Sometimes we remember 1986 as the year Bill Buckner let the World Series slip under his glove and the Curse of the Bambino was born. We forget that the Sox had slipped into the Series by until-then the biggest clutch hit in their history. In 1986, Dave Henderson “hit a ninth-inning, two-out, two-strike homer that lifted the Red Sox to a Game 5 victory over the Angels in the American League Championship Series. The Red Sox won Games 6 and 7 to advance to the World Series.” ESPN.com remembered the moment in an obituary for the 55-year-old Henderson, who died on Monday.
For a trade acquisition who played only two years for the Red Sox, Dave Henderson had this remarkable impact on a team supposedly cursed to fall short of a championship for decades. He didn’t hit for an average, but he had clutch power that brought him out of obscurity into local fame and adoration. Frank Malzone, who died the day after Hendu, is remembered as a lifetime contributor to Red Sox Nation, but the center-fielder who came for a short stay is remembered with similar affection.
I came to the Red Sox as a disaffected Yankee fan in 1978. (Billy Martin had just been re-hired for the third or fourth time in the farcical epic of Steinbrenner’s reign). I hadn’t seen glory days of 1968 or 1975 as a Red Sox fan, so the playoffs were new excitement to me. I remember the resignation of Game 5 and the sudden elation as Henderson turned the series around with the last strike thrown. It was a new excitement, not the kind you expect as a Yankee fan, but the kind that rocks you as a Red Sox fan. That the Red Sox went on to win that series and return to the big stage made the moment more special. Dave Henderson was a Fenway folk hero for that and later clutch swings at unexpected moments.
Henderson’s glamor was undermined by the immortal Bill Buckner, whose fielding gaff unfairly turned a great career into a sad joke. Dave Henderson was the counter-narrative to that tragedy in that he turned a floundering team into the American League Champions in the same year. His clutch swing puts the Curse in a different perspective, a team struggling to overcome its reputation as a big-game failure. The swing turned Henderson himself into a local hero, a buoyant and unruffled batter, indifferent to averages and odds-makers.
In 1986 I decided to go back to graduate school after twelve years of high school teaching. Eight years later I came to Michigan to teach teachers, a job I have cherished till today. Probably the uplifting moment when Dave Henderson entered Red Sox history had nothing to do with this turning point in my life. But it didn’t hurt. I remember 1986, not as cursed, but as blessed by the bat of Dave Henderson. Thanks, Dave.
Larry Lucchino, Red Sox’ CEO, likes to stoke the fires of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry every year, making barbed comments about their strategy to attract the top of the free agent market, including Jacoby Ellsbury, who left Boston for greener currency and a longer contract. He knows he can only sell more tickets by baiting the Yankees’ front office.
And the Yankees rose to the bait recently as their President Ben Levine, retorted,
“I feel bad for Larry. He constantly sees ghosts and is spooked by the Yankees. But I can understand why. Two years ago, under his and Bobby Valentine’s plan, the Red Sox were a last-place team.”
Besides keeping their managers in the hot seat all year, this is what team officers get paid to do: remind the fan base that the enemy is out there, and they have to rally around their team to keep them at bay.
Despite the huffing and hype, the Red Sox have shown incredible restraint in the free agent market and left themselves vulnerable to a dangerous Yankee line-up when the teams square off. With Ellsbury at the top of their line-up and Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann surrounding the recovered Mark Teixiera in the middle of the order, the Yankees are poised to do damage in Fenway and at home. Too many clutch hitters means not enough space to pitch around a lethal line-up.
And if these guys march intact through the season, it will probably be lights out for the Boston Red Sox. But the chances of all four of these guys staying off the disabled list during the season are slim indeed. They all have recent histories of injuries and, with the exception of Ellsbury, are probably past their prime years physically. Ultimately the Yankees’ success will depend on who fills in for these guys during their inactivity.
The Red proved they could respond to injuries in their championship season by pulling one magical replacement after another out of their hat. The most noteworthy was Koji Uehara, who stepped up after two big free agents went down for the season. Brandon Workman filled a chasm in the bullpen, when Andrew Miller was injured in the middle of his best season in the Majors. Daniel Nava stepped up when Jonny Gomes went down and proved the more reliable hitter and fielder. Mike Carp took up where Mike Napoli left off in the middle of the season and tore up the American League for a spell. Shortstop was a carousel of players from Stephen Drew to Jose Iglesias to Xander Bogaerts, each of whom could make us forget the one who was hurt.
Call it luck, if you will, but having capable replacements is what keeps a team alive in the long chase for the American League East Championship. It’s what made the Red Sox a long shot in 2013, but it’s what made them a team in the final month of the season.
Foresight or luck? If the Red Sox are also-rans in the 2014, we can concede it was mostly luck, but if the Red Sox show the same resilience, while the Yankees keep the infirmary busy, then you will have to say there’s a formula for success. Because the Red Sox are stocking their bullpen and rehabbing outfielders and trying out young pitchers just the same as last year.
The Yankees are betting $500 million that it was a lucky shot.
I’ve got my tickets for a weekend trip to Fort Myers–March 16,17—and I’ve got Spring Training Fever. Looks like it’s been quite a few seasons, since I had that fever or at least since I opened up this blog.
As much as I feast on the detail of the Spring developments, I wish the media would avoid contriving the news. Like the morbid details about the clubhouse rules. Like the silly exchange about whether Jeter was out of position during a play he made eleven years ago. Like who is going to apologize to whom about clubhouse behavior in September. These reporters sound like a klatch of middle school girls digging up dirt and spreading rumors. And their problem is the same. Too much time on their hands and not enough hard news to go around.
Occasionally Spring Training reporters feature a new player on the squad or the comeback of an old one. Now that’s interesting. The Red Sox faithful would like to hear about players who were not on the roster last year. The uncertain prospects in the outfield also make for good news–Crawford’s rehab. A Cody Ross or a Ryan Sweeney sighting. That’s good for one day. The progress of the lame, the halt and the blind the Sox recruited for the bullpen. How are their arms performing? That’s another good day of news.
Here’s an idea: interview the veteran reporters who can compare this team with previous ones. I always like to hear what Peter Gammons, Dan Shaughnessy, or Roger Angell have to say. They won’t hand out the tired cliches and the faint praise you get from the coaches and the manager. They can and will say what they think.
What about this new park? Does it really resemble Fenway? Does it have a Pesky pole or an under-developed foul territory? What do the players think of it? Inquiring minds want to know.
Well, it may not be hard news, but it would be worth reading, and it suits the speculative frame of mind we’re in as Spring Training rolls in. And it beats running back and forth between training camps trying to start a feud over nothing or trying to deconstruct off-the-cuff remarks like they were the words of the prophets.
Let’s read about baseball and not who broke up with your sister’s ex-boyfriend.
The signing of Brad Penny answers the pitching question for the Red Sox’ 2009 season. Passing on the the two studs of 2008–Sabbathia and Burnett–the Sox showed they could sign with shrewdness, if not with abandon. They had already paid for the top of their rotation in Beckett and Matsuzaka, and they had had a smaller price tag in mind for a fourth or fifth spot in the rotation. With this kind of restraint, the Red Sox are a team we can identify with, one with a budget and a bridle of thrift and sense.
Brad Penny is just a year away from his best in the Majors. He was dominant in 2007 and could be again. He may not be a sure rehabilitation project, but pitchers are never a sure investment in the Major Leagues. (Can you say “Carl Pavano”?). Even Josh Beckett showed his mortality in 2008, and he had the best stuff in baseball when he signed with the Sox. The calculated risk may be the best risk in the pitching market.
2009 will tell the story, but with Beckett, Matsuzaka, Lester, Penny and Masterson (Wakefield?) I’ll look forward to the first Yankees series in the Spring. And I respect the Red Sox for the wariness in spending many of us have to emulate in 2009.
Now let’s end run Scott Boras and get Varitek signed.