July 25, 2009
Nothing is more painful than the sight of competitive hitters like Jason Bay, J.D. Drew, Mike Lowell, and Jason Varitek lunging at low outside breaking balls and high inside fast balls and retreating to the bench with despair in their eyes. Desperation does not fit the Red Sox’ philosophy of patience at the plate and situational hitting. And it turns aggressive players into wall flowers waiting for the game to come to them.
It’s a long season, and these guys have reputations for coming back from slumps, but the American League pitchers have discovered a formula for getting them out. Pound the strike zone with breaking pitches and change-ups and finish them off with pitches out of the zone. The power trust keeps waiting for the fastballs that never come, until it’s too late. Then they’re tied up and look bad flailing at high ones.
I’ve noticed that the younger hitters– Youkilis, Pedroia and Ellsbury— are more likely go with the pitch and take what’s given them. They hit to all fields all the time, not just when they have the Green Monster to batter. These guys don’t strike out as much, because they’re not trying to yank everything. They hit grounders the other way and find the hole. And how did Ortiz break out of his slump? Hitting to left field and center and away from the shift. This is strategic hitting, not swinging with frustration and vengeance.
I don’t know these guys in the middle of the line-up personally, but I suspect that slumps make them think about the end of their careers, and in Bay’s case, about the end of his contract. There’s the fear of not catching up with the fastball, of diminishing eyesight, of hitting from behind in the count. It’s not a pretty sight, when you have to face mortality four times a game before millions of viewers and hometown fans.
How can anyone who has lived past forty fail to identify with this fear? I’m well beyond that frontier, so I can’t blame the veterans who are living it in public. But I wince to see the pain on the faces of hitters who are used to making the pitcher pay for the brushback and defying the shift by going the other way. I want to see their faces look like the grim determination of Pedroia or Youkilis, who look out at the mound with a challenge in their eyes. I’d like to see them wait on the breaking ball and take it the other way and to disdain the sneer of a high hard one. I’d like to see them give that knowing look back at the pitcher. Whatever you’ve got, meat, I’m ready for it.
I’m dreaming of that August, 1988 when the Sox ran the table and threw the American League back on their collective *****. They won 19 of 20 games. It was “Morgan Magic,” built from confidence in themselves and their teammates. I’d love to see the veterans, the guys who brought us so many clutch hits in the late season, make their run now. Experience still counts in this game, if you use it to your advantage.
Make your breaks. Go the other way. We love it when you make them pay.
In Fenway Park they paint the corners, hammer the Green Monster, and seal the infield like caulking around a window. On the road the pitchers moan at the shrinking strike zone, the hitters flail at the low outside breaking ball, and the infielders watch the ball shoot through the hole they vacated. They lose their swagger; they start to stagger. They fall behind and stay behind. They lock up the home team in extra innnings, then watch the best bullpen in baseball bow to pitching pretenders. At home they steal home; on the road they get picked off before they can make a run at second.
How does a road trip turn champions into chumps? The ancient Greeks thought the ground they walked on exuded power. “Antaeus was a giant of Libya, the son of Poseidon and Gaia, whose wife was Tinjis.
He was extremely strong as long as he remained in contact with the
ground (his mother earth), but once lifted into the air he became as
weak as water. ” Herakles, after losing a weekend series to Antaeus by throwing him to the ground, had the sense to hurl him into the air, where he was defenseless. Thus Herakles discovered home field advantage. The West Division of the American League has made a similar discovery.
Mediocre teams lose their nerve on the road. Bad teams give games away on the road. Championship teams are supposed to bring their “A” game on the road. Crowds fill up the home seats, because they know every game will be contested, when a champion comes to town. Champions are supposed to raise the level of play, to make the home team earn their runs or hustle to beat the outfield throw. They give no quarter to turf or domes or rambling foul ground. They come to play every day.
The Red Sox have not looked like champions on the road. They run the counts high and walk runners into scoring position. They set records for wild pitches. They flail at the low outside breaking ball (Lowell and Varitek) and bite at the high inside fastball (Ortiz and Drew). They lose ground balls in their gloves and overthrow first base. And they begin to whine about balls and strikes from both the mound and the batter’s box. These are signs of a defeated team.
If the Red Sox were a second division team, we would have to take it all in stride. But they are so dominant in Fenway, they set our expectations high. When they tread the high infield grass and guard the Monster, they breathe a resilience that makes them a threat in every game. They march in set-up men, relievers, defensive replacements, platooning outfielders that intimidate the mortal teams. Everyone contributes with confidence. No one gives quarter.
If the Red Sox are a team designed to win with a giant wall in left field, they are not champions. If they need a green backdrop to recognize balls and strikes, they are not going deep in the playoffs. If artificial turf turns them into helpless giants like Antaeus, they are going to fall to the shrewd and powerful Herakles.
The Sox are better than that, but they’ll have to prove it. Let’s see the Sox swagger in the domes of Seattle and Minnesota. Let’s see the fire in the eye on the West Coast swing and inter-league play. There’s no magic in the northeast soil.
Now we can remember the Curt Schilling who blazed the trail to the World Series. The rumors of comebacks, the feuding over contracts, and the spluttering of blogs are over, and the greatness of Schilling can rear its dauntless head.
“I think it was the right time in his career,” Francona said. “Boston
was looking for that last piece. He was looking for a way to pitch on a
championship team. It was a great fit. Obviously, it worked out well.
The stage was perfect for him. He was looking not to back away and go
somewhere where he could just pitch innings and get wins. He wanted to
pitch where he had a chance to win a championship.”
That’s the Curt Schilling story I want to remember, the bloody sock and big-game mentality, the tireless charting of hitters and the pinpoint control, the team mate and the role-player, the worthy opponent. It’s almost hard to recall the Red Sox before Schilling, but it’s safe to say they were never the same team after he joined them. He might have pitched only one in five days, but he was in every game and kept his team in every game. So say Ortiz and Varitek.
Let’s forget the rumblings out of Curt’s blog or the wounded years that delayed the final verdict. Few of us get to retire with grace. Too many of us wish for early retirement. Not Schilling. He kept chugging on a half-empty tank, thinking he could retire hitters by force of will.
So thanks to Curt, the Curse-Killer. Now we know there was nothing to that silly curse, but it took the brazen confidence of Curt, the courage of Curt, the cameraderie of Curt to put that silly curse in the ground. Whether that’s a Hall of Fame credential or not, history will have to decide. But the Red Sox story will always be divided BC and AC– Before Curt and After the Curse.
The Red Sox have adopted a new theory of dynasty building: retrench, rehabilitate and revive. Never has a roster entered Spring Training with more physical-conditioning uncertainties, mostly anticipated uncertainties. While the Yankees lavished huge contracts on the flashy sports models of 2008, the Red Sox trusted in the team’s rehab projects and the vintage, but affordable sedans of free agency.
“Retrenching” means backing away from the bidding wars and signing the invaluable Pedroia and Youkilis, proven and future stars of the dynasty dream of Theo Epstein. It’s hard to argue with re-signing two players ranked among the top four in the MVP voting in 2008.
And “rehabilitating” stars like Ortiz, Lowell, and Varitek seems like loyalty to veterans who have made them World Champions in recent memory. Josh Beckett and Tim Wakefield will also be returning from a blight of injuries that leave their future effectiveness uncertain, but they are already part of the Red Sox dream and deserve another opportunity to live it.
Undaunted by these risks, the Red Sox moved to “revive” more unclaimed veterans in the off-season: Brad Penny, Mark Smoltz, and Takashi Saito, all with heavy mileage on their arms. None of these pitchers are ready to start on the first day of Spring Training, and Smoltz even has a “Do-not-open-until-June” stamped on his once-tireless arm. These are calculated risks, which, individually, appear shrewd and economical. Together, they make the 2009 season a crapshoot for pitching.
And in case the risks weren’t high enough for pitching, the Sox have stocked their outfield with Rocco Baldelli and Mark Kotsay, neither of whom are ready to start the first month of Spring Training. As role players, these veterans could become invaluable off the bench, but they could be more than role players with J.D. Drew’s chronic back problems. They need to be fully revived on the first day of the season.
All this retrenchment puts a lot of pressure on the Red Sox training and medical staff, which Peter Gammons calls the “best in baseball.” Perhaps they can work wonders, but medicine and rehabilitation are always about probabilities. “Revival” is the part of the equation the Red Sox do not control.
That is the part we can second-guess, as the great re-cycling project of 2009 gets underway.
Alex Rodriguez has been portrayed this week as the last hope for a clean baseball hero, one who could dissolve the stain of steroids on names like Bonds, Clemens, Sosa, and McGuire. These fallen heroes have one thing in common: none of them have admitted any wrong-doing. As they fought pitchers and hitters in their careers, they are fighting the truth in their retirement.
“Say it ain’t so, Joe.” The classic line about baseball’s major gambling scandal, portrayed in “Eight Men Out” by a young fan who saw Joe Jackson in the street. Unfortunately Shoeless Joe didn’t have a good media advisor to help him sort out the truth from the lies about his participation in the “Black Sox Scandal.” Today’s baseball heroes know better the benefits of full or partial disclosure.
A real hero is not blameless, regardless of what the media says. A real hero just has to be straight with his or her fans and let them be the judge. I remember when Mickey Mantle was my hero in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Mantle had his share of carousing and stories about his late revelries with Billy Martin and Whitey Ford often got into the papers. The vices were relatively mild then, but it was enough to tarnish a hero. But Mantle never denied anything that he thought wouldn’t hurt his family, and he played through injuries as none of his contemporaries would. He made a lot of mistakes, but his fans forgave him. My father used to say he was influenced by older and more chronic boozers, players he respected. Even Mantle’s wife excused his infidelities for the sake of their marriage.
None of this contributed much to heroism, but it didn’t keep him out of the Hall of Fame. Mantle’s fans loved him in spite of his vices. Despite the fact he was baseball’s first $100,000 man, he never took on the persona of a corporation or tried to manufacture the untarnished heroism of players like Gehrig or DiMaggio or Bob Feller or Hank Aaron. He engaged the press and never complained about the pain or his contract.
“Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation lifts its lonely eyes to you.” The DiMaggios are gone, but that does not mean heroism is defunct. If Alex Rodrguez really offers full disclosure of his past and keeps his future clean, he could yet be the kind of hero Mantle was: flawed, but sincere, after his fashion. I don’t know if Rodriguez has the moral fortitude to do it, but I do believe America wants a hero, flawed or not.
Apparently Jason Varitek misjudged his marketability when he decided to file for free agency in 2008. And apparently the Red Sox overestimated the availability of catchers when they started negotiating with Steve Boras. So the parties have arrived in January with nothing but embarrassment to show for their Winter’s labors.
On the balance sheet for 2009 many baseball fans can sympathize. Items we imagined as “assets,” such as real estate, are depreciated and immovable. We are not bargaining for anything except to break even and survive our economic winter. Some are bargaining just to hold on to those assets until another Spring Training.
So we feel your pain, Red Sox management and disgruntled catcher. We get that no one’s going to win on this negotiation. Do you? Can you just scale down your expectations like the rest of us? Can you complete the roster and be glad you have an experienced catcher and a satisfying job respectively?
We’re not asking a lot of 2009: a job, a house . . . a shot at the World Series. Help us make a piece of that dream come true.
With the signing of John Smoltz (Bravo Theo!), the Sox are nearly ready for another year of contention. The remaining business has been sitting on Theo Epstein’s desk since the season ended: the of signing Jason Varitek.
Considering that Scott Boras represents Tek, and the Red Sox walked away from the table when he tried to squeeze them with Mark Texeira, I can imagine what the obstacles are. But Jason Varitek is more important than his impudent agent.
So I make this appeal to the principals: Remove the middle man and settle this contract as two old friends would. Give a little on each side and make this contract a sign of respect from both sides of the negotiation.
Tek, your active years as a catcher are waning. Concede that the length of the contract should be moderated with incentives or options that prevent the Sox from getting stuck with a lame veteran. Loyalty is one thing, but guarantees that don’t concede the ravages of time on a catcher’s body are not realistic . Give your team a way out.
Theo, this man is the soul of your team. He’s the captain, for Pete’s sake. Let’s show him some respect and take a risk that we wouldn’t take for other players. He deserves some concessions that Ramirez or Crisp never earned. He deserves some security as a catcher who is on the downside of his career. Offer one more year than you feel safe in writing into the contract.
Of course I know nothing about what’s been offered and what refused. I’m just saying, don’t let this season start without Varitek, and, don’t, by any means, let Boras come between friends.
We love Tek as much as we despise his ruthless agent. We want him back, and we want him respected.