struggle with drugs and alcohol, a fight that he finally lost in early October at just 41 years young.

Caminiti had a rather amazing stretch run that began in 1995, amassing a good percentage of his career highs during his MVP season. Having averaged 12 home runs each season in the first six full seasons of his career, Caminiti went deep 26 times in 1995, then shattered that mark the next season. His slugging percentage in 1996 was .621, better than 100 points higher than his career high. He also drove in an eye-popping 130 runs and stepped on home 109 times, again well above his career averages. He also showcased himself at third base, winning Gold Gloves in three straight seasons from 1995 through 1997.

Perhaps there were whispers outside the clubhouse and around the league that there was something not right about his development, but his all-out style earned him praise and hushed those rumors. As baseball looked to try to heal the wounds of a strike that was still fresh in the minds of fans, it served no purpose to chase after the star players that were the reason that people came back to the ballparks of Major League Baseball. In Caminiti’s own words, a good percentage, perhaps as many as half, of the players were using medicinal means to boost their performance on the field and to compete for that coveted spot in the everyday lineup; were it true, baseball seemed in no hurry to check into this matter.

Sadly, the use of performance drugs, while seemingly innocent to young ballplayer, almost always leads to the use of casual street drugs like cocaine, a fuel that gave Caminiti that high he no longer experienced outside the lines of the playing field. With no guidance except from probation officers, his battle was fought alone and he did not have the strength to win that fight, no matter how large his muscles had been or how acrobatic he was with his glove; in the end, he paid the ultimate price.

There are many examples of sports figures past and present that have battled drug addictions. Who can forget Darryl Strawberry, who for years has battled drug problems; no matter how many times he has been given a chance to reform, he cannot shake the habit and has been jailed numerous times for violating probation. How about Ricky Williams, who turned his back on Miami and the NFL because of his love for marijuana, or Bill Romanowski, who has touted the use of performance enhancers for years and was indicted on charges of obtaining a prescription diet drug?

What about 19-year-old Florida Marlins prospect Jeff Allison, picked in the first round in 2003 and given a nearly $2 million signing bonus, only to leave training camp this past spring and nearly die of a heroin overdose mid-summer? Last but not least, who can forget Steve Belcher, the 23-year-old Orioles pitching prospect that collapse during a spring training practice in February of 2004 and tragically died the next day, his death linked to a dietary supplement that contained ephedera?

To no one’s surprise, San Francisco slugger Barry Bonds, dogged by rumors and accusations all year of his connection in the investigation of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO), was honored with his fourth straight MVP award this week and the seventh of his career. His numbers this season were impressive, but perhaps what was more impressive, ironically, was that baseball continued to skirt the issue of drug use among its ranks. It’s the fault of not just the owners but the players as well, who clamor about right-to-privacy matters in labor negotiations. Baseball’s drug policy, only recently agreed upon during the last contract negotiations, has fewer teeth than a sock puppet and players continue to play the fans for fools. While it’s true that the home run may be the play that brings the paying customer through the gates, the physical health of baseball players continues to be endangered; at what point will someone finally scream enough?

A Reward Well-Earned

It’s two days later, I’m still on cloud nine, and I’m counting the number of Red Sox World Series championship T-shirts I’ll have to buy for my wife’s family in upstate New York who ragged on me for years about my beloved Boston team always falling short of the Yankees. Not only did Red Sox version 2004.1 – they won, get it? – finally get past their archenemies, they then went out and all but destroyed the St. Louis Cardinals, never trailing in all 36 innings of what proved to be a four-game sweep for a title that, as has been repeated ad nauseum, eluded the Boston nine for 86 years.

For years, my biggest beef in regards to a championship having eluded the Red Sox for so many years was that, even from the mouths of self-described Yankee fans, I would hear how much the franchise deserved one. To me, that was the equivalent of a backhanded compliment; it was as if the Red Sox should just be handed baseball’s most exalted trophy without having to spend eight months sweating through the promise of spring training, the grind of the regular season, and the pressures of the post-season. If there were any team that deserves the trophy more than Boston, it would be the Chicago Cubs, whose drought now extends 96 years after they failed to qualify for the post-season this year, in part thanks to a horrible final week in the regular season.

Boston owns the title of 2004 World Series champions because they went out and earned it. They qualified for the playoffs with the third-best record in baseball, cruised past the Anaheim Angels in the division series, came back from a 0-3 series deficit to win the pennant over New York, and then capped the season by dominating St. Louis in four games to vindicate those whose past efforts were rewarded only with bitter defeat. Whereas the 2003 season ended in disappointment and heartache, the 2004 season ended in fulfillment and celebration as the team poured onto the field at Busch Stadium and rejoiced like the past champions of Major League Baseball.

That does not mean that there are some things that the Red Sox deserve. The players deserve recognition for gutsy performances and doing what it took to win, even if it meant yielding the spotlight to others for the good of the team. Terry Francona deserves kudos along with his staff for taking this self-described band of idiots and molding them into champions, even under the pressures of being a first-year manager on a team that was expected to win. Theo Epstein deserves praise for adding the elements that were necessary to better those chances and, in the case of Nomar Garciaparra, taking risks that had the potential to blow up in his face. John Henry, Tom Werner, and Larry Lucchino deserve praise for guiding this team from the front office and giving the club a fresh identity that created less hostility and a more open and friendly atmosphere. Finally, Red Sox fans from Boston to Bangladesh deserve recognition for 86 years of loyalty, even through those years of failure and frustration, having never seeing this moment come to pass.

This 2004 Boston Red Sox World Series championship – I just enjoy saying that! – came to be because, from the moment this team lost Game 7 of the American League Champion Series last season, the entire organization banded together and worked towards achieving that goal. This season came down to what happened between the lines on the field, but it also came to be because the right decisions were made at every level of the organization. As in life, the greatest satisfaction comes from those goals that you achieved through hard work and dedication to the task; it might take 86 years but, when you do make it, the success is even sweeter.

2004 World Series Preview

Well, so far I’m six-for-six in calling these match-ups, but then you won’t see me jetting off to Vegas anytime soon to test my abilities in the World Series of Poker. Instead, I’ll concentrate on the original World Series of baseball where each team needed all seven games of their respective championship series to win the pennants of the American and National Leagues. Now before us, to the excitement of baseball buffs everywhere, are two teams who have met twice before in the battle for the title, once in 1946 and once in 1967. In both instances, St. Louis and Boston went to a deciding Game 7 and the Cardinals won over the Red Sox each time. While the days of Enos Slaughter, Ted Williams, Bob Gibson, and Carl Yastrzemski are long gone, there is no doubt that we have the makings of another Fall Classic.

St. Louis (105-61) vs Boston (98-64)
Season series: No games played

The Red Sox, facing the possibility of getting swept in the American League Championship Series by New York, were down to their last three outs when they rallied to tie the game. From there, they went on to win the final four games, including the last two in front of a raucous Yankee Stadium crowd, to clinch the AL pennant for the first time in 18 years. Meanwhile, the Cardinals returned from Houston down 3-2 in the National League Championship Series with the Astros and needed to win both games; they did just that, winning with a walk-off home run by Jim Edmonds in Game 6 and coming back late in Game 7 against Roger Clemens to clinch their first NL pennant in 17 years. On paper, these two teams look evenly matched, so who has the advantage over whom?

For Boston, they have a stronger starting rotation, even with Curt Schilling and his tender tendon that was held in place by two stitches so that he could pitch the Sox to victory in Game 6. The other pitcher of the moment for Boston is Derek Lowe, who pitched brilliantly in the deciding seventh game and, even with a seven-run cushion, allowed just one run on one hit in six innings of work. Of course, there is the arm of Pedro Martinez, who was strong in his two starts as well. Opposing them will be a strong rotation in itself, with Matt Morris, Jeff Suppan, Jason Marquis, and Woody Williams looking to stifle the Sox. Suppan delivered a clutch performance in the deciding game of the NLCS, out-dueling Clemens and a hungry Astros lineup. Williams is expect to start the first game and has great command, having earned a win in his first start of that series and going seven innings in his second start, allowing just one hit and no runs. Marquis and Morris both won 15 games this season on a staff that, like Boston, had five pitchers win ten or more starts but have struggled slightly in the post-season.

The bullpen match-up is also interesting; Boston has Keith Foulke as its closer, who appeared five times in the ALCS and earned a save in Game 6. His best work came in Game 4 when, with just one out in the seventh and Boston down by a run, he was asked to try and keep New York off the board; he responded by walking just two batters while not allowing a single hit in 2-2/3 innings to set up the late-inning dramatics for the Red Sox. St. Louis counters with Jason Isringhausen, who led the NL in saves with 47; he pitched six times in the NLCS and earned three saves. While he did blow a save, it was when he was asked to get the final nine outs of the ball game but only managed to get the first eight. He also had one loss, but that was on the road in extra frames with the score knotted at zero. The rest of the bullpen is evenly matched and both were key in helping get to this point of the season.

On offense, the Red Sox boasts a strong infield that committed just one error in the ALCS. Bill Mueller gobbles up balls hit anywhere close to him at third base, as does former Gold Glove winner Orlando Cabrera at short. Late in the game, Boston brings Pokey Reese in at second and Doug Mientkiewicz in at first, giving them three Gold Glove winners in the infield to back up Foulke and the rest of the bullpen. In the outfield, Johnny Damon patrols center field and, while his arm is a little weak, he gets to the ball fast. For the Cardinals, the human highlight reel in center field, Edmonds, who has made enough impressive catches in his career that would make fishermen jealous, leads them on offense. They also have Edgar Renteria playing short and Scott Rolen at third; together, they allowed just 24 errors in the regular season, making it unlikely that a mistake will come from the left side of the infield.

The lineup on either side of the field boasts some heavy hitters. Boston has the dynamic duo of Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. Ramirez did not drive in a single run in the ALCS but scored three runs and batted .300; Ortiz, on the other hand, was the offense for Boston late in the series, batting .387 with 11 RBI and collecting game-winning hits in Games 4 and 5, good enough for series MVP honors. He also led off the deciding game with a two-run home run and Boston never trailed in that game. Jason Varitek was also money against the Yankees, collecting seven RBI while batting .321, and Damon awoke from his ALCS slumber in Game 7 to plate a record six runs. For St. Louis, they are led by Albert Pujols, the NLCS MVP, who stroked four home runs, drove in nine, and batted .500. They also have Edmonds, Rolen, and Larry Walker launching baseballs into the stratosphere; Edmonds stroked a walk-off home run in the 12th inning of Game 6 and Rolen stroked a long ball to finish a rally by the Cardinals late in Game 7.

If there is one X-factor to watch in this series, it will be what Boston will do with Ortiz, the everyday designated hitter, when they travel to St. Louis and must play by National League rules. Ortiz did start 31 games at first base this season, so it’s almost certain that he’ll be there for the middle three games at a minimum; his bat is so hot right now that to remove him might psychologically deflate the potent offense. That also means that Kevin Millar will likely sit on the bench and only appear late to pinch-hit for a pitcher, but Francona may give Trot Nixon a rest in one game and let the Millar adventure to right field. If Ortiz can shake the rust, then there shouldn’t be much of a letdown.

Again, this has all the makings of a classic; Boston fans feel strongly that their time has finally come after 86 years of failure. St. Louis fans, though not quite as rabid, are just as loyal and would love to see the Cardinals bring home a championship trophy for the first time in 22 years. It’s almost too close to call, but Boston gets the edge in my book for two reasons. At the moment, they have a stronger pitching staff that proved in the final four games of the ALCS that they are ready to do whatever is called upon them to accomplish; the Yankee lineup was no less strong than what the Cardinals will throw at them. Second, in contrast, Boston has the potential to light up any rotation and have shown the ability this post-season to rally late against an even stronger closer, Mariano Rivera, who blew two consecutive saves for the first time in his experienced post-season career. This series will more than likely go the full seven games but, in the end, New England fans will get a second chance this year to watch a championship parade wind through downtown Boston.

Venimus, Vidimus, Vicimus

Sitting in a hotel bar in Dallas for the third straight night along with several colleagues from work, having made sure to sit on the exact same barstool each night while twirling my cell phone on the marble countertop, it was with much satisfaction that I watched Ruben Sierra hit a ground ball right to second baseman Pokey Reese, who simply scooped up the ball and threw with ease to Doug Mientkiewicz, completing a unbelievable comeback and igniting a celebration in that bar that probably woke up people on the eleventh floor of the hotel next door. All at once, the compounded weight of disappointments from the past seemed to lift off the collective shoulders of Red Sox fans from coast to coast and around the world; though the final ascent to the peak must still be made, a tricky, winding mountain passage was finally completed that many before them had tried to pass, only to be turned back at the end.

As had been the case so many times in years gone by, it had not been easy despite the bold predictions of those who knew better. What had seemed certain to the legion of fanatical followers almost turned out, on a cool Sunday October evening in Boston with just three outs to go, not to be, but the gods of baseball decided that long-suffering fans had endured enough heartache. The tables suddenly turned and what appear impossible became possible; a team that nearly had the plug pulled suddenly began to breath on its own and shocked those pundits who thought they had watched the same drama unfold many times over. Suddenly, the naysayers became believers and the faith of a nation was revived, spreading throughout the land like wildfire.

Admittedly, I am only old enough to recall the disappointment of another comeback that spelled doom for the Boston nine. The 1986 Red Sox were up two runs and within one out of staking claim on a championship in the sixth game of that World Series, but that final out never came and millions of bottles of champagne that had been opened went flat as the shock was too much to overcome. Before that, there was the collapse of 1978, which ended with a one-game playoff being decided by a light-hitting Yankees shortstop who hit only 40 home runs in 12 major league seasons. That was preceded by seven-game losses in 1975 at the hands of the mighty Red Machine, in 1967 thanks to three complete-game victories from Bob Gibson, and in 1946 thanks to Enos Slaughter’s mad dash from first to score the deciding run in the final game.

There are very few still alive who can actually recall the six-game series in 1918 when Babe Ruth led the last Red Sox team to win a championship over the National League. Since then, the team that he was sold to racked up 26 world championships and went through Boston more than once to accomplish that feat. As Yogi Berra told the young Yankee ballplayers before last season’s league championship series with the Red Sox, somehow New York always found a way to come out on top of Boston when it mattered most. True to his word, in the deciding game of that series, the mystique of the Yankee dynasty prevailed as the destiny of the Red Sox took a turn for the worse again and the Boston faithful watched victory get snatched away by the jaws of defeat.

However, that was just simply not to be this year; even the ghosts of Aaron Boone and Bucky Dent, who threw out the ceremonial first pitch before the deciding game in the series, were not enough to deflate the spirit of a franchise that felt so strongly that this was the year. The self-proclaimed band of idiots decided at the beginning of this season that there would not be any chance of a New York ticket-tape parade down the Canyon of Heroes between the Battery and City Hall and, this time, they collected on that wager. Even with their backs against the Green Monster, the collective spirit of the Boston nine rose above the noise and confusion and delivered themselves into the annals of Red Sox folklore as the team that finally brought down a mighty empire, not just in a regular season battle, but when the money was on the line and another loss meant a dour end to another long season. In the grand scheme of things, New York still owns Boston in the record books but, as of this moment, the Red Sox own the Yankees on the playing field. While this season will not be complete unless a championship parade winds through the cheering streets of Boston in November, for once mighty Casey struck out and those loveable losers of Yawkey Way delivered the deciding pitch.

2004 Championship Series Previews

Unfortunately, there will be no champagne celebrations in the locker rooms of Atlanta, Los Angeles, Anaheim, or Minnesota; these four teams have the rest of the off-season to reflect on what might have been. Now, with four teams just eight wins away from a World Series championship, they must set aside that lofty goal and concentrate on the task at hand; that is, they must win the pennants of their respective leagues. Boston, New York, and St. Louis had little trouble getting through the division round while Houston needed all five games to take care of those pesky Braves. Now, the stakes have been set higher and each team is ready to prove themselves, but only two will survive to move on to the next round.

New York (101-61) vs Boston (98-64)
Season series: Boston won, 11-8

Anyone who has paid attention this season knows by now that these two teams were destined to face each other in the American League Championship Series for the second year in a row. With nineteen meetings between these two teams in the regular season, there should be no surprises left to spring on each other and the only advantage left seems to be psychological. Boston was just five outs away from the pennant when Grady Little had a brain cramp and left Boston ace Pedro Martinez in the game to try and work through a jam; his strategy failed and the Red Sox lost to the Yankees in extra frames. Now, a year later, Boston believes, to paraphrase unofficial team spokesman Kevin Millar, that the club this season is five outs better than the team from a season ago. New York, however, has the uncanny ability to seemingly pull an invisible string and make the impossible become reality, which has translated to several world championships in the 86 years since Boston won its last.

This series is about as evenly matched as you will ever find two teams coming face-to-face in the playoffs, so who will come out on top? This wouldn’t be much of a Red Sox fan site if we didn’t believe that Boston would triumph in the end, but we aren’t just showing favoritism. The key to the club’s success will lie in its ability to score runs early, which was critical to the success of the regular season; when the number nine hitter in the lineup is last year’s AL batting champion, you would think that they are capable of pushing people across the plate. With a relatively weak starting rotation, New York must find a way to subdue the Boston lineup, led by the Monsters of the Fenway Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, or it will find itself in a hole very early. What also gives Boston an edge is its starting rotation, which features Curt Schilling, who was nothing less than dominant in the regular season, and Martinez who, despite rumors to the contrary, is nobody’s daddy in the major leagues. Throw in Bronson Arroyo and you have the answer to keeping the always-dangerous Yankee lineup at bay.

What the Red Sox must watch for, as was true in the Anaheim series, is a close score late in the game. The Yankee bullpen, led by Cy Young candidate Mariano Rivera and bolstered by Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill, is nearly unhittable and, with what’s on the line, the chances of a late-inning rally are small. Also, the Red Sox cannot afford to give the Yankees extra outs; those are the types of mistakes that New York does not miss the opportunity to take advantage of when the game is on the line. Do not think for one minute that it will be easy for Boston to take the series but, in the end, the Red Sox should finally be able to dispatch their archrivals and move on to the World Series.

St. Louis (105-57) vs Houston (92-70)
Season series: Houston won, 10-8

St. Louis ran away with the National League Central division and dispatched Los Angeles in four games in the Division Series. They accomplished this, to no one’s surprised, by lighting up the scoreboard with seven home runs, including five in the first game of the series. Led by Albert Pujols, Larry Walker, and Edgar Renteria, the Cardinal’s offense was too potent for the Dodgers to handle. Houston, on the other hand, needed five games and two wins in Atlanta to win their series, which was not decided until the Astros scored five runs in the seventh inning of Game 5 to put the contest out of reach as the Braves watched yet another team celebrate a division series win at Turner Field.

These two teams, like Boston and New York, had the opportunity to face each other multiple times this season (18, to be exact), so they should have a good idea of what is in store for them. Houston, of course, continues to roll after a late-season surge pushed them into the playoffs as the wild card while St. Louis cruised through the final two months in preparation for some late October baseball. In September, Houston took five of six games between the two teams, including a sweep at home in the final week, but that success was more likely a result of the Cardinals resting themselves for the coming weeks; had it been more decisive, perhaps the outcome would have been different. So, take away that late season success and the Cardinals were 7-3 when there was more that mattered.

Houston also comes into this series with a starting rotation that is nearly burned out from the NLDS. Astros starters Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt each pitched on three day’s rest, so Phil Garner may have to try and save these two for Games 3 and 4 in the series. That leaves Brandon Bracke (5-3, 4.30) and Pete Munro (4-7, 5.15) in the first two games, unless Clemens feels good enough to come out in Game 2 on just three days of rest again. In contrast, for the Cardinals, starters Woody Williams (11-8, 4.18), Jason Marquis (15-7, 3.71), and Matt Morris (15-10, 4.72) will have enjoyed plenty of rest when their turn in the rotation comes.

Even though it looks like St. Louis should be better rested for this series, Houston has fought tooth-and-nail to make it this far. Clemens would love to add another ring to his collection along with the Cy Young award that he’s sure to collect after the season ends. Phil Garner would love to be the guy who turned a team around at mid-season and turned them into champions. The Cardinals, though, have been at this point in three of the last five seasons and were unable to advance in the first two attempts and they don’t intend to let that happen again. Add it all up and St. Louis finally comes away with their first NL pennant since 1987.

A Season By The Book

As the final out was recorded the other night in Minnesota, eliminating the Twins from post-season contention, another chapter in the book written by the baseball gods ended. Then, the page was turned to discover a chapter that seemed just like the one that began around the same time last October. To the surprise of no one who has followed the drama of another storied season, the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees will square off, beginning Tuesday night, in a seven-game series that will determine who will raise the championship pennant and represent the American League in the World Series. This stage is ready, the house lights have been dimmed, the orchestra has taken its cue, and two baseball titans are ready to clash; in the end, one will emerge bloodied but victorious, having disposed of a hated rival in a battle that may even surpass what was witnessed only a season ago.

Last year, it was New York third baseman Aaron Boone, a third-generation ball player, who strolled to the plate in the bottom of the eleventh at Yankee Stadium and, with one swing of the bat, launched a pitch from Tim Wakefield deep into the night. That one moment sent the storied House That Ruth Built into a frenzy, Yankee fan and ballplayer alike, while the sullen Boston nine slowly made their way back into the clubhouse, realizing just how close they came to crowning a dream season. Only three innings before, they had the game cinched with a 5-2 lead and five outs to go; all of that changed when ex-skipper Grady Little, in a moment that will vilify him through the end of his days, allowed Pedro Martinez to stay out on that pitcher’s mound when he was clearly out of gas and surrender the lead in the blink of an eye.

Since that fateful day nearly 51 weeks ago, much has been written in regards to the respect and the hatred that these two teams demonstrate for each other. There has been plenty to fill up the notepad of every beat writer and to converse about on the sports radio and television shows. Whether it was key trades made to bolster what were already powerful lineups, angry exchanges between the front offices, or on-field action that rode like a roller coaster at Six Flags, there was enough drama and excitement created by the teams and the media that fans couldn’t help but get caught up in the excitement. It seemed that, no matter how the chapters unfolded during the season, it was as if these two teams were meant from the beginning to be where they stand today, ready to take on the other in a climatic battle.

Now, those nineteen meetings in the regular season are but a distant memory. Regardless whether one team bettered the other, all of that gets thrown out the window and the season begins anew. In comparison, the divisional series were a cakewalk that needed to be made in order to reach this point, with no disrespect meant towards the Twins and the Anaheim Angels, who must now watch from the sidelines like every other AL team. The play on the field now rises to a different level, as both teams know that tomorrow only comes with continued success. A single play might mean the difference on the scoreboard. Every managerial decision, right or wrong, will come under intense scrutiny. All the want, the desire, and the aspirations of a championship must now be decided in the confines of two storied stadiums that house two storied franchises; this has all the makings of a classic saga that was destined by the fates.

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.