November 16, 2004

SO, BOSTON:

LONG VOYAGE HOME: The games almost finished off their fans, but at last, wow, the Sox have won. (ROGER ANGELL, 2004-11-22, The New Yorker)

The Redbird collapse can probably be laid to weak pitching, unless you decide that the baseball gods, a little surfeited by the cruel jokes and disappointments they have inflicted on the Boston team and its followers down the years, and perhaps as sick of the Curse of the Bambino as the rest of us, decided to try a little tenderness. This notion came to me in the sixth game of the scarifying American League Championship, when Gary Sheffield, swinging violently against Schilling with a teammate at first, topped a little nubber that rolled gently toward Sox third baseman Bill Mueller, then unexpectedly bumped into the bag and hopped up over his glove: base hit. Nothing ensued, as Schilling quickly dismissed the next three Yankee hitters, but the tiny bank shot, which is not all that rare in the sport, was the sort of wrinkle that once could have invited a larger, grossly unfair complication and perhaps even a new vitrine next to Buckner’s muff or Boone’s shot in the ghastly Sox gallery. You could almost envision the grin upstairs. Instead, looking back at the action up till now—the Yankees’ daunting three-game lead after the first three meetings of this championship elimination; their nineteen runs in the Game Three blowout; and then the Sox’ two comeback wins achieved across the next two games or twenty-six innings or ten hours and fifty-one minutes of consuming, astounding baseball—the old god feels an unfamiliar coal of pity within. “Ah, well,” he murmurs, turning away. “Let it go.”

Because they lost, the Yankees’ hundred and one wins this season (second only to the Cardinals’ hundred and five) barely count, here at the end. This Torre team, transformed by the departure of Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte and the arrival of expensive superstars like Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, and the fragile and palely hostile Kevin Brown, struggled glumly in the early weeks, perhaps distracted by its opening visiting-celebrity series against the Devil Rays, which was played in Japan. The Yankees settled into first place in their division on June 1st and were not dislodged thereafter—more of a feat than it appears, given the miseries of Jason Giambi, pathetically diminished by an intestinal parasite and then a tumor of the pituitary gland. None of the starting pitchers stayed consistent or free of the disabled list, but the rotation was lifted by the bullpen duo of Paul Quantrill and Tom Gordon, coming on almost daily before Mariano Rivera. Kept in games they’d looked to lose, the Yanks won late and often, but it was the day-to-day from Hideki Matsui and the imperturbably brilliant Derek Jeter (who shrugged off an early 0-for-32 streak at the plate) and the wrinkly-browed super-pro Gary Sheffield that made up for their deficiencies. A-Rod, acquired late in the off-season after an earlier trade had seemed set to land him in Boston (the Players Association nixed the deal, which would have allowed him to accept a substantially reduced salary), struggled a bit at the plate but not at third base, a new position to him, taken on because of Jeter’s tenancy at short. The team ran into strange blips and swerves along the way—a three-game sweep by the Mets in July, a rocky 1-7 patch in August, and a 22-0 pounding, the worst defeat in Yankee history, by the Indians a few days later. When Kevin Brown came off the field after a losing September effort against the Orioles and smashed his left fist (it was not his pitching hand) into a wall, breaking some bones and sidelining himself for the most serious part of the season, it confirmed something rich and dark about the fame-burdened old champions in the minds of their insatiable haters.

It was quite the other way at the overpacked Fenway Park, where grunge and base hits and a thousand team hug-ups became something like a perpetual kiddies’ picnic as the eventful summer wore along. Headbands and team hair proliferated, batting helmets tarred over, and “The Idiots” replaced last year’s “Cowboy Up!” Johnny Damon’s Sea of Galilee hairline reached his shoulders and below—“WWJDD?” began popping up on the Soxblogs—while Kevin Millar opted for a blond semi-buzz cut to go with his black Abe Lincoln whiskers, and Bronson Arroyo came out in yellow cornrows, with fetching tassels at the nape. On his off days, Pedro Martinez settled capless into his upper corner of the dugout, wearing only remainder bits of the Boston uniform, and delivered momlike nods and smiles toward the unbuttoned Manny as he ambled toward the bat rack again. No one could say how much of this boyish narcissism was just countermatter to the dadly Yankee hauteur, or how much it had to do with the Sox’ bounce and verve when the games began. Why even ask?

This was the most confident lineup of hitters and count-workers we’d seen in years, a bunch at ease with strike two or a late-inning deficit. Their rackety three hundred and seventy-three doubles was an offensive high-water mark famously reached by the Cardinals in 1930. Their talent would show itself unexpectedly in games, and sometimes almost give you a glimpse of what hitting is all about. In the fourth inning of Game Six of the Yankee playoff, the switch-hitting catcher Jason Varitek stood in against a tough-minded Yankee right-hander, Jon Lieber, and quickly fell behind on two called strikes. There were two outs, with a Boston base runner, Kevin Millar, on second. The next pitch, a ball, got away, moving Millar along to third, but seven more pitches were required—four of them fouls and the last one barely ticked—before Varitek singled cleanly to center for the first run of the game. Orlando Cabrera also singled, and the next batter, Mark Bellhorn, hit a three-run homer to left—the big blow of the game, of course, but it was Lieber’s discouragement and hurt feelings about all those pitches he’d had to think about and then deliver to Varitek, all of them after two strikes and two outs, that made it happen. When Johnny Damon came up to bat in the second inning of the final Yankee game, the Sox were already ahead by 2-0 and had the bases loaded. The new pitcher just now summoned in for the crisis was a starter, Javier Vazquez, and it must have entered Damon’s mind that, unaccustomed to the current clutter, he would almost surely opt for a first-pitch fastball and strike one. Damon swung and hit it into the right-field stands for a grand slam.

In the middle of the Sox order this year came the large and optimistic d.h., David Ortiz, forever smacking his gloves together and stepping back into the box, where he presented a pitcher with miserable options. Ortiz swings left, and anything low and in to him tends to be blistered distantly to right—some of his pulled shots got into the stands or caromed off a barrier in right before he was three steps up the line—while up and away produced high drives to left, good for outs in many parks but in Fenway a rain of doubles off the wall. His year-end batting line confirms the pattern: third in the league in doubles; second in runs batted in and tied for second in homers (with his teammate Ramirez just ahead); and first with ninety-one extra-base hits.

Watching the unkempt Red Sox brought back to me a different frazzled and talented bunch, the 1982 Milwaukee Brewers, who lost a seven-game World Series to the Cardinals that year. Three veteran swingers in their lineup—Ben Ogilvie, Cecil Cooper, and Gorman Thomas—combined for a hundred and five homers that season, while two others, Paul Molitor and Robin Yount, were heading for the Hall of Fame. Grunge and three-day beards were a specialty with the frowzy Thomas, who wore the same pair of lucky stockings in every game of the year, and Pete Vuckovich, a hulking right-handed starter who later played the heavy in the movie “Major League.” Despite resemblances, the style gap (and the income gap) between the two teams is hard to grasp. These Brewers were working guys, grizzled clubhouse rats who lingered over their card games, and later helped out behind the bar at Cesar’s Inn, a nearby factory-clientele bar owned by manager Harvey Kuenn and his wife, Audrey. It would never have occurred to Harvey’s Wallbangers (as they were known) to goof around like adolescents in the clubhouse or the dugout; they were grown men, and private. Were they better hitters than the 2004 Red Sox? Maybe not. [...]

I didn’t think much about all my Red Sox fan-friends until the World Series was over. Now they are triumphant, and their old pains and desperate attachments have become historic and quirky. They won’t need their amulets and game-watching rituals anymore—the stuff that was mentioned in so many of the TV news stories the day after, and in some New England newspaper feature stories. A copy of the Bangor Daily News mentioned a family in Old Town that mowed a “Go, Sox” pattern in the lawn, and a ninety-four-year-old lady in Lakeville, Massachusetts, who made herself a little ceramic Fenway Park each year, with porcelain nuns at play inside. This stuff may go on, but, like the Sox home games next year, it will be terrific fun but not the same. Perhaps trying to hold on to something, I got in touch with a bygone Red Sox hero, the pitcher Jim Lonborg, who had won two games in the World Series of 1967 and lost the last one, Game Seven, to Bob Gibson, whom he’d faced on two days’ rest. Lonborg is a dentist in Hanover, Massachusetts, and he called me back after he’d finished with his first patient of the day. He told me that he still got back to Fenway Park to see the Sox three or four times each year, and he admired the energy of this new bunch. So far, none of his old teammates had called, but a few friends had, savoring the day. He’d watched the last World Series game with his twenty-seven-year-old daughter, Nora—he has six children—and they’d high-fived after the Sox won.

“That’s all?” I said. “Only a high-five?”

“Well, there were more neighbors and family here when we watched the last game against the Yankees,” he said, almost apologetically. “When that was over, Nora ran up and jumped in my arms and knocked me across a table.”

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 16, 2004 7:32 AM
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