Tuesday, September 30, 2008

El Tiante's 2008 Posteason Awards

AL Cy Young: Cliff Lee, Indians 22-3, 2.54, 223 innings, all for a team that was never competitive. A WH/IP of 1.11. Lee may not have been 1972 vintage Steve Carlton, but he was close enough, don’t you think? Honorable mention: Francisco Rodriguez.

AL MVP: Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox It helped that Carlos Quentin got hurt, and Josh Hamilton faded. Still, Pedroia was the little engine that could: he led the league in hits, doubles, multi-hit games, finished second in batting average, and by the way, was a gold-glove caliber 2B. He was Mister Spark Plug. Joe Morgan won the MVP in 1975 with an eerily similar resume. What team did Morgan’s Reds beat that year to win the World Series? Wait, it’s on the tip of my tongue.

AL Rookie of the Year: Evan Longoria, Rays He’s already close to the best 3B in the game. As Pedroia was for Boston, Longoria was for the Rays. It shouldn’t be a shock that Pedroia won this award last year. I sense a trend. Honorable Mention: Alexei Ramirez, White Sox

AL Manager of the Year: Joe Maddon, Rays Are you kidding? Is there even another candidate? I don’t think there’s ever been an easier Manager of the Year choice. If anyone else gets a vote, I’ll be very disappointed.

NL Cy Young: Tim Lincecum, Giants His 265 strikeouts led the league. Both of them. Second in the majors in ERA. And like Lee’s Indians and Carlton’s Phillies, the Giants y sucked. Honorable Mention: Brandon Webb, Diamondbacks.

NL MVP: Ryan Howard, Phillies Everyone else is telling you it will be Mr. Pujols of the Cardinals, but these are my awards. Howard’s great advantage was that he was a more critical force on a winning team. His 48 HR and 146 RBI both led the majors, and this year you know those numbers definitely didn’t come out of a needle. He’s 100%, certified clean. Without Howard, the Phillies finish behind the Marlins, and Charlie Manuel gets fired. Without Pujols, the Cardinals still finish in 4th place, and, well, nothing else very interesting happens, because Tony LaRussa will never get fired.

NL Rookie of the Year: Geovany Soto, Cubs He catches for the Cubs, and he started the All Star game. Can you believe he started 131 games? I mean seriously, he started more games than Varitek, and fewer than Joe Mauer, but Soto’s a ROOKIE. His leadership took a good pitching staff, and made them terrific. That’s good enough for me.

NL Manager of the Year: Lou Piniella, Cubs
Full disclosure: Lou Piniella’s my favorite ex-Yankee not named Gehrig. He also happens to be one of the best managers in the game. He kept this Cubs team focused and playing like a team all year, and they’ve now won the NL Central two years running. No Cubs fan has the nerve to admit this, as it would tempt the baseball gods, but thanks in large part to their rookie catcher and their outstanding manager, the Cubs are the best team in the National League. I’ll say that again: The Chicago Cubs are the best team in the National League.


Two guys who didn’t play an inning this year, and you didn’t miss either one of them:
Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. See? If you don’t lie to the investigators, you get to play with the big boys. If you lie, you stay home and watch on TV.

How the mighty have fallen:
The Colorado Rockies, 2007’s darlings, finished this year 14 games under .500, 10 games behind the NL West champion Dodgers.

It’s all relative: As stated above, the Dodgers won the west, but their 84-78 record would have landed them in 5th place in the AL East, 10 games behind the Yankees. Of course, they’re not in the AL East, Joe Torre IS in the postseason, and there’s nothing Hank Steinbrenner or his $208 million can do about it.

El Tiante’s World Series prediction: Angels over the Cubs in 6 exciting, excruciatingly emotional games. Sorry, Cubs fans. 100 years still isn’t enough.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

2008 ALDS preview: Red Sox vs. Angels

The drawback of winning the Wild Card is that you draw the strongest division champion, as long as they’re not in your division. This year that’s going to mean the Angels, and that’s not good news for the Red Sox. This isn’t the same Angels team we swept in both 2004 and 2007. They’re more complete, and they have something personal to prove. Of everyone in the American League, the Red Sox match up worst with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. There’s a reason we’re 1-8 against them this year: they’re the best team in the league, and we’re not. In the 9 games with the Angels, the Red Sox were outhit, outpitched and outplayed. The Angels are the real deal, and if they continue to do what they’ve been doing all year, which is pitch, field and hit with consistency, they could easily turn the tables on the Red Sox and sweep the defending World Series champs in three games (the first two are in Anaheim). In fact, I think the Angels are the best team in baseball, period.

In the postseason, the discussion begins and ends with pitching. The rotation of John Lackey, Ervin Santana, Joe Saunders, Jered Weaver and John Garland are a combined 69-36. The three likely playoff starters (Lackey, Santana and Saunders) have an average ERA around 3.34. Quality starts are their bread and butter. That eases the workload on the bullpen, and in the ninth inning we all know about K-Rod and his gaudy record of 62 saves and 2.27 ERA. After Cliff Lee, he’d be your likely Cy Young award winner. So their pitching is outstanding.

The lineup is deeper and longer than ever before. Adding Mark Teixeira (13 HR, 42 RBI, 1.089 OPS in only 52 games as an Angel) and Torii Hunter (21, 78, .816 over a whole season) has given Vlad Guerrero the support he’s never had. And remember, offense isn’t the full reason the Angels landed Hunter: there’s no reason to believe he won’t win his 8th consecutive gold glove award this year. With Vlad’s cannon arm in right and Juan Rivera / Garrett Anderson in left, the outfield defense is every bit Boston’s equal.

Boston comes into the series tired and wounded: Count on both Mike Lowell and JD Drew being out. This seriously hamstrings Terry Francona’s ability to tinker with the lineup. Jed Lowrie’s been a great fill in at shortstop, and he should blossom into a terrific shortstop over time, but he is a rookie, and he doesn’t add much pop to the lineup. Jason Varitek isn’t quite so awful offensively, but he still gives away 1-2 at bats a game. Jason Bay was a superb pickup, but he has cooled off some since arriving on the scene midseason. He’ll need to anchor the middle of the order with Kevin Youkilis if Drew and Lowell can’t play a significant role. It’s hard to know which David Ortiz we’re going to see in October, but we know Bay and Youkilis won’t frighten pitchers the way Manny and Lowell did last year, and therefore, the Angels’ starters may not give Big Papi much to hit. In other words, the Angels can pitch around this lineup, which wasn’t possible in either 2004 or 2007. Look, there’s no way around the most obvious point: although Manny Ramirez HAD to be dumped to save the team and the season, his loss is not without its consequences, the biggest of which is a badly weakened lineup. Since the trading deadline, this Red Sox lineup isn’t scoring runs with the ease that they had previously.

The lineup can be a bit schizo, but my biggest concern is the Red Sox pitching. Josh Beckett NEEDS to be the 2007 postseason stud again. Jon Lester NEEDS to be as good as he’s been all season, and Daisuke Matsuzaka NEEDS to stop spending whole innings performing death-defying high wire acts. In his two losses (can you believe he only has two?), he was absolutely shelled. One game was against the Cardinals. I was there, and he didn’t survive the second inning. The other was against these same Angels, at Fenway at the end of July: 5 innings pitched, 6 runs allowed (all earned), 7 hits and two homers, including a 3-run shot off the bat of Mr. Hunter. If he pounds the strike zone and uses all his pitches, Dice K is worth the big bucks. But he doesn’t do that all game, every game, and that could hurt in October. Our emergency starter / long man is likely to be Tim Wakefield, which could be a godsend or a death sentence, depending on the whims of the knuckleball gods on any given night.

The bullpen has been a crapshoot all year, and still, from one game to the next, it remains just like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates: You never know what you’re gonna get. In an October short series, you can’t afford even one Lopez, Aardsma, Okajima or Delcarmen implosion, because if an imperfect bullpen corps follows a sloppy five or six innings from Beckett, Lester or Dice K, that could literally be the ballgame against Los Angeles.

Boston’s battle tested, gutsy, well coached and has enjoyed delicious postseason magic the last couple sojourns into the chilly lights of national television. Dustin Pedroia is a legitimate MVP candidate, and if you give them a chance, the Red Sox can and will hurt you. That said, I don’t see Mike Scioscia’s crew being denied this year. If the first round matchup were against the White Sox or Twins, it’d be a different story, but it’ll take another long, grinding series with too many improbable occurrences to escape this Angels team. If they manage to survive the Angels, I think the Red Sox win the AL pennant, but that’s a big if. I hope I’m wrong, but I think the 2008 season ends here. Sorry.

Prediction: Angels in four games.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Closing the Doors at The House That Ruth Built

Another great old stadium is gone. Of course I’m a Red Sox fan, and of course I hate the Yankees, but I’m not dense. I fully appreciate the loss of Yankee Stadium. It ranks with the Rose Bowl, Churchill Downs and Madison Square Garden among the most important sports arenas anywhere. It’s hosted popes (3 of them), presidents and Pele, maybe the greatest soccer player ever. Nelson Mandela, Billy Joel and Jose Feliciano have played Yankee Stadium. Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey and Muhammed Ali won fights at Yankee Stadium. The greatest football game ever played happened at Yankee Stadium when Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts beat the New York Giants to win the 1959 NFL championship. Notre Dame and Army both played home games there, too.

No other stadium has its own monument park (which used to be in fair territory). The greatest speech ever made by an athlete was a dying Lou Gehrig’s famous “I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth” address when Yankee fans paid tribute to him on July 4, 1939. The second greatest sports speech took place there, too (Knute Rockne’s “Win one for the Gipper”). Chuck Bednarik of the Philadelphia Eagles ended Frank Gifford’s career at quarterback with a hellacious (but perfectly clean) hit. That was at the Stadium. When Babe Ruth died, his body lay in state at the entrance to the Stadium. Of course, it’s hosted 37 World Series and 26 World Series titles, along with a ridiculous number of Hall of Famers. An abbreviated list of pinstripe immortals includes Ruth, Gehrig, Dimaggio, Mantle, Berra, Dickey, Huggins, McCarthy, Stengel, Martin, Jackson, Rizzuto, Ford, and will eventually add Jeter, ARod, Rivera, Torre and Clemens. Three perfect games by Yankee pitchers: David Wells, David Cone, and of course Don Larsen. Nobody else has ever done that in the World Series. That was at Yankee Stadium, too. Jackie Robinson stole home in the World Series, at Yankee Stadium. Reggie Jackson dismantled the LA Dodgers in the World Series with consecutive homers on three at bats, against three different Dodger pitchers. That was, of course, at Yankee Stadium.

Yankee Stadium has boasted the greatest public address announcer in the history of sports, Bob Sheppard. I loved the late Sherm Feller at Fenway, but he wasn’t Bob Sheppard. Yankee Stadium has the Roll Call. Yankee Stadium has The Big Louisville Slugger. Yankee Stadium has the fa├žade. Yankee Stadium has Frank Sinatra singing “New York, New York” (unless the Yankees lose, in which case it’s Liza Minelli singing it). This was the first baseball venue to be called a “stadium”. Before, there were “parks” (Fenway, Shibe, Forbes), “grounds” (Polo) and “fields” (Wrigley, Crosley. Ebbets). If Fenway is baseball’s Sistine Chapel, Yankee Stadium was baseball’s grand cathedral.

There will be a new stadium hosting the hated Yankees next year, but no matter what it’s called, it’s not going to be The House That Ruth Built. There’s one Carnegie Hall, there’s one Empire State Building, and there’s only one Yankee Stadium.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Sox in Sarasota?

I attended my first spring training game when I was about 9 years old. It was 1973, at Payne Park in Sarasota, Florida. The White Sox were hosting the Red Sox. I know the year because I was there with my older brother Kenneth, and he took pictures. I remember meeting Red Sox pitchers Bob Veale and John Curtis. We were in Sarasota because just a couple years earlier, my grandparents had bought a condo in nearby Longboat Key. In the 35 years since, I’ve seen a bunch of spring training games, including the first full year that Carlton Fisk was part of the White Sox, and more recently, at newer Ed Smith Stadium, the spring home of the Cincinnati Reds. Last year the Reds informed the city of Sarasota that they’re heading to Arizona. So who’s seriously interested in picking up stakes and moving their spring operation to Sarasota? That’s right, the Red Sox!

And who’s helping to lead the charge in Sarasota to bring the Red Sox to town, leaving Ft. Myers? Elsie Souza! Who’s Elsie Souza, you say? Elsie is one of the most wonderful women you could ever hope to meet. I’ve known Elsie since I was a very little kid, probably not too long after I attended my first Spring Training game. Elsie’s son Chris and I were in the same carpool together in grade school when I was growing up in New Bedford. I became a big fan of Elsie and her remarkable husband Tony, and have remained in touch off and on over the years. Chris was an incredible kid. Smart, talented, funny, as much of a Red Sox fan as I was, and really just a great product of two fantastic parents. Chris went to Syracuse University, just as I had. At the same time I was working in Washington, DC, so was Chris. He was a legislative assistant in Ted Kennedy’s Capitol Hill office. In 2004, Chris was stricken with cancer, and passed away at the far-too-painful age of 26. The agony that Elsie and Tony must have endured is beyond my capacity to imagine. Nevertheless, they’ve found ways to keep going and pay tribute to Chris, one of those rare kids that you never forget, even if you only met him just once.

A few years ago, Elsie and Tony moved to Sarasota. Tony is now the executive director of the local Habitat for Humanity. And what’s Elsie doing these days? She’s the coordinator for Citizens for Sox, a grass roots effort by Sarasota residents to help lure the Red Sox to a new training complex off Fruitville Road in Sarasota. This would actually be a return to Sarasota for the Sox. They’ve been there before, most recently for 14 years in the 1940’s and 1950’s.

Sarasota needs the Red Sox, and the Red Sox would do well to move just a few miles up the gulf coast and expand to a new, state of the art complex. Take it from someone who’s familiar with the area: you WANT to see the Sox in Sarasota. It’s a wonderful place to spend a week in March, and it’s vastly more interesting than Ft. Myers. What could you do to help make this happen? Read the articles on the website. Sign the petition. Write a letter to the editor of the Sarasota Herald Tribune.

As Elsie said to me in an email today, “You know that Chris is overseeing this”. Damn straight he is, and I bet he’s grinning broadly. I, for one, have no intention of letting him down. Besides, I want to see the Red Sox in Sarasota!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Dustin Pedroia Show

Last night I attended my 6th game of 2008, and fourth at Fenway (I also saw the Dodgers beat the Padres at Dodger Stadium, and the Cubs lose to the Orioles at Wrigley). This time it was a game in the middle of a pennant race. The Red Sox had already been hammered by the Blue Jays 8-1 in the first game of a day-night doubleheader, and were counting on Bartolo Colon, of all people, to help earn the split. At the same time, the Rays were at Yankee Stadium trying to sweep the spoiler Yankees.

I hadn’t bought into the "Dustin Pedroia for MVP" hullabaloo until the past couple weeks. Last night, the logic became crystal clear to me, though if you don’t watch Pedroia on a regular basis, it might be hard to see why the kid deserves serious mention. He came into the nightcap with 197 hits, three short of 200. You can’t expect someone to have a 3-hit game on command, and certainly not against one of the hottest teams in the league. In the first inning, though, the Case for Pedey presented exhibits A and B.

After Jacoby Ellsbury leads off with a walk, Pedroia lines a ringing double off Jays’ starter Jesse Litsch to send Ellsbury to third. David Ortiz strikes out swinging, and now Kevin Youkilis is up. One out, and two men in scoring position. Then the fun begins. Litsch throws a wild pitch that ricochets off catcher Greg Zaun and trickles up the third base line. Ellsbury scores easily, but the amazing part was that Pedroia was still sprinting from second base. As Pedroia heads home, you could almost read Zaun’s mind. “Where the hell did HE come from?” Zaun hurriedly throws wide of Litsch at the plate, and without Youkilis having to do a damn thing, the Red Sox have a 2-0 lead. That’s how the inning ended, but Pedroia had already sent the same message that he broadcasts every game: pay close attention, because I’m not taking even a single pitch off. In some ways more than Youkilis, though less demonstrably, Pedroia is perpetually intense. The Red Sox list him at 5’9” and 180 pounds, but that’s pretty optimistic. He’s probably closer to 5’7”, and if he’s just had a few cheeseburgers and has lead weights in his cleats, maybe 170.

Fast forward to the 5th. After Colon barely survived a nightmare second inning, giving up 5 Blue Jay runs, the Sox are down 5-2, and look listless. Pedroia comes up with two outs and lines his second double of the game off the center field wall. At the time it was only the Red Sox third hit of the night. He ended up stranded at second, as Ortiz again struck out. However, that was hit # 199 on the season for Pedroia, and double #50. In Red Sox history, only two men had ever banged out 200 hits AND 50 doubles in the same season: Tris Speaker in 1912 and Wade Boggs in 1989. Pedroia was now one base hit away from doing something that Williams, Yastrzemski, Fisk, Rice, Carney Lansford, Nomar, Vaughan, Ramirez and Ortiz never accomplished. Pedroia already leads the majors (not just the American League) in hits and doubles. He leads the AL in batting average and runs, and trails only Aubrey Huff and Josh Hamilton in total bases. Now, he’s stalking Red Sox history.

Sure enough, up comes Pedroia in a pivotal moment in the bottom of the 8th, when the Red Sox would finally take the lead and win the game. Following Ellsbury’s 15-foor swinging bunt where Scott Downs fell on his face, unable to field the ball, therefore allowing Jed Lowrie to sprint home with the go-ahead run, Dustin Pedroia comes to the plate and lines a single.

Everyone in the park who hadn’t been keeping track figured it out when the news was posted on the center field scoreboard: Dustin Pedroia had gotten his 200th hit of 2008.

So on the evening for Pedroia, that’s 3 for 5, 2 doubles, 1 run scored, entering the Red Sox history book, and also turning the pivot on 3, count ‘em 3, double plays. This doesn’t even factor in his first inning hustle, scoring from second and jump-starting the evening’s offense. Apart from his stats, which are becoming gaudy, I’d posit that Dustin Pedroia, the 2007 Rookie of the Year, deserves to be voted the American League Most Valuable Player for the simple truth that he embodies the three words “Most Valuable Player” better than anyone else in baseball. Jason Varitek may be the captain, and Jon Lester may be the ace, but Dustin Pedroia IS the offensive sparkplug, as well as the heart and soul of his team, and has been since he stepped on the field in Fort Myers for the season’s first workouts. You can’t say that about Carlos Quentin in Chicago, Josh Hamilton in Texas, or any one player in Tampa Bay. Only Pedroia in Boston.


Tuesday, September 9, 2008

456 Reasons (and counting) why Red Sox fans are the best

The Red Sox didn’t make history last night, but Red Sox Nation did. We collectively set the record for most consecutive sellouts by a Major League Baseball franchise, breaking the record set by Cleveland Indians’ fans at Jacobs Field from 1995 to 2001. For Red Sox fans, the streak began on May 15, 2003. On that night, Pedro Martinez pitched 6 innings and got his fourth win of the year, beating Alan Benes and the Texas Rangers. This was the Red Sox lineup that Thursday evening

Damon CF

Walker 2B

Garciaparra SS

Ramirez LF

Ortiz 1B

Millar DH

Nixon RF

Mueller 3B

Varitek C

Only Jason Varitek and David Ortiz remain from that starting lineup (Mike Timlin and Tim Wakefield are the other remaining players from that roster). May of 2003 was a division championship, two American League championships and two World Series trophies ago. Those guys were the “Idiots”, if you remember. This year’s team was a long way from maturity. Jon Lester was a 19 year old prospect pitching for the Augusta Greenjackets in the South Atlantic League. Jonathan Papelbon was in his first professional season at Single A Lowell. Daisuke Matsuzaka was winning the Nippon Pacific League ERA and strikeout title for the Seibu Lions. Dustin Pedroia was busy being a college sophomore and earning PAC 10 co-Player of the Year honors at Arizona State.

Five years and 456 capacity home games later, Red Sox fans can now officially be called the best baseball fans anywhere, even though tickets at Fenway are harder to get and more expensive than all the rest. Cardinals fans are more polite. Philles fans are ruder. A’s, Dodgers, and yes, Rays fans are more apathetic. Meanwhile, we’ve been here, stuffing ourselves into every possible nook and cranny of Fenway Park, our “lyric little bandbox of a ballpark” (thanks, John Updike), every possible chance we’ve had. In fact, we tend to embarrass other fans in their home ballparks by sometimes turning out in better numbers than they do to see their own team. Check out Camden Yards in Baltimore, Ameriquest Field in Arlington, TX and Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg for proof.

This streak shows no sign of stopping, either. You should count on it continuing for some time to come, especially if the Red Sox’ current performance continues as it has. Fenway is already sold out through the end of the 2008 season. I wouldn’t be surprised if the streak goes to at least 700 games. So congratulations, fellow Red Sox fans, on proving for 457 straight home games (including tonight) that there’s no place like Fenway Park, and there’s no fan like a Red Sox fan.

Meanwhile, for those who didn't see today's Boston Globe, here is an ad from the team, thanking fans.