Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Peace in the A.L. East

When the Soviet Union fell, the United States was left without a rival; it stood alone as the world's sole superpower. With alternative forms of government seemingly vanquished, some even proclaimed the end of history. But history has a way of returning. China, Iran and a reemergent Russia strut on the world stage. Now, some will have us prepare for a post-american world.

The Red Sox ended history too, vanquishing the Yankees in '04, and then finally finishing ahead of the Evil Empire in the A.L. East in '07. In '08, with a Bronx regime in transition, an aging ballclub and a pre-industrial crop of rookies, the sagging Yankees fell off the postseason map, off the edge of the globe, even. And with young stars the Sox seemed poised to enjoy the fruits of the end of history as the sole remaining A.L. East superpower.

That didn't last long. The Rays, all of a sudden, have the bomb. The balance of power has shifted. (And just as America owes a trillion to China, the Sox' luxury tax revenues help fund the emergent Rays; our profligacy has aided our enemies.) No one can be elected anything in America without asserting America's perpetual supremacy, and no Sox fan can concede too much to any opponent's acumen. But dominance is never guaranteed, it is not a given. The Sox were beaten, their title defense penetrated by a guerrilla Tampa club.

Tampa may have landed a blow, but the Sox are set up to continue their run of dominance. After 2 world series titles, 4 ALCS appearances, and 5 postseasons in 6 years, the Sox' current rotation has a 24 year old ace in Lester, and two 28 year olds in Beckett and Matsuzaka. A 23 year old Masterson, 26 year old Delcarmen, and a 27 year old Papelbon fill out the staff. On the field, Pedroia is 25, Lowrie 24, Ellsbury 25. Crisp, Youkilis, and Bay are between 28 and 30. This team has a foundation for years to come. They are hypermodernizing, taking the new scientific approach to scouting and development, investing in the raw talent of rookies that is green technology.

But the Rays are even younger. James Shields is their oldest starting pitcher, and he's 26. Garza and Kazmir are 24, Sonnanstine and Edwin Jackson 25. David Price is 23. They are not going anywhere.

The Sox, of course, can win any arms race with their superior financial resources. Their diversified wealth and geographical advantage dwarfs the banana republic that is the orange groves of St. Pete. But the Rays have locked up their talent, and will compete for years. There is a new world order.

It is the Yankees, the Europe of the A.L. east, that will lag behind. Stuck in their old world ways, slow to adapting to the changing demographic reality, shamed over past atrocities (or they should be), they will lose out to the modernizing forces and superior organization of their playoff-contending neighbors.


Of course, it was foolish to think history could end, that some stasis other than complete destruction could be achieved. Victory is always short lived; there are always further battles. I often object to McCain's calls for "victory" in Iraq because war is not a sport, and the game never ends. Winning settles nothing. America won world war 1 and established the conditions that fomented world war 2. To win we all must hang up the spikes and go home. War has no rules, no final buzzer, no bottom of the 9th. Winning is not clearly defined.

But perhaps baseball isn't so different after all. We won in '04, and I distinctly recalling thinking baseball should just stop. The narrative was complete, now I can die in peace. But it doesn't stop. There are always new battles, new struggles. There is victory, but there is never total victory.

Today I watched the movie Babe, about the sheepherding pig. Spoiler: the farmer says 'that'll do, pig, that'll do,' after a job well done. It is reassuring, a job well done. Now it can end. The world is safe, finally, at long last, peace. But the Sox must battle on. '08 was just the prologue, the beginning of this next chapter of the rivalry with the Tampa Bay Rays. An ALCS just won't do. Sadly, though, even a championship won't do. They even made a sequel of Babe.

But of course each victory is an end in itself, and there are moments when time does stop, when victory is now and now is all there is. But losses get stretched out in time, and losing is always a hard blow, no matter the consolations or other joys in which we might now indulge. I, for one, can now actually return to writing my dissertation, which has been patiently waiting. And watch more G-rated animal fable movies.

Or at least I won't have any more excuses for not doing either.

Though I started this blog in midseason, I think I posted enough for this to qualify as my official rookie year. I enjoyed it, and I want to thank you all so much for reading. I'm not sure how much I'll write this off-season; I guess it will depend on how philosophical the Sox' free agent signings are. But don't hesitate to check back in. I hope everyone has a nice offseason, be well, and spring training is just 4 months away.

And as Socrates once said: "I like baseball."

Monday, October 20, 2008

No Hollywood Ending

If Mystique and Aura are just dancers at a nightclub, as Curt Schilling once quipped, then perhaps History and Inevitability are just spoken word poets.

History doesn't repeat itself all by itself, and victory is never inevitable. It is not a given that once down 3-1, then 3-2, and then tied 3-3, the Sox will prevail. A Game 7 isn't decisive if it is already determined.

But it was an easy mistake to make, and many of us were eager to make it. The Rays were sloppy and spiritless in Game 6. Game 7 might have seemed like a coda, an epilogue. With a 1-0 lead in the 4th, I was guilty of the faulty induction; the future will resemble the past, and this will be enough. History and Inevitability take over, and carry the day.

But the agents in this drama are those not yet free agents, the players themselves, and their actions and their fates are coordinated not by forces named with capital letters, but by themselves and a manager too much concerned with the past.

Terry Francona made two terrible decisions in the decisive Game 7. First, down 2-1 with one out in the 6th, Tito sent Pedroia from first on a full count to Ortiz. Garza blew Ortiz away on a heater, and Pedroia was out by a yard. Instead of Youkilis batting with a runner on, inning over. Second, with the tying runs on base and 2 outs in the 7th, Francona let Varitek hit. He whiffed.

I imagine I am not alone in noticing the snafu, but as I am indignant, I will belabor the points. Firstly, Pedroia didn't wrack up 20 stolen bases in 21 attempts during the regular season by running in predictable counts. Secondly, I think the send-the-runner-on-the-full-count-with-fewer-than-2-outs is the single worst common strategic maneuver in the sport. I assure you, this is not simply hyperbole in the face of crushing, agonizing defeat, though that would be a reasonable assumption. Because second base is acquired on ball 4 regardless of whether the runner is off, the runner acquiring second on the 'steal' does not count as the play working. With nothing to gain, Ball 4 doesn't protect the runner, so there's no reason to go on that count as opposed to any other. But if there's a whiff, he risks being out- risk but zero gain. And if that base is so important, why not send him earlier in the count, when its less predictably fastball; because its better to run in non-fastball counts, but 3-2 is a fastball count, its a lower percentage steal to begin with. The play only 'works' if the ball is hit into the gap and the runner scores from first but wouldn't have scored without the head start, but this happens very infrequently, or if a double play ball is hit but the runner makes it to second. But in this matchup, Ortiz isn't likely to hit into a DP with the shift on, and Garza isn't a groundball pitcher. Instead, he predictably challenged Ortiz with a pitch he hasn't hit all year- the high heat. Huge risk, virtually no gain. The inning was over, instead of Youkilis batting with a man on. But Francona had to 'go by the book', you know, the one with many factual errors and unjustified opinions.

And for the 74th time, Francona didn't pinch hit for Varitek in the 7th inning of a postseason game. I speculated the other day that it was Theo's decision to carry 3 catchers so they could pinch hit for Tek as early as the 6th or 7th, and that way they could also PH for Cash in the 8th or 9th, but that Tito didn't like this move, and so continued to let Tek hit in the 7th. So naturally he came up with runners on the corners and 2 outs in the 7th, tying run on base, and whiffed badly. Casey may be the Mayor of the bench, but that's a small jurisdiction. As a further consequence, instead of a righty with power on the bench, there's an extra no-hit catcher; where's Willy mo Pena when you need him? Tek hit again in the 9th, and Lowrie had the honor of being the only usable right handed bat. His reward? Ending the season, matching Nomar in LA.

And don't forget that history and inevitability are no match for injustice; two atrocious calls contributed to the Sox' demise. Down 3-1 in the 8th, 2 outs, and the bases loaded, game on the line, Price threw a fastball about a foot outside. Drew checked his swing, but the home plate ump called him out! That's not even his call- there should have been an appeal to third. And in the 9th, Kotsay was called out looking on a pitch 4-6 inches outside. Its a shame to have the umps contribute so severely in the 8th and 9th innings of a game 7. Its infuriating, and may anger me more than losing 10-0. Of course, one may argue that the Sox had other chances, and should have rendered such umpirings irrelevant. But if it were a valid argument that one should have won by then to prevent umps tilting the outcome, baseball should just be 7 and 2/3 innings long.

Injustice is frustrating. A failure of ideals to manifest. The Sox pitcher met a similar problem; Lester was all too human. Giving up a hit to Baldelli in the 5th on an 0-2 count with a runner in scoring position is inexcusable. Terrible pitch selection; they went with the cutter in, and caught the plate, instead of dropping the curve in the dirt, which is how they whiffed him the next time around. No reason to throw a strike in that situation. Instead, Baldelli knocked in the eventual winning run. A similarly weak cutter was slammed by Aybar for the homer to make it 3-1.

Lester didn't catch the breaks. Longoria's RBI double in the 4th was an off-balance swing on a ball out of the zone, and Aybar's lead-off double in the 5th leading to the second run was similarly struck.

When the season has ended, its hard not to nit pick, to wonder what could have gone differently. But these are the breaks that emerge when History and analogies with the past aren't operative forces in the universe, when the simple narrative collapses into incoherent detail.

Ortiz was dreadful, and the Sox got virtually nothing out of their catcher and shortstop. Injury, old age and youth the culprits there. This is what can happen when it all comes down to game 7; the Game 2 loss looms ever larger. It's depressing and oppressive, the force of contingency and randomness. Its never an unimpeded march to glory, and the past cannot carry anything beyond the present. Loyalty to past efforts, the reliance on the habitual, all hindered the war effort. A history of comebacks can't do it for you; everything is in the hands of the players. And that, of course, is the fans' paradox: The universe of sport, and baseball in particular, is defined and governed by rules, creating the the feeling of control and the illusion of isolation from larger forces. Yet spectators, of course, can only watch, as heroes age, thoughtlessness is enacted, bad hops hop badly, and an expansion team with one slogan that's a false mathematical formula and another pilfered from a lame saturday night live skit triumphs.

Its quite humiliating, really.

- - -
I'll be back tomorrow with something with more perspective, my 'springer's final thought', if you will, and even if you won't. More preachy, less detail, more grand narrative. More big sweeping generalizations. I think I only had 1 or 2 in this post. Its the end of the year. That's not enough, by my count.

Friday, October 17, 2008

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!; ALCS Game 5

An agnostic doesn't believe in God due to lack of evidence. I don't believe what the Boston Red Sox did Thursday night, despite all the evidence that could possibly be. A greater leap of faith is required than I am capable of.

The Sox dropped a heartbreaker in game 2, were demolished in games 3 and 4, and down 3 games to one in the series, the Sox were down 7-0 with 2 outs in the bottom of the 7th inning. And they won 8-7. They won. Astounding. Astounding.

I need all the reassurance I can get that this actually happened. Sometimes its thought the difference between a scientific and religious temperament is displayed in the reaction to the same set of facts- a scientist looks at existence and sees something explainable, a religious persons sees that same world as mystery. I'm trying to understand how this one really happened, but I'm not sure I can, so I'm just going to go over it again, and stare ga-ga at the facts.

Lowrie lead off the 7th with a long double to right. After Varitek and Kotsay failed to deliver, Coco slapped a 2 out single to left, keeping the inning alive. Dustin Pedroia toughed out yet another 8 pitch AB, fouling off pitches long enough for TBS to run out of ways of anointing Tampa and actually get to some relevant statistics, mentioning that Pedey was far and away the league-leader in BA with 2 strikes this year, at just under .300, until Pedey shot one to right in front of Gross. Lowrie scored, breaking up the shutout, and Crisp advanced, putting 2 runners on.

And up strode the man once awarded with the greatest Red Sox clutch hitter plaque, Big Papi, but who had really come up small in this years postseason. Now, you can always watch a baseball game hoping for a homerun, but they rarely happen. The very best home run hitters only do it every 15 plate appearances or so. And Ortiz had zero homers in his last 61 postseason ABs, and was 1 for 14 with runners on in this postseason. Down 6 runs, with the season on the line, with the defense of the world championship on the line, I cannot imagine a single person watching or playing in this ballgame that was thinking about anything other than Big Papi crushing one. Had he woefully continued, a 7-1 game goes to the 8th. But he got a fastball down and in- his sweet spot- from Balfour, and he absolutely hammered it. In a rare moment, Papi looked almost surprised at himself; he did not characteristically flip the bat in a signification of dominance, and only tentatively left the box. But Fenway erupted, as did my studio apartment. A blowout had just turned into a ball game, the Sox were only down 7-4.

In that moment when Ortiz connected, fantasy became reality, wishes were fulfilled. Baseball really does do that sometimes; it makes the trite tremendous. TBS appropriately showed the guy with the 'i like baseball' sign. Three simple words, and all was right with the universe.

With the metaphorical wind at his back, Papelbon went back out there for the top of the 8th, buried some splitters, elevated some fastballs, and took 2 K's with him back to the dugout, getting those Boston bats back out there to batter the bullpen some more.

Wheeler walked Bay to start the 8th, missing badly low and away on the 3-0 pitch. Clearly rattled, he fell behind J.D. Drew, who righteously rifled one into the right field seats. It was now just a 1 run game, with the Sox only trailing 7-6. Wheeler then feel behind Lowrie, but Lowrie helped him out on the 1-0, swinging at a pitcher's pitch and popping to left. Outs are precious, and that one was squandered. And when Casey, pinch hitting for the captain in what might have been his final fenway plate appearance had he appeared, chased a splitter outside for the whiff, the realization hit that scoring 6 runs is great, but when the other guys have 7...

But Mark Kotsay delivered with 2 outs in the 8th, driving yet another liner to leftcenter field. B.J. Upton, who plays the laziest center field this side of Andruw Jones, yet again nonchalantly glided after the ball, but this time coming up empty, and deservedly so, as Kotsay's double clanged off his glove. Miraculously, the Sox had put the tying run in scoring position just 3 outs after having been down 7-0.

The lineup turned over. And even though Crisp had lined a single his previous attempt, no Boston fan hopes that the man who strides to the plate in the season's most important at bat is Coco Crisp. But whatever Coco hasn't done in his time here in Boston, and whatever he does or doesn't do from here on out, that at bat with the tying run on second with 2 down in the 8th inning of what had rapidly become a one run game was legendary. He fouled off pitch after pitch after pitch, 4 after the count had run full, even some that may have been out of the zone, as Coco was determined not to let the ump make the call; this was in Coco's hands, and he put up a noble fight. Finally Wheeler gave up, conceded, threw the 10th pitch of the at bat down the middle and Coco earned that clean, pure, single to right, that beautiful soft line drive, that sent in Kotsay and tied the ballgame at 7 apiece.

The old Red Sox would have squandered it in the 9th, of course. Carlos Pena, who has been death to Sox pitching, came up with 2 on and 1 out. But the kid Masterson buckled down and got the 4-6-3, sending a tie game to the bottom of the 9th.

But Pedroia and Ortiz went down, the former on a great play by Bartlett in the hole on a sharp grounder that had deflected off Longoria. Longoria then made an amazing stab on the short hop off a Youkilis chopper, but he threw off balance in the dirt, Pena couldn't make the stop, and the Sox had the winning run on second base. Bay was intentionally walked, and J.P. Howell faced J.D. Drew, the man who had hit the 2 run bomb to bring the Sox to within a run just one inning ago. Drew, nearly motionless, poised and ready to strike, walloped a 3-1 delivery, a screaming sinking liner over the wild leap of rightfielder Gross, and Tampa walked off in defeat, acquiescing to a Game 6.

Watching this one, logic and law goes out the window (I should get better insulation.) My girlfriend Rebecca was sitting at the kitchen table when Drew hit the homer to make it 7-6, but then moved over to the couch. Lowrie promptly popped up, and I yelled for her to go back to the table. Later, she had to go get ready for bed, but I wouldn't let her. She must sit at the table and not move. She had already made Lowrie pop up. I blamed her. She stayed put, and we won.

I imagine millions of other people refused to move from their spots too. To think logically where it clearly doesn't apply, we might reason that our not moving cancelled out the Tampa fans' not moving, that the sit in your spot jinx is a zero-sum interaction, and the players took it from there. Or one might think, as I clearly did, that my actions and mine alone were responsible for sending out anti-rays metaphysical rays from Brooklyn to Boston. When the transpiring are just so fantastic, so utterly unbelievable and absurd, doing anything to disturb that precious, teetering balance the universe has so fleetingly achieved seems like a sin.

I'm still out on the idea of retroactive meaning, both enhanced and diminished. If we lose Game 6 or 7, does that take away from game 5? I don't know. I'll cross that bridge after I pay the toll. For now, even after 2 rings in 4 years, and considering all the differences between now and '04, baseball, out of all the things in the world, still has this unique ability to perform the alchemy of turning despair into nervous hope into sheer delight, of creating a little universe where things can go right.

I like baseball.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Palling Around with Zobrist

During his discussion of the presidential debate Wednesday night, Charlie Rose asked historian and Sox fan Doris Kearns Goodwin whether McCain or the Red Sox had a better chance of coming back from their respective deficits. Goodwin laughed, saying she should have expected that. Goodwin, a frequent commentator on Rose's PBS show, continued, saying that she had breathed a sigh of relief when she saw that Sox playoff schedule wouldn't interfere with the debate, but that her willingness to miss the debate meant she wasn't a real historian.

A good laugh was had by all.

The Sox' 3 games to 1 deficit is no laughing matter, of course. Naturally, however, we are all now hoping history will repeat itself, as the saying goes, and as history hopefully will as well.

I suppose not unsurprisingly, the Sox find themselves on the brink of elimination in the ALCS yet again. But history won't repeat itself without some help; only a Marxist or Hegelian might reify history sufficiently for it to be the sort of thing that can go about repeating itself all by itself. I fear it must be the Sox, and not history, that must make it happen. Besides, history, that higher and lower force, wasn't much help before 2004, when we had a whole lot more of it, and I'm not looking to it now. The cosmic patterns, the analogy of being down 3-0 or 3-1, doesn't help, as best I can tell, analogy is not an operative principle in the universe. Ortiz' wrist is. (or isn't.) Dice-K's erraticness is, and a shaky Beckett and Lester may be in the if necessaries.

Hegel and Marx would tell us its all necessary, of course, the inevitable unfolding of what was always to be. For all that, I'd like a specific prediction. Sox over Phillies in 5? Will that happen before capitalism implodes? (Or are we too late?)

I like to end with a joke.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Easier Done Than Said

In Moneyball, a big deal is made of the ineffectiveness of traditional small ball strategies, and the hypothesis is floated that managers bunt, hit and run and steal because the familiarity of these strategies will save the manager from public humiliation.

Well, Terry Francona is a post-Moneyball manager, and so I suspect he has a different fear. Private humiliation. Tito seems too embarrassed to tell his players that they can't do what the player thinks they can do. Apparently, for Francona, underperforming is like performing in underwear. Decline is awkward.

This is obvious with Varitek, whose nonexistent bat baited the boobirds in Game 3. Supposedly, the Sox are carrying three catchers on the playoff roster so that Varitek can be pinch hit for early enough in the game so that Kevin Cash can be pinch hit for too. Yet Tek has continually hit in crucial spots during the 7th innings of this series. So I can only imagine that the 3 catchers idea was Theo's, and the keeping Tek in there was Francona's. Keeping Tek in is not the safe move for Francona publicly- fans are fickle and feel no loyalty at the expense of postseason results (color me that kind of fickle as well), given that a Tek AB is bound to fail, but it avoids the private confrontation. Loyalty, and dignity for Tek, rather than a confrontation with the inevitable, even in the apparent safety of the clubhouse.

Game 2 was not a highlight for Francona. He left Beckett over and over again, to see the former ace squander three separate leads, embarrassing himself and his postseason record with a 9 hit, 8 run, 3 HR performance in just 4 and a third. This wasn't a matter of simply missing spots- Beckett induced only 4 swings and misses all night. The stuff wasn't there. In a tie game threatening extras, he removed former starter Masterson after only 2/3 of an inning, depleting the bullpen. Javier Lopez threw as many pitches as he made appearances. Francona brought in Timlin, rather than Byrd, to pitch the 11th. This on a day when Maddon had burned his two best relievers- Balfour and Howell- by the 6th inning, and was vulnerable. And Ellsbury continues to bat leadoff.

All these moves simply reinforce the preestablished roles for these players. Beckett is the ace, he should stay in. Varitek is the captain, he should stay in. Papelbon is the closer, he should pitch the 9th. Lopez is the lefty specialist, he should throw one pitch. Timlin is the veteran reliever, he should pitch before a starting is thrust into the unfamiliar role of reliever. Ellsbury is fast, he should hit leadoff.

Confronting the players would create the dissonance of casted role and performance, of expectation and fact. It would require distinguishing the pre-programmed from the pragmatic, what should be from what is. Facing reality can be uncomfortable, and downright embarrassing. But its Francona's job to not be complacent, to do whatever it takes to win. Even something unconventional, risky, or even humbling or humiliating to his favorite players. Tito can't hide out in the open, he can't lose himself in the crowd to avoid that intimate conversation. A players' manager yes, but a team's manager too. A team that's down 2 games to win and needs to win.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Outs Don't Grow On Trees Young Man; ALDS Game 4

One of the knocks against small ball is that it doesn't appreciate the value of an out; sac bunts are frowned upon not because they advance a runner, of course, but because that out is more valuable than that base. Mike Scioscia is pretty liberal with his outs, generously sharing and throwing them around, not realizing their value. Maybe he needs a summer job, or more appropriately, a winter one, to learn the value of the out.

Sure, a 2-0 count isn't likely to see a pitchout, and plenty of suicide squeezes have their desired kamikaze effect, but the suicide is aptly named nonetheless. Not that the warning signs weren't there; not only did the angels make that second out at third base in the 9th inning, but they gave up the first out on the bunt moving Willits from second to third. That's 2 outs in that 9th inning not due to the pitcher's or defense's proficiency (Tek's mad dash not withstanding,) but to negligence and profligacy, and with the runner already in scoring position, of all things. Instead of 3 whacks at a go-ahead rbi hit, Scioscia frittered away 2 outs with his out guzzling offense, squandering what few remaining natural resources he had left.

Bunt, baby, bunt!

On Bay's blooper to right in the bottom of the 9th, Willits, in a desperate but futile ploy to get one of those precious outs back, dove and came up empty, transforming a bloop single into a ground-rule double. In not realizing the value of the base, in this case, he put the series winning run in scoring position. Lowrie then ellsburied one into the shallow right field grass, sending the Sox to Tampa.

Scioscia now has no outs left. You just don't miss them till they're gone.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Lesterranean particle collidor; ALDS Game 1

If Jon Lester were any more of a force physicists would try to unify him.

Lester decided all those lopsided anaheim regular season wins were irrelevant. Ellsbury decided only the guy who hit .360 in last year's postseason would show up, adding 3 hits, 2 steals, an RBI, and one amazing clutch 8th inning catch.

I wondered yesterday about which out of all the past patterns that could possibly project would make that holiest of transitions from possible to actual. And frankly, I couldn't be much happier with the selection.

Ah, winning in the playoffs. It provokes heartfelt interjections, the 'take thats!' and 'eff yeahs' of my lexicon. So much fun. The air is crisp, the pitches are subtle, and the Sox are winning. Good times.

But I'll be nit picky anyway. Lowell looked awful; he's hurt. He had no drive from his back leg, and he swung it around on each full-hearted but half-assed (more literally than figuratively meant) cut in an attempt to ease the pressure. Drew was late on fastballs all night. Pedroia came up 4 times with runners in scoring position, and only managed a walk. Ortiz missed a couple hittable pitches, and didn't hit anything hard. Francona didn't sub Cora for defense after Lowell batted in the 7th, though he did acknowledge Tek can't hit, twice calling for the sac bunt (once successfully.)

Bay, though, pulled another bomb on an outside fastball; he just loves to hook those. Youkilis' recovery on the bloop in the 8th was heads-up; rather than field the ball and look up to see if Guerrero was running, he came up firing first and asked questions... subsequently. And Papelbon buried two nasty splitters to Aybar.

The Angels hit only 1 or two balls hard all night, and only mustered one unearned run. They've squandered home field advantage, and with Beckett and then Lester due to pitch in Fenway if necessary, that should be sufficient to send the Angels on another October vacation.

Yes, one win performs the alchemy of changing pessimism to... something else.