All credit to the champion Red Sox, but hear me out, please, on the year
Smead Jolley here!
Not that this week’s diatribe will constitute eating crow nor even faintly smack of apologia. No way! After all, I didn’t promise St. Louis would beat your pixilated town team in the late and rather more glorified than either necessary or justifiable World Series.
But I certainly did too rashly assert that if the Cardinals did not prove a more formidable foe than those pussycats from Detroit my name is “Smead Jolley.” I’ve been called worse.
It didn’t happen. In the end, the Cards were as much or maybe more chastened, humbled, and rendered demur as the Tigers had been. It was a Series the Red Sox could have swept, and probably should have.
How to explain!
For openers, there’s the obvious. The regular season Cardinals just didn’t show up for the Series. This is the essential point that those who know them and have watched them a whole lot more and with greater intensity than any of us insist with considerable fervor. And I believe them. If you caught the Cards at the end of the Pirates’ series or throughout the Dodgers’ series when they sashayed to the Grand Finale by playing consistently smart, saucy, enterprising, and opportunistic baseball, you no doubt agree.
One statistics speaks volumes. It’s RISP – performance with runners in scoring position – which in my book reveals more about a player or team than all the new-age metric ragtime combined. In their last 22 opportunities to deliver a runner in scoring position (all in games they lost) the Cardinals hit .091. This from a team that led the entire major leagues in vital RISP during the regular season. What difference did the five or six runs not scored make? Probably one win, possibly two. At least we’d have had a seven-game series. Wherein, who knows? In the end, that’s how tight the ultimate games can be, easily turning on a single slender dynamic.
Among the hardest things to discern in sports in general, baseball in particular, is this. When is it a matter of one team playing lousy and when is it instead a matter of one team making the other look lousy. They are not the same. The difference is important.
In the end, the Red Sox made the Cardinals look plodding and whipped. But they did much the same to the Tigers and Rays before them. Granted, Jim Leyland is old and weary but by the end of the ALCS he was managing like another Darrell Johnson. As for the opener against those usually spunky and under-paid Tampa kids, this will likely be the last time you’ll ever see a Joe Maddon team look shaky and anxious and beaten from the very get-go.
From the post-season’s start to finish the Red Sox had an aura about them, a palpable edge in attitude. They played like it never occurred to them it was possible to lose. So, they didn’t.
Best example is how they reacted to the stunning loss in WS Game Three featuring the uproarious obstruction call which briefly looked epic but now becomes a mere footnote – unless you see it as the final impetus they needed, and it may well have been just that.
It was a great and absolutely correct call perfectly handled by the too often and unfairly abused umpires. The hero of the moment was the estimable Jim Joyce with a call that was decisive, swift, and without a whiff of equivocation. It was, in a word, terrific umpiring because it would have been so easy to wishy-wash around it with everyone saying, “Well, you can’t have a World Series game end on something like that.” Or some such balderdash.
Rife were the predictions this dramatic twist would prove pivotal and could well unnerve Boston. The governing story line compared it with the infamous bunt blunder by Larry Barnett that likely cost Boston the ‘75 World Series against the Reds. So what did they do? They not only won the next three games with increasing ease but never again trailed in the process. That’s dominance, both physical and mental.
Okay, enough of the hagiography. This team has received quite enough rave notices from adoring media cheerleaders who’ve fallen even more in love with wretched excess. Herewith are a few last points and if they’re insufficiently adoring, so be it.
• This was not a great World Series. The great ones can be measured inning to inning, sometimes pitch to pitch. They are taut games well-played throughout. All games are decided by mistakes but there’s a difference between a mistake and a blunder. This Series had a preponderance of the latter. Three games were decided by them – shabby base running, bad throws, questionable judgment, failed execution, even a bloody pick-off – and two others were roll-overs. Messy baseball is invariably exciting. But it ain’t great.
• Yes, this team should be remembered for having been dogged and gritty and the possessor of a flair for the dramatic. But it was also mighty lucky. As a factor, luck is both enigmatic and huge and, as it more and more relates to injury, it borders on the random. Last season they were devastated by injury. This year they got a relatively free pass. As only the best example there was the case of the relief pitchers. First Joel Hanrahan, then Andrew Bailey got kayoed by injury. All of which made way for the miraculous discovery of Untouchable Closer Koji Uehara. Might they have inevitably done so without the injuries? You will never know for sure.
• Which leads to a related faintly ridiculous premise; that this team authored a “worst to first” rebound that was downright historic. Nonsense! They were far from the worst team in baseball in 2012, only the most screwed up. The aforementioned injuries were a major factor. So was ill-suited Bobby Valentine. Yet they were still vaguely in contention veering into August only to have the big trade with L.A. wipe them out, as poor Valentine had the impertinence to point out. Without question that Dodger-deal was a monumental blessing that was parlayed adroitly making this year’s windfall possible. But it was not “Impossible Dream” stuff, rather a “significant correction.”
• In quite the same regard, may we politely object to the characterization their more romantically inclined Boswells have favored terming them a rags to riches collection of the valiant down-trodden, a sort of baseball version of “The Little Engine That Could.” Isn’t it pretty to think so. But this team has a payroll of $158,967,286. That’s fourth largest of MLB’s 30 payrolls, only a half million behind 3rd-place Philadelphia. The bloated Tigers are $9 million lighter; the Cardinals $42 million. As for the Rays, who rank 28th, Boston outspent Tampa this season by a mere $101,937,014. “Rags to Riches”? Our Lads? I don’t think so.
• Lastly, may it be respectfully suggested it’s time to put aside the gravely excessive use of the Red Sox story to make oddly elaborate claims about events and issues – some horrific – well beyond the ballpark. There is no connection between what happened last April and the mere game of baseball other than in the shallow pretenses of the team, which can be discretely ignored, and the childish whims of Red Sox Nation, which ought to know better.
It’s bad enough when such clumsy hyperbole flows from the sports pages where it’s vaguely in context. But when the rest of our alleged newspaper of record runs wild with such silly notions mere cliché drifts into utter poppycock. Let Stephen King confine himself to his backwoods phantasmagoria. The strength of a place or the resilience of its people has nothing to do with the success of its sports teams anymore than the weakness of a people can be attributed to their failure. The line between reality and fantasy – never so thin than in our times – ought not be crossed so casually.
Mind you, we’re not raining on anyone’s parade here; merely trying to balance the books in some small and doubtless futile way. We trust old Smead Jolley, an amiable fellow, would approve.