Sunday, August 19, 2007

Red Sox Nation Paranoia

There’s a problem with Red Sox Nation (alright, some of you, calm down, and stop yelling “JUST ONE???). Some of us appear to have absolutely zero sense of baseball perspective and rationality in the heat of battle. Back at the beginning of June, when the Yankees were 382 ½ games out of first place, a bunch of brain-dead Boston columnists (no, Dan Shaughnessy, Eric Wilbur and Tony Maserotti, I can’t possibly be talking about you) were crowing to the hilltops that the race was over, you could start printing playoff tickets (or World Series, if you like), the Yankees were dead and buried, and gee, spring training 2008 was just around the corner, wasn’t it? Heh heh heh.

Only one problem; it was fucking JUNE, and the regular season extends (gasp) all the way to the end of SEPTEMBER. And they still have to play those games, even if morons writing for the Boston papers insist it isn’t necessary. And guess what, kids, the Yankees had a dreadful start, but they were still the freakin’ Yankees. And ya know, the guys wearing Red Sox uniforms are actually made of flesh and blood, and are capable of putting up less than Hall of Fame numbers for stretches at a time. 162 games makes for a LONG season, and nobody has ever clinched a playoff spot in May or June. It’s true. Never been done.

Then, you know what happened? The Yankees started playing really well. And the Red Sox played .500 ball for week after week after week, stretching past the All Star break. And the 382 ½ game lead dwindled to 4. Then you know what happened? Red Sox Nation started climbing out on ledges, threatening to jump off because “Oh my God, it’s 1978 all over again, we can’t handle this!”. Don’t jump. Or better yet, please do. If it takes that little to turn you into a quivering, neurotic puddle of protoplasm, perhaps you should jump. Or start following professional wrestling. But put your pink Red Sox hat away with your “I love Johnny Damon / Trot Nixon / Gabe Kapler cuz he’s so damn babealicious” t-shirt along with your home jersey that has the name stitched on the back (God, I HATE those) and go root for Tom Brady or some other machine. Leave the rest of us alone.

So now, we’re in what’s shaping up to be a real pennant race. I still like our chances. We still have better starting pitching. Beckett, Dice-K, Schilling, Wake and Lester are doing just fine, and New Yorkers are learning that Clemens was as much of a slam dunk as the weapons of mass destruction. We still have a deeper bullpen. That was Mariano Rivera that gave up 3 runs to the Orioles in the 10th inning at Yankee Stadium and kicked away a game New York should have won. And please to be shutting the fuck up about Eric Gagne. Did you know he won a Cy Young Award? News flash: He’s a pretty good pitcher. Fear not: he’ll help us out a lot more times than he’ll give games away. I know, I know, he’s lost three games all by himself. True that. But I have to believe he’s going to be worth it. The guy I trust the most here is Terry Francona. If he thinks Gagne can still do it, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt.

We have two, and some would posit three, legitimate Rookie of the Year candidates in Dustin Pedroia (who should be handling the duties at 2B for the next 10 years or so), Hideki (Okie Dokie) Okajima, and of course Daisuke Matsuzaka. It’s entirely possible that Clay Bucholtz could be *next year’s* leading Rookie of the Year candidate.

But David Ortiz isn’t hitting 59 homers this year! Correct. He’s hurt. Has been for most of the season. And amazingly, he’s still hitting over .300. I’ll take David Ortiz at 60% over most DH’s in the league at 100% any day. Manny still bothers the shit out of me, but he’s Manny. I just wince a lot, and remember how much I love Cami and Harry. They’re the best, most adorable dogs in the world, but their farts (especially Harry’s) can still clear a room.

We’re better defensively. Even with Julio Lugo at short, we probably have one of the best defensive infields in the league. Have you noticed that? If Coco Crisp does NOT win the Gold Glove for his work in CF this year, perhaps an NBA ref made sure the fix was in ahead of time.

Eric Hinske, Alex Cora and Doug Mirabelli are perfectly adequate off the bench. Remember, Wily Mo Pena is gone! So relax. The Red Sox are a better team, they’re probably going to win the AL East, and have time enough to situate the rotation as Francona will need for the playoffs. And it will feel great. Sit down. Have a drink. Here, watch some Beckett, Papelbon, Okajima, Jason Varitek and Mike Lowell highlights. It’s going to be ok.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Down the stretch they come!

The Red Sox are in very good shape, though I still think it’s a bit early to start printing playoff tickets. They need to put together a better stretch of ball than they’ve shown recently. Beckett, Dice-K, Schilling and Tim Wakefield still constitute perhaps the strongest 1-4 rotation in the game. The bullpen is, hands down, the best in the business with Papelbon as the anchor, and adding Eric Gagne has given Francona options that would make Joe Torre start drooling into his sunflower seeds.

But a strange, perplexing dilemma remains: the lineup. Granted, Mike Lowell has been Mister Consistency at third, and Dustin Pedroia is everything Boston hoped for when they drafted him out of Arizona State. Kevin Youkilis is, well, Kevin Youkilis. The weird part is that neither Manny nor Ortiz has produced anywhere near the power numbers they should have by now, and they haven’t put together that one torrid month of “uh oh, you can’t pitch to either of these guys right now” production that everyone expects. It would be fun if that Magic Month ended up being October, though, wouldn’t it? JD Drew has shown only fleeting glimpse of the guy we were told we’d see when he came over from the Dodgers. And yes indeedy, he’s still injury prone. Not a big surprise there. My kingdom for a solid #5 hitter. Julio Lugo is still, by and large, an offensive black hole, and mostly average defensively at short. And do NOT get me started on Wily Mo (Fastball, I hit very much. Bats see curveball, they are afraid) Peña. This is the conversation I wouldn’t mind Theo Epstein having with someone soon.

“Hi, opposing GM? How are you? This is Theo Epstein. Good, thanks. Hey, I’d like to unload Wily Mo Peña. What would you give me for him? A bucket of baseballs? Are they new? Excellent! You’ve got yourself a deal.”

For everyone who wants to rant that the Red Sox made a horrible move in trading Bronson Arroyo for the second coming of Pablo Serrano, I’d remind you that Bronson Arroyo is 4-12 for a team that’s currently 17 games under .500. Yes, the Reds are bad. However, in his last start against the lowly Nationals, Arroyo allowed seven earned runs on seven hits and threw just 56 pitches over 1 2/3 innings. That’s against the Washington Nationals. He didn’t get out of the second inning. So perhaps the deal was closer to a wash than we thought at the time. No matter. If we don’t have room for Kason Gabbard, we wouldn’t be able to give Bronson Arroyo many innings, either.

Still, I’ll take this team they way it looks right now. I think Joe Torre deserves manager of the year consideration with the patchwork quilt he’s had to construct this year in New York, but his bullpen is being held together with spit and bailing wire, and even the most die-hard Yankee fan knows it. ARod can hit all the homers he wants, but unless he develops a nasty slider to get opposing hitters out in the 7th and 8th innings, I just don’t see that team getting very far. A wild card appearance would be a huge triumph for them, and that is probably all they’re going to get. In October, we well know, it’s all about pitching.

Who scares me in the American League when I start projecting playoff matchups? The Indians (Sabathia, Westbrook and Carmona) and especially the Mariners (Washburn, Hernandez and Putz) . Both those teams play like they’ve got absolutely nothing to lose, and they both look like they could catch fire at the end of the season, a la last year’s Cardinals. That worries me. We won’t be able to afford Manny running into outs on the basepaths, Drew and Lugo giving away at bats, or Matsuzaka becoming mediocre for an inning against solid, fundamentally sound playoff teams. In some ways, we’re all still riding on the propulsion of a great April and May. It’s now almost mid-August. Time to turn on the next rocket stage and boost this team into a new altitude. Schill’s had his vacation, and Dice-K’s had his orientation to American baseball. This team is either going to earn or blow its collective salaries between Labor Day and Halloween, and barring some miraculous waiver wire deal in the next few weeks, it’s going to happen with the guys currently in the clubhouse. I’m hoping that 2007 will be another season to remember.

Who is El Tiante?

Luis Tiant. Born on November 23, 1940 in Cuba. His father was a terrific baseball player. A pitcher, in fact. Probably better than Luis. Luis came to the US and made his major league debut for the Cleveland Indians a couple months before I was born. July 19, 1964. Threw a complete game shutout against the Yankees. Struck out 11, gave up 4 hits, and got the win. That was the first time he’d ever been on a major league mound. At Yankee Stadium. He beat Whitey Ford 3-0. You can look it up.

Luis Tiant went on to win another 228 games in a career that lasted 19 years. He retired with a lifetime 229-172 record, and a lifetime ERA of 3.30. Struck out 2416, walked 1104 and allowed a little over 3000 hits in just a shade under 3500 innings. Led his league in ERA twice. Want to compare his numbers to someone? Try Catfish Hunter and Jim Bunning. Luis is right there. I’m of the belief that El Tiante should be in Cooperstown.

His single most dominant year was 1968 with the Indians, but after he hurt his arm and was thought to be washed up, the Red Sox picked him up for a song in 1971. Over the next 8 years, wearing #23, Luis Tiant became the darling of Red Sox fans everywhere. He won 20 or more games 3 times, and in the magical year of 1975, combined with Fred Lynn, Jim Rice and Carlton Fisk to lift the team on his shoulders and carry them to one of the most glorious season-long rides that Red Sox fans ever saw.

His numbers aren’t why I (and many others) love Luis Tiant, though. He had personality. He had flair. The Spanish term for what Luis Tiant brought to the mound is “duende”; a style, passion, authenticity and soul that can’t be quantified. His delivery was a twisting, syncopated, corkscrew motion that sometimes included a quick glance at the top of his windup toward to the heavens, perhaps to make sure God was watching what El Tiante was about to deliver to the hitter. More on his delivery in a minute. The press loved Tiant because he was eternally quotable before and after games. He was always seen with a thick Cuban cigar in his mouth. He was the clubhouse prankster, but nobody wanted to win more than El Tiante.

"If we lose today, it will be over my dead body. They'll have to leave me face down on the mound.” --Luis Tiant

"The fastball is the best pitch in baseball. It's like having five pitches, if you move it around." --Luis Tiant

The best quotes, though, were the ones said about him.

"If a man put a gun to my head and said I'm going to pull the trigger if you lose this game, I'd want Luis Tiant to pitch that game." - Red Sox Manager Darrell Johnson

"I've never heard anything like that ("Loo-Eee, Loo-Eee, Loo-Eee" chanting in Fenway Park) in my life. But I'll tell you one thing: Tiant deserved every bit of it."
--Carl Yastrzemski

"Unless you've played with him, you can't understand what Luis Tiant means to a team." - Teammate Dwight Evans

I saw Tiant pitch a bunch of times at Fenway, but in his book “Five Seasons”, the great sportswriter Roger Angell put into words better than I ever could what it was like to actually watch Luis Tiant on the mound:
1) Call the Osteopath: In midpitch the man suffers an agonizing seizure in the central cervical region, which he attempts to fight off with a sharp backward twist of the head.
2) Out of the Woodshed: Just before releasing the ball he steps over a raised sill and simultaneously ducks his head to avoid conking it on the low doorframe.
3) The Runaway Taxi: Before the pivot, he sees a vehicle bearing down on him at top speed, and pulls back his entire upper body just in time to avoid a nasty accident.
4) Falling Off the Fence: An attack of vertigo nearly causes him to topple over backward on the mound. Strongly suggests a careless dude on the top rung of the corral.
5) The Slipper-Kick: In midpitch, he surprisingly decides to get rid of his left shoe.
6) The Low-Flying Plane (a subtle development and amalgam of 1, 3, and 4. above): While he is pivoting, an F-I05 buzzes the ball park, passing over the infield from the third-base to the first-base side at a height of eight feet. He follows it all the way with his eyes.

So that’s a little bit about why this blog is named after the man. It’s not going to be completely about the Red Sox (though a lot of it will be). It will also be about the greater baseball world, and sports beyond (gasp!!) baseball.

I hope it’s fun!