Monday, October 03, 2005

Same as It Ever Was

Games 158 through 162 - Red Sox

Blue Jays 7, Red Sox 2
Red Sox 5, Blue Jays 4
Red Sox 5, Yankees 3
Yankees 8, Red Sox 4
Red Sox 10, Yankees 1
Record: 95-67, AL Wild Card

"Nutzie, kaputzie", exclaimed my 84 year-old grandmother each time something went wrong during the Sox' 8-4 loss to the Yankees on Saturday - and she had much reason to repeat that mantra. Among other things, this weekend taught me that the disease is hereditary. It also taught me - reminded me, anyway - that there are things in life that matter more than baseball. As I stood next to my grandfather's hospital bed and watched the Yankees celebrate their 8th straight AL East title on the mound at Fenway Park, I was struck by the absence of angst-laden emotion.

The Sox blew a 5 1/2 game lead in 8 weeks, and I'm not tearing my hair out, and I'm not breaking things in my living room, and I'm not hyperventilating. This newfound equanimity is based upon a number of factors, none more important than the fact that the Sox are still defending World Champions. That championship foundation has been the elephant in the corner of this blogroom all year, softening the edges of my mania and blunting the force of my rage. Last October also makes it easy to live with the fact that the 2005 Sox are a flawed, injury-riddled bunch - the fact that Craig Hanson came into the late innings of Saturday's game to try to keep it close says more than my words could.

It's not a stretch to argue that Terry Francona's done a better job this year than last. To wit, if you'd told me before the season started that the Sox would...
  • Essentially lose their top starter for the entire season;
  • Lose their closer for nearly the entire season;
  • Waive their starting 2nd baseman and top lefthanded reliever due to underperformance;
  • Finish the season with 3 rookies playing significant roles in the bullpen;
  • Play the second half of the season with a 1-armed centerfielder/leadoff guy;
  • Get 9 HR and 50 RBI from Kevin Millar;
  • Get 13 HR and 65 RBI from Trot Nixon;
  • Be led in wins by Tim Wakefield; and
  • Lose Jay Payton and Gabe Kapler

...I'd have prayed for the welcome relief of the offseason, comfortable with the forthcoming 85-win season. That the Sox have overcome those realities to post a 95-win campaign, only losing the division to the Yankees on a technicality, is in any other year the stuff of legend. Only the Yankees winning 16 of their last 20 kept if from being so.

The anti-climactic nature of the weekend (Hello, Cleveland!) is another contributing factor in my blase attitude. Even after Saturday's loss, I was convinced that the Sox were going to the playoffs, so the woe-are-we wailings were in short supply. Hell, the Yankees didn't even know they were playing for the AL East title until 4 outs remained in the game on Saturday. If they didn't know what the hell was going on, how the hell could I be expected to keep up?

So after 162 games, and 19 more Sox/Yankee hype-fests, we find ourselves precisely where we were last season at this time, with the delightful difference being that Yankee fans have to worry about a 3-hour time difference and the Angels' balance. The Sox get Chicago, in a matchup that screams "Crapshoot". I'll spend some time previewing the ALDS in my own inimitable fact-free way later, but suffice it to say that I have no earthly idea what's going to happen in the next week. I am fairly confident that another Yankee/Red Sox ALCS will signal Armageddeon-style press coverage that will render all other news more trivial than Britney Spears' child-rearing tips. Look for the Bush Administration to choose that week to come clean on WMD mistakes, Karl Rove's role in the Valerie Plame scandal, and W's prediliction for Madlibs.

The rivalry did bring a moment of levity this weekend. As I sat in the Fox Sports Cafe in Logan Airport, I watched with amusement as Sully the Bartender laid waste to the kind of Yankee fan that gives all Yankee fans a bad name. Yankee hat walked into the bar, and Sully said, "Lotta balls to walk in here wearing that hat," with just enough edge in his voice to make me sit up and pay attention. "Tell you what, I bet I know more about your team than you do. What happened in the 1960 World Series?"

Yankee Hat hemmed and hawed before demurring because, "Hey, I wasn't even born in 1960." Sully kept at it, "Fine. What happened in the 1996 World Series?" "Man, that was 10 years ago, who remembers that stuff?" Sully, knowing he'd drawn blood, pressed the issue, "I could tell you the score of every game of that series, and I'm a Sox fan. 1 more chance - what was Don Mattingly's jersey number?" And as the entire bar leaned forward - most of us, even the Sox fans, knowing the answer, Yankee Hat choked - just like his "team" did in the 2004 ALCS. "Pretty sure it was 27," he said, at which point the whole bar murmured in anticpation of Sully's next retort.

"23, pal. He was number 23. Now get out of my bar. And you don't deserve to wear that hat." At which point Yankee Hat slunk out of the bar accompanied by the laughter of the assembled patrons. The entire incident reinforced the stereotypes held dearly by both camps: Yankee fans are a bunch of bandwagon loudmouths, and Red Sox fans are a bunch of defensive elitists. And the truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle.

I'd like to tell you that I'm all pumped and jacked, but the truth of the matter is that I'm anything but. I'm pleased that the Sox are in the playoffs. I'm looking forward to obsessing over every pitch for the next 3 weeks, if all goes well. But there's something about holding the hand of an 85 year-old man as he recounts the joys of family and shedding happy tears with him as he comes to terms with his mortality that makes all this not amount to a whole lot. And if that perspective comes with a temporary price, if it makes this post-season a little less fraught with intensity and emotion, well, that's a trade I'm willing to make. Though I will be uttering more than my share of "Nutzie, kaputzie", starting Tuesday.

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