Friday, February 18, 2005

Promise of a Brand New Day

Each time the Red Sox imploded in earlier seasons, an Official Ninth Friend would call and insist “they have to blow up the team.” In a thoroughly Bostonian fashion, he would overreact, utterly panic, and prepare for the life boats. “Trade the superstars”, he would yell, “there’s something about them that can’t win.” Astute analysis. Manny, Nomar, and Pedro were usually the source of his ire, and no matter how the ever-reasonable Ninth pleaded, he stuck to his ground. Was their reason to his argument? Did he have facts, statistics, or history? No, not really, he’s a Red Sox fan. The most he could come up with was “they just can’t do it.” After having this conversation three or four years in a row, I sort of figured his point. Sort of.

If a team can’t win with the same cornerstone players for a while, sooner or later you should try something else. I think. And where better to start trying else than with those very cornerstones? Certainly we can all admit that there was something missing in the attitudes of the Big Three, something a bit more me-focused than us-focused. I still believe that if a player is in the top three at his position and doesn’t head butt umpires, you’re probably better with him than without him, but the Official Ninth Friend had his day. Nomar was traded, Pedro’s importance and influence were reduced, and Boston won the World Series. Delicious. Do the two have anything specifically to do with each other – that is, would it have been impossible for the Red Sox to get rings with Me Firsters like Nomar and Pedro in charge? No, I don’t think so. But I do believe, as much as it pains me to say it, that intangibles like “spirit” and “cohesion” are somewhat required to come back from a 3-0 playoff deficit. You know, I’m not even sure I believe that, but let’s just say it’s so for the time being.

Well now the Red Sox have really gone whole hog. Pedro’s ego is off the books, Jason Varitek is installed as the team captain, and Manny has been again reminded that he is supremely tradeable. Boston has, in the last year, given itself a major makeover, showing a dedication to value, flexibility, and attitude, and moderate disregard for superstar ability and MVP track record. Yes, I’m simplifying. Would they have acquired big timers like RJ, Mulder, Hudson, and Beltran were the price a little more Bob Barker? Sure. But they were always aware of that bottom line, in a way that Dan Duquette or Brian Cashman might not have been. And we’re not saying this is a bad thing. Who wants another Jose Offerman around, other than maybe Mrs. Offerman? He’s lazy around the house. But here’s the thing about guys like Nomar and Pedro: they’re really good. They have marginal attitude problems, and both of them at one point or another last year priced themselves above their actual worth, but this is what superstars do. Somebody usually comes along and signs them anyway. Unfortunately, if you’re going to succeed in baseball, especially in playoff baseball, you might need a couple of these guys. Who’s going to hit Randy Johnson in Game 1 of the ALCS, Mark Bellhorn? I doubt it. Who will strike out Gary Sheffield with the bases loaded in the 5th, Matt Clement? Uh, I guess. And they could, you know. That’s the great thing about baseball, anybody can be a hero. But if I’m going to war, I’d rather be there with a guy who’s flown the chopper before. And that’s what these superstars have done. They have a level of ability that has allowed them to succeed in difficult situations in the past and will likely allow them to again in the future. This has nothing to do with being “clutch”, or “heady”, or “big-game”, it has to do with being remarkably good at playing baseball. In the playoffs, you face a higher level of competition, a level that can expose the flaws an 8 million dollar player has that a 12 million dollar one does not. The Red Sox have decided this season to take their chances with the 8 million’ers. And given the options available, I think I would’ve done the same thing. But it’s different.

Matt Clement is no Pedro Martinez. You look at their stats last season and the results were surprisingly similar, but they’re not the same guy. You tell me that you feel the same about Pedro and Clement pitching Game 2 in Yankee Stadium and I tell you that you’re lying. Because you are. Martinez’s demands were too high, they shouldn’t have signed him, but they’ll be times when they wished they did. Renteria is a very good player, and the old Nomar doesn’t really exist anymore, but you’ll miss him more than once. I promise you. The great thing about shopping for value is that sometimes you find a David Ortiz, but the bad thing is that usually you don’t. The 2005 Red Sox are a wonderfully balanced team that will depend more on their sum than the individual parts. There should be an excellent chemistry, with Jason Varitek and Trot Nixon very much in charge. No one man will think himself above the rest, and few contracts will force management into things they regret. There’s just one problem, I’m not sure they’re any better. In fact, they might be worse.

The Ninth should be back on the radio Friday around 3. Check to tune in.