In the car on the way down and the way back from New York, I was riding with two coworkers, one of whom is a native of the city. We got to talking about sports several times. On the way down, our conversation was on the nature of the Sox / Yankees relationship, as it were, and the cultural differences between Bostonians and New Yorkers. I said something about New York and Boston having issues with one another since colonial times, and he said, "I can guarantee you that aside from the Boston Red Sox, New Yorkers never think about Boston. Ever."
Meanwhile, on Friday I got the sweetest email from Alex Belth.
Dear Beth,Before it all begins I just wanted to wish you luck this weekend. The tension is crazy. And no matter how much I hate the Sox and you hate the Yanks in return, I've just got to say that we should be proud of both of these teams, because inspite of all the media hysteria, these two teams have lived up to the hype and have been the single best thing to happen to the sport in the past three years.Anyhow, you are a great fan.Hope you are well.
When I went to see Ground Zero on Thursday night, a friend of mine and I were talking about terrorist attacks in general, and I said something about how they might choose a crowded sporting event, like Yankee Stadium. She said something jokingly about how I wouldn't mind that so much, and I said, dead serious, "To me, they're like our brothers we fight with all the time. They beat us up and we beat them up, but if anyone ever really hurt them, we'd be ripshit."
Last night, we pulled into Boston just as the game began. All I could think of was David Ortiz' quote, "You know how crazy this city go when we play the Yankees." The Hood blimp was visible from miles away. Televisions everywhere showed the field, the pitcher winding up, delivering to the plate, sometimes in slow motion.
The person I'd had the discussion with about New York vs. Boston earlier got to talking about baseball in general, and specifically pitching.
"I'm really, rabidly, overwhelmingly loyal to the Red Sox as a team in almost everything," I told him. "But when it comes to pitching, I'm like a birdwatcher. There are so many pitchers I'd love to see in person. It's like I have my own little checklist about which of them I've seen."
I told him about seeing Barry Zito and Randy Johnson. He told me about seeing a game at Shea stadium between Tom Siever and Bob Gibson.
"Bob Gibson was the scariest pitcher I've ever seen," he said.
He also told me about his favorite pitcher: Luis Tiant. What he admired about Tiant was how crafty and resourceful he was. "I remember one big game against the Orioles down the home stretch in 1975," he said, "When he gave up 11 hits, but it was a shutout."
There followed a general discussion of resourcefulness in pitching, how pitchers age like wine in a way, how pitching is a mentality rather than an action, just how totally fascinated it turns out we both are with pitchers.
"Luis Tiant wasn't a pitcher," he said in conclusion. "He was a boxer."
Our conversation got me thinking about not only pitchers / baseball players as boxers--about the game as mentality--but about history, as always.
Second one first. What I realized, wondering what exactly it was that felt so different about this series was that nearly every truly contentious series or season between the Sox and Yankees--especially the most recent and therefore vivid series, in 2003 and 2004--have had their make-or-break games take place at Yankee Stadium. It's almost like I'd come to accept as given that if the season was on the line, we'd be watching them in the Bronx.
There probably hasn't been a regular-season showdown like this, certainly, to take place at Fenway Park since 1978.
Has there been so closely contested a regular season since?
Whether or not there has been, this seems a whole new territory in the ongoing soap opera that is Red Sox-Yankees baseball. Just when you think you're out, they pulll you back in--and just when you think they've revealed all the ways baseball can make you flatline, they find a new wrinkle.
Then there's the game as mentality. I have to admit that the World Series victory has altered my perspective at least a tiny bit going in to this series. I've still had the constant agita and adrenaline pumping in my stomach from the first pitch to the last (this explains how I was able to stay up for the end of the game, some of the pregame, and coast on to about 11:30 afterwards last night despite my utter exhaustion from my business trip), but at least a little part of me has been able, for once, to stand back and appreciate the sheer phenomenon of this saga. Part of me, for once, has been able to say, "Wow, what a series!" instead of just "OhmygodohmygodohmygodFUCKohmygodoohmygodYESohmygodohmygod..."
The other way in which it's altered my perspective is that from last year's ALCS I have assimilated two main nuggets of wisdom about heart attack baseball: 1) it only takes a tiny thing to change the game and 2) this is true on both sides.
Seems like a truism, but think about it. For instance, when Johnny Damon was pickled between second and third last night ("a rare baserunning mistake for Johnny Damon," Joe Castiglione clucked), it could, in retrospect, have thwarted us completely. An out that should not have been changes the batting order and therefore matchups in key situations in any inning afterwards. It could have altered them so as to be disadvantageous to us, and lost us the game. It could simply have deflated the team mentally.
But what the Sox have learned is the second corollary--that this is true on both sides, that the full nine innings really consist of gentle nudges back and forth in the karmic balance, that just as easily the Sox could find the knockout punch that would erase the potential butterfly-in-Central-Park chaos introduced by Johnny's error.
In short, they've learned from experience that mistakes are not the end of the world.
That feeling in the gut, of "Oh, no...", the PTSD from 1986, some of it's still there. I won't lie and act like it's not. But a certain confidence was injected last year--not a sense of invincibility but a sense of possibility. A sense not of entitlement but of ability. The Sox, for once, have their wits about them, even when things go wrong.
Take, for example, the truly big inning last night. In the bottom of the sixth, David Ortiz was intentionally walked. Another little thing that could have been nothing. But again, it alters the order, and the matchups, and brings the reason David Ortiz is not intentionally walked more often to the plate in Manny Ramirez, who, after launching an almost-home-run foul past the Fisk Pole, hit a perfectly acceptable hard daisy-cutter to left to score a run.
Here's where the mental game used to be lost for the Sox.
Every batter would be pressing after that, hacking for the fences, trying desperately to bring those runs home. In the end, we'd have wound up stranding loaded bases and back to wondering if we really were cursed.
Instead, last night Trot Nixon, following Manny, was patient at the plate, letting Chien-Ming Wang to pitch himself into a fine mess indeed when he delivered ball four a good foot above the strike zone, walking Nixon and another run in at the plate.
The Red Sox won the mental game, there, not the physical. Nixon was able to hold back, see the ball, and let Wang hang himself. The inning continued, and in the end, what would turn out to be the winning runs would cross the plate.
To their credit, it's not as if the Yankees folded. They have enough of a history of winning to know they can't just give up.
Well. Some of them do.
Namely, Jeter and A-Rod.
A-Rod, most notably, tried many times to talk Wang down from his ledge. It wasn't so much what he said, you got the sense, as the fact that he'd walk over and give Wang the chance to look into friendly eyes. This scared me, because I saw it as a very good move in the mental tug-of-war. I worried that it might work, that Wang would draw enough strength from his third baseman to settle down in the sixth.
But that confidence and belief are not something that can just be handed from one player to another like a five-dollar bill. A-Rod's spell seemed only to last as long as it took him to resume his position, pound his glove, still hanging on to that sureness, while Wang sank back into the swamp on the mound with 35,000-plus thundering LET'S GO RED SOX and the buzz of hostile energy in the ballpark near-audible.
The fans, too, can play the mental game. I'm not sure if I believe in that psychic mumbo-jumbo about positive projection and all that, and like A-Rod's encouragement for Wang, it's something the fans can hold out to their players for supplementary strength, but the player has to have his own to plug in to.
Even more overwhelming than the mental change among Sox players was that among Sox fans last night, perhaps because of the fact that this was simply the first time in at least six years the Sox have been home for so contentious a series as this--the first time Sox players haven't been stuck on one side of the TV glass and fans, biting their fingernails, on the other.
It doesn't actually change anything on the field, and yet it does. Our boys have developed as thick a skin as any, having been into the Stadium so many times, standing their ground on the enemy's turf. After what happened last year, it probably doesn't matter to them where they play. But being at home doesn't hurt. It's like pedaling downhill in first gear--suddenly, after what came before, things are released and easy. It doesn't so much add mental abilities as it takes one mental aspect out, one less thing to ignore and / or bear yourself up against.
Of all the Yankees at the ballpark last night, other than A-Rod, you get the sense only Derek Jeter remains almost totally unchanged. Probably more than anyone else, he's learned those tricks in the mental game a long time ago. I vividly recall it was only he who remained even remotely confident, trying to drum up his teammates with clapping and shouts of "Come on!" in games 6 and 7 last year. And last night, he launched a two-run homer to bring the score close again. Coincidence? I think not.
And that scared me, too. I worried his team would rally around that, would jump on the train again, would remember that they are The Yankees, and things would...revert.
But they didn't.
No, instead it was David Wells who rebounded, turning to face the next batter like Muhammed Ali doing rope-a-dope. Double-dog daring him to keep the rally going. David Wells, a story in and of himself as he's switched sides...what did it do to the mental game to be looking out at a former teammate?
I noticed the real strength along these lines, too, in Terry Francona. People in Boston are often very frustrated with Francona's seeming laissez-faire attitude, with his tendency to rest, defend and excuse players and his maddening habit of seeming disaffected by what's going on. In other words, Terry Francona is too calm for Bostonians.
In fairness, Joe Torre is no slouch when it comes to the poker face. But he may have met his match, in some cases, with Francona. It's not that Francona is smarter--certainly not. It's just that, last night as Torre's bullpen choices failed him and Francona went with Bradford, then Myers, one got the sense Francona was using the same part of the brain that allows you to drive when trying to avoid an accident--a split-second decision process in the reptilian unconscious that brooks no "what if" thoughts. Torre wound up hitting the wall, or his players did, and Francona skated through.
This was with generous help on the part of Mike Myers, however, who faced down the Yankee who scares me most--Hideki Matsui--through an epic 11-pitch at-bat. As Dennis Eckersley pointed out in the postgame, when a hitter that good sees that many pitches, the stakes only get higher. The pitch you make to decide the outcome will either be absolutely perfect or a home run.
Francona has been stubborn about going to Bradford and Myers in key situations. This has sometimes infuriated Red Sox fans, myself included. But now it pays off. Myers knows Francona is obstinate in his confidence in him. Myers is obstinate in his confidence against Matsui.
Matsui, for one of the exceedingly rare times ever, swings and misses. Matsui blinks.
Matsui has made a career out of not blinking.
By the time Mike Timlin comes on to close it out, you almost feel like his intensity and completely dominant attitude are overkill. The Yankees at this point had been reduced to whining at the umpire about balls and strikes (it looked to me like his strike zone was very generous, but mostly consistent throughout the game). Timlin's eyes looked like they were borrowed from a Special Forces sniper. His jaw was set. He looked like he'd have been happy to simply physically beat every batter into submission with his bare hands instead of having to pitch to them. He started nearly every at-bat with strike one, as if to say, the ante at this table, son, may be more than you can afford. He walked off after striking out Jorge Posada in the eighth with just the slightest hesitation to make sure the out was called, but you could see in his walking off that in his mind, he had decreed the out, and it was so. You see why Mike Timlin has been around so long--and I don't care if he thinks it's Jesus or if a seven-foot-tall rabbit talks to him in his sleep--his confidence rivals Jeter's.
It has been pointed out to me that the series is so exciting because the teams are very evenly matched, and both don't lack for flaws. But the Sox have one key advantage over the Yankees--the fact that it doesn't take a visit to the pitcher's mound by either an infielder or a pitching coach to bolster a flagging pitcher; it doesn't take screaming fans or good luck or things going right. This team believes in each other so much that no words need to be spoken, no pep talks need to be given. As long as a teammate is within sight of one of the Red Sox, they know how he feels about them and how they feel about him, and it doesn't take being up close to a friendly face to right the ship.
The Lord helps those who help themselves. Laugh and the world laughs with you. These things snowball, they start a chain reaction. It's the little things--that's the nature of baseball.
Which is not to say I think the Sox have it in the bag. It was a beautiful win last night, but today Randy Johnson, another man who's staked his career on sheer fire alone, takes the mound, and we saw what his confidence brought the Yankees in the last series at the Stadium. The Yankees still have their history; they can tap into it at any moment. The subtexts here are intoxicating; the imaginative titillation almost too much to bear. I don't count the Yankees out by any stretch of the imagination; I respect what they bring to the field, probably more than I ever have before.
But I love my team. I love them more than I've ever thought possible, too. I love them, they love us, and most importantly, they love each other. There's a lot to be said for that, Big Unit or no.