The Morning After

A Red Sox Fan Confronts the Future (Once Again)

Friday October 17, 2003

Here it is, 4 am of the morning after game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, and I still can't sleep so I might as well write down some of what's going through my head. I want to get this down before I read the morning papers so I can get my views of what happened, rather than reflect what the professional writers have decided happened -- although I rather suspect the pros have already come to many of the same conclusions that I have.

OK, so here's the reality: the Yankees take the ALCS in seven games, winning the last game 6-5 on a home run off Tim Wakefield in the bottom of the 11th inning, and are off to the World Series against the Florida Marlins (!). Yet another heartbreaking end to the season for the Red Sox, who had the game won 5-2 going into the bottom of the 8th, but Grady Little left Pedro Martinez in the game too long and the Yankees managed to scratch together a few hits and ended up scoring 3 runs to tie the game. After that it was just a case of letting the home field advantage (1) take over, and sure enough the Yankees won the game. Oh, we can blame Wakefield, whose knuckeball wasn't doing much of anything at all, for the home run that won it, but truth be told he never should have been out there. Timlin should have taken over for Pedro, maybe after he faced one batter in the 8th, and then Williamson should have closed it.

On the plus side, the Red Sox have given us not one but two truly memorable postseason series, full of nail-bitingly close games, controversial calls, fisticuffs, bizarre plays, and really great baseball (someone I correspond with occasionally called it "The. Best. Post. Season. Ever." -- her words, not mine (2) ). I would have said that the series with Oakland was as wild and weird as they get, but then the series with the Yankees happened and now it's hard to decide which was wilder or weirder. Do we go with a player too stunned to realize he hadn't touched home, or do we go with not one but three interference calls involving Jason Veritek, or do we go with Don Zimmer trying to pop Pedro Martinez and getting decked for his trouble? And while we're at it, how about the Cubs-Marlins? Can a fan trying to catch a foul ball really cause a team to self-destruct? In retrospect, were the Red Sox doomed as soon as that fan decided to reach out and catch Todd Walker's home run?

Or was it The Curse? I'm sure the papers and the sports call-in shows are going to be second-guessing Little on the decision to leave Pedro in the game, and I'm sure that at least some people will be blaming the Curse of the Bambino, but I think I understand it all, and to some extent it's quite depressing because although I don't believe in the curse I do believe that the Yankees have an inherent advantage. I believe that this advantage led indirectly to Grady Little leaving Pedro in the game when just about everyone else could see that he should have been taken out. And to tell the truth, if I had been in Grady's position I probably would have done the same thing for the same reasons. But more about that later.

Here's my recap of the 7 game series, as best as I can remember it. Game 1 was straight baseball, with the Red Sox jumping on Mussina early and keeping the lead (there was that controversy with the home run that never quite hit the foul pole, but it didn't affect the outcome of the game). Game 2 was also straight baseball, but this time the Yankees got the lead (after Little left Lowe in the game too long -- sound familiar?). Game 3 -- well, I think if Pedro had been ejected the fans at Fenway would have rioted. In any case, Roger kept his cool and replied in the only really effective way you can by shutting down the Red Sox batters. Game 4 -- Wakefield was in command again. Game 5 was postponed by rain from Sunday to Monday, which allowed Lowe to pitch in Fenway where he was supposed to win, dammit, but instead got tagged for 3 runs early while David Wells was just brilliant. Game 6 was a miracle that almost got away, with Little once again leaving the starter (Burkett, this time) in long enough to let the Yankees catch up (I sense a theme here). Luckily the Red Sox started hitting again and the Yankees bullpen really sucked for a change, so the Sox managed to prolong the agony. Then Game 7, which started out by being Pedro's redemption and revenge -- the Sox jumped on Roger early and knocked him out of the game, but then the Yankees relievers (actually their starters pitching in relief) just about shut down the Sox offence, Little let Pedro's pride and ego get in the way of common sense, and the rest is now history.

So why did Grady Little leave his pitchers in the game too long? My cow-orkers and I talked about this a little bit during the week. I believe it's because the statistics told him that he had to keep his starters in as long as possible in order to win games. During most of the 162-game regular-season schedule, the Red Sox bullpen really really sucked -- in fact, the major reason Pedro's won/lost record was so poor this year is that he would do a brilliant job for 6 or 7 innings (until his pitch count reached 100 or so), but then the bullpen would blow the game. So if you looked at the statistics, you would say that the starters had really low ERAs, the bullpen had really lousy ERAs, and you would then jump to the conclusion that if you just left the starters in the whole game the other team would never score any runs. And hey, now that it's the postseason you can afford to leave the starters in longer. So I believe that was the plan going in -- to use the starters as long a possible in each game, and to basically let the pitchers themselves decide if they were OK to continue in the game.

Unfortunately Grady (and his coaches?) lost track of a couple of items when they decided this. First, with any pitcher of the caliber of Pedro Martinez or Derek Lowe or Tim Wakefield, if you go out to them in a clutch situation and ask them if they want to continue pitching, of course they're going to say they want to stay in the game. If they didn't say that, they wouldn't be where they are. Second, pitchers really do become less effective as the game goes on (in some cases they're less effective when the game starts!), and it's the manager's job to notice when that happens and to take corrective action -- usually by changing pitchers. Third, the Red Sox bullpen had turned things around in the postseason and suddenly (with the exception of Kim, who was left off the roster for the ALCS) was actually brilliant in relief. Unfortunately because of all that had gone on during the regular season I think Grady Little still didn't trust them.

And finally, this whole idea of letting the starting pitcher be the Big Hero Who Wins The Game is total anathema to the team concept that made this year's Red Sox such an exciting and fun team to watch. It's the entire team that's going to make or break you in the postseason; the regular season in large part is just an excercise in team building, and the sad part is that the team, including the bullpen, finally came together just in time for the playoffs, and the manager and coaches just didn't recognize that it had happened. One of the things about postseason play is that it's different from regular season play. It's much more intense, the players are more focused, and it's especially important that the managers manage for the moment. The averages are important during the regular season because you've got 162 games to play out, but during the playoffs you have to pay attention to what's happening then and there.

Anyone who watched Game 7 will have noticed that Joe Torre, in contrast to Grady Little, did a good job of managing the moment. Because Giambi hadn't been hitting well, Torre shuffled the batting order around by moving Giambi from cleanup to 7th in the order, and Giambi responded to the demotion by getting some key hits. But more importantly, when Clemens got into trouble and let 4 runs score, Torre gave him a little time to get himself settled, and when he didn't (and let yet another batter get a hit) he took him out and went to the bullpen. Of course Torre went with his starters instead of the bumbleheads who showed up for Game 6, but the important point is that he didn't let Clemens stay in after he was no longer effective, whether or not it was possibly Clemens' last game ever (of course now we know it wasn't, but we didn't at the time). Getting the win was more important than feeding the ego. Letting the team win the game was more important than letting the pitcher win the game.

I guess you could say that I believe that better managing is what won this series for the Yankees. The two teams are so evenly matched that it took 7 games (well, 26 games if you include the regular season) with the last game being won by a single run in the 11th inning to decide who would go on to the World Series. Ultimately it came down to the fact that Joe Torre knew when to take his pitcher out but Grady Little didn't.

But how did Torre know what to do in this situation? The answer to that is fairly simple -- because he's been there before. Which in a way leads us to The Curse.

Red Sox fans like to think that The Curse keeps them from winning the World Series, but the truth of the matter is that, for the most part, it's the Yankees that keep the Red Sox from winning the World Series.

The Yankees are historically, or at least since the 1920s, better than any other team in baseball, and that fact that they're better that any other team means that they can attract players who want to be part of a winner (which as far as I can tell describes just about every major league baseball player who ever played). This chart illustrates that point in depressing fashion -- if you're a professional baseball player, and you want to be on a team that wins the World Series, what's your best bet? Get on the Yankees! So the Yankees attract the best players because they win, and they win because they attract the best players. The cycle feeds on itself (Roger Clemens is one of the best examples of this. Regardless of what he says, I believe that in the early 90s it became clear to him that if he stayed with the Red Sox he would never earn his World Series ring, so he lost his motivation to work very hard and his last two years in Boston were a total disaster. As a result he got himself traded to Toronto, where he proved that he was worthy of being on the Yankees, got himself traded to New York, and then got his dream of winning a World Series).

This is not to say that the Yankees will always win the World Series (and they haven't); it's just that chances are that they'll be in the way.

Babe Ruth's part in all this is that, until the 1920s, the Yankees were not a terribly good team -- in fact, the Red Sox were the Team To Beat up until 1918. But since New York is where the money is, the Yankees were able to buy up enough talent (including Ruth) to start the dynasty the perpetuates itself to this day.

"You must be a huge Red Sox fan"

Actually, I'm not. I'm more of a casual fan than anything else, and in fact when the Sox don't do well I'm not likely to pay much attention to them. I enjoy going to games at Fenway (but haven't been to a game since the strike) and like to talk baseball with friends and colleagues, but I don't even own a Red Sox hat. In fact, I grew up a Cubs fan in Chicago (which has made the past week doubly hard), and when I moved to Boston it took me several years to get interested in the Sox because (a) they're in the American League and don't let their pitchers bat (which I still say is wrong), and (b) they play in the really strange stadium with this huge wall instead of a proper left field. But over the years I've grown used to and even fond of these aberrations. And I've learned to be a good Red Sox fan, even suffering through the 86 Series against the Mets (and to someone who was a Cubs fan in 1969, that one was hard to watch).

"So why did you write this tome?"

Because the Red Sox this year have been fun to watch. Aside from the fact that they're really good, they have a comraderie and spirit that's largely missing from professional sports these days (except for the Damn' Yankees, who always seem to have it). Just to see the grin on Kevin Millar's face when he takes the field is a joy. It's the sort of thing that I remember from my days when I played Little League baseball (hey, didn't we win the town World Series? I think so!). So during this summer, and for the last couple of weeks, I've managed to invest a lot of emotion in the Red Sox, and now I'm paying for it.

If anyone deserved to go to the World Series (aside from the Damn' Yankees), this team did. Well, Maybe Next Year (tm). In fact, if they can keep things together for another year I think they have a really good chance. Maybe by that time Grady Little will have figured out how to manage in the postseason.


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Copyright © 2003 David W. Strauss

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