Thursday, October 31, 2013

An Ode to the 2013 Boston Red Sox

           871 days ago, as I was eagerly awaiting spending some quality time with the other contributors of this website in the days leading up to a certain wedding of the century, I watched Game 6 of the NBA Finals between the Mavericks and the Heat.  The Heat had led the series two games to one, but Dallas had hung tough and somehow persevered through the next two games.  Yes, it may have taken a LeBrick James collapse, the likes of which have not been seen in . . . well, 872 days, but it was still a great series.  In Game Six, with Dirk recovering from flu-like symptoms, Jason Terry, Jason Kidd, and Puerto Rican Danny DeVito stepped up huge, the team shot 50 percent, and the Mavericks made this infamous moment funny for one last time.  Who would have ever thought a team coached by Jim Carrey could have gotten so far?
            I watched the game with my dad, went home to my mom’s house, and celebrated like it was high school all over again – geeking out in my room, watching postgame highlights, very happy but oh so lonely.  If someone had told me it would be 871 days before the Red Sox won the World Series and I would be this happy for a sports championship again . . . well, let’s just review the evidence.

2011 World Series, Game 6 (Cardinals defeat Rangers): Here’s the YouTube clip.  No wait, I can’t.  Can’t post this.  Can’t watch this.  So painful.  I hate God’s Team.

2012 Super Bowl (Giants defeat Patriots): Can’t watch clips of this one either, but Gisele’s rant sums it all up.  No, Tom can’t pass the ball and catch it at the same time.  His receivers let him down.  But fortunately, we got rid of those idiots Welker, Hernandez, and Woodhead and replaced them with Hall of Fame receivers Medula Amendola, some rookies, and Austin Collie.  No worries there.
2012 NCAA Championship (Kentucky defeats Kansas): Calipari avenges his 2008 championship game loss to Bill Self, as Wildcat players score more points than their combined SAT scores.  That is, the scores the reported.  Mass St. (and the Saltz household) is silent and everyone goes back to school the next day.
2012 and 2013 NBA Finals (LeBrons defeat Zombie Sonics and Spurs): Didn’t watch too much of either of these series.  In fact, during Game Seven of the Spurs series, I left midway through the game and went to go see Now You See Me.  Why couldn’t the magicians in that movie transport me away from this agony?
2012 World Series (??? defeats ???): Don’t remember it, couldn’t have been worth watching.  Truthfully, baseball doesn’t really get watched when the Red Sox lose 93 games.
2012 and 2013 BCS Championships (Alabama defeats teams not as good as Oregon): Like the NBA Finals, I didn’t watch much of these games.  It did give me time to plow snow out of the driveway, scrape ice from the car windshield, read for class, and catch some excellent January releases such as Ghost Rider:Spirit of Vengeance and Movie 43.

            So, in other words, the time period between June 12, 2011 and October 30, 2013 left plenty to be desired in the area of my sports teams’ success in championships.  This doesn’t even account for every freak New England Patriot injury, every Jayhawk March Madness collapse, and every freakish St. Louis Cardinals comeback victory.  I don’t claim to be more cursed than all over fans, but I’ve had my share of bad, rotten fortune.  In fact, the only three things that gave me any sort of happiness were, in order: (1) Discovering and plowing through the entirety of Breaking Bad, (2) Seeing Obama reelected, and (3) Going to Las Vegas with Todd and winning $100 at blackjack in the Party Pit at the Excalibur.   Yes, it’s been that kind of two-and-a-half years.
            That’s why seeing the Red Sox win the World Series last night was so simultaneously thrilling, exciting, unexpected, wonderful, and genuinely cathartic.  I needed a sports cleansing more than John Travolta needed a shower by the end of Battlefield Earth.  I needed a reason to restore my faith in professional sports (and the world in general) again.  I needed a reason to laugh and leap up from my chair and lose my voice and get told repeatedly by my wife to stop talking about the freaking World Series already. 
            Let’s review some of the reasons why the Red Sox winning the World Series was so wonderful:

1. It was unexpected. Between the final four weeks of the 2011 season and the beginning of this season, the Red Sox were a combined 76-113.  During that horrific 189 game stretch, Boston went through three managers; endured major, potentially career-altering injuries to Papi, John Lackey, Jacoby Ellsbury, Andrew Bailey, and Clay Bucholz; and saw some of its most instrumental 2007 heroes (Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Kevin Youklis, Jonathan Papelbon) leave the team under bitter circumstances.  The players and the fans revolted.  The beer and fried chicken were finally removed from the clubhouse.  The payroll situation was a mess in 2012, and many speculated that the 2013 contracts given to Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, and Johnny Gomes were wildly excessive.  Papi was 37, Lackey (recovering from Tommy John surgery, a messy public divorce, and an ERA of 6.75 in the final two months of ’11) was 34, Napoli was 31, and Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Kevin Youklis, and Cody Ross were gone forever.  John Farrell had a .475 winning percentage as manager of a talented Blue Jays team (a squad who some misguided observers predicted to win the AL East).  With everyone talking about Toronto, Baltimore, Tampa, and the Yankees, no one thought the aging, unhappy, injury-prone Red Sox could amount to a hill of beans. 

2. It was unpredictable and sometimes tumultuous.  No one remembers this, but most of the Red Sox buzz going into the 2013 season surrounded rookie phenom Jackie Bradley Jr. and Joel Hanrahan (that gives you a good indication of how little Boston fans really expected).  A 20-8 start was overlooked in Boston due to the tragedy of the Boston Marathon bombings.  Then the roof began to fall in and doubters began to strut their fatalistic forecasts.  They went 8-12 during a three week span in May which included Tito Francona’s return to Fenway (a 12-3 shellacking by the Indians).  Then, disaster struck: On June 9, Bucholz (who led the league with 9-0 record and 1.71 ERA) reported a strain in his neck, and he was put on the disabled list until September.  The rest of the pitching staff played well, but not exceptional.  Bucholz’s nine wins were, incredibly, the best on the team until Lester got his 10th victory on July 28.  Ryan Dempster won one game between June 25 and August 30, Lackey went through a stretch where he was 2-7, and Jake Peavy’s acquisition did not exactly give Red Sox fans confidence (especially after they had to give up the defensive excellence of Jose Iglesias to AL rival Detroit).  It was the offense that excelled, however, and a rejuvenated Ortiz had his best season statistically since 2007, according to WAR.

3.  Their postseason play was thrilling. Boston first dismantled the frisky Rays, a perennially strong division rival that had their eye on the Red Sox ever since they erased the Sox’s five-game division lead in July over a span of only two weeks.  Boston throttled Tampa aces David Price and Matt Moore, giving them both losses and ERAs above 9.00.  Then, in the ALCS, the Red Sox faced the defending AL Champs Tigers – a team with the league’s best starting pitchers (Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer) and best hitters (Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder).  After managing one run and only a handful of hits in the first 16 innings of the series, the Sox grabbed victory from the hands of defeat with Papi’s series-saving Game Two grand slam (it’s hard to see them taking four of the next five from Detroit without that home run).  Victorino’s grand slam in Game Six was as improbable as it was thrilling.  And then, there was the World Series, where the bats of both teams seemed indeterminately stunted.  When St. Louis took a 2-1 lead after the controversial Game Three finish, it seemed like the series might not even go back to Boston. But Papi, Lester, and opportunistic hitting once again saved the day, and last night, when the series returned to Fenway, true fans knew that the outcome was never in doubt.

            Maybe this sounds overly reactionary, but I can’t really think of many better recent stories in sports than the 2013 Red Sox.  How many times does a team go from worst-to-first with a majority of new players and a new manager?  How many times has a team had to win back fans after scandal and controversy tore that team apart?  How many times has a team defeated the league’s two best teams (according to SRS), including four road wins, en route to its third championship in ten years?  How many times has a team gone 95 years between clinching a title at home? 
            I will always remember three things from this season’s 2013 Red Sox and their incredible postseason run.  The first thing (whether I like it or not) will be that insane play that ended Game Three. Let’s touch on that for a second.  When I first saw the play, I was understandably furious as a Red Sox fan.  How could a judgment call like that end a critical World Series game?  How could obstruction be called when Craig initiated contact with Middlebrooks by putting his hands on him?  Wasn’t Middlebrooks about two feet off the baseline, creating a clear path for the runner?  And (the question that everyone asked), what is Middlebrooks supposed to do?  Now (and I understand this is 100% convenient and with the luxury of hindsight), I look back on the play as another element that makes baseball great.  How insane was that?  Could any other sport really offer an ending that unique, controversial, memorable, and just plain weird?  Plus, had obstruction not been invoked and Boston had won Game Three, the series would not have gone back to Boston.
            The second thing I will always remember is Ortiz’s insane postseason batting (.668 BA, 1.188 SLG vs. the Cardinals).  I never thought a player could eclipse Barry Bonds’ numbers in the 2002 World Series (.471 BA, 1.294 SLG vs. the Angels), but Ortiz proved me wrong.  Papi left the most indelible image of the 2013 MLB postseason, made a celebrity out of Officer Horgan, and won a truck that proved He’s Strong.  Let’s pray to Jesus he’s not taking steroids.  The final thing I will remember is Stephen Drew’s home run in the fourth inning.  Why?  Drew had a fantastic World Series defensively, making incredible throw after incredible throw.  He’s never been an All-Star or Golden Glove winner (he’s mostly been AWOL since he left the Diamondbacks), is the brother of the most hated Red Sox player of the last decade, and was in the midst of a historically awful offensive postseason performance (going into Game Six, he was in the middle of a 4 for 50 slump in October.  Yes, you read that stat correctly: 4 for 50). 

            If you know baseball well enough, you know it’s a zero-sum game.  You know that historically bad slumps like Drew’s are just as freakish and ephemeral as historically great streaks like Ortiz (who struck out and had three walks last night).  You know that at some point, those slumps have to end (it’s the same logic that was used to understand the logic behind Aaron Boone’s home run).  The game is karmic and circular and mysterious.  Therefore, Drew had to end his slump at some point, and he did so at the most opportune moment possible.  The Red Sox led 4-0, Michael Wacha’s improbable postseason success was over, and fans began to count down the remaining innings.  I was so happy for Drew, and I was happy that I had known that it had to happen at some point.  Just like this Red Sox teams and sports in general, I suppose.  At some point, losing and heartbreak has to come to an end.  The 2013 Red Sox reminded all of us of that.

Stephen Drew pointed skyward after his solo home run in the third inning.

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