- "No matter where you are
I can still hear you when you drown"
I knew we were in trouble last week. My Dad and I were having a drink together in Boston. The conversation drifted to the Red Sox, just like it always does. We talked about Nomar. I mentioned that he was moving around at short about as fluidly as Lieutenant Dan at Forrest Gump's wedding. Dad didn't get the reference, but he shook his head in disgust.
"It all comes back to that A-Rod trade," he said. He was making the Dad Face, the same one from when I used to show him my report card from high school.
"Uh-oh," I said. "Really? You're starting this early?"
At this point, it was June 24th. The team was playing okay. Not great. Okay. It seemed a little early to play the A-Rod card. Not for my Dad, of course.
"For an extra $15 million, we could have had the best player in baseball. You have to make that move."
"But Dad, that trade wasn't worth it. We had to give up Nomar, Manny, Williamson, prospects and $15 million just for A-Rod and Magglio Ordonez. That's not a good trade."
"Nomar? He's been awful!"
"Well, they didn't know he was getting hurt at the time."
"They choked," he said, barely even listening to me. "They let him get away. That's the story of this franchise. They let people get away."
After this week's debacle in Yankee Stadium, my father's words were ringing in my ears. Maybe he's right. This winter, the Sox didn't get it done and the Yankees did. That's been the difference over the years. The Yankees go the extra mile. Of course, they can spend twice as much money as anyone else, and everyone who roots for them is headed to hell some day. But yes, they always go the extra mile. The fact remains that there were two blue-chippers available this winter -- A-Rod and Javy Vasquez -- and the Yankees got them both.
There was a creepy inevitability during these past two nights -- the crowd smelling blood, the Sox falling apart in sections, the Yankees going for the kill. They just have a better team. Last year it was debatable; that's what made the ALCS so special. Not this year. These Red Sox give away outs, butcher easy plays, suck the life from their pitchers. Other than Pokey Reese and Jason Varitek, none of the defensive players on the roster could even be called "average." It's like a talented softball team, Billy Beane's "Moneyball" vision sprung to life. Just keep getting guys on base and everything will be fine. Or so they say.
Of course, Beane's Oakland teams haven't won a playoff series yet. And that's the problem. I'm not sure you can win this way. Teams that ignore the Little Things -- turning crisp double plays, taking the extra base, cutting off balls in the outfield, getting bunts down in big spots, running the bases without looking like you're drunk -- never seem to succeed in October. Eventually, you reach a point where the other team is just as good as you, so you have to roll up your sleeves and beat them by playing some baseball. You know. Like the Yankees did in the seventh and eighth innings last night.
Sure, it doesn't help that the Sox have been saddled with another shaky manager. I'm not sure how this keeps happening. Just in my lifetime alone, we've had a staggering collection of drunks, butt-kissers, dimwits, village idiots, senior citizens, hotheads and lunatics. This year we have Terry Francona, who looks like Moby and seems like a nice enough guy. They always seem like nice guys. Maybe that's how they get the job. Anyway, thanks to Francona's lack of aggression -- not moving runners over, sticking with starters too long, catering to his stars -- the team's passive play is beginning to reflect his personality. And I'm not even sure he's awake half the time.
Believe me, we've been here. The lack of urgency . . . boy, that reminds me of 2002! The brainfarts . . . hey, that's just like 2001! The absence of clutch hitting in close games . . . wow, it's like 2000 all over again! If anything, they seem TOO loose, the kind of team where somebody drops a pop-up and everyone laughs it off like it's the funniest thing that ever happened. It's a world devoid of repercussions. Honestly, I think Nomar could make a costly error in the next 25 games in a row, and Francona would STILL refuse to stick him at DH and put Pokey back where he belongs. He's too busy scheming to break the "Fewest Sacrifice Bunts In One Season" record.
And so they're drowning. Slowly. When your baseball team has "it," you pretty much know. I've written about this before. You start winning games on goofy plays, having those improbable ninth-inning rallies, getting huge hits from the Crespos of the world . . . you just kind of know. As sad as this sounds, my favorite moments of this season were A.) Pokey's inside-the-park homer, and B.) Kevin Youkilis getting ignored by everyone in the dugout after his first major league home run. I can't remember anything else that stands out. As I wrote a few weeks ago, it's like one of those $120 million summer action movies where nothing actually happens.
The injuries haven't helped. Schilling has been pitching with an aching ankle. Pedro's shoulder is like Scott Weiland -- it could go at any time. They missed Nomar and Trot for those first two months. And yes, it's always difficult to evaluate a team that hasn't been completely healthy yet. At the same time, thanks to all the free agents, this feels like one of those "Saturday Night Live" seasons where some well-known cast members are leaving for crappy movie careers, but some of the other stars just got here. So there's a weird vibe in the air. Two eras colliding.
Pedro and his geri-curls are headed for free agency. Same with Nomar, who almost certainly won't return after they nearly whacked him, Sopranos-style, last winter. Varitek, Derek Lowe and the Derek Lowe Face (back for an unexpected encore) are joining them. They're giving way to a new crop of mainstays: Foulke, Schilling, Poppy, Manny and Pokey. Manny and Poppy (aka David Ortiz) have emerged as the dominant figures -- always smiling and styling, always the center of attention, almost always ripping the ball. As far as great tag-teams go, they're like Fred Lynn & Jim Rice crossed with Brock Landers & Chest Rockwell. I laugh at least once a day watching these guys. You can't take your eyes off them. They personify this team more than anyone, two exceedingly likable guys, two of the best hitters in the league . . . but two guys with no other discernable baseball skills.
Heading into the All-Star Break, the team with the $120 million payroll is headed for around 91 wins. If you've watched them every day, you wouldn't be even remotely surprised. You can't build a team around four high-profile starting pitchers, an expensive closer and a crummy defense, paced by an explosive offense that can't create a run from scratch to save its life. Here's what happens: You win a bunch of games by scores like 10-3, and you lose a bunch of games by scores like 3-2. The pieces don't fit. It's that simple. Not only did the front office ignore the lessons of the 2003 World Champion Marlins, they ventured in the complete opposite direction.
And yes, maybe the A-Rod Saga set the tone for the season. Like my Dad was complaining last week, the team couldn't get it done when it mattered. And it's been that way ever since. Maybe he's right. Maybe he's right.
As Jackie Rogers Jr. once sang, "Damn you, Daddy."
Then again, this has been the happiest Red Sox season of my life.
Back at the end of March, while I was stuck reading one of those "Middle-Aged White Guy Sucks The Life Out of Sports" columns in one of the local papers, I had what Mike Tyson once called an "Epithany." Did I REALLY need to read this crap? Why was I torturing myself? Couldn't I follow this team without seeing any negative columns or sarcastic message board posts? Or hearing four unhappy smug members screaming at one another? It was possible, right?
So I gave it a whirl. It was like quitting smoking, or not going on Google to look for Lindsay Lohan websites -- it's the right thing to do, you just don't know if it can be done. Fortunately, I'm living in California . . . a place where people don't care about anything, much less sports. Here in California, the word "Schwarzenegger" is actually preceded by the word "Governor." Then again, it's not difficult going cold turkey when you're living 3,000 miles from home. With enough discipline, I don't need to worry about the following things:
1. Boston sports radio hosts trying to start trouble.
Because that's what they do. Click on this column for more details. And the last section of this one. Believe me, I've done the radio thing. Talking about sports for 20 hours a week isn't the easiest thing in the world; there are only so many angles. You're looking for a reaction -- any reaction -- and invariably, you end up throwing stuff out there and hoping it gets people riled up. And if you're driving around Boston on a 95-degree day, stuck in traffic with nothing else to do, you end up getting sucked into that stuff. You can't help it. There's a reason Rick Pitino once uttered the immortal words, "All the negativity in this city sucks. It stinks and it sucks and it stinks."
2. Boston sports columnists trying to start trouble.
Because that's what they do. Click on this column for more details. And the last section of this one. I'm tired of writing about this. Before I die, I want to read one more Boston columnist who simply has the goal of making sports more fun to follow -- the way Ray Fitzgerald or Leigh Montville did when I was growing up -- without using their column as a place to settle agendas, sell books and promote their latest TV appearances where they make $250 for five minutes just to scream over three other guys. That doesn't seem like too much to ask.
3. Message board posters trying to start trouble.
Because that's what some of them do. For every four fans who visit message boards to follow the team and engage in some friendly arguments, there's a fifth person lurking just to wreak havoc.
Take those three elements away from a Red Sox season and ... guess what? Suddenly the season doesn't feel so negative anymore. To follow the Sox online, I make two stops every day: The main page of a well-known Red Sox message board, and a local site that posts the relevant Boston sports links of the day. I don't click on any of the links/threads unless it reads something like "Manny's HIV Test Results Are In" or "Sox Trade For Pujols!" I avoid the game stories. I definitely avoid reading the columns.
So how do I follow the team? I TiVo every game. I examine box scores and team stats. That's the recipe. If anything newsworthy happens, I know I'll see it on the front page of ESPN.com, or I'll eventually hear about it from my Dad, my friend Hench, one of my readers, Jerry Remy and Don Orsillo (the Sox announcers), or even NESN's Sox Post-Game Report (which sometimes includes the immortal Sam Horn, who unleashes so many malapropisms during the average episode that I can't believe nobody has bothered to write them down -- isn't that what the Internet is all about???). Think about it. If the Sox just made the 2004 equivalent of the Scott Sauerbeck trade, or Kevin Millar pulled his bursar sac, do you really need to know right away? What's the difference of a few hours? You're getting the information eventually, right?
This little ploy worked like a charm for nearly three months. Even my trip home was a success: I can't remember having a better time in Fenway, a place that has simply been transformed by the Henry-Lucchino-Werner ownership. It's like seeing someone turn Michael Myers's old house into a multi-million dollar mansion -- between the Monster seats, the extra concession stands, the transformation of Lansdowne Street and everything else, these guys have worked wonders. On Friday night, I tested out the picnic table seats in right field. We were looking DOWN on the right field bullpen, with thousands of diehards in the bleachers to our right. And the seats came with $100 of free food and beer, as well as a picnic area behind us. As Doc Rivers would say, it was an amazing experience. Poppy even slammed one into the bullpen for us.
Here's the point: These things didn't happen before the new owners arrived. Nobody cared about the fans. Nobody looked at Fenway -- flawed, ridiculously old Fenway -- and said to themselves, "Instead of knocking this baby down, maybe we could breathe some life into it." Hey, nobody wanted the place gone more than me, but even I'm on board at this point. Even if I sat through Wednesday's game in a seat that faced right field, with my knees hugging someone's back. Whatever. Fenway lives. It's been that kind of season for me: No negativity, no sarcasm, just feeling like a fan again. Even with the team treading water, even with my Dad pining for A-Rod, it's been nice to enjoy the summer and the games that came with it.
In fact, everything was going smoothly until Tuesday's visit to the acupuncturist.
(Yeah, that's right, I get acupuncture. It's saving my back. I tried massages, heating pads, chiropractors, hardcore drugs, self-help books . . . the only thing that worked was acupuncture. So there. Trust me, I would have laid down across Sunset Boulevard and had cars driven over me if it would have helped my back. You have no idea. I was that desperate.)
Anyway, when I show up for acupuncture, a pleasant German lady with a thick accent gives me a preliminary deep-tissue massage. Then the doctor comes in and sticks tiny needles all over my body. They turn off the lights and play goofy, new-age music. You end up going into this weird semi-trance. Sometimes I become so relaxed, I forget to breathe. And it goes that way for about 30 minutes, until they come back in and take out the needles, and you walk out of there feeling like you're stoned. Needless to say, I highly recommend it.
But that's not the point. The German masseuse loves talking to me. She asks me all kinds of questions in her halting accent. So on Tuesday, when I told her that my back was stiff from the plane ride to Boston, she asked me why I went there. I mentioned my Dad, and my friends, and the Red Sox games . . .
"The Red Sox . . . is that the team that hasn't won for many many many many many years?"
(Only with the accent, it sounded like this: "The Red Sox . . . iz dat de team that hasn't von vor many many many yearz?" I won't use the accent for the rest of this story. Just keep in mind, we're talking about a thick German accent. And keep in mind, the woman grew up in GERMANY. She just moved here like five years ago. Still, she managed to say "many" five times. I counted. Back to the story.)
Yes, I answered. That's the team.
"How long has it been? A long time, no?"
Um, 86 years. Yes. That's a very long time.
"What's wrong with them? Why can't they win?"
I don't know. I don't know why we can't win.
(You would have thought she would stop. Nope. At this point, I was tighter than Melissa Rivers's face. Apparently she didn't notice.)
"Why would you root for a team that can't win?"
Actually, I grew up there. I didn't have a choice.
"But still, you could pick different team, right?"
Um . . . I don't know. I really don't know.
"I don't understand," she said finally. "If it were me, I would just pick different team."
With that, she finished up. Then the doctor came in and stuck needles all over my body. Just another day in the life of a Red Sox fan.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN the Magazine