Can’t get away from that swoon by the Red Sox

Hard for the Nation to swallow no doubt, but the party continues without the presumptive guest of honor. So much for the giddy thesis holding that the Red Sox were the team to beat in this season’s prolonged and agonizing post-season festival, the only surprise being that it took only three games to make a mockery of this familiar vanity.  

Did these Red Sox grossly under-achieve? If so, Manager Farrell should have been fired. Were they inadequately equipped for the task? If so, the extended honeymoon accorded GM Dombrowski needs to be pronounced ‘ovah’! Or was it, like so many Bosox historical editions, vastly overrated by we of the overwhelmingly fawning media.

Let’s play it safe here and say it’s probably a combination of all three.

Such a pity! Just when the entire sporting world was beginning to drool over the prospect of its two most coddled, whimpered-over, spoiled, and over-stated franchises meeting in an epic World Series that would renew antagonisms left unresolved in 1918 when the Red Sox beat the Cubs in their last Series showdown, your 2016 team wimped out classically.  There’s no other way of characterizing the slam-dunking they absorbed from the over-matched, relatively plodding, low-budget, and injury-ravaged Indians. You plunge into deep waters when you dare rank the all-time rollover-jobs of your town team, but this one fairly easily bubbles near the top.

Major League baseball, long lusting for a Fall Classic that would really stick it to pro football in the ratings war, grieves. But in the end, it may be for the best. As of the writing, we have the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians rocketing along on a collision course and the prospect is delicious.

Together they have piled up 176 years of failure and folly; the Cubs having been chilled since 1908, and the Indians last winning in 1948. There has never been such a meeting at any game’s brink of two teams bearing so much historical baggage in all the annals of North American sport.   

The Cubs, of course, have unquestionably arrived with the brilliant manipulations of Theo Epstein being placed in the priceless custody of Joe Maddon. This is a young, merry, fabulously talented club that can do no wrong. 2016 could be the beginning of a long run for the Cubs, redeeming the frustrations of a fan base that has been turning misery into an art form since the Ragtime era of Teddy Roosevelt.  

The Indians are another matter, more creatures of the moment than dynasty in waiting. Under the brilliant field generalship of Terry Francona –fast making the Red Sox limp treatment of him look remarkably dumb – they’ve  coalesced rather magically although it has the look of one of those oddly anointed seasons that only happens when the stars and moons are perfectly  aligned.

A close look at the Indians reveals little potential for greatness. They have nice young players (Shortstop Francisco Lindor is a gem the equal of any of Boston’s more celebrated phenoms) and a roster sprinkled with worthy vets notably gifted at leadership. But they also have half their starting rotation – their single exceptional asset – languishing on the disabled list.

The Indians are a “Team,” with a capital ‘T’, joyfully seizing the moment. They scratch and claw their way to victory. What Francona has coaxed from them is indisputably amazing. But in the end, they defy explanation. Consider their cleanup hitter, Mike Napoli, a lumbering and 35-year-old journeyman slugger without a true position waived away by Boston a year ago for mere peanuts and nary a tear. Yet under Francona’s extraordinary spell, Napoli had 34 homers and 101 ribbies while bringing a spirit to the clubhouse that all agree was vital. Although Naploi is hitting less than .100 post-season, Tito still has him firmly planted at clean-up. The Indians are a team that can be carried by a Mike Napoli.  And that’s charming!

Cubs-Indians: it’s the showdown at the end of this rainbow the Republic of Baseball now demands, although one must allow that, as of this writing, the Blue Jays and Dodgers remain intent on messing with that pleasing scenario. We shall see.

 But in the meantime we’re left to wonder: If the Red Sox had been merely honest and fair with Terry Francona, and hadn’t needlessly dumped Andrew Miller, and somehow found a way to swallow their pride and keep Jon Lester, who do you think would be now heading for baseball’s summit? The answer is, as they say, “a no-brainer.”

These playoffs could yet get too long and labored. But as has been increasingly the case, the early rounds have been terrific. Intensity is off the charts, with high drama overflowing and agonizing schemes and strategies by managers ripen for dissecting.  It began with the wild Jays-Orioles wild card won in an extra-inning walk-off, continuing through the Cubs-Giants beauty featuring consecutive incredible finishes, then on to the Cubs-Dodgers opener won impossibly on a pinch slam.

Will the early rounds outclass the later ones, including the Series?  That has lately been the trend as well in other games, notably football and hockey. Surviving early playoff rounds has become the obsession with just making it to the finals a reward in itself. Subtly, the playoffs have diminished the World Series.

En route, there has been the further irony of the Yankees – not even bit-players in the melodrama – nonetheless playing a crucial role. Their fire sale trading of lights-out relievers Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman to the Indians and Cubs, respectively, has spectacularly influenced the proceedings. Miller has become the Indians’ messiah, performing with an eerie brilliance. If less sensationally, Chapman nonetheless anchors the Cubs’ great expectations.  

Once again here in Boston, however, the Yankees influence is rather more rueful. In retrospect, they deserve much credit for the Red Sox swift and painful exit. It was that three-game swoon the last week in New York, punctuated by Mark Teixeira’s farewell grand slam, that was most responsible for them blowing playoff home-field advantage. And a crippling blow it was.

Or do you not agree they’d have fared rather better if the first two games had been in Boston, not Cleveland. You have all winter to chew on that, old Sport.