Pretty Good Year, Part III
The Regular Season, cont'd:
The Brawl Game; The Streak; Division Dreams; Wild Card;
The Division Series against Anaheim.
Was it the smirk?
There were two outs in the third inning during the grey, muddy scrum between the Yankees and the Red Sox on July 24, 2004. Bronson Arroyo, a journeyman curveballer, had had a disastrous time of it, giving up a single to Bernie Williams, a single to Derek Jeter, and another run as Gary Sheffield grounded into a double play that still scored Williams, bringing the score to 3-0, New York.
Bronson Arroyo, who had, at one time or another during the season, led the American League--indeed, at times, both leagues--in hit batsmen while his sharp curve to right-handers remained an unruly beast, is a skinny little pup with a button nose and goofy ears made goofier, later in the season, by some truly atrocious corn-row braids in his dirty-blonde hair. And while it's difficult to imagine in the scarecrow-like Arroyo the same snarling agression that inhabits, say, a Roger Clemens, it's difficult to ignore that he is the smirky type.
I don't think he can help it--it's just the way his face falls, especially when he's squinting in at the catcher for the sign. His lips tilt upward. His nose tilts downward. He has an impish aspect. He is the smirky sort.
Alex Rodriguez stepped to the plate after Sheffield there in the third inning. Was it the smirk that would set him off?
Or was it the fact that Rodriguez, a newcomer to the rivalry, may have been desperate to align himself with his new teammates?
Was it that, as the Yankees have claimed, the Red Sox pitchers have hit them more than most?
Or was it that after the ball tailed in and whacked him, hard, on the black elbow pad he wore for just such an occasion, Rodriguez, often hailed as the Greatest Baseball Player of Modern Times and now clad in the insignia of baseball's flagship franchise, looked out and saw a pitcher his same height but half his heft, a skinny punk who looks like he should be selling hotdogs in the bleachers instead, smirking back at him?
Smirking at him, Alexander Emmanuel Rodriguez, born New York, NY, now suited up in the pinstripes that have probably always been his birthright?
Or does an ESPN scouting report tell the tale, describing him back in 2003 as "a bit too anxious to do great things with every at-bat, as evidenced by his pedestrian .276 average with runners in scoring position"?
If that was the assessment when he played for the bottom-feeding Rangers, imagine his anxiety facing the blood rivals of his brand-new, top-flight, 26-championship team. There simply isn't anything to compare with Red Sox - Yankees anywhere else, even in the whole broad state of Texas.
The Yankee-Red Sox competition involves much more than a baseball team representing Boston against a baseball team representing New York. It is, in reality, a competition between the provincial capital of New England and the mega-municipality that is New York City: the different life-styles of the residents of those areas, the different accents they speak in. The contrasting symbols are like guideposts to their cities. It's the Charles River versus the East River, Boston Common compared with Central Park.
History, style, culture, pace, dreams, self-images, bragging rights - all are mixed in, mixed up with the rivalry in one way or another. And the fact that both teams have been in the American League since the beginning of the last century doesn't hurt the competition either. (Harvey Frommer)
I wonder, too, how often, in his life filled with blazing talent and endless possibilities and bottomless bank accounts and news-camera flashbulbs popping in his strange aquamarine eyes, has Alex Rodriguez ever had to be good at anything besides baseball? More to the point, how often since the discovery back in his high school days that the kid could play has Rodriguez had to be good at being a man, a citizen, a human being? How warped does your psyche get when these are the stakes that surround you? What could have been going through his mind--what were his mind's channels even shaped like, what were the synapses firing that you and I will never retain, when that ball came in and slapped him on the arm?
At Plimoth Plantation, the Red Sox/Yankees rivalry is centuries into the future, yet there was already a New England/ New York (or as we like to call it, New Amsterdam) rivalry brewing in the 17th-century. It is a little known fact that during that time period, the Dutch had just purchased an "island," known as Manhattas, from the Native Americans. There, they set up a fort and began to trade furs. This trading was a thorn in the side of the English, because the Dutch from Manhattas were under-pricing the New England Colonists. Thus the competition between the two regions was born. Plimoth.org
Or is this just bigger than all of us?
Whatever it was, the normally decorous A-Rod began taking a distinctly slanted path toward first base, stripping off his armor and spitting curses toward the mound as he did so. Arroyo, palms up, continued his smirking, but attempted to affect surprise. It's hard to know what was going through his head, either.
Who knows what scent, what sudden change in the wind, sent Jason Varitek after A-Rod, prompted the Red Sox catcher to put his big body between Rodriguez and Arroyo, his brown mask with "Tek" inscribed in the leather padding bobbing over his face as he drew A-Rod's attention like someone diverting an angry dog, and A-Rod took the bait.
It's clear, however, from video footage what led to the bench-clearing brawl that unfolded next; as the two circled each other, A-Rod towering over Tek, Tek with chords and sinews standing out on his strapping neck, as much a primal, elemental brawl between alpha males as any that has taken place in any species, A-Rod whispered, "Come on."
Come on, Tek. Throw the first punch. Come on, Tek, put your money where your mouth is. The way your team couldn't. Come on, Tek, just punch me already. Come on Tek, let's see you step up and be a man. Come on, Tek, you asked for it, if you want to step between me and that pipsqueak you call a pitcher. Come on, Tek, everyone's watching, we didn't even want to play this stupid game today, and you started it, your team started this fight and this slippery slope that landed me in New York and now you and this whole ballpark treat me like I'm the enemy...
Come on, Tek. Make me a Yankee.
The third time he said it, Varitek's hands were in his face, not so much punching or slapping as pushing, looking almost as if he wanted to erase Rodriguez more than pummel him. The two began to grapple as a crowd of their teammates closed in on them.
Baseball, especially Red Sox baseball in this long, strange trip of a season, is as much a text as it is the playing out of mathematical, physical and geometric theories. It's as much about whatever passed between Alexander Emmanuel Rodriguez of the New York Yankees and Jason Andrew Varitek of the Boston Red Sox with two out in the third inning on July 24, 2004 as either of their OBPs or OPSs. Baseball Prospectus, with all due respect, will not be coming out with a Fight Metric in the near future. There will be no Brawl Win-Loss statistics. But it's just as real--whatever that was, the weird chemicals in the air that drab, humid, muddy day in July, and it had just as much to do with what happened this season as any measurable statistic.
It's hard to say why, really, what Varitek's glove in A-Rod's face had to do with Bill Mueller's gorgeous shot into the bullpen (where it was gloved by an ecstatic Doug Mirabelli) to take the game from Mariano Rivera six innings later, or what it had to do with the Red Sox' historic comeback for the pennant, and the brawl game even took place before the great Nomar Trade I credited in the last piece of this series with the team's recovery. It's completely unscientific, what can I say? But it's real, and it was there, and fitting, of course, that the Red Sox miraculous win would be crafted from much the same elements as any of their devastating, what-are-the-odds losses: a generous helping of the supernatural, mixed with more than a little bit of the uncanny.
Whatever you credit with the turnaround, it was not even a week after the Brawl Game that Nomar was given his one-way ticket, and something incredible began happening to the Red Sox--their amazing August-September win streak was about to begin.
August 1: @MIN L 3-4 August 2: @ TB W 6-3 August 3: @ TB W 5-2 August 4: @ TB L 4-5 August 6: @ DET L 3-4 August 7: @ DET W 7-4 August 8: @ DET W 11-9 August 9: vs TB L 3-8 August 10: vs TB W 8-4 August 11: vs TB W 14-4 August 12: vs TB W 6-0 August 13: vs CWS L 7-8 August 14: vs CWS W 4-3 August 15: vs CWS L 4-5 August 16: vs TOR W 8-4 August 17: vs TOR W 5-4 August 18: vs TOR W 6-4 August 20: @ CWS W 10-1 August 21: @ CWS W 10-7 August 22: @ CWS W 6-5 August 23: @ TOR L 0-3 August 24: @ TOR W 5-4 August 25: @ TOR W 11-5 August 26: vs DET W 4-1 August 27: vs DET W 5-3 August 28: vs DET W 5-1 August 29: vs DET W 6-1 August 31: vs ANA W 10-7
September 1: vs ANA W 12-7
September 2: vs ANA W 4-3
September 3: vs TEX W 2-0
September 4: vs TEX L 6-8
September 5: vs TEX W 6-5
September 6: @ OAK W 8-3
September 7: @ OAK W 7-1
September 8: @ OAK W 8-3
September 9: @ SEA L 1-7
September 10: @ SEA W 13-2
September 11: @ SEA W 9-0
September 12: @ SEA L 0-2
In the space of just six weeks, the Red Sox compiled a record of 30-10, for an astounding .750 win percentage. They went on the longest back-to-back-win streak since Morgan Magic of 1988, winning ten games in a row between August 24 and September 4. In the space of just six weeks, the Red Sox went from 10.5 games down in the AL East to just 2.5, a number they would hover around until the end of the season, when the Yankees held onto the division by just two games in the loss column.
Whatever attitudinal groundwork had been laid by the Brawl Game was now being built upon busily. Of course, Curt Schilling had a blunter view in an interview with Boston Dirt Dogs:
I think we've gone from a suspect defense, to a top-tier team defensively. That will have an impact, and a positive one. In one sense, you no longer have to score as many runs as you did since you are going to be giving up fewer. It's not only errors that lose games, it's plays that aren't made that are not errors, plays that few people notice and never show up in the box scores. We talk about them, we see them, and they matter. Right now the two best defensive SS in the AL reside in Boston, that's not a bad thing. I told someone at season's start that the team that pitched and defended best between us and the Yankees would win the East, I still believe that. Their offense is a juggernaut, but they catch the ball better than everyone thought they would and we haven't.
Pitching and defense wins in October. I can't remember the last team that slugged their way to a World Series championship. The chemistry will change, I don't doubt that. How it will change I don't know, but chemistry, good chemistry, is a result of winning, period.
Whichever came first, the chicken or the egg, the defense or the happiness or the winning, it was clearly a combination of all three that lead to the Sox' remarkable run, one that secured them the Wild Card and had them nipping at the heels of the Division.
Which, of course, sparked another debate, between those who favored making a run at the Division and those who favored concentration on the Wild Card.
Following a disastrous 2-1 defeat in a 3-game weekend set (the first of two bookend weekend series to end the season), the division was further away, though not entirely out of reach. Then came a series, right on the heels of a sound butt-kicking by the Yankees, with the dreaded Baltimore Orioles.
As I wrote on September 13:
Against the Orioles, the Yankees are a ridiculous 14-5, having finished out the season series against them with back-to-back series wins in the last two weeks. The Red Sox, meanwhile, remain an equally ridiculous 4-7 against them with eight more--that's right, eight more--games to play. Even if the Red Sox win all their remaining games against the Orioles, they will only improve their record to two fewer wins against the Orioles against the Yankees, which is a very similar number to the number of games behind the Sox have been, despite their win streak through most of August and early September.
Back-to-back-to-back-to-back series that went Yankees-Orioles-Yankees-Orioles to finish out the season didn't exactly bode well for the Red Sox gaining games in the division standings. Simply keeping an even keel would lock in the wild card, and so there was a dilemma: to burn through pitching and exhaust the team attempting a division title, or to be judicious and head into the post-season as the wild card, with a pitching rotation rested, healthy and ready?
It wasn't as clear-cut a choice as it sounds. Much was already being made of wanting to re-enact last year's LCS against the Yankees, of wanting the kinds of challenges that had wrecked the team's ambitions in the past, as if the ultimate victory would not be sound and honorable were it not to run the gauntlet that had daunted the franchise so many times before.
The Wild Card, of course, is only a very recent phenomenon, introduced in 1995. Before then, the Red Sox had made the postseason eleven times in 85 years, reaching the World Series a total of nine times and winning it five times, although only four of those appearances occurred after 1918, and none of the wins. After its introduction, the Red Sox have made it five times in ten, reached the American League Championship Series twice, and reached and won the World Series once.
It's obvious that much of the "curse" had to do with a lack of opportunity to earn a World Championship, since before the Wild Card, only division winners made the post-season. Being locked in a division with the New York Yankees doesn't make for too many postseason opportunities under that system.
However, I would argue that the Wild Card has also made the current incarnation of the Sox - Yankees rivalry possible; it was only 1999 when the Sox and Yankees played their first-ever postseason series against one another, and since then the pennant matchups have only become more epic and apocalyptic in nature.
But still, we're torn. Do we do things the orthodox way, winning the division and silencing all doubts as to our superiority over our New York nemesis? Or do we play conservatively, taking our relatively modern route to the post-season and establishing victory on our own terms?
While once again tradition and innovation are at loggerheads, it's difficult not to acknowledge the appeal of the wild card. An article by former Yankee Jackie MacDowell makes the case:
Every year since 1995 we have argued whether it is better to be fresh and well-rested entering the postseason, as early division clinchers have the luxury of being, or to scratch and claw until the end and stay hungry. The scrappers have been getting the upper hand in recent postseasons.
Any team that hopes to win the World Series must be jelling--and a late-season wild-card clinch guarantees just that. No one backs into a wild-card berth. The eventual winner must endure an entire month of playoff-like games and shake a tightly-bunched group of wild-card contenders. They must win consistently until the final days of the season.
I truly believe the wild-card entries have an advantage over the early clinchers come October. There's no better feeling than being on a team with momentum.
Management--to the hue and cry of many during a terrible 48 hours between September 23 and 24, in which the Sox dropped one to the Orioles and one to the Yankees in the second of Francona's "Grady Redux"--opted for the latter. Of course. Because this season wasn't about history, unless it was about snubbing history, defeating history, reversing and exorcising history. It wasn't about the old way of doing things--the Nomar Trade had proven that already. The Wild Card was a new door to the postseason, yes, but it only upped the chances for the beginning of a new era.
During the Division Series--which I consider a prologue to the postseason rather than an actual chapter within it--things on the Sox side hummed along nearly perfectly, between pitching that dominated the competition to the Sox' grinding, patient lineup of hitters being given the chance to do their worst against the likes of Jerrod Washburn and John Lackey.
In two of the three division series games, the Sox were forced to make a comeback, most memorably after a Vladimir Guerrerro grand slam given up by Mike Timlin that forced Game 3 into extra innings. And the Angels were no laughing matter--even as division winners for the first time since 1986, they had knocked off Oakland with an astounding late-season run to capture the AL West in a way that left them a Wild-Card-esque division winner.
But their pitching was exhausted, their team was rocked by the late-season suspension of outfielder Jose Guillen, and most importantly, the Red Sox had proven in a three-game sweep back in September that the matchup between the two teams was perhaps less than desirable for the Halos. Save for a few glimmers of life, the Anaheim team barely seemed to show up for the division series, and was overmatched from the start by a Red Sox team built to exploit their weaknesses and short-circuit their strengths.
A far cry from the division series against Oakland the year before, a five-game dogfight the Sox only barely managed to pull out, leaving questions even as the ALCS loomed about the viability of their pitching staff, relief corps, lineup and most importantly, managerial ranks, even despite the win. The Sox arrived in New York in 2003 already gashed by the struggle to beat Oakland, and with a number of weaknesses exposed. After dispatching with Anaheim in 2004, the parallels (or lack thereof) could not have been more encouraging.
But like the commercials said, "You can't script October." Unfortunately, the Red Sox' easy roll through the Angels meant nothing, said nothing, about what they were about to face. When all was said and done, the sweep of Anaheim was little more than a preamble to this postseason's Main Event--by now, looking back, it's a wonder that series was even part of the postseason at all.