Thursday, September 25, 2008

Red Sox Clinch: Why Are We Not More Excited?

Shame on me for not getting this up sooner. It truly demonstrates that we Boston sports fans are getting too lackadaisical in our passion for our sport's teams when our team makes the playoffs and we can't even take the time to do a quick celebratory blog post about it. I guess that's what two World Series wins, three Super Bowl wins (four appearances) and an NBA Championship in the span of seven years will do to you.

Rewinding to that last statement, I'm thinking that maybe our seeming complacency has less to do with being lackadaisical and more about high expectations for our local teams. Thinking back to the early eighties, I remember many Boston Celtic sports fans waiting until late February/early March to really check into the season. It wasn't because they didn't love the Celtics but rather they expected that they would be in the playoffs. In fact, they assumed that anything short of making it to the finals was a disappointment. That may come off as arrogant or detached but it's a reality. I believe it's one of the main reasons we as Red Sox fans have hated Yankee fans and Cowboy fans so much in the past. By the way, we're obviously starting to inspire some of this same hate in other fans (thanks to friend, Adam Cohen, for passing this along).

With all that said, I am very excited that the Sox are in the playoffs. It's been a little bit of an odd season as some of the posts on this blog have noted. The season opening in Japan and then pausing for a few west coast exhibition games was a weird start. Then we seem to have hit a disproportionate number of west coast games early on (I'm an early-to-bedder most nights so I can't stay up until 1:00 AM watching those games). Plus, the Sox seemed to be in cruise control most of the season in spite of the Rays besting them in August and September. Still, this is the fifth time in six years the boys from Beantown have been to the post season and I'm thrilled.

The big question now is how will we fare? Personally, I'm a little nervous but feeling better every day. Getting JD Drew back into the lineup last night was huge. More important is nursing Lowell back to a quasi-healthy state. I think we'll end up missing Manny's "clutchedness" in some of the big at bats but it seems like Youk and Pedroia are starting to fill some of that need. Also, Ellsbury is coming on at the right time. Pitching is mostly good and with the addition of Masterson to the core bullpen team, it seems like we're finding some stability beyond just Papelbon in the late innings.

There's no doubt that the Angels will be tougher this year than in years past. The Sox dropping eight out of nine to them this year is testiment to that fact. The Rays are also a force to be reckoned with although I'll be interested to see how they do in their first year ever in the playoffs. As we've seen in the past, having "been there" before matters more than ever in October although we've seen another team from Florida win twice over the last 12 years in spite of being a "rookie" team.

So ladies and gentlemen, stock up your refrigerators and your snack cabinets and grab your remotes. Hopefully we're in for a long ride over the next several weeks. Any predictions for a Manny vs. Ortiz world series?

Photo credit: Moon Battery

Monday, September 08, 2008

Strangely Liberated

As with everyone else that even remotely follows football, I was shocked by the news that Tom Brady suffered a season ending injury to his knee. (Living in Washington, DC, I did not find out this news until later in the day, not being able to watch the game on TV.) Maybe I shouldn't have been shocked - the Patriots O-line was exposed for its weaknesses in the last games of the past season and in the preseason. Plus, these type of injuries happen to the best of players (with Manning and Favre being the exceptions). But Brady has the third longest active streak behind previously mentioned Manning and Favre, so it was shocking that the indomitable Brady, had been dominated. By a belly flop, no less.

However, I digress from my title. On revelation that Mr. Brady will be out for the season, I felt strangely liberated. At the opening of the season, the Patriots had been named again as favorites to win the Superbowl for the umpteenth year in a row. Anything less than a Superbowl win would be a letdown. Each game had to be won and every loss would be studied and dissected to no end by both coaches and the talking heads. Now, I can just enjoy the season as every other fan of the other NFL teams not named the Patriots. If the Pats go to the Superbowl, it would be a joyous occassion, not a required "date with destiny." I will continue to be upset by the losses and expect the best, but now will be excited when the Pats win, not disappointed if they don't win by enough.

Don't get me wrong, I would still much rather have Brady in the game, but I just feel that maybe I can enjoy this season a little more knowing there are no preordained requirements. Also, knowing that Brady will have a full year to rest and recover makes me look forward to next year, in addition to enjoying this year.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Steady at the Helm: The Terry Francona Story

"Story" might be a stretch since this is going to be a short blog post but the point of my title is that Terry Francona's success at the helm of the Red Sox is worthy of much more ink than he's received to date. I'm not implying that people are dissing him but merely that he is one of the most underrated managers in baseball (and possibly all sports for that matter).

After two World Series wins and three trips to the post season (soon to be four) in his five years as manager of the Red Sox, it's hard to argue with the fact that Terry Francona is a good manager. What makes him special, however, is his ability to stay calm under pressure. By pressure, I don't just mean in the game but during the season. I'll argue that it's this ability that allowed the Sox to win the WS last year and is what will get them deep into the playoffs this year.

Unlike former Yankee manager (who as many of you know now has the pleasure of coaching "Red Sox West" aka the LA Dodgers), Francona doesn't burn out his bullpen. He doesn't panic and keep guys off the DL when they need time to heal. Francona isn't affraid to run with a rookie even when he's struggling mightily (remember how poorly MVPedroia started off last season?) or to stick with a veteran that needs to work himself out of a deep slump (hello msr. Varitek). That's not as much of a knock on Torre as it is a compliment to Francona.

One of the things that ultimately did Torre in in New York was the pressure from Steinbrenner to win at all costs. It forced him to constantly ride his best 2-3 relievers in the pen ( I remember a dozen times over the last few years where Torre brought Rivera in for 4+ out saves, mainly because the Yankees early season losses constantly put the team in must win situations starting as early as August). This ultimately lead to the Yanks exiting the playoffs early (see 20002, and then 2005-2007) because by the time they got into the playoffs, there bullpen was so worn out they didn't have the horses to win in tight games.

Francona on the other hand has taken extremet caution with players like Beckett, Papelbon, Schilling, Wakefield, Dice-K, Lowell, Youkilis, Ortiz and others during the regular season, sometimes seeming to thumb his nose at opportunities to win the division and instead settling for the Wild Card. Even this year, up until a few games ago, it appeared that the Sox were headed for the Wild Card but with Tampa Bay hitting the wall and Boston getting back some of their studs (Beckett, Lowell, Youkilis and soon, Drew), a win tonight against Texas would put the Sox just 1 1/2 games back in the division with six left against the Rays.

Now I must also give credit where credit is due to Theo Epstein who has not only completely restocked the Sox farm system (4th best in the majors) but made the tough decisions like trading Nomar in 2004, not emptying the bank for Johan Santana and ultimately pulling the trigger on the Manny for Bay trade at the trading deadline this year (a deal that apparently has worked out well for both teams with the Sox a near lock for the playoffs and the Dodgers with a 1/2 game lead in the West). It doesn't hurt to have owners with deep pockets but the Yankees, Cubs and Dodgers have equally deep pockets and look how they've faired up until this year.

What do you think? Is Terry the man? Or is he just lucky?