Welcome to the baseball season that need not be played, the conclusion being foregone. It’s the year of Red Sox Nation’s ultimate hegemony. Could a visit from Attila’s Huns have been any more exciting?
Nothing blemishes the skies over Fort Myers; the waters of the Gulf have never been warmer. Your Town Team’s manifest destiny was brilliantly affirmed in the very first utterances of the season’s very first day with a majestic thrashing of mighty Northeastern, 13-2. It was merciless, raw, even Homeric; almost enough to appease the blood lust soon to rage among the cave dwellers of Fenway’s centerfield bleachers.
Tradition alone obliges the necessity of a 162-game season to confirm the inevitable. Is there conceivably a rotation remotely comparing with Lester-Buchholz-Beckett-Lackey & Matsuzaka? And to such wise guys as may suggest the Indians’ 1954 cadre of Wynn, Lemon, Feller, Garcia, & Houtteman, bear in mind that four of them are dead and the fifth is nearing 90. As for the Townies’ batting order --one thru nine -- comparisons even of the ’27 Yankees are spurious. These Bashing BoSox don’t have no banjo hitters like Jumping Joe Dugan and Bennie Bengough cluttering their glorious lineup.
Your 2011 Boston Red Sox cannot be beaten. This gospel truth rages across Florida’s merry Grapefruit League scene from the Dry Tortugas to the steps of Castillo de San Marcos. Hank Steinbrenner is preparing a concession speech even as we speak. When he finishes taking his bows in November, Theo the Incomparable can re-direct his ungodly talents to a task more worthy of his brilliance, like balancing the federal budget or unscrambling the Middle East. Like Alexander the Great, Master Epstein will have conquered all of his known world well before the age of 40. It’s altogether thrilling.
According to long-term observers, you may have to go all the way back to 1949 to find a Red Sox scenario brimming with more optimism in the very telling month of February. That was the year, of course, when a panel of a dozen baseball media experts -- captained by the nearly infallible Grantland Rice and commissioned, as I recall, by the then illustrious Look Magazine -- unanimously declared the pets to be certain to go all the way and win their first championship in 31 years.
And why not! To an all-star cast stung by a playoff defeat to Cleveland cheating them out of their just due in 1948 , ‘Daddy Warbucks’ Yawkey, the spare-no-expense owner, had purchased hard-throwing Walter Masterson from the ever-bankrupt Washington Senators and stylish right fielder Zeke Zarilla from his top farm team, the St. Louis Browns. Thus was added a pitcher everybody wanted to a staff topped by Mel Parnell and Ellie Kinder and a .329 hitter to a lineup that already boasted four lifetime .300 hitters, including Ted Williams, plus rollicking sluggers Junior Stephens and Bobby Doerr with Walt Dropo waiting in the wings. How does it get any better than that?
Meanwhile the Yankees, then as now their arch foe, were faced with a mountain of woes and widespread doubt after a winter of apparent blunders and disappointments.
The Great DiMaggio had a major problem with his heel that was feared to be career threatening. Jolting Joe’s long-time fellow travelers in the outfield, King Kong Keller and Tommy Henrich, had been succeeded by a couple of unknowns, Gene Woodling and Hank Bauer, neither considered a premium prospect. Unproven kids Jerry Coleman and Bobby Brown were replacing the departing Snuffy Stirnweiss and Billy Johnson in the infield. Joe Page, a legendary playboy, was being asked to anchor the bullpen. All such uncertainties had been placed in the custody of new manager Casey Stengel, well remembered in Boston as the class clown for his sorrowful term skippering the eternally inept Braves. The Yankees were a team in transition, although some called it disarray. Red Sox Nation was positively gleeful.
How all of that turned out in the end is the stuff of the darkest nightmare of the dear Nation’s wilderness years, which lasted a mere 86 blessed seasons in the sun.
Sidelined until July, DiMaggio rebounded quite miraculously. The youngsters Bauer and Woodling, along with an off-season cop, Johnny Lindell, solidified the Yankee outfield. Coleman and Brown did the same for the infield with Henrich being reborn at first base. A revolutionary force, Page became the most dominant relief pitcher in the game’s history, up to that point. The most astounding surprise, though, was Mr. Stengel. Long derided as a loopy misfit, he morphed into a deft weaver of baseball magic once he donned the pin stripes. It was absolutely galling.
In Boston, Uncle Tom Yawkey’s ‘Gold Sox’, as they were then derisively nick-named, didn’t exactly pack it in. Parnell and Kinder combined to win 48 games, the best single season performance by their one-two starters in team history. Williams, Stephens, and Doerr all had their best overall season in the Carmine Hose, combining to deliver a staggering 427 runs batted in, an average of 142 apiece. Ponder please the impact of such production from the middle of your order. Inevitably, Dom DiMaggio and Johnny Pesky -- the two lucky chaps who led off that awesome lineup -- averaged over .300 and scored 227 times. That such a team could lose in the end was impossible; but, of course, they sure did.
It came down -- as every New England school kid knows better than the tale of the midnight ride of Paul Revere -- to one bloody, winner-take-all game in the Bronx, the very last day of the season. The Yanks found a way to win while the Sox found a way to lose. It wasn’t the DiMaggios who beat them that memorable day but the Colemans, Lindells, and Pages. The two teams were always equal in stars but the Yankees always had better role players.
Of all the indignities sustained during that memorable era – yes, including even Bucky Dent in 1978 and Aaron Boone in 2003 -- none hurt more than the mad machinations of 1949. If the melodramatics of 2004 somewhat atoned for all that, it did not exactly even the score.
So what’s the point of this little diatribe, you may ask? Well, I won’t bore you with balderdash about history’s capacity to repeat itself. For sure, it’s generally true about almost anything, but it’s a cliché-burdened thesis when applied to baseball. The Yankees are always the Yankees and the Indians are always the Indians. But history has little to do with it.
More precisely it’s about the perils of the “foregone conclusion.” This year’s Red Sox team is regarded as pre-destined, anointed, and a lead-pipe cinch just like the 1949 team was. It’s a dangerous mindset.
Plainly, G.M Epstein agrees. He has lately taken to posting daily advisories on the pitfalls of over-confidence, even after rousing back-to-back romps over the mighty likes of Northeastern and Boston College. He appears to be getting feverish on the subject. From a distance, Manager Terry Francona seems even more terrified. But then he well knows that in the present atmosphere of haughty triumphalism he will be toast if he doesn‘t run the board without breaking a sweat.
But the media experts -- from the pompous overlords of ESPN all the way down to the guttersnipes of talk radio -- will hear none of that. Universally they proclaim the inevitability of your Red Sox. Rare is the savant willing to dissent with that conventional wisdom.
About this time a year ago both USA Today and the Sporting News solicited the opinions of the nation’s most influential sporting scribes on the matter of who would win the pennants and ultimately the whole shebang. It’s a gimmick annually deployed by the Big Media. As I recall, around 50-60 of these lofty sporting folks shared their prophetic vision on the matter. Only one, a little known chap from San Francisco, picked the Giants to end up as champions of the baseball world.
So much for the experts and their expertise.