If there's been one theme to this year's Red Sox team, it's depth. This has been a year of devastating injuries and illnesses (3/5 or 4/5 of our starting rotation if you count Buccholz and Colon, 1/5 of which is now off the table for good in the case of Curt Schilling, Papi, and that's just for starters). And yet now that we're at the halfway point of the season (already!?), this team is just one game off the pace of last year's club. And we all know what happened to last year's club.
Some years are just injury years. 2003 was a bad one, and so was 2006. It happens randomly, and can't be taken personally. It's also not necessarily a deterrent to success, depending on the team's makeup. The outcomes in 2003 and 2006 couldn't have been more different, and show how in a good year, injuries show your depth, and in a bad one, they poke holes in your hull you can't recover from.
This year, the Red Sox are showing depth beyond what I've ever seen before. I can't imagine another year in which removing Papi from the lineup would be remotely survivable, and even this year I'm surprised that it has been. There have been nights this year when the boys taking the field for the top of the first have been wearing the right uniforms, but otherwise are a completely different team than I'm used to, and often even a completely different team than was fielded last week or last month. One guy goes down, another takes his place. We've always talked about rooting for the laundry; now it's like the laundry is actually the one playing.
Regardless of how this year turns out, the Red Sox have already achieved their goal of fielding a competitive team year in and year out, and they've done it with that rut we've worn in I-95 restocking the roster with fresh produce from the farm.
It's hard to overstate just how stocked the Sox organization is right now. To quote Soxaholix, (addressing Yankees-fan annoyance Marty) "While you're getting wood for a washed out has been and general club house cancah, we've got a guy like Charlie Zink in AAA who is ready to step into a Majah League rotation right now but we've already got a knuckballah stahting."
And that knuckleballer, by virtue of being a knuckleballer, has already had a longer career than most any other player has a right to expect, and shows no signs of slowing so far.
We saw the way Tim Wakefield works the other night when he faced, and beat, an aging Randy Johnson. At one point in the game an incredulous Joe Castiglione pointed out that Wakefield had quietly amassed more strikeouts and fewer walks than Johnson.
That's how Wakefield is. Quiet. If some pitchers are artists, than Wake is a craftsman. What he produces has few frills, and a utilitarian purpose, even if it's only chewing up innings. Wakefield works at a steady pace, not too slow, not too rushed. It's a pace I recognize from other craftsmen I've seen, like my father and grandfather, who made furniture and, for my grandfather, little carved treasures out of wood. That measured pace seems to be something universal to masters of a skill, whether it's patiently sanding a curve into a piece of wood or patiently stringing together strikes, outs and innings. Watching Wake work reminds me of childhood hours in a workshop redolent with sawdust, country or classical music on the radio, and watching a deliberate, methodical worker with a pencil between his teeth.
A consistent pace has also been with the team this year, despite things that could have caused them to miss a beat. Papi goes down with a freak wrist injury? JD Drew makes an astonishing season-to-season turnaround and proves a decent substitute in the three-hole. Jason Varitek showing increasing signs of fatigue and age, and some strep throat this season? Kevin Cash steps up Wednesday night with a three-run homer. Hideki Okajima a shadow of his 2007 self? Craig Hansen steps in to serve as a bridge to Papelbon / secondary closer (except the other night, when he loaded the bases in the 9th and we had to burn Paps in a non-save situation, but oh well).
But these transitions from entrenched to up-and-coming are always bittersweet. I know that for every Nomar and Bill Mueller you lose, there's a Dave Roberts or Mike Lowell in the wings, and eventually, it'll seem like the team was never any different, just like the teams over the last two or three years have come to feel like there was never a time when Papi and Manny weren't in the heart of the order and Papelbon wasn't coming in to save the day to the grinding chords of the Dropkick Murphys. But that doesn't make easy to let go of the guys who became regulars in your living room. Guys like Curt Schilling.
I've gotten some messages asking me how I feel about Curt Schilling retiring, since people know that I've sometimes been one of the few to defend him. On the one hand, I'm still frustrated with Curt, because I think this writing was on the wall before he signed another $12 million deal, and it never should've gotten to this point. On the one hand, Curt should've made his emotional departure from Game 2 of the 2007 World Series the high note he went out on.
On the other hand, it's still the same feeling for me, thinking about never seeing big No. 38 tug the cross charm on his necklace out from under his uniform behind the mound again, as it was the first time I thought he was going for good:
as he doffed his hat, his eyebrows furrowed. The grim line of his mouth wavered a little. His eyes shone. He and I both swallowed hard.
"Bittersweet" doesn't begin to describe the feeling I had watching
that scarlet "38" disappear into the dugout [for the last time]. It will never
be the same team without him.
Now, you see, is the time when the day-to-day gnitpicks about Curt start to fade: whether or not he talks too much, his Republicanism, and so on. Time and memory, by necessity, whittle things down from complex details to bare essentials, and what we'll remember about Curt is how he was the foundation of this current golden age of Red Sox baseball. From his brash declaration that he was coming to break an 86-year-old curse before the 2004 season began, to the October night he put his blood where his mouth was, it was Curt that opened the door to the first victory, and everything that has followed since.
"Bittersweet" doesn't begin to describe the feeling I had watching that scarlet "38" disappear into the dugout [for the last time]. It will never be the same team without him.