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The Long Game: Sox Even Series with Cardinals

The Long Game: Sox Even Series with Cardinals

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I’m not young, but in the long arc of Red Sox fandom, some would argue I’m too young to have bona fide demons.

My family moved to New England in 1972, in time to endure three-plus decades of an 86-year World Series drought. I recall first-hand Luis Aparicio’s stumble around third base, Jim Rice’s broken hand and Joe Morgan’s Series-winning bloop, Bucky Dent’s anomalous three-run homer, Bill Buckner’s unfortunate fielding (Bob Stanley’s equally hair-brained pitching), Roger Clemens’ inability to beat the Bash Brother A’s, and fucking Aaron Boone.

But the Cardinals? Their wins over the Sox in 1967 and 1946 stand as disappointing but amorphous mileposts on a road travelled too long ago. Any Game 7 loss is gut-wrenching, for sure, and here were two of them — each closing the book on efforts to end long title droughts in their own right. But for me, they were just words on a page, disjointed snippets of film.

Even those New Englanders old enough to have experienced the ’67 Series were, it seems to me, happy enough to have simply won a pennant. Save an epic September collapse in 1949, the Sox had not seriously challenged for one in 29 years. Hard to bitch too much when simply contending is pre-emptively dubbed an Impossible Dream.

The 1946 loss to St. Louis is even harder to get worked up about. Yes, Ted Williams hit .200 and apparently Johnny Pesky’s botched relay allowed Enos Slaughter to score the Series-clinching run. At that stage, the Sox had not won a title, nor even played in a World Series, for 28 years. I’m sure it was plenty traumatic, but David Halberstam wrote a book about 1949, not 1946.

Boston’s World Series wins over the Cardinals in 2004 and now 2013 just don’t feel, to me, like any sort of cosmic payback.

But perhaps they should.

Here is something The Nation should work on. After three titles in 10 seasons, the danger is, we might become jaded.

When a century turns, the Sox are clearly ascendant (by 1918, they had won five titles and never lost a World Series). The Curse of the Bambino has been summarily dispatched (actually, this was a canard; god love him but the true curse kicked in when Ted Williams was born, in 1918, and petered out when he passed away, in 2002).

Cardinal Hate seems to me a worthy emotional exercise. If we can’t muster the venom to keep score with St. Louis, over the course of decades, what sort of Red Sox fans are we really?

A sports grudge is never released.  What, are we supposed to stop hating the Yankees now that they actually suck? Surely not. They had their century. This one’s ours. Come 2101, we’ll count championships over the next hundred years — that will decide things.

And I’ve got news for you: This Cardinals team has a veritable boatload of spectacular young pitching. Martinez, Rosenthal, Kelly, Wacha, Siegrest… Every time I turned around, they were trotting out another kid who throws 97 mph and appears settled beyond his years. The veteran Wainwright is a stud. Their closer from the 2011 World Series-winning team, Jason Motte, is scheduled to return from Tommy John surgery. Consider Edward Mujica, Motte’s replacement till Rosenthal beat him out in August: Mujica was an All-Star this year — and he didn’t get sniff this series. With this sort of extraordinary pitching depth, the Cardinals can trade for, or simply sign, another bat or two. They will be back.

At which point we’ll sort this Best of 5.

Never forget. Never stop keeping score.

 

 

 

 

Add Béisbol to Casa de Campo’s Rich Sporting Life

Add Béisbol to Casa de Campo’s Rich Sporting Life

 

Casa de Campo bills itself as enabler of The Sporting Life, and they deliver on that claim in myriad ways: golf, of course, but shooting, polo, tennis, yachting and several more I’m sure I’m missing. But there is baseball, too, and tonight we got a thoroughly entertaining taste.

La Romana, the city of 250,000 that is home to Casa de Campo, is home to Los Toros del Este of the Dominican League, a winter circuit comprised of the country’s many fine players and a few U.S.-based stars home for the Major League Baseball offseason. Thursday night we ventured out to Estadio Francisco A. Micheli to watch “The Bulls of the East” drop a 4-3 decision to visiting Estrellas Orientales, who hail from the noted baseball hotbed, San Pedro de Macoris.

MLB fans surely understand by now what a huge impact Dominican players have had on America’s national pastime. Indeed, as a Red Sox fan, I’m forever in debt to Dominican stars David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez and Pedro Martinez for delivering two World Series in the last 8 years. But the Dominican league is something substantial in its own right, a brand of beisbol that must be experienced to be believed.

Yes, there are MLB stars on hand, though Los Toros’ Erick Aybar, who plays for the Angels, and Estrellas’ Felix Pie were the only two “big” leaguers on hand this night. Aybar didn’t even play actually, which is typical apparently. Sometimes these MLBers show up to games, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they show up and never leave the dugout. It’s all very loose down here, and the crowd whoops it up regardless — waving banners, dancing to the band ensconced in the loge section, chanting scatologically, and tittering as the PA announcer ogles hot chicks in the crowd.

“I want an American girl, and her little friend,” the crowd chanted in the third inning, commenting on U.S.-Dominican couples they spy in the crowd, assuming the Dominican guy is just angling for a green card.

After Los Toros pushed one across in the bottom of the third, the PA announcer broke into a low growl, and intoned, “Attention, attention: Section 5, black top, blue pants… How healthy the women are tonight!”

In the middle of the fourth, the Toros mascot (a bull, naturally), delivered one of the raunchiest dances you’ll ever see from a man in orange fur, and it sure beat the hell out of any between-innings dot race — or the execrable Sweet Caroline sing along. Until this year there had been cheerleaders at Estadio Micheli; they’d been banned because they weren’t particularly family oriented. “Basically they were strippers,” our local guide explained, and the players spent too much game time ogling them as they worked it atop the home dughout. There’s been a strong call for their reinstatement.

The baseball itself is quite good, certainly on par with AAA, but it’s the little twists on the game that make it worthwhile for a tourist. There are cashews, not peanuts on offer. The beer flows, of course (the ubiquitous Presidente Light — in special Toros orange cans), but also rum — in plastic bottles to mix with Coke. When they flash player stats on the big screen, there’s the recognizable AVG and HR figures, but RBI is replaced by “C.E.”, for Carreras Empujadas, or “pushed runs”.

The DR may have thrilled this summer when Félix Sánchez won gold at the London Olympics in the 400-meter hurdles, but this is a baseball country, first, foremost and always. When we pulled into the stadium parking lot, it was not yet full and dozens of kids were playing baseball on the hard top. For visitors to Casa de Campo, baseball is yet another sporting diversion. For the locals in La Romana and across the country, it’s the only real game in town.

 

 

Three Things You Should Know About Carl Yastrzemski

Three Things You Should Know About Carl Yastrzemski

Whenever someone flirts with a Triple Crown season, baseball’s lightweight commentariat feels the obligation to make a series of paper-thin, Carl Yastrzemski-related references. It takes an actual Triple Crown, the likes of which Miguel Cabrera donned last week, to summon punditry of true heft.

And so both Roger Angell, the finest writer of baseball prose to have ever lived, and former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky both weighed in on the inimitable Yaz this past week, as a sort of homage to the 45 years he spent as “the last man to win the Triple Crown”.

I don’t hold myself in that sort of literary company, and having moved to Greater Boston in 1972, I was five years late to the Impossible Dream party, the much sentimentalized pennant-winning season that just happened to coincide with Yastrzemski’s Triple Crown (of which not much was made at the time, mind you; they weren’t so rare back then — Frank Robinson turned the trick in 1966, and prior to that, MLB produced one roughly every 10 years). However, perhaps because I completely missed Boston’s Summer of Love, and because I was there in Fenway’s bleachers and glued to Channel 38 over the last half of Yastrzemski’s career, I can add a bit of boots-on-the-ground perspective re. this titanic, complicated figure.

Here are three things baseball fans should know about Yaz:

• His Triple Crown year of 1967 was not his best in the Majors. Yaz won three battle titles but lost a fourth to Alex Johnson, on percentage points, in 1970, when many (myself included) argue he posted the finest statistical performance of his career. Just a single season separated 1970 from 1968, when Major League Baseball raised the mound and ushered in an era of pitching dominance (Yaz would repeat as AL batting champ in 1968, hitting a measly .301). By 1970, batting figures remained depressed across the board. Yet Yaz hit a career-best .329 that year, with 40 dingers, 102 RBI and a career-best 128 walks, which enabled a sick on-base percentage of .452. He threw in 23 stolen bases, just for the fuck of it… 1967 v. 1970: This was the debate we had as kids, referring to the back of baseball cards, and it’s a debate made even more interesting today by the plethora of “new” stats (check out the full monty here), which tend to favor 1967 — but fail to take into account the mound. In context, 1970 was the more impressive achievement.

• As good a hitter as Yastrzemski was — and most all-around statistical analyses rank him about #20 on the various all-time lists — he was a defensive player of comparable greatness. Of the 20 people ahead of him on the all-time Elo batters rating, for example, only a handful of guys can claim this sort of elite duality: Willie Mays, Honus Wagner, Tris Speaker, Eddie Collins and Mike Schmidt. Plenty of others were fine fielders (Stan Musial, Rickey Henderson, Lou Gehrig, Eddie Matthews, Alex Rodriguez), but Yaz was the best leftfielder in the American League for a decade or more. By the time I arrived in Boston, he was 32 and still an excellent glove man, but his best days were behind him — so I took his legendary ’60s-era fielding acumen more or less on faith. Indeed, he played a lot of first base in the early ‘70s — by ‘74 he was moved there permanently, in addition to DH, in order to accommodate a young Jim Rice and another up-and-comer, first baseman Cecil Cooper. Then, in September 1975, with the Sox closing in on their first post-season appearance since ‘67, Rice broke his wrist. Yastrzemski went back to left and there, for the first time in my experience, was the fielder everyone had raved about. Thirty-five years old but invigorated by the pennant-chase, he threw his body around like a rag doll, giving nothing away to the young defensive wizards playing beside him, Fred Lynn and Dwight Evans. I maintain a distinctly thrilling memory of Yaz against the reigning World Champion A’s in the 1975 ALCS — diving to his left to cut off a line drive in the gap, popping up, whirling and gunning down someone at second base. And, of course, no one played the Green Monster better. Yaz would go back to left field for 152 games in 1977, as a 37-year-old, and win another Gold Glove, his 7th.

• For all these achievements, however, and the extraordinarily high esteem in which Carl Yastrzemski is still held throughout New England, the man remains a tragic figure. Yes, he was one of the all-time greats and while Yaz was never cuddly (he was rather taciturn and aloof actually) he allowed us to forget the guy he replaced, Ted Williams, whom the fans did not revere and who never led the Sox to any meaningful team success. But for all Yastrzemski’s grit and splendid achievements, twice during the 1970s, with the Sox on the brink of that historical team success, it was Yaz who stood at the plate when the curtain came down. He made the final out in Game 7 of the ’75 World Series against the Reds, flying out to left center with Boston trailing by a run. Three years later, in the famous ’78 playoff game against the Yankees, Yaz ended the game by popping out to third baseman Craig Nettles, stranding both the tying and go-ahead runs. This not to say that Yaz wasn’t at his very best when the Sox needed him most, because he generally was: He hit .400 in the 7-game Series loss to St. Louis in ’67; he hit .455 against the A’s in ’75, and .310 against the Reds. Even in the playoff game, perhaps the must soul-crushing moment of my entire childhood, he was immense — homering off Ron Guidry in the second inning and driving in another run in the 8th…

The indignity of twice making the final out after having done so much is not failure. It is tragedy, and texture.

James Connects Unlikely Dots Between Dewey, Pitt & my Wife

James Connects Unlikely Dots Between Dewey, Pitt & my Wife

Out of the blue Thursday night the wife suggested we order, On Demand, one of the movies nominated for Academy Awards. It came down to Tree of Life, Midnight in Paris or Moneyball. We went with Moneyball and both found it extremely enjoyable.

Some 12 hours later, I happened upon an all-too-rare but typically brilliant article from Bill James, the godfather of modern statistical analysis as it relates to sports, baseball in particular. I’ve been a fan of James for more than 20 years (his Historical Baseball Abstract is perhaps the finest bathroom reading ever devised by man), but in the last 24 hours I’ve been jolted anew by the power of his thinking.

Without James, I would never have considered Dwight Evans Hall of Fame material, despite watching him patrol right field for the Red Sox for 17 years. Further, without James there would have been no Moneyball, neither book nor feature film.

For a woman who likes baseball well enough (my wife once resided in the Chicago neighborhood of Wrigleyville) and lives in New England (surrounded by “die-hahd” Red Sox fans), there was a lot in the film for her to like and/or relate to: Brad Pitt, naturally, but also a triumph- and pathos-packed story and myriad Sox references. Still, I was surprised by the extent to which she was engaged by the statistical analysis on which the story is based — the idea that ballplayers can be cannily appraised with such statistical breadth, and that a modest organization like the Oakland A’s could use that edge to compete with richer teams. It was handled beautifully in the context of the movie. I had assumed Hollywood would find ways to soft-peddle it, and they did — building up around it other storylines (Pitt’s single fatherhood, the magical rise of one-time journeyman and former Sox catcher Scott Hatteburg) to defray the essential wonkiness of the stat theme.

But the stat stuff was interesting to her. I hope she reads the James story linked here because what Moneyball author Michael Lewis and the makers of this film (Bennett Miller directed) have done is attach broader meaning and appeal to the gob-smacking insights James pioneered. Maybe she won’t care enough about Dewey Evans to read all the way through, but I would never have dreamed to share such a story with her before we watched Moneyball together.