Tuesday, April 01, 2003

The What

The Baseball Poets, as Tony Kornheiser calls them, are in their finest throat in these, the first days of a new baseball season. The profound beauty of the game, the emerald cathedral of the ballpark, the elemental symmetry in the 6-4-3 double play - all of these things resonate to the literati. To which we say, blah, blah, blah, let's play some ball. This spot is dedicated to a season-long chronicle of the fortunes of the Boston Red Sox and New York Mets, our favorite teams. Recent memory (or in the case of the Red Sox, the last 84 years) tells us that it might get painful.

The Obligatory Introductions - Red Sox

First, the review of 2002. The Sox were 93-69, gaining the bittersweet distinction of being the only team in the Wild Card era to win 93 games and not make the playoffs. They had the league's leading hitter in Manny Ramirez, two 20-game winners in Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe, three of the American League's top 4 ERAs (adding Tim Wakefield to Martinez and Lowe), seven, count 'em seven representatives at the All-Star game (Ramirez, Martinez, Lowe, Nomar Garciaparra, Ugueth Urbina, Shea Hillenbrand, and Johnny Damon), and they still didn't make the playoffs.

The offseason saw the hiring of 29 year-old Theo Epstein as General Manager, and an organizational shift of philosophy. Traditional baseball people seem threatened by young Theo's statistical bent, and were apoplectic when the Sox hired noted stat-guy Bill James as a consultant. Boston's notoriously negative press corps shifted into high gear as the Sox failed to sign big names or trade for Bartolo Colon, focusing instead on solid hitters with high on-base percentages, and a new approach to bullpen organization that's been dubbed "closer by committee". (Truthfully, the new approach is really an echo of baseball's earlier days, when the team's best bullpen arms were used when needed, instead of in pre-arranged setup/closer roles. If the experiment is successful, agents for high-dollar, low-inning closers will be the ones most concerned.)

We could spend more time on preamble, but let's get right to the heart of the matter. Bottom line - I'm more optimistic about the Sox' chances this year than I have been in many years. Which, of course, means that they will fall from playoff contention before the All-Star break. There are very few organizations in all of recorded sports history that subject their fans to more pain than the Boston Red Sox - a theme to which I feel certain we will return as this year proceeds.

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